The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Sunday, May 25, 2003
THE GREATEST SINGLE EVER MADE AS OF TODAY
”I, Bloodbrother Be” by The Shockheaded Peters (él Records, 1984)

“I want to walk through Sodom with a boy on my arm
Who’s so damn pretty I don’t know where I am
When he looks so like a girl, it’s easy to swallow
And it’s one notch on my arm towards a brighter tomorrow
And if the future’s looking grim
I can just take hold of him AND SAY
Nothing out of our loins, sweetie,
Will ever see the light of day.”

This is what we wanted tAtU to perform at Eurovision last night, or at least something like it, as opposed to whispering very quietly to themselves in dark alleys, which is what they appeared to be doing. An exuberant bulldozer of a pop song which in 1984 ploughed right past the tentative fumblings of Frankie and Soft Cell so assuredly that most consumers didn’t notice it, Shockheaded Peters was a brief alliance of ex-Lemon Kittens drummer/polemicist Karl Blake and ex-Five Or Six guitarist Ashley Wales who produced nothing else of note apart from this singular 6:40 ejaculation. Unashamedly celebratory of the Power of Love (much more so than Johnson, Lewis or Rush, because it acknowledges the Shower of Sex) as the age of Aids dawned, “I, Bloodbrother Be” with its mashed-up noir jazz sample mocks the Blancmanges and OMDs of that world for their cowardly politesse, dares to go even further than Morrissey did in “Reel Around The Fountain” because it is entirely free of angst. That battering ram of a drum sample which bookends the song is more redolent of golden showers than machine-gun fire – though the difference between the two remains narrow – and then, after the song proper, Wales’ guitar suddenly slashes and trashes the track with what can only be described as an orgasm – atonal yet rocking, like the Stray Cats colliding with an irked Fred Frith, and all accomplished within 16 deadly to-the-point bars, although it continues its commentary throughout the remainder of the record, seductive and scraping (Andy Gill and Keith Levene in Billy Fury’s backing band).

As an expression of fresh and unalloyed joy at being initiated into an adult and sexual world, it has few peers in pop except perhaps for the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back.” It has to be heard in its unabridged 12-inch form, and I am pleased to say is being reissued as such on the imminent Rough Trade Shops: Post Punk 01 2CD compilation.

Ashley Wales, of course, met up with John Coxon later that decade, and together they helped to produce Betty Boo’s Boomania (including the hit “Doin’ The Do”) before mutating into Spring Heel Jack. So the bulldozer steered right through 1984, but carved the path which has led us to Girls Aloud.

THE GREATEST SINGLE EVER MADE AS OF THREE DAYS AGO
”Sugar Baby Love” by The Rubettes (Polydor, 1974)
In common with Paul Gambaccini (as expressed in his NME “Quick Before They Vanish” weekly singles chart commentary at the time) I was rather annoyed when “Sugar Baby Love” got to number one, principally because it kept Sparks’ “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us” off the top. Yet again, The Man kept The Kids down (and, of course, observe how the situation is currently the exact reverse vis-à-vis “Ignition” and “No Good Advice”) – though I kept coming back to it and deriving things from the record which clearly had not been intended to be put there, thus cutting the tarmac for my own road to ruin. Yet what is unavoidably true about “Sugar Baby Love” was that it was a hit record made in precise accordance with the instructions in the KLF’s Manual a full fourteen years before the latter had even been written. Legend has it that writers/producers Wayne Bickerton and Tony Waddington sat down and undertook a detailed scientific/mathematical analysis of the singles charts of the previous ten years to establish which combination of words was likely to get them a hit. The three words which most commonly came up were, apparently, “sugar,” “baby” and “love.” The rest of the lyrics were constructed similarly painstakingly, and noting which way the American Graffiti wind was blowing, they set it to a precisely designed combination of the Four Seasons and Phil Spector with just that crucial tiny touch of Roy Wood. Thus “Sugar Baby Love” is the “perfect” pop record of 1974; not a note or word of it is “meant.” It is entirely artificial; a bunch of underemployed session musicians were assigned to the record and thereafter press-ganged into forming a “group” - with the exception of lead vocalist Paul Da Vinci who opted out, and whose lead vocal was mimed by replacement singer Alan Williams on TOTP - dressed in white caps and jackets with aircraft-carrier lapels and red tinsel piping (the Osmonds meet the Glitter Band?). Astonishingly, they prospered – or at least Bickerton and Waddington did – and continued to have hits for the next three years, none of which was memorable, with the possible exception of 1976’s politesse-ridden gay love song “Under One Roof,” a hit the same time as Rod Stewart’s “Killing Of Georgie,” the subtext of course being that gays in 1976 pop were only allowed to be miserable and/or dead. Never mind what Summer, Moroder and Darnell were cooking up…so we are reminded again just how necessary records like “Relax” and “I, Bloodbrother Be” were, and are.

Nonetheless, I am drifting away from “Sugar Baby Love,” which, as I’ve said, is a pop record in suspended animation. But even the most tightly constructed, constricted formats of pop music and pop records do not necessarily impede the musicians from putting something of themselves into it. And it is the undoubted emotion of Da Vinci’s vocal performance – even, or especially, if it’s just acting – which takes the record (as opposed to the song) somewhere else entirely. That falsetto is unusually strident and despairing even by Frankie Valli standards. Compare Da Vinci’s “I didn’t mean to hurt you” with Robert Wyatt’s equally stranded plea of “So why did I hurt you? I didn’t mean to hurt you” in “Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road” on Rock Bottom, a record released in the same month as “Sugar Baby Love.”

And hear above all the pained transition from the voiceover “If you love someone, don’t think twice” to the desperately sung “Love your baby love…love her every way, love her every day” as if he isn’t going to get another chance, as if it’s too late. As an expression of hurt it ranks with Mary Weiss’ “Mama!” in the Shangri-Las’ “You Can Never Go Home Anymore” (so much more potent than Lennon’s “Mother”). That is what makes “Sugar Baby Love” such a great pop record (as though Ron and Russell Mael, gods though they be, were any less artificial! – ha, they exulted in it!!) – not the elements which led to its creation.

It is of course inevitable that Rubettes drummer Tony Thorpe eventually took the plunge into dance music, forming the Moody Boyz and ultimately becoming “Groove Consultant” to the KLF for their singles from “What Time Is Love?” onwards. You think they didn’t already know?

THE AMERICAN SONG-POEM ANTHOLOGY
And that principle applies to any music. “Some of the song-poem performers, were frustrated, down-on-their-luck, or has-been artistes; they often couldn’t help putting just a little bit of themselves into their work. At the very least, they were professional about conveying, with either actor-like emotion or noble stoicism, the lyrics they were handed.”

That comes from the sleevenote to The American Song-Poem Anthology, a new compilation which comes from the same semi-backwoods which brought us the Langley Schools Music Project. But, unlike the latter, there is no sense of community; this is an anthology of honesty against cynicism, of expression against impassive formula – and we are never sure which side is which.

Readers familiar with American magazines and comic books between the late ‘50s and mid-‘70s may remember those classified advertisements which offered to set anyone’s lyrics to music for a fee – send them off with a cheque for anything between $75 and $400, and provided it didn’t bounce you would be sent a not very picturesque 7” single with YOUR NAME HERE on the label and your “lyric” immortalised in whichever off-the-peg style you preferred; country, pop, rock, soul. In other words, a musical vanity press – don’t expect any “follow-up” or “marketing”; we’ve been paid, NEXT!

Now some might argue that this sort of thing is no more or less cynical than conveyor-belt singers being ushered into the Holland/Dozier/Holland or Stock/Aitken/Waterman studios and given a readymade song to provide them with their rent for the next six months. Well, that last is the key difference – however nakedly capitalist record companies may be, they do have at least a token interest in the artist’s welfare (as long as the stockholders don’t protest). Or indeed the inhabitants of the Pop Idol/Fame Academy gulags, reared and trained to sing 30-year-old songs (imagine Dusty or Sandie in the ’60s having to sing Al Jolson) by bored old-timers. A more interesting question is: which gives the artist, or the composer, greater freedom of expression?

Again it must be remembered that the input of a composer or performer cannot be entirely free from elements of themselves. No composer or performer can be neutered – they can be killed if deemed dangerous/subversive enough (Victor Jara) or be absorbed benignly into the mainstream as a signifier of subversion, but their selves cannot be denied or suppressed, even unwittingly. Thus there is a “truth” in these vanity press lyrics and an equivalent and compatible “truth” in how they are adapted to music and how the resulting song is sung.

But what sort of sucker would be gullible enough actually to give these faceless Nashville/NYC backrooms their money and their soul? Was it thought that any of the 28 songs included on this compilation – a tip of an immense iceberg – could actually become a hit? Or was it more important that the lyricist make the world aware of his/her feelings, even if to only a few of its inhabitants? In short, was the “song-poem” any less valid a means of expression than the weblog?

The subtitle of the anthology is “Do You Know The Difference Between Big Wood And Brush,” which is also the title of the opening song. Performed by Gary Roberts and the Satellites, it is a queasily prosaic explanation of said difference, set to an almost jaunty mid-tempo beat which exists parallel to, but is not and will never be, pop. It resembles it, but examine it more closely and any hook is avoided with almost sadistic precision. Naturally, making a hit was the last thing on any of the composers’ minds; they quickly set the lyric to stock music and it was recorded just as quickly, the session musicians keen to get rid of as many of them in as short a time as possible. None of your chimerical “we wrote “She Loves You” in half an hour” stuff here. Even from a quick glance at the tracklisting, it’s clear that the sort of people who would send in their lyrics are of the same kind who populate radio ‘phone-ins; troubled and uncertain souls quick to blame the largest and nearest scapegoat to mask their innate self-loathing. Consider not just the solemn odes here to “Richard Nixon” and “Jimmy Carter Says ‘Yes’” but also indigestible sermons like “Human Breakdown Of Absurdity” – the “I wish to raise six key issues which have been thus far criminally omitted from the debate” religion made semi-musical – or the purulent racism of “Song Of The Burmese Land,” or indeed the seemingly heartfelt songs to the colour yellow (“I Like Yellow Things” by Bobbi Blake) and carpet bugs (“Little Rug Bug”) which certainly appear heartfelt. Morality raises its head again in the Jerrymanders’ “Listen Mister Hat” (with vocal by “Wm H Arpaia” – certainly no less preposterous than anything that PF Sloan was serving to order at the time) and most astonishingly in Gene Marshall’s anti-pornography and pro-masturbation manifesto “All You Need Is A Fertile Mind.” There are even some attempts at a musical diary, or at least a cry for help; consider Teri Summer’s rather soulful “City’s Hospital Patients” or Randy Rudolph’s “No, I Got To Find You Baby” which certainly wouldn’t be out of place on the average Goldmine Lost Nebraska Soul Stompers August-October 1966 (Masters Only) compilation.

Of course, there were several contributors who aimed to subvert the formula, to test the faceless companies and see whether they would be prepared to set anything to music, provided that they received some money. This appears to have been the way; the most famous example, which concludes the anthology, is John Trubee’s “Blind Man’s Penis,” sung absolutely straight-faced by one Ramsey Kearney. But – as with the multiple failed attempts at irony by the comperes of yesterday’s Eurovision – the effect is less when you know that someone is kidding. Thus something like “Green Fingernails” (“Green fingernails I love you…Green fingernails, you make me sick”) seems too cute by half, while Bill Joy’s “How Long Are You Staying” is quite brilliant in its own way but too obviously knowing – set to a pallid disco backing track seemingly recorded in a different continent (The Love Boat stranded in Antarctica?) the lyric rhymes “disco” with “Frisco,” “Cisco” and even “I’m going to jail-sco.”

Generally we are talking ultra lo-fi attempts at pop, rather like an American Joe Meek gone to seed (see John Muir’s “The Moon Men,” and then refer back to Geoff Goddard’s “Sky Men” to realise just how thin the line was). But by far the most interesting person involved in these enterprises – variously as lyricist, composer and performer – was one Rodd Keith. He it is who supplies the two songs here which would not have disgraced Nuggets or Pebbles - the Wilsonian acid-folk-pop of “Ecstasy To Frenzy” and the genuinely touching “How Can A Man Overcome His Heartbroken Pain” which was later covered by Yo La Tengo. And yet there was a pain and perhaps a madness which make themselves especially evident on more distended tracks – for example, the notorious “I’m Just The Other Woman” whose lead vocal is sung by Keith in a strangulated falsetto against an asthmatic tenor sax obbligato (indeed, this was a re-recording requested by the original lyricist who was unhappy with the original’s backward piano tracks!), and above all, on the extraordinary “Beat Of The Traps” where the music progressively disintegrates into freeform chaos as he shrieks and yells above it, producing an effect weirdly prophetic of the Birthday Party of Junkyard.

(“I don’t have much time for feelings, to be honest. I think they’re overrated – they get in the way of things” – Nick Cave)

Not surprisingly, Keith came to a premature and tragic, drug-induced end, falling or jumping to his death from a freeway overpass in southern California. He was the father of the improv saxophonist Ellery Eskelin (though Eskelin never knew him) and it is to be expected that the likes of Zorn and Chadbourne have hailed Keith as something of a savant.

But is the Anthology actually any good? I don’t know whether it withstands repeated, or even casual, listening; it may be less a collection of music than an assemblage of seemingly random data to be pressed into historical order by a future Henry Mayhew or Alan Lomax. It tests theories rather than making your day or bringing wisdom to you. There’s nothing on it which brushes with the same accidental genius as the Langley Schools reassembly of “Desperado” (what if that nine-year-old girl grew up and ended up consoling Don Henley in the Sunset Grill a decade and a half later?).

THE GATHERING
A truer heir to Langley Schools - at least in the palpable sense of community – may be Maggie Nicols’ ad hoc assemblage of improvisers The Gathering. This company has for the last dozen years apparently met in the Betsey Trotwood pub in Clerkenwell every Monday evening to improvise for 90-120 minutes, and anyone, even (or especially) if they’re not a “musician,” is welcome to come along and join in. It is unclear whether an audience is ever involved, or whether this exists purely for, and is only heard by, the participants.

Whatever the set-up, I find its existence quite touching and reassuring. A CD has now emerged which features a 25-strong line-up of members of The Gathering recorded in the studio in July of last year. The CD (on Emanem Records) is subtitled For John Stevens, and indeed many of the precepts which inspire The Gathering stem directly from Stevens’ pioneering workshops, with which Nicols had been involved since the late ‘60s – most notably, the idea that skilled, experienced improvisers can share a common language with non-musical neophytes, and that everyone can work towards a musically profitable result. The emotion is more important than technical ability.

Most of the 25 participants are relatively little-known. There are a few familiar names like saxophonist Tom Chant, pianist Veryan Weston and indeed Nicols herself, but they are largely outweighed by what we might term foot-soldiers of the London improv scene; some, like trumpeter Paul Shearsmith, violinist Susanna Ferrar and saxophonists Richard Leigh and Dave de Cobain, have been stalwartly beavering away on the scene with little recognition or reward since the early ‘70s, but they remain able to be heard. There might be suspicions of the good ole days of Oval House multimedia capers in that the personnel also involves a painter, a silent dancer and, from the sleeve photos, a performance artist (one Hugo Danino). But the music is far too striking to settle into comfortable Community Centre carpet slippers. In particular, the centrepiece “For John Stevens” directly and explicitly links their endeavours with the outside world – this is no improv Masonic order. Two old staples of Stevens’ workshop – the “Click Piece” and “Sustained Piece” – are utilised here (and remember that Nicols participated in the SME’s 1968 Oliv album – will somebody please talk to Giorgio Gomelsky and reissue it on CD? – with its “sustained” side and “click” side; the latter, involving a quartet of Nicols, Stevens, Trevor Watts and Johnny Dyani, remains one of the recorded wonders of British improv, especially its shattering – because so quiet - final three minutes). In the “Click Piece” we hear an ode to the then recently deceased Spike Milligan (with Chuck Jones in parenthesis) composed and recited by cornetist Frank Charlton. Its playfulness and underlay of sorrow are starkly balanced by the bleak reading of the polemical poem “A Trumpet Short Of Victory” which forms the hub of the “Sustained Piece”; the quiet rage of Nicols’ delivery floating above the mournful sustenati of the rest of the ensemble (a sustained peace?). But the astonishing two-parter “Released/Beauty And The Beast” demonstrates just how adroitly cosiness and grandeur, laughter and screams, are made to cohabit The Gathering’s improvising. Starting with some Am Dram chatter (“I can’t help you! I can’t even help myself!”) the music swells and becalms with greater intensity and fury at every climax. Beats and basslines are subtly suggested; Charlton and Shearsmith’s horns are particularly spiky “section leaders,” and there is a genuine sense of catharsis and release in the mechanics of what they are doing as well as the music itself. The atmosphere was plainly extraordinary. Therapy? Postponement of death? Both and much more. One is very tempted to go along and participate in one of their sessions. I know the Betsey Trotwood from a radically different and rather painful perspective. It might do me some good. Is improv for doing rather than listening to? You need to do both.

CLOSING DISASSOCIATED MISCELLANEOUS THOUGHTS

 The Four Seasons’ “Silver Star” – especially its ten-minute album version – is surely the starting point of House music. That beat. “Ecstasy on their faces…”

 The importance of Knut Aufemann to the London Improvisers’ Orchestra. Especially on the previously mentioned “Ruthless” where the ghost of Joe Meek seems to hover in his whirligig oscillations, observing the noise occurring around and perhaps below it.

 Again with reference to the new London Improvisers’ Orchestra CD: it’s a pity they couldn’t find room for Caroline Kraabel’s phenomenal conduction for orchestra and cassette recorders/players. Perhaps the most striking note of that evening was when the orchestra stopped, a ghostly melee of multiple recordings of their performance echoed around the auditorium, and Harry Beckett climbed the stairs to the balcony and blew a beautiful Milesian lament. Listen to his solo on Westbrook’s “Metropolis Part IX” and remind yourself just how good he is at doing that.

 Bearing in mind the crucial X factor of Terry Day, isn’t it about time the LIO recruited Mike Figgis to play trumpet and conduct? Orchestra and projection screens.

 The troubling line at the core of “I, Bloodbrother Be” – “we’ll never feel the pain of being a mother.”

 Wasn’t it the case that tAtU at Eurovision were full of fear and didn’t ask or question anything? Would they have won if they’d been honest enough to kiss? Would Dollar singing the same song have won it for the UK?

 The lift from “Are You Experienced?” which introduces the original Scooby-Doo theme.

Portishead Live At Roseland - Gibbons mutates into Janis Joplin at the climax of “Sour Times”; now I’ve mutated into the subject of the same song.

 “Watched the ‘Panorama’ programme about Iraq and it was the usual pious rubbish about Saddam Hussein being a tyrant & a torturer. When such a leader is removed, the ensuing chaos is deplored by the same censurers.”
(Kenneth Williams, diary entry, 27 July 1981)

 “I am what they have made me. I do not deny there are extraordinary noises in my cell, but they can best account for them. I am assailed by whispers close to my bed-side: It seems these whispers reach the ears of the brethren, for they burst into my cell, and take advantage of the terror with which I am overwhelmed, to put the most incredible constructions on it.”
(Charles Maturin, Melmoth The Wanderer, Archibald Constable, London, 1820: volume II, chapter VI)


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