Tuesday, 24 August 2010
LED ZEPPELIN: Led Zeppelin IV (Four Symbols)
(#102: 4 December 1971, 2 weeks)
Track listing: Black Dog/Rock And Roll/The Battle Of Evermore/Stairway To Heaven/Misty Mountain Hop/Four Sticks/Going To California/When The Levee Breaks
Place yourself in a bizarre position, as bizarre as some of these symbols: it is America in the late seventies, and a boy, no more than eleven or twelve, is listening, rapt and spellbound, to a voice the like of which he has only heard once before, and even then it was at a distance. It is not entirely clear whether he is aware that the singer is essentially imitating the boy’s father; he hears the last, Sisyphean “roll” at the end of “Stairway To Heaven,” the escalating abstract voice interplay of “Battle Of Evermore,” or the fourth quarter of “Four Sticks,” and something of that smiling despair stays with him and sticks to him, such that when he eventually turns to making music a decade and a half hence, everyone will compare him to this singer, perhaps more so than the inevitable comparisons with the long-gone father whom he never really knew in the first place. Eventually, and prematurely, he will die, slightly inebriated, up to his waist in an unpredictable river, the destruction wrought by which will be described in the record’s final, climactic song; and in almost his last conscious act on Earth he will be singing one of this man’s songs.
The Buckley stories are two things, or two sides of one miraculously tragic thing, but the fourth Zeppelin album is above all else about hearing things rather than seeing things, and the impossibility of believing anything that you see, or in the continued existence of something which might once have been known as “home.” The ancient portrait of a labourer of the soil is tacked to moderately florid, terminally peeling wallpaper, and on the reverse sleeve the camera pans out to reveal, not a rural idyll, but a house in the process of being demolished, giving way to an unspectacular view of a row of similar terraced houses in the process of being knocked down, somewhere in Dudley, in the West Midlands, but dominated by a new, if already grey, tower block. The future will come and swallow you up as mercilessly as the Mississippi if you’re not careful.
For most, as 1971 drew to its end, Led Zeppelin were still the most vital present and the most promising future. The group was pressurised by the expectations raised by these promises, but also spurred to become as detached, if still connected, a satellite to the rest of rock as the Beatles had been before them. With the partial exception of Who’s Next, I can’t think of any other number one album from this year which sounds as though it could have been recorded in the eighties – and that isn’t simply down to Bonham’s stairwell beats on “Levee,” later to become one of the foundation stones of hip hop. The production is as free of mud as the musicians’ minds are full of it; everything is crystal clear, even the variegated channel-swapping activities of “Levee”’s climax. They were all around us, yet they also strove to be as absent from us as possible; Jimmy Page had been stung by the muted critical reaction to Led Zeppelin III and was determined to present the blankest of templates; no group credits, no easily graspable title (Led Zeppelin IV and Four Symbols became the most popular aliases) – here is some music, and it doesn’t really matter who made it, even though you know damn well who it is (that having been said, the determined anonymity may have wrongfooted some initial buyers in the States, and the record sat at number two for a month without ever reaching the top, although it has since comfortably become the best-selling album in the US never to make number one).
But what is the record saying? Quite a lot of things, and not every one of them is compatible with others. “Black Dog,” for instance, is a most defiant album opener, sounding so relaxed in its post-Hendrix priaptic swoon that it’s easy to overlook just how tricky the song is to play, both harmonically and rhythmically; in its own way, it’s a glove thrust down at the gym-shoed feet of any lousy bar band who think they can do Zep. Its confidence is absolute – Bonham’s cowbell chiming in at precisely the right hip-urging moment, the circuitous dervishes of multiple Plants (with his repeated quatrains of “uh!”s), until the song reaches its turnaround and neither guitar nor rhythm sound remotely grounded; the spectre is almost that of what would twenty or so years hence come to be known as shoegazing, guitars playing virtually by themselves, everything ascending into weightlessness rather than being ground down by gravity (even with the gravest of rock drummers at the helm).
This urge, however, isn’t quite spent or fully expectant in its thrust. “Rock And Roll” is the greatest tribute anyone could have expected in 1971; from Bonham’s “Keep A-Knocking” drum rushes – he sounds as though bashing the biggest drum kit in the world - through Page’s Berry recitations (and subtle if speeded and pitched-up quotations from Link Wray’s “Rumble”) to Plant’s righteous holler – so reminiscent of his Wolverhampton contemporary Noddy Holder – demanding to be carried back home, to the world of “The Stroll” and “Book Of Love,” although he knows that recapturing such a world is as forlornly foolish as expecting that ancient hop-gatherer to hop again, his echoing “Been a long lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time”s joining the hurting dots between 1956 Presley and 1970 Lennon – and of course Elvis should have broken down the studio door and demanded to sing this song, but was that ever going to happen? Jones’ piano in the meantime references Little Richard, Jerry Lee, and even (in the final verse) John Cale (see the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog”). Finally Bonham proffers one final explosion on his kit – enough to demand that the 2I’s bar be immediately quadrupled in size – and the song ends on a vaguely triumphant A major.
Many first-time listeners must have felt excessive relief; here they are, back and doing what they’re best at doing. But then their ears get tripped up again with “Battle Of Evermore,” an almost impenetrable song lyrically, if not emotionally; those with only a casual knowledge of Sandy Denny’s work, with or without Fairport Convention or Fotheringay, would not necessarily be aware of the fervent fountain of passion which she summoned at deceptively regular intervals – her symbiotic musical relationship with the younger Richard Thompson, as demonstrated on Liege And Lief and Unhalfbricking, was as natural a fusion as that of Gilberto and Jobim, or Keith and Julie Tippetts; indeed her performance on “Evermore,” as the stern “Queen Of Light” setting herself against Plant’s “Prince Of Peace” (a Pharaoh Sanders reference in the middle of a Led Zeppelin album!), conjures up Julie as much as it does the perhaps more immediately relevant reference point of Shirley Collins. They debate about peace and war, about dragon’s flames and sunlight, and their conversation gets more and more animated; the way both Plant and Denny hold and twist their notes is remarkable – Al Cohn and Zoot Sims lost in Hobbitland – and as Denny disappears into the sky, Plant’s “BRING IT BACK!” cries become less and less anchored; electric guitar finally makes its appearance – Page mostly contributing excellent first-time mandolin (used very differently from Every Picture Tells A Story) – and Plant’s voice rams into a processed, unbearable series of screams (remarkably, the Seattle/Vancouver female-powered rock band Heart tackled both “Rock And Roll” and “Evermore” in their early days).
The torrent of ungraspable pain at the climax of “Evermore” surely justifies the call for forests echoing with laughter in “Stairway,” yet the latter is the first of two extended sermons – and explanations of the album’s intent – ending each side. Those who bewail its failure to appear as a single – the band rightly refused to edit it – would do well to remember that the song did not become celebrated and worshipped overnight; its influence, or perhaps its pull-and-push, grew slowly and organically over a period of maybe eighteen months until it was recognised as a classic. Now it is so hallowed that it is a simple thing to forget or fail to comprehend its central message, which is not that far from something like “Imagine.”
Set in a solemn A minor – in explicit contrast to the triumphant A major of “Rock And Roll” – “Stairway” was designed to illustrate just how completely the group could develop the dynamics of a song from missable quietude to inescapable wall of noise. Its procession is admirably patient; the doleful school recorders of John Paul Jones herald a near-tearful vocal from Plant; imagine a Del Shannon gradually being brought to his senses. There’s this lady – well, it was 1971 – busy buying things, all things she will most likely use once or never at all, and thinking that consumerism will make her unlike all the rest, a shallow notion of “special” which will render her happier than the humblest uncomplaining ploughman. Plant’s voice is full of compassion rather than sarcastic blasts – picture how, for instance, Jagger would have addressed a similar subject matter – and the music systematically moves up and amplifies with him as he urges the return to nature, albeit with caution; his repeated “it makes me wonder” – eventually upgrading to “really makes me wonder” – suggests a root bafflement; why would she not look to the “eastern glow” and glean the opposite of what the singer sees when he looks “to the west”; are those rings of smoke visible through the trees the warning or the aftermath of the battle implied in “Evermore” (“The pain of war cannot exceed the woe of aftermath”)? The new day, however, is anticipated rather than dreaded; the question is, will she follow or misunderstand the “sign on the wall” (that picture, that worker, as the house collapses) – “sometimes words have two meanings”? The music, meanwhile, is brimming upward, Jones’ subtle electric piano blending with Page’s treated guitars to create a Traffic-type rustic groove.
As Bonham’s drums enter the picture, Plant sings of “two paths” and, rather more ominously, of “a bustle in your hedgerow” which could be the May Queen or the first sign of an impending disaster, hitting the middle of complacent suburbia (Bonham increases the intensity of his drumming at the signal “stand long”). “There’s still time to change the road you’re on” – and I am reminded of Mingus’ “The Chill Of Death” recitative (from his large-scale 1971 project Let My Children Hear Music) where he picks the wrong road and can’t get back. “Your head is humming and it won’t go – in case you don’t know,” continues Plant. “The piper’s calling you to join him.” Get out of that locked tower and join the real world, which isn’t this one in which we are all marooned. “Oh-hum-hum,” he croons, more agitatedly, and as he points out the true path – that of, or on, the “whispering wind” – his voice hangs on that “wind,” blows it out and stirs it up until it becomes the catalyst for a hurricane; the song’s implicit rage breaks loose, even if it’s not really rage but rather revelation: “There walks a lady we all know” – not the same lady who’s been buying from the stores – “who shines white light and wants to show…” and Plant gives us the signal: “The tune will come to you at last/When all is one and one is all/To be a rock and not to roll,” with that last “roll” being held, caressed, in its place; realise what you really want and need, stay here, the song stops, Plant sings the key line, once more, alone, now smiling. It’s not too late for you, or the environment (this is 1971). Not just yet.
Side two lightens the load, or at least pretends that it does; “Misty Mountain Hop” is a funky frolic, mostly driven by Jones’ steadfast Fender Rhodes and an amiably insistent three-note riff. We are back to the blues, or at least Plant is back in 1967, hanging out with the hippies, getting high, the policeman as useless as Dixon Of Dock Green, and it all looks fine, until he turns to his sceptical partner and exclaims: “There you sit, sitting spare like a book on a shelf rustin’,” going on to demand, “You better open your eyes,” his subsequent “WOAH WOAH YEAH” demonstrating that his request is rather more urgent than that of similar entreaties from fellow Midlanders the Moodies. As a delicately strident strut its latent power is only really approached by peak period Faces, and Supertramp built an entire career out of the bridge alone. Still, Plant reveals himself as not bereft of scepticism (the mocking “really don’t care, really don’t care” roundelay playground chant); he eventually takes off for “Misty Mountain” but confesses, “I really don’t know.” Isn’t he just going to run straight into a mirror? He disappears, via Bonham’s huge riverruns of drums, into echoed oblivion.
“Four Sticks” is a surprisingly, or not so surprisingly, agonised incineration of a torch song, mainly built to feature the titular accessories of Bonham, stoking a 5/4 hurricane; again there is that recurrent theme of red (“Eyes that shine burning red” from “Black Dog”), but now it’s the river that’s red, and the golden oldies recollections (“It’s cryin’ time,” “When the pines begin to cry”) are far more forlorn than those of “Rock And Roll.” Plant explodes, sometimes like Janis Joplin, at others like Little Jimmy Scott, about rivers running dry and the rainbow’s end (see also Richard Thompson’s not entirely unrelated “End Of The Rainbow” from 1974). Finally (“Who hide their love to depths of life and ruin dreams that we all knew so – BABE!”) Plant has to resort to Starsailor ululations.
Plant does “Going To California” as a Joni Mitchell tribute – complete with Joni-impersonating vocals – and once more (alongside the band, playing acoustically in White Album fashion - we find him attempting to escape both the sixties (“flowers in her hair”) and find something deeper, elsewhere than where he is. So he goes to California, and presumably to Joni (who at this time has released the burnished, bruised Blue), but then is this really the paradise that he wants? No sooner has he got there than the earthquake happens – and it did happen, in Los Angeles in February 1971; the band were there at the time, as was my wife, then aged four, and the event is referenced to, sonically, near the beginning of Escalator Over The Hill - and Plant reels back, as outraged as Kenneth Williams: “Seems that the wrath of the Gods got a PUNCH on the NOSE!” He ends the song standing on the Hollywood Hills, as far removed from “home” as ever – “Telling myself it’s not as hard, hard, hard as it seems.” Even in “ideal places” there is trouble in store.
But trouble? It’s been storing up the whole album long, and “When The Levee Breaks” – revealing itself, as it does, as the intended partner of “Stairway” – lets it all flood out, summing up the record’s themes of displacement and restlessness (what does the world mean if it’s nothing, and what do we dare do in it, or to it?). It feels like the most cleansing of rains, and a notable step-up, in both intensity and intent, from the Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie 1929 original, performed very briskly with McCoy’s no-nonsense vocal trembles, blended with Minnie’s agile single-note runs, about all the disasters which might befall him were the Mississippi to burst, although it had already done that two years previously, thus engineering the mass migration of chiefly black workers to the Midwest and contributing directly to the urbanisation and eventual electrification of the blues. Zeppelin’s take is best heard in combination with Randy Newman’s terminally placid thoughts on “1927” which conclude his Good Old Boys album (well, didn’t the South ask for it, he wonders?). Through its bursting brooks – every hole of the sound picture drenched in phased guitars, Bonham’s dambusting/building drum track, Jones’ furious undertow, Plant’s howls – the song offers no hope of escape or even home (“Don’t it make you feel bad/When you’re tryin’ to find your way home/You don’t know which way to go?”). The riff tumbles and bangs into itself like an Atomic Age pinball machine; even the rhetorical pauses harbour no lifeboat or saviour. Worlds weep and moan and even God appears to have vanished (“Cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do you no good”). More even than “Baba O’Riley” or anything else in the 1971 portion of this tale, “Levee” sounds like the end of everything, and the underscoring message is indeed that: forget the sixties, there’s no way back “home,” you have to keep moving or drown, but what if the flood engulfs the whole world? It is ruthless but justified – a lifetime before the Welsh waters, the song demands that everything must go, all the useless baggage, all the store-bought trash, everything that is not you and me and humanity. “Going down, going down now,” Plant wails, sounding as though he is indeed drowning, as the music whirls around him into imperceptibility and abstraction. Drums bark like Zeus’ vilest thunder. Page’s guitar pleads but to no avail. Everything goes out of focus. The last sound we hear is the group, and the planet, vanishing down the plughole of the bath newly bereft of both babies and water.
In the gatefold sleeve there is a dark portrait of the Hermit, high on a hill overlooking, by some distance, a city, and civilisation, in darkness, with only his own lamp to lead the way towards – what? His Tarot card identifies the Hermit as a mentor, a guide, someone whose wisdom is likely to lead everyone else who wants it out of darkness. By casting themselves as four separate but connected hermits, Zeppelin set themselves up as guides. In two entries’ time we will see what happened when a levee actually did break, for real, in this age rather than that of the twenties of the rural Southern States. But for now, and for tomorrow if we’re that fortunate, we would do well to remember the name of Plant’s first band, and listen. You never know what the slightest rustle might mean.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 18:51
Wednesday, 18 August 2010
VARIOUS ARTISTS: Top Of The Pops Volume 20
(#101: 27 November 1971, 1 week)
Track listing: Mamy Blue/Butterfly/The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down/Another Time Another Place/Sultana/The Witch Queen Of New Orleans/Maggie May/Tweedle Dee Tweedle Dum/I’m Leavin’/Spanish Harlem/Keep On Dancing/Simple Game
If society wants songs to sing, does it matter if they happen to be as dark as the cover of this record? There are other volumes of Top Of The Pops whose covers bear a black background but this one seems to me by far the darkest, and also the most sinister, a solemn twin to the lime green gaiety of Volume 18. And yet the sleevenote strives to be as sparkly as ever, with its references to “pocketful of smash topliners” (is the record intended to be a comforting drug?) and its exhortation to “rocket yourself to your digs, and settle down for a trip to the Stars through this Superb Hallmark disc” – those conjoined “digs,” the gutter aiming at the stars. A means of escape from a world not worth inhabiting.
This is not the most cheerful group of twelve songs encountered on these collections, but then Top Of The Pops, like its namesake programme or anything else, could only be a mirror to its time; examining the hits of November 1971, the tendency did seem to be for doomy, downbeat songs. Did the times justify so bleak an outlook, or, much as is the case these days, was Britain still incapable of hauling itself out of the wreckage of the Second World War? The present Government’s live-by-your-means blitzkrieg policy is little more than a continuation of the sixty-year-old make-do-and-mend mantra, or mindset; even in times when logically and rationally we do not need to make do and mend, the mentality has not left us, or been evacuated from us. And although the make-do-and-mend mentality is as inescapable as ever throughout this volume, there is, along with the gloomy outlook, a sense of late pregnancy, the slowly clearing knowledge that new light is about to shine and wipe out the darkness. Although only two of these songs explicitly concern themselves with war, the overall mood is one of bunkering down in the air raid shelter or on the swiftly-converted tube platform, lighting careful matches and singing songs, to ourselves as much as anyone.
“Mamy Blue” is the gloomiest opening to any of these recent entries that I can recall; essentially a piece of slick Euroschlock, a Continental hit (written by a Frenchman, Hubert Giraud) for Madrid soft rock group Los Pop Tops (although a Roger Whittaker cover version managed to cancel both records out commercially in the UK), distant choirs echo around the turbulent mind of the errant son, who has come back home after far too long to discover that no one, least of all his mother, is there. “I’m lost – how will I survive?” ponders the wretched singer before his lamentations turn into grainy howls, as the choir, and eventually sonorous tympani, overwhelm him. It’s the grimmest of any early seventies homecomings; at least with the Stanley Brothers’ “Rank Strangers,” there are other people who try to reassure the too late returnee, but there is no one to be felt or touched in “Mamy Blue”; merely impalpable ghosts.
The calm apocalypse-preparing French singalong mode continues with Danyl Gerard’s “Butterfly” which the singer here disastrously attempts to sing in a cod-French accent, as wavering as the pitch and accompanying percussion. A Boy Scout guitar encourages the waving of hands, but the Last Post bugle which materialises at song’s end (along with some perfunctory whistling) appears to underline the high possibility that we are all going down together as we go; it might have been sung by the passengers of one of the Titanic lifeboats.
But what to make of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” performed in the manner of what Greil Marcus termed Joan Baez’s “massacre” of the song? The Band’s original, written specially for the one true Southerner in its ranks to sing (and drum), is one of the profoundest American songs of the last century; Levon’s narrator simply tells us what we need to hear, before we even think of the conjunction of Aeneas and Orson Welles (and therefore America’s tragedy?) implicit in the name “Virgil Kane.” The song gently thrusts in its intended audience’s faces the impossibility of escape from what the Civil War involved, the germs and emotions it still carries in every American’s head; this is what the war did to me, he is saying, and if you don’t believe that a drummer can make you cry, hear what happens during the patiently but firmly rolling choruses; this is the genesis of the path which leads to the likes of Arcade Fire, the notion that this group is speaking for and to all of us.
In a not-so-rare lapse of taste, however – she did also subsequently tackle Tears For Fears’ “Shout” – Baez turned the song into a jaunty singalong, and disastrously, Robert E Lee is turned from a general into a boat (“the Robert E Lee”; Virgil Kane’s brother did not die such that he might snatch a glimpse of a boat). In a further twist, the hapless session singer’s task here is to translate Baez’s voice into mock-American and she is easily drowned out by the overarching choir which surfaces in each chorus; still, this is probably no better a treatment than the Baez record merited. And the campfire singalong continues.
All that can be said for “Another Time Another Place,” co-written by Mike Leander, is that the singer does a fairly decent Engelbert, and that the song’s strange Miss World-musical-interlude jubilation at the prospect of release, complete with Ski Sunday strings, strikes a markedly different angle on the prospect of freedom than any of the other songs under consideration here (even though the singer appears to remark, at one point, “I locked up my whore”).
Sultana’s “Titanic,” a surprise “club banger” instrumental hit of the period, which essentially involves a Norwegian band attempting to impersonate Santana, is given a fair and reasonably dynamic reading, residing somewhere between the Studio 2/KPM Sound Gallery mood pieces and the house band in Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights. But Redbone’s “Witch Queen Of New Orleans” is made no less strange in this reading; also something of a surprise hit here (#2, as opposed to #21 in the States) with a funk-rock group of Red Indian extraction drawing some lines between psychedelia and Norman Whitfield paranoia – the whining guitar and question-mark strings attempt to outfox each other throughout the record – this version renders the song even more astray; the singers sound as though socks have been lodged in their mouths, which somehow makes the song’s aura even more threatening.
Side two begins with what I hope is a nod to one of their own who did manage to find a way out; over the five minutes and fourteen seconds of this “Maggie May” – undoubtedly the strangest single piece of music I have yet come across in this tale – it can charitably be said that the players do their best, in addition to remarking how the best musicians can make something complex sound so simple (as Rod’s band does on the original). The singer, if anything, sounds like David Clayton-Thomas of Blood, Sweat and Tears – hoarse, throaty – and, more pertinently, like Stewart’s mentor Long John Baldry. Despite the multiple mistakes and miscues to be expected from a session where the musicians were expected to learn and reproduce the record in one hour, It’s arguable that a workable alternative perspective on the song can be found here; he sings “wear me out” rather than “wore me out” with some eagerness, and is notably more excited by the “mother/lover” conundrum than the already world-weary Stewart. In other words, this singer sounds as though he actually has been kicked in the head, and a much more likely lad to have had the song happen to him. The guitarist plays on the beat, as opposed to Ronnie Wood’s beyond-inspiring beat-anticipating, but seems to settle for playing his own solos rather than reproducing Wood’s. The “mandolins,” however, sound more like balalaikas, or even prepared bedstrings, and provide quite an atonal punch to the track; Lena invoked Joe Meek and his decade-old Blue Men, while to me it sounds as though the mid-seventies manifestation of John Stevens’ Spontaneous Music Ensemble gatecrashed the session and covered it in microtonal slides. One momentarily forgets the complete absence of ebb and flow between musicians, or of dynamics of any kind.
“Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dum,” Middle of the Road’s wan, clan name-changing meditation on the eve of the Glencoe Massacre, gets a slightly better deal than “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep” did on 18; the singer here is taking the song more seriously (or as seriously as it deserves to be taken) although she gets over-excited with both “shouting” and “fighting” and the handclaps and singalong at the end are a little forced, in a five-minutes-to-lunch sense.
But then comes the record’s most mysterious and unsettling song. “I’m Leavin’,” written by Michael Jarrett and ex-Checkmates Ltd frontman Sonny Charles, wasn’t much of a hit for Elvis (US #36, UK #23), but in his hands is one of his quietest and most affecting, and draining, recordings. “How will I know if I arrive in time to know you, if you had taken the time to show me that I wouldn’t be lonely?” reads the philosophical gambit disguised as a first verse; things are not happening at all, and he’s leaving as slowly and as reluctantly as he possibly can. Presley sounds as worried a man as he ever did sound – it’s not accidental that his four/five-step “I-I-I-I-I’m” falsettos recall Roy Orbison – and the tune is as final a lament as he ever performed; drained of life, hope and reason, this is the singer of “Mamy Blue” without even a lifeless house on the hill (if you discount Gracelands, and the hill). No longer possessing the entrapped rage of “Suspicious Minds,” he finally sees that he can actually walk out…but walk out into where? And with whom? “Where will I go, and who will I have to lay beside me, to ease this emptiness inside me?” he ponders, and then comes a completely unexpected about-turn to “Heartbreak Hotel” – “I’m so lonely,” this time sung as though he is literally about to die, the wearied resignation of the descending semitone harmonies of the song’s leitmotif. It is a staggering performance, in its ruined, dignified restraint and its withheld emotional collapse, and all that the Top of the Poppers can do is intone it as a ghost; the Elvis impersonator is drastically off-mike, almost buried behind his backing singers. The delivery is opaque to the point of impenetrable, and all that remains are these scant, browned traces of grief and resigned hopelessness.
“Spanish Harlem” is done as per Aretha Franklin’s reading, apparently by the same singer who “did” Joan Baez on “Dixie,” and although its rose represents a rebirth from the ashes of forced humiliation, this version can simply be labelled as a “good try”; the singer forces herself to something better and beyond herself and doesn’t always hit the mark but at least makes an attempt. “Keep On Dancing,” the first hit for the prototype 1971 version of the Bay City Rollers, was ingeniously orchestrated by producer Jonathan King and arranger Johnny Arthey, with the first verse performed by lead singer and solo ‘cello, several rhetorical drum rolls and a false fadeout (which latter may have inspired in part “Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)” by the Raspberries). This reading keeps the arrangement but loses all the punctum, although the singer sounds more like a younger Les McKeown than the Nobby Clark who actually was the Rollers’ lead singer at the time, and the jagged, fuzzed, over-miked Farfisa makes the track amusingly disproportionate.
This slightly confused programme, and Top Of The Pops’ presence in this tale, end with “Simple Game,” an old Moody Blues B-side (to “Ride My See-Saw”) revived and retooled as a call to arms by the Four Tops. Lacking the sophisticated studios of Motown (or anywhere else of note, for that matter), this version obviously misses the dynamics, particularly when the treble is turned up in the mix for the choruses, such that the semi-darkness of the democratically-shared four-way lead vocal is put into contrast (if not eclipse) by tambourine-led forcefulness. Nevertheless, even though “Levi Stubbs” is clearly also “Rod Stewart,” this isn’t a bad attempt, and the general unbadness, or at least the purposeful waywardness, explains in part why I have devoted considerably more words to these performances than those on entries #94 and #96.
But the whys and wherefores, and more importantly my conclusion about this whole phenomenon, have to be examined and resolved. If nothing else – and I don’t necessarily believe that there is nothing else – these collections managed to distil the charts of their time, provide a summation of what was going on and what record-buyers and music-lovers were wanting out of pop as 1971 eased into its fall, and thence unto winter. The British Market Research Bureau listened to protests from Proper Record Companies and, as 1972 began, the Top Of The Pops and Hot Hits series, as well as their myriad imitators, were returned to the safe anonymity of the budget charts. But the question lingers: the communality of many of these songs, their uniquely tender desperation, suggests music for a nation under siege, and that need on the part of what some writers still refer to as “plain people” for the song above and beyond whoever happens to be singing it, even if they are singing it themselves – how does this all contribute to the nature and purpose of music? If I’d been thirteen or fourteen in 1971, starting a school band, I imagine we’d have played “Maggie May” something like the way the Top Of The Poppers play it; and thus the partly fallacious key whose tag bears the legend “anyone can do it.” Add to this the fact that, her 1971 hair excepted, the Volume 20 cover girl, with her bullet belt and red star T-shirt and short skirt, almost seems to prophesy punk, and we can scrabble an entrance into the tunnel which masks a yet-to-be-discovered solar system.
Perhaps the notion of the Top Of The Pops series as harbinger of punk is too far-fetched, even for this tale. But eventually the soundalike records themselves would be superseded; first by the telemarketing of Original Hits by Original Artists – prepare yourself at this early stage for a deluge – and then by the slow realisation on the part of major record companies that they could make more money out of their recent back catalogue than they’d thought possible. But people who love, or even like, music first and foremost want a song to sing, to work the magical task of simultaneously making them feel special as individuals, and making them feel secure as a member of a mutually trusting society. The togetherness, as well as the gosh-am-I-really-up-here-on-this-stage-singing-this electricity – all this would eventually lead to the true heirs of the soundalike albums; firstly, the PopIdol/X-Factor era, whose records were conceived and manufactured on a very similar basis, and, of course, to the ultimate democratiser of music, karaoke, where finally we all become the singer, and hence the song, and thus the world. There are weaker ambitions to harbour.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 16:36
Thursday, 12 August 2010
John LENNON and The PLASTIC ONO BAND (with the FLUX FIDDLERS): Imagine
(#100: 30 October 1971, 2 weeks)
Track listing: Imagine/Crippled Inside/Jealous Guy/It’s So Hard/I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier Mama/Gimme Some Truth/Oh My Love/How Do You Sleep?/How?/Oh Yoko!
"An entire psychoanalysis of matter can help us to cure us of our images or at least help us to limit the hold of our images on us. One may then hope to be able to render imagination happy, to give it good conscience, in allowing it fully all its means of expression, all material images which emerge in natural dreams, in normal dream activity. To render imagination happy, to allow it all its exuberance, means precisely to grant imagination its true function as psychological impulse and force."
Gaston Bachelard, Le Matérialisme rationnel (Paris, Presses Universitaires, 1953; Bachelard’s italics).
His head is in the clouds, or if you look at it another way, i.e. on the back cover, his head is a mountain range. Climb him or drift through him; he’s not that bothered, except that he’s anxious that you’re there. In the CD booklet there are plentiful pictures of him, mostly with Yoko, on their Ascot estate; hanging out, goofing around, just being and living together. There is also a picture of him grappling with a pig, and that’s not necessarily another story. But the idea he’s trying to put across is: this is our world, and we feel that it should be yours too. If, of course, you want it. But then, was their world quite as perfect and peaceful as it looked?
We have reached the first century, and maybe Imagine’s indispensable happiness isn’t that far removed from the idyllically loving world of entry #1 (“Anything Goes,” “Our Love Is Here To Stay”), but its implications stretch much further and wider, even though most commentators have tended to overlook the record’s comedy. George has his sceptical garden gnomes, Paul has Linda, the kids and the farm, Ringo is there for and with everyone – but John has Yoko, and doesn’t particularly want anyone or anything more than Yoko, as he had already made abundantly clear on “God.” John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band doesn’t get written about here – in Britain, it peaked at #6 – mainly because not too many people at the time wanted to hear their leading sage tell them that the dream was over, and also possibly because not too many people had the stomach for some of the most (in)authentic rock ‘n’ roll ever recorded; the record was all about the singer opening himself up, screaming his therapeutic way out of self-imposed shutdown, and yet Lennon and Spector ensured that there is hardly a natural sound on the album; the singer’s voice is endlessly (apart from the word “Beatles”) double-tracked, processed, echoed, as are all of the instruments; primal his emotion may have been, but an important part of him was eager to press on with the future, as evinced by the same musicians’ work on Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band - their “Apple Jam” – where the feeling of delayed liberation goes somewhere past ecstatic.
By the time he came to put Imagine together, then, Lennon was unquestionably happier, although whether he had achieved total happiness is repeatedly questioned throughout the record’s duration. Having gone through the worst, he was prepared to express the same feelings and sentiments, but musically in a noticeably more approachable way, the residual rawness reused and sculptured into discrete songs. Certainly Lennon was keen that the listener approached him and his world – his and Yoko’s world, that is (interestingly, Yoko’s credit on this record is for “Whip and mirror”) – and indeed became a part of it.
Although “Imagine,” the song, is the album’s emblem – simultaneously a love song to his muse and a declaration of principles as they related to his world – the key song on the record is buried deep in side two; “Oh My Love” musically is the next logical step on from “Julia” – the succession of muse from mother to lover, now consolidated and celebrated – but in its hard-fought-for innocence is so touching that it could have crept from 1965 (think in particular of “Girl”), with its heartrending minor descents under the lines “Everything is clear in our world” and “clear in my heart”; this, above everything else suggested on the record, is what he wants. Everything may be clear in their world, but does that mean they can see through into the wider world, or vice versa? Given that the song follows straight on from “Gimme Some Truth” and is a sort of response to side one’s “Jealous Guy,” Lennon is not unaware of certain contradictions and constraints.
But the record begins with the manifesto:
“We may distinguish both true and false needs. ‘False’ are those which are superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests in his repression: the needs which perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery, and injustice. Their satisfaction might be most gratifying to the individual, but this happiness is not a condition which has to be maintained and protected if it serves to arrest the development of the ability (his own and others) to recognize the disease of the whole and grasp the chances of curing the disease. The result then is euphoria in unhappiness. Most of the prevailing needs to relax, to have fun, to behave and consume in accordance with the advertisements, to love and hate what others love and hate, belong to this category of false needs.
“Such needs have a societal content and function which are determined by external powers over which the individual has no control; the development and satisfaction of these needs is heteronomous. No matter how much such needs may have become the individual's own, reproduced and fortified by the conditions of his existence; no matter how much he identifies himself with them and finds himself in their satisfaction, they continue to be what they were from the beginning-products of a society whose dominant interest demands repression.”
(Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, Boston: Beacon, 1964, Chapter 1: “The New Forms of Control”)
“Imagine no possessions. I wonder if you can.”
Broadly, according to Marcusianism, oppression arises when members of a society can only, or are only allowed to, define themselves by their relationship to the goods they make and consume, few of which could be said to be necessary to the promulgation of life. They may seem free, and all outward appearances might suggest freedom, but the actual choices available to them are drastically limited – “happiness” being equated with “keep quiet” (or, as that other sometime Marcusian Patrick McGoohan put it, “A still tongue is a happy life”). If we could somehow get beyond the façade, or trap, of consumerism, we might actually discover or rediscover the way we actually are as sentient human beings and live in better ways.
“Imagine” places itself in the canon of rock ‘n’ roll balladry – the echoing “Love Letters” piano, the Gene Vincent “yoo-hoo” ascent to the chorus (or second part of what is essentially an unconventional two-part song structure), the “Badpenny Blues” roll which connects the first section to the second, the voice whose quiet masks the suggestion that it is on the point of shattering (musically Spector makes it sound akin to Debussy’s drowned cathedral postcards) – all the better for Lennon to get his very firm message across. It all sounds reasonable to begin with – who could argue with peace or love, even in 1971? – but Lennon very subtly ups the ante throughout the song; now, he serially suggests, imagine no religion, no afterlife, no capitalism. Dylan disguised as Val Doonican. The video shows the song being played out on a white grand piano in an otherwise entirely empty room – too heavy for the bailiffs to take? – and at its close everything and everyone disappears, the question being: well, how do you propose to fill it? It was the subtlest proto-New Pop curveball he ever threw, so subtle in fact that Errol Brown could sing it with a straight face, in front of Mrs Thatcher, at a Conservative election rally sixteen years later and nobody, least of all Mrs Thatcher, got the joke, or the Fluxus strategic thinking (the “Flux Fiddlers,” in case you were wondering, were Torrie Zito’s string section, empathetically placid on the title track but rather argumentative elsewhere).
Lennon then systematically examines everything that his world is not. “Crippled Inside”’s ironic vaudeville trot comes from Ray Davies and its lyrical menu of façades from Dylan, with sharp acoustic guitar leading into Nicky Hopkins’ deadpan barrelhouse piano, then George Harrison’s descending dobro doubling Lennon’s doleful “You can call yourself the human race,” with Klaus Voormann and Steve Brendell’s double basses providing the old Bill Haley slap; Hopkins does a tie-loosened piano solo upon a sea of dubious dobro. Whatever you are, he says, with a nod to Smokey (“You can hide your face behind a smile”), I am not, and I can walk, talk and sense, so it’s not my problem.
“Jealous Guy,” however, is definitely Lennon’s problem; he admits that he is far from perfect, may even be a bit of a shit, but John Barham’s stentorian pillow of harmonium and Voormann’s delayed entry (after the first chorus) provide all the blankets that his vulnerability requires. He is clearly living the disgrace he is describing; his “shivering insi-IDE” chills the neck, his “Oh!” leading into the second chorus is a spur to himself not to tire of being humble, and Zito’s strings rise from the submarine yellow – having previously raised a quizzical eyebrow at the beginning of the third verse – to comfort Lennon’s bleeding “swallowing my PAIN.” It is its own apology and justification, recognising the existence of the fatal emotional duality at the heartless heart of “Love The Way You Lie” (that throwaway “Look out” near the end) but not being ground down by its presence. And as a rock ‘n’ roll performance, it is nearly peerless; did Elvis ever apologise so profusely in any of his songs, except when he was addressing God? He whistles to keep himself warm and Zito’s strings lead him by the hand, away from the centre of the lesion; love is not going to tear him apart.
But then we reach the Her Blues of “It’s So Hard,” the track which does more than any other to pave a way towards Cobain; the strings enter like a stern schoolteacher after the second verse and Lennon’s harsh, guttural vocals (is he trying to do a “rock” McCartney?) outrasp King Curtis’ sax. Cleaner than “Yer Blues” but considerably more pained, since Lennon confesses that even when he is with his Other, “Sometimes I feel like going down.” “You gotta SHOVE!” he protests. “But it’s so hard, it’s REALLY hard!” This distemper is extended into the long miasma of “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier Mama,” wherein Lennon has to steady himself within Spector’s hall of mirrors, Harrison’s drastically sliding steel, the acoustic sting of two Badfingers and even unto Mike Pinder’s tambourine (with Hopkins’ keyboards in for the distance). Veering, as with “Truth” and “Sleep,” somewhere between “Maggot Brain” funk and proto-dub reggae, rhythmically and emotionally, Lennon recoils and rewinds and gets the nearest this record gets to primal screech, going over things and people he doesn’t want to be, over and over, before reviving the “Oh, no/Ono” dichotomy from “Cold Turkey.” Then the multiple saxes of King Curtis burst in like a flood of Martian light, and upon Lennon’s “HIT it!” command double in number and intensity. The song becomes an endlessly chugging, intentionally clogged-up drone, Lennon’s post-Presley “WELLLLL!!”s (see also “Well Well Well” on Plastic Ono Band) devolve into astral baby gurgle and Curtis’ wraith of reeds takes the song abruptly out of its procession, with a brief electronic coda to close both song and side; one of the finest and certainly one of the final performances from Curtis, the only performer here who would not live to see 1972 – as with Mongezi Feza’s contributions to Wyatt’s Rock Bottom, he seems to be offering us his last testament, not of course that he could have known.
Side two – on a record allegedly about utopia – does not let up, at least not in the first instance; “Gimme Some Truth” has some of Lennon’s most splenetic vocals on the record, again launching himself against Tricky Dicky and his imitators; and is this the first appearance in this tale of the word “chauvinist”? Trying manfully to shatter the consumer wall (“Ah-ah-UHH!!,” just before the reprise of the first verse), Lennon roars and grunts and spews. Even Harrison’s solo – and is George’s work throughout Imagine the summation of everything he was too polite to say on All Things Must Pass? – splutters and vomits. The song is discreetly faded at the point where Lennon’s howls become screams; no need to overstate the obvious.
The bipolarity continues. “Oh My Love” sets out his world as he and I am sure not he alone sees it, but then he smacks back into the “other,” bigger world. “How Do You Sleep?” starts with a quick Bonzos Pepper intro pastiche, but the most notable thing about the long-expected McCartney demolition job, “Yesterday”/”Another Day” jibe included, pretty face and muzak jibes pretty drastically underlined – even though, as already demonstrated, McCartney’s relevant Ram songs were doing little more than telling Lennon that those days were over and didn’t you want them over anyway? – is how Zito’s strings circle around Lennon’s spleen before engaging in something of an argument with him (do you really want to go this far, they appear to be asking him). Harrison’s solo is more finely articulate, talking without saying anything, yet saying everything George needs and wants to say and with a good deal more dignity than John, although dignity is clearly the last thing on Lennon’s mind here. The song’s grind actually owes a good deal more to T Rex than anyone else – again, that no man’s land between funk and reggae – and Lennon’s primal warm-ups at the fade are contained by Hopkins’ decisive “Engine Engine Number Nine” Fender Rhodes solo.
The sadder and soberer side of the coin is laid out on “How?” Set up as an active dialogue between Lennon and Zito’s strings (with Voormann’s bass sitting on the fence), the string figures defiantly remind us of “The Long And Winding Road” but Lennon’s philosophical apology – to himself as much as to Paul or anyone else – reminds us that the road never was that straight; here he slowly lets it all out, amidst the pauses and hesitations which dot the song like an abstract highway painter. “Sometimes I feel I’ve had enough,” he states, blankly. “How can I have feelings when my feelings have always been denied?” he rhetorically asks himself (extending that “denied” into thirteen syllables). “How can I give love when love is something I ain’t never had?” (another baker’s dozen of syllables for that “had”) – but wait; isn’t he supposed to be happy, with Yoko? “How can we go forward into something we’re not sure of?” Where is that “home” again?
Well, it’s where he’s been, not where he’s stuck, since the clouds majestically lift on the closing “Oh Yoko!,” and suddenly we’re in the colourful world of the jauntier Van Morrison. It doesn’t matter whether he’s dreaming, or shaving, or imagining himself as a cloud; she’s the reason he does anything, and he is finally so, so glad of it. His “All right…RIGHT!” near signoff rounds the “Revolution” dilemma, and the last voice we hear is his harmonica, which he carries on blowing as the rest of the band disappear down the road, just as he did on “Love Me Do”; the circle squared. And finally, Imagine, despite all its expressed and inexpressible pains, finds John and Yoko in as happy and perfect a situation as we are ever likely to find them; yes, they can’t stay at Ascot forever – but don’t we wish, not so secretly, that they had done? – but right now, in the autumnal 1971 now, it’s all as good as it could be expected to get, and the simple question asked throughout this disguised folk record is: does the free faculty of the mind even need Ascot? It just needs us…all of us. The answer remains awaited.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 17:16
Sunday, 1 August 2010
Rod STEWART: Every Picture Tells A Story
(#99: 2 October 1971, 4 weeks; 13 November 1971, 2 weeks)
Track listing: Every Picture Tells A Story/Seems Like A Long Time/That’s All Right/Tomorrow Is A Long Time/Maggie May/Mandolin Wind/(I Know) I’m Losing You/Reason To Believe
One of the most bothersome things about the soundalike album boom was that, although they helped democratise music to an extent, or at least confirmed music’s residual democratisation, its performers de facto didn’t tell you anything about themselves. And one does wonder; what were – are? – these singers’ ambitions, their dreams? What did they ultimately hope to communicate to us? Did they see session singing as a job for life – don’t mock; it’s a nice earner if you can get it – or merely a way of paying the bills until they managed to say what they wanted to say to us? Every singer starts out by basing themselves on another singer’s style – for instance in this instance, Sam Cooke – but would they want to spend their best years pretending to be somebody else, or did they internally boil over with frustration at never having had their say, never being given the opportunity to tell their story?
Rod Stewart knew this quandary better than most; like Elton John, he did his time on the Top Of The Pops/Hot Hits circuit while waiting for better things to come, even when the Faces were busy constituting themselves. And his brief “nonchalant” sleevenote to his best album tells us in its own semi-cheery way that the Faces were at this time definitely his main priority, the solo work (Every Picture was his third solo album) strictly considered as a side project, a way of channelling songs and moods which didn’t quite fit in with the Faces’ intended good-time rock stampede. He got by all accounts a lousy solo deal from Mercury Records – the advance, according to Ian MacLagan, was just enough to buy a Marcos kit car – and no one, least of all the singer himself, thought that this second career was ever going to get anywhere.
Hence it’s important to understand that Every Picture was recorded for next to nothing, almost in a throwaway manner; Stewart evidently didn’t feel that the record was going to shift substantial amounts of copies, and without the pressure of the expectation of huge sales, he was effectively free to do what he wished, to pick songs and musicians as the mood took him. Of the Faces, MacLagan (on organ, with Pete Sears from Long John Baldry’s touring band taking care of piano duties) and Ronnie Wood are more or less present throughout, while Ronnie Lane and Kenney Jones appear only on “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” the latter effectively a Faces performance (for contractual reasons, their presence is only suggested rather than confirmed in the sleevenote). Others include Stewart’s old Steampacket colleague, drummer Mickey Waller, Blodwyn Pig’s bassist Andy Pyle (replaced by Pentangle’s Danny Thompson on the acoustic tracks), session violinist Dick Powell and – crucially – classical guitarist and songwriter Martin Quittenton; basically, anybody he could rope in who was up for something a little different. The performances feel spontaneous, live (the occasional vocal or guitar overdub notwithstanding, this was indeed the case), unhurried and deep. It feels like eavesdropping into a roomful of friends, late into the night, the spirits gently flowing and the good humour unquenchable, swapping stories, woes and joys. The record appears ragged but is put together with a deceptive meticulousness, yet its rueful cavalier nature is best transmitted by means of the original LP issue; the Art Deco pastiche sleeve resembles something that might have been pulled out of a dusty charity shop rack after forty years’ residency – or perhaps one of those dirt-cheap greatest hits compilations to be found at petrol stations (again, don’t underestimate the power of niche marketing; one of the hundred best-selling American albums is the cassette-only Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits, which has amassed in excess of ten million sales over decades of truck stop and pharmacy transactions). It’s a record best listened to battered and bruised.
The lack of commercial expectations and pressures worked in the record and the singer’s favour; only three of its eight songs were composed or co-composed by Stewart himself (“Mandolin Wind,” the record’s deepest moment, is all his work) and the rest ranged from Crudup and Dylan through to Motown and Tim Hardin; a pocket history of the last twenty years or so of a certain, heartfelt strain of pop, all telegraphed through the vision of a hurt rogue. And it is this vision which is so sorely missing from the Top Of The Pops series, in that Stewart manages to cross the bridge from passive to active interpreter. The role of interpreter in popular music remains dangerously underrated; the Beatles taught us to worship the artist as creator, and music criticism has largely continued along these partially misbegotten lines, such that even the likes of Sinatra and Presley, who rarely, if ever, wrote their own material, are still looked down upon to a degree, and that most of the history of soul music is likewise bypassed in an auteurist hurry. But if in one sense it’s the song which matters, then the performer’s story matters just as much in another sense; how the personality, the very life, of the singer affects the root material and in turn how the singer as a totality affects his or her listeners. We look for alchemy, magic, revelations, and just because the singer didn’t write the song they’re singing doesn’t mean that they’re unable to access these and render them colourfully to us. Hardin’s original “Reason To Believe” is wary, resigned, trembling, confirmatory (despite or because of its rather jaunty tempo) but Stewart puts his microscope to the pain, slows everything down, magnifies it and whispers its concealed truths in our ear. He effectively re-composes the songs, as atoms might be reconstituted after a storm.
The record’s secret is given away practically at the beginning. The title track, co-written by Stewart and Wood, is one of the singer’s most euphoric rockers – although it is already noticeable, as with Who’s Next, that the main propulsive power is coming from the acoustic rather than the electric instruments. Acoustic guitar throbs into the song, with more than a feeling of “More Than A Feeling” (five years in advance) to its harmonic structure, and then the band vituperatively swipe into rock, like a spindlier Led Zeppelin (Stewart’s “Whoo!”s here and throughout the rest of the record rival both Freddy Cannon and Robert Plant in their merry ubiquity). The singer merrily details his roving exploits, the pickles into which he’s got across the world, but does he care? (“I was acCUSED! Whoo-HOO!,” his sated “eno-ho-hough”). Wood ticks off a brief solo, and after Stewart has found fulfilment with the “slit-eyed lady,” Maggie Bell, of Stone the Crows, abruptly makes her full-throated entrance (she is appositely credited on the sleeve with “vocal abrasions”). The song cools down and then builds up renewed steam as Stewart reaches its crux:
“I couldn’t quote you no Dickens, Shelley or Keats,
‘Cause it’s all been said before.
Make the best out of the bad, just laugh it off.
You didn’t have to come here anyway.”
With that – one of the wisest verses we will come across in this tale - there is nothing to do but for Stewart and Bell to turn the title and point (“Every picture tells a story, don’t it?”) into a chant midway between football pitch and holy shrine, their shouts half-desperate, half-ecstatic. The cry seems to want to get the world in Stewart’s parlour; please understand, it appears to be saying, that life is a joke and crap will happen but don’t take it that seriously, move on and remember not to forget how to smile. Otherwise we would hardly bear ourselves, as the piano and drum breakouts towards the extended fade demonstrate all too fully.
Much of the rest of the record is given over to examining just how crap – or just how great – life can get. Ted Anderson’s song “Seems Like A Long Time” emerges out of its chrysalis of “Handbags And Gladrags” piano and solemn drum roll; Waller gives an impatient grunt across his toms in response to Stewart’s “If you’ve ever waited for the sun”; the song’s lament gradually opens up to encompass not only the singer’s bedroom window, eternally bathed in hopeless night, but the wider world (“War time is only the other side of peace time”). Eventually another choral chant – this one much closer to “Hey Jude” – makes its gospelly entrance, audibly caressing and stirring up Stewart’s beaten-up heart (he’s nudging you frantically in the ninth rib, wanting you to realise what it is like to have the world cave in on him), led by “Mateus Rose,” a.k.a. Long John Baldry, the progenitor of “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” to which this song could serve as a more considered cousin. Waller hits his snare with a resounding thunderbolt of rhetoric, after which Wood’s guitar whines into quietude. Piano and voice (with a few guitar ad libs) take the unease into the nearest thing to peace that they can approximate.
Good times duly rise again, however; Wood takes “That’s All Right” back to the Delta in his carefully picked introduction – he generally sounds as though he is already auditioning for the Stones – before drums and piano snap the gladness back into boogie. But in the same way that Presley once introduced the blues to the milkcow, there’s something else, and moreover something new, going on here, and not just the way in which Stewart cannot let the song go (compare with Presley’s “Stranger In My Own Home Town” two years earlier), or the way in which he sings the title in the second chorus, whose vowel manglings appear to invent Alex Turner a generation ahead of schedule, or his joyous hooligan snarl of “Get in there!” before Wood’s bipolar guitar self-duet and Waller’s short drum solo, or the way in which climax after climax is hammered into view like an inpatient Joseph Beuys – but in terms of what the rhythm section are doing. Pyle sounds like James Jamerson, Waller’s drums swing and sidestep rather than thwack on the count; this is nascent seventies Brit ladrock forcibly being reminded of its debt to Motown. What happens with this approach in relation to what happens with all else in this music will provide the innovation.
Martin Quittenton then returns for a careful (and, on the sleeve, unlisted) duet with Stewart on “Amazing Grace,” at the time a major hit for Judy Collins and a song whose aura of revelatory salvation (given its extremely political origins) is apt to recur in pop from time to time, either in chord structure (“Never Ever” by All Saints) or in emotional bequest (“I’m Not Alone” by Calvin Harris). Quittenton’s guitar vibrates on its drone and may well have provided the basis or inspiration for the international hit version by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards the following year. Stewart sings simply, as though he has been saved.
Powell, Quittenton, Thompson and Wood play on Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” and Stewart’s performance is tremendously moving performance, roving from thoughts of loneliness to ideations of retrieved beds, refound Others, and…as if we could ever be allowed to forget…the continued craving for settlement, for home. The happiness of nature, the knowledge of kinship, cannot compensate for her absence, but once again the singer is keen that we should absorb this loneliness, not confuse it with loneness, and realise how vital it is to remember the direction home; not to deny our previous callow youth but rather come to terms with what it represents, where it might cripple us and where and how it might still lead us. The lament, or warning, flickers gradually out of earshot in the manner of so many once bright butterflies.
How we deal with matters of both loneliness and youth are examined in more thorough detail on side two. “Maggie May” is one of those songs and performances whose virtues are liable to become buried, not just through overexposure but also in light of the singer’s subsequent history; how can we take his protestations of “being used” seriously when we know all about his later capers?
But if we can forget the future – goodness knows that the question of remembering Stewart’s future was more than adequately done in Lester Bangs’ short story inspired by the song – and remember a 1971 Rod Stewart who most likely was probably still surviving on mashed potatoes, then the hurt and deceptive radicalism of both song and performance are as truthful as anyone could sanely expect. The song itself is an extended emotional tug-of-war masquerading as an internal monologue, with some black humour to leaven the gasping uncertainty (for instance, the comedic understatement of “You stole my soul, and that’s a pain I can do without,” worthy of Tony Hancock). He is saving the older woman, or more probably she is saving him, and he doesn’t really comprehend or dig it; isn’t he supposed to be a Young Man and therefore Boss Stud Muffin? Well, even he doesn’t believe that; note the elliptical passing reference to the final verse of Petula Clark’s “Downtown” (“All I needed was a friend to lend a guiding hand”) and the inevitable Oedipal guilt (“But you turned into a mother and a lover”). He hates the fact that he loves her, that she so evidently needs him as much as, or more than, she “uses” him, and that his brain wants to get the hell away from there, as far away as the protagonist of Morrison’s “Madame George,” back to the train station and school and music, but that his gut knows that he will never leave her.
The song continues to resonate because it is a quite staggering admission of the final failure of the supposed supremacy of the “I’m A Man” kind of boy – and Rod, in almost every way, is going to stay a boy his whole life long; you can already glean that – which the post-Stones sixties were so eager to build up. In the company of most of its Top 40 colleagues – see those Top Of The Pops albums again – it’s easy to forget how different “Maggie May” was, a recitation so brisk and efficient that its unedited five-and-a-half-minute duration slips the listener’s mind. The bright celeste which chimes through the “back to school” final verse recalls Drake’s “Northern Sky,” but the real musical radicalism here is the rapprochement between English folk, British rock and, again, Motown – Lindisfarne’s mandolinist Ray Jackson is the song’s conscience and his commentary is cleverly symbiotic with Quittenton’s acoustic contributions, such that the listener hardly realises that the song’s historical scope ranges from medieval plainsong to up-to-the-minute singer/songwriter mores. Moreover, the top layer of the arrangement – guitars, mandolin, MacLagan’s admirably (stoically) patient organ (which reminds me more of John Cale than the celeste does) – is differently constructed to the bottom (rhythm) layer, whose displacements and off-centre accents are purely out of Motown. Then everything pauses for the final mandolin soliloquy (complete with shoulder-shrugging bass obbligato) before the singer, more exasperated than heartbroken, sighs his slow way out of the song. “I’ll get back home…one of these…days,” are his final words (a Lear-esque “Whooo-oooh” notwithstanding) and we realise that “Maggie May” is in its own way another farewell to the sixties, a time and perhaps a person now unattainable.
This would be remarkable enough in itself, but “Mandolin Wind” raises the game. Like so many of this period’s key songs, it is patient, happy to stop and start, to pause and consider. It is winter, the coldest for fourteen years. Blankets of electric guitar thicken the skies outside the forlorn wood cabin. And she hasn’t left him, not all that time – or is this meditation the necessary answer to “Maggie May”? They have stayed together, and found unexpected strength in each other, right through the worst times as well as the best – and Stewart gives us the finest and truest vocal performance of his career. Hear how his “steel guitar” melts into the hoarsest, most heartbreaking “love ya” you ever heard. Mandolin, pedal steel and tambourine form a sort of Yukon chorus and gradually develop a riff. The final verse (“Noticing your face was thin and pale”) seems bleak until you realise that this is something that they have lived through, survived. Stewart’s “Lordy” puts him in communion with the soul of Cooke, and when, after the most pregnant of pauses – have the candles flickered out? - Waller’s drums eventually spread into the song’s marrow like the freshest of blood transfusions, immediately doubling its tempo (and Waller’s performance on “Maggie May” mustn’t be overlooked; both admonitory and understanding when his drums need to be, Greil Marcus remarked that his drumming should be given the Nobel Prize – for quantum physics), the crimson happiness which this album has been seeking again becomes tactile – and it’s the same tempo and nearly the same key as the title track.
But then the Temptations; “(I Know) I’m Losing You” is a fevered variant on the (already) fevered “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” David Ruffin’s rasp growling grizzly, like an axe he hesitates to apply to his own heart. Wisely, the Faces don’t attempt to out-paranoid the original – that’s scarcely doable – but instead use the number as a pretext to find out more about themselves, as musicians and as a group. Guitar is joined by processed bass, then piano, then voice, and finally drums; MacLagan offers some ironic descents of commentary but the whole is much closer to 1971 than 1966 Temptations. Sears’ piano articulates all the paranoia that this reading requires, but just as the band are about to boil over the cliff face, the song suddenly stops. Then backing vocals seem to rise from the grave, followed by barrelhouse piano, Stewart’s voice and Jones’ toxic hissing cymbal. The song smashes its way back into existence. “Get OUT!” roars Stewart; Wood and Jones offer a thrashing backbeat, Jones then takes over alone (hasn’t anyone sampled this yet?) followed by Wood kicking back in as per Hendrix, before MacLagan brings everyone back to the tune (“Oh yeah!” exclaims an audibly relieved Stewart). The group slows down and quietly blows out for a resolved ending.
Finally, heartbreak and doubt haven’t been extinguished – all four of these second side songs are facing each other in a luminous multidirectional mirror – as we reach “Reason To Believe.” Sears’ piano once again demonstrates eloquent patience before Stewart and MacLagan’s organ take up the song. What’s it all about? Can he live with her or without her, or vice versa? Does he want somebody else, or just a clear explanation of the way things are? The song seems to defy the premature emotional wreaths as Waller once again knocks it into life, pursued very closely by Powell’s violin – but then that organ returns, followed by a plaintive piano…and, almost finally, Stewart’s voice, alone, if not in the world. “Someone like you…makes it hard to live…without…somebody else.” Piano, violin and bass return, one by one, before the rhythm reasserts itself and the piano drives the engine out of the record; things are looking down but really you know the people involved will end up laughing it all off and moving onwards. And that is Rod Stewart’s picturesque story, the first chapter as far as this tale is concerned but also the greatest and most far-reaching; the record on which his reputation and residual love depend almost entirely – remember what he once had to say, where and who he once was, as we move through the seventies with him, and how he managed to break through the screen of session anonymity (as though something like Python Lee Jackson’s “In A Broken Dream” could ever be “anonymous”) and tell himself as much as, or more than, us how much he wanted and needed that light, white and welcoming, through the dusty, muddied windows of that winter cabin, which could clearly have equally been a bedsit in Brentwood.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 14:51
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