Tuesday 25 May 2010

Andy WILLIAMS: Home Lovin’ Man

(#89: 3 April 1971, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Home Lovin’ Man/Your Song/For The Good Times/Something/It’s Impossible/We’ve Only Just Begun/I Think I Love You/Candida/Fire And Rain/Rose Garden/My Sweet Lord

“…in the far hope of that happiness, I give life one more chance…”
(BS Johnson, Trawl)

It’s one of his most moving performances, perhaps because it’s so undemonstrative; both voice and music play hushed, as in the crypt, struck glad by the awe of unquestioned worship, a quiet church organ, bass drum as heartbeat four years ahead of “I’m Not In Love.” He is an old sea cap’n, coming back from maybe decades of sailing with no expressed intent; he knows he’ll miss the free-blown life but he’s missing something more, a home which may have changed beyond recognition throughout the time he’s been away.

As the song gradually opens up, we realise that he’s not the only one cognisant of the homecoming; his whole crew are approaching the dock, and there is a crowd waiting, their faces formerly “long and drawn,” now more exhausted than glad to see their other halves returning, for good – or perhaps there is some dread mixed in - never gave up hope? Are they home from the wars? And, if so, how many wars have they known, how many unspeakable darknesses have they witnessed? But the singer never overdoes anything; the chorus is almost whispered in closeted, or cloistered, harmonies. It is a song about coming home which skilfully avoids the question of what kind of home they are coming back to.

Perhaps there was a Vietnam subtext in there somewhere, but “Home Lovin’ Man,” the song, never played in the States; it was written specially for Williams by three of the period’s top British songwriters, Roger Cook, Roger Greenaway and Tony Macaulay, and was a substantial hit single in Britain (#7) over the Christmas of 1970. Moreover, it has scarcely surfaced in any form outside of Europe; Home Lovin’ Man, the album, does not exist outside Britain – there was in America an equivalent LP, Love Story, with an identical cover, typography and track listing, but with a different title track – “Where Do I Begin?,” one of Williams’ most drainingly passionate performances, was in our top ten while this album was at number one (there was a subsequent UK album entitled Love Story but this story can do without further tangles). Broadly speaking, however, Home Lovin’ Man is about someone, a little out of his own time, attempting to come to terms with the world, and the concept of “home,” which 1971 seemed to present to him.

Side one is largely agreeable listening; the sailor home from the sea attempting to re-establish relationships, or form new ones. “Your Song” was a very early recognition of Elton John, although the drift of Williams’ version is far gentler, less markedly troubled; the “sat on the roof” verse concerning itself with the mechanics of songwriting is omitted, and instead we are presented with a man – whose phrasing and general, intimidated reticence remind me, and not for the last time on this album, of George Michael – simply wanting to say how good it was to have another human being in this world, the electric piano acting as his destined featherbed.

He tries one-night stands, but these don’t work either; Kris Kristofferson’s “For The Good Times” is the sober sequel to “Help Me Make It Through The Night” – OK, so it’s morning, now what do we do, with the shrugged shoulders, paused cigarette puffs, polite dressings which that sort of thing entails – and Williams pitches the song as though wanting to go back to sleep, possibly forever; the glockenspiel represents the raindrops, the close harmonies, trumpet and strings seek to soothe a wrecked soul. Whereas Perry Como’s more famous version two years hence has an air of resigned regret honed by years of hurting experience, Williams sounds genuinely heartbroken; by the time the song fades, he disappears into the mirrors of his own indistinct murmurs.

The song’s harmonies are subtly simplified – anything to null the pain which he can’t quite pin down; after all, isn’t he back at home, where he had always wanted to be? – as are those of “Something.” Artie Butler’s arrangement is surprisingly reminiscent of Oliver Nelson (cf. “Stolen Moments”) or the Gil Evans of “Bilbao Song,” but Williams is still searching to identify what that “something” is supposed to be; the final “know” of his “I don’t know”s in the second middle eight vanishes into a vertiginous pond of echo, and the whole song seems to sidle to a halt before reluctantly starting up again. Williams’ voice works up to a high C which hangs on like the last feather of a chaffinch trying to avoid the eagle’s talons. In his careful, tranced humming of the song's central melody line, however, he is at least striving for a peace.

“It’s Impossible,” Perry Como’s big comeback hit of the period, begins, like most of these tracks, with an intimation of wanting to be “Wichita Lineman” – that definitive song about being as far from home, or humanity, as possible – but Williams’ reading is far more intimate. The “cosy, laidback hipness” of the 1971 lounge is intact – these are Lena’s words, and she detected a kinship with late period Stereolab (e.g. Cobra And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night) in Butler’s charts. Still, even in this expression of hangdog happiness, Williams sounds troubled; his extended “soul” in the second “sell my very soul” makes you wonder whether he will, indeed, regret selling it, and Butler’s deliberately ambiguous harmonic ending to the song is a marked, stark contrast to the happy end credits of Como’s version.

But Williams rallies, realises that this is now his life, and his “We’ve Only Just Begun,” despite the sitar, buckles with regained confidence. The choral arrangement is aptly airy, the “fly”s as free as the Free Design. Then, via another moment of suspended animation – which way will he turn? What will he decide? – the bass leads a settling down into evening; the lights dim, Keith Mansfield’s “Life Of Leisure” appears on the horizon, and, rolling up a key, Williams finally approaches, and embraces, comfort and contentment. Home – it’s the place we’ve all been aiming for, and he is now there, reached, retrieved, saved.

Or is he? Side two indicates that the stir might be driving him a little crazy. “I Think I Love You” has to be sung by a panting, self-doubting, barely out of puberty David Cassidy; despite Butler’s inventive touches – the clavinet burps and bass clarinet farts underscoring the middle eight – Williams sounds, all of a sudden, clumsy, clinging, something less than reassuring. The situation scarcely changes with his redundant reading of Dawn’s odious “Candida”; although not approaching, or descending to, Tony Orlando’s dirty old neighbour persona, there is little Williams can do to redeem such a ridiculous song (“The-eee first pri-iiiize,” the girl next door reduced to fairground attraction level), and his attempts are nevertheless buried by the “Young New Mexican Puppeteer” trumpets. Williams isn’t playing “happy” very well.

But then, and to his credit, he feels the need for emotional adventure. James Taylor’s “Fire And Rain” is a huge risk for any would-be interpreter, the song itself being so discomfortingly personal, with its references to suicides and electric shock treatment, but if not quite at the Bobby Womack level, Williams does not disgrace himself; instead, we are presented with a picture of a home-come man who remains stranded, landlocked – “But I always thought that I’d see you again”; this is the place that I left all those years ago – isn’t it? Where is everybody? Where have they all gone? Meanwhile, you don’t know the half of what I’ve seen, having been so utterly at sea for so long – but who is there left for me to tell the tale to? Sweet Baby James, a major album – although the record never placed higher than #6 on our chart, it stayed there for a year and infected everybody – considered Taylor’s standing, as a musician and as a human being, as his and everyone else’s old world was seen to have become lost. Like Harrison, lost in his garden and his castle, Williams has indeed come home – but it’s not what he expected, not really what he wanted, and he tries his best to recognise his surroundings, his people, but it’s becoming more and more of a struggle. With “Rose Garden” he takes Joe South’s homilies firmly into the lounge, though with only one verse intact, and with the inescapable undertow of Jobim (and Claus Ogerman in Butler’s arrangement), this is more of a meditation on the song, even on the notion of “song.” Why can’t everything be perfect? Well, there’s rain and it comes with the sun, you know the deal…

Finally, and quite astoundingly, he finds himself in exactly the same place as Harrison. The A-list studio players do their best to replicate the bear-like whine of Harrison’s slides but Williams is already looking for something beyond “home”; he sounds immensely concentrated, and convinced, here. He takes his time, waiting for the vision to unfold, and as the drums appear over the horizon and the Choir of the Wee Kirk o’ the Valley, Reseda, California, materialise to provide the hallelujahs, his soul, his commitment, becomes steadily more and more intense. The tension lies in whether the choir will go for the Krishnas, and eventually, after an elongated tease, they do; the song, the belief, gathers in spirit and radiance, its landed sailor now knowing that to come home isn’t in itself enough, that, unlike Johnson’s trawler tourist, who, seeing Ginnie waiting for him on the midnight quay, decides more in desperation than joy that he’ll give life one more chance, he has to rebuild his home, has to rediscover and reanimate all those things he once threw in the ocean. To love his home, he has to relearn the art of loving himself.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

George HARRISON: All Things Must Pass

(#88: 6 February 1971, 8 weeks)

Track listing: I’d Have You Anytime/My Sweet Lord/Wah-Wah/Isn’t It A Pity (Version One)/What Is Life/If Not For You/Behind That Locked Door/Let It Down/Run Of The Mill/Beware Of Darkness/Apple Scruffs/Ballad Of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll)/Awaiting On You All/All Things Must Pass/I Dig Love/Art Of Dying/Isn’t It A Pity (Version Two)/Hear Me Lord/Out Of The Blue/It’s Johnny’s Birthday/Plug Me In/I Remember Jeep/Thanks For The Pepperoni

With the CD revolution came an unwelcome urge on the part of some artists to revisit and “correct” their previous works. The Beatles continue to be guiltier at this than most, as though they were so impassively perfect as to permit themselves further attempts at perfection. Prior to his death, George Harrison had begun to plan a major overhaul of his back catalogue on CD, but only All Things Must Pass received the full treatment in his lifetime. For a decade his revised version has been the only version commercially available, and it is my regrettable duty to state that it is a travesty, not to mention a dreadful indicator of how little artists are sometimes able to grasp the implications of their own work. There are sonic clean-ups, redone guitar and rhythm parts, re-recordings, alternate takes, and perhaps worst of all, a tinted colourisation of the original cover, with further “humorous” updates within the package. While one can hear what everyone is doing far more clearly, the muddiness of the original record’s density – thanks in no small part to producer Phil Spector – was vital to express its quietly turbulent state of mind.

For this purpose, then, I have adhered to the original triple-LP box set, and its downcast presentation remains the perfect visualisation of the confusion that was clearly flowing through Harrison’s mind at the time he recorded these twenty-three songs. The monochromatic strangeness of the cover suited the times; where, indeed, had the times gone, wonders a bemused Harrison, sitting alone in his huge garden, his eyes wildly veering to his left, his only audience four reclining, gently mocking garden gnomes, spread out on the lawn before him. He left the Beatles for this? What, you can see him wondering, am I supposed to do now?

He had reached home, all right, but what sort of home is it that is being represented in the poster which accompanied initial copies of the album (and which indeed is present in my copy)? This was not a cosy, sexy pin-up shot for the Apple Scruffs; we see George, in the front hall of his mansion, facing us, his back to the front door. The sunlight peering through the door is the only light in the picture; there is a mirror on either side of him. He stares impassively, or is that confusedly; his face, almost completely obscured by his beard, and upper torso are visible, but the rest is an unbearable hole of blackness. Below his expression lies a terrible void. The album demonstrates his attempts to shine some light into this unaccounted-for darkness.

Despite the bleakness of the package, the record opens with one of his best songs – although, significantly, he is singing the words of another. Bob Dylan gave him the lyric for “I’d Have You Anytime” in 1968 and two years later he set it to music. It is perhaps the record’s most fulfilled and fully formed song, and maybe even its happiest; a loose, relaxed guitar slides across a lagoon – this could almost be Andy Williams singing Dylan – shimmering in lovely shadows from G major to B flat major to C minor seventh, alternating with a rhetorical waltz sequence. All the while, Harrison sounds content and earthy; his love is clearly a human one, his desire sensually generous, although he could equally be singing to his post-Beatles audience (“I know I’ve been here,” “Let me show you,” “Let me grow upon you”), welcoming them into his new abode. Developing upon the promise of “Something,” he sounds completed, returned to source. Like the opening chord of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia On A Theme Of Thomas Tallis, it presents a vision of perfection which will never quite be regained.

“My Sweet Lord” was a reluctant single – Harrison initially didn’t want any singles released from the album – and its plea to worship sounds just as reluctant, perhaps even fearful. A soundtrack to the rise of Christian hippiedom, yes, but the portrait of internal confusion is still vivid. I don’t believe Harrison intended to utilise “He’s So Fine” quite so blatantly – his original inspiration, and the song’s real structural reference point, was “Oh Happy Day,” the surprise 1969 gospel crossover hit for the Edwin Hawkins Singers – but note how the song’s opening third is rather fuzzy in its arrangement (much as the singer’s mind is undecided) before clarification and revelation are reached by means of Spector’s delicate fading in of Ringo Starr and Jim Gordon’s double drums halfway through. Now his confidence rises, now the other voices join him to unify Christianity and Hinduism, now the song opens up to welcome in the sunshine. It is remarkable, however, how Harrison treats his God like the girl from round the corner; “I really want to go with you,” as though he wants God as his girlfriend, to take Him out dancing. Yet, underlying all of this, is a perhaps terrifying uncertainty: “But it takes so LONG, my Lord!” he cries at steadily more intense intervals. And the song never really resolves, but carries onto its extended singalong fadeout.

With “Wah-Wah,” written after Harrison fled the studios after yet another fracas with McCartney during the Let It Be sessions, something like regretful rage makes itself known. As a track it is overwhelmingly powerful, Clapton’s agitated lead guitar darting around its cornices like a trapped seagull, with brass seemingly glued on with Sellotape; Spector keeps it very trebly – I think of both the Stones’ “We Love You” and the Associates’ “Kitchen Person” - but the overall spread is nearly titanic. Its regular barbershop harmony breakouts almost drown the song entirely but in terms of range and intent “Wah-Wah” clearly signposts nineties Britpop – the Oasis shrug of the hurt shoulder, the Supergrass damn-you-ness (see the latter’s 1996 single “Going Out” for a direct descendent, to put it diplomatically); it’s all there, and the Clapton/Harrison duel which climaxes the song indicates that the cheaper than a dime tears are still moist and felt.

“Isn’t It A Pity” appears in the first of two versions; the police siren piano seems a nod to “I Am A Walrus” and the song’s harmonies rotate gloomily up and down the G major scale. Here Harrison makes his bravest of farewells to the Beatle age – remember that nearly all of these songs were composed in the sixties with the Beatles in mind, and that some even made it to demo status before visiting the “junior partner” recycle bin – hanging on the word “hearts” for the dearest of lives. Serene strings enter the picture and Ringo’s trademark rolls, backed by sympathetically tinkling piano and supported by Harrison’s downtrodden slide guitar, move the song into a would-be “Hey Jude” cyclical chant, but this seems a “Hey Jude” from which people are absent; the echoing shouts at the back of the picture which enter in the fadeout’s later stages appear to come from nothing save ghosts.

Harrison perks up somewhat for side two; “What Is Life” is a dynamic piece of bubblegum optimism, clearly indebted to Motown with its foursquare Four Tops beat, although the distantly mixed horns and Spectorian castanets (as well as the punctumising tambourine which enlivens the song from its second chorus onwards) cast other shades across its cautious joyfulness. The “Penny Lane” trumpet peals and pearls of drifting guitar harmonics suggest a cross between Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight” and the Byrds’ “Lady Friend” playing on separate jukeboxes in opposing corners of the same room. “What is my life without your love?” he asks, not entirely rhetorically – but who is this “you”? It doesn’t sound like the same, earthly one of “I’d Have You Anytime.” Likewise, his take on Dylan’s “If Not For You” is certainly much less troubled than the composer’s own reading on New Morning, in a lower key and principally powered by Gary Wright’s thoughtful piano – but the “You” appears to demand its capital “Y.”

“Behind That Locked Door” ventures further into post-John Wesley Harding country-rock, a stately ballad waltz with some fine work from Pete Drake’s pedal steel and Billy Preston’s organ, but it’s clear from the song’s shift from vaguely accusatory third person into painful first person that it’s Harrison’s own heart that is locked away from view, marooned behind that metaphorical/spiritual door: “It’s time we start smiling/What else should we do?” And “Let It Down” is a tremendous climax to the first album, with its gargantuan, broad intro (which clearly predicates T. Rex’s “Children Of The Revolution”) unexpectedly diverting into a churchy organ and pensive electric guitar which could have come straight out of prime period Pink Floyd (indeed, some claim that Richard Wright was an uncredited keyboardist on this and other tracks). Here Harrison does his utmost to open up; he’s sitting in that chair, but don’t think he’s not feeling what you feel, or that he doesn’t want to touch you – is somebody trying to look at him? The music, however, has no doubts whatsoever; Clapton’s stormy leads throughout the choruses, contrasting with his suspended animation chords in the verses, are akin to curtain rails being yanked down, the barriers being brusquely removed. Processed guitars acting as effective string sections are deliberately wobbly – Gary Brooker’s bluesy piano now the only recognisable signifier – in such a floating, centre-free way that again presages My Bloody Valentine, Spector here taking the opportunity to develop the ideas he’d laid on the table with his Checkmates Ltd work.

The first album ends with “Run Of The Mill”; a clean acoustic guitar interacts with loitering, shoulder-shrugging brass as Harrison glumly reprimands a lost friend – probably representing McCartney – for losing touch, for finding ways to blame everyone but himself, waiting to be offended. It’s a regretful reproach rather than an acrid demolition – the latter would have to wait until Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?,” later in 1971 – and we are left with the feeling that the sixties, and the Beatles, and everything they represented, are as far away and irretrievable as ever.

Album two opens with “Beware Of Darkness”; an abrupt introductory crescendo quickly gives way to sad chords – slightly reminiscent of “Maybe I’m Amazed,” which had premiered on McCartney in the spring of 1970 – as Harrison remembers the “falling swingers dropping all around you” (Hendrix, Joplin, Jones; the ghosts were piling up already) and warns us against following their example. He pressingly urges us to “beware of MAYA,” the Hindu wall of illusion which bars us from dealing with the real world, and warns about all the factors in this world (especially “greedy leaders”) who lurk, waiting to do us down. Something of the schoolteacher has entered the proceedings at this point. “Apple Scruffs,” in contrast, is an affectionate and really rather touching epilogue to an era, with its very Dylanesque acoustic song structure and angular harmonic multitracks in the chorus; he is a long way from Abbey Road now but the umbilical cord remains as unbreakable as ever.

“Ballad Of Sir Frankie Crisp” – the latter was the architect of Harrison’s residential castle – floats along nicely enough on its oceanic bed of pedal steels and “A Day In The Life” piano but the Pythonesque Spenserian lyrical conceits and the rather incongruous reappearance of the “let it roll” motif from “I’d Have You Anytime” do little to suggest that this is anything other than the indulgence of a rich man, albeit in conference with his self-affixed ball and chain; he can roll out as far into the countryside as he wishes, but can he really escape himself?

“Awaiting On You All” is a vast improvement, essentially setting the template for what would, after the sessions for this album, become Derek and the Dominos, and Spector’s magisterial production – compare with the Dominos’ original version of “Tell The Truth” - fits the song’s gospelly overkill perfectly, thumping through regular stops, starts and dead ends like a sprightlier, less apocalyptic “River Deep, Mountain High,” although the chorus does bear a strange resemblance to that of the Carpenters’ “Superstar.” Side three closes with the title track, in which, over pedal steel and strings, Harrison reinforces his departure from his previous life (“I must be on my way”); he tempers the apocalyptic fury of the passage from the Book of Matthew which gave the song and album its title but note how Drake’s guitar slides up to its piercing height, expressing an unquenchable sorrow. Throughout, a remorseful guitar and brass six-note unison refrain pace like patient pallbearers.

Meanwhile, Harrison begins side four by announcing that “I dig love,” and, moreover, “I love dig.” The song is gloriously silly – perhaps a Lennon pastiche was in mind – with an insinuating riff which sounds like the Humphrey Lyttelton Band attempting a Motown intro (there is an incongruous pedal steel audible in the spaces after the second chorus – is Pete Drake the secret hero of this era?). The lyric references “Come And Get It,” the music suggests the outskirts of “Come Together,” but its frivolity comes as something of a relief after the intensity of the previous three sides; we were reminded of “The Girls” by Calvin Harris – the same list-ticking (“Left love, right love, anywhere love”), the same bemused grin which the singer bears.

“Art Of Dying” initially comes across as a riposte to “Let It Be” – “There’s nothing Sister Mary can do” – until one remembers that McCartney sang of “Mother Mary” and that Harrison wrote the song in 1966 but didn’t submit it for Revolver, given Lennon’s more acute take on the same subject with “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Clapton reintroduces a chattering wah-wah, and the general musical tone is, of all things, Blaxploitation, with blasting horns and real funk, although the Mariachi trumpets suggest Tom Jones having a go at “Superfly.” The bassline predicates Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” and overall it’s a brilliant panoply of sound – somewhere in the mix, a nineteen-year-old Phil Collins is thrashing a set of bongos – as Harrison implores us to face up to the unfaceable.

Then it’s back to “Isn’t It A Pity” as a quietly imperious coda to the album, taken at a lower key and performed in a slower, more reflective manner than Version One. Piano, guitar and pedal steel blend empathetically, and the line “Some things take so long” might be the key to the entire album. The song sadly rolls up to a Floydian climax, although Harrison’s vocal here can be construed as more demonstrative, angrier – this is how Harry Nilsson, devoid of sentimentality and dimes owed, might have approached the song. Finally “Hear Me Lord” comes in on a thunderous introduction, giving way to rueful piano and drums. Here Harrison makes his final imprecations to God, begging Him to rescue him from earthly concerns – the cut-in “Above and below us” sequences play like an interrupting commercial – while Clapton is majestic, and the brass and chorus offer a grey elegy. After a pause the song reaches its final destination, and Harrison utters a plea to his Lord to “burn out desire.” The state of “burning out desire” is, of course, Nirvana, and I cannot help but hear the premature ghost of Cobain in his careful wailing; this is a doubtful ending to an uncommonly intense experience of a record.

Most listeners consider All Things Must Pass as finished here, but I must demur; the Apple Jam disc of jam sessions is very far from an inessential bonus. If anything, these instrumental workouts do a vital job in summing up and dispersing all of the tension that has been building up over the previous four sides; “Out Of The Blue” is as intense as any of the previous songs, a long, troubled minor key blues, slightly detoured by piano and organ, but almost completely dominated by Clapton’s astonishing playing – the track cuts right in, as though we have suddenly opened the door in the middle of a quarrel. But it articulates all of the hurt and doubt with which Harrison’s words have hitherto attempted to come to terms.

From there, we move straight into “It’s Johnny’s Birthday,” Harrison’s audio birthday card to Lennon for his thirtieth, with its mad, varispeeded Wurlitzer variations on Cliff Richard’s 1968 Eurovision runner-up “Congratulations”; this has the effect of upping the record’s mood instantly, and segues straight into the major key, celebratory workout of “Plug Me In,” Harrison working well with fellow guitarist Dave Mason before the track happily scrambles to a halt.

“I Remember Jeep” is a frantic but good-natured quartet improvisation by Billy Preston, Klaus Voorman, Ginger Baker (instantly making his presence felt – those frenetic, barline-spilling cymbals) and Harrison, which culminates in a round of studio applause but is prefaced and punctuated by bizarre Moog bleeps and whooshes which seem to provide the missing link between Joe Meek’s I Hear A New World and Carla Bley’s “Phantom Music”; these were sampled from Harrison’s experimental 1968 album Electronic Music and provides an aura of welcome strangeness to the otherwise fairly straightforward proceedings. Finally, Harrison and Mason return, in “Pepperoni,” to invent Status Quo, and the spirits are now so generous we hardly notice the abrupt cutoff at track’s end; here we can sense that Harrison has finally found himself after four sides of agonised self-searching – he’s doing exactly what he wants to do, playing for fun with his mates, with no hassles, no obligations, and he loves it. As with the merrily orange cover to the Apple Jam disc, we find that true colour has finally returned to Harrison’s black and white world, and that this, the first solo Beatle disc to appear in this tale – not to mention the first, and certainly not the last, triple album – finds himself home, with the lights on, and the smile subtly returning under that pesky beard.

Tuesday 11 May 2010

Andy WILLIAMS: Andy Williams’ Greatest Hits

(#87: 5 December 1970, 1 week; 19 December 1970, 4 weeks)

Track listing: Born Free/Days Of Wine And Roses/Moon River/Dear Heart/The Hawaiian Wedding Song/More/Almost There/Can’t Take My Eyes Off You/Charade/Happy Heart/Can’t Get Used To Losing You/May Each Day

Although it was nearing the end of its nine-year run, The Andy Williams Show was probably at its peak of popularity in Britain during the 1970-1 season. Aired early evening on Mondays on BBC1, it was colourful and “wacky” without being remotely radical. It was comfortable and cosy but had one foot firmly planted in modernism, or at least 1970 households’ idea of Formica modernism. There was the Cookie Bear, there were the nascent Osmond Brothers, there was postmodern wholesomeness, and although I watched it every week and rather enjoyed it I can’t remember a single second of it now. Maybe the memory was sufficient – “making brand new melodies/into grand old memories…” as Williams puts it in his handwritten sleevenote to this compilation.

Although only five of the twelve tracks on Greatest Hits were actually hits of any stature in Britain, the compilation became Williams’ biggest seller here; it remained on our lists for well over two years, and its inherent patience was rewarded by the fact that it took eight months to climb to the top, in time for Christmas. As a listening experience it has the same bipolarity as the Ray Conniff collection, and is pretty steadfastly divided into its two sides. Unlike His Orchestra…, the striking qualitative difference between sides one and two cannot be ascribed to time alone; there are old and (comparatively) new Williams tracks on both. Their only unifying factor is that they were all recorded in the sixties, but this certainly would not be the seventies’ last glance back at an unreachable past.

Yet there is little to say, and much numbness to drift towards, when it comes to the sterile performances on side one. “Born Free” comes from 1967 – and it’s a pity that the closing track on side one of the Born Free album, Gaudio and Crewe’s Coke soundtrack “Music To Watch Girls By,” doesn’t appear here – and direly seems to predict Williams’ intention to turn questioning newness into stifling oldness. The John Barry tune is fatally simplified, harmonically, especially in its crucial middle eight; here we do not think of natural freedom in terms of lions in Africa – Barry’s subtle kwela tints are entirely absent - or a displaced Bond but The Parallax View, a neutered skating rink of Republican yea-saying, a pledge for Nixon to be re-elected. Its subsequent use as a Rush Limbaugh jingle was surely inevitable.

The same principle of Andy Williams the Singing Steam Iron, carefully straightening out any creases, complexities or pain from otherwise great songs, continues throughout “Days Of Wine And Roses” and “Moon River,” but perhaps that is to be expected, given the rather offensive neutrality of the songs’ parent films; Jack Lemmon, Lee Remick and Charles Bickford all give superb performances in the film of Days; if only director Blake Edwards had been able to see them as living people rather than ciphers, pre-emptive fodder for “Issue Of The Week” dysfunctional TV movie prototypes. The Mercer/Mancini tune – and the lyric consists of just two long sentences – is perhaps a little sentimental but knowledgeable of its own hurting limitations; the “golden smile that introduced me to…” is a sinister portent of the drug that will render all of the film’s main characters useless. Typically Williams’ reading ruins itself with the ghastly block chord choir, the tick-tock harp arpeggios and the singer’s extended final vowels which can’t quite seem to find the surface of the water (“introduced me tooooo…,” “Roooooo-ses,” “and-youuuuuu”). I sense no real grasp of pain or poignancy.

Equally, Danny Williams’ “Moon River,” a deserved UK number one single towards the end of 1961, is so easily superior a reading to Williams’; the dreams of the hopeful South African immigrant encapsulated in a vowel-hugging, hoarseness-containing vocal which uncannily resembles a young Horace Andy. This Andy, however, directs no emotional input into his performance – and again the song is over-simplified harmonically (it should bend with the word “bend,” but the subtlety of the blues chord which supplements the bend is lost). Robert Mersey’s overamplified choir should have been struck dumb and the song doesn’t so much end as totter to a premature, undecided fade. Again I expect Mark Twain would have guffawed at Mercer and Mancini’s perceived sentimentality but the song is strong and touching enough to overcome that boundary. Williams, however, sings it in the manner of a grinning bellboy, so perhaps it was a fitting complement to the grossly bland disservice that the film of Breakfast At Tiffany’s – directed by Blake Edwards; do you detect a pattern here? - does to Capote’s uglier, less easily resolvable source story (Audrey Hepburn, a natural introvert driven into portraying an extrovert, looks as puritanically lost here as she would go on to look in My Fair Lady).

The rest of side one disappears into mushy blandness. “Dear Heart” comes from a long-forgotten 1964 comedy of the same name starring Glenn Ford and Geraldine Page – every director’s last choices for comedy leads? – set at a postmasters’ convention (it was 1964). The celeste strikes up a melancholy waltz and we are indeed immersed in the world of audio valium. Williams speaks of loneliness (“A single room, a table for one”) without the listener ever feeling that the singer has understood the concept (Sinatra’s 1957 reading of Bernstein’s “It’s A Lonely Town” knocks it for twelve). Worse, his characteristic hiccup – an Iowa Alma Cogan? – already sounds contrived, as when he attempts to weep on the “dear” of the song’s title, not to mention its “heart” and a subsequent “kiss.” They will be reunited, of course, but in the time of Walker’s ‘Til The Band Comes In (where, unlike this side of music, the listener is never allowed to forget that there’s a war on) it sounds disingenuous and dated.

Williams’ “Hawaiian Wedding” goes off uneventfully on a cushion of 101 Strings cascades and while the arrangement begins in a gratifyingly sparse manner, the numbing choir quickly returns to drown out any intimacy. There is of course a wow of pedal steel at song’s end to remind us that Williams is not singing of Iceland. “More”’s arrangement is livelier, in a “Move Over Darling” way with ringing tympani and stern snare drums but Williams comes over as hysterical, in all the wrong ways (“Will be INNNNN your keeping!”) and the over-the-top ending justifies a title of the Velvet Steamroller. This is the real soundtrack for Mad Men, pretences at sophistication without real bite or genuine aspiration.

All of which makes the transformation which occurs on side two of Greatest Hits more astounding. “Almost There,” taken from another forgettable comedy, I’d Rather Be Rich, in which Williams himself co-starred with Sandra Dee, made number two in our charts in a time of serious upheaval (“Satisfaction,” “My Generation,” “Like A Rolling Stone,” “Eve Of Destruction” etc.) and its reassurance was clearly needed, as a respite if nothing else. Still, Williams treats Jerry Keller’s song with something like real commitment; his “warm caress” sounds onomatopoeic. Strings slide in and up (Mersey’s arrangement here is far more subtle than those on side one), and Williams’ pleading penultimate “close (your eyes)” is touching (and instantly answered by a French horn). He makes a graceful descent with his final “Al-all-mo-ost-there” and for once we feel that he means it.

“Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” I have previously discussed in the context of his album Love, Andy, but here its most noticeable factor, as with all of the other tracks on side two, is that the backing singers (when there are any) are set well back in the mix, and the sonic picture makes far more structural and emotional sense (even if Williams’ politesse remains a white balance to Valli’s thundering gusto). With “Charade” he returns to the Mercer/Mancini movie theme forest; the film was an insubstantial Hitchcock pastiche through which Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant gamely keep their multiple countenances, but Williams’ performance is again humane and involved (despite Mersey’s absurd accordion). The chill of the first syllable of his “children posing” puts him but a heartbeat away from Scott Walker; indeed the entire performance would not have been out of place on either of Walker’s first two albums. There is a lovely, lone moment at the end of the song where Williams climbs to a bereaved high sustenato, and the orchestra works to join him at his peak, before the song sadly settles (after Williams’ voice has fallen away, as in off the edge of a cliff) for a Picardy third and a final guitar curlicue.

“Happy Heart,” the most recent track on the album, can’t help but be uplifting, with its Neighbours piano, its unexpected pedal steel bedspring erections, its emphatic tom-tom panoramas and, above all, Williams’ unalloyed, uncompromised joy, heightened by the fantastic stop-start climax of each chorus where the whole world finally seems to blossom to his beckoning; the song was written by James Last, with English lyrics by the Canadian entertainer Jackie Rae, and thoroughly sums up Last’s euphoric bierkeller hoedown philosophy as well as pointing the way towards Barry Manilow with its endless “la-la” choruses. Williams sounds so giddy at his new-found union that he has to take care not to teeter off the tightrope, but then again he finds he can fly.

Pomus and Shuman’s “Can’t Get Used To Losing You” made number two in the immediate pre-Beatle British charts of 1963 (the parent album, with perhaps the least appropriate cover of any album, was entitled Can’t Get Used To Losing You And Other Requests), and deservedly so, since it was quite unlike any of the other glum white American pop ballads of the period; the record works because of the unorthodox space of its arrangement, the chunky guitar and pizzicato string unisons carrying the song’s weight while simultaneously suggesting reggae (so no wonder that The Beat’s 1980 recording of the song, remixed in 1983 to become their biggest British hit single, represented so natural an evolution). The loneliness of the Brian Hyland kiss-sealing runner is immediately summoned – those ominous siren harmonies – but there is something more disturbing going on here; Williams’ vocal is double-tracked, as though talking to himself, since no one else will since his Other has gone away and he himself plainly cannot speak to anyone else – is he really ringing up the same girl every day and remaining speechless? His descending “dayyyyyyy” sounds weary, frustrated; the “crowded avenue” is a mournful over-the-shoulder glance at “Some Enchanted Evening”; the song is the record’s loneliest and emptiest.

Finally, the song with which Williams ended his TV show every week, “May Each Day,” and also the most moving performance on the album; the harp arpeggios are back from “Days Of Wine And Roses” but here are gentle and organic rather than tacked on. Like New Morning, the album ends with a benediction from above; like the White Album, it closes with a lullaby. But there is something extremely affecting about the utter lack of side in Williams’ performance of the song; he knows that happiness is impermanent – his rueful passages from weeks to months, the foreknowledge of tears, and therefore death – but is intensely intent on making happiness and love as permanent as is humanly possible. His climactic “LIFE” sounds like his soul being ripped apart; his closing “good night” a high, angelic plea for understanding, a blanket of real comfort – the song originally came out in 1965, when there was unavoidably a war going on (just as there was in the 1970 of “Ohio”), but seems to say: sleep well, America, sleep well, everywhere – we can all get through this, we’ll congratulate ourselves on yet another day, and what’s more it’ll be as lovely a day, every day, as the one you and I shared today; and I cannot argue with someone who unaccountably strikes so closely at the truth. Indeed, as this confused year of 1970 draws to a close, we do get the feeling with side two of Greatest Hits that this is, to all intents and purposes, home, the home for which the rest of 1970 has been pining; think of Fogerty on his porch, Dylan with his wife and kids – and don’t worry, people at large; this might have seemed a weird and disorientating year, but there is still Andy, there is still stability, and it is Christmas; settle down and hibernate, for you will not recognise spring when it reappears, and be all the more grateful for the startling new colours it unveils.

Tuesday 4 May 2010

Bob DYLAN: New Morning

(#86: 28 November 1970, 1 week)

Track listing: If Not For You/Day Of The Locusts/Time Passes Slowly/Went To See The Gypsy/Winterlude/If Dogs Run Free/New Morning/Sign On The Window/One More Weekend/The Man In Me/Three Angels/Father Of Night

Look at that expression, and try to figure it out. On first sight he looks contented, satisfied; that Self Portrait was a mere diversion, a kid-on, here I am back again, this time for some serious business. But there is a knittedness to his brow, as indissoluble and intangible as the fine cut of his jacket. This isn’t quite a return to where I was, he is warning; this might even present greater challenges than what I’ve already laid down before you.

New Morning was an early example of what has in rock criticspeak become known as the phenomenon “a stunning return to form.” That is to say – more often than not - a reassuring retreat to an artist’s best recognised mannerisms, some crumbs of formula to toss towards an anxiously impatient audience. Everyone drew gulps of canyon-sized relief when the album came out; OK, Bob, we knew you were only fooling around with those four crazy sides in the summer. Everyone called it a classic until the mist cleared from their eyes and they were presented with a Dylan who still wasn’t quite giving them what they wanted, despite the return of the whine, the harmonica and even Al Kooper. On the rear cover a young Dylan, curling his lip in an attempt to be Elvis, is standing beside an approving Victoria Spivey – he contributed some harmonica to a 1962 collaboration on record between Spivey and Big Joe Williams – looking as though he already has the blues licked, now that he has its approval. The studio pictures included in the CD edition could easily come from 1962, too, although Dylan and his band are clearly enjoying themselves.

“If Not For You” starts the record, along with knitting needle drums, childlike glockenspiel and a brightly-spun David Bromberg guitar line. He is singing about relief and salvation but sounds a little too desperate for comfort – Olivia Newton-John had her first major international hit a few months later with her smiling and very uncomplicated reading of the song, and we will be returning to it in the form of another less quizzical version in a couple of entries’ time – snarling at times (“Wait FORRRR the morning light!”), generally hoarse to the point of losing reason altogether; his “Without your love” is as exhausted as the average Beckett protagonist. “Anyway,” he almost shrugs the whole song off, “it wouldn’t ring true.” The song’s direction is open; he could be singing about a lover, or a child, or to God, but he sounds as though clutching straws of reed in order to breathe; he sings about a falling sky, gathering rain, springless winters and an abandoned soul deaf to the song of the robin – hardly a sunny welcome back to his listeners.

“Day Of The Locusts” is an advancement of the old Dylan talking blues template; commencing with stentorian piano (played by Dylan – I can’t think of too many other Dylan albums where the piano, especially his own, is so prominent) joined by judgmental drums and organ. He’s at Princeton, reluctantly, to accept an honorary degree (“I put down my robe, I picked up my diploma”); after hellish visions of exploding heads, dark tombs filled with judges, he is enlightened and elevated only by the strange hum of locusts – he makes their “sang” sound like “stings,” and the bass drum instantly kicks back. As he and his sweetheart retreat to the black hills of Dakota (“Sure was glad to get out of there alive”) his tone becomes more euphoric, the piano and drums more ringing and celebratory (a great performance from Russ Kunkel and/or Billy Mundi at the drumkit).

“Time Passes Slowly” begins with a McCartney piano staccato figure (“Penny Lane” etc.) before turning into a delicate piano and drums waltz; there’s a lovely chord change (E to D) after the first “time passes slowly” and guitar and dobro intertwine like lovers, but it’s unclear whether Dylan is simply contemplating the simple, peaceful life or lamenting its absence; “Once I had a sweetheart” he remarks, and elsewhere he concludes, not exhausted but conclusive, “Ain’t no reason to go anywhere.” “We stare straight ahead and try so hard to stay right” – these could almost be the ghosts of former lovers which haunt Walker’s “Always Coming Back To You.” The song, as with many on the album, seems to break up organically; the record frequently carries the air of not quite finished demos.

“Went To See The Gypsy” bases itself on a very closely knit pattern of low register piano, bass, organ and drums. Like the hapless boy in Joyce’s “Araby,” he is seeking something, or someone, fundamentally unattainable; Dylan’s delivery, however, is deliciously deadpan (“I said it back to him,” “Bring you through the mirror”) as he encounters the “gypsy” in his “big hotel” with his dark room and low lights; the references to the dancing girl and Las Vegas – the music audibly squeals with relief at the couplet “He did it in Las Vegas/And he can do it here” – suggest Elvis, although the shadow might well be Hendrix, he of the Band of Gypsys. In any case, the return visit finds the expected emptiness, and instead of nirvana, Dylan finds himself back where he started – “that little Minnesota town.” The music, however, treats the return with tickertape as Bromberg’s lead guitar speeds the song up to boogie tempo.

“Winterlude” is a lovely petit parlour waltz, where Dylan returns to his “crooner” voice – as his most recent entry in this tale (at the time of writing) will demonstrate, he has never really abandoned it – with light and funny lyrics; the invitation to “go down to the chapel/Then come back and cook up a meal,” the various “dude” rhymes (“don’t be rude”), balanced with the simple plaintiveness of “thinks you’re fine” and the references to angles and fire logs. Snowflakes cover the sand; winter is coming and not for the first or last time on this record; the subtly mixed female backing vocals bring Leonard Cohen to mind. The music is glossy, swimming, guitar dovetailing into dobro and piano. The whiteout is bringing unexpected comfort.

Side one, however, concludes with the record’s, and possibly Dylan’s, least typical track – and “If Dogs Run Free” sprints with languorous liberation. Kooper hammers out an intro on piano before he and the rhythm section settle into a Teddy Wilson-derived blues. Dylan ponders on human freedom, unanticipated leaks of Wordsworthian grandeur (“Oh, winds which rush my tale to thee”) and the placid conclusion that “true love needs no company” in a double-bluff throwaway manner which invents Tom Waits. But what really catches the ear is what backing singer Maeretha Stewart is doing behind him; as Kooper’s piano nags at the upper register like a hyperactive Westie, Stewart does some ebullient bebop scatting which soon goes rather further out, in both rhythm and tonality. As the band wriggles out of Dylan’s “and that is ALL!,” Stewart gurgles and yelps as though auditioning to replace Leon Thomas in Pharaoh Sanders’ group. It was the lightest and most applauded track on the album.

We keep coming back to lightness; much of New Morning was improvised on the spot, and Dylan himself has tended to dismiss it as semi-directed hackwork. Some of it, however, came out of shells of songs which Dylan had planned for Scratch, Archibald MacLeish’s doomed musical version of The Devil And Daniel Webster, and the title track was one of these. Guitar and drums, again, are bright in the most welcoming of ways, but the organ which hovers dangerously underneath the song’s slightly regretful bridge (and Dylan’s somewhat foreboding“automobile”) – like Mr Scratch lurking, ready to make sure Webster keeps his part of the bargain – suggests escape from unspoken menace. Kooper’s organ galumphs and hisses over Dylan’s first “sky blue” and there’s a terrific crescendo of guitar, organ and drums at his “When you’re with me” which naturally leads to Kooper’s calming French horn (you can always get what you want?). There is real ecstasy in Dylan’s disbelieving “So happy just to be alive/Underneath that SKY of BLUE!,” the emotion of which is quite overwhelming in its hoarsely passionate assurance. Wake up on brilliant days, indeed, ones which even the Devil can’t haunt.

Rubato piano introduces “Sign On The Window” and we move straight into gospel; Dylan sings of a couple heading to California, becoming disillusioned (“Brighton girls are like the moon”), then settling for a cabin in Utah. The signs whose content Dylan proclaims are as absent of humanity as any of the signs in the Village (“Lonely,” “No Company Allowed,” “Y’Don’t Own Me,” “Three’s A Crowd” – it tells its own profound story) but something in him is determined to ensure that it will work, no matter how lowly the circumstances; the sublime and completely unexpected shift to E major after “Looks like a-nuthin’ but rain” practically demands that you hope, succeeded by a contrasting, harmonically ambiguous dobro, guitar and backing vocals sequence; he says he’ll settle for the cabin, a wife and kids – “That must be what it’s all about,” he says to himself twice, convincing himself that it is, and by the way he hangs on the vowels of his extended “sleeeee-ee-eep,” he is probably convinced.

New Morning is an adult record – “Sign On The Window” might be the first non-stage musical/MoR song in this tale to speak explicitly of families – and was not designed for those still wishing the adolescent atomisations of his younger days; “One More Weekend” is a straightforward hangdog blues workout, Kooper’s piano sliding exactly “like a weasel on the run,” about the joys of getting away from the kids for just one weekend. Bromberg responds with a strong, groaning, quivering guitar performance, like Hubert Sumlin transposed to Nashville; the mood is definitely upward.

But then we come to “The Man In Me,” one of the album’s briefest yet deepest meditations. Dylan’s absent-minded “la la la” intro is bewitching in itself, especially when going into call and response with the backing singers and Kooper’s Morse code organ, but the song’s processional is solemn, midtempo, rather like “The Weight,” although he is clearly happy (“From my toes up to my ears”) despite the storm clouds raging all around his door; he knows how close he’s come to giving it all up but now nothing could be further from his mind. “He (as in “Man”) doesn’t want to turn into some machine” he proclaims (see also Stevie Wonder’s recently discussed “Never Had A Dream Come True”), but there’s a rare beauty in his invocation of Oklahoma! – “But oh what a wonderful feeling” – as he recognises how much she’s saved him. “Took a woman like you/To get through to the man in me,” he sings in quiet awe as Kooper hushes his organ to shades of ethereality, and I am reminded of Marvin Sapp’s recent, barnstorming “The Best In Me” (from Sapp’s album Here I Am, the strongest gospel album in some time) where he spends seven minutes singing to his Lord of the same thing, the same nature, in gradually unfolding petals of euphoria. The joy is universal, shared, and godly.

“Three Angels” takes three bums, or maybe it’s just three scruffy musicians he notes on the street, and elevates them into holiness. The tempo is slow, R&B ballad 6/8; Dylan talks most of the song, Kooper’s organ is awaiting ordination, he sings of bright orange dresses, U-Haul trailers, the Tenth Avenue bus, wonders “But does anyone hear the music they play? Does anyone even try?” Beside him, the chorus and song have gradually gathered strength; the awesome chord change on “Does anyone even try?” blossoms, shockingly, into a sequence of hard, stately rhythm and choirs which seems to want to segue into “Atom Heart Mother.” As with the rest of this album, nothing much seems to happen, but no one notices angels when they are right next to them.

The struggle of New Morning finally comes down to the old American conflict; the glory of the bounty of their land, mixed with the suspicion that something else must be happening – this can’t all be for our benefit? – that there is something, someone, higher and more powerful. Dylan doesn’t offer answers – he is Dylan, for heaven’s sake – but simply concludes the record with a reconfiguration of Amidah, the central prayer of the Jewish litany, with Dylan at the piano, accompanied by his backing singers (together providing a great three-chord/three-note leitmotif), knowing that this is not the place to describe the indescribable but merely setting out his path, some nine years ahead of Slow Train Coming. New Morning is a friendly record, certainly, but it’s also a heavily guarded one and in its implications perhaps invites more radical recasting than anything attempted in Self Portrait. “Father, who turneth the rivers and streams” – if not, it might be concluded, for Him.