Tuesday, 27 January 2009

The SHADOWS: The Shadows


(#23: 23 September 1961, 4 weeks; 28 October 1961, 1 week)

Track listing: Shadoogie/Blue Star/Nivram/Baby My Heart/See You In My Drums/All My Sorrows/Stand Up And Say That!/Gonzales/Find Me A Golden Street/Theme From A Filleted Place/That’s My Desire/My Resistance Is Low/Sleepwalk/Big Boy

It was fitting that we sat down to listen to this album directly after Alan Sillitoe’s Desert Island Discs broadcast on Sunday, and I got to thinking about Saturday Night And Sunday Morning in particular while listening to the faded, floating glamour of end of the night last chancers like “Blue Star” and “Sleepwalk”; the grey shuffling back into the dim streets of fifties Nottingham, the dreaming which keeps Arthur alive where the rest of his stupidity merely serves to wake him up. I noted how Sillitoe commented that as a lathe operator he didn’t have to think in terms of doing his job, but that the part of him which did think – the dreamer, the need to escape – was the part that kept him alive, living.

This yearning for escape can be glimpsed here, too; “Find Me A Golden Street” – suddenly I think of Viv Nicholson - is a sort of prototype for “ Wonderful Land ,” a coal-blackened prayer for a bluer future. The melancholy blends in well with the fun. This was the only album to be recorded by the “classic” Shadows line-up – Hank Marvin, Bruce Welch, Jet Harris and Tony Meehan – and on looking at the cover photo, the boys grinning, smirking and pondering in their sensible jumpers, Lena remarked that we might well be looking at Haircut One Hundred, and that moreover, they could well stand as a young Blur: there’s Hank as Graham Coxon, studious, inquisitive, slightly guarded; red-haired Jet as Dave Rowntree, Bruce a dead ringer for Damon, sneaky Tony as Alex. There is a similar cleanness and (hoped for) precision in the Shadows’ early work which finds several subsequent unlikely echoes, Kraftwerk’s “The Model” (which played on tremolo guitars rather than synths could have come directly from this album) being not the least of them.

That they collectively inaugurated at least one of the lines that would eventually lead to Blur and Haircut One Hundred – as well as innumerable others - is beyond question, but throughout their debut album they’re still experimenting, tentatively setting out on several simultaneous paths. “Shadoogie” sees them essaying Bert Weedon’s “Guitar Boogie Shuffle” template and rapidly tearing their way through their Play In A Day books; the promise now amplified and expanded, a rumble more potent than might have been anticipated. Everyone solos; Jet’s bass ominously clipped, like the tip of an ambitious Swiss Army penknife. “Drums” is inevitably a feature for Meehan, taking his kit down to the lowest limits of audibility before exploding back out again (and it’s impossible not to picture the 15-year-old Keith Moon in front of his radiogram avidly taking notes). “Gonzales” and “Big Boy” are semi-surefooted uptempo Western (and Country) stompers, notable for Hank’s quivering jelly of a solo on the former (with Meehan in particular roaring into a thrusting Cliff Gallop gallop) and collective unhinged whooping on the latter. There’s a lovely moment at the end of “ Filleted Place ” where Jet is left on his own and raises an eyebrow on his bass – “do we go on?” – only to be answered by a thunderously emphatic double chord finale (“NO WE DO NOT!”). But there are other variations: “Stand Up And Say That!” has Hank on piano in an “On The Rebound” mood. “My Resistance Is Low” is done in the Duane Eddy style (and with a heavily simplified structure), dotted by odd, echo-laden high register guitar plucking perhaps indebted to Joe Meek.

There are also three vocal tracks – the Shadows started out as an Everlys-style vocal harmony group before drifting into backing Cliff Richard and concentrating on instrumentals – which give very telling indications of things to come. Hank sings lead – perhaps trying a little too hard to sound his employer - on “Baby My Heart”; its harmonies are not seamless but are certainly enthusiastic. Their essay on the old Frankie Laine chestbeater “That’s My Desire,” though possibly more influenced by Dion and the Belmonts’ 1960 reading, is uncanny; hearing Hank plaintively croon his way through the tune (“That dim café” also stirring spectres of Sillitoe), we could almost be listening to the young McCartney, and we remember that the first song John and Paul wrote together was an instrumental entitled “Cry For A Shadow” and that this would almost certainly have been one of the hundreds – or thousands – of songs the youthful Beatles would have had to learn on the Hamburg circuit.

The most extraordinary track here, however, may well be “All My Sorrows,” a depoliticised reworking of the old Caribbean lullaby and slave anthem “All My Trials” (as subsequently featured on “An American Trilogy” and indeed covered, in its original form, by McCartney) sung by Bruce and Hank in close harmony, as a kind of sombre folk lament, and clearly way ahead of its curve since it points directly to the Byrds and CSN(and eventually Y) developments to come later on in that decade. Coupled with the spilt beer caresses of their versions of “Blue Star” and “Sleepwalk” – the “Blue Star” is the same one my wife has already written about in its Cyril Stapleton version (that reassuring, blinking beacon of safety and recovery) and their “Sleepwalk” is quite spellbinding, stretching out from the dank lamps of the working men’s club, pining for the virtual highways of a brighter and – yes - more wonderful land – and the gentle jazz-lite caresses of “Nivram” (on which Jet gets another, longer bass solo, making this the first number one album to feature both bass and drum solos, and let’s keep the last number one album of the sixties in vague mind here too) which immediately made me think of “Harvest Moon,” we recall how fond the young Neil Young (and the not yet randy Randy Bachman) was of the Shadows, how he’d sit by the radio or the gramophone, learning and perfecting the licks, an uncertain, not quite healthy presence in another far and distant country, connecting with what must have seemed an alien but nearly godly spirit; the lights of the local town, some of its gaseous neon seeping out through faultlines, the sounds penetrating unexpected ears and souls – and how many lines and how many no longer lonely long distance runs this group helped to set in irreversible motion.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

The George MITCHELL MINSTRELS: The Black And White Minstrel Show


(#22: 29 July 1961, 4 weeks; 2 September 1961, 1 week; 16 September 1961, 1 week; 21 October 1961, 1 week; 29 December 1962, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Meet The Minstrels (Weep No More/Ring Ring De Banjo/Oh Susanna/Oh Dem Golden Slippers/Li’l Liza Jane/Take Me To That Swanee Shore/Camp Town Races/I Want To Be In Dixie/You Forgot To Remember/If You Were The Only Girl In The World)/Leslie Stuart Melodies (Little Dolly Daydream/I May Be Crazy/Sweetheart May/Lily Of Laguna)/In The Moonlight (Shadow Waltz/Me And My Shadow/By The Light Of The Silvery Moon/Dream Dream Dream/When I Grow Too Old To Dream)/Your Requests (You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby/Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me A Bow Wow/She Was One Of The Early Birds/Daisy Bell [A Bicycle Built For Two]/Moonlight Bay/Dew-Dew-Dew-Day/Ma [He’s Making Eyes At Me]/I’m Looking Over A Four Leaf Clover/Yes Sir That’s My Baby)/Meet The Girls (Lulu’s Back In Town/Miss Annabelle Lee/Mary’s A Grand Old Name/K-K-K-Katy/Cecilia/Ramona/Laura/Oh You Beautiful Doll)/A Tribute To Al Jolson (I’m Sitting On Top Of The World/There’s A Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder/Carolina In The Morning/California Here I Come/Swanee/Let Me Sing And I’m Happy/My Mammy/Rockabye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody)/Memories Of Stephen Foster (Poor Old Joe/I Dream Of Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair/Beautiful Dreamer/Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming)/Grand Finale (Coal Black Mammy/Polly Wolly Doodle/Some Folks Do/When The Saints Go Marching In/Back Home In Tennessee/Dixieland/When The Midnight Choo Choo Leaves For Alabam/Camp Town Races)

I need not underline the attendant irony of having to write about this record – this increasingly unaccountable phenomenon that was The Black And White Minstrel Show – in this week of all weeks. I accept that the “K-K-K” in “K-K-K-Katy” does not intentionally carry a hidden subtext and that well-meaning patronisation does not automatically equate with racism, least of all with the late George Mitchell, a man who, when not engaged in Minstrel business, brought blues musicians of the calibre of Josh White over to Britain to tour and become known.

What I find far more difficult to accept is the uniform brassy blandness of this music, a neutralised bonhomie which leads me to believe that accountants are not the best judges of aesthetics. Mitchell was from Falkirk and trained as an accountant, and, as album annotator Bill Webb-Jones puts it, “His mathematical flair could still stand him in good stead” when it came to assembling the Minstrels’ admittedly rather spectacular theatrical setpieces. The Minstrels arose, as do so many other otherwise inexplicable phenomena of this period, from the war; their nucleus comprised the singing soldiers Mitchell recalled from wartime, and they developed from the Swing Group into the Glee Club before turning to belated minstrelsy after BBC radio producer Charles Chilton commissioned Mitchell to put together some music for a show entitled Cabin In The Cotton.

The rest became folklore of a now rather forlorn kind. As with 101 Strings, the album carries the ghosts of a different world; the sleevenote mentions the likes of Jolson, Eugene Stratton and GH Elliott (popularly known at the time as “The Chocolate Coloured C**n”) in the present, or at least recent, tense and draws its purchasers’ attention to memories of “The Great Vance” and the original Christy Minstrels who performed before Queen Victoria nearly one hundred years previously (while the New Christy Minstrels, including amongst others the young Barry McGuire and David Crosby, were busy making their name in the States at this period). The dynamic, however, ties in with the then recent present; Oklahoma!, Annie Get Your Gun and even West Side Story are called in for comparison purposes in the sleevenote, and there are subtle and not so subtle tugs in that particular direction throughout the record, even if only in terms of hearty, full throated unison male singing – as Webb-Jones rather sinisterly refers to it, “the virile method of presentation.”

The album closely follows the format of their shows (minus the various variety turns which broke up the various routines), comprising several quick-change medleys of venerable favourites, many easily a century old. Leni Riefenstahl it is not; but good music or good entertainment it is not either. It is easy to understand, as someone who remembers the Minstrels first hand, exactly how and why they would appeal to a certain alienated demographic of the public; millions watched them on stage or on the screen, and this first album alone stayed on the chart for nearly three years. Many at that time were content with simplified nostalgia, passive memories which didn’t require active thought.

Bereft of the visuals, however, the most remarkable thing about the record is how unremarkable it is. Despite Mitchell’s grandfather’s history of being a noted choral director, his directorial hand here is clearly a mirror of “his calm bank-official type of exterior.” The supine accordion and Nurse Ratchett echo both recall Sing Something Simple rather than a Brit Lawrence Welk, and despite the efforts of stalwart Roy Plummer and his guitar to make the music interesting with repeated upward question mark strokes (for instance, on “Me And My Shadow”) the music resolutely refuses to become alive as even the most basic American minstrel and medicine shows of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were. The singsongs are brash, heartless and decidedly military in bent (“YES! SIR! THAT’SMYBABY! NO! SIR! DON’TMEANMAYBE!” as though busily bashing squares while singing), owing much more to Ralph Reader’s Gang Show and Billy Cotton bustle than to anything approaching minstrelsy. The “Girls,” meanwhile (a.k.a. The Television Toppers, who remained white and supposedly vulnerable to those naughty men in blackface and blazers, but then, see South Pacific), coo along obediently, pausing only to sneeze (“Polly Wolly Doodle”) or scream (“I’m Sitting On Top Of The World”) or even tweet (“She Was One Of The Early Birds”). The occasional melancholy blast of muted trumpet accurately indicated my declining enthusiasm while listening.

There really is little else to say at this stage, since there are more Minstrels to come in this tale. The school assembly glockenspiel, the notion of efficiency above inspiration, are bad enough even without the blackened faces. There are some moments of respite: John Boulter’s light tenor is bearable and Tony Mercer’s Crosby-ish baritone is reasonably affecting at times. But then one is faced by Dai Francis impersonating Donald Duck impersonating Al Jolson and one’s patience is entirely lost. Happily the bass drum responses on “I’m Sitting” suggest that Francis is receiving a good kicking while quacking.

It hardly needs to be said that Donald Duck’s “California Here I Come” and “Carolina” aren’t a patch on Freddy Cannon’s; that Monk had already efficiently deconstructed “Lulu’s Back In Town” by this time; that their “Laura” I take as a personal insult (see Sinatra’s reading on Where Are You? for immediate relief); that their “Ma (He’s Making Eyes At Me)” shrivels before the explosive Johnny Otis/Marie Adams reading (let alone Lena Zavaroni’s subsequent version). But it is worth saying that I listened to this with my American wife who thought that the record’s main insult was that, not to the American black man, but to the American song; here are songs still cherished and truly venerated in America, and she considered the Minstrels to trample them underfoot. Only the Stephen Foster medley achieves even a basic artistic level of satisfaction, or any evidence of respect for its source material; Mercer’s doleful but admirably solemn delivery works, and when sticking to simple but effective choral harmonies the overall effect is almost moving.

But then Lena mentioned Mitch Miller, and the bouncing ball analogy, and the fact that when the young Aretha was under contract to Miller at Columbia she was required to sing hackery of the calibre of “Rockabye Your Baby.” And then, on looking up this album’s initial run at the top, we realised that it first reached number one just a few days before Obama was born. And then we reached for Elvis’ “American Trilogy” and remembered Max Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now, the absence of involvement of accountants in either, and yesterday's final triumph of both.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Elvis PRESLEY: G.I. Blues


(#21: 14 January 1961, 7 weeks; 11 March 1961, 3 weeks; 8 April 1961, 12 weeks)

Track listing: Tonight Is So Right For Love/What’s She Really Like/Frankfurt Special/Wooden Heart/G.I. Blues/Pocketful Of Rainbows/Shoppin’ Around/Big Boots/Didja Ever/Blue Suede Shoes/Doin’ The Best I Can

The conventional story states that, once Elvis had rebooted himself out of the Army and worked his catharsis out via Elvis Is Back!, he settled back down to the less sexy work involved in becoming an All Round Entertainer and screwed himself into a glass cage for the rest of the decade. Evil Colonel, terrible sub-films, etc. Except that, as with all tales worth telling, it was never so simple. If Elvis wanted to be Dean Martin as ardently as he might have wanted to be Big Joe Turner, then it was his choice – and on “What’s She Really Like” he does one of his best recorded Dino impressions – and despite the undeniably rubbish calibre of most of the songs he was assigned for the G.I. Blues soundtrack, I still hear a spirit, an elf, the Flash of the original blue Memphis fighting back, demanding to be allowed to breathe and thrive still.

G.I. Blues the movie was of course the easiest and most logical option; back from Germany and the Army, so what better than to make a picture about Elvis being in the Army, in Germany ? Never mind that (as with most of his films) producer Hal Wallis insisted on rejected Martin and Lewis plotlines (Loving You had been designed as a Dean and Jerry picture before the pair split and Elvis inherited the dubious mantle) and that G.I. Blues set the low template for the rest of Presley’s Hollywood work; he plays tough and his character’s name, Tulsa McLean, suggests some residue of grit and groin, but the film itself is a lame skunk – essentially a bet set up to see who can get Juliet Prowse into bed first (in real life Elvis won that race, albeit briefly) which then inexplicably devolves into Three Men And A Baby-type mirthless slapstick involving lots of deadly unamusing bits of business involving crying babies and so forth. On the rear sleeve of the soundtrack album, at least two shots feature Elvis giving somebody or something directly to his left the skunk eye, as though demanding to know who the hell lumbered him with this crap.

The soundtrack album is generally all over the place and with only one or two exceptions I would lay no claim to high art, or art at any level, for any of its songs. Still, to imply that this marked the point where Elvis turned into a robot is simply untrue, since the remarkable thing about the album is how passionate and keen Presley is to make this record pulsate and breathe fire, even if he has to pour paraffin all over the Jordanaires. If anything, though, the venerable barbershop quartet sound as baffled and bewildered as Presley at what they’ve been presented with; see for instance the opening “Tonight Is So Right For Love” which uses the same Offenbach tune Donald Peers later turned into “Please Don’t Go” but at 78 rpm – the song ricochets like a reluctant pinball and is frankly a madhouse, featuring inexplicable blasts of accordion, drumming by DJ Fontana so sideways you wonder if he’d glued his feet to the wall and leaned over to play his kit, seemingly random interjections from the Jordanaires and a starscraping purple wax dart of an Elvis, mumbling, moaning and grinding (“Hooooldmetightttt”), determined to inject something approximating spunk into the proceedings – his “love” comes out as “loarve,” indicating an element of panophilia (he’s getting excited over some bread?), his “midsummer night’s dream” is gurgled out of an entirely alien Bottom. He is intent on not making his listener uninterested, despite the song’s unwarranted, tacked-on climax. In the aforementioned “What’s She Really Like” he is presented with some of the worst rhyming schemata this side of McGonagall – “thrillable” with “syllable,” “adorable/and what’s moreable” – but still he swoons himself into an erection, purring and murmuring (“Ho-how-ow long muhy-est-layst” he feeds at one point) through the song’s frozen cod Napoletana. “Frankfurt Special” is like Lawrence Welk essaying “Mystery Train” with its pallid and probably inadvertent echoes of “6.5 Special,” yet is totally derailed by the insane Frankie Laine cheerleading chants tossed back and forth between Presley and the Jordanaires (the latter at one stage being required to chant “clickety-clack, clickety-clack” in the manner of the contents of a broken down carriage of stockbrokers’ clerks, and later a non-plaintive “Fraulein, Fraulein!”) and Elvis’ own demented back batting (“You’ll soon get another jaaaahve!”). Scotty Moore wriggles out of his coil for a wasp-stinging solo and finally Elvis and the Jordanaires swap increasingly distended “Whoa-whoa”s which end up drifting out of tempo, across bar lines, Presley’s moans nodding like a tortoise treading in accidental clover.

But the atrocious “Wooden Heart,” melody supplied by Bert Kaempfert, was the film’s big hit song – six weeks at number one in Britain as a single, with an initial chart run of 27 weeks – and, though mercifully shorn of its irritating children’s choir and vastly infuriating puppet show visuals, remains a dismal affair; did the Flash really rage out of Memphis to end up singing bierkeller dipdowns? Complete with Jimmie Haskell’s accordion? With “O Sole Mio” or Al Jolson he was at least able to resculpt the base material according to his heart’s needs, but there was nothing he could do with this. Or needed to do, for that matter.

The title track is fairly extraordinary in performance terms; a manful attempt by the Hill and Range company hacks to marry martial two-step to the old rock ‘n’ roll thingy, yet to Elvis’ eyes “a room with a view of the beautiful Rhine” is as foreign and bamboozling as the planet Mars as he begins to fulminate and foam. “I’m soon-a gonna blow my fuse!” he exclaims. “Oh yes yes,” reply the Jordanaires in the manner of a fifties BBC television interviewer. “I’d give a month’s pay for one slice of Texas cow!” he burps. “Step, two, three, four” intone the Jordanaires solemnly. “We’d love to be heroes but all that we do is march!” laments Elvis. “They don’t give a Purple Heart!” he howls. The Jordanaires retort with something that sounds suspiciously akin to “bro-mide, bro-mide.”

“Pocketful Of Rainbows” is an ineffectual smoocher propelled by sticks and that accordion again with a rather clumsy rhythmic construct, notable only for Elvis’ longing/longitudinal sighs of “Lonely ni-i-i-i-iee-iy-i-ie-ie-ieght.” “Shoppin’ Around” begins promisingly with Moore’s encouragingly detuned lead guitar rumbles but as soon as Presley utters “You got the huggingest eyes” the track detours into more standard mediocrity. “My little red book I-uh torn it to bits,” he remarks, but soon we are back in haggard “Lover Doll” territory (“Such a pretty little package” and inevitably it’s not long before he wraps her up and takes her home). Then he leans further into his microphone, blurring his words before delivering a killer tag; after the last “I’m gonna stop” and the last elongated pause he kisses the song goodbye with a contemptuous “Yuh! HA!” “Big Boots” sees him crooning a lullaby to the baby with whom he’s been entrusted and is almost touching in its naked anti-flame delivery, the hell of “My Boy” still a lifetime away from his reach.

But then we reach “Didja Ever.” If Elvis were ever going to cover “The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers” the Colonel would surely have signed him away to Disney, but then this track defies any approach resembling rationality. He mumbles and thrusts like a contained and neutered rebel over the asinine Carry On Sergeant march, but the Jordanaires if anything far outdo him here with their deadpan quatrains of “DAYS DAYS DAYS DAYS,” “SHOW SHOW SHOW SHOW” and, perhaps best of all, in reaction to a bad bathroom experience first thing in the morning, chant “CRACK CRACK CRACK CRACK!” as though daring Presley not to. Was he shaping up to become the square to bash? The weirdness of this track is positively rhombic.

Then, two oddities. This “Blue Suede Shoes” is a re-recording – the scythe of Elvis’ acoustic suggests an outtake from the Elvis Is Back! sessions – and initially it feels like compromise, the song taken an octave lower, Elvis sounding less committed. But digging deeper into the track’s fabric this seems more intense, more concentrated, a performance (certainly the performance of an older man) and the rhythm is markedly more disjointed. In particular Moore and Fontana seem to be playing in some parallel orbit, cutting and wrenching all colours of blood (the least of them being blue) from the song. Presley himself bends so formidably into the song that at times he sounds in danger of wanting to jump into his guitar and let it eat him.

Finally, there’s a lost masterpiece, Presley’s take on Pomus and Shuman’s “Doin’ The Best I Can,” done in slow doowop 6/8 with a distant harmonica (the latter indirectly predicting the wave soon to engulf everything, Elvis included), and one of the saddest items in the Presley canon; his delivery hovers on that delicate point of tenderness between true regret and fiercely suppressed fury (his “who didn’t mind at all” is delivered as one self-swallowing monosyllable) and there is genuine ruined nobility in his despairing yet very patient “I’m doin’ the best I can…but it’s not good enough for you”; again and again he comes back to this thought, chews it up but fails to spit it out, already thinking of the near-half year this is going to spend at the top of the charts as opposed to the solitary week allotted to Elvis Is Back!, already signing his own warrant of arresting blankness, already asking us what do we – what does anyone? – want from him, or of him. Finally, after a joint, asexually angelic vocal harmony climax where he rises to the stars and becomes dust, Dudley Brooks’ piano collapses to the ground as surely and intangibly as the singer miming Orbison at the climax of Mulholland Dr., the life suddenly pulled away from the singer, and yet the voice…his voice? his soul?...persists, pervades, penetrates like occasionally noticeable drizzle.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

101 STRINGS: Down Drury Lane To Memory Lane




(#20: 10 September 1960, 5 weeks)

Track listing:
VOLUME ONE: Drury Lane To Broadway/Rose Marie/One Alone/Make Believe/One Kiss/You Are My Heart’s Delight/Don’t Say Goodbye/A Girl Like Nina/I Won’t Dance/Glamorous Night
VOLUME TWO: Between The Acts/Music In May/Rose Of England /My Love Is Like The River/People Will Say We’re In Love/Some Enchanted Evening/Getting To Know You/Fanny/I Could Have Danced All Night

Inevitably with a project such as this the writer gets the feeling of being the archaeologist. Most of the time it is a more than good feeling; indeed, throughout all of my blogs I have enjoyed the idea of being the rescuer of forgotten or grievously underestimated music. There is a sometimes terrible power when one stands in front of a ragged rack of cassettes and vinyl; sometimes the ardent cratedigger can feel rather like the emperor in the Coliseum, with the power of life or death over what he sees stretching out before him.

But there are also occasions when the archaeologist is simply baffled by what he has dug up; where does this object belong? What was its civilisation, its idolatry, its final penance of dust? Such a feeling – one of gradually oppressive puzzlement - swept over me as I listened to the first double album to top the British album chart, and not only the first double album but also the first wholly instrumental album to reach number one.

I felt that I was listening to the ashen footsteps of ghosts. Out of the nearly nine hundred albums now to have topped the chart this seems to me the most singularly neglected and erased – perhaps the most sheerly deserted - of them all. Despite the florid sleevenote’s repeated rhetorical use of the word “unforgettable” this music did not survive into the CD era; despite subsequent conductions by the likes of Les Baxter and Nelson Riddle 101 Strings did not meet rehabilitation in the lounge age. It is a moot point whether it even survived the Beatles era, despite the parallel boom – can we already call it Muzak? – which 101 Strings partly (if accidentally) anticipated. This album’s fate was a wreckage comparable with the rock on which the ghost of Pincher Martin washes up.

And yet, even now, almost half a century too late, I can look at the sleeve and see signs of things to come. The cover’s lettering and colouring both anticipate The Lexicon Of Love – and what exactly are that couple doing (the back cover of the album is identical)? Are they laughing at us? Is the man sniggering into his Other’s ear at the record’s intended audience? Are they about to participate in the detonation and destruction of this mirrored whirlpool of strained politesse? – and it’s impossible to listen to the waves of lush string eddies and not picture the young Anne Dudley or Trevor Horn in their parents’ front room, picking up hints and clues for reshaping. Additionally, the sleevenote – extensive but anonymous – which occupies the foldout section, decorously laid out in placid blue, red and yellow against a background of ration book white, is ludicrously, if innocently, overstated to a degree which would subsequently be parodied by records in the lounge era (compared, for instance, the pastiche sleevenote to μ-ziq’s 1993 Tango N’Vectif album) – “The necessity of using 101 string instruments is to utilise various harmonies and voicings and not weaken the dynamics of quality of any one line when playing counter lines,” “…recorded under the most exacting audio engineering standards with specially designed microphones with characteristics to compensate for any possible distortion from the tremendous bass frequency response in cellos and string bass” (in fact the recording sounds compressed, late fifties steam radio standard) - and yet also eerily threatening.

We’ll come back to that threat in a moment. The album was issued to commemorate the first anniversary of Pye’s Golden Guinea imprint – which released LPs at the then competitive price of 21 shillings – and as a double retailed for the “special” price of 30 shillings, as opposed to the 30 pence which I paid for the copy I found (and it is not an album to be found in great, or any, quantity in junk shops or used record stores), forgotten and quietly expiring in the back of a long, bulging rack of expired pleasures. At this point the curious multinational origins of the 101 Strings project should be explained; the orchestra was based in Germany (in fact they were the Orchester des Nordwestdeutschen Hamburg – “11 concertmeisters in the first chairs” the sleevenote proudly, if primly, declares) but the concept was dreamed up by an American, one David L Miller (who a decade earlier had released the first sides by Bill Haley), keen on adhering himself to the Mantovani bandwagon. Most of the nineteen tracks on Down Drury Lane were, contrary to the sleevenote’s insistence, not recorded specially for this project but compiled from other 101 Strings releases; yet for the British audience the concept of Songs From The Shows We Have Loved – note the sleevenote’s reference to “the first of ‘our’ shows” - seemed to work.

But what was that audience? Listening to the seeping sanitisation of the metamusic – or possibly sub-music – of Down Drury Lane it is hard to establish who those people were, the ones who kept the album at number one for five weeks and in the chart for 21 weeks in total. By some distance this is the first of these number one albums which feels as though it belongs to a totally alien era; its neutralisation defies any attempt at track-by-track analysis since the unceasing scales and arpeggios of the first violins literally seep from one track into the next. There is a slight shudder in this listener as he reads the sleevenote, with its relative present tense references to 1925 – was this really the music of our grandparents and did it die with them, in their own comforted memories?

Whether Sigmund Romberg or Ivor Novello or Rodgers and Hammerstein, however, the mood seems to remain the same; calmly shimmering, nearly static, deracinated readings – or flimsy, faded photocopies - of songs “we” might once have loved which attempt to ooze comfort but in time become something approximating creepy. This is the ancestor – or an ancestor – of Muzak for sure; soundtracks for pained dinner parties, home visits by the boss, polite pseudo-seductions, everything at a sanitised, ironed out distance. Although there are some unpredictable selections – one, “My Love Is Like The River,” which stems from a musical entitled The Sun Never Sets, composed by one Kenneth Leslie-Smith, is so obscure that the sleevenote does not bother to mention it at all - I know that the blood of Novello and the fire of Oklahoma! are not reducible to this nothingness; the strings are bolstered by 30-40 woodwind, brass and percussion players but despite the occasional moment of mild animation – the pallid castanets of “A Girl Like Nina,” the imperceptible rhythm n’ pizzicato shuffle of “Don’t Say Goodbye” (the latter from Robert Stolz’s show Wild Violets, premiered at Drury Lane in the autumn of 1932 – the time of Plath’s birth – with Adele Dixon, whom it was my privilege to know on a professional basis in her later life throughout the eighties and early nineties, playing the lead), the bizarre midway tempo-doubling of “Getting To Know You” – everything is nailed to hardwood floors of sameness; despite the odd intrusion of a lugubrious alto sax, there is little to support the sleevenote’s assertion that “many must be the memories evoked in the whole family” when fully half of them would by now have been running screaming into the arms of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. If there were any “innate gaiety” in “I Won’t Dance” – and Sinatra’s reading, you may recall, implied much, much more than that – it is polished to anonymity by 101 Strings to Music While You Work efficiency.

By the time we get to Oklahoma! – the sleevenote now discussing the spring of 1947 and its “dismal London, suffering from post-war blues” – the McGoohanesque feeling of wanting to trash the Village radio becomes extremely apparent; whatever kind of song “People Will Say We’re In Love” is – and it is so much more than a “kind of song” (or, as the sleevenote oxymoronically puts it, “one of the most romantic post-war songs ever written.” As compared with all the great romantic post-war songs written before the war?) – it is not this castrated phantom, strings endlessly running up and down the scales (in lieu of imaginative arrangements), sliding like anaesthetic through newly nullified veins, eventually (“Between The Acts”) drawing spectres of air raid sirens and even screams (compare with that other 1960 string phenomenon, Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho). “Novello’s musicals,” states the sleevenote, “had everything that Drury Lane productions needed – glorious music, romance, nostalgia, drama and spectacle.”

Now, think about that sentence for a second. “Nostalgia”? Where does that fit in? “Music In May” comes from the Novello show Careless Rapture but 101 Strings’ reading is neither. “Some Enchanted Evening,” a song which could hardly be termed nostalgic in 1960, is about fervent belief, expectation, adoration and hope; these strings render yearning into the impersonal bleeps of an echocardiogram. Eventually Brian Eno – significantly, from a hospital bed, following a near-death experience - would ice and freeze these shrieks and turn them into Ambient. Where’s the nostalgia, and why is, or was, it an essence of quality West End musical theatre?

The determined anonymity eventually turns into a threat. The unstoppable, nameless German machine? Did somebody say Kraftwerk? But Kraftwerk – not to mention the Kaempferts and Lasts who would emerge out of 101 Strings’ Germanic shadow – were, and are, full of life, drive and even lust. Is it significant that no author’s name is given for the sleevenote which concludes with a decisive threat – “Who can ever forget Julie Andrews’ number I Could Have Danced All Night – and here 101 Strings make sure you never will!”? Or that no conductor or arranger is credited (in fact they were, respectively, Wilheim Stephan and Joseph Kuhn)? One stares out at this dead Styx of false reassurance and realises that they could be listening to anybody, or anything. One longs for the unapologetic brashness of a Liberace, or the cornily perky but unquestionably breathing polkas of a Lawrence Welk. Past lives, passions and colours blanded out into a uniform, keep your head down grey, with sex, drive and mischief ironed out with an almost admirable ruthlessness. Meanwhile, in multiple parallel 1960s, the number one singles were “Apache” by the Shadows and “Tell Laura I Love Her” by Ricky Valance – one about death, the other everything that 101 Strings could never be – and other instrumental essays of or around the year included Coltrane’s My Favorite Things, Miles’ Kind Of Blue and Sketches Of Spain (and Gil Evans’ Out Of The Cool), Coleman’s Change Of The Century, Stockhausen’s Kontakte and Varèse’s Poème Électronique. And (if we take distended voices as instruments) I Hear A New World by Joe Meek. If we allow memory to run back and forth down and up many lanes.