Tuesday 26 January 2010


(#73: 20 December 1969, 1 week)

Track listing: Gimme Shelter/Love In Vain/Country Honk/Live With Me/Let It Bleed/Midnight Rambler/You Got The Silver/Monkey Man/You Can’t Always Get What You Want
“Faut qu' ça saigne

Appuie sur la baïonnette

Faut qu' ça rentre ou bien qu'ça pète

Sinon t'auras une grosse tête

Faut qu'ça saigne.”
(Boris Vian, “Les Joyeux Bouchers,” 1956)

“The erotic lyrics of black blues, often very amusing and almost always perfectly healthy and full of good feeling, have been systematically deformed and exploited by small white bands composed of bad musicians (such as Bill Haley) in order to produce a sort of ridiculous tribal chant for the benefit of an idiotic public. The obsessional quality of the riff is used to put listeners in a ‘trance’.”
(Boris Vian, “Rock And Roll,” 1956, trans. Larry Portis)

“…the force of the new vulnerability blurs the old stance of arrogance and contempt.”
(Greil Marcus, review of Let It Bleed, Rolling Stone, 27 December 1969)

The Robert Brownjohn sculpture on the cover sums the time up, so accurately in fact that he remembers to include a clock. There is also a tyre – with the potential for burning – a pizza and a film canister. Above all this is a cake, reportedly prepared by the young Delia Smith, featuring the figures of five lovable mopped tops which never quite represented the group; right at the bottom, petrified by the imminent interchange, a long-playing record, with five unconcerned faces adorning its blood-red label. Next to it is an antique gramophone arm and needle, and I leave you to determine your own analogies there. It is as though the weight of the sixties is set to detonate, release, collapse on the Rolling Stones. After all, who built all that stuff up in the first place?

The rear cover demonstrates the inevitable outcome; all has fallen, the record is shattered and the only ingredient which remains intact is Delia’s cake. The five figurines are slacking around in a right unfit state – but one slice has been neatly cut and taken from the cake. The integral piece, now missing.

Consider the four Beatles, crossing the road and never to return, at least not together; they have the weight on them (“Boy you’re gonna carry that weight!”) but appear to wear it lightly. The Stones, in contrast, appeared to will the weight to crush them, squash them. But then all of the Beatles had managed to survive until the end of the decade.

It was, of course, all about appearances. “HARD KNOX AND DURTY SOX” the cover exclaims at one point. “THIS RECORD SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD” it commands at another. This is not the language of mourning, nor it is particularly indicative of disguised grief. As far as this tale is concerned it is the last word of the sixties but there is nothing in the record’s riverrun grooves to suggest that the group wanted it to be anybody or anything’s last word.

The Stones have been absent from this tale since mid-1966; unlike the Beatles, they did not score automatic number ones – there is little in the blood of Satanic Majesties or Beggars’ Banquet to attract the love of Arbroath grandmothers. Yet, despite the loss of Brian, they sound and feel in far better shape than the Scousers as the seventies beckon; where Abbey Road is largely midtempo, somewhat gloomy and halflit in its introspective retrospection, Let It Bleed, despite the tracks which open each of its sides, is intent on living, on colour and interaction. Given that most of the songs were recorded by what was basically a four-piece band – newbie Mick Taylor turns up unobtrusively on a couple of tracks but otherwise Keith takes care of all the guitar stuff - the dynamics are pretty dynamic. They sound as though they’re having a better time than the Abbey Road inhabitants. The dream is over? Sod that; the Stones were and are businessmen and, despite the wreckage of Altamont a fortnight before the album’s release, were determined to keep the group going as well as keeping an eye on any future branding opportunities.

The common vision of Let It Bleed as era-terminating apocalypse is of course framed by “Gimme Shelter,” as uncompromising an opening track as to be found on any major artist’s album of the period. Guitars shiver, more in recognition of Buddy Guy than Hank Marvin, wordless voices cry from a not-too-remote wilderness, producer Jimmy Miller’s Latin percussion slithers like a tethered cobra (though they might have been recalling the washboard from a previous lifetime)…and then Watts and Wyman confidently set off a rumbling, hustling strut of a rhythm, topped by Richards’ wanly weeping guitar and Jagger’s harp, quite unlike anything we’ve heard on any of these 1969 records. There is anxiety, for sure – Jagger’s “Lord, I’m gonna fade away” is a bleached-out contrast to the ebullient certainty of “Not Fade Away” barely half a decade earlier – but this plea for deliverance, for harbour, is performed with the steel will of Colditz tunnel diggers. Note, for instance, how the song’s emotional emphasis relies on the repeated cries – or strokes – of “KISS away” more than “SHOT away,” even as it makes it clear that the faintest and most perilous of lines divides one from the other; somehow Watts’ insistent snare makes the song’s prowl resemble a kiss more than a shot.

Well, it’s almost full in its confidence – but then comes Merry Clayton, the dramatic shot of blood injected directly into the song’s coarsening arteries. While the group are clearly exulting in the prospect of destruction as they plead helplessness, Clayton’s burning ray of ice manages to cut through all the cake’s layers and provide the voice towards which all other 1969 dreams of escape and end had been groping. “Rape, murder!” she shouts before crying, twice, “It’s just a shot away!,” with so much intensity that the false upper register of her voice cuts into the song and generates real blood. The second “Rape, murder!” is midway between cry and scream…and the third is untranscribable, the terrible, ICBM-piercing howl that no amount of pastel-shaded blanket covers could shield, that threatens to haul down the curtain into hell and everyone’s life with it. How does Jagger respond to the latter? With an enthusiastic, enlivened whoop of joy – you got there, baby, you reached the grail only to find scattered blood. The end of everything? Bring it on! Still, as so much of 1969’s music doesn’t, “Gimme Shelter” stares the sixties full in the face and dares it to say it’s wrong, and despite the carnival whoops there is an uncommon intent to face up to some sort of responsibility for the future, to allow the possibility of a collectivity, based on the knowledge that, in the approaching age of me-ism, no one is possibly going to be able to get through it alone.

After that explosive opening, the record settles down to slightly more laconic business. In its original Robert Johnson version, “Love In Vain” is one of its century’s (and its author’s) most despondent songs; he’s taking her to the station, helpless to prevent her from leaving him (“I followed her to the station” rather than “walked with”), and when she’s gone he is as lifeless and abandoned as a gnarled gatepost. The Stones, however, have other ideas. Wisely deciding to lower the tempo and volume rather than outdo “Gimme Shelter,” their reading drifts into our eyesight as though reclining on a raft, acoustic lines soon giving way to a querying electric guitar (after Jagger’s second “station”). Clearly influenced by John Wesley Harding in both delivery and approach, Jagger bites down hard on the ends of each couplet (“Statioooooonnnnn,” “Haaaaaaaand”) but his lament of “love in vain, love in vain” is almost shoulder-shrugging in its offhandedness. She’s going; am I really that bothered?

But, as Jagger gargles “eyyyyyyyye” in the second verse, Watts makes a discreet entry, and as that verse concludes, Ry Cooder’s mandolin miraculously trickles into the song’s slipstream, furnishing the springwater of life with his busy solo; there are responses of deep currents of echo from Richards’ sighing, treated guitar. Following a slight pause, Jagger sets to business with the song’s payoff: “The blue light was my baby…the red light was my mind.” Angel versus Satan, again, and no prizes for guessing who’s won, even though the fervent caverns of guitar and mandolin heavily (or lightly) suggest the former. There is an expansiveness in “Love In Vain”’s arrangement which indicates a path towards the surprising elements of gentleness which would adorn some of the group’s best seventies work.

The Dylan influence (together with the less obvious influence of “The Universal” by the Small Faces) persists throughout “Country Honk,” a purposely lax acoustic take on their single “Honky Tonk Women.” Framed as a field recording, complete with bookends of studio chat and rhetorical car horns, the group, accompanied by the great bluegrass fiddler Byron Berline and “Nanette Newman” (see below) on backing vocals, together with some fittingly languid slide guitar from Mick Taylor, appear to be sitting, beaming, atop haystacks; Lena drew a comparison with the contemporaneous American country music and variety TV show Hee Haw – a mixture of “cornpone humour and fine fiddling,” according to her – and that air of amused slackerdom is very much evident here, even though Jagger’s central lyric becomes more accusatory than the single; now it’s “drink YOU” rather than “drink HER off my mind.”

“Live With Me” is the album’s first unexpected nod to Motown, with chattering guitars (Taylor and Richards) and a firm Benny Benjamin beat from Watts, but it soon dovetails into what becomes a template for seventies Stones rockers, most notably “Brown Sugar” (complete with Bobby Keyes tenor solo). Against this, Jagger does his wickedest best to persuade his hopeful Other not to take up slack with him, his scenario being that of the previous album’s wrecked/strung-out banquet, his helpless servants, flipped chauffeur, the shot water rat and fed geese, all decaying and proudly, even though there is a hint of prurient offence about his “harebrained children” with “earphone heads.” Yet there is a what-the-fuck swamp of good cheer about the song which carries the listener along; hear the upward piano swoop (Leon Russell and/or Nicky Hopkins) which furnishes an instant, starry stairway to the song’s first chorus, the way Keyes’ tenor blurbs out of Jagger’s “grrr!,” Watts’ suddenly aggressive cymbals (following Jagger’s “and when she strips…”). And don’t those “Whoo!”s remind us of somebody who’s come before?

The first side ends with the title track. Introduced by a guitar burp from Richards, placid acoustic guitars set the tempo before being augmented by Watts’ drums, Ian Stewart’s boisterous piano and Bill Wyman’s distant autoharp. Assuming a Southern States drawl on his “someone we can lean on,” Jagger sounds as though he’s auditioning for The Band, and the song’s general, patient forward thrust again reminds us of how vital a light the latter cast on this year’s best music. As Jagger gradually ups the ante (“…there will always be a space in my parking lot/When you need a little coke and sympathy”) the music picks up, Richards’ electric guitar again shivering. “Yeah!” exclaims Jagger happily. “Dirty, filthy basement” he beckons rabidly, as though offering continuous ninety-hour sex in all conceivable and inconceivable positions. Stewart moves into Pinetop Perkins mode, Jagger’s voice(s) now bleeding out of the bar lines. “We all need someone we can BLLLLL-EED on!” he cries, triumphant, and now, once more, the spirits become more wild than high (“ALL OVERRRRRRR!!!!”) as Richards’ clucking rooster of a guitar interlocks with Stewart’s boogie-woogie bounce and Watts raises his cymbal and snare bashes to Orange Alert level. The song bangs on and on towards its extended fadeout, the group doing their damnedest to convince themselves that they mean it – and, again, they transcend notions of façade and make you believe them too.

Side two begins with “Midnight Rambler” and the invention of Status Quo; that bustling lope of all-landing-on-the-vaulting-horse-at-the-same-time guitar riffery, plus Jagger’s plaintive harmonica and less than plaintive vocal, growling like the Wolf rather than howling (but then the Wolf, like Poltergeist, was always more frightening when he was quiet). All 100 Club, still there a touch of residual Anne Boleyn Secondary Battle of the Bands.

But then something else happens. Watts leads the charge from shuffle to harder rock attack, then with Wyman accelerandos into double-speed. Behind the rhythm lurks Jagger’s vaguely ominous double-tracked chant, which breaks down into proto-beatbox skittles of syllables. Somewhere in the far background Brian Jones is bashing some unspecified percussion; that summer Jagger and Faithfull had looked up the I-Ching and the dice had spelled “death by water.”

Then the track just stops, or rather reduces, or intensifies, to a creep. We hear some guitar/harp calling and responding, rather sad, like a Last Post lament relocated in an unwanted land. Jagger hisses: “Well ya heard about the Boston STRAN-“ before Watts stops him dead with his slapped gavel of floor tom. Jagger’s vocal, perhaps more influenced by Eric Burdon than he cared to admit, gets more worked up as his protagonist’s targets and methods steadily become more extreme and explicit; he is now wishing to DEMOLISH the sixties, RUIN his time, and the duende overtakes him, as we hadn’t always expected it to do – note the near-missable reference to “he’s pouncing like a proud Black Panther.” Next to this, Jim Morrison plays like Malcolm Roberts. The band storms back in – as the Doors never quite had the authority to accomplish – and rages the song to a tumultuous climax before moving towards a fast recap, Jagger now inhabiting the werewolf, his damaged Hamletian groan of “dagger,” his crowning/usurping “And I’ll stick my knife right down your throat BABY!” Follow THAT, The Seventies.

And yet “Midnight Rambler” – at least in its studio incarnation; we’ll be returning to it presently - just misses the Johnsonian crossroads; it is scary and powerful but absolutely what you would have expected from the hemi-bereaved Stones of 1969, whereas its Abbey Road equivalent, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” is arguably far more disturbing; the Rambler might be the Devil but he’s unmistakeably on his own (and there’s no mistaking his oneness), whereas Maxwell has cheering supporters (“Maxwell must go free!”) and his Junior Choice perky MoR setting perhaps betraying a mind more twisted.

“You Got The Silver,” sung by Keith because the Jagger vocal track got lost, provides relatively light relief. Again very much indebted to Dylan (especially Keith’s vocal stylings), its backward seagull guitar filters, set against a solemn acoustic strum, are sonically the album’s most (only?) experimental moment. The tempo is a stately, Clarence Darrow 4/4, although the song briefly picks up speed before bending down again. Its hard-won patience (“A flash of love just made me blind/I don’t care, that’s no big surprise”) is a marked contrast to the desperation of the “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” Lennon; indeed, despite its bilateral side-starting apocalypses, Let It Bleed – the title itself perhaps a knowing nod to Let It Be (not yet released as film or record but common knowledge in the business) or (more pragmatically) to the Boris Vian lyric from which I borrowed this piece’s opening quote – seems to offer a greater acceptance of things as they are, or were at the end of the sixties; things are a mess, and one of us didn’t make it, but isn’t it better, more honourable, just to get on with things, and possibly even move towards mending them?

“Monkey Man,” the album’s sprightliest track, again beckons in the direction of Motown with its twinkling piano/vibes unisons and pronouncedly Jamerson bass (never underrate Wyman, who contributed both bass and vibes to this track), backed up by Miller’s exuberant tambourine. This rapidly gives way to a more aggressive front – Jagger’s rhyming of “pizza” with “lemon squeezer,” possibly a friendly jibe at Zeppelin – and the rhythm is deceptive and complex enough to stand comparison with 1967’s “We Love You.” Wyman’s vibes really punctuate the song’s arrangement, working well against Richards’ grittily-edged guitar, the latter turning into a series of rubberband twangs as the song reaches its apex. “I’M A MONKEEEEEEYYY!!” gasps/groans Jagger, again and again, until, as the song fades out, resorting to Barry Ryan-style dog barks. Lena immediately spotted a kinship with Magazine’s “The Light Pours Out Of Me”; although Devoto’s vocal on the latter is the epitome of raging restraint, there is the same, insistent focus on the bass as the song’s absolute fulcrum, an axis around which the rest of the instruments, especially the guitars, can wander almost at will. But there is an equal certainty in both of their voices.

The final curtain on this part of the tale is brought down by “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” The group were perhaps inspired by “Hey Jude,” but were also mischievous enough to hire the London Bach Choir, arranged by Jack Nitzsche, to sing in pure tones of connections and footloose men rather than a more predictable gospel chorus. If the track’s value stopped at this joke, however, then it would have little intrinsic value; here, as with “Gimme Shelter,” the Stones look the sixties in the eye, wave it an assured goodbye, knowing that there is no going or coming back; not too worried about anybody’s funny papers or negotiations but wise and human enough to bid this age a knowingly sad but ultimately celebratory farewell.

Al Kooper’s mournful French horn and keyboards melt into Jagger’s gentle tale of the systematic decline of everyone he knows; the wineglass woman is unavoidably Marianne and the title track’s trompe-l’oeil (“lean”/”bleed”) is repeated as her hand, in the final verse, becomes “bloodstained.” Meanwhile, the “Mr Jimi” encountered in the queue at the Chelsea Drugstore is usually assumed to be Hendrix (Jagger’s fulsome “AY said!” couples with his chilling “and that was ‘dead’”) but actually refers to Jimmy Miller (“dead” being the stock expression they used when discussing something that they liked); still, the prospect of a bloody finish (or bloodier beginning to the seventies, as indeed turned out to be the case) is unavoidable in the verse’s prospects, even though Kooper’s angry organ roars out of that “dead” as if to proclaim in protest “I’m NOT dead!” to welcome the second chorus. The chorus itself switches between the upbeat (all the better to shadow the irony of the title’s words) and a more considered piano descent/pause to reveal the jewel in the wreckage: “but if you try sometimes, you just might find…you get what you NEED!” Here is the song’s real lesson; the idealism of the sixties is over, the total change was probably never going to happen, but this doesn’t mean that we can’t keep trying to change the things we can…and by doing so, who knows what, or who else, we can change? The “NEED!”s are chorused with gusto by the backing singers – Madeline Bell, Doris Troy and “Nanette Newman” (and just to bury any attempted apocrypha, the wife of Bryan Forbes, star of The Slipper And The Rose, Fairy Liquid commercials, &c., played no part in these sessions; the credit was a private joke but the singer in question was one Nanette Workman, a native New Yorker turned Quebec resident who has pursued a long and distinguished career in both music and theatre).

In the instrumental break we swim in layers of organ, piano, guitar and choir before Jagger’s “AARGH!” snaps everything back into focus (“AOOOWWWW baby!!”). His “bloodstained hand” may verge on the tearful but is immediately answered by Kooper’s deadpan barrelhouse piano. The climactic “just might find” is elevated by a three-part, symmetrical choral arc. High-rolling piano figures react towards Miller’s off-centre drum triplets; surprisingly, Watts couldn’t quite lay down the groove that the band wanted for this song in the studio and thus Miller sat in on drums. The summit is tremendous, the Bach Choir rising steadily towards an astronomically high peak – the parallel with “A Day In The Life” and the equivalent urge towards rebirth are both duly noted – and at their highest point Kooper’s organ thrusts itself into the song’s body and Miller’s drums swing the celebratory mood, running the record, the Stones and this story out of the sixties and into something that looks pretty solidly like a future. If side one of Let It Bleed documents a journey from rootlessness to home – from “Gimme Shelter” to “you can lean on me,” the dawning realisation that we must finally provide our own refuge – then side two sees the Stones pushing their own boundaries in the ways they knew how. Excursions like “Revolution #9” would have been utterly inimical to the way they worked, being a far more organic band than the Beatles; throughout the record one is struck by just how firmly they exist and thrive as a working band, even minus one key member. Unlike Abbey Road one does derive the feeling of four people in a room playing and interacting as a unit. But there is the same degree of determined hope, an iron will to continue to exist in a new decade, a knowledge that nothing and no one, save perhaps themselves, could ever stop them. And as “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” plays out, with yet more of those exclamation mark “Whoo!”s, we are finally reminded of where this tale started in the sixties, with Freddy Cannon, whooping and hollering this decade into being, with so much hope, hardly any of it diminished, virtually all of it strengthened.

Tuesday 19 January 2010

The BEATLES: Abbey Road

(#72: 4 October 1969, 11 weeks; 27 December 1969, 6 weeks)  
Track listing: Come Together/Something/Maxwell’s Silver Hammer/Oh! Darling/Octopus’s Garden/I Want You (She’s So Heavy)/Here Comes The Sun/Because/You Never Give Me Your Money/Sun King/Mean Mr Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came In Through The Bathroom Window/Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End/Her Majesty
“Once there was a way to get back homeward.”
It is a scathingly hot day somewhere in the middle of a summer, some way towards the end of an age. Once these four young men smiled winningly at us from a balcony and now they cannot bear, or bother, to look at us. The grinning balcony is still only a ten-minute bus ride from where they are now walking and their home then was the same as it is now but so much, too much, has changed; three of them have a beard and three – not the same three – are wearing Tommy Nutter suits. They resemble not so much a gravedigger, body, undertaker and priest as three young businessmen leading their lackadaisical rock star charge towards a meeting. What do you mean, who are we? You ought to know by now. The era of PR sleevenotes long gone, the necessity for names or even titles vanished. In any case we’ll be off soon; you won’t need to be concerned by or about us. A journey from left to right, from the past to the future, from one decade to the next, from one stage of existence to another, and they’re not looking especially pleased or particularly distressed about it.
The original idea for a title was Everest. Their engineer liked to smoke Everest cigarettes. It was suggested that they fly out to the Himalayas for a cover shot. They gave the suggester a Paddington Bear-like meaningful stare and returned to their separate but still connected bits of business. Abbey Road? Well, that’s where we’ve been these last seven years; the home has become a brand, and we’re stopping just short of becoming a brand ourselves. That was probably just as well. Apple had proved that they weren’t really suited to the branding business, nor indeed to the business of business. There was always money to flow out of the tap towards anyone who wanted it. Wasn’t there? (One of the unsuccessful applicants for Apple funding was the writer and then hopeful filmmaker BS Johnson, who addressed a gruffily disgruntled letter to “Paul MacCartney.”)
The business was draining them, or at least their joint business account, and before long, no longer having an Epstein to join the dots for them (or at least make a good fist of dot-uniting), business split them, but then so did encroaching adulthood. McCartney was the romantic, the only one who didn’t want Klein the Stoney cold rationalist managing their affairs, the only one who wanted the Beatles to continue to exist as “The Beatles.” He couldn’t let go of the teenage notion of the Toxteth gang of four, hanging out forever, delaying responsibility and finiteness. He felt safe, warm, within their womb and feared the immediate strike of a hammer, silver or otherwise, if suddenly he had to fend for himself.
The other three were, above all resentful, sniping other things, bored. John already had one foot outside the door, his conceptual sexworks with Yoko and Plastic Ono Band activities now taking precedence; George wanted nothing more than to be the second or preferably third guitarist in an easy-going, semi-anonymous jamming band (or, with any luck, The Band); Ringo was just fed up. So Paul took the role of slightly over-ebullient scoutmaster; they stumbled through the recording of an entire album (see entry #77) and attendant documentary film as though they could still cut it, there and then, like they had done in the old, irretrievable days, only to find that, two-and-a-half years off the stage, they really couldn’t. So they pulled together, sat apologetic before stern schoolmaster George Martin, and resolved to make the best possible finale to their time together (their career, if not their individual careers), a marker which would modestly attest: This Is What We Were And What We Did. (Why would they have wanted to stand on top of Everest anyway? Their principal ambition after 1967 had been to get down from the top.) The sun is shining and there are two songs on the record devoted to the sun, but how strong or penetrating were its rays?
If you play the cassette edition of Abbey Road you will notice an odd change in sequencing: “Here Comes The Sun” now starts side one and “Come Together” side two. Perhaps it wasn’t so odd a reordering; indeed, despite the initial momentary imbalance from having the album begin with two George songs, it renders a queer logic. In all senses Abbey Road was a collection of individual Beatle songs (rather than “Beatles”) and having two Georges followed by two Pauls, then one Ringo and finally (before the collaborative Long Medley) the three Johns gives an air of the album being a trailer; look, they are saying, this is what we have to offer individually. It is rather like four slices of solo album samples before the group reluctantly reunite and take themselves out of, or into, history.
But on reflection, and in keeping with the LP edition which I have known for the last forty years, “Come Together,” the quietest beginning to any Beatles album, remains the better starter. After the rather chillingly carnal introductory whisper of “Shoot me,” answered by rat-a-tat rimshots and snares and underscored by a questioning bass and warm electric piano blanket, Lennon immediately reaches for his Chuck Berry security blanket (“Here come old flat-top,” for which he subsequently had to do an expensive royalty deal) but more subtly is reaching back towards the scattered shots of “I Am The Walrus”; the track is like “Walrus” come into focus, or fruition, or adulthood. There is no longer any particular need for rage or exhibitionism; his targets still sound relatively random but he seems to know exactly where to aim in order to hit them, and as the mist clears he proclaims:
”One thing I can tell you is you got to be free.”
The guitar prowls in for the central proclamation before the song dives back into post-Dr John ju-ju sensuality; the Beatles have never sounded so relaxed, nor so damned sexy. There is, as with much that is concealed within the belly of this album, more of a debt to The Band than is commonly acknowledged, but the intertextuality is subtler than “Glass Onion” (“Got to be good looking ‘cause he’s so hard to see” is a nifty riposte to the “I can’t tell you but I know it’s mine” of “A Little Help From My Friends”) and the soft cries of “Right!,” “revolution” and “come” which decorate the song’s outward journey not only declare satisfaction with unmasking of the song’s various false prophets – this is nearly the seventies, you can trust no one except yourself, be duly warned – but also a rapprochement with the notion of “Revolution”; it will now come from the head, and therefore the mind. McCartney’s bass turns messy at fade, Lennon’s lead guitar plaintive and inquisitive throughout his call to deny all sense and order, to face the approaching decade with what we hopefully have learned from the previous one.
Then George finally gets to have his substantial say. At last, with “Something,” he appears to have found the peace which had been eluding him, or around which he had been skating smartly. Remember how when he emerged he did so with the sullen fuck-you likes of “Don’t Bother Me”; but he has gradually learned how to reach out towards the world and become part of its flow, and maybe has a better grip on the world of 1969 than his “senior partners” in the group. In retrospect the dying fall and rebirth of “Long, Long, Long” was his turning point and in “Something” – a song about the nature and manifestations of love – he understands what it has all been, and should be, about. The song still wanders as dazed as “Strawberry Fields” with Ringo’s ghostly cymbal sustenati and Martin’s strings, Billy Preston’s staccato organ and Harrison’s own wah-wah providing a bed of appositely soft flowers. His Scouse “no other lover” in the second verse – and of George Harrison verses there is none better or profounder – tells us that he is reeling with this new discovery. But is this happiness complete, unspoilt, free of insecurity? The middle eight suggests that it is not, with Starr’s thundering tom-toms, Harrison’s suddenly shocked cries of “I don’t KNOW!” and McCartney’s deep piano which rumbles down a staircase to the resumed piece of Harrison’s central guitar solo. Throughout McCartney’s bass sneaks in and out of the song’s contoured curvature as though giving a warning “Psst!” to George, but “Something” is more complete and, finally, happier than anything else on the record – and also wiser; consider the philosophical certainty of Harrison’s “You know I believe – and how.”
Then we come to McCartney’s perplexing pair. “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is for the unwary the album’s most shocking moment (and the moment Lennon most hated); a jolly romp about a serial killer which plays like an unwieldy cross between “When I’m 64” and “Mack The Knife.” The “pataphysical” reference may be a nod to Robert Wyatt and Soft Machine (who were busy recording their second album, including the track “Pataphysical Introduction,” at Olympic Studios in Barnes at the same time that the Beatles were doing preparatory work for Abbey Road) but the blend of clanging “bang bang” anvil clunks, Harrison’s incongruous Chet Atkins fills and some highly disturbing clusters from an instrument we hadn’t heard on Beatles records before, the Moog synthesiser (not to mention the Monty Python lumberjack chorus at the end), remains uncomfortable listening; McCartney has subsequently justified the song as a metaphor for unexpected bad things happening when you think all has been sorted out (see “Ghosts” by Japan a dozen years later!) but it is as disturbing as the sequence in the original Willy Wonka film when Gene Wilder takes the kids and their parents through a high-speed tunnel decorated with images of sharks, blood and horror; they are aghast, terrified and destabilised but he happily continues to smile regardless, with those huge gobstopper eyes eager to devour the planet.
“Oh! Darling,” a slightly overwrought exercise in fifties R&B/doowop revivalism (which in turn inspired 10cc’s “Donna”) is on slightly firmer ground but it is still jarring to hear McCartney holler, “Please believe me when I tell you, I’ll never do you no harm,” directly after narrating the adventures of Maxwell. A more disciplined approach to the template Lennon used for “Yer Blues,” the track offers an equally committed group performance – note the rumbling collective rattle of drums and piano which herald each middle eight, in which latter McCartney screams more potently (“Hey you-WOOOO!” “WOOOOOOHHHH!!,” “Cry-y-yyyy-y-y”) than anything he’d done since “I’m Down,” Harrison wisely restraining himself to join-the-dots single-note guitar arpeggios. Echoes illuminate the final verse, McCartney’s throat palpably going but still capable of bloodcurling “DOO YOO!”s before floating ghosts of piano and guitar strokes bring the song to its end. Was McCartney going slightly stir crazy in the studio?
Ringo’s “Octopus’s Garden” offers some slightly less complicated cheer, George’s Chet nods far more at home with Starr’s good nature. But the song is still about escape – note Harrison’s sympathetic triplet of single line guitar notes in response to Starr’s moderately melancholy “sea bed” – and the various lyrical references to refuge (“Knowing they’re happy and they’re safe,” “No one there to tell us what to do”) are rather anxious for light. Ringo’s “near a cave” is especially wistful – virtually on the point of tears – although the sadness is temporarily extinguished, or obscured, by a thumping, on-the-beat instrumental break. The backing voices swoon as they swim through their Leslie cabinet fishtanks, and in its own undemonstrative, remorseful way, the song demonstrates more than any other on the album why the Beatles had to end.
Then Lennon returns, noticeably more wracked and distressed than he was at the beginning of side one; an ungainly 12/8 arpeggio of guitars, almost run into the ground by its own weight, crashes into the hitherto sunny picture – and inventing Siouxsie and the Banshees in the process – before the music settles into a troubled A minor variant on Mel Tormé’s “Comin’ Home Baby,” Lennon having nothing to say other than “I want you…I want you so bad…it’s driving me mad” but then there is no need for him to say anything more; the Ocean Child has taken over his life, his world, and one year on from the rueful acceptance of “Julia” he is in danger of being overpowered by his new muse; the love, the need for sexual tactility, overruns reason (“Come together, RIGHT NOW, over me”), and the music lumbers between E7, B flat 7, augmented A before the fearful arpeggio returns to trample over the trees (although interestingly the most piercing scream of “HEAVYYYYYY!!” appears to come from Paul!), McCartney’s fretful bass scraping its fingers up and down the singer’s shattering spine. The bossa nova model is as far a cry as imaginable from “A Taste Of Honey” and Billy Preston’s Hammond even conjures up the unlikely reminder of “Mr Moonlight.” Lennon’s final “MAAAAD…YEEAAAAAHHHH!!” signals the primal screams up ahead, and realising that there is no way out of this trap (is this song an unexpected parallel to “Suspicious Minds”?), the arpeggio of death, of hubris leading to inevitable and inescapable nemesis, is repeated, over and over, grinding the Beatles and their decade down with the promise of a less promising decade to come – there is more than a hint of the nascent Black Sabbath, not to mention clues to the later My Bloody Valentine.
Ultimately the song is gradually wiped out by storms of white noise from Lennon’s Moog, Preston’s atonal rumblings and subtle guitar feedback. It seems unable, not simply unwilling, to stop, even as it stops the world all around and within it. As an ending it is infinitely scarier than the climax of “A Day In The Life”; at least the latter offered hope, but the D minor grind persists, fifteen times in all before somebody finally flicks the off switch and the music, the group, the life, the sixties, are abruptly extinguished forever. And virtually until the last possible moment, the album side orders were reversed, with “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” being the closer – effectively the Beatles’ last word - before Lennon was finally persuaded to relent. Here are the demons of “Help!” finally matured; there is a sudden, scarifying realisation that there is now no way back. But is there still a way forward? Side two opens, delicately and gradually, with acoustic guitars fading in, a patient Moog hovering in the middleground.
After a dying fall in the latter – echoing the final moments of “Long, Long, Long” – Harrison reappears, revitalised and reborn, welcoming the end of winter, the cessation of pain, the new beginning. There are comforting strings, a smiling Leslie-fed guitar, and a deft multitempo focus to the song – odd bar lines, unexpected handclaps – which imply a new and unshakable confidence. The piccolos and flutes which decorate the top line of the final chorus even manage to hark back to the Four Tops. The Quiet One’s reassuring message: “it’s all right” – don’t worry about the new age to come, the sun’s come out again, we will be happy, safe. But will we be together? It remains unclear. “Because,” which isn’t quite “Moonlight Sonata” played backwards (since that would again imply sunshine), is perhaps the saddest and most affecting track on Abbey Road, the shadows it casts the longest and possibly the most grievous. Perhaps inspired – some sources suggest written – by Spike Milligan, Lennon’s modest wordplay transcends its punnery to suggest a reflective dismay, a prematurely autumnal hopelessness.
More so than anything in the Long Medley, “Because” represents a life cut off before its time, not only because it suggests new avenues which the Beatles hadn’t really explored – how many of their songs owe such a direct stylistic debt to the Beach Boys (“Our Prayer”)? – but because it tells us where they might have gone; the Moog which materialises halfway through the song almost places it in an unlived seventies. Would they, as Lennon later dreaded, have ended up sounding like, or inventing, the Electric Light Orchestra had they gone on? Still, it’s impossible not to be at least minimally tearful – at least, for personal reasons, for this writer – at the prospect of what might have been had lives, and perhaps people, been different. The track was, chronologically, the last recording to feature all four Beatles, and it sounds different to and distinct from everything else they did in this year; like “I Want You,” it appears (albeit far more subtly) to finish midway. Then come the constructed long shadows of the extended goodbye. First Paul, the man who felt he had most to lose from not being a Beatle, drops the pretence and laments what has become of his old friends and comrades, as well as himself; six years on from “Money (That’s What I Want)” there is now only “You Never Give Me Your Money.” Back in A minor, the commonest key on the record, McCartney’s compressed sadness does indeed sound on the verge of breaking down.
But then again, McCartney has never been the man to mope for long, or stand still; with a brutal tough-love swipe (in its way as startling as Hendrix at Woodstock, quickly obliterating the deceased feedback of “Star Spangled Banner” with a sod-everything, lumpen thrust into “Purple Haze”) the song speeds up, transforms into C major, and McCartney gets down to business. The leitmotif “nowhere to go” revolves around his partially intentional determination as he realises that the silver hammer has split his life into shards. But he will make damned sure he does have somewhere to go when the time comes and by the time he reaches the giggly sweep of “Oh, that magic feeling,” accompanied by Starr’s grumbling tom-toms and robot boogie-woogie figures from guitar and piano, he feels a greater sense of relieved release, captured in a proudly pealing Harrison guitar solo, which continues to scale the scalar heights before culminating in a squeal of reborn ecstasy (for an improbable current parallel, see the last 90 seconds of Plan B’s “Stay Too Long”). “Wipe that tear away!” commands McCartney, now slightly irritated. “Came true…today…YES IT DID MY MY MY MY!” he suddenly realises as he attains his new self. Lennon, with a characteristic sardonicism, underscores McCartney’s liberation with his “all good children go to heaven” nursery chant. Climaxing with the same Harrison arpeggio that appeared on “Here Comes The Sun” – and in only slightly altered form on Cream’s “Badge” – the song disappears into tape loops of toads and crickets and McCartney’s live wind chimes which eventually resolve into “Sun King,” an affectionate nod to Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross” whose gentle E major drift unexpectedly but delightfully shift into a C major vocal choir (all voices by Lennon). The Watney’s Bontempi organ from “Mr Moonlight” makes yet another reappearance while the multiple Lennons croon a succession of mixed Italian/Spanish/Scouse gibberish. From “Here Comes The Sun” to a mere “Sun King” (Louis XIV) – were appearances that deceptive? 
The track putters to a natural end before Lennon hurls the group into “Mean Mr Mustard,” a jagged, colourful return to the character studies of Sgt Pepper. This too – via the line “Her sister Pam…” and Lennon’s joyous “He’s a DIRTY OLD MAN!” – segues into the terrific acousto-indie thrash of “Polythene Pam” with Lennon’s best and broadest Scouse on any Beatles record, its close-miked 12-string stabs clearly inspired by “Pinball Wizard.” “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” he chants knowingly. “OH LOOK OUT!” he yells as he makes way for McCartney and “Bathroom Window,” slightly slower in pace and indicative of the comic book tales in which McCartney would subsequently indulge, though still using the same chords as “You Never Give Me Your Money” and owing a good deal to the previous year’s “Lady Madonna” (“Sunday’s on the ‘phone to Monday”). Gravitas returns, however, and with a quietly terrifying finality, as McCartney reaches “Golden Slumbers” with its ineffable lament of “Once there was a way to get back homeward”; at least Winwood still carried the implication or hope of there still being a home, but McCartney knows in his bones that such a place no longer exist; they’ve travelled too far, seen too much, been too many people. 
The spirit of Elizabethan playwright Thomas Dekker – whose plays included one entitled The Sun’s Darling – is summoned from the piano exercise book of McCartney’s sister (and, as with “Walrus,” there is the police siren piano). Then the music toughens up and a raucous, accusatory unison football chant of “BOY, you’re gonna CARRY THAT WEIGHT! CARRY THAT WEIGHT A LONG TIME!” – the antithesis of the reassuring mass togetherness of “Hey Jude” – comes into focus, complete with (Maxwell’s silver?) hammering piano. Strings signal a return to the original “Money” – where McCartney himself finally admits to breaking down – and then the “Carry That Weight” chant returns; the new, realistic Beatles, walking into their separate futures, knowing that what they’ve done can never be reproduced and certainly never equalled, and that this burden will remain with them for the remainder of their lives.
But rock guitars pick up on that last A minor and McCartney swerves into a possibly Led Zeppelin-inspired shriek before Ringo gets his one and only drum solo. In contrast to Ginger Baker’s workout on “Do What You Like,” I have rarely heard a drum solo which tries so manfully not to be a drum solo, and Ringo had to be pretty thoroughly persuaded to do it. He sticks to the beat and the point, and then – provoking more knowing tears of farewell – we realise, with the grinning, self-referential chant of “Love you! Love you!,” that the Beatles are saying goodbye to us, in turn. First Ringo takes a bow, then Paul, George and John get three rotating three-bar guitar solos apiece, Paul lively, George being more Clapton than Clapton and John snarling as though impatient to invent punk before the staccato piano and regretful Harrison guitar usher McCartney’s final, brief and ruefully wise statement – essentially, you reap what you sow, we get the ending you deserve – before the screen widens out, the strings sweep in and the song, and the Beatles’ career, ends on a wistful but still optimistic C major.
But not so fast – after twenty seconds of silence (the first twenty seconds after death?), the last chord of “Mean Mr Mustard” shocks the listener awake to leave a winking McCartney postscript, roving, like the Queen herself, from left to right channel, like the men on the cover, before that too is cut off. A sly “bye!” if ever there were one. That last smile of a farewell is, as it was always intended to be, immensely reassuring; although the Beatles know that they have no future as a group – as opposed to their legacy, their brand – the concept of a future still exists. Who, at the end of 1969, knows where these young men are heading, walking towards, least of all the young men themselves?
They are, as I suggested at the beginning of this piece, walking away from one life towards the second (and third and fourth and fifth), but they know they will be tethered to this leafy street, this history that they will never be able to shed, this idealisation of a time which suggested everything but took its time to deliver anything (most of the results of sixties radicalism would bear fruit, for better and worse, in the seventies), particularly since they, together with their receptive audience, were chiefly responsible for creating it. Time to build new homes, time for the seventies. Well, almost. But there remains one, not entirely unexpected, coda to come before this tale too crosses over. Who in fact will end up being in people’s dreams tonight?

Monday 11 January 2010

BLIND FAITH: Blind Faith


(#71: 20 September 1969, 2 weeks) 

Track listing: Had To Cry Today/Can’t Find My Way Home/Well All Right/Presence Of The Lord/Sea Of Joy/Do What You Like 

There are three more albums to go in this tale before the sixties end and as well as the sense of curtains being pulled down, there is also the sensation of new curtains being pulled open, or at least the desire, the craving, for a future, even if no one yet knew what that future was going to look like. In many senses there was the feeling that few of the survivors wanted to continue being what they had been, who they were, in the sixties. The Plastic Ono Band, for instance, had already begun to record and gig, and throughout the latter half of 1969 Eric Clapton was its guitarist. Did Clapton really know what he wanted to be in the seventies? He had tired of Cream and their epic jams, had succumbed to the influence of Big Pink and wanted to return to the (superficially) simpler process of playing well-written, thought-through songs as a member of an integrated and infinitely less pressured band; in his case, as with many others’, we can take “less pressured” to be synonymous with “less famous” or even “anonymous.” Why else would the first and only Blind Faith album appear without any indication of the group’s name on its cover? You bought the word of God blind and expected revelations. There were still enough believers to send the album to number one in both Britain and the States on trust alone, and although a vague frost of disappointment settled once the mist of belief had cleared, the record has proved to be surprisingly revelatory in other senses.

In truth Blind Faith were practically over by the time the album came out, but the experiment was perhaps always meant to be shortlived. In 1968 Clapton had unsuccessfully lobbied for Steve Winwood to join Cream, and after that group broke up, and Winwood had put Traffic into temporary cold storage, he was keen for the pair to continue working together. Winwood suggested involving Ginger Baker in any new group; Clapton was dubious since the last thing he wanted was Cream 2 (or The New Cream) but Winwood prevailed, insisting that Baker would be amenable to their new ideas. Bassist and violinist Rick (or Ric) Grech was recruited from Family to complete the line-up. They made their live debut as support act at the famous Rolling Stones Hyde Park concert on 7 June and were well received, although Clapton was disappointed with the group’s performance. They then did some touring abroad but, as what was essentially a jamming band, the lack of new songs required the resuscitation of old Cream and Traffic favourites. Hence both Clapton and Winwood found themselves in exactly the same situation from which they had attempted to escape; a “SuperCream” blowing idly to unquestioning thousands. One of their support acts in the States was Delaney and Bonnie, a far less complicated and considerably more enjoyable affair for the guitarist; Clapton began to hang out with them, eventually “joined” them and their backing band would subsequently mutate into the basis of Derek and the Dominos. Wanting nothing more at this stage than to be “Derek,” Clapton left the running of Blind Faith more or less to Winwood, and the band soon folded, the other three members teaming up with Denny Laine and many of the great and good of British jazz-rock in Ginger Baker’s big band Airforce before Winwood reconvened Traffic (with Grech on bass) in 1970.

So the Blind Faith album stands as a singular statement, necessarily inconclusive but a fascinating document of the various strands which British rock and jazz (and, via the transatlantic work of Jack Bruce, John McLaughlin, Dave Holland and others, also involving American jazz and rock) were busy interweaving at the time. Its opening track, “Had To Cry Today,” proceeds along a standard, Cream-like mid-tempo blues lope, but Winwood’s anguished lead vocal is clearly coming from a different place altogether, as indeed are the more complex harmonies into which the song quickly devolves. Despite Baker’s emphatic tom tom work, the overall feeling is that of a more relaxed, less rushed Cream, and since the song (as with three others on the album) is Winwood’s it is clear that his is going to be the dominant voice here; he already seems to be getting ready for the adventures of John Barleycorn Must Die. Nevertheless Clapton opens out the song with his first solo; anxious, concerned, tonally very Hubert Sumlin (see the six head shakes of bending A notes halfway through). Winwood returns to see the song out, or so he thinks; his swooningly distant vocal on the penultimate chorus (“But you want every ONE to be free”) seems to lean back into a 1967 which hasn’t quite been left behind. The song resembles a more considered take on the riot-craving angst of “Something In The Air” (“The feeling’s the same as being outside of the law”) but Clapton buzzes moderately angrily under the final chorus and after a brief backwards loop begins to solo again, this time in duplicate; one guitar continuing the previous hurt, the other offering snappier, sharper Buddy Guy lines (if we take BB King’s Lucille as the template for the former, then this represents a masculine/feminine struggle). The song then stumbles into non-being with ambiguous closing harmonies, a resigned drum roll and a pondering bass wandering into the fog.

“Can’t Find My Way Home” is the record’s, and 1969’s, key song. Many of the hit songs which found their way into the charts towards the end of that year captured the awkward struggle of survivors from an unspecified disaster, trying to feel their way towards anything or anyone that might represent a home; think of “Reflections Of My Life” or “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” or even “Two Little Boys.” There will be more crucial songs in the year’s two subsequent remaining number one albums but none quite captured that quietly shocked dissolution which Winwood articulated with such perfect imperfection. The quietest and briefest song on the record, it circles around its uncertain D major centre, rotating to C major, then to a heartbreaking B flat minor and finally back to D. “Come down off your throne,” pleads Winwood, his voice shaking on the phrase “You are the reason” as he clutches at the most visible straw in the clouded desert. A far cry from the confident trainee duende we heard two years previously in “I’m A Man” – confident enough to duet/duel with himself, and sharing the same producer, Jimmy Miller – Winwood has returned to a premature second childishness, desperate to stave off the merest oblivion. His exhausted traveller’s whimper – “And I’m wasted and I can’t find my way home,” the “can’t” very carefully pronounced with an estuarian “a” – is the most affecting and chilling moment in any 1969 music. Behind him, and around him, the band busk like a broken-down beat group, Baker’s supplementary commentary on (toy?) cymbal and rumbling tom toms particularly and subtly pertinent. Winwood turns his lament into the sustained, wordless howl of a bereft wolf, the noble warrior who has forgotten how to walk, perhaps even how or why to dream. He too sees the bad moon rising and realises that the only way to survive may not be to go back, but to press forward.

But then, when all seems lost, it is useful to remember where one started from in the first place. If Baker’s terminal steam train hiss of cymbals at the end of “Can’t Find My Way Home” signified that “rock” had run out of power and ideas, the group take that as a signal to go back to the beginning – to Buddy Holly (and interestingly Grech did some time in the Crickets in the early-mid seventies). They tackle “Well All Right” as a benign Southern fried boogie with a slight reggae lilt, although the stroll is framed by two agonised passages of Canterbury-type guitar/rhythm unisons more in keeping with Caravan (or perhaps Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac) than Cream. In between these troughs, Winwood is clearly leading the way, his phased piano and Hammond organ giving way to a couple of fine piano solos, the second (following the second unison statement and the false amiable ending) notably freer and more joyous, before Clapton finally adds comments of his own.

“Presence Of The Lord,” however, though sung by Winwood, is the only Clapton song on the record, and it is his moment. Beginning with solemn organ and processional rhythm, the influence of the Band is evident in every pore of the track; Baker’s gravely stentorian drums bearing a marked resemblance to those of Levon Helm, with patiently rolling ripples of Richard Manuel piano (over further tapestried layers of organ, piano and guitar). Throughout Winwood sings Clapton’s words of rebirth (“I have finally found a way to live”) with great, if precarious, authority. The unusual harmonies which underscore the second half of the second line of the second verse pave the way for a gradual loosening of the music. Winwood intones the pivotal, climactic “Lord” in a strangely uncertain (as though undecided, having second thoughts) pitch before Clapton and Baker blast off at double speed, Clapton issuing one of the most furious solos he has ever recorded, as though he had been waiting throughout the rest of side one to unleash what he felt, thought and wanted. He eventually retreats, wounded and angry, back into the fabric of the song but the pitch is eventually raised again with Winwood’s shrieking voice and Clapton’s icepick of guitar maintaining a mutual scream of release before Clapton appears to splinter into a million pieces at the song’s end, akin to a broken crystal ball displaying an unwanted future.

“Sea Of Joy”’s hard, clenched-teeth intro is abruptly succeeded by a return to a pensive acoustic folk mood, Winwood still in the pastoral fields of 1967 (“Following the fragments of the skies”). But then he suddenly explodes with a rare fury, shouting the line “AND I’M FEELING CLOSE TO WHEN THE RACE IS RUN!” as though to remind everyone that he is still approaching the end, or an end. He is questioning everything – the line “Once the door swings open into space,” is an accidental reminder of that other 1969 “Can’t Find My Way Home” variant, “Space Oddity” – and then an additional toughness is called in with Clapton’s dramatic entry. In his rhetorical intoning of key words such as “CONCRETE” and “ALL BECAUSE” (the latter phrased, possibly unintentionally, to sound like “OVERDOSE”) Winwood can even seem peculiarly reminiscent (or prophetic) of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis; his voice is piercing in its pain.

But then the song relaxes its tension, settles down to a nucleus of organ, electric guitar and Grech’s very Rick Danko-like violin, gradually multiplying like rose petals. We catch the bid “set sail” from Winwood and as Baker’s tom toms become more intense are also put in mind of that other 1969 nautical idyll (albeit in reverse), Procol Harum’s “A Salty Dog.” The song eventually disappears into ribbons and laces of quietening violin.

Baker’s “Do What You Like” at almost fifteen-and-a-half minutes is the album’s big jamming setpiece, but unlike countless subsequent examples does not sound forced or ponderous. Proceeding at a relatively brisk 5/4 – exactly like “Living In The Past” but with astral multitracked vocal harmonics taking the place of the flute – Winwood with a bright longing sings Baker’s very 1969 advice to open our eyes, take a look, get together etc.

Then the group settles into a groove; Winwood’s opening, hymnal Lowery organ solo rather unexpectedly takes us to the land of the Mike Ratledge/Robert Wyatt Soft Machine (while the song’s sentiments also correspond with those described throughout Kevin Ayers’ contemporaneous Joy Of A Toy, and the music’s sense of space provides a signpost to Miles’ also contemporaneous Bitches’ Brew). Clapton then comes in with a relatively restrained solo (actually sounding remarkably like the John McLaughlin of Extrapolation, and even more remarkably, if less surprisingly, like the young Carlos Santana); he is effectively a support player on this record, content to provide due service to the songs, but unafraid to express himself precisely as and when needed. Grech then gets his bass solo, which finds him in a Jimmy Garrison mood – pensive out-of-tempo meditations, double strumming – while Baker carefully traces his progress with nautical bells of cymbal chimes followed by slightly more pronounced snare rolls.

Meanwhile, odd, disjointed titular vocal chants fade in and out of the background. Finally Baker takes over for his long solo, patiently building up from quiet brush strokes via Cozy Cole/Big Sid Catlett paradiddles through Elvin Jones snare fusillades to the expected Max Roach/Tony Williams explosion of interdependent tom toms, cymbals and bar line divisions. It’s a great pocket history of jazz drumming, which was no doubt its intent. The background vocal chants meanwhile reach their climax and Winwood’s blossoming, ripening organ springs out of the ground and guides the band back to the song.

After a fulsome rally of “Get together!”s the “YOU LIKE” voices turn unexpectedly harsh and fuzzed and the song dissolves into a glorious, atonal free ensemble which atomises over the course of an elongated fade, together with enthusiastic ad libs from (mostly) Baker (“What a run!,” “Get down!,” “Big story!”) into pointillistic pricks of stars, a sudden, reversing Mellotron chord and assorted dots of random.

The overwhelming impression of Blind Faith is of a Cream and a Traffic on holiday, stretching their limbs and minds, free of pressure to be anyone or anything. In its own way (doing as it likes) it indicates a purple patch of musical freedom and cross-genre fusion to come; whatever any of the participants thought of it subsequently, they sound as though they are having an absolute ball, while Miller’s subtly less-than-documentary production precludes mere jam session status – the record feels structured and genuinely adventurous. Most subsequent “supergroups” would miss this essential interactive quality, based on the always erroneous assumption (as any cricket or football coach would tell you) that putting the “best” players together would create the best band. Despite the anguish of its central song, Blind Faith displays a certain degree of optimism about the new times to come as they prepare to reopen the curtain. The remaining two curtain callers would, as we will see, come to drastically different conclusions, even if ultimately they were both looking at the same thing.

Tuesday 5 January 2010

Elvis PRESLEY: From Elvis In Memphis

(#70: 30 August 1969, 1 week)

Track listing: Wearin’ That Loved On Look/Only The Strong Survive/I’ll Hold You In My Heart/Long Black Limousine/It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin’/I’m Movin’ On/Power Of My Love/Gentle On My Mind/After Loving You/True Love Travels On A Gravel Road/Any Day Now/In The Ghetto

In truth he wasn’t enjoying the sixties as much as he had the fifties. The decade didn’t seem as open to him as the previous one had been. Whereas once he’d fearlessly kick down doors, now they all appeared to be spontaneously reassembling and systematically closing on him.

It had started well enough, or as well as could have been expected; he’d done his time in the Army, had seen things, lost others, been introduced by his commanding sergeant to amphetamines, fallen in love with a fourteen-year-old girl (but, unlike his old pal Jerry Lee, waited seven years before marrying her), and came back a not entirely unwilling convert to the notion of All-Round Entertainer. There was that dormant electricity which had suddenly reawakened – see entry #19 for fervent proof – but once he had got being back out of his system he quickly settled down to what everyone else around him wanted (or so he was given to think); the Neapolitan ballads, the rapid turnover movies, the tuxedo. There were heartfelt gospel performances, private solo recordings, but gradually the brand took over the being.

Did he even want to think about the Beatles? Oh, they’d met and got on reasonably/diplomatically well, but he didn’t feel any direct connection, was slightly suspicious and increasingly resentful of their takeover – how much easier it was for him to break bread with his jukebox favourite Tom Jones; now there was a man as he knew him – and overall felt what must have resembled a gradual and not particularly painless descent into an airy nothingness. Pot Luck – see entry #29 – had been his last non-soundtrack, non-gospel, non-random bits and pieces album and perhaps the effort thereafter became too great. Far easier to drift agreeably and lunkheadedly into a world populated by the less complicated likes of Bill Bixby and Stella Stevens. It relieved him of the pressure of having to think.

But pressure was getting to him in different ways – well, maybe not as much as some people liked to think, since his priorities eventually changed. Nevertheless, where exactly did he stand in the world of 1967? He married Priscilla that year, and she gave birth to Lisa Marie in early 1968; as with Dylan, he was now a husband and father, but unlike Dylan, his new contentment – surely there must have been immense contentment – was not initially reflected in his music of the period. A look at his singles schedule for 1967 reveals, among numerous interchangeable others, such items as “Indescribably Blue,” the double A-side “You Gotta Stop/The Love Machine” and “Long Legged Girl (With The Short Dress On).” None did very much commercially, and hardly any of them were even noticed; no one was mad about them, but then again they drove no one mad. Did these records even exist, in any meaningful sense? Was he simply sick of the endlessly rotating hamster’s wheel which he thought himself compelled to tread?

Something had to give, and after his daughter’s birth, and following a few words with a record company concerned about his now minimal sales, he slowly strove to reform, if not remake, himself. The Jerry Reed songs “US Male” and “Guitar Man” got him back on the lists; they didn’t quite convince of a new tungsten toughness but they were certainly more than creditable attempts. Then NBC producer Steve Binder came through with an offer of a Christmas TV special. Col Parker wanted the tuxedo, Bing Crosby sentiments, fluff around the Christmas tree, a Santa Claus outfit (and attached beard?), “Jailhouse Rock” with a flute solo.

But finally, and ultimately, Presley said no. He wanted to reclaim, not just his leathery roots, but rock itself. The Beatles had had it all to themselves while he had been roboting his way through Hollywood, reduced to making films about “Swinging London” which had about as much to do with London as Antarctica. He felt humiliated and enraged. These Limey schoolboy fuckers, he thought to himself, still scrubbing behind their ears and sniffing the classroom inkwells while he was busy inventing their future – the jibes he aims at the group in his TV show have a bitterness which takes them above Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roast level. Christ, even Dean, the man he had once – perhaps, deep down, still – wanted to be, had come through the sixties infinitely hipper than him, by means of doing little more than slouching on his stool on TV every week, sending up crooning and essaying gags of antique corn. Dino had a much securer grasp on his own journey to blissful nothingness. Elvis was apt to become a little confused about what was and wasn’t there, or here.

Well, enough was enough. The white tuxedo, the showbiz, the tinsel, were kept in their place, but he wanted Scotty and DJ back, he wanted to get back to the 1954 urge that had kicked him into tactility in the first place. And he burst, and did it with brilliant radiance. Few items of televisual pop have smouldered with such red rage and unapologised-for transcendence (as well as such unexpected, sun-raising exuberance) as the Sun Studios in a boxing ring experiential part of Presley’s ’68 Special. He goes back over Jimmy Reed and Smiley Lewis again and again, will not let go of songs, dips in and out of numbers as will and desire direct, can’t find a damned strap for that guitar of his but dammit, he stands up anyway, like an Atlas intent on preventing his disc from slipping. Then, after half an hour or so, he returns to the tuxedo, and to “Memories,” but something has not been extinguished, and right at the end he erupts into “If I Can Dream” – a clumsy song, but delivered with more balls and fervour than anything he’d done in nigh on nine years. There is a frightening certainty about his hoarse shriek of a betrayed voice, watching 1968 and the future dissolve in bullets before he could get to them and stop them – and suddenly he counted once more.

In early 1969 he went back to the studios in Memphis for the first time in nearly fourteen years. The musicians were respectful but wary, and if truth be told not exactly bowled over by the prospect of working with someone who – whisper it soft – they perhaps considered to be past it, over the hill. Not like that dynamic Neil Diamond guy who’d come by a couple of months before; now there was someone evidently happy to see a future unfold before him. But Elvis…it wasn’t a question of whether he still had it, but whether he was ready to recognise what “it” was? There was scepticism, not all of it unjustified.

That doubt evaporated the moment he got down to work. The album opens with his enraged voice over a rubato introduction. “I had to leave town for a little while,” he roars in the manner of a Ulysses newly returned to find the palace trashed, “You said you’d be good while I’m gone!” Prompted by a circus organ, the band strike up a furious undertow of beat while Presley laments about the wreckage of the decade upon which he has belatedly stumbled. He exclaims his bafflement over “a man downstairs with long, bushy hair.” She – if “she” can mean a decade, or a movement, rather than a specific, would-be lover – has been untrue to him, betrayed his dream, and he will spend most of the rest of the record coming to terms with this loss.

Jerry Butler’s “Only The Strong Survive,” then a relatively new song (co-written by future Philly Sound lords Gamble and Huff), is attacked by both singer and band with a strut and snap which, like many of these tracks, demonstrates a surprising attachment to Motown. It had been just over a decade since he’d lost his mother, and the grief is still sorely palpable in his performance of the song; his cry of “Don’t leave me!” after the first chorus, for instance. The choruses are noticeably faster than the verses but the singer’s pain is veering towards the extra-articulate; his “IwouldntletherKNOW!” scream heralds an abyss of strings as he stands on the precipice of non-existence. His climactic “YOU’D BETTER HOLD ON!” sounds like a self-projecting plea to be allowed to cling to the cliff edge.

But maybe the most startling of these dozen performances is the old Eddy Arnold chestnut “I’ll Hold You In My Heart.” Following a triple false start, Presley, seated at the piano, hurls himself into the song’s sentiments and hardens them up (“LOOOOOOKING for…”). On the first of several middle eights he proffers an octet of self in his “IIIIIII feel so blue” before hurtling into a hiccupping “Please-A wait-A for meeeee.” In the second middle eight he switches to a squealing falsetto (“You KNOW!”). The drums then accelerate into an unexpected third middle eight where he whines an extended “Why?” followed by four “I’m sorry”s, two “I said”s, an uncanny seven-syllable “heart,” and a resolving, James Brown-ish “UH!” But in the fourth middle eight, his grip on the song as tenacious as any dachshund’s jaw, he produces a sextet of “I”s – five hiccups and one resolving vibrato – before racing into “I’m away, I’M AWAY,” an orgasmic “YES!,” a recovering “Oh, oh, oh” and a final, devastating “Pulllleeeeaaaaasssse-AHHH!” Here he is as capable of deconstructing the language of sung song as effectively as Tim Buckley or Elizabeth Frazer.

“Long Black Limousine” reverses the scenario of the opening track, though its bells are far more threatening; now she is coming back, in a fancy car as she had always promised, but she is not alive; the car crashed after a party, perhaps the same party about which the singer was initially so suspicious. After a solemn beginning the song speeds up to a mid-tempo lope from the second verse (and the drums make their belated entry, followed by a Last Post trumpet). He has been preaching, possibly only to himself, but again the hurt seeps out in his markedly hoarser delivery of the second middle eight. The contempt which he only suggested in his opening “rich friends who knew you in the scene” blossoms into unclenched hatred; “A CHAUFFEUR!” he exclaims, as baffled and insulted as Lady Bracknell, before an upward key change heralds three defiant cries of “YEAH!,” each higher than the last as backing singers, guitars and drums interlock in the manner of coffin nails. A decade down the road from “Old Shep,” this is as disturbing a death disc as Presley ever created; he appears to be sounding the toll for something far greater than one misguided individual having passed away. It is a lament for somebody whom he deeply wanted to have stayed, but also somebody with whom he had even more deeply wanted to escape. Or perhaps a stark projection of his future self onto a passion beyond reconsideration. The Worried Man has many guises.

His relatively restrained take on Johnny Tillotson’s 1962 country hit “It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin’” almost comes as light relief after the draining anti-catharsis of its two predecessors, even though he sings it as a song intended for the bereaved, having been left with nothing but a pillow and his million tears. There is little time to dwell on this mourning, however, as he is quick to proceed to “I’m Movin’ On,” the old Canadian country song by Hank Snow which had provided the model for Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say?” Beginning quietly with acoustic guitar, the band launches into a Tennessee Three triple beat wagon ride but this rhythm is soon overtaken by an amazing, pre-emptive conference between country and funk, Reggie Young’s wah-wah guitar anticipating “Theme From ‘Shaft’” by two years. The picture blossoms to full intensity before retreating back to piano and Gene Chrisman’s needle-sharp drums. But Presley won’t let it rest (since that would mean his having to rest, or be like the rest) and he forces the power to be built up again (“Move on, baby, move ON!”). Chrisman bears down on his ride cymbal, at times as abstract and overpowering as Sunny Murray’s, before the song breaks open and everybody cuts the dummies loose.

“Power Of My Love” is the album’s most unexpected track, far more surprising in its way than “Ghetto”; although the song was written in 1962, we are firmly in the land of 1969 blues rock, with hard-biting guitar and harmonica. But with one swipe Presley puts the winsome wannabes back in their humbled place. “CRUSH it! KICK it!” he roars. “And no baby you can’t LICK IT!” he sneers. He is now winning, and knows it. “You’ll never get away,” he hisses in the first middle eight as Ed Hollis’ harmonica erupts into screaming multiphonics worthy of Pharaoh Sanders before giving way to Young’s guitar. Brass enter into the song’s final, sturdy 6/8 straits and Presley grins as though having violently wiped the last eight years of compromise and smiles off the desk and into the incinerator.

Did he still want to be Dean? “Gentle On My Mind” had also been done by the lontano maestro in 1969, and to everyone’s surprise nearly made number one as a single in Britain that spring. But Presley hardly seems to notice Dean’s preceding presence, let alone those of John Hartford, Glen Campbell or even Aretha Franklin. In contrast to Martin’s throwaway, heck-I’m-a-wino-so-what lax loucheness, Presley reapplies the Motown touch and toughens the song up. The rhythm is taut R&B and the bass (Tommy Cogbill and/or Mike Leech) neatly echoes James Jamerson. Young’s guitar commentary, however, is pure Steve Cropper, and so the worlds of Motown and (the more obviously local) Stax unite. Presley, however, audibly crumbles with the prospect of no home, as evinced by his stifled sobs at “stain my face” and “’til I’m blind.” Chrisman drives his snare accents diagonally, and unlike Dino, you can visualise the junkyards through which Elvis is wandering, perhaps of his own making.

Then it’s back to Eddy Arnold (yet again from 1962; was Elvis trying to reverse history to free it of the Beatles?), although Presley’s take on “After Loving You” owes much more to Della Reese’s later version. There are handclaps, a marked dissonance of emotion between Presley’s “now” and “after,” and then, as with “I’ll Hold You In My Heart,” he moves beyond words, language. “That’s ‘cause I’m no good I’m NO GOOD TO ANYONE!” he curses. At one point he can be heard to roar what sounds remarkably like “I feel DERANGED!” Then he presses down on his heart-driven eraser with his “Era-a-a-a-a-ased.” He treats the ballad as though it were an unclenched “One Night” (sung on the TV Special as he had always wanted to sing it, in its uncleaned form). “IMNOGOODIMNOGOODIMNOGOOD!!!” he exclaims, followed by a balancing triple “to anyone”s. His voice descends in intensity, grows steadily quieter and, as we reach the fade, gradually more garbled; the mouth music in which he indulges in the song’s final moments resembles no one so much as Phil Minton (see the latter’s 1981 album A Doughnut In One Hand for corroboration).

We then reach the closing trilogy of understated, damaged but elegant ballads. “True Love Travels On A Gravel Road” is delivered initially stately, patiently. But, perhaps triggered by “and stand by her man” (remembering the then recent Tammy Wynette song), Presley blasts off again. “HOW MANY HEARTS?” he howls. The second verse is delivered loudly and forcefully. Once again the horns, strings and rhythm draw us back to Motown. In the third verse Presley’s lamenting is soundtracked by a tambourine, followed by handclaps and Chrisman’s bouldering drums. His “MMMMMMMMMMM” is extended to lands approximating infinity.

“Any Day Now” is possibly the only moment on the record where Presley is at real peace. Written by Burt Bacharach and a hit for Chuck Jackson in – you guessed it – 1962, the mood is fast, brassy, a more streamlined version of Motown. But again, after trying to keep his countenance (“You’ll be on your way”), Presley collapses and yells (“THEN MY WILD BEAUTIFUL BIRD!”). Behind him Young’s guitar is anxious and restless before strings take the centre stage and are in turn superseded in the middle eight by tambourine. His hoarse whimper of “I’ll be hoooooooolding on” is a terrible moment of self-realisation (since he’s holding on “for dear life”); she’s there with him, palpable and tactile, but already – and ahead of the apocalyptic “Suspicious Minds” – he’s anticipating her betrayal, her departure, knowing that if she comes back it will be in a long black limousine. “Love will let me down,” he confesses towards the end, in a perilously quiet last verse, as starkly as though he knew that the world was always going to let him down. “You’ll be aro-ound” he finally sobs before the dam bursts and he weeps. “DON’T FLY AWAY, MY BEAUTIFUL BIRD!” he screams, twice. Don’t let me bleed my life to nothing. Marcus called it “naked piety” but the sins are already in their, and possibly his, place. One eventually realises how close Presley’s hoarse cry is to that of Levi Stubbs, and how infinitely less settled it is.

But, in the end, Presley steps outside himself, remembering that his woes are purely his, and peers out into this strange 1969 world to find something he either can’t recognise, or something he knows only too well. Mac Davis – the author of “Memories” – came to him with the song; Presley was initially dubious about taking it on and meaning it but was eventually persuaded. He looks out onto a world already planned to be wrecked for some at the moment of conception…and the music is as hushed and reverent and wary as everything else on this album isn’t. The song keeps pausing and restarting, as though he is pacing the sidewalk, thinking, turning around and retracing his steps. There is a distant, martial snare drum and behind it an even more distant cymbal. The strings are “Ode To Billie Joe” woozy, the backing singers now carrying the song’s superficial emotional dynamic. Presley himself, however, remains utterly calm, though this calm may be but a mask for numbness; he tells the story and watches it spin around to the beginning of the same bloodied cycle, and he thinks of Tupelo in the thirties and forties, wonders if that could have been him, might still be him. “In The Ghetto” sees him move out, perhaps for the final time, into the larger world, and its imprint, its singer now a distant chimera, is the final impression which this record leaves.

On the cover there are multiple shadows behind him, as there once were in Jailhouse Rock; they may well be his own shadow multiplied to refill an emptying universe. It is telling that earlier in the summer of 1969, when budget-priced albums were incorporated into the main chart, he nearly reappeared in this tale with the long-delayed release of the soundtrack to Flaming Star, his best and least musical and certainly least glamorous film. And, as with Flaming Star, From Elvis In Memphis constitutes Presley’s most direct statement to his audience; in the Sun days he was still working out what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it, but now he knew exactly what and how. Yes, this was a King in exile, back to reclaim his rightful place (“You’ve GOT to be a man, you’ve GOT to take a stand!”), back to demonstrate that, damn you, he still counted (the key factor of the album is how nakedly physical it sounds). Some of his vibrati in “I’ll Hold You In My Heart” even – had he known it – anticipate Bryan Ferry. But he was temporarily back, back with his people, back with the songwriters, few of whom came from anything that could be described as a glamorous background. The door opened, just for a second, just a glimpse of light as yellow as the cardigan he wears on the album’s back cover – but it was enough for him, for anyone who still cared to listen (and, astonishingly, everyone still cared). The seventies were going to become a different kind of playground for him, and this tale will not revisit him until, for him, it is too late. For one brief but vital moment, the treadmill yielded.