Sunday, 12 June 2011
VARIOUS ARTISTS: 20 Flash Back Greats Of The Sixties
(#122: 31 March 1973, 2 weeks)
Track listing: Yakety Yak (Coasters)/Splish, Splash (Bobby Darin)/Tired Of Waiting For You (Kinks)/Surfin' Surfari (sic) (Beach Boys)/Johnny Get Angry (Joanie Sommers)/Hats Off To Larry (Del Shannon)/Sweet Talkin' Guy (Chiffons)/Time Of The Season (Zombies)/Don't Throw Your Love Away (Searchers)/Save The Last Dance For Me (Drifters)/Here Comes My Baby (Tremeloes)/Hey, Paula (Paul and Paula)/Wild Thing (Troggs)/24 Hours From Tulsa (Gene Pitney)/Venus In Blue Jeans (Mark Wynter)/Young Girl (Gary Puckett & the Union Gap)/Colours (Donovan)/San Francisco (Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair) (sic) (Scott McKenzie)/Mr. Tambourine Man (Byrds)/Blue Velvet (Bobby Vinton)
"A collection of individuals...They make sounds for what we see, experiments with wood, glass and air for half-formed things. These small shards and movements can be scooped up together and rolled into something like a place or a landmark."
(From the sleevenote to Sketches and Spells by The Focus Group, 2004)
"for your pleasure
in our present state
part false part true
we present ourselves"
(Roxy Music, "For Your Pleasure," 1973)
"There's someone in my head but it's not me"
Like anything, the sixties can be re-presented in any way that happens to suit the individual, or the crowd of any given subsequent era. We clean up our attics of memory in preparation for a spring which may or may not deliver what a previous spring might have promised; maybe it's better like this, to hold the spectacles and above all the sounds at a certain distance, not being directly mixed up with them, or imbued with them as they were happening. Perhaps it clears our private airs for proper thought, or improper regret.
Everyone who went through the sixties, including this writer, who was but a toddler but did live through the main part of the decade, has their own story, their private meaning of what the time meant to them, and thanks to the cycle of self-preservation and the technological recycling of selective nostalgia, so does everyone else, including the grown generation who never experienced the sixties first hand. We have not been allowed to forget the sixties, yet thanks to demographic-manufactured/serving nostalgia so much of and from the sixties has been allowed to seep through into the dusty backroom of unwanted, unretrieved memory. Cut the experience down to 200 easy songs, and nobody will complain, other than perhaps about revolutions which echo those of their time a little too uncomfortably.
But there is another, artful way to sculpt these stories, to take what is screamingly familiar and arrange its elements to tell a story which makes us wish we weren't so susceptible to the erasure of total, messy recall. If you're really clever, you can thrust them all into the present time's nowness and help build a path to the future - who knew how exotic Ferry and Eno could make all these elements sound if they arranged or distressed them in a certain way ("ta ra" or "Tara," gone with another uncaught wind) - or if you simply wish to point a few, possibly moving, things out, you put together a collection like 20 Flash Back Greats Of The Sixties, a group of songs orchestrated in such a criss-crossing order as to deny the supposed randomness of K-Tel compilations; as with their previous fifties set, this sets out, I believe, to tell a very deliberate story. It is, I should state at this early stage, also a pronouncedly white one - there are only two tracks by black artists, and both of these were overseen by Leiber and Stoller - but the sixties of James Brown, of Motown and Atlantic and Stax, or even of Chess, or Delmark or Nessa or Impulse! or ESP, have their own stories to tell and their own narrators.
No; this album tells the tale of the not-quite-silent majority (of its twenty tracks, only seven are by British artists, and three of these are covers of American songs), the bit players, the extras. A fairy tale with most of the major characters absent. The remote and nearly forgotten byways of an extraordinary journey from pop to "Protect Other People"; a story, too, which was not without its immediate parallel.
Speak To Me
Yes, the album, which purports to be about and from the sixties, begins with two cuts from the fifties, but even this does not appear random or sloppy; instead, these two songs between them set the parameters for what is to come in the wake of their flood. Leiber and Stoller referred to "Yakety Yak" as "a white kid's view of a black person's perception of white society," but for most people it came as a wisecracking torrent of thou-shalt-nots, all the stupid rules and appropriateness which the fifties were itching to kick right out the window into the garbage. The singers voice the parental admonitions as high-octane neurophysical hysteria, suddenly dipping down into dictatorial "Don't talk back"s as the kid renders their pseudo-morals as rubbly gibberish.
"Don't give me that do goody good bullshit"
The real statement here, however, needs no words; King Curtis snatches his tenor and converts adulthood into baby babble. The use of the saxophone to express the otherwise inexpressible or inadequately expressed would not be lost on others.
"Up and down/And in the end it's only round and round and round"
Do The Strand
It started as a bet; Murray the K wagered Bobby Darin that he couldn't work a song out of the phrase "Splish, splash, I was takin' a bath" and Darin took him up on it. What an extraordinary disc it remains; it happily sweeps away any concept of parenthood or authority - the guy gets out of his bath, looks into his front room and suddenly there's a party happening, complete with Little Richard intertextualities. How did they get in there? Does he know any of them? How did they find him? Is he imagining all of it? In the end, it doesn't matter, he gives up the bath, puts his dancing shoes on, goes in there and joins in with the celebration. What are they all celebrating? Nothing less than the power of this pop, the ability of rock 'n' roll to move souls as well as, or better than, butts. Suddenly, all those threats about spending cash are more than ready to take out with the trash. The sixties are ready to go, if you want them.
Abruptly we find ourselves right in the middle of the big banging sixties - this album's chronology finds its own logic - and there is this recurring leitmotif of waiting; the kid in "Yakety Yak" is waiting to grow up, but now he's grown up, found someone who's taken him out of being "a lonely soul" and, worse, "nobody," but the speed rush of "You Really Got Me" and "All Day And All Of The Night" is already wearing off; the Davies harmonies float at half-tempo above guitars and rhythm - "it's your life and you can do what you want" - and they sound exhausted, impatient and impotent; through how many more hoops will they be compelled to jump until they get what they want? How easy is it, even in 1965, to throw down that spade and tell the guy to dig his own holes? Where is the thing we were promised?
On The Run
Back a few years to the Californian kids, the ones fired up in part by "Yakety Yak" and the Lucilles and Mollies which inspired it - and who knows that some of them will end up reprising the parents' part? - who hear Chuck Berry and modify it in their engines, who want us to understand that their pastime will, by virtue of the necessary beach and sea, spread to the entire planet ("Everybody's learnin' now"), even to South Africa and "the coast of Peru." Make no mistake, they are convinced that their song is the right one and are committed to telling us which way the waves are crashing, knowing that - at least for now - they're destined, or doomed, to come out on top. Mike does lead, Brian and Carl are there in the middleground, the horizon is already endless.
Who was Joanie Sommers - she is still with us, so I have to be careful with that tense - and why "Johnny Get Angry"? Well, this is the impatient cry of someone who has perhaps had enough of her waiting. What to do in order to kick this guy's ass so that he can show that he actually loves her (if indeed he does)? She offers him multiple cruel temptations - she tells him they're through and he simply hangs his head (it "Makes me wish I was dead"); she allows someone else to cut in on the dancefloor and he meekly acquiesces - all in order that he can overcome the low-slung bass and guitar unison figure and be made to explode into colour. A shame that her manifesto is laid down with such comic ineptitude; she wants him to get mad, to "give me the biggest lecture I ever had," to be a "brave man" and a "caveman." None of this is convincing, and the mass kazoos of the middle-eight do nothing to make it believable or anything less than a dainty step away from the eternal darkness of "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)." The Carol Deene version which was a minor hit in Britain is exactly like an Englishman impersonating a Japanese comedian when he doesn't speak Japanese.
"could it be evil thoughts become me
tell us what you're thinking now
some things are better left unsaid"
But then she has enough, leaves Johnny for Larry, whereupon Larry promptly does the same thing to her. No pre-Beatles pop star of the sixties, not even Orbison, crouched so firmly in unreachable shadows as Del Shannon; even when he appears to give himself a happy ending, there's none of the knife-edge euphoria of a "Running Scared." He stays in his corner, with his webs and plans, terrified that he will be tracked down and found out. He claims that, despite her laughing at him when she walks out, he still wants her back, but his howls of "cry, cry, CRYYYY-EE!" are as impenetrable as the most barbed of wires. The Musitron - his King Curtis (actually played by organist Max Glass, and no, I don't think he became Philip) - quivers in slithering sopranino terror. He never stopped hiding.
"You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today"
Editions Of You
Who knew in 1962 where, or what, these Californian waves would wash up, who would go on to swim in the Wilsons' waters? The Chiffons were one of the last of the original wave of pre-Motown girl groups to survive into the Beatles era (and clearly were an influence not lost on at least one Beatle) but 1966's "Sweet Talkin' Guy" proved their last big flush; their biggest hit in almost three years and also their last US Top 40 entry. It didn't become a hit in the UK until 1972, when the Northern Soul boom swept it into our top three, but both song and arrangement are so clearly indebted to Brian Wilson (and, given that Pet Sounds was yet to be released in the spring of 1966, the record is arguably ahead of Wilson) that it's indecent. As indeed is the song's progenitor; the guy's a shit, or at least she's saying so, warning every other girl to keep well clear of him, but something deep in her still wants him, his hunkily persuasive bullshitting. Meanwhile, the music moves from rather foreboding string slashes (reminiscent of Psycho) through to the pacific oboe and 'celli of the middle eight. Piano and harmonica also foresee "God Only Knows," as do the cascading triplets of the "You'll never win" sequence. Three contrasting views, then, of what might well be the same man.
"To hear the softly spoken magic spells."
Recorded in the same studios five-and-a-half years earlier by a group who were more or less falling apart, so little regarded by their own record company that they were obliged to pay for part of their studio time with their own royalties and savings, the cautious sunniness of Odessey And Oracle belies the painful process of its recording; well, almost - things like "Butcher's Tale" and gestures such as the abrupt nuclear button ending of "All Our Friends," the rather sinister undertow to the chirpiness of "Care Of Cell 44," the dusty, languid piano and wordless falsettos which take out "Hung Up On A Dream" (a response to Hardin's "Hang On To A Dream"? Even if not, it sounded startlingly contemporary when heard on a Discman in Albarn's West London of summer 1995) suggest a terminal to this particular beach.
But the record ends with "Time Of The Season," a belated US top three smash (Cashbox placed it at number one) in the spring of 1969, when the Zombies had long ceased to exist and Colin Blunstone had returned to the insurance office day job. It successfully combines menace and reassurance, promises of darkness and pleas for light. The track relies on Chris White and Hugh Grundy's booming drum n' bass by accident - Paul Atkinson's guitar lines were largely left out of the final mix - but Blunstone's cavalier vulnerability benefits as a result; he is left to carry the tune virtually alone, guitar only entering with the partially comforting chorus. The song itself is a photocopy of summer of love chat as depicted in a darkening front room; the season's tropes - "what's your name?," "who's your daddy?" - fold back on themselves like a particularly hip-sounding Mike Sammes jingle over the "Stand By Me" backdrop. And like "Stand By Me" both song and performance rush to stop the mountains from crumbling, the world ending; out blossoms, straight from the Beach Boys via the Master Singers, the perfect harmonic triple and pledge: "It's the time of the sea-ea-son for lo-ving." Rod Argent's organ grabs the space whenever it can find it and indeed doubles in the long fadeout, each solo fighting against, or coaxing, the other, and yet more and more organs pile on as though to say: enough of this pussyfooting about faith and truth and bravery - this is a church which might resolve everything, if only you wanted it, racing around to come up behind us again, but on this occasion offering an embrace.
"Don't Throw Your Love Away" was originally a 1963 B-side by proto-Philly soul vocal group The Orlons but Liverpool's Searchers took it to number one (their third chart-topper) in the UK (and to #16 in the US) in the optimistic early summer of 1964. The influence of Mike Pender and John McNally's Rickenbackers on The Byrds has long since been acknowledged but this song acts as a calming elder brother to "Time Of The Season" and offers a warning not to lose what we have in ourselves, wherever we are heading and whatever we are planning to do with the rest of this decade, "for you might need it one day." The song and performance perhaps foresee with all too much melancholy the ruination into which the sixties would eventually collapse, as well as giving subtle hints as to what might happen - the Indian drone elements which creep halfway into each middle-eight, the brusque triple guitar thrashes leading back into the verses. But keep your love, preserve it, develop it; it might, the record suggests, be all you need.
The Great Gig In The Sky
"Go on and have your fun," sing The Searchers on "Don't Throw Your Love Again," and so does Ben E King on "Save The Last Dance For Me"; the bookending of side one by child-to-man Leiber and Stoller tells its own story. Inspired by co-writer Doc Pomus' generosity towards his own wife - he suffered from polio and needed crutches to mobilise, but was happy for his wife to go out, socialise, dance and enjoy herself, trusting completely in her - this is as unmistakably an adult record as "Yakety Yak" is prophetic juvenilia. Using a deceptively busy Latin backing, the lyrics seem almost tailored for the rhythm, the consonants and vowels enunciated in as Latinate a manner as possible but still (if tenuously) remaining English. King's natural nobility sees the song through; he is the "man" of whom the singer of "Johnny Get Angry" can only imagine, he has enough confidence to know that she can go home with no one else but him, and we have no cause to doubt him. This is the ideal, the plateau, towards which the rest of side one has been working; no waiting, no hats on or off - we believe in this mutual fealty, as clearly as we can glimpse the ghost of Spector to come in the record's fibres. The development from King's lascivious "Mmm!" at the end of verse two to his final, satisfied "Mmmmmm" signifies a rite of passage for which the singer (bolstered by the high harmonies hovering behind and above him, like the most benevolent of protecting angels) is eminently qualified.
The Bogus Man
The second of Cat Stevens' three comings showed a slyer operator than the convenient sensitive singer-songwriter bracket was able to support. At this point Stevens was roughly halfway between his "Matthew And Son" days and things like "Was Dog A Doughnut?" but, as with his then labelmate Bryan Ferry, he was already very conscious of his history and the need to remould it if he were to count for anything, or anybody. His "Here Comes My Baby" is as rabid a rustling of its immediate pop past as anything on the first two Roxy albums, with its rapid-fire citations of "In The Midnight Hour," "A Picture Of You" and "You'll Never Walk Alone." Stevens was reportedly disgruntled by what he saw as The Tremeloes' pillaging of the song (including excising the entire final verse) - what, a serious song of hurt presented as a "La Bamba" rave-up?
Again, this shows how little musicians sometimes understand about their own music, what happens with it, or to it, when it's taken into the air, redistributed for the breath of everyone else. The Tremeloes treated the song just as they treated most of their other post-Brian Poole hits, as party time; they would burst onto TOTP waving their butchers' hands, yippeeing and whooping, and on record it was just the same - so much so that one wonders exactly how bothered they are at watching the girl of their dreams waltzing off with somebody else, with their cowbell whacks and their whistling (whistling!) breaks. Oh well, that's that, on with the party - or, like Smokey, are all the laughs there to hide all the pain?
Editions Of You (Slight Return)
"Hey, Paula" sounded almost from its conception like a crude pain-concealing mechanism, particularly as there was no "Paul and Paula" - it was Ray the student and Jill his landlady's niece who together knocked something up for local (Texas) radio, and the little ditty spread. The pledge of true love, and the virtues and disadvantages of patience ("I can't wait no more for you"), seem strained, overstressed. The two sound as though singing in separate universes; the church organ promises some kind of purity but the syrup of its would-be climax ("True love means waiting...") turns the record into a complete chimera. "TRUE LOVE IS NOT A HIGH SCHOOL PROJECT!" yelled an exasperated Lena, and indeed this is not the reverse of the frustrated "Tired Of Waiting For You" coin.
For Your Pleasure
"Wild Thing" comes as a major relief after "Hey, Paula"; this, the record screams, is what really goes on at high school. No conditions or boundaries here; the two are out on the dancefloor, moving to Buddy Holly (that "Shake it, shake it!" at the outro); the downward tongueing lick of guitar represents a move from child to man, "Louie, Louie" ground down halfway to fuck-tempo; Reg Presley (the glorious conceit of that name!) takes his time, lets the music pause and breathe before thrusting his tractor hack into the centre of things, even allowing a smudged ocarina into the picture. At climax, the band seem ready to fall over themselves, everything collapsing in orgy; this was the revenge of the dirty garage over the clean soda fountain. Reg Presley would never have got in the bath to begin with!
But sometimes there is no turning back, especially if you make the wrong move. Throw that love away, or is it the early groaning of the adolescents of "Wild Thing" grown up and forced to accept, or face, responsibility? The singer of "Tulsa" is clearly an adult, yet his acts are perhaps the most childish on the record - and Bacharach and David knew this just as surely as they knew their audience. Pitney was never really allowed to be happy - whenever he was, the record flopped - and his croaking voice, as though in the middle of swallowing a dozen red barbiturates, was perfect for this quiet nightmare. What is he doing out on the road, a day's travelling away from getting home? Musician? Salesman? Will he ever send the letter? But he stops off at a motel for the night and meets a girl who behaves unexpectedly (he asks her to "stay," she says "OK." Just like that?). He asks for food, inspiring one of the most sinister of pop double entendres, "and she showed me where"; then they dance, they hit it off or at least Pitney thinks they do ("Told her I'd die before I would let her out of my arms" - her reaction is not recorded)...and that's it. "I can never...go home again," he sings in the manner of Mary-Ann Weiss' errant uncle; the ghost town chorus and Bacharach's final hanging-in-the-air duo of piano chords offer little guidance or exit. As they dance and get closer, the high trumpets shiver their rapid strokes, echoing Pitney's nerve-shredded heartbeat, the bloody coursing of his veins; he's excited, he's broken out of the straitjacket - but he is hardly joyous; it is as if he has already died. Maybe they'll run the cafe together and end up the parents from whom Tracy Chapman will a quarter-century hence be only too eager to flee.
The old ways, what the parents in "Yakety Yak" would have liked, although I suspect even they would have blanched at a record which perfectly illustrates immediate pre-Beatles notions of pop, namely as something best kept in 1951, or at least sent back there. "Venus In Blue Jeans" was an American song - Jimmy Clanton's original made the US top ten earlier in 1962 - and while very far from a masterpiece, or even a passable pop song, Mark Wynter is careful, in the manner that a subordinate frightened of the sack is careful, to extract every element of space, yearning, desire, love from it. Drowning in Sargasso treacle, it plays, or drones anyway, like a flaccid Xerox of a long-spent desire, its surface opulence hiding a terrible emotional poverty, or should "poverty" be replaced by "constipation"? A last cry of a passing order...or was it?
"Run rabbit run"
"Young Girl" is from the other end of the sixties - it's as far as this compilation dares go - but equally sounds as though rock 'n' roll need not have bothered happening, even if it is one of the record's most disturbed and disturbing songs. "Young girl," croons Gary Puckett over static, springtime strings, fooling us into expecting a Johnny Mathis tribute, before the band snaps shut on him like a mousetrap; for the rest of the record, he wriggles in hurt, confusion, paranoia. By comparing it with Morrison's almost exactly contemporaneous "Cyprus Avenue," I do not mean to inflate "Young Girl"'s aesthetic worth, but simply mean to point out that where Morrison's driver is hurt because he is obsessed by a love that he knows he can never openly declare - she's fourteen, you can't touch her - Puckett is tortured by the knowledge that he has walked right into something he can't control. In one of the most overt demonstrations of projection on any number one record, however, Puckett tries to turn the tables on the girl, implying that she led him on, that she's responsible for all the come-on stuff, that it's all her fault, just as Pitney screwing the waitress was all the waitress' fault for existing. He goes even further, trying to spread out a flimsy moral blanket, but Travis Bickle he is not (and she, whoever she is, is probably not Iris). Puckett sounds scared, petrified, frozen; he wants to walk away but knows deep in himself that he won't, that he is scoring his own tragedy. Goodness knows what that says about what "the silent majority" wanted in their 1968 pop. Did somebody once say something about hoodlum friends, or dancing shoes? It seems so far away.
Any Colour You Like
And then the story changes, or deepens. We are in 1965, with this peaked-cap Glaswegian fellow whose guitar says "This machine kills" (because he wrongly reckoned that there weren't any fascists in Britain) who sings what initially seems to be an easy sunrise of a folk song, still hugely redolent of Dylan. There is simple joy in his craftily innocent double entendre ("In the morning...when she rises") and his already unorthodox guitar tunings (together with his close-miked voice, setting the pace for Nick Drake and others to follow) weld perfectly with the record's gradually thickening texture. His "When I see her...mmm, hmmm/Oh gosh" prefaces Bolan.
But then the song takes a different lyrical turning. "Freedom is a word I rarely use without thinking," twice with two "mmm, hmmm"s, then the codicil: "of the times that I've been loved." Thus does the song subtly branch out from the personal into the political (if you equate "love" with "respect" and "rights," and there's nothing in Donovan's dreamily determined croon to convince me otherwise), directly prefiguring "The 'Sweetest Girl'" by more than a decade and a half, and the seemingly unassuming "Colours" is perhaps this record's most radical track with the widest subsequent reach of influence; it is already heralding both seventies and eighties, it deconstructs the pop song (or even the folk song) to a modest degree, and yet its roots go much further back than any other track on the album, back to the nineteenth-century weavers and drovers.
A harsh categorisation? Possibly not, but although Scott McKenzie and John Phillips, not to mention the San Francisco tourist industry, did very well financially from the success of this accidental anthem, and despite the song's origins as a promotional tool for the Monterey Festival, I can still listen to "San Francisco" and hear a heartfelt, if very politely expressed, call for radical change, a siren song to the counterculture, a plea to turn away from money and think of society again. So much of what makes the record count lies in its spaces, the floating glockenspiel (an earthly counterpart to John Cale's airy celeste on the Velvets' "Sunday Morning"), the subtle nods to Spector, the role of bass, bells and sitar in the complex middle-eight ("People in motion"), the ability of the song to suggest endless room in which to breathe. Perhaps in its own way it was as much of a chimera as "Hey, Paula" but it sounds infinitely more convincing; forget all that, the song tells us, let's just walk away and start something new. And keep it going? Well, that's the hard part.
Us And Them
And here is the song which signalled the change; McGuinn learning from The Searchers but making the quantum leap which was always just outside the Liverpudlians' reach (they had the rock but not the folk background) and once more, by simplifying Dylan's endless torrent of an original to what would pass in 150 seconds of a pop single, McGuinn somehow manages to say all that needs to be said; he sees these visions, this vizier whom he will follow, emulate and one day exceed. Everything is freed from gruelling, grey gravity; the float of the song is amorphous, McGuinn, Crosby and Clark piloting the ship into cosmos still to be imagined. Look upon this time, people of 1973, and look what you once might have had.
As opposed to what you settled for.
In Every Dream Home, A Heartache
As if to torment us, those of us who still cared enough to care, the record finally rewinds almost to the very beginning, before there were any Beatles or visible counterculture, to a song which closes the pages in a way which might dissuade some from reopening the book and attempting a rewrite. But chart history eventually rewrote itself; a US number one from 1963, "Blue Velvet" would finally rise to #2 in the UK as late as 1990, provoked by a television ad campaign (for Nivea hand cream) and general David Lynch mania caused by the airing of Twin Peaks. Impossible though it now is to listen to Vinton's reading (and there are others; Tony Bennett had the original hit in 1951, and the astounding doo-wop reading of the song by The Clovers came along in 1959) without thinking of severed ears, sordid underbellies of suburbia or Dennis Hopper's inhaler, even without that knowledge it would still sound like a pop record from Mars; the backing chorus is a little too clearly delineated, the spaces are so evenly spaced as to be not human (and the glockenspiel from "San Francisco" reappears, as does the space) - over this, Vinton is almost, albeit politely, at the end of his tether; much more than "Venus In Blue Jeans" or even "Young Girl" (for perfect symmetry, "Save The Last Dance For Me" should have been paired with "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town"), this spells out an ending.
It's impossible to listen to that last four-song sequence in particular and not be profoundly moved; here, discreetly underlined, is a story of what might have happened and what we didn't allow to happen, and it reflects our own painful craving for retrospective resolution. For in 1973 we were in large part all still trapped in the sixties, or its broken promise, as trapped as the man sung about, lamented, mourned, in the album this record kept at number two and out of Then Play Long (at least directly). These tunes were not quite everything under the sun - indeed, far from it - but even by this moment in history the eclipse had already taken hold. Disposable darlings or silver starfish with honeymoons? Think about the landmarks before you mourn.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 16:54