Monday, 29 March 2010

The ROLLING STONES: “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!” - The Rolling Stones In Concert


(#81: 19 September 1970, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Jumpin’ Jack Flash/Carol/Stray Cat Blues/Love In Vain/Midnight Rambler/Sympathy For The Devil/Live With Me/Little Queenie/Honky Tonk Women/Street Fighting Man

The first fully-fledged live album to make number one, Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out borrowed its title from Blind Boy Fuller, its cover design from Dylan’s “Visions Of Johanna” (“Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule”) and its raison d’etre from a mixture of contractual obligations – this was their last non-compilation album to appear on Decca – and the by now familiar 1970 tactic of beating the bootleggers; Live’r Than You’ll Ever Be was a bootleg of an Oakland concert on the group’s 1969 winter tour and Ya-Ya’s was to an extent a damage limitation exercise, although given the importance of this particular visit it is probable that a legal concert album had always been planned. Mostly put together from two Madison Square Gardens concerts given at the end of November 1969 – “Love In Vain” comes from their performance at Baltimore on the night prior to visiting New York – the album was warmly received and hailed as, de facto, the definitive live rock record to date.

Much of this hailing was an after-effect of the awe in which the Stones’ first visit to the States in some three years had been held; they had in the interim built up their sourly majestic reputation, and from the group’s perspective they felt the need to make a definitive impression; this was their first tour with new boy Mick Taylor on guitar and they pretty much had everything to prove. They were welcomed as heroes, if not quite gods, and the testimonies of those who witnessed them at the time bear evidence that this was something special, and perhaps unrepeatable.

It’s debatable as to how much of this worshipful radiance filters through to the record itself. Most live records are produced as tour souvenirs and therefore tend to have a necessarily limited following, but there are plenty of further concert recordings to come in this tale, most of which transcend souvenir status in that they show the artists improvising, playing with their songs, with any luck exceeding themselves and possibly – again, see Dylan at the “Albert Hall” – reinvent the way we look at music. Jazz recordings, in contrast, thrive by the music’s very nature on live performance and direct interaction with audiences and fellow players – see Coltrane at the Village Vanguard, Coleman at the Golden Circle or Ayler at Greenwich Village for just three examples from the sixties alone.

In musical terms, Ya-Ya’s tends about halfway towards the latter in that there is genuine interaction and a degree of improvisation at work in all ten of its songs, although its greater interest lies in the way in which existing song structures are hardened, or flexed, or made to breathe within their inbuilt limitations (see James Brown Live At The Apollo). Its essential good nature filters through the opening overlapping stage announcements; already the Stones were expected to be The World’s Greatest Rock ‘N’ Roll Band but they wear the assignment lightly. Jagger, as ever, is up for it like a keen scoutmaster and, with both the group and the audience having been worked up by the supporting performances of BB King and Ike and Tina Turner (with Jagger borrowing quite a few of Tina’s trademarked moves), leads the charge into “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” as if this warm welcome had always been expected anyway. It is a rather mundane, if serviceable, reading; denuded of Jimmy Miller’s percussion and voodoo studio manipulation, it stops being frightening and becomes a straightforward R&B rocker, although it is useful to note the song’s musical debt to Stax in Richards’ and Taylor’s crisscrossing single note guitar lines (cf. Booker T and the MGs’ “Time Is Tight”).

Still, they are warming up, gradually getting into the occasion. “Thank you kindly,” drawls Jagger in an Apollo parody. “I think I bust a button on my trousers,” he winks. “You don’t want my trousers to fall down – now do ya?” The audience roars the expected response, but this is far from the performance art of an Iggy or a Morrison, or indeed from the nudging nudges of Reg Presley or PJ Proby a few years earlier; instead one thinks of Max Miller and his red and blue books – it’s all a friendly tease. Then the group bursts into Chuck Berry’s “Carol,” one of their earliest recordings, and it’s not a bad update at all, with Richards’ guitar shivering at Jagger’s “Sho-ow-out!” and jumping like a newly electrocuted kangaroo at Jagger’s “Steal your heart away.” Jagger’s “Dance so good” and Richards’ immediate, instinctive response also pave the way for “Brown Sugar.”

“Stray Cat Blues” again indicates the aesthetic gulf between the produced, record-as-statement Beggars’ Banquet and relatively straight stage performance; on the studio version everything is bristling to the point of numbness with unspoken tension, and despite provocatively lowering the age of the song’s female protagonist to thirteen – did anyone in the audience even notice that? (“Never heard things like that”) – the live performance is thrust upwards into a punk thrash, complete with regular, rhetorical Charlie Watts cymbal crashes, and musically demonstrates some subsequent influence on “Sweet Home Alabama” (although the original song was reportedly inspired by the Velvets’ “Heroin”). So far, this is all very pert and spry, but not exactly revelatory.

“Love In Vain” is taken a little more patiently than the studio version, and the influence of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac probably cannot be understated, especially as his successor in Mayall’s Blues Breakers, Mick Taylor, is present. Now, however, the new degree of interaction between the two guitarists is brought to the forefront for the first time on the record; this is the sound of Taylor proving himself to the rest of the band and to Richards in particular. The interaction is immediately deep and aqueous; the two rumbling arches of double guitar in response to Jagger’s first “station” which become a groaning but fulfilled triple at his final one are as immense as the Aegean and the song’s slow burn is compelling. Watts too has his moment here when early on he produces one soft cymbal crash followed by an extremely loud one, finally resolving with a receding cymbal hiss. The double-guitar tension slowly builds, incorporating the creative use of controlled feedback, until all erupts in an ecstatic Hubert Sumlin explosion.

Then we reach the ten-minute revisit of “Midnight Rambler.” Despite Wikipedia I am more inclined to continue thinking of this song as an Eldridge Cleaver reimagining than an Albert de Salvo transcription or transposition; the Boston Strangler sequence is meant to be jump-start shocking rather than dull documentary. In any case Jagger can hardly wait to get into his big setpiece, already wailing away on his harp before the group has even started with the riff; he grasps the song and plays its role to the full, even though he, perhaps wisely, largely steers away from improvisation and leaves the rest of the group to invent new dots and connections. In the second, Neu!-inventing section the band steam off a thundering series of unisons, Wyman’s bass, as fuzzy as Hugh Hopper’s, arguably leading the charge. Then the song breaks off and the audience, not yet fully knowing Let It Bleed, applaud and cheer prematurely, while Jagger and the two guitarists knuckle the song down to hambone wire tension; Jagger, mixed back so as to sound part of the group rather than in front of it, eventually tires of the words and goes into determinedly inarticulate mumbles, growls and whoops, to the audience’s evident delight (“GodDAMN!” exclaims one of them midway through the knife-edge quiescence). Where the Let It Bleed take was chilling because of its manufactured, distanced menace, here we have an arguably more disturbing scenario since Jagger has now dived fully into the body of the killer and is – whisper it – enjoying it; there is, only a week before Altamont, already a fatal joy in termination.

“Sympathy For The Devil” initially sets out as a bar band rave-up – perhaps as a defiant response to the lady who cries out for “Paint It Black, you DEVILS!” – and chunders along unspectacularly (the secret in the studio was the maracas, and the semi-illusory sense of distance) until Richards suddenly snaps and slaps out a gagglingly grand guitar solo, pulling the whole group into a different orbit (“Oh get on DOWN!” cheerleads Redcoat Jagger) as the ending crashes into a luminous ocean of lighter fluid.

Suddenly the group are committed. “Live With Me” is nothing much in this environment but its punk attack is more than agreeable. “Let’s ‘ave a look at yer!” squeals Jagger as the group go back again towards the font, Chuck Berry, and their “Little Queenie” burns like an incandescent border post at the furthest departure gates of rock. Everybody steps up their game here – and what a song; does Chuck invent Kraftwerk here (“Well she looks like a model/On the cover of a magazine”) or was “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll,” as done by Joan Jett, the definitive answer song from the belly of the record machine? – with Ian Stewart seemingly hammering 20-inch nails into his piano, Wyman doing a great “Interstellar Overdrive” bass ascent at the end and everyone again crashing through the seventeenth wall.

After that, it’s the celebratory homeward lap of honour; “Honky Tonk Women” is taken more slowly but more juicily than the 45 – Keith shrieking out the harmonies with Mick at the mike – and “Street Fighting Man” offers a fine, surging climax; in his original Rolling Stone review Lester Bangs compares Richards’ guitar work to both Moby Grape and Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made To Love Her,” and while there is truth in either of these assertions there is an unmissable rise of grandeur which very naturally says that, without being especially loud or metallic or epic, the Stones’ roll combines with their rock in ways which most other rock bands of the period could only eye with relishable envy; there is an intricate completeness to the group’s playing here which puts me in mind of Cecil Taylor’s furiously compressed but always logical clusters of piano; not once on Ya-Ya’s do they play “out” but by the sheer power of their invention they manage to radiate a musical radicalness which far outdoes some of their more superficially “adventurous” contemporaries. I certainly wouldn’t call it the greatest live album ever made, even though it became something of a rite of passage in terms of dressing room warm-ups – the Faces, for instance, always played the album before going on stage to get them in the mood – but in terms of showing just about Everyone Else who was still Boss, it does a highly efficient job, even though it has to some degree to retract into the sixties in order to prove it. Next week’s entry, however, is probably the first album which could not possibly have existed or been conceived in the sixties, and takes some of the implications of “Midnight Rambler” to a hitherto unthinkable extreme.

Monday, 22 March 2010

CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL: Cosmo’s Factory


(#80: 12 September 1970, 1 week)

Track listing: Ramble Tamble/Before You Accuse Me/Travelin’ Band/Ooby Dooby/Lookin’ Out My Back Door/Run Through The Jungle/Up Around The Bend/My Baby Left Me/Who’ll Stop The Rain/I Heard It Through The Grapevine/Long As I Can See The Light

If you didn’t know any better, you’d be forgiven for looking at the cover of Cosmo’s Factory and mistaking it for a 1994 release on Drag City; the handwritten signs of casual import - “3RD GENERATION,” “BEWARE of DOG,” “LEAN, CLEAN AND BLUESY” – and the general air of slackerdom in the musicians strewn around the studio. But then drummer Doug Clifford is pedalling on his exercise bike and John Fogerty is looking expectantly at the camera as he is about to tackle Doug’s drumkit and get down to some hard, solid work.

And “hard, solid work” was a cornerstone of what Creedence were about; their “solidity” and exceptional work ethic – Cosmo’s was the fourth Creedence album to be released in the space of barely two years – attracted and retained an awful lot of followers who might otherwise have drifted away from what they felt rock had become. The obvious comparison – as Clifford’s grave drums and Fogerty’s quivering Fender Rhodes and homemade sax solo (almost Ayler-ish in its slightly exaggerated vibrato, if not in its tonality) on “Long As I Can See The Light” attest – is with The Band, but where the Canadians were generally viewed as romantic mystics, Creedence’s collars could not have been bluer. The quartet had history dating back to before the Beatles; nowhere do you listen to Creedence at their peak and imagine that you are listening to anything other than grown adults playing music.

Musically they were in some senses traditionalists, fundamentalists even, but they were not particularly interested in retrenchment; if anything, Fogerty’s bayou fantasias were merely a more homespun variant on the space/time-defying leaps preferred by his Bay Area contemporaries. Gigging around northern California from his teenage years, with a band which in the beginning was named The Blue Velvets and later, and to the regret of everyone involved, The Golliwogs, Fogerty was on an early treadmill and desperate to get off it; he invented a world in his mind, attached it to a basic, but learned, rock ‘n’ roll template and found that his moment had been waiting for him, like an impatient troop ship. He had been drafted but managed to serve his time in the Army Reserve, and by the time he was demobbed he was sternly anxious to make something happen.

Like The Band, Creedence played Woodstock but demurred from appearing in the movie or on the soundtrack album (Fogerty didn’t think their performance had been up to scratch); they were signed to Fantasy Records, a label as near to “indie” as anything at the time, although were later to regret its business practices, as the long, depressing list of subsequent legal actions makes clear; they made number two four times on the Billboard Hot 100 singles list without ever reaching number one, and many still regard these statistics with some suspicion (did Saul Zaentz have a beef with Billboard, or vice versa?). Unlike any of their Bay peers, however, Creedence prospered when all the rest – Airplane, Quicksilver etc. – seemed to have swallowed themselves up; Fogerty was keen to have Booker T and the MGs support them on tour and for a while the band seemed the only one capable of clearing a path in parallel with their strangely logical mirror image, Sly and the Family Stone; Fogerty’s white soul holler and general air of earthy commitment meant that Creedence, almost uniquely for a white band at the time, crossed over to the R&B charts. In addition, with the recent atomisation of the Beatles, audiences were keenly searching, or waiting, for answers, and Creedence were there, ready to give them direct reassurances via simple means. None of the moodily blue beating around specific bushes (although these too, as demonstrated in the previous entry, were hugely popular); Fogerty’s men spoke to the working man but the beauty about Creedence’s brief fire is that they were everyone’s group; the truck drivers, the waitresses, the troops, the students – none could find anything in their music that didn’t communicate with them, or stir up something deep and important within them. Even in Britain, where the band was mostly regarded as a rootsier variety of American “otherness,” they managed to speak to everyone, and even topped our singles lists in 1969 with the uncompromisingly apocalyptic “Bad Moon Rising.”

Cosmo’s Factory was pretty much their peak, and remains a key American record. Perhaps its biggest surprise, however, is how closely Fogerty’s high-pitched roar comes to Robert Plant at times; the nearly eight-minute-long “Ramble Tamble,” one of the album’s two big setpieces, begins with a typical 1970 rock stomp but quickly, and startlingly, reverts to a Sun Studios romp. There are still echoes of Plant in Fogerty’s multifocally echoed vocal – “Oooo…” – but the lyrics give the record’s first uncanny shadowing of Marvin Gaye: “There's garbage on the sidewalk/Highways in the back yard/Police on the corner/Mortgage on the car/MORTGAGE ON THE CAR.” Coupled with the song’s later references to “Actors in the White House,” a decade ahead of Reagan, and Fogerty’s virulently forlorn “MORTGAGE ON MY LIFE,” we are indeed very close to “Inner City Blues” territory here, and perhaps the most depressing thing about the words is that they could have been written last week.

The music, however, manages to go through a potted history of the fifteen years which rock ‘n’ roll had by then accumulated; after the second verse the tempo slackens and we go through Beat boom curlicues (with a nod to the Animals’ “Rising Sun”), modal psychedelia and a Cream-style rock-out before the song returns to Sun mode, although there is a brief period of violent vacillation between “now” and “yesterday”; the locomotive, however, slows down once more and brings the song to an end, Clifford’s ominously extended cymbal hiss like a rattlesnake about to bring the nation down.

The degree of stylistic and emotional wavering between 1970 and 1955 is underlined by Fogerty’s songs being interspersed with tributes to a not-too-distant past; “Before You Accuse Me” is the old Bo Diddley number – the original appears on Bo’s first album, still a startling bolt of futurism from 1958 – and Fogerty makes a fine job of telling the caught-out cheater protagonist’s story, although his abrupt guitar slashes are almost punk-like; this is no worshipful revisit. “Travelin’ Band,” the one which caused Little Richard on the Dick Cavett Show to freak out and re-proclaim his greatness, is a gloriously mean rocker; Fogerty, alone of practically any seventies musician until Gil Scott-Heron’s “Hello Sunday, Hello Road,” sings of his joy at being on the road, although his “gotta move”s do have a degree of slightly forced urgency and the references to “state militia” again indicate a far-from-safe present. In its streamlined attack – Fogerty’s climactic “WHOOOOO!!!”s sweeping straight into stinging solo guitar, eventually dueling with Clifford’s drums, and homemade horns – it travels a clear midway line between “Good Golly, Miss Molly” and “I Wanna Be Sedated.” After that, we get a virtual Xerox of “Ooby Dooby,” Orbison’s first big hit, with more guitar/drums combustion and a strangely lonesome final “A-woo-a-doo-waah,” complete with Stu Cook’s slipping-out-the-back-door bass.

The bayou skiffle streak of “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” brings confusion and anger to a temporary end; as with the song which ends the record’s second side, Fogerty is home – that elusive place which virtually all of 1969 and 1970 has been trying to reach – and happy (his delighted exclamation of “Buck Owens!”). He’s hanging out, drawling a vague Orbison recall (“oon-dodoododoo”), sees tambourines and elephants – is he remembering, or just dreaming, Sgt Pepper? – celebrating and singing in the yard; in his sleevenote to the 40th anniversary CD reissue Christgau refers to this as Fogerty’s “dope” song (as opposed to the implied “acid” subtext of a lot of the others) but Fogerty has asserted that he wrote it for his then three-year-old son as a kind of joyful lullaby. His “Bother me tomorrow – today, I’ll buy no sorrows” is a declaration of quietly furious intent; trouble hasn’t vanished but it can be kept at bay, as long as he can stay happy; the song’s contours are so vivid – Clifford’s drums not coming in, and then only discreetly, into the song after the first bridge, with the song itself moving towards a semi-fumbled key change – brushes ticking like crickets - and finally a satisfied, fed slowdown – that you can see Fogerty’s house through its friendly fabrics.

Trouble abruptly reasserts itself, however; ominous low strings and abstract guitar noise – Sonny Sharrock tributes on a Creedence record? Is anything really straightforward? – sweeps us into the threatening two-step of “Run Through The Jungle.” Although lacking the instinctive prowl of a genuine swamp man like Tony Joe White or Dr John, this is pretty uncompromising stuff. “Two million guns are loaded,” growls Fogerty. “Satan says: TAKE AIM!” His dolefully descending, Cropper-influenced Sisyphus stone of a lead guitar line walks through the checkpoints of an urban hell – the Vietnam analogy is unavoidable, but this is 1970 America he’s describing in the first, objective instance – and the agonized harp solo puts the song in a place not that far removed from “Gimme Shelter.” Finally the song disappears in a haze of howls, feedback and bullets.

“Up Around The Bend” with its Big Star-anticipating opening of gladdened guitar (and midsong “September Gurls” handclaps), initially seems like a thunderous reassurance, but in fact Fogerty has given up the world as we know it for dead (“Leave the sinking ship behind”) and endeavours to lead us towards something new and better (“Where the neon turns to wood”); he’s asking for the creation of a new society from nothing save humanity, and the song virtually spells out a manifesto for Generation X; note the exclamatory guitar which meets Fogerty’s “big red tree” in the final verse. One of the album shots shows the four men, standing sternly in front of a “ROAD ENDS” sign; this is it, they are saying – you want to travel some more, you’re going to have to help us build.

But you can only build if you understand your roots; “My Baby Left Me” gets a dutifully unfaithful reading, with its clever intro of Cozy Cole paradiddles and walking bass, towards what can only be described as steam-powered punk, with a fadeout drenched in echo and tinged with reggae. The earnest acoustic guitar lines which begin “Who’ll Stop The Rain” clearly set the scene for R.E.M. and all who were to follow in their wake; there is a hint of the Searchers still in Fogerty’s searching vocal; at times he sounds wan, weary, hesitant, on the verge of being beaten (“tryin’ to keep warm”) – the song was ostensibly written about their experience at Woodstock, but the bigger picture can scarcely be excluded; not since “Come Next Spring” has this tale met a song which equates rain with war. Those important early folk club experiences evidently never left Fogerty’s mind.

Then into eleven minutes of “Grapevine”; Fogerty attacks the song’s uncertainty with a startling directness – he growls “FOWNDOWT!” as though munching monsters – while Clifford bashes his cymbal rhetorically at every “vine” and rumbles his tom-toms through the swampy central riff, churning with guitars and bass in a cauldron of pain. After the song is done with, the band takes off; Fogerty’s first guitar solo is mainly chordal and his second mostly careful single-note lines. Thereafter he moves towards whimpers, downward-cascading lines, alternating with clipped funk chords, going down ever more slowly. Clifford, meanwhile, gradually stokes the number up into a garage band rave-up with his cymbals – and his cowbell is one of the most expressive in all of rock. Fogerty, seemingly with minimal effort, subtly takes us through a panoply of blues guitar styles, from BB cries through to Buddy Guy vamps, while diverting into scratchy funk scrapes which seem to predicate 1979. The main riff reappears before the track vanishes under Clifford’s tick-tock, time-is-running-out needle, two minutes to midnight; the band has grasped Gaye and Whitfield’s underlying sense of imminent carnage and rumbled it down to a bone.

Finally, redemption of a sort; Fogerty has been singing about the necessity to “move” practically all the way through the record, but his “mo-o-o-ooo-oh-ove”s in “Long As I Can See The Light” are expressed with the exhausted resolution of a man who knows he is really not that far from home any more and will soon no longer have to move, as in dodging, or running (see also his feline “mmmmm” at the end of the second line of the song’s second verse). His “don’t have to worry no more” is mumbled as though through tears. But then he works himself up to an ending, with his two abrupt, defiant “WON’T!”s, then a “Shantih, Shantih, Shantih” apex of three “YEAH!”s, finally letting it be (albeit far more successfully) with a final “WHOA, YEAH!.” “He may go out,” said Lena, “but he’s gonna come back.”

And so the notion of Creedence, and the perhaps overlapping notion of the Grand Unifying Theory of American Music, since virtually all of it is present in one form or another through Cosmo’s Factory, has to be looked at with some awe. It is a matter of documented fact that one of Kurt Cobain’s earliest bands specialised in Creedence covers and many of the pioneers of grunge and Gen X indie, though only toddlers at the time of this record, would have picked up on these songs instantly, from Dinosaur Jr to the Lemonheads, these songs being simple to learn and easy to play (the common love of flannel shirts is of course also a factor). But look through Nevermind or Surfer Rosa and you may find that these groups are singing about the same things; differently expressed for a different time, perhaps, but the thread still runs. Certainly the organic nature of Creedence’s music has in itself proved hugely influential; their nearest 2010 equivalents are perhaps Spoon, whose apparent surface of hard-working, conservative rock belies an unusual emotional and aesthetic complexity, all the easier to miss because it is done with no showboating. Listen, however, to the strain of country influences which weave their way past Creedence and towards another Californian band, Pavement; Malkmus & Co. have twisted and played with the shapes of Creedence’s music, making many strange and wonderful new variants, but the line of influence is palpable – they share, for instance, the uncommon ability to convey authority or intent by building blocks of drums alone. Usually viewed as a slightly regretful footnote to the sixties, I would claim that Cosmo’s Factory actually points the way towards that third generation which at the time had only just been born into existence.

Monday, 15 March 2010

The MOODY BLUES: A Question Of Balance


(#79: 22 August 1970, 3 weeks)

Track listing: Question/How Is It (We Are Here)/And The Tide Rushes In/Don’t You Feel Small/Tortoise And The Hare/It’s Up To You/Minstrel’s Song/Dawning Is The Day/Melancholy Man/The Balance

In 1970 even the Moodies had to go back to basics, although their basics really weren’t the same as everyone else’s, having recently refurbished Decca’s Studio One from top to up-to-the-minute technological tail. Nevertheless Peter Knight’s string arrangements are noticeably absent from the picture of Question, although judicious use of natural West Hampstead echo means that Mike Pinder’s Moog gives a pretty good impression of a string section.

From the opening of “Question” itself it is also clear that the band are essentially playing live in the studio; there is a vibrancy that was often marked by sonic reticence the last time this tale visited them. Since then there had been another album – To Our Children’s Children’s Children, which had been kept at number two over Christmas ’69 by Abbey Road – but apart from the palpability of their music, there is no real progress or difference from the sentiments expressed in On The Threshold Of A Dream, nor did there truly need to be. Throughout the record we again hear imprecations to “open your eyes,” “wake up…to yourself,” and two songs bear the 1967 imprint of “love is all around.”

Some of the song titles above may read like the chapters of a Tom Peters self-reinvention manual but there is nothing of the hustler about the group’s music, even though all ten songs are extremely careful to avoid specifics or even any of the implications aroused by Phil Travers’ cover painting, including as it does a furious-looking God winding the Earth around his outraged hand as it turns to polluted smoke; beside him Einstein watches in frustrated boredom, and beneath both are faint pictures of humanity riding in their various hellbound carts, sex, cars and elephant-shooting, growling wolves, frightful bats silhouetted against a terminal moon – and, right at the bottom, a Blackpool seaside crowd watching amazed but unconcerned. Behind them is a tent bearing the “Threshold” logo as its flag, and within it lurks a shady figure who may well be manipulating the entire spectacle.

“Question” was the album’s unlikely #2 smash hit lead single (kept off the top by England ’70 and their prematurely forlorn “Back Home”), unlikely in that the 45 remix is actually longer than the album cut (24 seconds longer). The album version is less dramatically mixed, the Moog fanfare only coming in on the reprise of the fast section. Essentially two half-finished Justin Hayward songs baked together to provide an epic, the fast sections of the song were apparently inspired by the anti-Vietnam demos prevalent at the time, although you’d be hard pressed to glean that simply from listening to it; still, Graeme Edge’s frantic tom-tom knocking against Hayward wondering why his/our knocked door is never answered is a great dramatic device, as are the ghostly choral echoes which veer in and out of the “chorus,” as it is, like spectres of old tube trains. Then the picture settles, becomes more limpid, as Hayward sings of his search to find himself again; there is real loss and sorrow in his “And if you could see what it’s done to me,” and the song’s dramatically soft pauses are cushions of temporary reassurance. His slowly dawning happiness (evident at “To learn as we grow old”) is extremely moving and reminds us that Hayward did the best little boy lost expressionism of any British pop singer this side of Marty Wilde (who, fittingly, gave Hayward his first big chance in the shortlived group We Three). And finally the song charges back into life, Hayward’s energetic and slightly amused protestation vocal slipping around its mechanisms like a newly-fed polecat.

As with Threshold, all ten tracks segue into each other (at an old vinyl rate of five-a-side). “How Is It” demonstrates the group’s unusual ability to sweep quite naturally from one perspective to a wider portrait; its central tune shuffles like the Scaffold but at the word “brink” Pinder’s electronic keyboards fly into the picture and the track effectively turns into proto-Air. Further evidence of the possibility that an awful lot more people listened to and absorbed the Moodies’ music than they might have subsequently cared to admit lies in “And The Tide Rushes In,” another of Ray Thomas’ troubled kitchen sink dramas; he sings it pitched low, like Pitney, but the line “Which side of the bed I should LAAAAAY” – “Love Will Tear Us Apart”? - sets up our antennae, and Edge’s rumbling toms and the general ethereal air of the music, as well as its harmonics, strongly suggest Joy Division’s “Atmosphere.”

“Don’t You Feel Small,” however, demonstrates that the Moodies still had a lot of 1965 in them; their harmonies are Hollies-derived, and the build-up from maracas and flute to full-blooded drums and snappy acoustic guitars suggests a modified Searchers, although the latter never considered a trope like Thomas’ flute, fluttering in its own modest eruption out of the crowning chorus of voices. “Tortoise And The Hare” – I’m avoiding lyrical analysis as much as I can here, since the titles really do say it all – rolls along rather like Mike Sheridan and the Nightriders pre-emptively attempting Canned Heat, with Hayward’s piercing guitar and a final reassuring end-of-the-sixties roundelay of “It’s all right.”

“It’s Up To You” begins with some country-flavoured guitar figures and we are faced with the Moodies as bar band, sounding a little 1968 Beatley and not that far removed from the artists responsible for entry #80, but note the way the sonic picture blurs in the “nothing to lose” middle eight before refocusing on Hayward’s abrupt (“vicious” isn’t a word in his vocabulary) lead guitar. John Lodge’s “Minstrel’s Song” isn’t, unsurprisingly, up to par with Dylan’s “Minstrel Boy” from last week, sticking with its updated “Little Drummer Boy” hymnals – this song could almost have fallen off the back of The Sound Of Music – but works as the crowd pleaser it was always intended to be. Still that incurably optimistic foot stuck in 1967 – “Everywhere, love is all around” – well, it wasn’t our fault, we didn’t change, the rest of the world did – but towards song’s end there’s a remarkable build-up of intensity, Edge’s drums busting loose and Hayward’s guitar verging on punk thrash (no, really!).

“Dawning Is The Day” is the last we hear from Hayward as a singer on this album; alternating characteristically between quiet musing and a slightly more forceful curtain of reassurance – “Listen, we think we have found you,” which is slightly more menacing than comforting – although the climactic double triple descents of flute and piano which judder the song to a temporary halt are striking. After the song’s lost soul has been “found,” a thoughtful mandolin-like guitar line angles its way out of the song like a narrowly escaped pike.

“Melancholy Man” is the album’s second big setpiece (after “Question”); Mike Pinder’s vocal is unsteady but that’s the core of the song – I’m not sure how much of it, if anything, was influenced by Jonathan King’s “A Very Melancholy Man” from a couple of years earlier but there is a new mourning being expressed here; just two very simple verses which weave their way in and out of each other in most possible combinations of fugal counterpoint as the song’s textures thicken – following the shuddering drums which boom against the singer’s “into the sea” – to allow a Morricone choir and the deep, foghorn Moog bass returned from “The Boxer.” Not even the “Yesterday Man” of a few pop summers earlier, this is a despondent song and its darkening arches become rather forbidding; I wonder how much Coventry’s Jerry Dammers listened to this before addressing the 1980-1 work of the Specials (see, for instance, “Stereotypes”). I also thought of “On Melancholy Hill” from Gorillaz’ astonishing Plastic Beach, an album which, like this one, takes a considered look at a disappearing world, which keeps coming back to the sea only to find greater layers of sunken ruins, a loss starkly articulated by Bobby Womack’s numbing “Cloud Of Unknowing.”

But, as that latter record eventually fades into the end credits where the taps have been left running for a hundred years, so Question finds its “Balance”; there is an unapologetic quasi-Biblical narration involving oranges and heightened states of consciousness, eventually mutating into a campfire “We’ll Sing In The Sunshine” update, via Edge’s emotional emphasis on the word “COMPASSION.” Don’t worry, home’s not that far away, just keep going, people of 1970, and the people of Britain and America certainly did keep this record in their respective album charts for well over a year. There is, as I said at the beginning, no real “progress” from two albums previously, and really with the Moodies there is no need to “progress”; they have already found their niche, are wholly comfortable in it, and especially following the vacancy recently created by the Beatles were happy to provide simple (not “simplistic”) answers to their listeners’ implied complex questions. Still, listen to that hammering and “in a world of persecution that is burning in its greed” on “Question”; there’s still a hardness underlying their soft outer layer, and they served their audience’s needs well, as at least one major band every generation has the purpose to do.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Bob DYLAN: Self Portrait


(#78: 11 July 1970, 1 week)

Track listing: All The Tired Horses/Alberta #1/I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know/Days Of 49/Early Mornin’ Rain/In Search Of Little Sadie/Let It Be Me/Little Sadie/Woogie Boogie/Belle Isle/Living The Blues/Like A Rolling Stone/Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight)/Gotta Travel On/Blue Moon/The Boxer/The Mighty Quinn (Quinn, The Eskimo)/Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go)/Take A Message To Mary/It Hurts Me Too/Minstrel Boy/She Belongs To Me/Wigwam/Alberta #2

Was this the shit?

It is 1973, and the Italian entertainer Adriano Celentano, somewhere in the middle of an equilateral European triangle between Cliff Richard, Serge Gainsbourg and Guy Debord, is promoting his then current single “Prisencolinensinainciusol” in the days of unlimited Italian television budgets when anyone could do anything they fancied. This video is, strictly speaking, a collage of two separate television performances of the song, but the overall picture looks committed to both its time and the future. Somewhere between glam stomp and revolutionary march, Celentano stakes a claim for English as he hears and recognises it; the words are intentional gibberish, the intention being bifold; first, to convey the notion, the importance, of direct impact over literal meaning in pop, and second, to reclaim the cruciality of his own language – this is how I recognise your language, he says, but this is my language and I am proud of it. Let’s see if the two can co-exist in a sort of universal love, or at least understanding; Celentano has claimed that the song was also a protest about the impossibility of communicating with a fellow human being in an age whose technocracy was about to overwhelm flesh and blood, the word “Prisencolinensinainciusol” supposedly standing for and perhaps meaning “universal love.” Its ruthless custard pie marching song is perhaps partially inspired by the work of John Kongos, but its most pressing influence – expressed directly in Celentano’s closing harmonica solo – is that of “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” One couldn’t imagine “Prisencolinensinainciusol” existing without the precedent of Dylan any more than without the inspiration of Fellini, and perhaps the anti-inspiration of Mussolini.

The song’s parent album Nostalrock is not easy to track down but well worth the effort; get past its deliberately confrontational cover, which wouldn’t get past any censor now, and we encounter a thirty-eight minute seminar on the meaning of the language of pop. The record is constructed as a fleeting assemblage of key moments in the singer’s pop life, mostly classics from the fifties, interspersed with fragments of “Pennsylvania 6-5000” and “In The Mood,” reminders of the music Celentano would have heard in his youth despite, or because of, its being expressly vietato by Mussolini, together with remembered breezes of street corner serenades, all held together by the insistent thread of “Prisencolinensinainciusol.” He goes back to Johnnie Ray’s “Cry” and dares you to laugh. He does “I Will Drink The Wine,” the intentionally bathetic right-wing ballad Paul Ryan persuaded Sinatra to sing, or tricked him into singing, in 1971, and subtly warns the listener against not laughing; near the song’s end he breaks off, asks his band whether it should be “take” or “drink” the wine, and warbles a grunt of a coda. Most importantly, and with a more than decent band behind him, he goes straight to the core of the magic of words-in-themselves which first dazzled him when they were new; he charges through “Tutti Frutti” and “Be-Bop-A-Lula” with absolute phonetic conviction. Finally a run through “Shake, Rattle And Roll” is violently alternated with the returning “Prisencolinensinainciusol”; the record collapses and an exaggerated English gentleman congratulates Celentano on understanding English so well, only for the singer to reply that he never learned the language. Eventually a dispute in Italian escalates and the record ends with a punch-up, complete with splintering wood, breaking glass and so forth.

The singer has trashed expectations and assumptions, demanding that if anyone is going to approach and address a song, he or she must do so as though they already owned it; make it theirs, make it sing differently but with no less force or power. It is Celentano’s own self-portrait and perhaps it’s the phonetics, the unusual vowel emphases of his rock covers, but throughout the record he sounds curiously like a rejuvenated Bob Dylan.

All of which brings us to the issue of this most problematic of double albums, even if its author never intended it to be a “problem.” On the rear sleeve photograph he is in a farmyard with some chickens (Celentano: “Brrrrrrr chickens in my head they keep the cold...”), looking towards an unexplained horizon, or maybe just the back of a shed. Throughout most of the record’s seventy-four minutes he scarcely sounds like Dylan, and for substantial stretches he is absent from the music, when he is not actually, or actively, disengaged from it.

From a forty-years-ago perspective it shouldn’t really matter. If Dylan wanted to stick out four sides of his 1970 family album just to let us know that he was still around – although the most disturbing factor of Self Portrait is that he strives to be as little around as possible within its brightly spaced cloisters – then why not? Weren’t the Beatles doing as much, or as little, at the same time? Except that even through the mess of Let It Be emerges a fierce picture of a group still looking out for each other, even if they have grown to detest each other. Dylan had the advantage that, his family notwithstanding, he only needed to look after himself. As with Let It Be, there is the discernible scent of beating the bootleggers, although the sequencing and selections are so disorientating as to drive listeners back to Great White Wonder or A Thousand Miles Behind as sharply as possible.

But is Self Portrait not shit?

It is not a wholly listenable album but once begun you don’t really have any choice but to listen the whole way through. It tends to be heaviest when it wants to be light, most insubstantial when wishing to make a profound point, even if the point were “nothing’s profound.”

But why the fuss? It was four decades ago, Bob was filling in time with fillers before his next “proper” record, a nice, half-thought big throwaway. Why the air of residual despair which still prowls its Cubist corners?

At the time it was taken as a signal towards the end of everything and “everything” meant the dream, the baby boomers’ lontano, the fake whirlwind which fluttered under our noses and promised that the wind would henceforth forever change direction because Dylan was like Noah and Moses combined, a natural leader who still couldn’t avoid the flood. No matter that he’d given two years’ clear warning that he didn’t want to deal with this stuff any more; people had the irritating habit of still expecting “stuff” from him.

I mean, for fuck’s sake, why can’t I just be Gordon Lightfoot or Paul Simon, and I don’t mean that “just” to mean “merely”?

What do you want from me?

Information?

Well, you MIGHT get it. I’m not going to say you’ll agree with it or like it but there will be some coming, somewhere you’re not expecting the wind to fly.

Arrival
Flying winds. Three unaccompanied female voices, unaccompanied that is save for some rich echo. An acoustic guitar whispers its way in, then strings rise as the screen expands to welcome in the blueness. A fine orchestration, worthy of Jack Nitzsche. Low ‘cellos and basses provide the soil from which the high violins will bloom towards the brighter incline. Over and over, a sun rising:

“All the tired horses in the sun,
How’m I supposed to get any riding done?”

Hmmmmmm…

…and it IS majestic, the hidden Dylan classic that the guy at the counter who sold me the CD of Self Portrait warned me about; the most perfect thing on the record (since so much else of it strives manfully to be “perfect” but not necessarily Dylan-perfect)…and it takes us right back to entry #3, to “Oh! What A Beautiful Morning”…well, hello there, is everything still OK? Is it really only fourteen years? My, you’d hardly recognise the landscape. Its sun is brilliant, its promise limitless. Even at the moment of the gentle pizzicato fadeout you hardly realise that there’s no Dylan on it.

The Chimes Of Big Ben
But here he is, his voice hanging lower than Alberta’s head, harmonica buzzing in like a wasp trapped in a sewer grate. There’s a hint of hangdog Leonard Cohen here (as there is on his actual self portrait, which resembles Laughin’ Lenny rather more than it does Baffling Bob) but ever-faithful Pete Drake sneaks in to let us know that, actually, it’s worth hanging on here; not necessarily for this song, but for what it’s suggesting, as Dylan’s harmonica settles into something recognisable (but not ’65-6 recognisable) and bass and electric guitar curl up behind him like a couple of contented hamsters.

A, B & C
Look, if he wants to do Jim Reeves, let him (on Pick Of The Pops this weekend past Dale Winton passed over a 1967 hit by Reeves, “I Won’t Come In While He’s There,” which could have served as an alternate title for this album). Except what’s he doing with his voice? Engelbert sobbing? Neil Innes tongue-sticking? What does he want Nashville to make of him? Is he that bothered?

Free For All
Not The Band, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that; it’s the chance for his first big setpiece on the album but he’s still ‘phoning in his regrets. Al Kooper’s piano absolutely makes the song while Dylan stretches his larynx and mind back to “the days when we dug up the gold.” Somewhere in the murk of the mix a bass harmonica snarls like a tethered Rottweiler. “Oh my goodness!” he exclaims at David Bromberg’s acoustic. He tangles his “old”s and “gold”s into unreclaimable diagonalistics. The song is old; not for the first time on the record he has the opportunity to seize and snarl old back into new but something in him is still holding back; like, does he really HAVE to keep inventing stuff? What is in it for anybody?

The Schizoid Man
No shame in being Gordon Lightfoot; quite the reverse, in fact. But listen to Lightfoot’s original, soaring sixties recording of his signature song and his initial defiant bonhomie sweeps dramatically between registers, just as he gradually gives up the pretension that the winds buffering him aren’t really bothering him; he stands on his peak of abandonment and discovers only further grey fog, he cajoles the song’s sadness into meaning. Dylan sings it as though he went out to work that morning and left his Sainsbury’s coupons in the other jacket.

The General
Splinters of acoustic guitar and drums push us into Dylan’s hoarsely high vocal. Despite its being a murder ballad he approaches it like Lennon did “Sexy Sadie” and with a good deal less gravitas (that is not necessarily a bad thing). He’s playing with the implications of the song’s structure and turns it into a mini-Abbey Road medley. His punk whine of “County Jail!” and subsequent pantomime self-response of “Oh yes they did!” suddenly inject a degree of franticity into him. “Ohhhh NO!!” he yelps. The musicians take the hint, slow it down, but the tempo and keys keep changing, almost randomly. It’s Dylan inventing Beck and so everything finally falls to bits but at least he’s having fun challenging his inbuilt computer.

Many Happy Returns
“Let It Be Me” – back to the Everlys for the third album running; what did they mean in 1970, other than a remembrance of happiness passed? Phil and Don sing it like pseudo-tough kids who have dropped the stance and are now prepared to admit vulnerability and loneliness; their transformation from sneer to something approaching femininity is very striking and touching. Dylan does it Wayne Newton-style. Who is he trying to be? If nothing else, the musicians, especially Kenny Buttrey’s drums, sound rather more involved here than they did with the Lightfoot. But Dylan is somewhere else and what sort of navigation is he offering to us, other than back to – someone else’s? – beginnings.

A, B & C (Slight Return)
“Sadie” done “properly.” “Properly” meaning a backing track which appears to be playing at 78 rpm, guitars threading their way into something that sounds like a Highland reel.

And it ends side one of the vinyl because wasn’t that all that albums in 1970 meant?

Either you pushed out the prog widescreen and Made A Statement or the wise guys who’d already done that in ’66 or ’67 knew you didn’t really have to bother with the concept of the album as coherent entity. But this wasn’t quite proto-blog airs of familiarity at work – well, here we are, this is what I’ve been doodling the past week or so, isn’t it purty? – and not quite the solidifying stench of Album-As-Marketable-Product either. Dylan knew that in 1970 he could’ve put out a quadruple album of him blowing his nose without a sleeve and it would still have gone triple gold and topped the chart anyway.

The trouble was that people in 1970 expected more.

More “stuff.”

More of that stuff he’d promised them, half a decade previously, when both he and we knew that he could do anything. The problem – if it is a problem; I haven’t quite worked it out yet – is that for some forsaken (by God?) period in ’65, ’66, he did what most people who were around then perceived to be more than “anything.”

Husband and father: why, therefore, do I need to DO anything?

Because once I did “something” and have to carry that around like a weighed-down dog lead labelled “PROMISES.”

Apparently.

Look, if I want to put out a scrambling rave-up instrumental called “Woogie Boogie” then I will. You didn’t have any objections to “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number).”

Actually “Woogie Boogie” is one of the best things on the record; a fast shadow-box rave with raspberry bleating horns with a lovely, throaty tenor solo slurring and howling around 55º between Flip Phillips and Frank Lowe, just about to burst into free when a guitar pick abruptly brings the tune to an end (how would a remix of Highway 61 with Ornette’s Double Quartet have gone down?). Dylan seems to be most present when his physical voice is absent. Most involved when thinking about the days before rock ‘n’ roll.

Speaking of Van Morrison, “Belle Isle” wouldn’t have been at all out of place on any of his albums from the last thirty years or so – compile a mixtape of the one phenomenal track on each of them and you’d probably end up with Van’s masterpiece – but The Man would probably have injected more peat into the song’s slightly startled veins; a Newfoundland folk song which found its way there from a couple of ancient Irish laments (“Loch Erin, Sweet Riverside” and “The Lass Of Dunmore”) and the string arrangement veers from the inspired – its empathetic downward bend in response to Dylan’s weary “more than my heart can endure” – to the outskirts of 101 Strings. Dylan too is only intermittently committed to the song; his “the lad that has left me” is jumbled up in his tongue to sound more like “the laugh that has left me” and the effect of pathos is immediate. But he doesn’t sound like someone to whom the seventeenth century could represent or offer any kind of refuge.

Dance Of The Dead
“Living The Blues” comes out of its predecessor’s maundering mourning pretty explosively. The pink cartoon intro – plastic organ, but it’s fun! – prepares us for the Monkees, but instead Dylan gets straight into an Elvis “Stuck On You” groove, complete with Jordanettes backing vocals and Buttrey’s militaristic drums. It has a very instinctive swing to its resigned swagger and Charlie Daniels’ lead guitar is purposive and propulsive. The musicians sound more committed than any of the non-Canadian musicians elsewhere on the record; when Dylan grunts, “deep, down, in, SIDE!” the whole band (especially Robert Wilson’s piano) leaps up like mutually nascent newts onto his staccato promise. Dylan’s “If you see ME (up a syllabic octave) this way” now sounds like a man back in control, perhaps even in command. Drake adds some pertinent slide comments as a postscript. Dylan does Elvis; it was one of the best ideas he had at the time.

Checkmate
But then we go to the Isle of Wight and…well (or as Elvis says approximately 721 times on Having Fun With Elvis On Stage, his very own Self Portrait: “Weeeelllllll…”).

Instantly I think of Cobain, on Top Of The Pops, singing “Teen Spirit” a laryngitic octave down and dynamiting the song’s chances of getting to number one, and wonder if we are getting to the nub of things.

But then Kurt did not go on TOTP wearing an expensively-cut suit and the air of Minnesota’s Young Republican Businessman Of 1969.

Well, who’s to say this wasn’t what the song meant to its writer in 1969? That he was not quite throwing it away, sticking his tongue out at it, but that it didn’t interest him that much any more.

You want the TRUTH? I’m not that bothered about it now. It belonged to then and it might belong to you but…

(well, we’ll come to “She Belongs To Me” later)

Even though there was no internet in 1970, there was still the dilemma of the carbon footprints everyone leaves behind. Today it doesn’t matter; you can grow and alter as a human being, find new perspectives about things and people you’d previously dismiss, but Google has no respect for evolution – look for A, B or C and you’ll find them, pickled in 1999 or 2005, their fleeting opinions now standing as unalterable aspic.

If you were Dylan back then, though, your footprints endlessly came back to haunt you; because once, one afternoon in 1965, you ATTACKED this song, WENT for it and aimed to DEMOLISH everything both you and we knew with it, and then again, in some draughty “God Save The Queen” auditorium in Manchester, you made it even harder (“PLAY FUCKING LOUD!”), temporarily made all the rest of your age’s rock ‘n’ roll seem like a trifling joke. The “Albert Hall” recording still bounds out at you like a reproachful, extinct Bali tiger. Whereas the Isle of Wight “Stone” rolls around like…Wayne Newton at a Spiro Agnew fundraiser.

Or at least HE does. His musicians had other ideas.

The music was indifferently recorded but dammit, when you hear Levon Helm’s gong-like ride cymbal crown his pummelling response to Dylan’s flaccid “make a deal,” you know that The Band are as hard as they had ever been, that THEIR fire hadn’t been forgotten. Helm’s drumming might be my favourite thing about Self Portrait; his fire alarm ride cymbal tings and modified Motown brawny beat placing him somewhere between Tony Williams and Benny Benjamin. So what if the song’s author throws away “pawn it, babe” like a contemptuously discarded four-year-old gum wrapper? Garth Hudson’s organ – perhaps my second favourite thing about Self Portrait – is deep and truthful throughout, as forlorn as William Alland’s reporter thumbing through the watched pages of Thatcher’s memoirs in Kane but as loving as Jed Leland finally remains to the old bastard; if Orson can’t be bothered to be deep any more – and why did he need to be, in 1969? – then I’m more than happy to do it for him. Basically The Band walk all over Rich Ray Stevens Dylan and make the song matter, still, even when nothing else has continued to matter.

The thing about the charts is that they are capricious, whimsical, luck and marketing-driven. Deep down we know it’s all a trick, but we can’t take our souls off it; the unsatisfiable urge to put everything in some kind of order in order to remind ourselves that this is how we live, or lived. But the gradual, proportionate growth in popularity which leads itself to number one albums is often misleading, and sets quantitative bars which don’t always equate with “qualitative.” So Self Portrait could from some angles be described as Dylan’s “best” album because it is so true to his mindfucking, expectation-twisting ways – the “auteur” theory if we must – and the most truthful (because so determinedly evasive) picture of himself as an artist. And if we take number one status as equable with quality then we have to bow to the presumption that Self Portrait is a better album than Highway or Blonde because, well, it got to number one and the other two didn’t. But then didn’t it get to number one BECAUSE of the expectations which had built up as a direct result of Highway and Blonde? This doesn’t mean that the Self Portrait “Like A Rolling Stone” is automatically “better” than the one on Highway and 45 which got a whole book written about it, but it’s the one which gets written about directly in this tale, whereas Highway and Blonde did the commercial business for sure, but had the bad luck to be up against the Beatles or the Stones or The Sound Of Music, and it may be that all three of these were more immediately approachable to ‘65/6 mass British audiences. But then he went away, and the craving increased, and so he ended up in a two-year situation where everything he put out went straight to number one because…well, because once he promised, and we wanted to hear the outcome of those promises. Even if he misses out a whole verse of what was once his greatest promise.

And then the record moves into its truest and most surprising promise.

There are some old moonshiners, somewhere in Tennessee, in the darkness, and they’ve done as they’ve damn well pleased since they were told not to two hundred years ago. They are dimly aware that their time is coming to an end, that there are other, more modern types wanting to squash their way into the bootlegging action. The air of quietude in “Copper Kettle,” a song which sounds as old as America, is partly based on fear – “Don’t use no green or rotten wood, they’ll get you by the smoke” – and partly on resignation; they’ve lucked out for this long and it’s the world, rather than the tech mobsters, which is superseding them. They are all old, the mountain passes and caves they populate as inaccessible as those of Afghanistan, and they can hold out for as long as they need or, more likely, want.

It is quite the most beautiful and true thing on the record. The horses are still tired but the Cinemascope voices and strings return, this time with real purpose, even or especially if that purpose is condolence. Organ, vibes and acoustic guitar provide a bed with enough feathers to enable repose and sleep. The distant refrains, like bells (can Jimmy Brown still be living?), the piping high organ like the simmering surface of boiling liquor, and, above all, Dylan’s performance, as committed and regal as anything he’s ever done; his rattlesnake ramble of “Mo-ho-ho-hoonlight,” his sudden “thought you’d never see 1965 again?” rasp of hacksaw on the “ROT” of “ROTten wood,” his sorrowful but compassionate final cry of “Pa-hale moo-hoonlight,” his sudden Mt St Helens eruption of “WE AYN’T PAHYYD!” On one side, behind him, the spectre of Don Charles’ “Walk With Me, My Angel”; on the other, still in front of him, beyond that Western which he ultimately would make – but then we had no way of knowing about Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid in 1970 – there is R.E.M.’s “Swan Swan H.” Suddenly we have Bob Dylan back.

And just as suddenly, he slips away again.

Hammer Into Anvil
Back into Elvis movie song land, in fact; but even Elvis had moved on from here – in his 1969 “I’m Movin’ On” he is determined to grasp the future with all available and most unavailable limbs. Despite the repeated mantra of “Johnny can’t come home,” however, the Dylan of “Gotta Travel On” is still the rolling, moderately amused rambler of Harding, minus a certain spark, or reason.

It’s Your Funeral
Beyond the Perry Como’s Dominican Republic Thanksgiving female choir of Dylan’s idea of “Blue Moon” lies a convenient semi-truth; it struck me very forcibly but in truth the idea had been fermenting for some while – Dylan’s overwhelming ambition on Self Portrait is to be Dean Martin. That ghost which the Sun Elvis had once orbited, or even inhabited, in his reading is only palpable in Doug Kershaw’s meaningful stare of an acappella fiddle coda. Elvis’ “Blue Moon” played as though the moon were being viewed from Venus. Dylan, in contrast, is happy to laze in the lounge but doesn’t have the effortless self-forgetfulness (which merely covers a fiercer self-belief) of a Harry Nilsson to pull this off.

Conveniently, Dino did record his own version of “Blue Moon”; it appears on his 1964 album Everybody Loves Somebody and proves that 1970 Dylan was further away from him than – say – Bobby Sherman. Backed only by a quiet jazz rhythm section, so quiet they appear to be playing with mufflers on so as not to awaken the neighbours, Dino effortlessly inhabits the song’s alternating rays of desperation and awakening hope; his “really” in “someone I really could care for” bends like a benign, pipe-smoking River Nile and so secure is his undemonstrative assurance that by the time his saviour arrives he can sit back in the song and let it carry him; by the time he reaches the climactic “I heard someone whisper, please adore me” his natural authority makes him realise that he himself is saviour as well as saved. He just needs the patience and the confidence to be himself. In contrast Dylan’s vo-dee-oh-does, quivering like an uneaten butterscotch jelly, makes me think of – the Temperance Seven?

Change Of Mind
Whereas Dylan’s “The Boxer,” where he roughly – very roughly, as in, the two vocal tracks just do not fit, melodically, rhythmically or in any other way imaginable - overdubs himself, school music class singalong style, is – what? Hinge and Bracket? He runs dispassionately through the song’s emotional hoops as though shopping for batteries at Halford’s on a Monday and contempt begins to get the better of him. This was the point where even Lena began to twitch and ahem and the point is…what was the point? What was he trying to communicate by putting this on an album? That he was, in his way, ABOVE Paul Simon? That he rattles off his song as though to say, ha, Brill Building punk, you think you’re it, well I’m here to tell you DIFFERENT? “That’ll show that Paul Simon and Art Carney who’s boss,” quipped a hard-of-pitching Dylan. I go away, he sneers, and in my absence you go for…THIS? You wonder why he didn’t just put out a quickfire Bontempi organ cover album of the whole of Bridge Over Troubled Water and have done with it; it’s easily Dylan’s “Ito Eats,” the least listenable thing in his catalogue (and that’s saying something), and it has to be a non-Warholian banana peel – there’s something admirably perverse (as long as you don’t have to pay money for it or listen to it repeatedly) about the anti-art of putting “The Boxer” as track sixteen on a double album, as though daring his listeners to sit through it. A later Lou Reed would have admired the gesture.

Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling
But then “WeeeeeeeeEEEEEELLLLLLL!” he hiccups and we’re back with The Band and the Isle of Wight and a messy but enjoyable take on Manfred Mann’s big bubblegum hit from ’68 – this “Quinn” is much closer to the Manfreds than the Basement – and while Dylan quickly subsides back into boredom (“Every-BOD-y!”) The Band do their best to make the track shine; Levon just misses his cue into the second chorus but the musicians pretty well take the song over. “Whoa, guitar now!,” Dylan (if it’s him) whoops, Lonnie Donegan-style, as Robbie Robertson takes over for a fine solo, Helm’s clanging cymbal as necessary as oxygen.

Living In Harmony
Two further revisits to the House of Bryant and the Everlys, neither of which sounds particularly committed, and despite all the scheduled traps for the unwary analyst (“Why must you always try to make me over?”) and “Take A Message To Mary” finding him in the record’s deepest lyrical trouble – he’s robbed a stagecoach, got caught and sent down for life (the third time on this record that he ends up in jail) and doesn’t want his fiancée to know; Don and Phil sing it with heartbreaking, suppressed emotions, keeping their countenances while knowing full well that countenance has vacated the premises – Dylan again addresses both like…Rudy Vallee? In “Message” that siren chorus returns and there is a minimally baroque air to the arrangement but even the series of trapdoor harmonic modulations which ends the song fails to convince us.

The Girl Who Was Death
“It Hurts Me Too” is, contrary to the sleeve credits, an Elmore James song, and a pretty well known one at that – the late Ron “Pigpen” McKernan had it as his party piece at Grateful Dead concerts until he expired – and Dylan’s minimal reshuffling of its ingredients borders on the insulting. You still here, he’s asking us. Why are you sitting through this shit (so it WAS, at least in part, “this shit”), as though inventing Michael Haneke? You’re still waiting for answers, fulfillment of promises? You’ll still be waiting when I’m advertising sherry or guesting on The Love Boat? Look, it’s product; you wouldn’t shut up about wanting stuff from me, I give you stuff, I’m practically giving you my family snaps here, and it’s not enough? I’m not HERE anymore, and when I do get back to “HERE” it’s going to be a different “HERE” and it’ll be the last thing you expect.

Once Upon A Time
Two more cuts from the Isle of Wight concert. “Minstrel Boy” is probably the best overall of these four tracks – though certainly the best performances never made it to Self Portrait – with its lovely harmonised introduction, followed by Helm’s cymbal tickles mutating into snare hiccups, then a slow blues sweep with a wriggling acoustic guitar merging with Helm’s tingling cymbals as if sounding a wake-up alarm call. Robbie’s electric solo is visited by feedback and sounds terrific. I forgot Dylan was on it.

Then, finally, “She Belongs To Me,” rushed off with a contempt almost equal to that of his “Boxer”; get this old shit out of the way – what do you mean it’s not shit? – but The Band won’t let him read the laundry list; Robbie again provides a superb guitar solo, Richard Manuel contributes barrelhouse piano commentary, and the highlight is Garth’s half-second blast of power pop organ. Eleven tracks on from “Like A Rolling Stone” and I still can’t quite tell whether the audience on the latter are cheering or booing. In any event, “Belongs” is cut off swiftly and adroitly before we get a chance to hear what the audience thought, or felt. Didn’t I always want to be Hank Williams, and anyway how much Hank have you suckers even heard?

Fall Out
And you thought that was it?

Once again, a simple acoustic guitar trickles its way into the picture, only to be followed by…the Brotherhood of Breath?

EH??

Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath arose out of the South African kwela/post-bop/free jazz group the Blue Notes, who were for a time managed and produced by Joe Boyd, the man at the mixing desk when Dylan played Newport in ’65. At this time the Brotherhood, who were still a relatively new ensemble, were part of Boyd’s troupe of freethinking musicians, Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band and Nick Drake being among the others. Certainly the deliciously ragged horn lines on “Wigwam,” to which Dylan needs to do and say no more than hum along, with its contrapuntal low trombones and proclamatory, Protestant hymnbook trumpets and saxes, are pure Brotherhood – and how the hell did THAT find its way into this portrait? Dylan is closing the record down with a sunset to parallel the opening, prematurely tired sunrise; a cautious farewell, with piano, cymbals and perhaps the feel of something like Zappa’s “Sofa” stripped of its cynicism. The band, the players, the old men and women, fade graciously into the distance, and all that’s left is a coda; a polished retake on the opening song, after which Dylan straps on his boots and lets his harmonica lead him out of the album’s meadows, not all of them barren.

It is the bookending duopolies of tracks which bring the merest sense of structure to Self Portrait; in ages to come this sort of thing would have been entitled Odds And Sods or Sci-Fi Lullabies, throwaways, gap fillers, bits of business. But “we” wanted nothing less from the Dylan of 1970 than the Bible, written over again and again – “we” in inverted commas because I was too young to get involved in the 1965/6 Dylan Means Something/Is The Future/Our Only Hope business, and well, two generations down the track, does this particular tower of song really continue to bug us that much in its semi-usefulness? Only in the sense that “they” might have wanted Dylan to do more than just coast, as if the future of art were secure only in his hands, although I think Greil Marcus hit on a deeper woe in his original Rolling Stone (ha!) piece; the sixties were over, and what, we slowly gasped in gathering horror, if this were the shape of albums to come – random scribblings, a few diamonds but hey, soon we’ll all have computers and can pick and choose what we want to listen to; can’t we? – or what “rock” was always doomed to turn into; churning, efficient, template-pleasing “product.” Did anyone who bought Self Portrait and kept it in our charts for nearly four months listen to it more than once? There are about half a dozen tracks which I still wish to revisit regularly, and of these perhaps only “Copper Kettle” offers “substance” as well as the subtlest and direst of warnings to its audience about what might overtake the old, harmless moonshiners. And if this were the picture of himself Dylan wanted us to see in 1970, there isn't a corresponding Low-style eradication of self throughout the record; he might not give a damn half the time, but he's unmistakeably there. But then I turn straight back to “Prisencolinensinainciusol” and its effortless mischief masking a radical reclamation of personal language, and wish Dylan were sometimes more like Chris Marker.

Monday, 1 March 2010

The BEATLES: Let It Be




(#77: 23 May 1970, 3 weeks)

Track listing: Two Of Us/Dig A Pony/Across The Universe/I Me Mine/Dig It/Let It Be/Maggie Mae/I’ve Got A Feeling/One After 909/The Long And Winding Road/For You Blue/Get Back
What would have happened – and how different would this tale have been – if the internet had existed in 1969? Would there have been online forum petitions, flooded comments boxes at the Beatles blog, a tug of war of engagement between musicians and audience, demanding their split or reformation? Would the Beatles even have split?

One thing which is pretty certain is that records like Let It Be – or indeed the album which follows it in this tale – would probably not have had to have been released; these scraps of studio flummoxery would have been preserved as downloads, and contractual obligations to United Artists notwithstanding there wouldn’t have been a documentary; a permanent studio webcam would have been less obtrusive and perhaps allowed the fermenting of better relationships. As things were in 1969, the Beatles were obliged to sweat under intrusive camera lighting (to improve the cinematic “atmosphere”), everybody was getting in everybody else’s way and the tension was axe-cuttable.

The docufilm of Let It Be was for some years a regular presence on Saturday afternoon BBC2 and is largely unwatchable, since we are faced with four grumbling gents slowly approaching middle age, clearly fed up with each other but equally as clearly unable to cut their respective dummies loose. The preserved “arguments” are at best mild – the excised footage, allegedly including at least one marathon punch-up, would have been moderately more illuminating – but the group’s mutual boredom is contagious and the closing rooftop busking too late and too underpowered to change the film’s drearifying impact. Consider the four photographs portrayed on the album’s cover; a cover which uniquely shows each Beatle to be almost completely unconnected to the next (even the collages of Hard Day’s and Revolver, and the deceivingly placid blankness of the White Album cover, strongly imply an unbreakable bond). Three of them are gazing towards the West, in the open air; the fourth, resembling his not-so-improbable twin Brian Wilson in his beard, is inside (against a wall of bloodied red), gazing abstractedly towards the East. George looks a bit like Carlos Santana; all of them look as though they would rather be in The Band.

It is the least thought-through of all official Beatle album covers, but despite its initial deluxe presentation in a box set, complete with substantial booklet containing photographs, studio chat transcripts, etc., Let It Be is the least consciously thought-through of all official Beatles albums. At a shade over thirty-five minutes it is also the shortest Beatles album since Revolver. About its darkened margins there is more than a sense of “beat the bootleggers,” since the material for what was originally going to be titled Get Back had been circulating in various forms for the best part of a year prior to the album’s release. Typically it is the only album which I have considered for this tale in its recently-remastered CD format; the sound is clearer and punchier than the vinyl original but I am not too convinced that much of newness or worth is brought to the existing, disintegrating table.

All of this having been said, there are many moments on Let It Be when the group still have enough wit about them to convince us that they’re having fun; certainly much of the record sounds lighter, less forced or drained, than the two studio albums which chronologically bookend it. There is the definite sense of a façade methodically being dropped; just four lads mucking around in the studio in a way which in another, more subtly manufactured age would have been termed “Unplugged.” The dream of salvation is discarded; this, they appear to be saying, is all that we ever were. Yet the larks are balanced by the far more anxious cries of abandoned doves, two of its songs being among the most painful that the group ever conceived.

It starts agreeably enough with Lennon cheerfully announcing “Charles Hawtrey and the Deaf-Aids” before segueing into what still might be my favourite track on the album, “Two Of Us.” Like Paul and Art, John and Paul have temporarily made their peace, jointly looking back on those distant Liverpool breezes when they would swap Everlys B-sides and riffs. And yet again it’s the theme which dominates the albums of this time: “We’re on our way home” (even though the pair are “going nowhere” in a different sense), “We’re going home.” At this point the concept of “chasing papers” hasn’t hardened into the chastising hardness of “You Never Give Me Your Money”; the rhythm is that of a rolling canter. But the lazy dreams of past escapes are balanced by a moderately sinister middle-eight which swerves upwards from the song’s basic G major key to a B flat, in which they warn that their joint memories are “longer than the road that stretches out a-HEAAAD”; there is instilled the possibility that they might possibly not find “home,” that the road has proved too long, as implied by the casual whistling of the end melody of “Hello Goodbye” and the momentary but emphatic bass guitar comment at fadeout.

Lennon follows with “Dig A Pony” and again there is the feeling of something not quite developed, in this case the anything goes but DON’T FORGET WHAT MATTERS template of “Come Together.” Over a restless 3/4 shuffle Lennon rather angrily tries to reassure us (if that’s not a contradiction) that everything still doesn’t matter, that reason is still up in the air, that words are simply what we make of them and/or want them to mean (hello, Lewis Carroll), but his air of desperation is a bit like Derek Johnson’s sleevenote to On Stage With The George Mitchell Minstrels in that it virtually demands adherence to something whose time has now passed. Eventually he cuts straight to the howling point: “ALL! I WANT! IS YOU!!” followed by the requisite rhetorical pause. As a band performance it works quite superbly – hear Starr’s final snare and cymbals rush as they reach the song’s climax – but the song’s essence is, in a very literal sense, half-baked.

“Across The Universe” drifts in as from another universe, as well it might have done; dating from early 1968 at the time of the group’s Maharishi infatuation, the song finds Lennon dreaming of a better-imagined world – we’ll be coming back to that too in due course – and his chant of “Jai guru deva om” slightly belies his contented sigh that “nothing’s gonna change my world.” He appears to be breathing the song, each bar line coming in and out of his mouth like fugitive smoke clouds; his words coming out of a paper cup rimmed by cyanide. The song was never ideally recorded – the original was speeded up a semitone and bookended with library birdsong for Spike Milligan’s World Wildlife Fund benefit album Nothing’s Gonna Change Our World, and the more basic takes which appear on Let It Be – Naked and Anthology 3 don’t quite gel, emotionally or structurally – but the Spector-doctored version which appears here is undoubtedly the strangest; the strings and choir wobble in and out of phased distortion, as though a neighbouring radio station, perhaps Radio 3 playing the “Neptune” finale of Holst’s Planets Suite, is intruding into the song’s wavelength. The occasional “It’s All At The Co-Op Now” quacks of wah-wah guitar are incongruous but the song’s unfinished quality makes it a disturbing listen; I thought of early Animal Collective and at a stretch even My Bloody Valentine. It does anything but reassure.

George enters and goes straight to the heart of the shared pain; “I Me Mine” was almost the last thing the Beatles recorded together as a group (and even then without Lennon, who was away on holiday in Denmark) and one of the most violent things they ever recorded; Harrison’s aghastly agonised vocal virtually tears down the Peter Sarstedt Gallic waltz fabric, admitting even to himself that any grief was purely self-inflicted and directed (“Even these tears – I me mine, I me mine, I me mine”). Again, the overdubbed orchestra exists as a hesitant phantasm before the band rip the song apart by going into a foursquare hard rock stomp; McCartney’s closing organ and piano comments seem like ghosts already fled from the group’s flesh.

“Let It Be” itself remains a problematic song. At heart a simple act of self-reassurance on the part of McCartney – virtually sleepless at night over worries about the group at the time of the White Album until his mother appeared in a dream and told him just to allow stuff to happen and roll with it. But there is, about its somewhat stentorian and over-confident air, a coldness at the song’s centre, as though the singer cannot quite convince himself that it’s not all over, that fate is irreversible. There is also the unwelcome self-righteousness of the seminary as the song takes on the form of a reproachful lecture. The song is markedly more aggressive in its album form than it was on the 45 version; Harrison’s guitar is forthright, always ramming into the song’s cornices; Starr’s pattering tom-toms are more pronounced; and Billy Preston’s organised Fender Rhodes and organ more or less hold the song together. But its swipe of an attempt at a benign epitaph pales against “Bridge Over Troubled Water” – Lennon thought the song a “BOTW” ripoff but it had been written a year ahead – and, irony of ironies, as the final official Beatles single in the UK it was held off number one by, of all things, a show tune – Lee Marvin grunting his way through “Wand’rin’ Star” from Lerner and Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon (and incidentally inventing Tom Waits) – as though the Beatles might as well not have happened. Since then it has been used and abused to mean anything and everything – thus the bitter consequence of “Dig A Pony” – most sordidly in the 1987 Ferry Aid version, where fatal corporate failure and laxity must be allowed to proceed and prosper. Lennon, who had the final say in the track running on Let It Be, contemptuously placed it between “Dig It,” an excerpt from an extended freeform ramble which fades in with a variant on “Like A Rolling Stone,” taking in the BBC, BB King, Doris Day and Matt Busby before fading out again into Lennon’s pretend Just William choirboy announcing “Hark The Angels Come” (double entendre implied), then “Let It Be,” then straight out again into a drunken Scouse ramble through the ancient prostitution lament “Maggie Mae,” reeling like the Spinners on gin before stuttering to a premature halt. Lennon was never much for Catholic displays of fortitude.

“I’ve Got A Feeling” works as soundly as a group performance as “Dig A Pony” and as a song is better structured, being that rarest of 1969 phenomena, a genuine Lennon/McCartney collaboration; over a hard rock backdrop, McCartney arrives, via a howling vocal which threatens permanent hoarseness as he leaps out of his comfort range, at a similar conclusion to Harrison on “Long, Long, Long” (“All these years I’ve been wandering around/Wondering how come nobody told me/All that I was looking for was somebody/Who looked like you”) while Lennon counts off the trends of the year they have just lived (“Everybody pulled their socks up/Everybody put their foot down”), followed by a mechanical slow-motion guitar blues scale up-and-down unison. Eventually both voices and melody lines combine in an effective duality.

Then it’s back to where it all began at the 1957 church fete; “One After 909,” virtually the first thing either Lennon or McCartney wrote, taken here as a spirited skiffle flashback – “once” is answered by Ringo’s snare, “twice” by Preston’s downward piano swipe – with something of the vim of their early records, if not quite the essence; Harrison mixes Carl Perkins and Eric Clapton in his guitar comments and once more we are “down at the station” awaiting that train which never quite departs or arrives. The concluding “Welllllll”s are brilliantly choreographed in tandem with Starr’s climactic cymbal splashes, and even Lennon’s closing “Danny Boy” ad libs can’t dispel the track’s essential good and simple nature.

But it’s only a short step from the beginning to the end; “One After 909” reminds us of how it started, whereas “The Long And Winding Road” – originally written as a proposed 1968 single for Tom Jones; much to the latter’s regret, he was unable to go ahead with it as he was committed to releasing “Delilah” – finds the Beatles at the bitterest of all ends. McCartney sings the song like a man who is genuinely at the end of his tether – hoarse, not quite rhythmic, pleading even – or like the subject of “She’s Leaving Home” furtively attempting to recall what she escaped from in the first place. What if, like the Shangri-Las, there is no home still in existence? His “washed away” is the most regretful of throwaways. His inner tension (“Many times I’ve been alone” etc.) rises to meet the top of a Sisyphean mountain which he must climb again and again; he is trying to recognise or formulate a door at the end of this road, wants more than anyone or anything to get back in – to return home – but there is not much evidence of fulfillable hope in his vocal.

And there is the unavoidable question of Richard Hewson’s arrangement, about which nobody seems to have been able to find a good word, and with good reason. Mike Leander’s chart for “She’s Leaving Home” was more “expansive” than George Martin’s characteristic, vibratoless voicings but didn’t fall into the abyss of schlock; it matched the suburban cancer which its protagonist was doing her best to excise. But here the strings and choir, though superficially reminiscent of “Good Night,” are intrusive, even though their principal function is to distract the listener’s attention from what is essentially a guide vocal demo, with Lennon’s bass – ironically, significantly more prominent on the 2009 remaster - either unsure of the song’s progressions or actively conspiring to undermine them. Martin loathed it, McCartney more or less ended the group formally when he heard it, Lennon and Spector shrugged their shoulders and said, well, what else could we have done? And Richard Hewson went on to be responsible for the RAH Band’s extraordinary 1977 glam-punk-schaffel fusion “The Crunch,” not to mention that strange 1985 update of “The Long And Winding Road” to which I shall be returning in due course.

All that is left is for George to essay a basic 12-bar blues (“For You Blue”) in which he expresses simple and happy love for Patti – it was at around this time that Clapton began to compose “Layla” - together with some affectionate Elmore James takeoffs, Lennon as unsure on slide guitar as he was on bass (though he does acknowledge this in his mid-solo comment of “Elmore James got NUTHIN’ on THIS!”). McCartney again contributes some interestingly askew piano lines.

Finally we reach the rooftop, and “Get Back,” a considerably less polished mix and edit than the 45 version, but with still enough easy economy, space and punch to work as a last push towards home (“Go home”). Lennon and Preston’s solos are sparse sparks of benevolent electricity, and there is a real, snarling drive towards the rush of each chorus; the most basic thing they’d done since “Love Me Do.” Instead of the single’s benign extended fadeout, however, the song here finishes midway; Mrs Starr is thanked for her attendance and Lennon hopes that they passed the audition. It is clear, however, that the Beatles as a group had no real way of passing into the seventies; their time was unique and already in part fenced off, and already we were chasing the receding paper scraps of memory. The original Let It Be album was cleverly constructed to hide any real sense of dispute, and keen to promote the fun aspects of the endeavour, but when eventually stripped and recast as Let It Be - Naked the fun was found to have vacated the premises and a ghastly emptiness to be in situ. And in an internet-present world of 1970 there would have been other songs, other suggestions; but who would have monitored whose music, and was anyone still prepared to listen to all of it? This tale is certainly far from finished with the Beatles, but in terms of albums as proto-blogs is only reaching a beginning.