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.