Monday, 30 November 2009

Bob DYLAN: Nashville Skyline


(#66: 24 May 1969, 4 weeks)

Track listing: Girl Of The North Country/Nashville Skyline Rag/To Be Alone With You/I Threw It All Away/Peggy Day/Lay Lady Lay/One More Night/Tell Me That It Isn’t True/Country Pie/Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You

There is no front to his smile; he is bidding you a warm welcome to the morning to which you have awaken from your querulous voyage of dreams. Or perhaps the smile is rueful; he is bidding you a regretful farewell – the picture is taken as though viewed from the grave.

Many at the time thought that he had come to bury the sixties, as though John Wesley Harding hadn’t already given enough notice of where he was heading. An extremely brief – twenty-seven-and-a-half minutes – and extremely sprightly record of what was conveniently described as country music, even down to the involvement of Johnny Cash as guest artist and annotator, delivered to a somewhat confused audience who were feeling, or fuelling, the rage and discontent of 1969 and were impatient for answers, directions. And who were given an album of country music, still perceived by many Dylan followers at the time to be the enemy, the soundtrack of the oppressor, rather than the soul music of the poor white man (as opposed to “poor white man’s soul”), even though James Carr or Howard Tate could easily have performed “One More Night” or “Tell Me That It Isn’t True” as arranged and performed here.

Such misplaced grief was, of course, ill informed; after all, had Dylan not grown up with country music all his life, his ear to the radio in the Minnesota small town of his youth, listening to and absorbing many of the songs he would later broadcast on his Theme Time Radio Hour series? Furthermore, the keener ears had already picked up on what John Wesley Harding might imply, particularly those of Gram Parsons, a glam rock stud one continent and four years too early, who engineered the Byrds’ transition into Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and would presently unveil the Flying Burrito Brothers upon a largely unlistening world, making the links between the dual colours of Southern soul explicit. One could also add the not insignificant example of Aretha Franklin, another artist who had to travel from the North to the South in order to find and express her truer art.

More important than any of these factors, however, was that the Dylan of Nashville Skyline was now a husband and a father, looking to settle down, getting a little bored of the pressure, the renewed attention. He is, in fact, as happy as and probably happier than he looks on the cover; the album, despite its several essays on lost love, is likewise one of his happiest sounding.

It begins with a song we previously encountered on Freewheelin’ – and my venerable copy of Skyline states “Girl Of The North Country” on both sleeve and label, rather than “From” – but which is now delivered in a markedly less dark manner; indeed its centrally dark verse, contrasting the darkness of the night with the brightness of the day, is absent. Cash’s entry is a quiet eruption – although his justly honoured poem of a sleevenote is more overtly “poetic” than anything on the record itself – and his voice, slightly shaky but deeply warm, knows the ridges between “the edge of pain” and “the what of sane” instinctively. He sings “Haiiiirrrrr….” like a comb falling ecstatically through his lover’s locks and his voice onomatopoeically “curls and falls.” The song proceeds towards a ragged, last drink at the saloon singalong but Cash’s consummating boom of “remember me” reminds us of the seriousness underlying the apparent playfulness – a seriousness which Cash never relinquished, especially during the heightened spirits of his San Quentin concert, the album of which only just missed inclusion in this tale and in the course of which he nearly starts and then quells a riot. His adventure was that of a country perhaps fashioned for himself to stalk and record; never quite a rebel but never quite an establishment insider, politically open and ambiguous, a sui to the generis of his chosen form of expression. He was the Elvis who never had a Col Parker to say “yes” to, the Jerry Lee who had made his messy piece.

Then we get an instrumental, “Nashville Skyline Rag,” which Dylan largely gives out to the rest of his players to introduce themselves; these included Charlie McCoy on harmonica and guitar, fellow guitarists Norman Blake and Charlie Daniels, keyboardist Bob Wilson, drummer Kenny Buttrey, Pete Drake back on pedal steel and – crucially – Earl Scruggs himself, the man who as one of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys had pretty much started all of this, and who had lately played an indirect part in 1967 via his appearance on the Bonnie And Clyde soundtrack - on five-string banjo. The pace is bustling but good natured, and in Wilson’s piano solo we are even reminded distantly of, of all things, Don Ellis’ contemporaneous “Pussy Wiggle Stomp.”

The roll of “To Be Alone With You” owes somewhat more to the blues than country, but again Wilson’s piano joins the stylistic dots (with pointed electric guitar commentary), and there is a fervent air of activity which sets the scene for Elvis’ return to Memphis. Dylan provides one of the album’s best vocal performances; the shaggy dog downhill howl of “When I’m alo-o-one,” his octave seesawing hiccups of “al-WAYS THANK the Lord!”

“I Threw It All Away” is the first of the album’s great trilogy of love songs, and seldom has loss been expressed in popular music in such a beneficent manner; Scott Walker’s rendition, some three decades or so later, is intoned as from inside the grave, but Dylan tries to find light in this darkest of the album’s many corners. He knows he has lost her and that it is entirely his fault, but something – the tug of Wilson’s Hammond organ, the pull of Buttrey’s snare drum (most rhetorically distinct under Dylan’s “one who’s tried” at the end of the middle eight) – will not let him go under; there is an amiable determination for renewal, and early on in the song there is the Robert Johnson reference to mountains in the palm of his hand, the same reference revived in Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” and the Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next To You”; this is Zeus, shrugging his mighty shoulders, settling back into Olympus to lick his wounds, but only briefly. There is none of the spite or bile to be found in earlier (“Positively Fourth Street”) times, but rather a resigned contentment, the acknowledgement of the beaten god.

Side one ends with the playful “Peggy Day,” a cross between the Ink Spots (the guitar intro) and the lighter-hearted Harry Nilsson (“Cuddly Toy”). Dylan has great sport with the song, even recalling Rudy Vallee on his rolling, up hill and down dale vibrato of a “loved” in the line “loved her all the same.” At the merest suggestion of sensuality (“Love to spend the night with Peggy Day”) Pete Drake, the secret prophet of John Wesley Harding, rears his pedal steel’s head in mild disbelief (“Even before I learned her name”). A sudden stop leads to a Fanny Brice vaudeville piano ending. Is Dylan sneakily having a joke at our expense?

Such vapid questions vanish approximately half a second into “Lay Lady Lay,” which I shall leave until the end; “One More Night” is a fine slice of Southern country-soul wherein Dylan leaves none-too-subtle indicators to his audience (“I just could not be what you wanted me to be”). Again, his love seems irretrievable, but he is unbowed – the what-me-worry shrug of his “Mo-on light” – despite the occasional sharp interjection of pain (his octave jump on the “high” of “wind blows high”). Wilson’s piano takes the song to a satisfied and satisfactory ending. “Tell Me That It Isn’t True” is cut from much the same cloth, and musically is most noticeable for Buttrey’s rattling, intense drums which cut into the middle eight and again towards the song’s finale. Things turn brighter with “Country Pie” – a title which, along with the song’s atmosphere, would hardly be out of place on the White Album – and again there is the flash of Memphis with McCoy’s guitar solo, as short and snappy as a lunching alligator, while Wilson’s piano roars elbow-wise up the keyboard at the end of each middle eight. Dylan again warns his listeners against surface interpretations – “Ain’t runnin’ any race” he sings at one point – but his joy is more apparent than any wariness, as witnessed in his “I won’t throw it up in anybody’s face” which he sings up and down the scale in the manner of Lonnie Donegan, prior to giggling through Jack Horner double entendres before the track fades abruptly, as though running off to catch the football game.

“Lay Lady Lay” is, however, one of the album’s, and indeed one of 1969’s, key songs (it was originally written for, but not used in, the soundtrack to Midnight Cowboy); its beautifully inevitable but wistful foursquare semitonal descent of a harmonic topline (and deceptive, since its chords are travelling in the opposite direction – A major, C sharp, G major and B minor), the key contribution of Buttrey, improvising on cowbell and bongos in between fills on his kit drums (the contrast is one between a waiting, ticking clock and a sprung-into-action dynamo, although the drums are considerably further back in the mix than the auxiliary percussion). Its unwavering focus on Dylan’s voice, too, reminds us strongly of the “new” Dylan we are hearing here, a sudden smoothness which is usually ascribed to the singer having recently quit smoking. It is the album’s most unnerving moment – and to whom, and of what, is he singing? The “big brass bed” seems more in keeping with Muddy Waters than Hank Williams – and why the switch from the first to the third person in the second verse (“Stay with your man awhile”) before returning to the first? Is this love illicit (“You can have your cake and eat it too”), or is the explanation simultaneously more complex and more simple?

The answer must come in the shockingly bold middle eight, where the band jumps into life as Dylan’s voice increases in volume and intensity. The first verse concludes with imagery which could have come out of 1967 (“Whatever colours you have in your mind”), the second brings everything back down to earth (“His clothes are dirty but his hands are clean”). But now he addresses his would-be Other: “Why wait any longer for the world to begin?” and then “Why wait any longer for the one you love/When he’s standing in front of you?” before the song settles back down, uneasily. He is in part standing outside himself, but in greater part is actually willing a sleeping lover to awake; “Lay Lady Lay” would appear to be a plea to awaken, to live, Cupid and Psyche with the roles reversed.

But just as John Wesley Harding concluded with the sated purr of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” so does this album ride off with the smilingly serene “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.” In fact he’s shedding all of his baggage, perhaps all of his previous life, in preference of his renewed dedication to love – “Throw my ticket out the window,” he declares (“If there’s a poor boy on the street/Then let him have my seat!”); it’s all unnecessary now - this is all he craves, wants and needs. At the phrase “The love that a stranger might receive” there is a sublime, if temporary, key change, and Buttrey’s snare and tom toms close the door on the past definitively to accompany the line “I can hear that whistle blowin’.” Drake then re-enters with some heavenly pedal steel lines – wiring up Paradise’s switchboard – which luxuriate and cover the benign folds and curves of the song like the softest and deepest of bed sheets.

Nashville Skyline might seem the precise antithesis to the Moody Blues – a smiling reality superseding the demonic darkness of dreams – although many of its songs (including “Lay Lady Lay”) could have been performed by the Moodies. Furthermore, both records share an unshakeable conviction that love is exactly what we see and exactly all that matters, as emphasised in the key lines of "I Threw It All Away": "Love is all there is, it makes the world go 'round/Love and only love, it can't be denied." More to the point, however, is that the album marks the starting point for what would eventually come to be known as No Depression – Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, the Jayhawks and all points extending outwards, all of whom absorbed this record intently before setting off on their own adventures. Through the involvement of Norman Blake, we can also trace a line to O! Brother Where Are Thou? and thence to people like Gillian Welch who would draw quite drastically different conclusions from Harding and Skyline (amongst many other influences). If 1969 had already given us – or was about to give us – Dusty In Memphis, then Skyline is Bob in Nashville, but more importantly it is Happy, Contented Bob. Where were the anti-war protests, the calls to arms? Well, shrugged Bob, I gave them to you six years ago; weren’t you listening? The greatest lesson I have learned, he might have gone on to say, is to learn and feel how to live the happy and blameless life. Inevitably, given Blood On The Tracks half a decade later, this happiness and blamelessness would not be eternal. But for now the Worried Man is settled; and Lena drew a telling comparison with Wowee Zowee, Pavement’s “country” album (see the very Drake-esque pedal steel on “Father To A Sister Of Thought,” for instance) which drew similarly bemused responses from its audience but which in retrospect represents a clear and logical stage in the group’s development. It was the same with the Dylan of 1969, happy to go on Johnny Cash’s show, sing through a few old tunes, happy just to be happy. The message, like the smile, could not have been clearer.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The MOODY BLUES: On The Threshold Of A Dream


(#65: 10 May 1969, 2 weeks)

Track listing: In The Beginning/Lovely To See You/Dear Diary/Send Me No Wine/To Share Our Love/So Deep Within You/Never Comes The Day/Lazy Day/Are You Sitting Comfortably/The Dream/Have You Heard? (i)/The Voyage/Have You Heard? (ii)

And so, as we creep guiltily towards the end of the sixties, we come to the first mention of a computer in this tale, in the album’s prologue; an unnerving drone of electronic windhowl-simulating static under and over whose fabric voices whisper and intone. One is trying to make his own sense of Descartes (“I think…I think I am…therefore I am!”) while the other, noticeably louder voice bellows about files and the receptor’s imminent transmutation towards magnetic ink. Part Prisoner, part Escalator, and I would be extremely surprised if it hadn’t played a major part in the life of the seventeen-year-old Douglas Adams, who, were he alive and willing to read this blog, would no doubt chuckle at the prospect of The Sound Of Music being the answer to everything (but it is!).

Phil Travers’ cover painting, too, makes Threshold the first sixties number one album since the days of the Minstrels not to look like a sixties album. Dour sub-naval blue, with souls erupting out of bathysphere monitors, cackling hats in the distance, tendrils drifting towards no great purpose; only the late Barry Godber’s design for the contemporaneous In The Court Of The Crimson King paves the visual way towards the impending decade so firmly. The package was a comparatively lavish one; within the sleeve we find a bound, full-sized booklet containing lyrics, personnel details and two sets of sleevenotes, mainly set out in the calligraphy familiar to patrons of Italian restaurants of the period, albeit with the occasional intrusion of The Future (e.g. the typography for the abovementioned computer talk). There are still some reminders that we are not yet out of 1969; the sleevenotes were written by then Radio 1 DJ David Symonds (“Moody Blues LPs should be supplied free, like school milk and drainage services – not that there’s any connection between the two”) and, of all circle closers, Lionel Bart, co-writer of most of the songs on entries #10 and #14, a long-time friend and one-time landlord to Justin Hayward, who constructs his ode in the semi-distracted, semi-spellbound mode of a newly capitalised ee cummings (“I think…I think they turn me on”). In addition, the band photographs – there are six individual passport-style head shots of the group plus producer Tony Clarke, as well as a group shot taken in an unspecified urban park – bring to mind a Birmingham’s Young Businessmen Of The Year circular, all scowling moustaches and tight, compacted suits.

To the opening drone of “In The Beginning” is added a slowly fading-in E major chord – the same chord which closed “A Day In The Life” – and eventually a Mellotron choir. The effect is purposely disconcerting and makes one briefly wonder whether this was a truer response to what “A Day In The Life” had suggested. Where most of the other recently discussed music was concerned with getting back to basics, rediscovering roots, the Moody Blues seem intent on getting as far away from roots and basics as possible, to continue a begun journey.

There is some temporary reassurance as the prelude segues directly into the record’s best-known song, Hayward’s “Lovely To See You,” with the composer’s instantly reassuring and warm Swindon tones, as well as his rather more pointed guitar playing, lending an extra dimension to what is otherwise a mid-period Beatles-type rocker which reminds us of the Brumbeat boom from which this, the first representatives from the Second City to appear in this list, originally sprung (there is more than a trace of Roy Wood’s Move, and a slightly subtler one of Jeff Lynne’s Idle Race, running throughout the album’s faster songs). And yet this song isn’t quite what it seems – the “Lovely To See You” motif implies deeper ways of seeing, and the echoing choirs and Mellotron droops intrude startlingly into the song’s middle eight as Hayward sings of “faraway forgotten lands/Where empires have turned to sand (“Hello Ozymandias!” exclaimed Lena, and rightly)” before rising back up towards the song’s surface like a momentarily stunned diver who has just accidentally glimpsed Atlantis.

We then recede back into a land where despair is prevalent over works, mighty or otherwise; “Dear Diary” is one of a pair of lugubrious, slowly shuffling numbers provided by flautist Ray Thomas; the song is sung through a Leslie cabinet, accompanied by Thomas’ doleful, meandering alto. He wanders through an unremarkable life without clear meaning or purpose, watches everyone else speeding by – just like that famous shot of a static Nick Drake – and the drear mood, the numbing talkover at song’s close, which moves from the absence of anything worth buying in the shops to someone dropping an H-bomb somewhere (“But it wasn’t anybody I knew”; see also Walker’s “Little Things” from the following year) and the endlessly wandering flute provide a depressingly real picture of a late sixties Britain largely, and despite everything, still marooned somewhere in the forties, the same ennui Drake caught so perfectly in “Saturday Sun.”

This soon fades into the folky, acoustic gambol of John Lodge’s “Send Me No Wine,” a song which could easily have been covered by the Seekers, although again the veering tight corners of Mellotron and flute which periodically surface dispel any complacency. This goes straight into Lodge’s “To Share Our Love,” the album’s clearest nod to Brumbeat, though with a dynamic to its rock clearly influenced by Cream, although there are also hints of the power pop to come (Lena thought the song sounded like Sloan), despite Graeme Edge’s strangely compressed, as though bandaged up, drums. Throughout both songs runs this passionate insistence on seeing, acknowledging and sharing love as the answer to everything computers or everyday life might throw at the average human being.

Side one ends with Mike Pinder’s “So Deep Within You,” in part a throwback to the R&B roots of the Denny Laine-era Moodies – so much so that the song’s incipient Motown-isms were later recognised, and covered, by the Four Tops, although the recurring carillon of flute flutter and radiation-affected timpani is new. Hayward’s guitar leaps out of the picture, Pinder’s functional lead vocal (somewhere between Manfred Mann’s Mike Hugg and Greg Lake) weighs anchor and the song, and the side, build up to a huge choral climax with jabbering guitar. This love cannot be hidden away or kept at a distance; it must be approached, proved to be real, made to matter and exist.

Side two begins with “Never Comes The Day,” another Hayward composition which points the way towards the more familiar style that he would develop within the group, beginning very quietly and acoustically before methodically building up its structure with strings, then the rest of the group, then campfire harmonica and handclaps leading to a rousing singalong, before a return to the beginning and a second build-up. Its tale of two lovers who can’t ever quite manage to be together foresees Blur’s “Yuko And Hiro,” as does its odd sense of defeated spaciousness; hear the subtle, momentary minor key shift under the “you” of Hayward’s “But you will love me tonight.” Eventually the happy chant (“You know it’s true/We all know that it’s true” – still concerned with seeing what is right in front of us) disappears and we are left with the hands-off drone of guitar.

Thomas then returns for “Lazy Day,” another depressed shuffle partially indebted to Ray Davies and more so to the notion of Sunday as represented by Hancock a decade earlier – everything the sixties were meant to erase forever. However, the Volga boatmen chorus which bursts regularly into the song’s languid groove is disarming, as is the switch into a more aggressive 4/4 for the middle eight. The song is simultaneously far more resigned and far angrier than “Lazy Sunday,” even if it is not nearly as profound a piece of work; its put-the-kettle-on air of reflective nothingness sets the stage for Gilbert O’Sullivan and other amused spectators of the seventies – not to mention Blur’s “Sunday, Sunday” (and the video for “There’s No Other Way”).

It’s time to cut the dummy of realism loose; both Thomas and Hayward composed “Are You Sitting Comfortably,” and the song proceeds gently and, again, acoustically, though speaks of things like Merlin and Camelot, entities not previously encountered or referred to in this tale. In addition, Thomas’ poignant downhill flute-led chordal bridges are placidly seeking some sort of escape, and this song is clearly a preparation for something bigger and wider.

The break comes with the song’s dry dissolve into a second spoken interlude, “The Dream,” in which the same, slightly bemused voice we heard at the beginning of the album – speaks of the new life to emerge from the dead, the shedding of old skins and seasons, the threshold, indeed, of a dream. This sets the scene for the album’s tripartite climax, beginning with the first reading of the song “Have You Heard?” where Pinder appears to be revealing that which we are now supposed to see, having realised and faced the truth about ourselves in relation to the world, in a semi-smiling “you knew all along, didn’t you?” manner, over an unobtrusive thrust of Mellotron and strings.

We then embark upon Pinder’s five minute instrumental “The Voyage,” which is anything but reassuring; a strangely ungainly epic which alternates between disturbed contemplation and violent eruption; the strings and voices, real and Mellotronised, come in and out at unpredictable angles, Pinder’s piano cascades are rough and unnerving, the spectacle that of a proto-Vangelis universe in the process of combusting (and some of Vangelis’ early solo work, to say nothing of Aphrodite’s Child’s 666, is similarly unsettling). Following a climax which seems the very antithesis of “resolved,” “Have You Heard…?” steals back into the picture, Pinder beaming “Now you know how nice it feels,” before the song too fades into the original opening wind-drowned drone, which latter inevitably reaches a locked groove (and this is another album which demands to be listened to in its original vinyl format).

What, if any, are the conclusions? Does Threshold, and by extension the Moody Blues, represent the response of a very literal Middle England to the end of the sixties? Has the album been the documentation of a drug trip gone somewhat wrong, or has it offered pointers towards a better future, if only we still wanted it? Lacking the mystery or casualties of a Pink Floyd, it does seem to me that the group has been taken for granted; if Threshold had been a one-off by a hopeful, ambitious group which flopped, disappeared into the collectors’ market and resurfaced on Bob Stanley’s label in 2006, it would long since have been hailed as a post-psych British classic. But it was the third album by this manifestation of the group, following on from the initial adventures of Days Of Future Passed and the Eastern experimentation evident throughout In Search Of The Lost Chord, and consolidated their growing popularity. Its eighteen month residency on the album chart suggests that the record spoke to and for a lot of disillusioned people. In truth the Moody Blues, even at their most experimental, have always been what I would call conservative progressives; there is little on Threshold to upset the squares, yet the record can hardly be considered easy listening – indeed (pace K-Punk) deep listening is pretty mandatory here. They want to move on but at the same time are clinging, holding onto something that they can’t and won’t let go. But there is a deeper undertow at work; the realisation that a musician’s audience sometimes needs simple expressions of complex feelings, in relatively simple terms – in times of trouble, look at the world, look at your neighbour, realise what love and life really mean. A sense of reassurance which has in my view been grievously underrated in the last half century of pop – and, with that initial nod to the computer, and the continuing need to talk, to communicate, to integrate, to live as one, we can even experience the dreams of Threshold and see the likes of Coldplay, very far off on the horizons of tomorrow.

Monday, 16 November 2009

CREAM: Goodbye


(#64: 15 March 1969, 2 weeks; 12 April 1969, 1 week; 26 April 1969, 1 week)

Track listing: I’m So Glad/Politician/Sitting On Top Of The World/Badge/Doing That Scrapyard Thing/What A Bringdown

Ginger Baker has more than once claimed that he and Jack Bruce set up Cream as a free jazz trio in disguise (“with Eric Clapton playing the role of Ornette, although neither of us told Eric this”) and some of the work on their final, somewhat reluctant album bears this out, as well as further muddying the developmental streams which arose out of the British blues boom at the turn of the sixties and their subsequent overlap with, and interception of, developments in British jazz and improvised music as well as the gradual move of British rock into psychedelia and then the nascent, bipolar rivulets of prog and metal. Suddenly, in a sense not really present in the work of the Beatles or Stones, there is the physical feeling of listening to musicians who know exactly what they are doing, if not always why they are doing it. The three musicians heard on the three live cuts which form two-thirds of this comparatively brief record – its total playing time barely exceeds half an hour – indisputably have chops, each individual able immediately to act with and react against what each of the other musicians is doing.

But despite the inevitable showbiz tag which came with the name “Cream” – three club titans from, variously, the blues, rock and jazz fields, coming together and terming themselves the “cream of the crop,” the champs, the gaffers – very rarely in their music do we hear anything approaching virtuosity for its own sake. Rather this is a considerably more advanced milieu; musicians who, though perhaps not compatible with each other as human beings – there was a previous, long history of punch-ups and worse between Bruce and Baker when both served in the Graham Bond Organisation, and they came together again, at Clapton’s insistence, with considerable reluctance – were always determined to work, coalesce as musicians and create thrilling, adventurous music together. That they also had a peculiarly workable parallel pop sensitivity is more than evident from their 1967 masterpiece Disraeli Gears, and reflected (albeit to a lesser extent) in the three brief studio tracks which complete this package.

The Alan Aldridge-designed cover groaned with irony; by the time of the album’s appearance the group had already dissolved, and this is further underlined by Roger Hane’s colourful inner sleeve illustration of the track titles, set against imposing gravestones in a strangely over-blue cemetery. To some extent Goodbye was a cut-and-paste contractual obligation of a record, a minor addendum to their catalogue rather than a full-blown farewell masterpiece. But most of its music still rips out of the speakers with an intensity unusual even by its time’s standards; this was the time when, influenced by the parallel courses charted by Ornette and Miles – and particularly the latter’s move towards electricity, with the umbilical Brit boom link being provided by the employment of John McLaughlin and Dave Holland in Davis’ In A Silent Way and (later) Bitches’ Brew line-ups. Various circles of musicians were revolving cautiously around each other on both sides of the Atlantic, keen to pursue a genuine fusion of musics rather than the subsequent blandouts which would sadly characterise that genre.

Carla Bley had already started some provisional recording work on Escalator Over The Hill in November 1968, a month after Cream split (although Bruce did not become involved until recording sessions began in earnest in early 1970). En route to his pivotal role in that irreducible masterpiece, Bruce would do time in Tony Williams’ Lifetime alongside McLaughlin and Larry Young, and his work on Goodbye contains some clear pointers towards where he was headed. The three live tracks were drawn from a concert given at the Forum in Inglewood, LA, in October 1968, and at the very beginning of “I’m So Glad,” the Skip James tune which had previously appeared on the group’s 1966 debut Fresh Cream, Bruce already seems to be getting ready for Escalator; the four-strong descending chord sequence, though drawn from James’ original recording, would reappear throughout that work’s final two sides (in tandem with the word/motif “again”). James’ 1931 recording is almost schizophrenic in its approach; his numbing relief (his “gladness”) contrasting with the craving, androgynous falsetto he uses when conveying his tiredness with “weeping” and “moaning,” while his guitar moves at lightning pace through skilful and astonishingly (for 1931) modernist single line/divided chord tropes. This represented the “purist” side of the blues from which Clapton, via his work with Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, had emerged, but Cream’s hyperactive reading cruises along like the Beat Boom finally being set free from its club trappings.

It is also clear, however, that is Bruce, not Clapton, who is leading the group; it is his fuzzed bass which constantly plays with the tempo and barlines, which repeatedly breaks free of harmonic and (ultimately) rhythmic constraints – he is always ready with a suggestion, a swagger to boost the performance into free territory – and Baker who is quicker at following him and interlocking with him. Against this onset, all Clapton can do is to keep his countenance and hold anchor; he mostly concentrates on chords, rhythmic interceptions rather than melodic or harmonic adventure. Where Hendrix was clearly steering the Experience – Mitch Mitchell readily and speedily acting on his lead, Noel Redding usually content to occupy the stable middleground – Clapton is on “I’m So Glad” in danger of being frozen out of his own band. The workout comes to an abrupt pause – just before it was due to boil over – and the three return to the song; in Clapton’s phrasing there is some evident relief in this.

“Politician” is a Bruce/Pete Brown blues loper – “Red House”-speed Hendrix with an Oriental lilt to its melody – whose “big black car” uncannily foreshadows the opening minutes of entry #70. Its sardonic politics/sex analogy – “I support the Left, though I’m leaning to the Right/But I’m just not there when it’s coming to a fight” – also prophesises what the seventies would eventually become for many former liberals. A relatively restrained performance, “Politician” is most notable for Bruce’s Bishopbriggs snarls (his “hey baby”s are almost like Beefheart trapped in the Gorbals with only Alex Harvey for company), a virulence which he would tone down somewhat for his solo debut Songs For A Tailor later in 1969.

If “I’m So Glad” underlined Clapton’s debt to country blues, then Cream’s reading of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Sitting On Top Of The World” reintroduces the urban stream which Clapton had largely renounced since his Yardbirds days. In the original Wolf is damaged, but still regal; his mournfully confident, stentorian voice sits like a wounded lion atop a decayed throne, and his consort of harmonica and guitars provide a rough bed on which to sleep and lick his wounds. The irony of his words is patient, the pace unrushed but defiantly intense (there is something of the Lear about Howlin’ Wolf in repose, and something which reminds me of his near namesake, the Welsh actor Sir Donald Wolfit).

Cream’s feelings, in comparison, are necessarily jejune but more (superficially) intense. The song creaks out of Bruce’s lumbering floorboard of a bass (sounding practically electronic), accompanied only by Baker’s tick-tocking ride cymbal before the band blasts off. In the second verse there is a sudden, terrifying, jagged mesh of unison high-tension thrashing, like a beaver quivering on a newly activated pylon, which releases to uncover Bruce’s desperate, hoarse “I’m SITTIN’! SITTIN’!!” The spectre of Lennon’s “Yer Blues” is not far away. Clapton offers his best playing on the album here, pretty firmly in the Hubert Sumlin line of clean, finely pronounced single notes. Just as his solo is about to reach a resolution, however, Baker breaks the semblance of calm with hammering floor toms. Bruce’s “freight train” is accompanied by a fervent ride cymbal which then explodes into a cataclysm of cymbal wreckage, as though having decided to blow up the band.

The three studio pieces were prepared with producer/keyboardist Felix Pappalardi and provide a short but fascinating final insight into some of the pop roads Cream might have travelled. “Doing That Scrapyard Thing” is a second Bruce/Brown collaboration and more in keeping with the amiably warped road which Songs For A Tailor would travel; Bruce introduces the song with some bizarre pub piano which is rapidly drowned out by Clapton’s phased/filtered guitars. The lyric is standard late sixties cod-Carroll nonsense but Bruce bites into them with admirable relish (“Biting my favourite head-UH!”), complete with unaccountable falsetto leaps in each bridge. There may also, in lines like “Missing the walrus” and “Balancing Zeppelins on the end of my nose,” be a disguised commentary on what 1969 had lost and what was imminently to come. “What A Bringdown” is a Baker composition which takes the Wonderland fantasy metaphor into an East End knees-up pub (“Take a butcher’s at the dodginesses of Old Bill”). Moving along at a brisk 10/8 pace (anticipating “Living In The Past” in both structure and lyrical content), Pappalardi plays bass while Bruce sticks to keyboards, mainly a choppy Hammond organ. Midway we get a pained leper of a Clapton guitar weeping its way into the proceedings; this soon evolves into wah-wah wails against Bruce and Baker’s screams, Clapton now razoring his guitar. The song stumbles to a close with atonal piano bumps, tubular bells, concluding major chord organ (with slightly sardonic cymbal and snare commentary), bringing the proceedings, and the adventure of Cream, to a definitive close.

I have left “Badge” until last because it remains the strange, unaccountable axis of this record, and perhaps of its age. Written by Clapton and George Harrison, who, as “L’Angelo Misterioso,” also contributes guitar to the song (as a return of favours for Clapton appearing on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”), with some uncredited additional input from Ringo – he came up accidentally with the title when he misread Harrison’s handwriting on the sheet music (he had actually scribbled “Bridge” as they hadn’t yet thought of a name for the song) and also contributed the key, haunting line about the swans in the park (as key and inscrutable as its equivalent in “A Little Help From My Friends”) – this strangest of singles draws the first, firm line of closure underneath its decade. Constructed as three brief haiku-like verses with connecting final half-rhymes (“table,” “Mabel,” “cradle”) around a central five-line manifesto, the imagery is haunting, prematurely ghostly, and so is the performance; Pappalardi’s flanged piano and Hitchcockian hovers of Mellotron contributing to the song’s acute weightlessness. The scenarios foresee the longer accounts to be heard on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” but Clapton’s vocal remains calm and slightly impassive. Bruce’s bass bounds and curls like a waiting Siberian tiger (and, in places, strikingly akin to James Jamerson, although Bruce’s fuzziness counteracts Jamerson’s characteristically “clean” bass sound on his Motown sides. Still, they remain two differing, if parallel, routes from the central influential tollbooth of Mingus), Baker’s ticks and occasional, tuned floor tom curveballs like the centre of an abandoned clock tower. The song itself is scarcely straightforward in structure, its regular, long pauses startling even in 1969. What scenario are we witnessing?

Then Harrison breaks, like an icy, calming ray of nascent sunlight, into the song with his careful chimes (which Tom Schultz would echo with equal carefulness on Boston’s “More Than A Feeling” some seven years later). Baker rattles into wakefulness, Clapton kicks up his game, giving a fine and passionate guitar solo while warning “You better pick yourself up from the ground/Before they bring the curtain down.” These times, and not just this group, are coming to an end. But then Bruce’s bass shivers ecstatically down the scale and Baker follows him into the collapsing lift shaft as Clapton takes out the song, Pappalardi’s phantom violins screeching like expectant daggers, before it ends, unresolved, mysterious, alluring, chilling. I am not really convinced that Cream set the pace for hard rock – the real pacesetters were to come almost immediately in their wake, and as a final offshoot of a group which Clapton had once quit for being too “pop” – but they summarised the spirit of genuine adventure which decorated those miraculously unformed times; they were to an extent classicists, particularly when compared with the romanticist quantum leaps in everything which Hendrix was able to pull off on Electric Ladyland, but their appearance here marks a shift, a key change, a move towards what might or might not prove acceptable, or workable, in the seventies.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Diana ROSS and The SUPREMES and The TEMPTATIONS: Diana Ross & The Supremes Join The Temptations


(#63: 15 February 1969, 4 weeks)

Track listing: Try It Baby/I Second That Emotion/Ain’t No Mountain High Enough/I’m Gonna Make You Love Me/This Guy’s In Love With You/Funky Broadway/I’ll Try Something New/A Place In The Sun/Sweet Inspiration/Then/The Impossible Dream

It is a matter of some irony that in early 1969, as Motown finally managed the major commercial breakthrough in Britain, thanks to the twin powers of Dave Godin and Tony Blackburn – I will examine this phenomenon in greater detail in entry #75 – the label was experiencing something of an identity crisis back home. The sixties, and maybe Motown’s golden age, were coming to an end and facing the seventies was not going to be a simple shoo-in; the label’s best known songwriters, the Holland-Dozier-Holland team, had walked out and their top female and male acts also had an urgent need to re-establish themselves. What did Gordy and Motown have to say about the blood, confusion and abandonment of 1968? Were they really intent on a one-way trip to the supper club – or did this trip have a greater purpose?

The Supremes/Temptations team-up was a matter of economic as well as aesthetic urgency. Ed Sullivan’s sleevenote and the track listing – not to mention the TCB (Taking Care Of Business) television special which inspired the album – suggest another journey to that unreachable Ark of the Covenant, All Round Entertainment, but as ever the story and art are a little more complex. By 1968 the Supremes had lost Florence Ballard and the Temptations had lost David Ruffin; I say “lost” but both departures were a matter of a combination of jumping and being pushed – neither had done themselves any favours, and by all accounts were pretty well asking to be fired, but audiences had not taken to Cindy Birdsong or Dennis Edwards with the same, enthusiastic rapidity (again, the latter was not helped by Ruffin’s early attempts to gatecrash Temptations gigs and steal the show).

Furthermore, while the Supremes had long since crossed over to white audiences, the Temptations’ core constituency had remained black; it is significant that “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” marked the group’s first appearance in the UK top ten, and while their Temptations’ Greatest Hits package from 1967 spent ten months on our album chart they remained very much a cult, worshipped by the Beat Boomers from the Beatles and the Stones on down, but not really crossing over; there was both a darkness and a certainty about their strut, their underplayed but titanic influence on the groups who would appear in their wake. Unlike the reaching out of the Four Tops, there was a proud air of self-sufficiency about the Temptations, their act and their songs, even when shards of grief rained down on Ruffin in “I Wish It Would Rain” and elsewhere. Daryl Hall has termed them “the black Beatles” and that too cannot be understated; if James Brown was Elvis, then the Temptations changed the rules and redefined the boundaries again. But now Ruffin was gone, Edwards was settling in – he only gets two lead vocals on this album, so the welcome remained tentative – and on the sidelines Norman Whitfield had big ideas for where he thought they should go.

Still, Whitfield played no part in this record – Frank Wilson, the stalwart Motown backroom man responsible for “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do),” one of the greatest of all Northern Soul records, as well as (in combination with Smokey Robinson) later Four Tops masterpieces like “Still Water,” was the project’s executive producer – and the focus did seem to be an attempt at audience widening; bringing the former Primes and Primettes together in an effort to sell the Temptations to a bigger audience, and it is significant that the Temptations have by far the greater impact here than the Supremes; of the latter, only Diana Ross – also then beginning to consider jumping ship and going solo - is heard alone and Wilson and Birdsong make no impact at all.

“Try It Baby” begins like no other previous Motown album had done; with near inaudible nightclub finger snaps and bongos and, of all Temptations, Melvin Franklin, the group’s basso profundo, taking the lead vocal (a marked contrast to the androgynous wistfulness of Marvin Gaye’s 1964 original). Then HB Barnum’s rather intrusive big band arrangement strikes up, and in wafts Diana, crooning sweetly that her man should “move back across the track where you came from.” Then Paul Williams bursts into the proceedings with a fervid “Listen!” but the spectre of All Round Entertainment is sadly dominant.

Their “I Second That Emotion” sticks very close to Robinson’s original (which, as Robinson was producing, is unsurprising). Ross takes the initial lead but any tension is soon dispersed by imbecilic owl and car horn imitations (“Hoot! Hoot!”) from the Temptations. Paul Riser’s strings begin to exhibit some of the shivering glimmer which would eventually bear stark fruit on “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” and Eddie Kendricks does his best to inject some proper emotion into the song but the Miracles remain untouched, as indeed does the ascetic stillness of David Sylvian and Japan’s subsequent reading.

One has simply to say no to their “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”; in the Marvin and Tammi original you can palpate their ecstasy, their passionate rush across continents towards each other’s embrace (and indeed it was one of the first tracks they cut together). Despite Riser’s Morse code orchestrations, this version comes nowhere near that power (even with Dennis Edwards making his first solo appearance), nor to the starkly screaming reading which Diana herself would give the song scarcely a year later (the glutinous grand piano and glockenspiel flourishes in this reading do nothing to create astonishmnent). Overall the feeling thus far is one of Motown paying tribute to Motown; efficient enough but scarcely affecting or profound. The sound of water being trodden.

“I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” was the album’s big hit (although the song did not form part of the TV special); co-written by the young Kenny Gamble, it patters along fairly pedantically without any real explosions – Otis Williams’ winking “I’m yours!” retort to Diana’s “Hey baby” and Kendricks’ dynamic entry into the final bridge notwithstanding – and with the first of several pained and schmaltzy talkovers making its appearance. Surely the original purpose of the Supremes and Temptations was not to form a template for Donny and Marie.

The album reaches a dreadful nadir with their assassination of “This Guy’s In Love With You.” Some years ago I wrote the following about the definitive Herb Alpert reading:

“Think of the build-up of "This Guy's In Love" - just as the orchestra and chorus are about to boil over to a climax, Burt's piano suddenly shuts everyone up, there is a brief silence, and Herb's lone semi-voice is alone in its own sudden realisation of dread. He whimpers "if not, I'll just . . . die." A longer silence (why can't anyone use silence properly on records these days?). The trumpet resumes the tune to fade, almost reluctantly (no wonder the song was originally earmarked for Chet Baker).”

None of this combination of joy (for there is slowly awakening, gradually dumbfounding joy in Alpert’s version too) and dread filters through to the Supremes/Temptations version. Otis Williams sings the initial lead but Diana soon detours him with her raised eyebrow of “Really?” Dividing up the song between two voices makes no logical or emotional sense whatsoever, and matters are far from helped by Gene Page’s “It’s All At The Co-Op” arrangement of Radio 2 muted trumpets (which later, and unaccountably, turn military). After the climactic “die” – which Diana sings as anything but a climax, and significantly it’s the only “die” in this reading – there is a peculiar, out-of-tempo instrumental interlude before the song clumsily starts up again. The track is a mess, unworthy even of the George Mitchell Minstrels, and it’s something of a relief when the second “die” is avoided altogether and the song is put out of its misery before segueing straight into “Funky Broadway.”

It’s a pity that Motown didn’t do Stax more often (but then, didn’t Stax represent everything that Gordy was trying to escape from?), and Edwards’ update on Wilson Pickett marks the first moment on this album which actually sounds like 1969; James Jamerson’s unmistakeable bass making itself felt, the cat-like collective “OWWW!!!” squeals making a real, forceful impact, and overall this track is the real pointer to where Whitfield would take the Temptations with “Cloud Nine” and beyond – dynamic, and much too short.

Side two, gratifying, is a far more satisfactory affair, and not surprisingly the Temptations begin to take the upper hand here. “I’ll Try Something New,” an unhackneyed and seldom-heard Smokey/Miracles song, is given a fine reading and a genuinely inventive arrangement from Page (a truer line between his work on “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and his future as Barry White’s arranger); note the single note organ sustenato which accompanies the “tower so high” sequence. Their “A Place In The Sun” is not quite as appealing as the easy, optimistic swing of Stevie Wonder’s original but then times had changed since the latter; Jamerson introduces the song with a solemnly roving bass and the feeling is much more spiritual, hymn-like; Sullivan’s comment that “their harmonies go back to the headwaters of religious music” is particularly pertinent here. In addition there is evidence of genuine emotional exchange here as Otis Williams offers “On that OLLLLLLDDDDD….” and, in response to Ross’ “I want you always to remember” talkover, utters an unscorable “YEEEEEAAAAHHHHH!!!!” There is something of Stephen Foster coursing through the veins of this performance.

“Sweet Inspiration” sees the two groups nodding towards Southern soul; penned by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, one can imagine either Alex Chilton or James Carr singing this, and perhaps with a lot more conviction (see also the subject of entry #70). Here the song is given a brisk workout. The high string drone in the middle eight is notable but the Ray Conniff trombones are misplaced; Riser had still to work out the ideal Temptations arrangemental template.

“Then” is a wonderful, underexposed Smokey song, originally recorded by the Four Tops but also given an excellent reading here (Paul Williams on lead vocals). Not many songs, even in 1969, made a point of namechecking Longfellow and Beethoven (and certainly not within the same song), but Robinson’s metaphors are perfectly controlled, his harmonies adventurous (the five note seesaw of a string/brass figure which occurs after every chorus); here is yet another direct pointer to The Lexicon Of Love (“Valentine’s Day” in particular).

Then comes the big finale, their “The Impossible Dream,” and it might be the most remarkable thing on the record. Interpreted by virtually everybody at the time, including Scott Walker – and this is far from the last time we will be hearing of the song in this tale – it is worth remembering that its parent musical, Man Of La Mancha, took a distinctly postmodern view of the Don Quixote tale (but then, was not Cervantes himself postmodern three centuries too early?), setting it within the context of a Spanish prison, the prisoner (ah!) telling his tale, making it live and breathe as theatre within his confined space – a tale of a foolish old dreamer whose ridiculous quests are no substitute for or escape from the life which he resolutely declines to fill with genuine, living and breathing people and emotions. Indeed Auden was originally approached to write the lyrics for the show but his words were felt too inflammatory and audience-baiting for the backers; still, even watered down, “The Impossible Dream”’s accent is on the “impossible”; the vain attempt to manufacture glory out of daydreams (the mere other side of the coin of nightmare), the boast about the non-existent, the song about nothing except the nothingness in the mind of its singer masquerading as everything.

But of course such a song was tailored to have its potential meanings broadened out, and so it is the crucial case here; beginning with a solitary Moog (still unsettling in this early 1969 context), Diana begins the song unaccompanied. Eventually a harmonica comes in, and then drums, bass and Barnum’s orchestra, followed by ticking clocks of guitar and harp. The number builds and builds until we reach the inevitable cascade of bells, choir and full orchestra.

Then it ends - except that it doesn’t. We next hear a procession of military drums and Last Post bugle calls (so perhaps those trumpets on “This Guy’s In Love” aren’t so unaccountable), and then the Temptations take up the song again to a second, more pronounced (yet also more subtle) climax. There is the absolute absence of schmaltz or even showbusiness here; instead there is the inescapable feeling of a subtext, of a dream seemingly rendered impossible by the events of 1968 still sung of as attainable, achievable. Finally, those mysterious walking footsteps we heard at the transition from “This Guy’s In Love” to “Funky Broadway” reappear and take us out of the record. As though embarking on the beginning of a Million Man March, and perhaps this was the record and show’s real aim; to assume the clothes and appearance of white America while bearing their Trojan horse, to persuade America of their dream, to inculcate it within their new audience. I do not make claims for this record to be a direct forebear of What’s Going On? – particularly as Gaye, in tandem with Whitfield, was already getting ready for that with “Grapevine” at the same time – but as a spectacle – as a totality - it ends up more unsettling than reassuring, and such was the trick that it pulled. The Supremes and Temptations’ “Impossible Dream” is in its way as subversive as anything to appear on BYG Actuel in its year and its underlying message cannot have failed to be absorbed – particularly by the seven-year-old Obama.

Monday, 2 November 2009

The SEEKERS: The Best Of The Seekers


(#62: 25 January 1969, 1 week; 8 February 1969, 1 week; 29 March 1969, 2 weeks; 19 April 1969, 1 week; 3 May 1969, 1 week)

Track listing: I’ll Never Find Another You/A World Of Our Own/The Carnival Is Over/Someday One Day/Walk With Me/We Shall Not Be Moved/Morningtown Ride/When Will The Good Apples Fall/Island Of Dreams/Open Up Them Pearly Gates/Emerald City/Georgy Girl

“There’s a New World somewhere they call the Promised Land,” they sing at the beginning of the record and therein lay the attraction; a jaunty, sunny, optimistic jangle of a better future in another country, the same gilded smile we saw in 1962 in such records as “Wonderful Land” and “I Remember You.”

As far as Australia in the fifties and sixties was concerned, however, most of the travelling traffic appeared to be coming in our direction; prominent new arrivals in Britain over that period included Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes, Barry Humphries and Clive James, and musical re-pats included Frank Ifield (originally from Coventry) and the Bee Gees (from the Isle of Man via Manchester). In addition, the prospect of a new, happier land wasn’t quite reflected in the reality; at the beginning of the sixties the White Australian Policy, restricting non-white immigration into the country, was still on the statute books. The Aborigines were not granted the right to vote until 1967, and in that same year the Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt vanished without trace from a beach, almost a decade ahead of Reginald Perrin. And it is extremely crucial to remember that Australia sent conscripts to Vietnam.

All of this is well worth bearing in mind when listening to these dozen songs from the first Australian act – and, technically speaking, the first folk act - to appear in this tale, all of which seem to be about escape in one form or another. 1965’s “I’ll Never Find Another You” was their first hit single, and also their first UK number one, and sets the template pretty readily; boisterous, bustling acoustic guitars supported by Athol Guy’s sturdy double bass and some decorous hand percussion, while singer Judith Durham leads a seamless four-part harmony of voices, effortlessly stalwart and uplifting; an augmented Antipodean Peter, Paul and Mary. Even so, this declaration of love is primarily concerned with the fear of losing the singer’s “guide” and the presumptive prospect of walking “through the storm.”

The follow-up, “A World Of Our Own,” continues in the same vein, though slightly faster with a strangely jolly Highland lilt to its guitar lines, and too anticipates a new world, but the precise opposite of the expansive land “I’ll Never Find” promised; now it’s all about closing the door, shutting out the actual world (“Just leave us alone,” “That no one else can share”). Here Durham’s authoritative. penetrating voice verges on the glacial, a defensive mechanism fearful of wanton destruction.

Escape to the outer world, refuge to the inner self; all options were explored by the Seekers. Two early cuts, “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “Open Up Them Pearly Gates,” both contain bravura performances by Durham, clearly stretching back to Mahalia Jackson in terms of influence – she had been a singer on the Melbourne trad jazz scene before joining the Seekers – and which shriek exuberance at the prospect of exiting this life. “Well, I’m on my way to heaven,” she smiles on “We Shall Not Be Moved,” while “Pearly Gates” is self-explanatory; compare and contrast with the use of “We Shall Overcome” on Charlie Haden’s contemporaneous Liberation Music Orchestra album – on the deliberately cataclysmic “Circus ‘68/’69” (the record’s “Revolution 9”; see also, for the British revolutionary perspective, the “Conflict” climax of Westbrook’s Marching Song), a literal recreation of the Chicago Democratic Convention riots, Carla Bley’s imperious yet stately organ thunders out the tune amidst the chaos, and after the debris has cleared, the album closes with Roswell Rudd’s weary but defiant straight reading of the tune. We’re too busy fighting on Earth to go to heaven just yet. But the Seekers – perhaps echoing the anti-clericism of their Quaker-presaging seventeenth century namesakes – just want to get the hell out of here (in both senses, if one capitalises that “hell”).

But there are other unexpected collaborators at work here. “Someday One Day” is a very early cover of a Paul Simon song (Seekers guitarist Bruce Woodley subsequently co-wrote the song “Cloudy” on Parsley, Sage, Rosemary And Thyme) and a very good one too; though still relatively naïve lyrically, Simon’s trademark compositional tropes (the three-step descending melody/rhythm staircase at half speed against a bustling rhythm, for instance) are already well in evidence. “Morningtown Ride,” a huge hit over Christmas 1966, was written by Malvina Reynolds, the composer of “Little Boxes,” and despite the midtempo “Puffing Billy” canter of the tune (with onomatopoeic strings echoing both the train whistle and the fireman’s bell) there is a degree of unrest about the song’s tale of children, perhaps hidden away, being taken to an unspecified (“Somewhere there is sunshine”), faraway (but hopefully better) destination, a moonlight fleeing (“Somewhere there is day”) from unknown pursuers.

“I’ll Never Find” makes mention of the unimportance of money and material things when compared to complete love, and “When Will The Good Apples Fall” expands the premise slightly; we are asked to empathise with Durham’s rich girl who has everything except the one thing that money can buy; it was a hit just a few months before “She’s Leaving Home” was released.

As if to underline another important connection, however, we are also given the Seekers’ version of “Island Of Dreams,” the song Tom Springfield originally wrote and produced for the Seekers’ direct antecedents, the Springfields; six months on the UK chart through 1962, and the inevitable comparison with the female third of that particular trio comes through. Indeed, Durham generally is scarcely that far away, in either tone or timbre, from Dusty, but it is equally clear that Dusty moved as far away from the world of “Island Of Dreams” as possible; the outstanding British female singer of the sixties – and perhaps that “of the sixties” codicil is not needed – whose direct absence from this tale is a source of profound regret to this writer, had by now recorded Dusty In Memphis (to an indifferent British audience; “Son Of A Preacher Man” scored in the singles chart but the album did not trouble the scorers); hers was an encyclopaedia of a voice, capable of expressing every known emotion and most of the unknown ones, and I never quite escape from the impression that the Seekers is how Dusty might have ended up if she’d remained on the Springfields trail; bold and unmistakeable still, but lacking a certain and key expressive outlet. Once more, the song is about escape – it begins with the singer wandering the streets trying to forget her former lover, yearning to return to him, “far, far away from the mad, rushing crowd” – but its furtively emphatic jauntiness (the Seekers’ guitars were extremely close-miked and their collective percussive impact is quite striking) temporarily diverts the listener’s attention from what is being sung.

When the Seekers slowed down, however, they were perhaps more affecting. “Walk With Me” might be the best moment on the album; a slow, mournful, Springfield-penned waltz bearing a clear melodic and arrangemental debt to John Barry, Durham sings very touchingly, indeed prays, for the song is an extended prayer to be loved (“Take my hand, don’t desert me now/Please don’t hurt me now” she almost weeps); like the Seekers of old, supposedly heretical times, she needs the nowness, the physical presence (“More by far than a guiding star above”), and Harry Robinson’s blanket of strings cushions her towards a tearfully happy ending. Given that Robinson – the man who was once Lord Rockingham – was the man who would shortly be arranging “River Man” for Nick Drake, it is not that farfetched to picture the song as the meeting between Drake and Dusty which never, but should have, happened.

But at the other end of the record we are presented with perhaps the most bizarre item in the Seekers’ catalogue; “Emerald City,” their barely registering last hit (one week at #50 in December 1967). One is open-mouthed as one gradually realises that they are singing about the Wizard of Oz to the tune of Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” (complete with a slightly detached children’s choir) and, moreover, singing lines such as “Wizards will give us lemonade” in a manner which suggests more than mere analogy. It is scarcely a surprise to find that the song’s co-author (with the other Seekers guitarist Keith Potger) is Kim Fowley, one of the half-visible but absolutely key leylines which runs through the spine of sixties (and to a degree seventies) pop; and so the circle of escape is complete – they have sung about escaping to places that possibly don’t exist, and even escaping by means of death. But “Emerald City” plays like a Light Programme variant on “White Rabbit” and that in turn draws another comparison – Durham, in both appearance and voice, is astonishingly close to Grace Slick, and it is perhaps not idealistic projection to presume that this is how, once, Jefferson Airplane might have sounded had the Great Society chosen a different tack.

The album closes with the only song not in chronological order, and their only major American hit, “Georgy Girl,” co-written by Springfield and Jim Dale, was the title tune of a theoretically promising movie made dreary by James Mason and the plot’s subsequent degeneration into a rerun of Lolita, but the song’s accusatory brightness cuts with undiminished sharpness, as sharp as the acerbic whistling/acoustic guitar unisons of its hook; a plea to the girl to stop living a fantasy, to get off the shelf, to stop being “dowdy,” and to radicalise – a slight pause and then a winking “a little bit” (well, this was still Britain). But its message is the same as that of “Dear Prudence” – won’t you come out and play? And maybe that’s the key to the relevance of the Seekers and this record as its decade stumbled to a close; we knew that something was coming to an end, wasn’t quite sure what was going to replace it, perceived that we might have to improvise a replacement. Whatever was coming, though, we had to make preparations to get out of the sixties, escape from them; and so “The Carnival Is Over,” the Seekers’ biggest UK hit – almost a million and a half copies sold as a single – returns three-and-a-half years later to wind down the proceedings, seal up the party; based on an old Russian folk tune, Tom Springfield (and especially Judith Durham’s startling vocal) already sees too clearly where the whole thing is heading, and as a pop record it remains an epic number one and possibly even a prototype power ballad – it is the Seekers’ most “structured” single and its ramifications (Pierrot and Columbine being two stock mime characters, short-term love – or fling – exposed as a façade, a transitory passing; also immortalised in paint by Picasso in 1900) were clearly not lost on the eight-year-old Melbourne boy Nick Cave, who a generation later – along with a retitled reading of Tom Jones’ “Weeping Annaleah” – would give the song an extremely dignified (if incontrovertibly bruised) reading on his Kicking Against The Pricks album. Farewell to the old world and greetings to a potentially uncomfortable new one – get your tools out and start building the exit doors.