Sunday, 29 July 2012
(#183: 18 June 1977, 1 week)
Track listing: Twist And Shout/She’s A Woman/Dizzy Miss Lizzy/Ticket To Ride/Can’t Buy Me Love/Things We Said Today/Roll Over Beethoven/Boys/A Hard Day’s Night/Help/All My Loving/She Loves You/Long Tall Sally
“My youngest daughter, Lucy, now nine years old, once asked me about them, “You used to record them, didn’t you, daddy?” She asked, “Were they as great as the Bay City Rollers?” “Probably not,” I replied. Some day she will find out.”
(George Martin, from his sleevenote to The Beatles At The Hollywood Bowl)
“See me, climbing through the clouds,
The world is changing, colours clash.”
(“Clair” by My Bloody Valentine)
The song “Clair” appears on My Bloody Valentine’s 1987 mini-LP Ecstasy. More of documentary than aesthetic interest, the record still serves as a useful staging point; you can clearly hear where the band have been and where they intend to go next. “Clair” itself – not to be confused with another similarly-named song written by an Irishman – is musically pretty straightforward (all the more to mask some lyrics vicious enough to have been written by the 1965 John Lennon), a bright mid-sixties jangle skip which could almost be the Stone Roses, except when Kevin Shields’ voice bends (awkwardly) low and reminds us of the group’s more immediate (Jesus and Mary Chain) antecedents. But the song is disturbed throughout by a grinding loop of what sounds like unfathomable feedback, frequently threatening to submerge the song. In fact the loop was sampled from what George Martin calls “the eternal shriek from 17,000 healthy, young lungs” with the capacity to make “even a jet plane inaudible”; the screaming audience (or audiences) from The Beatles At The Hollywood Bowl. Nothing comes from nowhere.
The thirty-three minutes and fifteen seconds of what was then the only known usable recorded material of the Beatles on stage still present a picture of an audio riot which sounded extremely prescient in the summer of 1977. The main aim of the release was, as with previous similar number ones, to beat the bootleggers (low quality editions of their Carnegie Hall and Shea Stadium performances long having been available on the black market), but I wonder whether a subtle point wasn’t being proven. The complete and more than welcome antidote to the two hours plus of Portrait Of Sinatra, Hollywood Bowl zips along like a barely controllable jet stream of life and colour; it is as though somebody finally decided to fling the stolid windows open, with its thirteen tracks in a little over half an hour, culled from three concerts “the boys” gave there; six tracks from 23 August 1964 (there would have been more had the microphones not been working for the first five songs or so), two whole tracks from 29 August 1965 (“Ticket To Ride” and “Help!”), a composite mix of 29 and 30 August 1965 performances (“Dizzy Miss Lizzy”) and the balance from 30 August 1965. Listening again, it is easy to remember where (and from whom) the Ramones got their name.
There had been demand for a live Beatles album for some time, but as the Hollywood Bowl performances contained no otherwise unavailable material, the group decided against releasing them; Spector had a go at mixing them in 1971, without success; and it finally fell to Martin and Geoff Emerick to salvage the tapes in early 1977 (Polydor having released a lo-fi double album of their 1962 Hamburg Star Club performances a few months earlier. In addition, the highly successful musical Beatlemania had premiered in the States in May 1977; so a major revival of interest in the group was certainly in the air). This process was not without its difficulties; as the original performances had been recorded on three-track tape, Martin and Emerick had to set about finding a three-track tape recorder to listen to them again. One was eventually found but was prone to overheating; to solve the problem, Martin attached the tube of a vacuum cleaner to the machine in order to enable a flow of cold air. Having listened to the tapes, Martin and Emerick set about cleaning them up, remixing, re-balancing and generally making them listenable. Even so, they found that a few songs were completely unusable as they were almost totally obscured by the endless screaming (I think I would still have liked to have heard those, though, and not solely on a Metal Machine Music basis either).
The main thing about the Bowl performances is the screaming; from start to finish – the album is mixed and sequenced so as to mimic a standard Beatles set of the period – the girls never let up. The high-pitched drone is constant, and there are times – most evident on “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” and “Long Tall Sally” – where the scream effectively becomes a fifth instrument. While inevitably lacking the polish and artfulness of their studio work, the Beatles do a more than fair job of reproducing their magic live, a feat all the more remarkable when you consider that, due to the lack of “foldback” speakers, they couldn’t actually hear themselves onstage.
Lena in particular was keen to hear this record since the concerts – the 1965 ones at any rate – were promoted by KRLA, the station she listened to growing up in Hollywood, and its DJ Bob Eubanks, and she found listening to it a complete ball; as Martin is careful to emphasise in his sleevenote, the music was only a part of the total mid-sixties Beatles live experience – more than anything, it was about the moment, the here and now, and it is a tribute to Martin and Emerick’s skills that a dozen years on (and indeed now nearly half a century down the line), the music still sounded current.
I believe it is Mr Eubanks who introduces the group at the beginning of the record, and they and their screamers waste no time, launching immediately into a quickfire (80 seconds!) “Twist And Shout” before moving on to “She’s A Woman.” McCartney comes close to busting his lungs, or at the very least his throat, on this performance (“She’s a woman RIGHT now!”), and the careful fusion of ska and nascent New Pop found in the studio recording reveals more of a country undertow here. Lennon then addresses the audience with deliberate hesitation, musing over the difference between an “LP” and an “album,” before striking into a frenzied “Dizzy Miss Lizzy.” Roughshod with plenty of mistakes, it is nevertheless a powerful performance, and overall the effect is quite electrifying, the band at some stages struggling to become audible above the sine waves of screams, as if their music is being consciously subverted from outside, an outside only they could have created.
“Can you hear me?” asks an anxious McCartney to an enormous roar of approval, before going into “their last but one single.” This “Ticket To Ride” stays remarkably close to the original, and since Martin confirms that no overdubs or redos were applied to the tapes, it adds to a possibly surprising picture of how good a working group the Beatles were at the time – despite Lennon’s subsequent scepticism about their later live work, this is a band fully sure of and confident in themselves, and if anything the latent, proto-drone/metal power of this “Ticket” beats the original, being necessarily more tactile.
They get on a roll. “Can’t Buy Me Love” works here as a jazzier, twelve-bar blues variant on the original, and its natural swing is not compromised by Harrison’s slightly out-of-tune guitar solo. Back then to the equivalent point in 1964, McCartney attempting to calm the audience down with a relatively low-key tune, but this “Things We Said Today” only serves to increase their intensity, after making the harmonic debt to the Everly Brothers more apparent in the verses, the middle-eight rocks out with quite unexpected ferocity and provokes an immediate, deafening reaction; the overall feeling of added feedback sounds as though the future has nudged its way in, twenty years early. Side one ends with mild-mannered George serrating his throat on “Roll Over Beethoven,” a song they must have been playing since they were schoolboys, and the thunder generated by both group and screamers here does not undersell the concept of Britons selling American music back to an America which had forgotten it, or been too young to hear it, or had never heard it in the first place.
Side two is essentially more of the same. “To sing a song called ‘Boys’ – RINGO!” it begins, and a warped Pistols/MBV thrash unexpectedly makes its way in before Ringo regains control, his vocal here a lot more febrile than on the original, his “Come on, GEORGE!” more urgent. The momentum is growing – this is a 1964 “now” and what is happening is, on at least one level, beyond exciting.
Then back to 1965, and a sardonic, sing-song announcement from Lennon – sounding not unlike somebody else of Irish descent named John – about songs from their movies. “One was black and white…and one was coloured!...This is from the black and white one,” leading to an apocalyptic bash through “A Hard Day’s Night” (although Harrison ends the number on a standard, straight G major root chord). Lennon proceeds to announce a song from “our second movie…the one in colour…a different film…we’ve made two…our latest record over here…which means this is our new single.” You get the feeling that he’s about ready to strangle this audience, but after a brief, sarcastic exchange of thank-yous between John and Paul leads to “Help!,” suddenly we get a glimpse of the “John Lennon” most people will choose to remember; troubled, yearning – and yet they continue to scream, paying not a nanosecond of attention to what he’s saying. You wonder if he hated them for it.
Back once more to 1964 for the closing sequence, and there’s no stopping them: “We’d like to carry on with a song,” says McCartney, as though addressing a scout hut meeting, “from our last Capitol album (you note the slight discomfort they have remembering that, in the States, their records are different from the ones in Britain); we hope you like this song,” again to be answered by a wall of hysteria. “All My Loving” does its rollercoaster thing, and then, again, it’s Lennon: “An oldie that some of you older people might remember – from last year” (by no means overdoing the accusatory subtext). “She Loves You,” a song that doesn’t quite have the same resonance in the States as it does here - “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” not included here, was the big nation-reunifying breakthrough there - is sung in a rather lower key than in the original, but, as with any time there’s an instrumental break, all they have to do is shake their heads and croon “Wooo!” and the crowd goes incandescent. Finally, after another Rotary Club round of thank-yous (“Have you enjoyed the show?” asks Paul rhetorically, and also, were he to know it, already looking forward to the title song of Sgt Pepper; he also apologises for what is essentially a half-hour set – “Our last one...oh yes, oh YES…you know?...sorry!”), the band finish off with a tumultuous “Long Tall Sally” and here band and audience become one and you hear exactly what the Mary Chain got out of this (and therefore also what MBV got out of the Mary Chain’s discoveries), an absolutely harmonious noise-surf leading up to an explosion of NOW, and exit stage left to the screams, which continue, undiminished, as the record fades.
This was, like its EMTV Golden Greats predecessors (UK catalogue number: EMTV 4), advertised on television, yet I don’t think its success – it reached number one here in the week of McCartney’s thirty-fifth birthday, and just one week after that Silver Jubilee singles chart – can be purely ascribed to simple craving for nostalgia; if anything, The Beatles At The Hollywood Bowl is more like a genie in a bottle; rub it the right (or wrong) way and so many things, ideas and futures flood out of it. As with the Ramones, one feels that half an hour is just right, just enough for this music’s power to take root. And one also feels that, in view of the surrounding, encroaching, suffocating nostalgia of the time, and the palpable inability of established “present tense” rock music to deal with its time, this record points to an escape route, a way out towards a better future. It has never been reissued on CD – except in Japan – and perhaps Martin and the surviving Beatles feel that there isn’t enough material here to warrant a full CD release, even in the subsequent light of the Anthology series. But, as I am sure everyone from Kevin Shields to Marshall Crenshaw (whose first big break was playing Lennon in Beatlemania) would concur, this is a more significant record than it pretends to be, and an extremely welcome head and mind cleaner, water after the desert of ancient “respect” surrounding it. Moreover, in a year which more than one over-excitable claimant deemed "Year Zero," the record quietly (or, perhaps, loudly) demonstrates that in pop there is not really any such thing, especially if the lesson comes in the form of a gift from one "Year Zero" (1964) to another.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 15:22
Wednesday, 25 July 2012
(#182: 2 April 1977, 2 weeks)
Track listing: Let’s Face The Music And Dance/Nancy (With The Laughing Face)/I’ve Got You Under My Skin/Let Me Try Again/Fly Me To The Moon/All Or Nothing At All/For Once In My Life/Bonita/My Kind Of Town/Call Me Irresponsible/All The Way/Strangers In The Night/Didn’t We/Come Fly With Me/Second Time Around/In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning/Bad, Bad Leroy Brown/Softly, As I Leave You/Cycles/Send In The Clowns/That’s Life/Little Green Apples/Song Of The Sabia/Goody Goody/Empty Tables/I Believe I’m Gonna Love You/Stargazer/I Sing The Songs/You Are The Sunshine Of My Life/It Was A Very Good Year/Something Stupid/Young At Heart/You Make Me Feel So Young/Yesterday/Pennies From Heaven/If/Something/Star/Love’s Been Good To Me/My Way
“I go back…I know that I’ll go back”
(“Song Of The Sabia”)
“A gallery full of ghosts”
In keeping with the general Moebius-like nature of this tale, our next entry takes us right back to the beginning; Sinatra was the first artist I wrote about on Then Play Long, and even the first song on entry #1 reappears here, albeit a different recording. In those early days it sometimes seemed like he was at number one all the time, although only five albums featuring him – three under his own name, including an earlier compilation, and two movie soundtracks – actually went all the way. Still, those were five out of the first thirteen entries, so his omnipresence then was easy to acknowledge.
Less easy to understand was his return to number one in 1977. For overseas readers scratching their heads, I should point out that Portrait Of Sinatra - bearing the portentous subtitle “Forty Songs from the Life of a Man” – was a UK-only release, timed to coincide with the singer’s visit to Britain, including a residency at the Royal Albert Hall. A portrait, seen on the gatefold sleeve in several stages of completion, was undertaken by one Michael Noakes, “President of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, Member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters.” The inside of the sleeve also includes encomia of varying value from Bing Crosby, Hoagy Carmichael, Frankie Valli, Nelson Riddle (very good on the art of the Sinatra arranger), Count Basie and, poetically, Antonio Carlos Jobim (“Exhausted confessions”).
If all of this sounds potentially overbearing, you are not alone in your concern; this is the first of no less than four 40-track double compilations to make number one in 1977 (only one of which has since made it onto CD), and while I remember enough of the time to know that back then size meant everything – more albums! Bigger albums! – am I alone in finding these bumper packages rather bullying? I can’t imagine anyone who bought Portrait sitting down and listening to the whole thing – well over two hours – at one stretch, and doing so feels somewhat like being hit repeatedly on the head with a cast iron steam shovel. I felt the listening experience akin to being bludgeoned, and am sure that is exactly what was intended. I recognise that in the pre-CD world, scholarly collections meant cumbersome multi-vinyl album boxes, but without the ease of cherry picking and flitting from track to track that one gets with a CD, the concept is oppressive, designed to hammer the greatness of Sinatra – or any of the other three acts getting similar treatment that year – into the listener’s head.
This is a pity, since as a record Portrait is not dispensable; although it misses out several key performances from Sinatra’s Reprise years, it compensates by including several genuine rarities, including otherwise non-compiled single-only releases and two selections from the never-released 1970 Sinatra-Jobim album (one of which, “Song Of The Sabia,” ended up as a B-side). I found that the only way to listen to all of it and remain sane, however, was to do so one side at a time, and having now listened to the whole album, I am still unclear as to what sort of picture of Sinatra these forty songs paint; the order is semi-random, leaping from decade to decade, style to style, track by track. But let us see what I was able to discover (N.B.: the bold headings are mine, and not what you find on the sleeve or label).
Side One: East
His “Let’s Face The Music And Dance” is a bizarre starter (“There may be trouble ahead” – what kind of warning are we being given?) and Johnny Mandel’s actively aggressive big band chart almost overwhelms the singer with its constant barging dodgems of brass and reeds. Also, his timing and phrasing aren’t quite what they were back in the fifties; at several points here he slurs the words (“bi-i-i-ills,” “Moooooon-liiiiiight-annnnn-muuuuu-sickkkkkkkk”) or lets them go (“Face the music!”). “Nancy,” written by Phil Silvers and Jimmy van Heusen for his infant daughter, is handled with much more sensitivity (his “hello”s are the essence of humility), so it is a shame that Sinatra spoils it with an ad lib final verse having a go at Audrey Hepburn and Liz Taylor (for an interesting variant, see the Elton Dean Quartet’s reading of the same tune on their live 1977 album They All Be On This Old Road).
The “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” here comes from his 1974 television special The Main Event, recorded with an orchestra augmented by Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd (minus the leader), and despite his heartfelt spoken introduction (“Cole Porter’s shining hour”), this reading is snarling and lecherous, completely missing the awestruck anticipation of his 1956 version (“It repeats, it repeats, it REPEATS!”). He sings “I know damn well” instead of “I know so well,” growls his “skin”s and doesn’t even attempt those two unwritable notes in the final lap, settling instead for an unattractive signoff of “Where does it hurt ya, baby?”
Then, without rhyme or reason, we are suddenly pushed into his 1973 comeback record, “Let Me Try Again,” a French-Italian melody requiring lyrical assistance from the seldom-united duo of Sammy Cahn and Paul Anka. Sinatra does it as though going for broke in Eurovision, though I note he can’t quite reach the final “We can (have it all)” following the key change (“Pride is such a foolish mask”). After that we are shifted back into 1966 and the first of several visits to the Sinatra At The ‘Sands’ live album, with Quincy Jones arranging and conducting the Basie band, and for many Sinatra followers the epitome of the Sinatra they can identify with; masculine, rat packing, gambling, boozing, chopped-off one-liners, frankly not giving a damn. “Fly Me To The Moon” comes from here, but as elsewhere, its bluff ebullience works better if you listen to the Sands album as a whole, unfunny ten-minute stand-up sequence included, though it is useful here to note (and many thanks to Lena for noting it) that Sinatra’s birth planet was Jupiter, a huge planet with many satellite moons, the Zeus of planets, an unrepentant spirit who has the power and confidence to do what he wants exactly when and how he wants to do it.
And then “All Or Nothing At All,” his first hit from 1939 with Harry James, here present in the Don Costa 1962 re-recording for the superb Sinatra And Strings album. The arrangement’s slightly overstated melodrama actually suits the song well, and for the first time we get a glimpse of why Sinatra was not just loved, but venerated; he is fully able to meet the challenges the song’s ambiguities present to him – you feel the tearing of his pain as he muses: “I’ve got to say no – NO!” and as strings counterpoint him and arise around him, there is a brief pause – is he going to go for that final high C or not – before – my God! – he actually does it; and the emotional impact is overwhelming – these were emotions not available to him as a 24-year-old bobbysox scream screen. Here you can see why he was “The Voice.”
After that, the big band romp through “For Once In My Life” is foolish – his problems with “contemporary” songs will recur throughout the record – and his “You WON’T take it!” (in comparison with Stevie’s “You CAN’T take it!”) gives the song a completely different, and nowhere near as attractive or compelling, perspective.
But then, the first of the Jobim tracks. The reason why the Sinatra-Jobim album was pulled at the last minute was that Sinatra was worried about whether it might sell, and apart from his (sadly unrepresented) 1969 collaboration with Gaudio and Crewe, Watertown, it did contain some of the most challenging material Sinatra was ever given. Claus Ogerman’s arrangements have more than a touch of Gil Evans about them – now there’s a collaboration I would have paid to listen to – and the singer handles Jobim’s tricky harmonic modulations with an ease which disguises an ineffable sadness. “Capture you…like a soft evasive mist,” Sinatra muses to himself as a walking bass stops dead to usher in multiple flute antiphonies, underscored by Jobim’s whole tone piano chords; he sounds as though singing to himself, his “Bonita,” whose name he repeats over and over, in near infinite variations, as though summoning a spirit (“Maria”?), is, in this context, the “it” of “My Elusive Dreams.” “If you loved me,” he sings at one point, “life would be beautiful,” and the banks of dissonant harmonies strongly recall Evans’ “Where Flamingos Fly.” With “My Kind Of Town,” complete with Basie’s “April In Paris” comping, we are, jarringly, back at the Sands, and I wonder whether inside Sinatra there are two competing Sinatras, each constantly striving to be the dominant character. The closing “Call Me Irresponsible,” handled as a low-light lounge cooler (with flutes and celeste), does not resolve this conflict.
Side 2: North
With the old songs – the lost art of the inter-war popular song – Sinatra was instantly more comfortable. He fits into this “All The Way” with such ease that there is little difference from the 1957 original, apart from a slight vocal gruffness. With “Strangers In The Night,” a song he professed to hate, he also found himself surprisingly able to adapt to mid-sixties easy listening modes, with the song’s effective dramatic pauses, especially the slightly longer one before the final key change, Hal Blaine’s dustbin lid drumming and Sinatra’s throwaway scatting to fade, so compelling a picture that most buyers of the record didn’t stop to think what the song was about.
His “Didn’t We” proves him to be an excellent interpreter of Jimmy Webb, using the old Sinatra trick of gradual build-up, from voice and piano alone (and out of tempo) to strings, then alto saxophone and rhythm, Sinatra’s grieving vocal effortlessly fighting its way through curtains of brass, percussion and woodwind to reach an almighty climax, before abruptly falling back into quietude, or non-existence. What this has to do with the admittedly warm and horny reading of “Come Fly With Me” (again from the Sands, where Sinatra delivers virtually all these songs with a barely concealed subtext of “Let’s Fuck”; he signs off here with a ludicrous and slightly worrying “And don’t tell your papa!”), however, is beyond me.
“Second Time Around,” written by Cahn and van Heusen (who also wrote “Come Fly With Me”), is one of the record’s quietest tracks and also one of its most moving, Sinatra surrendering to his second and better chance, as the strings slowly and gently do a closing descant, from violin down to bowed bass. “In The Wee Small Hours” is a re-recording, but like “All The Way” the difference is hard to discern for those who don’t know the originals, and it proves, again, that when Sinatra gave himself a chance, he was capable of greatness.
But then it’s back to 1973, and Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” with its bad, bad female backing singers, dated arrangement and Sinatra’s wholly unconvincing swamp growl (he concludes the track with a junkyard dog-emulating “Ruff! Ruff!”) and once again it is nearly impossible to correlate one Sinatra to the other. Matters are not helped by his bombastic 1965 reading of “Softly,” a big hit in the UK three years earlier for Matt Monro, one of the very few male singers for whom Sinatra expressed his admiration, and despite its European origins, a uniquely British performance, Monro tiptoeing around his suitcases as quietly and sadly as he can – it is an English equivalent to “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” though unlike that latter song it only hints at the reasons for his leaving (“After all the years…”). Unfortunately, Sinatra bellows the song – including all the “softly”s – over a Red Army Choir backing and the delicacy of the original is lost; you can imagine his Other waking up amidst all the row and yelling, “OK, so go then, gimme some rest!”
After that, back to a more satisfying quiet; “Cycles” sees Sinatra getting to grips with contemporary (1968) modes and is a quietly optimistic performance; everything in the world has happened to him – his girl walked out on him last week, and, “Friday, I got fired.” So he is lying in his bed, thinking and not giving up, although at the song’s end he warns “Please don’t ask me now.” Its Reprise (or Brother, or Caribou) equivalent would be “Long Promised Road” from Surf’s Up. And although no “Send In The Clowns” sung from the male perspective is going to convince the listener fully (but listen, for a surprisingly successful attempt, to Bruce Forsyth’s version from 1975, from the same album that has “Sandra,” a song that would not be out of place on Reed’s Berlin).
Half the album done, and I’m still not sure what’s going on here or what it’s all supposed to be about.
Side 3: South
Ah, “That’s Life,” the Sinatra life summary for men; R&B organ (Michel Rubini), growling, grunting and yet sometimes surprisingly hesitant vocals (“I don’t let it…let it get me down”) – James Brown could have done this song (and perhaps he did) – Sinatra was born a Sagittarian, the sign of the centaur, half man, half beast, and the album is perhaps a struggle between the two. Here, though, this is the beast’s story, and triumph; he doesn’t even sound as though death will finish him (“My MY!!”).
The beast, aggressive, forthright and domineering, versus the man, thoughtful, sensitive and reticent; and once again the man takes over on “Little Green Apples”; again, much of the song is performed out of tempo – drums do not come in until nearly two minutes – and Sinatra sings as somebody dazed by unconditional love; he can’t believe she’s sitting there, smiling, to greet him even though he’s always late for lunch, and wonders at the wonders of the world and beyond, that such love is his to have forever. Towards the end it stops being “Little Green Apples” and instead becomes an abstract meditation on the song which could theoretically wander forever.
The song slips seamlessly into the majestic “Song Of The Sabia,” with “All Or Nothing At All” this record’s great masterpiece. Here Sinatra sounds hypnotised throughout, Jobim’s melody always probing, gently nudging the singer. There is an extremely moving moment towards the end where Sinatra slowly realises that maybe he’s just been looking in a mirror for too long. “All the love I made to forget myself…all those mistakes I made, just to find myself.” After a very meaningful pause he returns, still bewitched (“where I can hear the Song of the Sabia”), crucified by awe – and he is answered by a wholly unexpected crescendo of atonal, stinging flutes and brass, as though waiting to be devoured.
After that the ringy-dinging of “Goody Goody” simply will not do – emotionally it does not fit at all with “Sabia” – and yet one of its co-writers, Johnny Mercer, was also in part responsible for the extraordinary stand-alone single “Empty Tables.” We are back in the lonesome saloon bar at closing time as state of mind – there is, crucially, no “One For My Baby” here (the original was done for Capitol, and although there is a quite spellbinding version with Bill Miller’s piano alone on Live At The ‘Sands’, one can understand the compilers’ wish not to exhaust that particular mine) – but, quite aside from re-calling an old, abandoned love, Sinatra seems to be singing to, and about, himself. “I’m singin’ the same old numbers/And I’m tellin’ the same sad jokes”; it is a striking moment of self-analysis, and the volume never rises above quiet, just enough to make you hear that, when love is gone, death might be the only option.
This is succeeded by the 1975 single “I Believe I’m Gonna Love You” – Sinatra’s last British Top 40 hit for over a decade – which is somewhat woolly and cheery in a Perry Como sort of manner but he appears to be concerned with a higher level of devotion; there is a hymn-like vulnerability to Sinatra’s performance which transcends the material. Neil Diamond’s “Stargazer” gets a zippy “Long-Haired Lover From Liverpool” reading and Sinatra gets pretty worked up, at one point exhorting the tenor soloist to “Jump on that jam! Get all over that thing!” (what did I say about James Brown?)
On the other hand, “I Sing The Songs” – a.k.a. “I Write The Songs” – is Eurovision time again, with two challenging key changes; in the first, Sinatra doesn’t quite land on the high sustenato the “SING” of “I SING” requires, but at the end of the second, he hits and holds on the climactic “SONGS” with room to spare. It is showbiz cheese, though, as is his “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” which he concludes with a disturbing, low-voiced chant of “Light my fire, light my fire…”
But then the side concludes with “It Was A Very Good Year,” the Sinatra life summary for women. Clearly an art song, it reunited Sinatra with his best arranger, Gordon Jenkins (their Capitol collaborations Where Are You? and especially No One Cares should be approached with extreme caution by those susceptible to the sadness of the bereaved), and like Randy Newman on the song’s later female counterpart, Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?,” Jenkins is careful to vary the accompaniment from verse to verse; flutes and oboes for age 17, strings for 21, clarinets for 35 and contrapuntal woodwind and strings for the autumn. Through the song’s gently twisting pathways, Sinatra sings of a life where, although he seems tired but happy with it, he appears to have done the same thing again and again, in different guises, and with different “girls”; his adolescent “And it ca-a-a-a-a-a-aaame undone” is balanced by the later, reflective, quietly sorrowful “But now the days grow short.” But it is clear that he has never found any “real” happiness, or satisfaction, or even love, and the song hints more than once that he went out of his way to avoid such things occurring. Behind and around him, Jenkins’ orchestra weeps the tears he cannot; he is “a broken man, too tough to cry” (and let’s remember who the broker was in terms of Brian Wilson meeting with Van Dyke Parks), now silently awaiting extinction, inwardly cursing himself for all the people who were, all the time, waiting for him.
Side 4: West
Near the beginning of the record he sang of Nancy, and here is Nancy herself; no one who sent the song to number one was particularly bothered about father and daughter singing these lines, much less about whether they were singing in parallel universes, or to whom they were singing. Written by Carson Parks – and yes, he was a relation, Van Dyke’s younger brother – “Something Stupid”’s smoothness and warm alto flute cocktail comfort blankets are misleading (and probably derive from the first Sinatra-Jobim album, recorded at the same time) since this is a song about love as something to be adored, that is, until it comes to talking about love, or falling in love.
Did Sinatra ever really fall in love?
There’s “Young At Heart,” re-recorded but with Sinatra sounding absolutely comfortable; there was something of him, or in him, that doesn’t quite go with him into the sixties, or Reprise Records, except those ancient, remembered breezes of memory, the songs that were songs, the way of doing things that worked perfectly fine until time and rock and roll came and did things to it. Here’s “You Make Me Feel So Young,” the song that kicked this whole tale off, and a last visit to the Sands.
There’s “Yesterday,” and if you want the definitive string-laden crooning ballad interpretation you have to go to the unsurpassable Marvin Gaye. Sinatra and strings do their best to get involved but there’s an essence that bypasses Sinatra, that he doesn’t quite capture. You can’t really believe he’s in a state of sorrow. Here’s “Pennies From Heaven” with Basie and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Sinatra whooping it up with the boys, conjuring up that last, desperate gust one more once. There’s “If” which in itself is enough to suggest that Sinatra should have left the seventies alone entirely; despite a subtle “All The Way” quotation under the phrase “Beside you all the way,” he manages to get the words wrong twice (“And now you’ve left me too” is not what David Gates wrote, nor is it what the song means) and sings the final, crucial “fly away” as a low baritone, as though he’s too old ever to get off the ground again.
His “Something” is, alas, also a failure, despite his naming it “the greatest love song of the last fifty years” and even speaking with George Harrison about it. Why? Again, it may simply be that he is too old to sing it, but Shirley Bassey managed to draw different and refreshing things out of the same song. But the fuzzed bass is incongruous and irritating, and halfway through, any emotional resonance is demolished by an abrupt, ungainly big band rampage which even Sinatra’s inspired coda of “Don’t want to leave her now” over the song’s leitmotif does not rescue. In addition, he cannot adequately stretch Harrison’s haiku-like lyric to lengths comfortable for him to improvise.
What else? There is “Star,” the theme from the flop Julie Andrews musical about Gertrude Lawrence, and this record’s last, and entirely forgettable, ring-a-ding-ding flourish. And then there is “Love’s Been Good To Me,” written by Rod McKuen and a slightly more explicit “Very Good Year” uptake. Although it defies rationalism to picture Sinatra hiking down one highway, let alone one hundred, he plays the wanderer role quite contentedly, if not totally convincingly; again, there are hints of what might have been – Denver, Portland – and implications of unspeakable pain (“the summer storm,” “the winter chill”). Musically it is much more like Webb’s “The Yard Went On Forever” (verses only) with a hint of a more obviously hurt “Wand’r’n’ Star” about the lyric.
And “My Way,” however randomly the rest of this album has been compiled, was always going to be the only way to close; Sinatra (and Anka)’s supreme hymn to the self with any notion of regret or loss brutally cut off, a song convincing enough to the British that they kept it in the singles chart for just short of three straight years, a song used at christenings, funerals, and most events in between, for a large swathe of people to convince themselves that their life meant something more than being a drone, or a slave. Here, the man and the beast reach a sort of compromise, to enable them to continue co-existing. This is the last we’ll see of Sinatra in this tale – at least, directly – and apart from “our” parents, Portrait was an album that must have been bought and studied by many people who would go on to positions of importance in the eighties, Ian Curtis (although his importance was largely posthumous) and Martin Fry being not the least of them. But what sort of picture does this album leave us with? Perhaps it’s just one of an ordinary, smiling, middle-aged man, whose life is a mess of contradictions and hopes and falls like everyone else’s. And we know that in just over a year from now, “My Way” will make the UK Top Ten, as performed by what was, by then, left of the Sex Pistols. But Sinatra joins 1977’s bizarre last lap of honour, a summary of everything that has gone on until now. Both Sinatra and the Shadows made their reappearances here for the first time since 1958 and 1962 respectively; it’s like the Beatles never happened.
But wait a minute…
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 14:07
Sunday, 22 July 2012
(#181: 19 February 1977, 6 weeks)
Track listing: Apache/Man Of Mystery/The Frightened City/Guitar Tango/Kon-Tiki/Foot Tapper/Genie With The Light Brown Lamp/The Warlord/A Place In The Sun/Atlantis/Wonderful Land/FBI/The Savage/Geronimo/Shindig/Stingray/Theme For Young Lovers/The Rise And Fall Of Flingel Bunt/Maroc 7/Dance On
Author’s Note: This piece is to some extent adapted from a previous piece I wrote about the Shadows in July 2004, but it is by no means the same piece, nor does it come to the same conclusion; the reader should allow for the lapse in time and the author’s changing views if they wish to read the original; see the link to The Clothed Maja on my list of links should you desire to do so, but I’d much rather you read this one.
More music that needs no words. As much as I admire Paul Morley’s 2003 book Words And Music, I do wish that his views weren’t so firmly set, or hadn’t been so firmly formed, in 1976 and Manchester. In the book he says: “…a group called the Shadows should have been better and stranger than the group called the Shadows actually were.” Actually the Shadows were one of the strangest groups there ever has been, but then my definition of strangeness has been defined and tempered by parameters which take the business of British politeness into deep account, much as my tastes in music and views of the world gradually change and develop the more I learn about both. In a sixth sense, the Shadows lived out their entire career in a series of shadows – the shadows of a richer and brighter post-war America, the suffocating shadow of ration(alis)ed post-war Britain, the blinding shadow of pre-war British showbiz under which the Shadows were forced to dwell. They couldn’t just drift through the Soho drains which the late Gordon Burn irrigated so intensely in his novel The North Of England Home Service, mainly because they were legally compelled to change their name from the Drifters. It might have been a more appropriate name for them – refugees drifting back from the apocalypse of World War II, trying to find their own home or build a new one – but then we tend to forget that it was the forgotten Shadow, Jet Harris, who suggested that the group be called the Shadows. The tall, blonde, enigmatic six-string bass player who was also to be the group’s second victim; for the group was driven by two vaguely pissed off Geordies (one of whom, Bruce Welch, was actually born in Bognor Regis), pissed off at not being Americans. How else to explain the impossible exoticism of a name like Hank Marvin (as opposed to the distinctly unglamorous name of Brian Rankine with which he was blessed at the wartime font) – the extra “B” was added at the same time as the Shadows walk was invented, but had anyone worked out that the B in Hank B Marvin stood for Brian, they would all have down the Evacuees’ walk from the theatre. Or “B” as second-class, second-rate. “B” for British. Perhaps it’s little wonder that he declined the OBE offered to him, for he has lived in Australia for some considerable time, and presumably finds life there far more congenital and accommodating.
Or perhaps the Shadows were just pissed off at being roped in to be the grinning backing group for a conveniently clean and polite one-man British pop tapestry-to-be. Everything of interest that happens in Cliff’s early hits is basically down to Hank Marvin; the the stinging nettle of a Fender Stratocaster which cuts through “Move It,” the desolate sighs copped off Santo and Johnny which turn “Travellin’ Light” into one of the most emptily spacious hits of the ‘50s.
How badly did the Shadows want to be Americans? When taking the UK/US non-relationship in terms of ‘50s pop into consideration, there are two different histories to consider. Firstly, the British pop market of the ‘50s was compelled, for reasons partly economic (that post-war, post-Beveridge balance sheet again) and partly political (the intransigence of the Musicians’ Union towards American musicians, which probably devalued British pop for the best part of a decade, and largely due to maintaining agendas rather than looking out for their members), to pretend to be self-sufficient. In practice this meant keeping a gimlet eye on the Billboard Hot 100 and cherry-picking songs for lost, pallid Britboys to cover. Thus America got Dion and the Belmonts and we got Marty Wilde (no offence to Mr Wilde, who subsequently became a surprisingly significant figure in the development of British pop over several decades); Sam Cooke over there, Craig Douglas over here. Only with artists too big to ignore – Elvis and what else they had – could ‘50s Britpop explicitly acknowledge that the question of American input had to be answered. True, Lonnie Donegan was enthusiastically popularising the likes of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, but you’d have been hard pressed to find any of their records in provincial Britain. If you weren’t fortunate enough to be living in London, then the next best way of doing this was to live next to a busy merchant port, with exotic and dangerous records (and, occasionally, exotic and dangerous musicians, MU stipulations notwithstanding) straight off the Merchant Navy boats – in other words, somewhere like Liverpool or Glasgow (and that in itself begs the question: when the time came, why did Merseybeat happen and not Clydebeat? Probably because, throughout the greater part of the ‘60s, folk and jazz carried much greater currency in Glasgow than pop – ask Billy Connolly or Bobby Wellins for confirmation). People like Duane Eddy and Les Paul did score mainstream hits, but if you could tell the difference between Glenn Burton and Scotty Moore and Link Wray then you were probably a musician already (The Kids weren’t too bothered about who played guitar on Ricky Nelson or Elvis records). It was your job to find out and know these things. Or you had to be sufficiently obsessed to want to find them out. So it was with Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch, going nowhere in South Shields and then coming straight down on the train to the 2 I’s and reinventing themselves as they felt was necessary, teaming up with a couple of London ace faces, Jet Harris and Tony Meehan.
But when it came to the Shadows’ music, it wasn’t an easy case of Let’s Do American Music; more the socially-conditioned perennial British attitude of trying to copy Other music, not getting it quite right and thereby inventing something new by accident (see subsequently Dexy’s Midnight Runners, A Certain Ratio, etc.). What is immediately striking about listening to “Apache” is the bifurcation between wanting to do a Duane Eddy/Ventures-style slow-burning instrumental rocker and the reality of not being able to discard English politesse, of instinctively recalling the dance band comping of people like Ivor Mairants (and, lest us not forget, Basil Kirchin) – the need to show consideration for fellow residents or neighbours (speaker muffs in the garage!), the unshakeable work ethic, the need to show consideration for and not overshadow the singer or band you are accompanying – and hence the quietest rock music there has been this side of the Chills (“Pink Frost” would have been right up the Shadows’ street in terms of emotional intensity in inverse proportion to actual volume). In other words, they want to break out – again note that savage Meehan triple snare thrash at 1:44 – but keep everything pent up; in, as it really was, the shadows (the mysterious bongo drum, the glue that holds the entire song together, was played by an uncredited Cliff). The pop group with an absent centre. The single went to number one less than a month after release.
And yet “Apache” was perhaps the most American the Shadows ever sounded; the dustblown Chris Isaak prairie echoes come in great part from here. Everything else on this compilation sounds incontrovertibly British, but comparison with their mentor Bert Weedon here is helpful; listen to his “Apache” (and his work in general) and you hear, unmistakably, the work of adults. Whereas the Shadows’ sound – and, specifically, Marvin’s guitar – is fuzzier, less technically precise, more aware of space (there are lots of Abbey Road echoes in their work) and, finally, more rocking, because they were half Weedon’s age and closer to the kernel of the development of British rock. Moreover, where Weedon gives plenty of space in his records to other voices – saxophone, keyboards, drums – the Shadows are essentially about Hank; his lead guitar functions as, effectively, the group’s lead singer. The other three are there to support his musings, but equally you couldn’t picture them functioning separately; what is important is that they work as an integrated group.
And that image – the spectacles straight from Buddy Holly, but as a sociological tool they were invaluable. Holly proved that you could be a geek and still (a) get the girls and (b) rock, but now here was Hank, our own British geek for uncertain young boys to idolise and emulate (the missing link, in a lot of divergent ways, between Buddy Holly and Arto Lindsay – though the Shadows never managed to break big in the States, their shadow shines all through DNA; in fact DNA bring to mind what Hank might really have wanted the Shadows to sound like, if he’d had a (Cliff) free hand).
The Shadows’ music would have been unmanageable without all their carefully suppressed aggression. Observe Hank’s sudden, jagged outburst which seemingly comes out of nowhere in the middle break of the Edgar Wallace Mysteries (filmed in the unglamorous surroundings of Merton Park Studios) TV theme “Man Of Mystery” before quickly retreating to the shades (he could so easily be Page or Clapton, both of whom listened to the Shadows and learned); or the faux-boldness of “FBI” (which could easily have been titled “Don’t Try It”) whose middle eight in particular predicates the work of Status Quo. On stage, however – and this is another aspect we latecomers miss – they were reportedly proto-punk. Listen to their Live At The ABC Kingston set, issued on CD in 2000 (if you can find it; petition for a reissue), for an inkling of how they played In Real Life; for 1960 it is in its own way as startling a live document as the contemporaneous Mingus At Antibes.
But the work collected here is testimony enough to why, in the last edition of Guinness’ British Hit Singles & Albums book, the Shadows are referred to as “Britain’s most influential and imitated act before The Beatles” (and never mind the music; how many hopeful teenagers paraded before their bedroom mirror trying to copy Marvin’s lines and do the Shadows Walk – a routine borrowed from American R&B act the Treniers – at the same time?). The third volume in EMI’s 20 Golden Greats series is not easy to find on CD, having been superseded in 2000 by a 2CD upgrade entitled 50 Golden Greats, which should not be mistaken for the same record; all twenty tracks reappear there, but in strict chronological order, and crucially “Wonderful Land” only appears in its original band-only form, without Norrie Paramor’s orchestra, which proves a fatal flaw. Back, then, to the vinyl original, with its mauve-on-monochrome inner sleeve advertising “SOME OTHER GREAT SHADOWS SOUNDS” and proceeding to promote several underperforming items in the Shads’ back catalogue; their 1965 #4 album The Sound Of The Shadows, 1974’s Rockin’ With Curly Leads which sees them bravely having a go at things like “Pinball Wizard” and “Good Vibrations,” 1975’s Specs Appeal, featuring their Eurovision runner-up entry “Let Me Be The One,” a live album recorded at the Paris Olympia, and two very useful compilation round-ups; 1969’s Somethin’ Else!! (that the album is bookended by tracks entitled “Lonesome Fella” and “Tomorrow’s Cancelled” should give you an idea of its general mood) and the fine Rarities which collects some of their work for the Thunderbirds films, cult items like “Scotch On The Socks” (with its deadly ironic “baby” asides) and “Sunday For Seven Days,” and their elongated 1969 elegy “Slaughter On Tenth Avenue” among other items of interest.
Throughout 1961 the Marvin/Welch/Harris/Meehan line-up continued to produce superb, inventive music. Listen to the antiphonal relationships within the quartet – particularly between Marvin’s lead and Harris’ bass – on the paranoid “The Frightened City” and wonder whether you aren’t hearing an early Echo and the Bunnymen (go to the first two tracks on Heaven Up Here and see for yourself). “Kon-Tiki,” memorably described by Bob Stanley as the sound of the “Tilbury surf,” explores the same musical relationships in a positive light and sets the mood for their series of optimistic New Britain anthems (and perhaps this explains why the Beach Boys didn’t really prosper in Britain until the Shadows began to fade a little; for a country largely immune to surfing – and unable to surf – their music fulfilled the same, sunny outlook); though note how the hammering, climactic ending anticipates the Who’s “Substitute.” Likewise, Meehan – later described by Marvin as “a prototype Keith Moon” – has his moment on “The Savage” where, towards the end, his kit breaks into intricate, hard patterns which more or less lay the groundwork for drum n’ bass. Even here, though, it is a wistful kind of savagery.
Inevitably, it couldn’t last. Meehan got his cards in 1961 when he turned up late for a gig once too often, and Harris walked out not long afterwards; they were replaced by Marty Wilde’s old rhythm section of Brian “Licquorice” Locking and Brian Bennett (Bennett drums with the Shadows to this day; Locking subsequently left and was replaced by the late John Rostill to form what was probably the Shadows’ most efficient and solid manifestation). Some say that an element of danger was forever lost from the Shadows at that point, and their records immediately became more benign; the daft optimism of “Kon-Tiki” for instance (recorded with Locking and Bennett), and more problematically their 1962 eight-week chart-topper “Wonderful Land.”
If the Shadows’ records were now ostensibly brighter, they were also noticeably more elegiac. No doubt intended as a kind of British equivalent of the Duane Eddy/Lee Hazlewood smash “Because They’re Young,” Paramor’s orchestral overdubs made “Wonderful Land” the Shadows’ most successful record, but only in part; the rest of it was down to British hope. Although Bruce Welch in particular was sceptical about adding anything to the basic Shadows sonic template, the track carries an indelible sadness (and note, in the wordless chorus, the first appearance of voices on this record) since it is not only a song of hope for a 1962 Britain that deserved a better future than the one it got – see also “Telstar” and “I Remember You” – but it is also a regretful acknowledgement that the future which the song promises might never actually come to pass. The lament which Marvin plays in the song’s middle eight becomes even more poignant, the strings and French horn never more unreachable. The song is like a hymn to Britain, and was an immense influence on, among many would-be guitarists, Mike Oldfield (who later covered the song).
Perhaps the Shadows were aware that time was already starting to overtake them. The aforementioned “Telstar,” number one everywhere in the autumn of 1962, seemed to come from a place that the Shadows were unable to reach; unquestionably futuristic, slightly threatening but ultimately one of the saddest pop records ever made, Meek knowing that he was probably already living on injury time. Meanwhile, the big American instrumental hit of late ’62 was Dick Dale’s “Misirlou,” where Dale’s lightning rod of a guitar seems to smirk a gigantic fuck-you to any notions of politesse.
In contrast, the Shadows’ then-hit “Guitar Tango” sounded like Geraldo trying to keep up with the New Thing; this is where Paramor’s arrangements start to compensate for the song, rather than add to its flavours, although admirers of “Oh Well” (Marvin’s close-miked semi-acoustic) and Forever Changes (the trumpets) may find profitable study material here. In even starker contrast, “Diamonds,” the first hit from Harris and Meehan as a self-sufficient act (although written by Jerry Lordan, the author of “Apache” and “Wonderful Land”) seemed like an aural approximation of the balls the other Shadows were too scared to show, although the career of this potentially revolutionary group was cut short due to personal mishaps outside this tale’s scope.
And then there were the Beatles. And then there was fucking Cliff with his eagerness to please everybody and his films which required the Shadows to frolic about with Richard O’Sullivan and Melvyn Hayes and his fucking panto seasons – as mild-mannered Brian Bennett once remarked to Bob Stanley in MOJO magazine: “Getting thrown through a mangle by Arthur Askey every afternoon wasn’t what I had in mind when I started drumming.” Add to this most grotesque of nightmares a basic wage of £50 per week which remained basic for most of the group’s existence.
In 1963, “Dance On!” and “Foot Tapper” (the latter improbably commissioned but never used by Jacques Tati) indicated some kind of vague toughening-up in response to the nascent Merseybeat. On “Dance On!,” the closing track on 20 Golden Greats (don’t worry; everything’s all right), Marvin’s generous leg-up guitar figures still portray good humour (the track, if anything, sounds like a prototype backing track for the Hollies, and I’m sure Tony Hicks and Graham Nash took careful note). “Foot Tapper,” still used as the theme to Radio 2’s Sounds Of The Sixties, also works well as a feature for Bennett’s drums. But “Atlantis,” also written by Lordan, and a #2 hit in the summer of 1963, plays like “Wonderful Land” gone wrong, as though the Promised Land had been flooded out of existence; Marvin’s Morse code guitar is high and terse, and the group circle rather morosely around the song’s key centre, trying to break away but always ending up back in the same place. Still, here as before, there is a tentative reaching out in Marvin’s playing that very closely echoes what ardent Winnipeg fan Neil Young was about to do; at this point he is in a Shadows-style group called The Squires, along with the young Randy Bachman (although in general the Shadows influence with Bachman tends to come out more with Bachman-Turner Overdrive than it did with the Guess Who).
However, “Shindig,” from that autumn, tries to keep the heads-up atmosphere of “Dance On!” but has to struggle to maintain it; Lena thinks the song is less about a “shindig” than travelling to one. And Paramor drowns “Geronimo” with trumpets, choirs and strings both arco and pizzicato, doing little other than smoothing over a below par tune (significantly, it became the first Shadows single to miss the UK Top Ten).
Through 1964 they really had little choice but to try and toughen up. Welch’s “Theme For Young Lovers” has a curious Scottish tone to its balladry (and a melody line highly reminiscent of Slade’s later “My Oh My”) but didn’t do quite as well as “Geronimo.” “The Rise And Fall Of Flingel Bunt,” evolving out of a group jam, was a sufficiently strong and forceful performance to put them back in the Top Five; the piano and rhythm predicating “Groovin’ With Mr Bloe,” the air somewhat funky – there are strains of Motown and, thanks to the piano, even deeper strains of Stax; Marvin’s commendably aggressive lead line sounding very close to Steve Cropper. However, it wasn’t enough; the excellent “Rhythm And Greens” failed even to make the Top 20, though “Genie With The Light Brown Lamp” did a little better and is a key performance here; you can hear the Shadows doing their best to move onto the next stage – more than once, they hit on a drone and tenuously hang onto it, and there is a suggestion of feedback at the fadeout. Topping the chart at the same time, however, was “I Feel Fine” with its opening two seconds of unapologetic feedback; it was hard to escape the feeling that the Shadows’ disciples had not only caught up with them, but were signalling to overtake.
Thereafter they hung on as best they could. As 20 Golden Greats concentrates on their instrumental work alone, there is no room for their now occasional forays into singing (“Mary-Anne,” “Don’t Make My Baby Blue”; they did begin life as an Everlys-style vocal/instrumental group) and that is perhaps just as well; by opening their mouths the (men of) mystery vanished and they revealed themselves as just another reasonable, harmless harmony pop group scarcely distinguishable from the Rockin’ Berries or the Four Pennies.
Marvin was now intent on sounding as little like “Hank Marvin” as possible. Thus 1965’s “Stingray” is deliberately jarring, his low guitar tones fed through a fuzzbox (“like a wasp stuck in a jamjar” he later reflected), although the track is not devoid of merit; there is the hint of what sounds like a sitar in the aural middleground, and the group’s general strategy of attack is not that dissimilar from Deep Purple. Similarly, “The War Lord” is a rather menacing prototype of medieval prog-rock, with judicious use of Picardy thirds in its light-footed waltz and an approach that leads directly to the work of Jethro Tull and King Crimson. 1966’s “A Place In The Sun” has a tempo and rhythm section approach which could easily lend itself to “Maggie May” but also an anguished lead guitar which, again, very strongly recalls Neil Young.
The last track to feature here – their only hit of 1967, and also their last hit of any kind for nearly eight years – is “Maroc 7,” the theme to a hugely forgettable Swinging London cops-‘n’-robbers caper of a film featuring the incompatible likes of Gene Barry, Cyd Charisse, Denholm Elliott and Leslie Phillips in its cast. Here the Shadows are barely hanging on to being “The Shadows”; Marvin is scarcely recognisable (again, sounding closer to sitar than guitar), and it is down to an angry Bennett to take the track out with a torrential drum rampage.
Their last single, the aforementioned “Slaughter On 10th Avenue,” lasted over five minutes, came out in early 1969 and was heard by few and bought by fewer, but I should mention it here since I won’t have another opportunity in this tale to do so. The group must have looked at the number one success of “Albatross” – a record unimaginable without the precedent of the Shadows, and probably unchartable had the Shadows released it - with no small degree of regret and frustration. Or indeed at the continued success of their Stateside equivalents, the Ventures, who in 1969 enjoyed the biggest-selling single of their career with the theme tune to “Hawaii Five-O.” Almost in terms of a last-ditch attempt to summon up past ghosts, Hank displays every guitar style he can think of during “Slaughter” – fuzzbox again, delicate acoustic picking, wah-wah pedal – before finally walking into the sunset with his original tremolo arm from “Apache.” The echo which will refuse to die. In the year of Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner,” it must have seemed dreadfully out of place, and in a foray of unpleasant engagements in Northern working men’s clubs, rendered inaudible by drunk catcalls for “Apache,” the band agreed they’d had enough, and split.
The history for the next decade was unfocused but valiant; a group calling themselves Marvin, Welch and Farrar made a brave attempt to become the UK’s CSNY, and then Eurovision prompted a reunion. With 20 Golden Greats, the effect was somewhat similar to The Jolson Story; the sorrowful nostalgia raised by the record brought the group themselves back into the spotlight and helped power their unexpected late seventies/early eighties second wind; this is not the last we’ll see of them.
But what to make of the Shadows as a whole, based on these twenty tracks? Lena describes them as a “trans-specific land bridge” through which every subsequent band of note had to walk before they could gain access to the future. The influence of early workouts like “The Savage” on the likes of the Beatles cannot be understated; one of their early attempts to write their own songs was a Paul and George instrumental entitled “Cry For A Shadow,” and it is indisputable that they and every other budding British band of the period would have had to learn to reproduce these songs. As far as their association with Cliff is concerned, I like to think of their concerts and followings as a pretty straightforward boy/girl split; girls screaming at Cliff, boys trudging up to Hank and Bruce and asking about tunings and pedals.
However, although their music is surprisingly soothing, given the times in which it was made – and their use of space can properly be described as hugely influential – I suspect that the group’s concomitant obligations to be backing band and/or foils to Cliff also did for their long-term credibility; in an environment of Kinks, Who and Yardbirds, the Shadows must have come across as terminally square, and I don’t think that is remotely their fault – again and again, even here, you can hear them making more than manful efforts to escape their aesthetic straitjackets. Still, why so big in 1977, TV advertising and nostalgia notwithstanding? Perhaps the secret lies in Jefferey Edwards’ cover drawing; three “shadow” guitars casting their shades across a bedroom. The moral? That anyone with three guitars in their bedroom could make music like this, although the music itself undemonstrably proves that, in actuality, very few could (the Shadows’ work pulls off the trick of sounding simple in theory but being devilishly complicated in practice). Still, what the Shadows undeniably proved was that, with three guitars and a drum kit, you could, with a lot of effort, application and love, make pretty much whatever music you wanted to. Oh, and the tall, saturnine figure of John Rostill would not have been at all out of place in Joy Division.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 17:35
Wednesday, 18 July 2012
(#180: 22 January 1977, 4 weeks)
Track listing: Rhinestone Cowboy/Mr. Ting-A-Ling (Steel Guitar Man)/Too Young/Let Me Call You Sweetheart/(It’s A) Small World/Somewhere My Love – Lara’s Theme From “Dr. Zhivago”/Una Paloma Blanca/Red River Valley/My Elusive Dreams/Cara Mia/When The Moon Comes Over The Mountain/Now Is The Hour
“Play me a shadow of my lonely room.”
His fans were all expecting something. But no one was expecting this.
“All by myself at twilight, watching the day depart;
And in the fading twilight, happiness fills my heart.”
It is a time, thirty-five years ago now, but a time very much like our time. A time when it was felt the human species was slowly being done for, when the old ways had dissipated and no one was sure what to replace them with. A time when the consensus – if something like a consensus can still be said to exist more than thirty years after a war – had abstracted itself into the vaguest of particles. Everybody was slowly, courteously, sealing themselves off from everybody else, content in their own self-imposed privacies, their own private villages, with nothing to connect them to the rest of the world except a computer.
“The grief you are causing me to see.”
Dehumanisation, mass production. These were terms bandied about freely in those days, when globalisation was revealing itself as a potential strangler of little worlds and the notion of “the whole Earth as the Village” was becoming gradually more persuasive to many. A majority, content with uniform mediocrity, capable of socialising only on the most basic of scales; the same music, the same games, the same politics, the same lives, if lives they could still be said to be. One big disco hit of the time was “Welcome To Our World Of Merry Music” by Mass Production; the label itself was sufficiently scary.
What happens to the individual faced with such dwindling prospects of world, and society? How do they manage to live without certainty yet not be paralysed by fear? One way is to…escape. But escape can take many forms. A popular British television situation comedy of the period was The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin where Leonard Rossiter portrayed an outwardly satisfied man internally on the verge of falling apart. Sickened of his non-life – as he, and perhaps only he, sees it – he fakes his own death on a beach, walking off to start a new life, only to find, by happenstance and design, that he ends up exactly in the same place where he started.
Many happy returns?
Or can you pull off the supreme trick – of disappearing, before the very eyes of your audience?
What other response is there to the modern world than erasing oneself from it?
I was in my second year at Uddingston Grammar. I got through it a lot better than I did my first, when I was still wary and uncomfortable. I suppose you could say it was an enjoyable time, but in retrospect some teachers were warm and encouraging and others were clock-watching bastards. I was already busy with extracurricular pursuits; the school debating society, for instance, and also I spent a lot of time rehearsing for an end-of-term school play called The Chinese Mask, a harmless bit of fluff about a group of kids in prep school who imagine themselves to be detectives; the lead character is called Pinkerton. It can’t have been any longer than twenty minutes or so but we did put a lot of effort and application into it. My initial suggestion, namely Whose Dog Are You? by BS Johnson, was quickly, and nervously, laughed off. True, the play was never actually produced and survived only as part of a mongrelisation called BS Johnson vs God, but I was prepared to rewrite the missing parts. At the time I also wrote my first (unpublished) novel, a strange thing called Leap Into Version Five which jauntily vaulted across all known literary barriers and deconstructed the novel to a degree that would have made old Bryan growl. It still exists, and now reads like incoherent juvenile tat, but it was a useful workshop for me to think about what I wanted to do and achieve as a writer.
As I say, no one was expecting such a response from, of all people, Slim Whitman, although the cover alone should have made buyers rethink; there he is, in full profile, against an oddly desolate-looking orange landscape, clearly the Red River, but his smile is strangely uncertain and his picture looks as though pasted onto the background on a computer. Slim Whitman, from Florida, and perhaps it took some people until his appearance in Mars Attack! to work through the idea of his being an alien who falls into the West, but the impression is already more than apparent here. He does not look unambiguously happy; indeed, he looks a little distracted, as though wishing to be somewhere else completely, including nowhere else.
Most of the album was recorded in Britain under the production team of Ken Barnes – who in seventies Britain specialised in reviving careers of pre-rock entertainers, including Johnny Mercer, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and Peter Sellers – and Alan Warner, with Whitman himself and Pete Moore collaborating on the arrangements. Three of the tracks, however – “Somewhere My Love,” “My Elusive Dreams” and “Now Is The Hour” – come from an American recording session in 1975, overseen by pedal steel guitarist Pete Drake, a name we’ve not seen here since the days when Dylan was a TPL regular. The title of its parent album? Everything Leads Back To You.
And some of it was recorded in front of a wall.
The record gets off to an ebullient, if slightly cheesy, start with Whitman’s reading of “Rhinestone Cowboy.” He sings it as though it were indeed a song of the Old West with yodels and even an accordion. But other dynamics break through the song’s fabric; an incongruous rock guitar and a disturbing, descending electronic whoosh, repeated again and again, like a Stones backing track left on autopilot, interrupted by icy cuboids of string synthesiser.
His version of “Una Paloma Blanca” – no, this is not the running order, but trust me, it makes more sense this way – is even more alarming. He allows himself one extra bar in each chorus so he can yodel, and there are also two key changes. Despite the questionable backing singers, his celebrations of freedom are not quite untethered – he puts special emphasis on the couplet “Yes, they tried to break my power/Oh, I still can feel the pain.” But the song staggers around itself like a collapsed Hendrix jam, glued together with fire alarm analogue synthesisers, and he reveals that what he has been breaking is glass. “You’re such a wonderful person,” he concludes, “but you’ve got problems.” He asks to touch (but does not want her, or him, to see what he’s done) and then he’s gone in an instant.
“(It’s A) Small World” is a bracing run through the Sherman brothers’ Disneyland jingle, its yodel-heavy gallop only slightly detoured by the inhuman electronic gargle, like a ceaselessly dripping tap, which runs through the entire song, where the small world is demonstrated to be a room which the singer’s subject never leaves, and eventually he resorts to quoting the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love” with the sinister midway whisper: “I’m just a little bit afraid of you/’Cause love won’t make you cry.”
“Too Young” does not resemble anybody’s idea of a hit single by a major artist. The song rambles along like a kind of robotic disco discharge, clearly evolving from a funk jam. Again the string synthesiser descends on the scene like atomic snow before abruptly cutting off. There is a female voice – one wordless line, and a hugely poignant moment; a reminder of memory, of the days that those once were. Then a puffing walrus of a baritone sax, and it is not until almost two minutes that the singer, in his lowest register, booms into the picture; even now, it remains a shocking moment. The lyric, as such, is like a series of Beckettian cue cards resembling a pop song – “Don’t you wonder sometimes?,” “Nothing to read, nothing to say.” And then, almost as quickly as it started, the “song” ends and fades into artillery snare drum fire; a profoundly disturbing addition to any top three singles chart, and one which certainly made this thirteen-year-old observer think that it was true; everybody was cutting themselves off from everybody else.
Gollancz’s Science Fiction Argosy, edited by Damon Knight, no cover but a huge single burgundy volume, borrowed on repeat from the local library, was my staple read of that time. I’d stretch out on my used chaise longue in my bedroom, with innumerable pieces of paper and notes scattered around its fabric, and read; it was an enormous compilation of “the greatest” science fiction stories, so big that it incorporated two novels, Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man and Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human. I couldn’t get enough of it, read everything into and out of it. It added to my general internal picture of a politely disintegrating world.
“My Elusive Dreams” is perhaps the album’s stand-out track; a far more emotionally involved and generous reading than that of Tom Jones on the Delilah album, but still the most desolate of songs – Whitman is truly incredulous that his wife is still willing to follow him around with his possibly imaginary quest (his “And still you won’t let me go it alone” is considerably more compassionate than Jones’), despite the fact that in the course of their endless moving on in the search for “it,” a third party is born and dies. And yet he won’t give up; he can’t give up, and Drake’s matchless pedal steel accompaniment makes you feel the chill in his soul as well as the warmth of his companion.
But this “it” – what is it? “Every chance/Every chance that I take,” he sings, “I take it on the road.” Always the same crashing end, the soaring guitar representing his futile hopes of escape. Then again, who decided they were futile? In “Cara Mia” – an old song played here like Abba performing “Oliver’s Army,” with fast piano, argumentative pedal steel and near-power pop drums – Whitman is so desperate to hold onto his lover that his “’Til the end of time” hovers like the ghost of Ophelia.
And, deep in the surface ebullience, a confession: “Sometimes you get so lonely.” An admission: “I’ve left every place.” A prayer: “Share my life.” Isn’t that what both Bobby Bland and Richard Manuel wanted once upon a time, when they separately sang “Share My Love" (Whitman's very dignified and affecting reading of "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," much later to be used as the soundtrack to a television advertisement for a telephone company, addresses the same plea from the opposite angle)? Following which, a near-androgynous reading of “Somewhere My Love,” thinking of that endless pumped-in snow of David Lean’s, the desperation in Sharif’s eyes as he sees Christie in the trolley bus, and the shock which then really kills him – and yet, all around this snowy scenario, there is revolution and blood and death – but Whitman’s sustained falsetto makes me think of Antony Hegarty. And somewhere there is the harmonica from “Groovin’ With Mr Bloe,” taking off again, the protagonist wandering off again, into himself…and away from us.
“Somewhere my love/They might let me meet you/Perhaps.”
And yet, for me, this was my “it.” The two reviews in the NME; there’s a good idea which thereafter never really got exploited. Good cop and bad cop. Oh, they’re still there to read in Rock’s Back Pages for a small and not unreasonable annual fee, but I don’t want to reread them.
Why? Well, for a first, the reviews embedded themselves so deeply in my mind that I can still quote them virtually word-for-word. And, for a second, the issue itself is still in my mother’s attic in Scotland and I only have to go there and recover it. But, for a third, I fear if I did reread them now their quaintness and ridiculousness might embarrass me. I worry that I might not get the same feeling from reading the pieces now that I did when they were new and fresh. I remember that Ian MacDonald’s piece used then-hip terms like “kulchur” which would now make me squirm. And that Charles Shaar Murray’s opposite (not opposing) view was a necessary correlation to and illumination against MacDonald’s extremely bleak outlook. And who’s to say CSM wasn’t right – after all, he is still with us, a much-respected veteran music writer happy to churn out 300 stock words on 50 years of the Stones for ShortList magazine to subsidise the harder stuff, whereas MacDonald, (in)famously, is not. And given in mind that the singer himself was to release the antidote, and coda, to this record later that same year – look, this is far down we can sink, but look, I have dragged myself out of the wallow and once more embrace the world (even if just for one day) – the argument is almost incontrovertibly in Murray’s court.
But the IMac piece was the one that burrowed itself into my mind and made me decide that writing – maybe not specifically about music, but writing per se - was what I wanted to do. Specifically, I loved the idea that you could use a record review as a launching pad to talk about anything and encompass, potentially, everything, including the state of the world and that of the writer’s own world. The sixties, The Dice Man, Muzak theory; it all chimed in with what I felt was the way to go. And the IMac piece remains for me a touchstone, a blueprint for the notion of music writing as ekphrasis; someone sufficiently inspired by a work of music to write a work of literature.
How was I, in 1977, to know that the same piece was a disguised preliminary suicide note?
Fast-food songs, quickly in, imprinting themselves and then dashing out again, like a conveyor belt Nova Mob.
But already the singer has disappeared.
The Red River of the North, as well as flowing through North Dakota and Minnesota, also flows into Canada, through Manitoba and towards Winnipeg. Despite its picturesque scenery, the area is extremely prone to flooding, and major floods have occurred at least four times in Whitman’s lifetime, in 1950, 1997, 2009 and 2011. The people there are well prepared, though, so when a flood happens they usually put up their sandbags and retreat, with no major casualties and relatively little damage. So when looking at the cover of Red River Valley, remember that this oasis can swiftly turn into an engulfing sea.
Of the song “Red River Valley” itself, there is an infinite slowness, one born of patience. It is performed like the saddest of requiems – all through the album are songs of leaving, departing, coming apart – and for a while there are just solemn banks of electronic keyboards, like regretful mountain ranges. It is as if the singer has dematerialised into another, more advanced life, and this is what he has left behind for us to hear, or perhaps he is all around it anyway – the break when his voice reappears, thin, high and pinched, chanting in a foreign language which no one can understand and which is probably made up, is anything but reassuring. “We will miss your bright eyes as we smile,” I catch somewhere in the middleground – “Bright Eyes,” that song about rabbits running away from death into their own kind of afterlife – and the original, stately melody, complete with electronic choirs, returns to the picture.
In “When The Moon Comes Over The Mountain” – on his The Great Pretender album, after a furious free workout, Lester Bowie suddenly stops the performance and plays this song quaintly, utterly straight (even with exaggerated thirties trumpet vibrato, and completely movingly – the singer has vanished and cannot be glimpsed, apart from faint, distant traces (“I’m alone with my memories of you”). Instead, synthesisers and vibraharps pass elegantly through the scene – art decayed might be the real subtext here – and there is an exquisite nothingness about this now entirely alien music. But that wobbly Moog could almost be a pedal steel.
I thought about the gasometer that used to mark the boundary between Uddingston and Bothwell; it’s long gone now, but in my childhood it was constantly in sight, no matter where I was – you could see it as far as Mount Vernon. And I think of the backwaters of Uddingston, the arteries that course water and nature from Kylepark to Bothwell Castle, or emptily sunny Sunday afternoons, and this is the music which springs to my mind.
Of course, by making itself out to be The Last Pop Album Ever Made, it sealed its own doom – much as the Pistols would do – insofar as it also, as it turned out, turned out as The First Pop Album Ever Made, because so many people heard it and wanted to follow and develop its notions. I can hear with joy so much of what is to come – from Ryuichi Sakamoto to the Aphex Twin – within its textures. It’s not just the first album of the eighties; indeed, one could usefully draw a picture of the history of popular music as being divided into two parts – what came before this album, and what came after it.
“Mr. Ting-A-Ling (Steel Guitar Man)” – and the pedal steel player here is almost certainly BJ Cole. An astonishing performance, too, cutting through Whitman’s tale of woeful abandonment into areas of near-abstract soundclouds of free improvisation, without ever getting away from the song’s emotional nubs: “Help me remember those beautiful years” and the pained “I love her, I miss her, DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND?” After which the track moves into introspective post-Reich minimalism, over which a hurt guitar plays “Scarborough Fair,” another memory of a deep and dim past. I note in both the title track and “Now Is The Hour” Whitman asks the lover he is about to leave, or is about to leave him, to “remember” him.
“Now Is The Hour” is the only possible finale, since it feels like the end of everything. There are echoes, possibly Hawaiian, of goodbyes – “I’ll miss you, far across the sea” – but mostly a closely-miked, hesitatingly ascending bassline over modal electronic static with subtle backward hisses and tonalities, repeating and slowly modifying. It does not seem that anything can live or survive here. Where has humanity gone?
There are learned discourses on the record available, I know. But in my selfish way, I don’t want to know what it is about, what inspired it, what records he bought and listened to, what was going through his mind – not even the Wall, or the Strategies. To me, and to all his fans at the time, it came out of nowhere – absolutely nowhere - and stands as undisturbed and disturbing as any Whistler Chelsea nocturne (where is the life in these waters, those boats?). More than any other album I can think of – with one exception – it is an album which demands an individual response from each individual listener. In these thirty-five years, it has been equalled or surpassed perhaps only three or four times. It still stands as a citadel; whether it’s a warning or a welcome is entirely up to each listener.
And then a chorale gloomily rises up through the music before breaking into bright, crisp high harmonies. But what are they singing? Nothing anyone sentient can work out; the remark IMac made about the Martian trying to decode Sinatra still seems the nearest anyone has come. They sing, of someone, or something, half-remembered or not remembered at all – the song of the Replicants (see Blade Runner, see Tricky’s “Aftermath”) – and then the music goes back to where it was. With one exception; there is a warbling saxophone, played as though the saxophonist doesn’t know how to play the saxophone, reaching back to faded old dancehalls, a past still visible but just beyond the living grasp of the observer. It’s there, but the singer can’t reach it. Unless he feels like breaking down the Wall.
If there’s any message to Red River Valley, it’s that the singer is very far from happy, but also there is the very strong and pronounced feeling that things cannot go on as they are. And the record ends with hope, as Whitman sings “For someday, I’ll sail across the sea…home to you.” We’ve come this far, yet still long to go home. And yes, Red River Valley is mostly, to my surprise, a very moving record; I am aware that sometimes in my own elusive dreams, I’m prone to fantasising about records – for instance, if one of my favourite albums, and one of the most important albums ever made, is kept at number two in the album chart by something else, I like to think that both records are two sides of the same coin, and conjure a union of the two records into being – but I believe that Red River Valley, despite occasional journeys into the land of cheese, has great emotional depth and resonance, and that its seeming facelessness conceals a profound humanity; we’re not happy, so let’s see what we can do to become happy. Without that hope, nothing and nobody could go on. They go on.
Track listing: Speed Of Life/Breaking Glass/What In The World/Sound And Vision/Always Crashing In The Same Car/Be My Wife/A New Career In A New Town/Warszawa/Art Decade/Weeping Wall/Subterraneans
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 14:58
Wednesday, 11 July 2012
(#179: 15 January 1977, 1 week; 16 April 1977, 9 weeks)
Track listing: When I Kissed The Teacher/Dancing Queen/My Love, My Life/Dum Dum Diddle/Knowing Me, Knowing You/Money, Money, Money/That’s Me/Why Did It Have To Be Me/Tiger/Arrival
What do they know of Abba who only “Dancing Queen” know? Despite its very brief running time – a shade over 33 minutes – and the general critical consensus at the time being one of three major singles surrounded by an awful lot of filler, or a lot of awful filler, it is clear that a lot of work went into Arrival; recording sessions for the album began in August 1975 but were not completed until October 1976. In truth, these were interrupted by the need to tour and promote the Abba album and the “S.O.S.” and “Mamma Mia” singles; in addition, both Agnetha and Frida were working on Swedish language solo albums of their own. Consequently, work on the album began in earnest in March 1976, but “Dancing Queen” (under the working title “Boogaloo”) and “Fernando” had been worked on in the original sessions; “Fernando” had begun life as a track for Frida’s album but once the band realised how huge a hit it might be, they redid it as a stand-alone Abba single (and, although appearing on several international versions of Arrival, and also as one of the bonus tracks on the CD edition, it was never intended for the album as such, and therefore misses a second chance of being talked about here; do not worry – its time here will come).
What do they know of Abba who only “Dancing Queen” know? Did they bother listening to the albums, or just buy them and file them away as uneasy listening? Here is an album which begins with a girl causing everybody to scream, and more or less ends with the same girl screaming. Yes, they are there, in the cockpit of their helicopter, ready to arrive, to make themselves known to the world – but note that none of them is smiling, and that, although blue skies are behind him, there is a gathering darkness, or possibly a storm cloud, directly over their heads.
And, though voiced through the voices of two women, this album is the story of the journey of a woman from idolating child to fearful or vengeful adult; as has been the case in most of these instances, familiar hits gain a new dimension from being heard in their original context. “When I Kissed The Teacher” begins like Thunderclap Newman’s “Something In The Air” – the same earnest acoustic guitars, the same tempo, the same key – but then goes somewhere entirely different: “Everybody screamed when I kissed the teacher,” Agnetha sings, “And they must have thought they dreamed.” The rest of the music slides into view from stage left, like a radio volume knob discreetly turned up, and the mood turns celebratory. At the first part of the middle eight (“One of these days…”) it sounds rather like a song from Fame would go on to sound; pupils up on their desks, dancing through the corridors, as though they had been waiting their whole, brief lives for this one kiss, this solitary signal of liberation. Meanwhile, both keyboards and chords point a very clear way towards the future (“As I held my breath, the world stood still”), and although Abba never had anything to do with punk, the underlying playfulness of authority being questioned, mocked and, indeed, hugged must have had some kind of subcutaneous effect at the beginning of this year, of all years.
A downward piano zip of an introduction, recalling “I Want You Back,” and we are into “Dancing Queen.” The schoolgirl is now seventeen, or perhaps merely an observer of a seventeen-year-old, thinking thoughts that could have come out of the fifties (“You can dance, you can jive”) even though there are hints of 1976 throughout (at one point there is an almost imperceptible paraphrase of “That’s The Way (I Like It)”). It is no revelation that George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” was the initial inspiration for the song, or that drummer Roger Palm was thinking of Dr John’s Gumbo (in particular, I would venture, his version of “Iko Iko”); what is new is the way elements old and new are blended and synthesised. I have written about “Dancing Queen” two or three times before, and each time I have indicated how and why many observers considered this to be as radical, or more radical, a 1976 single as “Anarchy In The U.K.” in light of its long-term influence; the synthesiser arpeggios in the verses, combined with Rutger Gunnarsson’s raised eyebrow bass at “You can dance,” suggest a new form of three-dimensional pop; we had become so used to the two dimensions of voices and instruments (plus or minus arrangements) that this novel third layer beguiled; the notion of a musical middleground where (largely) keyboards comment on the song without actually stepping in, like semi-passive observers. So full and febrile are the keyboards on “Dancing Queen” that you momentarily wonder whether they are being touched by human hands at all; this feeling pervades through to the early eighties work of Simple Minds and the Associates, while the influence of the grandiose piano flourishes (and Gunnarsson’s bass) on the subsequent work of Trevor Horn almost goes without needing to be said.
And yet “Dancing Queen,” for all its regal perfection – if there were a cinematic equivalent, it would be the final third of Visconti’s The Leopard - is among the saddest of pop songs. “You come in to look for a king – anybody could be that guy,” the voices sing, and later: “You’re a teaser, you turn ‘em on/Leave ‘em burning and then you’re…gone/Looking out for another, anyone will do.” Not the teacher, not a potential lover, just the partner as personal tabula rasa, because all the dancer can see is herself. “Feel the beat from the tambourine” – does this European layer cake hide an essence of voodoo?
But the yearning in the singers’ voices, particularly in the final chorus, suggests a feeling that already the song and its singers know things are never going to be as good again. “Dancing Queen” was and is Abba’s “peak” – if you think of pop as a mountain range – but like “She Loves You” its formal perfection is in part rooted in its own foreboding; this moment is so right, so “pure,” so unsullied, and, like the opening and unrepeated chord of Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia, it will never reoccur.
“My Love, My Life” is one of Agnetha’s best solo features with Abba, and is a peculiarly distended track; beginning with an introduction of partly backwards vocals (thus tying it in with the very similar sequences to be glimpsed in Wish You Were Here), the song becomes a hymn. The backing harmonies were fashioned after the example of 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love,” and although there are no Ligeti speaker-filling totalities to be heard here, both Agnetha and the rest of the musicians perform the song with great and natural grace. And yet it is a song of something ending: a romance, an affair, is coming to its natural end, but Agnetha doesn’t quite want to let it go (“Answer me sincerely,” she pleads more than once). The impassioned fatalism of her performance, however, makes the song a sort of bookend to “The Day Before You Came,” although this song’s structure is much more patient; there are bells, and the music swoops up like a hopeful eagle to Agnetha’s trembling “My one and only…” which is answered by a long pause, or a silence. And is there something faintly sinister about her line “I know I don’t possess you”? “Dum Dum Diddle” lands us back in bubblegum, with some scatty double entendres about fiddling and desire, and trots along rather unconcernedly, except that, unlike the teacher, there’s no indication that the singer even knows the fiddle player.
And what would happen if they had got together; would their fiddling have been joyous and eternal, or would they end up like the walking ghosts in “Knowing Me, Knowing You”? What a strange, almost schizophrenic song this is; what a spectre it created when it topped the charts as a single (and thus brought the album back for its extended second wind at number one). There are the verses, as blank and neutralised as any non-punk 1977 pop; Frida with her grim two-syllable triplets (six, six, six): “No. More.” “Care. Free.” “Laugh. Ter” – behind her, a whispering phantom Agnetha echoing in the tortured chambers of her mind, bouncing off the treated electric piano chords. A transitional and apocalyptic bridge (“This is where the story ends. This is goodbye.”) – and yet they cannot bring themselves to push the button. The chorus is rousing, hopeful (despite its lyrics; note how Björn and Benny respond in the background) and topped by a disingenuously cheery guitar (Lasse Wellander). Musically it’s a follow-on from their earlier “Hey Hey Helen” – what’s going to happen if you don’t commit? What worse things could happen if you do? – but structurally it oddly resembles a Beatles composition; Lennon verses (terse, minimalist, huskily sung) against McCartney choruses (verbose, maximalist, sung high and light). And there’s the underlying question of those children (“In these old familiar rooms, children would play”) as though this is not just a marriage, but an entire lifeline, that is being methodically snuffed out. She began the side kissing the teacher, she ends the side by regretting ever having kissed anyone.
“Money, Money, Money” opens side two, and although always a rather lacklustre piece for me as a single, it sounds in this context unexpectedly angry and even venomous. Once again, Frida is called upon to sing the lead and she sneers resentment throughout the song, as though ripping apart the entire “old fashioned house/millionaire” façade, even though she recognises her own predicament and does herself down (“And if he happens to be free” – think for a moment about the meaning of the word “free” in this song – “I bet he wouldn’t fancy me”). In the first and third section of each verse, Frida, piano and bass come charging towards the microphone in accumulative rage before settling into the song’s matrix, and throughout the percussion work is particularly fierce; Ola Brunkert’s agitated drums, far less settled than Nick Mason on “Money,” and Malando Gassama’s raging, echoing timpani. What does money mean anyway?
“That’s Me” is perhaps even more disturbing, not least because it welds an upbeat, purposely tinny dance tune with lots of unexpected chord changes – hello, Stock, Aitken and Waterman – to a potentially gruesome lyric. “I’m Carrie not-the-kind-of-girl-you’d-marry,” sing both Agnetha and Frida, “That’s me” – and Carrie, the film, was showing by this time. “If I’m sweet tonight/Things look different in the morning light,” “Are you sure you want to hear more?,” “I can’t help my ways,” and, somewhere in the middle (bolstered by incongruous forties deep harmonies), “It’s lonely to be free.” Throughout, Benny’s keyboards are especially florid, shooting up like Catherine wheels, never resting, as though predicating that the girl herself will be forever restless.
“Why Did It Have To Be Me,” with verses sung by Björn and choruses sung by Agnetha and Frida, muddies the water further. He took “Carrie” at his own word and is angry and bemused at now being rejected; all the girls can do is offer a regretful, extended “told you so” response. Meanwhile the music, ostensibly midtempo rock ‘n’ roll, veers just clear of chaos; Lasse Carlsson’s tenor sax solo is like a razor on the verge of cutting, Janne Schaffer’s lead guitar chords sound at points like glass breaking, and the whole is a horrific hall of mirrors distortion of “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do.”
And so to the album’s climax, “Tiger,” one of many Abba songs I’d forgotten I knew. This is an “S.O.S.” beyond anybody’s help (Brunkert’s drums pounding as though trying to escape the dagger cane) and we could not be further from the carefree cheek of “When I Kissed The Teacher”: the girl is now an adult, wandering alone and scared in the city, putting on a cloak of protective defence (“People who fear me never go near me”) to hide her fear under a bushel of defiance. “The city is a nightmare, a horrible dream,” the girls sing. “Some of us will dream it forever,” and now the dream has indeed become a nightmare, the city a prison for one’s self (“Look into the shadows and you’ll see the shape…of me”), with the meditative middle eights only offering a brief respite. Agnetha, born in 1950, the Chinese Year of the Tiger – and those ascending, horrifying screams with which they sign off forever (a contemporary parallel? What about “Side Streets” by Saint Etienne?).
Then, with the closing title track, Abba disappear into themselves. The bagpipe undertone recalls the similar function “Amazing Grace” served at the end of Glen Campbell’s story, but it is synthesised, and the only voices present are a distant, wordless chorale. They have found something, discovered something, and are now hiding within it; wordless because no words could express what cannot be anything less or more than pain. I note the resemblance of the synthesisers to those of Brian Eno (the track’s main theme could pass as a variant on “Another Green World”) and the drifting ambience of voices without words, of souls, minds, lost. We’ll be getting back to that soon enough. Of course, there’s another interpretation of this song, and the album as a whole; had it not been written by men it would be a crash course in why females rebel, but also there is the sense that something is being welcomed in, something that eventually will be called New Pop – in so many ways does Arrival tug in advance on the sleeve of the eighties – and that this record is in some ways summoning up these spirits, willing them into being (see also the remarkable parallel of the closing instrumental track of Sparkle In The Rain).
Of course, “Arrival” is also the title of the pilot episode of The Prisoner.
“Walking through an empty house, tears in my eyes.”
So deep in these rooms, they never leave those rooms.
“It’s lonely to be free.”
Sometimes you get so lonely.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 18:49