Tuesday, 23 February 2010

SIMON and GARFUNKEL: Bridge Over Troubled Water


(#76: 21 February 1970, 13 weeks; 13 June 1970, 4 weeks; 18 July 1970, 5 weeks; 3 October 1970, 1 week; 17 October 1970, 1 week; 16 January 1971, 3 weeks; 3 July 1971, 5 weeks; 11 September 1971, 1 week)

Track listing: Bridge Over Troubled Water/El Condor Pasa/Cecilia/Keep The Customer Satisfied/So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright/The Boxer/Baby Driver/The Only Living Boy In New York/Why Don’t You Write Me/Bye Bye Love/Song For The Asking

Like Rihanna’s Good Girl Gone Bad, this album tells its story backwards; and it similarly begins with a redemptive hymn involving water. I am sure that some listeners remain mystified as to why Bridge Over Troubled Water begins rather than ends with its title song, but the record’s architecture – since, as a record, it is so concerned with architecture – has its own, partially eluctable logic.

The key to why this record, of all farewells to the sixties, so dominated the first half of the seventies – its cumulative run of 33 weeks at number one is the longest achieved by any non-film soundtrack album, and it notched up a total of 307 weeks on our charts, enduring almost into the age of punk (with a couple of brief reappearances in the mid-nineties) – is perhaps because its goodbyes are so personal and yet so non-specific. By 1969 Paul Simon had felt that the duo had run its course; at times they were barely on speaking terms – but they had been friends, collaborators even, since childhood, and the farewell was a protracted and deceptively painful one. Look at the front cover; Simon, grinning and seemingly not giving a damn, looking remarkably like the younger de Niro, with a grim ghost standing almost twice his height behind him – and then, on the back cover we see Garfunkel strolling away, hands in pockets, with Simon walking behind him, his head buried in Garfunkel’s upper back.

On the title song itself, Simon is of course the ghost; he wrote the song but does not appear on it at all – the late Larry Knechtel played the piano (and received a full credit on the 45 release) and the harmonies in the final verse are all overdubbed Garfunkels. He did sing the original demo, however, and both Garfunkel and producer Roy Halee were keen for him to perform the song on the record – Art had a thing for Paul’s falsetto – but he demurred. Likewise his original plan had been to keep the song quiet, hushed, but Garfunkel and Halee persuaded him to add the “Sail on silvergirl” coda and the big Righteous Brothers finish.

In the event, Garfunkel sang it alone, as alone as the Gerry Marsden of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” although the song is about reassurance, the painful reattachment of hope and trust. He sings the first verse as quietly as anyone could bear to sing it, a verse about weariness and smallness, and he tries to reassure the song’s subject – which, as with other songs on the record, can only really be about Paul saying farewell to Art – that they will not encounter hopeless emptiness, that although the street on which the hapless fugitive may find himself may be as direly unforgiving as the Gibsom Street described in the first half of Laura Nyro’s song of the same name – and New York Tendaberry is the mirror image of Bridge in so many ways – there will be a light, there will be…him, for what he’s worth.

A vibraphone steals into the second verse, giving a floating unearthliness comparable with the closing section of George Crumb’s Makrokosmos III, but see how Garfunkel’s voice and emotion both rise markedly at the phrase “And pain is all around”; Knechtel’s piano becomes more emphatic, and therefore hopefully more empathetic. The risk of salvation is signalled by Hal Blaine’s rhetorical cymbal at verse’s end; the waters briefly settle again, only to receive a flotilla of strings, Blaine’s distant drums approaching, two basses, each entering from either channel, a patter that feels like the earth beginning to move. “See how they shine,” the doubled-up Garfunkels state, far more firmly than before, as the solo Garfunkel’s gasp of “Oh!” is met by Joe Osborn and/or Carol Kaye’s octave-surfing bass(es), and suddenly the Spector reclamation makes sense – this is an “Unchained Melody” for a lost cause of a generation, Garfunkel making with the Bobby Hatfield high Cs, busting the ebbing tide as Blaine’s thunderclap hails a new man, finally settling on a ten-second high string coda, in E major – the same chord which ends “A Day In The Life.” The bridge has been crossed as securely as the long Lew Soloff note which ends Nyro’s “Save The Country” and the message is; hang on, everybody, it’s safe to go in, to go ahead, we can’t get hurt now. Both Aretha and Elvis, in their versions, took the song back to church, where it always belonged, but Art and the spectre (Spector?) of Paul are saying: we will have to end, but the world will go on, you will go on, and hence we will go on in our own selves.

From the thunder of their bay we retreat to the quiet disturbances of Peru, as Paul sets about figuring out his own future; featuring the Peruvian group Los Incas and based on a Peruvian folk song which was slightly newer than Simon initially imagined, “El Condor Pasa” sees him wistfully dreaming of another world (“I’d rather be a forest than a street”), another life (“I’d rather be a sparrow than a snail”), interspersed with regretful musings about departing swans. He wants to feel the earth beneath his feet and isn’t sure that New York, or the sixties, or for that matter Art Garfunkel, can provide it for him.

Both “Pasa” and “Cecilia” mark the beginnings of Simon’s wider journeys into the worlds of music, a journey which would reach final fruition some sixteen years later. With its over-frantic handclaps, rattling percussion and askew calliope and bamboo flutes, there is a case for “Cecilia” inventing Vampire Weekend, although the song seems less of a complaint about an unfaithful woman than a desperate call to an absent muse, Cecilia being the patron saint of music. He gets out of bed to wash his face, comes back and there’s someone else there, but unlike the not dissimilar progenitor of Leonard Cohen’s “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” he finds his muse again, afresh. “JubilAAAAtion!” he cries. “She loves me again! I fall on the floor and I laughing!” he proclaims in a slightly cod JA accent (there certainly is a feel of nascent reggae about the song).

As we proceed to “Keep The Customer Satisfied,” the album’s developing theme appears to be that of Paul Simon’s lost muse and his struggle to stay afloat, either with or without it; Paul and Art’s opening gust of “Gee but it’s great to be back home!” is a brighter-painted variant on the getting back home theme which has been prevalent over the last dozen or so entries in this tale; they’re out there on the road, getting shit, getting moved on, but as tired as they are, they have to keep on going, continue to pump the oxygen that powers the excitable-verging-on-hysterical big band behind them (although the latter are secretly powered by Knechtel’s liquid organ). Finally, Blaine’s snare drum becomes more insistent; their final “So tired” seems wrenched from the backs of their throats, and Lew Soloff is back again with his unresolved high C climaxes.

On first listen, “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” is the hardest song to place in terms of this record’s story, and musically it is by some distance the strangest; it owes its disturbed glide to Lennon’s “Julia,” its general, edgily easy ambience and unorthodox chord progressions to Antonio Carlos Jobim. And Art is singing lead. Why a paean to the great American architect, some ten years after he had left? Is this a requiem for an America which, by 1970, had passed into irretrievable history? But then we hear “All of the nights we’d harmonize ‘til dawn” and “When I run dry/I stop awhile and think of you” and we realise that this nocturnal meditation is, again, Paul saying farewell to Art – and, again, he gets Art to sing the song. As Jimmie Haskell’s arrangement dissolves into a dissolute flute solo, strings chirping like insomniac crickets, Garfunkel turns the final “I never laughed into long” into a loop of “So long”s until Simon, in the distance, grunts “So long already, Artie!”


"The Boxer" finds Paul enlarging and expanding the feeling of impatient abandonment he had first articulated in “Homeward Bound” (“In the quiet of the railway station/Running scared/laying low” – did you catch another Orbison reference there?). As with the title track, "The Boxer" patiently builds up its sonic palette as it progresses through several states of emotional being.


Beginning with simple acoustic guitar and hand percussion, "The Boxer" is a song about defeat; its progenitor is more “settled” than that of “America” but he is now also unavoidably alone. He has moved to New York, has found its demands too much for him to take, and wonders about abjectly sloping back home ("Still the man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest" is, I am aware, a leitmotif which could be used against virtually every writer, if not every human being). There’s a touch of Harold Biffen about Simon’s Biblical eagerness to be "Seeking out the poorer quarters where the ragged people go/Looking for the places only they would know":


"He could not bear to walk the streets where the faces of beautiful women would encounter him. When he must needs leave the house, he went about in the poor, narrow ways, where only spectacles of coarseness, and want, and toil would be presented to him. Yet even here he was too often reminded that the poverty-stricken of the class to which poverty is natural were not condemned to endure in solitude. Only he who belonged to no class, who was rejected alike by his fellows in privation and by his equals in intellect, must die without having known the touch of a loving woman’s hand"

(George Gissing, New Grub Street, chapter 35, "Fever And Rest")


Note that Simon could sneak the word "whores" (1:27) onto mainstream radio without anyone really noticing; note further his contented "mmm"s after confessing that he has sought the solace of such pleasures (1:38).


Gradually and subtly the song’s architecture builds itself up, Fred Carter Jr’s busy acoustic guitar rendering it a quieter reverse image of “Mrs Robinson” (Simon phrases “so lonesome” to make it sound like “solo”; the rhetorical rest where “bleeding me” seems almost indistinguishable in tone and intent from “leaving me”); there’s a momentary, mournful pedal steel interlude and also a bass harmonica hovering in the background which suddenly moves to the fore when Simon uses the "boxer" analogy – the fulcrum of the track is the moment at 3:03 when everything – voice, harmonica, music – suddenly jab out savagely with the word "cut" in the line "Every glove that laid him down and CUT him ‘til he cried out…"The song builds to an alienated climax, firstly with the same echoed whiplash drums we find on "”Bridge," the increasing intensity of the "lie-la-lie" refrain (is he simply telling lies here, or lying down to lick his wounds, or worse?) – followed at 3:59 by the entrance of a mellotron, and – devastatingly – at 4:19, the ominous Moog bass (Lena calls it “The biggest foghorn in the world!”) which suddenly bursts into the song and threatens to crush it altogether (the first appearance of a synthesiser on a UK Top 40 single). Everything peaks at 4:30 when real strings come in, violins shrieking – or weeping? – in entwinement with the Mellotron strings. And finally, as Simon’s progenitor returns home – or so he imagines - the song returns to its original state – with a codicil from Garfunkel, indistinct and buried in the mix, at 4:45-4:46; but it’s there – "I love you," almost whimpered through his transient tears. There may be some residual “Hey Jude” influence, but then again, isn’t the love Paul needs, as the album cover demonstrates, on his shoulder?

“Baby Driver” follows with an air of much-needed light relief (or so it would superficially seem); its racy swing, as with several other tracks on the record, would not have been out of place on the White Album. Starting off with crisp tambourine and acoustic guitar, the duo indulge in comedy hi-falsetto harmonies (“GONE uhhh!”) as Simon considers whether the girl next door will accept him as a new Everyman; parents as musicians, soldiers, businesspeople, but only the music stays with him (“coming in my ears”). A throaty, raspy R&B tenor (backed up by an equally throaty baritone) hurls itself into the song’s speeding melee midway through, and the song itself moves up a key before vanishing in the forest of engine roars – its key moment coming in the second verse where Simon admits, almost as a throwaway, “When I was young, I carried a gun/But I never got the chance to serve…I DID NOT SERVE.” Isn’t there a war going on somewhere?

“The Only Living Boy In New York” is a more emotionally open and considerably more poignant variant on the “Frank Lloyd Wright” farewell; here Paul finally yields to emotion and takes on the vocal. “Tom” is Art, on his way down to Mexico to film his part in Catch-22. Paul considers the song’s implications slightly lazily – his idle “da-n-da-da-n-da-n-da-da and here I am”s – but, as with “Bridge,” the third and final verse ups the passion ante, with its direct references to the earlier song (“eager to fly now,” “shine”). Paul sings the climactic chorus with a tremble and is barely holding himself together; this, after all, is a final farewell from Jerry to a spent joint life. Stentorian drums and organ give the unexpected illusion of Procol Harum before the chorus returns one final time, in turn leading to an elongated coda, led by Osborn’s bass. The multiple “here I am”s dissolve into each other and couldn’t be further away from the Al Green concept of “Here I Am”; there is now no way back as he imagines the ‘plane, his buddy, disappearing – not even any talk of funny papers or negotiations; the finality is unturnable.

The record concludes – or begins - with three relatively quick codas. “Why Don’t You Write Me?” sees Simon stranded in the jungle (Vietnam again, or a jungle of his own making?) but the music is comically, jerkily happy; he turns his “to be near you” into a gargling yodel (“youUUUUUU-LALALAAAA”) but the unexpectedly sombre “something is wrong” which immediately follows illustrates a mind near the end of somebody’s tether; both Newman and Nilsson took this approach to greater extremes in their work of the period, but Simon wriggles on the abyss of existence like any besotted 1960 Highschool moper waiting for school to restart; where’s that letter? He’ll sit in the sun, drink iodine, hang himself, and maybe this rag is as much a dress rehearsal as anything Brian Hyland might once have crooned but he can’t understand how it’s all ended up like this, even though he scripted the end.

And then, back to the source of the pain, the throwback to when they were Tom and Jerry and all they wanted to be were the Everlys; their “Bye Bye Love” is the record’s spookiest track, bookended by extended rounds of applause but the “live” format sounds artificial, grafted on, and eventually we realise that we are listening to the mass movement of synthesised handclaps as the two jauntily announce that they’re through with everything. Don and Phil had that spice, that latent attack, in even their mopiest mopings – as in, you think this is gonna get us down, bud, well you’re WRONG – but Paul and Art are businesslike; this is it, this is how we started and this is how we’ll finish. Now let’s try pulling away from each other. Not that easy, is it?

Lastly – after the taped applause which feeds into plaintive acoustic guitar, just like Pepper – Simon offers his nascent testament, 99 seconds of “Song For The Asking,” clearly addressed to the listener, although the arrangement is made less clear by swamps of electronic echo, strings (in the “thinking it over” section) and even a “Good Night” choir which may be real or synthesised. Still, he is alone, with us, and looking at us, telling us what he still has to offer, what he always had to offer from the beginning, and – well, if you want it, here it is, “all the love that I hold inside.” Can you forgive him, he doesn’t ask (but deeply implies), as a concluding upward Nashville whimper closes the record. Thirty-seven-and-a-half minutes, then, of rhymes of goodbye – to old friends, to the sixties – but still offering a branch of welcome to escort the weary, wasted travellers into another age; the bridge meant something specific to its writer and performer, but could mean anything and everything to those wishing to identify, or indeed follow. There were the sixties, here is the canyon, and we're building a bridge so you can look back at the past but not fall into a worse fate while searching for the future.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

VARIOUS ARTISTS: Motown Chartbusters Volume 3


(#75: 14 February 1970, 1 week)

Track listing: I Heard It Through The Grapevine (Marvin Gaye)/I’m Gonna Make You Love Me (Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations)/My Cherie Amour (Stevie Wonder)/This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You) (The Isley Brothers)/I’ll Pick A Rose For My Rose (Marv Johnson)/No Matter What Sign You Are (Diana Ross and The Supremes)/I’m In A Different World (The Four Tops)/Dancing In The Street (Martha Reeves and The Vandellas)/For Once In My Life (Stevie Wonder)/You’re All I Need To Get By (Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell)/Get Ready (The Temptations)/Stop Her On Sight (SOS) (Edwin Starr)/Love Child (Diana Ross and The Supremes)/Behind A Painted Smile (The Isley Brothers)/(I’m A) Road Runner (Junior Walker and The All-Stars)/The Tracks Of My Tears (Smokey Robinson and The Miracles)

Students of the British singles chart will be familiar with its gradual degeneration throughout the fourth quarter of 1967. That summer the pirate radio stations had been outlawed by Wilson’s Government and most of its leading broadcasters signed up to the BBC’s new Radio One (the Minister directly responsible for the closure, Tony Benn, remained unrepentant, later claiming, not without some reason, that stations such as Radio Caroline represented “proto-Thatcherism”). But it quickly became apparent that Radio One was an ill-equipped substitute; the more wayward and individualistic broadcasters were shunted to the late hours or into similar demographic ghettoes, and the ones remaining appeared neutered, both in their approach and the music they were compelled to play. The five-and-a-half-hour daily ration of pop was a scant replacement for the 24-hour drive of the pirates, and Radio One itself was for the best part of a decade engaged in an uncomfortable shotgun-arranged marriage with Radio Two in terms of wavelength-sharing.

Worse, the Reithian ethic – and in 1967 Lord Reith was still alive and active – remained in effect; the cod liver oil approach of Proper (i.e. “decent”) Culture rammed down unwilling listeners’ throats stayed a BBC template, programmed by old-timers who had been with the Corporation since the days of Al Bowlly. This anti-ethic extended to the realms of its popular music broadcasting (without which staidness the pirates would never have created a space in which to flourish) and instead of the flood of Stax, ska, psychedelia and above all Motown which had hitherto been drenching the 1967 lists, the Housewives’ Choice model was the BBC’s desired motor. True, the renegade big balladeers – Jones, Humperdinck et al – had already dented the charts substantially but with the BBC back in control their voices became dominant. Look at the Christmas 1967 chart for a real hall of shame; endless blusters of balladry, careful pseudo-country waltzes, harmless studium pop from the Second Division of the Beat boom. The Beatles occupied the top two slots and with only a few exceptions seemed to look down at the rest of the chart in pity.

This wretched state of affairs persisted into the charts of 1968, largely a hellish netherworld of Valium-friendly crooning, easy sob stories, cabaret approximations of Beat. Despite occasional hits from Aretha and (posthumously) Otis, as well as one-offs like “Son Of Hickory Holler’s Tramp” and (from the Top 20 perspective) “Dance To The Music,” soul music hardly played a part in these countdowns, unless you counted the unlovely, wobbly warbling of the likes of Solomon King as “soul.”

The situation began to change, however, in the autumn of 1968, when a concerted effort was made to revive the British fortunes of the label which in this country was then known as Tamla Motown. Buoyed by the unexpected success of the Supremes and Four Tops compilations earlier in the year, an aggressively-marketed, phased programme of oldies began to get reissued. Tony Blackburn, Radio One’s flagship DJ and a lifelong soul (and especially Motown) fan, had already done his best to get behind the partially sinking Motown ship, and his fervent championing of records like “This Old Heart Of Mine” and “Get Ready” helped hoist them into the lists. Joined by an equally aggressively-marketed programme of new releases, the reissue trickle turned into a Detroit flood by the turn of 1969, and by March the label was regularly responsible for at least half of any given week’s top ten.

The galvanising effect on the charts was immediate. The balladeers didn’t exactly go away but they soon found top five or even top ten status far from assured; the clinging stench of old was being washed away by the excitable noise of the young, especially those whose heads hadn’t been spun by psychedelia, who didn’t find supergroup jam sessions an elixir, who still wanted their rapid-fire post-Mod mixes of elemental three-minute power. By the summer we were witnessing some of the best singles charts there have ever been.

The Motown Chartbusters series had begun – as British Motown Chartbusters – in late 1967 with a view to annual updates; but Volume 3, which abandoned the “British” adjunct, was the first to make a substantial impact. It still stands somewhat unique in the Chartbusters pantheon; its sleeve, shaped in fashionable space age silver foil, the most immediately recognisable of all the volumes, its contents perhaps the best and most faultless. On the rear, beneath the obligatory 1969 moon shot, there is a somewhat demented sleevenote by the then 42-year-old Alan Freeman; I will leave it to you to find that remarkable fusion of PG Wodehouse and Wolfman Jack for yourselves, but mention should be made of his parenthetical remark, “Always knew there’d be British Justice for Martha’s “DANCING IN THE STREET,”; as a broadcaster he had played that 1964 track night after night on his Radio One show until Motown took note and reissued it. Beneath the affable bluster and multiple exclamation marks, there is a very solid sense of “our job has been done, our mission accomplished.” These were the sixteen songs which changed our charts.

How fitting, and how brave too, that the compilation – and, film and Broadway soundtrack recordings notwithstanding, this is the first of a remarkable extended run of number ones for that most perennial of chart-toppers, “Various Artists” – should begin with its most uncompromising and up-to-the-second track (even though it had been recorded back in 1967), and how remarkable, in retrospect, that of all these songs this was the one which the British public took to number one. “Grapevine” was as radical a hit single as there had ever been, and its courage fortified by the fact that its co-composer and producer Norman Whitfield had spent well over a year trying to persuade a hugely reluctant Berry Gordy, still with a wary eye on the Ed Sullivan audience, to release Gaye’s version as a single, despite Gladys Knight’s furious quadruple-tempo pound through the same song (a production also directed by a clearly frantic Whitfield) having nearly topped the Billboard charts in late 1967.

It remains one of the most elusive number ones to capture in terms of its essence and its soul (if the two are not interchangeable). Everything about the record is attached to suggestion, rather than explicit statement; the hard introductory snare drum, the hissing rattlesnake of tambourine, the quivering tongue of electric piano, the rampant lion of French horn, the slow motion police siren mono-note octave alternations of Paul Riser’s strings – these all suggest a terrible threat, a revolutionary impulse far from dormant. Gaye, meanwhile, bullied by Whitfield into singing out of his comfort zone, discovers a new, hoarse desperation and urgency to his voice; his terrified “Losing YOU!,” “I can’t HIDE!” and “pla-a-AN?” suggest the unredeemed fugitive of Orbison’s “Running Scared,” except here he is clearly running on the spot, and the spot happens to be atop a swamp which at any moment may engulf him. This is about much more than his lover deciding to creep back to her old flame; there is a four-beat tom-tom pattern which echoes throughout several of these songs, but which becomes most explicit in its processional intentions on “Grapevine”; we are not quite with the voodoo children or the magic of juju, but the smell of imminent uprising is unavoidable, over a song and melody as plaintive as the blues upon which they were based; this is a strengthened Robert Johnson, an awakened, sight-rewarded Blind Willie Johnson, spirits rising to claim back their birthrights. When this was succeeded at the top of the British charts by “Israelites,” the change was irreversible.

From this present we dart to a parallel present, or a more realistic (or, if you were Gordy, a more desirable) future. I have already dealt with “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” at length in entry #63; its Kenny Gamble co-authorship credit gives an early signal of what would happen, elsewhere in America, in the seventies, its deceptively subversive smoothness a seemingly more placid pathway down which an internationalised Motown could proceed. For some, though, the strongest future was hinted at by the glorious chord changes in “My Cherie Amour”; listening to this apparently effortless exercise in summer wistfulness helps us temporarily to forget that Stevie Wonder was still only nineteen when he co-wrote and recorded it; here already is an instinctive sophistication far beyond his years. He is in the same situation, as the “crowded street” confirms, as the singer of “Some Enchanted Evening,” but he can’t yet quite sum up the courage to go over to his idealised would-be lover and tell her how he feels; for now, he is happy simply to dream, his voice as seductive as milk, Green Gartside already being anticipated. In passing the listener may note that nowhere yet on this record has true, reciprocal love been attained.

This certainly is the case with “This Old Heart Of Mine,” the first big Motown reissue to crossover – thanks in great part to its Northern Soul second life – and the hearty, throaty barks of the Isleys come as something of a shock after the relative smoothness of their predecessors. Ronald Isley, too, is in palpably greater despair (though the Gaye of “Grapevine” is in far deeper despair – “believe half of what you see”?); here his supposed lover is more than aware of his deep love and vulnerability, enough to screw him around a hundred times and over, but still Ronald will not give up; these “Grapevine” tom toms are back in nascent form and the whole feels like the singer’s heart repeatedly being knocked against a stoneclad door; no matter how much she hurts him, she knows he will always come back, faithful for more. Furthermore, that couplet “Always with half a kiss/You remind me of what I miss” is enigmatic enough to suggest a murkier threat in her half-smile.

In a markedly happier, and perhaps more old-fashioned, mood is Marv Johnson, one of the earliest names to be associated with Motown. “I’ll Pick A Rose” had done next to nothing in the States and he had already opted to go behind the scenes and into Motown management by the time, much to his astonishment, the song made our top five in early 1969. Decidedly a more traditional song, both in terms of its crafting and the singer’s delivery, it is nevertheless one of the record’s most uncomplicatedly happiest tracks; divided in childhood by her wealthy parents, they have grown up separately, she wants to come back, and he is slowly pacing, with nerves more than anything else, around his garden, readying himself up for the trip to the train station and the journey to bring her back home. Its serial ascending key changes are joyous – the flutes and piccolos reminiscent of a resolved “Reach Out” - and, as ever, James Jamerson’s unfeasibly lively bass is the song’s anchor. But there is a degree of unworldliness about Johnson’s slo-mo meander around his garden as though, disappointed with the existing world, he has opted for a slower, dreamier one.

“No Matter What Sign You Are” is the album’s most obviously fashionable song and therefore its most immediately dated. A Diana Ross solo single in all but name (neither Mary Wilson nor Cindy Birdsong played any part in its making), it is mildly, albeit daftly, entertaining with its sitar effects, Ross’ “Ow!”s biting against the various signs, the drifting, elongated chorus of “Aquarius,” the mild double entendres (“Your water sign just lit my fire”) and the multiple references to “good vibrations” but the single, despite Ross’ staunch efforts to put spark into it – her ignitable “I love you, boy!,” her wriggling “des-iyyyire,” her awestruck “YOU MOVE ME, BOY!,” her extraordinary yowling (“AWWWWWW…HOLD ME [five times]…TIGHT!,” twice) at the fade – did only modest business.

Berry Gordy had co-written the song himself, and here was another, more dramatic indication as to why Motown needed a revival; the Holland-Dozier-Holland team had recently, and abruptly, quit the label over a royalty dispute, and both the Supremes and the Four Tops found life suddenly hard. Unlike the natural nowness of “The Happening,” things like “No Matter…” seemed forced, and Gordy was extremely reluctant to take Motown’s music into darker, possibly political waters, even after the success of “Grapevine” (and his reinvention of the Temptations shortly thereafter) had essentially made Norman Whitfield the label’s main bankable asset. The situation is thrown into stark focus by “I’m In A Different World,” the last song prepared by H-D-H for the Four Tops and one of their most experimental; Levi Stubbs enters immediately with his “In this world of ups and downs” (subsequently sampled by Saint Etienne on “She’s The One”) but the drums do not come in until after the first chorus and thereafter alternate between verses only. Again there is this idealistic vision of a better, brighter world, the kind which can only be attained by the presence of a true and deep love. Stubbs gradually re-gathers his strength throughout the song and his exclamations of “The empty life I knew/I leave it far behind” and the climactic, semi-spoken “Most of all you made me/Believe in myself!” sound astonishingly liberated; as he and the group climb the starry stairway (“But when your lovelight shines upon my face”) to each chorus we feel the singer’s deliverance. This was a Christ-like passion which Motown had to retain.

Side one, however, ends with the triumphant 1964 renewal of “Dancing In The Street”; originally intended as a song meant to stop riots, it ended up becoming a code for revolution. Marvin Gaye’s drums and Steve Reid’s chains work in emphatic empathy; there is no doubt that they are celebrating the burial of the whip and the rod, the end of slavery, both external and internal. The Shirelles could have done the song but it is Martha Reeves’ natural authority which throws its smiling demands in our face and into our bones; there is an encyclopaedic embrace – Reeves’ apex of “Everywhere around the world!” seems to revolve around itself – of all that is good and positive about humanity, a beat so insistent and persuasive that it never tramples you but doesn’t leave you alone either. Brass and rhythm seem to explode out of endless corners of neon, Spector’s global paranoia refracted into an encompassing kaleidoscope of fervent fullness. A giant of a record, and a justifiable, if belated, hit. We leave this side wreathed in smiles.

Stevie Wonder expresses a different kind of liberation in “For Once In My Life,” another 1967 recording only released as a single in late 1968 with extreme reluctance; hitherto best known as a crooners’ standard (Dorothy Squires’ 1969 reading takes the most hysterical of stages), Wonder speeds it up and exults in his emancipation. Once more, his world only makes sense and becomes good when he has someone with whom to share it; we know immediately that he has suffered and fought to attain this ecstasy, and the orchestra and chorus are with him all the way (even with those oddly atonal piccolo figures in the verses). And we cannot escape what else this performance would have signified in late 1968 – there is a perky gravity to his “I won’t let sorrow hurt me/Not like it hurt me before” – and when he reaches the impossible yelp of “MINE!” in the final “This is…MINE! You can’t take it!” – having to take the vocal equivalent of a Fosbury flop to get there - the curtains part and the rainbow is revealed. Beneath the drums and tambourine, those chains are still rattling, deep in the mix, or rather, being rattled off.

“You’re All I Need To Get By” is both the album’s happiest and saddest song; sad because of what happened to the two people who sang it – the interaction between Marvin and Tammi is so instinctive and graspable that it is hard to believe that their sets of vocals had to be recorded separately, Tammi already confined to a wheelchair with the brain tumour which would eventually kill her – but happy, again, because of the huge hope it projects. Gaye in particular is straight in with his responses to Terrell’s calls – “Come on baby,” “Ah huh HUH!,” Up the HILL!” – and the song’s momentum is unstoppable; they work steadily towards a triple climax, pausing twice on the mountain for hissing steam train sizzles of cymbal, before reaching the summit, Gaye’s “OWWW!” sounding both free and pained. Their “honey”s culminate in thrilling “YEAH!”s, the two hearts seemingly unbeatable; it is a painfully moving performance.

Next it’s back to 1965 for the Smokey Robinson era Temptations; “Get Ready,” however, has a force and drive which clearly foresee the imminent explosion of “Cloud Nine.” Eddie Kendricks takes the lead vocal, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra strings and Benny Benjamin’s furious but precise drums hurtling him on towards greater confidence – and yet, in his insistent promise that he’s going to bring her love she’s never experienced before, there is a palpable threat in the line “I hope I get to you before they do – the way I planned it.” Happiness, as with everything else in Motown, is not a simple affair. Kendricks relaxes and sits back on his last “come,” letting the rest of the group and the band take the song out with worrisome alto saxophone, bleating bass trombone/baritone sax unisons and ruminatively staccato piano.

Now we hear the voice of the authentic preacher, Edwin Starr; his “SOS” was a reissue from 1966 and the track whose renewed success was most obviously attributable to the Northern Soul boom, but the movement’s motto of “Keep The Faith” could readily be applied to these sixteen songs as a whole; Edwin has lost his baby but he’s going to keep looking for her (“From Maine to Mexico!”), his backing rumbustious, treble-heavy but appositely propulsive. These “hey, hey, hey!”s do, or should, not imply lightly-intended footsteps.

Suddenly, from these multiple worlds of elevated reason, we are hurtled back down into brutal reality. “Love Child” was the record which threw the Supremes, and arguably Motown, back into serious consideration; they sang the song as their final performance on the Ed Sullivan show, ditching their sequinned gowns and heading back to their roots. The music is tightly clenched, glockenspiel detonators, teeth-chattering Dennis Coffey guitar, as Ross muses sternly on her base upbringing; she wants love, but not like this, and there is a sternness, even a menace, in her voice which wasn’t previously present. Her aghast “OHHHH!”s are set against her barely concealed internalised, poverty-powered agony; this is a would-be mother not wanting to be the inspiration for “In The Ghetto.” Interestingly one of the song’s co-writers was the Canadian R Dean Taylor, who as an artist was responsible for some of the most sheerly paranoid Motown sides of the sixties and early seventies; but note Ross’ tearful, repeated “Always LO-O-OVE YOUU!!”s towards the fade – she isn’t trying to kill anything, simply trying to stop lives from being killed.

“Behind A Painted Smile,” another 1967 rescuee, went top five in Britain in mid-1969, and again barely registered back in the States. Composed by Ivy Jo Hunter and “B Verdi,” complete with an opening, straight flute/piano paraphrase of “Vesta La Giubba” from Pagliacci, there ensues a sudden, vicious launch into the song itself, Ronald Isley raging with vibrant intensity (“YOU! CAN’T! IMAG! INE! TEARS! AND! SORROW!”) about having to keep his countenance in the presence of the one who betrayed and abandoned him, eventually having to resort to a hurt, Frankie Valli-ish falsetto (“My life is a MAS-QUE-RADE!”), Benjamin’s drums anything but compassionate, as his brutal, short coda demonstrates. Façades, the screens of “love” – the stage becoming steadily more apparent.

Junior Walker, from 1966, has other ideas; his “Road Runner” drives along the same rhythm arrangement as “Dancing In The Street” but honed to the bone. Despite his protestations of freedom – “If you love me, that’s your business!” – those chains pursuing him are inescapable. His titular proclamations are immediately succeeded by a sighing, scolding guitar figure; baritone sax doubles up with the bass guitar as though he is walking, or running, across a bed of fiery nails (“Got to be free, baby!”), and eventually Walker resorts to his alto sax to express his real confusion and disorientation – that churning, slurring saxophone rasp which inspired everyone from Clarence Clemons to Gary Windo. One gets the feeling that he’s fooling nobody.

Speaking of fooling nobody, the record ends, as it was presumably always meant to do, with a mountain of a masterpiece, a deceptively quiet reminder that Smokey still had the key to whatever could intangibly be described as “the soul,” and the greatest understanding of the precise nature of hurt, loss and countenance retaining. Blossoming out from the embryonic petal of Marv Tarplin’s curling guitar kiss – it could almost be an introduction to a George Jones song – the voices fill the song’s fibres before Smokey, in his only appearance here as a performer, takes the centre ground. He is shattered but still trying to be casual about it; he knows that if we all faced the world as we really are it would burn the planet to ashes. But he tries, even though Paul Riser’s diagnonal, half-a-beat-behind-the-beat slashes of brass and strings tears in the chorus give away the lie. The singer still tries to reassure us that he’s doing fine; he’s seeing someone else and seemingly enjoying it, but it’s all bullshit, don’t be fooled – is he trying to make himself cry?

The middle eight rears a head of nobility to which Smokey can offer no convenient reply. “My smile is my make-up/I wear since my break-up with YOU!” he sings as though collapsing down twenty flights of stairs – and finally it all floods out, the façade demolished; in contrast to the easy rancour of “Painted Smile,” here is the greater and deeper pain, all the harder hitting because he has fought so hard to contain it; the scenery falls down around his head as he drops the pretence completely and sobs along with the song; this is PAIN, this is WRONG, how do I get to be HAPPY (again)? This was an emotion that no chart could deny – “The beat of the heart, my love, is stronger than the charts, my love” as Diana Ross earlier told us – and so our hearts were petrified, and then elated, by these spears of extreme happiness, worry, grief and, above all, freedom, the multifocal message which demanded real emotions, the dropping of MoR masks, the revelation of something which, if its mind were derived from the heart rather than the brain, might bring us closer to that other intangible soul some still call “the truth.”

(Author’s PS: And fittingly, as this album made it to number one for Valentine’s Day, I’m taking a week off - since Valentine’s Day is no time to work – and entry #76 will appear here in a fortnight or so.)

Monday, 1 February 2010

LED ZEPPELIN: Led Zeppelin II


(#74: 7 February 1970, 1 week)

Track listing: Whole Lotta Love/What Is And What Should Never Be/The Lemon Song/Thank You/Heartbreaker/Living Loving Maid (She’s Just A Woman)/Ramble On/Moby Dick/Bring It On Home

There are things entirely admirable about how immediately and firmly the seventies kick off as far as this tale is concerned. No three-year probationary bus queuing period waiting for everything to fall into place, or just happen; the harbinger/fanfare of “Whole Lotta Love” announces and describes pretty accurately how this coming decade – ah yes, “coming”! - is going to map out, the map, moreover, drafted by the decade’s most successful albums act.

So far I’ve been avoiding using the term “no-nonsense,” since even a cursory reading of Hammer Of The Gods will tell you that Zep had plenty of nonsense about them to spare throughout the seventies. But the great things about their second album include its economy, its surprising lightness (given that this record is commonly held responsible for popularising that which Radio Tip Top termed “Loud Heavy Rock Metal”) and its unassailable core of cheek. Even when leering and loitering through “Living Loving Maid,” Robert Plant conveys far more sauce than offence; he was just twenty-one when this album was recorded, and thoughtfully up for it.

“Whole Lotta Love” itself is the best introductory track – as in, “this is what we do; what do you think?” – on any of these albums since “I Saw Her Standing There” and four decades of overexposure have tended to obscure its roving adventurousness. Still living in stereo-separated late 1969 land, Page’s riff thunders out of the right speaker with a leak of electrical static into the left – the notion being “we’re starting again” – until on the left he’s joined by Plant’s shriek, more shy than sly despite all his talk of “coolin’” “and “schoolin’.” Still, the singer wastes no time – despite the length of some of its tracks, the whole album is very deeply concerned about not wasting time – and soon he is yodelling his craving passion (“Insi-si-yi-ide!”) before sticking his schoolboy tongue out with his mischievous rhetorical question upward rises and downward dips of “looooove!” Bonham’s drums stride in for the chorus while Plant intones the title mid-range and is answered by Page’s repeated dining-in divebombs.

Then Bonham reduces to hissing cymbal and ride cymbal unisons as the group wander into extended dub/improv spaces (play the mid-section alongside the more excitable moments of AMM’s The Crypt: 1968 and you’ll see what I mean). A generation before Eric B cut up Bobby Byrd’s “soul” signifiers, Plant’s howls and leers are distilled into abstract, backwards-echoing things in themselves while Page, doing hands-off outer space guitar nearly as effectively as Derek Bailey on the Tony Oxley Quintet’s “Stone Garden,” continues what he helped to start with “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” – remember that Zeppelin were once The New Yardbirds (and that John Paul Jones played bass on “Happenings”), and even as the Who were by this time moving rather glumly into Grown-Up, Responsible Rock, the noise notion had not been entirely abandoned by others. In great part this of course represented a huge liberation from the endless sessions by which Page and Jones had been earning their living for most of the sixties, some of which have already been mentioned in this tale; freed of the need to be nice behind Val or Shirley, they explode with commendable candour. Page co-controlled the mixing desk with Eddie Kramer, the latter just fresh from working on Electric Ladyland, and the mid-section of “Whole Lotta Love” is essentially the two of them mucking around with the faders and mixers at joyous random, finding uncancelled vocal cutouts, adding the odd theremin here and there. There are moments, especially when Bonham occasionally cuts loose with the snare, not quite in any tempo, when we could be listening to Musica Elettronica Viva.

It is Bonham’s military tattoo snare, however, that recalls both band and song to attention and leads into Page’s first palpable and relatively straightforward solo. Plant is now triumphant – you can’t miss the grin behind his self-astonished “every inch!” – but the song soon breaks down again for rubato vocal echoes, answered by an unechoed guitar thrash, before Plant hurtles down the abyss (“Aaaaaaaaa!”) like a sexed-up Wile E Coyote and takes the song out with an impetuous, or possibly imperious, “Shake for me girl!” before heading into a “Hey, ho!” sequence (hey, there’s one of the central motifs of 2010 R&B/hip hop being born!), a long, strangulated cry of orgasm, and sundry “Oooooh!”s of post-coital relief. His “baby”s resonate violently throughout the fade and it’s amusingly clear that he probably needs “love” far more than she does.

But Plant was also a Fairports/Incredible String Band devotee, and much of that comes through “What Is…,” a track which suggests still some strong umbilical ties to 1967 with its quiet, phased vocal and channel-to-channel guitar, the whole verse held together by Jones’ bass, creeping around the garden like a watchful poacher. Then we get a characteristic Zeppelin trademark; the sudden transition from quiet verse to loud chorus, here twice bridged by an abrupt, aerated choir of Plants. Even here, however, this rock is not lunkheaded and owes its main deal to the Abbey Road mode of “rocking,” although the drums are startlingly (by 1969 standards) well-produced and forward. Page’s considered sleepwalk of a solo skilfully links the hopefulness of Hank Marvin with the wistfulness of the quieter Peter Green, but this period of reflection is soon terminated by a pointillistic thrash to which Plant, who has hitherto been musing about finding castles, catching the wind and suchlike, responds with a gargled “Ayyyyee-e-ho!” before launching, via the song’s already planted doubt (“Oh, the wind won’t blow/And we really shouldn’t go”) into yet more forays of “baby,” the first a serrated septet, the second a Leslie cabinet swallow, before giving the wink: “…but they’re never gonna know that I move like hell.”

From its submarine arsequake of a guitar intro, “The Lemon Song” demonstrates all that was good and forgivable about early Zep. Forgivable because, as they generally do throughout this album, they approach the Old Blues Standards like De La Soul approached Steely Dan or the Turtles; as sampling ingredients, blended together, roughly or smoothly, to make the flow run again. Thus Plant sneaks a reference to “Back Door Man” in at the end of “Whole Lotta Love,” itself a derivé of Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love,” and throughout “The Lemon Song,” with its central concept reliant on Robert Johnson, he refers to Wolf’s “Killin’ Floor” and even “I Can’t Quit You Baby” from their debut album.

The rump of “Lemon” is, as with so much else on the record, indebted to Hendrix; that “Foxy Lady” creep at twenty-three minutes to midnight. But soon Page and Bonham abruptly pick up gear and turn the song into double-speed rockabilly (though it sounds more like a further nod to skiffle). Page solos; he concentrates on a clean, BB King type of explanation with the appropriate wistfulness where needed though is not too concerned about tonality. The song slows down again to receive Plant’s extended shriek. Four “MY”s meet four urgent interjections from Page’s plectrum. Plant demands “GIVEITTOMEBABY!” like a newly-promoted town crier and Page responds instantly, though is now playing “out.” Once past the po-mo blues samples, Plant digs in for his “squeeeeeeze….juuuuuice…leeeeeeegs” entreaty, Page’s ejaculations becoming steadily more awkward. “I’m gonna fall right out of bed!” exclaims Plant, causing us almost to fall on the floor with laughter. Page retorts with a quick Hubert Sumlin impression then takes over for another solo. After more multiple “Hey!”s and – you guessed it – “Baby!”s – the song returns to double speed; phantom pings and twings give way to a more abrasive Page solo while Plant’s final gasps of “Killin’ floor” echo away into dub Nirvana. Yet the track’s most notable performer is Jones, who is, as far as we can tell, busy applying the funk principle of bass playing to hard rock, a long time before anyone (who wasn’t in Funkadelic or the Family Stone or on Bitches’ Brew) thought about doing so; he does most to steer the track away from being "Blues On 45."

“Thank You” is the record’s most pensive and maybe its happiest song; possibly in part penance for the eloping suggested in “What Is…,” Plant, musing over the first couple of lines of Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9,” sings plangently of his love and devotion; there are still those phased shadows of voice and guitar but the whole reminds me of the group never talked about when considering precedents for Zeppelin, namely the Small Faces; what happens after Plant’s “drops of rain” could have come straight off Ogden’s, and Plant very much adopts the Steve Marriott technique here (and elsewhere – after all, the first Small Faces album included a track entitled “You Need Loving,” based on the same Willie Dixon template) although the song’s imagery – “When mountains crumble to the sea” – owes much to “Stand By Me.” It’s the only instance on the record where Plant describes a “woman” as “kind” and he is properly awed when singing it. Page offers a thoughtful acoustic (possibly mandolin) solo and Plant’s final “crumbles” melts into a long, reflective pipe organ outro (played by Jones) which disappears into its constituent atoms before suddenly reappearing with one final, authoritative chord, as side one ends.

With “Heartbreaker” we’re back in Hendrixtown but the performance is so dynamic that it represents a development rather than a retrenchment. The group’s utterly confident five-chord smash before bass and drums detour back into the song’s main unison riff demonstrates a band now absolutely happy in and with itself. Plant is back in his old resentful ways – “the wicked ways of love!” he hisses – and after a pause, there is a key change. Here it’s particularly noticeable that Plant’s vocal style is very similar to that of John Fogerty’s – although the aims of Zeppelin and Creedence were very different – before the group hustle themselves into a thrash-out which in turn gives way to Page, alone, spinning out-there loops of solo. He links Scotty Moore to Velvets feedback with the last five descending chords of his solo before returning to the tune, now drenched with baths of acid guitar chords as Plant exclaims “Take your evil ways!” before another throaty, abyss-leaping howl. Meanwhile, “Living Loving Maid” musically makes like Creedence initially before devolving into the usual Zeppelin pattern. “Alimony, alimony!” cries an outraged Plant, whose “Lay your money DOWWWNNNN!!” careers on a multitracked downhill toboggan of a shiver. Page’s solo is like scissors. “Li-lililililili-LITTLE!” stutters Plant on this “Out Of Time” update (and Page played on the latter too).

Dreamy acoustic guitar and brushes lead us into “Ramble On,” which yet again builds up into a socko-rocko chorus, but then a flotilla of Mike Oldfield-anticipating guitars arrives midway through. “The time, the time, the TIME, is now!” sings Plant, slightly petulantly, as Page invents the Allman Brothers. There are strong reminders of the folk passion here, not just in Plant’s triplicate leyline of “He-her!,” but also with the introduction of Tolkien; he’s been searching for that perfect love, and yes, he’s spent ten, eighteen years trying to find his baby, but we learn that Gollum took her away from him in Mordor; his final overdubbed vocal forays cancel each other out. “I can’t find my bluebird!” we can discern, like an appalled Max Miller.

Then Bonham gets his turn in “Moby Dick”; following a rushed, businesslike riff, the group vacates the stage and we hear the third drum solo to occur in the last four entries. Despite the opening parade band paradiddles, which suggest an audition for the Chris Barber band, and the obligatory nods to Elvin Jones (the snare/tom runs and duels) and Sid Catlett (those sturdy rolls), what’s striking about Bonham’s solo is that, unlike Ginger Baker, there’s not much evidence of a jazz influence; somehow he flits between rock and improvised music with a middleman-excluding surgeon’s knife. He ventures into abstracted quietudes which place him in John Stevens/SME territory (indeed Kramer was also the engineer of the latter’s 1968 “Oliv” sessions, which disgracefully still await CD reissue) but his solo climaxes in a succession of rapid rattles which appear to anticipate electro; his snare rolls, like wrapping and folding up a newspaper, are reminiscent of Oxley, his cymbals waves of whale in keeping with the title. Page and Jones re-enter, the riff gets replayed and the whole segues directly into the closing “Bring It On Home.” Here we are in Jimmy Reed suppressed blues territory; loping, lonesome harmonica, a voice rumbling and rising out of the sedentary groove. The harmonica then melds into the guitar and we get an abrupt transition to ROCK! Maracas double up with Bonham’s drums and Plant gives (for now) his cumulating howls (“I’m gonna give you MORE!” he giggles lasciviously, nudging the nudge). Then the quiet roll of a stroll returns – he’s more bemused than angry that his “baby” should want to try it with other men – before Plant’s harmonica utters an “That’s All, Folks!” signoff.

What to make of Led Zeppelin II, then, other than to comment that it contains more “baby”s than any number one album this side of Diana Ross and the Supremes? Although I cannot precisely pin it down, there is an exultation to the record’s newborn rush of elation, its shaking off of old ties, its quiet-LOUD-quiet turnarounds, and the rapidity with which each track gives way to the next which puts me very much in mind of the Pixies. Certainly, despite Plant’s displeasure with Gollum, there are no particular demons here to be excised, no guilt about the past and plenty of expectations for the future. In addition, a year ahead of Marc Bolan’s transformation into pop, there is, despite the undoubted Jack the Wolverhampton Laddism of turn-of-the-decade Plant, a rather fetching and endearing androgyny at work; look at the retouched Red Baron squad photo on the cover and as well as the group, Peter Grant and their tour manager we espy a face from Mary Poppins – Glynis Johns, who in that film plays a comedy suffragette. Readers are invited to draw their own conclusions; but Led Zeppelin II has lasted well as a kind of extended and modified “Twist And Shout.” We’ve made it over to the other side, and some people are still saying their farewells to the time just passed – but we’re going to be safe. Aren’t we?