Thursday, January 25, 2007
A BIRTHDAY EPIPHANY – TREASURE BY THE COCTEAU TWINS: REHEARD
She mentioned something about it to me, so I had to listen to it again. It’s not a record which I revisit regularly, but something above and beyond that; Treasure I regard as something of a sacred text, and like Escalator Over The Hill or Closer I only feel the need to hear it perhaps once a year, or once every two years, just to remind myself of what truly matters in art, what justifies all the flip-flopping through the everyday flotsam of wanton productivity. Its language and structure resembled nothing else in that false warmth of 1984 pop. In retrospect it is easy to discern that if only the Associates had gone higher, or if Siouxsie had pursued that dreamhouse kiss to the illogical other side of its mirror, or if Kate Bush thought herself worthy of being God…but then that latter would turn out to be one of 1985’s most resonant stories. However, Liz Frazer’s voice was as radical yet content in its own invented language as Coltrane’s.
Treasure may be the darkened anteroom to the glorious sunlight of Blue Bell Knoll four years later, but its hooded crevices and its songs named after Victorian christenings (Burne-Jones, yes, but they came from Grangemouth and recorded in Edinburgh, so we mustn’t forget Leslie Hunter and that long-neglected substratum of Scottish Impressionism) are not of that world but speak of a better one. You simply have to recall all of your patience and wait for that sun to ascend with its far-from-sad smile.
Its beauty is untarnished by the generation which has passed since its creation. The beauty is true because its louder showers know of their own mortality yet refuse to give up on spiritual immortality. How important it was to our former life could only be delineated with gross inadequacy, even in this Church – as with Frazer’s world, Treasure literally goes just beyond where words are able. It is nearly needless for me to say that I have not dared to listen to it these last five years.
Until last night, when she told me to look out for something. And there were hints of it – does she emerge out of one of those uncanny yodels of “Persephone”? They don’t need to talk to me about hauntology – listen to the instrumental-plus-waves-and-whispers “Otterley,” very near the end (Global Communications, anyone?) with its apparently ineradicable sadness, its isolated despondency…but her whispers, which keep coming through (“Still coming through!”), and is she whispering her name in the middle there? Is somebody trying to get through to me, to tell me something?
The choirs – think of the end of “The Beginning And The End” on Architecture And Morality, back when nights were differently dark – finally announce the entrance of the sun, of life, on the last track “Donimo”; the teasing anticipation, the way the entry of the drums is held back even though you know full well their deliverance is coming…
…and suddenly it all blossoms into explosions of radiant colours, of roses and rainbows, and twenty-two years after first hearing this record which I thought I knew as intimately and intricately as the palms of my hands, there she is, singing something I’d never heard before…and it is her name she is singing, your name, and I am happy that at the dawn of a forty-third year which I had at one time hoped never to have to see, the truth is confirmed and secure, that it is a truth that music can be summoned to live again, can bring life back to existence, that I had to wait and experience what had to be experienced before I could hear Liz Frazer singing in 1984 what I needed to hear in 2007…and that is precisely what this Church was built to do.
. . .
Monday, January 15, 2007
THE STOOGES – THE WEIRDNESS
So how does the enterprising music writer avoid the Stunning Return To Form trapdoor? Ceaselessly our aesthetic faces are in receipt of unsolicited licks from over-eager, or over-fearful, music press lapdogs strenuously trying to convince us that the new Stones or the new Bowie or the new Prince is indeed a Stunning Return To Form rather than a sub-Antony Worrall-Thompson cocktail of wishful thinking, the fact that it has two listenable tracks on it (two more than its predecessor, which likewise was hailed as an SRTF), the dread that we might not get the interview.
I am willing to admit that the wishful thinking element may be the most important here; that there is a profound and underlying love for the artist such that the writer is practically goading them on to exceed themselves even as they listen to the increasingly underwhelming and cynical reality. The reason for this is because there is a new Stooges album about to be released, 33 (and a third!) years after their previous one, and the fearfulness here is understandable but of an entirely different nature. For those of my age and experience, the original trilogy of records is so inviolable a document of the beginning of time as to deny, let alone defy, any manifestation of rationality. A shrine, an ideal, which anyone would be loath to desecrate. It’s not as if any of us were in with Iggy from the beginning, either – like everyone else, I became aware of Pop’s music because of Bowie and the Pistols, but Raw Power was only reissued (on CBS’ budget-priced Embassy label, usually the home of Jerry Vale or Robert Goulet) in 1977 and the two Elektra albums were impossible to find in the Glasgow of that period. So, despite the increased visibility of Iggy thanks to The Idiot and Lust For Life, Stooges music was something you had to catch a cold hunting down.
In 2007, however, the Stooges are long-acknowledged avatars; Fun House, once the most discreetly retained of noisy secrets, has its multi-CD outtakes/burps box set, and their reformation could well be instinctively regarded with scepticism, the reconstitution of long-defunct groups usually being attributable to the recent receipt of tax bills. Look at the mess made by the ill-advised ‘90s reunion of the Velvet Underground.
But then Reed doesn’t seem to have had much interest in reforming the Velvets other than to perform greatest hits sets to recondite Sonic Youth fans, whereas the Stooges have emphasised their urge to remain a current group, writing upwards of thirty new songs for this new album, The Weirdness (that title almost serves as bait in itself), though only twelve made the final forty-minute cut (twelve tracks in 40 minutes – that sounds promising and wise), reuniting the Asheton brothers, getting in Mike Watt to stand in for the late Dave Alexander on bass, and even bringing back peerless avant-proto-punk-jazz saxman Steve Mackay from heck knows where. All this, and then they whack the songs down in the studio under Steve Albini’s supervision…and few groups rely so keenly on their power deriving from the music as it is played, live, as the Stooges do; Iggy’s remix of Bowie’s remix of Raw Power is like a gaudy Technicolor Hogarth street scene uncovered from beneath its veneer of polite, pale grey.
So, of all reunions, the Stooges have to get it right; they practically invented the blasted game, for heaven’s sake. And it has to be said that The Weirdness is not a stunning return to form…but that actually works in its favour. It is true that the Stones’ A Bigger Bang is a very fine rock record which flounders because of being out of its time through no fault of its, or the group’s, own; they continue to rock as few others a third of their age could even begin to attempt, but then some of us remember when, because of “Gimme Shelter” and “Paint It, Black” and “Jumping Jack Flash,” they were something more than the best rock band, something chilling and intangible (note how the four chords of the long anthemic fadeout to “Hey Jude” are also the four main chords of “Sympathy For The Devil”).
Similarly, with the Stooges we cannot delete the memory of “TV Eye” and “LA Blues” and “Death Trip” and “1969,” especially thinking about the latter in the context of the actual 1969. They have come to mean too much for that. If it is possible, however, for a record to be the yardstick for great rock and roll records in a year which is likely to yield few other competitors without necessarily being a Landmark Album, let alone an SRTF, then The Weirdness is such a record. Given that these fellows are largely pushing, or have already pushed, sixty, the rawness, attack and palpable hunger of the Stooges of 2007 are remarkable. Ron Asheton might be the man of the match; his guitar is endlessly inventive and pertinent – for instance, the little raised eyebrow his chords give to Iggy just before the chorus of “You Can’t Have Friends” or the characteristic blurring of time and scales on “ATM” which comes very near to “TV Eye” territory, despite the fact that the song is Iggy blowing hot and cold about his bank balance (“Don’t bullshit the bullshitter!” “It takes GOLD to live like a KING!” “The Stooges fight poverty in secret!” – complete with hilarious, totally out-of-place quotes from “In The Midnight Hour” and “Can I Get A Witness?”). Scott Asheton’s drums, meanwhile, have been recorded better than ever before; his attack never lets up, his cymbals radiate across the channels, the punch of his snare and floor toms agreeably violent. Watt wisely keeps his head down and gets on with underlining the rhythm. In terms of visceral impact, the likes of The View should watch and weep.
But it’s Iggy’s show, as it must be; and in the opener “Trollin’” his already-satisfied grunts of “Uh!” and “Good God!” (the best JB tribute you’re likely to hear this year) soon lead into his proclamation that “My dick is turning into a tree!” and you sigh your blessed relief in the secure knowledge that it’s going to be a goodie. “You can’t tell me this is not a swell thing to do!” he roars and defies your disagreement (I mean, really, unless any of you miserably polite little British groups can open your record with the observation that your dick is turning into a tree, then go back to your City temping jobs and don’t even bother trying) (it).
Thankfully, although there are two ruminative slowburners on the album – the title track, a lovely loping deep vein 6/8 ballad which with its confidential low-pitched vocal and wobbling Palais dancehall saxophone is more than a little reminiscent of “Drive-In Saturday” (but then you remember that Bowie, even, especially, in 1972, owed infinitely more to Iggy than he ever did to Tony Newley), and the creeping apocalypse of “Passing Cloud” (“Time will be healing me!” sings Iggy on the latter with little confidence – but truly, low-range Iggy with his Mrs Miller vibrato is still one of the sexiest sonic drugs in all of rock) – there are no attempts at “maturity”; sixtysomething Jimmy O is unrepentantly puerile, as witness the sidesplitting and musically explosive one-two punch of “She Took My Money” (another in the long line of Iggy’s absurdist rants about Women Who Done Him Wrong) and “The End Of Christianity” – in the latter he giggles “When it’s a black girl you can’t resist!” and incredibly, in 2007, gets away with it. From Scott Asheton’s fumbled drum intro onwards, this, in conjunction with “She Took My Money,” sees the Stooges at their vibrant best. As guitar and sax start to get uppity towards the fadeout Iggy cackles “I can’t tell if I’m dead or havin’ fun!”
Elsewhere he’s still the petulant sixteen-year-old, relishing the thought of “killing everyone” in “Idea Of Fun,” though quickly balances that with his chant “Now is the season for war with no reason!” and his remark “They make you King then make you ill” counterbalances the knowingly self-satirical self-glorification of “Trollin’” and “ATM.” Similarly, “Free And Freaky” is a terrific variant on the sort of hollow booming Reaganite Rock song you used to get at the end of Michael J Fox or Charlie Sheen “comedies” in the eighties where Iggy revels in his purposeful isolationism (“I’m the kind of guy who don’t pick up the ‘phone!.../I hate it when people look at me the wrong way!”) but enlarges the picture (“My sister went to war! She tied a guy up on a leash! I think about it sometimes while I’m sittin’ on the beach!”) and even finds room for the classic jibe “England and France! These cultures are OLD! The cheese is stinky and the beer ain’t COLD!” In “Mexican Guy” he returns to the Bo Diddley beat of “1969,” citing Zappa and the Troggs and exclaiming “Started out with marijuana! Ended up with red wine!” before concluding “Modern life can certainly make one ill” like the good Telegraph columnist he isn’t. In “Greedy Awful People” he bemoans yuppies (“They drive those fuckin’ awful cars!.../They buy pyjamas on TV!.../They always clap at the wrong beat!” – and Ron A’s exasperated, liquefying guitar responds instantly to the latter line) while at the same time whining “I’m sad and lonely baby! ‘Cause I can’t live among my class!” He concludes by shrieking “Throw ‘em in a hole!” followed by the unsurpassable couplet of “This is the last chorus! I don’t wanna bore us!”
It all comes to a glorious boil with the final “I’m Fried” – punk as it was always meant to be (with something of a “Pretty Vacant” undercurrent), and at its climax Ron Asheton and Steve Mackay finally break loose for a classic compressed atonal freakout brought to an abrupt end by Iggy’s never-more-ecstatic drawn-out “I’M! FUC! KING! FRIIIIIIIIIED!” And who wouldn’t care? The Weirdness is a glorious racket of a record and you have my permission to queue up for a copy when it gets released (7 March). But just remember that it’s not a stunning return to form. Thank the Lord for that.
. . .
Monday, January 08, 2007
PICK OF THE POPS - WEEK ENDING 6 JANUARY 1973
They’ve done this chart before, or one very near to it, since I remember listening to it on the way back down the post-festive motorway to London four winters ago, and I briefly referred to it at the time, but to paraphrase Dolly Parton (or, more disturbingly, Julia Bradbury and Tony Christie on last week’s Just The Two Of Us), here “you” come again.
20. Carly Simon – You’re So Vain
Valuable for its panther-stroking twin-bass intro and Carly’s “son of a gun” whisper, but it sold on the back of Jagger’s uncredited cameo and the song’s mystery subject, and while agreeably splenetic, its aura of privileged intracelebrity bitching is one of the factors which would eventually make punk necessary.
19. The Pipes and Drums and Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards – Little Drummer Boy
Not played, but I’m sure you can make an accurate guess at what this sounds like.
18. Lynsey de Paul – Getting A Drag
Still a luscious lush of a song about tranvestitism, and I still think Elastica missed a crucial trick by not covering it.
17. Elton John – Crocodile Rock
The number one album of the period was a Ronco TV-advertised compilation with the oxymoronic title 20 All-Time Greats Of The Fifties – and by “The Fifties” they meant the pre-rock fifties of Johnnie Ray, Guy Mitchell, Frankie Laine and other members of my mum’s record collection – and this symbolised a general rash of unwarranted nostalgia; although glam was creeping up to its peak, there is hardly anything in this list which doesn’t double-bold/underline its debts to the fifties and sixties. “Crocodile Rock” does sum up “American Pie” in a rather more concise and lively manner; here the music dies for no other reason than Suzy leaving Elton for “some foreign guy” but he seems to be enjoying himself sufficiently with his pub-rock retread of “Speedy Gonzales.”
16. Donny Osmond – Why?
Not played, since there were two other Osmonds records higher up. And “Why?” did Dale not even mention the title of the single?
15. Wizzard – Ball Park Incident
Their first hit, and a slightly rawer prototype of “See My Baby Jive” with Wood’s rather less friendly growl telling its woeful tale of murder and his sax verging on the unhinged towards the end. Note the first appearance of the “dada dada dada” bridge later to become famous in “Waterloo.”
14. Gladys Knight and The Pips – Help Me Make It Through The Night
Not played! But Dale did play it back in 2003 so clearly there’s an obscure rota in operation. Nevertheless it is still one of the greatest female vocal performances (no Pips are evident at all) of the last fifty years; it could so easily have descended into cabaret tack from its intro onwards, but Knight underplays the desperation, is quietly generous in her passion (note the subtle “Little Drummer Boy” quotation in the muted trumpet line before the final chorus) and the record becomes one of the most moving of prayers for salvation in all of pop. We are indeed the lucky ones.
13. Elvis Presley – Always On My Mind
As seems to have become the case with Johnny Cash, critics and listeners tend to side with the Elvis in decline rather than the vibrant and beyond-sexy Elvis in his peak; perhaps in their middle age they find it easier to identify with the former. Thus the coded messages and pleas in Elvis’ endless cabaret ballad interpretations of his later years are mistaken for nobility in the face of defeat; but it has to be said that of the three famous recordings of “Always On My Mind,” Presley’s is the least interesting – the Pet Shop Boys beat the Pogues (rightly) to the Christmas number one spot in 1987 with their slyly ambiguous reading which may even stand as a final epitaph to New Pop, but my personal preference is for the quiet and genuinely noble reading done by Willie Nelson in 1982.
12. Michael Jackson – Ben
As with Donny, not played, but although the song was written for a film about a rat, it’s difficult to escape the notion that, even at thirteen, Michael is singing to himself (“Most people would turn you away”); that having been said, in its grace and willingness to pick up and embrace the discarded and rejected, this comes very near to Gladys’ “Help Me Make It” in terms of emotional impact – note how Michael’s emotions bend as the second verse unexpectedly begins in a minor key before returning reluctantly to the major.
11. Judge Dread – Big Seven
Inevitably, this was not played, but here’s the rub (ooer); having had all of his hits banned from TV and radio during his career – and even after his death, they have remained outlawed from the airwaves – most people simply do not know whether Judge Dread’s records were actually any good or not. In fact “Big Seven”’s musical setting will be immediately familiar to most readers since it deploys the same bluebeat backing track subsequently, and rather more creatively, used by the Dream Warriors for “Ludi.” Atop the music the good (?) Judge declaims and deconstructs nursery rhymes with a Benny Hill level of wit (“Great balls of fire” indeed!) and the obligatory cod-Jamaican accent. Not long afterwards he reverted to Cockney and the hits became progressively more vulgar but no less successful. Perhaps the real reason why you never hear Judge Dread on 2006 radio is the same reason why Love Thy Neighbour is never rerun on 2006 terrestrial TV.
10. Wings – Hi Hi Hi/C Moon
“Hi Hi Hi” was also banned by the BBC for some time (suspected drug references, shock and, as it were, horror) but Dale gave it a rare spin; as with “Girls’ School” etc., post-Beatles Macca “rocking out” is something of an embarrassment.
9. Moody Blues – Nights In White Satin
Like “My Way” or “Blue Monday” it has never really stopped selling (and during his lifetime also provided a more-than-adequate supplementary income to the owner of the publishing rights, Lonnie Donegan); this was the second of the record’s three distinct Top 40 chart runs. It also represents a bend in the river of psychedelia; now, instead of experimenting and going as far out with musical and lyrical structures, and often further out, than anyone would hitherto have dared, the lushness and big-budget (by 1967 standards) production of Sgt Pepper, rather than its contents, were taken as the yardstick – note the parallels with post-New Pop 1983 – and thus enter “symphonic” rock with meaningfully meaningless lyrics and endless swathes of purposeless instrumental dexterity. As with Justin Hayward’s solo “Forever Autumn” from Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds, “Nights In White Satin” works better in the context of its parent album, Days Of Future Passed (too painfully relevant a title) amid its forest of portentous orchestral pronouncements, arranged and conducted by Peter Knight, who clearly failed to find this material as challenging or stimulating as that of Scott Walker’s. Strip the song of its mellotrons and choral bombast and we uncover a beat group ballad such as the Four Pennies might have crooned in 1965, if they’d been inclined to have a go at sub-Dylan jumbled analogies.
8. Roy C – Shotgun Wedding
Another revived oldie, and another record banned by the BBC at the time of its original 1966 chart run (“You, me, the baby makes three”). A slightly rawer take on the Sam Cooke template whose off-beat rhythm and lugubrious horns suggest an early bluebeat influence, and although Roy C (full name: Roy Charles Hammond) at times appears to be making the lyric up as he goes along, but the ramshackle nature does lend the record an even greater, more sinister undertone.
7. Chuck Berry – My Ding-A-Ling
As with “Living In America,” the man who started everything has his biggest hit with a tiresome novelty barely one notch on the aesthetic ladder above Judge Dread, though at least there’s a bludgeoning good humour about Berry’s baiting of his adoring Loughborough University student audience. Was there actually “a future Parliament out there” (this would have been the Blair-rearing era) or should he have tried the Oxford May Ball instead?
6. John and Yoko and The Plastic Ono Band with The Harlem Community Choir – Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
A record which is rather better than its reputation suggests; platitudinous to the point of perversion, perhaps, but it’s a far more humane variant on “Hey Jude” with an infinitely more subversive message – as Lennon did with “Imagine,” presenting the audience with a cosy fireside singalong and making increasingly radical demands within its framework – and also is sorely underrated from the point of view of being one of Spector’s finest and least heralded productions; a clear transition towards the slowly-drifting epics he concocted for the 1975 Dion and the 1977 Cher, and one of the best uses of sleighbells on any pop record (see also “Total Eclipse Of The Heart,” “Tiny Children”).
5. Slade – Gudbuy T’Jane
The most remarkable thing about Slade at their commercial and artistic peak was how naturally they swung as a group; “swing” is a quantity rarely applicable to ‘70s British rock but Slade manage it with Don Powell’s masterly, Meters-derived shuffle, Jim Lea’s endlessly inventive bass and Dave Hill’s lead guitar which never relents in its improvised commentary, and that’s before we get to Noddy Holder’s magisterial red-raw ringmaster of a post-Lennon voice, even though for several years I wondered why he was singing about Steve McQueen…
4. David Bowie – The Jean Genie
Next to Slade, Bowie’s Spiders sound incredibly lumpen and Bluesbreaker-ish. Famously appropriating the same Yardbirds/Sonny Boy Williamson riff as the Sweet’s “Blockbuster,” it doesn’t work nearly as well as a pop record – the cartoon-like artificiality of “Blockbuster” works in its glossy glammy favour. Despite “Jean Genie”’s plod and fifth-form word association, however, and its underlying air of 1965 revivalism (that harmonica!), in the context of 20 All-Time Greats Of The Fifties it is still possible to see how radical this seemed to people in attendance at the time, and how it somehow set everybody, from McLaren to Morrissey, off on a journey to begin time.
3. Osmonds – Crazy Horses
Despite the attendant irony of staunch Republicans putting in an early ozone layer protest, “Crazy Horses” still works to a degree. Although slightly overrated, I enjoy the stabbing horns and the general junior-pop-apocalypse environment, both borrowed from the Doors’ “Touch Me” but with a similar amount of residual energy, and the easy noise of the neighing Moogs.
2. T Rex – Solid Gold Easy Action
A faster and far harsher variation on “Jeepster” which veers schizophrenically between jittery epilepsy and slow, booming string-laden choruses. Bolan sounds as if he’s being pressed into a spiky corner; certainly and sorely the sheer fun and sex of his 1971 hits are missing, and this is the first step on his descent into the self-mythologising commonplace.
1. Little Jimmy Osmond – Long-Haired Lover From Liverpool
One of two number one hits from 1972 which involved the Mike Curb Congregation on glutinous backing vocals; the other was Sammy Davis Jr’s cheery not-about-drugs-honest song “The Candy Man,” a chart-topper in America but not a hit here, whereas Little Jimmy did not register at all on the Billboard lists. The latest in an increasing line of novelty Xmas number ones (how the Beatles were missed, even though two of them had singles out – with that “Liverpool” the residual memory remained) and essentially harmless tack, although it caused domestic consternation since Little Jimmy was only a year older than me; cue the agonised parent cries of “why haven’t you written a best seller yet, child prodigy?” Happily, though, in Scotland it was comfortably outsold by Billy Connolly’s “Short-Haired Police Cadet From Maryhill” which latter, thanks to lines such as “If ah catch ye smokin’ hashish up a close” and “short-arsed Shuggy,” didn’t get much play on the radio.
. . .
Thursday, January 04, 2007
PICK OF THE POPS – CHRISTMAS 1968
There really are no better conditions for assessing the charts of years gone by than lying carelessly across a generous sofa in the warm and cosy front room of the family home on Christmas Eve, clad in my dressing gown and pyjamas, sipping a glass of Warnink’s Advocaat (ah, decadence; ah, decidedly guilt-free pleasures and no trademark) and generally feeling content with the world – so much so that it has taken me a week and a half to get around to writing it up (no computers in Bothwell, you see).
Adding to the comfort was the fact that the Christmas Eve Pick Of The Pops was a two-hour special focusing on the Christmas of 1968, the first real Christmas I remember; I was four years old and my main present was a sky-blue Petite typewriter – the first step to here. In addition it was a bloody good Top 20, and with two hours to spare I heard it in full, together with a rundown of the top ten album chart which reminded me about everything else that was going on over on the other side (Electric Ladyland! Beggars’ Banquet!! The White Album!!! Er, The World Of Mantovani!!!!). Give Dale his full two hours…it does make a difference!
20. Dusty Springfield – Son Of A Preacher Man
At Pauline Fowler’s funeral on Monday’s later episode of EastEnders they played “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” as the curtains prematurely closed on her coffin; a clever choice in terms of the related plot, with Dusty’s climactic “Believe me!” arriving in tandem with the police. There was quite a lot of Dusty music scattered about the radio and TV of Christmas, and the overwhelming feeling was one of renewed awe at the quietness and softness of her none-more-real passion. Her voice persuades (Hal David compared her voice to “fine malt whisky”), comforts, declares. She makes everything around her melt and combine, even Jerry Wexler’s Memphis hothouse from whence came “Son Of A Preacher Man” and its deathless parent album – when you listen to her singing “Breakfast In Bed” its double meaning is never more evident, nor more persuasive. The performance is proudly passionate but also sexy as true sex should be – that little nod at Hendrix’s vocal style when she rolls her tongue around the title near the fadeout. She made my Advocaat taste like the purest nectar.
19. Isley Brothers – This Old Heart Of Mine
As near as a holy testament as pop gets in my world – “And if you leave me a hundred times, a hundred times I’ll take you back” – its spring and bounce intact, its subtly insistent rhythm never allowing you to rest. “This old heart weeps for you” – that incomparable, near-androgynous vocal of Ronald Isley as powerful as it was on “Twist And Shout” or “Harvest For The World,” and the first shot in Dave Godin’s single-handed endeavour to reclaim the pop charts for Motown in particular, and black music in general. In addition, one of the first Northern Soul crossover smashes. The words are “the beginning of time,” and also “I’m yours whenever you want me.”
18. Barry Ryan – Eloise
“Everything in there, including the kitchen sink,” said Dale approvingly (and unsurprisingly so, since POTP frequently uses Ryan instrumental interludes, particularly from “Eloise”’s demented follow-up “Love Is Love,” as links between records). Twins Paul and Barry Ryan were the Bros of their day, but by 1968 they were slipping and needed to think of something else. Overcome by “MacArthur Park,” the Ryans turned up at a party hosted by Richard Harris and Jimmy Webb, wherein a drunken Paul Ryan proclaimed that he was in the process of writing songs in the same epic style. He hadn’t actually written any at that time but soon got around to doing so. The reconfiguration of the act had Paul in the Brian Wilson role of songwriter, with Barry doing the singing.
“Eloise” I recognised as a titanic monster at the time and it has stayed with me ever since. It is so ludicrously over the top that one blinks repeatedly at Barry’s gasps, screams and whoops (particularly the latter on the fadeout, where he nearly predicts Tim Buckley of Starsailor), at Johnny Arthey’s Grand Guignol arrangement (two drummers but no guitar) and at Bill Landis’ luxurious production, not to mention the theatrical pauses, rallentandos and accelerandos. But Barry makes you believe in his hapless plight (which if analysed really comes down to sexual frustration) by the sheer force of his more-than-evident sincerity. In its naked grandiosity “Eloise” stands as the missing link between Scott Walker and Meatloaf, and it also set the tone for an increasingly bizarre string of singles and albums which the Ryans continued to put out well into the seventies. The feeling that we have perhaps lost something important in the interim is emphasised by the fact that “Eloise” with its playing time of five minutes and 35 seconds, is exactly as long as the single edit of Spandau Ballet’s “True.”
17. Jeannie C Riley – Harper Valley PTA
A rather odd record to hit big in Britain, since it’s so intrinsically American, and Deep South American at that, but it stands up as an agreeably forceful performance very much in the vein of an angrier “Ode To Billie Joe” – her spitting out of the “p”s in “Peyton Place” and “hypocrites” is especially and deliciously venomous, and the ceaselessly nagging guitar behind her (Joe South?) digging the heels in just that little more bloodily.
16. William Bell & Judy Clay – Private Number
One of the best uses of the timpani in pop, beating its huge and bursting heart as Bell and Clay alternate between tension and liberation, uncertainty and commitment – the lead-up to the release of “Baby baby baby” is immense indeed and verges on the deepest of soul, even by Stax’s profound standards. God, this is a good chart – compare to December 1967, with its Val Doonicans and neutered Long John Baldrys, and it’s a pivot shift, if not quite (yet) a continental one.
15. Turtles – Elenore
In its chorus it sounds more like Roy Wood than Roy Wood, and there are similar methods of subversion at work here; satirising the teen love song as they go along (“You’re my pride and joy etcetera,” “Even though your folks hate me”). I found their Happy Together album on cassette just before Christmas – 50p out of the Trinity Hospice Charity Shop on Clapham Common; the fools were giving it away! – and its invention is remarkable, from its Sgt Pepper parody sleeve (featuring the stoned Turtles gurning at the front and their displeased besuited parents looking down on them from the rear) onwards – no wonder Flo and Eddie eventually hooked up with Zappa (though to my mind they far outdid him) and even less wonder that they provide the fantastic backing vocals on “Hot Love,” “Get It On” and so forth.
14. Tom Jones – A Minute Of Your Time
Oh dear, and we were going along so well. My mum loved it of course (though she hates Jones with the beard, referring to him as “Dracula”) but as a year-ending, would-be chart-topping ballad it lacks the universal “appeal” of “Green Green Grass” or “I’m Coming Home,” doesn’t really go anywhere, and thus missed the Christmas top ten entirely (though his previous single, the ghastly “Help Yourself” was still scuttling around in the listings, back up to #31).
13. Lulu – I’m A Tiger
Poor young Lulu. Where Dusty got to go to Memphis, Lulu – whose biggest international hit was relegated to B-side status in Britain – had to make do and mend with trite pap like this; even if Marty Wilde did co-write it, “Kids In America” it most certainly is not.
12. Bandwagon – Breaking Down The Walls Of Heartache
Oh glory glory! Early Britsoul classic usually thought to be a Northern Soul crossover, though the clubs didn’t start playing it until after it had been a hit; singer Johnny Johnson leaves you in no doubt whatsoever about his determination to fight his way back into the world of the living (“BRICK BY BRICK!” he roars). The record is endless climax, bold, brassy and bountiful. Brilliantly covered (at about 300 mph) by Dexy’s Midnight Runners a dozen years later on the B-side of “Geno.” And it got me off the sofa.
11. Malcolm Roberts – May I Have The Next Dream With You?
Terrible open-the-freezer-door/light-the-candles/After Eights and Babycham MoR ballad which sounds as though it had been written in 1928 with that equally terrible recorded in the bath echo prevalent on MoR records of the time. Roberts’ light tenor doesn’t visit any interesting places (he notably ducks the high C finish at the end) but it is bizarre to think that he went on to write, among other unexpected hits, Edwin Starr’s “Contact.”
10. Gun – Race With The Devil
As near to a lost classic as can be found in this list – it almost never appears on sixties compilations – this is prototype heavy metal with a brilliantly absurd full orchestral accompaniment as Paul and Adrian Gurvitz holler and howl their way through imagined post-Arthur Brown Satanic marginals. Adrian G returned to the charts in 1982 with the markedly milder-mannered “Classic” and its terrible rhymes (“attic” and, um, “addict”).
9. Fleetwood Mac – Albatross
It’s worth remarking on the unusually high proportion of instrumentals in this particular top ten; three in all (if you discount the wordless grunts on “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly”) while more than half of “Race With The Devil” is vocal-free. I cannot realistically account for this, apart from the prog-rock/pop crossover still being in partial force, but certainly the success of “Albatross” – still the only UK number one single by any manifestation of Fleetwood Mac – seems to have been directly attributable to a nature film used by the BBC as a link between programmes on TV. The template is pure Shadows (I imagine Hank and Bruce kicking themselves, and maybe also each other, repeatedly and furiously over not thinking of it first) out of Santo and Johnny’s “Sleep Walk” but the monotone, deep thud of Mick’s drums and the bluer coolness of Green’s guitar locate its astral ambitions in the dark, dank basement of the blues.
8. Hugo Montenegro, his Orchestra & Chorus – The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (Il Buono, Il Bruto, Il Cattivo)
Some evidence that Morricone must have listened to the Shadows – or at any rate Duane Eddy – as those low-slung twangs spiral like abandoned albatrosses across deserts of ahuman whistles, lamenting harmonica, choral swells and unattributable foreground grunts. Montenegro didn’t have to do much to it except add a backbeat, so it’s not that far away from Fatboy Slim remixing Pierre Henry.
7. Marmalade – Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
“The Beatles,” my mum said approvingly, even though she knew it was Edinburgh’s finest – although no Beatles single was released for Christmas 1968, there are three Beatles-connected singles in this top ten, including the Christmas number one. And even at this late stage artists were still trying to get hits with speedy covers of album-only Beatles tunes. Singer Dean Ford keeps the mock-JA accent and it all chugs along agreeably enough if life is long enough for agreeable.
6. Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band – I’m The Urban Spaceman
Their only hit single (they generally tended not to go in for singles) boosted by McCartney producing (as “Apollo C Vermouth”) and their regular appearances on the pre-Python children’s TV show Do Not Adjust Your Set, and maybe one of the saddest of all hit singles; Neil Innes singing over a jaunty post-psych banjo, tuba and ocarina about how great and hip and perfect he is before coming to the final “Here comes the twist/I don’t exist,” which is immediately answered by a chorus of kazoos and the forlorn twanging of a tailor’s dummy. Worthy of Syd Barrett, as is the heartbreaking B-side “Readymades.”
5. Love Sculpture – Sabre Dance
The second-longest single in this list, clocking in at 4 mins 49 secs, and essentially a showcase for speedy, keen 16-year-old lead guitarist Dave Edmunds – the rampage through the Khachaturian hardy perennial was their rabble-rousing, crowd-pleasing set-closer – though the studio recording was speeded up for added impact; an early indication of Edmunds’ later and more ambitious productions.
4. Des O’Connor – 1-2-3 O’Leary
“Games I played with Mary” and it gets worse. Entertainment as light as light entertainment could be; though Des does keep a commendably straight face throughout, this is where the Morecambe and Wisecracks begin.
3. Nina Simone – Ain’t Got No…I Got Life/Do What You Gotta Do
Talk about contrast…”Ain’t Got No” was the first hint of the Hair phenomenon, but as with everything else she touched, Nina makes it mean something else, eight months after the King assassination (as indeed she does with the Jimmy Webb tune, though it was “Ain’t Got No” which got the airplay and the sales). The sea change became ever more apparent; in January 1969 Simone briefly had three singles in the UK Top 40 simultaneously. That wouldn’t have happened even three months previously.
2. Foundations – Build Me Up Buttercup
If you have to do bubblegum soul, this is how to do it; cheerful and inspiring in all the right ways, and not a Northern Soul staple, but it surely does sound like one. Ooh-ooh-oohOOH!
1. Scaffold – Lily The Pink
The Scouse performance art troupe featuring McCartney’s brother, a distinguished contemporary poet and a future Tiswas presenter (not to mention Tim Rice on backing vocals) galloping their way through their cheery kids’ singalong about a 19th-century medicinal compound whose inventor kills herself by swallowing paraffin, and nothing to do with drugs at all, honest mate. Even the obligatory novelty Christmas number one is of a different order. Christmas and 1968 – what a combination it was, and still is.
. . .
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
SOCKETS TO THEM, J.B.
As with many other artists, my delayed appreciation of James Brown was a direct result of the militant absolutism of mid-‘80s NME, the music paper which told its readers that they should listen to Aretha or JB for half an hour every morning (“Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)” indeed) in order to teach themselves some dignity, which routinely sneered at and decried the New Pop I loved in favour of a regime of grey purism. Those grunts and unadorned grooves seemed like the Protestant work ethic personified, sweating for the benefit of…more sweat? And all despite my love of electric Miles, of Sly Stone and George Clinton, of hip hop (when it’s good), and even unto Steve Reich and Kraftwerk…none of whom would have developed anywhere near the same way had it not been for what James Brown began.
Of course, JB’s grooves only sound unadorned and minimalist to outsiders. The key to the greatness and radicalism of his music lies in his inverse and decidedly non-Western approach to song construction; despite his unapologetic worship and reclamation of capitalism (which to the black society of the late ‘60s onwards, shaken to its core, was more than enough), Brown built his music from the rhythm upwards, as opposed to the melody downwards, as everyone from the Gershwins to the Beatles did. An early instructive comparison would be to play his Live At The Apollo Vol 1 side-by-side with Coltrane’s contemporaneous Live At The Village Vanguard; in both records, note how any concept of melody is systematically deconstructed until every voice, every instrument, is a drum (just as “Chasin’ The Trane” burns to its essence of tenor and drums alone).
Having thus liberated rhythm, there was nothing to prevent Brown from proceeding to rework notions of the song, or the single, as radically from a musical perspective as Dylan had done from the lyrical. “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” forms the bend in this particular river; his band having improvised a slow seven-minute groove, Brown simply speeded up the master, crammed it into three minutes and released it as a single. His multiphonic screams are as superhuman as those of Archie Shepp on “Mama Too Tight,” but the band are tighter than an unforgiving noose. And with “Cold Sweat” Brown eliminated almost everything except the rhythm – now stuttering yet slinky in a way R&B hadn’t quite managed up until 1967 – and his exclamations, though far from meaningless, appear as randomly cut-up as when Eric B and Rakim actually did cut him up from “I Know You Got Soul” onwards.
Like Miles, Mingus and Sun Ra, Brown was a legendarily hard taskmaster as a bandleader – and some of this tyrannical urge sometimes spilled over into his private life, with disastrous, and latterly comical, consequences. Unlike the great jazzers, however, who only drove their musicians in order that they could shed the trappings of cliché and express themselves directly, and originally, Brown seemed to want to make his band a single, indivisible, impersonal force, choreographing their arrangements and responses to the nanosecond. Yet this paradoxically freed them up; listen to things like “Mother Popcorn” or “Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud” – or, crucially, listen inside them – and note how musicians like Fred Wesley and Bootsy Collins actually emerge as recognisable individual voices. That is while you’re not busy luxuriating in the absolute certainty and elasticity of the horns and guitars, Clyde Stubblefield’s right-angled drumming (like Dannie Richmond with Mingus, he never quite nails the centre of the beat, merely suggests its existence). As a machine the JBs set the tone for the electro, hip hop and techno to follow a generation later; and both Reich and Kraftwerk are on record as stating how key Brown’s influence was on their own approach to the machines and humanity of rhythms. But Brown’s music is never quite inhuman; however stringently applied, he never stops swinging.
The Star Time box set is crucial listening; coming from the opposite pole from Ray Charles, but equally vital in inventing what we know as “soul music,” it is one of the documents of its century. But 1969’s Soul On Top should also be investigated; one of Brown’s rare excursions into maximalism, with Louie Bellson’s LA big band and Oliver Nelson’s arrangements, he tears into “The Man In The Glass” with appropriate ire, and the reworking of “Papa’s…” with Brown screeching traded fours with Maceo Parker’s tenor cements the umbilical cord with ‘60s New Thing jazz. And for those who justifiably decry Brown’s eventual descent into a Nixon-supporting, state-crossing car-chasing cartoon of himself – from the British commercial point of view, it is depressing that 1986’s unironic flag-waving “Livin’ In America” was his only top ten hit here, most of his sixties classics having been confined to the specialist soul/R&B lists thanks to the innate racism of the British music industry and media at the time - 1973’s double The Payback has to be absorbed; as chilling and desolate a commentary on post-Vietnam despair as anything Gaye or Mayfield were producing at the time, as stark a drug diary as Grievous Angel or Berlin. Then listen once more to the near-inhuman joy of side one of Off The Wall, or Prince when he still cared, or any hip hop, and realise how and why Brown mattered as much as – or even more than – Presley or Sinatra. Simultaneously showbiz and avant-garde, underground and mainstream, brother of the downtrodden and the richest motherfucker in nascent black capitalist society…where Sly noted blearily that there was a riot going on, Brown rolled up his sleeves, went out on national TV in April 1968 and literally stopped a riot. Functional yet multilayered, never less than bloody or driven, he started things in music which deserve never to be stopped.
. . .
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