Thursday 29 October 2009

The BEATLES: The Beatles

(#61: 7 December 1968, 7 weeks; 1 February 1969, 1 week)

Track listing: Back In The U.S.S.R./Dear Prudence/Glass Onion/Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da/Wild Honey Pie/The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill/While My Guitar Gently Weeps/Happiness Is A Warm Gun/Martha My Dear/I’m So Tired/Blackbird/Piggies/Rocky Raccoon/Don’t Pass Me By/Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?/I Will/Julia/Birthday/Yer Blues/Mother Nature’s Son/Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey/Sexy Sadie/Helter Skelter/Long, Long, Long/Revolution 1/Honey Pie/Savoy Truffle/Cry Baby Cry/Revolution 9/Good Night

“NORA: When I was a child, I loved Daddy more than anyone. But I kept thinking how nice it would be to slip down to the servants’ room. They never told me what to do. They were such fun to talk to.

RANK: And it’s their place I’ve taken.”
(Ibsen, A Doll’s House,1879; trans. Kenneth McLeish, 1994)

It was originally going to be called A Doll’s House. Then Family came along with Music In A Doll’s House so that was that. A shame, since the White Album is actually one (or two) of the darkest records in this tale and still one of the most psychologically and aesthetically elusive; it needs its poky corners, its suppressed furniture, its characters moving around or lying still in the dark. If Richard Hamilton’s cover might suggest the whiteout after the blast of “A Day In The Life” then these are thirty of the detached fragments fallen out from a previous world.

Much can be and has been suggested about the White Album, of course; its semi-detached detours, its artful jumpcuts (Lennon’s cheery “Hey up!” from “Bungalow Bill” cutting straight into “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”) and, most of all, “Revolution 9” suggest a forebear of the jump-cutting culture of our present age, scanning the screens, flipping from channel to channel, mousing from website to website, never really settling. It is a loping mess of an album whose sequencing took a continuous 24-hour session at Abbey Road to agree. The record’s fierce discipline undermines its air of indiscipline. There are multiple stories being told here, perhaps a separate one for every listener, but which are the easiest to touch?

The White Album could be seen as a record (in the word’s literal sense) of how a group begins to disintegrate, speaking largely to and for themselves; it is a record which starts without Ringo – McCartney plays the drums on both “U.S.S.R.” and “Prudence” – and ends with Ringo alone, as the last Beatle standing. It asserts a would-be cheerful air of business back to usual – both halves of the double beginning with a rootsy rocker to reassure doubters – before leading us down unforeseen avenues. It is the second double album to be assessed in this tale, and like the first (101 Strings) it does not quite seem of this world, albeit undoubtedly far more in touch with it. Indeed, most of its songs were written on acoustic guitars in India; visiting the Maharishi and deprived of electricity, the group was compelled to follow a different approach to songwriting, and the silent power behind the White Album was fellow Yogi lodger Donovan, who wasted no time teaching John, Paul and George the folk picking and tuning techniques he had learned from Bert Jansch and others. Add to this the subtly incalculable influence on British music in general of the Incredible String Band – more Scottish refugees – and the inescapable influence of Music From Big Pink (on Harrison in particular), and we are given some of the most basic tracks the Beatles had laid down since Please Please Me, all the better to support some of their most complex songs.

To the album itself: “Back In The U.S.S.R.” is a wry pounder of a back to basics manifesto, partly inspired by Harold Wilson’s ill-fated I’m Backing Britain campaign, but mostly inspired by mischief; Peter Cook could have written the lyric but only McCartney could have delivered it with such unambiguous fire and good nature (and his piano is charmingly not quite in synchronisation with the makeshift rhythm section). Still, the song isn’t all it seems to be; it (and the album as a whole) is introduced by a strangely processed hiss of aircraft which persists throughout the entire song and lends it the air of a nascent Jesus and Mary Chain. The frantic one-note guitar squeals underscoring the final verse seem disproportionately anxious, and there was of course the attendant irony of Soviet tanks rolling into Prague by the time of the song’s release.

It is a Red herring; “Dear Prudence” leads us into the album’s more general ambience, Lennon gently attempting to persuade the song’s subject to come out of her darkness, move into the light, although McCartney’s musical efforts at encouragement are more forthright; note his impatiently nudging, bumping bass in the song’s second and third verses and his exuberant rush of drums at the song’s climax (Harrison’s characteristic Eastern guitar acts as a kind of mediator). The song wanders around its descending scale like a mislaid Lucy.

Ringo’s fervent “I’m back!” knock knock of drums announces “Glass Onion,” a disquieting song, not merely for the sinisterly ascending strings, harsh breakbeats and Lennon’s menacing “Oh yeah!” which make it sound nothing like 1968 – its subsequent re-use on The Grey Album confirms its advanced status – but also for what the song appears to be mourning, or trying to tear apart; this is supposed to be the pulling of the curtain to reveal the diminutive jobsworth Wizard, Lennon eating himself by quoting and rebuking previous songs; until it occurs to the listener that all the songs to which he is referring were written and recorded while Brian Epstein – along with Stuart Sutcliffe, one of the ghosts haunting the bleached corridors of the sleeve insert – was still alive, when the Beatles could still (if only just about) be considered a coherent group; moreover, by shifting the onus for explanation to his colleague (“The Walrus was Paul,” against a nauseous inroad of 101 Strings pseudo-sweetness and a rhythm construct which hasn’t quite got “Drive My Car” out of its system), Lennon is attempting to wrench himself away from any remaining bond with McCartney. Two years before he announced that the dream was definitely over, Lennon was already making preparations for a new (if not solitary) life; the deliberately plodding string procedural at song’s end representing the dwindling circle in which the Beatles might find themselves were they to carry on (as well as mocking dimwitted don’t-understand-the-words/where’s-the-tune recidivists and apologists).

“Ob-La-Di” strays in with its rays of sunshine like a jolly neighbour who finds out just too late that he’s stepped into the wrong house and the wrong party; McCartney has much fun with the jerky Mersey-ska setting (his broad Scouse “market”) but Lennon seems determined to subvert the song as much as possible, complete with his speeded-up tack piano intro (giving the tune a curiously logical link with the ending of “Tomorrow Never Knows”), the odd Cecil Taylor-ish up-and-down atonal zip (just before the second middle eight) and purposely absurd backing vocals. The Marmalade excised the irony, emphasised the jollity and jostled for the Christmas number one single position with the Scaffold’s “Lily The Pink” (both essentially Beatles records in disguise). It’s as “happy” as the White Album gets.

McCartney’s “Wild Honey Pie” acts as a nice coda to the mirth of “Ob-La-Di,” one-man-busking/skiffling it in the studio corridor (and sounding remarkably like Prince at one point), and then it’s straight into “Bungalow Bill,” a mordant comedy song Lennon wrote about an American visitor to the Maharishi’s lodge who disappeared to hunt tigers for a few weeks before returning to find himself once more. A lusty singalong with funereal verses, it’s not the only track on the White Album to reveal some kinship with the Bonzo Dog Band (see the latter’s contemporaneous “Hunting Tigers Out In India”) although its tune, perhaps unconsciously, borrows from “Stay As Sweet As You Are” (which, readers may recall, Nat “King” Cole performed on Love Is The Thing).

The merriment reaches a wall of not-quite-blank grief as it collides with “While My Guitar,” George’s first word on the album whose stark sobriety strikingly counterbalances the previous jolly frolics; ringing piano and Churchill burial drums seem to sink deeper into their self-imposed mud as Harrison mournfully surveys the world around him and isn’t quite sure whether it’s worth bothering with. I still consider his solo acoustic demo, with its crucial extra verse (“And I’m sitting here, doing nothing but ageing”) and its Purcell-like medieval structure, to be the superior version (it appears on Anthology 3), but the slippery gravity of the track provides a pronounced full stop to the proceedings thus far; Eric Clapton makes his belated debut in this story, putting his Gibson Les Paul through Leslie cabinets and ADT to make it sound like – of all logical influences – the Band (and in particular “Tears Of Rage”); here Ringo’s drums are as solemn and gravelly as Levon Helm’s.

Side one ends with one of the Beatles’ finest performances as a group (one of very few to be found here) and it doesn’t really matter what, if anything, Lennon intended “Gun” to mean since it works on every sane and deranged level; it sums up the album’s progress, moving from that mournful folk picking to sea shanty R&B (remember “Baby’s In Black”?) via some very 1968 stop-start rock tropes (the “Mother Superior” section) before blossoming out into a glorious C major (in marked contrast to the gloomy A minor key which had hitherto been dominant in these songs) of doo wop slavering and barely concealed sexual hunger (Lennon’s RELEASED “finger on my trigger!”). “Happiness is a warm, yes it is…” Lennon prepares to come….then like a surprised child on Christmas morning he coos a babyish, high register “Gu-ah-un!” as the group works to an elevatingly cathartic coda. As with much of this side, and the White Album in general, there is a palpable American influence, very different from the Victorian/music hall Englishness which dominated Pepper, and this may well have contributed to the record’s status as the biggest-selling Beatles album in the States, although I will be looking at another, perhaps more crucial, factor later on in this piece.

Even after decades of familiarity with the record it still comes as a small shock to realise, retrospectively, that side two is largely about animals, or life as animal metaphor. McCartney gently pushes off proceedings with his sheepdog tribute “Martha My Dear” (also covered very well at the time by the Wolverhampton group then still known as Ambrose Slade), although his general demeanour and George Martin’s jaunty yet stately brass band and string arrangement contribute to the feeling that he too is making plans for life after the Beatles; “Martha” seems to carve a pretty straight path towards the likes of “Admiral Halsey” a couple of years later; it feels like the solo McCartney performance it in fact is, although, as with “Happiness Is A Warm Gun,” the song’s irregular and discontinuous metre divide illustrates either an advancement on Lennon and McCartney’s early rhythm-dividing experiments or a relaxation of their quasi-formal approach to songwriting, the structures now more conversational and quixotic.

Two of Lennon’s most overtly passionate vocal performances on the record derive from his experiences being holed up, bored and frustrated, in India – he is now Prudence, in the dark and not too willing to emerge – and given the flimsy structure of “I’m So Tired,” effectively the jouissance-indolence interface of “I’m Only Sleeping” left to melt in the ennui of “I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party” and turn sour, it’s surprising how committed Lennon’s voice is here, building up to the amused rancour of his comment about Walter Raleigh, with joltingly violent cutoffs and restarts along the way.

Thereafter McCartney gently reintroduces the animal-as-metaphor theme with “Blackbird,” taking a motif from Bach and placidly turning his meadow-borne meander into a quietly powerful analogy for racial awakening. Nina Simone would catch the song’s subtext more openly in her subsequent reading, but (pace MacDonald) McCartney has confirmed that the black power/civil rights metaphor was present from the moment of conception; when this album lowers its voice, it is to pronounce the profoundest truths.

Then we reach Harrison again, this time smilingly indignant about his “Piggies,” fuming about inflated social strata fears in the clear manner of Graham Chapman’s irritable Army major cutting short sketches on Python – and structurally and vocally, the influence of Neil Innes and the Bonzos is again called into visibility with young Chris Thomas’ earnest harpsichord fills, the left-in-the-air ending and the somewhat apostolic string section coda. Even so, it’s perhaps a mistake to read too much into this – I accept that in the light of Manson’s interpretation of this song in particular, this is perhaps the biggest understatement you are likely to find in this tale – given that it was written and recorded barely two years after Harrison’s “Taxman.” But I will return to the question of questionable interpretations later. The subsequent passage into “Rocky Raccoon” may seem slightly incongruous but the same message remains, albeit far more subtly hidden; McCartney trots through his shaggy cowboy story, but then note how Rocky does not actually die after being shot – his shoulder-shrugging “Doc, it’s only a scratch” is one of the album’s key lines, and I’ll explain why later (does that “later” look increasingly threatening?).

Then, with “Don’t Pass Me By” we finally get Ringo the songwriter, and what a debut; a self-assembled Lego kit hybrid of bluegrass and reggae with charmingly stumbling lyrics and performance – Lena compares it to a Blackpool version of The Band, with veteran Canadian fiddler Jack Fallon returning from “Hello Goodbye” to improvise amiably atop Ringo’s mock-despair. The pace then steps up briefly with the great “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?,” Paul and Ringo yelling and banging out some minimalist Situationism.

But the album, as it approaches the end of its first half, falls back for two of its deepest songs. “I Will” was the first song McCartney wrote specifically for Linda and its carefree caring, combined with its cunning internal rhyming schemata – note the singer’s tender emphasis on the word “endear” and wonder how and why you don’t hear that word more often in pop – could have stemmed from the days of “I’ll Follow The Sun.” But, as with the Lennon song which follows, this clearly sketches out the prospect of a life, not just beyond the Beatles, but without them.

Both “I Will” and “Julia” are about the process of growing up, out of delayed adolescence and into the not-as-frightening-as-you-thought-it-might-be world of adulthood and commitment. If Paul’s song is brisk, tender and optimistic, John’s – the only song in the Beatles catalogue entirely performed by Lennon alone on record, double-tracking his own voice and acoustic guitar – is transformative, transcendent, petrified, bold. McCartney has commented that it was a pity that Lennon gave “Good Night” to Ringo to sing because he was worried about being seen as a softie but here is Lennon, as tender as he ever allowed himself to be on record, a shade too personal for comfort perhaps, gracefully and guiltily allowing the supersession of one muse – his mother after whom the song is named – by another, the one whose name, translated serenely into English, means “ocean child.” Here Lennon wrenches himself away from the protected memory of his mother towards a newer, more alive embrace; half of what he says may well be meaningless (although really it isn’t) but the important function, as with so many of his other contributions to the album, is to reach a point of tactile contact which to an extent flies above reason and logic; the point at where the song moves to G minor ninth and seventh, and Lennon’s voice rises with reluctant poignancy to meet the top note of that seventh, is one of the most shiver-inducing moments in the Beatles’ work. As the first half of the White Album concludes, in quiet light, we know that we are moving somewhere – but is it bound to be somewhere nice?

“Birthday” kicks off the second half with apposite raucousness, and as with nearly everything he had to say about this album MacDonald is fundamentally wrong; provoked by imagined demons to read virulent anti-meanings into everything on offer here, and not realising that sometimes singing “take a chance” means precisely that, one of the oldest rock ‘n’ roll tropes to rhyme with “dance,” rather than a further invocation of chaos theory and supposed incitement to mass murder and assassination. The focus of John Oswald’s most famous Beatles breakdown/cut-up, and written as a tribute to Little Richard prior to a TV screening of The Girl Can’t Help It later that evening, it gusts along like a fine North Shore breeze, and there is even a “Dance To The Music” influence apparent in Ringo’s drum/tambourine break together with a nod to Cream (the steeplechase guitar/bass unison).

“Yer Blues” finds Lennon once again as Prudence, in the dark and hilariously suicidal (“Wanna die – if I ain’t dead already!”). Needing to be heard in tandem with his furiously patient nine-minute reading in the company of Clapton, Keith Richards and Mitch Mitchell as part of the Stones’ Rock ‘N’ Roll Circus broadcast and the almost as pained version (again with Clapton) heard on the Plastic Ono Band’s Live Peace In Toronto a year later (the only Beatles song Lennon essayed on that album), Lennon roars and rants, finally wailing into a bust microphone. His two-note guitar solo is as definitively minimalist as Shelley’s on “Boredom”; Harrison’s subsequent eruption ringing the alarm as though Knightsbridge were burning. Partly a send-up of the emergent heaviness of British blues-rock music of the period, partly a proto-primal scream, “Yer Blues” finds Lennon as loudly despairing as he had ever sounded this side of the seventies. But his echo chamber is still that of Gene Vincent; in many ways Lennon never really escaped Hamburg, or indeed “Heartbreak Hotel.”

McCartney takes the temperature down – and conversely warms the proceedings up – with another bloomer of bucolic pacificity, “Mother Nature’s Son,” its patient imperturbability only briefly disturbed by unusually forceful timpani and a curiously forward brass section. Then the Beatles invent the Pixies with “Me And My Monkey,” one of their best and most exuberant latter-day rockers, Ringo’s cowbell pounding away as though Penny Lane had been newly liberated, guitars and sense melting away into an irresistibly angelic delight of lateral thinking rock. “Sexy Sadie” finds Lennon growling darkly about the Maharishi (but, for legal reasons, not as darkly as he would have wished), the circuitous melodic and harmonic line sounding like a bored spirit walking around in continually decreasing circles (but which would eventually lead to, amongst other things, Eminem’s “Crack A Bottle,” something that Lennon sounds as though he would devoutly wish to do in the course of this song).

Now McCartney erases all doubt with his frontal assault on reason, over stammering, pregnant guitars, before “Helter Skelter” detonates the White Album into meltdown. The fairground of Mr Kite being warped into a nightmarish ecstasy, a track which takes rock beyond the dreams of the proto-metallists of ’68, straight into the next generation noise-feminisation work of Sonic Youth and especially My Bloody Valentine. Apparently inspired by the Who – the exact track which inspired McCartney has never been revealed but I would wager “I Can See For Miles” to be a fair guess as it is a similar attack on notions of gravity and tactility in “rock” – this storms and stumbles through its own mirrors, McCartney’s guitar solo instantly recalling Revolver, though his furious octave leaping bass on the bridge smashes the song back into its wintry presence. Such as the song is done, McCartney mumbles and murmurs from channel to channel as Harrison’s guitar scrambles down a slide of gelignite, mysterious horns bleat their way into the middleground and tonality goes to shreds and someone is applying the Cecil Taylor forearm technique to the piano again – it fades in and out like a sneeringly unending chasm of a dream, presumably influenced by the similar tropes which conclude Hendrix’s “I Don’t Live Today,” before finally running to ground – Ringo screams about blisters on his fingers and a knife of a guitar slashes the scene to black.

But out of this blackness, this – void; was “Tomorrow Never Knows”’ notion of a void ever intended to be dark? – light emerges, and George finally reveals his self to us, even though his voice on “Long, Long, Long” is mixed down so far low that you have to crouch down to listen to him, hear him, breathe his love in; he sings about culminating love, his shame at having wasted so long a time searching for facades (Chris Thomas’ sardonic stuck needle piano in the middle eight), before surrendering to worship over McCartney’s caressing, Robert Wyatt-esque organ. George’s “I Will” and “Julia,” and perhaps deeper and bolder than both; a wine bottle atop the organ rattles by accident, McCartney gets an idea for a coda, Harrison sighs the most frightening yet liberating sigh he ever expired in his life (see the coda to Sufjan Stevens’ Greetings From Michigan for comparison purposes), Ringo closes the door on this world with his tom-tom rolls, and…out of nowhere?...George finds the minor variant on that “Hard Day’s Night” chord – having toyed with the chords to “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands,” this album’s only explicit allowance of a Dylan influence - and by so doing exceeds himself.

On its fourth and final side the White Album turns to face the world. “Revolution 1” is sterner yet softer than “Street Fighting Man” – and it really is too bad that Beggars’ Banquet only peaked at #3 in the UK but we’ll be getting back to the Stones at pretty much the right time, and in not too long a time either. Over a lazy, gloriously slack roll of a rhythm and a similarly slacking horn section (one of whom was the ex-6.5 Special stalwart Don Lang, he of the Frantic Five), Lennon considers what he’s for and not so much for and very pointedly states “You can count me out – IN.” In fact the electric variant of “Revolution” with its unambiguous “OUT” was recorded subsequently but this version appeared later; did Lennon really ever make up his mind? Only in relation to wanton mindlessness and wilful, undirected destruction; it may well be that Yoko was still extracting him from his recent Weybridge commuter self but finally he is simply happy to roll with the wheels, in whichever direction they feel like turning; his “all right”s at the song’s long climax give up any appeal to rationalism and revel in the warmth that at least something, even if it’s not entirely to his liking, is rumbling and happening.

After that McCartney is back with the good-natured twenties dance band pastiche “Honey Pie” – its wilderness shorn, so to speak – and with its plaintive pleas for the girl across the ocean to come back “home,” this can readily be interpreted as another Linda song (even if the song’s subject does come from the “North of England”). Great fun, especially McCartney’s hearty whisper of “I like that!” after a particularly snappy facet of George Martin’s period arrangement. Then we have the final word from George; “Savoy Truffle,” with its beat so crisp that Dangermouse sampled it on no less than three different tracks on The Grey Album, is a jokey tribute to Clapton’s passion for newsagent chocolates (Rowntree’s Good News, duly acknowledged in the lyric) and his subsequent need for extensive dental work, with or without a potential drug subtext (the tenor/baritone-heavy sax section – including Ronnie Ross, later to solo on “Walk On The Wild Side” – really does sound like the equivalent of a semi-munched bar of Toffee Crisp).

But then Lennon immediately subverts the TV advert appeal with the foreboding “Cry Baby Cry,” apparently inspired by a commercial with the slogan “Cry baby cry – make your mother buy” (no, I don’t remember it either, but what a conceit if it did happen!). Moving with a busy gloom through variants on E minor – the Jansch/Donovan technique of deriving a descending chord sequence using just one chord on the guitar – with occasional, disturbing forays into a bluesy B flat, its Grimm notions of magic are noticeably darker than the childhood conjured up in Pepper (“She’s old enough to know better”). We still don’t quite know what sort of ending we are approaching.

We know soon enough, however. From the corridor of “Wild Honey Pie” a distant echo: “Can you take me back where I came from?” in a phantom tollbooth falsetto; it’s the only time we will hear McCartney in this sequence, and indeed the last time we hear him on the album at all. Disappointed with the light, and perhaps with life, the urge rises to return, return, rewind, retune…

“And the North has remained for me, a convenient place to dream about, spin tall tales about, and, in the end, avoid.”

Those words were spoken by Glenn Gould, who was speaking about The Idea Of North, the first in his Solitude Trilogy of radio documentaries about Canada which played on CBC in 1967. I have no idea whether Lennon or Yoko ever heard any of these remarkable broadcasts but structurally and conceptually they do walk a strikingly similar path to “Revolution 9,” particularly with the multiple overlapping of different speaking voices, all telling different stories (this technique Bley and Haines would also put to use in the closing moments of Escalator Over The Hill – how apt that Paul Haines should eventually have become an honorary Canadian). Stockhausen’s Hymnen is also usually cited as a precedent, although a more fitting and far less brash comparison point may be Yoko’s one-time Fluxus co-conspirator, the late composer Richard Maxfield, whose tape cut-ups share some of the same strange serenity as Lennon’s piece; hear, for a very relevant instance, his “Pastoral” (collected on the CD The Oak Of Golden Dreams, which also includes some very early work by Harold Budd).

There is a softness to “Revolution 9,” even in its more seemingly violent moments, which, although never to be confused with flaccidity or complacency, does fill in perhaps the most important line to be drawn through the White Album, namely the task of filling the void between childhood and adulthood. If “Dear Prudence” is the embryo being coaxed to leave the womb and take their chances in the wider world, then much of the rest of the record has to do with the child’s struggle to stay a child, while at the same time trying to make sense of the world in which they have found themselves. Much of the piece’s sequence of soundbites, orchestral flourishes and codas, blended with the suspiciously gruff voices (the parents?) telling (bedtime?) stories in the next room, filters through the ear of the baby in the pram of forties Liverpool, catching smells, sounds and sights, not yet able to touch or feel any of them but already intrigued, perhaps even captivated. I am unsure whether it is the album’s key track – we’ll come back to that issue a little later on – but it is the track which best unites the various themes through which the album has been working. If, like myself, this was one of the first Bealtes tracks you heard – my father was an extremely keen enthusiast for new, as in avant garde, music – then this may have contributed to your own individual perspective on music and sense; but any revolution, as ever, is contained firmly within the head of the living receiver – through the babble and storms we hear increasingly frequent fragments of Lennon himself, mostly from the continuing coda to “Revolution 1,” gurgling like a proud newborn. Buried relatively deeply in the mix is also the voice of Patrick McGoohan, the would-be Starbuck who ended up overcoming his internal Ahab by declaring that no sense makes nonsense (or, at the very worst, “second childishness”). The sounds ebb like retiring waves before suddenly being swept back into the foreground, as the child hears these grumpy adult voices, talking about financial imbalance and the Twist as though one were of greater consequence. Then, the turnaround, after “Take this, brother” (or did that need a comma?) Yoko enters (possibly literally) into John’s life; they breathe together, succour, experience mutual sensations, and, like the upturned end of a cylindrical funnel from which all potential black holes could be reincarnated, the return to transcendence and beginnings: “If…you become naked.” The crowd calls (perhaps) for sausages but here is an impeccably and intensely structured meditation on life, what it means and whether its perception is still valid if only you can perceive it. But its underlying message is the same as that of “A Day In The Life”; the nakedness, the truth, is there for all of us and it is up to us to assimilate it and make good use of it. Blaming the White Album, as MacDonald essentially does, for the Manson family and even for Mark Chapman is foolhardy and maybe simply foolish; the Manson family and Mark Chapman were and are responsible for their own actions. One might as well blame the Bible for the Vietnam war (the track could properly be entitled "Sympathy For The Angel"). Randomness is all around us, as it was in the blue of 1968’s air, but even given the superficially nonsensical nature of many of the White Album’s songs there is still a craving for order, just as long as it isn’t the old, stifling one.

And, to close, a lullaby, the song John wrote for Julian and gave to Ringo to sing, accompanied only (only?) by George Martin’s strings and the Mike Sammes Singers. Simple, heartbreaking, and a key to the still encroaching darkness; as reassuring to the troubled listeners of 1968 as Mantovani’s “Moulin Rouge” must have been fifteen years previously to the survivors of our war. Ringo whispers, comfortingly rather than terminally, a good night to everybody, everywhere, and the child is once again father to the man.

Reassurance, a light to flee the void, comfort, even a security blanket – all of these contribute, I feel, to the reasons why, of all Beatles albums, the White Album is their biggest American seller (19 times platinum and counting). There is also, of course, the fact that the White Album bears a far more pronounced “American” feel than the indisputable Englishness of Pepper, but then this was the first major statement from the Beatles in some eighteen months. At least in the context of the long-playing album.

For, of course, the White Album came hard – or soft? – on the heels of “Hey Jude,” the missing piece in the White Album’s jigsaw puzzle. And we forget the context of those times at our peril. Remember how the Beatles made America happy again, maybe even live again, in 1964? Four years later, after another Kennedy had been assassinated, and the country was again in (arguably worse) turmoil, along came the Beatles again to reassure the USA. It doesn’t matter whether “the movement you need is on your shoulder” makes palpable sense or not; what does matter is that McCartney sings and plays “Hey Jude” – another lullaby written for the young Julian - as though everybody’s life depended on it, a tangible purpose which “All You Need Is Love” partially evaded. The long coda is needed, just as the length of the White Album is vital to justify and explain its story (of course it's a mess - you were expecting life to be straightforward?); they know they are about to enter a different and possibly harder decade, that the unity is bound to splinter, but for now they will do their best to keep everyone and everything together, McCartney hollering and pounding in direct acknowledgement of Little Richard – “Hey Jude” is the gospel song for which Penniman had been striving – to Lennon’s audible pleasure. This must be the first instance where the key song to an album is not actually on the album itself but its message is vivid and palpable; everyone is free to join in and sing along, just as we promised the year before, and it’s all about nurturing the child, both the one within us and those to whom we would strive to become ancestors. It is the same story with Richard Hamilton’s cover design; in 1967 it was primary colour, stars of stage and screen, cutout moustaches, but here now is a whiteness which could represent the direst void or the most beauteous light. And there, etched in on the lower right hand corner, the imprint: “THE BEATLES,” a tabula rasa, a group who, having abdicated their own internal notion of a group, is now whoever and whatever you want them to be. And they are not simply for everyone, but by a curious process of osmosis are every one (or, if you were McGoohan, One). We give ourselves to you, our audience, and ultiimately become you; and even as we are bound to disintegrate, this is the message, the life, we are leaving for you to fill. May it serve you well; as well as the doll’s house which once gave you so much pleasure and purpose.

Monday 19 October 2009

The HOLLIES: Hollies' Greatest

(#60: 12 October 1968, 6 weeks; 30 November 1968, 1 week)

Track listing: I Can’t Let Go/Bus Stop/We’re Through/Carrie Anne/Here I Go Again/King Midas In Reverse/Yes I Will/I’m Alive/Just One Look/On A Carousel/Stay/Look Through Any Window/Stop Stop Stop/Jennifer Eccles

The British theatre has a useful phrase which I have deployed on many occasions; the “rep reliable.” This is normally used in reference to long-serving character actors who have worked in the business for many years and, although they never become stars, are uniformly respected by their peers and are likely to continue functioning when many far better known actors reach burnout or breakdown, even if words such as “innovative” or “remarkable” never disturb their unobtrusive career path.

The Hollies are widely regarded as the rep reliables of the sixties Brit beat boom; rarely out of the charts (of the beat group explosion, their sixties hit single tally is a very close third to the Beatles and the Stones) and hardly ever at number one; always dependable, always turning up for gigs and television and radio appearances, never threatening or radical (much to the chagrin of its key member, but more of that in a moment); always popular but scarcely ever screamed at or idolised.

At least, that’s the general perception, but listening again to the remarkable multipronged attack of their “I Can’t Let Go” or the balalaika drone underscoring “Stop Stop Stop” or the steel drum interlude on “Carrie Anne” or the incongruous pedal steel guitar which wanders into “Jennifer Eccles” reminds me that really there weren’t any other groups like the Hollies and that their legacy is stronger than is usually credited. “I Can’t Let Go” is a tremendous kick-off to this assemblage of fourteen of the Hollies’ first seventeen UK hit singles (the missing trio are their first two hits, “(Ain’t That) Just Like Me” and “Searchin’” and their subsequent, peculiar reading of Harrison’s “If I Needed Someone”) from its launch pad of pregnant, throbbing bass and its sudden detonation of harmonic flowers (“GOOD-BY-YE!”). Following the earnest soul searching of many of 1968’s entries it is refreshing to return to what, in the absence of a better name, I will call power pop for the first time since Revolver; “I Can’t Let Go” sparkles with endless invention – the volcanic eruption of “HOLD ON!” halfway through, the song’s brilliant four-way ending. This is a band wholly confident with itself, and moreover, ahead of both the Byrds and the Band, and virtually alone in comparison with their peers, a group offering seamless three-part vocal harmonies. No wonder Sloan grabbed the song with all eight hands to such good effect in 1996’s Sloan Party.

That multifaceted democracy, however, may well have been the Hollies’ greater downfall; although Allan Clarke was clearly spotlit as the lead singer, both Tony Hicks and Graham Nash take their fair share of lead turns – see, for instance, the subtle way in which all three get a verse each to themselves in “Carrie Anne” - and the group approach precluded any “stars” as such from emerging within their line-up. Certainly, as the Guinness Book of Hit Singles and Albums puts it, the Hollies were undoubtedly one of the sunnier-sounding of sixties pop groups, and by default the most cleancut, although their songs, initially provided by order from professionals like Graham Gouldman but then written by various permutations of the Clarke-Hicks-Nash team, would progressively undermine this spotless image.

Although Hollies’ Greatest, as with other EMI hit compilations of the period, is not compiled chronologically, it does make sense to approach these songs as such. Hence their version of Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’ “Stay,” their first top ten hit from late 1963, is chaotic but hungry and happy; the group cheerfully stumble over themselves and seem to be improvising the song as they go along; there is a fabulous kick to the proceedings and a stinging swing which reminds us how much of a release the beat boom was from what had preceded it, complete with its nod to the Beatles’ “Twist And Shout” at the end.

Thereafter they caught up swiftly; their reading of Doris Troy’s “Just One Look” is polished but not neutral (and won the girls over), and their first self-composed hit “We’re Through” is a ragged Lennon wannabe but containing some inventive, needling single note acoustic guitar lines and some highly effective octave-leaping multisyllabising from Clarke (his “I” and “alone” and especially his woeful Droopy falsetto of “later”), together with some curious foot stomping. The young Gouldman’s “Look Through Any Window” is a fine miniature portrait of everyday lives, three years ahead of “Penny Lane,” with “Teenage Kicks”-anticipating handclaps and already a sense of ennui – we are reminded quite forcibly that, Davy Jones aside, this is the first entry from an act to come from Manchester, and it’s impossible not to picture the youthful Johnny Marr admiring Hicks and Nash’s ringing triplets and the tonal question mark of the song’s unresolved closing chord. Gouldman would go on to pen “Bus Stop,” one of the sixties’ best portraits of rainy Manchester (along with “No Milk Today” which Gouldman composed for Herman’s Hermits) with its witty minimalist syllabic wordplay (how many sixties hits used the word “queue” to such dramatic effect?) and its ruefully confident path to the accidental aisle (not to mention its Klezmer-derived midsong instrumental interlude).

“Here I Go Again” is Moptop confident with its excitable falsetto yelps (“No more, no more!”) and its effective self-contradicting premises (“What can I do if there’s nothing I can do?”). As with “I Can’t Let Go,” the singer’s been let down by love but always he will go back to suffer and rejoice one more time. Their “Yes I Will” is far more compact and springy than the version recorded by the Monkees (see entry #47); their sunshine has yet to be obscured by cloudy splinters of doubt. Clint Ballard Jnr’s “I’m Alive” gave the Hollies their only sixties number one (and one of only two in total) in Britain (and even that single engaged in a curious tug-of-war with Presley’s “Crying In The Chapel”) but it’s a more than worthy chart topper; Clarke alternates very effectively between grave bass verses (“Did you ever see a man with no heart?”) and gradually heightening and enlightening choruses (“Now I can breathe, I can see, I can touch, I can feel,” four years ahead of Tommy), reaching a satisfying climax with a great ectopic run of rapid heartbeats, just to confirm that they are indeed alive, just before the final major sixth.

“Stop Stop Stop,” however, was when things got really adventurous. A #2 hit single in that most extreme of pop years, 1966, exploring the increasing madness and psychosis of a belly dancing peep show fetishist, eliciting a dark, unspoken past (“Body moving, bringing back a memory/Thoughts of long ago”). Eventually he loses control, attempts to rape her and is summarily ejected into the street but shrugs it off with a resigned “Happens every week.” I thought briefly of the uprooted, destroyed widower of “Paint It, Black.”

Thereafter there ensued a slow war of attrition within the band with tentative paws striking out into raw territory; “On A Carousel,” top five in March 1967, takes a fairground chase as an analogy for the rat race with some Mod-ish rhythmic angularities. Then came Nash’s attempt to take over the group and force them into untried adventures, ultimately to little avail; neither the Evolution or Butterfly albums attracted much notice, critically or commercially, and “King Midas In Reverse,” the only track on this album to miss the top ten, was a premature declaration of Nash’s restless independence. Worlds away from the bland anti-assurance of Taio Cruz’s “Break Your Heart,” Nash warns any potential Others away from him as the rest of the group murmur their assent (“All he touches turn to dust”) as he slowly eliminates himself (“I’ll break you and destroy you…given time”). Meanwhile, Johnny Scott’s strings and brass erupt around the group like a field of skyscrapers being dropped from forty thousand feet and they struggle to maintain balance despite Bobby Elliott’s apocalyptic tom toms (the drums are always a key feature of Hollies singles; see the emphatic warning cymbals of “Stop Stop Stop”) and the fire alarm flute flutters which screech out at the end of the song’s middle eight like Lancastrian vultures, ready to gobble the rejects of the sunset cooling towers.

With that relative failure, the group settled for askew juvenilia bubblegum, possibly inspired by Dave Dee’s contemporaneous work; “Carrie Anne” remains a strange not quite child/not quite adult declaration of sexual arousal; note Clarke’s agonised cry of “You’re SO! SO like a woman to ME!” (answered by Hicks and Nash’s shoulder-shrugging “So! So!”) and the aforementioned steel drum interlude, together with a propulsion incongruously reminiscent of the Who. “Jennifer Eccles,” their most recent hit by this time, continued this theme (albeit in a more down to earth fifties Manchester setting) though betrays a winking loss of innocence (“One Monday morning, found out I’d made the grade/Started me thinking – had she done the same?”).

The sliding wolf whistles were enough. It is strange to think that the co-author of such things as “Jennifer Eccles” was by then less than 18 months away from adventures and riches on another continent. But Nash felt as out of place in the Hollies as he looks on the album cover; bored with touring and with what he perceived as an inevitable path to cabaret time – not to mention the prospect of a Dylan tribute album – and while on a visit to Los Angeles took the advice of Mama Cass, quit the group and hooked up with two other chaps then at something of a loose end. So ultimately this record is the story of a slow-burning escape; yet the freshness and vitality of the best Hollies work of the sixties still resonate in unexpected ways today; note also their exceptional success in Sweden, where their forward-mixed propulsion found at least two willing listeners.

Monday 12 October 2009


(#59: 17 August 1968, 5 weeks; 28 September 1968, 2 weeks) 
Track listing: Bookends Theme/Save The Life Of My Child/America/Overs/Voices Of Old People/Old Friends/Bookends Theme/Fakin’ It/Punky’s Dilemma/Mrs Robinson (From The Motion Picture “The Graduate”)/A Hazy Shade Of Winter/At The Zoo 
“I got little in this world. I give honesty without regret.” (First man’s voice to be heard on “Voices Of Old People”)
I don’t know whether Richard Avedon had David Bailey’s famous photograph of the Kray twins in mind when he shot the cover, but there is a jarring similarity, even though these two New Yorkers are more inquisitive and perhaps more fearful. In each of their own ways, they are looking through the camera; Paul Simon’s eyes have darted to his right, distracted or attracted by something bigger or more important, whereas Art Garfunkel is peering diffidently, like a trainee microbiologist faced with his first flush of streptococcus aureus. A black and white shot, but minds unprepared to address anything in black and white, especially the scene of their times through which they are glaring fully.
If Pepper brought childhood to the fore, Bookends addresses the other end of the telescope – and apart from the Beatles, few players in this tale thus far have addressed the question of age and impermanence. Age in 1968 was something to be dashed off, or laughed or howled at as reactionary; look, after all, at where the actions of a previous generation had moved America by April 1968, the time of Bookends’ release. The film of The Graduate, too, attempted to address the question of age, and not simply how wrongly the old were regarding the young from either perspective (prospective employer or mistress); the couple may elope at the end, but are they also ready to turn into reactionaries, think by 1980 that Reagan has a point?
And it was the success of The Graduate which really propelled Simon and Garfunkel into the forefront of Britain’s attention; their original “Sound Of Silence” had not even been deemed worthy of a UK single release two years previously, with a resultant top three cover smash by, of all prematurely elderly people, the Bachelors. But on Bookends the duo, and Paul Simon in particular, were keen to wrongfoot any doe-eyed newcomers, expecting some calming, soothing wisdom of folk. Paddle in the opening thirty-two seconds of winsome acoustic guitar, settle down – and be readily blast apart by the abrupt debut appearance in this tale by that newest of instruments, the Moog synthesiser, followed by smashed glass, church bells, bleeding knuckles, screams, sirens.
Out of this ruination of a civilisation rolls the gait of “Save The Life Of My Child,” the album’s key song in that the “child,” far from being father to the man, is already earmarked for doom; choirs converge into the picture from impossible angles, sound as though wrenched out of their Atlantis chains; one scarcely notices the “Sound Of Silence” reference whispered after the first chorus. The New York Times and Officer MacDougal merely offer different forms of “blah blah blah”; do we want to save the child or simply preserve a good story? Finally, the sky darkens, the crowd gets excited, a spotlight is lit and the child escapes to nowhere. “He flew away,” the duo harmonise, weightlessly, like an Everly Brothers awestruck by the gates of hell, and a whimpering bass faints down 97 floors to the car park. How did “we” – if “America” is to stand for “us” – get here? Some answers are proferred.
“America” the song is the moral and sonic antithesis to Bernstein and Sondheim, even though the album is essentially West Side Story refracted through a prophecy of Escalator Over The Hill – the cross-cutting voices, the multiple lives detailed in the same, enclosed space, the children of Jud Fry demanding to know what happened to their promised alliance – with its calm and patient ascent to bleeding widescreen defeat; the hopeful young couple get on board the Greyhound, set out to discover what is supposedly waiting for them and their incipient dread mounts up incrementally until they are faced with the promised land of rush hour at the New Jersey Turnpike; is this what we abandoned our memories for, and are we still attracted to it, despite ourselves (as the soprano sax echoing through the middle eight, before being rapidly faded out after “a camera,” appears to imply)? The bowties of spies as residual preservers of memory; Simon’s hapless “Kathy, I’m lost,” trying to recall when he actually had a homeward to be bound, hanging onto his dream, his life, as roughly as Hoffman in the final stretches of Midnight Cowboy, or as sadly and bloodily as the protagonist of “My Elusive Dreams.”
 “Overs” concludes the (same?) affair, in its whispering, free-tempo jazzy acoustic guitar setting, surveying the couple’s effective collapse with a strange dispassion; but note the whimpering lead guitar which responds to Simon’s “windowsill” (as though he could reach it) and the sublime, seamless transition from Simon’s earthly “time” to Garfunkel’s ethereal “time,” a move as profound and infinitesimal as the transition from Dave Holland’s acoustic bass to Harvey Brooks’ electric Fender in the title track of Bitches’ Brew. There’s a shocking “STOP!” with an accompanying snap of string before the song reluctantly starts up again to reach its conclusion. What is there to think over?
“Voices Of Old People” defines the emotional template; a collage of interviews with residents of various old people’s homes assembled on location in New York and Los Angeles by Garfunkel and edited in the studio by Simon and engineer Roy Halee; the recollections are in turn hilarious (the first man’s bark of “One hundred DOLLARS for that PICTURE!”) and moving – the increasing dependence upon photographs, images, and the overriding need for direct communication between generations; there’s an astonishing moment where one of the old ladies thumps the table (or desk?) before her and states, impassioned, “That is a mother’s LIFE! To live for your CHILD!” And what happens when the children are taken away before the mothers, for a supposed Greater Good?
Finally, we yet again return to this one, enclosed room, but not necessarily unhappily: “Like, just a room. Your own room, in your own home” (see also, from the following year, Scott Walker’s Scott 3, with its emphasis on age, decay, photographs and a group of people living in the same enclosed space. And, almost needless to say, Vietnam runs through both records like a word etched through the bloodiest of rocks). The talk segues into “Old Friends” with its stop-start waltz dialogues between Jimmie Haskell’s strings and Simon’s acoustic; they are on the park bench, afraid of gradually encroaching oldness (“How terribly strange to be seventy”). Then Haskell’s arrangement edges into Ivesian dissonance, with bitonal string and French horn exchanges, as though the protagonists’ minds are already going to rags, before settling, unexpectedly but perfectly, on a yearning Vaughan Williams high string unison note, bending down to meet a plaintive acoustic guitar. This leads directly into side one’s concluding reprise of the main theme, featuring one of Simon’s shortest but most profound sets of lyrics, and his chilliest of warnings: “Preserve your memories. They’re all that’s left you.”
Side two isn’t necessarily a case of other songs they had lying around at the time – even though the last two tracks date from 1966 and 1967 respectively – but do meditate over a slightly longer distance on the issues which Bookends has raised. “Fakin’ It” is pretty startling even by 1968 Simon and Garfunkel standards, with its, ahem, bookending synth drones and hand percussion whiplashes looking back to “Tomorrow Never Knows” and forward to “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” The verses – and the song is concerned about self-perception of failure, perhaps wilfully – are structured with Beatle-esque first lines before receding into contemplation in the second lines and then rebuilding in intensity. The foot stomps and handclaps in the choruses predict, of all prematurely young people, Slade. And there is a blissful shiver of a moment when a reedy pipe organ ushers in the hallucinatory “I surely was a tailor” section (with a possible nod to Donovan – “Good morning, Mr Leitch!”).
“Punky’s Dilemma” is simultaneously the record’s most fun song and its most subtly disturbing track; Simon careers through his “If I Was” comparisons with a deceptively carefree air and much hilarity is to be had with the Corn Flakes and muffins analogies, until the listener realises that he’s trying to argue himself out of going to war; hence the heavy artillery boots of “Roger the draft dodger” skulking around in the basement (with an emphatic slam of the door following “Leavin’ by the basement door”) which then devolves into a passage of cheerful whistling.
Then comes the hit, “Mrs Robinson,” a clear follow-on from the Monkees’ “Pleasant Valley Sunday” (“Sitting on a sofa on a Sunday afternoon”) perhaps diverted via Portmeirion (its first verse could be the Villagers addressing the “unmutual” Number 6) before veering forward to its surprisingly aggressive and mutable choruses (with violent acoustic guitar slashes and claustrophobic tambourine), moving from the personal to the political to the cry for the past: “Where have you gone, Joe de Maggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you,” rapidly deflated by an offhand “Boo hoo hoo.” One of its year’s most savage songs – it retreats steadily backwards at the end rather than ending, as such - and who noticed?
Finally, two snappy shots of a recent past: “Hazy Shade” borrows some of its rhythm and arrangement from “Get Off Of My Cloud” and markedly more of both from Orbison’s “Oh Pretty Woman” and comes on like a cold rationalist “California Dreamin’”; unlike the latter, there is little hope of escape – catch that hug of a remorseful sigh of “Ah, South California” midway through “Punky’s Dilemma” – despite its smartly cut off trumpet fanfares and the Tony Williams-esque semi-abandonment of cymbal time just before the surge to each chorus; it may well be a grumble of a document of Simon trying to write a song without success (“While looking over manuscripts of unpublished rhyme/Drinking my vodka and lime”) but its march promises something of an apocalypse yet to come; witness the solitary, muffled snow tramp of boot which follows the final “There’s a patch of snow on the ground!”
So we have progressed from doomed youth to hopeful youth, taking in old age and darting back to the preoccupations of the middle-aged (which is where “Mrs Robinson” in particular comes in) – and finally we go to the zoo, are reduced to the status of animals. Once again, the duo have great fun with their deadly earnest analogies underneath the song’s jangly bubblegum jaunt – Simon audibly grins at the phrase “I do believe” – but here we are, the commune we have all been promised, and it’s a bit of a mess, and more likely than not we – that is, listener, you – are going to end up making exactly the same mistakes as our parents did. America loses itself at the zoo, indeed becomes the zoo, and somehow finds the setting more comfortable than any other. “Don’t rebel against your parents,” says Bookends, “but put yourself in their place.” For better or worse (and for those wondering how much of a “Paul Simon” album Bookends really is, consider how it would sound without Garfunkel’s climactic harmonies, or indeed his field recordings). Is it going to be up to us, they ask, to build the bridge?

Monday 5 October 2009

Tom JONES: Delilah

 (#58: 10 August 1968, 1 week; 21 September 1968, 1 week) 

Track listing: Delilah/Weeping Annaleah/One Day Soon/Laura/Make This Heart Of Mine Smile Again/Lingering On/You Can’t Stop Love/My Elusive Dreams/Just Out Of Reach/Only A Fool Breaks His Own Heart/Why Can’t I Cry/Take Me 

It seemed that, even in the supposedly liberated new world of 1968, a man was still expected to be a man, to fulfil certain needs and obligations. If nothing else, the 36 minutes or so of Delilah prove that even the most blustering of pop bears could have their doubts about manhood. Consider “Delilah” the song itself, which I have always found an uncomfortable and disturbing listen in its most famous version. It doesn’t surprise me at all that Les Reed and Barry Mason originally wrote the song with PJ Proby in mind; Proby certainly recorded it first, and his version appeared on CD many decades later, but he was markedly less than keen on it and so Tom Jones was offered the hit. It is not revisionist thinking to assert that Jones was a more fitting singer for the song than Proby; the latter is far too sure of himself, in a song which is supposed to confront the singer with his own failings. Whereas Jones plays it as a kind of extended sob, his regular rough downhill skis of register fermenting into growls of self-loathing. Piano and xylophone stab like particularly unforgiving knives amidst a nuclear countdown clock, the lead guitar uncommonly heavy – it is rumoured that all of Led Zeppelin appear in some guise on “Delilah,” but it is a fact that the young Reg Dwight was also in attendance – and above all this, and the incongruous Mariachi trumpets, Jones wonders what he’s doing even as he does it; what drives him to murder is her pitiless laughing, the implied target being his own sexual inadequacy. This is what he can’t take any more.

Nothing else on Delilah is as overtly extreme as its title track, but this theme returns again and again. On Leon Ashley’s “Laura” – which, if the sleevenote is anything to go by, the singer probably heard via Brook Benton’s version - Jones faces his cheating wife with an enormous sorrow outweighing any rage, which in any case is again directed towards himself. The name “Laura” is answered by a timpanic thump. He is asking her to touch him – “soft GEN-tle hands caress my body” – perhaps by means of force. Again and again he pleads “What’s he got that I ain’t got?,” again accompanied by unlikely, jaunty trumpets. “TELL ME!” he suddenly roars. Then we reach the discomfiting twist: “before I pull this trigger,” he hisses (followed immediately by a weirdly compassionate sigh of “Oh, Laura”), but the listener is in little doubt that, unlike the protagonist of “Delilah,” this man is far likelier to take his own life than hers.

Yet later Jones offers us a fairly startling reading of the George Jones/Tammy Wynette number “My Elusive Dreams” where, overcoming a numbing unison of flute and alto flute, he and his (here) silent partner wander through various disunited States trying to find “it.” But the ending is always the same: “We didn’t find it there.” They have a child in Memphis, they end up chasing non-existent goldmines in Alaska and end up, chillingly, without their child (“Only two of us move on”). All to follow his continued avoidance of himself, his inner absence of “it.” “And still,” Jones sighs with grieving pity, “you won’t let me go alone.” A failure, too exhausted even to die.

This is not exactly the picture that rep reliable DJ Pete Murray paints in his sleevenote, which, as ever, gives the impression of a disappointed big band buff compelled to put up with this noisy pop thing. He remarks how knocked out he was by Jones performing “It’s Not Unusual” on TOTP in early 1965 in the context of a “stereotyped” chart and how he instantly differed from other assumed mediocrities (“And, practically unheard of in this rocking day, a singer who could syncopate”). He then goes on to mention the current album thusly: “Tom is in ballad mood with a decided country flavour.” All very true, but there is a reddening dash of ice in this record which cuts through stereogram complacency. Consider, for instance, Mickey Newbury’s “Weeping Annaleah” (these are the choices of a connoisseur) where, against Big Jim Sullivan’s oddly accentuated but basically blues-driven mandolin-style guitar lines, Jones turns the tables on his would-be lover with something like a sneer: “You think you’re ready for me?” he queries as the song’s waltz reaches a somewhat sinister pause before an extremely quiet fairground organ enters. His “For-EV-er! And EV-er! And EV-er!” appears to be pummelling anyone’s expectations of satisfaction, sexual or otherwise. Maybe it’s not my fault, he’s saying, maybe I’m too damned good at it… 

“One Day Soon” retreats to more familiar “Green, Green Grass” territory but any soulfulness is buried beneath the swamps of heartachey block piano chords and the standard anaesthetic backing choir. “Make This Heart Of Mine” struggles to make its heart felt amongst more “Lonely Bull” trumpets but the staccato unisons and hammered drums of “And! If! You! Don’t! Come! Back!” followed by the long swoon of “Soooon….” work well, as does the passage from Jones’ climactic whimper into cascading strings of comforting cloth. “Lingering On” was a James Last tune in the “Strangers In The Night” style but Jones can’t quite grasp anything here. “Something went WRONG!” he bellows to make himself audible above more chocolate box piano and Light Programme choirs - as with Dean Martin, the arranger was not always the singer’s best friend, although there is a nice concluding trope where the orchestra flutters down like a butterfly landing atop a house of cards before folding in on its own collapse (repeated in a couple of tracks on side two), with some plangent end commentary from Sullivan’s guitar.

“You Can’t Stop Love” goes for a Four Tops feel – rather poignantly, given that Holland-Dozier-Holland allegedly had Jones in original mind for their string of Stubbs-sung hits – but is basically a nondescript uptempo belter which proves that British session players, however good, didn’t quite have the “it” of the Funk Brothers. The bells which answer “diamond ring” are corny rather than affecting, and although Jones does his best – “Yeeeesssssss you CAN’T!” – the song turns more disturbing corners (“You can’t keep my love from your door!”) and finally dwindles away into discontented nothingness. Jones’ reading of the old Patsy Cline number “Just Out Of Reach” is decent enough (if occasionally reminiscent of a burping elephant) but over-flashy trumpet lines spoil the picture of loss. “Only A Fool” finds Jones finally facing up to himself; “If I’m a man?” he asks near song’s end, with no guarantee that it’s rhetoric. He is answered by another thump of the timpani.

The succeeding “Why Can’t I Cry,” however, is a strange creature indeed, from its “Strawberry Fields” intro onwards. Although Jones makes the mistake, as he does on several other tracks, of peaking too soon emotionally, such that his despair sounds overmannered and bellicose (but is this all in keeping with the bear desperately roaring to be loved because it’s the only way it knows?). The waltz sequence, too, is hammy, but Jones’ stark “Can’t heat the chill of my room” brings us back to the world of the lonely man in his lonely room (even the Marriott of “Lazy Sunday” was able to connect with the birds and the seashore, by whatever means) and makes me wonder: how would this album have sounded, with the same songs in the same order and with the same arrangements, if sung by Scott Walker? We would have had two entirely different albums for sure, but Jones’ approach is strangely affecting because he is so obviously trying to break down that barrier of machoness; hear his final whimper of “cry” and its subsequent octave drift, and it sounds as unlike Tom Jones as anything he ever did. 

 As though to drive the point home, he concludes the album with “Take Me,” the same George Jones song with which Val Doonican concluded entry #50. Here the album’s journey is delineated; he begins all swagger and bluster, knife glinting, ready to kill, but ends up in the darkest room, in Siberia (and “Siberia” in this reading comes out as a dissolute mumble), begging to be loved (his “smiiiiiiiile” is the croak of an unconverted frog), numbed and helpless, and clearly needing “it” a lot more than Val did. This isn’t “easy listening”; this is Nick Cave in embryo.

Thursday 1 October 2009

The SMALL FACES: Ogden's Nut Gone Flake

(#57: 29 June 1968, 6 weeks)

Track listing: Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake/Afterglow (Of Your Love)/Long Agos And Worlds Apart/Rene/Song Of A Baker/Lazy Sunday/Happiness Stan/Rollin’ Over/The Hungry Intruder/The Journey/Mad John/Happydaystoytown

Given that it is now the summer of 1968, thoughts may drift to which of these albums is going to be the first premature number one of the seventies, the one which best signposts the decade to come. Were this to be considered purely in terms of studio sonics and sophistication of production techniques then Sgt Pepper may well be the answer; even before the recent remastering its sounds do not feel as if they belong in the same timescale as Please Please Me. But a record such as Pepper could only have come out of a set of ethics and beliefs which belonged firmly in 1967.

Equally the first bona fide Mod entry in this tale could hardly be expected to have been created without the Pepper precedent, although the more obvious precedent, or competition, was Townshend and the Who, whose A Quick One and The Who Sell Out came out either side of Pepper. The Small Faces were portrayed and marketed as representing East End flash against the Who’s West End art, Manor Park matter-of-factism versus Acton escapism, Stratford strut vying with Shepherd’s Bush shrug.

But Ogden’s, from its circular stoned-allegory of a tobacco replica sleeve inwards, represented their dash for freedom. Was it to lead to limitless horizons or an unexpected dead end? Their discography, split between Decca and Immediate, was already messy and the antithesis of the Beatles’ precisely-marketed programme of works. But Andrew Loog Oldham sensed another big chance, advertised the album with a Lord’s Prayer takeoff which aroused the necessary controversy.

Given that the first words we hear on the album are “I’m happy just to be with you” and the last “And now we’re very into it we can’t go wrong!” – and also the admirably strained stars-gutter analogy of the khazi and the moon which runs through its second side, like Lionel Bart essaying Oscar Wilde, this writer has to conclude that emotionally Ogden’s remains a child of its time. Sonically, however, it sounds anything but “sixties.”

Consider, for instance, the titular instrumental overture to the album, with its compressed, phased electric piano, brisk breakbeats, fuzzed-up bass and guitar carrying the central riff, paranoid string section and obligatory channel-to-channel hopping, and wonder what reaction it would now achieve had it come with David Axelrod or the Electric Prunes’ name on the label. Moreover, its underlying patient groove bubbles with an expectancy which predicts, of all people, Stereolab. This is Modernism as few parkas would have recognised it.

And “Afterglow” after its throwaway whimsical acoustic intro with mumbled Temperance Seven vocals, launches via Ian McLagan’s keyboard bridge into something that sounds startlingly seventies; Marriott on guitar, McLagan now on Hammond organ, hammering their way towards the chorus – and from Marriott himself, this tale’s first great hard rock vocal performance and a necessary reminder that, of all the British rock singers of the sixties, there may have been none better; his Redding/Cooke-derived shouts and strokes are truthful, propulsive – you palpate him bursting through his padded capsule, trying to escape (hear his euphoric pain on “A feeling that I could not see, or touch, or try to hide”). But, unlike some of his peers, you never once sense that he’s busting a gut trying to be Soulful; this is a deeper soul, and as with his performance on “All Or Nothing,” one of the most straightforwardly perfect of all number one singles, the urgent need to communicate an emotion far supersedes, and indeed obviates, any consideration of exhibitionism. Kenney Jones, too, provides an explosive performance on drums, including some astonishing machine gun forays (in tandem with McLagan’s staccato Hammond stabs) as Marriott reaches his emotional climax. Zeppelin, amongst many others, would build on what “Afterglow” helped to set in motion – as indeed, a generation or two later, would Weller.

But Ogden’s never settles for the straightforward boogie path (neither did Zeppelin, of course, but this tale will reach them in good time). “Long Agos” is a melancholy R&B strut with oddly weightless bass and organ, and despite Jones’ occasionally harsh snare, drifts into a disconsolate discontinuity, complete with wobbly guitar lines and disconnected handclaps, which reminds me bizarrely of Roxy Music’s “The Bogus Man.”

Then we reach the first of the record’s several Cockney knees-ups (except they’re more than that); “Rene” starts out jauntily enough with Marriott doing his best Max Miller impression, drooling about “the Dockers’ Delight,” stevedores from Tyneside and stokers from Kuala Lumpur, although there is some subtle commentary about race intertwined in what otherwise comes across like a Pearly King equivalent of Brel’s “Amsterdam.” Furthermore I note that the song’s central chord sequence, if stretched out slightly differently rhythmically, is not that different from Blur’s “There’s No Other Way.” Then, after the song proper is done, the band lock into a drone groove, presumably influenced by Canned Heat, which via Marriott’s increasingly fierce and distorted guitar work and Ronnie Lane’s bumptious bass actually stretches into Neu! – and therefore again into Stereolab – territory (it would take Sloan to consummate the union between the two with their Canned Heat/Stereolab medley on 1996’s !Sloan Party!).

“Song Of A Baker” again sings of dissatisfaction, of frustrated life slowly ebbing away into nothing, but also a grim determination – the “Louie Louie”/”Wild Thing” riff lumbers in Hendrixian midtempo and there is a dramatic pause (signalled by Jones’ drums) after Marriott’s principled declaration “And salt in the mines.” Soon thereafter comes a more abrupt shutoff, regenerated by McLagan’s piano; a brilliant, controlled vocal from Marriott.

With “Lazy Sunday” Marriott finally lunges for escape, as well as setting the scene for side two as he susses out the moon to the serenade of a flushing toilet. A “Day In The Life” set in a less temperate community, Marriott fusses and frowns about party-pooper neighbours and enclosed life in general – his nosy neighbour backing singers just won’t shut up – and eventually he turns on and drops out; you can hear the fluid flowing through his veins through the shiver of the extended “wayyyyyyyyy-ah!” of his bridging “drift away,” his cautious whistling as he waits for the stuff to take effect, the sudden opening out of the air, church bells, echoes. He gradually finds his real self and begins to sing as “Steve Marriott” again, now triumphant (“And no one can stop me from feeling this way YEAH!”) and finally succumbing to a soundtrack of birds and the seashore – yes, we’re back by the open sea for the third album in a row; who would have thought it? – as the song slows down, slacks out and settles us down for…

…”Professor” Stanley Unwin, who materialises along with his angel’s harp at the start of side two, ushering us into the story. The story, as such, is about “Happiness Stan” and his efforts to locate the dark side of the moon – no, stop right there, we don’t get to them for a while yet, hold your horses – via a series of societal rejects, chiefly a small fly which Stan makes huge, and a vagrant/seer called Mad John, and is as profound and shallow as any such story would wish to be. Unwin took the job after Spike Milligan declined but truthfully no one else, not even the sourer but no less admirable Ivor Cutler, could have improved on or equalled his contribution; inspired by Lewis Carroll, his language-twisting work in turn inspired John Lennon although stylistically and vocally Lena reckons that he resembles, more than anyone, ee cummings.

“Happiness Stan” itself proceeds with a Klezmer-like harpsichord/mellotron sequence before moving into more straightforward rock, though dynamically performed; hear how Marriott’s “Time! Stood! Still!” is immediately responded to by Jones’ triple snare followed by a decisive cymbal/snare crash, and also the skilful variation in tone and approach, directed by McLagan’s galaxy edge quivering electric piano, succeeded by another pause, then some subdued flute and Leslie cabinet-fed voices. “Rollin’ Over” seems to set the scene for what both halves of the Small Faces would eventually become, with dockside harmonica, roughshod drums from Jones, another general “Foxy Lady” Hendrix feel, stomping brass and another deliberately lumbering bassline from Lane, who jolts the song to a shuddering stop – few British bands of this period could deal with silence as well as the Small Faces did, and Zeppelin certainly learned from this also – after Marriott’s shriek of confidence “Nothin’s gonna stop me!,” worlds away from the hesitancy expressed on “Lazy Sunday.”

“The Hungry Intruder” – i.e. the fly which makes its humble appearance on Marriott’s pie (shepherd’s pie, of course) – allows the pace to settle slightly, although Marriott himself appears to be anticipating rap at song’s beginning; the Townshend influence very visibly shows itself here, as does the more general influence of “Strawberry Fields” in pace and instrumentation (although the wandering flute makes a reappearance). “The Journey,” in contrast, goes some distance ahead of anything else on this album, possibly even heralding that other troubled concept album about outsized flies, Jean-Claude Vannier and Serge Gainsbourg’s L’Enfant Assassin Des Mouches. Jones’ breakbeats here sound like 1988 rather than 1968; there are swooning gasps of “Ooooh!” and “Aaaah!” as though the canteen at White Hart Lane had been spiked with funny Vimto; woozy string lines flutter crimsonly in and out of the picture. After the declaration “And we shall go out” there is yet another pause, and the track resumes at half its preceding tempo; is that really a turntable being scratched at just past the three-minute mark? We then get a ferocious guitar solo from Marriott, backed up fully by McLagan’s organ, and yet more Deep Throat cantatas from the terrace.

This all climaxes in Marriott’s protagonist kissing a giant fly – remember, he’s “got no mind to worry” – and as both prepare to meet Mad John for their answer (yes, the other side of the moon was there all the time, you just had to be patient and persistent) Marriott lumbers into Cockney again and suddenly we are in the Fairport Convention arrival lounge; all excitedly jangling folk guitars.

The happy ending having been reached, there’s nothing for it but to launch into the final singalong, where “life” is revealed as being “like a bowl of All Bran – you wake up in the morning and it’s there” (hello, incidentally, to “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life”) and the group hilariously degenerates into a mass not-quite-nonsense singalong – “Happy day Toytown newspaper smile,” as though this is where Lucy was always going to be heading once she got past the turnstile – as Unwin reappears to usher us all out into the warm outside air (“Stay cool, won’t you?”). The legacy that Lionel Bart and Tommy Steele had inaugurated a decade earlier has borne its fruit. And yes, it’s too tempting not to remark that life is like a bowl of Albarn, as the young Damon would have only just have been born at this time, and certainly Blur have paid explicit tribute to the influence of “Lazy Sunday” in particular on the song “Parklife.” But its deceptively uncomplicated cheer and genuine (because fumbling) sense of adventure provided the precise mix of earthiness and escapism that a troubled mid-1968 Britain needed; moreover, it sets up so many unexpected stalls which continue to overflow with their own fruits. Comftybold four square!