Thursday 19 February 2015

JOHNNY HATES JAZZ: Turn Back The Clock

(#361: 23 January 1988, 1 week)

Track listing: Shattered Dreams/Heart Of Gold/Turn Back The Clock/Don’t Say It’s Love/What Other Reason/I Don’t Want To Be A Hero/Listen/Different Seasons/Don’t Let It End This Way/Foolish Heart

Here’s a tip; if you want a happy life, don’t read old music magazines. I recently came across an old edition of The Wire. In fact it was the double issue for Christmas 1986-87 (issues 34/35) and it has always been one of my most cherished issues, principally because of “The Pleasures Of Ignorance,” Max Harrison’s elegantly epic and sorely accurate five-page takedown of Philip Larkin’s jazz “criticism,” which has not dated a notch and should be a standard item on all school and university reading lists. I still find it impossible to disagree with about 95% of what he says (the article is not available online and has not been reprinted in any anthology, so I’m afraid you will have to go out there and find it for yourselves); if anything, the contented and determined tendency towards aesthetic philistinism that Harrison describes has now become a basic functional tool.

Overall, however, reading the rest of the magazine induced a sense of deep melancholy in me. There’s Branford Marsalis taking a friendly (or furious disguised as friendly) swipe at cover star Lester Bowie for disrespecting his brother; a few pages on we have Bowie himself taking a few laid-back but well-aimed pot shots at the Wynton tendency. Elsewhere Dexter Gordon, then newly rediscovered and Oscar-nominated for his performance in Round Midnight, reflects on his serenely tumultuous life, and Mark Sinker goes on tour with the British big band Loose Tubes, wondering what their work and the performing of it could imply for British jazz, and maybe for the future (before opting to purchase “a set of Wedgwood knobheads” he describes the band’s bass trombonist and stage MC Ashley Slater’s “clowning” as having “an odd, aggressive edge that’ll probably get him into trouble one day.”).

There are Cassandra impressions from the other side, of course; a long and tedious Zappa interview where he gives his standard moan about Modern Music with no evidence that he’d actually bought a record after around 1965. On the letters page, meanwhile, we find “a jazz record buyer” from North London calling himself (most probably) “Droid” furiously pronouncing that “COMPACT DISCS WILL NEVER BE THE PRINCIPAL MEDIUM IN JAZZ OR POP MUSIC!”

That particular battle has, of course, long since been won, if not superseded. But I still felt an overwhelming sadness about reading the magazine, if only because I am now cursed with almost thirty years of hindsight. This is an issue whose contents I can still recite, unseen, virtually from front page to back, and yet…

…and yet it’s because the air has now been thickened by ghosts, and not just of people. Look at forty-five-year-old Lester on the cover, grey-templed, chuckling, everything to play for, everything else in front of him, or grumpy old Uncle Frank, and it’s hard to imagine that neither would live to see the present century. Or that Dexter Gordon would only last another three-and-a-half years, if that, gone at sixty-seven because of a lifetime of not being taken care of enough (and yet, during his long stay in Denmark, he became, among other things, Lars Ulrich’s godfather!). And that’s to say nothing of the magazine’s (then) editor, either under his own name or the “Mike Fish” pseudonym. Or the person whom I was with back then.

No, it’s a more enveloping melancholy than that, the knowledge that I had bought and read this magazine in 1986 as an eager 22-year-old and remembering how much of a future it promised. Look at the reviews of Delightful Precipice or John Zorn’s The Big Gundown (which latter I actually went out and bought on the strength of the Wire review) and everything else that is implied or promised, and…

…cut to now, in a city which I no longer recognise from the city to which I moved when The Wire was new, in a country and a society which I am not at all sure that I recognise, and some family and friends aren’t as they were, or even who they were, and try to live with the realisation that as far as issues 34/35 of The Wire were concerned, this future never happened. Because from reading it, it’s clear that this was intended as a curtain-raising or a dress rehearsal for some glorious future where this was all going to come out, all these developments, and possibly change music as we perceived it.

But it never came to pass. People moved away, or moved on to the next briefly hip thing, many got scared, and so jazz, and by extension The Wire, moved back or were backed into a defensive corner. Despite what Branford says, Courtney Pine had not taken his ass over to the other side of the Atlantic by 1991; instead he has stayed here, kept fighting his amiable battle and indeed appears, grey-bearded, with the excellent Zoe Rahman on the cover of this month’s Jazzwise magazine, a very nice and readable journal which reminds me, in part, of what The Wire once was (there’s even a missive from Robert Wyatt on the letters page).

But who’s going to ring the bell for Troyka or the Phil Meadows Group (with or without the Engines Orchestra) today? Who expects to be able to know their Stein Urheim from their Tyshawn Sorey? It feels, pace Harrison, that the philistines have won – and on a wider, deadlier level than merely music, or art – and so the melancholy is partly induced by the knowledge that the promised future failed to materialise. From most perspectives, the project has proved a failure. Look at the advertisements, even; the saxophone lessons, the now extinct (or changed beyond recognition or tolerance) record shops, a world that no longer exists. One is reminded that there is only so much time left, that all the time in between has…evaporated.

That the world you knew is dying and only you can see and feel it happening (who, in 2015, is left even to remember that Girls Aloud once happened?).

But Wire has continued, dropped the definite article – and the people who will eventually take the magazine over, Tony Herrington and Chris Bohn, are both present in the earlier issue – and…well, it’s difficult to articulate, because for reasons I’m not going to go into here, I have felt a connection with the magazine which verges on the umbilical. It is hard. I like most of the people who write for it now, both as writers and as human beings (and some have survived from the 1986 contributors’ roll call). Its distribution and circulation are clearly and markedly superior to what they were in the eighties. It is still widely read and admired.

For me, however, the fun and challenge have drained away from its pages. Yes, in the current issue (it has now made it to issue 373) there are features on Steve Coleman and Cecil McBee, just as there might have been in the eighties, and others like Chris and Cosey and Sleaford Mods, but there is no more promise of a future, only a commercial absolute against which the magazine must define itself in order to survive (I remember when the arrival of something like Strata Institute’s Cipher Syntax was regarded as an event, and sometimes wonder, Zappa-like, whether jazz has advanced a nanometre in the twenty-six years since it was released). Also, the “underground” has solidified in an arty fashion; the uniformly positive and painstaking reviews of Björk’s Vulnicura are enough to make anyone suspicious, and I suspect that what is really needed is an old-fashioned Penman/Watson good kicking to reattain some perspective and help me, as a listener, determine how good, or bad, the album really is.

The trouble is that time is ticking on, like that big, booming clock, and some people are going to get left behind by the world as it evolves into something that some people don’t want to look at.

Sometimes I can almost grasp how that foolish old Libran Ian MacDonald felt while realising that I must never end up as he did.

“I once had a book in my hand
That I didn't understand;
Now I witness every page.”

And so, in case you wondered when I was going to get to them nearly 1400 words in, to Johnny Hates Jazz. A strange name for a pop group, and a stranger background; singer/songwriter Clark Datchler and guitarist/keyboardist Calvin Hayes cut their teeth in a band with Glen Matlock called the Hot Club, while the two met bassist Mike Nocito when Mickie Most signed them to RAK; he was the studio engineer. “Johnny” was Nocito’s brother; the story goes that somebody put on a record by Dave Brubeck, and he abruptly got up, ran to the stereo, took the record off and broke it across his knee.

Datchler’s father would also be well-known to pre-rock fans; Fred Datchler was a member of the post-war novelty vocal group the Stargazers, who managed two number ones (plus a third as the credited backing singers to Dickie Valentine on “Finger Of Suspicion”) and a host of other hits, one of which, a version of the American song “Close The Door,” top ten in the early autumn of 1955, is perhaps something that should never have been allowed to pass, even though its highly sinister subtext may in part be explained by the fact that one of its writers was the young Fred Ebb (the musical Cabaret might be sufficient to put anybody off music forever, if this is where it leads us). Not too pleased by the proposed band name, he nevertheless encouraged and helped the band as far as he possibly could. As one of the Mike Sammes Singers, Datchler senior can also be heard on “I Am The Walrus,” which one might view as payback for the Stargazers having provided the shortlived third musical interlude in the early days of The Goon Show.

But enough of this cursed history that you can find anywhere; how does the only album that this specific line-up of the group stand up? The answer is: rather better than Wet Wet Wet. Unlike Marti Pellow, Datchler seems to understand that restraint and subtlety are often much better in conveying emotions than being a blowhard. He has an appealing, lost-robot’s-nephew voice, equal parts Glenn Tilbrook and Eric Stewart, and like Level 42 – this too is recognisably a product of the South of Britain – his group’s music is an afternoon sun-lit meditation on the slow-burning damage that Thatcher’s notion of Britain was doing to communities and concepts of life; it’s not hard to hear “Shattered Dreams” as an analogy in that regard (“You said you’d die for me”). Elsewhere, the same questions are asked; what is love, do you run away from it (“Don’t Say It’s Love” with its divinely descending “Love has come crashing down” bridge – not a Top 40 hit as a single, but much played on the July 1988 version of Capital Radio, so much better than today’s version, and hearing the song immediately put me in mind of the London that I actually did love) or do you run to grasp it (“What Other Reason” could almost be a Home Counties “At Last I Am Free” and in its hushed, expectant whispers foresees the xx)? “Heart Of Gold” is a far more sensitive musical study of a prostitute than Lou Reed ever managed (and infinitely preferable to Pellow’s morning-after guilt in “Angel Eyes”). “Listen” (built up from the original demo by co-producer Phil Thornalley) and “Different Seasons” are wonderful pop songs in a late Split Enz/early Crowded House sense. Equally, I can’t imagine a contemporary pop record that would do what “I Don’t Want To Be A Hero” does, i.e. present the same political argument as Crass’ “How Does It Feel? (to Be The Mother Of A Thousand Dead)” but in a far more palatable fashion. Musicians now would guiltily shirk away from doing that; in that sense, this is as unlikely and unimaginable a 21st-century number one album as Parklife would now be.

The title song, featuring Kim Wilde on harmony vocals and a so-subtle-it’s-unnoticeable string chart by Anne Dudley, hits the general theme of this piece in its heart; what indeed of the young boy in the photograph who became the singer of this song? How much, if at all, did the latter disappoint and betray the former? You grow up, you look back, you cry, and this is a pained prayer to rewind, go back to the start and, this time, get it right. It’s one of the most elegiac and touching calls for nostalgia that I have ever heard.

The obverse side of the coin is “Don’t Let It End This Way” which appears to take place in the minutes, or seconds, before nuclear apocalypse, and is all the more poignant for being placed in the setting of a jaunty, Sting-ish pop-reggae major key canter – but then the song atomises at its end (for a contemporary comparison, try “Silent Embrace” by Alex Banks [vocals by Elizabeth Bernholz] from last year’s superb Illuminate album).

But just before this world makes itself extinct, there come the echoes of their very first single – a former Sounds single of the week, no less – and now Datchler unleashes explicit emotions as piano crazily washes in, around and under him. As the song fades out, he chuckles out a sideways reference to “Hey Joe,” complete with that gun in that hand.*

*which also makes me think of “1963” by New Order – a song I always felt Kim Wilde should have covered – a number one thrown away on the B-side of “True Faith” and included on their 1987 top three double compilation Substance, which on certain days I consider the best pop album ever made. “Johnny, don’t point that gun at me…”

…but I note that “Foolish Heart” was co-written by another Ian McDonald, the one who was in King Crimson, Foreigner and, yes, Centipede, and wonder if Johnny secretly loved jazz, or that we should all try to do so, before the sands run out.

“This ignorance, however, is not altogether miserable. Out of it we get the constant pleasure of discovery. Every fact of nature comes to us each spring, if only we are sufficiently ignorant, with the dew still on it. If we have lived half a lifetime without having ever even seen a cuckoo, and know it only as a wandering voice, we are all the more delighted at the spectacle of its runaway flight as it hurries from wood to wood conscious of its crimes, and at the way in which it halts hawk-like in the wind, its long tail quivering, before it dares descend on a hill-side of fir-trees where avenging presences may lurk. It would be absurd to pretend that the naturalist does not also find pleasure in observing the life of the birds, but his is a steady pleasure, almost a sober and plodding occupation, compared to the morning enthusiasm of the man who sees a cuckoo for the first time, and, behold, the world is made new.”
(Robert Lynd, The Pleasures Of Ignorance, London: Grant Richards Ltd, 1921; chapter 1)

“A few evenings ago, he shed a path of light over the sea as the moon does, and seemed to light up the sands on the far side of the bay…. It is undoubtedly a blasted world, but what a beautiful blasted world! It is a pity that we and the starlings are so belly-driven that we cannot settle down to enjoy it. Peck, peck. My worm, I think. Peck, peck, peck.”
(ibid., chapter 26, “This Blasted World”)

(Thanks to Lena for the "At Last I Am Free" and Parklife observations)