Monday, 24 August 2009

Diana ROSS and The SUPREMES: Greatest Hits


(#52: 17 February 1968, 3 weeks)

Track listing: Stop! In The Name Of Love/Nothing But Heartaches/When The Lovelight Starts Shining Thru His Eyes/My World Is Empty Without You/Where Did Our Love Go/Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart/Come See About Me/I Hear A Symphony/Reflections/Back In My Arms Again/You Keep Me Hanging On/Whisper You Love Me Boy/The Happening/Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone/You Can’t Hurry Love/Baby Love

Now we get the other side of the story, but also, and more importantly (and far too belatedly), the first all-female number one album. How does it feel when a man doesn’t love a woman, and moreover uses her as a willing doormat? When we listen to the Four Tops there is no doubt that Levi Stubbs loves the woman who will never love him back; his dolorous protests are Technicolor, raging, steadfast. But when we listen to the Supremes we do not hear such howls. Diana Ross has never had the broad power to her voice that someone like Martha Reeves has – so the Supremes could never have done, for example, “Nowhere To Run.” As the mounting anger of “You Keep Me Hanging on” demonstrates, she is more than capable of expressing reasonably passionate displeasure.

Mostly, however, Ross insinuates. Don’t knock it; insinuation is one of her deadliest and most effective weapons. She teases ultimata, purrs threats and caresses confessions out of sinning partners. Her various “ooh”s more indicative of triumph than submission. Even though all bar (in part) one of these sixteen songs was written by the same team responsible for the Four Tops’ central body of work, the Supremes’ feminisation of the Tops’ noise has proved durable and subtly potent, even if there isn’t the same “group” feel to the Supremes’ work as there is to the Tops; rather than four righteous horseman riding in the face of personal apocalypse, Ross and the Supremes are rather like three girls chatting at a ‘bus stop, one monopolising the conversation with her monologue of despair while the other two absentmindedly concur – those deeply unsettling, deadpan-verging-on-robotic “Baby, baby”s all the way through “Where Did Our Love Go” – while they powder their noses and polish up their lips, going along with her but not really listening.

As with the Four Tops collection, the songs here are assembled in commonsensical rather than chronological order. Dave Godin knew that any compilation of songs worth compiling had to tell a story, even if he had to make one up. The key song here is, for the third consecutive week, the opening one: the enormous swirl which whiplashes “Stop! In The Name Of Love” into existence is one of the great black pop intros that side of Chic’s “Good Times” (and the intro to the latter owes almost everything to it, even as its blast escorts it into the future). Here there is no overt evidence that Ross’ man is actually going off with this other girl; her paranoia is as radiantly rationalist as that of Stubbs’ on “Bernadette” but expressed in a radically more controlled manner. She wonders if “her sweet expression” is “worth more than my love and affection” – in other words, does the look of love supersede the reality of love? Both Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard are actively involved here, too; their shouts and cajoles forceful and dynamic, lively in a way which only resurfaces intermittently throughout the remainder of the record. The spectacle turns into one of an extended dream, inspired by Ross’ paranoia, where she imagines every possible and impossible betrayal scenario in her head.

In “Nothing But Heartaches” Ross reflects on how she loves him but how he can’t stop instilling doubt in her mind; her three-syllable “ooh” in the first half of each verse followed by the longer, downward-skiing monosyllabic “oooooh” in the second half suggests internal emotional confusion, magnified by the strange behaviour of the tambourine, which suddenly breaks into fortissimo double time, again in the second half of each verse. Both this track and “When The Lovelight Starts Shining Thru His Eyes” reach back solidly into the Shirelles/Chiffons girl group tradition, but neither displays the hapless, helpless submission evident on, for example, some of the Ronettes’ sides. “Lovelight” sounds less like Motown than anything else on the record, with its Dexy’s-anticipating baritone sax/trombone unison lines and thudding, on-the-beat beat, but here Ross finds happiness and enlightenment again, even though she is rudely interrupted by an isolated but abrupt tidal wave of “aaaaaAAAAH!” newly escaped from (or, more accurately, setting the scene for) “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.” “My World Is Empty,” however, takes the Supremes into “7-Rooms Of Gloom” antechambers of terrifying loneliness – again, the third empty house/room in as many weeks; what did this bode for 1968? – with its solemn introductory organ which soon begins to haunt Ross’ abandoned house (“I find it hard for me to carry on” she intones as an ominous harmonic modulation lurches into view).

Then we flash back to the beginnings of pain and, as far as the Supremes were concerned, their own beginning; “Where Did Our Love Go,” with its handclaps and foot stomps borrowed from the Dave Clark Five’s “Bits And Pieces” (and, with subsequent irony, borrowed back by McCartney for “Got To Get You Into My Life” and “Penny Lane”), its abrasively cuddlesome vibes and those beyond curious “baby, baby”s which put me in mind of no one as much as the Human League. As ever, Ross coos to keep her countenance, but the overall sound is noticeably softer than that of the Shirelles or even Motown colleagues such as the Marvelettes; as with those long, showbiz gloves the Supremes were apt to wear, this represented determined entryism, and the Supremes certainly succeeded in opening more doors throughout the sixties than most of their peers. So gentle, so welcoming…and don’t stop to notice the claws concealed under the gloves…

“Love Is Like An Itching” is a violent-ish wake-up call; a bristling Northern Soul stomper with a luminous vibes topline, the girls’ “Whoo!” inspiring a modulation from minor to major. Ross is on fire, and says so in a manner which makes me wonder whether she wasn’t the real inspiration for Eno’s “Baby’s On Fire”; she is sick with unrequited love (“Far beyond imagination”) but strangely seems to be enjoying it: “What’cha gonna DO-OOO!” she rhetorically exclaims in a shocking triple high jump, followed by a nearly offhand “Oh yeah!” Holland-Dozier-Holland have much fun with medical metaphors and the “-ation” section of their rhyming dictionary, particularly when the two sides cross swords in Ross’ “Causing my heart constipation.”

As side one approaches its end, catharsis makes itself distantly known; the fade-in tom-tom intro heralds “Come See About Me,” the Supremes’ most luminescent plea for twoness, and once more a great group performance, the song’s lines evenly divided between caller (Ross) and responders (Wilson and Ballard). There is a sublime pause in the music – as though gathering breath for the final onslaught of helplessness – before the final, gloriously climactic verse, which sets the best possible trail for the brilliant “I Hear A Symphony.” Here the frustration of “Where Did Our Love Go” – echoed in that solitary quote of “baby, baby” halfway through – is resolved, starting with a hesitant cushion of vibes, the arrangement building up almost imperceptibly as Ross wins back her own confidence, one breath at a time, until we are finally faced with lush grand piano, tambourines which turn into sleigh bells, endless upward key changes and “I hear violins” which anticipates both Hendrix (“Trumpets and violins I hear in the distance”) and Martin Fry (“When Smokey sings, I hear violins” – but note the way he sings “violins” with just enough inexactitude to make you wonder whether he’s really singing “violence”). It is a rush of unassailable, undeniable ecstasy and the perfect closer for this journey of a side of music.

Fittingly, side two begins with “Reflections,” and its “Are You Experienced?”-inspired (and “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”-inspiring) introduction. It is now 1967, times have become darker (for Ross if for no one else), and the Diana Ross we now hear is a new, less obviously welcoming woman; her tone is low and severe, with car alarm sirens regularly breaking into her numbed deconstruction of a love and a life destroyed, the “Reach Out” flute/piccolo lines now seeming to mock her plight. She becomes exasperated – “ALL this love that I gave ALL to you,” her terribly frustrated “wasted” and a “through the hollow of my tears” worthy of TS Eliot. Overall I am put in mind – or, to be precise, Lena put it in my mind – of Kraftwerk’s “The Hall Of Mirrors” and its semi-knowing protagonist (“Even the greatest stars discover themselves in the looking glass”). And, of course, of Syd Barrett, but those particular reflections are for another time.

“Back In My Arms Again” offers a happy ending, however, and never was a happy ending harder won. The “OOOOH!”s here are far more forceful than those on “Nothing But Heartaches” (“So satisfied….OOOOOH!!!!”), but this is a triumph of savage self-assurance, a defiance driven home by the thudding tom-toms which almost drown out the chorus. Ross is not listening to her friends’ advice, indeed has a friendly go at both “Mary” and “Flo” – the only point on the album where she actively acknowledges the other Supremes – before opting for self-determination and perseverance; but is she doing this out of unforeseen reserves of strength, or because she can’t exist without him, however much of a shit he might be?

More to the point is the escalating fury of “You Keep Me Hanging On” with its channel-swapping Morse code guitar, one of James Jamerson’s most inspired basslines and slapping/slapped percussion triplets (the latter again borrowed from, or foreseeing, “Reach Out”). Ross begins the song bewildered, baffled and broken.but it’s clear that Wilson and Ballard, with their “Oo-oo-oooo-woo-oooh”s, are encouraging Ross to break free. Gradually, she does, her anguished “HEYYYYY” bridging the way towards her now enraged “Why don’t you be a MAN about it?” and “You’re just USING me!,” finally leading to a defiant “Get OUT! Get OUT of my LI-IFE!!” The reticent insinuator discovers boldness, the transition is aesthetically faultless and, as Lena says, the whole is like a downer variant on “Always Something There To Remind Me.”

“Whisper You Love Me Boy” is a momentary return to the early (1964) days, but the restrained, old school feel of the track is again deceptive; the initial signifiers of devotion (“Hearing you say swee-eeet things”) give way (again, via a rhetorical key change) to buried frustration (he’s NOT loving her the way he should, or even at all), the girls’ “Come on and WHIS-per!” virtually demanding that he reveal himself.

“The Happening” is perhaps the most extraordinary song on the record; written for a now mostly forgotten 1967 comedy film starring Anthony Quinn by Holland-Dozier-Holland in conjunction with Frank de Vol (despite what the composer credits on the sleeve and label say), its coldly rationalist view of its year is directly contradicted by its chirpy, say-yeah musical setting which even the odd chordal shifts do not dispel unduly (nor indeed does its then-fashionable treated-guitar-as-sitar). In this song Ross suffers the most grievous of all her losses – real or imagined, perhaps, but then the song goes on to question reality: “Is it real? Is it fake? Is this game of life a mistake?” Suddenly we are in the land of Tim Hardin and Ian Curtis, and yet the laughing brass, the “fickle finger of fate” reference appear to decry or belie this innate misery. “It’s not a dream,” warns Ross, however, “It’s not all bliss.” 1967 will, she implies, surely and sternly turn into 1968. And still, in Ross’ own voice, is this weird aura of acceptance of her ghastly fate.

“Love Is Here” also verges on the psychedelic with its unending trapdoors of metric and harmonic irregularities, the plaintive harpsichord doing little to cushion Ross’ spoken grief: “Locked away from me….UHHHH!” she gasps as if felled, somewhere between a gulp and an electrified breath. “You persuaded me to love you,” she accuses. “You just WALKED!” she protests. “LOOK at me!” At song’s fade – “…and as the lonely song fades in the air...” – one senses that she is practically giving up on life.

Finally, two further gasps of emotional improvidence disguised as upbeat philosophies. “You Can’t Hurry Love” undermines its own homilies with its barely buried angst; the cries of “NO!” and “NOOOO!!,” Ross’ heartbroken “How many heartaches must I stand before I find someone to let me live again?,” the references to “You Keep Me Hanging On.” She’s open to patience but is being suffocated by impotence. And then the tale concludes with “Baby Love”; she’s missing him like the Chiffons or the Dixie Cups would have done (but not as melodramatically as the Shangri-La’s did), but every corner of the song is subverted by the unspoken; Ross’ drawn-out “I get this neeeed....” followed by a deep breath and a sighing cry of “OOOOOH!” She fades from our picture in evident pain – “’Til it’s hurting me, ‘til it’s HURTING me” – and we consider the strange role that baritone saxophonist Hank Cosby plays in these proceedings; he solos, gruffly, on almost every track – does he represent the Man, the Accused, who won’t or can’t talk? The dreamer awakens, sees him lying next to her, and wonders what goes on in her soul, and indeed in his. Would his name happen to be Frank? We could believe so.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

The FOUR TOPS: Greatest Hits


(#51: 10 February 1968, 1 week)

Track listing: Reach Out I’ll Be There/Where Did You Go/I Can’t Help Myself/7-Rooms Of Gloom/Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever/Standing In The Shadows Of Love/Something About You/Baby I Need Your Loving/You Keep Running Away/Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over)/Ask The Lonely/Bernadette/Darling, I Hum Our Song/Without The One You Love/It’s The Same Old Song/I’ll Turn To Stone

It is an extraordinary picture, and I have no idea of its origins, yet it can tell the story better than any given thousand words. There they are, four tall men in immaculately matching suits, open-to-the-sternum shirts and medallions, alive and kicking at the country club. Note that their voices are presumably so powerful that they do not require microphones to be heard. Behind them we see a largely attentive, appreciative and white audience – and to the left of Duke Fakir we can even glimpse Boris Johnson – astounded and rapt by the spectacle they are witnessing. The ghetto culture of Detroit, landed in the midst of the Young Republican khaki-clad gentry.

That, of course, was always one of Berry Gordy’s principal aims; to get white people to listen to black music, as well as – and more importantly – to establish black pop music as a long overdue commercial force in itself, to enter its nation’s transistor radios and transform their gummy static into florid, bold lines of colour communication. To prove that Hitsville USA could do it bigger and better than any Tin Pan Alley or Brill Building hustler.

And few, if anyone, did pop better in the sixties than Motown. After years of referencing on the part of the Beatles and Stones, this tale finally arrives at the first direct Motown entry. Ostensibly a collection of the Four Tops’ singles (with a few well-chosen B-sides) from 1964 to most of 1967 – their reading of the Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee” appeared on the UK charts towards the end of 1967 but had to wait until 1971’s Greatest Hits Volume 2 to be compiled – and covering all of their key work with Holland-Dozier-Holland, the tracks on Greatest Hits do not appear in strict, academic chronological order, the failing of many a contemporary comprehensive CD anthology, but seem to tell a very specific story. Given that the album – a British-only issue – was almost certainly put together by the head of Motown’s UK A&R operations (and the man who thought up the compound name “Tamla Motown”), the late Dave Godin, a visionary who later proved himself more than capable of telling extremely profound stories in his Deep Soul Treasures tetralogy, this is not an unfeasible guess.

Consider, for instance, how “I Can’t Help Myself” appears early on in the proceedings, its Northern Soul-inventing dynamo underscoring Levi Stubbs’ hapless but curiously euphoric declaration of unfulfillable infatuation, only to be recast towards the end of side two in the despairing “It’s The Same Old Song.” Most of the critical applause in the Motown male group department continues to run towards the Miracles and especially the Temptations, and the Four Tops, whose history comfortably predated both, perhaps still await their proper critical due. But listening to the group at their finest, and to the fractious baritone of Levi Stubbs, a baritone as capable of going to screaming extremes as John Surman, demands some revision of thought.

Poor Levi. As with Gene Pitney in a parallel world, he was encouraged to suffer on our behalf; throughout these sixteen songs he is hardly ever happy, and even when love presents itself openly to him, he continues to worry about it ending or not actually existing, as on Jo Hunter and Stevie Wonder’s “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever,” one of the few songs here not written by the H-D-H team, with its “need to know you need me too” catch subtly undermining the song’s overall jaunty ecstasy.

And when his love is secure, he becomes ever the more paranoid. “Bernadette” is one of the most frightening, and certainly one of the loudest, declarations of insecurity in all of pop. Climaxing the gradual deconstruction of the Motown song which H-D-H had begun with “Reach Out,” the song’s attack and chord structure are more in keeping with the Chocolate Watch Band or the 13th Floor Elevators than, say, Junior Walker. Over James Jamerson’s restless, Mingusian Fender bass Stubbs howls his Othelloesque cry of doubt, presaging and far outdoing “Backstabbers” with his preacher roars – “I NEED you NEAR!,” “ALLLL!!!!” He admits to us that his feelings are going far beyond standard insecurity, and the sainted subtext of the song’s titled subject is not overlooked: “That’s why I place you high above,” “You mean more to me than a woman was ever meant to be.” There is a heartbreaking, stretched middle eight with flute, piccolo, bassoon and French horn unisons where Stubbs collapses in abject awe. Finally, when the song seems to have retreated to a land of echoes the other side of the Styx, Stubbs suddenly roars it back into existence; as with the Hendrix of “I Don’t Live Today,” he will not let go of whatever is destroying him.

“7-Rooms Of Gloom,” the follow-up, views the wreckage of the inevitable rift and destitution. H-D-H appear to be stretching the pop song, let alone the Motown model, beyond its perceived limits; the full rhythm section, whose appearances had gradually been getting later and later in Four Tops singles, does not appear until halfway through the second verse, and the words sound improvised, fearful. It is true that H-D-H modified “Gloom” into a more palatable form as the basis of R Dean Taylor’s “There’s A Ghost In My House” but here Stubbs’ desolation is worthy of Lear. “Lonely WALLS! They STARE at ME!” he soliloquises, before paraphrasing “Paint It, Black.” Apart from its being the obvious downside to the Supremes’ “The Happening” and a logical adjunct to Love’s “Seven And Seven Is,” “Gloom” does take the form of a theatrical performance far more clearly than it does that of the pop song. If David Ruffin was Motown’s Gielgud, his grief classically moulded, then Stubbs was the Olivier; elemental, quixotic, profound.

It was quite a journey from 1964’s “Baby I Need Your Loving,” the group’s first US hit. Commonly deemed the primary inspiration for the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” the parallels are obvious, not just in the song’s chorus but also in the pond splashes of florid piano, the incrementally increasing emotional scope of the song. Stubbs is no happier here than on “Gloom” but there still glimmers the option of hope – he has not yet been disappointed or betrayed by love. “Some say it’s a weakness for a man to beg,” he explains, before beginning to crumble (“’Cos lately I’ve been losing sleep” and the diplomatically coruscating “Has ALLLLLLLL been…”). But it would be wrong to focus on Stubbs alone and forget the immense contribution of the rest of the group; throughout, their responses to Stubbs’ calls are impeccable and their range – contrabass to operatic soprano/falsetto – deceptively startling. “Loving” in particular demonstrates their collective power; despite its woebegone sentiments it is one of the most alluringly elevating of all early Motown discs, the brownstone dwarfing rising sun of the chorus immediately recalling Drifters sides like “There Goes My Baby” and reminding us of the group’s roots in doo wop.

But “Ask The Lonely” from not long afterwards is equally as disorientating in its own way. Revealing the seldom visited cavern of the deep low register of Stubbs’ voice, this is a grandiosely damaged ballad in line with Jack Nitzsche epics like the Walker Brothers’ “Love Her” and PJ Proby’s draining “I Can’t Make It Alone.” Taking its lyrical cue from Sinatra’s “Only The Lonely,” Stubbs’ mournful intonations slowly develop into something more disturbed, as on the tightrope vibrato of “They’ll tell you” which in turn introduces grandiose piano, cinematic vocal harmonies and Stubbs reaching towards operatic skies. His final, terrifying cry of “Ask ME!” makes us remember that Jackie Wilson was his cousin.

On “Where Did You Go” dreamy Nelson Riddle strings are abruptly cut off by Stubbs’ stern lament. Like Val Doonican, he is alone in his room (“I now sit QUIETLY…/Hoping you’ll RETURN”), and an Erroll Garner piano tinkles bizarrely through the second and fourth bars of the first chorus, with its implied alternate jazz tempo. Again, Stubbs methodically and patiently breaks down; in the second chorus he asks, bemused, “Where DID you go?” only to be answered by an unbroken, conversational string line. “No matter what I try to do,” he finally confesses, “I can’t (here comes the crumble) go on without you,” and once again he falls to his spotlit knees, screaming “Where did YOU GO?”

“I Can’t Help Myself” is irresistibly buoyant, its diagonal piano/bass unisons and its confident tambourine/snare-driven strut providing the template for Northern Soul, but its singer remains besotten, unfulfilled, already dangerously obsessed. Stubbs’ “Sugar pie, honey bunch” becomes something approximating a threat, nicely offset by his above-it-all glides of “oooohh!” after every chorus. But “Standing In The Shadows Of Love,” the darkness to “Reach Out”’s light, is an exercise in smouldering paranoia to rival Gaye’s “Grapevine.” Here, Stubbs is more affronted than broken; witness his reproachful “Now, wait a minute!,” his stern reprimand about absence of conscience. He declares his rage more than he sings it. Following the song’s unexpected modulation he ups the ante, and in so doing – “Your cryin’ ain’t gonna help me now!” (i.e. “Tears Are Not Enough”) – provides one of this collection’s many roadmarkers towards New Pop. As with Lexicon, the increasing paranoia of the singer is matched by the increasing intensity of the songs, and the sequencing is indeed ingenious; “Something About You” begins with an incongruous chorus of Duane Eddy snarling saxes before morphing seamlessly and beautifully (because so unexpectedly) into the Northern Soul model, although the lead guitar is noticeably restless. Halfway through, a furious baritone sax rips into the song’s fabric, even getting cheered on by Stubbs, before more vocal call and response work of mounting dramatics.

On “You Keep Running Away,” Stubbs’ pleas deconstruct his manliness as semitones descend behind him – “Just look at me!,” “I used to be proud; I used to be strong” – with a surprising, mournful horn section straight out of Stax. “But I can’t get you into my arms,” he eventually confesses; as ever, the love strictly exists within his own mind. “Shake Me, Wake Me” takes Stubbs’ paranoia into new dimensions: “I hear my neighbours talking,” he proclaims, as the rest of the Tops distantly buzz “She don’t love him” over creeping bass and piano. Suddenly, in the second half of the song’s chorus, the song turns into something like a Tony Bennett ballad before a key change heralds a once again offended Stubbs: “I CAN’T believe I’ve been replaced!” he complains, before violently shifting into Lou Reed waters. “Somebody TELL me that I’m dreaming!” he wails. “Wake me when it’s over” he weeps into the encroaching nothingness.

“Without The One You Love” reaches back into the world of spirituals for its scant comforts (“I’m like a motherless child”), though note “I’m not living baby, I only exist” in light of Obi Benson’s subsequent contributions to Gaye’s What’s Going On? “Life’s not worthWHILE,” sobs Stubbs over a mildly dissonant harmony, while “I Turn To Stone” sees the group virtually abandon human form altogether, despite its uptempo shuffle appearance (its musical structure foretelling the Foundations’ “Build Me Up Buttercup,” not to mention the Electric Light Orchestra’s “Turn To Stone” a decade later). “I would be like a statue in the park,” admits Stubbs over a surprisingly seventies-sounding production.

But the Four Tops clearly presage New Pop, and certainly its key metapop aesthetic, in both “Darling, I Hum Our Song” and “It’s The Same Old Song.” The latter was a deliberate nod to “I Can’t Help Myself” but a very artful and emotionally affecting one, its archaic lyrical language (“Sentimental fool am I”) nicely balancing musical nods to the future; with Stubbs’ “dance to the music” we realise that the Four Tops will eventually turn into Sly and the Family Stone; and more tellingly it abandons “Myself”’s precarious optimism for unfettered, doomed pessimist realism. “Darling,” however, is a more astonishing achievement; taking the form of a Miracles-style smoocher (complete with Platters staccato piano), Stubbs and the Tops consider their loss, but all they can do to articulate the emotions they are feeling is to sing the inarticulable; long, gruff “HUMMMMMMM”s of varying length and intensity while Stubbs addresses the song through the fourth wall (“I’m sobbing through my song,” “That’s the part that I like best!”). Not only does this comfortably outdo similar efforts at the time by the likes of the Stones, but it also sets us up for Kevin Rowland’s in-depth expansion of the notion on “This Is What She’s Like.”

“Reach Out” comes first on the album, as it inevitably had to, but I have left it until last because, almost uniquely of these songs, it articulates a way out, it approaches fulfilment. As with Doonican’s “Scarlet Ribbons,” the song is the key to the rest of the album because it outlines in depth, both emotionally and artistically, what the other fifteen songs have been searching for. The opening flute/piccolo harmonies – quickly approximated by McCartney for “Penny Lane” – are set against whiplash side percussion and Jamerson’s already roving bass and its unfettered modality was as great a shock to Motown as “Good Vibrations” was to Mike Love. Here, encouraged by the rest of the group, alternatively harsh (their untranscribable, backwards roars of approval) and soothing (the androgynous sustenatos of “Reach out”), Stubbs offers a light of guidance. His voice is as comprehensive, all-embracing and unavoidable as that of Chuck D; as with Public Enemy, you have to listen to and acknowledge his power. As soon as the singer turns his mirror away from himself and out onto the world, his magic and capabilities become lucidly apparent; unlike the Dylan of “Like A Rolling Stone” he doesn’t condemn, but welcomes, embraces the uncertainty and insecurity of others. Remember that the song came out at a time when an entire society – and certainly the Four Tops’ own society - needed reassurance. The burning you sense is a righteous light, Stubbs reassures us; he leads us on and then gives the metaphorical game away, after many rhetorical pauses of semi-silence: “Just look over your shoulder!” Not “by your side” but “over your shoulder”; he has already climbed the mountain and is encouraging you to do the same, outdo him. His is the song of the spirit, the church of us. “Reach Out” is as holy as “God Only Knows” but necessarily more encyclopaedically global; like Billy MacKenzie, Stubbs’ voice holds nothing back; it is everywhere, smiling, overcoming its own failings, spreading its own successes. Whether it’s the streets of Detroit or the unshaded nooks of the country club, the Four Tops were there for everyone who was, and is, able to feel their message.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Val DOONICAN: Val Doonican Rocks, But Gently


(#50: 6 January 1968, 3 weeks)

Track listing: Scarlet Ribbons/If I Were A Carpenter/Rainin’/Hold Me/Yesterday/Small World/He’ll Have To Go/A Man Chases A Girl (Until She Catches Him)/Visions/Bella Rosa/My Colouring Book/The Folks Who Live On The Hill/Take Me

(Author’s Note: Sincere thanks are once again due to Mike Atkinson who with great kindness found a copy of this album for me just over a year ago, at a time when I had still planned to begin this story with entry #47; it has yet to resurface on CD but it is my modest hope that this article may lead in its small part towards that happening.)

A huge, deep but serene wave of strings sails in to underscore the nocturnal picture. A celeste makes an effort to cuddle. The man is possibly more distressed than he is letting on; he is quietly watching his daughter praying for something that he cannot hope to get her (and note the one crucial word hidden in those last three), worries himself to non-sleep as to how he is supposed to get them – the modest orchestral crescendi which accompany his nearly despairing “aching” and “breaking” quickly settle down for the greater good - but creeps back towards her bedroom door in the morning and to his astonishment sees that his prayer has been magically answered, and the bed is strewn with ribbons for the yet-to-awake girl.

We might be witnessing an early snapshot of the father snoring through “She’s Leaving Home,” someone who knows in his heart that the day when she is no longer sleeping in that bed, under his roof, will come quickly and soon, yet someone also fortunate enough to witness, and be astounded by, a miracle. “Scarlet Ribbons” is sometimes thought of as an aeons-old Irish folk song with multiple symbolism, religious or otherwise, but in fact was written by two Americans in the late forties; it is a measure of Val Doonican’s underplayed power that he can convey in his performance of the song an aura more in keeping with the last pages of Joyce’s Dubliners.

Doonican’s “Scarlet Ribbons” is not only the key track on this, his only number one album and the first Irish entry in this tale, but also a surprisingly effective postscript to the simultaneous end and beginning proposed by “A Day In The Life.” For now the consensus which had built up around the Beatles over the previous five years begins to fracture, atomise into endless scarlet ribbons; now, multiple different voices will begin to make themselves heard here, as though Pepper had already predicated that we would never again agree on something as strongly as we had done about Pepper.

And the first of these voices was an unassuming, good-natured forty-year-old cardigan-wearing, rocking chair-inhabiting singer and guitarist from Waterford who for nearly quarter of a century was a cornerstone of Saturday night light entertainment television. Easy on both ear and eye, it was clear that Doonican had already lived several lives before we became aware of him – almost twice as long as the artist responsible for that other worried Ireland-originating album of 1968, Astral Weeks – and that his easy-going nature had been hard won. The album title was more than fitting; knowing but reassuring – at least, if you took it literally and not as Val Doonican Loses His Mind, But Gently, since the portrait that the record paints appears to be one of a steadily disintegrating human being.

Consider that “Scarlet Ribbons” concerns itself with the wishes of childhood – no mother or wife figure appears in Doonican’s reading – and then hear his takes on Hardin’s “If I Were A Carpenter” (“Would you marry me anyway? Would you have my baby?”) and “Small World” from the musical Gypsy, the latter scarcely a typical choice one would expect from the singer. More intriguingly still, in the original Styne/Sondheim musical “Small World” is sung by Rose Lee herself, in an attempt to persuade the lead male character Herbie to become her children’s professional manager (is he the one who is moved to pray for scarlet ribbons?); she doesn’t necessarily mean what she’s singing but manages to persuade him anyway. Doonican’s performance is far more desolate, with no face or side whatsoever; his “It’s. A. Phe. No. Men. On.” is a manful attempt not to be mechanical, an invitation to lose his emotional countenance, but he knows finally that he must keep that countenance at whatever cost. His “funny guy” tails off into several “y”s (sounding like a concealed “Why?”) before streaking up an octave like an apprentice asteroid. “Small and funny and fine” he concludes, unsure of anything. His “Carpenter” meanwhile is funkier than either the Darin or Four Tops readings, with a nicely chunky bassline and rhetorical congas hammering nails in the background. I note how clearly and intensely Doonican concentrates on the word (if it is a word) “onliness,” and how much closer he approaches the original, debauched exhaustion of Hardin by doing so.

Most of the album’s tracks, however, base themselves on a Patsy Cline “Crazy”/Ray Charles Modern Sounds template of florid, commentative piano (for which pianist Frank Horrocks rightly receives credit in Doonican’s characteristically friendly sleevenote) with supple banks of orchestral and choral accompaniment. “Rainin’” is a Bobby Darin original (cunningly sequenced to come out of “Carpenter”) and Doonican is obligingly doleful in his delivery; note the despondent but unbroken slow motion rainfall of “Pourrrrrrr” into “maybe” and the resigned defeat of his “waiting around…the bend,” not too confident that anyone will be waiting for him there or anywhere. “Hold Me” is the same song which took PJ Proby into our top three in the summer of 1964 but Doonican completely excises Proby’s screeching carnality for a statelier, nobler approach; just gentle, but oddly reggae-like, high-pitched guitar, and the crucial “away” is taken out of the tag line “Never try to hold me away from you.” Doonican is desiring, but also patient; there is, after all, a “Take Me” waiting for him around this album’s final bend.

“Yesterday” provides the obvious link between Doonican and Pepper, though his version owes more to Tom Jones’ “Green, Green Grass Of Home” in terms of arrangement (Ken Thorne of “Legion’s Last Patrol” fame arranged and conducted all tracks on the album) although Thorne, as elsewhere on the record, is careful to vary his accompanying colour; harpsichord and guitar give way to an oboe whose figures may be slightly mocking, before reaching the inevitable choir, a flute zigzagging through the final verse and a faint high A lead violin, fainter and higher than the one heard on McCartney’s original, leads the song to its end. Still Doonican’s baritone is unswervable, solid, unbending, and, as Lena noted, he nobly resists the American ballad singer’s tendency to speak in the middle of the song.

With his easily-attainable bass notes and his general manner, Doonican inevitably drew comparisons with Jim Reeves, but the two voices seem markedly different to me; Reeves himself I will return to as the tale goes on, but Doonican’s reading of “He’ll Have To Go” posts a useful differential marker; this is at base a very sordid song, a dirtier Nashville variant on “One For My Baby,” except here the jilted man (or is he?) is drunkenly ringing his Other (or ex-Other, or was she ever his Other, or he hers?) from the bar; she’s in bed and we don’t hear her reaction at all but merely feel contemptuous pity for the sucker. Reeves, as with most of his songs, sings with the recently oiled confidence of an unbitten snake oil salesman, but Doonican knows he’s down; still, he tries to be dignified even though he knows that there’s no dignity to be rescued here. This brings to a close side one of a supposedly comforting album of songs requested by viewers of his TV show (and quite a contrast – or is it? Put “Rainin’” next to “It’s Raining Today” - to the likes of Scott Walker’s Scott Sings Songs From His TV Series); Doonican concluded every show by sitting in his rocking chair with his guitar, singing one of these unquiet songs, and although the sleeve works hard to portray him as our own Perry Como, with its shot of Val enjoying his pipe and wee glass of spirits on the rear, I can’t help but notice that some of the shots on the front cover uncomfortably make him resemble Kenneth Williams.

Irving Berlin’s “A Man Chases A Girl” is not only an unexpected echo of another key 1967 song, the Marvelettes’ “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game,” but intriguingly is also another song best known for being performed by a woman; Marilyn Monroe does it in the film There’s No Business Like Show Business but Doonican’s reading is far more melancholic than mischievous, even with prompting from the strangely ghostly, uncredited female backing singer, as though aware that he has no real hope of either catching or getting caught, not that this can hope to break the stride of his determined amble. Thorne’s arrangement here – a fountain of fluttering flutes to illustrate Doonican’s “hello” – stretches to the over-florid, as he sometimes does elsewhere; the Home Service chorus (I’m unsure whether it’s the Mike Sammes Singers) not really scaling Ray Charles heights.

Then, however, the album becomes markedly darker. “Visions” is the same song which had been a top ten hit for Cliff Richard in 1966, and its painstakingly slow moving procession of vague images and confined mental torment secondary to emotional desertion seems even more agoraphobic in Doonican’s hands. Despite the return of the celeste, there is no reassurance to be sought here; his triptych of “When, when, when” gradually slopes down like a stooping, beaten head.

Darker visions yet are to come. Thorne’s flurry of mandolin on “Bella Rosa” bodes the worst but this is a strange song indeed; Doonican sings wistfully of this image (“Her image returns”) as she passes by his window each day, even though there is no evidence that she ever notices him, let alone talks to him. Far more disturbing than Richie’s “Hello,” we learn that the singer has apparently already turned down several willing brides in favour of this Bella Rosa – and yet the final verse finds him in a world Scott Walker would immediately recognise; “It’s Saturday night…it’s bare and it’s cold…I lie in my room…” Gradually we discern that this is a variant on Diamond’s “Red, Red Wine,” that the “Bella Rosa” seems to be a different kind of spirit and that indeed it is slowly killing him.

By the time both he and we reach “Lazy” – another Irving Berlin song – he seems unwilling to move, and happy with it; over Horrocks’ ironically enthusiastic piano commentary Doonican becomes the unlikely pioneer of slackerdom. “Under that awning they call the skyyyyyyy” he murmurs, before dreaming of his escape from “the deep, tangled, wild wood” (but not forgetting to semi-rhyme with “child would”) with his “valise full” (to rhyme with “peaceful”) of books. He appears to wish to approach the idyllic borderline between existence and non-existence.

He begins Kander and Ebb’s “My Colouring Book” alone, and although this song of grievous loss, whose notion of colour intentionally becomes blurred as it progresses (“Colour her…gone”), is best and most profoundly heard as sung by Dusty Springfield, Doonican continues not to bend or break, even though he is obviously breaking. Even when he reaches the crucial quatrain of “This is the room I sleep in…walk in…weep in…and hide in” he lets slip some emotion – a shakiness on “weep,” an ashamed whisper on “hide” – but not enough to invert the applecart. Walker would have broadcast his loss to the cosmos. Doonican whispers to his rocking chair who he knows can’t and won’t talk back.

As this unexpectedly draining record reaches its close – Doonican produced the album and clearly had some awareness of how to shape the whole as a concept – we reach near-full circle as the singer once again considers the ideal life, the outcome of those early promises of scarlet ribbons. He is aware that his “Folks Who Live On The Hill” cannot approach the imperious tenderness of Peggy Lee’s version, but since the latter is one of the key pop records of its century this is hardly surprising; the “Hold Me” reggae-lite arrangement returns but the song is suspended in a foreboding, out-of-tempo limbo throughout the course of its middle eight; what if Doonican never realises this dream? And again: “just we two” – no child praying for miracles. Or, if he finds his Other, can they learn to be children again?

Throughout this record – whose undercurrents have been far more rocky than gentle – Doonican has alternately won the girl and lost the girl, and more often than not has dreamt of either. It is difficult not to listen to the album without thinking of the impact it might have had on impressionable young ears, particularly in Doonican’s key constituencies of Irish expatriates in Scotland and in particular the northwest of England (as well as in Ireland itself); would the eight-year-old Morrissey have been familiar with it from his parents’ collection? We know that “Scarlet Ribbons” was one of the first songs the infant Sinead O’Connor learned to sing, and that she breaks down while singing it, aged 25, on Am I Not Your Girl?

“Take Me,” however, is an astonishing coda. A real connoisseur’s choice – Doonican says in his sleevenote that the record’s intention was to provide a mixture of old favourites and less obviously well known songs – “Take Me” was co-written (with Leon Payne) by George Jones, and, taking the “man singing in a woman’s voice” to its logical conclusion, is best known in Jones’ duet recording of the song with Tammy Wynette. Here, finally, Doonican achieves something resembling an emotional breakthrough, first by facing the fiercest demons; he begins with an entreaty to “take me to your darkest room” – the choir verges on buffoonery here, but the firewood-chopping guitar and harpsichord make up for that somewhat – followed by a request to “take me to your most barren desert” (his ascending spire of “Cro-o-oss” as he contemplates the latter prospect) and a plea to make both room and desert light and fertile, as only “she” can.

And then things become slightly surreal. “Take me to Siberia,” commands Doonican. With her presence, “it would be just like spring in California.” He glimpses more actively at this world surrounding him, and all of a sudden it expands, as do his ambitions; here, astoundingly but surely undeniably, germinates the seed, or indeed the scarlet ribbons, which will one day blossom into streets that have no name, beautiful days – the seven-year-old Dubliner’s ears must already have been glued to his family’s radiogram speaker. Did somebody say something about walking tall?

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The BEATLES: Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band




(#49: 10 June 1967, 23 weeks; 25 November 1967, 1 week; 23 December 1967, 2 weeks; 3 February 1968, 1 week)

Track listing: Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band/A Little Help From My Friends/Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds/Getting Better/Fixing A Hole/She’s Leaving Home/Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!/Within You Without You/When I’m Sixty-Four/Lovely Rita/Good Morning, Good Morning/Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)/A Day In The Life

“All that I can ultimately comprehend is the importance of devoting myself to one end: to investigating, by curious squints, what combinations of aural and visual shocks, performed on a lighted stage before a darkened auditorium, can cause the great white mottle of watching faces simultaneously to flush, blench, gasp, shriek, recoil, or stare in awe. I must admit myself to the audience’s secrets, their lowest psychological factors, and play on them quite openly, but with deep guile. I do not concern myself with slow absorption, with what they may feel before the rise or after the fall of the curtain. My business is with immediacy, the sudden start of here and now.”
(Kenneth Tynan’s general advice to theatrical producers, quoted in his review of the 1946 Alec Guinness production of The Brothers Karamazov at the Lyric, Hammersmith: included in the anthology A View From The English Stage – Mr H challenges an earlier Mr H, and thereby the WORLD! – published by Davis-Poynter Limited in 1975)

With the highly exceptional exceptions of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals – and the only slightly less exceptional exception of the Monkees - little attention has thus far been paid in this tale to children, or childhood. There have been many records for teenagers, more still for those who chose to progress into adulthood, and even a few aimed at those approaching second childishness, but no children’s records, as such. Many readers of a certain age may recall the era of Disneyland albums in particular, where the music formed only part of the package; there were bound books of illustrations, colourful pictures of the characters under consideration, a cheerily minimalist narrative; all designed to lead the child into Disney’s world, but with a secondary motive of leading children, whether by accident or on purpose, into the wonder of appreciating long-playing records as spectacles, events, in themselves. Certainly such things as the soundtrack album to The Jungle Book – also released in 1967 – helped steer this youthful writer towards a doubtful lifetime of considering, or at the very least fetishising, the picturesque attractions of the record.

In some cases – the various Winnie the Pooh albums, for instance – there were included party games, sometimes even masks to cut out and wear. So, just as the core long-term British audience for the Monkees’ television show turned out to be children, Sgt Pepper seemed designed to attract the curious and still open-minded child before all other listeners. The original plan was for a whole grab bag of goodies to be included with each copy of the album but financial restrictions limited the Beatles to including their own cutout masks and pop-up characters with the record. Still, for most it was more than enough, and Sgt Pepper conveyed the instant idea of a child’s birthday party record, with lots of primary colours and famous (and not so famous) faces on the cover, a gatefold sleeve, those masks, and even, in true children’s record fashion, the full lyrics to the album so that everyone could sing along with these songs, all about different characters, just like Camberwick Green or Trumpton. Then, when or if the children eventually grew up, they would realise what the album was really about.

But the latter conjecture suggests a deviousness that was certainly not the record’s aim; here, the Beatles seem to say to us, we are opening this record up to you, it is for you, the public, and meant for you, only for you. Whether young or old, square or hip, there’s something for everyone here; we intend to leave no one out. Like the work which took Pepper’s most extreme suggestions to their own ultimate extreme, Carla Bley and Paul Haines’ Escalator Over The Hill (with its “Multiple Public Members”), Pepper is a very public record, as though the Beatles were abdicating, handing their keys over to the world to lock and unlock as and how they will. Anyone, they appear to be saying, could sing or play these songs, anyone on or off the street, in the nursery or in the nursing home. Few albums in this tale insist so passionately on addressing their listeners in a markedly determined second person.

Indeed the original intention behind the eighth studio Beatles album was wholly to do with childhood, specifically their own Liverpudlian ones; then “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” were swiftly appropriated for an urgently-required single and they had to rethink. But much of this deceptively delicate childishness survives throughout Pepper – as does a rather unexpected core of hardness. Children here drift into hastily-drawn abstract pictures of ungraspables, or leave home, or grow old, or learn about more than one world, or in some instances learn nothing. Lucy is far more innocent a protagonist than Alice since not only does she not realise that she is a protagonist (or, more correctly, a catalyst) but also that she herself might be both Pepper’s subject and object, as only a four-year-old Julian Lennon could have imagined her. She loses herself in marmalade and tangerine but keeps the turnstile open so that she might be found.

Losing themselves was certainly on the Beatles’ minds when they arrived at the Pepper concept. There is absolutely no need to underline the attendant irony of two albums by the Monkees – a manufactured band who to everyone’s surprise turned into a real group – being followed by an album wherein the Beatles pretend to be another, fictitious group. The Beatles, however, were by early 1967 somewhat fed up with having to be “The Beatles,” had stopped touring, badly needed to get off the treadmill, and McCartney came up with the Pepper idea as a means of releasing themselves from their own history, to come back as someone, or something, else, preconceptions thoroughly abandoned. To begin again, even as the planet stared hopefully at them like an outsized Labrador awaiting its dinner. And so they appeared, on the cover, primary-coloured and moustache-laden, their besuited former selves mourning their own demise as cutout idols crowded around, or at least behind, them.

And, following the orchestral tune-up and the audience noises, the first spectacle we see is, of all improbable spectacles, Jimi Hendrix, that imminent cover star of We’re Only In It For The Money; two days before starting work on the title track Lennon and McCartney had seen the Hendrix Experience at the Savile Theatre and been dutifully blown away; as a nice bookend, Hendrix added “Sgt Pepper” to his live act two days after it hit the shops. There is an unavoidable bumping grind about Ringo’s 3D drums and McCartney’s snarling lead guitar (and howling voice) which instantly recalls “Foxy Lady,” even though the intended overtone is one of Edwardian-cum-Butlin’s chirpiness. A quartet of French horns arrives midsong to add a raised eyebrow; what are the crowd laughing at? Meanwhile, just before a deep gulf of a pause, Lennon remarks, brightly, “We’d love to take you home.”

Then McCartney introduces “Billy Shears” – shades of that already doomed other Liverpudlian Fury? – to a shrieking 1964 reaction and the album’s first palpably whole song is given to the voice of...Ringo, as the Common Man. The party is already so well under way and its illuminations are so dazzling that the unwary listener barely notices that the record’s real purpose is already being spelled out; don’t be alone, shrugs a what-me-worry “Shears,” you’ll need some neat help to find out about yourself. What do they see when you turn out the light, and what happens if you dare to switch it on again? Still at this late stage indebted to the example set by the girl groups – check the extended calling and responding throughout the length of “Friends” – the song also subtly declares its musical allegiances to Pet Sounds with the staccato, echoed keyboard, the upwardly leaping Carol Kaye bass tropes. Ringo/Billy knows the answer already, has it all sorted; hear his good-humoured “no” or his boyish “mmmm” – this is someone who has succeeded in coming to terms in his world with the outside world, and the clear example we should all follow. So infectious is the singer’s intrinsically good nature we hardly pause to wonder what happened to the audience at song’s end.

We then drift into the primary school pictures of “Lucy”; inspired specifically by the “Wood and Water” chapter of Through The Looking Glass (as well as by his son’s painting), the dissolving traceries of treated guitar and echoed/doubled-up basses are balanced out by a surprising return to Hendrix stomp in the chorus, even if McCartney’s deadpan organ suggests a hidden close kinship with the Monkees. Lucy is being followed, and it becomes clear that this is merely the latest of Lennon’s attempts, following “Girl,” to find his ideal Other. And, unlike the subject (or object?) of “Girl,” Lucy is there, smiling and waiting for him, when he manages to catch up with her. “Lucy”’s delicacy is one of Pepper’s more obvious nods to the congruent influence of Syd Barrett, then ensconced in Studio 1 at Abbey Road with the rest of Pink Floyd recording The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn – another work based on a children’s book, even if it’s one of the chapters that children wait awhile before reading – as the Beatles were busy in Studio 2; each group intermittently paid the other a visit to see what they were up to but the real bond between the two didn’t start until Lennon and McCartney saw them onstage at the Alexandra Palace Technicolor Dream towards the end of April. Barrett’s portraits were always slightly harder edged and cheekier than those of the Beatles’ – his “Emily” is a rather more purposeful and assured Lucy, and “Arnold Layne” would not even have occurred to the Beatles at that time (though it would, in markedly different form, occur to Scott Walker’ a year or so later). The Beatles had their own “Interstellar Overdrive” too, in the still-awaiting-legitimate-release “Carnival Of Light,” but the eyes-of-a-child approach was something that bound Lennon and Barrett very tightly together as songwriters.

But the eyes of a child cannot avoid reality, and the idealistic fantasia of “Lucy” gives way to a domestic trilogy of songs as hard-hitting as anything emerging from the kitchen of dramatic sinks at the time. While promising escape, Pepper is loath to let us forget exactly what we – and they – are escaping from; a June 1967 which, among other far from flowery things, saw sundry Stones-related drug busts, the definitive legal moves towards the suppression of pirate radio, race riots in Detroit and Boston and the death of John Coltrane. In British terms you could visit or live in most places outside London, and quite a few places within London, and wonder whether it was really still 1937; the old order was firmly in place, and McCartney’s yell of “It was twenty years ago today” reminds us that it was just over twenty years since the end of the war, that cross which most British people still appeared willing to bear in 1967 – a generation behind the times.

“Getting Better” addresses the hidden quandary – the incipient fear – of the new generation ending up exactly like the old. Another bright staccato McCartney melodic and rhythmic construct in the line of “Penny Lane,” its sunny surface belies the underlying rage, and it is disturbing enough to hear McCartney singing lyrics which pointedly allude to (and were largely written by) Lennon. If “Penny Lane” derived its rhythmic impetus from “Got To Get You Into My Life” and transposed it onto an entirely new planet (though eerily resembling the old one), Harrison’s hard guitar staccatos on “Getting Better” take the original Supremes model into more disquieting territory (specifically the Morse code guitar of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” is brought irresistibly to mind). The song’s first verse, outlining a now-regretted feral youth, suggests a reluctant, eventual acceptance of the singer’s reborn self – he’s a believer, as it would be, despite Lennon’s background murmurs of “It can’t get no worse” and McCartney’s careful delineation of “a little better” in the first chorus. In its climactic third verse, however, hallucinatory swarms of sitar swim into echoing sight as McCartney, with equal cheer, speaks of beating his woman and keeping her apart from the things that she loves, thereby going far further than even “Run For Your Life” had dared. If it’s all getting better, however, then to whom – or, more pointedly, what - is he singing “since you’ve been mine” when he has just been singing about “my woman”? LSD?

The disorientating sonic picture soundtracking “Getting Better”’s third verse is, as with so much else on and in Pepper, apparently the most accurate description of the minute-verging-on-gigantic perceptual distortions brought on by acid; the woozy haze, the blurred semi-reality – and I am not overlooking the unexpected return of a Hendrix-esque determination in the song’s overlapping rhythms, nor the subtly reproachful tabla working underneath. “Fixing A Hole” is, in contrast, somewhat self-reproachful; wholly McCartney’s song, its homely harpsichord and rueful foursquare march the closest Pepper gets to emulating the Pet Sounds sound with the heartbreaking “God Only Knows” falsetto rising above the downwardly-arching bass in the bridges; yet the twin lead guitars of Harrison and McCartney either comment sardonically on the singer’s domestic woe, or hang off the song’s scaffolding like a condemned man (the sinister “and it fills up” flowing through the wall’s purple veins). The jerkily violent Stratocaster guitar solo – probably played by Harrison – is musically as angry as the album gets.

Finally, the new generation has had enough; the waltzing harp which introduces “She’s Leaving Home” – motif-wise, a replica of “Lucy” after its dreamer has awakened – gives way to the third in McCartney’s stringed soliloquies, except he is not quite alone here; his matter-of-fact description of the girl’s quiet but not ashamed departure, the mother’s reaction (significantly we never get to find out how the father feels about this, except that he “snores”; the mother is quick to apportion credit for emotional blackmail with her “How could she do this to me?”), the girl’s new life is echoed by Mike Leander’s very literal orchestration – the subtle, Psycho-resembling quick strokes responding to the mother finding the letter (and “standing alone”), the bowed heads of ‘celli offering the handkerchief to “She breaks down and cries” as the words leap across the scansion border checkpoint, the stately Genevieve figures which accompany the “man from the motor trade” – but Lennon breaks the heart with his ghostly elegy of premature mourning, all of it concerned with the parents, and the girl scarcely an afterthought. His closing “Bye, bye” is not free of menace, or partially hidden feelings of triumph. But no 1967 song so clearly underlines what was wrong (“We didn’t know it was wrong”) with those who chose to drown in the vodka-and-Valium tears of easy, Brylcreemed balladry – the Vikki Carr who sobs her way through “It Must Be Him,” a #2 hit single that year, could be the missing link between the mother of “She’s Leaving Home” and Eleanor Rigby.

Originally it was felt that “She’s Leaving Home” would be the ideal closer to side one of Pepper, but Lennon cannily bookmarked the triptych of homebound frustration (Wesker’s trilogy of betrayed socialism plays of the late fifties/early sixties come to mind more readily than Osborne or Delaney) with another escape into fantasy, except that Mr Kite is far less fulsome or welcoming than Lucy; aware that some of the music with which this tale has thus far concerned itself, most notably 101 Strings and the George Mitchell Minstrels, with music and idioms consciously stretching back to the middle of the nineteenth century, Lennon inverts the crap boasts of the 1843 Rochdale poster – but how colourful it looks, or is made to sound! – to furnish something approximating a nightmare, the other side of the “Yellow Submarine” coin and the logical conclusion of the Germanic march tendency in Lennon’s composing which (also) began with “Girl.” He transfers the Rochdale spectacular to (an offhand-sounding) Bishopsgate but concentrates on disorientating our understanding of the carny, or its underbelly; Mr K challenges the WORLD but is the WORLD listening? There is no precedent – with the structural exception of “Tomorrow Never Knows” – for “Kite”’s hurdy gurdy mutation into clashing lights and sounds; the strongman will “perform his tricks without a sound,” but just as “Lucy” owes more to the incipient awe of childhood than any drug input, Henry the Horse dancing the Waltz does not suggest heroin any more than the holes of “Fixing A Hole” or “A Day In The Life,” yet its impact remains shocking. This sounds like an escape to nowhere, with the bizarre blasts of barrelhouse piano, the backwards one-man-band of Ringo’s percussion, and finally the cauldron of cut-up tapes and samples, as though ripping the Victorian ethic to pieces, with its doomed-sounding organ anticipating the Jerry Dammers of “Ghost Town,” the emptied/refilling London of Modern Life Is Rubbish. A final clash of murmuring, conflicting tonalities, and then abrupt cutoff (see “The Eternal” by Joy Division and ultimately “Unfinished Sympathy” by Massive Attack, or maybe simply see “Bike” by Pink Floyd) – and this is still supposed to be a jolly, Aquarian age-anticipating record? In fact, beneath its sheen it has proved, so far, one of the darkest records of its age, up (or down) there (or here) with The Velvet Underground And Nico.

But where the Velvets had Nico (and Warhol), the Beatles had George Harrison to put it all together. Readers may recall that Harrison had to be talked very hard out of quitting the group in the autumn of 1966, and his relatively low-key contributions to Pepper – his total contribution to “A Day In The Life,” for instance, consists of playing some bongos - reflect his continuing doubts about their viability, as well as the growing “space between us” which he felt existed. On “Within You Without You” he stares the ambivalence of Pepper in the face and patiently furnishes the glue which holds the entire record together; everything on side one has led to this warning masquerading as a meditation, everything else on side two will lead out of its implications. Involving no other Beatles at all, and an unconvinced George Martin in the production booth, Harrison speaks, fairly bluntly, about why rebirth is needed and why it has to start with oneself (or one’s self – see also, and eventually, “Man In The Mirror”). This was the moment which convinced a listening Carla Bley to contact her friend Paul Haines, then resident as a teacher in India, with the proposal for Escalator; and, just as after four sides of the most askew, dreamy and nightmarish takes on popular music conceivable, Don Cherry’s patient pocket trumpet debuts on side five to elevate the music to heights of holiness. “Within You Without You” takes Pepper to its next and most necessary dimension. Brilliantly constructed, Harrison’s sitar conversing expertly with strings and his North London Asian Music Circle fellow players, the song escalates to the height of heartbreaking as Harrison pleads “With our love we could save the world if only we KNEW” (and this is also where the young Salman Rushdie and eventually the young Hanif Kureishi come in and realise how hip it is to be them at that time). And Harrison is unavoidably singing to us: “They can’t see – are you one of them?” he intones, very quietly. He first urges us to look at ourselves, within ourselves, and then to look beyond ourselves, to understand that life will go on without any of us and that every public community worthy of being called a human society has to flow in and out of this innate, central understanding. As Gandhi might have said, “Within You Without You” is not an interruption of Sgt Pepper – it is its purpose.

Harrison’s mordant chuckles provide a good segue into McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty-Four.” Artfully positioned on the album so as to reassure the Beatles’ older followers that there was indeed something for everyone on the record (and that the Beatles hadn’t gone entirely bonkers, could still knock out happy, singalong standards like the old 1963 days), the song is still not as straightforward as it would seem. In fact it was a very early McCartney composition from the Cavern/Hamburg days which, as McCartney’s father was then approaching 64, its writer felt a good idea to dust down. Here, very subtly, is the other side of the “She’s Leaving Home” argument – “You’ll be older too” warns McCartney over floating, psychedelic backing vocal harmonies and Don Redman-ish crying clarinet unisons, as though the parents of the girl in “She’s Leaving Home” are advising her that she’ll end up like them. McCartney happily details all the little things which will keep us together (while the war’s going on); mending a fuse, digging up weeds, a little cottage on the Isle of Wight (“if it’s not too dear”) – it might all sound banal, he seems to be saying, but one day you’ll be grateful for it and want it.

But note Lennon’s mournful “We shall scrimp and save” (and remember his “We struggled all of our lives to get by” in “She’s Leaving Home”), following which the song takes a strange turn; suddenly the happiness of old age is all to do with filling out forms, stating points of view, “yours sincerely, wasting away.” Of course, one has to view this in the context of what was originally a harmless, Temperance Seven-ish novelty period song which the group could play when their PA system broke down; but in the context of Pepper it also appears to be warning against complacency in any quarters. Grandchildren named Vera, Chuck and Dave (then again: Vera Lynn, Chuck Berry and Dave Clark)? Or perhaps simply another expression of the fear of growing old, growing into compromise, "many years from now."

As if to refute all of that premature oldness, or if nothing else set it aside for now, McCartney then goes straight into “Lovely Rita,” the album’s most carnal moment, even if his passions are all kept strictly on a Carry On Orton level. Here the child finally grows up to become a man – or a manneredly mannish boy (women in uniform, and other boyish pursuits) – as the group offer a comb-and-paper horn section, George Martin provides a trapdoor pub piano solo. “Ree-TAH!” yells Paul as he settles down with her and her “sisters” and the song, bridged by McCartney’s bounding bass, moves into proto-“Magical Mystery Tour” liquidity, all echoed sighs and pants, spectral high-note piano, carburettor bass rumbles. In the Pet Sounds sense it’s like following up “Caroline No” (“She’s Leaving Home”) several tracks later with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” (the influence of Pet Sounds on Pepper is, as I hope I have demonstrated, largely osmotic).

Paul is happy, while John is content to grumble in an explosive manner. “Good Morning, Good Morning” is the album’s most vicious track; if the comb-and-paper on “Rita” sounds like a horn section, the Sounds Incorporated horns on “Good Morning” sound like papered-over combs, violently compressed as Lennon rants and smoulders entertainingly; cereal commercials, dusty sitcoms, nothing to do but save his life (is that Lennon’s life?), nothing to say…but it’s OK. Ringo is outstanding here, his colossal ride cymbal blows smashing into the end of every splenetic line, his extremely sardonic-verging-on-empathetic bass drum thwack in response to Lennon’s “feeling low down,” and a beat so crisp it’s worthy of sampling. The song comes very near to blowing up as in its centre a James Brown revved-up R&B interlude rudely pushes into its fibres; eventually it resembles a noisy neighbour hi-fi battle with McCartney’s deranged guitar solo adding the dash of absinthe to Lennon’s bitter cake. The song eventually vanishes into the ether as the story of evolution is told backwards in sound effects; no “Good Day Sunshine” here, and nothing much resembling cheer or the future – rather, the trumpets and hounded whoops of foxhunting, another relic from the time Pepper is secretly hoping to negate.

The tension is palpable as Lennon enthusiastically counts into the speeded-up reprise of the title song, as Ringo accidentally (or not) invents the Beastie Boys with his firewood-chopping snare and another secret is subtly spelt out; “Sgt Pepper’s lonely” again and again – the uniting of lonely hearts, minds made solitary by what the world has done to them, a world which, if the previous dozen tracks are anything to go by, has perhaps outlived its use, or perhaps simply its perspective. Yet Pepper’s land is one which desires to become a settlement, and quickly before time runs out: “It’s getting very near the end.”

The trope works, as we know in our bones that something special is still coming, something which may not resemble anything we have known or felt before, and the audience duly returns into audibility. McCartney whoops his thanks, but Lennon offers a very troubling wink of a “Bye!” The show is over, the characters have shown what they are about (but what are they for?), and it’s time to take our leave…

“JUST A MINUTE!... Just…one…slight…matter.”
(McKern’s 2 to McGoohan’s 6 as he leaves the office, having just been given a job, from “Once Upon A Time”)

“And you, she says, what’s the idea of you, she says, what are you meant to mean?”
(Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days, looking directly at her audience)

I quoted the Tynan extract at the beginning of this piece, not merely as a sad pointer to Oh! Calcutta or as an inadequate substitute for the Times piece in which Tynan wrote the famous quote about the Decisive Moment, but in order to try to demonstrate how much Pepper is not about simply “aural and visual shocks” or up-sleeve tricks of perspective. It spread round the world but could only have originated in Britain, the buttoned-up Noel Coward land of making do and not being very good at mending. It takes a look, sometimes quizzical, more often accusatory, at where the Britain of 1967 had dragged itself, or been dragged, and offers some escape routes, even though the record makes it clear that these escape routes can only ever be mental. Like its television counterpart The Prisoner, the masks are important; they conceal truths (or possibly preserve them), are easy to hide behind when the chaos of the world proves inconvenient.

And, as with Number 6 and the mask and evolution, One is finally faced, or facing, a mirror.

The casually strummed guitar which leaks out of the applause like a hidden cloud of gas, the already slightly ominous piano; and all Lennon wants to do is – well, chat about the day he’s had, the 17th of January 1967, and principally what he’s read in the paper. The song as proto-blog, or extremely belated post-Walter Benjamin postscript? He looks at the paper, can’t quite grasp why other people are failing to grasp; someone he thinks he knew has been killed in a car crash, speeding through red lights at the junction of Redcliffe Gardens and Redcliffe Square, London SW10, and smashing into an oncoming truck; he can’t quite work himself up, or wake himself up, to mourn but is curious about the crowd which gathers; a crowd not really consumed by grief or sorrow – how could they if they didn’t know the victim? – but wondering where they’d seen his face before. Him off the telly. Or in Parliament. No actual concern for humanity; simply fascination in unqualified images. The cannibalistic craving for a good story.

Just before the piano is about to rise up dramatically and consume his meditation in rage, he hushes it and then goes to the cinema, to see a film he’s just made, all about the war, and he gets to thinking about another, real war (but is wise enough not to spell it out to us), and wonders at the crowd – and is it the same crowd, and are you one of them? – turning away from actual blood and horror, and in any event what’s the difference; aren’t they already “existing” rather than living (see also Hendrix's "I Don't Live Today" and especially "Third Stone From The Sun" in which latter he frees himself from the earth altogether).


“I’d love to turn you on,” he turns to us and sighs, in the manner of a sympathetic but frustrated schoolteacher. Somebody in the middleground starts counting – what are those numbers for? - and a literal semitonal seesaw of strings gradually erupts into an increasingly deafening fullness, as though slowly, and never more surely, ripping the false, foggy world apart with the exhausted patience of a Creator, excoriating, destroying the masks and fa├žades before they end up destroying us. Nothing on Pepper has prepared us for this, especially our own expectations. We are being told to…

WAKE UP! as the alarm clock rings, there are puffs and pants of exhaustion before you have even risen out of bed, and the apocalypse/rebirth is interrupted for a commercial, or the last dispatch from this land of Pepper; McCartney’s ordinary (twenty years ago today?) Joe gets up, runs to catch the bus (while all the time, far in the background, John and Paul almost imperceptibly giggle about how they’re writing a real drug song), lights up, hears a voice and goes into a dream…

…but the dream is the “reality” he’s been dreaming, all this making do, this compromising, this twelfth best noose against which all the musicals I have written about in this tale have been battering themselves, albeit far more politely; Lennon’s wail of anguish crests over collapsing fort walls of blunt orchestral chords…

…and then the two worlds finally meet, the bounce of McCartney’s smoke and hat meeting Lennon’s doleful Dylan amble (as if we could have left him out) as he returns to the paper, reads about the survey which says about the holes in Blackburn, and whether they need fixing, and whether we’ll all drown in the Albert Hall, and there just HAS to be more than this and so the engulfment returns, fortified, harder (Tristan Fry’s crisp cymbal clashes, like red daggers), leave it all behind, the illusion, the Beatles, the FEAR…

A pause.

Are we prepared?

A sustained E major triad of a chord, played by six pairs of hands on three grand pianos (all overdubbed many times), a chord which according to Wilfred Mellers has been used for centuries to symbolise heaven, and it is not the last day of the world (as so many continue to believe), but the final day of a used-up world, the first day of a new, unused one. It gives Pepper the happiest of endings but also gives us the warning that it’s up to us to take advantage of it. Here is a door; dare you go through it and not feel the urge to return? As though you’d ever walk alone. As the record spins to a close, the atoms of that last chord resound, quieter and quieter, until finally they are absorbed into the lining of the office sofa, the grind of the air conditioner, the essence of you; you look the same, and so does the room, and the street outside – but are you the same? Sgt Pepper changed the world, all right, and that includes (as though we’d leave Debord out) the way we walk through the world; the crescendi of “A Day In The Life” offer the air and water to the scorched surf of Wilson’s “Mrs O’Leary’s Cow.”

And, just as we prepare to leave the room, we are accosted:

“NEVER COULD BE ANY OTHER WAY!”
They yell, shockingly, in a looped final groove, not ridiculing you, but encouraging your progress, your advancement, within you but hopefully not (in the literal sense) without you. It is the greatest story to be told within this tale, even though, as with cover star TE Lawrence venturing into Arabia, their mission is, despite their never bettered intentions, likely to result in a more divided world than ever. Pepper was a challenge to the world; the rest of this tale is principally concerned about how the world chose to respond, or otherwise. As though we were all still its children.