Sunday, 25 March 2012
(#162: 22 November 1975, 5 weeks; 10 January 1976, 1 week)
Track listing: Magic Moments/Caterina/Catch A Falling Star/I Know/When You Were Sweet 16/I Believe/Try To Remember/Love Makes The World Go Round/Prisoner Of Love/Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes/Hot Diggity/Round And Round/If I Loved You/Hello Young Lovers/Delaware/Moonglow/Killing Me Softly/More/Dear Hearts & Gentle People/I Love You & Don’t You Forget It/And I Love You So/For The Good Times/Close To You/Seattle/Tie A Yellow Ribbon/Walk Right Back/What Kind Of Fool Am I/Days Of Wine And Roses/Where Do I Begin/Without A Song/It’s Impossible/I Think Of You/If/We’ve Only Just Begun/I Want To Give/Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head/You Make Me Feel So Young/Temptation/The Way We Were/Sing
(Author’s Note: I am well aware that several reputable chart sources list this album as being entitled 40 Greatest Hits, but both the front and back cover and the labels on all four sides of my vinyl copy say 40 Greatest and thus this is how I am billing it. The back cover does inform me that “THIS EXCITING L.P. IS ALSO NOW AVAILABLE ON CASSETTE AND 8-TRACK,” but since I have not found a copy in either of these formats – I fear that sending a cheque or postal order for £3.99 plus 25p for postage and handling might prove futile – this will have to do. I note that the spine of the album credits the title as FORTY GREATEST, but the sane and practical mind has to draw the line somewhere. Track titles, though mostly incomplete and/or deficient in punctuation, are listed as they appear on the back cover for similar sanity-preserving reasons)
“Pleasant, easy, and a tad morose”; that’s Julie Powell in her book Cleaving, describing something else completely, but it was the phrase Lena remembered and applied to the voice and delivery of Perry Como. On balance this double package looks much more fun and attractive than the Jim Reeves one – K-Tel having presumably won the RCA licensing rights over Arcade – with a haiku-like biographical sleevenote written with commendable concision, plenty of photos from different eras of Como, and endorsements from celebrities of the calibre of Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Mel Tormé and Gordon Jenkins; all still alive in 1975, and all relating to the singer’s impeccable technical standards and the elusive spark known as “warmth.” Warm enough to send this compilation under the Christmas trees of innumerable mothers over that Christmas.
So I naturally thought that a couple of hours in Como’s company would prove a lot less cumbersome than two hours of Jim Reeves. Not so. If anything I found these forty songs – in reality thirty-four, once you discount the six tracks pulled from Como’s previously discussed And I Love You So album – rather tougher going, and it has to be said that the prospect of slumber was only narrowly averted as, towards the end of the recital, Como sleepwalked through yet another neutralised seventies movie theme (“The Way We Were,” although my mind began to wander into abstraction somewhere in the midst of “We’ve Only Just Begun”). Indeed many of these tracks belie the common assumption of Como being the natural, easy-going, microphone-caressing successor to Bing Crosby, enough to make me wonder whether RCA ever really knew what to do with him, or whether he was content enough to deal with whatever RCA threw at him.
The question one has to ask is: what does this album tell us about Perry Como, both about his music and about him as a human being? The answer is a rather confused picture, but it is important to try to address it since Como is one of the biggest mysteries this tale is likely to come across. It would not be worth the time or effort of writers such as Kitty Kelley or Nick Tosches to delve into Como’s life, since it reveals absolutely no subtext and tells absolutely no stories. Sinatra and Martin had their empowering demons, but Como was a barber who one day found that he could sing and set to doing something about it; and when he became famous he preferred to remain out of the spotlight and devote himself to his family. He was married to the same woman for some sixty-five years; there is no dirt to be uncovered, no Crosby kin horror stories of domestic violence, a totally clean sheet, so clean as to be a blank. He did what he did and when he wasn’t doing it he was a caring and devout husband, father and grandfather, and sometimes he would slope off to play golf. His was a very WASP Eisenhower dream; and while a cynic might posit that he subscribed to many dullard right-wing beliefs, there is no concrete evidence to suggest anything other than what I see when I try to picture Como the family patriarch in my mind – namely Howard Cunningham from Happy Days, laidback, tolerant of his family’s misdemeanours, philosophical, fatalistic and, above all, amiable (politically I suspect him to have been a Republican of the Eisenhower type; moderate, hard-working, loyal to family and country, not even thinking that there was another way).
So perhaps that was the secret of Como’s appeal; an Everyman (if the term “Everyman” implies “averageness”), a nice, decent, ordinary guy, straight as a die, who happened to be able to sing his ass off and not even let you know that it was any kind of an effort, who sat down on stage in his rocking chair and/or wearing a sensible jumper like he’d just looked in from the front room. The kind of guy who could sing dumb novelty songs and searing ballads about the sun, the moon and the stars and make it all fit.
But the picture presented by 40 Greatest doesn’t quite fit, and maybe that’s because it’s incomplete. Although the album encompasses everything from his first recording (“Prisoner Of Love," from 1945) to his last hit (“I Want To Give”), many hits are missed out, and undue prominence given to Como’s seventies output; aside from the aforementioned And I Love You So, 1971’s It’s Impossible and 1974’s Perry albums are also generously sampled. Hence important records like “Papa Loves Mambo,” “Surrender,” “Wanted,” “Glendora,” “Ko Ko Mo” and others do not appear at all. What remains is a confused and confusing portrait of someone perhaps a little too nice and compliant for his own good, someone content that the industry should know what constitutes a “hit” and happy to go along with their suggestions.
With “Prisoner Of Love,” RCA looked to be searching for an alternative Mario Lanza. The song was already fourteen years old – and yes, it’s the same “Prisoner Of Love” subsequently attacked by James Brown – and plays like an overblown Victorian melodrama. Against the over-stuffed orchestration, Como has no option but to bellow the song as though it were the last act of Tosca; when his voice rises for emotional emphasis, it has a tendency to become strident. His essay on Carousel’s “If I Loved You” is also problematic since, despite a terrific vocal performance, he cannot breathe within the corset of the glutinous arrangement, which seems to hold no room for people. In addition, there is a running problem with this album in the form of obstinately intrusive backing singers; the early “When You Were Sweet 16” is a case in point – Como delivers a near-perfect out-of-tempo reading of the song, and it should have ended there; but no, here comes the celeste, and then the ghastly choir, to ruin the experience.
Como’s output into and through the fifties (and even unto the early sixties) suffered from the same kind of emotional schizophrenia. Essentially there is a split between goofy bits of nonsense like “Hot Diggity” and the repulsive “Delaware” (which latter unfortunately reminds me, musically, of an unwanted cross between the Horst Wessel song and “Ballad Of The Green Berets”) and more standard fare, like the sentimental but hopelessly dated waltz “More”; 1953’s transatlantic number one “Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes” whose essential lightness is undermined by barking Three Amigos backing vocals and snarling trombones; and 1958’s lunge at the rock ‘n’ roll market, “Love Makes The World Go Round,” a far bigger hit in the UK than in the US. Como despised rock ‘n’ roll and makes little effort to disguise his contempt in his vocal here, even resorting to sending up the “yay yay and a yay-YEAH!” backing vocals. Contempt? Actually he sounds as though he is falling asleep.
A better rapprochement with nowness was achieved in the historic 1958 double-sided smash “Magic Moments” – early Bacharach and David with jaunty whistling and bassoon, where the backing singers work with, rather than against, Como for a change (although the song and record are still really corny; “clutch down” to rhyme with “touchdown”?) - and the lovely “Catch A Falling Star,” with its “Spanish Harlem”-anticipating guitar (it suddenly rises in response to Como’s “tap you on the shoulder”) and subtler acknowledgements to rock ‘n’ roll in tempo and instrumentation. Also nearly good is “Round And Round,” a US number one in 1957, whose pleasing fugal structure would have been more bearable had the overbearing choir been given chloroform shortly before the session,, and rather more than good is “I Know,” a ballad requiring a deceptively wide vocal range and which emotionally comes out of “I Believe.” “I know what it means to be lost in the dark,” Como wishes to reassure us – the song is done as early Gene Pitney - and while there is precisely one tale of separation here (“For The Good Times”) and one song which hints at going bad (“Temptation”), it is sadly the case that Como is so instinctively good-natured and warm-hearted that it’s nearly impossible to picture him as a troubled soul. One simply does not – cannot – believe him, and so your appreciation of his “What Kind Of Fool Am I” will depend on your ability to picture Como as a lonely wastrel, his “Days Of Wine And Roses” as an alcoholic, his Love Story theme as Ryan O’Neal (and unlike Andy Williams, who got straight to the heart of both latter songs, Como doesn’t convince; despite a suspected Williams impression halfway through “Wine And Roses” [“The lonely night discloses…,” whose effect is rapidly negated by a dreadful, windy solo soprano who has clearly wandered in from a posthumous Jim Reeves session], and he drops the coda of “Where Do I Begin” entirely, failing to claim the key words “wild” and “soul” as his own; rather skating across them) – and, by these standards, the disturbed Como is a failure.
In terms of covers, too, the fifties Como remains unresolved. Frankie Laine stayed on top for eighteen weeks because he sings “I Believe” as though in the wildest corner of the darkest room; to himself, intensely and incandescently. Whereas the Cinemascope gloop of the overcooked arrangement, and more fatally Como’s double-tracked vocal, destroy any empathy. It is as though we are gathered at the end of one of his interminable seasonal TV specials, crucifix on the wall, family in fervent prayer. Worse is “Hello Young Lovers” from The King And I, now recast as an “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” ripoff (complete with the same trombone riff) and about the least qualified song to be recast as such. Elsewhere the creeping feeling (“Upon my knees to her I’m creeping,” sings Como on “Prisoner Of Love” – that must have been painful) of TPL nostalgia is magnified by the undistinguished presence of “You Make Me Feel So Young,” the first track on the first album I wrote about. In the intervening years I come across records like this and wonder whether I’ve made any progress at all (entries #2 and #3 are also represented, as detailed above).
As we move into the sixties and past “Delaware” – it is hardly surprising that, after the latter, Como did not return to the UK singles chart top ten for eleven years – one wonders how Como got through the decade. 1962’s “Caterina” is vile, holiday tourism at its crassest (“Purdy miss, purdy miss,” “AH HAH HAH,” “ecstasy” rhyming with “si si si”), and after that it was into the lounge for him. I’m not sure as to which decade his “Moonglow” belongs, but it sounds early sixties to me; the backing singers are for once sympathetic, and leading from their bass acappella introduction to a floating world of oboe, vibes and bass clarinet – Como’s “show-ow-wow” flutters like a Red Admiral towards the resolving “heavenly songs” – which would not be at all out of place on Pet Sounds, and both vocal and accompaniment demonstrate one road Como really should have taken a lot earlier. His “Dear Hearts & Gentle People,” doubtless intended as a heartfelt tribute to the stalwart burghers of Canonburg, Pennsylvania, from whence Como came, is detonated by a stupid Dixieland brass arrangement. “I Love You & Don’t You Forget It” is strictly lounge kitsch, though not unaware of its own absurdities (“That makes twenty times that I’ve said it!” – and there is a false ending). 1969’s bizarre “Seattle” sounds like a tourist board commission (and there is a certain overlap with “Different Drum” – which, I wonder, came first?) but actually comes from a long-forgotten Bobby Sherman TV series entitled Here Come The Brides. Perry Como goes flower power? Things were clearly in a fix.
The seventies are ushered in by a bravura “Without A Song,” recorded live in Las Vegas in June 1970; bravura enough, anyway, to make you forget that the song dates back to 1929, as Como twice gets his high C on the word – that word again – “soul.” Of “Close To You” and “Raindrops,” the best that can be said about Como’s return to Bacharach and David is that his versions sound like experiments in testing how close these songs are to “Magic Moments.” Sadly his “We’ve Only Just Begun” proves how right the Carpenters were to use themselves as their own backing singers; his versions sound flaccid and indulgent in comparison, while the count-up to eight in “Raindrops” makes me ask whether he had the Sesame Street audience in mind. He just does not get David Gates’ “If” (despite his voice break on the “slowly” of “spinning slowly down to die”). As for his Sound Gallery spy capers cover of “Temptation,” the less said, the better.
“It’s Impossible” brought him back to the top ten, both in the US and UK, and it remains a wonderful song, with that subtle piano (cascading with obvious onomatopoeia at Como’s “feel you running through me”) and the emotional equation now honed to something approaching perfection. The follow-up, Rod McKuen’s “I Think Of You,” was better still, its lyrical and emotional settings more ambiguous, and Como still demonstrating with his “I” (just as he did in the “and” on “When You Were Sweet 16”) his capability of making a word sounding like somebody unrolling a cigarette paper to reveal priceless gold. The 1973 hits remain exemplars of modern popular song – the absence of backing singers and the more open arrangements giving Como more space to inhabit the songs, as he should always have done. Yet his reading of the Everlys’ “Walk Right Back” raises the question of whether anything has been learned; those backing singers have returned, an “audible lace doily on the song” in Lena’s words.
Perhaps the final mystery of Perry Como is that there is no mystery, that here was someone satisfied to sing anything he was given, who lacked Sinatra’s ability to say no, whose brand of nonchalance was completely different from Dino’s (Martin gave the impression of caring so little that he might as well fade into invisibility; Como sang the songs but cared about his family and his own life more). His work is palpably greater when his voice is allowed to exist at, and as, the centre of the song. Weigh him down with too much baggage and he’ll sink like a stone. Make him too light and he’ll fly away. Be too proud and he’ll be singing for the barbershop forever (“Sweet 16” is a barbershop song par excellence).
Towards the end of side one, however, he reaches the ideal, and gets it; “Try To Remember,” from the long-running Broadway musical The Fantastics, and recorded sometime in the late sixties; a feathery ballad, and it’s easy to sing it and drown in its high-faluting wordplay. But Como’s performance is humble, searching, profound; the backing singers keep their distance, and with his “Follow”s and the patient acoustic guitar waltz, we realise that we could be listening to Scott Walker. Make no mistake; I’m not setting up 40 Greatest as a kind of good cop counterpart to another restless 1975 double album on RCA with a black cover and the artist in profile. Even if he had tried – and he would never have tried – Perry Como is not Metal Machine Music (although I find the latter oddly a lot more calming listen). But what, who, was he, this man who lived blamelessly until six days prior to his eighty-ninth birthday, when he literally fell asleep, and passed on? There are better, fuller compilations of his work now available on CD. But the life of the man as lived and documented, and the music heard here, do not quite add up. There is a discrepancy, inexplicable and possibly unexplainable, that makes the listener think: what is this man hiding from us? The answer? It was most likely nothing; a pleasant man singing an easy song, maybe a little morose about the probability that he’d be teeing off late if this session doesn’t get wrapped up. The ball of sun, the oval moon – both referred to in “Round And Round” – what exactly do these mean, again? “The silver moon will fall too soon” (“Wine And Roses”). Was he telling us something there? A difficult case, and probably an insoluble one. But don’t fall asleep on the job.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 00:33
Sunday, 18 March 2012
(#161: 15 November 1975, 1 week)
Track listing: Sospan Fach/I Am An Entertainer/I Wandered Lonely/I Gave My Love A Debenture/Rhondda Grey/Slow, Men At Work/Deck Of Cards/Swansea Town/The Devil’s Marking Me/A’r Lan Y Mör/The Pontypool Front Row/Sospan Fach
“When I see the eight I think of the great Mervyn Davies, the greatest ‘number eight’ in the world.”
(Max Boyce, “Deck Of Cards”)
The man always had a good sense of timing. Not only did “Merv the Swerve” check out the day before his number came up on Then Play Long, but he also died exactly thirty-six years after captaining the Welsh team who beat France comfortably at Cardiff towards their historic Grand Slam victory – and the day before it would happen again, 16-9 at the Millennium Stadium, by a side generally thought to be at least the equivalent of the great seventies teams. Only a few days after his victory, while playing for Swansea in the Welsh Cup final against Pontypool, again at Cardiff, he collapsed on the pitch with a brain haemorrhage. He was lucky to have come through that – he later admitted that had he collapsed on an “obscure golf course,” that would have been it – but as a result he never played again, although he did flourish in subsequent spells as rugby coach and journalist. Nobody who remembers his cunning and tough tackles, his brilliant passing – the term “defender” scarcely did him justice – could deny that he was one of the greatest players the game of rugby union had seen.
I stress the term “rugby union” because all of the rugby-related humour and music within We All Had Doctors’ Papers is to do with this variant of the game. The term “rugby league” is mentioned only two or three times, and on one of these occasions the words are bleeped out as though they were expletives. Those who don’t recognise the differences between the two sports are probably unaware of the turbulent history which produced them, a story of paid versus unpaid, cushioned southerners against needful northerners, between dilettantism and need. Rugby league is supposed to produce a more visually exciting and stimulating game than rugby union, and also requires two fewer players (thirteen rather than fifteen). This is, however, probably the first instance of sport selling itself out in order to appease fickle, floating audiences; the point of rugby union is that, under its cover of aggression, it is as artful and tricky a pursuit as cricket. It is about long-term results rather than flashes in a glamorous pan.
But then We All Had Doctors’ Papers isn’t really about rugby, even though four of its songs, and much of the patter, are devoted to the subject, and it was recorded live (to a point; the recordings were made from several different performances, as the fadeouts and splicings betray) at the Pontardulais Rugby Club. It’s true that a full appreciation of the record involves an intimate understanding of the geography of South Wales and the comings and goings of their mid-seventies rugby clubs. More importantly, though, it’s about life, and the necessity to hold on to and maintain it.
It’s not really a “comedy” album either, and certainly isn’t the only “comedy” album that will be considered here, although it is frequently very funny indeed. I thought initially to prepare for this record by undertaking a full-length survey of comedic trends in 1975, but after a thousand or so words realised that this would be sorely inadequate, and most likely irrelevant. Better to say that Max Boyce is this tale’s most visible example of one of the most prominent trends in British comedy of the period, namely the tendency of long-serving folk musicians to move towards telling jokes.
There was also Mike Harding from Rochdale and Jasper Carrott from Birmingham, but the man who got the whole craze going was unquestionably Billy Connolly, who the following week would attain a UK number one single with his literal shaggy dog story reading of Tammy Wynette’s “D.I.V.O.R.C.E.” Although 1974’s double Solo Concert, taped at a pub in Airdrie, was not Connolly’s first “comedy” album, it proved his breakthrough; it sold in such astronomical qualities in Scotland that I don’t think I’ve come across a household which didn’t have a copy. Formerly one half of the Humblebums, with Gerry Rafferty, Connolly gradually realised that his between-songs patter was getting a better reaction than his songs, and realigned his act accordingly. Hence Solo Concert is mostly Connolly, ranting, musing and amusing, with occasional proficient banjo/guitar outings; major setpieces like “The Jobbie Weecha!” and “The Crucifixion,” reconstructions of tired pop songs (“Nobody’s Child,” “Ten Guitars,” “Long Haired Lover From Liverpool” – all get a good kicking here) and long ponderous strands where nothing much happens at all; an overlong and unfunny reminiscence of fifties camping barely raises a titter. But there was nothing else like it happening in Britain, and so the Big Yin prospered.
Connolly bothers me, especially after listening to the man (mistakenly) labelled his Welsh equivalent. There’s a continued undercurrent of aggression and contempt in Connolly’s work; you’re never quite sure whether he’s going to step down into the audience and bash someone over the head with his banjo. There’s a hard threat about his posture, an air of menace. It’s almost as if he feels he’s too good for his (from his perspective) dumb cabaret audiences. And, this being seventies West Central Scotland, there are far too many jibes at Protestants – a reminder that Scotland remains divided by its own institutionalised religious apartheid, and it makes uncomfortable listening nearly four decades later. I imagine most Scots under the age of forty would find Solo Concert as hip and hilarious as Beowulf.
This was never a problem with Boyce. Although, like Connolly, he is apt to crack himself up with his own wit, he has a bashful, self-deprecating air about him that removes such barriers. Religion is not an issue here, and although he takes a few mild pot shots at England, he is not particularly anti-anything; more importantly, he’s pro-Welsh. His delivery is not gruff and cross like Connolly’s; his light tenor often gives his voice a plaintive, near androgynous air (“Tick-et-less!” he exclaims delightedly near the beginning of “I Wandered Lonely”), and if that self-deprecation sometimes leads towards bending his voice to mask the occasional punchline, this is all part of his personality, and his audiences certainly get it. And him.
For this record reminds us that Boyce is utterly at one with his audience; each treats the other like their equal, and there is love rather than spitting content. He had been working the Welsh club circuit for years, and in late 1973 tried out on Opportunity Knocks, without success. Still, his stage reputation grew big enough for EMI to take a chance on him; the resultant album, Live At Treorchy, was an immense hit in Wales, and a word-of-mouth success elsewhere in Britain; although the album never placed higher than #21 in the national charts, it stayed there for fully eight months. One of its songs, “9-3,” celebrating a celebrated rugby victory by Llanelli against a touring All Blacks team, contained the line “we all had doctors’ papers,” i.e. the entire working class population had been signed off work by their doctors so they could go and see the match. Subversive stuff for 1974, and the spirit carried over to its sequel.
The cover is almost entirely a Where’s Wally?-type affair, drawn by “Gren” (“Cartoonist of the South Wales Echo"), and apart from a picture of Boyce himself, stern in his medical get-up and strongly resembling the young Danny Baker, it is all a cartoon of crowds swarming around and into the rugby ground, with numerous hidden celebrity cameos – mostly distinguished Welsh names of the period, but we also spotted Laurel and Hardy, Tommy Cooper, Batman and Robin, Harold Wilson and the Queen (and the fellow holding the giant leek is, I suspect, meant to be Boyce himself) – with humorous notices and banter, two speech bubbles indicating the first appearances in this tale of the future colloquialism “innit.” It’s all about getting one over on the powers that would be, in favour of the greater good.
Boyce clearly needs to prove nothing to this audience. His backing group – guitarist Neil Lewis, bassist John Luce and MD Jack Emblow on keyboards, accordion, etc. (with Boyce himself contributing guitar work) – set the scene with a furious sprint through “Sospan Fach,” Boyce’s adopted theme tune, which invites immediate clapping and sing-alongs. Then Boyce arrives on stage with his cheerful war cry of “Oggi oggi OGGI!” (Audience: “Oi! Oi! OI!”) and launches into a warm mixture of stand-up and songs.
Since the bulk of this album – or side one of it, anyway – is stand-up comedy, I will not attempt in-depth analysis or spoil any punchlines. As I say, if you have a working knowledge of mid-seventies South Wales life, you should be able to understand it all, but (as with the need with Billy Connolly to be familiar with the twists and turns of mid-seventies Glasgow) it’s not absolutely necessary. He does daft poems, bizarre narratives about himself and Wales and rugby, and it’s all great, infectious fun. His first song is the jokey “I Gave My Love A Debenture” (“Block A, Row 3!”), set to the tune of “The Twelfth Of Never” (complete with a little “1812 Overture” coda).
But – and this is quite unexpected, even given his then-recent past as a folk artist and poet – Boyce is also able to do serious songs. “Rhondda Grey” is his song, and a memory of a childhood in the mining community of South Wales. The boy is given an assignment by his art teacher at school and wants to paint what he sees around him. Excitedly he wonders aloud what colours he should use, and it is down to his father to show him:
“It’s a colour you can’t buy, lad
No matter what you pay.
But that’s the colour that we want –
They call it Rhondda grey.”
It’s a lesson in growing up, in rejecting superficial glamour in favour of the real; and as a song and performance it’s extremely moving. Boyce’s vocal is quiet but concentrated and clearly heartfelt – does anyone else hear, in Boyce’s singing, a marked resemblance to that other Welshman, John Cale? – and the listener can feel the audience empathising, although they do not erupt with approval until the end. In addition, the line “with your reds and greens and gold” brings to mind another live album recorded in 1975, this time in London, by and for another community on the brink of dispossession:
“One good thing about music,
When it hits you,
You feel no pain.”
(Bob Marley, “Trench Town Rock”)
It’s there, isn’t it, in the mass sing-alongs to “The Pontypool Front Row” and the ancient Welsh folk song (sung in defiant Welsh) “Ar Lan Y Mör.” “Everything’s gonna be alright,” as Marley sang to an ecstatic, if troubled, audience at the Lyceum. Anticipating this, Boyce launches into his satirical anthem to council road workers, “Slow, Men At Work” and everybody already seems to know the refrain “They keep their billycan brewing.” It is as if this contained community is fortifying itself against the outside world.
Side two concentrates on the songs. Although you’ll have to look up most of the references yourself (even though the mere thought of “Ray Williams training leaflets” makes me laugh uncontrollably), Boyce’s rugby union take on the old warhorse “Deck Of Cards” is funny and pertinent. “Swansea Town” is a pleasant country-folk lope towards nostalgia, again performed with great control and concern. “The Devil’s Marking Me” concerns rugby matches in the afterlife. Finally, “The Pontypool Front Row” – by which he means the renowned Welsh rugby front line of Graham Price, Bobby Windsor and Charlie Faulkner – is a quite exhilarating anthem, sung with gusto by everybody present, and incorporating topical references (Mary Whitehouse, Idi Amin, The Six Million Dollar Man) in a way which suggests Boyce could keep adding verses to the song forever. But there is no denying the power and commitment of the mass choruses – “And it’s up and under, here we go/Are you ready, here we go?” – and Boyce is clearly delighted and moved by the audience participation. He leaves the stage to a tumultuous reception, and “Sospan Fach” is played to fade.
In summary, then, Max Boyce is throughout a mirror to the audience (almost certainly 100% male); he sees them and they see him, one of theirs, and together they engage in building this subtle little dinghy of resistance to the outside world. Direct comparisons to other countries is hard, although Canada’s Stompin’ Tom Connors probably comes closest. This is a Wales which doesn’t particularly need anywhere else – and, as if we needed to be reminded, we are talking mid-seventies Wales, and a community long since rendered the opposite of “beautiful” by the remorseless but vital mining industry. In just under a year’s time there will come another live album of low budget but high energy; for now, though, listen to the more than evident love between Boyce and his audience, and think of Alan Cuthbert and Leigh Halfpenny today, both of whom made it possible for their country to repeat the greatness of Mervyn Jones’ days. The victory, the joy, made me feel just that little bit happier, that crucial little bit more human; and I think We All Had Doctors’ Papers does that too.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 00:22
Sunday, 11 March 2012
(#160: 25 October 1975, 3 weeks)
Track listing: Distant Drums/Bimbo/Am I Losing You/Mexican Joe/The Blizzard/Gypsy Feet/I Fall To Pieces/But You Love Me Daddy/Guilty/Missing You/I Won’t Forget You/The Hawaiian Wedding Song/When You Are Gone/The Storm/One Dozen Roses/Not Until The Next Time/Penny Candy/Anna Marie/He’ll Have To Go/Four Walls/Welcome To My World/Scarlet Ribbons/According To My Heart/Make The World Go Away/Crying In My Sleep/Deep Dark Water/I Won’t Come In While He’s There/Golden Memories Silver Tears/Roses Are Red (My Love)/Memories Are Made Of This/You’re The Only Good Thing (That’s Happened To Me)/The Wreck Of The Number Nine/Yonder Comes A Sucker/How Can I Write On Paper (What I Feel In My Heart)/Have I Told You Lately That I Love You/Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart/Missing Angel/Is This Me?/Angels Don’t Lie/Is It Really Over
“The week that the Sex Pistols played their first performance, the six-year-old ‘Space Oddity’ by David Bowie took over the number one UK single slot from Art Garfunkel’s version of a sixteen-year-old song (sic), ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’. The number one album was the TV-advertised 40 Golden Greats by Jim Reeves, who had died in 1964. In returning, the 1960s showed up the poverty of the present.”
(Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols And Punk Rock, London: Faber and Faber, 2001 revised edition, Chapter 2: “August 1975 to December 1976,” p 130)
“[The Heartbreakers] had Christmas dinner with the Pistols, the Clash, and the Damned at the journalist Caroline Coon’s house, eating Christmas pudding and listening to old Jim Reeves records.”
(Will Hermes, Love Goes To Buildings On Fire: Five Years In New York That Changed Music Forever, NYC: Faber and Faber Inc., 2011, Chapter 4: “1976: These Are The Days, My Friends,” p 215)
In our preparations for this piece, Lena pointed me in the direction of “The Painted Door,” a short story by the Canadian writer Sinclair Ross. It is an extremely short story – it takes up barely seven pages – but I’d agree with Lena that it’s one of the best. Set, as was all of Ross’ work, in an unnamed Canadian prairie (Ross was a native of Saskatchewan, but it could just as easily be Alberta), it tells the story of a married farming couple, John and Ann. From the descriptions given – “slow,” “unambitious” and “dull-witted” are some of the more generous adjectives – John is a bit of a Gabriel Oak figure, solid, reliable and deadly boring and sexless. Without meaning to, he makes his wife feel less of a woman. In the meantime, she has been seeing another farmer, Steven, who awakens something dormant in her – desire? Femininity? Life? – but hasn’t dared take things any further. One day John decides to make a long trip to help out on his father’s farm; Ann doesn’t want him to go away and leave her alone but he is insistent. A grim blizzard is coming. He leaves, and while he is away Ann gets on with her current pastime of painting doors, specifically in this case the bedroom door. One has to do something. Steven is due to pay a visit; she is uncertain whether he can make it through the storm but he turns up. As things develop, they end up sleeping together; she awakens first, looks at his motionless, dozing face and suddenly realises the mistake she’s made. She imagines that she dreamt John came through the door, but of him there is no sign. The storm breaks, and John’s frozen body is found in a field not far from the farm. How could he have missed the farmhouse when he was so close? But Ann looks more closely at his palm, and with a gathering horror sees that it contains a scrap of paint. The painted bedroom door had not yet dried properly; he evidently came in, saw what was there and decided to turn away again, back towards his death.
I don’t want to undersell the continuing need for and influence of Celtic sentimentality in popular music, but there is more than something of John in the art of Jim Reeves. Forever gallant and dumbly faithful, forever cheated on and abandoned, the character of Reeves remains centred in a lot of ways; he is completely self-contained to the point of hermeticism, and not once in these forty songs does he make any attempt to understand the woman who keeps cheating on him, walking out on him. There is also a thin line between being self-contained and being motionless, as in stationary, as in bereft of life; in these songs he often seems perversely content to do little or nothing – without even trying, he acts as though the world revolves around him.
Ah, yes, understanding:
”I love you because you understand, dear…”
A cursory look at the track listing at the top of this page reveals that this is not quite the straightforward greatest hits collection it pretends to be. Yes, there is no typing error; the song most readily and famously associated with Reeves, though not his biggest hit, is absent. I can’t imagine a Jim Reeves collection without “I Love You Because,” but this is one; nor is there room for things like “Adios Amigo,” “There’s A Heartache Following Me,” “It Hurts So Much (To See You Go),” “When Two Worlds Collide” or even “Moonlight And Roses.”
How did this happen? Why “A COLLECTORS TWO ALBUM SET” which bears no photographs of the artist, but rather a series of drawings of the man and an anonymous American Midwest whose landscape, despite the “Coca Cola” and “AMERICAN GAS” signs, bears more resemblance to the A40 Lewknor turn-off? Despite this being, ostensibly, an Arcade/RCA collaboration, it has to be said that extensive delving into the history has revealed no clearcut answers. Unlike Arcade’s contemporaneous and not dissimilar Elvis Presley 40 Greatest Hits collection – and more about that in the fullness of time – this was not a handy collation of two previously existing anthologies. Was it a question of Arcade taking whatever RCA, or Mary Reeves, or whoever, was prepared to license out? Again, there is no clear answer except that in 1975 the Reeves copyright/licensing situation was in something of a mess; RCA were not at the time prepared to sort it out, feeling that the Reeves legend was a peculiar (i.e. non-American) phenomenon whose appeal was steadily diminishing (this being the era of major forward moves like Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger). In 1992, Arcade did attempt to make amends by issuing a new 2CD collection, The Definitive Jim Reeves, which featured some of the omitted songs but was otherwise an almost completely different forty-song set. If RCA were holding back on some tracks in anticipation of a second 40 More Golden Greats set, they would be disappointed since no such record was ever released, despite the huge success of this one.
But to get back to “The Painted Door,” my referring to this story does have direct relevance to Reeves insofar as this album includes a song entitled “The Blizzard.” Against a backdrop of wind effects, the singer sets up the scenario; he has been caught up in a major storm (“The wind…seems mighty like a woman’s screams”) and is trying to get himself and his pony back to Mary Anne at the farm. They are only seven miles away but his hands are already frozen; still he knows “If we don’t get home, we’ll die.” He imagines Mary Anne cooking hot biscuits in the stove pan – the heat nicely contrasting with the cold – and they steadily get closer and closer to home. Before they can reach home, however, the pony gives up and drops on the ground. “Damn, get up, you ornery cuss,” mutters Reeves, perhaps already knowing his fate; the blizzard passes and they find his body, still tethered to the pony’s reins – they were only a hundred yards from home. I must admit that if I knew I was only a hundred yards from home – and throughout the song Reeves is always careful to let us know that he knows exactly where he is – I’d get in, eat and sleep, and bury the pony in the field next morning; but there is a fatal fatalism in Reeves’ voice that suggests a sacrifice as encyclopaedically pointless as that of John.
Another, earlier, song, “The Wreck Of The Number Nine,” similarly plays games with listeners’ expectations, but in both the abrupt jump cuts to the discovery of the dead protagonist are as swift and shocking as anything in the work of Cormac McCarthy. And when he’s not musing about death, Reeves is either preparing for his own (“Distant Drums”) or endlessly dreaming about the past. There is a will to extinction here which is present and active enough to be disturbing.
Not that Reeves was never anything less than imperturbable; he stands there, as solid, untouchable and mechanical as Ayers Rock or Rushmore. This is why his attempt to do Patsy Cline (“I Go To Pieces,” and other tributary works like “Guilty,” “Missing You” and the bamboozling “Is This Me?”) fails; marble statues don’t fall to pieces and Reeves’ practiced nonchalance provides an impermeable barrier to those who might otherwise empathise (although the palais band sax section on his “Pieces” doesn’t help either). Cline’s acting thing, her rhetorical genius, was to go to pieces – her “She’s Got You” is Ophelia in dungarees – but Reeves’ thing was to stay in one piece.
Broadly speaking, the album, though not chronologically arranged, traces a specific story of Reeves from his early fifties Louisiana Hayride days to virtually his last days (the closing “Is It Really Over” came from his final recording session in 1964). The early stuff is essentially hoedown hokum; “According To My Heart” makes a return appearance (the only overlap between this and the 1969 budget collection previously reviewed) and I’m still awaiting a Status Quo cover, but otherwise it’s mostly nonsense about kids with candy on their faces (the Junior Choice favourite “Bimbo” where the toddler already looks to be facing a better future with the opposite sex than Reeves will ever enjoy, the ludicrous “Penny Candy” with its Phil Harris-like talkovers – “She eats that messy kind!” – and its dubious association of blackface with happiness). Even at this stage, however, there are portents of the future; Reeves’ own song “Yonder Comes A Sucker” introduces his favourite subject, the Cheating Woman, fully formed. Other tracks – “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You” (Van Morrison must have been listening), “Crying In My Sleep,” “How Can I Write On Paper” – attempt to fuse the post-Hank fiddles with his later, smoother approach, but it wasn’t until “Four Walls,” another Reeves composition, that the formula was perfected – small group, vibes, electric bass, more echo on the voice. “Four Walls” is a foreboding piece of work, as he imagines his home “closing in on me” while desperately trying to convince himself that “my walls have nothing to say.” If it sounds as though this song is closing in on a 1977 RCA release, then it is; this is an embryonic “Sound And Vision” in subject matter, tone and delivery.
“He’ll Have To Go,” from 1960, was the big commercial breakthrough, of course, and what a crouched, wary shadow of a song it is; he pleads with her to whisper into the ‘phone, knowing full well she’s there with his successor, and he is most likely standing directly across the street. Yet the singer’s reserve, his reluctance to engage or argue, is what repeatedly does for him. Consider “I Won’t Come In While He’s There,” an unexpected Top 20 addition to the paranoias of 1967; about to leave town, he decides he’ll call in on his ex one last time, but as he approaches her house he notes “his” car in the driveway, the curtain drawn. He decides against a “Delilah” scenario (“I might do something I’d be sorry for later”) but is burning with resentment; “Does he know my whole world is in there with him/That he’s king while he sits there in my chair?” The whole thing takes just eight lines but is as beautifully and coldly drawn a portrait as anything by Raymond Carver; “he” has won, yet not once does Reeves face “him” in the eye, and you get the idea that this is exactly why women keep walking out on him; does the protagonist in “He’ll Have To Go” secretly ache for Reeves to come barging into the bar, seize the guy by his shirt collar, roar “Why I oughta…” and finish him off? Just to provide some excitement and life…just to prove that he’s a man?
But no. Reeves didn’t get to number one over a decade after his death on the Scottish and Irish votes alone; he was loved in England precisely because of his “Gentleman Jim” status, that he was indeed the personification of the “Keep Calm And Carry On” anti-ethos, that he didn’t resort to crude tactics, that he heroically stood there while all kinds of shit were heaped upon his head. His happiness, when it exists, is measured, never wild or wayward. One could easily imagine him being the last man on Earth, and not knowing it. It’s all about whispers (his UK follow-up hit to “He’ll Have To Go,” and not included here, was entitled “Whispering Hope”); whispers on the ‘phone, whispers in the walls, never raising one’s voice, always retaining…well, what? Dignity? Humanity?
A few songs go more happily than others. Well, there’s “The Hawaiian Wedding Song,” which is as bad as any of the cover versions here (the track listing alone should tell you the picture). There’s his first gold disc, “Mexican Joe,” which basically provides “Hey Joe” with a happy ending despite rhyming “peso” with “say so.” And there’s a certain proto-reggae jauntiness to tracks like “How Can I Write On Paper” and “Have I Told You Lately” which reminds us why Reeves was so idolised in Jamaica (apart from the clear signal they got from Nashville radio stations); pain and steadfastness are things universally empathised with (I hesitate to call them virtues, since this is the combination of failings which can only block humanity’s progress).
But so much of Reeves’ work is sealed off so assuredly from the listener that you sometimes wonder how he got to be so popular. “Welcome To My World” is all Mad Men string-driven lushness, but that old familiar knock on the door motif is back (“Knock and the door will open” – is this the Village?) and it’s not until we reach the song’s epicentre that we realise that it’s all a façade, built in the hope that one day “she” will stumble across it. Elsewhere, there is an extremely thin line to be drawn between heroicism and idiocy (always two closely associated foibles); “Not Until The Next Time” finds him minutely rearranging bits of furniture on a regular basis, knowing (despite the smouldering resentment of his delivery) that he’ll always take her back. The same with “Angels Don’t Lie”; no, she doesn’t cheat, yes, he believes her every time, and Brutus is an honourable man (other songs like “Missing Angel” suggest a worrying dependence on unconditional worship when it comes to human relationships). By the time his version of “Make The World Go Away” rolls around, he’s too tired to sing any more than half the chorus (not including the title).
Much of 40 Golden Greats is meretricious trash, neither golden nor great. The blame for this lies with his widow, Mary Reeves, who after his death authorised new backing tracks to be added to demos and throwaways in the archive, thereby giving the impression of Reeves as a kind of sixties Tupac Shakur, secretly hiding away in a bunker recording all of this “previously unreleased” stuff. “But You Love Me Daddy” is beyond bad. Repeated attempts are made to turn Reeves into a kind of Ben E King/Drifters/”Spanish Harlem” figure, as evinced by the mariachi trumpets on “Gypsy Feet” (“I can’t put an acre on your gypsy feet”), “Golden Memories Silver Tears” and “Missing Angel.” Worse, however, is a legion of backing singers who effortlessly drown out Reeves whenever they can and not afford him the space that his voice needs. It is no wonder that on “When You Are Gone” he is left feeling that “there’s nothing to live for”; those warblers will not shut up (and no wonder, come to think of it, that women keep leaving him – he has to drag this bloody choir around with him like a ball and chain!). “Memories Are Made Of This” is worse than you expect. “Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart,” complete with more blasted trumpets, is listenable only for Reeves’ commendably dignified vocal, and his unexpected yet poignant upwards octave leap in the song’s last syllable.
He does better on “Roses Are Red,” the Bobby Vinton weepie, because the arrangement is kept low-key (the harp from “I Love You Because” makes an appearance) and because the song’s subject matte suits Reeves’ stoic/stolid worldview; childhood sweethearts separated by time, desire and circumstance, with a visit to see her child and wish her all the best – it is like a neutered “Disco 2000” and agrees quite well with Reeves’ staunch impassivity. But “One Dozen Roses” spoils a perfectly good vocal by plunging it into a cocktail lounge musical nightmare; whoever thought Reeves merited the ring-a-ding-ding treatment? Then again, the song itself is dubious; buy one dozen roses and put my heart in the box? Isn’t that a rather gruesome thing to contemplate, let alone do?
This leaves the majority of Reeves’ own compositions, or co-compositions, and it is here where the central interest of 40 Golden Greats lies. Ignore the clichéd arrangement of “The Storm” and listen to an unusual deconstruction of a collapsing relationship, delivered in a style not a million miles from Richard Hawley (and on the latter subject, it might be worth noting that, as far as “Missing Angel” is concerned – if you can overlook the ghastly piano work – “a million miles” are in Reeves’ world no further or closer than the “100 yards” of “The Blizzard.” It’s all perspectival, and taken from an identical perspective). “Deep Dark Water” is an ambitious and verbose attempt to describe a failed life; here, for once, is Reeves the cheater, the drunkard, the player: “Alone and so lonesome/Bored and so blue,” he ventures into hell and now he is calmly awaiting his end. “They keep sawing louder on my limb and soon I’ll have to go,” he muses, before concluding, “Don’t be a would-be king and tumble from your throne.” The music is anything but reassuring (the honky tonk piano intro notwithstanding); for once, Reeves drops the mask and sees himself as others might still see him.
The concluding trio of songs comprise a harrowing sequence. “Is This Me?” finds an aghast Reeves, looking at himself crying, and then at his lover cheating, and refuses to believe his eyes; this is so not what we do. “Angels Don’t Lie” also deals with the gulf between illusion and truth. And, to cap or end it all, there’s Reeves’ “Is It Really Over” which he sings with the numbness of a man heading for the scaffold (on a similar matter, I should note here that the track “Guilty” is traditional country blues stuff, equating marriage with imprisonment – but he’s the one being dumped here, the one wearing the metaphorical noose), realising he has reached “the end of the line.” The parallels with “I Know It’s Over,” a work done by Mancunians of Irish descent, all of whom grew up with the music of Jim Reeves in their blood, need not be overstated.
At this point I ought to say that, having spent several hours in his posthumous company, and considerably more time researching his life and work (almost none of which has found its way into this piece, but it had to be done), this is almost all I intend to write about Jim Reeves; the fiftieth anniversary of his passing is only a couple of years away, and for all I know it may well be commemorated by yet another chart-topping compilation. But listening to these forty songs in succession produces a somewhat numbing effect, as in: there must be more to life than holding fast and keeping all emotion in check – look how it gets the singer nowhere (and I must also emphasise that, throughout this piece, whenever I refer to “Reeves” or “Jim Reeves,” I am clearly referring to the persona he projected on his records, rather than the man himself).
There is of course one cover version I haven’t yet mentioned, and in many ways it’s the most unexpected and astounding piece of music on these records. This is the second time I have had to write about “Scarlet Ribbons” – Val Doonican covered it, as he did “He’ll Have To Go,” on entry #50 – and Reeves does it as a completely solo performance, accompanying himself on guitar. At the start there’s a bit of chat about the song, that to his knowledge it is about 400 years old and comes from the United Kingdom, before he gets into singing the old standard. Knowing that Sinéad O’Connor was approaching her ninth birthday as this album became available, and that she must have listened to and known the performance, Reeves’ simple poignancy proves devastating. But as the song patiently winds towards its end, something strange begins to happen to Reeves’ voice; it becomes even deeper than his customary baritone (as a Texan, his style is almost the complete opposite of his compatriot Roy Orbison, for whom “Distant Drums” was originally intended, introspective as opposed to expressive. And a quick word about Reeves’ actual biggest UK single – his only number one here, in 1966, a year which proved that, despite unprecedented and unparalleled experimentation and adventure within the confines of the 45 rpm single, Celtic sentimentality would always win out – a song implicitly about Vietnam [“’cross the sea”] with tom-toms as threatening as those on Gaye’s “Grapevine” and a sudden realisation in the singer’s desperate mind that now is what matters, what has always mattered, and never mind the past, and that, given that he will probably die in action, he must marry Mary before the curtain falls); he comes closer to, breathes into, the microphone, and his vibrato becomes more and more drawn-out, exaggerated and actorly. In short, throughout “Scarlet Ribbons,” Reeves is gradually mutating – and at the song’s end, we realise that he has turned into Elvis. In pop terms it’s the equivalent of an Adams-Stokes heart murmur, but it is no less expected for that. And perhaps this is what caught the imagination of the nascent punks – for what did Reeves ever have to do with “The Sixties” anyway? He never had to live through them, grow his hair, write seven-minute concept singles...and so he is perfect, undamageable, unbreachable. He addressed matters in ways very familiar to the human heart, such that I was told separately by two members of the Blue Notes/Brotherhood of Breath how much they loved Jim Reeves’ work, because – it reminded them of home. The home John never really needed to leave, where he should have spent more time being loving and attentive towards Ann. Who knew, least of all him, that his life would have depended on it?
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 01:05
Sunday, 4 March 2012
(#159: 4 October 1975, 1 week)
Track listing: Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts 1-5)/Welcome To The Machine/Have A Cigar/Wish You Were Here/Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts 6-9)
A drone. E minor. A Moog picking out a single note topline. An electric guitar doing the same before bending down to a heartbreaking move to B minor. Then back. E minor. The last chord of “A Day In The Life” – recorded in the same studio, the chord that is meant to stand for heaven – was E major.
Therefore it can be assumed that E minor is the precise reverse – the chord that represents hell.
But who is in hell, and whose hell?
Shaven headed. Eyebrows shaved also. Sports shirt. Nobody really knew who he was. He could be serving you a bagel in the Bronx. They had an album to do, and it was hard, wrenching work.
In the canteen. There he is, staring at them, maybe smiling. But who the hell is he? Nobody really knew.
Back into the studio, to work on this song, this damnable elegy, that seems to be taking forever.
The same guy pops his head around the door, has a look at some of the equipment.
Nobody knows who this is. One of the Abbey Road technicians – there are so many of them, it must be. Checking for health and safety and efficacy.
No doubt. But he keeps looking at them. And smiling.
Who is he?
It took them a long time to work out who it was. Most hadn’t seen him for five, six years tops.
Slowly and shockingly they realised that it was the man to whom this song they were working on was dedicated.
Some of them took it better than others. But the other Roger took it worst. There were tears. There was shock. Most of all, there was a baffled numbness.
Who was this Syd anyway?
There’s no such thing as history beyond what each generation decides to make history. Figures of the past are never immobile tableaux. Every new generation discovers its own ghosts and venerates them with a view to recharging them. In the sixties it was Robert Johnson; by the mid-seventies it would have been Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, the great untouchables.
But calling for ghosts, summoning them even, carries its own inbuilt risks. And in the rare event that the ghost you desire is still alive, don’t keep summoning the ghost and then act surprised when the ghost turns up.
Syd was there, that day in June 1975, and he may have been many things, or ended up as many things, but he was not yet a ghost.
Four clear clarion notes on the guitar. Wish. You. Were. Here. Gilmour stumbled upon the motif while idly doodling. The perfect mirror of the arched diver into the Mediterranean pool, so immaculate that you can neither see their shadow nor guess that their body had an upper half.
The sleeve. Hipgnosis, as ever. Businessmen shaking hands, one on fire; the idea being that we hide our burning passions under suits of sobriety, whatever society deems “appropriate.” A swimmer drowning in sand dunes. Huge wafts of cloth, red and white, blowing through a desert. A businessman with bowler and briefcase but no face.
If you tolerate this…but I am moving too fast.
Better to recall that the sleeve was in great part designed by junior Hipgnosis employee Peter Christopherson, about to start Throbbing Gristle, a band, or collective, whose work would poke into extremes even the Floyd would find uncomfortable but whose work, overall, would not be that out of place in the Floyd oeuvre; one can look on their masterpiece, 1979’s 20 Jazz-Funk Greats, as an example of Floyd’s discoveries, and perhaps even Syd’s discoveries, taken to their logical conclusion. There was always so much of the sixties about TG.
Psychic TV, in which the late Mr Christopherson was also involved, do not have their groundbreaking 1982 work Force The Hand Of Chance discussed here. That really is too bad..
The full band come in at 4:32 but Gilmour is already lost, mostly in his own history. One of the album’s key words is “shadow,” and although the word is exercised in its Peter Pan/Jungian sense, here it is hard not to think of the Shadows; the guitar wanders dolefully but dutifully through the history of sixties rock guitar, from Hank Marvin to Clapton and Harrison (there’s a fleeting reference to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”), finally settling somewhere between Peter Green and Mike Oldfield. With its patient, submarine-like 6/8 tempo, the song stops just short of being a blues workout.
Then the voice of Roger Waters comes in, and we are very far from that meaning of the blues (although Gil Evans would have understood; see his astonishing resetting of the Bobby Troup number, featuring George Adams’ tortured tenor, on the same year’s There Comes A Time, if you can find it). It is a love song, there are no two ways about it, pining for the return of…the man in his mirror (if we carry on with the Jung analogy)? Black holes in the sky, threatening shadows at night, the rhetorical triplicates (“You stranger, you legend, you martyr, and SHINE!,” “You painter, you Piper (capital letter is mine), you Prisoner (ditto), and SHINE!” – Waters throws everything he can, mainly himself, at this living ghost, and with an undimmed and unambiguous passion. But why all the throwing? Is he lamenting Syd, wanting him back in his world – or does he envy Syd for having escaped this world?
Because if this album’s predecessor took in about every subject matter imaginable, then this one has just two subjects – Pink Floyd, and Syd Barrett.
Chelsea Cloisters is situated about halfway down Sloane Avenue, one of many anonymous roads linking the Sloane Square end of the King’s Road to the Michelin end of the Fulham Road; in other words, Chelsea to South Kensington. Like most of the buildings and aura in the backlands of South Kensington/Knightsbridge, it is apt to give me the creeps. It’s well advertised; apartments there are always available at knockdown bargain prices, given the area.
But there is something too perfect, too flawless, about the unending parade of Art Deco brownstones down this street, something too strident about their determined anonymity. The shops, too, are present, complete, too good to be true, too comprehensive. If you told me it was an M15 hideout/bugging post I wouldn’t be surprised.
Put it this way; I wouldn’t want to live there because living there wouldn’t feel like living. But if you wanted to hide from everybody, there are few better places to pitch up; nobody would even bother to penetrate the invisible, emotional web. So no wonder Syd decided to base himself at Chelsea Cloisters. From there he could wander the city and come back without any questions asked. Rather like Kenneth Williams’ dusty, and now demolished, Osnaburgh Street apartment, though, it’s not a place where you could imagine much, or anything, in the way of life going on.
After each utterance of “steel breeze,” the music shivers and comes to a considered halt before starting again. Then Waters temporarily leaves the song to saxophonist Dick Parry, first considered and ruminative on baritone, then piercing and tortured – that word again – on tenor (the switch is imperceptible). As the track slowly fades, the saxophone appears to scream.
John Surman had left the Mike Westbrook Concert Band, on less than good terms with its leader, in 1968 to concentrate on his work with Barre Phillips and the late Stu Martin in The Trio. He briefly returned in the spring of 1969 to help out with the recording of Westbrook’s Marching Song, but was not on speaking terms with the composer until 1974, when he was recalled to act as featured soloist on Westbrook’s Citadel/Room 315. Old grievances were laid to rest and the work was recorded in 1975. Undoubtedly its highlight is “View From The Drawbridge,” a slowly unfolding piece where Surman’s meditative bass clarinet is intercepted by the rest of the horns playing, in a different key, the old school song “Fishers Of Men,” as if he had just chanced by them by the riverside. The brass and woodwind figures thicken into impossible complexities before fading out and giving way to a second thematic statement by Kenny Wheeler’s flugelhorn. The harmonic textures become dense again before a calming influence – the trombones? – spreads across the picture like a revelatory sun. Then follows a romantic waltz ballad, a screaming trumpet crescendo – and finally Surman, never better on baritone, with only the rhythm section; one by one each player bows out until Surman is left with his old colleague, on electric piano, and finally on his own. Along with Stan Tracey’s “Starless And Bible Black,” it is one of the great masterpieces of post-war British jazz.
The Machine. Sung as though trapped in a mincer. Gilmour’s acoustic guitar provides the harmonic structure, but Richard Wright’s bank of electronic effects dominates; lyrically we are back in That’ll Be The Day territory (“You bought a guitar to punish your ma/And you didn’t like school”) – and yet, despite the door opening and slamming to bookend the song, the final mutation of speeding car into air raid siren (who said we left The War behind, and who is this record really about, anyway?), it has to be said that one could imagine a kid hearing this – let’s say, for argument’s sake, an eight-year-old boy somewhere in the backwoods of Washington State – and wanting that guitar, that Jaguar, that standing account at the Steak Bar. Which rational boy wouldn’t want that? And does Waters loathe himself for accepting the invitation so easily? Or is it, as he surely already realises, that some are able both to thrive and survive in such an environment, and others don’t make it – or worse, manage to escape it?
”We told you what to dream.” Robert Wyatt – there’s somebody whose dreams in and around 1975 I wouldn’t have minded analysing. His main release that year was the album Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard - the two sides are named thusly – and as a follow-up to the titanic Rock Bottom it didn’t meet with quite as good a reception. Side Richard is mostly based around the “Muddy Mouth” sequence of shaggy dog piano-and-voice tales, interrupted only by two contemplative instrumentals, one of which (“5 Black Notes And 1 White Note”) uses the same slice of Offenbach purloined for Donald Peers’ 1968 weepie “Please Don’t Go” rather more inventively; whereas Side Ruth is jazz-based – “Team Spirit,” where Wyatt sings from the perspective of an underloved football, is the peak; Brian Eno is credited with “direct inject anti-jazz ray gun” and does his best to disrupt both Gary Windo and George Khan’s tenor solos (Windo plays it straight but Khan and Eno go into simultaneous freakout orbit). The side, and according to the CD sequencing, the album, end with the group’s reading of Charlie Haden’s “Song For Che.” Again this is played straight, except for Laurie Allan, whose drums thrash and scream and roar (if drumkits can do such things) from start to finish, giving its own unmediated lament.
One track on Side Ruth was produced by Nick Mason; Mongezi Feza’s “Sonia” featuring the great South African pocket trumpeter himself. Before 1975 ended, Feza, a man of the same generation as Pink Floyd – and, perhaps more relevantly, Steve Biko – would be gone. Committed to a mental institution to the southwest of London, the people there took one look at his case notes and reason for admission, lazily concluded “Crazy Black Guy” and left him sedated. While under sedation he developed double pneumonia; fluid built up, unresolved, in his lungs and finally killed him. He was only thirty, and his passing tore a gaping hole in the South African/British improv/jazz community. Rather than being a documentary celebration of their group of musicians, the releases on Harry and Hazel Miller’s Ogun label soon became predominantly sombre affairs, heavy albums laden with tributes to Mongs. Listen to Blue Notes For Mongezi, recorded by his erstwhile bandmates on the way home from Feza’s wake – preferably the full, unabridged 2CD version – and understand what a “tribute” is.
As for Wyatt and Mason, they worked again on Michael Mantler’s The Hapless Child And Other Inscrutable Stories album, his adaptation of the creepily humorous amorality tales of Edward Gorey. The songs’ subject matters are mostly horrific – innocent children, or childlike figures, compelled to go through every imaginable and unimaginable humiliation – yet the band Mantler assembled was one of his best (and although I largely find Mantler’s work gloomy and impenetrable, it is a tribute to his skills and powers of persuasion that his albums have constantly featured musicians of the first order); Carla Bley on keyboards, mostly a Korg string synthesiser, which does bring a proto-New Romantic feel to the tracks, Terje Rypdal, passionate and heartfelt (and not unlike Dave Gilmour) on guitar, Steve Swallow on bass, and a positively demonic Jack DeJohnette at the drums (hear him particularly on “The Insect God”; it is as if at times his drums threaten to burst through the speakers and throttle you). Wyatt sings throughout, in increasingly disorientated and disturbing fashion; Mason helped out with the mixing and can be heard indulging in a little small talk with Alfreda Benge and Bertie Caulder at the beginning of “The Sinking Spell.” This music I will always identify with the dank, rain-swept, wind-blown post-industrial landscapes of northwest England and the Midlands which I passed through, on my way by train to my interview at Oxford University; its radiant bleakness tied in with things like the Specials’ 45 mix of “Do Nothing” (featuring the “Ice Rink String Sounds”), UB40’s “The Earth Dies Screaming” and even “Runaway Boys” by the Stray Cats. How apprehensive, yet how hopeful, I was, travelling to Oxford for the first time, on that cold Monday, 8 December, 1980.
Chatter and laughter, suddenly silenced, usher in “Have A Cigar.” Were it not for Wright’s keyboards, this could pass for swamp rock (Gilmour is in particularly maneating form on guitar). Waters tried out on vocals, but was dissatisfied – his best try can be heard amid the bonus tracks on the second CD of 2011’s “Experience” reissue, along with live Wembley tryouts of “Diamond” and the songs which didn’t make it to the final record, “Raving And Drooling” and “You’ve Got To Be Crazy,” a version of the title track featuring Stéphane Grappelli on violin (the band stumbled upon Grappelli in Abbey Road as he was recording one of his “jazz” albums with Yehudi Menuhin) which accents the craving for Rod Stewart to start singing, and the inconclusive “Wine Glasses” from the Household Objects album they originally planned to make (until Waters realised that it was pretty pointless twanging rubber bands to create a bass effect when an actual bass guitar was present). Dissatisfied, Waters turned to another artist who was busy recording his own album in the next studio, and asked him to sing the lead.
The thing is, with the title track, you do expect Rod to start singing any second; those “Gasoline Alley” guitar lines, the two lost souls swimming in a goldfish bowl, so it’s a little startling (even if it’s on a Pink Floyd album) when Waters begins to sing. But the title track, even above everything else on this album, is where this Roger stops beating about the bush and addresses his subject – his shadow - directly in the eye. It consists largely of a series of self-answering questions (“Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?,” “Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?”), practically begging for an answer of any kind. “Year after year/Running over the same old ground/What have we found?/The same old fears/Wish you were here.” The track fades, gently – it never raises its voice above a whisper – with Waters doing some scat singing, and sounding not unlike a deeper Robert Wyatt. It is one of the most humane things he has ever recorded; and if the other Roger was indeed the mislaid “soul” of Pink Floyd, it is this same soul which lends belief and authority to the album as a whole – a belief and authority not always present in its predecessor.
People still ask me how it feels not to get to write about Dark Side Of The Moon directly. It’s true that there are, as the KLF once put it, great, unhealing gashes across the spine of Then Play Long, and DSOTM is one of them; it’s a ghost which has cast its own shadow across so much which surrounded it, and came after it, that it’s difficult even to attempt objectivity – as though the object of this blog were “objectivity”! I did write about it indirectly – I channelled its fugitive, lunatic spirit down the avenues and alleyways of the K-Tel sixties compilation which held it at number two, and – early warning – am not averse to doing so again with other worthy candidates. If, as Lena puts it, DSOTM is like one of these big, colourful children’s encyclopaedias which contains Everything, Wish You Were Here is a smaller, darker, more serious and more concentrated book, yet ultimately reaps the greater emotional reward. Certainly the music of Pink Floyd is so fundamentally part and parcel of my own history that I can’t tear myself away from what I know and feel about it. But one has to try. Whereas Waters was previously singing about “the lunatic” being “in my head” without any clear idea of who this lunatic might be, here he is able to identify and face the lunacy, which fits so neatly with his own (Robert Wyatt just gets everywhere).
But the thing is, if Waters is singing about Barrett, why the reference to The War (“Did you exchange a walk-on part in the war/For a lead role in a cage”)? Does he imagine Syd to be the Number 1 to his own Number 6?
Such things, alas, have to remain within the realms of conjecture, for here come the wind effects, and we are back to the blues workout section of “Diamond,” Wright this time taking the lead with an extended Moog solo. This slows down to a more blues-workable tempo, and Gilmour takes over with some of his most eloquent (and also most patient) playing on the record. Eventually this gives way to Waters’ last verse (“We’ll bask in the shadow of yesterday’s triumph,” he sings sardonically, and then, later, “Come on you boy-child, you winner and loser” – but who has won and who has lost? Who, indeed, is who?) and then a slow-burning funk groove with Wright mostly on clavinet. Soon this fades to reveal the original drone, and Wright’s Moog returns to centre stage, but this time the whole band are there; Wright solos thoughtfully over the emotionally moving chord changes, and the thing ends – as, deep down, we always knew it would – in the major key. E major, the chord of heaven. And, as the chord fades, Wright continues to play – and right before the music disappears, he begins to play the melody of “See Emily Play.” Farewell, you uncatchable ghost.
Syd listened to the playback of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” He liked the song but thought it “a bit old” and by all accounts had no idea of the song’s subject matter. He stayed around for Gilmour’s wedding reception and then wandered off into the night. None of the band members ever saw him again.
And, although Chelsea Cloisters was among the most reliable of hideaways, Syd’s continued residence there depended on the not insubstantial income he received from royalty cheques. But the seventies drew to a close, and times changed, as did allegiances, whims and tastes. His royalties diminished quite sharply, and he concluded that it was best to return home to Cambridge. This downturn was only temporary, however – from the eighties onward, the royalties again began to accumulate – and Syd briefly returned to Chelsea Cloisters a couple of years later. But the noise of London now disturbed him, and he hot-footed it – some say literally – back to Cambridge and stayed there for the rest of his days. Not yet a ghost.
Meanwhile, there are two ways in which I can order the curtain down. One is to consider a teenager, then living in a squat in Gunter Grove, a mere five-minute bus ride from Chelsea Cloisters, who one day wanders into his local fashion store with a partly self-written T-shirt which declares “I HATE PINK FLOYD.” I don’t believe he ever did, apart from the grounds that, if you hate something with a passion, you must love it with at least equal passion.
Secondly – and this is all Lena’s idea – it’s important to remember that Wish You Were Here is a record which both laments and pokes fun at the notion of success. At many points it is like listening to a religious service (if not quite a requiem). But, if Roger Waters is above all singing to himself – doesn’t he himself more or less admit on the title track that he and Barrett, born Roger Barrett, are the same man staring at himself in the mirror? – then he must also be aware, as I said, that some people are better equipped to handle huge success than others. Think of that eight-year-old boy I mentioned in Washington State, who almost certainly heard and absorbed this record at a crucial time in his life, who went on to record an album – and it’s an album I get to write about in this tale, many years from now – where he talks about the exact same problems. Only he didn’t have the thick skin, the nous, to survive.
Wish you were here, Kurt, with all apologies.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 15:15