Thursday, 28 July 2011
(#131: 6 October 1973, 3 weeks; 19 January 1974, 1 week)
Track listing: Cum On Feel The Noize/Look What You Dun/Gudbuy T' Jane/One Way Hotel/Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me/Pouk Hill/The Shape Of Things To Come/Take Me Bak 'Ome/Coz I Luv You/Wild Winds Are Blowin'/Know Who You Are/Get Down And Get With It/Look At Last Nite/Mama Weer All Crazee Now
If this seems like yet another premature greatest hits collection, bear in mind that (a) Noddy Holder's "Baby baby BAYYY-BEY!!" at the beginning of "Cum On Feel The Noize" wipes out all traces of Goats Head Soup in a sparrow's fart, and (b) the record was very nearly Slade's epitaph. Drummer Don Powell had been involved in a terrible car crash in the group's native Wolverhampton on July 4, 1973; his fiancee, who was a passenger in the car, was killed instantly, and Powell himself sustained horrific injuries and was lucky to survive. The other members were adamant: if Powell didn't come through, that would be the end of Slade. He came through surprisingly quickly; by mid-August, though still using a stick to walk and requiring to be lifted onto his drum riser, he was back onstage, gigging with the group. Why? Work, he felt, was the best therapy available - and yes, as with this record's music, it's a working-class attitude; keep ploughing and you will find redemption. Note how many of their hits depend on the leitmotif "It's ALL RIGHT," and transmit this to their audience; these may be tough times, my friends, but together we can break through them. All of "us" in it together.
So Sladest may have been conceived as a necessary stop-gap to keep their profile high while Powell recuperated, but pound for pound I reckon it's the best Slade album, and so did Lester Bangs, who back in December 1973 was moved to cite Pharaoh Sanders ("...it's the summun bukmun umyun culling of their flashest stompers...") in praise of it, and them. It did appear briefly on CD in 1993 (I managed to track down a copy) but is currently out of print, superseded by many subsequent Slade compilations. Still, I don't think any of the latter got the balance as exactly right as Sladest did; true, the as yet unreleased "Merry Xmas Everybody" is not included, but that track deserves (and will eventually get here) its own story, and in any case the record does an admirable job, with its mix of big hits, early singles and key album tracks, in summing up why they mattered.
The record's progress is marked in terms of contrasting dynamics and approach rather than a chronological snooze; "Cum On Feel The Noize" was, via clever marketing, the first single to debut at number one in the UK chart since "Get Back" and deservedly so; every fibre of the record blasts out a group at the summit of their powers. The purpose of the song was to commemorate their own audience - Chas Chandler produced all of their hits with a view to recapturing the band's live atmosphere, hence all the handclaps and boot stomps - and there is never any doubt that audience and group magically become one flowing unit; as I said in my review of Slayed?, the matchless shuffle n' grind of Powell and Lea's rhythm section has much more to do with jazz than rock. The music breathes out goodness, and Holder shrieks as though absolutely on top of his world. Abruptly the Stones seem very tame and limp.
The early songs, for those who do not know them, are a revelation; they clearly signify a group working hard to establish their own sound, but instead of unicorns and opening one's eyes to the sun these songs speak of ordinary matters. "One Way Hotel" is a shaggy dog story based on the situation of the group being on the road, having to check in at bed and breakfast dives, six to a room, and totally skint, although at song's end Holder indulges in a bit of Hammer horror as he gravely and oleaginously intones "sign my name on the line" before shrieking "I was done for!" The music indicates that Slade were, even at this stage, far closer to the Beatles than the Stones in terms of songwriting techniques and rhythmic approaches; Dave Hill's guitar solo is extremely George Harrison-esque. Similarly, "Pouk Hill" - amusingly pronounced throughout as though sounding like something else - is about a photo session in the dead of midwinter where the photographer obliged the group to pose naked from the waist down and displays remarkable group telepathy, particularly the closing rallentando. "Wild Winds Are Blowin'" demonstrate marked Led Zeppelin tendencies, although Hill's guitar veers more towards Hendrix and pulls the rest of the group into an Axis: Bold As Love groove. Their 1969 single of Mann and Weill's "The Shape Of Things To Come" was the first of their songs I recall hearing on the radio - and, although not a hit, got them on Top Of The Pops - and here the listener can most clearly discern where they're going; everything points towards Holder's trademark shrieking, the already individualistic drums and bass, Hill's cheeky "You Keep Me Hangin' On" paraphrasing. The strangest of these tracks is "Know Who You Are" which grew out of an instrumental jam entitled "Genesis" and which mixes Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young harmonies with Zeppelin attack and "Mouldy Old Dough" drums! Here Holder is positively threatening, alternating between soft vocal musings and harsh, staccato barks.
Then came the hits: Bobby Marchan's "Get Down And Get With It" which still feels the blood brother of Zeppelin's "Rock And Roll" (down to "It's been a long, long time") taken to punk slapstick extremes: it was the band's big setpiece stage act closer and Holder's lunatic cheerleading alternates with Joe Meek/Dave Clark tactics (the climactic entry of the foot stomps from "Have I The Right?", Powell's quick tribute to "Bits And Pieces"), while Hill's guitar becomes progressively unhinged, at the end zoning out beyond Hendrix to somewhere in Sonny Sharrock's back garden. It felt like, and proved to be, a reclamation to kids bored of "Tom-Tom Turnaround" or "The Banner Man."
"Coz I Luv You" is one of those singles which comes across as more and more unsettling and spectacular every time I listen to it, even with almost forty years' familiarity. Holder's Lennon-shaking vocal is the necessary cynosure, since everything else that happens around it parallels everything else that happened around the Beatles - think of a blend of (again) the Dave Clark Five, the Stones (Jim Lea's Wyman-esque bass octave rumbles), Stephane Grappelli, Fairport Convention and John Cale's Velvet Underground (Lea's violin). There is a terrible certainty which looms and finally takes over the track, which Holder's matey lyrics do nothing to dispel. "Look Wot You Dun," the follow-up, seemed a partial step backwards, back to Beatles song structures but with a lyrical limbo which examines itself as meticulously as anything Gilbert O'Sullivan was doing at the time, but who else would have augmented the rhythm section with a toothbrush? "Take Me Bak 'Ome" saw the more familiar Slade template develop, taking the boozy time-gentlemen-please-hiccup-babe scenario from the Faces and running with it. Then the blockbusters - how easy the swing of "Gudbuy T' Jane" still feels (Oasis really are not in it), the double-whammy closers "Look At Last Nite" and "Crazee"; the former the dark side of "Coz I Luv You" (with Lea'a bass subtly quoting from "Taxman" in the final verse), Holder resorting to more screams as he warns that all this is not going to last, the latter the perfect closer, Slade now their own planet, every atom fusing into a madness that can sometimes sound more terrifying than celebratory. "Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me," the most recent thing here, takes the formula to somewhere just beyond extremis; the group sound filled with helium and the chanting and communality are venturing towards the inhuman; sometimes these huge stompers sound as though stamped out within a huge, metallic meat-packing plant but the overall impression is what Lena calls "the hockey arena effect"; the ability of Slade to communicate to their core people, and who cares if no one in the States understands them, either when playing or speaking (Quiet Riot eventually hit number one in the USA a decade later with a majorly cleaned-up version of "Noize," now perfectly comprehensible but devoid of the original's unreachable magic)? Those who want to understand will understand. Nevertheless, "Skweeze" sounded about as far as Slade could go with this formula without spontaneously combusting. Regardless of where they went next - and we are not finished with Slade yet - this collection represents a perfect picture of why, three years before punk, things needed to be confronted and overhauled.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 20:26
Tuesday, 26 July 2011
(#130: 22 September 1973, 2 weeks)
Track listing: Dancing With Mr. D./100 Years Ago/Coming Down Again/Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)/Angie/Silver Train/Hide Your Love/Winter/Can You Hear The Music/Star Star
'You haven't got any money?'
'We aren't going to be married to-day?'
'I said, I see.'
(Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies, chapter eleven)
"Sometimes I wanna...but I can't afford you."
(The Rolling Stones, "Winter")
In his memoir Life, Keith Richards doesn't spend too much time dwelling on Goats Head Soup, apart from explaining that "Angie" was just a name that came to him, and that Anita Pallenberg was about to give birth to their daughter Dandelion, who shortly thereafter had to be renamed Angela. He takes a good deal more time to discuss his experiences in Jamaica, whence the Stones decamped to record the album, and his memories are warm and real: the unexpected fusion of influences due to strong radio signals bringing in music from both New Orleans (the rhythm) and Nashville (the song), the devotional trance music of Steer Town, the movable community that was the Covenant, shoot-ups of the cinema screen - he loved it so much he kept, and still keeps, a house there. And, of course, enjoying the local delicacy (Anthony Bourdain has made a particularly persuasive case for its deliciousness) which gave the album its title.
His memories of making the album are not so rosy; overall he found it an enjoyable experience but the band hadn't been in the studio for a year, their tight looseness appeared to have shrivelled to a loose looseness, and everyone involved, including producer Jimmy Miller and assistant Andy Johns, was strung out on dope. In truth Kingston, Jamaica, was one of the few options open for the Stones at the end of 1972; Nixon's goons were playing tough over giving Jagger and Richards visas for the USA, while back in Britain they would have been hammered for tax. Few other countries would have been willing to let the whole band in.
Listening to the record now, it's a wonder that they didn't just call it quits after Exile - since where else was there to go, following a record of that dissoluble quality, but the way out? But there was money involved, and the interests of others. That stupid delusion that they needed to make a living took them over, and its effects on their music were pretty immediate. All the gamely disorganisation of Exile - and virtually all of its inspiration - had vanished, to be replaced by the first aural manifestation of the Stones as brand, as shareholders' paradise.
They had trapped themselves, and that is instantly evident from the dismal "Dancing With Mr. D." Did "D" stand for the Devil, or Death, or David Bowie, or Love Bug star Dean Jones? More pressingly, the song gives us no reason why we should care. All the elements from Exile and its immediate predecessors are present, but incorrect, or possibly too correct; the devil motif from "Sympathy," of course, the screams from "Gimme Shelter," the general swampiness of the rhythm track. But this is dabbling with the dark side for family entertainment purposes; Jagger does louche even less convincingly than Tony Orlando, and the whole is like a polished replica of Exile with all its elements cleaned up, scrubbed whole (and holy). Fatally for the Stones, and like much else on the record, the song plods. These are Stones ready to support Wayne Newton in Vegas, and a lot of people couldn't forgive them; the "D" finally turns out to stand for "dunce." "Black velvet eyes"?????
It doesn't help matters that Jimmy Miller appears to have been asleep for most of the record; the meagre production makes the group sound anaemic, almost invisible. Keyboards - variously played by stalwarts Preston, Hopkins and Stewart, as well as by Jagger himself - dominate the sound and the guitars are virtually inaudible. "100 Years Ago" begins like "Ruby Tuesday" but there isn't the song to support its musings about the impermanence of relationships; the track does pick up in the middle, largely because Mick Taylor is doing his best to keep us awake, but then settles back into its burrow of grey porridge. "Don't you think it's sometimes wise not to grow up?" sings Jagger, but that is exactly what they have done here; or at least proposed their notion of growing up. Is he really singing "I wanted out" towards the fade, or is he just pretending that he wants to "hide away" from us?
"Coming Down Again" reduces itself to a "Let It Be" cop, with yet more blanding-out piano and organ blocking our ears. Keith sings, and although it's not one of his better "wasted" songs, he at least sounds believing and believable. Charlie Watts is also moved to do his first creative act on the record; his drums, as they build up through the song, carry the intimation of the chain gang. But neither Bobby Keyes' Lyricon solo nor the pleasing harmonic variants which crop up towards song's end lifts us out of this gloomy, gruel-like morass. "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo" tries to be a "Gimme Shelter" for the Watergate age but its improbable and dissociated grumbles - once these would have been howls - against the police and drugs and New York suddenly sound very old and watery pink rather than the redness of old; again, most of the musical interest comes from extraneous elements: Preston's clavinet and Rebop's congas, the horns (albeit mixed far too low) and Keyes' sudden irritable tenor bursts, the way the song mellows down and opens up for Taylor's solo before attempting to rage again - but the 1973 Stones are not the 1973 Stevie Wonder, and this is not "Superstition." As for "Angie," the song as a single topped the US charts and sold a million; here in Britain we saw Jagger doing his Charles Aznavour routine on TOTP and with sad wisdom stopped the single at #5. In the States it was taken as a protracted lament for/goodbye to the sixties, what have we lost, etc., but it's impossible to take Jagger's protestations about "no money in our coats" seriously (especially since he, no doubt with major prompting from Bianca, was good enough to donate considerable amounts of money to the Nicaraguan cause that year); getting back to Vile Bodies (to which this record sounds a more sober and apt musical accompaniment than Aladdin Sane, which of course doesn't make it the better record - on the contrary), one thinks of Adam and Nina, and the absence of ready money, and the drunken Major, and really are we not talking to our mirrored selves? It is true that Jagger's complacent sorrow nearly cracks on his last "Come on, dry your eyes," but he remembers his accountant in time and tidies up his yellow necktie.
Side two rushes through with paradoxical dreariness. "Silver Train" and "Hide Your Love" are utterly routine, robot Stones rockers and shufflers; for the first time in this exercise, I nearly fell asleep listening to them. "Winter" goes for the epic cry-out, but "Mandolin Wind" sends it packing without any ado; Jagger's self-pity seems (to borrow that Waugh word again) bogus (but nowhere near as fun or as disturbing as Roxy's "The Bogus Man" from a few months previously), unfelt; he strives for the Tosca self-immolation climax (the "coat" in "Sometimes I wanna wrap my coat aound you" which he makes sound like "cord"), complete with exasperated howls degenerating into random mutters (but he's not 1973 Van Morrison either). At this point Lena remarked: "This could be a very good Sheryl Crow album" - and I think she would have produced it better too. Some pacing strings materialise for an instant before the song's end, but it's melted before you can be moved by it.
"Can You Hear The Music" proceeds, in Lena's words, like Hallmark greetings cards being processed through a "Jaggerisation" machine; "When I hear the git-TAR," barks Jagger unconvincingly, "Makes me wanna MOOOOVE." By the time a cheery leprechaun flute enters the picture - what is this, the fucking Moody Blues? - one is almost ready to give up on life, let alone 1973. "Sometimes I, I'm dancin' on air/But I get scared" sings Jagger, sounding approximately eighty-six years old. Thereupon the track settles for a bad Traffic impression. Was there a worse major rock album release in 1973?
With "Star Star" the band finally comes to something resembling their senses, but it's too little (and also too much) too late in an era of "Personality Crisis" and "Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell"; their pupils had suddenly become their masters. Keith opens with an outrageous "Johnny B Goode" lift - yes, when times are bad, you reach for your original bottle of Chuck (and yet this was recorded in the same city and at the same time as records of such cruciality as Blackboard Jungle Dub!). Following Jagger's unattractive burp of "Hun-NEH," the band suddenly realise that they are the Rolling Stones, and, along with Jimmy Miller, wake up; the volume is audibly turned up. But it all still comes to so little; where once the band hardly needed to try in order to shock, here the pretend "outrage" is approximately as outrageous as Judge Dread, the Steve McQueen/John Wayne namechecks drift by us (because they are so badly mixed) practically unnoticed, and now it's a wonder that these guys ever got out of Anne Boleyn Secondary Battle of the Bands; well, no wonder, or more accurately there was no wonder left - the earnest Young Businessmen of 1965 had come through on their profit margins, sounding completely professional and comprehensively dead (Joan Jett's 1983 reading, hidden as a bonus track on the cassette edition of her Album, is far more knowing and far better). The songs sound unfinished and/or cynical, the band are either too sloppy or too cynical to give a damn about performing them; little wonder that this tale doesn't return to the Stones for a good (or bad?) seven years - like their sailors slowly being drowned by bubbly bath foam in the video for "It's Only Rock 'N' Roll," they were out of time. And what was with that "only"? What'a the point of "only" or onliness in art?
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 18:54
Thursday, 21 July 2011
(#129: 1 September 1973, 3 weeks)
Track listing: Reason To Believe (Find A Reason To Believe)/You Wear It Well/Mandolin Wind/Country Comfort/Maggie May/Handbags And Gladrags/Street Fighting Man/Twisting The Night Away/Lost Paraguayos/(I Know) I'm Losing You/Pinball Wizard (From the Rock Opera "Tommy (1914-1984)"/Gasoline Alley
Busy (to a point) with the Faces, Rod Stewart didn't have time to cut a solo record in 1973, and thus this time-marking/ticking-over retrospective from Mercury wrapped in a sleeve designed in the shape of a highball whisky glass, complete with ice, no evidence of soda and a grinning, reddened Rod in its spotlit reflection. Once more he was one of the lads only up to a point; apart from a grinning Ronnie Wood in the background of one shot, all six liner photos capture Stewart alone, having fun on stage, pirouetting in a tutu or just squatting on the floor, chilling (I'd bet a Having Fun With Rod On Stage record would have been much more fun, if less bamboozling, than the one from Elvis which crept into the racks the following year). Increasingly, it's all about him and him only.
The compilation itself is a decent, crafty one, dividing the sides neatly into meditative/folky Rod and rocking out/electric Rod. Commercialism had its say, of course; of the dozen tracks, four are taken from Picture, three from Moment and two apiece from 1969's An Old Raincoat Won't Ever Let You Down and 1970's Gasoline Alley. That leaves the scanty bait of Stewart's rendition of "Pinball Wizard" from Lou Reizner's all-star Tommy gala from 1972 as a dubious bonus; I would have been much keener to hear Stewart tackling it with the Who alone (cf. Fury's "Long Live Rock") but here we have to be content with the London Symphony Orchestra, grimly grinding through Wil Malone's charts and wishing they'd been a bit nicer to Ornette, and the English Chamber Choir compelled to bark out such lines as "I thought I was the bally table king" as though it were Brecht.
Of the remaining four tracks not previously discussed in this tale, three are covers, and one, 1969's take on "Street Fighting Man," is far more interesting for the group arrangement than Stewart's distracted-sounding vocal; there is no doubt that the only thing on his mind is to sing in a rock and roll band. The musicians, however, slow it down to a Delta groove, spearheaded by Ronnie Wood's grumbling bottleneck and underlined by Ronnie Lane's burping bass. Doubtless inspired by the "Dancing In The Street" quote, and mindful that Marvin Gaye was the chief drummer on the latter, the aim seems to have been to go for a smouldering "Grapevine" (via Creedence) undertow, and hence the various pauses, hesitations and so forth until Nicky Hopkins' piano triumphantly emerges from the melee and goes straight into the "We Love You" riff. A stage setpiece in the making, perhaps (particularly in light of another spectacular drum performance by Micky Waller) but it doesn't tell us much about its singer.
The record's relative lack of focus on Stewart the songwriter also means that we are deprived of such embryonic gems as "Cindy's Lament," "Blind Prayer" and "Lady Day," not to mention his spellbinding reading of "Man Of Constant Sorrow." The latter I would certainly have preferred to Mike d'Abo's "Handbags And Gladrags," which I have always found a pompous and sententious dirge regardless of who sings it; the song may as well have been titled "An Open Letter To My Teenage Daughter." d'Abo himself is on hand here, contributing piano and bombastic arrangement, but it is against the odds one of Stewart's great acting performances; even as one grumbles at the song's cheap sentiments (and sentimentality), one can feel Stewart's bafflement and despair, the sense that he is slowly losing himself as well as his child.
This leaves an early reading of Elton John and Bernie Taupin's "Country Comfort," issued before Elton's own version (on Tumbleweed Connection), which sets the early Stewart template fairly neatly; full piano, punctuative drumming, discreet guitar, a slow-burning consideration of the singer's situation. Against these must be measured the song's general half-baked naivete (John and Taupin were still on the way to maturation), but once more Stewart makes you want to listen: his weary sigh of "bones," his melancholy chewing over the concept of "machinery" superseding "fifteen men," the low-key harmony work (I think Lane's is the second voice) and the cinematic but uplifting final key change as Stewart makes his way towards "the road that's going home." Likewise, on the title track of Gasoline Alley, he sings about running back to the slums, backed by mandolin and guitars of various volumes, about "goin' home" and "runnin' home"; his cries eventually become more urgent ("Don't bury me here - it's too cold!") and finally his voice echoes into the vapour as the guitar train slowly toot-toots its way towards a halt. There's no real argument here against getting the original four albums, but Sing It Again Rod is the first example of stories in this tale which won't take too long to retell.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 17:51
Sunday, 17 July 2011
(#128: 18 August 1973, 2 weeks)
Track listing: All Change Places/I'm Confessin'/Take To The Mountains/Turn To Me/There They Go/We Can Make It/Let It Be Me/Cryin' In The Rain/Good Morning Freedom/Cryin' Time/Never My Love/Welcome Home
"From the moment they started to sing, the whole studio was filled with a great warmth, not just because they make a beautiful sound, but because they are both very beautiful people."
Royston Mayoh, producer of Opportunity Knocks, from his sleevenote to We Can Make It)
"We're here...then we're not here. We're somewhere else. Maybe. And it's as natural as breathing. Why should we be scared?"
Willie Parker (Terence Stamp) to Braddock (John Hurt), from the film The Hit, 1984)
The Hit, directed by Stephen Frears, was maybe the first modern British gangster movie. True, The Long Good Friday was set in the present (1980) time but still seemed umbilically attached to the tradition which Get Carter had set a decade earlier (if "traditions" can be said to stretch over just one decade), but this road movie seemed more prophetic of the neutered, ineffective hideaways of such successors as Sexy Beast (Ray Winstone could almost be Tim Roth grown a generation, still having learned next to nothing), not to mention the gradual, voyeuristic glamourisation of gangland practised by Guy Ritchie and others. In The Hit, however, the picture is more jumbled; Stamp's supergrass, exiled in Goya's Spain for a full ten years after sending some former associates down with his testimony, seems to accept the arrival of his executors with calm, verging on cold, acceptance. He is supposed to be delivered to Paris to meet his fate, but soon we know that, like Lorca's Cordoba-bound horseman, he will never make it out of Spain. But he is not quite a regenerated, resigned John Donne; he subtly plays Hurt's robot professional and Roth's hardnut trainee against each other through their various adventures. The inevitable bloodbath occurs, but as Fernando Rey's police catch up with Hurt's Braddock, he has absorbed Willie Parker's unreachable coolness, become Parker.
The crime lord Parker sent down we only see at the beginning of the picture, as he is led down from the courtroom into the cells - he is hardly in shot for more than a few seconds, but his impassive glower casts a shade over the rest of the film which the plentiful sun cannot obscure or supersede. He looks, stares, although of course he cannot see. His name is Mr Corrigan, and he is played by Lennie Peters.
It is something to consider when one looks at the purple-dominant sleeve of We Can Make It, Peters and Lee's first and most successful album; Dianne Lee looks the picture of Test Card girl purity, but despite his homely smile one senses that Peters is concealing something; more pronounced is the high probability that, despite his blindness, there is the vaguely suggested ruthlessness of someone who could order your head to be taken off your shoulders if he so felt. There is a bigness to Peters which doesn't quite fit in with the intended cosy listening profile; he appears ready to burst out.
His history is accounted for in different ways; some stories claim that in his sixties days of pub and club work he was close friends with, and was promoted, or even protected, by, the Krays. What is certain is that he was not born with his blindness (although estimates of his year of birth vary, he was certainly born at some point in the thirties); when he was five, he was knocked down by a car while crossing the road, losing the sight in his left eye, and ten years later, upon remonstrating with a group of youths about throwing stones and disturbing his sunbathing, a brick was thrown directly in his face, causing permanent damage to his right eye.
He grew up in north London, was even one of Charlie Watts' uncles. He seems to have become seriously involved in music in the early sixties; the Migil Five of "Mockingbird Hill" fame were originally formed as his backing band. He worked solidly throughout the decade and issued the odd single here and there but greater success eluded him. While doing a summer season in 1970 he met with Dianne Lee, then principally a dancer and aspiring actress; they got on (though were never romantically involved) sufficiently that Lee became his backing singer; the duo's sound was refined (and made closer) with experience and in 1973 they managed to win a slot on Opportunity Knocks. Less an everyman's scenario of getting in ordinary people with extraordinary talents off the street, the show concentrated more on semi-established club and cabaret acts seeking a big break. They appeared, and won the show for the next seven weeks; it was not until the third or fourth week that Peters revealed his blindness. Their popularity was sudden and immense; the single of "Welcome Home" made number one and stayed on the chart for six months, and this album, masterminded by Scott Walker and Dusty Springfield's old Philips team (producer John Franz and arranger Peter Knight) quickly followed.
What to say of We Can Make It in 2011, other than the title's implied reaching out of hands to a beleagured British public desperate and hungry for the smallest crumb of warm reassurance? On the most superficial level it is a typical MoR record of, and firmly entrenched in, its time, with a boxed-in production and the general, slightly anaesthetising feel of music played to Co-Op shoppers.
On a deeper level it indicates the importance of establishing a distinctive and successful vocal harmony out of two fundamentally unremarkable voices. It's no accident that side two begins with two consecutive Everly Brothers covers; despite the already dated "Willesden Sound" reggae arrangement of "Cryin' In The Rain," these tracks demonstrate how much stronger Peters and Lee's voices were together than they were separately, especially when they take their solo turns. Peters is clearly the stronger singer, with an appealing brand of post-Ray Charles bluffness to his voice, although it is arguable that such voices could be found in any pub of a musical evening (Blackpool in the early-to-mid seventies, for instance, was, as I know from personal experience, full of Lennie Peters types, boisterously playing the hits of the day and silently wishing that somebody would come up and ask them to play Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays"; my father, indeed, made that very request to the pianist/singer in one restaurant in the summer of 1970 and he seemed startled but pleased - I cannot with certainty either deny or confirm that the pianist/singer was Lennie Peters since this would certainly have been part of his circuit at the time). Lee, on the other hand, really couldn't sing, at least not at this point - there is a Dusty-ish timbre to her voice but the best that can be said is that, when unaccompanied, she just about manages to stay in tune.
But when singing together, this somehow doesn't matter; indeed the underlying semi-amateurism is quite appealing, and both voices cancel out the failings of the other. Hear, for instance, the really rather touching ballad "Turn To Me," which is "Reach Out, I'll Be There" as Scott might have conceived it, so much so that Knight reproduces the intro and outro from Walker's "Rosemary" at song's beginning and end. And there is something surprisingly moving about the largely unspoken struggle of the pair to make sense of a nonsensical 1973 world, or the good fist they make of Tony Hiller and Ivor Raymonde's title track. "We can make it to the other side," their voices reassure us; hang on, we know the way even if one of us can't see (recall also Walker's highly pertinent "Such A Small Love").
When they don't strive for effect, Peters and Lee do well, and I think prospered over the coming decade because they knew their limitations. They turn "I'm Confessin'" into an affectionate little Satchmo tribute (complete with vocal impressions by Peters) with some nice spoken interplay: "It's too late for that, honey," whispers Lee's Home Counties vamp. Their reading of Buck Owens' "Cryin' Time" is aptly claustrophobic, conjuring up images of darkened front rooms, endless soul searching (why does this happen every time to Peters' protagonist?), Cresta cans, The Changes and Fred Trueman's Indoor League and other 1973 detritus, whereas their version of Blue Mink's "Good Morning Freedom" is bouncily optimistic in a let's-take-this-kandy-kolored-VW-camper-van-to-Maidstone sort of way. The Association's immortal "Never My Love" is recast as a Crown Paints commercial, complete with Pete Murray's Open House/Northern Dance Orchestra trumpet/flute unisons, and if this version doesn't begin to approach the heartrending profundity of the original (because, as they always did at their best, the Association sound as though they're holding something back; the ambiguous final chord of "Cherish," the simultaneous medium and fast tempo playouts of "Windy," the deceptive, full-throated plaintiveness of "Everything That Touches You") it says: well, we're reaching our destination, let's settle and sit down, and will this do? At this point, you feel, anything would.
Even on more challenging material they mostly retain their assurance. The opening "All Change Places," written by two chaps named David Gold and John Garfield, about whom I've been able to find out next to nothing, is the record's fiercest gauntlet; there's the warmongering general sending people to their deaths, here's the old guy queuing up in the Post Office for his pension - wouldn't it be so much better, the duo beam vibrantly at us, if they could change, not just places, but faces, for a day? The arrangement suggests a development of Mike Vickers' chart for Cilla Black's "Surround Yourself With Sorrow"; the sympathies the song is expressing aren't that far away from those of Prufrock (and how right that, at virtually the same time as this record, Eliot should be cited in the singer's notes to Let's Get It On - literally, everything that We Can Make It isn't, or wouldn't want to be. There is no sex here - "If I Should Die Tonight" is very far from either singer's mind - but neither is there a "Just To Keep You Satisfied" with which to close down the planet). They don't quite meet the challenges posed by Tony Hazzard's exceptionally strange "Take To The Mountains," a minor Top 40 hit for ex-Quiet Five singer and future West End rep reliable Richard Barnes three years previously, and the buried vocal mix doesn't help matters, but still the feeling of communal escape is unavoidable, the repeated refrain "No peace of mind" softly hammering at us over and over - it is simultaneously the more sober and the more abstract mirror of "Good Morning Freedom." Wherever you go, Peters might have reflected, you end up having to take yourself with you. Only Harold Dorman's clunky reggae-lite song "There They Go" doesn't work; the lightness the song needs to balance out its shadows isn't achieved in the production's murkiness, and the alternating of solo voices is perhaps unhelpful.
The record closes with "Welcome Home" itself; an adaptation of a French song entitled "Vivre," and a record which, I think, did as much to pull together an alienated 1973 Britain, or at least part of it, as "Merry Xmas Everybody" (each song pulled together separate strands of the same society). In some ways, it's a deliberately old-fashioned record; it could almost stand as a displaced WWII anthem with its huge choirs, soaring strings, homely guitar (possibly played by Derek Bailey, who was present on the sessions), slightly disturbing echoes of bass voices and subtle spreading out of its initial miss-you loneliness until the singers turn, face the world and sing to their audience. Such essential good-heartedness was rare in that season's pop, and I still find it an almost unbearably poignant performance - here, in all places and on/of all records, is a scenario which ends with the words "You're home once more."
"One person with two voices," Lena calls it, and each half makes the other complete. I think of another P&L - the McCartneys - and how Linda's vocals, while not especially outstanding in themselves, prove themselves indispensable to the whole. And we can also look back obviously to the Everlys, and look forward less obviously to the untutored female voices which will work to startling effect in just over eight years' time. As for Peters and Lee, although the hits dried up after 1976, they remained a hugely popular act on stage and television; they split in 1980, and Peters continued as a soloist for a while, with only limited success. They reunited in 1986 and continued to work together sporadically until Peters' death from bone cancer in 1992. Lee meanwhile went on to marry ex-Move/Wizzard bassist Rick Price, and both now perform as a double act. But it is perhaps wise to reflect on how hard won this return home was, particularly for Peters; there is menace in his unseen eyes but also much evidence of trouble and pain, despite his gamely smiles (and yes, he also appears briefly in The Long Good Friday, near the beginning). The predominant message from this collection to its purchasers and listeners, however, is unmissable; don't be scared. You know the game.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 17:02
Thursday, 14 July 2011
(#127: 30 June 1973, 7 weeks)
Track listing: Bye Bye Love (Everly Brothers)/Poetry In Motion (Johnny Tillotson)/Little Darlin' (The Diamonds)/Smoke Gets In Your Eyes (The Platters)/Chantilly Lace (Big Bopper)/Runaround Sue (Dion)/Devoted To You (Everly Brothers)/Great Balls Of Fire (Jerry Lee Lewis)/Running Bear (Johnny Preston)/Tequila (The Champs)/Tutti Frutti (Little Richard)/'Til I Kissed You (Everly Brothers)/I Love How You Love Me (Paris Sisters)/Runaway (Del Shannon)/Bony Moronie (Larry Williams)/Honeycomb (Jimmie Rodgers)/Why Do Fools Fall In Love (Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers)/Party Doll (Buddy Knox)/Linda Lu (Ray Sharpe)/Red River Rock (Johnny and The Hurricanes)/That'll Be The Day (Bobby Vee and The Crickets)/Born Too Late (The Poni-Tails)/Wake Up Little Susie (Everly Brothers)/Book Of Love (Monotones)/(You've Got) Personality (Lloyd Price)/Well...All Right (Bobby Vee and The Crickets)/At The Hop (Danny and The Juniors)/Alley Oop (Dante and The Evergreens)/Raunchy (Bill Justis)/Rock On (David Essex)/A Thousand Stars (Billy Fury)/Real Leather Jacket (Vivian Stanshall)/Long Live Rock (Billy Fury)/What In The World (Shoop) ("Stormy Tempest" - actually The Typhoons)/That's All Right Mama (Billy Fury)/Slow Down (Eugene Wallace)/Get Yourself Together (Billy Fury)/What'd I Say (Billy Fury)/It'll Be Me (Wishful Thinking)
(Author's note: For sanity-preserving reasons I have done my best to avoid the multiple spelling and credit errors present on the original vinyl album's rear cover. Additionally, it should be noted that in light of protests by record companies regarding the domination of TV-advertised compilation albums in the chart, the British Market Research Bureau changed the rules, meaning that such records were confined to the separate compilation chart. This means that That'll Be The Day vanished from the chart completely after its seventh week at the top and that, to the great regret of this writer, the similar package for the film's sequel Stardust was not eligible for the main chart.)
"Of course we knew there were other things to sing songs about...our elders never stopped telling us...but rock and roll was our music: music for young people; performed by the young; and about the young."
(Ray Connolly, from his sleevenote to That'll Be The Day)
It, virtually needless to say, was never that simple, especially when this American phenomenon began to be heard and felt in Britain. Unless we happened to have been there, at the right age and in the wrong circumstances, there is no way of communicating how epochal, how life-commencing, it all was: the promise of everything coming to a nation which, in the late fifties, still had next to nothing; the need to wrench something out of this promise and hold onto it, make it ours. Was this living, or merely a way to avoid making a living?
But respond to rock and roll we did, and this story has told in part how it happened. If sometimes the shoddiness of presentation of the soundtrack to That'll Be The Day - a 40-track double - is annoying enough to make one wish that CBS or EMI had successfully won the rights rather than Ronco, its downbeat presentation (and its necessarily beaten appearance, thirty-eight years down the line) accurately matches the dour, doughy nothingness of its parent movie.
I am not sure whether the film That'll Be The Day has endured. Utilising a sixties Wednesday Play approach to describe a country still unable to forget or move beyond the war, David Essex, looking remarkably like Damon Albarn, is excellent in the fundamentally unsympathetic role of Jim Maclaine; Rosemary Leach is superb as his incrementally disappointed mother - of course, Maclaine's grief lies in the early desertion of his father, a role which he already knows he is doomed to repeat - and Ringo Starr is more than adequate as his new pal Mike; on screen he looks lighter than at any time since A Hard Day's Night.
But the question remains, and it's a major one; how far are we supposed to identify with this Pandora's box of resentment who throws his schoolbooks, and therefore probably his future, in the river, who, when shown a glimpse of what lies beyond, immediately turns into a ruthless womaniser, and who, finally, after making a pretence of returning home and getting down to compensatory business - running the family store, having a wife and child - abandons it all for the sake of a guitar and a train ticket? Either rock and roll was so potent, so comprehensively conquering, that it drove those under its spell to forsake family and friends to follow its pyritic trail, or Jim Maclaine is a thankless shithead who will (as Stardust later revealed) go crazy to the point of self-extermination. The film does not exactly scream "the future" or "colour" or "sex" towards us; rather a very familiar post-Ealing Studios melancholia that this is always how it will be, this ridiculous, pinched, pinching Britain.
It's clear that the soundtrack album works better than the film in explaining to us just how taken we were by all of this, and indeed outlines a summary of our reaction more efficiently and powerfully than the movie. The album is not quite what it pretends to be, and probably boasts the longest prelude or introduction of any number one album; an introduction that lasts three sides, and thirty songs. A registry of period favourites, or at least whatever Ronco could lease, and the mixture is as odd as one would expect, but in its own way quite revelatory.
As far as the oldies are concerned there is little need to expound on them at length; watching Essex walk off with that guitar at film's end, I was reminded of Chuck Berry's dictum that if he had the time over again he would get a degree in business studies and then learn to play the guitar. Chuck Berry, however, is not represented here, and neither are Elvis, or Gene Vincent, or Eddie Cochran, or Fats Domino, or for that matter Buddy Holly; the presence of two tracks from 1962's exercise in near-necrophilia Bobby Vee Meets The Crickets, including the title song, suggests that Ronco failed to secure the rights to the original - of these, Vee's "That'll Be The Day" is throatier, growlier and, in its final "day," desperate, but proves little match for the man who, by his death, inadvertently kickstarted Vee's career (he stood in for Holly that night), while "Well...All Right," perhaps the strangest of all Holly songs - its harmonies and arrangement presage the quieter Velvet Underground - resorts to bad impersonations.
There are a quartet of tracks by the Everlys; both "Bye Bye Love" and "Susie"'s power revolves around the unmentioned - there are sly hints in the final verse of the former that sexual inadequacy is the reason for his baby's desertion, while on further examination "Susie" is post-coital dread; it's clear that they've done it, and now they're making up frantic excuses. Both songs rely on their slashing, barline-cheating guitar lines to emphasise that which the Everlys themselves were too polite to express directly. On the other hand, "'Til I Kissed You" is a better Holly tribute (and develops on Holly's template) than Vee's, helped by Jerry Allison's trademark drum rolls, and the lovely "Devoted To You" reminds us just how keenly those two young lads in Liverpool were listening, as well as the Celtic roots (Scottish pibroch in particular) which helped inspire the duo's music in the first place.
In this collection, the second gathering of evidence in as many weeks, it's abundantly clear who's going to be their own man and who are in for the one miraculous shot. Given the ruckus they caused at the time, what is most remarkable about "Tutti Frutti" and "Great Balls Of Fire" at this juncture is their easy and instinctive sense of swing; yes, we know Jerry Lee was terrified of damnation by singing this (the Sun outtakes and studio dialogue attest to this) but in some senses this is a red herring - what is most overpowering about "Fire" is his incredulous joy ("Weellll....feels GO-HOOD!!" as though doing it for the first time), his reckless elbow piano runs, his extraordinary revelations of...life. Likewise, despite the standard depiction of Richard as untutored Wild Man, "Tutti Frutti" is furiously disciplined; every dip of rhythm is met by a swoop in voice and/or piano, and in lots of ways we are still evolving from the world of Jimmie Lunceford and Lionel Hampton. There's no doubt that Dion and Del Shannon are in for the long game; "Runaround Sue"'s gloriously insolent post-Darin Italo-cool man sneers (of course he's going to do the same thing himself in "The Wanderer"), and if "Runaway" finally did nothing to lead its writer and performer away from his own fatal dread, there is a definite feeling - and not in the Musitron solo alone - that new ground is being broken, and staked.
Otherwise it's the black performers, unsurprisingly, who sound the most vital. Lymon takes the nonsense of "Fools" and turns it into the most plaintive plea for reason that side of "Earth Song." Lloyd Price goes back to jump band territory (see also Jackie Wilson's "Baby Workout") all to beg, cry, the adoration or interest of his intended Other (although he already knows he's a fool even to try). Larry Williams conveys both grace and urge in his "Bony Moronie" whereas, in comparison, the Big Bopper booms and cackles oafishly and menacingly, like a trainee vampire. The Diamonds and Platters tracks provide us with a useful lesson in the interrelations between black and white music; Canada's finest take a decent Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs track and elevate it, via absurdity, into something approaching holistic trash art - authenticity be damned; this is far more exciting and sexy (in any case, the Monotones throw authenticity out the window with their adaptation of the Pepsodent commercial and its amazing harmonic snakes and ladders procedurals; the drummer, or book-thumper, seems for most of the record to be the only audible "musician"). In contrast the Platters take a Jerome Kern oldie and turn it into a portrait of dignified but increasing emotional breakdown; Tony Williams takes his time, slowly working up to his unholy, tortured, climactic, final "eyes" before collapsing as though shot. Equally "Born Too Late" and "I Love How You Love Me" give us a quick lesson in the development of a certain strand of white girl group pop; the Poni-Tails sound as though rehearsing to be the Shangri-La's, all whimpers and bafflement (their song is the precise obverse of "Young Girl"), whereas the Paris Sisters are there (as indeed, and crucially, is Phil Spector); their "I Love How You Love Me" floats weightlessly, ethereally, all blurred pianos and semi-stoned vocals, virtually pre-psychedelia, certainly pre-Julee Cruise.
There are a few other bits and pieces, and even a couple of curveballs; "Party Doll" is nothing much, apart from how startlingly Knox sounds like Neil Young. The already scared-sounding vocal of Danny Rapp on "At The Hop" indicates that he fully knows that this is all there will be (for him). The three instrumentals which conclude each of the first three sides are entertaining enough; the Pharaoh Sanders-anticipating sandblasting tenor of "Tequila," the relentless motorik of "Red River Rock" (it sounds like Neu!), the straightforward R&B thrust of "Raunchy" (and note how all three tracks, as with a surprising number of other tracks here, underline the centrality of the saxophone as a voice in early rock). The most intriguing curveball is "Linda Lu," a 1959 side by Fort Worth's Ray Sharpe (and a local hit only), striding confidently through the middle ground between blues and rockabilly; his stutters and word-ramming ("Herrealnameherrealnameherrealname is PATTI!") anticipating Daltrey.
But so much else belongs to the Light Programme's idea of rock and roll. "Sealed With A Kiss" is as scarily desolate (and at the same time absurdly adolescent) as ever but it belongs to a different time, a time which will acknowledge it four years later ("Caroline No"). It nevertheless towers over gaudy trinkets like "Poetry In Motion" (a re-recording; all others are originals) and the preposterous "Running Bear," the ghastly cover of "Alley Oop" (professionals pretending to be madmen, unlike the genuine maniacs Kim Fowley drew together as the Hollywood Argyles) and, perhaps worst, Jimmie Rodgers' gruesome "Honeycomb" which sounds drawn from a different century, with suitably grotesque imagery which I have no intention of replicating here. Nonetheless, all of this sets the scene for the extraordinary document that is side four.
Our immediate hurtling into the future with "Rock On" feels like a punch in the face after the previous ninety minutes of comfort, and nearly four decades on it still comes on as the future; beginning with a Dark Side Of The Moon heartbeat and slowly evolving into something between Chinese opera, Link Wray, Can and dub. In its chambers Essex sounds utterly lost, as was the intention ("And where do we go from here? Which is a way that's clear?") - its appearance is as shocking as that of "I Feel Love" after the careful pastiches of I Remember Yesterday, or "Good Vibrations" at the end of SMiLE. This, side four already seems intent on telling us, is exactly where we Brits took this rock and roll - and what did we do with it?
Enter the man whom British rock in 1973 had almost forgotten, despite having paved the way for almost all of it. "A Thousand Stars" was one of his old hit ballads, and he gives it a more than fine reading here; the voice isn't quite on top of things - yet - but the fullness of his accompaniment bucks him up, and his drawled, astronomical "more"s roll like the atoms of a cupcake. It is Billy Fury, in his gold lame jacket - do I really need to underline whom he is prophesising on that front cover? - and his five tracks on this side represent maybe four-fifths of a fuck-you comeback. We don't need to spend too much, or any, time on the non-Fury tracks here, although, with the exception of a routine run through Jerry Lee's "It'll Be Me," they all have their individual merits: Stanshall's shaggy-dog plot-summarising "Real Leather Jacket" (the original but then abandoned theme tune for the film) complete with hilariously ironic backing vocals, the lazy Stanshall-penned harmonica semi-instrumental "What In The World" ("...are you living for?" coo the backing singers, who have already completed "Real Leather Jacket" with a series of "oompah, oompah" chants, wonderfully echoed by the unmistakable staggered drum rolls of Keith Moon) and above all Eugene Wallace's very fine account of "Slow Down" (his voice somewhere between Terry Reid and Lemmy, and an underrated, and under-recorded, Irish singer-songwriter; sadly he passed away in 1999, but hear his 1974 album Book Of Fool - if you can find it - for yet another fruitful path British rock elected not to tread; somewhere between River and Pink Moon).
Fury's backing group was immense; alas, since the record came out on Ronco, no personnel details were given, and most of these have become hazy with time. Nevertheless, Moon, who certainly appears as "Stormy Tempest"'s drummer in the film, was present throughout (and Ringo may also have contributed some drums); Ronnie Wood and Pete Townshend appear to have shared guitar duties, Graham Bond is on sax, Steve Winwood on guitar and keyboards, Ric Grech and/or Jack Bruce on bass, and the Nashville Teens' John Hawken on keyboards. Others (possibly including Jeff Beck) may have been involved.
Townshend's "Long Live Rock," however, was essentially Fury with the Who; and when we think of the contemporaneous dereliction, soul-searching and outright rage of the Who's own Quadrophenia (which unfortunately peaked at #2 later in 1973 behind entry #133), we realise what an astonishing performance this is. In the film, it hardly feels like a seaside camp in 1958; even Moon forgets it is the fifties and starts being Keith Moon, and as for Fury - he is three-dimensional in a flat, monochrome world, he is the movie's punctum; he literally emerges as though coming through the screen. In "Long Live Rock," we have his "Suspicious Minds," his "Long Black Limousine," his '68 Special all in one; this is a furious burst of fearless defiance. At times - and this will be reflected in his remaining three tracks - he actually sounds as though trying to out-Bowie Bowie (his "I do, I do," his "There's room, there's room") and yet he also looks beyond this propulsion, towards something that already acknowledges what is happening on the King's Road - there is the unmistakable scent of Lydon in Fury's breath. The whole group rises to his challenge, the word of someone who was born, or reborn, with the original Britrock, and has now come back to declare that it continues, and thrives, and flourishes - his closing, protracted roar of "ALIVE!" over Moon's roaring drums is peerless, holy. It was the performance of his life, and he knew it; a shame that, thanks to legal wrangles, this and the other Fury performances collected here still await proper CD reissue.
He does "That's All Right Mama" as a confident, cocky strut; it is clearly Bruce playing bass, and Fury plays with and advances the song at the same time ("WAYYY you go!" he twice yells approvingly to usher in Winwood's piano solo); and if his "What'd I Say?" isn't Ray, then it's a fine, tongue-in-cheek reading, complete with deadpan doo-wop backing vocals (Ringo very evident in the latter) and some great squealing free alto playing from Bond. But Fury's own song "Get Yourself Together" is again remarkable; Winwood, Moon and Wood all pushing against, and through, the curtain, while Fury's increasingly intense imprecations to his Other ("I've gotta take you out!," "I wanna take YOU outsi-si-side!," "It's really lovely weather," "Come on, come ON, out-SYYYYYYYDE!!") really do make us think that punk has come early. If today it does not seem controversial to consider Fury the greatest British singer of his generation (and arguably, in pop music, one of the very greatest of any generation), the argument proferred here is unassailable and unanswerable; devil and angel, hidden and exposed, this music's rare power explains pretty forcibly and forcefully the issue of the British response to rock and roll; as with Roy Wood, Marc Bolan and others from the previous entry, the mission here, expressed far more strongly, is to right wrongs, to gather evidence as proof that rock still lived, that whatever spark it set off in our collective half a century ago, this is how far it spread, this is where everything stood, and somehow, that everything was going to be...well...all right.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 18:13
Thursday, 7 July 2011
(#126: 9 June 1973, 3 weeks)
Track listing: Solid Gold Easy Action (T. Rex)/Lookin' Through The Windows (Jackson Five)/Crazy (Mud)/Mad About You (Bruce Ruffin)/Doobedood'ndoobe, Doobedood'ndoobe, Doobedood'ndoo (Diana Ross)/Ball Park Incident (Wizzard)/Stay With Me (Blue Mink)/Living In Harmony (Cliff Richard)/Heaven Help Us All (Stevie Wonder)/All Because Of You (Geordie)/Power To All Our Friends (Cliff Richard)/Psychedelic Shack (Temptations)/Who Was It? (Hurricane Smith)/20th Century Boy (T. Rex)/Step Inside Love (Cilla Black)/Roll Over Beethoven (The Electric Light Orchestra)/Keeper Of The Castle (Four Tops)/Sister Jane (New World)/Strange Kind Of Woman (Deep Purple)/Heart Of Stone (Kenny)
"He, too, has been changed in his turn,
A terrible beauty is born."
(WB Yeats, "Easter 1916")
This might be the detritus of battlecries and champagne through which Aladdin Sane would have been obliged to trudge. Put bluntly, Pure Gold is a mess of a record, a jumble sale filled with faded names, never-weres, stars about to fall or in abeyance, and a few hardy survivors trying to fashion something new. There had been label-specific compilations of hits before, but none had made a significant impact on the chart; clearly a response to the K-Tel/Arcade/Ronco bandwagon - and also gingerly testing the way for the phenomenon of a decade hence which would effectively wipe these labels out - this ragtag of recent and somewhat less recent EMI hits was aggressively advertised on TV. Unlike some of the K-Tel compilations, there is no apparent shape or concept to Pure Gold; apart from beginning and ending side one with tracks which turn on different deployments of the chant "Hey, hey, hey!" and perhaps some humour in placing "Strange Kind Of Woman" directly after "Sister Jane," there is no discernible "story" to be told here, other than suggest that as a conglomerate of labels EMI was not in the best of health. If that's an odd thing to say about a company which at that time still had all four Beatles and Pink Floyd, amongst others, on its books, a listen to Pure Gold may suggest a certain detachment from, or loss of, pop which in the short term only Mickie Most's RAK subsidiary would really turn around.
Indeed, the album has to go all the way back to 1968 - then only five years, but already an eternity - for its sole Beatle content; McCartney wrote "Step Inside Love" as a theme tune for Cilla Black's BBC1 series, and for a peak-time television show it's a curiously low-key, somewhat vulnerable song and performance, despite George Martin's occasional orchestral sweeps. The track finishes on a repeated cycle of unresolved guitar chords - mostly, as with the rest of the song, derived from Jobim - and Black's "I want you to stay"s seem like a quietly desperate attempt to hold onto their decade, their moment. Could it even have been a requiem for Brian Epstein? The best version is the original demo, currently available on Black's The Abbey Road Years: 1963-73 triple-CD set and featuring McCartney on guitar; there are no crescendi - the song cycles quietly, pregnant with unspoken expectations, candlelit mournings.
EMI's major pop act of 1973 was T. Rex, but they were already on a gradual decline; after "Metal Guru" their singles peaked at two or three rather than one, but this seems to have momentarily sharpened Bolan's commitment. "Solid Gold Easy Action" and "20th Century Boy" both take the format to, and possibly beyond, its extremes; they are agitated, incoherent, in comparison with the easy, seductive roll of "Hot Love" or "Get It On." In "Solid Gold" Bolan compresses all his known elements - Flo and Eddie falsettos, Visconti strings - so furiously it's a wonder they don't explode; it would not have been out of place on the Pop:Aural label in 1981. "20th Century Boy" was his last great swagger, and, like Little Richard or Muddy Waters, there is absolutely no side to Bolan's boasts. Grinding guitar gurgles at us, Gloria Jones' backing vocals frequently overwhelm Bolan, and the track finally falls in on itself, Ian MacDonald's atonal, screeching alto, Bolan's impenetrable murmurs to the fade, as though already signing his death certificate.
In 1973 EMI also still had the rights to the Motown catalogue. So why, in the era of Talking Book, Lady Sings The Blues and Let's Get It On, is the label represented here by three three-year-old tracks, and a below par one from the end of 1972? In part this was to do with avoidance of overlapping with the Motown Chartbusters series, which in 1973 was just about still a going concern, but any casual listener to the Diana Ross and Jackson Five tracks in particular may wonder exactly what Gordy left behind when he left Detroit for L.A. For instance, writer/producer Deke Richards clearly had no idea what to do with Diana, if "Doobdood'ndoobe" is anything to go by; a clumsy mashing of various sixties Supremes tropes (including the baffling references to a "rock 'n' roll symphony"), episodic and discontinuous, full of angels wearing black - and is she really singing "I see bullets inside your eyes"? "Lookin' Through The Windows," written and produced by fellow Corporation member Hal Davis, flails similarly; there are lots of stabs at turning the Jacksons into the Junior Temptations - the use of echo, the staccato barks of harmony - but the net result is a collection of interesting bits without any real tune or purpose to hold them together. Only "Psychedelic Shack" prevails (complete with its full door-knocking intro, although here the track is faded early). Its effortless, mischievous inclusivity - and, presaging its eventual use as the cornerstone of Public Enemy's "Welcome To The Terrordome," its early deployment of intertextuality and sampling (once through the door and in the shack, the protagonist drops a needle on the record of "I Can't Get Next To You") - remains powerful, as do Whitfield's varied deployments of synthesisers, double drums and stereoscopic vocals. "Heaven Help Us All" has already been discussed here, but the Four Tops' "Keeper Of The Castle" acts as a sober successor; although now signed to Dunhill/ABC, Stubbs was still able to sing an edition of the News Of The World backwards and have us believe it. Sobriety and reflection are the keywords here; apart from some "Voodoo Chile"-referencing wah-wahs, moving swiftly through Blaxploitation into sensible balladry, the song appears to represent a deliberate step back from things like "Papa Was A Rollin' Stone" and "Superfly"; indeed, warns against them. Change society by all means, the song suggests, but don't forget that when you've brought everything down, you need to have something to put up in its place - remember your home, your family, the necessity to lay down roots, the ability to build. "Come on home," Stubbs keeps crying, and as a performance it's not that far from Charlie Rich's "Feel Like Goin' Home" (the version with just his vocal and piano, not the glutinous Billy Sherrill one). More refugees from an expired age.
It should be noted that both "Psychedelic Shack" and "Keeper Of The Castle" throw Cliff Richard's two efforts into monochrome. Now the raven in EMI's tower, and absent from this tale for fully a decade, Cliff was in the middle of his God-fearing Festival Of Light phase, and his hits were becoming progressively less big. 1972's "Living In Harmony" illustrates why. A bizarre country-gospel-pop jaunt, fiddles, banjo and pedal steel work hard as Cliff sings what sounds like a Partridge Family demo, all jollity and placid togetherness. Sometimes he is sinister - his guffawing "Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-har-mony" for a start, his "digging"s and his plaintive "I just want to give you life" (in every dream home, a heartache?) - but kazoo interludes and even a "Congratulations"-style pause and accelerando climax render it weirder and weirder until it climaxes with Greek bouzoukis. The song was co-written by Alan Tarney, who will subsequently play a major part in Cliff's major comeback later that decade, but Norrie Paramor's production is squarer than my old Technical Drawing class.
"Power To All Our Friends" was his second Eurovision attempt - don't call it a comeback, even if it did give him his biggest UK hit since "Congratulations" and his last top ten hit until "Devil Woman" - but in its attempt to paint a bucolic, noble Everyman picture (the vineyard proprietor, the girl on the beach in Monte Carlo) it ends up blurred and inchoate ("Power to the Sun" - but isn't the sun the biggest source of power we have?) with choppy rock guitars sitting uncomfortably alongside the stock bierkeller oompah-oompahs of the chorus. Producer and arranger David Mackay does his best to make the whole thing matter, and Cliff obviously sings as a believer in all of this, but the song ultimately doesn't connect emotionally beyond "Banner Man" level.
"Stay With Me," in contrast, shows that Blue Mink had long since surpassed the latter. A surprisingly touching and spacious ballad, its weightless harmonies and the careful single-note instrumental lines, as well as the use of echo, conjure up a kind of post-sixties pop psychedelia later to be spotted in such records as Liverpool Express' "You Are My Love." Clearly aiming for the Chicago/Chi-Lites sound, but instead gaining an unmistakably British tint, "Stay With Me" is a remarkable single.
There are a few other tracks here which make at least a token effort at learning from the past and moving forward. "Crazy," a song rejected by the Sweet but picked up by Mud (this would be a general Chinn/Chapman habit throughout 1973), sounds like the Tremeloes attempting "Hernando's Hideaway" on Temazepam with its tango rhythms, multiple background whoops, unfathomable cries of "Rearrange me!" and questionable lyrics about girls just out of school. If that weren't enough, the song's harmonic and rhythmic structures look forward unexpectedly to the Ozark Mountain Daredevils' "Jackie Blue." At least they were trying.
The twin distilled filters of the Move did more than try. "Ball Park Incident," Wizzard's debut single, remains a terrific, dense listen; surprisingly grungy in its production, Roy Wood snarling his tale of sitting on the porch, having found his girl shot in the schoolyard the previous night, possibly shot by his brother; his "It can't much matter to you"s growling their own bullets out. Much more like Springsteen than Spector, Wood was similarly inclined to create huge pictures into which he would attempt to cram the entire story of rock 'n' roll. Everything about this record is huge and menacing; the colonnades of honking saxophones, the drowning pianos, the tempo shifts and barline wrong-footings, the unanswerable power of the whole. It's still one of 1973's most overwhelming singles.
The Electric Light Orchestra, which at the time of "Roll Over Beethoven" still involved Wood in some degree (those giveaway sedulous saxophones, the atonal interlude of yellow-painted Chinese 'celli), were likewise still comparatively uncompromising, with its umbilical links to the British improv scene in its string section, and their reconstruction of both Ludwig and Chuck (although necessarily edited down for 45 use) remains compelling, with its alternating sections of Fifth and Johnny B. indicating divided passions. Its pub piano goes perfectly with the monolithic descending whole tones of strings and guitar; again there is that grunge oomph about the production, and both Beethoven and Berry end happily unified, as was always going to be the case.
This leaves the wild cards, and they were seldom wilder than "Mad About You"; a straightforward reggae ballad, recorded in Jamaica, then subjected to the barrage of Johnny Arthey's Willesden Sound. The result is as unnerving as anything Lee Perry was doing at that stage; the singer is nagged by a music-hall plunger trombone and eventually is faced with a wall of maniacal English laughter, so overpowering that you end up fearing for the poor bugger - it's as if he's surrounded by evildoers, a West Hampstead habitue having strayed a little too far into Brixton. And yet it made our top ten.
There is "Who Was It?," Hurricane Smith's third and last hit as a performer, and it's the same "Who Was It?" that we encountered on Gilbert O'Sullivan's Back To Front. Here the song is if anything more sinister, delivered in Smith's lecherous fiftysomething growl, decorated by Frankie Hardcastle's beefy tenor (Smith adds a lovely arranger's touch at the end, with a heaven-bound ghostly sax chorale). Given who is singing it, it's hard not to think that, in different circumstances, this is a song Syd Barrett might have written, or at least recognised. Lyrically, it's the Stockholm Syndrome - if the poor girl isn't careful.
Then there is the strange triptych at album's end. "Sister Jane" was early Chinn and Chapman, New World perform it like the earnest Australian folkies they were (and presumably still are), but the synth bass-based chorus introduces elements of disturbance; disturbing in that we are never told what Sister Jane has done, other than "fallen in love again" and "gone and changed your name," except there is now no way back, everyone will be pointing the finger, get out before they start pointing a gun. Did she get pregnant? Have an abortion? Marry a defaulter? Learn the tuba? No clues are to be gained from this unnerving (and largely unlistenable) tune, other than it sounds as though they have tied her to a chair in a shed to get her to talk, and that they are talking to her as though she were a two-year-old with Down's syndrome. Dogville or the Village's idea of pop? Who knows - just run away from it very quickly indeed. Is there even a "town" here, and how big is its population?
It is something of a relief then to proceed to "Strange Kind Of Woman" (Lena: "Thank goodness, rock 'n' roll!"), an extremely silly but very powerful record, Gillan totally earnest in his shaggy dog tale of lady of the night ("She loved everybody") whom he persuades to marry him "just before she died" - not that the latter throws him off any. Again, the track demonstrates just how comfortable Purple were at this stage (late 1971) with each other; the absurd 6/8 midsong interlude of psychedelic shadows fits in wonderfully (i.e. it doesn't fit in at all) and there is great purpose in Glover's bass and Blackmore's two controlled guitar solos (Lena: "So many dimensions into one song."). But then the record ends with the ludicrous "Heart Of Stone," perfomed in an even more ludicrous falsetto by Irish showband veteran/future cabaret star Tony Kenny over Martin and Coulter's patented proto-Rollers stomping. The falsetto alternates with Honey Monster growls ("I thought I was a-lone-UH!"), and so convinced was Kenny that he carried on for a couple more singles before opting out and leaving Martin and Coulter to recruit a reconstituted prog band under the "Kenny" brand name for cereal-filler hits like "The Bump" and "Baby I Love You OK." Left here to finish the record, it is akin to a trail of broken beer glasses that no one quite has the nerve to sweep up.
One track remains, and that is side one's closer, "All Because Of You," maybe the most extraordinary thing on the record. Some people here are seeking to push boundaries, others to retreat, yet others content to be incredibly strange beings, but Geordie seem to unify all of these. Its scary, speeding-up-vocal-to-become-Eno-raygun introduction is a brilliant touch, and the man who will one day become the voice of Back In Black - and Brian Johnson was still wearing his cap in 1973 - bursts in, midsong, as though someone has un-paused a cassette. The song and Johnson's performance demonstrate his roots in John Fogerty, but he is clearly aiming for something more; really the song only exists as such so that he can scream his way through it, but there are lots of remarkable little touches; the echoing "Hey, hey, hey"s (as opposed to the epileptic hiccuping of the "Hey, hey, hey"s on "Solid Gold") look back to the Dave Clark Five, and there's even a brief "Twist And Shout" sequence. Above all, however, burns the ray of renewed hope; this guy had nothing to say, no desire to live, even, until this girl came along, and he is duly renewed, and amazed by and ecstatic about it. Well, there's a rebirth worth celebrating.
Perhaps Pure Gold can be viewed, as well as a precursor to Now, as a gathering of evidence to support the argument for moving forward, with most of these songs showing elements of struggle - nearly all of the singers sound pushed to their limits - and a fervent desire to begin again. As chance would have it, EMI had just signed a group who would in time endeavour to sum up all of these elements and make a newness out of them. All would eventually change, unutterably.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 18:12