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

Thursday, July 19, 2007

It was one of the hundreds, if not thousands, of great singles of 1981, even though it was recorded and released in the spring of 1976. Many have identified the vocal stylings of Noosha Fox as a clear precedent for everyone from Kate Bush via Macy Gray to Alison Goldfrapp, but on hearing “S-S-Single Bed” again after a very long time, the message which winks out clearly to me is: hello, Clare Grogan, and indeed hello, the Altered Images of Bite. An artful mix of chattering white boy funk and gleaming paddling pools of synthesisers, pitched both high and low, Fox deploys a precise balance between teasing, mocking, regretting and conspiring.

While it is easy to discern a Kate Bush precedent of sorts in some of the songs on the first, eponymous Fox album from 1975 in songs like “Pisces Babies” and “Red Letter Day,” with their octave-vaulting but playful vocals and melting dividing lines between sombre classical strings, nostalgic flower power phasing and imagery, and startlingly prescient synth bass squelches (“Spirit” sounds so 1982 it’s unreal, and “He’s Got Magic” sounds nearly 2007 with its stereo channel cutouts). And there’s little doubt from looking at Noosha Fox in her carefully elegant Dora Carrington-meets-Marlene Dietrich poses that she was a Bloomsbury hippy to her Australian folk roots. But Kate Bush was her own person and one of the greatest mavericks pop has known; whereas Fox, the group, was essentially a front for seasoned songwriters Kenny Young and Herbie Armstrong. Young in particular is a fascinating case; one of the Brill Building generation of American songwriters, he wrote “Under The Boardwalk” and thereby theoretically freed himself from the burden of having to work ever again, but he carried on, writing amongst other things “Captain Of Your Ship” by Reparata and the Delrons before moving to Britain in 1968 and masterminding a series of what he himself described as “kinky” hits for Irish singer Clodagh Rodgers. He seems to have remained content with the backroom lifestyle, and Fox was his only real attempt, unless you count the shortlived post-Noosha spinoff Yellow Dog (who went top ten with the curious “Just One More Night” in early 1978), to gain stardom as a performer.

The first Fox album begat two big hit singles, “Only You Can” and “Imagine Me, Imagine You,” soft rock-cum-bubblegum (and I do not use the conjunction “cum” recklessly) with an added punctum factor of enigmatic ethereality, and it has to be said was sonically rather more adventurous than Blue Hotel, their second album which has now similarly been reissued by Cherry Red. The fact that Blue Hotel appeared in 1977 will likely explain why I didn’t even know there was a second Fox album; in the midst of the punk avalanche it never really stood a chance, but it’s a highly agreeable collection of country-ish rock-pop, if completely out of its time (had it been a Nancy Priddy or Evie Sands collection from 1969 or thereabouts it would be chaired at shoulder height), and not without lyrical adventure; on things like “Moustaches On The Moon” and especially “Friendship Rose,” Noosha seems to sing of the pleasures of self-pleasure (“I’m sailin’ on the seven waves/While lyin’ on my rubber bed”) and the rather lovely ballad “Dejenina” partly invents Rufus Wainwright.

But “S-S-S-Single Bed” is their masterpiece. It does not often resurface on seventies compilations, and at the time of writing is only otherwise available on CD as part of the dreaded Guilty Pleasures (TM) series of compiled attempts to rewrite music history and paint out all the difficult, unsmiling or differently smiling stuff. Noosha immediately exploits all the possibilities of the smouldering stutter, from her caustic initial invitation to “C-c-come, come inside” (no, I don’t know how it got past the radio programmers either) and her tremblingly wet “Sh-sh-sh shake off your shoes,” then onward to her hesitant “P-p-pour out the wine” and vaguely sarcastic “t-t-t-time, don’t it fly?” She’s teasing and tempting as far as sanity and self-control will tolerate, but here’s the rub: “But all I’ve got is this s-single bed/There ain’t no room for your sweet head,” as she goes into the chorus with bemused male backing vocals of “S-s-s-single bed” which eventually evolve into raised eyebrows of disbelief and irony, before she announces, atop a suddenly ominous, rising synth bass drone, “I’ve got a-one solitary lone sole single bed!” extending the “bed” into six syllables to coincide with the high synth melody. Despite increasing frustration from her would-be Other, signalled by the track’s only real reminder that it’s 1976 (unless you watch their TOTP performance, which has survived) when Young and/or Armstrong blows mournfully into one of those Peter Frampton guitar-to-mouth wah-wah tubes (but they got there two or three months before Frampton came alive!), Noosha herself doesn’t appear too distressed that the hapless man has “missed the last train,” since – yes – it’s another metaphor for luring them in to turn herself on, as she writhes in rainbows of introverted ecstasy. In an increasingly miserable world of Brotherhood of Man, JJ Barrie and the Wurzels, “S-S-S-Single Bed” at number four in the charts seemed to be, the Donna Summer/Silver Convention/Andrea True Connection vanguard aside, and half a year still to go before the Sex Pistols became public knowledge, the only popular acknowledgement of sex in any form. As a twelve-year-old it made me feel psychedelic in a delicate, tickly kind of way, and in a pre- and post-Clare Grogan way it still does.

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