Thursday, 30 December 2010

VARIOUS ARTISTS: 20 Dynamic Hits


(#113: 17 June 1972, 8 weeks)

Track listing: Hold Your Head Up (Argent)/Storm In A Teacup (The Fortunes)/Fireball (Deep Purple)/Butterfly (Danyel Gerard)/When You Get Right Down To It (Ronnie Dyson)/Something Tells Me (Something’s Gonna Happen Tonight) (Cilla Black)/Witch Queen Of New Orleans (Redbone)/Tonight (The Move)/Say You Don’t Mind (Colin Blunstone)/Softly Whispering I Love You (The Congregation)/Oh Babe What Would You Say (Hurricane Smith)/Black Night (Deep Purple)/Iron Horse (Christie)/Family Affair (Sly & the Family Stone)/Everybody’s Everything (Santana)/Tom-Tom Turnaround (New World)/Rosetta (Fame & Price)/Banner Man (Blue Mink)/Don’t Let It Die (Hurricane Smith)/Go Down Gamblin’ (Blood, Sweat & Tears)

It may well have been hard for the solemner minds of 1972 to accept that the year’s album chart champion was a former Teflon pan salesman from Winnipeg. Philip Kives was the original brain behind K-Tel, which he gradually developed from its feather duster/amplified kitchen knife beginnings to incorporate pop music, or any music that could readily and quickly be identified as popular. Inspired by his success at selling devices directly via television, he applied the same principle to records; 1966’s 25 Great Country Artists Singing Their Original Hits was to most intents and purposes the first TV-marketed album, and the formula – expanded from what a reluctant Kives initially saw as a leftfield one-off venture – proved so workable that it was inevitably expanded outside America. Aided by his cousin Raymond and Australians Don Reedman and Ian Howard, K-Tel commenced its British operations in the early seventies, and 20 Dynamic Hits was its first attempt to repeat its success here. That it worked is an understatement; no album sold more copies in 1972 Britain, and K-Tel, together with its American rival Arcade Records, dominated the top of the album chart for the rest of the year; with one exception (entry #115), these compilations make up the remainder of the TPL 1972 tale.

How did they succeed? Primarily, it was by being so single-minded about the profit motive and not really worrying about aesthetic concerns; these records were not built to last, to be acknowledged Classic Albums, but rather to catch the crucial part of the record-buying public who had hitherto had to settle for the soundalike albums documented throughout the second half of 1971 and who were still unable or unwilling to splash out sizable sums of money for a substantial tranche of hit singles. There was no pretence to K-Tel’s procedurals; 20 Dynamic Hits, as with its many successors, was subject to a brash, in-our-faces TV advertising campaign with loud, excited voiceovers, rushed three-second snippets of the tracks featured and a packaging strategy which was, to put it mildly, utilitarian; gaudy, primary-coloured sleeves with unfeasibly large print, dotted by monochrome circled portraits of the featured artists. The design was intentionally disposable (“Look out for exciting new releases on the K-Tel label!”) and the intent unapologetic; these were, the publicity emphasised, the ORIGINAL HITS by the ORIGINAL STARS (i.e. NOT soundalike session covers), with rights and royalties negotiated directly with the artists and their record companies (the sleeve credits the album as a co-production with EMI and CBS). The albums were available in department stores, newsagents, supermarkets, even electrical goods stores – and they retailed at a canny midprice (since, unlike the budget Top Of The Pops/Hot Hits series, midprice albums were not at this stage excluded from the main album chart).

The novelty was overwhelming, so much so that most consumers didn’t really care that the “hits” featured on the album were for the most part considerably less than “dynamic”; there are three number two hits featured but no number ones, the tracks come almost exclusively from 1971, and indeed two of the tracks did not trouble our singles chart at all. If glam rock was in the ascendant you wouldn’t have known it from here; T Rex, Slade, Elton etc. are conspicuously absent, and the conclusion has to be that K-Tel settled for whatever tracks they could negotiate onto the record. Many tracks be familiar to TPL readers from the 1971 soundalike phase; “Tom-Tom Turnaround” and “Don’t Let It Die,” for instance, turn up for the third time in this tale.

Still, this doesn’t mean that all of the tracks on 20 Dynamic Hits aren’t worth writing about; far from it, since the best thing about the compilation boom is that it allows me to bring people directly into this story who otherwise would have remained outside. In addition, the seeming semi-randomness of the twenty selections here make for a jarring listen; one, for instance, realises that from this picture, British pop music is still mostly (but not wholly) stuck in a rut and America is running (away) to unexpected (and in one case extremely disturbing) places. As with future entries of this kind, I propose to divide it up into digestible sections, artist by artist, or movement by movement, even if only to prove that, although released only as a means of maximising income from songs past their commercial peak (and the income was quite considerable; the record labels got a 16% royalty rate per track), there are always unexpected social and aesthetic truths to be uncovered, or disproved.

The Zombies Diaspora

Thanks to K-Tel, I do get to write about the Zombies themselves at greater length at a later date, but it is worth noting that, even though the band had officially split after Odessey And Oracle, they never quite grew apart. Rod Argent and Chris White, quite apart from their own duties in the group Argent, are all over One Year, Colin Blunstone’s debut album, whether as backing musicians or songwriters or arrangers or producers. Their own “Hold Your Head Up” is a fairly unremarkable would-be rock anthem made interesting by the restless (and characteristically Zombies) bass, Rod Argent’s oscillating keyboards (like a conservatory-trained Eno) and some of the percussion work, especially the cowbell manipulation in the break and the upward acceleration of the drums following the line “Change a thing that you’re doing.”

But One Year is something else entirely. Conceived as a ten-song diary of a year in the life of its singer – July to July – it moves patiently through the mechanisms of a break-up, the hapless feelings of abandonment and loss, then the awkward grope to find the world again, and the final return of love. What gives the record its inner energy – quite apart from the faultlessly controlled voice of Blunstone himself – is its continuing sense of harmonic dissatisfaction. This begins from the moment that the bass descends in unexpected, partly dissonant paths out of the standard rock-out of “She Loves The Way They Love Her,” and towards the remarkable dialogue staged throughout the record between Blunstone and Chris Gunning’s string quartet; Tim Hardin’s oft-covered “Misty Roses” begins as a straightforward bossa nova duet with Alan Crosthwaite’s guitar before the gloomy, suspended entry of the string quartet turns the song into a Bartokian quasi-nightmare. Again, on “Though You Are Far Away,” the simple accompaniment of a solo harp is derailed by the questing strings, now seeming to be ruminating on some of the implications of Beethoven’s late quartets. The more conventional pop songs, such as “Caroline Goodbye” and “Mary Won’t You Warm My Bed,” despite their straighter-edged Tony Visconti string and brass charts, still betray the seeping of desperation; the odd accentuations of the drums, Blunstone’s gasping emphasis on consonants – he is trying to find his way back but it’s not going to be as simple as he thought. John Fiddy’s brass band cushion on “Let Me Come Closer To You” suggests that he’s nearly ready to accept love again.

And then, finally, we get “Say You Don’t Mind,” written by Denny Laine in 1967 for his shortlived Electric String Band (ELO, effectively, five years ahead of schedule), and released twice as a single in its original version without success; here Blunstone turns the song’s desperate mixture of guilt, promise and faith into a performance of remarkable strength and vulnerability. The string quartet “rocks” after a fashion, but the responsibility is all the singer’s – he has spent half an hour, or twelve months, searching for this plateau, wanting love and life back, and now he has it he’s afraid that it will crumble; his “but I’m scared of you going” has a feathery pain to it which Laine doesn’t quite achieve (see also his four-syllable “po-oo-ooh-ool,” his “ha-a-a-ve”). This is something he has snatched back from the jaws of oblivion, such that as the strings dizzingly peak, circling around him like birds, and he reaches that terrible/liberated extended falsetto of “TIIIIIIIIIIMMMMMMEEEEE!!!,” one feels that this is the nirvana which Nick Drake was never quite intended to reach (and vocally and orchestrally there are obvious links with Bryter Layter, although there are also less obvious and arguably deeper links with Scott Walker; One Year is almost like an inversion of ’Til The Band Comes In, Walker’s doleful baritone replaced by Blunstone’s airy alto, everything scored high rather than deep, looking at the sun rather than pining for the moon). As a performance it soars out of the K-Tel grooves; heard in its original context it is cathartic to a level which few other British records of its period could match.

Speaking Of Birmingham...

The second time around for “Tonight” and it doesn’t grip any more firmly than it did the first. Message From The Country remains an untidy final Move album, which is hardly surprising since the group was already more than halfway towards turning into ELO but contractually obliged still to be the Move. Generally its tracks hark more towards Roy Wood’s Wizzard with their back-to-basics rock and multitracked sax smears, although Jeff Lynne is beginning to become a dominant voice (e.g. “The Words Of Aaron” and the title track). There is even a shift towards Zappa/Mothers-style musical expansion in tracks such as “It Wasn’t My Idea To Dance” (which would be explored further on Wizzard’s albums). “Tonight” itself did not form part of the original album, and it still sounds like a throwaway; vocally and musically divided equally between Wood and Lynne, it is nevertheless Lynne’s George Harrison-esque lead guitar which makes the greatest impression (although the closing quickfire “His Latest Flame” quote was almost certainly Wood’s idea). The Move were a great singles band which never quite progressed (if “progressed” is the correct word to use) towards making a great album, but “Tonight” itself was hardly one of their finest singles.

Also Appearing On The British Half Of The Bill

It really is an effort to find much to say about the majority of the British tracks on 20 Dynamic Hits. Most of them are so workaday and ineffectual that even Dale Winton would stifle a crafty yawn. “Storm In A Teacup,” for example; early Lynsey de Paul, a suburban Formica variant on “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” performed with great efficiency by Brumbeat sometime-rans the Fortunes (and sometimes when they weren’t in the charts they really did run; see, for example, their remarkable brace of 1967 singles, “Our Love Has Gone” and “The Idol”), pitter-patters out of one’s mind the second it fades. “Rosetta,” too; Georgie Fame and Alan Price, teaming up temporarily, always on The Two Ronnies with their two grand pianos diagonally facing each other, clearly having a good time with uncomplicated pub rock, but for Britain’s Mose Allison and for someone who was, and is, at his best, Britain’s Randy Newman, this is very thin meat indeed, a romp evidently far more fun to record than it is to hear.

As for Hurricane Smith, both of his major hits remain endearing – and “Don’t Let It Die” at times sounds like the missing link between the late Danny Ross (connoisseurs of vintage British radio comedy will recall him as Alfie Hall in the beyond-bizarre The Clitheroe Kid) and Roger Waters (and we have to remember that this is the man who produced Syd’s Floyd, and indeed went on to contribute half of the trumpets to Kilimanjaro by the Teardrop Explodes); heartfelt yet rather sinister. “Oh Babe,” in contrast, a UK #4 hit and a US #2, was an utterly charming trinket of twenties revivalism, beefed up by Frankie Hardcastle’s rasping tenor sax throughout.

Of “Iron Horse,” Christie’s third, final and least hit (one week at #47), there is almost nothing to say, except that singing “across the great divide” does not make you The Band, and that any advance on “Yellow River” (originally intended for the Tremeloes, but CBS decided to run with Jeff Christie’s own take) was invisible and indeed inconceivable.

Deep Purple

“Fireball” makes a welcome return here (and lends a supplementary premise of 20 Dynamic Hits being an examination of how different musicians fell out of the sixties, and where they landed) and “Black Night,” based on a James Burton lick from Rick Nelson’s cover of “Summertime” which Blackmore must have remembered from his Outlaws days, also appears here; good to hear a still relatively unconstrained Blackmore wig out in his first solo before his more pensive second one. The spirit of Meek continues to pervade both tracks.

The Two Rogers Question

Cook and Greenaway. Tireless songwriters, ever-present hitmakers of the time. And yet, what the hell is going on here?

There is “Something Tells Me,” the theme from Cilla’s then-current TV series which provided her with her last top ten hit, which tries without much success to be the theme from the Mary Tyler Moore Show; a muted climax to a musical career which had more than its share of unexpected delights (including a similarly discursive take on “Misty Roses”). There is the inexplicable “Banner Man” – a top three hit in the Orange Lodge style. There is the positively frightening (look at their picture on the sleeve!) “Softly Whispering” in which a boys’ choir fights with Glasgow’s Brian Keith, ex-of Plastic Penny (“Everything I Am,” top ten in early ’68), attempting to be a No Mean City Levi Stubbs. Apart from explaining with icy clarity why glam had to happen – what the hell is going on here?

Miscellaneous

“Tom-Tom Turnaround,” as previously mentioned, turns around for its third visit, this time in its original, in-tune version, and continues to leave no feelings in this listener other than finger-drumming impatience – were its composers really only eighteen months or so away from “Blockbuster”? Danyel Gerard was one of France’s first authentic rockers, up there with Johnny Hallyday, and “Butterfly” was simultaneously his most atypical and (internationally) his most popular song. The discordant guitar bends halfway through each verse demonstrate where he’d been but the singalong is strictly bier keller standard, even with choir, trumpets, and so forth. Redbone were at least authentic Red Indians and although “Witch Queen” still comes across as Tommy James doing Dr John, it still packs a minor punch, largely through its emphatic door-knocking drums and unstable string/Moog lines and wobbles. Ronnie Dyson probably deserved better in his brief life (he died in 1990, aged just forty) and his cover of the Delfonics’ “When You Get Right Down To It” was much more of a turntable hit on British radio than a hit single as such (it peaked at #34) but he handles Thom Bell’s curves well enough for Bell himself to produce a series of fine proto-Philly singles for Dyson shortly thereafter. Look out for the squelchy water-tap Moog which materialises under the line “Wash away the bad times” and the way in which the choir suddenly invades the song, like marigolds.

The Ones Which Didn’t Chart

Not quite the case with Santana, since Santana III, from which “Everybody’s Everything” is taken, was a substantial hit album here (#6). Nonetheless, in the face of such dithering pitter-patter, it is refreshing to bathe in this furious yet reassuring percussion/brass/organ workout; Carlos himself turns up near the end and the band’s other main guitarist, Neal Schon, prepares to begin his own jazz-rock group – Journey. My favourite Santana album, Caravanserai, came out towards the end of 1972 – and I will be returning to Santana in the very long term – but the track does fine in this (and any) context.

Blood, Sweat and Tears, in contrast, were past their peak; “Go Down Gamblin’”’s parent album, BS&T4, did no business here, and the Tom Jones-style vocal idiosyncrasies of Canada’s own David Clayton-Thomas may continue to grate for some, but this isn’t too bad a track in itself and a pretty strong and florid closer to the album as a whole, even if, for me, Canada’s Lighthouse (featuring the younger Howard Shore) did the whole jazz-soul-fusion thing a whole lot more lightly and a hell of a lot more convincingly.

But One Of These Things Is Not Like The Others...

YOU DON’T KNOW WHO TURNED YOU IN

But it wasn’t anyone in your family. You know what it’s like; Shaun Ryder certainly did when he revisited the scene of the imploding disaster in “Lazyitis” a generation later and a country apart. Sometimes you stick by people, blood being thicker than mud and everything, the pain being louder than that bomb tick of a drum machine. Some grow up good, others want to burn, maybe both themselves and others. But you stand by them when everything else falls apart, and even when it doesn’t.

And here they are, brother and sister (literally; that’s Rose Stone on Fender Rhodes and co-lead vocals), with Bobby Womack’s punching (out the clock) guitar, tick tock DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT IT’S LIKE?

“Family Affair” was always going to stand out like the reddest of veins on a record like this, but it drives us towards the mucked-up, fucked-up blood which stains this part of our tale like so much else of its time tried to do. Exile you could, and can, take; there is trouble, there is indeciperable code, murky moths of memory, but always that hope, always the rescuing cheek, the shared knowledge of a decade that the Stones had with their fans that this was where, finally, where we were all going to be heading; and we can come out the other end as well.

You don’t feel that with There’s A Riot Goin’ On, although newcomers to the record may point to the stalky lightness of its funk and wonder where the pain is lurking. Even though those of us of more hurtful experience can sense it, can sometimes breathe it – why is he yodelling through “Spaced Cowboy,” and why are we willing him on? Can’t we see that he’s destroying himself – or even his self?

Riot was the USA’s Christmas number one album of 1971, beating out even Led Zeppelin IV; many who didn’t have a stake in what it was suggesting didn’t want to know, tuned out (just as they would do a few months later with its semi-visible twin, Miles’ On The Corner) – hey, why bother us with this pain? It’s so ill-measured, so...impolite.

But the clock ticks all the way through Riot without an alarm setting; this was Sly telling us that everything he’d been telling us over the previous three years was a lie, that it was all coming apart, most of all his self, or even himself, that it was going to be every bastard for themselves from now on; the perception that “we” still have to hang together to change anything, but also the horrific self-realisation that he might not be a part of it, but apart from it. He didn’t have to say anything after Riot and by and large it was as if he didn’t. But who could have said anything after the gauntlet that record threw down? The pregnant, giving-birth wail/cry at the end of “Family Affair” keeps turning up all the way through the album; “Poet” and “(You Caught Me) Smilin’” hammer their own vowels into their crucifix, “Just Like A Baby” and “Brave & Strong” seem to imply that any way out will only turn out to be another drug. “Africa Talks To You ‘The Asphalt Jungle’” has Sly losing himself as comprehensively as the Bowie of Low, but unlike the latter he is actively being chased off his own record by the rest of his group (and whoever else would turn up, including Billy Preston, Miles and Ike Turner), screaming “TIMBERRRRRR!!!!” back at them before the remorseless horseshoe clips of the rhythm cut him off like a scythe. On “Runnin’ Away” he is hardly there; his singers appear to be laughing at him; you fucked up, you come back home – back to what, you dumbass sucker? Finally, a long, draggy, sloping upwards towards the cranium, haul through a more hopeful song of old, now just reduced to an eking out of existence, the crawl on the narrow window ledge; does he have enough energy to jump, or more energy to stay there, and throw society off the thirtieth floor instead?

“Nobody” (except Sly’s core constituency, i.e. the people the events on Riot were more likely to affect, and the scores of black musicians inspired or relighted by its example) wanted to hear this, just as “nobody” wanted to know about Lennon saying fuck the Beatles and the dream is over. Lena reckons that the record is a pretty accurate aural description of what it was like to be staggering through the California of 1971; for myself, I put it next to On The Corner, to Exile, to Escalator, as a stark yet rich portrait of what and how things really are. Think of those unspoken lines of Paul Haines’ near the end of Escalator, the ones about “A new day dawns/You do not want it/Only the humor that stops things from becoming funny.” Riot counts, as almost nothing else on 20 Dynamic Hits does, because we can dress life up in the loudest and flimsiest of colours, and have our fun, but look at those wrinkling corners, look at the only people here who don’t resemble 1972 darts or snooker champions – it’s 1972’s direst warning, and its burial in this least expected of packages perhaps makes it all the more frightening.

5 comments:

Mark G said...

It should be noted that these k-tel albums suffered from groove cramming (30 mins per side) so much, we always had to crank the home stereo to the ferge of feedback to hear anything. Also, they often would edit the tracks to fit (see the otherwise excellent "Super-Bad" k-tel comp)

Marcello Carlin said...

This is very true; with K-Tel records you had to turn the stereo volume up almost to max in order to make them sound remotely hi-fi, and editing of tracks does become a problem later but everything here, with the exception of a slightly early fade on “Hold Your Head Up,” seems intact.

Bob said...

One point to add - I don't think K-Tel albums were ever mid-price, certainly not from the point I started buying them regularly (1976) until the BOGOF Chart Hits 1&2 in '81.

I've always felt the groove cramming lends the records an early 70s colour of their own (no tracks were edited on this album, as you say, and weren't until Music Explosion in '74), much like the faded film stock of 1972 that tinged films like The Wicker Man.

Bruce David Janu said...

There's something very comforting about vintage k-tel albums. I recently dusted off my record collection and then got the idea to stream the collection online at http://vinylvoyage.blogspot.com.

I have a monthly radio program devoted to the playing on one K-tel album in its entirety. The show is called "Adventures in Vinyl" and it's premiere is on February 5, 2011.

Check out http://vinylvoyage.blogspot.com for more information.

Disorientated Midge said...

I always took Deep Purple's song "Black Night" to be based entirely on the fake US band from Surrey called Nashville Teens song "Tobacco Road".