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

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Almost alone among sixties acts, DDDBM&T have yet to be admitted to any sort of canon. Even though with thirteen straight Top 40 hits between 1966-9 they were among the most successful of all British pop groups of that decade they have routinely been dismissed as teenpop fodder, a mere vessel for the increasingly strange fantasies of their managers, writers and producers, Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley. Yet that very strangeness, in both creation and execution, and the coexisting underexposure of all but a few of their most familiar hits, have conspired to ensure that theirs is one of the most awkwardly adventurous of all chart careers.

Howard and Blaikley first came to prominence as authors of the Honeycombs’ “Have I The Right?” a song which its producer Joe Meek took as an instant metaphor for suppressed gayness, and something of that permeates virtually all of DDDBM&T’s records. Although less celebrated than their improbable chart cousins the Troggs, they arguably went further, beginning with their introductory hit “You Make It Move” which begins with a portentous piano introduction before blazing into a scuzzy “Hang On Sloopy” stomp over which Dave Dee ponders about being “on my own with no one to help or guide me” before he sees the light – and the musical thrust makes it clear that the title is intended literally; Meek would have been proud of the mid-song duet between submerged piano and wasp fuzz lead guitar.

“Hold Tight,” aside from lending its basic rhythm to forty years of England soccer fans’ hands, is directly intent, from its immediate ray gun of fuzz guitar in the intro to its enormous bass undertow, on fucking: “Make me feel what you say is for real,” urges Dee in the midst of uttering arbitrary words like “calibrate” and “carousel.” The final, extended monochord drone is quite terrifying. “Hideaway,” the follow-up, made the homoerotic subtext as explicit and unambiguous as 1966 would allow – “Come on baby, they’ll never find us here/Made sure the coast was clear/There’s not a thing left to fear” Dee proclaims, even though they’re heading towards a refuge “far from the light of day.”

And while all the fuss was made over “Wild Thing,” “Bend It” – also a number two hit in ’66 – got a curious free pass despite its title (what did radio producers think it meant?) and its repeated accelerandos and pauses which could only signify one thing; note the artful onomatopoeia of Dee’s frustrated “Pizzle pazzle, what’s the hassle?” and also his chuckling after that line’s reprise. Meanwhile the music builds up and, shall we say, flows, Tich strumming his balalaika with Mick’s sideways drums to create what one might term Zorba ska. Finally, as the balalaika echoes into infinity, orgasm is attained.

Thereafter DDDBM&T went slightly mad as 1967 dawned. “Save Me” with its breakbeat-driven Yardbirds calypso feel (it’s possible!) finds Dee on the verge of dementia as he hacks out staccato lines: “Stop what you’re doin’!/You’ll be my ruin!/Rootlessly wand’rin’!/All my time squand’rin’!/Feel that I’m drifting!/Images shifting!/My mind is going!/Where there’s no knowing!” as the music fizzes into a stoned blur. After a brief sitar-like guitar solo, Dee yells out these lines again, or variations on them, while some barking unaccountably occurs in the left channel. A low feedback whine makes its way into the track as Dee lets out a final terrible, Jim Morrison-anticipating/outdoing scream of “Save me from my-SELLLLFFFFFFF!!”

“Touch Me, Touch Me” continued on the latter-day Yardbirds freakbeat line with its impossibly fast 12/8 verses and remarks to the tune of “Life has lost its meaning” and “approach you or reproach you,” Dee all the while still begging for it; feel the drifting nirvana of the “let’s make it – let’s touch” refrain. “Okay!” with the return of the balalaika and the addition of accordion, signalled a move away towards exoticism and storytelling, though on closer examination the song appears to be about a one-night stand which the frustrated singer wishes would become permanent – there is more than a hint of catty bitching about Dee’s climactic sneer of “Go and live your life and let him treat you HIS way!”

Whereas “Zabadak!,” their last and biggest hit of ’67, along with several of its successors, still sounds like nothing else in pop, or indeed on Earth. A very familiar sounding percussive refrain (I’m sure it’s been subsequently sampled but I can’t quite figure out where or by whom) comes into focus, out of a landscape of chirping birdsong and rolling waves, as the band starts a percussion-dominant chant in no particularly discernible language. Eventually a half-speed vocal harmony line comes into view as the band, stoned, drawl about feelings being more important than words (“love is all we feeling” with its syntactical echoes of the Stones’ “We love they,” and later, “Love-I’m-sure-will-rule-the-world-and-try-to-turn-an-ocean,” the melody line later recurring on the Family Dogg’s ominously chirpy 1969 top ten hit “A Way Of Life”), before a mirage of strings shimmers briefly into view and the group launch back into their love chant, complete with false ending and an uneasy return to peace at the end. It wasn’t all Engelbert and Tom at ‘67’s end.

They followed that with their only number one, 1968’s “Legend Of Xanadu,” which in tandem with the parallel hits Howard and Blaikley were providing for the Herd (“From The Underworld,” “Paradise Lost”) shifted the group into a mythical and more-than-slightly-drugged past; “Xanadu,” though, was dynamic absurdist pop with its “black baron land,” its furiously compressed trumpet section and, of course, the punctum of Dave Dee and his whip, which scared the life out of this four-year-old TV viewer (not yet knowing camp theatre when I saw it).

However, its follow-up, “Last Night In Soho” is one of the most avant-garde of 1968 hits, so much so that its ominous bass/fuzz guitar unison figure resurfaced over a decade later as the foundation for Wire’s “A Touching Display,” though here Howard and Blaikley additionally lay on paranoid strings and Cage-like organ cut-ups as Dee fearfully narrates the tale of the criminal trying to reform and build a new life with his love before his former masters catch up with him and compel him to do just one more job (“But boy don’t get above your station/If you don’t want aggravation!”). In between his decline, Dee shrieks “I’m just not worthy of you!” before jumping into the terrible abyss of “Last night in Soho, I let my life go,” sustaining the “go” as though already having fallen off the cliff, as the backing vocals swoon upwards around him, all leading to a chilling final sustained ‘cello chord.

“Wreck Of The Antoinette” achieved the impossible feat of going even further; after an astonishing introduction of musique concrete keyboards and scraping improv guitars under which Dee solemnly intones “Full fathom five, on the seabed she lies, the Antoinettttt-te!” – it sounds like the meeting point between Peter Grimes and The Drift – the song unexpectedly turns into sprightly bubblegum (though get that floating Sun Ra-esque organ) from which Howard and Blaikley methodically extract every sea/sex metaphor they can conjure up – “Ocean’s big and you don’t wanna see me drown,” “She goes down with a sigh,” “Deep she lies” and so forth. Meanwhile the piano break invents “Oliver’s Army.”

They had two final hits in 1969 before splitting; “Don Juan” revisits “Xanadu” territory, though this time Dee is a brave (or idiotic) matador, and rather than turning into an antecedent of Tom Jones’ “A Boy From Nowhere,” it inexplicably becomes a football chant, a dry run for “Back Home” (and that trumpet figure has definitely cropped up elsewhere). Inevitably, by the end, he dies – or does he? – and the music once more dissolves into acid drops. Their last hit “Snake In The Grass” was possibly their most disturbing; over a cheerful, flutey MoR tune which sounds like the theme to an unmade Reg Varney sitcom, Dee sniggers at the hapless lady taking the morning air in the country as it quickly becomes apparent that he is portraying a rapist. Perhaps both group and writers realised that they couldn’t really take the template any further; Dee left the band thereafter to go solo, achieving one hit with the clever if unsettling ambiguity of “My Woman’s Man” (another Howard/Blaikley composition) before settling into A&R work at WEA, while DBM&T soldiered on for awhile, also scoring one further Top 40 entry with the amiable sub-CSNYisms of “Mr President.” Eventually both sides embarked on the international cabaret/oldies revival circuit. However, their canon of hits was a very singular one and needs urgent rescue from the airing cupboard of disregard.

(N.B.: Currently available DDDBM&T material on CD comes in the form of endless permutations of their greatest hits in various and variable formats – beware of re-recordings! The handiest way of collecting them is The Very Best Of Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, released on Spectrum Music/PolyGram in 1998 and still available; suboptimal packaging, but at least these are the original, unsullied recordings. The full-blown Rhino/Rev-Ola/Eclipse retrospective is awaited)

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