Monday, 21 December 2009

JETHRO TULL: Stand Up


(#69: 9 August 1969, 3 weeks; 6 September 1969, 2 weeks)

Track listing: A New Day Yesterday/Jeffrey Goes To Leicester Square/Bourée/Back To The Family/Look Into The Sun/Nothing Is Easy/Fat Man/We Used To Know/Reasons For Waiting/For A Thousand Mothers

A slice of typical 1969 blues-rock lumbers into view; apparently weighed down by its own history, it stumbles over itself like a worried spider, scuttled in a Soho cellar. It owes something to Cream and the singer’s voice is not unlike that of Jack Bruce’s but there is a deeper, perhaps harsher, possibly more cunning tone to his timbre. He is singing a song of abject dejection; he found someone, or something (“Spent a long time looking for a game to play”) yesterday, but only got the chance to kiss her once, and now he has to be somewhere, or something, else (“My luck should be so bad now to turn out this way”). “It was a new day yesterday,” he ruefully observes, “but it’s an old day now.” Cue a flute, an instrument not generally seen in blues-rock; moaning about its player’s rotten luck, a tone and attack which were always much closer to Harold McNair than to Roland Kirk.

This moment – and a useful counteract, two generations ahead, to Elbow’s equally stumbling but far less surefooted “One Day Like This” – may mark the opening parry of the second wave of the British invasion in this tale, Cream having provided the bridge back to the first influx. But the song also indicates a farewell to what Jethro Tull had hitherto been; its leader wished to express the blues in somewhat different forms, and its original guitarist, wishing to stay firmly within the blues as he knew them, had decamped to form Blodwyn Pig.

Hence “A New Day Yesterday” is a markedly pronounced goodbye to Tull’s recent past, and with the second track on their second album the lightness of being makes itself visible, at least musically; the mood is now delicate, acoustic (with some Leslie cabinet-filtered electric lead guitar comments), waltzy. New guitarist Martin Lancelot Barre handles flute duties on “Jeffrey” although Ian Anderson’s lyric and growl (“Bright city woman…/Gonna get a piece of my mind,” the rhetorical quatrain of “me”s on “you don’t fool me”) still seem blues-derived. He views the urban wannabe with some distaste, but his is a radically different viewpoint from the Woodstock August 1969 that the States knew; the wan flute, Clive Bunker’s brushes, place the record firmly in a slightly gloomy end-of-the-trip 1969 Britain; downbeat, introspective, looking for a quieter way out. Tull’s rurality– and let us not forget that they were named after the eighteenth-century pioneer of modern British agriculture – did not really resemble the loping wagons of Canned Heat’s “Going Up The Country.”

“Bourée,” an instrumental adaptation of the fifth movement of Bach’s Bourrée in E Minor, is perhaps the record’s most telling articulation of this mood. Moving steadily through jazz, folk and light blues styles, there is a loneness to Anderson’s flute – and again one thinks of McNair’s work with Donovan, for instance on “Sunny Goodge Street” – which almost defies rescue. I think of those ruminative Nick Drake instrumentals – since this was also, had he only known it, Drake’s time – and in particular the heartbreaking “Sunday” with its already doomed rolling hills of strings.

Glen Cornick’s bass solo on “Bourée” also reminds us that Stand Up might be the first number one album to derive purely from the hippy era; after all, its original, woodcut-based gatefold sleeve opened up like a children’s book to reveal pop-up figures of the quartet, defying us to imagine what they are thinking, coupled with the deliberately charming credits (“Some songs for you,” “and…er, well yes! It really has turned out nicely”). If the Moody Blues represented the mainstream of progressive British rock, then Tull are a very different prospect; in place of the Moodies’ intricately and immaculately arranged setpieces, Tull provide an intuitive degree of interaction and spontaneity more in keeping with the prime folk and jazz movers of the period (see Pentangle’s contemporaneous Basket Of Light for confirmation). There were of course the shaggily dogged stories and cautiously euphoric discontinuities of the Incredible String Band, but of course there was also Traffic – and we’ll be getting back to the latter very soon, albeit at one remove – and the general air of getting collective heads together in the electricity-free country cottage. And inevitably there was Led Zeppelin, to whom Anderson dedicated the 2001 CD remaster of Stand Up; they invited Tull to support them on their 1969-70 arena tour of the States and it was there that the group learned about large-scale dynamics and also worked up the stage act for which the likes of Lester Bangs, not knowing much about British art or music hall traditions, would gloomily berate them – but theirs is a story which will have to wait a few more entries before taking up.

Back in the city, Bunker’s tick tock drums rudely awaken Anderson, who provides a frustrated yawn of a vocal. “So I think I’ll go back to the family,” he muses, “where no one can ring me at all.” Here is a reluctant urbanite who really has had enough; indeed he sings “I’ve had about all I can take” before the group pauses and effects a heavier re-entry into the song. His flute sounds positively exasperated but the overall mood, as well as the smiling bookend guitar arpeggios, put me in mind of Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake a year later; the craving for space and air now becoming a desperate gasp for oxygen. The song speeds up and Barre’s extremely 1969 lead guitar sweeps in for a modestly extended jam (since this is also the age of stretching out your songs, much as the arriviste would stretch out their weary legs atop a hopefully green pasture). But Anderson keeps changing his mind: “Doing nothing is bothering me/I’ll get a train back to the city/That soft life is getting me down,” he now declares, only for the weary urbanite to return almost immediately: “Every day has the same old way of giving me too much to do.” The crisis of 1969’s young Britain; can’t do with it, won’t do without it.

Side one ends with “Look Into The Sun” – does that imprecation sound familiar? – and we are back in mournful acousticland, a more formalised ISB template into which Barre’s wah-wah pedal eventually wanders. Anderson very effectively contrasts the notion of “sad songs” with the word “glad”; again he is pining for the mythical girl he once knew and now has lost, and although he sounds as though he is advising, “To walk is better than to run,” he ceaselessly questions his own decisional path (“Or was it better then to run?”). He ends the song, chilled out but hopeful. It would seem that everyone in 1969 Britain felt the need to slow down, or maybe stop altogether.

“Nothing Is Easy” fades in with a brisk, back-to-work gallop, and Anderson roars beautifully about “one white duck on your wall” before taking the song’s basic life on the road/in a group model and developing it into a frighteningly convincing declaration of principles: “Isn’t it just too damn real?” he hisses at one point. “Fly away…from the fingertip ledge of contentment,” he warns at another point. “My zero to your power of ten equals nothing at all,” he confesses at yet another stage. But he goes on to compare himself to a “Black Ace dog handler,” a “waiter on skates,” and the lurid allegories of the song’s concluding laps – “Love’s four-letter word is no compensation,” “foreskin conclusion,” “cold breakfast trays” – give a terrifying sense of conviction, especially as a mask for total uncertainty. Meanwhile the song itself makes, via Bunker’s drum solo, with the Mingus accelerando (see Black Saint And The Sinner Lady) towards a free-form pile-up.

With “Fat Man” Anderson retreats a little in volume, if not in confidence; rather than anything resembling a rock band, the song is driven by auxiliary percussion (slightly reminiscent of Pharaoh Sanders’ Karma) and Anderson’s balalaika (when he’s not singing or blowing his flute, he lends himself to all sorts of stringed and keyboard instruments throughout the record). Both are possibly speeded up, and over this unlikely bed Anderson rants about his happiness in being a thin man again; observe his orgiastic “Too-hoo-WHOO!” at the end of the phrase “and all the night time too.” There is more than a hint of Zeppelin’s subsequent adventures into acoustic, folky franticity.

“We Used To Know” in contrast is a patiently measured ballad in which Anderson returns to what I perceive to be the album’s – and possibly 1969 British rock’s – central theme. “Nights of winter turn me cold,” he sings. “Fears of dying, getting old” – and yet Anderson was only twenty-two. Nonetheless, he sings from the observed perspective of a character who feels that things are perhaps already doomed, peering remorselessly into the chasms of modern “living” before coming to the conclusion that “The race was won by running slowly,” with the strong suggestion that it still could be. He departs mournfully with the warning “But for your own sake – remember times we used to know” before Barre’s guitar weeps slightly less gently than before.

“Reasons For Waiting” is, however, the record’s big balladic setpiece, Once again there is an acoustic beginning before the music picks up, though not to an overbearing degree. Anderson is standing or sitting up, watching his (once?) lover sleeping, wondering again about that day which he so venerates, the day when everything and everyone simply seemed to click, be in tune, in tandem with each other’s needs. Like Gabriel at the climax of Joyce’s The Dead, he observes in the dreading knowledge that he can no longer – or could ever – touch the sleeping woman, and so his mind wanders to the skies, his wishes, which he already knows are foredoomed, fall upon her sleeping, once-weeping face like petals rescued from the newly-laid moon. David Palmer’s strings – a light far from damning – make their discreet entrance, and somehow I think ahead towards Seal, and Anne Dudley, and Trevor Horn, and have to pinch myself to remind myself that we are still in the sixties, albeit almost at their end.

Then, for the finale, Anderson reverts to one of the oldest tales in the rock ‘n’ roll book; “For A Thousand Mothers” is a cackling song of imperious revenge on the parents who just didn’t understand. Bunker’s 6/8 drums are harsh, martial, with multiple cymbal crashes. The melodic procedural is medieval but the tambourine which makes itself apparent in the final verse hisses like a snake, and Anderson seizes his opportunity, his moment, to damn and decry they who would have fucked him up. Words like “Did it surprise you to be picked up at eight in a limousine?” could in a different time have come from Eminem. His is a terrible rage, and the machine of the music carries his still-smouldering anger to its justified destination.

Anderson would come back to this issue at least once more, with the late 1969 stand-alone single “Sweet Dream,” still one of the most extraordinary top ten hits of any age, standing as it does somewhere between Ravel’s Bolero and Love’s Forever Changes as Anderson prepares to elope, to escape her parents, to get away from the past and embrace the future – in stark and deliberate contrast to the deliberate and oft-missed irony of “Living In The Past.” Coming after Ray Conniff and Jim Reeves, Stand Up returns to draw a line under the generation gap - it is worth noting that the young Nick Cave was a major fan of Tull and in particular this album – but its message is a familiar one, albeit more savagely delivered; we’ve got to get out of this place.

(Author’s Note: And, for that matter, I’m getting out of this place for the next couple of weeks; this is the last TPL post before I take a long-delayed and much-deserved break for the holidays. Thanks to everyone who’s come here, found the blog, read it and/or commented on it, either here or elsewhere. Entry #70 – where a recent past comes back to haunt us – will appear early in the New Year. All good wishes for 2010 and see you all again soon – M.C.)

Monday, 14 December 2009

Jim REEVES: According To My Heart


(#68: 12 July 1969, 4 weeks)

Track listing: According To My Heart/Don’t You Want To Be My Girl/Don’t Tell Me/You’ll Never Be Mine Again/I’ve Lived A Lot In My Time/If You Were Mine/Don’t Ask Me Why/Stand At Your Window/What Would You Do/I Can’t Fly

We hear vibrant fiddles and steel guitar with an unexpectedly bold, youthful and high-pitched voice confidently riding the crests of this song of hope (“The future will be bright”), already knowing enough about the emotional and rhetorical structures of pop singing to coast along his three-note, trisyllabic ascents to the words “love” and “heart.” Musically this is Bob Wills/Hank Williams liveliness, but the voice at this stage is still lending itself more towards the likes of Jimmie Rodgers and Vernon Dalhart – what annotator Charles Weaver rather sniffily refers to as purveying a “pseudo-popular singing style” – full of anxious life and partially fulfilled optimism.

This is Jim Reeves, in 1955, singing “According To My Heart,” and it’s a startlingly raw Jim Reeves to those who know only his later, more velvety work. Fresh off his stint as the singing host of the radio show Louisiana Hayride and newly signed to RCA, here is someone still in the process of forging his own style, finding his way out of his influences and adding a few more askew influences on his way to a smoother individuality.

The album to which that song lent its title was a budget-priced reissue of a 1960 compilation of odds and sods – B-sides, previously unreleased tracks, etc. – issued in the immediate wake of his big crossover hit “He’ll Have To Go.” In the wake of Nashville Skyline, and in light of the fact that as man landed on the Moon this was the most popular album in Britain, it is tempting to regard According To My Heart as a backwards glance towards the beginning of its remarkable decade, in order to assess how far anyone, or anything, had come.

It was, of course, also the second posthumous UK number one album, and as with JFK there is a case for saying that Reeves represented a lost idol for many people – particularly those of Irish Catholic descent – who would have preferred a sixties with rather than without him. In entry #50 I touched upon the popularity of country-derived music in the community of Irish immigrants who settled in the north of England and in Scotland after the war and particularly throughout the sixties and seventies; since I grew up in west central Scotland I can attest that country was the dominant music, the music most heard and loved, where I lived, to a far greater extent than rock or pop. This is unsurprising given that much of the architecture of country music owes its being to the music which the Scots and Irish had already brought over with them to the States in the nineteenth century. And the Jim Reeves constituency in Britain, though not exclusively northern based, was certainly weighed in great favour towards the north and the Celtic contingent in particular. The works of James Kelman, for instance, certainly underline what a crucial, and perhaps life-preserving, tonic country music could be to the downtrodden working classes of Glasgow; see the tenement shebeen which climaxes A Disaffection, or its use as Sammy’s main guide back into the world in How Late It Was, How Late.

This compilation serves several useful purposes, not the least of which is providing a fuller formative picture of the younger Reeves, although, as with Nashville Skyline, its ten tracks collectively clock in at around the 27-minute mark. The title track is by far the record’s most optimistic, but the mostly major key-biased, midtempo Western swing-mutating-into-C&W template holds firm throughout. “Don’t You Want To Be My Girl” introduces the record’s first degree of emotional ambiguity. Recorded in 1960, the track demonstrates how Reeves had already begun to assimilate the influences of Crosby and Sinatra into his technique; now he is assuming his more familiar guise, crooning closely and softly into the microphone, although his more fortissimo moments, as Weaver asserts, owe a good deal to what Weaver calls “those fence-busting innovators,” and in particular Eddy Arnold.

If Reeves is smoother here, however, he is also more afraid, and more elusive. He is expressing sympathy towards a woman whose man doesn’t – we are asked to presume – treat her as she ought to be treated and prematurely offering his replacement hand; the pedal steel raises a quizzical eyebrow at his “He’s gonna drop you…he told me himself.” His three-note descent to contrabass on the “love” of “nobody hides a love” is not absent of threat or menace. In “Don’t Tell Me,” conversely, he is the one who has been cuckolded. Sharply picked out lead guitar notes do a more explicit job of emphasising Reeves’ concealed (by regret) rage; his “Don’t you realise” is agonised, high, and he can barely conceal the hatred underpinning the phrase “snuggles closer and laughs at every silly little line.”

“You’ll Never Be Mine Again,” structurally not dissimilar to Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” complete with call and response backing singers, has Reeves in a superficially more resigned mood, but again he is in tatters over this “someone else” who keeps materialising like an unwelcome pursuer from an unspecified past. He trembles palpably on the “pretend” of “pretend that your world is mine,” and by the time we reach “Then my world will come to an end” we realise we are dealing with a spirit as troubled, and perhaps as paranoid, as that of Roy Orbison.

“I’ve Lived A Lot In My Time” is the album’s keynote song, and the only one not specifically concerned with love (apart from a crucial couplet – “I had a sweetheart/But I was unfaithful”); here Reeves is Everyman, down from a mansion to his last dime, fighting with the Grim Reaper and walking with the Master in the same Dark Valley, but peacefully impatient to taste “Eden’s green pastures”; here is the aged wanderer of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” the scarred Harding, who has endured everything and is not entirely sure whether he has learned anything. The approaching end of the Worried Man’s road, and the “Woo-ooh” of the female backing singers are the sirens luring him to the final field which might yet turn out to become an ocean.

“If You Were Mine” sees us back with the exuberant mid-fifties Reeves, promising the world to his as yet uncommitted hopeful Other; his “before” in “you’ve ever been loved before” is positively lascivious, and his hyperactive “Mine MINE mine!” remarkably virile. But in “Don’t Ask Me Why” he’s won her, and she’s playing around, and there’s nothing he can do about it; he struggles to preserve his countenance but the high, gasping “MIGHT” of “You might as well ask me why I breathe” and its counterpoint, low register, clenched “breathe” in the same line document a mind in turmoil. “…or why I live at all,” he continues; and the “calls” in the second middle eight (“answer when she calls”) is sustained beyond tolerable length and vividly despondent.

“Stand At Your Window,” despite or because of its enthusiastic boys together harmonies on the title, is more disturbing still. She is in her mansion – another mansion, you may note – and he is standing beneath it, making a sinister deal of the contrast between the light in her window and the darkness of his soul in the gutter underneath. Despite the slightly incongruous rolling piano, this is an uneasy portrait of what is essentially a stalker – but I am also reminded of a Canadian who began his career in the fifties with the Buckskin Boys, who a lifetime later would write an astonishing song-cum-epitaph apologising to his would-be Other for ignoring her while she stood beneath his window, with her bugle and her drum, while he was waiting for the miracle to come. Leonard Cohen narrowly escapes direct inclusion in this tale since Songs From A Room had been kept off number one two months earlier by, successively, the Seekers and the Moody Blues, but the streams have to be taken into full account.

In “What Would You Do,” Reeves finally owns up. “You call me a cheater,” he sings, humbly (Weaver refers to these “humble true-love ballads” as being the polar opposite of the “beat-dominated charts of today”), caught out, before continuing, slightly more bravely, “Well, maybe that’s true.” “But…” he explains, “…with heaven at your fingertips – what would you do?” He has surrendered to his baser instincts, and perhaps located his greater ecstasy in doing so, and all he can now do is fumble with reasoning and excuses, the underlying subtext being: really, you’re no better, are you?

Lena points out that the subject matter of these songs – losing love from nearly every possible angle – and the song titles themselves would have been entirely fitting for a group like the Wedding Present; again, David Gedge, growing up in the Leeds of the sixties and seventies, could hardly have failed to absorb Reeves’ music in his youth (and we think also of Morrissey and Marr’s parents on the other side of the Pennines, not to mention Richard Hawley in Sheffield, and many, many others, John Lydon and Shane MacGowan included). But Reeves never deals in self-pity or explicit grief; his final word on this record is a resigned, regretful shrug of his shoulders (even though he is clearly reddening with fury underneath). In “I Can’t Fly” he accuses his soon-to-be-forsaken partner of wanting him to be “perfect,” and as the honky tonk rolls under the third verse he apologises, in a manner not entirely bereft of anger, “You’re looking for an angel, and I’m sorry I can’t fly.” He bids a sardonic farewell as she goes on looking for “that perfect guy” and comments “I hope his wings are pretty.”

What strikes me most about According To My Heart as a record is the complete lack of a barrier between Reeves and the listener. Lena reckons his voice and timbre are not dissimilar to Kermit the Frog (emphatically not intended to be an insult) and maybe his manner was the same; someone, like Kermit, who is perfectly comfortable with who and what he is. As far as his wider impact as an artist and general influence is concerned, we will be returning to his work in due course, but I should point out at this juncture that it would be a mistake to put Reeves under the same cut-price MoR banner as Ray Conniff; indeed, this album and its predecessor are polar opposites in virtually every way. Conniff, the urbanite from Massachusetts, fashioning meticulous, distant, polished music that breathes aspirational, white collar, conservative; whereas Reeves, the country boy from Texas, is distinctly blue collar, working class, Democrat-voting, communal music (unsurprisingly Reeves was a JFK voter). We think of ruminative figures at the bar; lonesome long-distance truck drivers, men with plenty of time to think and to drink. Music to enable commensality, the communal breaking of bread, and sipping of wine, at the common table. And this music spoke more directly to them than many others that could be nominated.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Ray CONNIFF: His Orchestra, His Chorus, His Singers, His Sound


(#67: 21 June 1969, 3 weeks)

Track listing: Memories Are Made Of This/I’ve Got You Under My Skin/Volare/They Can’t Take That Away From Me/Greenfields/Melodie d’Amour/Days Of Wine And Roses/Spanish Eyes/Somewhere My Love/Mrs Robinson/Up Up And Away

“Terminal addicts don’t notice how alienated they have become from old life, old friends, old ways, old interests. One day you realise you’d rather stay right here in this warm and comfortable drug chair, here, in the cool un-cruel shade, this the only place my mind don’t ache, this the only place my soul feels ripe, this the one place my body don’t itch and yelp and hurry, I like it here, what’s the problem, here I don’t need to DO anything, don’t need to meet anyone else’s demands, don’t need to stress or argue or bargain or barter or seduce or shine…I can just be me. And dream. Endlessly dream.”
(Ian Penman, “Notes Toward A Ritual Exorcism Of The Dead King,” from the anthology The Resistible Demise Of Michael Jackson: Ropley, 0 Books, 2009)

“But I’ll keep on waiting ‘til you return,
I’ll keep on waiting until the day you learn
You can’t be happy while your heart’s on the roam,
You can’t be happy until you bring it home,
Home to the green fields and me once again,
Home to the green fields and me once again.”
(“Greenfields” by Terry Gilkyson, Rich Dehr and Frank Miller)

It is January, 1972, three days past my eighth birthday. In the White House President Richard Nixon is hosting a dinner to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Reader’s Digest magazine. The guest list has been carefully drawn up by his trusted adviser, Irving Kristol; the Reverend Billy Graham, Lionel Hampton, Bob Hope – guaranteed non-boat rockers, guaranteed non-rockers, full stop (even if in another life Hampton might have held one of the strongest claims for inventing rock).

The onstage entertainment is to be provided by the Ray Conniff Singers. Conniff doesn’t have his usual band of crack West Coast session players to hand; he is using a small pick-up group of musicians from the Marine Corps and has had to hire in singers specially for the occasion, on the recommendation of his then contractor Jay Meyer. One of these is a Canadian, Carole Feraci, originally from Toronto but resettled in southern California. Initially when she gets the call from Meyer she’s sceptical but later calls back to accept the engagement. Unknown to anyone else, she and her boyfriend have meanwhile thought up a plan.

The singers make their way onto the makeshift stage. As Feraci approaches the microphone, she suddenly produces a banner. “STOP THE KILLING,” it states. She then begins a short speech, directed directly at Nixon, who keeps his countenance. The speech culminates in this sequence, which was shortly to become world famous:

“If Jesus Christ were here tonight, you would not dare to drop another bomb.”

Conniff reaches for the banner and tries to grab it but Feraci is too quick for him and holds onto it confidently. “Bless the Berrigans,” she concludes, “and bless Daniel Ellsberg.”

In a room filled with the thickest and iciest of silences, Conniff strikes up the band. The song is “Ma, He’s Makin’ Eyes At Me,” a number which, in its Johnny Otis Show manifestation, had started a revolution fifteen years previously. She sings it dead straight, eyes unblinking. After the song has ended, voices in the audience yell for her to be thrown out. Conniff apologises to Nixon for the unexpected disturbance and then politely asks Feraci to leave; she politely does so. Immediately she is surrounded by reporters and cameramen; Secret Service agents are lurking but have been told to play it cool. Eventually she leaves the White House and disappears into history.

If anything got Nixon elected in 1968 – Sirhan Sirhan and Mayor Daley notwithstanding – it was his promise to end the Vietnam war. His beloved “great silent majority” core of supporters were weary of war and of the post-Kennedy promise which they felt had been squandered; they were afraid of Eugene McCarthy, weren’t much inspired by Hubert Humphrey. As things turned out, of course, the war laboured on for several more years; but that “silent majority” (and we should recall that the original meaning of that term relates to “the dead”) craved stability, some semblance of a return to the America they thought they once knew. In any case, many felt Nixon had been cheated out of the job by JFK back in 1960, and were increasingly baffled and intimidated by their free-thinking offspring with their new fangled ways of doing things and living life. They, in short, were scared, and thus the parallel refuge to music which sounded like the music they used to know; clear tunes, definable words, smart singers and musicians, the haze of memory wafting in from those ancient breezes. Life before younger life came to spoil everything.

Once upon a time, Ray Conniff too was scared; in the late forties he had relocated his family to Hollywood after the big band scene had fizzled out for partly economic and partly fashion-related reasons. He had previously made something of a name for himself as a relatively imaginative trombonist, composer and arranger for bandleaders including Bunny Berigan, Glenn Miller and Harry James, having (it should be noted) learned the basics of composition and arrangement via a mail order correspondence course in the thirties. But inventive solos and charts didn’t pay the bills, and after a couple of years in Hollywood Conniff was feeling the pinch, having to take on manual labouring to keep his children’s heads above water, always facing the imminence of bankruptcy and foreclosure.

Out of his fear he formulated a plan. He sat down and carefully studied and analysed every number one Billboard hit record of the preceding ten years, in tandem with the leading advertising jingles over the same period. He studied the commercial virtue of repetition, the relationship of rhythms to hooks, the most palatable ways in which voices and instruments could be combined to produce the best value result. The strategy paid off, and he was soon hired by Columbia producer Mitch Miller as a staff arranger. Miller’s story and relationship to pop – a story which, amazingly, has not yet ended at the time of writing – will be looked at more fully at a later stage as, equally amazingly, he will crop up again in this tale (as a contributor to entry #116).

But Conniff’s big break came with his score for “Band Of Gold,” a 1956 ballad hit for the crooner Don Cherry (needless to say, not the same Don Cherry who in 1956 was rehearsing with Ornette Coleman in L.A. in preparation of overthrowing other notions of order). His tactic here was to substitute a chorus of voices for a string section; they were wordless, purely instrumental, smooth, and an instant success. He went on to arrange many hits for the likes of Guy Mitchell, Marty Robbins and Rosemary Clooney before Columbia gave him the chance to record with his own orchestra. Assembling a band of stalwart West Coast studio reliables, many of whom had known Conniff from the big band days (for instance, guitarist Al Hendrickson, formerly a staple of the Artie Shaw Orchestra), and an eight-strong team of singers (four male, four female), Conniff’s albums found great and immediate favour. Covers of albums such as The Hi-Fi Companion, The Happy Beat and It’s The Talk Of The Town set the tone; this music was hip, swinging and urban without being especially threatening.

As the fifties ironed themselves into the sixties Conniff’s album covers leaned towards featuring pretty girls with beaming (if rarely smiling) faces filling the (hopefully) welcoming space, the only striking exception being 1964’s Invisible Tears, an album of country-flavoured ballads whose cover featured no faces but simply the title and Conniff’s name in large, black, forbidding type; there was, as we shall see, more than a hint of recividist melancholy underlying Conniff’s work.

His Orchestra, His Chorus, His Singers, His Sound was a budget-priced sampler of key tracks from the 1960-8 period released especially for the European market and to publicise Conniff’s then current European tour and owes its inclusion in this tale (as does its successor, entry #68) to a brief experiment undertaken by chart compilers the British Market Research Bureau where all albums – both full-priced and budget-priced – were included in the same chart rather than (as had previously been the case) separate ones. The gold and black label (“THIS LABEL IS REMOVABLE”) on my copy indicates that in Britain it retailed for fifteen shillings, but does that mean that the music sounds cheap, and if so, whether Conniff’s career is a long term study of the impotency of cheap music?

I am not so sure. The album devotes a side apiece to his “Chorus” work and his “Singers” work, and the difference – or, if it can be counted as such, the evolution – is quite remarkable. As soon as Conniff’s 1960 band breaks into “Memories Are Made Of This” – which, along with “Volare,” ushers in that most insecure of holders of fleeting memory, Dean Martin, a man for whom, in 1969, life was already becoming a memory, he having become his own legend, and therefore, strictly speaking, outside himself – his debt to his big band schooling is obvious. Despite the occasional harp glissandi and the decently distant, wordless chorus echoing in the middleground, “Memories” gives us a useful beginner’s class in big band arranging. With every verse Conniff varies the voicings; in the first, the trumpets carry the main melody while the saxophones do the calling and responding, in the second the trombones work against the trumpets, and that latter scenario is reversed in the final verse. In addition, the surprisingly brash and bold trumpets throughout – a direct legacy from Conniff’s Harry James days – indicate that, while this music clearly aimed to please, it was not a lazy music.

Conniff had worked out his “Sound” with geometrical precision, and despite the progressive modifications he applied to it, the basic precepts never changed; discreet rhythm, set back in the mix, with the accent on echoing rhythm guitar and click bass, with enough space to allow brass, reeds and voices to come through in meticulously-determined proportions. In addition, he was very much in favour of large unison brass/reed lines, as can be demonstrated by his arrangement of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” which, if dutifully and scrupulously stripped of all the sex, dirt and longing both Cole Porter and Frank Sinatra had applied to the song – as with many other tracks here, it could have served as the backing track to courtly Home Counties formation dance teams, cha-cha rhythm and all – its horn voicings look curiously forward to the work of Medeski, Martin & Wood (and it should not be forgotten that no less a personage than Gil Evans adapted not dissimilar voicings for his own bands from the late sixties onwards) and there is genuine inspiration in the way Conniff finally but gracefully and patiently makes the tune recede towards a central point of silence.

Conniff takes “Volare” to the airy penthouse, Hendrickson’s guitar and echoplexed rhythm astonishingly reminiscent of (or anticipating) dub. The loungey swing is confident, robust, although I note the use of the xylophone rather than the vibraharp; there is a certain residual martial stiffness still present in his work, but certainly this is the kind of thing that Jack Lemmon would have slapped on the deck in his apartment in preparation for Shirley MacLaine to come round (although we forget at our peril that MacLaine’s character in The Apartment does eventually attempt suicide).

But then that aforementioned melancholy begins to creep in, creating shades of wintry dusk. Introduced by a prematurely fatigued bass trombone and celeste unison, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” is perhaps one of this record’s key tracks; the title alone speaks volumes about its intended audience. There is cleverly descending counterpoint between voices male and female and the voice-as-instrument schemata, though notably less flexible than subsequent developments inspired by it – particularly in Britain, where John Dankworth was undertaking more adventurous experiments in the same mode, using Cleo Laine’s voice as an additional horn, and those in turn inspired one-time Dankworth trumpeter Kenny Wheeler (like Feraci, an expatriate Torontonian) to utilise Norma Winstone’s voice in the same way in his own big band – is a more substantial innovation than Conniff is usually given credit for (indeed, Esquivel’s habitual use of “zu-zu-zu” in his work may be regarded as a direct commentary, possibly satirical, on Conniff’s trademark “do-do-do”s). The overall feeling, however, is muted, hesitant, although at one point the stately piano (either Pete Jolly or Jimmy Rowles) is abruptly intercepted by a blast of screeching cha-cha brass before quietude resumes.

Side one concludes with the album’s deepest and most resonant track. “Greenfields” (recently revived by Michael Stipe as part of Faultline’s Your Love Means Everything project) was a melancholy hit ballad for the Brothers Four in 1960 and Conniff (six years later, by which time everything had changed) approaches the song with real, perceptible emotion. He takes the number very patiently, with a slow, harp-driven 6/8 tempo. The piano picks at the memory like a widowed scavenger polishing lilacs at the grave. Again, however, two-thirds of the way into the track an unexpected wave of danceband brass and quavering reeds briefly engulfs the song – those memories of Miller, the ghosts of forgotten winds. It resembles a tug of war; look, I know our world is vanishing, it seems to be saying, but remember how it used to be – and maybe, if we try really hard, and that includes screwing our eyes up as firmly as possible, it will happen again? This knowing sadness infiltrates the sometimes forced jollity of the rest of the record.

With side two we are suddenly in a different, and not necessarily a better, world. “Melodie d’Amour” commences, unexpectedly, like a Shadows B-side, all twangy, tremolo guitars; but now the voices have found and learned a language – two languages in fact, since they sing the song in both French and English, but at this stage (still 1966) the Singers – by now expanded to 25 in number, 12 females and 13 males) seem to know what they’re singing and why they’re singing it. Conniff makes ingenious use of stop-start and silence tropes in the middle eight, although the fade is rather abrupt.

Thereafter, however, a strange, eerie jauntiness appears to dominate. “Days Of Wine And Roses” is anything but a jaunty song, and moreover contains in Mercer’s lyric one of the greatest opening lyrical tropes in all of popular song, a sentence as endless as the tracking sequence that commences Touch Of Evil and which also paraphrases Gauguin (“…a door marked ‘Nevermore’ that wasn’t there before”). The voices – and suddenly there is nothing to hear except voices; the big band trappings have subtly vanished and we gradually realise that the voices have effectively replaced the (obsolete?) instruments – treat the song, however, like an amiable night at the bridge club.

Conniff’s “Spanish Eyes” (a.k.a. “Moon Over Naples”), a song co-written by his curious German counterpart Bert Kaempfert, is taken at a brisker pace than Al Martino’s famous version (and Engelbert Humperdinck’s only marginally less famous reading). The yearning buried not so deeply within the song, however, is almost entirely ignored – the singers are reciting the words almost passively, and the inevitable mandolin which ushers in the would-be climactic key change displays unwelcome signs of slipshod laxity, or worse, indifference.

The new problem is compressed with Conniff’s reading of “Somewhere My Love,” which also brings into play the contemporaneous recording of the song by another German counterpart – and, in the end, perhaps Conniff’s better – James Last. Far more successful in Europe than Conniff, Last has since 1967 built a career on unashamedly giving the public what it wants, but exhibits a certain élan which the later work of Conniff frequently lacked. Last’s concerts are party events, the equivalent of hen parties and bingo nights, the audience’s unabashed celebration of itself; it is deceptively democratic. Whereas I picture a solemn, dutifully seated audience passively absorbing the “quality music” of Conniff onstage, even though Conniff himself appears to have been extremely passionate about both his music and its live delivery. Last’s version of Lara’s theme – as heard on his 1967 album Love, This Is My Song – is artful, seductive and finally heartfelt. But Conniff’s version is so damned foursquare – with the emphasis on “square” – that one is reminded of Melina Mercouri relating her fairy tales in Never On Sunday, all of which end with “they all go to the seashore,” a cheerful allegory for death (since that is the only way all stories can end). His “Somewhere My Love” seems fully equipped for that terminal beach journey.

With “Mrs Robinson” this placidity becomes offensive, and downright disturbing. The crucial “about you for our files” sequence is recited exactly as one would expect a call centre employee to recite it – was this a deliberate commentary on Conniff’s part? – and the banally jaunty brass and incongruous Basie piano fills are exceeded in missing the point by the voices’ scary, mechanical “hey hey hey”s which sound as though punched into a computer, stripped of all emotion and indeed all humanity.

It is here that I have to bring in the concept of Muzak. It is not my intention to reiterate Joseph Lanza’s admirably full – if, I fear, fully misguided – history of this genre in his indispensable Elevator Music, but I note that elsewhere Conniff’s style has been described as more attuned to supermarkets than elevators, and this may well be the case – growing up, I heard this sort of thing lurking through the speakers while my parents were doing the Saturday shop, and it was the effective lingua franca of Radio 2 over the same period (its final, fitting destination being the David Jacobs Collection, which airs last thing on a Sunday night, the last remaining refuge for what its 83-year-old presenter describes as “our kind of music”). The history of Muzak as a tool for increasing productivity at work – and subsequently for increasing consumer output in shops and shopping malls – is fully documented but the early vitality of Conniff’s approach seemed to dissolve as the sixties resolved and reformed, replaced by a numb anaesthesia, a panacea, a placebo to a disaffected but resolutely silent “majority” of an audience.

This becomes most evident in the album’s closing track, a 1968 take on “Up Up And Away.” Ironically, while Jimmy Webb was at this time busy redefining and reshaping what came to be known as “easy listening” – as though “MacArthur Park” or “Wichita Lineman” could remotely be described thusly – Conniff sounds intent on neutralising his experiments. He applies the same, click track formula to this most ill-fitting of songs to which to apply it; there is virtually no rhythmic vitality at work at all, and the album’s nadir comes with the Singers’ “Wheeeeeeee!!!!,” an expression of compulsory gaiety if ever I heard one (and which, along with the aforementioned xylophony, takes us unpleasantly back to the days of the Mitchell Minstrels).

But the album was a huge success, in the confused “other” Britain of 1969 – the Britain which didn’t quite get the long hair stuff, which quite liked the Beatles before they went all strange, the Britain of depressed, Valium/cooking sherry-dependent housewives – a prematurely bereaved nation looking for the cheapest of painkillers (even though the cheapest painkillers only help create and intensify the pain so that you have to keep taking them). “All passion spent” as the phrase goes. Side one proves that with Conniff there was some early passion – and, as later records like 1972’s I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing confirm, invention and imagination were not entirely lost from his music – but it is worth remembering why he made this music in the first place, and what, if everything, had been lost along the way. This was a music, remember, that was originally fashioned out of fear – the not-so-modern disease of fear of the bailiffs superseding the fear of death – rather than love, whose formula was arrived at and determined scientifically. I also sense a parallel with another album (from the next decade) where the artist gradually vanishes from his own record – the two sides of Bowie’s Low. In addition, Conniff was born in November 1916, the same month as Walter Cronkite; but where Uncle Walt turned against the Vietnam war at a crucial moment and played no small part in its eventual end, Conniff, natural conservative that he was, could only watch in bafflement and horror as one of his singers did it for him. That speech of Carole Feraci’s was eventually sampled on “America No More” the shattering B-side of 1992’s “America: What Time Is Love?” by the KLF – and if you thought that format of Conniff’s sounded familiar, read the KLF’s Manual and marvel at how the same approach could lead to two diametrically opposed roads.

When we listened to this album at the weekend, however, we followed it with “Bliss” a 2005 track by Fred Falke under the pseudonym of Defender, and wondered how a piece of music constructed under exactly the same construct as Conniff’s – mechanical repetition, practically no “human” involvement – could be so warm and alive as opposed to the deadness of Conniff’s “Up Up And Away.” There are reasons architectural and aesthetic for this, of course – the hymnal organ which provides the undertow for “Bliss” and eventually comes to the fore as a natural coda – but it really is a matter of life versus death, of ambient (Eno’s Music For Airports made passengers feel twitchy and nervous when tried out in an actual airport) versus ambience; the active reception of sound rather than the passive acceptance of “Sound.” Conniff survived; he continued to record and tour until only a few months before his death in 2002, one month short of his 86th birthday. But look at the girl on the cover of this record, and wonder at how many people were glad not to smile. She too is lost in an endless dream – and how can we tell that it’s not a nightmare?