Wednesday, 19 December 2012

VARIOUS ARTISTS: The Last Dance


(#222: 16 February 1980, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Three Times A Lady (Commodores)/All Of My Life (Diana Ross)/I’ll Be There (Jackson 5)/What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted (Jimmy Ruffin)/Abraham, Martin and John (Marvin Gaye)/Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me) (Temptations)/Theme From Mahogany ‘Do You Know Where You’re Going To’ (Diana Ross)/You’re All I Need To Get By (Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell)/What Does It Take (To Win Your Love) (Jr. Walker & The All Stars)/Ben (Michael Jackson)/I’m Still Waiting (Diana Ross)/My Cherie Amour (Stevie Wonder)/The Tracks Of My Tears (Smokey Robinson & The Miracles)/It’s All In The Game (Four Tops)/Help Me Make It Through The Night (Gladys Knight & The Pips)/Farewell Is A Lonely Sound (Jimmy Ruffin)/Got To Be There (Michael Jackson)/He’s Misstra Know-It-All (Stevie Wonder)/You Are Everything (Diana Ross & Marvin Gaye)/Still (Commodores)

Saturday, 16 February 1980, was an important day for me. I’m not sure whether you could term it an “experience,” although I certainly would. It was the first time I heard Escalator Over The Hill in its entirety, in the Bridge Street Library in the Gorbals district of Glasgow.

I had just turned sixteen, and already was looking back towards a past, principally because I didn’t think it had been properly ended. Being a devotee of what one might call post-Coltrane jazz wasn’t exactly going to win me friends and a wide social circle. Nobody – but nobody – at school shared my interest, and indeed my interest was largely mocked and ridiculed.

Perhaps that was part of the attraction for me; the knowledge that this music was known, as far as my closeted world was concerned, to me and me only. It was not what everybody else liked. It was a rather pleasing secret, my passion for free jazz, improvised music – call it what you will – and where, and how, it crossed over with or into other musical areas. I got the notion, pretty early on, that the world of free music was not as remote as it seemed, that there were hidden connections to other things, including pop, and I got the buzz of wanting to have a go at joining the dots.

Jazz sections were the desolate wasteland beyond which no sentient human should pass, if late seventies/early eighties Glasgow record shops were anything to go by. Get past the buzzing punk and post-punk frontages of somewhere like Listen Records in Renfield Street, and the jazz section at the back I could have had all to myself, and frequently did. I brought records up to the counter and the shop assistant would give me the most quizzical of looks; a “WTF?” sort of look, as in “you really want this?” But Listen had a very astute jazz stock and were quick at getting new things in, even if (as I eventually suspected) they only got them in on the assumption that I would buy them. Otherwise you looked out for the stray FMP or ICP or Black Saint release in HMV just down the road, or you went to Bath Street’s hipper 23rd Precinct (very good for Ogun releases), or, if you knew even better than that, you would venture out elsewhere; the jazz and folk specialist shop Iona Records at the bottom of Stockwell Street, the Byres Road branch of Listen in Hillhead, which you could see smiling serenely at you in the distance as you made your way down Gilmorehill (whenever I play, for instance, Grachan Moncur III’s New Africa album, I always think of that shop, which was where I bought it), or James Kerr in Woodlands Road, which had an imposing jazz and classical selection.

But none of these places ever quite had what I was looking for; I was told by one record shop assistant (oh, all right, it was the old Biggar’s music shop in Sauchiehall Street) that there was no market for the New Thing (then over twenty years old) in Glasgow at all. The Glasgow Rhythm Club? History stopped when Coleman Hawkins started getting friendly with the beboppers. Magazines? There was the hidebound Jazz Journal which seemed to share with Philip Larkin the belief that jazz died with “Now’s The Time” but apartfrom sought-after import issues of Coda, Cadence and Downbeat, that was all there was to have.

Except for the then still burgeoning weekly mainstream music press. Throughout 1979 I had been encouraged by the thought that post-Coltrane jazz was coming back into discourse; bands like the Pop Group paid more than lip service to Ornette & Co. and there seemed a general acceptance of the music as a distinct and powerful strain of influence on post-punk and No Wave, from James Chance’s alto blurts to Steve Beresford and others appearing with the Flying Lizards on Top of the Pops. The NME seemed attuned, with Richard Cook just making his way in, Graham Lock flourishing, and Penman and Morley joining their own dots (a major influence on my own). Sounds had John Gill and the not unsympathetic Dave McCullough. And Melody Maker was, until the spring of 1980, back under the direct editorial control of Richard Williams, and so its pages suddenly began to incorporate illuminating discourse from a surprisingly wide range of writers: Jon Savage, the late Penny Valentine, Susan Hill (yes, that Susan Hill), James Truman, Chris Petit (yes!), and a tranche of the country’s best jazz writers – Max Jones, Max Harrison, Michael James, Brian Case (I think Steve Lake, another huge influence on me as a music writer, had by then gone off to work at ECM). Everything was beginning to point to doors, floodgates, being reopened.

The recent past fascinated me. Once done with my Saturday record shopping rigmarole, I would walk off down Bath Street, cross the Charing Cross flyover and go into the Mitchell Library. There, when I was not doing piano practice, I would request huge binders of back issues of Melody Maker in particular; they would be patiently wheeled out towards my desk. I read closely and earnestly through the 1968-76 period in particular, when the new wave of British jazz and improv was at the forefront and looking as though it would generally cross over and – who knows? – even become (part of) pop. Richard Williams was part of the paper from about 1969 onwards, and I read his words with particular closeness as I knew he was a reliable critical beacon.

Almost immediately I became envious that I myself was too young to have been a direct participant in what I still consider to be the most exciting and diverse period in 20th century popular music. All these things happening! All these people coming together! I did get a taste of it in 1970 when my father took me down to London and I distinctly remember seeing Tippett’s Centipede performing Septober Energy at the Lyceum in Drury Lane, and also Sun Ra’s Arkestra as part of the Jazz Expo series at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, even though, being six years old at the time, my comprehension of the totality was necessarily incomplete.

But around a decade later, I had begun to become interested again. I loved the notion of getting in people from all walks of musical endeavour and having them play together meaningfully. I wasn’t sure whether this notion was still valid in 1980 currency. So I became nostalgic at one remove; something which was fairly easy to do because, in 1980, the main problem with this body of music was that almost none of it was readily available in record shops (there was a second-hand shop at the top of Jamaica Street, by the Clyde, but that was strictly rock, pop and MoR only). Half a decade before the “jazz revival,” jazz appeared to have no marketable currency.

If there were two records which for me summarised the glistening hopes of that era most readily, they were Septober Energy and Escalator Over The Hill. I had been aware of the latter for some time, principally because of Richard Williams’ ecstatic Melody Maker review of around March 1972 where he basically proposed that it might be the greatest record ever made. But it occurred to me that I had not really heard anything from it. I knew of Carla Bley, of course, and Paul Haines slightly less so. I had Michael Mantler’s The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra double from 1968 – terrifyingly euphoric music then and now – in which Bley and many others were involved, and I had only just realised that Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra was more or less a Carla Bley record in all but name and central inspiration.

Shortly before 16 February 1980, I extraordinarily dreamed the whole of Escalator Over The Hill; all of it from start to finish, including imagined visuals. It was too much; I had to find out for myself.

But why Bridge Street Library in the Gorbals? Let me explain. I lived in Bothwell, which at the time came under the administration of Motherwell, which meant I could borrow books and records from libraries in the Motherwell area, including those in Bellshill, Uddingston and Hamilton, but not from ones in Glasgow. The Motherwell libraries had much good and valuable stuff but Escalator was not part of that. My father, however, worked in Glasgow, which meant that he, and by extension I (as his son), could read and listen to whatever we liked in Glasgow libraries, but couldn’t take them out. I was given a special ticket which granted me the right to do this.

And Bridge Street Library was a beacon. Remember, this was 1980, a decade before Glasgow became the European City of Culture, and back then it seemed the furthest-fetched of notions. Much of Glasgow was still a ruin; whichever way you came into the city, you always tended to see the worst parts first – rows and towers of desolate housing schemes backing onto untended wasteland (Edinburgh, in contrast, was very good at hiding its deprived bits). Many of the not yet cleaned up, blackened tenement blocks were without windows or inhabitants. Seeing the ominous arch of Springburn and Red Road, coming out of Queen Street station, put listening to something like Mantler’s No Answer or Gil Evans’ “Zee Zee” in an entirely new light.

And the Gorbals then were yet to be scrubbed clean. The Glasgow Underground had recently started running again but really you could have got off at either Bridge Street or West Street station; they were practically next to each other. If you got off at West Street you could see the Bridge Street Library in the distance, glancing at you from the north-west, but you had to cross a desert of rubble to get there. And it was still dangerous doing this at the time; any journey to the Citizen’s Theatre meant potentially running one gauntlet or another.

So Bridge Street Library was in the middle of nowhere, at the corner of a solitary, oddly anachronistic 1920s sandstone block (you could have been in Brooklyn). On the Saturday in question I had wandered all around the south side of the river, as I was wont to do in those days, through all the busily empty sites of the former Clyde shipyards. New things were being built but it was unclear what these things were (if you dared to disembark from the train upriver at Finnieston, now the site of the Scottish National Exhibition Centre, you would be faced with a long, empty walk towards a foreboding blue body of dilapidated tenements and shop fronts – the end of Argyle Street that shoppers tended to avoid). I recall long, generous streaks of blue and yellow sunshine beaming at me as I walked through what felt like long, destination-less supermarket approaches. After a while I didn’t know where I was, but eventually I found myself on Bridge Street, at the entrance to the library.

Inside it couldn’t have been more different. Warm, generous, inviting, and a huge and very fine range of records on offer. There was a seat at the far end of the main library room where you could put on headphones and listen to whatever you asked the library assistants to play – there was a turntable just beneath the main counter. So I found their copy of Escalator – which did not appear to have been borrowed much, if at all – and asked if I could listen to it. They were very indulgent of the need to change six sides of music.

And I listened to it – I immersed myself in it – and it sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before, yet also a melange of everything I’d ever heard before, that was good. Every genre of music appeared to be represented and coalesced with a remarkable symmetry. What were Haines’ words about? I didn’t really know – at the time – yet they blended perfectly with Bley’s music and the committed performances (Jack Bruce, John McLaughlin and Gato Barbieri were just three of the musicians performing at a career best level). The evident passion hooked me. I formed pictures in my mind. I gasped at the beginning of side five – can this brilliant record seriously get any better? – when Don Cherry and his Desert Band made their entrance. Side six is beyond reproach, maybe beyond music. The infinity of the closing moments of “…And It’s Again” transported me, were transcendent – and I thought to myself, at that moment, “I WILL be a music writer. I will celebrate this art with the best words I can find. I will wander the face of this Earth to learn, to grow…to be a music writer.”

The music didn’t shake itself off me. I went home in the evening sunlight, still stunned and spellbound. I picked out the music, or tried to pick it out anyway, on my piano at home but it was just that little bit too evanescent, no substitute for having the record itself.

And, wouldn’t you know, I became obsessed with finding the record. Glasgow being no good on that score, and knowing that in Britain the album was released by Virgin, I travelled to Virgin Records in Princes Street, Edinburgh, a few sunny Saturdays later (Glasgow’s Megastore, at the bottom of Union Street, did not open until later in 1980), to try to order a copy. I remember the glorious, sunshine-smeared approach to Waverley station, the benign early spring atmosphere, the playing off of the orange Virgin bag against the blue Lothian sky. I placed an order and bought a copy of John Stevens’ SME Big Band And Quartet Live, a 1971 recording, the entire first side of which is taken up with an Ayler tribute “Let’s Sing For Him,” performed by a 21-piece SME, including four drummers and five singers. I was duly awed (and still have the album in question, which is just as well because it has never been properly reissued on CD, although its composite tracks have turned up on various different Stevens/SME compilations).

Not long afterwards I was disappointed to hear that Virgin had deleted Escalator at the end of October 1979. If only I’d heard it a few months earlier, I might have had a chance of getting a copy. Eventually, via the pages of Jazz Journal – it did have its uses – I rang up Honest Jon’s Records in Portobello and they had a used copy, complete with lyric booklet, going for £4.50. I didn’t hesitate to order, and when the package arrived in the post a few days later I played it like I’d never played anything before in my life; not with such intensity, anyway (I noted on the back cover the stamp of Lewisham Library). The record wasn’t the only, or even the main, factor propelling me towards moving to London, but it certainly made the difference. The record formed me, informed my entire outlook upon music, and I’ve used it as a baseline standard ever since (when ECM reissued it in its original gold box, complete with photos, just before Christmas 1981, I likewise rushed right out and bought it, and in the late nineties I gave it a CD upgrade).

So this was my musical life as it was at the time – he said, skilfully, if belatedly, tying the story back into the main theme – The Last Dance was at number one. I’m not sure I have much to say about it. Later in 1980 a purple and gold covered double compilation, The Motown 20th Anniversary Album, was released, and I eventually caught up with it as a student as a good beginner’s guide to Motown (and I still have that album too). But the cover of this one – EMTV 20, for those still keeping track – says it all, really; ballad Motown as Radio 2 or Smooth Radio would understand it, and also the opening warning that, like the seventies, the eighties were going to be dominated by that most convenient of catch-alls, “Various Artists” (I got really annoyed when I heard Grayson Perry on the radio recently; speaking of Bowie, he said that the man “bestrode the seventies like a colossus.” Not so; in that decade, as we have seen, he only had three number one albums, none of which dated from later than 1974, and despite his unquestionable overall influence on things and people coming after him, this was not really borne out commercially). An album of “smoochers,” moreover, that includes two tracks that not only have nothing to do with love or romance at all, but are expressly political (“Abraham, Martin and John” and “He’s Misstra Know-It-All”).

Actually EMI could have called the album Where Did All The Good Times Go? It’s frustrating that in a decade which has got off to such a powerful and present tense start, here we are again, already back in the past, wondering where and why everything went wrong.

Then again, the record isn’t that mired in the past. The only pre-1968 song to appear here is “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted,” a record remarkable for two things; firstly, its evocation of an implied reality which takes the song far beyond standard lost love territory – when Ruffin sings of how “I walk this land of broken dreams” to what sounds like funeral music, we know that, as with “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” he’s singing about a greater and grimmer whole. The second remarkable thing is how, despite this portrait of “unhappy endings,” Ruffin turns the entire song around in its last twenty seconds; presumably ad libbing, his words get faster and more decisive – “I’ll find a way somehow (see the premature ghost of “Hurt” there?)! Nothin’’s gonna stop me now!” – until they rebel against the misery previously imposed on them. Defeat is converted into defiance (as the other Dave Stewart would find out a year or so later, when he reworked the song, with a Thatcher’s Britain subtext, for the voice of Colin Blunstone, standing in for an indisposed Robert Wyatt).

Many of the rest of the songs have already been covered in my Motown Chartbusters entries, which takes us to the middle of 1971. Eddie Kendricks, frustrated at Norman Whitfield driving the Temptations towards even newer extremities, asked for a nice old-school ballad like the boys used to sing. He was given “Just My Imagination”; and yet it is one of Whitfield’s most disorientating and hallucinatory fantasies (as Paul Riser’s dazed/stoned string chart makes apparent) – love is there, but only if “she” knew it. He realises he is only dreaming, is unlikely ever to try to turn it into reality, such that the gospel breakdown of the middle-eight (“Or I will surely die” – “This Guy’s In Love With You” at one remove) sounds as though it is slithering down an oily well; such faith, such devotion, utterly defeated in Kendricks’ climactic, melancholy murmur of “She doesn’t even know me…”

“I’m Still Waiting” might be the girl’s answer record, for here Diana Ross too has glued herself to The Past; she has never allowed herself to grow up, can’t shake off what that first feeling was like, is unable to move beyond it and address the future. Not that Ms Ross gives any easy answers here – “All Of My Life” sounds like a commercial for Silvikrin shampoo; the recording of the Diana And Marvin album was an unhappy and uncomfortable experience for both parties, and although Gaye’s shriek of “I just can’t GO ON!” pierces complacent skies, you can’t lose the feeling that seventies Motown has lost so much confidence in itself that it has to do Thom Bell covers to appear remotely relevant (compare Gaye’s exhausted voice here with the brio of his interface with Tammi Terrell on “You’re All I Need…”). The Mahogany song, theme that it was to a rather tawdry movie, still leaves its singer and her audience in limbo – weren’t times so much better when…?

The record, like Motown in the seventies, largely seems lost (it’s maybe not a coincidence that “Abraham, Martin and John” is picked above “Let’s Get It On”). The two Young Michael ballads are rather overfamiliar, and, despite the subject matter of “Ben” (which isn’t really apparent from listening to the song alone), mark him down, at this stage, as a slightly hipper Donny Osmond. The distance from the Stevie Wonder of “My Cherie Amour” to that of “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” (one of two 1974 Wonder hits about Nixon) is far greater than the four or five years would suggest, and neither really comfortably fits with the other here (you certainly cannot “smooch” to the latter).

The real significance of The Last Dance is how it is bookended by two Commodores ballads, both sugary, syrupy and whiter than Dan Fogelberg – they do not really have anything to do with Motown as anyone would know it; yet they probably saved the label from going under. This paradox would continue to haunt Motown for some time, but as with his fellow Alabama native Nat “King” Cole, Lionel Richie would go on to fill an important gap, if not actually creating a new one.

The album also includes the greatest female vocal performance of the last half-century.

Gladys Knight’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night” – no Pips are evident – is here presented in full. A harp strums morosely as Knight begins to talk to the listener, about luck and loneliness. The spoken intro – “a dynamic song” – would in anybody else’s hands be complete cabaret cheese, but Gladys patiently wants you to believe what she feels.

She then sings the song, slowly, not hurrying it, as though trying to savour every last scent of hair, every final trace of ribbon, to convince herself that she didn’t just dream of company. Very gradually, she turns up the emotional dynamic – and her first “Yesterday is dead and gone,” sung over martial drum rolls and “Last Post” mid-range brass, sounds like the final riposte to all the hurt nostalgia being indulged elsewhere on the record. A muted trumpet picks out the tune of “Little Drummer Boy” – and finally Gladys drops all of her remaining guards, and pleas, begs in the listener’s ear, not to be left alone, to be stayed with, to be touched, to listen and to love. Her final triplet of cries – an elongated “THROUGH!,!” “THE!” and “NIGHT!” – are drawn in as fine and painful detail as Gauguin’s Nevermore. She bleeds through the fabric of the song and implores us to look at the bigger picture – that this art is about her, and humanity as she, and she hopes somebody else, understands it. Only Sheila Jordan’s performance on George Russell’s reworking of “You Are My Sunshine” is fit to break bread with it; and isn’t that Sheila Jordan there, “AGAIN” and “AGAIN” at the end of Escalator, beneath Jack Bruce’s chasm of yells and entreaties?

3 comments:

Mark G said...

Absolutely spot on re Gladys Knight and "Help me make it through the night", reminds me of listening to it on tiny radio under the covers (a cliche, but true), and of all the tracks rendered in bad AM sound quality, that one cut through..

(Wasn't it a 'live' recording? I have some sort of memory of hearing a version with a long preamble leading up to it)

Marcello Carlin said...

You might be thinking of her 1975 "Try To Remember/The Way We Were" medley, which certainly was recorded live.

wichita lineman said...

I don't think I've ever read anyone pull out Help Me Make It... as a masterpiece before, so hats off. The switch to minor chords as Gladys finally cuts loose is heart stopping. And her performance, for me, emotionally trumps anything by Aretha Franklin. I know singing isn't a competition but Gladys's talent (probably due to her 70s crossover recordings) doesn't get the credit it's due.