Monday 28 June 2010
(#94: 7 August 1971, 1 week)
Zoo De Zoo Zong/River Deep, Mountain High/Banner Man/Me And You And A Dog Named Boo/When You Are A King/Pied Piper/Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep/Tom-Tom Turnaround/Don’t Let It Die/Black And White/Monkey Spanner/Co-Co
The Geoff Boycott Bat appeared courtesy of Lillywhites Limited, Piccadilly Circus, W.1, the bikini was supplied by Nelbarden Swimwear, the double entendre is obvious and we can identify at least one demographic who might have bought albums of this kind. Having sat through the album, I am very tempted to leave my comments there, but as a writer with a conscience I owe an explanation of this curious phenomenon to overseas readers or those too young to have experienced early seventies consumer Britain. There are two further albums of this ilk – but from a parallel and far more famous series – to follow shortly in this tale, and the understandable kneejerk questions “what?” and “why?” require some answers.
Where they have all ended up is perhaps an easier question to answer than where they all came from; trawling through boxes of spent records in charity shops unearths dozens of editions of what one might call “diet” editions of music; Sounds Like Sinatra, A Tribute To The Carpenters, Salute To Nat “King” Cole, and acres of Hallmark, Pickwick, Embassy and Music For Pleasure “soundalike” compilations of hits. The latter were not a particularly new development in 1971; indeed Embassy had been issuing turn-on-a-dime budget albums of quickfire robot covers of recent hits for a decade. The other corporations eventually followed suit; the Hot Hits series stemmed from EMI’s budget subsidiary Music For Pleasure, a joint enterprise set up in the sixties between EMI and the publishers Paul Hamlyn whereby competitively-priced, quickly-recorded, off-the-peg albums could be sold in bookshops, supermarkets, newsagents and even chemists – i.e. with a target audience of people who generally didn’t buy, or couldn’t afford to buy, records of music as a habit and weren’t too fussed if what they did purchase wasn’t quite the real thing. Although actual EMI artists did appear on these budget compilations – Capitol stars from the fifties such as Sinatra and Martin, and eventually the likes of Herman’s Hermits, the Animals, Matt Monro, Lulu and even Pink Floyd (the odds-and-sods compilation Relics, perhaps the only indispensable MFP issue) and the Beatles – the emphasis was generally on easy-on-the-ear mood music (tinkling pianos, summery Hawaiian guitars) or re-recordings of famous stage shows; the MFP Sound Of Music release shifted a quarter of a million copies, so in business terms it was a shrewd move.
In the late sixties, via the Australian ex-male model Bill Wellings, the Hot Hits series came into being. The premise was simple; scan the recent charts, pick twelve hits, hire session singers and musicians to record covers with the aim being to sound as close to the original record as possible, and release albums on a rapid turnover basis. I well remember seeing these records in Woolworths, John Menzies, Boots the Chemist, etc.; strategically placed close to the checkout counter in the manner that bread produce about to expire has its price marked down in the supermarket – the ideal solution for someone who didn’t necessarily have the money to buy twelve separate singles. Well, as ideal as the industry at the time would allow; the ideal solution would of course have been for a discount-priced compilation of the original records by the original artists, but record companies were fiercely competitive and unwilling to collaborate – the Now age was still at this point a dozen years away – and moreover were over-protective, arguing that such compilations would divert sales from their artists’ current product.
So in seventies Britain, one was expected, still, to make do and mend. “Can you tell the difference between these versions and the original?” was MFP’s chief pitch, and you wouldn’t have had to be Charlie Gillett to be able to discern the difference immediately. But, to these records’ target audience, it didn’t seem to matter; you could stick it on in the background, or on the radiogram in the next room, and it sounded like a reasonable facsimile, even if close, attentive listening revealed the processed emptiness of the enterprise. The only reason why such records are appearing in this story – and I thought hard about excluding them, or simply mentioning them and quickly moving on, but a writer’s conscience is a strong thing – is that chart compilers the British Market Research Bureau, having learned nothing from their experiment of two years previously, when the summer of Woodstock and moon landings was soundtracked by Ray Conniff and Jim Reeves, again altered the rules in order to allow budget-priced albums into the main chart.
Thus we arrive at Hot Hits 6, an album which some might say fully deserves having a cricket bat swung at it, although the main emotion it engendered in me was frustration and befuddlement, not just at the cumulative feebleness of the record, but at a situation where such flaccid and downright weird songs could access a singles chart from which “Me And Bobby McGee,” “What’s Going On?” and “Clean Up Woman” had been excluded. For example, there is Blue Mink’s “Banner Man,” where a crowd go up a hill, stand still for a bit and walk back down again, all to an Orange Lodge march soundtrack – was this a disguised commentary on the Troubles? – and the queasy accordion-dragged lullaby of White Plains’ “When You Are A King.” It is an unusual and rather flat choice of songs – the kind of offensively inoffensive wallpaper Dale Winton might spin on Radio 2’s Pick Of The Pops – mainly either written to order for other acts (some of whom, like the aforementioned Blue Mink and White Plains, existed only in the studio), or revived oldies (only Hurricane Smith’s disturbingly plaintive World Wildlife Fund anthem “Don’t Let It Die” can rightly be said to have been written and performed by the same artist) and together assemble a convincing argument as to why, and how sorely and urgently, glam rock was needed. Only one song – “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep,” arguably the most disturbing of these dozen tunes – made it to number one in the singles chart; many peaked in the mid-range of the Top 20. To show that Brian Ward’s BWD Productions, the company who supplied MFP with Hot Hits content, could sometimes call it wrong, one song was not a hit at all.
That latter starts off the album; “Zoo De Zoo Zong” was composed by the ubiquitous Rogers Cook and Greenaway as a one-off single for Twiggy; as the model was then starring in Ken Russell’s thoroughly misguided film of The Boy Friend, no doubt it was felt that the obvious route to a hit was twenties pastiche, complete with fiddle, banjo, tuba and “Lazy Bones” paraphrases. The unnamed female singer reveals some immediate problems with pitching, which recur throughout the record (most painfully on “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep,” which she unaccountably delivers in the style of Sandie Shaw), but disaster makes itself apparent when a booming male spoken voice intrudes: “MIGHT AS WELL SING ALONG,” he intones gloomily, like Valentine Dyall forced to be a Butlin’s Redcoat. His chat-up patter (“Pretty face…a bit skinny, though”) is lamentable, and while the song is at least in part aware of its own ridiculousness (“I’d rather have Moon in June, Spoon in June”), things go from bad to worse as the chat-up merchant wanders randomly through various accents, seemingly at will, from Cockney to sub-Reg Presley West Country via Ireland.
There really isn’t much point in going through the other eleven tracks in detail; none is exactly bad, as in slipshod or amateurish (since “amateur” would imply that the musicians were enjoying themselves doing this), and the arrangements are thoroughly professional, as are the two male session singers, neither of whom is easily identifiable. There is talk of the likes of Elton John, Dana Gillespie, Rod Stewart and Tina Charles being involved in these albums from time to time, but the female singer (although sounding a little bit like Sunny of Sue and Sunny fame) definitely isn’t Tina, and although the mellower-toned male lead does a good Allan Clarke (“When You Are A King”) and a better Peter Noone (“Tom-Tom Turnaround”) – even if neither was a Hollies or Herman’s Hermits disc (the latter was an early Chinn and Chapman effort, a doomy country ballad – albeit with a happy ending - written for Australian folk group and Opportunity Knocks winners New World) – there are, I suspect, no to-be-famous names involved in this record, but rather rep reliables of the session singing world – Tony Steven, Danny Street, Ken Barrie? – ready to turn up, do what’s needed, get paid and go home.
These recordings are…efficient. “River Deep, Mountain High” is based on the Supremes/Four Tops cover version, and despite an early miscue (“Stronger”) and the omission of half of the second chorus, the track is professionally done. The Roger Cook impersonator on “Banner Man” makes the word “ran” sound like a constipated Bee Gee and the harmonies on the second chorus are particularly limp, although the lead trombone is rather more lugubrious and pronounced than on the original. Lobo’s “Me And You And A Dog Named Boo,” one of a deluge of VW camper odes to newly-found freedom, sounds numb (the original has Kent LaVoie sounding surprisingly like the Canadian singer/songwriter Michel Pagliaro).
The three reggae tracks do demonstrate how slow British session musicians were to adapt to new rhythms; “Pied Piper,” an ominous transatlantic top five hit in 1966 for the recently departed Crispian St Peters, was revived by Bob Andy and Marcia Griffith five years later, but the rhythms here, even with Johnny Arthey’s Willesden Strings chart (reproduced fairly faithfully), are sluggish and lacklustre, and the voices thoroughly anonymous (so much for “you…masquerading”). Worse still is the attempt at “Black And White,” the anti-racist folk anthem of the fifties revived by the reggae group Greyhound (and a US number one for Three Dog Night in 1972, after singer Danny Hutton chanced upon the Greyhound version). Here the male lead really does sound like a West End second lead during his lunch break; clearly he would much rather be tackling Sunday In The Park With George but his boisterous, theatrical vibrato cuts the song’s sentiments dead. His future is neither black nor white, but an anaemic beige. But even this comes on like the finale of Into The Woods in comparison with the truly lamentable take on Dave and Ansil Collins’ “Monkey Spanner” – essayed by, I think, the same singer – which crawls along in the manner of a newly amputated snail.
By the time we crawl out of the professional wreckage of the version of Sweet’s “Co-Co,” the game really is up; this is little more than recorded karaoke, or the music which a real Partridge Family might have played at your local community centre, or a soundtrack to make you feel as though you’ve been in a dentist’s waiting room forever. The tactics are subtle but strike deep; the cumulative effect is one of diet pop, something which looks and tastes like actual pop, but with all the flavour and individuality ruthlessly squeezed and processed out of it. There is no individual character to any of these recordings, nothing to link the listener to the singer or the song, no fat, no flavour, no oomph. It is merely there, in the middleground, for people who couldn’t afford or, worse, didn’t want something better and truer. There are those survivors who were active in the music business in Britain during the fifties and sixties who will still claim that albums have always been a con trick, a lever to support a single past its sales peak. Here is the strongest evidence in support of that rather forlorn argument; a record, literally by nobody (the “VARIOUS ARTISTS” credit at the top of this entry is a generosity on my part and reads better than “ANONYMOUS”), which doesn’t appear to exist for any other reason than to make a quick buck. As I say, many still think that’s all pop has ever been. If I felt that, of course, there would be no reason for writing this blog. But this record, and all the others like it, which still litter shops of the forgotten and the rejected, suggest premature death; a world where nothing does matter except for the implacable market and a public ready to take whatever scraps are thrown at them. And, as already mentioned, there are two more of these to do, at the expense of other, more deserving entries. Where did I put that cricket bat?
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 13:51
Monday 21 June 2010
(#93: 26 June 1971, 1 week)
Track listing: Tarkus (Eruption; Stones Of Years; Iconoclast; Mass; Manticore; Battlefield; Aquatarkus)/Jeremy Bender/Bitches Crystal/The Only Way (Hymn)/Infinite Space (Conclusion)/A Time And A Place/Are You Ready Eddy?
We are in the presence of something that might be an armadillo, or a tank, born in an erupting volcano, intent on never stopping its march, flattening anything which steps into its path, utterly ruthless. This continues until something called a manticore – a lion/human/scorpion mongrel whose origins lie in ancient Persian mythology – does battle with the beast/machine and triumphs. It’s the only opponent without a machine component. To paraphrase Bob Edmands in Rock File 3, the Moogs, evidently, will not walk the Earth on their own if Emerson, Lake and Palmer have anything to do with it.
Track subtitles aside, however – it would seem indecent to term the seven separate sections of side one as “movements” – “Tarkus,” the piece of music itself, doesn’t seem to have much to do with the story told by William Neal’s paintings which illustrate the album’s gatefold sleeve; instead we are presented with a series of very vague, albeit passionately delivered, musings about ageing and sin (“Stones Of Years”), the pitfalls of organised religion (“Mass”) and how war is good for absolutely nothing (“Battlefield”). In reality Tarkus could stand for anything – the military/industrial mutual dependency complex, the dreaded advance of Technology, man’s inhumanity to man and small, portable machines, bad commercials on TV, Harold Wilson’s Labour Party – and its creators are meticulous about not pinning down any specifics, or naming any names.
This raises immediate suspicion. Although on listening to Tarkus again it was a delight to hear the “Eruption” theme again after so long an interval, and although this writer’s penchant for complex “jazz chords,” mournful Klezmer harmony progressions and awkward musical structures is well documented and unabashed, the point has to be made that complexity of structure can be used to mask or hide the paucity or lack of core beliefs. Taken on its own, “Tarkus,” in both musical and lyrical content, really isn’t that far away from the jigsaw puzzle Marxisms of Henry Cow, but unlike Fred Frith’s crew, there seems to be no real attempt to grasp or grapple with what, if anything, the piece is implying. It begins with a long, slow monotone Moog fade-in which, via Carl Palmer’s phased hissing cymbal, breaks into a vigorous polytempo Hammond workout with some minor Moog counterpoint and the odd gong (not to be confused with the much lighter, but curiously also deeper, Gong). Impetuous gavel bangs on the organ notwithstanding, we could still be in Klook’s Kleek circa 1966, and not much of side one gives any evidence of this being the seventies.
Eventually a thunderclap introduces a slow-tempo Floydian trough with appositely yearning bass; Greg Lake intones sombre and possibly purposely obscurantist lyrics in the received Justin Hayward style (rhyming “wise” with “realise”), somewhere between To Our Children’s Children’s Children and King Crimson’s “Epitaph”; at his stern “Realise your SINS!” Keith Emerson offers grandiose block chords before launching “Iconoclast,” featuring another Jimmy McGriff-style Hammond solo; this latter gradually thickens in texture, although Emerson’s improvising, as throughout the album in general, is relatively conventional. The tempo momentarily doubles before slackening back down to usher in “Mass”; Lake’s voice is distorted and more animated and the band settle into fast, interlocking bitonal modality, like the Peddlers having just discovered Africa/Brass, although the tune itself is a standard post-Abbey Road rocker (complete with Lake’s offhand “He’s dead,” and “spared…yeah”). There is some pointillistic drums and organ dialogue which begins as hiccups before thickening out and reaching a climax, Lake shrieking “WITHOOOUUUUTTT-a-SOUUUUUUND!!!”
Tick tock Palmer ride cymbals take us into a frantic Irish jig before slowing down, with some guitar commentary from Lake and Palmer’s entropy-friendly drums, towards the accusatory “Battlefield.” “They took our freedom!” roars Lake, who actually, and agreeably, sounds pretty close to an angry Lennon here, ranting about “starving CHILDREN!” and howling “Did you STAND beside the spectral TORCH?!” On occasion the delivery and arrangement remind us that Peter Gabriel’s Genesis were approaching their first artistic peak at around this time, offering a not dissimilar message, although next to something like Van der Graaf Generator’s Pawn Hearts it sounds jejune and evasive. Moog-generated air raid sirens remind us that Tarkus is most definitely an Anti-War Statement (although it’s not clear whether Vietnam was in mind here, or simply a buried wish for it to be 1945 again). Lake performs a decent David Gilmour impression on lead guitar before Palmer’s rotating toms signal a multiplication of guitars over sonorous and possibly pompous organs. “Where the victims of your armies lie!” cries Lake as everything reaches polite meltdown; at his numbed “Feel no PAIIINNNNNNNN” the song dissolves into the rims of Palmer’s timpani; some meditative organ (that of St Mark’s Church, no less) turns into a mock-march. Finally Emerson’s Moog takes off into the high distance, and Palmer’s gong bangs a return to thundering Hammond/Moog rock before we reach the inevitable Star Wars fanfare of an ending. What does it all mean? Exactly what you wanted it to mean, and in a year of Troubles, the Angry Brigade and the Industrial Relations Act, I’m not sure that was enough.
The smaller songs of side two fit more snugly into an early seventies musical mindset; if “Tarkus” anticipates Tull’s Thick As A Brick without Ian Anderson’s redeeming sense of his own innate ridiculousness, then here we have the trio stretching out, off the main grind, maybe even having some fun. It should be recalled that ELP was, according to some accounts, almost HELP; Hendrix had expressed an interest in working with the trio, and at the time of his death a jam session had been arranged (although obviously never happened). As it stood, its three members came out of three groups who all made a point about their existence being a Great Statement; King Crimson had Fripp and his already askew theories, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown boasted possibly the most underused and undervalued frontman in British rock history (Brown by 1971 having long fled the World for the more improv-friendly, if also far more heavily metal, climate of Kingdom Come, and the rest of the World, including Palmer, having evolved into Atomic Rooster), the Nice had an organist who basically wanted to be Hendrix (including the bits of humping/steel knives business with the Hammond). By all accounts – and again we have to remember that ELP became big as a live act first and as a recording act second – their shows were ridiculous, bombastic and utterly lovable; in their subsequent work there does appear to be a greater sense of self-deprecation about their adventures. Here, however, there is still a little uncertainty about who and what exactly they want to be. “Jeremy Bender” is the album’s obligatory wacky seventies rock group song about transvetitism; a jaunty affair, complete with Elton John tack piano, cowbells and handclaps which plays like the theme to an especially bad ITV sitcom – the status of Scott Walker’s “Big Louise” remains unchallenged.
“Bitches Crystal” – what a 1971 song title – doesn’t have anything to do with Miles Davis, but rampages along to a degree; Emerson’s Moog raspberry ushers in a bustling 6/8 workout, bass drum and bass guitar locking to the point of shutdown. “Ocean of TEEEEEEAAAAAARRRRS!!” exclaims Lake before Emerson essays a piano solo, coming on like Willie “The Lion” Smith encountering Russ Conway in Barbarella. A Moog/piano unison theme alternates with quiet organ piping before five jackhammer chords give us Lake’s “ritual killings.” There is a synthesised train whistle before Lake’s dread-filled “Ghostly images die” gives way to a Palmer drum stutter, a regretful “Ballad Of Bonnie And Clyde” piano sign-off and a music hall ride cymbal crash.
The linked sequence of “The Only Way” and “Infinite Space” is the side’s central setpiece; back at the St Mark’s Church console, Emerson rattles out some Bach (“Toccata in F”) before progressing to some funereal chords over which Lake, sounding not unlike the Winwood of “Can’t Find My Way Home,” again laments about humanity. Give Lake his due; this is the first album in the tale to mention the Holocaust outright (even though it is the semi-visible elephant in the sitting room of The Sound Of Music): “Can you believe, God makes you breathe?/Why did he lose six million Jews?” asks Lake, plaintively. It’s still something of a shock (if not unprecedented – see Beefheart’s “Dachau Blues” from two years earlier) but I’m not sure whether its opaque outrage is best followed by a spot of Jacques Loussier (Emerson at the piano, doing Bach’s “Prelude VI” with walking bass, and also sounding rather similar to Vince Guaraldi’s music for the Peanuts TV shows, but not as entertaining or inventive). Lake’s morose voice then returns (in multiple) over piano curlicues – “Don’t be afraid! Man is man made!” (well, that’s Stevie Wonder told, for a start). Emerson’s piano develops a cyclical 7/4 riff as Lake urges us to “don’t turn AWAY” and “do it your WAY.” Well, we’ve already had “War Pigs” – why not “War Armadillos”?
The gainsay shuffle of “A Time And A Place” is powered most pleasantly by Emerson’s arching, barking organ but Lake is still in distress – “Drag me from the burning SAND!” he shrieks (that’ll teach you to use Ambre Solaire). Emerson takes off on yet another Hammond solo over a dense rhythmic hustle; a voice/Moog interlude heralds a thundering return; drums roar, the Moog screams, the end. It’s akin to Ian Carr’s Nucleus tackling “Ball Of Confusion” as rewritten by Peter Noone and it’s by far the most successful track on the album, with the possible exception of the closer; “Are You Ready Eddy?” is a homage to Eddie Offord, their studio engineer, and a throwaway “Girl Can’t Help It” derivé which endeavours to prove that despite all the pomp and artifice, and despite their undoubted chops, these guys can still do the basic rock ‘n’ roll whenever they damn well please, even if there’s a touch of contempt for the past in Emerson’s piano solo, which begins with a “Bugle Call Rag” figure before driving straight into bitonality, elbows zipping up and down the keyboard, etc., prior to returning to boogie. Lake’s vocal here is his best Lennon pastiche on the record; one is almost back in Beatle 1963, with the emphasis on the “almost.” Palmer concludes the track and the album with a whine about the limited choice of sandwiches available in Advision Studios (“They’ve only got ‘am or cheese!”), and the combination of ham and cheese just about sums up ELP nicely.
I have been hard on ELP here, not just because, even as they got heavier, they simultaneously became lighter, more interesting and more fun as a group with their subsequent work – sadly, Tarkus is the only chance this tale gets to visit them; it is a particular shame that I don’t get to tackle Brain Salad Surgery (#2 at the beginning of 1974) where Pete Sinfield provides lyrics and the move towards Crimson cheekiness (and the natural counterpart of Larks Tongues In Aspic, etc.) is complete (“The people gasped as he bled – the end of a Ted?”), and even the grumpy, contract-fulfilling AoR of 1978’s Love Beach points a clear way towards Palmer’s, and eventually Lake’s, subsequent exploits in the group Asia – but because I feel that the allegory/analogy of Tarkus, whatever or whoever it was supposed to represent, is a way of hiding from anything resembling “the truth” in 1971 rather than confronting it, and that technical virtuosity is being used as a suit of armour to conceal its creators from the real implications of what they think they are saying about war and death and greed. To put it another way, something like “Brown Sugar,” or the generally defiant lightness of Ram (the chant of “Ohhh, we believe that we can’t be wrong” which climaxes “Back Seat Of My Car,” and the album as a whole, is a subtle barb in the general direction of things such as Tarkus) strikes me as more of a fight back against the forces of 1971 oppression; what if you look at yourself, as a wise Canadian observed that same year, in the mirror, razorblades ready for the wrist, and realise that you’re not up for any of this (“Dress Rehearsal Rag”)? Gazing through the muddied porthole at the obscured world, or smashing the glass and breathing in some oxygen and light? There’s no choice, really, even with the earnest student mathematicians, geologists and engineers who I suspect lapped up ELP’s plate more eagerly than anyone; those foredoomed to think of the world in terms of measurable complexities.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 15:20
Monday 14 June 2010
(#92: 5 June 1971, 2 weeks)
Track listing: Too Many People/3 Legs/Ram On/Dear Boy/Uncle Albert-Admiral Halsey/Smile Away/Heart Of The Country/Monkberry Moon Delight/Eat At Home/Long Haired Lady/Ram On/The Back Seat Of My Car
Well, he looks much more contented than George, doesn’t he? Hard at work on the farm, a long way away from that zebra crossing – although, as much of the record itself will attest, hardly any distance at all – he has a determination, a purpose and above all happiness and contentment. Rather than a company of snickering monochrome gnomes he has an actual family, and much of the sleeve’s design plays like an indie family album; it wouldn’t have been out of place on K Records in the eighties (and here is yet another instance where you really have to refer, as I did, to a weathered LP original; it fits the record’s partial informality). But there are warnings within the bright primary colours; note the air of defiance with which McCartney folds his arms, staring at the camera, sitting on his Kintyre wall surrounded by Linda, young Mary and younger Stella; this, he announces, is my new, fabber four, whether you like it or not. To emphasise the point he surrounds the photograph with pictures of four beetles screwing each other.
The air of downhome amiability isn’t quite sustained by some of the tracks on side one, which represent some of McCartney’s angriest music and singing. This wasn’t his first solo album, of course; McCartney, the entirely self-performed debut whose cover indicated that life might still be a bowl of cherries if kept out of the spotlight, had been released the previous spring in partial competition with Let It Be, although it was eventually kept at number two in our charts by the indomitable Bridge Over Troubled Water. Any record containing “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “Every Night” (not to mention “Teddy Boy” and “Junk”) doesn’t deserve to be passed over, but evidently the Beatle-related pain and rage had built up in McCartney’s mind since its recording, and on Ram, he explodes in a way in which Harrison diplomatically had not (even on “Wah Wah” there is some keeping of countenance). “Too Many People,” with its opening “Dear Prudence” pastiche, sets the initial ravaged tone; Denny Seiwell’s tango drums play against messy guitars as McCartney lets out his own primal screams, against party lines, parking fines (with a quick musical nod to “Lovely Rita”), pieces of cake, and mainly against John (and to a lesser extent – “Too many people preaching practices” – Yoko). Guitarist Hugh McCracken’s solo is tonally unresolved, searching, frantic. As the tempo converts to a rock shuffle and the song plays out, McCartney even resorts to barking. A guitar/sitar pastiche may represent a jibe at George. But the key passage is where, as Lennon had done in “Julia” three years earlier, he transfers his love and commitment from the Beatle past to the Linda present: “I find my love awake and waiting to be/Now what can be done for you?/She’s waiting for me.”
“3 Legs” calms down a little, musically speaking, initially to a mid-tempo semi-acoustic blues/Sun amble before turning electric, but McCartney’s voice is somewhere else; there are four processed, unearthly “When I fly”s (repeated twice) and again he sings in reproachful fashion: “When I thought you was my friend/When I thought I could call you my friend/But you laid me down.” As the song slackens to half-tempo he chants “My dog he got three legs/Your dog, he got none” (having previously asserted that his dog “can’t run”); three against one - you do the math.
Florid Liberace piano leads a misleading way into the first section of “Ram On”; there’s some studio chatter – although the album was recorded in New York rather than the Mull of Kintyre, and with the aid of some crack session players, Paul and Linda were keen to maintain a general lo-fi aural standard; most of the time it sounds as though they are simply messing about at the mixing desk, and having great fun doing so – which leads into a ukulele (which itself may lead towards Labi Siffre’s “It Must Be Love”), briefly joined by electric piano and percussion. McCartney’s waterlogged harmonies drift wonderfully, in and out of tonality; recalling the Beach Boys, certainly, but also setting yet another scene for Radiohead. The closing forlorn whistling, together with the song’s simple refrain – “Give your heart to somebody soon right away, right away” – sets the song up as his own “Isn’t It A Pity?”
“Dear Boy” was widely read by most listeners, including Lennon himself, as another anti-Lennon song; although McCartney has denied that he had Lennon particularly in mind when writing it, it does, despite the staccato piano and phased vocal seem like a sad rather than angry reproach – he seems genuinely sorry for the “boy” to have missed the love which was staring him in the face (the childish things are amplified by the song’s similarity in feel to “Your Mother Should Know”), although the tack hammer piano/fuzz guitar unisons which periodically surface introduce a tone of betrayed aggressiveness. But, as with the broken lucky break mentioned in “Too Many People,” there is no avoiding the viewpoint that the other Beatles missed their chance, even if it’s possible that the other Beatles felt that under McCartney’s last ditch pressure they had no chance.
Finally, on “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” – one of the least expected of American number one singles (it was never released as a single in Britain) - the music suddenly comes into colour and focus and the detritus of the recent past drifts into the background, even if the music, the lush strings and the “We’re so sorry” refrains tug irresistibly back towards side two of Abbey Road. Guitars and vibes drift lazily in the trade winds of “Sun King” – although it is now raining. McCartney’s Lord Charles silly arse whinges through a megaphone (“But we HAVEN’T done a BLOODY thing all DAY!”); it’s another rainy day in 1971 England but how are we going to get the sun back? The mournful “yeah, yeah”s recall an older and deeper ghost.
But then the music picks up to a confident vaudeville strut and Marvin Stamm’s flugelhorn segues the track into a renewed “Yellow Submarine” kids’ chant in which what presumably is meant to be William “Buff” Halsey, commander of the US naval forces in and around Japan and the Pacific Ocean during World War II – his catchphrase was: “Kill Japs, kill Japs, kill more Japs!” – is put up to ridicule by McCartney’s Stanshall-derived plummy vocal performance (interrupted by some earthy Scouse-isms). Then the music speeds up yet faster as McCartney muses about being a gypsy and getting around; the track has as many tempo and mood changes as “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” but wears its versatility far more lightly. The track segues into the Quo-style rocker “Smile Away,” which has the same sort of propulsion as Lennon’s 45 version of “Revolution,” and McCartney has great fun providing a missing link between John Wesley Harding and Ted Chippington (“I was walking down the street the other day”). The other musicians respond with palpable joy (“Sing along horribly now!” McCartney exclaims at one point near the climax) and via some whooping and Shepherd Sisters “yi-yi” backing vocals the track works up to a satisfyingly semi-demented ending.
Side two begins with McCartney in fine spirits; “Heart Of The Country” is a bucolic acoustic trot in which he meditates (and scat sings) about getting away from it all (“I want to get me a good night’s sleep”) and setting up a little farm in the middle of nowhere. So far it is pertinent to point out that nothing on Ram sounds particularly as though it comes from the seventies; the general aura is almost defiantly still late sixties. He’s not quite ready to let go yet.
Or is he? “Monkberry Moon Delight” is perhaps McCartney’s most ferocious and unhinged rocker since “Helter Skelter”; the reggae-ish tempo predicates “C Moon” to some extent but McCartney’s positively outraged vocal assaults the Milligan-esque surreality of the lyrics with genuine spice (although note the midsong warning “Cats and kittens! Don’t get left behind!”). He growls in a way rarely heard from him; part Dr John, part Beefheart and part (even!) Howlin’ Wolf – at one point he even squeals “Suck it!” And there is Linda, clear as a bell on backing vocals (although she’s also there on the “Hands across the water” chorus of “Admiral Halsey”) and reminding us that Ram was a genuinely collaborative effort (Linda is given writing credits on about half the tracks, and most of those on side two). After a brief irruption of mandolin – where did that come from and where is it going? – McCartney snarls and bites at the song in the extended fade, resorting to Robert Wyatt mouth music and Buckley Starsailor yelps and cackles, as his bass begins to walk towards fadeout. One of his most remarkable performances.
“Eat At Home” is a snappy Buddy Holly-style rocker about…well, I presumably don’t need to spell it out; although about a minute longer than it needs to be, it works well with its central tenet (“Lady, let’s eat at home”), its supple bridges (in which McCartney casually demonstrates why, harmonically, he might be the Mozart to rock ‘n’ roll’s Salieri) and its knowing whoops (there must be more whoops on Ram than any number one album since The Explosive Freddy Cannon!). Its light sense of tasty fun contrasts well with the major setpiece “Long Haired Lady,” musically the album’s most adventurous track; McCartney’s inquisitive quintet of “Well”s (possibly a reference to Lennon’s “Well, Well, Well”) is answered by a sudden, fearsome wall of high-pitched brass followed by an amused riposte from Linda, in her fruity New York accent, demanding to know “Do you love like you know you ought to do?” Whereupon McCartney wanders in and out of coherence, though not forgetting to put in a reference to “Save The Last Dance For Me”; his winsome acoustic guitar middle eight suddenly echoes out and opens the platform to a meander of floating “Strawberry Fields” tropes (does any McCartney album reference Lennon songs quite as obsessively?) . A bended guitar – hello Animal Collective, hello Ariel Pink, form an orderly queue on the right, please – wobbles in the song’s centre, and following an interlude of quietude there are distant choral echoes; the multitracked Pauls and Lindas thicken in counterpoint (and, as “Silly Love Songs” would demonstrate half a decade later, McCartney would never discard his love for the art of the fugue); the “Ah, love is long” mantra (recalling “Love is old, love is new” from “Because”) tenses and relaxes into hypnosis, such that the subsequent addition of “Penny Lane” trumpet and bluesy guitar scarcely comes as a surprise. Eventually McCartney confesses (“Well, I’ve been meaning to talk you about it for sometime – sweet little lassie”) and opens up his heart in a way that is genuinely touching. A Moog drone ushers the song out in pink pools of dub.
“Ram On” returns, near the end (as did “Isn’t It A Pity?”), initially in the form of a nocturnal wander, before a more forceful drive (steered by prepared Fender Rhodes electric piano) builds up unexpectedly but inevitably, like a sunrise; then the ukulele returns, albeit with a stomp. The fragment again drifts out of intelligibility but its message is felt.
Finally there is “The Back Seat Of My Car”; again, strings and French horns recall something of the hurt gravitas of “Golden Slumbers” but the mood of repose alternates with a rock beat. Where are they now? They could be anywhere, driving to Mexico City if they so wished – and who are the “they”? “But listen to her daddy’s song – makin’ love is wrong.” Is this a final scolding nod towards John and Yoko? In truth it really doesn’t matter; we ride with the accelerating thump of the rock before it gives way, via descending “oooooh”s, to the original calm, following which McCartney’s climactic “Wo, wo, woh”s secede to a final scream of release (“WAAAAAAAGH!”). The guitar is yearning, there is a strange barrelhouse piano/heavy metal mongrel of a sequence – and then the car, and its two main occupants (but who’s driving?) are gone, gone to the white van in which Paul and Linda, along with Denny Laine and others, will shortly drive around the country, turning up at clubs and student unions and asking to play, getting back to what they always loved doing. But they are not really gone; there are few number one albums more truly homely than Ram, and if any album of this period deserved to sound as though it were made at home it is this one. The Beatles? Well, the pain still existed but has been partially excised – it’s about Paul and Linda and their kids and their home now; this is what we have grown up to become, and never have we felt more contented, or indeed younger.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 13:45
Tuesday 8 June 2010
(#91: 8 May 1971, 4 weeks; 19 June 1971, 1 week)
Track listing: Brown Sugar/Sway/Wild Horses/Can't You Hear Me Knocking/You Gotta Move/Bitch/I Got The Blues/Sister Morphine/Dead Flowers/Moonlight Mile
We know why the regeneration worked so well. The group shot on the inner sleeve says it all; Mick is standing apart from the others, facing the camera, half howling with laughter, half yawning. To his left Keith has his defiant back to Mick, his mouth and fingers roaring with joy at a “mine’s as big as my HAT!” self-confession, Charlie grins knowingly at us, another Mick smiles happily as any new staff recruit would do on their first morning, eager to please, while Bill, looking remarkably like Patti Smith, smirks at us, his face half-hid, as if to say, conspiratorially, “he’s not going to be here for long.”
The overall picture is one of untouchable sauce, of a group completely confident with their newly-refound ambition, eager to laugh and revel but also keen to become a more and more powerful juggernaut, to conceal a deadly seriousness under the wagon wheels of their flotilla of fun. Warhol’s artwork, the logical phallic extension of the Velvets’ pink banana, was a red, gold (don’t the Stones deserve a golden zipper?), and monochrome herring. Sticky fingers? Everybody noticed the wetly licking double entendre of the Rolling Stones Records logo, but the Stones’ genius – and with Sticky Fingers we could arguably narrow it down and talk about Jagger’s genius – was that they had more to offer than Carry On Rock And Roll, even if that had always been their mission. They were free of outdated entanglements; the album was apparently ready to go in mid-1970 but they had to deal with Decca and Allen Klein before they could speak of true freedom.
And what is “Brown Sugar” if it is not about freedom? For the rebirth, the first track (and lead single) had to be a killer, better than any rock 45 that decade (and so few had been released, which did help). Actually it had been recorded in late 1969 – and, at Mick Taylor’s insistence, the song was premiered at Altamont – but the holding back seems to have increased its latent power a thousandfold; so effortless and surrenderable is its groove, its pink-jacketed cheek, that it’s only after a thousand listens, and dances, that one realises what Jagger is doing, namely to engineer a pop song which systematically incorporates every subject hitherto deemed taboo from a pop song (incest, rape, cannibalism, racism, misogyny, most of the Kama Sutra, and that’s just for starters), and yet because of the record’s irresistibility – Jimmy Miller’s meticulously dirty production, Jagger’s maracas and “Wooooooo!”s, Watts’ sidestepping of the central beat so that the song seems to expand and flex at will, Bobby Keyes’ tenor rasping at just the right moment – and what we already know about Jagger, it doesn’t sound exploitative or reprehensible. What it does sound is juvenile, but we can forgive it in Jagger because it’s such a central part of his being; his right to be petulant and boastful is balanced by his thoughtful knowledge of his role in culture – there is something in his delivery which makes us think that he’s examining himself, how he measures up in terms of black culture and of women, how he relates to either, where the symbiotic features are hidden, or exposed.
More crucially, the darkly good humour of “Brown Sugar” masks the song’s cunning, lingering structural similarity to “Gimme Shelter” and indeed the former is a happy bookend to the latter’s extended sigh of apocalypse-taunting desperation; “Brown Sugar” told us that the Stones had made it through, were back in business, returned to the front of all lines.
“It’s just that demon life has got me in its sway,” Jagger goes on to sing in the next song, and the midtempo blues crawl of “Sway” defines the Stones, above everything else, as anti-death: “Ain’t flinging tears out on the dusty ground/For all my friends out on the burial ground.” After the second chorus, Jagger utters a parade ground “1! 2! 3! 4!” and after Taylor’s first bottleneck slide solo, he rasps, exasperatedly, “PAIN! PAIN!!! EEEOOOOOYYOOOOUUUU!!!” before ushering in a fine second solo from Taylor – already sounding as though trying to turn the Stones into Derek and the Dominos – which is bolstered up towards the fadeout by Nicky Hopkins’ wriggling high register piano figure and the dramatic two-minutes-to-midnight entry of Paul Buckmaster’s imperious string section. The Devil is still there in their sight, all right, but they’re patiently unready to deliver themselves just yet.
“Wild Horses” had already been previewed in 1970 on Burrito Deluxe, the second album by the Flying Burrito Brothers – Gram Parsons had heard an advance tape of Fingers and asked the band if he could do a cover; the band consented as long as he didn’t release it as a single – and although, socially and aesthetically, Parsons was as much of a shambolic aesthetic rejig of a jigsaw puzzle as Jagger, the shivering nakedness of his delivery of the song provides an interesting balance to Jagger’s knowing sincerity. As a performance, “Wild Horses” is deservedly rated as one of the Stones’ greatest ballads – although it is still not the greatest Stones ballad on Sticky Fingers – with Jagger finally allowing himself to display real vulnerability, his voice slipping and sliding into the song like Duane Allman’s premature ghost brother, the band displaying a subtle dexterity which really no one else in 1971 could touch – Jim Dickinson’s Greek chorus of a piano, for instance; doing so little, yet opening up the lines of communication for so much. Jagger has said that the song is definitely personal in nature but denies that it’s about Marianne Faithfull – the couple having broken up, messily, in early spring 1970 – but as it progresses (“unlike”) he sings as though he doesn’t know how to sing, as if having to learn all over again. The second “lie” in “I dreamed you a sin and a lie” is delivered with a plaintive hoarseness, while Taylor – clearly the musician doing most on this record to push the Stones forward – ponders somewhere between Clapton and Peter Green (note the uncommon denominator of John Mayall in respect of all three). There is a pain deep within “Wild Horses” which outdoes even the sadly wise couple in Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” in that the doomed couple seem unlikely to make it beyond the garage door; still, they have each other, and there are regrets and not a few tears, but nothing that can stop them from breaking the door down, or even bothering to open it, with time and belief.
“Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” pits Keith’s fuzzed riff against an attentive, unhurried Meters strut. Mick hollers to be let in – first to a girl, and then to the world – but the Stones aren’t going to be hurried, nor is their dot-dash horn section. Yet in the course of the song’s seven-and-a-half minutes the Stones do things they haven’t done before; Taylor’s guitar slowly rises up in the mix, midway through the second chorus, and as the intensity builds up the song quite unexpectedly moves into a Stax shuffle, Taylor’s guitar and Miller and Rocky Dijon’s percussion taking up the riff’s slack. Then Keyes’ tenor sax shudders in before settling, even less expectedly, into a modal Coltrane drift (Billy Preston turns up at this point on organ as a sort of Alice Coltrane surrogate). Taylor gets a Carlos Santana thing going on – Abraxas having been such a huge record in late 1970 – before hitting on a riff, with which everyone goes, before the track once again recedes into reflection. Is this really the Stones, a group now happy to relax the accelerator, to allow drift and ambiguity to drift into their fiercely enclosed universe? Watts’ tom-toms roll wave-like under Keyes’ tenor, and for a while we are virtually listening to Third/Fourth-era Soft Machine, before the track comes to an end – without going back to the original riff.
Side one finishes with “You Gotta Move,” the old Fred McDowell/Rev Gary Davis blues vehicle (although it’s likely that Jagger was more familiar with Sam Cooke’s 1963 reading). Keith twists his nylon acoustic into woolly freakout, and both Keith and Mick do a unison behind Jagger’s 100-year-old blues shouter vocal. Watts’ deadpan side drum and cymbal flourishes raise the prospect of the New Orleans funeral, and unlike Anne Boleyn Secondary School days, Jagger’s attempt to be Muddy Waters actually (almost) comes off; you know that it’s Mick being Mick, but no longer do you feel the need to giggle – instead, you marvel at how broad the group’s vocabulary has now become.
“Bitch” served as another of the UK “Brown Sugar” triple A-side 45 release (the third, not included on the album, was a live version of Chuck Berry’s “Let It Rock”), and it is indeed Mick being Mick (“Sometimes I’m so SEXY!/Move like a STUD!”), but the song’s main interest is in the music; the uncommon rhythmic construct (12/8 verses, 4/4 choruses), the comb and paper horn unisons (and the way in which the horns, developing some antiphonal riffs towards fadeout, uncannily resemble the Brotherhood of Breath) and, once again, Taylor’s rational, patient guitar.
“I Got The Blues” is clearly an attempt to do Otis (and specifically his “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”), with pitch-perfect Stax horn lines and build-up tactics, but again Jagger’s performance is faultless, moving confidently from low-wattage concern (“Won’t drag you down with abuse”) towards hysterics (“I’m gonna TEAR MY HAIR OUT JUST FOR YOUUUU!!!”). In the meantime Preston’s organ roars out of its paddock for an urgent solo and the detail is pretty well realised, certainly a lot more than it would have been in, say, 1965.
“Sister Morphine” is a big setpiece but I’m not sure that it measures up to the inescapable authenticity of the version Marianne Faithfull recorded with Jack Nitzsche producing in 1969 (and which a scared Decca summarily buried on a B-side). Ry Cooder, his guitar swimming through the song like a mourning alligator, is present on both versions, as are Nitzsche, Jagger (on acoustic guitar) and Watts, but despite the terrible echo of a ghastly void which follows Jagger’s “score” and “last,” Jagger can’t really convince us of any death wish dependency, any passively wrathful acceptance of imminent mortality – whereas Faithfull sounds as though she’s clinging onto life with the last of her rapidly disintegrating fingernails (and with a more touching harmonic structure which is rather simplified in this reading). Nitzsche’s piano plays like a ghost, distorted in the middleground, everything sounds as though coming from the bottom of a well, or a mineshaft. The song terminally descends into a Morse code drip, following crevices of Cooder guitar, but this doesn’t approach the very visible (or at any rate audible) pain of the late 1969/1970 John Lennon. It is as though Jagger is still playing, idly, with the concept of waste and early end.
“Dead Flowers” works much better, despite or because of Jagger’s hilarious Merle Haggard-out-of-Isleworth drawl, which helps to conceal the most disturbing lyrics on the record, which happen to be about a heroin addict quietly expiring in his basement, trying to reach a former lover (when he’s not self-pityingly bitching about her); you laugh so much at the surface and ride along so gladly with the band’s natural swing – Ian Stewart’s quivering piano towards the end giving the only real musical indication that something is wrong (and Watts is quick to add a Don Partridge ride cymbal crash at the end to reassure us) – that you scarcely notice the horrible hole into which the song’s protagonist has dug himself.
The closing “Moonlight Mile,” however, is unquestionably the record’s second masterpiece, and maybe the greatest of all Stones ballads in that it doesn’t strive for effect or arrive at easy answers. Jagger is no longer rambling the midnight streets; he does not seek to cause harm, but is simply lost. On the surface it is yet another in the unending line of seventies songs about the loneliness of life on the road, but most of the others presuppose the existence of a home. With “Moonlight Mile,” there simply seems to be an absence; the “head full of snow” leitmotif may be a cocaine reference but Jagger sounds too lost even to attempt drug escape; he sees a face that he knows at the window, but doesn’t acknowledge it, stop or drop in, probably because it’s his own reflection. “Made a rag pile of my shiny clothes…silence on my radio”; this world appears unpopulated. The music is a wasted, tumbleweed drone, even though Jim Price’s piano subtly alters in tone throughout the song, starting as saloon tack before gradually filling in and becoming three-dimensional. “Roa-o-wah-oh” wails Jagger at the road set to devour him. Then the picture builds; Buckmaster’s strings – was there ever a better use of orchestration on a Rolling Stones record? – sweep in at the end of the second verse, Watts’ tom-toms and cymbals quicken in the third verse (“I’m MOVIN’! I’m RIDIN’!!”), Taylor’s guitar barks out a solo and interacts with the strings, the scope of the view widens towards the loneliest of climaxes, Jagger wondering whether to hide or dream, confused about whether the two things are the same. The music finally opts for the dream and dissolves; piano and guitar four years ahead of Eno’s Another Green World – or perhaps it’s simply “Albatross” from a different perspective – and Buckmaster’s oboe mourns over the reddening orchestral carpet; he just looked around, and he was gone, or better still, coming back, with Jagger’s deceptively subtle paraphrasing of Mel Tormé’s “Comin’ Home Baby.” The Stones never close the door on themselves, or at least Jagger wouldn’t let them – Keith Richards was particularly adept at being Keith Richards at the time, and so isn’t on the album that much – and although there is no real conceptual bent to Sticky Fingers, it stands simple and proud as an example of what rock music, at its best, was, and is, capable of delivering at its peak, despite death, wind, illusions and sugarings.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 15:57
Tuesday 1 June 2010
(#90: 17 April 1971, 3 weeks)
Track listing: The Tears Of A Clown (Smokey Robinson & The Miracles)/War (Edwin Starr)/The Love You Save (Jackson 5)/Ball Of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today) (The Temptations)/It’s All In The Game (Four Tops)/Heaven Help Us All (Stevie Wonder)/It’s Wonderful (To Be Loved By You) (Jimmy Ruffin)/Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (Diana Ross)/Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours (Stevie Wonder)/Stoned Love (The Supremes)/Abraham, Martin And John (Marvin Gaye)/Still Water (Love) (Four Tops)/Forget Me Not (Martha Reeves & The Vandellas)/It’s A Shame (Detroit Spinners)/I’ll Say Forever My Love (Jimmy Ruffin)
Scanning the histories of these sixteen songs, it is astonishing how many of them Berry Gordy absolutely hated. He couldn’t abide “Stoned Love,” was baffled by “Ball Of Confusion,” released “War” only under sufferance, even detested the extensive spoken word elements of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”…and these are only for starters. One might wonder exactly what Gordy wanted in 1971; his “children” were displaying the vexing habit of growing up, and therefore growing away from him; he wanted absolute entryism, a flawlessly smooth showbiz empire to show the stuck-up whites that he and his could better them at any game. He didn’t want uppity grumbles about politics and emotional ambiguity, but by now it was really too late for him to change any of the new movements; this was the last of the Chartbusters series to reach number one, and subsequent volumes, with their increasing quantity of filler, increasing reliance on Northern Soul-revived obscurities and increasing gaps in time between their release, demonstrated that Motown had slowly slipped from its peak, at least as far as Britain was concerned – even if arguably greater artistic peaks were to come from at least a few of the aforementioned uppity grumblers.
Given that Motown’s presence in the British singles chart still maintained a balance between old and new, it is fitting that Volume 5 should begin with “The Tears Of A Clown,” a remixed 1967 album track sent to number one in Britain – and, in Britain’s wake, the USA – largely through the efforts of Tony Blackburn. Based on a melodic idea by Stevie Wonder (with the aid of Hank Cosby), Smokey was taken by the fairground carousing of the melody and thought about Pagliacci in reverse, and its great contrasts between heady stomps and mocking flute/bassoon unisons reinforce a theme which keeps resurfacing throughout the album, namely, do these singers really mean what they are singing, and are they telling us the truth? Certainly Smokey’s ebullient vocal does a sufficiently convincing job to make us think that in fact he really is happy being free and footloose; his protestations towards sadness do not venture much beyond his self-imposed notion of “camouflage” – as opposed to the heartfelt duping behind “Tears Of A Clown” – and despite the return of that erstwhile Then Play Long thematic mainstay, The Lonely Room, he sounds as though he’s straining to make her believe that really he’s sad.
There is, however, no ambiguity, emotional or otherwise, about “War.” Originally conceived by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong as a Temptations album track, the original performance stirred enough radio interest to warrant demands for 45 release. However, both Gordy and the Temptations themselves were worried about the impact on the Copacabana demographic of their audience, and after much protestation Gordy offered a compromise to Whitfield; yes, it can go out as a single, but you need to re-record it with another artist. And so the storefront preacher Edwin Starr unleashed a veritable vocal hell on the song; the Temptations’ original is lithe, relatively minimalist in its arrangement, and although Paul Williams and Dennis Edwards do the song good service, they don’t get anywhere near the brimstone barks of Starr, and his presence also served to raise Whitfield’s game. Starr’s “War” is a tumescent thunderbolt of a pop record, thrashing out at the listener, its rhythms always in the forefront but never that obvious, multiple percussions as dislocating as any of Sanders’ or Shepp’s work of the period, wailing guitars, tight-arsed bass, and a parade ground sandpit of a rhythmic backdrop over which Starr roars for peace, love and understanding, although his snarling of words like “die” and “undertaker” suggest – as Frankie Goes To Hollywood would pick up later in their version – a strange joy at the approaching apocalypse.
Meanwhile the bubblegum soul of the Jackson 5 was looking ever curiouser. In “The Love You Save,” although the dynamic cut and thrust of their first two hits remains snappingly in place, and despite Jermaine’s would-be reassuring “adult” vocal, we really are faced with a strange song for a twelve-year-old boy to be singing; indeed, despite the opening references to schooldays, it transpires that Michael has graduated, but his Other is playing around, and he’s warning her about transgressing the line in love’s sand. Michael and Jermaine hurl grenades of would-be ominosity (“They’ll label you a FLIRT!,” “They’ll turn your name to DIRT, OHHHH!!”) in the pre-empting manner of the O’Jays’ “Backstabbers,” even though her other would-be lovers – there are references to Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Graham Bell and Christopher Columbus in the second verse - seem only to exist in Michael’s mind. The multiple “STOP!”s, and indeed the underlying rhythm footsteps, are direct descendents of “Stop! In The Name Of Love,” but here there is something that might, if untreated, become terrifying.
For truly terrifying, however, this six-year-old writer found it hard to top “Ball Of Confusion” worming its way out of the transistor radio in late 1970. Possessing the same snake-coil reflexes as “War,” although far more subtly expressed (hell, Whitfield thinks, we’re gonna put out a hardcore political record whether you like it or not; suck on THAT, Gordy!), “Ball” is as confused as its wan sense of determination. Nothing is allowed to settle, not the drums (which fade in and out of the picture, crashing through the choruses’ climaxes, patting and tutting in and out of Wah-Wah Watson’s pure tones and Bob Babbitt’s implacable bassline) and certainly not the vocals (a round robin for Edwards, Williams, Eddie Kendricks and Melvin Franklin) which slam from channel to channel. Perhaps inspired more by Dylan than the Last Poets – the grainy harmonica, the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” sense of a random shopping list of woes – the song nevertheless points the way towards hip hop with its internal rhymes, its unstoppable momentum; burning cities and Mod clothes, youth suicides and the Beatles’ new record, they are all thrown in as signifiers of no one knows what, an accumulation of indeterminate particles which might recreate or destroy us – and all the way through, the frightening, impassive tick-tock bass voice of Melvin Franklin responds to all these darts of signal, like the Man, or even a machine, with a mechanical “And the band played on.” On this record, the Temptations sound as though they are setting the clock and the fuses to countdown towards final demolition.
Respite had to follow, and so did the Four Tops, with an easy, shuffling treatment of a song they must have tackled innumerable times in their early doowop/supper club days; perhaps everyone’s future is looking dim, but don’t worry, the four singers – and this is a rare occurrence of all four Tops taking turns at lead vocal – reassure us that this is all a pattern, that it will make some sort of sense; just be patient.
But then Stevie, approaching twenty-one and no longer “Little,” enters with another prayer for life that in its quiet, despairing way is maybe scarier than “Ball Of Confusion”; in “Heaven Help Us All,” he sees the world falling into hell, and what can he do to stop it but to keep praying? The gospel choir falls into fulsome place as Wonder, with serene fatality, numbers the horrible shapes which the seventies are taking; “I pray the Lord to keep,” he sings, nearly finally, possibly only to himself, “Keep hatred from the mighty, and the mighty from the small.” This was not what the architect of the Sound of Young America cared to hear, but Wonder had come of age, was determined to seize full power. Jimmy Ruffin offers comparative simplicity with “It’s Wonderful,” with its indeed wonderful reflections on angels and pride, walking and talking, the end of his brokenhearted lonely life, but you can still hear that pained yearning through the descending minor key bridge – straight out of the 1966-7 Four Tops – before Ruffin manfully grasps for the branch above the swirling river (the lovely piercing string figure which answers his “suddenly”) and learns to live again.
Side one closes with the only appearance on this album by Diana Ross. Although she had previously recorded “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” with the Supremes and the Temptations – see entry #52 – writers Ashford and Simpson were keen to rework the song for her, and emotionally it is one of the most overwhelming experiences on the record, even in its 45 edit. To appreciate the full effect of what can only be called a heartfelt tribute to souls lost, it is necessary to hear all six minutes and four seconds of the full album track; Ross hardly begins to sing until the song is almost over – instead she is thinking aloud, conversing with spirits, rounding up and intensifying her emotions, because she is trying to reach somebody, and I don’t necessarily think it’s just (or at all) her former Supremes comrades; remember the gleeful but tough optimism of the Marvin and Tammi original, then think of it recast in a world where all of a sudden there was no longer a Tammi – hers is the ghost which stalks this record – and Marvin was, albeit temporarily, completely lost. Ross is arguing, virtually crying, for wrecked souls to live, be reborn, not to give up, and everything builds up towards that shattering climax – we are waiting for that cathartic “OWWW!!” all the way through – as castles of pink sand build up, and an angels’ chorus bids the widowed spirit to continue with life. It isn’t something that can be approached without understanding what 1967 meant, and still means, to so many people.
Side two begins with Wonder’s resolute howl of optimism: “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” – it was a catchphrase of his mother’s, who duly got a co-writing credit on the song – with its sitar-like rainstorms of guitar and its hard-won funkiness, sets the path clear for the remarkable adventures that the musician would undertake throughout the rest of this decade; it is Stevie, more so than the Jacksons, who offers the most embraceable and realistic future for Motown in this collection.
“Stoned Love” was supposed to be entitled “Stone Love” but the misprint was left in (much to the chagrin of Gordy, who complained about drug subtexts) and it’s one of the post-Ross Supremes’ greatest triumphs; co-written and produced by that great unsung Motown backroom hero, Frank Wilson, its deliberate echoes of “Where Did Our Love Go?” (those footsteps), saunter up to a staggering hit of soul-pop revolution; with words like “Rise up and take your stand,” one can even imagine an unlikely forebear of Muse’s “Uprising,” although the frenetic joy of the record has to be tempered by the fact that the woman who’s singing about life being too short is Jean Terrell – Tammi’s sister.
And then the delayed entry of Marvin himself – hear his definitive version of McCartney’s “Yesterday” from the same album, That’s The Way Love Is – on a version of Dion’s 1968 hit which didn’t even gain a full release in Gaye’s home country. When he recorded his reading, Tammi hadn’t quite gone yet, but Gaye knew she hadn’t long to live, and every drop of pregnant grief he lets slip throughout his “Abraham, Martin And John,” is nearly unbearable. David van der Pitte’s arrangement is empathetic – the final eerie cascade downwards after Gaye’s trembling “die” in his final “the good, they die young,” the subtle paraphrase of “Battle Hymn Of The Republic” in the instrumental break – but Gaye seems to be singing in lamentation of himself as well as the sixties and hope; this of course helped propel him towards “What’s Going On?,” the song and, eventually, the historic album, an album which is more about a dazed semi-survivor trying to recognise his position in the world as that world seems to collapse in on his centre – how many times does he invoke his brother? – a record which perhaps represented Motown’s highest peak, despite Gordy’s continued grumbles.
In fact, in light of Gaye singing in hurt and grief for lost masters, the transition from “Abraham” to “Still Water” is heartstopping – the opening, booming “WALK WITH ME” is almost akin to the spirit of King responding (for a comparable heart-skipping experience, hear the moment on Norman Jay’s Giant 45 compilation when Tom Clay’s pioneering sound collage of “Abraham” and “What The World Needs Now Is Love” goes, after the final “I think it’s when somebody is sick,” straight into Aretha’s “I Say A Little Prayer”). Co-written by Smokey and Frank Wilson, “Still Water” came out ahead of the Beach Boys’ “Surf’s Up” but one can’t help but wonder whether there was some influence at work here; in the floating harmonies, the flashes of French horn and flute, the general air of a meditation about love rather than a discrete song; unlike, say, Jimmy Ruffin, Levi Stubbs doesn’t overplay the happiness/contentment card; he knows that what he’s got is deep and lasting, doesn’t need to brag or boast (“Click my glass or say a toast” – we really are getting very close to “Surf’s Up” territory here); nothing needs to be underlined, we just KNOW, and it’s peacefully profound, as well as being one of the most avant-garde singles Motown ever released (see the balancing B-side “Still Water (Peace),” or, better still, the full Still Waters Run Deep album).
“Forget Me Not” was a long-forgotten 1968 US B-side, long-forgotten that is except in the clubs of Northern England, and it’s a bizarre track; bookended by a Scottish pibroch riff – I kid you not – we are presented with a mirror image of Jimmy Ruffin, departing on his train in full kit, in “Farewell Is A Lonely Sound”; here Martha Reeves is the girl watching her beloved sail away to the war, and despite the tune’s general brightness, there is something of a dread in her voice, as though she knows she may never see him again except to bury him – “Remember Old Joe’s, our favourite song, our table for two?” Still, her inherent optimism wins out (“Back to each other’s arms our love’s gonna guide us”) and the song works as, effectively, the prequel to “Home Lovin’ Man” – those wives and lovers who never gave up hope, eagerly grasping the rope.
The Spinners – the original UK 45 of “It’s A Shame” credited “The Motown Spinners” and they subsequently became known here as “The Detroit Spinners” to avoid confusion with the popular Liverpool folk group of the same name – were on Motown virtually from the beginning before they finally scored a hit, and it is indeed a real shame that they didn’t do better; GC Cameron’s lead vocal is little short of miraculous, although the probing spirit of co-writer Stevie Wonder continues to shine and develop; the references to “the love we tried to make” may be a sideways nod at Freda Payne’s contemporaneous smash “Band Of Gold,” written and produced by a pseudonymous (for legal reasons) Holland-Dozier-Holland, but Cameron’s singing is the main event; he begins cool and gathered, but gradually begins to lose control – you marvel at how seldom in pop songs that the man gets to complain about the way he’s being treated – until he finally sounds like a woman, howling, inchoate, barking exasperated grunts, betrayal beyond articulation. When the Spinners moved on to Atlantic and Philadelphia, however, Cameron preferred to stay in Detroit and recommended as a replacement his cousin, Philippé Wynne.
Then the Jackson 5 return for their biggest hit – and, barring “Grapevine” and “Endless Love,” Motown’s biggest worldwide selling single. “I’ll Be There” did the desired job of showing their audience that they were capable of more than bubblegum – as if these first three disturbed singles could be so simply dismissed – but the 1967 harpsichord and Michael’s fluffed (but retained) Levi Stubbs/”Reach Out I’ll Be There” tribute (“Just look over your shoulders!”) set the song as another farewell to the sixties. Nor is the song actually that reassuring; note the veiled threat in its final verse – “If you should ever find someone new, I know he’d better be good to you/’Cause if he doesn’t…I’LL BE THERE.” They have parted but he is clearly keen to re-establish, or never break, the relationship; in essence Michael may already be crying to save himself.
Finally, and taking our leave of Motown for far too long a time, Ruffin, the unlikely British-only Motown hero, sings again of renewed love and devotion; the teenage Kevin Rowland certainly took note of “I’ll Say Forever” since fourteen years later he would use the song as the centrepiece of his “Reminisce Part 2” on Don’t Stand Me Down. But he’s uncertain; she’s been talking to her friends (about whom Ruffin sings as though they were the deadliest of cancers – “YOUR FRIENDS!”) and he serially rebuffs all the tropes which the rest of the album has been building up – “I don’t care!,” “I wasn’t there!” – as well as providing the record’s most curious and singular image: “The look of love is planted in my eye” (Martin Fry was approaching thirteen). The vertiginous descending strings in the first half of each bridge suggests a wish to jump off the bridge, but Ruffin doesn’t give up – “Forever is a long time!” he badgers his Other. “Oh PLEASE don’t ask YOUR FRIENDS!” You finally wonder, as with Smokey at the beginning, exactly what he is hiding. Nothing about these songs is to be taken for granted, and that irresolute confusion would finally prove too strong for this tale; Volume 6 includes the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination,” on its surface a return to the smoochy close harmony ballads of old, before we realise that the girl Kendricks is mad about doesn’t even know he exists, even as he watches her pass by his window. It would take some while before Motown got around to finding its own way home.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 18:58