Monday 26 July 2010


(#98: 25 September 1971, 1 week)

Track listing: Fireball/No No No/Demon’s Eye/Anyone’s Daughter/The Mule/Fools/No One Came

Somebody switches on the air conditioning in the studio, and so the first sound we hear is an unearthly whoosh; perhaps the suspended spirits of “A Day In The Life” returning to active life, or, more pertinently, a reminder that Ritchie Blackmore was once a member of Joe Meek’s repertory company. This is hard rock, for sure, but a very different stripe from that of Sabbath; Ian Paice’s drums rush into the title track with surprising, deft lightness – suggesting rhythm through imaginative cymbal and snare triplet redeployment rather than thumping it down, he is something of a Billy Higgins to Bill Ward’s Ed Blackwell – and Roger Glover’s bass walks confidently astride the rhythm, for example, in the transition leading up to the third verse, or heaving, seasick, over Paice’s paradiddles in the final chorus. Ian Gillan’s vocal is controlled, curious, and even though it yields the expected scream at song’s climax, there is nothing gratuitous or exhibitionist about his performance; it is recalled voodoo rock ‘n’ roll (“Magic woman wreckin’ up my soul” – that old Wolfian duality). Jon Lord’s Hammond moves with a rather stiff confidence between stealthy free swirls and square-cut “Land Of 1000 Dances” quotes. Blackmore’s guitar stays in the middleground, watching, waiting. The whole comes across as a seemingly more agitated but simultaneously more contented “Paranoid.” The tambourine under the final organ drone tells us, as if we didn’t already know, that this is an uncommon brand of group.

Fireball took most Purple fans by surprise on its release, even though the group’s fanbase was by now large enough to send it to the top in its second week of release. Where were the “steamers” and “belters” – the record’s “Speed King” or “Child In Time”? And what the hell did they think they were doing with “Anyone’s Daughter”? Fireball also became the latest example of a recurrent Then Play Long phenomenon where a classic album does remarkably well, building up a gradual following, but never quite well enough in any given week to top the chart – whereas the follow-up, with that entire following now alerted, ends up being the album written about. Deep Purple In Rock remains a set text for rock students to this day, and although it remained on the chart for some sixteen months, it never got past #4 (as a result of Simon and Garfunkel, various Beatles and Black Sabbath). From all accounts – most adroitly summed up in Simon Robinson’s magnificent essay for the 25th anniversary CD reissue – the group were coming under some pressure following their newly found success, not least to provide an equally successful sequel to In Rock. Furthermore, a hectic touring schedule meant that they had little time actually to write or record new material; most of Fireball was done on the turn of a dime, at various studios in various locations whenever they could find a day or a week off. There was the expected retreat to the country – a rented farmhouse in Devon – but the band spent far more time in the pub than working. Everything took its toll; Blackmore and Gillan growled “I’m the gaffer” at each other at regular intervals, there were illnesses, some psychosomatic and some not, and gigs ended up having to be cancelled in order to get some studio time.

The results are rather unexpected. Very rarely is Fireball a straightforward hard rock album; instead it is the sound of a group, already readily comfortable with each other (at least musically), trying out different things, new approaches. The rogue “Anyone’s Daughter” was actually the first track finished for the album, and you can hear the writer’s block tension slowly melting in the long tuning-up intro before Blackmore’s guitar and Lord’s piano happily gambol into a country-rock shaggy dog story straight out of John Wesley Harding, with Gillan doing Adam Faith as Budgie doing Dylan. Gillan in fact has great fun with the absurd lyric – “throwing up a brick,” “banged my head,” his asides of “Shame and torture,” “Yes I did – it was nice” – and Blackmore trots out a convincing Chet Atkins pastiche in his solo (perhaps he was remembering the Outlaws’ 1962 Dream Of The West album, although he himself didn’t become an Outlaw until the following year). “Whaddya think of that?” Gillan hiccups as Lord scribbles a hasty piano coda. A forlorn novelty? Possibly, but it did the trick of loosening the band up for working on the album proper.

Happily Gillan doesn’t take himself remotely seriously, especially when he’s being deadly serious; “No No No” is a great nose-up to straight society as well as a running commentary on band relations; the song sets itself up as a midtempo howdy-down boogie (but watch that unearthly Blackmore shiver at the beginning) before – amazingly – letting the funk in; Glover has ascribed Blackmore’s main influence on this track as Shuggie Otis, which makes perfect sense – the latter’s Inspiration Information, including the original of “Strawberry Letter 23,” was one of 1971’s big underground hits – as Blackmore again adopts a strategy of long, measured notes, as though peering at them in a gallery, while periodically hunching in and out of the group; very much in a Peter Green mood. A subtle titular chant builds up steam as Gillan races through all the options open to them, and mankind (“Is it getting better? No no no!/Do we love each other? No no no!/Must we wait forever? No no NO!!”). “Looking at them all, it feels good to be a freak!” he observes (see also, eventually, “Wham! Rap”). Gillan’s “No”s are alternately woebegone and defiant, and his ad libs (“not at all,” “it ain’t us”) ideally timed, dramatically. Lord’s Hammond solo is conventional but builds up very nicely; following a brief guitar/organ unison passage, Blackmore’s guitar begins to stutter under the final verse. Lord’s organ thrives under the last chorus, well offset by Paice’s abrupt explosive comments. Gillan issues the scream and grunt which bookend the truly liberated, and Blackmore meets him halfway to sign the song off.

“Demon’s Eyes” is the nearest the record gets to a “Black Night”-style stomper; it bears the same lumbering tempo. Gillan’s groan in each chorus is sublime – Ahab just having missed netting his Moby – and Blackmore’s deadpan five-note descent undercuts any suspicion of solemnity. Once more, the band, especially Lord, demonstrate an unexpected panache for funk, although Gillan’s complaints go all the way back to Jimmy Reed (“Slip ‘n’ slide round my bray-yay-yain!”). He gives a conspiratorial “You KNOW you’re insane” wink. Blackmore solos and now it’s Gillan’s turn to stutter – “Sli-eye-ide!,” “You’re SO-WOWOWOWOWWO!” in the manner of a mountain goat having just lost its footing on the Eiger. Blackmore keeps up relentlessly, like the most loyal of sherpas.

Side two offers three more exploratory setpieces. “The Mule” demonstrates that Purple still had more than one foot lodged in the late sixties; after electronic/percussive hisses, the tune comes in, very similar to Hendrix’s “Third Stone From The Sun” but with the drum pattern from “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Gillan doesn’t do that much here, but his one verse nails down a howl at modern slavery which any 1971 factory worker would immediately have understood. Lord’s Hammond phlanges and goes Eastern in a vaguely Floydian direction, but Blackmore quickly shakes up any space trip notions with some furious rock riffing, accompanied by Paice’s swift stickwork. Then the modal groove returns and Blackmore’s guitar reluctantly shudders into space. Following a final thematic statement, Lord’s now unadorned Hammond returns, with its ascending chords (into space, naturally), before it is wiped out by Paice’s thundering electrical storm of hailstones. The opening hisses return as a bookend, and as a return ticket.

“Fools” is the album’s most notable track; tick tock cymbals and patiently ruminative guitar and organ set the atmosphere, in a more forlorn variant on the intro to “Child In Time,” before the song erupts into being and Gillan utters more homilies on the dreadful state of 1971 humanity. After the first chorus the song breaks down into a hard drum/tambourine break – someone needs to sample it – before resurfacing into the broader skies of its second verse. Once more, Gillan is in agony – “It’s in my bray-ya-yain!,” echoed by four quick bars of 8/8 from Paice – and the second chorus is further outlined by some spectrally descending organ figures.

But then the song does something unexpected. The drum/shakers/tambourine breakbeat returns – Paice very slow and deliberate in his pacing – and Blackmore slowly rises out of the background, at first sounding as though in remembrance of Hank Marvin with his extended, doleful notes. But the main body of his solo has no real precedent in this tale; deploying the volume control pedals, his guitar stays low, mourning, like a ‘cello marooned in a spaceship, with self-accompanying drones. Heavy metal? This is more like the Mogwai/Do Make Say Think variety of post-rock, a quarter of a century ahead of schedule; the guitar detaches from its surroundings, its roots, takes flight. There is no body to the passage, and we are looking at more than simply a prelude to the Edge’s look-no-hands approach. Then the song rambles back into view – complete with “Hey Joe” paraphrases – Blackmore now snarling and sliding, his guitar’s teeth all a-chatter. The song then dies down to a processed, gnarled sequence of organ and guitar.

If “Fools” does suggest some kinship with Hendrix’s work on The Cry Of Love, then the closing “No One Came” suggests what I’ve suspected about this year of rock; namely, that there remains a great deal of mourning for the Seattle man. The song is a pacy rocker, almost “Stone Free,” but again with more funk in its petrol tank. Gillan has a fine time, semi-speaking his semi-coherent rant, with sparks flying at our ears like an occasionally observed welder (“Someone said, what’s he gonna turn out like?/Someone else said – never mind,” “I’m a freak,” “My pretty face just looked out of place”). Blackmore floats in and out of the song and Lord solos on the cliff face of the song’s downwardly helter-skeltering riff (or helter-skelping, given Gillan’s part-Glaswegian family origins). “WOOOAAAAIIII!” exclaims Gillan near the end. “Where’s my Robin Hood outfit?” he demands. The song appears to come to an end, but guitar and keyboards hang in suspended animation before Blackmore sweeps back into the main riff; the song fades out with backwards improv piano from Lord overriding the rhythm.

So what to make of Deep Purple as 1971 knew them? Although clearly coming out of the hard rock prism, their headspace is manifestly a different one from that of Sabbath, or even Zeppelin. They are more fleet of foot than the Sabs; all five had been around the block more than once and their approach has far more in common with a jazz or funk group than anything out of rock; think perhaps of a rockier variant on Booker T and the MGs. The content of Fireball, given its genesis, is necessarily haphazard and inconclusive, but its explorations are borne out of joy and natural curiosity. They have the chops, but, unlike ELP, don’t feel the need to display all of them simultaneously at any given second. In addition, Jon Lord’s keyboards clearly mark them out as different. Most importantly, there is an immense amount of humour in their work, a good-naturedness which belies their history of multiple spats. Jon Lord considers it a better record than In Rock; it is certainly the most overlooked of the great Purple trilogy of 1970-2 and the one most in need of urgent revisiting.

Tuesday 20 July 2010

The WHO: Who’s Next

(#97: 18 September 1971, 1 week)

Track listing: Baba O’Riley/Bargain/Love Ain’t For Keeping/My Wife/The Song Is Over/Getting In Tune/Going Mobile/Behind Blue Eyes/Won’t Get Fooled Again

If you think that this is a foolhardy, unfinishable project then consider Pete Townshend’s Lifehouse. It was going to be an interactive stage show, and a double album (at least), and a big budget film, and an example of proto-internet musician/audience barrier-breaking. And probably much else besides; there is a six-CD box set, the Psychoderelict project, a radio play, and a now discontinued website, each acting as depositories for whatever has been considered part of Lifehouse for the last forty years. I’m not certain that Townshend himself knows what it was all about, except that its central precept was that rock ‘n’ roll could save the world, that it could bring the world together in a blunt approximation of Meher Baba’s concept of the oneness of divinity (“Join together with the band”). The theatre aspect promised extraordinariness; a regular audience would assemble at the Young Vic theatre in Waterloo and the music and plot thrust would be worked out by the musicians and audience simultaneously. Furthermore, given the internet-anticipating concept of Townshend’s “Grid” – insulated techno-suits within which humans could interact with anyone or anything in the world – the proposal to feed the personal details of each member of the audience into a computer-cum-synthesiser, thereby giving them their own individual musical code, all culminating in a “universal chord” which would elevate everyone involved to a level approximating Godhood, was the most far-reaching, if also the most far-fetched, concept rock had yet thrown up. Exercises in demolishing the boundaries between artist and recipient, and between competence and incompetence, were the order of the adventurous 1971 day – Cardew’s The Great Learning, Centipede’s Septober Energy and (inevitably) Escalator Over The Hill all had similar aspirations in mind – but aesthetically and technologically, had it worked, Lifehouse would potentially have surpassed all of these. Tommy was a hard act to follow.

Not surprisingly, the enterprise pretty much broke down entirely, and nearly broke Townshend with it, and it was finally decided to shelve the concept, rescue the project’s best songs and make a straightforward Who album. Songs from Lifehouse continued to crop up on Who discs for several years to come (up to and including 1978’s Who Are You) but it is probably accurate to say that the haunting prospect of a Townshend gestamtkunstwerk is more alluring than anything that might actually have been realised at the time, and that, in its decidedly more modest ambition, Who’s Next manages to sum up all the thoughts and emotions that Townshend was nurturing in a far more direct and convincing way.

If Tommy was an extended attempt by Townshend to sum up his own life and facilitate and explain his delayed entry into adulthood, then Who’s Next sees both writer and band coming of age, maturing into an integrated entity which really no one in 1971 could match. Although Townshend had been steadily working towards the extended, grand statement since A Quick One, his ambitions sometimes obscured the power which the Who were able to generate as a working group (this is also why, for example, most recorded examples of large-group British jazz from the sixties onward tend to consist of constipated, confused “suites” which more often than not constrain and frustrate the musicians; it was the only way that the Arts Council would give them any money). In addition, the grand concepts tended on occasion to obscure Townshend’s status as the author of (in the opinion of this author) the most remarkable run of singles by any British group of the sixties, the Beatles, Stones and Kinks included. The 1965-7 run which spans “I Can't Explain” and “I Can See For Miles” works in terms of aesthetic power and urgent “now” reportage; Townshend is ceaselessly looking outwards, towards his audience, wanting to understand and empathise with them – these songs completely avoid sentimentality, oneupmanship and navel-gazing, and Townshend’s character studies don’t have the “at one remove” get-out clause of Ray Davies (although nobody could doubt Davies’ capacity for empathy as a writer or performer); via Daltrey’s as yet untutored voice, you feel that they are singing to you and for you – and, sometimes (“My Generation”) at those who would rather not listen. Although generally a little too hard-boiled for the real mass market – the Who have yet to score their first British number one single – songs like “Substitute” and “I’m A Boy” converse with their listeners while happily inverting expectations in terms of subject matter, song structure and delivery. And their influence fed back at an early stage; the feedback on “I Feel Fine” was inspired by the Who, as was the rumble of “Ticket To Ride,” while “Helter Skelter” was an attempt to outblast the terminal ecstasies of “I Can See For Miles” (which latter effectively invents My Bloody Valentine).

But the group, and specifically Townshend, grew up, and slightly away from their core audience; The Who Sell Out remains their most consistent (and most sheerly entertaining) long-playing record but its pre-postmodern tactics (mock radio adverts, the deconstruction of the record as it goes along) confused many. Still, in its final moments the record gave birth (literally) to Tommy, and Townshend was able to hone his skills sufficiently to develop a coherent suite of songs (which, despite the subsequent stage productions and film, still works best when played as an integrated and committed group).

Rather than the humbled compromise of a follow-up that it must have seemed to Townshend at the time, however, the strengths of Who’s Next lie in the record’s humility, combined with its not at all paradoxical openness and willingness to embrace its audience. The cover finds them stranded in a Northern slagheap – not Sheffield, as the CD booklet avows, but Easington Colliery in County Durham, the scene of a famous mining disaster in 1951 when an explosion in the pit killed eighty-three workers. They are standing around a large, grey monolith and indeed have just micturated on it (or such was the intent; when it came to shooting the photo, the band found they couldn’t go, and thus splashed water had to be used as a substitute). No doubt 2001 was on their mind, but their stance is not so much a satire as a regretful commentary on where and how humanity had washed up. It also signifies a complete lack of bullshit, which comes as a refreshing contrast following the grandiose fence-sitting exhibited by some recent Then Play Long entries, while the music sets forth a genuine sense of musical adventure (again, in marked contrast to the superficial modernity of some of its immediate predecessors).

There is, for instance, really no precedent for “Baba O’Riley,” one of the great rock album opening tracks; certainly synthesisers were gradually moving into common parlance but here the VCS3 and ARP synthesisers are used as a central propulsive force rather than mere decoration. The title nods to both Meher Baba and the systems music composer Terry Riley, hence the loop – actually played, as is the bookending loop on the closing track, on a Lowrey organ – with its minute but evolving melodic and rhythmic differentials. But why one of the great rock album opening tracks? Because it remembers to roll, because it doesn’t play all of its cards in its first fifteen seconds, and because, as the harbinger of an album, it announces, with far less fanfare and fuss than Lifehouse would have managed, that there is a story to be told. Note how a very grand piano introduces the song’s riff, how Keith Moon’s drums uncannily stumble into the picture – Moon has the astuteness to drag the tempo slightly behind the chords, like the teenage escapees of the song attempting to shake off their ball and chain – how Entwistle’s bass lumbers into vision to provide the song with its unshakable foundation, how Daltrey – an older, more formed but no less vital voice – grasps the implications of “Out here in the fields” and “I don’t need to be forgiven” immediately, and finally, how Townshend’s guitar does not enter into the song until the second verse. In contrast to the homecoming cravings of other recent entries, “Baba O’Riley” reintroduces us to the concept of collective escape (“Don’t look past my shoulder/The exodus is here”) while remembering a fond and not too distant youthful urge – the “My Generation” reference of “Let’s get together/Before we get much older” (in other words, “we” might still die young, but it’s not going to be by our own hand). Amidst all this, the calming, penitent voice of Townshend surfaces: “Don’t cry/Don’t raise your eye/It’s only teenage wasteland,” which Daltrey then joyfully tears asunder, turning it into an anti-anthem. Townshend offers a patient, meditative guitar solo which is rapidly cut off by his own down-slamming piano. “They’re all WASTED!!” Daltrey finally, and happily, barks – no moodily blue sops here – before East of Eden’s Dave Arbus and his violin, which have been subtly rising up within the texture of the song for a good thirty seconds, lead the group into an accelerando Celtic jig which jitters to a decisive orgasm.

Where the Stones of 1971 existed in their own hermetically happy universe, the Who make us realise that they wouldn’t have a universe were it not for us paying attention to them. “Bargain,” introduced by acoustic guitar and backwards electric before Moon’s whorls of percussion crash in like a mislaid Soviet submarine, is a declaration of self-lacerating desire – “I’d gladly lose me to find you,” owns up Daltrey, before proposing the definitive sacrifice: “To win you I’d stand naked, stoned and stabbed.” Note the double alliteration and the imagery which hardly turns up elsewhere in this sequence of records. In each chorus there are two “the best [bargain] I ever had”; the first Daltrey whimpers in recollection of his 1965 self, the second he roars in complete self-confidence. As with “Baba O’Riley,” there is a mid-song pause for Townshend thought, which leads into a sequence of unison melody for acoustic guitar and synthesiser which could easily pass for Neu! or Robert Wyatt or Stereolab were it not for Moon’s restless drums; he will not let us become complacent, or settle back. Much of the marvel of Who’s Next, indeed, relies on the best-recorded drumming on any Who record – Moon’s work reveals its true three-dimensionality, ricocheting around the speakers, emphasising his debt to Elvin Jones and Phil Seamen, his determination not to beat on the beat (which he hardly ever does), his cunning deployment of triplets and quarters. Guitar thrashes then lead us back to the main song, and then the sequence is repeated, with the song finally settling in quietude. One always gets the feeling that the band are listening intently to each other, which wasn’t always the case in 1971 rock.

“Love Ain’t For Keeping” and Entwistle’s “My Wife” are comparatively minor pieces but both Daltrey and Townshend have fun with the Faces mid-tempo acoustic slack boogie of the former, whose lyrics marry the semi-abstraction of “Flowers In The Rain” with the who-gives-a-fuck abandonment of the Small Faces’ “The Universal” – he’s lying on the grass and it’s raining, but enjoy the sepia and the springtime and the black ash from the foundry, because none of it, and therefore he, will be around forever. “My Wife” in contrast is a hysterical shaggy dog story where a hapless Entwistle, who’s been messing around, is scared of his other half catching up with him and doing serious harm (“…and a machEEEEEEEEne gun!”) but is also one of the album’s finest performances; as a power trio workout one can see quite clearly the road which will eventually lead to the Jam, but note the completely unexpected blossoming of synthesiser midway through, and the alternately parping and farting brass figures.

“The Song Is Over,” however, is a major piece; Laura Nyro piano chords (a terrific performance by guest keyboardist Nicky Hopkins) and low-key guitar set the scene as Townshend takes the vulnerable initial lead vocal; despite the eventual entrance of drums and guitar, and the song’s intermittent aggressive takeovers by Daltrey, piano and drums eventually tumble into nowhere – Townshend’s “But it stopped” is answered by Moon angrily snapping the wish shut. As powerfully as, but more subtly than, Lennon’s “God,” it says farewell to the sixties, to the fa├žade of togetherness (hear how the baffled “She tried to find me” finally decays into the unreachable “Can’t hope to find me”) and acknowledges the process of ageing (“They’re all ahead now”). A whining synthesiser signals the point where Hopkins breaks free, working up some steam on his piano before the song reluctantly heads back to its solemn base. The final verse quotes lines from “Free And Easy,” the 1970 song which inspired the initial idea for Lifehouse (although not included on Who’s Next proper, it does appear as a bonus track on the CD release). Moon’s ominously thundering drums conclude this remarkable performance, and (on the LP original) side one.

Side two finds the Who limbering and loosening up somewhat, at least in part; “Getting In Tune” and “Going Mobile” are both lightly optimistic songs. In the former Hopkins’ extremely quiet piano opens the song before a roving bass joins him and the song crashes into the power of being. Again the empathy between the musicians is demonstrated; the symbiotic echoing of vocal harmonies with piano and bass before moving back into rock, the repeated ascending, hopeful chords, as though trying to dig their way towards heaven, Moon’s doubling of the tempo in the song’s final lap – and the song itself is all about the process of songwriting, although in truth its “getting in tune with the straight and narrow” is the core of the album’s philosophy; Townshend would not have been capable of the tenderness that he exhibits as a writer and performer in “Bargain” or “The Song Is Over” even two years previously. It’s about growing up and facing the prospect of approaching extended life without digging a complacent trap for oneself (and halfway through the song there is even a quick nod to “Won’t Get Fooled Again”; this album still isn’t thrown together at random). Townshend again takes lead vocal on “Going Mobile” as the group (again, largely acoustically) set up a simmering rock mood which foreshadows Presley’s “Burning Love”; there is a slow, measured middle eight, and then rhetorical stops and starts. Townshend’s living it up – “Yee-hoo!,” “Beep beep!,” the referential cry of “Taxman!” in the second middle eight – and loving the freedom of the road, and by extension the more flexible concept of “home,” home being wherever and whatever makes you feel the happiest, even if one does end up an over-fifty “hippie gypsy.” Townshend’s command to “MOOOVE it!” dovetails perfectly into his guitar solo, which rapidly strides into Hendrix territory with furious wah-wah fanfaring over a torrent of drums from Moon. Home is exactly what you make it, even if it is a Ken Kesey variant on Anthony Burgess’ Dormobile.

But then we reach the album's starkest song. Listening to the forceful harmonies which respond to Daltrey’s pleas to be understood and loved in “Behind Blue Eyes,” we could almost be listening to the Moody Blues, except that Hayward and Lodge would never venture to offer such homilies as “AND I BLAME YOU” and “My love is vengeance,” let alone entreaties in the nature of “If I swallow anything evil/Put your finger down my throat”; this is an authentic working-class cry – the protagonist knows he’s a bit of a fuck-up, quick to use his fists and slow to think, but he wants to know and learn better, desperate not to be misunderstood; the dichotomy is further underlined by the explosion of electricity and tempo into the song’s second half, where Daltrey switches to a hissy Eden Kane growl. The song then returns to its initial acoustic lament, but the closing group harmonies are undermined by Moon’s brief but furious coda; no other rock drummer could make his kit sound quite as angry as Moon.

At last, we reach the other end of the “revolution” telescope, and what a relief to feel and absorb the full power of the real “Won’t Get Fooled Again” after the previous entry, thus demonstrating that folk art, in order to speak to folk and be an art, has to reach back out towards its listeners rather than passively reflecting their preferences. As with “Baba O’Riley” the song dives and curls on a Lowrey organ made to sound like a processed synthesiser (but played live in the studio by Townshend and then phased). Nothing else in 1971 rock – certainly not Tarkus – approached this adventurous gesture, and it makes the explosion of the band into the song proper all the more liberating and enticing. There are deliberate references to “Street Fighting Man” – ah, but we now have our children to consider; did we really believe we were going to be the last generation? – and “Revolution,” and while Townshend’s spirit for revolution is not diminished, his viewpoint is infinitely more realistic. Daltrey offers his most exultant and exuberant vocal on the album – his “they deci-ey-eided” harks back again to the days of “I’m A Boy” – and Entwistle’s bass is miraculous, with his glorious, cartwheeling James Jamerson descents through the first half of each chorus. Moon plays as though he were Edmond O’Brien in the final moments of D.O.A. Despite the song’s slight emotional ambiguity – Daltrey very pointedly sings “don’t get fooled again” rather than “won’t” in each chorus – the mood is an upbeat but unbreakable resolve to make music and society matter again; the lost sea of the extended organ loop returns for a long, pondering time in the middle of the song before (via a nod from Moon towards Ringo’s solo on “The End”) Daltrey leaps back in with his ebullient, tenement-cracking “YEEEEAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!”s. The group knows that it’s all cosmetic on the outside and that history is foredoomed to repeat itself – “And the parting on the left/Is now the parting on the right” – but refuses to be browbeaten into received notions of normality. Instead, they look back, but constructively – “Pick up my guitar and play/Just like yesterday” – ushering in some lively group passages where Townshend joyfully returns to Chuck Berry (while dropping hints of Hendrix throughout his two solos) and the rhythm falls in with him as naturally as Creedence; the wonderful fool still believes that rock ‘n’ roll will save us all. “Meet the new boss!” roars Daltrey at the coda. “Same as the old boss!” Or so some would want you to think – but they’re clearly having none of it; the revolution has to start within ourselves but we have to be capable of reaching out and touching our neighbours and colleagues with the same reddening fervour. And the album crashes towards a triumphant close; you and we have saved rock ‘n’ roll. The Who’s outlook may be rationalist, but there’s nothing cold here; they are a naturally warmly rational group, and Who’s Next was, and is, a decisive punch in the face of hedging bets, settling for twelfth best, because it dares to suggest that nothing worthwhile is ever finishable, simply because humanity, if treated properly, could still, if it so wished, go on forever. The house of achieved life is now lived in, and the waves of Quadrophenia will beckon two years hence, but still the Mod rises from the ruined waves – it’s too late to go back, but far too late to stop with the now.

Monday 12 July 2010

VARIOUS ARTISTS: Top Of The Pops Volume 18

 (#96: 21 August 1971, 3 weeks)

Track listing: Get It On/River Deep, Mountain High/Me And You And A Dog Named Boo/Don’t Let It Die/Tonight/Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep/Co-Co/La-La Means I Love You/Street Fighting Man/Tom-Tom Turnaround/Black And White/Won’t Get Fooled Again

No, this isn’t Groundhog Day, although you would be forgiven for thinking that; seven of the songs on Hot Hits 6 reappear here, and the competition was obviously fierce. The tracks don’t bear extended analysis in or of themselves, and I will merely say that overall this is a “better” record than Hot Hits 6 in that it is technically more competent and more readily achieves its central aim of sounding as much like the originals as possible, although it should be understood that all such assessments are relative. Of Martin Jay, the chief male session singer on the record, it can be said that, if nothing else, he tries his best; his Bolan on “Get It On” sounds in places like Paul Haig though not especially Bolanesque, his attempt at doing Daltrey on “Won’t Get Fooled” is foolhardy but brave – those “yeaaaaahhhh!”s can’t really cut it, but then he hasn’t lived Daltrey’s life – and (if it is him) his Hurricane Smith on “Don’t Let It Die” and Roy Wood on “Tonight” bear a striking similarity in approach and phrasing to both Ian Hunter and David Bowie, so much so that I briefly wondered whether it was in fact Bowie paying the bills. Against this, it should be pointed out that the male voice on “River Deep” sings much more like David Stubbs than Levi Stubbs and that no one has satisfactorily worked out the wide vocal range required for “Tom-Tom Turnaround.” Of the female singers, one Jacqui Baxter makes the best impression, again on “River Deep,” while the performance of Barbara Kay – also the main vocalist on the Piglets’ “Johnny Reggae” – on “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep” is stunning, in the manner of a taser gun.

The doleful bass voice we hear at the beginning of “Tom-Tom” was that of Bruce Baxter, who along with producer Alan Crawford was the main man behind the Top Of The Pops series, undoubtedly the market leader in the soundalike compilation stakes. Turned out, as were the Hot Hits albums and all of their sundry imitators, on the turn of a dime, with each performer allegedly given fifteen minutes per song to nail down a usable vocal track, and a deadline of one week to put the entire album together (song selection, arrangements, recordings, mixing, packaging), they were of the “now”; a glance at the singles charts of August 1971 reveals that virtually all of these songs were climbing. So the prospective purchaser was presented with a deceptive but attractive package; with characteristic idiocy, the BBC had neglected to copyright the Top Of The Pops name and thus most buyers assumed that these records were directly connected with the show and that they must therefore be the original versions – but even if they weren’t, and they knew they weren’t, what did it matter? I’ll come back to that crucial question shortly. Nonetheless, here were all the hits of now – or at least the easiest hits to cover (no “In My Own Time” or “Devil’s Answer” to be found here) - conveniently and cheaply packaged for the impoverished or casual music consumer; none of the waiting time for singles sales to pass their peak before major labels would consider packaging the originals. For millions, or at any rate thousands, it was irresistible.

The brief sleevenotes were typically hyperbolic, claiming eternal fealty to their audience (“We’re so thrilled we want to climb the highest mountain and shout the good news to all the world. Thanks again, you lovely Pop fans…” exclaims the note to Volume 18), perhaps drawing them in on the friendly conspiracy; come on, they’re not the originals, but we’re doing our best, isn’t that what being British is all about, mucking in?

And maybe – accidentally? – developing or redeveloping the art and purpose of the English folk song, because there are ramifications here which can’t be avoided. Looking at the remarkable success of these records begs some key questions, not the least of which is: what, and who, is music for? Remember that in the days before "the record" took hold of the market – and some considerable way into those same days – the song, not the performer, was predominant, the thing which attracted us. Even when the singles chart commenced at the end of 1952, record sales were very much a minority; sheet music was dominant, a harking back to the time when every family’s parlour bore a piano, when a family would learn to play the piano, sing these songs in their own homes, or in the pub. Delving into the early days of the singles chart, the commonest phenomenon is that of several competing versions of the same song; everyone had their individual preferences, but the song was the common/unifying factor.

People like Elvis and the Beatles detoured us. We grew to think that now the artist was the thing which mattered, the song secondary, the growth of individualism, the decline of familial and societal bonds (even if few artists did more than Elvis or the Beatles to unite the disparate strands of their multiple followings). And we decided that we had to take music seriously, to pin it down and analyse it, connect it to what else was occurring in the world, anybody’s and everybody’s world.

But the non-specialist consumer continued to confound these ambitions, and in various important ways still does. What we have to bear most importantly in mind – and this is common sense rather than revolutionary theory – is that most of us aren’t that bothered about music. Oh, we love it, couldn’t really do without it – what do these forty million people who never listen to music do with, or to, themselves? – but, as Tim Rice pointed out long ago (his introductory note to the 1981 edition of the Guinness Book Of Hit Singles, to be exact), the sheep get separated from the goats at around the age of eighteen – most people then relegate music to the background of their lives, but a small number of obsessives remain spellbound by music, feel the need to go even deeper into music, to keep up with new developments, to retrace histories.

But we continue to sing songs and like songs, be momentarily transported by songs, and it’s that residue which provides the main bloodstream in which music is actually able to live and survive. To connect all of this back to things like the Top Of The Pops series, a song catches the ear of a potential record buyer, and they like the song – it’s catchy, stays in their mind, they unconsciously whistle it while making breakfast – but they’re not particularly concerned about the backstory of either the song or the singer, unless the latter is a major figure; and even then they’ll allow some slack. They can’t necessarily afford to buy everything that makes the Top 40 on a weekly basis, but if they see twelve current songs they know in an inexpensive and reasonably attractive package, they will settle for them. Operators such as Alan Crawford and Bruce Baxter recognised this semi-silent majority and aimed their product at them with fair accuracy.

What would an owner of Top Of The Pops Volume 18 do with the record? They’d keep it in the cabinet, bring it out as background music – this music is purposely designed not to intrude into the foreground, not even when attempting “Street Fighting Man” (of which latter it can again be said that the musicians do their manful best, although the vocal is taken too slowly and the original’s essential swing and bounce are absent) – have it on at parties, absently or not so absently sing along to it, maybe conveniently lose it in the attic a few years later before taking it down to the charity shop. Don’t forget, either, the substantial teenage and younger demographic; much of Volume 18 strikes me as essentially a children’s record, an introduction to pop rather than the thing itself, and that in itself is no bad thing.

One might also examine the kind of songs selected for these albums, and it has to be said that even the originals of most of these hits carry within them an inbuilt degree of anonymity; these songs, by and large, could have been sung by anybody – does anyone know what Lobo looks like, without looking up Google Images? The entangled web of individuality and freedom – if that’s not too much of a contradiction – described in “Me And You And A Dog Named Boo” does not carry the personal, as in a life recognisably lived, element inescapable throughout a record such as Carole King’s Tapestry, one of many albums omitted from this tale as a direct result of Top Of The Pops Volume 18, and yet an album which to date has probably and comfortably outsold all 92 volumes of Top Of The Pops combined. On Tapestry a sixties survivor, just wrenched out of a painful divorce and resettled in a new and happier marriage, looks back on what she, and by extension her audience, has been through, what we as a totality have seen, and comes to articulate and spellbinding terms with it; her revisits of “Natural Woman” and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” are truthful, candid and artistically and emotionally convincing, and her new songs – “It’s Too Late,” “Beautiful,” “Smackwater Jack,” the elastic ecstasy of “I Feel The Earth Move,” and so on – sparkle with a naturalness and communicativeness absent from the deliberately anonymised world of the soundalikes (there is an attempt at “It’s Too Late” on Top Of The Pops Volume 19, which, perhaps happily, will be of no concern here).

But “Co-Co,” “Tom-Tom Turnaround,” even the venerable “Black And White” (the latter is a considerable improvement on the Hot Hits reading, although the handclaps are overmiked, a problem which recurs throughout the album, and the singer unaccountably sounds like Jimmy Somerville in the fadeout) – what are these songs for? Where are their anchors? No offence to Messrs Chinn and Chapman, who at this stage were merely honest, jobbing songwriters looking to earn a living and build a reputation, writing off-the-peg hits for whoever wanted them, but beyond the existence of the song, I can’t connect to “Co-Co” (and neither, ultimately, could The Sweet, hence the necessary eventual move to “Blockbuster” etc.; the version here is more convincing than the Hot Hits one, with an actual steel drum present, albeit little or no bass, and an overpowering bellow of a male backing singer in the choruses). These are inoffensive, jaunty hits which catch the public’s attention for a few weeks and then gradually disappear, leaving little lasting impression (I can’t imagine, for example, that Roy Wood regards “Tonight” as one of his major songs, as opposed to a routine contract-filler to enable him and Jeff Lynne to get on with ELO). Of the “classics,” i.e. those songs associated with specific artists – “Get It On,” “Street Fighting Man,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again” – the approach simply doesn’t work because the original musicians’ personalities are so intensely entwined with the songs that any attempt to cover them note-for-note, gesture-for-gesture, inevitably results in nothing bar a grey Xerox.

But there are other technical issues at work here which inadvertently reveal new layers, and perhaps subtexts, to the Top Of The Pops methodology. In general these recordings are far closer to the originals than Hot Hits but there remains a post-Dunkirk can-do mindset where it is abundantly clear that these are Brits doing their best in reduced circumstances. The inevitable errors consequent to such a short turnaround time pay clear witness to this – the fumbling slide guitar on “Tonight,” the missed guitar glissandi in “Tom-Tom Turnaround,” the leaden rhythm and low voice flatness in “La-La Means I Love You” (although the latter is one of the better and more heartfelt attempts on the record; when given something they can get their teeth and heart into, i.e. Thom Bell’s proto-Philly soul, the musicians noticeably respond).

But, as I suspected with “Zoo De Zoo Zong,” there is another spirit at work here somewhere. Overwhelmingly the most problematic of these dozen tracks is “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep,” a half-decent song which here is absolutely, and I suspect intentionally, ruined. There is such a determinedly amateurish gait to the performance that I even briefly felt compelled to invoke the spirit of the Shaggs and/or Christian Wolff – two paths towards Escalator, with its insistence on non-professional singers mixing with experienced hands like Jack Bruce and Sheila Jordan – and wondered what a Portsmouth Sinfonia/Scratch Orchestra-type approach to these songs would have produced (or would Cardew, Bryars, Nyman, Eno & Co. have been just too damn knowing for it to work?). Broadly speaking, Barbara Kay sounds as though she’s taking the piss out of the song and Sally Carr’s original vocal, and her fellow musicians appear to agree with her; this is irredeemable crap and both you and we know it – but isn’t that verging on the unforgivably cynical? What does that say about musicians’ attitudes to their audience?

So these songs get liked for a little while, and then more songs come to replace them, and if they’re lucky some will get remembered; this is how most of us respond to and live with music, and there is the question of where the consumer/performer interface gets further eroded to be considered, but there is one more album of this type to consider, and I will reach my conclusion there. I am, however, aware that records such as this come close to undermining the purpose of the “music writer,” with our unavoidable insistence on probity and individuality on the part of artists (even when working as a collective), and raise the question of whether this approach conflicts with or rubs out the greater societal collectivity necessary to stop us from destroying ourselves. I don’t believe that those who bought these albums like music less than those of us who are supposed to know more about music, or that, worse, they don’t like music at all – merely that the way most people’s lives unfold means that they cannot commit all of the time and effort necessary to come to terms with questions such as: why this music or artist and not that one? Do income and social status fatally determine who is to be taken seriously when they say that they love music? Does the fact that I will probably never voluntarily listen to this record again – and yet revisit Tapestry countless times – mean that I am missing something, or does everything have to be more than just the song, or calories, or oxygen, to convert existence into living?

Monday 5 July 2010

The MOODY BLUES: Every Good Boy Deserves Favour

(#95: 14 August 1971, 1 week)

Track listing: Procession/The Story In Your Eyes/Our Guessing Game/Emily’s Song/After You Came/One More Time To Live/Nice To Be Here/You Can Never Go Home/My Song

As Graeme Edge has subsequently commented, “We had nerve in those days!” He was speaking of this somewhat nervous album’s opening track “Procession,” which is nothing less than a potted and very selective history of music, all leading up to and culminating in the Moody Blues. Even the Beatles were never that vainglorious. Phil Travers’ cover design was likewise unhelpful; a ghostly parade of musicians from varying eras and ages, again climaxing in the grinning, shaded, bearded visage of Graeme Edge and the rather more reticent Justin Hayward. The record label logo being child to the father of the man on the front cover brings its own suggestive ramifications.

Perhaps this presumption was a mask for the group’s increasing insecurity, but as a summation of musical or human history “Procession” hardly measures up to the standard subsequently set by the title track of the Revolutionary Ensemble’s extraordinary 1976 album The People’s Republic, not that the group was aiming for that kind of socio-political statement. In a shade under five minutes, we hear the standard beginning of time whooshes and whirls into which Edge edges with a prototype electronic drumkit – not exactly Tony Oxley’s Ichnos, but nevertheless the first such device to appear in this tale – approximating the sound of rhythm logs. Sundry grunting and sound effects give way to a single note treble clef run on piano – E-G-B-D-F (see what they did there?) – which in turn is followed by some proto-trip hop atmospherics and chain gang chants. For no great or minor reason this converts into a passage for sitar, tabla and flute in the Carry On Up The Khyber fashion before turning into the theme from long-forgotten early seventies kids’ series Mary, Mungo And Midge, followed by a quick “Greensleeves” paraphrase on harpsichord, then cavernous Bach organ, synthesised nineteenth-century romanticist strings, and finally – bypassing jazz, atonal music, country music and the blues – the triumphant emergence of Rock Guitar. All of this would have been marginally more arresting had it not been intermittently interrupted by a stern barbershop quintet intoning key words – “DESOLATION!,” “CREATION!,” “COMMUNICATION!” – at doubtless key points.

This evolutionary river sweeps into…a decent power pop rocker. “The Story In Your Eyes” is the record’s best, because clearest, song; despite the dread in Hayward’s voice as he sings “But I’m frightened for your children,” the general mood is upbeat, positive. However, there are also palpable signs of stiffening of creative muscle; everything now seems broadened out, simplified in order to project better across large stadia – the pelting Elton John-anticipating piano, the great waves of mellotron and Moog at regular intervals, still a shadow of early sixties Brumbeat.

The Moodies were getting tired out by this stage – the sleevenote to the CD issue chronicles a catalogue of illnesses and minor accidents throughout this period, not to mention the first stirrings of disagreement and discontent among band members – and it shows. “Our Guessing Game” is yet another in the line of melancholy Ray Thomas navel-admiring ballads; though beginning with limpid Eric Carmen piano, Edge’s padding drums swell out the soundscape, and the arrangement rises to become something akin to a more pompous Seekers. “Emily’s Song” is an unremarkable Simon and Garfunkel/CSN-style ballad written for John Lodge’s newborn daughter, and Edge’s “After You Came” makes some effort to rock out; again they are clearly playing to the stadium crowd – the track sounds something like a souped-up Nash-era Hollies, and Hayward’s sense of drama (“Like the raaaaAAAIIIINNN rising from the SEA!”) is unsullied, but the big boogie fadeout is rather misplaced. In spite of these songs’ melodic and structural similarities to parts of Love’s Forever Changes – the elephant in the Moodies’ sitting room? – the overall picture is of a group who don’t really know where, or why, they’re going.

On listening to “One More Time To Live,” however, one gets the distinct impression that the group really cannot get out of the sixties. Starting off as a mopey acoustic ballad, the song gradually builds up until it reaches a baffling extended middle section with sundry “-ations” being chanted (“Starvation!,” “Degradation!,” “Humiliation!,” and even unto the first three words we heard in “Procession”); it’s rather like a Surrey cricket club attempting “Ball Of Confusion,” although the framing tune seems equally indebted to David Gates’ “If” and Lennon’s “Dear Prudence.” The curt dismissal of real radicalism (“Tell me, someone, why this talk of revolution?/Tell me, someone, when we’re changing evolution!”) in favour of a mushy, universal misreading of “love” betrays an underlying conservatism (which the following year was to be reinforced by Seventh Sojourn’s disingenuous “Lost In A Lost World”), and much more so than “Revolution” or “Street Fighting Man,” both of which had at least the indecency to be ambiguous in an we’re-on-your-side-really sense. It is difficult to escape the spectre of five rich men lecturing us and haranguing us to mend our ways, open our eyes, and so forth.

Then again, Thomas’ “Nice To Be Here,” allegedly inspired by the work of Beatrix Potter, may imply an almost punk-like level of stubborn aesthetic resistance; here are the jaunty flutes and “Cecilia” percussion, there a faint shiver on the word “breeze,” and frogs are playing guitars (Hayward manfully attempting a solo using just one string), owls are blowing oboes, and it is still 1967 – unlike the true, hard-won comfort of Fogerty’s “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” this is completely dissociated from life and really unforgivably fey; yes, I know, we have another hedgerow and enchanted woodland creatures of Midlands origin coming up in a few entries’ time, but it is the difference between dimly turning away from life and deploying fantasy to scream “life” in the face and provide something better. At least Roger Glover’s The Butterfly Ball had the not inconsiderable power of the late Ronnie James Dio to drag it out of terminal tweeness.

“You Can Never Go Home” is sadly nothing to do with the similarly named Shangri-Las song (“I Can Never Go Home Anymore”), but does point further to the picture of a lost group; Hayward does his best ballad singing (“A million ye-hears ago”), “Strawberry Fields” gets suitably referenced, there is another rock out for the would-be anthemic chorus (the “All my life…” section resembles what a defeated England squad might have recorded as a forlorn follow-up to “Back Home”), but the sorrowful downward shrug of “Bu-ut” indicates a sadness and exhaustion which aren’t really being healed by the music; here are the standard Moody tropes – rain, sun, two, one – but there is no sense of revelation or discovery, more a graver sense of well-worn ground being retread to perpetuate a profitable brand.

It’s down once more to Mike Pinder to provide the big finish with “My Song,” but this too sounds fatigued, lacking even the atoms of invention present in “The Voyage” two years earlier. An “Angel Of The Morning” string introduction gives way to Pinder and his piano, gloomily musing on love, other worlds and things going on inside his head. His song disappears for a bit, abandoning us to sequences of Disney harp, stuttering drums, drones, abstract whorls of Moog wind, forlorn celeste, a Morricone-esque choral hum, before the band crashes (in their own way) back in and the song resumes. An oboe hoots its farewell, and a synth skyrocket shoots up to who knows where?

Where Tarkus sounds like an angry wasp, Favour comes across as a depressed dormouse; the world is still going to pot, and real answers continue to be skilfully avoided. Yet for so many – Thomas’ flute remind us that they could be a Jethro Tull devoid of humour, irony or side (but isn’t that the point of Tull?) – they were enough, perhaps the first custom-built stadium rock band with big songs, or mediocre songs dressed up fancily enough to look and sound big. I think of another entry in this tale, some thirteen years still in the future, where an Irishman will essay his own take on “-ation”s. And of course I’m hammering a peanut with a bulldozer here. Still, they managed one more album – the aforementioned Seventh Sojourn, recorded in uncomfortable conditions but giving them their first US number one – before taking six years’ leave and coming back to discover that “other worlds” had landed and taken over in the meantime. Not that that mattered; they were still capable of topping the American album chart as late as 1981, and people of a certain time continue to flock to see them in concert, reminding themselves of that glimmer – that minute spot of light – which once told them that the world could have been theirs.