Monday 21 December 2009


 (#69: 9 August 1969, 3 weeks; 6 September 1969, 2 weeks)

Track listing: A New Day Yesterday/Jeffrey Goes To Leicester Square/Bourée/Back To The Family/Look Into The Sun/Nothing Is Easy/Fat Man/We Used To Know/Reasons For Waiting/For A Thousand Mothers

A slice of typical 1969 blues-rock lumbers into view; apparently weighed down by its own history, it stumbles over itself like a worried spider, scuttled in a Soho cellar. It owes something to Cream and the singer’s voice is not unlike that of Jack Bruce’s but there is a deeper, perhaps harsher, possibly more cunning tone to his timbre. He is singing a song of abject dejection; he found someone, or something (“Spent a long time looking for a game to play”) yesterday, but only got the chance to kiss her once, and now he has to be somewhere, or something, else (“My luck should be so bad now to turn out this way”). “It was a new day yesterday,” he ruefully observes, “but it’s an old day now.” Cue a flute, an instrument not generally seen in blues-rock; moaning about its player’s rotten luck, a tone and attack which were always much closer to Harold McNair than to Roland Kirk.

This moment – and a useful counteract, two generations ahead, to Elbow’s equally stumbling but far less surefooted “One Day Like This” – may mark the opening parry of the second wave of the British invasion in this tale, Cream having provided the bridge back to the first influx. But the song also indicates a farewell to what Jethro Tull had hitherto been; its leader wished to express the blues in somewhat different forms, and its original guitarist, wishing to stay firmly within the blues as he knew them, had decamped to form Blodwyn Pig.

Hence “A New Day Yesterday” is a markedly pronounced goodbye to Tull’s recent past, and with the second track on their second album the lightness of being makes itself visible, at least musically; the mood is now delicate, acoustic (with some Leslie cabinet-filtered electric lead guitar comments), waltzy. New guitarist Martin Lancelot Barre handles flute duties on “Jeffrey” although Ian Anderson’s lyric and growl (“Bright city woman…/Gonna get a piece of my mind,” the rhetorical quatrain of “me”s on “you don’t fool me”) still seem blues-derived. He views the urban wannabe with some distaste, but his is a radically different viewpoint from the Woodstock August 1969 that the States knew; the wan flute, Clive Bunker’s brushes, place the record firmly in a slightly gloomy end-of-the-trip 1969 Britain; downbeat, introspective, looking for a quieter way out. Tull’s rurality– and let us not forget that they were named after the eighteenth-century pioneer of modern British agriculture – did not really resemble the loping wagons of Canned Heat’s “Going Up The Country.”

“Bourée,” an instrumental adaptation of the fifth movement of Bach’s Bourrée in E Minor, is perhaps the record’s most telling articulation of this mood. Moving steadily through jazz, folk and light blues styles, there is a loneness to Anderson’s flute – and again one thinks of McNair’s work with Donovan, for instance on “Sunny Goodge Street” – which almost defies rescue. I think of those ruminative Nick Drake instrumentals – since this was also, had he only known it, Drake’s time – and in particular the heartbreaking “Sunday” with its already doomed rolling hills of strings.

Glen Cornick’s bass solo on “Bourée” also reminds us that Stand Up might be the first number one album to derive purely from the hippy era; after all, its original, woodcut-based gatefold sleeve opened up like a children’s book to reveal pop-up figures of the quartet, defying us to imagine what they are thinking, coupled with the deliberately charming credits (“Some songs for you,” “and…er, well yes! It really has turned out nicely”). If the Moody Blues represented the mainstream of progressive British rock, then Tull are a very different prospect; in place of the Moodies’ intricately and immaculately arranged setpieces, Tull provide an intuitive degree of interaction and spontaneity more in keeping with the prime folk and jazz movers of the period (see Pentangle’s contemporaneous Basket Of Light for confirmation). There were of course the shaggily dogged stories and cautiously euphoric discontinuities of the Incredible String Band, but of course there was also Traffic – and we’ll be getting back to the latter very soon, albeit at one remove – and the general air of getting collective heads together in the electricity-free country cottage. And inevitably there was Led Zeppelin, to whom Anderson dedicated the 2001 CD remaster of Stand Up; they invited Tull to support them on their 1969-70 arena tour of the States and it was there that the group learned about large-scale dynamics and also worked up the stage act for which the likes of Lester Bangs, not knowing much about British art or music hall traditions, would gloomily berate them – but theirs is a story which will have to wait a few more entries before taking up.

Back in the city, Bunker’s tick tock drums rudely awaken Anderson, who provides a frustrated yawn of a vocal. “So I think I’ll go back to the family,” he muses, “where no one can ring me at all.” Here is a reluctant urbanite who really has had enough; indeed he sings “I’ve had about all I can take” before the group pauses and effects a heavier re-entry into the song. His flute sounds positively exasperated but the overall mood, as well as the smiling bookend guitar arpeggios, put me in mind of Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake a year later; the craving for space and air now becoming a desperate gasp for oxygen. The song speeds up and Barre’s extremely 1969 lead guitar sweeps in for a modestly extended jam (since this is also the age of stretching out your songs, much as the arriviste would stretch out their weary legs atop a hopefully green pasture). But Anderson keeps changing his mind: “Doing nothing is bothering me/I’ll get a train back to the city/That soft life is getting me down,” he now declares, only for the weary urbanite to return almost immediately: “Every day has the same old way of giving me too much to do.” The crisis of 1969’s young Britain; can’t do with it, won’t do without it.

Side one ends with “Look Into The Sun” – does that imprecation sound familiar? – and we are back in mournful acousticland, a more formalised ISB template into which Barre’s wah-wah pedal eventually wanders. Anderson very effectively contrasts the notion of “sad songs” with the word “glad”; again he is pining for the mythical girl he once knew and now has lost, and although he sounds as though he is advising, “To walk is better than to run,” he ceaselessly questions his own decisional path (“Or was it better then to run?”). He ends the song, chilled out but hopeful. It would seem that everyone in 1969 Britain felt the need to slow down, or maybe stop altogether.

“Nothing Is Easy” fades in with a brisk, back-to-work gallop, and Anderson roars beautifully about “one white duck on your wall” before taking the song’s basic life on the road/in a group model and developing it into a frighteningly convincing declaration of principles: “Isn’t it just too damn real?” he hisses at one point. “Fly away…from the fingertip ledge of contentment,” he warns at another point. “My zero to your power of ten equals nothing at all,” he confesses at yet another stage. But he goes on to compare himself to a “Black Ace dog handler,” a “waiter on skates,” and the lurid allegories of the song’s concluding laps – “Love’s four-letter word is no compensation,” “foreskin conclusion,” “cold breakfast trays” – give a terrifying sense of conviction, especially as a mask for total uncertainty. Meanwhile the song itself makes, via Bunker’s drum solo, with the Mingus accelerando (see Black Saint And The Sinner Lady) towards a free-form pile-up.

With “Fat Man” Anderson retreats a little in volume, if not in confidence; rather than anything resembling a rock band, the song is driven by auxiliary percussion (slightly reminiscent of Pharaoh Sanders’ Karma) and Anderson’s balalaika (when he’s not singing or blowing his flute, he lends himself to all sorts of stringed and keyboard instruments throughout the record). Both are possibly speeded up, and over this unlikely bed Anderson rants about his happiness in being a thin man again; observe his orgiastic “Too-hoo-WHOO!” at the end of the phrase “and all the night time too.” There is more than a hint of Zeppelin’s subsequent adventures into acoustic, folky franticity.

“We Used To Know” in contrast is a patiently measured ballad in which Anderson returns to what I perceive to be the album’s – and possibly 1969 British rock’s – central theme. “Nights of winter turn me cold,” he sings. “Fears of dying, getting old” – and yet Anderson was only twenty-two. Nonetheless, he sings from the observed perspective of a character who feels that things are perhaps already doomed, peering remorselessly into the chasms of modern “living” before coming to the conclusion that “The race was won by running slowly,” with the strong suggestion that it still could be. He departs mournfully with the warning “But for your own sake – remember times we used to know” before Barre’s guitar weeps slightly less gently than before.

“Reasons For Waiting” is, however, the record’s big balladic setpiece, Once again there is an acoustic beginning before the music picks up, though not to an overbearing degree. Anderson is standing or sitting up, watching his (once?) lover sleeping, wondering again about that day which he so venerates, the day when everything and everyone simply seemed to click, be in tune, in tandem with each other’s needs. Like Gabriel at the climax of Joyce’s The Dead, he observes in the dreading knowledge that he can no longer – or could ever – touch the sleeping woman, and so his mind wanders to the skies, his wishes, which he already knows are foredoomed, fall upon her sleeping, once-weeping face like petals rescued from the newly-laid moon. David Palmer’s strings – a light far from damning – make their discreet entrance, and somehow I think ahead towards Seal, and Anne Dudley, and Trevor Horn, and have to pinch myself to remind myself that we are still in the sixties, albeit almost at their end.

Then, for the finale, Anderson reverts to one of the oldest tales in the rock ‘n’ roll book; “For A Thousand Mothers” is a cackling song of imperious revenge on the parents who just didn’t understand. Bunker’s 6/8 drums are harsh, martial, with multiple cymbal crashes. The melodic procedural is medieval but the tambourine which makes itself apparent in the final verse hisses like a snake, and Anderson seizes his opportunity, his moment, to damn and decry they who would have fucked him up. Words like “Did it surprise you to be picked up at eight in a limousine?” could in a different time have come from Eminem. His is a terrible rage, and the machine of the music carries his still-smouldering anger to its justified destination.

Anderson would come back to this issue at least once more, with the late 1969 stand-alone single “Sweet Dream,” still one of the most extraordinary top ten hits of any age, standing as it does somewhere between Ravel’s Bolero and Love’s Forever Changes as Anderson prepares to elope, to escape her parents, to get away from the past and embrace the future – in stark and deliberate contrast to the deliberate and oft-missed irony of “Living In The Past.” Coming after Ray Conniff and Jim Reeves, Stand Up returns to draw a line under the generation gap - it is worth noting that the young Nick Cave was a major fan of Tull and in particular this album – but its message is a familiar one, albeit more savagely delivered; we’ve got to get out of this place.

(Author’s Note: And, for that matter, I’m getting out of this place for the next couple of weeks; this is the last TPL post before I take a long-delayed and much-deserved break for the holidays. Thanks to everyone who’s come here, found the blog, read it and/or commented on it, either here or elsewhere. Entry #70 – where a recent past comes back to haunt us – will appear early in the New Year. All good wishes for 2010 and see you all again soon – M.C.)

Monday 14 December 2009

Jim REEVES: According To My Heart

(#68: 12 July 1969, 4 weeks)

Track listing: According To My Heart/Don’t You Want To Be My Girl/Don’t Tell Me/You’ll Never Be Mine Again/I’ve Lived A Lot In My Time/If You Were Mine/Don’t Ask Me Why/Stand At Your Window/What Would You Do/I Can’t Fly

We hear bold fiddles and steel guitar with an unexpectedly bold, youthful and high-pitched voice confidently riding the crests of this song of hope (“The future will be bright”), already knowing enough about the emotional and rhetorical structures of pop singing to coast along his three-note, trisyllabic ascents to the words “love” and “heart.” Musically this is Bob Wills/Hank Williams liveliness, but the voice at this stage is still lending itself more towards the likes of Jimmie Rodgers and Vernon Dalhart – what annotator Charles Weaver rather sniffily refers to as purveying a “pseudo-popular singing style” – full of anxious life and partially fulfilled optimism.

This is Jim Reeves, in 1955, singing “According To My Heart,” and it’s a startlingly raw Jim Reeves to those who know only his later, more velvety work. Fresh off his stint as the singing host of the radio show Louisiana Hayride and newly signed to RCA, here is someone still in the process of forging his own style, finding his way out of his influences and adding a few more askew influences on his way to a smoother individuality.

The album to which that song lent its title was a budget-priced reissue of a 1960 compilation of odds and sods – B-sides, previously unreleased tracks, etc. – issued in the immediate wake of his big crossover hit “He’ll Have To Go.” In the wake of Nashville Skyline, and in light of the fact that as man landed on the Moon this was the most popular album in Britain, it is tempting to regard According To My Heart as a backwards glance towards the beginning of its remarkable decade, in order to assess how far anyone, or anything, had come.

It was, of course, also the second posthumous UK number one album, and as with JFK there is a case for saying that Reeves represented a lost idol for many people – particularly those of Irish Catholic descent – who would have preferred a sixties with rather than without him. In entry #50 I touched upon the popularity of country-derived music in the community of Irish immigrants who settled in the north of England and in Scotland after the war and particularly throughout the sixties and seventies; since I grew up in west central Scotland I can attest that country was the dominant music, the music most heard and loved, where I lived, to a far greater extent than rock or pop. This is unsurprising given that much of the architecture of country music owes its being to the music which the Scots and Irish had already brought over with them to the States in the nineteenth century. And the Jim Reeves constituency in Britain, though not exclusively northern based, was certainly weighed in great favour towards the north and the Celtic contingent in particular. The works of James Kelman, for instance, certainly underline what a crucial, and perhaps life-preserving, tonic country music could be to the downtrodden working classes of Glasgow; see the tenement shebeen which climaxes A Disaffection, or its use as Sammy’s main guide back into the world in How Late It Was, How Late.

This compilation serves several useful purposes, not the least of which is providing a fuller formative picture of the younger Reeves, although, as with Nashville Skyline, its ten tracks collectively clock in at around the 27-minute mark. The title track is by far the record’s most optimistic, but the mostly major key-biased, midtempo Western swing-mutating-into-C&W template holds firm throughout. “Don’t You Want To Be My Girl” introduces the record’s first degree of emotional ambiguity. Recorded in 1960, the track demonstrates how Reeves had already begun to assimilate the influences of Crosby and Sinatra into his technique; now he is assuming his more familiar guise, crooning closely and softly into the microphone, although his more fortissimo moments, as Weaver asserts, owe a good deal to what Weaver calls “those fence-busting innovators,” and in particular Eddy Arnold.

If Reeves is smoother here, however, he is also more afraid, and more elusive. He is expressing sympathy towards a woman whose man doesn’t – we are asked to presume – treat her as she ought to be treated and prematurely offering his replacement hand; the pedal steel raises a quizzical eyebrow at his “He’s gonna drop you…he told me himself.” His three-note descent to contrabass on the “love” of “nobody hides a love” is not absent of threat or menace. In “Don’t Tell Me,” conversely, he is the one who has been cuckolded. Sharply picked out lead guitar notes do a more explicit job of emphasising Reeves’ concealed (by regret) rage; his “Don’t you realise” is agonised, high, and he can barely conceal the hatred underpinning the phrase “snuggles closer and laughs at every silly little line.”

“You’ll Never Be Mine Again,” structurally not dissimilar to Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” complete with call and response backing singers, has Reeves in a superficially more resigned mood, but again he is in tatters over this “someone else” who keeps materialising like an unwelcome pursuer from an unspecified past. He trembles palpably on the “pretend” of “pretend that your world is mine,” and by the time we reach “Then my world will come to an end” we realise we are dealing with a spirit as troubled, and perhaps as paranoid, as that of Roy Orbison.

“I’ve Lived A Lot In My Time” is the album’s keynote song, and the only one not specifically concerned with love (apart from a crucial couplet – “I had a sweetheart/But I was unfaithful”); here Reeves is Everyman, down from a mansion to his last dime, fighting with the Grim Reaper and walking with the Master in the same Dark Valley, but peacefully impatient to taste “Eden’s green pastures”; here is the aged wanderer of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” the scarred Harding, who has endured everything and is not entirely sure whether he has learned anything. The approaching end of the Worried Man’s road, and the “Woo-ooh” of the female backing singers are the sirens luring him to the final field which might yet turn out to become an ocean.

“If You Were Mine” sees us back with the exuberant mid-fifties Reeves, promising the world to his as yet uncommitted hopeful Other; his “before” in “you’ve ever been loved before” is positively lascivious, and his hyperactive “Mine MINE mine!” remarkably virile. But in “Don’t Ask Me Why” he’s won her, and she’s playing around, and there’s nothing he can do about it; he struggles to preserve his countenance but the high, gasping “MIGHT” of “You might as well ask me why I breathe” and its counterpoint, low register, clenched “breathe” in the same line document a mind in turmoil. “…or why I live at all,” he continues; and the “calls” in the second middle eight (“answer when she calls”) is sustained beyond tolerable length and vividly despondent.

“Stand At Your Window,” despite or because of its enthusiastic boys together harmonies on the title, is more disturbing still. She is in her mansion – another mansion, you may note – and he is standing beneath it, making a sinister deal of the contrast between the light in her window and the darkness of his soul in the gutter underneath. Despite the slightly incongruous rolling piano, this is an uneasy portrait of what is essentially a stalker – but I am also reminded of a Canadian who began his career in the fifties with the Buckskin Boys, who a lifetime later would write an astonishing song-cum-epitaph apologising to his would-be Other for ignoring her while she stood beneath his window, with her bugle and her drum, while he was waiting for the miracle to come. Leonard Cohen narrowly escapes direct inclusion in this tale since Songs From A Room had been kept off number one two months earlier by, successively, the Seekers and the Moody Blues, but the streams have to be taken into full account.

In “What Would You Do,” Reeves finally owns up. “You call me a cheater,” he sings, humbly (Weaver refers to these “humble true-love ballads” as being the polar opposite of the “beat-dominated charts of today”), caught out, before continuing, slightly more bravely, “Well, maybe that’s true.” “But…” he explains, “…with heaven at your fingertips – what would you do?” He has surrendered to his baser instincts, and perhaps located his greater ecstasy in doing so, and all he can now do is fumble with reasoning and excuses, the underlying subtext being: really, you’re no better, are you?

Lena points out that the subject matter of these songs – losing love from nearly every possible angle – and the song titles themselves would have been entirely fitting for a group like the Wedding Present; again, David Gedge, growing up in the Leeds of the sixties and seventies, could hardly have failed to absorb Reeves’ music in his youth (and we think also of Morrissey and Marr’s parents on the other side of the Pennines, not to mention Richard Hawley in Sheffield, and many, many others, John Lydon and Shane MacGowan included). But Reeves never deals in self-pity or explicit grief; his final word on this record is a resigned, regretful shrug of his shoulders (even though he is clearly reddening with fury underneath). In “I Can’t Fly” he accuses his soon-to-be-forsaken partner of wanting him to be “perfect,” and as the honky tonk rolls under the third verse he apologises, in a manner not entirely bereft of anger, “You’re looking for an angel, and I’m sorry I can’t fly.” He bids a sardonic farewell as she goes on looking for “that perfect guy” and comments “I hope his wings are pretty.”
What strikes me most about According To My Heart as a record is the complete lack of a barrier between Reeves and the listener. Lena reckons his voice and timbre are not dissimilar to Kermit the Frog (emphatically not intended to be an insult) and maybe his manner was the same; someone, like Kermit, who is perfectly comfortable with who and what he is. As far as his wider impact as an artist and general influence is concerned, we will be returning to his work in due course, but I should point out at this juncture that it would be a mistake to put Reeves under the same cut-price MoR banner as Ray Conniff; indeed, this album and its predecessor are polar opposites in virtually every way. Conniff, the urbanite from Massachusetts, fashioning meticulous, distant, polished music that breathes aspirational, white collar, conservative; whereas Reeves, the country boy from Texas, is distinctly blue collar, working class, Democrat-voting, communal music (unsurprisingly Reeves was a JFK voter). We think of ruminative figures at the bar; lonesome long-distance truck drivers, men with plenty of time to think and to drink. Music to enable commensality, the communal breaking of bread, and sipping of wine, at the common table. And this music spoke more directly to them than many others that could be nominated.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Ray CONNIFF: His Orchestra, His Chorus, His Singers, His Sound

 (#67: 21 June 1969, 3 weeks)

Track listing: Memories Are Made Of This/I’ve Got You Under My Skin/Volare/They Can’t Take That Away From Me/Greenfields/Melodie d’Amour/Days Of Wine And Roses/Spanish Eyes/Somewhere My Love/Mrs Robinson/Up Up And Away

“Terminal addicts don’t notice how alienated they have become from old life, old friends, old ways, old interests. One day you realise you’d rather stay right here in this warm and comfortable drug chair, here, in the cool un-cruel shade, this the only place my mind don’t ache, this the only place my soul feels ripe, this the one place my body don’t itch and yelp and hurry, I like it here, what’s the problem, here I don’t need to DO anything, don’t need to meet anyone else’s demands, don’t need to stress or argue or bargain or barter or seduce or shine…I can just be me. And dream. Endlessly dream.”
(Ian Penman, “Notes Toward A Ritual Exorcism Of The Dead King,” from the anthology The Resistible Demise Of Michael Jackson: Ropley, 0 Books, 2009)

“But I’ll keep on waiting ‘til you return,
I’ll keep on waiting until the day you learn
You can’t be happy while your heart’s on the roam,
You can’t be happy until you bring it home,
Home to the green fields and me once again,
Home to the green fields and me once again.”
(“Greenfields” by Terry Gilkyson, Rich Dehr and Frank Miller)

It is January, 1972, three days past my eighth birthday. In the White House President Richard Nixon is hosting a dinner to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Reader’s Digest magazine. The guest list has been carefully drawn up by his trusted adviser, Irving Kristol; the Reverend Billy Graham, Lionel Hampton, Bob Hope – guaranteed non-boat rockers, guaranteed non-rockers, full stop (even if in another life Hampton might have held one of the strongest claims for inventing rock).

The onstage entertainment is to be provided by the Ray Conniff Singers. Conniff doesn’t have his usual band of crack West Coast session players to hand; he is using a small pick-up group of musicians from the Marine Corps and has had to hire in singers specially for the occasion, on the recommendation of his then contractor Jay Meyer. One of these is a Canadian, Carole Feraci, originally from Toronto but resettled in southern California. Initially when she gets the call from Meyer she’s sceptical but later calls back to accept the engagement. Unknown to anyone else, she and her boyfriend have meanwhile thought up a plan.

The singers make their way onto the makeshift stage. As Feraci approaches the microphone, she suddenly produces a banner. “STOP THE KILLING,” it states. She then begins a short speech, directed directly at Nixon, who keeps his countenance. The speech culminates in this sequence, which was shortly to become world famous:

“If Jesus Christ were here tonight, you would not dare to drop another bomb.”

Conniff reaches for the banner and tries to grab it but Feraci is too quick for him and holds onto it confidently. “Bless the Berrigans,” she concludes, “and bless Daniel Ellsberg.”

In a room filled with the thickest and iciest of silences, Conniff strikes up the band. The song is “Ma, He’s Makin’ Eyes At Me,” a number which, in its Johnny Otis Show manifestation, had started a revolution fifteen years previously. She sings it dead straight, eyes unblinking. After the song has ended, voices in the audience yell for her to be thrown out. Conniff apologises to Nixon for the unexpected disturbance and then politely asks Feraci to leave; she politely does so. Immediately she is surrounded by reporters and cameramen; Secret Service agents are lurking but have been told to play it cool. Eventually she leaves the White House and disappears into history.

If anything got Nixon elected in 1968 – Sirhan Sirhan and Mayor Daley notwithstanding – it was his promise to end the Vietnam war. His beloved “great silent majority” core of supporters were weary of war and of the post-Kennedy promise which they felt had been squandered; they were afraid of Eugene McCarthy, weren’t much inspired by Hubert Humphrey. As things turned out, of course, the war laboured on for several more years; but that “silent majority” (and we should recall that the original meaning of that term relates to “the dead”) craved stability, some semblance of a return to the America they thought they once knew. In any case, many felt Nixon had been cheated out of the job by JFK back in 1960, and were increasingly baffled and intimidated by their free-thinking offspring with their new fangled ways of doing things and living life. They, in short, were scared, and thus the parallel refuge to music which sounded like the music they used to know; clear tunes, definable words, smart singers and musicians, the haze of memory wafting in from those ancient breezes. Life before younger life came to spoil everything.

Once upon a time, Ray Conniff too was scared; in the late forties he had relocated his family to Hollywood after the big band scene had fizzled out for partly economic and partly fashion-related reasons. He had previously made something of a name for himself as a relatively imaginative trombonist, composer and arranger for bandleaders including Bunny Berigan, Glenn Miller and Harry James, having (it should be noted) learned the basics of composition and arrangement via a mail order correspondence course in the thirties. But inventive solos and charts didn’t pay the bills, and after a couple of years in Hollywood Conniff was feeling the pinch, having to take on manual labouring to keep his children’s heads above water, always facing the imminence of bankruptcy and foreclosure.

Out of his fear he formulated a plan. He sat down and carefully studied and analysed every number one Billboard hit record of the preceding ten years, in tandem with the leading advertising jingles over the same period. He studied the commercial virtue of repetition, the relationship of rhythms to hooks, the most palatable ways in which voices and instruments could be combined to produce the best value result. The strategy paid off, and he was soon hired by Columbia producer Mitch Miller as a staff arranger. Miller’s story and relationship to pop – a story which, amazingly, has not yet ended at the time of writing – will be looked at more fully at a later stage as, equally amazingly, he will crop up again in this tale (as a contributor to entry #116).

But Conniff’s big break came with his score for “Band Of Gold,” a 1956 ballad hit for the crooner Don Cherry (needless to say, not the same Don Cherry who in 1956 was rehearsing with Ornette Coleman in L.A. in preparation of overthrowing other notions of order). His tactic here was to substitute a chorus of voices for a string section; they were wordless, purely instrumental, smooth, and an instant success. He went on to arrange many hits for the likes of Guy Mitchell, Marty Robbins and Rosemary Clooney before Columbia gave him the chance to record with his own orchestra. Assembling a band of stalwart West Coast studio reliables, many of whom had known Conniff from the big band days (for instance, guitarist Al Hendrickson, formerly a staple of the Artie Shaw Orchestra), and an eight-strong team of singers (four male, four female), Conniff’s albums found great and immediate favour. Covers of albums such as The Hi-Fi Companion, The Happy Beat and It’s The Talk Of The Town set the tone; this music was hip, swinging and urban without being especially threatening.

As the fifties ironed themselves into the sixties Conniff’s album covers leaned towards featuring pretty girls with beaming (if rarely smiling) faces filling the (hopefully) welcoming space, the only striking exception being 1964’s Invisible Tears, an album of country-flavoured ballads whose cover featured no faces but simply the title and Conniff’s name in large, black, forbidding type; there was, as we shall see, more than a hint of recividist melancholy underlying Conniff’s work.

His Orchestra, His Chorus, His Singers, His Sound was a budget-priced sampler of key tracks from the 1960-8 period released especially for the European market and to publicise Conniff’s then current European tour and owes its inclusion in this tale (as does its successor, entry #68) to a brief experiment undertaken by chart compilers the British Market Research Bureau where all albums – both full-priced and budget-priced – were included in the same chart rather than (as had previously been the case) separate ones. The gold and black label (“THIS LABEL IS REMOVABLE”) on my copy indicates that in Britain it retailed for fifteen shillings, but does that mean that the music sounds cheap, and if so, whether Conniff’s career is a long term study of the impotency of cheap music?

I am not so sure. The album devotes a side apiece to his “Chorus” work and his “Singers” work, and the difference – or, if it can be counted as such, the evolution – is quite remarkable. As soon as Conniff’s 1960 band breaks into “Memories Are Made Of This” – which, along with “Volare,” ushers in that most insecure of holders of fleeting memory, Dean Martin, a man for whom, in 1969, life was already becoming a memory, he having become his own legend, and therefore, strictly speaking, outside himself – his debt to his big band schooling is obvious. Despite the occasional harp glissandi and the decently distant, wordless chorus echoing in the middleground, “Memories” gives us a useful beginner’s class in big band arranging. With every verse Conniff varies the voicings; in the first, the trumpets carry the main melody while the saxophones do the calling and responding, in the second the trombones work against the trumpets, and that latter scenario is reversed in the final verse. In addition, the surprisingly brash and bold trumpets throughout – a direct legacy from Conniff’s Harry James days – indicate that, while this music clearly aimed to please, it was not a lazy music.

Conniff had worked out his “Sound” with geometrical precision, and despite the progressive modifications he applied to it, the basic precepts never changed; discreet rhythm, set back in the mix, with the accent on echoing rhythm guitar and click bass, with enough space to allow brass, reeds and voices to come through in meticulously-determined proportions. In addition, he was very much in favour of large unison brass/reed lines, as can be demonstrated by his arrangement of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” which, if dutifully and scrupulously stripped of all the sex, dirt and longing both Cole Porter and Frank Sinatra had applied to the song – as with many other tracks here, it could have served as the backing track to courtly Home Counties formation dance teams, cha-cha rhythm and all – its horn voicings look curiously forward to the work of Medeski, Martin & Wood (and it should not be forgotten that no less a personage than Gil Evans adapted not dissimilar voicings for his own bands from the late sixties onwards) and there is genuine inspiration in the way Conniff finally but gracefully and patiently makes the tune recede towards a central point of silence.

Conniff takes “Volare” to the airy penthouse, Hendrickson’s guitar and echoplexed rhythm astonishingly reminiscent of (or anticipating) dub. The loungey swing is confident, robust, although I note the use of the xylophone rather than the vibraharp; there is a certain residual martial stiffness still present in his work, but certainly this is the kind of thing that Jack Lemmon would have slapped on the deck in his apartment in preparation for Shirley MacLaine to come round (although we forget at our peril that MacLaine’s character in The Apartment does eventually attempt suicide).

But then that aforementioned melancholy begins to creep in, creating shades of wintry dusk. Introduced by a prematurely fatigued bass trombone and celeste unison, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” is perhaps one of this record’s key tracks; the title alone speaks volumes about its intended audience. There is cleverly descending counterpoint between voices male and female and the voice-as-instrument schemata, though notably less flexible than subsequent developments inspired by it – particularly in Britain, where John Dankworth was undertaking more adventurous experiments in the same mode, using Cleo Laine’s voice as an additional horn, and those in turn inspired one-time Dankworth trumpeter Kenny Wheeler (like Feraci, an expatriate Torontonian) to utilise Norma Winstone’s voice in the same way in his own big band – is a more substantial innovation than Conniff is usually given credit for (indeed, Esquivel’s habitual use of “zu-zu-zu” in his work may be regarded as a direct commentary, possibly satirical, on Conniff’s trademark “do-do-do”s). The overall feeling, however, is muted, hesitant, although at one point the stately piano (either Pete Jolly or Jimmy Rowles) is abruptly intercepted by a blast of screeching cha-cha brass before quietude resumes.

Side one concludes with the album’s deepest and most resonant track. “Greenfields” (recently revived by Michael Stipe as part of Faultline’s Your Love Means Everything project) was a melancholy hit ballad for the Brothers Four in 1960 and Conniff (six years later, by which time everything had changed) approaches the song with real, perceptible emotion. He takes the number very patiently, with a slow, harp-driven 6/8 tempo. The piano picks at the memory like a widowed scavenger polishing lilacs at the grave. Again, however, two-thirds of the way into the track an unexpected wave of danceband brass and quavering reeds briefly engulfs the song – those memories of Miller, the ghosts of forgotten winds. It resembles a tug of war; look, I know our world is vanishing, it seems to be saying, but remember how it used to be – and maybe, if we try really hard, and that includes screwing our eyes up as firmly as possible, it will happen again? This knowing sadness infiltrates the sometimes forced jollity of the rest of the record.

With side two we are suddenly in a different, and not necessarily a better, world. “Melodie d’Amour” commences, unexpectedly, like a Shadows B-side, all twangy, tremolo guitars; but now the voices have found and learned a language – two languages in fact, since they sing the song in both French and English, but at this stage (still 1966) the Singers – by now expanded to 25 in number, 12 females and 13 males) seem to know what they’re singing and why they’re singing it. Conniff makes ingenious use of stop-start and silence tropes in the middle eight, although the fade is rather abrupt.

Thereafter, however, a strange, eerie jauntiness appears to dominate. “Days Of Wine And Roses” is anything but a jaunty song, and moreover contains in Mercer’s lyric one of the greatest opening lyrical tropes in all of popular song, a sentence as endless as the tracking sequence that commences Touch Of Evil and which also paraphrases Gauguin (“…a door marked ‘Nevermore’ that wasn’t there before”). The voices – and suddenly there is nothing to hear except voices; the big band trappings have subtly vanished and we gradually realise that the voices have effectively replaced the (obsolete?) instruments – treat the song, however, like an amiable night at the bridge club.

Conniff’s “Spanish Eyes” (a.k.a. “Moon Over Naples”), a song co-written by his curious German counterpart Bert Kaempfert, is taken at a brisker pace than Al Martino’s famous version (and Engelbert Humperdinck’s only marginally less famous reading). The yearning buried not so deeply within the song, however, is almost entirely ignored – the singers are reciting the words almost passively, and the inevitable mandolin which ushers in the would-be climactic key change displays unwelcome signs of slipshod laxity, or worse, indifference.

The new problem is compressed with Conniff’s reading of “Somewhere My Love,” which also brings into play the contemporaneous recording of the song by another German counterpart – and, in the end, perhaps Conniff’s better – James Last. Far more successful in Europe than Conniff, Last has since 1967 built a career on unashamedly giving the public what it wants, but exhibits a certain élan which the later work of Conniff frequently lacked. Last’s concerts are party events, the equivalent of hen parties and bingo nights, the audience’s unabashed celebration of itself; it is deceptively democratic. Whereas I picture a solemn, dutifully seated audience passively absorbing the “quality music” of Conniff onstage, even though Conniff himself appears to have been extremely passionate about both his music and its live delivery. Last’s version of Lara’s theme – as heard on his 1967 album Love, This Is My Song – is artful, seductive and finally heartfelt. But Conniff’s version is so damned foursquare – with the emphasis on “square” – that one is reminded of Melina Mercouri relating her fairy tales in Never On Sunday, all of which end with “they all go to the seashore,” a cheerful allegory for death (since that is the only way all stories can end). His “Somewhere My Love” seems fully equipped for that terminal beach journey.

With “Mrs Robinson” this placidity becomes offensive, and downright disturbing. The crucial “about you for our files” sequence is recited exactly as one would expect a call centre employee to recite it – was this a deliberate commentary on Conniff’s part? – and the banally jaunty brass and incongruous Basie piano fills are exceeded in missing the point by the voices’ scary, mechanical “hey hey hey”s which sound as though punched into a computer, stripped of all emotion and indeed all humanity.

It is here that I have to bring in the concept of Muzak. It is not my intention to reiterate Joseph Lanza’s admirably full – if, I fear, fully misguided – history of this genre in his indispensable Elevator Music, but I note that elsewhere Conniff’s style has been described as more attuned to supermarkets than elevators, and this may well be the case – growing up, I heard this sort of thing lurking through the speakers while my parents were doing the Saturday shop, and it was the effective lingua franca of Radio 2 over the same period (its final, fitting destination being the David Jacobs Collection, which airs last thing on a Sunday night, the last remaining refuge for what its 83-year-old presenter describes as “our kind of music”). The history of Muzak as a tool for increasing productivity at work – and subsequently for increasing consumer output in shops and shopping malls – is fully documented but the early vitality of Conniff’s approach seemed to dissolve as the sixties resolved and reformed, replaced by a numb anaesthesia, a panacea, a placebo to a disaffected but resolutely silent “majority” of an audience.

This becomes most evident in the album’s closing track, a 1968 take on “Up Up And Away.” Ironically, while Jimmy Webb was at this time busy redefining and reshaping what came to be known as “easy listening” – as though “MacArthur Park” or “Wichita Lineman” could remotely be described thusly – Conniff sounds intent on neutralising his experiments. He applies the same, click track formula to this most ill-fitting of songs to which to apply it; there is virtually no rhythmic vitality at work at all, and the album’s nadir comes with the Singers’ “Wheeeeeeee!!!!,” an expression of compulsory gaiety if ever I heard one (and which, along with the aforementioned xylophony, takes us unpleasantly back to the days of the Mitchell Minstrels).

But the album was a huge success, in the confused “other” Britain of 1969 – the Britain which didn’t quite get the long hair stuff, which quite liked the Beatles before they went all strange, the Britain of depressed, Valium/cooking sherry-dependent housewives – a prematurely bereaved nation looking for the cheapest of painkillers (even though the cheapest painkillers only help create and intensify the pain so that you have to keep taking them). “All passion spent” as the phrase goes. Side one proves that with Conniff there was some early passion – and, as later records like 1972’s I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing confirm, invention and imagination were not entirely lost from his music – but it is worth remembering why he made this music in the first place, and what, if everything, had been lost along the way. This was a music, remember, that was originally fashioned out of fear – the not-so-modern disease of fear of the bailiffs superseding the fear of death – rather than love, whose formula was arrived at and determined scientifically. I also sense a parallel with another album (from the next decade) where the artist gradually vanishes from his own record – the two sides of Bowie’s Low. In addition, Conniff was born in November 1916, the same month as Walter Cronkite; but where Uncle Walt turned against the Vietnam war at a crucial moment and played no small part in its eventual end, Conniff, natural conservative that he was, could only watch in bafflement and horror as one of his singers did it for him. That speech of Carole Feraci’s was eventually sampled on “America No More” the shattering B-side of 1992’s “America: What Time Is Love?” by the KLF – and if you thought that format of Conniff’s sounded familiar, read the KLF’s Manual and marvel at how the same approach could lead to two diametrically opposed roads.

When we listened to this album at the weekend, however, we followed it with “Bliss” a 2005 track by Alan Braxe and Fred Falke under the pseudonym of Defender, and wondered how a piece of music constructed under exactly the same construct as Conniff’s – mechanical repetition, practically no “human” involvement – could be so warm and alive as opposed to the deadness of Conniff’s “Up Up And Away.” There are reasons architectural and aesthetic for this, of course – the hymnal organ which provides the undertow for “Bliss” and eventually comes to the fore as a natural coda – but it really is a matter of life versus death, of ambient (Eno’s Music For Airports made passengers feel twitchy and nervous when tried out in an actual airport) versus ambience; the active reception of sound rather than the passive acceptance of “Sound.” Conniff survived; he continued to record and tour until only a few months before his death in 2002, one month short of his 86th birthday. But look at the girl on the cover of this record, and wonder at how many people were glad not to smile. She too is lost in an endless dream – and how can we tell that it’s not a nightmare?

Monday 30 November 2009

Bob DYLAN: Nashville Skyline

(#66: 24 May 1969, 4 weeks)

Track listing: Girl Of The North Country/Nashville Skyline Rag/To Be Alone With You/I Threw It All Away/Peggy Day/Lay Lady Lay/One More Night/Tell Me That It Isn’t True/Country Pie/Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You
There is no front to his smile; he is bidding you a warm welcome to the morning to which you have awaken from your querulous voyage of dreams. Or perhaps the smile is rueful; he is bidding you a regretful farewell – the picture is taken as though viewed from the grave.

Many at the time thought that he had come to bury the sixties, as though John Wesley Harding hadn’t already given enough notice of where he was heading. An extremely brief – twenty-seven-and-a-half minutes – and extremely sprightly record of what was conveniently described as country music, even down to the involvement of Johnny Cash as guest artist and annotator, delivered to a somewhat confused audience who were feeling, or fuelling, the rage and discontent of 1969 and were impatient for answers, directions. And who were given an album of country music, still perceived by many Dylan followers at the time to be the enemy, the soundtrack of the oppressor, rather than the soul music of the poor white man (as opposed to “poor white man’s soul”), even though James Carr or Howard Tate could easily have performed “One More Night” or “Tell Me That It Isn’t True” as arranged and performed here.

Such misplaced grief was, of course, ill informed; after all, had Dylan not grown up with country music all his life, his ear to the radio in the Minnesota small town of his youth, listening to and absorbing many of the songs he would later broadcast on his Theme Time Radio Hour series? Furthermore, the keener ears had already picked up on what John Wesley Harding might imply, particularly those of Gram Parsons, a glam rock stud one continent and four years too early, who engineered the Byrds’ transition into Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and would presently unveil the Flying Burrito Brothers upon a largely unlistening world, making the links between the dual colours of Southern soul explicit. One could also add the not insignificant example of Aretha Franklin, another artist who had to travel from the North to the South in order to find and express her truer art.

More important than any of these factors, however, was that the Dylan of Nashville Skyline was now a husband and a father, looking to settle down, getting a little bored of the pressure, the renewed attention. He is, in fact, as happy as and probably happier than he looks on the cover; the album, despite its several essays on lost love, is likewise one of his happiest sounding.

It begins with a song we previously encountered on Freewheelin’ – and my venerable copy of Skyline states “Girl Of The North Country” on both sleeve and label, rather than “From” – but which is now delivered in a markedly less dark manner; indeed its centrally dark verse, contrasting the darkness of the night with the brightness of the day, is absent. Cash’s entry is a quiet eruption – although his justly honoured poem of a sleevenote is more overtly “poetic” than anything on the record itself – and his voice, slightly shaky but deeply warm, knows the ridges between “the edge of pain” and “the what of sane” instinctively. He sings “Haiiiirrrrr….” like a comb falling ecstatically through his lover’s locks and his voice onomatopoeically “curls and falls.” The song proceeds towards a ragged, last drink at the saloon singalong but Cash’s consummating boom of “remember me” reminds us of the seriousness underlying the apparent playfulness – a seriousness which Cash never relinquished, especially during the heightened spirits of his San Quentin concert, the album of which only just missed inclusion in this tale and in the course of which he nearly starts and then quells a riot. His adventure was that of a country perhaps fashioned for himself to stalk and record; never quite a rebel but never quite an establishment insider, politically open and ambiguous, a sui to the generis of his chosen form of expression. He was the Elvis who never had a Col Parker to say “yes” to, the Jerry Lee who had made his messy piece.

Then we get an instrumental, “Nashville Skyline Rag,” which Dylan largely gives out to the rest of his players to introduce themselves; these included Charlie McCoy on harmonica and guitar, fellow guitarists Norman Blake and Charlie Daniels, keyboardist Bob Wilson, drummer Kenny Buttrey, Pete Drake back on pedal steel and – crucially – Earl Scruggs himself, the man who as one of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys had pretty much started all of this, and who had lately played an indirect part in 1967 via his appearance on the Bonnie And Clyde soundtrack - on five-string banjo. The pace is bustling but good natured, and in Wilson’s piano solo we are even reminded distantly of, of all things, Don Ellis’ contemporaneous “Pussy Wiggle Stomp.”

The roll of “To Be Alone With You” owes somewhat more to the blues than country, but again Wilson’s piano joins the stylistic dots (with pointed electric guitar commentary), and there is a fervent air of activity which sets the scene for Elvis’ return to Memphis. Dylan provides one of the album’s best vocal performances; the shaggy dog downhill howl of “When I’m alo-o-one,” his octave seesawing hiccups of “al-WAYS THANK the Lord!”

“I Threw It All Away” is the first of the album’s great trilogy of love songs, and seldom has loss been expressed in popular music in such a beneficent manner; Scott Walker’s rendition, some three decades or so later, is intoned as from inside the grave, but Dylan tries to find light in this darkest of the album’s many corners. He knows he has lost her and that it is entirely his fault, but something – the tug of Wilson’s Hammond organ, the pull of Buttrey’s snare drum (most rhetorically distinct under Dylan’s “one who’s tried” at the end of the middle eight) – will not let him go under; there is an amiable determination for renewal, and early on in the song there is the Robert Johnson reference to mountains in the palm of his hand, the same reference revived in Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” and the Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next To You”; this is Zeus, shrugging his mighty shoulders, settling back into Olympus to lick his wounds, but only briefly. There is none of the spite or bile to be found in earlier (“Positively Fourth Street”) times, but rather a resigned contentment, the acknowledgement of the beaten god.

Side one ends with the playful “Peggy Day,” a cross between the Ink Spots (the guitar intro) and the lighter-hearted Harry Nilsson (“Cuddly Toy”). Dylan has great sport with the song, even recalling Rudy Vallee on his rolling, up hill and down dale vibrato of a “loved” in the line “loved her all the same.” At the merest suggestion of sensuality (“Love to spend the night with Peggy Day”) Pete Drake, the secret prophet of John Wesley Harding, rears his pedal steel’s head in mild disbelief (“Even before I learned her name”). A sudden stop leads to a Fanny Brice vaudeville piano ending. Is Dylan sneakily having a joke at our expense?

Such vapid questions vanish approximately half a second into “Lay Lady Lay,” which I shall leave until the end; “One More Night” is a fine slice of Southern country-soul wherein Dylan leaves none-too-subtle indicators to his audience (“I just could not be what you wanted me to be”). Again, his love seems irretrievable, but he is unbowed – the what-me-worry shrug of his “Mo-on light” – despite the occasional sharp interjection of pain (his octave jump on the “high” of “wind blows high”). Wilson’s piano takes the song to a satisfied and satisfactory ending. “Tell Me That It Isn’t True” is cut from much the same cloth, and musically is most noticeable for Buttrey’s rattling, intense drums which cut into the middle eight and again towards the song’s finale. Things turn brighter with “Country Pie” – a title which, along with the song’s atmosphere, would hardly be out of place on the White Album – and again there is the flash of Memphis with McCoy’s guitar solo, as short and snappy as a lunching alligator, while Wilson’s piano roars elbow-wise up the keyboard at the end of each middle eight. Dylan again warns his listeners against surface interpretations – “Ain’t runnin’ any race” he sings at one point – but his joy is more apparent than any wariness, as witnessed in his “I won’t throw it up in anybody’s face” which he sings up and down the scale in the manner of Lonnie Donegan, prior to giggling through Jack Horner double entendres before the track fades abruptly, as though running off to catch the football game.

“Lay Lady Lay” is, however, one of the album’s, and indeed one of 1969’s, key songs (it was originally written for, but not used in, the soundtrack to Midnight Cowboy); its beautifully inevitable but wistful foursquare semitonal descent of a harmonic topline (and deceptive, since its chords are travelling in the opposite direction – A major, C sharp, G major and B minor), the key contribution of Buttrey, improvising on cowbell and bongos in between fills on his kit drums (the contrast is one between a waiting, ticking clock and a sprung-into-action dynamo, although the drums are considerably further back in the mix than the auxiliary percussion). Its unwavering focus on Dylan’s voice, too, reminds us strongly of the “new” Dylan we are hearing here, a sudden smoothness which is usually ascribed to the singer having recently quit smoking. It is the album’s most unnerving moment – and to whom, and of what, is he singing? The “big brass bed” seems more in keeping with Muddy Waters than Hank Williams – and why the switch from the first to the third person in the second verse (“Stay with your man awhile”) before returning to the first? Is this love illicit (“You can have your cake and eat it too”), or is the explanation simultaneously more complex and more simple?

The answer must come in the shockingly bold middle eight, where the band jumps into life as Dylan’s voice increases in volume and intensity. The first verse concludes with imagery which could have come out of 1967 (“Whatever colours you have in your mind”), the second brings everything back down to earth (“His clothes are dirty but his hands are clean”). But now he addresses his would-be Other: “Why wait any longer for the world to begin?” and then “Why wait any longer for the one you love/When he’s standing in front of you?” before the song settles back down, uneasily. He is in part standing outside himself, but in greater part is actually willing a sleeping lover to awake; “Lay Lady Lay” would appear to be a plea to awaken, to live, Cupid and Psyche with the roles reversed.

But just as John Wesley Harding concluded with the sated purr of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” so does this album ride off with the smilingly serene “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.” In fact he’s shedding all of his baggage, perhaps all of his previous life, in preference of his renewed dedication to love – “Throw my ticket out the window,” he declares (“If there’s a poor boy on the street/Then let him have my seat!”); it’s all unnecessary now - this is all he craves, wants and needs. At the phrase “The love that a stranger might receive” there is a sublime, if temporary, key change, and Buttrey’s snare and tom toms close the door on the past definitively to accompany the line “I can hear that whistle blowin’.” Drake then re-enters with some heavenly pedal steel lines – wiring up Paradise’s switchboard – which luxuriate and cover the benign folds and curves of the song like the softest and deepest of bed sheets.

Nashville Skyline might seem the precise antithesis to the Moody Blues – a smiling reality superseding the demonic darkness of dreams – although many of its songs (including “Lay Lady Lay”) could have been performed by the Moodies. Furthermore, both records share an unshakeable conviction that love is exactly what we see and exactly all that matters, as emphasised in the key lines of "I Threw It All Away": "Love is all there is, it makes the world go 'round/Love and only love, it can't be denied." More to the point, however, is that the album marks the starting point for what would eventually come to be known as No Depression – Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, the Jayhawks and all points extending outwards, all of whom absorbed this record intently before setting off on their own adventures. Through the involvement of Norman Blake, we can also trace a line to O! Brother Where Are Thou? and thence to people like Gillian Welch who would draw quite drastically different conclusions from Harding and Skyline (amongst many other influences). If 1969 had already given us – or was about to give us – Dusty In Memphis, then Skyline is Bob in Nashville, but more importantly it is Happy, Contented Bob. Where were the anti-war protests, the calls to arms? Well, shrugged Bob, I gave them to you six years ago; weren’t you listening? The greatest lesson I have learned, he might have gone on to say, is to learn and feel how to live the happy and blameless life. Inevitably, given Blood On The Tracks half a decade later, this happiness and blamelessness would not be eternal. But for now the Worried Man is settled; and Lena drew a telling comparison with Wowee Zowee, Pavement’s “country” album (see the very Drake-esque pedal steel on “Father To A Sister Of Thought,” for instance) which drew similarly bemused responses from its audience but which in retrospect represents a clear and logical stage in the group’s development. It was the same with the Dylan of 1969, happy to go on Johnny Cash’s show, sing through a few old tunes, happy just to be happy. The message, like the smile, could not have been clearer.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

The MOODY BLUES: On The Threshold Of A Dream

(#65: 10 May 1969, 2 weeks) Track listing: In The Beginning/Lovely To See You/Dear Diary/Send Me No Wine/To Share Our Love/So Deep Within You/Never Comes The Day/Lazy Day/Are You Sitting Comfortably/The Dream/Have You Heard? (i)/The Voyage/Have You Heard? (ii) And so, as we creep guiltily towards the end of the sixties, we come to the first mention of a computer in this tale, in the album’s prologue; an unnerving drone of electronic windhowl-simulating static under and over whose fabric voices whisper and intone. One is trying to make his own sense of Descartes (“I think…I think I am…therefore I am!”) while the other, noticeably louder voice bellows about files and the receptor’s imminent transmutation towards magnetic ink. Part Prisoner, part Escalator, and I would be extremely surprised if it hadn’t played a major part in the life of the seventeen-year-old Douglas Adams, who, were he alive and willing to read this blog, would no doubt chuckle at the prospect of The Sound Of Music being the answer to everything (but it is!). Phil Travers’ cover painting, too, makes Threshold the first sixties number one album since the days of the Minstrels not to look like a sixties album. Dour sub-naval blue, with souls erupting out of bathysphere monitors, cackling hats in the distance, tendrils drifting towards no great purpose; only the late Barry Godber’s design for the contemporaneous In The Court Of The Crimson King paves the visual way towards the impending decade so firmly. The package was a comparatively lavish one; within the sleeve we find a bound, full-sized booklet containing lyrics, personnel details and two sets of sleevenotes, mainly set out in the calligraphy familiar to patrons of Italian restaurants of the period, albeit with the occasional intrusion of The Future (e.g. the typography for the abovementioned computer talk). There are still some reminders that we are not yet out of 1969; the sleevenotes were written by then Radio 1 DJ David Symonds (“Moody Blues LPs should be supplied free, like school milk and drainage services – not that there’s any connection between the two”) and, of all circle closers, Lionel Bart, co-writer of most of the songs on entries #10 and #14, a long-time friend and one-time landlord to Justin Hayward, who constructs his ode in the semi-distracted, semi-spellbound mode of a newly capitalised ee cummings (“I think…I think they turn me on”). In addition, the band photographs – there are six individual passport-style head shots of the group plus producer Tony Clarke, as well as a group shot taken in an unspecified urban park – bring to mind a Birmingham’s Young Businessmen Of The Year circular, all scowling moustaches and tight, compacted suits. To the opening drone of “In The Beginning” is added a slowly fading-in E major chord – the same chord which closed “A Day In The Life” – and eventually a Mellotron choir. The effect is purposely disconcerting and makes one briefly wonder whether this was a truer response to what “A Day In The Life” had suggested. Where most of the other recently discussed music was concerned with getting back to basics, rediscovering roots, the Moody Blues seem intent on getting as far away from roots and basics as possible, to continue a begun journey. There is some temporary reassurance as the prelude segues directly into the record’s best-known song, Hayward’s “Lovely To See You,” with the composer’s instantly reassuring and warm Swindon tones, as well as his rather more pointed guitar playing, lending an extra dimension to what is otherwise a mid-period Beatles-type rocker which reminds us of the Brumbeat boom from which this, the first representatives from the Second City to appear in this list, originally sprung (there is more than a trace of Roy Wood’s Move, and a slightly subtler one of Jeff Lynne’s Idle Race, running throughout the album’s faster songs). And yet this song isn’t quite what it seems – the “Lovely To See You” motif implies deeper ways of seeing, and the echoing choirs and Mellotron droops intrude startlingly into the song’s middle eight as Hayward sings of “faraway forgotten lands/Where empires have turned to sand (“Hello Ozymandias!” exclaimed Lena, and rightly)” before rising back up towards the song’s surface like a momentarily stunned diver who has just accidentally glimpsed Atlantis. We then recede back into a land where despair is prevalent over works, mighty or otherwise; “Dear Diary” is one of a pair of lugubrious, slowly shuffling numbers provided by flautist Ray Thomas; the song is sung through a Leslie cabinet, accompanied by Thomas’ doleful, meandering alto. He wanders through an unremarkable life without clear meaning or purpose, watches everyone else speeding by – just like that famous shot of a static Nick Drake – and the drear mood, the numbing talkover at song’s close, which moves from the absence of anything worth buying in the shops to someone dropping an H-bomb somewhere (“But it wasn’t anybody I knew”; see also Walker’s “Little Things” from the following year) and the endlessly wandering flute provide a depressingly real picture of a late sixties Britain largely, and despite everything, still marooned somewhere in the forties, the same ennui Drake caught so perfectly in “Saturday Sun.” This soon fades into the folky, acoustic gambol of John Lodge’s “Send Me No Wine,” a song which could easily have been covered by the Seekers, although again the veering tight corners of Mellotron and flute which periodically surface dispel any complacency. This goes straight into Lodge’s “To Share Our Love,” the album’s clearest nod to Brumbeat, though with a dynamic to its rock clearly influenced by Cream, although there are also hints of the power pop to come (Lena thought the song sounded like Sloan), despite Graeme Edge’s strangely compressed, as though bandaged up, drums. Throughout both songs runs this passionate insistence on seeing, acknowledging and sharing love as the answer to everything computers or everyday life might throw at the average human being. Side one ends with Mike Pinder’s “So Deep Within You,” in part a throwback to the R&B roots of the Denny Laine-era Moodies – so much so that the song’s incipient Motown-isms were later recognised, and covered, by the Four Tops, although the recurring carillon of flute flutter and radiation-affected timpani is new. Hayward’s guitar leaps out of the picture, Pinder’s functional lead vocal (somewhere between Manfred Mann’s Mike Hugg and Greg Lake) weighs anchor and the song, and the side, build up to a huge choral climax with jabbering guitar. This love cannot be hidden away or kept at a distance; it must be approached, proved to be real, made to matter and exist. Side two begins with “Never Comes The Day,” another Hayward composition which points the way towards the more familiar style that he would develop within the group, beginning very quietly and acoustically before methodically building up its structure with strings, then the rest of the group, then campfire harmonica and handclaps leading to a rousing singalong, before a return to the beginning and a second build-up. Its tale of two lovers who can’t ever quite manage to be together foresees Blur’s “Yuko And Hiro,” as does its odd sense of defeated spaciousness; hear the subtle, momentary minor key shift under the “you” of Hayward’s “But you will love me tonight.” Eventually the happy chant (“You know it’s true/We all know that it’s true” – still concerned with seeing what is right in front of us) disappears and we are left with the hands-off drone of guitar. Thomas then returns for “Lazy Day,” another depressed shuffle partially indebted to Ray Davies and more so to the notion of Sunday as represented by Hancock a decade earlier – everything the sixties were meant to erase forever. However, the Volga boatmen chorus which bursts regularly into the song’s languid groove is disarming, as is the switch into a more aggressive 4/4 for the middle eight. The song is simultaneously far more resigned and far angrier than “Lazy Sunday,” even if it is not nearly as profound a piece of work; its put-the-kettle-on air of reflective nothingness sets the stage for Gilbert O’Sullivan and other amused spectators of the seventies – not to mention Blur’s “Sunday, Sunday” (and the video for “There’s No Other Way”). It’s time to cut the dummy of realism loose; both Thomas and Hayward composed “Are You Sitting Comfortably,” and the song proceeds gently and, again, acoustically, though speaks of things like Merlin and Camelot, entities not previously encountered or referred to in this tale. In addition, Thomas’ poignant downhill flute-led chordal bridges are placidly seeking some sort of escape, and this song is clearly a preparation for something bigger and wider. The break comes with the song’s dry dissolve into a second spoken interlude, “The Dream,” in which the same, slightly bemused voice we heard at the beginning of the album – speaks of the new life to emerge from the dead, the shedding of old skins and seasons, the threshold, indeed, of a dream. This sets the scene for the album’s tripartite climax, beginning with the first reading of the song “Have You Heard?” where Pinder appears to be revealing that which we are now supposed to see, having realised and faced the truth about ourselves in relation to the world, in a semi-smiling “you knew all along, didn’t you?” manner, over an unobtrusive thrust of Mellotron and strings. We then embark upon Pinder’s five minute instrumental “The Voyage,” which is anything but reassuring; a strangely ungainly epic which alternates between disturbed contemplation and violent eruption; the strings and voices, real and Mellotronised, come in and out at unpredictable angles, Pinder’s piano cascades are rough and unnerving, the spectacle that of a proto-Vangelis universe in the process of combusting (and some of Vangelis’ early solo work, to say nothing of Aphrodite’s Child’s 666, is similarly unsettling). Following a climax which seems the very antithesis of “resolved,” “Have You Heard…?” steals back into the picture, Pinder beaming “Now you know how nice it feels,” before the song too fades into the original opening wind-drowned drone, which latter inevitably reaches a locked groove (and this is another album which demands to be listened to in its original LP format). What, if any, are the conclusions? Does Threshold, and by extension the Moody Blues, represent the response of a very literal Middle England to the end of the sixties? Has the album been the documentation of a drug trip gone somewhat wrong, or has it offered pointers towards a better future, if only we still wanted it? Lacking the mystery or casualties of a Pink Floyd, it does seem to me that the group has been taken for granted; if Threshold had been a one-off by a hopeful, ambitious group which flopped, disappeared into the collectors’ market and resurfaced on Bob Stanley’s label in 2006, it would long since have been hailed as a post-psych British classic. But it was the third album by this manifestation of the group, following on from the initial adventures of Days Of Future Passed and the Eastern experimentation evident throughout In Search Of The Lost Chord, and consolidated their growing popularity. Its eighteen month residency on the album chart suggests that the record spoke to and for a lot of disillusioned people. In truth the Moody Blues, even at their most experimental, have always been what I would call conservative progressives; there is little on Threshold to upset the squares, yet the record can hardly be considered easy listening – indeed (pace K-Punk) deep listening is pretty mandatory here. They want to move on but at the same time are clinging, holding onto something that they can’t and won’t let go. But there is a deeper undertow at work; the realisation that a musician’s audience sometimes needs simple expressions of complex feelings, in relatively simple terms – in times of trouble, look at the world, look at your neighbour, realise what love and life really mean. A sense of reassurance which has in my view been grievously underrated in the last half century of pop – and, with that initial nod to the computer, and the continuing need to talk, to communicate, to integrate, to live as one, we can even experience the dreams of Threshold and see the likes of Coldplay, very far off on the horizons of tomorrow.

Monday 16 November 2009

CREAM: Goodbye


(#64: 15 March 1969, 2 weeks; 12 April 1969, 1 week; 26 April 1969, 1 week) 

Track listing: I’m So Glad/Politician/Sitting On Top Of The World/Badge/Doing That Scrapyard Thing/What A Bringdown 

Ginger Baker has more than once claimed that he and Jack Bruce set up Cream as a free jazz trio in disguise (“with Eric Clapton playing the role of Ornette, although neither of us told Eric this”) and some of the work on their final, somewhat reluctant album bears this out, as well as further muddying the developmental streams which arose out of the British blues boom at the turn of the sixties and their subsequent overlap with, and interception of, developments in British jazz and improvised music as well as the gradual move of British rock into psychedelia and then the nascent, bipolar rivulets of prog and metal. Suddenly, in a sense not really present in the work of the Beatles or Stones, there is the physical feeling of listening to musicians who know exactly what they are doing, if not always why they are doing it.

The three musicians heard on the three live cuts which form two-thirds of this comparatively brief record – its total playing time barely exceeds half an hour – indisputably have chops, each individual able immediately to act with and react against what each of the other musicians is doing. But despite the inevitable showbiz tag which came with the name “Cream” – three club titans from, variously, the blues, rock and jazz fields, coming together and terming themselves the “cream of the crop,” the champs, the gaffers – very rarely in their music do we hear anything approaching virtuosity for its own sake. Rather this is a considerably more advanced milieu; musicians who, though perhaps not compatible with each other as human beings – there was a previous, long history of punch-ups and worse between Bruce and Baker when both served in the Graham Bond Organisation, and they came together again, at Clapton’s insistence, with considerable reluctance – were always determined to work, coalesce as musicians and create thrilling, adventurous music together.

That they also had a peculiarly workable parallel pop sensitivity is more than evident from their 1967 masterpiece Disraeli Gears, and reflected (albeit to a lesser extent) in the three brief studio tracks which complete this package. The Alan Aldridge-designed cover groaned with irony; by the time of the album’s appearance the group had already dissolved, and this is further underlined by Roger Hane’s colourful inner sleeve illustration of the track titles, set against imposing gravestones in a strangely over-blue cemetery.

To some extent Goodbye was a cut-and-paste contractual obligation of a record, a minor addendum to their catalogue rather than a full-blown farewell masterpiece. But most of its music still rips out of the speakers with an intensity unusual even by its time’s standards; this was the time when, influenced by the parallel courses charted by Ornette and Miles – and particularly the latter’s move towards electricity, with the umbilical Brit boom link being provided by the employment of John McLaughlin and Dave Holland in Davis’ In A Silent Way and (later) Bitches’ Brew line-ups. Various circles of musicians were revolving cautiously around each other on both sides of the Atlantic, keen to pursue a genuine fusion of musics rather than the subsequent blandouts which would sadly characterise that genre. Carla Bley had already started some provisional recording work on Escalator Over The Hill in November 1968, a month after Cream split (although Bruce did not become involved until recording sessions began in earnest in early 1970).

En route to his pivotal role in that irreducible masterpiece, Bruce would do time in Tony Williams’ Lifetime alongside McLaughlin and Larry Young, and his work on Goodbye contains some clear pointers towards where he was headed. The three live tracks were drawn from a concert given at the Forum in Inglewood, LA, in October 1968, and at the very beginning of “I’m So Glad,” the Skip James tune which had previously appeared on the group’s 1966 debut Fresh Cream, Bruce already seems to be getting ready for Escalator; the four-strong descending chord sequence, though drawn from James’ original recording, would reappear throughout that work’s final two sides (in tandem with the word/motif “again”). James’ 1931 recording is almost schizophrenic in its approach; his numbing relief (his “gladness”) contrasting with the craving, androgynous falsetto he uses when conveying his tiredness with “weeping” and “moaning,” while his guitar moves at lightning pace through skilful and astonishingly (for 1931) modernist single line/divided chord tropes. This represented the “purist” side of the blues from which Clapton, via his work with John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, had emerged, but Cream’s hyperactive reading cruises along like the Beat Boom finally being set free from its club trappings.

It is also clear, however, that is Bruce, not Clapton, who is leading the group; it is his fuzzed bass which constantly plays with the tempo and barlines, which repeatedly breaks free of harmonic and (ultimately) rhythmic constraints – he is always ready with a suggestion, a swagger to boost the performance into free territory – and Baker who is quicker at following him and interlocking with him. Against this onset, all Clapton can do is to keep his countenance and hold anchor; he mostly concentrates on chords, rhythmic interceptions rather than melodic or harmonic adventure. Where Hendrix was clearly steering the Experience – Mitch Mitchell readily and speedily acting on his lead, Noel Redding usually content to occupy the stable middleground – Clapton is on “I’m So Glad” in danger of being frozen out of his own band. The workout comes to an abrupt pause – just before it was due to boil over – and the three return to the song; in Clapton’s phrasing there is some evident relief in this.

“Politician” is a Bruce/Pete Brown blues loper – “Red House”-speed Hendrix with an Oriental lilt to its melody – whose “big black car” uncannily foreshadows the opening minutes of entry #70. Its sardonic politics/sex analogy – “I support the Left, though I’m leaning to the Right/But I’m just not there when it’s coming to a fight” – also prophesises what the seventies would eventually become for many former liberals. A relatively restrained performance, “Politician” is most notable for Bruce’s Bishopbriggs snarls (his “hey baby”s are almost like Beefheart trapped in the Gorbals with only Alex Harvey for company), a virulence which he would tone down somewhat for his solo debut Songs For A Tailor later in 1969.

If “I’m So Glad” underlined Clapton’s debt to country blues, then Cream’s reading of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Sitting On Top Of The World” reintroduces the urban stream which Clapton had largely renounced since his Yardbirds days. In the original Wolf is damaged, but still regal; his mournfully confident, stentorian voice sits like a wounded lion atop a decayed throne, and his consort of harmonica and guitars provide a rough bed on which to sleep and lick his wounds. The irony of his words is patient, the pace unrushed but defiantly intense (there is something of the Lear about Howlin’ Wolf in repose, and something which reminds me of his near namesake, the Welsh actor Sir Donald Wolfit). Cream’s feelings, in comparison, are necessarily jejune but more (superficially) intense. The song creaks out of Bruce’s lumbering floorboard of a bass (sounding practically electronic), accompanied only by Baker’s tick-tocking ride cymbal before the band blasts off. In the second verse there is a sudden, terrifying, jagged mesh of unison high-tension thrashing, like a beaver quivering on a newly activated pylon, which releases to uncover Bruce’s desperate, hoarse “I’m SITTIN’! SITTIN’!!” The spectre of Lennon’s “Yer Blues” is not far away. Clapton offers his best playing on the album here, pretty firmly in the Hubert Sumlin line of clean, finely pronounced single notes. Just as his solo is about to reach a resolution, however, Baker breaks the semblance of calm with hammering floor toms. Bruce’s “freight train” is accompanied by a fervent ride cymbal which then explodes into a cataclysm of cymbal wreckage, as though having decided to blow up the band.

The three studio pieces were prepared with producer/keyboardist Felix Pappalardi and provide a short but fascinating final insight into some of the pop roads Cream might have travelled. “Doing That Scrapyard Thing” is a second Bruce/Brown collaboration and more in keeping with the amiably warped road which Songs For A Tailor would travel; Bruce introduces the song with some bizarre pub piano which is rapidly drowned out by Clapton’s phased/filtered guitars. The lyric is standard late sixties cod-Carroll nonsense but Bruce bites into them with admirable relish (“Biting my favourite head-UH!”), complete with unaccountable falsetto leaps in each bridge. There may also, in lines like “Missing the walrus” and “Balancing Zeppelins on the end of my nose,” be a disguised commentary on what 1969 had lost and what was imminently to come. “What A Bringdown” is a Baker composition which takes the Alice's Adventures In Wonderland fantasy metaphor into an East End knees-up pub (“Take a butcher’s at the dodginesses of Old Bill”). Moving along at a brisk 10/8 pace (anticipating “Living In The Past” in both structure and lyrical content), Pappalardi plays bass while Bruce sticks to keyboards, mainly a choppy Hammond organ. Midway we get a pained leper of a Clapton guitar weeping its way into the proceedings; this soon evolves into wah-wah wails against Bruce and Baker’s screams, Clapton now razoring his guitar. The song stumbles to a close with atonal piano bumps, tubular bells, concluding major chord organ (with slightly sardonic cymbal and snare commentary), bringing the proceedings, and the adventure of Cream, to a definitive close.

I have left “Badge” until last because it remains the strange, unaccountable axis of this record, and perhaps of its age. Written by Clapton and George Harrison, who, as “L’Angelo Misterioso,” also contributes guitar to the song (as a return of favours for Clapton appearing on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”), with some uncredited additional input from Ringo – he came up accidentally with the title when he misread Harrison’s handwriting on the sheet music (he had actually scribbled “Bridge” as they hadn’t yet thought of a name for the song) and also contributed the key, haunting line about the swans in the park (as key and inscrutable as its equivalent in “A Little Help From My Friends”) – this strangest of singles draws the first, firm line of closure underneath its decade. Constructed as three brief haiku-like verses with connecting final half-rhymes (“table,” “Mabel,” “cradle”) around a central five-line manifesto, the imagery is haunting, prematurely ghostly, and so is the performance; Pappalardi’s flanged piano and Hitchcockian hovers of Mellotron contributing to the song’s acute weightlessness. The scenarios foresee the longer accounts to be heard on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” but Clapton’s vocal remains calm and slightly impassive. Bruce’s bass bounds and curls like a waiting Siberian tiger (and, in places, strikingly akin to James Jamerson, although Bruce’s fuzziness counteracts Jamerson’s characteristically “clean” bass sound on his Motown sides. Still, they remain two differing, if parallel, routes from the central influential tollbooth of Mingus), Baker’s ticks and occasional, tuned floor tom curveballs like the centre of an abandoned clock tower. The song itself is scarcely straightforward in structure, its regular, long pauses startling even in 1969. What scenario are we witnessing?

Then Harrison breaks, like an icy, calming ray of nascent sunlight, into the song with his careful chimes (which Tom Schultz would echo with equal carefulness on Boston’s “More Than A Feeling” some seven years later). Baker rattles into wakefulness, Clapton kicks up his game, giving a fine and passionate guitar solo while warning “You better pick yourself up from the ground/Before they bring the curtain down.” These times, and not just this group, are coming to an end. But then Bruce’s bass shivers ecstatically down the scale and Baker follows him into the collapsing lift shaft as Clapton takes out the song, Pappalardi’s phantom violins screeching like expectant daggers, before it ends, unresolved, mysterious, alluring, chilling.

I am not really convinced that Cream set the pace for hard rock – the real pacesetters were to come almost immediately in their wake, and as a final offshoot of a group which Clapton had once quit for being too “pop” – but they summarised the spirit of genuine adventure which decorated those miraculously unformed times; they were to an extent classicists, particularly when compared with the romanticist quantum leaps in everything which Hendrix was able to pull off on Electric Ladyland, but their appearance here marks a shift, a key change, a move towards what might or might not prove acceptable, or workable, in the seventies.

Monday 9 November 2009

Diana ROSS and The SUPREMES and The TEMPTATIONS: Diana Ross & The Supremes Join The Temptations

(#63: 15 February 1969, 4 weeks)

Track listing: Try It Baby/I Second That Emotion/Ain’t No Mountain High Enough/I’m Gonna Make You Love Me/This Guy’s In Love With You/Funky Broadway/I’ll Try Something New/A Place In The Sun/Sweet Inspiration/Then/The Impossible Dream

It is a matter of some irony that in early 1969, as Motown finally managed the major commercial breakthrough in Britain, thanks to the twin powers of Dave Godin and Tony Blackburn – I will examine this phenomenon in greater detail in entry #75 – the label was experiencing something of an identity crisis back home. The sixties, and maybe Motown’s golden age, were coming to an end and facing the seventies was not going to be a simple shoo-in; the label’s best known songwriters, the Holland-Dozier-Holland team, had walked out and their top female and male acts also had an urgent need to re-establish themselves. What did Gordy and Motown have to say about the blood, confusion and abandonment of 1968? Were they really intent on a one-way trip to the supper club – or did this trip have a greater purpose?

The Supremes/Temptations team-up was a matter of economic as well as aesthetic urgency. Ed Sullivan’s sleevenote and the track listing – not to mention the TCB (Taking Care Of Business) television special which inspired the album – suggest another journey to that unreachable Ark of the Covenant, All Round Entertainment, but as ever the story and art are a little more complex. By 1968 the Supremes had lost Florence Ballard and the Temptations had lost David Ruffin; I say “lost” but both departures were a matter of a combination of jumping and being pushed – neither had done themselves any favours, and by all accounts were pretty well asking to be fired, but audiences had not taken to Cindy Birdsong or Dennis Edwards with the same, enthusiastic rapidity (again, the latter was not helped by Ruffin’s early attempts to gatecrash Temptations gigs and steal the show).

Furthermore, while the Supremes had long since crossed over to white audiences, the Temptations’ core constituency had remained black; it is significant that “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” marked the group’s first appearance in the UK top ten, and while their Temptations’ Greatest Hits package from 1967 spent ten months on our album chart they remained very much a cult, worshipped by the Beat Boomers from the Beatles and the Stones on down, but not really crossing over; there was both a darkness and a certainty about their strut, their underplayed but titanic influence on the groups who would appear in their wake. Unlike the reaching out of the Four Tops, there was a proud air of self-sufficiency about the Temptations, their act and their songs, even when shards of grief rained down on Ruffin in “I Wish It Would Rain” and elsewhere. Daryl Hall has termed them “the black Beatles” and that too cannot be understated; if James Brown was Elvis, then the Temptations changed the rules and redefined the boundaries again. But now Ruffin was gone, Edwards was settling in – he only gets two lead vocals on this album, so the welcome remained tentative – and on the sidelines Norman Whitfield had big ideas for where he thought they should go.

Still, Whitfield played no part in this record – Frank Wilson, the stalwart Motown backroom man responsible for “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do),” one of the greatest of all Northern Soul records, as well as (in combination with Smokey Robinson) later Four Tops masterpieces like “Still Water,” was the project’s executive producer – and the focus did seem to be an attempt at audience widening; bringing the former Primes and Primettes together in an effort to sell the Temptations to a bigger audience, and it is significant that the Temptations have by far the greater impact here than the Supremes; of the latter, only Diana Ross – also then beginning to consider jumping ship and going solo - is heard alone and Wilson and Birdsong make no impact at all.

“Try It Baby” begins like no other previous Motown album had done; with near inaudible nightclub finger snaps and bongos and, of all Temptations, Melvin Franklin, the group’s basso profundo, taking the lead vocal (a marked contrast to the androgynous wistfulness of Marvin Gaye’s 1964 original). Then HB Barnum’s rather intrusive big band arrangement strikes up, and in wafts Diana, crooning sweetly that her man should “move back across the track where you came from.” Then Paul Williams bursts into the proceedings with a fervid “Listen!” but the spectre of All Round Entertainment is sadly dominant.

Their “I Second That Emotion” sticks very close to Robinson’s original (which, as Robinson was producing, is unsurprising). Ross takes the initial lead but any tension is soon dispersed by imbecilic owl and car horn imitations (“Hoot! Hoot!”) from the Temptations. Paul Riser’s strings begin to exhibit some of the shivering glimmer which would eventually bear stark fruit on “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” and Eddie Kendricks does his best to inject some proper emotion into the song but the Miracles remain untouched, as indeed does the ascetic stillness of David Sylvian and Japan’s subsequent reading.

One has simply to say no to their “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”; in the Marvin and Tammi original you can palpate their ecstasy, their passionate rush across continents towards each other’s embrace (and indeed it was one of the first tracks they cut together). Despite Riser’s Morse code orchestrations, this version comes nowhere near that power (even with Dennis Edwards making his first solo appearance), nor to the starkly screaming reading which Diana herself would give the song scarcely a year later (the glutinous grand piano and glockenspiel flourishes in this reading do nothing to create astonishmnent). Overall the feeling thus far is one of Motown paying tribute to Motown; efficient enough but scarcely affecting or profound. The sound of water being trodden.

“I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” was the album’s big hit (although the song did not form part of the TV special); co-written by the young Kenny Gamble, it patters along fairly pedantically without any real explosions – Otis Williams’ winking “I’m yours!” retort to Diana’s “Hey baby” and Kendricks’ dynamic entry into the final bridge notwithstanding – and with the first of several pained and schmaltzy talkovers making its appearance. Surely the original purpose of the Supremes and Temptations was not to form a template for Donny and Marie.

The album reaches a dreadful nadir with their assassination of “This Guy’s In Love With You.” Some years ago I wrote the following about the definitive Herb Alpert reading:

“Think of the build-up of "This Guy's In Love" - just as the orchestra and chorus are about to boil over to a climax, Burt's piano suddenly shuts everyone up, there is a brief silence, and Herb's lone semi-voice is alone in its own sudden realisation of dread. He whimpers "if not, I'll just . . . die." A longer silence (why can't anyone use silence properly on records these days?). The trumpet resumes the tune to fade, almost reluctantly (no wonder the song was originally earmarked for Chet Baker).”

None of this combination of joy (for there is slowly awakening, gradually dumbfounding joy in Alpert’s version too) and dread filters through to the Supremes/Temptations version. Otis Williams sings the initial lead but Diana soon detours him with her raised eyebrow of “Really?” Dividing up the song between two voices makes no logical or emotional sense whatsoever, and matters are far from helped by Gene Page’s “It’s All At The Co-Op” arrangement of Radio 2 muted trumpets (which later, and unaccountably, turn military). After the climactic “die” – which Diana sings as anything but a climax, and significantly it’s the only “die” in this reading – there is a peculiar, out-of-tempo instrumental interlude before the song clumsily starts up again. The track is a mess, unworthy even of the George Mitchell Minstrels, and it’s something of a relief when the second “die” is avoided altogether and the song is put out of its misery before segueing straight into “Funky Broadway.”

It’s a pity that Motown didn’t do Stax more often (but then, didn’t Stax represent everything that Gordy was trying to escape from?), and Edwards’ update on Wilson Pickett marks the first moment on this album which actually sounds like 1969; James Jamerson’s unmistakeable bass making itself felt, the cat-like collective “OWWW!!!” squeals making a real, forceful impact, and overall this track is the real pointer to where Whitfield would take the Temptations with “Cloud Nine” and beyond – dynamic, and much too short.

Side two, gratifying, is a far more satisfactory affair, and not surprisingly the Temptations begin to take the upper hand here. “I’ll Try Something New,” an unhackneyed and seldom-heard Smokey/Miracles song, is given a fine reading and a genuinely inventive arrangement from Page (a truer line between his work on “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and his future as Barry White’s arranger); note the single note organ sustenato which accompanies the “tower so high” sequence. Their “A Place In The Sun” is not quite as appealing as the easy, optimistic swing of Stevie Wonder’s original but then times had changed since the latter; Jamerson introduces the song with a solemnly roving bass and the feeling is much more spiritual, hymn-like; Sullivan’s comment that “their harmonies go back to the headwaters of religious music” is particularly pertinent here. In addition there is evidence of genuine emotional exchange here as Otis Williams offers “On that OLLLLLLDDDDD….” and, in response to Ross’ “I want you always to remember” talkover, utters an unscorable “YEEEEEAAAAHHHHH!!!!” There is something of Stephen Foster coursing through the veins of this performance.

“Sweet Inspiration” sees the two groups nodding towards Southern soul; penned by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, one can imagine either Alex Chilton or James Carr singing this, and perhaps with a lot more conviction (see also the subject of entry #70). Here the song is given a brisk workout. The high string drone in the middle eight is notable but the Ray Conniff trombones are misplaced; Riser had still to work out the ideal Temptations arrangemental template.

“Then” is a wonderful, underexposed Smokey song, originally recorded by the Four Tops but also given an excellent reading here (Paul Williams on lead vocals). Not many songs, even in 1969, made a point of namechecking Longfellow and Beethoven (and certainly not within the same song), but Robinson’s metaphors are perfectly controlled, his harmonies adventurous (the five note seesaw of a string/brass figure which occurs after every chorus); here is yet another direct pointer to The Lexicon Of Love (“Valentine’s Day” in particular).

Then comes the big finale, their “The Impossible Dream,” and it might be the most remarkable thing on the record. Interpreted by virtually everybody at the time, including Scott Walker – and this is far from the last time we will be hearing of the song in this tale – it is worth remembering that its parent musical, Man Of La Mancha, took a distinctly postmodern view of the Don Quixote tale (but then, was not Cervantes himself postmodern three centuries too early?), setting it within the context of a Spanish prison, the prisoner (ah!) telling his tale, making it live and breathe as theatre within his confined space – a tale of a foolish old dreamer whose ridiculous quests are no substitute for or escape from the life which he resolutely declines to fill with genuine, living and breathing people and emotions. Indeed Auden was originally approached to write the lyrics for the show but his words were felt too inflammatory and audience-baiting for the backers; still, even watered down, “The Impossible Dream”’s accent is on the “impossible”; the vain attempt to manufacture glory out of daydreams (the mere other side of the coin of nightmare), the boast about the non-existent, the song about nothing except the nothingness in the mind of its singer masquerading as everything.

But of course such a song was tailored to have its potential meanings broadened out, and so it is the crucial case here; beginning with a solitary Moog (still unsettling in this early 1969 context), Diana begins the song unaccompanied. Eventually a harmonica comes in, and then drums, bass and Barnum’s orchestra, followed by ticking clocks of guitar and harp. The number builds and builds until we reach the inevitable cascade of bells, choir and full orchestra.

Then it ends - except that it doesn’t. We next hear a procession of military drums and Last Post bugle calls (so perhaps those trumpets on “This Guy’s In Love” aren’t so unaccountable), and then the Temptations take up the song again to a second, more pronounced (yet also more subtle) climax. There is the absolute absence of schmaltz or even showbusiness here; instead there is the inescapable feeling of a subtext, of a dream seemingly rendered impossible by the events of 1968 still sung of as attainable, achievable. Finally, those mysterious walking footsteps we heard at the transition from “This Guy’s In Love” to “Funky Broadway” reappear and take us out of the record. As though embarking on the beginning of a Million Man March, and perhaps this was the record and show’s real aim; to assume the clothes and appearance of white America while bearing their Trojan horse, to persuade America of their dream, to inculcate it within their new audience. I do not make claims for this record to be a direct forebear of What’s Going On? – particularly as Gaye, in tandem with Whitfield, was already getting ready for that with “Grapevine” at the same time – but as a spectacle – as a totality - it ends up more unsettling than reassuring, and such was the trick that it pulled. The Supremes and Temptations’ “Impossible Dream” is in its way as subversive as anything to appear on BYG Actuel in its year and its underlying message cannot have failed to be absorbed – particularly by the seven-year-old Obama.