Wednesday, 24 August 2011
(#134: 8 December 1973, 1 week)
Track listing: Street Life/Just Like You/Amazona/Psalm/Serenade/A Song For Europe/Mother Of Pearl/Sunset
"The Futurist Official dinner avoids the grave defects that pollute all official banquets:
FIRST: the embarrassed silence stemming from the fact that there is no pre-existing harmony between the table companions.
SECOND: the conversational reserve, owed to diplomatic etiquette.
THIRD: the moroseness produced by insoluble world problems.
FOURTH: the rancour of frontiers.
FIFTH: the low, wan, funereal and banal tone of the dishes."
(F T Marinetti, The Futurist Cookbook, 1932: trans. Suzanne Brill; San Francisco: Bedford Arts, 1989)
"I am for a life around the corner
That takes you by surprise"
(Roxy Music, "Manifesto," 1979)
There are recipes, and manifestos, and sometimes the division between the two is not as comprehensible as their shared unity. But think. Would it be worth it? It sounds revolting, potentially life-ending, too strange to look at, let alone try to eat. All these different, opposing ingredients. But take one bite, just the one. There will be such momentarily excruciating pain that you will briefly never want to come near it again, wish to run as far away from it as possible. But get past that wall of limitations, squeeze, push, burst beyond it, and you will experience delicacy and joy such as has barely been revealed to you in your years. The taste is catching, not really fatal; but there is a clear road, and two ways to travel - the past, and the future, the notions of nostalgia and consumerism, for your future lies in what you want, or are persuaded, to consume. Anything but to think about or stand in the present, with its awkward need for commitment and alternatives. Because sometimes the present is so unbearable that your feet might burn with the mere thought of living there.
But throwing it all together, and reorganising it into new and enriching shapes, is what it's all about. It? Or is it but a way to avoid thinking about the past, with all its torture disguised as retrospective candy? Or - and better - to look the past squarely in its reddening eye, laugh at it, or rather laugh with it (but why not both?) and nudge a future into existence? What if, like most of us, you're not at all sure where you want to go?
I think by the time of Stranded - and this is already The Third Roxy Music Album - Bryan Ferry had at least sketched out a draft of where he wanted to go. The mixing bowl has settled into a colour next door to concordance; Eno has already left and taken his flaming yellow with him. It's a wonder that either of the first two Roxy albums popped into pop; the eponymous debut laying out its agenda, then eating it into a symbiosis of King Crimson and Mike Westbrook's Solid Gold Cadillac that somehow cut deeper and worked warmer than either; side two of Roxy Music is like a photocopy of pop, muffed enough in the greys for unwary types to view it as "prog" (but didn't Ferry audition for the King Crimson singer job?). For Your Pleasure retains the dirty melancholy but gains more confidence; the vast Tara(ntula) plains of "Bogus Man" and the title track float with damaged Great Learning elegance (for Eddie Cochran was regarded as Cornelius Cardew's equal, and made better people's music into the bargain) while "Do The Strand" and "Editions Of You" spell out rock with a K for Kafka (and Kidd) and "In Every Dream Home" was coldly sweaty enough to christen the plasticity of prog anew.
But the end of 1973 was unjustly cold, dark and unforgiven. Here is where complete dissatisfaction with the present is made bare (if wired) in "Street Life," that least transparent of the season's Christmas hits with Paul Thompson's drums regularly tripping over themselves, finger snaps an oil scare away from The Addams Family and wavy line keyboards (stop feeling fascination?), Ferry growling, snapping, Little Richard wooooo-ing as though half a decade belting out "In The Midnight Hour" in toilets had to be paid back (and note the chewed-up "d"s and "l"s in the Billy Fury tradition). Anywhere - dreams of jet black angel fifties, Vassar debutante perfidity - is better than standing still ("You might be stranded if you stick around...and that's really something," concludes Ferry over a soundtrack that sounds like walking on hot coals).
There were other records around that related to Stranded, and ideally these should be heard in tandem: Ferry's solo These Foolish Things, a canny and canned exercise in emphasising the importance, majesty and continuity of popular song. Did anyone realise that "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" was such a great - and shocking - pop song before Ferry and David O'List got to work on their Spike Jones effects, and how naturally it fitted in next to Eric Maschwitz, or the whole Noel Coward thing? The comedy effects are put to subtler yet more ecstatic use on "Mother Of Pearl" - the single castanet which answers "flamenco," for instance. Then there is Eno's Here Come The Warm Jets. Much like Stranded, Warm Jets hovers lovingly over several differing variations of the same song and has no reserve or lack of wit about bashing different elements into each other, dodgem-style; thus the slo-mo poignancy of "On Some Faraway Beach" breaks straight into the punk sneer of "Blank Frank." "Baby's On Fire" sounds like rock trying to rescue itself from The Towering Inferno, whereas the tenderness of "Cindy Tells Me" meets its opposite, and match, in the determinedly ludicrous Ferry impressions on "Dead Finks Don't Talk."
What I'm trying to get at is that the Roxy Music of Stranded - and most of them were on both these records - walks a remarkable line in between the pop and popped extremes, even as its leader wrestles with his mind and Brylcreem. New keyboardist/violinist/electronicist Eddie Jobson was eighteen and fresh from Curved Air, and actually (or, at least, on this record) makes a better companion to Ferry, mainly because his lack of questions means greater concentration on how to soundtrack this mixture of woe and titillation. Some Roxy fans were disappointed by his work on "Amazona" and while it is true that the song's "weird" sections are clearly constructed with effort and skill, as opposed to the Connect 4 pot luck of Eno's anti-strategies, the interaction between Jobson and Phil Manzanera's guitar (albeit with Manzanera clearly taking the lead), coming out of the rapid 14/8 section, suggests the icy fallacy of the paradise to which Ferry is supposedly taking his partner, or hostage (although, with its references to "hollow sound" and "longings more profound," Ferry, as I think he is doing on "Serenade," may well be singing to, or about, Eno). Flashing blasts are finished by a serene Ferry hiccup and as they approach the drawbridge ("Journey's over - we're almost there!") the drums roll to a funereal stop and electrified bird whistles possess a false memory. "Serenade" flops along like a three-wheeled chariot with its fulminating Spector percussion - Fury doing Bowie's "Silly Boy Blue" sprung instantly to my mind - and Ferry (Ferry/Fury, and the two didn't look dissimilar) growls about G-plan gymnastics being of less meaning than the old mill stream in summer ("From courtly love to costly game"), even if, as any reader of George Eliot will know, the presence of an old mill stream does not preclude drowning. What does he want? "Will you swoon, as I croon your serenade?" he asks himself as much as, or more than, us.
Because this man is stranded; he is not quite undecided, but the tide is coming in, he can't make up his mind. Throughout Stranded he refers repeatedly to wasting time, and "wasting" can mean "in decay" here too (the latter is present in the "party-time-wasting" of "Mother Of Pearl," the more reflective meaning of decline in the "Do you disapprove how we've wasted my time?" of "Sunset"). At the beginning of "Amazona": "No more fall-out." As I said, anywhere and everywhere but here and now; and yet he can't live without it. Who could?
And yet Ferry can play tricks with time. If the transcontinental wanderings of "A Song For Europe" - which really play only in his head - will eventually become the falling-down buildings of "I Travel," if the ghosts of Sylvian are already making themselves feel in both "Song For Europe" and "Sunset," then the resemblance of the chord sequence of "Just Like You" to those of Blur's "Best Days" play like a blue prediction (those chords themselves being decidedly Kentish in the Robert Wyatt/Kevin Ayers sense), while the singer struggles not to fall in love, not to be overcome by it or to fall into it. Every time, fashion is pulled in as the culprit, just as it is on "Psalm," where it plays the role of a red herring. And yet, that sudden emotional eruption in the "How COULD..." section of "Just Like You" shows the momentary dropping of all masks.
Ferry is quite prepared to drop masks when needed (the snarl of "stepthroughthemirrorandSEE?" at the beginning of "Amazona") and to acknowledge that masks are not only needed a lot of the time but can also advance our case for living. "Mother Of Pearl" is a remarkable piece of music because he gruffly turns "pop" onto itself and forces it, and himself, to admit to real emotions, particularly happiness and joy, which the record had previously been doing its best to avoid. It begins waspish, the best Little Richard/New York Dolls jam session you never heard, with Ferry whooping, guitars, saxes and synths flying around his head like the artillery fire which will presently engulf Adam Fenwick-Symes at the close of Vile Bodies. But in comes a booming suburban James Earl Jones voice from nowhere: "HAVE YOU A FUTURE?" Shrieks Ferry in reply, "NO, NO, NO!" before the Voice corrects him with a firm and simple "YES."
And then he opens up, as the song slows to half-tempo, quoting "As Time Goes By," indulging in every sentimental gimcrack of a trope he can dredge up, knowing that this may yet be a dream of the firmest plastic...but he wants it, and her, as he allows awe to take over (Jobson's synth shiver which provokes Ferry's suddenly chloroformed "Steps right into-view"), as Andy Mackay's saxes honk like filled boots, and the Voice ("FU-TURE!") returns, before everything dips away towards Ferry's own voice, in a Newcastle club somewhere in 1964.
Newcastle - while Ferry was serving his art school/Gas Board apprenticeship, the thing was to be the Animals, but Roxy, though of similar instrumentation and talent distribution, appeared as a re-sexified Animals; sex thought of differently, and more colourfully, and more fervently - not that there's much talk of it here, but the breath of it is fetid enough to curtain any notions of overspent grief. As indeed is the spirit of Eno, hovering ambiently over the closing "Sunset," from the pre-ambient waterways which directly presage Another Green World to the unexpected poignancy of the Brian Wilson sleigh bells towards song's close, and the song is a hopeful and discreet closer, a record of a satisfied life closing down (Ferry's voice rises exultantly on "larks," glides effortlessly up and down an octave on the following "will sing"), the depth of his being underlined by Chris Laurence's magisterial bowed bass.
Perhaps the most palpable evidence of Eno's continuing grip on 1973 Roxy comes with "Psalm," which according to some sources was the first song Ferry wrote:
"'...On that occasion you told Bernard Stevens that you got no kick out of High Mass at some church or other in Patis because they went through the ceremonial and the music "as a formality" - those were your words. If you are religious it is your Protestantism, or if you aren't perhaps it's your British Way of Life that prevents understanding a faith which needs no exhibition of fervour.'"
(Constant Lambert, quoted in Arthur Hutchings' 1965 introduction to the former's Music Ho!)
Again he begins with fashion to trip up the unwary, and more importantly to prevent himself from believing, but as the song develops, with its straight piano and not quite straight-faced organ, his voice rises and chews on the second syllable of the word "sublime. A rhythm approximating broken-down R&B is introduced, Thompson drumming like Dannie Richmond, away from the centre. On the word "high," firecrackers explode as Ferry's voice dissembles into a single crystalline spark of electronics, violin, guitar and squealing alto. The drums steadily become more forceful, and even martial, as Ferry's surrender to faith grows more intense, and the London Welsh Male Choir quivers into being behind him. Ferry's "Op-EN-UP-your-EYES!" is simultaneously more exasperated and affectionate than Justin Hayward would have pitched it. At this point we notice how Manzanera, Mackay and Thompson have gradually turned the stately English background into a New Orleans gumbo shuffle, and also that the choir is singing in strange, unsettled tonalities (again there's something similar happening two years hence, namely Gavin Bryars' The Sinking Of The Titanic, which will appear on Eno's Obscure label). Everything boils forth, and Ferry is saved and convinced, or at least convincing us that he's been saved. An OMD drone awaits at journey's end.
Because the journey's beginning could scarcely have been more painful. Over thirty-eight years of familiarity with this record, "A Song For Europe" is always the one for which I reach first, and most fervently, because it spells out so many of the things I regard as essential to what can be understood as music, or even art (as though music weren't art); most tellingly because, if we view early Roxy Music as Al Bowlly trapped in a prog-rock band (the thirties trying to live within, and not merely with, the seventies), then we have to admit base emotion as being as profound as lofty speculation. Yes, it's a pisstake of Eurovision - some even say the song was anonymously submitted to the 1973 committee, although there is no real evidence that this ever happened - but it only uses pastiche as both shield and battering ram, to get through this stupid wall of plastic divisiveness, to admit that banal, crazy pop can quite a lot of the time get to the nub of things more handily than some higher art, but that a concept such as "A Song For Europe" could scarcely be imaginable without its high art carrot-masquerading-as-stick. He's sitting alone in an empty cafe - it could be in the shadow of Notre Dame, but then again it could be anywhere - thinking about someone who has gone, who isn't coming back (if there's any trace of the sixties in this record - potentially the first number one album of the eighties, never mind the seventies; the endless, futile search for "love" - the term "holy grail" even makes a climactic cameo in the midst of "Mother Of Pearl" - then it's in Jacques Brel filtered through Scott Walker) and, as a successor will do in a similarly climactic song of loss nine years hence, breaks down. "There's no more time for us" - a final response to West Side Story? - "There's no today for us," "My oyster [is] only a shell full of memories," "Now, only sorrow, no tomorrow." He closes down every escape route, but what else does the abandoned heart do when it has lost something central? And as mournful saxes, piano and guitar rise behind him, he intones the song's words, first in stentorian spoken Latin, and then in emotional French - his final cries of "Jamais! JAMAIS!" hardly offset or cancelled by his keep-us-guessing fading whistling. The point here is that sometimes you have to immerse yourself in "trash" to get to emotion, to express it directly, with candour and without cover, even if for half the span of a long-playing record you are playing hide and seek with emotion? Stranded, below and above all else, speaks for a future, one where high and low are revealed as two sides of the same, smiling coin, one where nothing is off limits or remote in terms of what can be reached or used; because, like Marinetti (but without his anti-Xenomania tirades), Ferry doesn't want to keep this an unruly mess; it is rather the basis for a new understanding of pop music, a different angle, a saltier taste. A style by which, against most odds, substance can be argued or sung into existence (the Futurism conceals, as it usually does, a Romanticism. Did somebody mention Keats?). The words here are as true as they would have been ten years ago, when I felt it necessary to begin writing in public, and five years ago, when Romanticism found, for me, a new purpose and a renewed meaning:
"never again, no, will I give up my heart
to gamble with fate is my crime
nevertheless love, it's all here in my book
I'd write it but don't have much time"
("Just Like You," Roxy Music)
Which then goes on to "I know it sounds crazy/But what can I do?/I've fallen head over heels over you," sung exactly as Adam Faith would have sung it. Faith, you can really see (all those "yes"es and "no"s in "Street Life"; "Mother Of Pearl" confirming that "yes" is the only final way to travel).
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 18:52
Thursday, 18 August 2011
(#133: 3 November 1973, 5 weeks)
Track listing: Rosalyn/Here Comes The Night/I Wish You Would/See Emily Play/Everything's Alright/I Can't Explain/Friday On My Mind/Sorrow/Don't Bring Me Down/Shapes Of Things/Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere/Where Have All The Good Times Gone
On several occasions throughout Aladdin Sane one gets the feeling that Bowie is trying to rectify the sixties, the history which by 1973 was already setting into boots of concrete. A sixties where, already, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop counted for more than anyone cared to reckon, where a furious reclamation of the Stones as improper punks could be essayed. Perhaps he felt the need to underline this mission further (if not necessarily deeper) or perhaps he was momentarily stuck for something to do after the end of Ziggy, but the reclaiming exercise attempted on Pinups speaks for elements of that decade with which I don't think too many people have still come to terms. With perhaps two or three exceptions, none of these songs in their original versions is revived on oldies radio. This is the world of flat-jawed, thuggish, nascent British R&B, a world in which many of its inhabitants felt that they were still playing jazz, bypassing the roll altogether to rock into a fairly frightening idea of the future.
Moreover, Pinups is the work of someone shut out of the epicentre by virtue of being that crucial three or four years too young; Bowie worked the clubs to some extent fronting the Lower Third and the King Bees but was always overshadowed by his elders. So Pinups is also a love letter penned by an only slightly disillusioned fan. Somebody who can't remember whether the Ricky-Tick was spelt with a "y" or an "i" is as devout a follower of his chosen movement as Thatcher must have been of Larkin's, with her "mind full of knives" misquote.
Commercially it did the business but was largely mocked by the critics; Bowie was accused of lacking passion, of applying a pop voice to R&B material beyond his ken, of ludicrously camping everything up. Yes, Bowie at his peak was always a pop looter, stealing bits of everybody's records and outfits and running off with them as though it were always Christmas. But, particularly in the dark light of the past ten days or so, Pinups offers, I feel, some of the most passionate singing Bowie has ever tried, and some of his most troubled singing, too. Van Morrison shrugs off "Here Comes The Night"; what the hell, I lost on this one, I'm a bit grouchy but there will be more nights to come. But Bowie sings it as though being booted about by a gang of baddies; against the Palais band saxophones he sounds like a wounded Lotte Lenya, screaming his hiccups, becoming gradually more and more desperate as he slowly grasps the extent of his loss. Likewise, "Everything's Alright," a top ten hit for the Mojos in 1964 but done by everyone on the circuit, sounds anything but all right; he shrieks and gurgles as pianist Mike Garson detonates any plans to turn the track into a Zeppelin prototype.
The two Yardbirds covers Bowie uses more obviously as Zep templates; on "I Wish You Would," Ronson's guitar sounds like a parody of the Jimmy Page to come, there are drunken harmonica/guitar unisons and police siren noises (thus also post-predicating "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago"), syllables exaggerated like spotlit goldfish, and the inevitable atom bomb ending. "Shapes Of Things" is a clearer seventies heavy rock adaptation ("Maybe a soul-DIAH!") although the mood is clouded by the gradual intrusion of desolate high string tones.
The pair of Pretty Things songs - they were perhaps the most thuggish of the lot - works well because they are played more or less straight, so much so that we can still see how the attack of "Rosalyn," both in rhythm and vocals, foresees Dr Feelgood and the Clash with rare acuity. But he can't quite get a grasp on the Who. With "I Can't Explain" he tries to turn '65 Pro-Plus rush into '73 glam stomp, with some rasping, ghostly sax, before flattening the song into a midtempo hard boogie crunch. Meanwhile "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," a song practically impossible to cover, if purely because of the inbuilt failure of any attempt to revive the scarlet shock of the original, is handled comparatively timidly, with phased drums and Ronson working on the feedback, but only as a competent student. At a time when the Who themselves were looking back on their own history with Quadrophenia, and wondering whether to bury or incinerate it, Bowie's nods don't seem quite adequate, or diverting, enough.
"Sorrow," the hit single, is effective because of its photo-negative inversion of the ebullient horror of the Merseys' original; it suggests huge banks of emotion, with its lonesome violin and lacrimal saxophone, rather than the full-frontal brass assualt of the source, and manages both to cover and amplify some of Bowie's most heartfelt emotions on the reccord (even with his Jimmy Savile-esque "The OWNLEY thing I ever got from you"); his overlapping "I tried to find her 'cos I tried to find her" gets to the emotional nub (look at Twiggy, the cover suggests, see what the seventies have already done to her, how the mutating waves have hardened her, made her less approachable, more like...Bowie?). Its reverse is the brutal treatment handed out to "Friday On My Mind," in late '66 a handle for the Easybeats to work off some tension and drift out of office-dictated normality, but now a strange echo of the "rabbit" running in Dark Side Of The Moon becomes palpable as Bowie cries hysterically about how the working week, The Man, is crushing, squashing, strangling his life. His "even my old man is..." disappears into a murmur but he can barely hang onto the dead man's handle of the tube train; is this, his performance seems to suggest, all that we got from the sixties to take with us into the seventies (see also, needless to say, "5:15")? More of the same, but flashier-looking? Was it all...the silent cry of every concept album...for NOTHING?
"See Emily Play" takes that idea further. Bowie does everything to the already bent song except try to put it straight again. Already the Roger Waters undulating bassline at the end of the original - which announces quietly that this is the way the Floyd are going to go, with or without the guy at the front - has taken the song over. Bowie does it over in an oafish Cockney grunt as Ronson's synths hiss and Aynsley Dunbar (man of the match; superb throughout)'s drums collapse. A harpischord tries to nudge its way in without success before being drowned by Garson's tortured free piano. Drums stumble over the chorus as though unable to find their way home. Garson alternates between John Cale plink-plinks and Antonello Salis-style random assaults. Led by the drums, a vague Indian drone feel takes over momentarily. Then everything falls to pieces - like, it is implied, the mind of Syd Barrett - as string quartets, saxophones and other noises scrabble towards a scruffy fade. The song is viewed as a ruination, a sort of psychedelic Pompeii (and of course the Floyd would play Pompeii), a sternly playful warning.
But the heart is reserved for the closing, faithful reading of Ray Davies' "Where Have All The Good Times Gone," which is performed as good, lusty hard rock. The composer's rueful nod to McCartney ("Oh! Yesterday was such an easy game for you to play/But let's face it, things are so much easier today") is retained, Bowie's true voice finally emerges, and despite the obvious comparisons with the "depression" of its own time, the performance generates hope, confidence, the idea that, at the end of "Love Reign O'Er Me," Jimmy will survive the water, the crash, the sixties, and gladly carry on into a future. Still, Pinups remains one of Bowie's darkest corners, and the first step on the Low road. Maybe its sustained scream of mercy was something that the world of oil shortages, three-day weeks and strikes needed, just to get us through to a different world.
And then, with his next album, he encouraged the end of the world.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 17:50
Thursday, 4 August 2011
(#132: 27 October 1973, 1 week)
Track listing: Roll Over Lay Down/Claudie/A Reason Of Living/Blue Eyed Lady/Caroline/Softer Ride/And It's Better Now/Forty Five Hundred Times
Sir Clive Woodward, the former England rugby union coach, came up with the phrase, and it remains applicable, not least to the efforts of the current England cricket team. The phrase, or tactic, is "incremental accretion of marginal gains" and what it means is that a team hones itself in meticulous, microscopic detail, slowly working on improving every aspect of their practice and play, however seemingly irrelevant (hence, work on your palms because sweaty palms mean you don't bowl so well). The factors run into their hundreds, if not thousands, and the team is invariably the better for it.
Likewise it is sometimes the case in rock music that the spoils go to those who don't set out to cause controversy, or make extravagant gestures, but rather work hard on honing the one thing they know they can do. As with sport, the prize quite often goes to the player who doesn't "want" it as much as their opponent, and throughout their remarkable four-and-a-half-decade career (which at the time of writing shows no signs of winding down), Status Quo have never presented themselves as the kind of band which "wants" something, other than to rock.
There is no indulgence in their work, but instead fierce concentration (its fierceness amplified by the group's surface amiability). They may never have made a Sgt Pepper but neither are they liable to make a Goats Head Soup; they have simply carried on working on their thing with unflagging intensity and minute attention to their craft. Of course, none of this - particularly the word "craft" - is particularly sexy, and a music based on craft and effort alone would not be one to warrant major attention. It is probably true to say that Piledriver, this album's immediate predecessor, is the core Quo record; nothing but guitars, recorded practically as live, the purest vintage.
But Hello! is seen by many as the definitive Quo album, and its many surprising variations on what might initially seem to be a monumental, one-string template suggest that it might be the ideal album with which to teach a new follower or listener how to play rock. What is offered here certainly isn't unwavering three-chord boogie, even though it might sound like that most of the time. For instance, "Roll Over Lay Down" is a surprisingly brutal (and possibly even brutalist futurist) opener with many touches of inspiration in its arrangement; the subdued and subsidiary role played by Alan Lancaster's bass, for example, which sets itself as part of a call-and-response routine which lasts for the song's first half. Similarly, John Coghlan's drums do not settle down, seem always poised for action. There is the group's trademark usage of silence as punctuation, as well as an effortless control of the loud-to-quiet-then-back-again procedural, such that it all ends in a furious, hammering climax, accompanied by an ironically desolate Moog wind roar.
It is all about the group, however; it doesn't really matter whether Francis Rossi or Rick Parfitt is soloing at any given time (although as Rossi is credited with lead guitar I am assuming that most, if not all, of the solos are his work) - like Keith Richards and his various sparring partners in various editions of the Stones, they sound telepathic, ready to swap the lead/rhythm roles, and back again, at a mere second. And lyrically - though road manager Bob Young was responsible for most of their lyrics - there is a good deal more trouble being expressed than the music would superficially suggest. Both "A Reason For Living" and "And It's Better Now" explicitly speak of religion - the latter song owing a good deal in its construction and delivery to George Harrison (but, again, with ingenious stratagems deployed throughout, from the introductory Wilsonian vocal harmonies through the stop-and-start guitar/bass unisons to the final counterpart, gradually thickening in texture and spreading out before returning to the original setting and ending with a fast-drawing signoff) - and the protagonists of "Blue Eyed Lady" and "Caroline" are worse off due to an absence of faith, usually on the part of their respective cheating women ("To whom do you belong?," "How come you're all alone?," "When I'm thinking of you sleeping/I'm at home alone and weeping"), while the central emotional tenet of "Forty Five Hundred Times" - it comes down to the simple plea of "Be my friend," as basic and harrowing in its seemingly benign way as Richard Manuel's vocal on The Band's contemporaneous "Share My Love" - emphasises the record's theme of loneliness and detachment.
When they stray from their patent, it doesn't always work - "Claudie" is a pleasant midtempo meditation, melodically slightly indebted to "Maggie May" but rescued by its astute harmonic variations at the end and its brush-off vaudeville finish; "Softer Ride," already available as the B-side of the single "Paper Plane," bases itself on a drone model, over which Rossi and Parfitt glumly intone "I ain't gonna work/I ain't gonna work no more," before bursting into focus. "Never no more will I have to be..." - cue three harsh guitar "DO DO DO!"s - then the most deadpan "down" you are likely to hear, prior to ending on a harmonic question mark - but their modest commitment to adventure does them credit. Note the compelling structure of "Blue Eyed Lady," which, following a harmonically adventurous duet between ascending guitars (we could almost, for a few seconds, be listening to Yes), goes into boogie mode, but with a colourful array of key variations and a central hook which is only played and heard once. Coghlan's emphatic cymbal and snare bashes build up the tension which we already half-know is never going to be released.
"Caroline" and "Forty Five Hundred Times," however, are the record's main events; in its elementary tension-and-release palindromic structure, "Caroline" is one of the most natural rock hits of its, or indeed any, day; the group play with absolute assurance and deceptive lightness, Coghlan once again outstanding on drums, while Rossi sings his carefree lament in a what-me-worry (well-maybe-I-do) south London nasal tone which often creeps into the Kent backyards of Robert Wyatt. Piano (played largely by Parfitt) is added to the mix (as it is on other tracks), but does not overwhelm or impede the music's propulsion. Apart from a few keyboard and lead guitar overdubs, the feeling is live, and the attraction is instant.
"Forty Five Hundred Times" is the group's magnum opus, clocking in at nine minutes and forty-five seconds - and if vinyl had allowed, it could theoretically have gone on forever - and presenting a virtual handbook on the moods and dynamics of a rock band, not to mention an advertisement for Quo's entire repertoire of styles and gestures. It begins with a quiet, contemplative first verse (with Parfitt taking lead vocal), before the familiar midtempo stomp asserts itself. There is the hint of "Peter Gunn" in the bassline underpinning the song's main riff. Complex but canny guitar/bass unisons follow, then a guitar solo which could have sprung out of the happier pages of Aaron Copland. The song metamorphosises into a more familiar Quo tempo before accelerating with subtle speed; guest pianist Andy Bown essays minimalist high piano plink-plink notes straight out of John Cale's textbooks. The tempo grows faster still, asserting itself as the song's third palpable rhythm, before turning the volume down for another quiet interlude, guitars now scratchy fragments of notes (as with Mingus, Quo are experts at turning around when everything appears to be at the point of boiling over), but Rossi hits on a riff, both Bown's piano and Lancaster's bass pick up on it immediately...and then the group zones in on this motorik totality which reminds me how Quo have less to do with the history of rock than with what is to come, and in this case it is Kraftwerk (via, clearly, Neu!; the track is self-evidently Quo's "Hallogallo") - their assurance and community verge on ahuman, but at the same time they pull themselves back from the robot brink by their palpable enthusiasm for playing these riffs. The beauty of "Forty Five Hundred Times" is that it doesn't offer a solution, or a climax; the music gradually builds up again but just as it's about to climax it comes back down again and the song fades out, possibly to eternity. Seriously (because they're not taking it so seriously) outrocking the 1973 Stones, Quo sound as though they eat, live, breathe and sleep rock, and it is as untrammelled and welcoming as any rock of which I can think. All the detail, every single polish, or scrub, or tone-up, moves their music towards a greater good. They, for now, are British rock, and certainly capable of becoming a machine - until those winks and grins remind us that it's all for us, too.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 19:39