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

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Part Two: “…not to mention a heavy-handedly facetious number about a laughing gnome which was ecstatically plugged for several weeks by the pirate stations but steadfastly remained the flop it deserved to be”

The above quote is taken from William Mann’s original review of Sgt Pepper, published in The Times in 1967, which I suppose only goes to show that it’s impractical to know where the next step is coming from. Still, there doesn’t seem much dispute that Ziggy Stardust couldn’t have happened without Pepper – the pop star as façade of a pop star – even if Bowie seemed to take much more from Warhol’s banana than he did from Cale’s viola. The Mann piece remains a remarkably fresh and relevant read, despite the then-obligatory jibes at the Monkees and a possible misreading of Spector and Walker’s respective uses of the Fairchild compressor.

(If the first Velvet Underground album is absent from his general round-up of trends in music, and conspicuously so to contemporary eyes, then it was scarcely obtainable in Britain at the time; available as an expensive import and then as a very limited UK release. In any event there is a case for arguing that the importance of The Velvet Underground And Nico has been rather overstated in recent years, to compensate for its original, minimal sales. It is still an impressive and occasionally shocking work, in a belated best album of 1972 sense, but to me the record seems like a signpost to something new rather than newness itself; its blacker, bleaker twin, White Light/White Heat, which barely sneaked out at the end of 1967, is an immeasurably more challenging record (the real “anti-Pepper”) and a far greater work of art, even if you suspect that further adventures of this sort would have culminated in Reed and Cale blowing each other’s brains out (where could they have gone after “Sister Ray”?), and the troubled delicacy of the melodicism of the third Velvets album sounds harder won, and deeper, as a consequence. But the Deluxe remastering plus bonus tracks edition of White Light/White Heat has not yet been issued; it remains a black sheep, skulking stealthily at the rear of its section in the shop, something not to be spoken of audibly)

Despite the natural, inherent reserve of Mann’s piece, his underlying excitement is barely hidden, and doubtless the general excitement over Pepper was open and closely palpable in that summer’s air; what must it have been like to be living in the same cluster of flats in Cheyne Walk when the Beatles returned to Mama Cass’ apartment, set the stereo speakers on the open windowsill and blasted out the acetate of Pepper at top volume at six in the morning – that fine, sparkling June morning - its first public broadcast? Admit it, we would all have wanted to be there, in the vicinity; as Neil Aspinall put it, no one complained about the noise or being woken up, everyone immediately stuck their heads out of the window, realised immediately who and what it was, and gave them the thumbs up. Or on the stairs of that Californian hotel lobby where David Crosby, who had been given an advance tape (and who some say advanced on Pepper by virtue of his contributions to the Byrds’ Younger Than Yesterday), sat quietly with a horde of fans all night, listening to the album over and over in awed silence, trying to take it all in.

The question, however, is how Pepper, in the long-term, affected or changed music, and whether for better or worse. Perhaps that question, at least from a British perspective, is best taken in tandem with the fate of British pirate radio. That summer’s mood in Britain might be interpreted as one of cautious optimism. Groups like Pink Floyd and Soft Machine were already breaking away from, or more correctly stretching the strictures, of the “pop song,” while Hendrix was busy seemingly stretching the codes of the universe – “Purple Haze” seemed and still does seem like an immolation of any notion of the Beat Boom. Traffic and Procol Harum appeared to be using psychedelia as a timewarp door to return to a peculiar aura of 17th-century agrarianism; while, from the folk side of things, the Incredible String Band relocated Barrett’s wounded whimsy of discontinuity somewhere in the age of Chaucer. Meanwhile Cream, an electric free jazz trio which Clapton had been tricked into joining (confirmed by Jack Bruce, who said that Clapton was supposed to be their Ornette Coleman, only he didn’t know it), veered madly between Cubist beat poetry/vaudeville diffusion and febrile proto-heavy rock. And in the Little Theatre Club, Ronnie Scott’s Old Place and elsewhere, the Derek Bailey/Evan Parker/Spontaneous Music Ensemble nexus, not to mention those of AMM, the Westbrook/Surman/Osborne circle, the People Band and the expatriate South Africans, were busy pushing music almost beyond “music.” Everybody and everything seemed to be moving in the same, mutually compatible and utterly adventurous direction.

It is perhaps an overstatement to claim that Pepper may have directly contributed to killing this adventure stone dead, or at least condemning it to dark cultism, but if so, it would have been the fault of those who followed or misheard, rather than the record or the group itself. But increasingly, after Pepper, there leered the head of “bigness” – suddenly it was not enough for singles to be singles, or albums albums; they had to have a concept, colour, showbiz. And for many, this bigness was enough, without any thought of content or innovation. The phenomenal success of the Moody Blues’ Days Of Future Passed (the title itself tells the sad, real story) not only resuscitated the career of what had previously been a down-at-heel Brummie beat band but suggested that huge spans of orchestra and mellotron, spliced with “meaningful” lyrics, were the way forward; in other words, the spectacle of the product was preferred to the process of making music.

Added to this was the imminent demise of pirate radio. (One of the many reasons why the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” is such a central record to understanding that confused summer is that its poignancy lies in the fact that its narrator knows that none of this will last; indeed, the singer of “Waterloo Sunset” is an outsider, not involved, an old man confined to his top-floor council flat in some godforsaken estate on the fringe of Bermondsey, maybe someone in whom the authorities should take an active interest in view of his suspicious binocular pursuits – note the “and I don’t feel afraid” and the fact that when Terry and Julie cross over to north of the river, it is “where they are safe and sound.” It is the fearful perspective of the outsider, and Ray Davies would pursue and refine that further in 1968’s The Village Green Preservation Society, one of many superb, coherent, zero-selling Kinks concept albums. By then listeners wanted to escape into outer space rather than confront their own inner space, even if it was only an expensive lightshow.)

The then Postmaster General, that paragon of right-wing intransigence Tony Benn, decided to close down the pirates for solid socialist reasons (their signals were allegedly interfering with those of vital services, such as ambulances, police and fire engines), but when the various DJs were re-hired by the BBC they found themselves suddenly far more confined than they ever had been aboard their sundry ships. For the BBC in 1967 had not yet learned to trust pop; still in the grip of Reithism, they were afraid of it, kept it at a distance. On close examination of the 1964-7 singles charts it becomes apparent very quickly that any hits remotely interesting or radical – including practically all of the soul entries, and certainly all of the Motown and Stax/Atlantic hits - can be said to have owed their popularity to Radio Caroline and Radio London, whereas the staider, MoR contingent were directly ascribable to the Light Programme, their Housewives’ Choice and Two-Way Family Favourites, the corporate determination to preserve the ossifying order of things.

But when Radio One started, business as usual was the instruction of the day; whereas Caroline and London’s semi-playlisted 24-hour operation meant that they could essentially play whatever they wanted when they wanted – and thus smuggle in a lot of radical stuff – the BBC insisted on the most rigid of playlists and, scared of alienating its ageing governors, scanned all contemporary music for real or imagined drug references, thus banning half of Sgt Pepper at a stroke. The “dark stuff” was now reserved for late nights, under the custody of John Peel and other fugitive spirits.

The effect of this on the singles chart from about September 1967 onwards was immediate. All psychedelia, and practically all soul, appeared to have been abruptly exiled from the Top 40, in favour of processed beat groups like the Herd or the Tremeloes, modest but melodic adventurers like the Bee Gees, and, above all, a suffocating dominance of broad-chested, bellowing balladeers singing sentimental songs just like the ones they used to make – so out went the Floyd and Traffic, in came the resurgent Frankie Vaughan, Anita Harris, Des O’Connor, the reluctant Long John Baldry, in preparation for the influx of sub-Humperdinck/Jones warblers into the charts of ’68; by the beginning of 1969, even the veteran pre-war matinee idol Donald Peers (“The Cavalier Of Song”) was back in the top three, rubbing shoulders uncomfortably with Nina Simone and the Bonzo Dog Band.

Meanwhile, back at the end of 1967, the avant garde was finding it harder and harder to access the charts; challenging singles like the Creation’s “How Does It Feel To Feel?” and the Pretty Things’ “Defecting Grey” – both of which could easily have gone Top 20 nine months earlier – failed to register, and the easy tears of “The Last Waltz” were far more palatable than, say, Bill Fay’s more problematic “Some Good Advice.” Jefferson Airplane had no hit singles in Britain; the Doors’ “Light My Fire” barely scratched the Top 50 on its first outing, works of sunny genius like the Byrds’ “Lady Friend” passed by unnoticed, things like Strawberry Alarm Clock’s “Incense And Peppermints,” an American number one, didn’t even get a British release. Despite the occasional flickering beacon of hope – “We Love You,” “Excerpt From A Teenage Opera,” “I Was Made To Love Her” and, above all and glaringly so in that last, ballad-dominant Top 10 of 1967, “I Am The Walrus” which contrived to appear on both the number one single and number two E.P. in that list, as if to punish the rest of the chart for its cowardice.

(And, of course, the man who somehow managed to connect all of these disparate strains together, Scott Walker, remained semi-blissfully outside it all – his 1967 Scott album makes his attitude towards being the New Cavalier Of Song explicit; he will learn from Bacharach and David, absorb Brel and Hardin, and on that first album alone comes out with such songs as “Such A Small Love” and “Always Coming Back To You” which would not even exist in Engelbert’s or Tom’s universe. And, with the exception of Robert Wyatt, Walker is the one British-based pop/rock musician of that era who has kept pushing at his own, patient pace.)

But the BBC cannot be blamed alone for the eclipse, since the adventurous artists themselves saw progressing from throwaway single to permanent album status the ideal ambition for reasons as much to do with drug trends at the time as with musical ones; the gradation from speed to dope. Nevertheless, prompted by the surface revivalism and spectacle of Pepper, musicians were encouraged to think of “bigness” without much thought needing to be applied to any “concept” (i.e. the listeners would be so stoned it wouldn’t matter). But that too devolved into the proto-New Age worthiness of the decaying earth, what will we leave our children, etc…though the only truthful response to that question came from five Canadians, and yes, three other individual Canadians…

What suddenly went missing, though, was energy. That’s why A Hard Day’s Night remains the Beatles’ best and most consistent album; the first album by a British pop group to consist of entirely self-penned material, it snaps and sparkles with the unarguable energy of young men who know they are at the peak, and yet have preserved their essential eagerness. That’s also why The Who Sell Out flopped so badly; an acutely coherent album which foresaw so much of postmodernism that it hurts (samples! Adverts they had to re-record themselves for legal reasons! Just like those other sad children of the sixties, the KLF!) trailed by a single, “I Can See For Miles,” which seemed to have reached the 21st century ahead of anyone else. But it was too ahead of its time; the album limped to number thirteen and the single barely made it into the MoR-friendly top ten. Or consider the Pretty Things’ SF Sorrow which, admittedly in large thanks to their record company’s promotional incompetence, didn’t appear in the shops until well after the event. Meanwhile the Who sank into premature torpor; Townshend refocused his ambitions and wrote Tommy, a brutalist, unsubtle “rock opera” which bluffed where SF Sorrow tickled…and the Who went on to conquer the world. Only the Stones stood resolute. Despite the heroic failure of Their Satanic Majesties Request, they dug their heels in as the Official Not Sgt Pepper Alternative, bided their time and returned in 1968 to wipe the rest of rock off the face of the fucking planet with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and Beggars’ Banquet. They stubbornly survived – but then that is another story.

Pepper, in summary, seems to have been an inadvertent gatepost – promising adventure, it helped justify the incipient, imminent conservatism of mainstream pop and rock music. And nobody made a greater effort to run away from its impact than the people who made it; after Pepper, and especially after Epstein’s death a couple of months later, the Beatles began to atomise openly, into labyrinthine corridors of self-reference, intangible doubt, occasional furious blasts at the world and doped laughter. After the whole world of 1967, what could they put on their 1968 cover except a blank whiteness, a light should you be in the mood to turn it on (see how “A Day In The Life” permeates everything?), or alternately flicking on and off, from nursery rhymes to elegiac guitars, from semi-abstract collages to lush orchestral ballads. It is fitting, then, that The White Album should sound exactly like a fictitious December 1967 Top 40 rundown…or how it should have sounded like, or where pop could have gone if only it had listened.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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