Thursday 30 December 2010

VARIOUS ARTISTS: 20 Dynamic Hits

(#113: 17 June 1972, 8 weeks)

Track listing: Hold Your Head Up (Argent)/Storm In A Teacup (The Fortunes)/Fireball (Deep Purple)/Butterfly (Danyel Gerard)/When You Get Right Down To It (Ronnie Dyson)/Something Tells Me (Something’s Gonna Happen Tonight) (Cilla Black)/Witch Queen Of New Orleans (Redbone)/Tonight (The Move)/Say You Don’t Mind (Colin Blunstone)/Softly Whispering I Love You (The Congregation)/Oh Babe What Would You Say (Hurricane Smith)/Black Night (Deep Purple)/Iron Horse (Christie)/Family Affair (Sly & the Family Stone)/Everybody’s Everything (Santana)/Tom-Tom Turnaround (New World)/Rosetta (Fame & Price)/Banner Man (Blue Mink)/Don’t Let It Die (Hurricane Smith)/Go Down Gamblin’ (Blood, Sweat & Tears)

It may well have been hard for the solemner minds of 1972 to accept that the year’s album chart champion was a former Teflon pan salesman from Winnipeg. Philip Kives was the original brain behind K-Tel, which he gradually developed from its feather duster/amplified kitchen knife beginnings to incorporate pop music, or any music that could readily and quickly be identified as popular. Inspired by his success at selling devices directly via television, he applied the same principle to records; 1966’s 25 Great Country Artists Singing Their Original Hits was to most intents and purposes the first TV-marketed album, and the formula – expanded from what a reluctant Kives initially saw as a leftfield one-off venture – proved so workable that it was inevitably expanded outside America. Aided by his cousin Raymond and Australians Don Reedman and Ian Howard, K-Tel commenced its British operations in the early seventies, and 20 Dynamic Hits was its first attempt to repeat its success here. That it worked is an understatement; no album sold more copies in 1972 Britain, and K-Tel, together with its American rival Arcade Records, dominated the top of the album chart for the rest of the year; with one exception (entry #115), these compilations make up the remainder of the TPL 1972 tale.

How did they succeed? Primarily, it was by being so single-minded about the profit motive and not really worrying about aesthetic concerns; these records were not built to last, to be acknowledged Classic Albums, but rather to catch the crucial part of the record-buying public who had hitherto had to settle for the soundalike albums documented throughout the second half of 1971 and who were still unable or unwilling to splash out sizable sums of money for a substantial tranche of hit singles. There was no pretence to K-Tel’s procedurals; 20 Dynamic Hits, as with its many successors, was subject to a brash, in-our-faces TV advertising campaign with loud, excited voiceovers, rushed three-second snippets of the tracks featured and a packaging strategy which was, to put it mildly, utilitarian; gaudy, primary-coloured sleeves with unfeasibly large print, dotted by monochrome circled portraits of the featured artists. The design was intentionally disposable (“Look out for exciting new releases on the K-Tel label!”) and the intent unapologetic; these were, the publicity emphasised, the ORIGINAL HITS by the ORIGINAL STARS (i.e. NOT soundalike session covers), with rights and royalties negotiated directly with the artists and their record companies (the sleeve credits the album as a co-production with EMI and CBS). The albums were available in department stores, newsagents, supermarkets, even electrical goods stores – and they retailed at a canny midprice (since, unlike the budget Top Of The Pops/Hot Hits series, midprice albums were not at this stage excluded from the main album chart).

The novelty was overwhelming, so much so that most consumers didn’t really care that the “hits” featured on the album were for the most part considerably less than “dynamic”; there are three number two hits featured but no number ones, the tracks come almost exclusively from 1971, and indeed two of the tracks did not trouble our singles chart at all. If glam rock was in the ascendant you wouldn’t have known it from here; T Rex, Slade, Elton etc. are conspicuously absent, and the conclusion has to be that K-Tel settled for whatever tracks they could negotiate onto the record. Many tracks be familiar to TPL readers from the 1971 soundalike phase; “Tom-Tom Turnaround” and “Don’t Let It Die,” for instance, turn up for the third time in this tale.

Still, this doesn’t mean that all of the tracks on 20 Dynamic Hits aren’t worth writing about; far from it, since the best thing about the compilation boom is that it allows me to bring people directly into this story who otherwise would have remained outside. In addition, the seeming semi-randomness of the twenty selections here make for a jarring listen; one, for instance, realises that from this picture, British pop music is still mostly (but not wholly) stuck in a rut and America is running (away) to unexpected (and in one case extremely disturbing) places. As with future entries of this kind, I propose to divide it up into digestible sections, artist by artist, or movement by movement, even if only to prove that, although released only as a means of maximising income from songs past their commercial peak (and the income was quite considerable; the record labels got a 16% royalty rate per track), there are always unexpected social and aesthetic truths to be uncovered, or disproved.

The Zombies Diaspora

Thanks to K-Tel, I do get to write about the Zombies themselves at greater length at a later date, but it is worth noting that, even though the band had officially split after Odessey And Oracle, they never quite grew apart. Rod Argent and Chris White, quite apart from their own duties in the group Argent, are all over One Year, Colin Blunstone’s debut album, whether as backing musicians or songwriters or arrangers or producers. Their own “Hold Your Head Up” is a fairly unremarkable would-be rock anthem made interesting by the restless (and characteristically Zombies) bass, Rod Argent’s oscillating keyboards (like a conservatory-trained Eno) and some of the percussion work, especially the cowbell manipulation in the break and the upward acceleration of the drums following the line “Change a thing that you’re doing.”

But One Year is something else entirely. Conceived as a ten-song diary of a year in the life of its singer – July to July – it moves patiently through the mechanisms of a break-up, the hapless feelings of abandonment and loss, then the awkward grope to find the world again, and the final return of love. What gives the record its inner energy – quite apart from the faultlessly controlled voice of Blunstone himself – is its continuing sense of harmonic dissatisfaction. This begins from the moment that the bass descends in unexpected, partly dissonant paths out of the standard rock-out of “She Loves The Way They Love Her,” and towards the remarkable dialogue staged throughout the record between Blunstone and Chris Gunning’s string quartet; Tim Hardin’s oft-covered “Misty Roses” begins as a straightforward bossa nova duet with Alan Crosthwaite’s guitar before the gloomy, suspended entry of the string quartet turns the song into a Bartokian quasi-nightmare. Again, on “Though You Are Far Away,” the simple accompaniment of a solo harp is derailed by the questing strings, now seeming to be ruminating on some of the implications of Beethoven’s late quartets. The more conventional pop songs, such as “Caroline Goodbye” and “Mary Won’t You Warm My Bed,” despite their straighter-edged Tony Visconti string and brass charts, still betray the seeping of desperation; the odd accentuations of the drums, Blunstone’s gasping emphasis on consonants – he is trying to find his way back but it’s not going to be as simple as he thought. John Fiddy’s brass band cushion on “Let Me Come Closer To You” suggests that he’s nearly ready to accept love again.

And then, finally, we get “Say You Don’t Mind,” written by Denny Laine in 1967 for his shortlived Electric String Band (ELO, effectively, five years ahead of schedule), and released twice as a single in its original version without success; here Blunstone turns the song’s desperate mixture of guilt, promise and faith into a performance of remarkable strength and vulnerability. The string quartet “rocks” after a fashion, but the responsibility is all the singer’s – he has spent half an hour, or twelve months, searching for this plateau, wanting love and life back, and now he has it he’s afraid that it will crumble; his “but I’m scared of you going” has a feathery pain to it which Laine doesn’t quite achieve (see also his four-syllable “po-oo-ooh-ool,” his “ha-a-a-ve”). This is something he has snatched back from the jaws of oblivion, such that as the strings dizzingly peak, circling around him like birds, and he reaches that terrible/liberated extended falsetto of “TIIIIIIIIIIMMMMMMEEEEE!!!,” one feels that this is the nirvana which Nick Drake was never quite intended to reach (and vocally and orchestrally there are obvious links with Bryter Layter, although there are also less obvious and arguably deeper links with Scott Walker; One Year is almost like an inversion of ’Til The Band Comes In, Walker’s doleful baritone replaced by Blunstone’s airy alto, everything scored high rather than deep, looking at the sun rather than pining for the moon). As a performance it soars out of the K-Tel grooves; heard in its original context it is cathartic to a level which few other British records of its period could match.

Speaking Of Birmingham...

The second time around for “Tonight” and it doesn’t grip any more firmly than it did the first. Message From The Country remains an untidy final Move album, which is hardly surprising since the group was already more than halfway towards turning into ELO but contractually obliged still to be the Move. Generally its tracks hark more towards Roy Wood’s Wizzard with their back-to-basics rock and multitracked sax smears, although Jeff Lynne is beginning to become a dominant voice (e.g. “The Words Of Aaron” and the title track). There is even a shift towards Zappa/Mothers-style musical expansion in tracks such as “It Wasn’t My Idea To Dance” (which would be explored further on Wizzard’s albums). “Tonight” itself did not form part of the original album, and it still sounds like a throwaway; vocally and musically divided equally between Wood and Lynne, it is nevertheless Lynne’s George Harrison-esque lead guitar which makes the greatest impression (although the closing quickfire “His Latest Flame” quote was almost certainly Wood’s idea). The Move were a great singles band which never quite progressed (if “progressed” is the correct word to use) towards making a great album, but “Tonight” itself was hardly one of their finest singles.

Also Appearing On The British Half Of The Bill

It really is an effort to find much to say about the majority of the British tracks on 20 Dynamic Hits. Most of them are so workaday and ineffectual that even Dale Winton would stifle a crafty yawn. “Storm In A Teacup,” for example; early Lynsey de Paul, a suburban Formica variant on “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” performed with great efficiency by Brumbeat sometime-rans the Fortunes (and sometimes when they weren’t in the charts they really did run; see, for example, their remarkable brace of 1967 singles, “Our Love Has Gone” and “The Idol”), pitter-patters out of one’s mind the second it fades. “Rosetta,” too; Georgie Fame and Alan Price, teaming up temporarily, always on The Two Ronnies with their two grand pianos diagonally facing each other, clearly having a good time with uncomplicated pub rock, but for Britain’s Mose Allison and for someone who was, and is, at his best, Britain’s Randy Newman, this is very thin meat indeed, a romp evidently far more fun to record than it is to hear.

As for Hurricane Smith, both of his major hits remain endearing – and “Don’t Let It Die” at times sounds like the missing link between the late Danny Ross (connoisseurs of vintage British radio comedy will recall him as Alfie Hall in the beyond-bizarre The Clitheroe Kid) and Roger Waters (and we have to remember that this is the man who produced Syd’s Floyd, and indeed went on to contribute half of the trumpets to Kilimanjaro by the Teardrop Explodes); heartfelt yet rather sinister. “Oh Babe,” in contrast, a UK #4 hit and a US #2, was an utterly charming trinket of twenties revivalism, beefed up by Frankie Hardcastle’s rasping tenor sax throughout.

Of “Iron Horse,” Christie’s third, final and least hit (one week at #47), there is almost nothing to say, except that singing “across the great divide” does not make you The Band, and that any advance on “Yellow River” (originally intended for the Tremeloes, but CBS decided to run with Jeff Christie’s own take) was invisible and indeed inconceivable.

Deep Purple

“Fireball” makes a welcome return here (and lends a supplementary premise of 20 Dynamic Hits being an examination of how different musicians fell out of the sixties, and where they landed) and “Black Night,” based on a James Burton lick from Rick Nelson’s cover of “Summertime” which Blackmore must have remembered from his Outlaws days, also appears here; good to hear a still relatively unconstrained Blackmore wig out in his first solo before his more pensive second one. The spirit of Meek continues to pervade both tracks.

The Two Rogers Question

Cook and Greenaway. Tireless songwriters, ever-present hitmakers of the time. And yet, what the hell is going on here?

There is “Something Tells Me,” the theme from Cilla’s then-current TV series which provided her with her last top ten hit, which tries without much success to be the theme from the Mary Tyler Moore Show; a muted climax to a musical career which had more than its share of unexpected delights (including a similarly discursive take on “Misty Roses”). There is the inexplicable “Banner Man” – a top three hit in the Orange Lodge style. There is the positively frightening (look at their picture on the sleeve!) “Softly Whispering” in which a boys’ choir fights with Glasgow’s Brian Keith, ex-of Plastic Penny (“Everything I Am,” top ten in early ’68), attempting to be a No Mean City Levi Stubbs. Apart from explaining with icy clarity why glam had to happen – what the hell is going on here?


“Tom-Tom Turnaround,” as previously mentioned, turns around for its third visit, this time in its original, in-tune version, and continues to leave no feelings in this listener other than finger-drumming impatience – were its composers really only eighteen months or so away from “Blockbuster”? Danyel Gerard was one of France’s first authentic rockers, up there with Johnny Hallyday, and “Butterfly” was simultaneously his most atypical and (internationally) his most popular song. The discordant guitar bends halfway through each verse demonstrate where he’d been but the singalong is strictly bier keller standard, even with choir, trumpets, and so forth. Redbone were at least authentic Red Indians and although “Witch Queen” still comes across as Tommy James doing Dr John, it still packs a minor punch, largely through its emphatic door-knocking drums and unstable string/Moog lines and wobbles. Ronnie Dyson probably deserved better in his brief life (he died in 1990, aged just forty) and his cover of the Delfonics’ “When You Get Right Down To It” was much more of a turntable hit on British radio than a hit single as such (it peaked at #34) but he handles Thom Bell’s curves well enough for Bell himself to produce a series of fine proto-Philly singles for Dyson shortly thereafter. Look out for the squelchy water-tap Moog which materialises under the line “Wash away the bad times” and the way in which the choir suddenly invades the song, like marigolds.

The Ones Which Didn’t Chart

Not quite the case with Santana, since Santana III, from which “Everybody’s Everything” is taken, was a substantial hit album here (#6). Nonetheless, in the face of such dithering pitter-patter, it is refreshing to bathe in this furious yet reassuring percussion/brass/organ workout; Carlos himself turns up near the end and the band’s other main guitarist, Neal Schon, prepares to begin his own jazz-rock group – Journey. My favourite Santana album, Caravanserai, came out towards the end of 1972 – and I will be returning to Santana in the very long term – but the track does fine in this (and any) context.

Blood, Sweat and Tears, in contrast, were past their peak; “Go Down Gamblin’”’s parent album, BS&T4, did no business here, and the Tom Jones-style vocal idiosyncrasies of Canada’s own David Clayton-Thomas may continue to grate for some, but this isn’t too bad a track in itself and a pretty strong and florid closer to the album as a whole, even if, for me, Canada’s Lighthouse (featuring the younger Howard Shore) did the whole jazz-soul-fusion thing a whole lot more lightly and a hell of a lot more convincingly.

But One Of These Things Is Not Like The Others...


But it wasn’t anyone in your family. You know what it’s like; Shaun Ryder certainly did when he revisited the scene of the imploding disaster in “Lazyitis” a generation later and a country apart. Sometimes you stick by people, blood being thicker than mud and everything, the pain being louder than that bomb tick of a drum machine. Some grow up good, others want to burn, maybe both themselves and others. But you stand by them when everything else falls apart, and even when it doesn’t.

And here they are, brother and sister (literally; that’s Rose Stone on Fender Rhodes and co-lead vocals), with Bobby Womack’s punching (out the clock) guitar, tick tock DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT IT’S LIKE?

“Family Affair” was always going to stand out like the reddest of veins on a record like this, but it drives us towards the mucked-up, fucked-up blood which stains this part of our tale like so much else of its time tried to do. Exile you could, and can, take; there is trouble, there is indeciperable code, murky moths of memory, but always that hope, always the rescuing cheek, the shared knowledge of a decade that the Stones had with their fans that this was where, finally, where we were all going to be heading; and we can come out the other end as well.

You don’t feel that with There’s A Riot Goin’ On, although newcomers to the record may point to the stalky lightness of its funk and wonder where the pain is lurking. Even though those of us of more hurtful experience can sense it, can sometimes breathe it – why is he yodelling through “Spaced Cowboy,” and why are we willing him on? Can’t we see that he’s destroying himself – or even his self?

Riot was the USA’s Christmas number one album of 1971, beating out even Led Zeppelin IV; many who didn’t have a stake in what it was suggesting didn’t want to know, tuned out (just as they would do a few months later with its semi-visible twin, Miles’ On The Corner) – hey, why bother us with this pain? It’s so ill-measured, so...impolite.

But the clock ticks all the way through Riot without an alarm setting; this was Sly telling us that everything he’d been telling us over the previous three years was a lie, that it was all coming apart, most of all his self, or even himself, that it was going to be every bastard for themselves from now on; the perception that “we” still have to hang together to change anything, but also the horrific self-realisation that he might not be a part of it, but apart from it. He didn’t have to say anything after Riot and by and large it was as if he didn’t. But who could have said anything after the gauntlet that record threw down? The pregnant, giving-birth wail/cry at the end of “Family Affair” keeps turning up all the way through the album; “Poet” and “(You Caught Me) Smilin’” hammer their own vowels into their crucifix, “Just Like A Baby” and “Brave & Strong” seem to imply that any way out will only turn out to be another drug. “Africa Talks To You ‘The Asphalt Jungle’” has Sly losing himself as comprehensively as the Bowie of Low, but unlike the latter he is actively being chased off his own record by the rest of his group (and whoever else would turn up, including Billy Preston, Miles and Ike Turner), screaming “TIMBERRRRRR!!!!” back at them before the remorseless horseshoe clips of the rhythm cut him off like a scythe. On “Runnin’ Away” he is hardly there; his singers appear to be laughing at him; you fucked up, you come back home – back to what, you dumbass sucker? Finally, a long, draggy, sloping upwards towards the cranium, haul through a more hopeful song of old, now just reduced to an eking out of existence, the crawl on the narrow window ledge; does he have enough energy to jump, or more energy to stay there, and throw society off the thirtieth floor instead?

“Nobody” (except Sly’s core constituency, i.e. the people the events on Riot were more likely to affect, and the scores of black musicians inspired or relighted by its example) wanted to hear this, just as “nobody” wanted to know about Lennon saying fuck the Beatles and the dream is over. Lena reckons that the record is a pretty accurate aural description of what it was like to be staggering through the California of 1971; for myself, I put it next to On The Corner, to Exile, to Escalator, as a stark yet rich portrait of what and how things really are. Think of those unspoken lines of Paul Haines’ near the end of Escalator, the ones about “A new day dawns/You do not want it/Only the humor that stops things from becoming funny.” Riot counts, as almost nothing else on 20 Dynamic Hits does, because we can dress life up in the loudest and flimsiest of colours, and have our fun, but look at those wrinkling corners, look at the only people here who don’t resemble 1972 darts or snooker champions – it’s 1972’s direst warning, and its burial in this least expected of packages perhaps makes it all the more frightening.

Thursday 16 December 2010

The ROLLING STONES: Exile On Main St.


(#112: 10 June 1972, 1 week)

Track listing: Rocks Off/Rip This Joint/Shake Your Hips/Casino Boogie/Tumbling Dice/Sweet Virginia/Torn And Frayed/Sweet Black Angel/Loving Cup/Happy/Turd On The Run/Ventilator Blues/I Just Want To See His Face/Let It Loose/All Down The Line/Stop Breaking Down/Shine A Light/Soul Survivor

”Say now baby, I’m the rank outsider.”

One reads so much about the darkness, the near nothingness, that engulfed the recording of Exile that it’s easy to get misled – that is, before the music itself begins to mislead the listener. For such a supposedly grim and dank record, the surprise comes in how light the record sounds, how completely assured and planned are its eighteen struts of bedpole-tipping and aisle-bending. Noticeable too is the sheer zip of the thing; its sixty-seven minutes fly by quickly, it plays like, if not quite a greatest hits collection, then a compilation of B-sides (as others have also previously noted). Hardly any time is wasted; only one track exceeds five minutes and most clock in at considerably less. There is no escaping the feeling that the Stones, contrary to all other reports, knew exactly what they were doing, even if that meant being the Stones better and longer than anybody else.

And that was perhaps their point. Is Exile really the white Riot? A caged crawl along an imaginary window ledge, wondering whether any of it, the fame, the money, has been worth anything, whether it was all an illusion, a schemata to keep the real world out and away from gurgling, self-consuming faces? Sonically there isn’t the uncommon fusing of weightlessness and heaviness that we get through Sly’s most tortured and torturing fifty minutes; Exile is the Stones assessing everything they’d learned in the preceding decade, bottling it up and gushing it out with a oneness (add the “l” for “loneness” if you’re so inclined) that was only theirs.

Is it their best album? Certainly it is their only album, and one of only a very few albums, about which this tale will have to write twice; and yet, outside Stones cognoscenti, who knows more than (if they’re lucky) three or four tracks on it at the most? The definitive portrait of the Stones as a working rock group from which its rhythm section is absent for about half the record. The contradictions are enough to crucify the unwary.

There’s “Rocks Off” for a start, and in my days of compiling tapes for friends to introduce them to a certain strand of rock I would always kick off Side A with this and follow it up with the New York Dolls’ “Personality Crisis.” The rock is treble-heavy, and Jagger’s voice swoons and croaks around the song’s fibres (“Your mouth don’t move but I can hear you speak”). He’s lost, can only escape from the pirouetting come rush by dreaming; the city, the world, overwhelms him (“Headed for the overload/Splattered on the dusty road”), and he wishes to be kicked until he can feel pain no more – Keats checks in on Lou Reed’s credit card. Jim Price’s horns shake and shine like the Brotherhood of Breath, Charlie Watts disintegrates the song in its closing moments, subdividing the beat into Tony Williams fractions (though using the snare rather than the ride cymbal).

Maybe there’s a little too much eagerness here to not be construed as forced. “Rip This Joint” is the most furious rock and roll song that could be heard in 1972, so fast and unforgiving that its spits at Pat and Dick, at Alabama and Little Rock, are liable to whizz past the ears too readily (“WAOW YEAHH!!” Jagger exclaims at strategic points). Its pounding is a desperate one; tear those nails out of the coffin that Don McLean built (Bobby Keyes’ tenor is the definition of “ripping”). Yeah, they seem to say, you think we’re finished, you lousy little pseudo-poets? Not for the last time on this record, I think of what might have happened if Funhouse had gone triple platinum and Iggy had decided to go for the stadiums.

And then there’s “Shake Your Hips,” a shake-up of a Slim Harpo song from the time of Aftermath; Jagger does bad, bad things with his echoing purrs, almost willing his prey to be a robot, betraying things about the story of R&B that maybe 1972 R&B wanted to forget; even the knitting needle percussion is sexy, the tenor/bass creaking bedhead unison an invitation to slur up instructions, the whole crawling down to our level, wanting a word in our ear; the fuckness brilliance of not hiding or cleaning up desire. The Stones were still prepared to podie their pants in ’72; the song is almost like a prĂ©cis of Meltzer’s Gulcher, while mentioning nothing about American football or supermarket prices.

It continues; “Casino Boogie” settles down to accommodate Mick Taylor’s old bluesbreaking ways while it sings about the lights going out, trapdoors vaporising to accommodate the noose, “grotesque music, million dollar sad”, and “Tumbling Dice” (the single, and the one song on Exile that “most people” know) which is just another of Jagger’s love ‘em but why they’re all cheating fucks anyway self-immolating laments which never quite frees itself from its own maze of structural and emotional locks.

If side one of Exile rocks, like the Pequod, then side two is where Exile reaches its lowest depths – and I mean “deep” as in “profound.” Did long-term French villa visitor Gram Parsons play on this sequence? Who can remember (he’s not listed on the credits), but I can’t imagine the spiritualised grace of the sequence being conceived without his influence. “Sweet Virginia” – pretty much about as extreme a difference 1972 could muster from, say, “Virginia Plain” – is a campfire singalong with acoustic guitars, barrelhouse piano, tenor sax, drums and Jagger’s harmonica, all slightly out of step with each other; it is akin to Christian Wolff tackling Folkways. Eventually there’s an emphatic on-beat, there are handclaps, Jagger’s “yeooowwww” on the final chorus being as peaceful and orgasmic a resolution as Molly Bloom’s. “Got to scrape that shit right off your shoes” indeed. “Torn And Frayed” is better still; listen to the way in which the harmonies dissolve into Jim Price’s organ, which hovers in the middle distance, underscored by Al Perkins’ steel guitar, slightly deviated by Nicky Hopkins’ piano, which appears to reach back into 1967 and “We Love You.” But then Keith Richards slides in with an elegant shrug for his brief solo, Jagger suppresses something resembling rage in the “way” of his “steal your heart a-way” before the song moves into Staxville for the fade, Steve Cropper licks and all; it’s impossible to not be touched by the simple belief in their work, as the Rolling Stones, which underpins the song; sure, the admin and the business might be shit most of the time, the drugs will never work, but come back to that guitar and that ripped coat you’ve had since you were nicking neighbours’ milk bottles in Edith Grove. “Sweet Black Angel” was for Angela Davis, with Richard Washington (billed as “Amyl Nitrate”) on marimbas, Jimmy Miller on distant clip-clop Tonto drums, a genteel acoustic shuffle with a purely rhythmic harmonica. The “judge” lines are delivered staccato, like Archie Shepp re-orchestrating Gilbert and Sullivan.

But finally it’s back to love and simple happiness; “Loving Cup” sums up the questing mood of its side with a clarity and truthfulness which are extremely moving. The gospel piano intro gives way to Miller’s dramatic drum entry, and we reach the nub, the core, of Exile; for maybe the first and last time on a Stones record, the revolution comes in the phrase “What a beautiful world.” Redemption, the uplifting of the uprising; we are here and we are fucked but fuck it we are happy and you can’t kill us. Jagger gasps a parched scream, horns blast their way in with ambiguous harmonies, and the mood changes, slowly and subtly, from the spiritual to the carnal (it is the sexual-religious equivalent of the near-unnoticeable transition from West to East that marks the Beach Boys’ “Cabinessence”). So low down are these Stones, yet so high up are they also; they have never sounded so much of either than here.

Did someone mention “Happy”? The second track that some people are most likely to know from Exile, and doesn’t Keith’s voice come across like Neil Young? Horns are strident, Taylor’s guitar rebounds like a safe house pinball machine. “Keep on dancing!” he exclaims as he aims for absurd high notes – and keeps getting them. “Turd On The Run” rolls, so to speak, but Jagger’s momentarily cornered; realising that it might all be for nothing, but where Keith can happily shrug off Lear jets, Jagger obsesses about diamond rings, Vaseline and disease, about throwing the bastard to the sharks, and is he singing to himself? “Ventilator Blues” is driven by sinisterly low-pitched bass, piano and drums, and even more unsettlingly settles for a refrain of “What’cha gonna do about it?” against Richards’ worrying guitar and Hopkins’ grave piano; a recall, conscious or unconscious, of the first hit by the Small Faces (“Don’t forget it!”). This leads without a break into the uncanny “I Just Want To See His Face” in which the Stones, essentially, do John Coltrane. It’s all there; the damaged veins of spiritualism, Miller making like Elvin with his drum accents, Richards’ quivering electric piano, the ghosts of 1964 Impulse! and Blue Note making themselves felt (and simultaneously getting ready for trip hop), the two basses (Bill Plummer on acoustic, Taylor on electric). “It’s all right!” strikes an unexpected Elvis – oh, come on, Crudup – gong.

Spiritual? “Let It Loose” could almost be the Stones’ condensed All Things Must Pass with its slow, Leslie cabinetted guitar, its “Dear Prudence” descents, its hymnal piano; the mood is Harrison and/or Clapton, the search perhaps truer. There ensues a brilliant sunrise of horns and Jagger’s most sheerly passionate vocal on the record. Other voices – among them, Shirley Goodman, Tami Lynn and Dr John – drift in and out; the salvation becomes commensural and as the whole dissolves into an unexpected refraction of the closing moments of side one of What’s Going On?, at least one message is clear; here, with the way we are and the way things are, anybody can be a Rolling Stone. Membership – before the gates subsequently closed again - was as open as that of the Scratch Orchestra.

“All Down The Line” is generic Stones rocking, but a fine example nonetheless, given extra vivacity by Keith McDonald’s androgynous backing vocal which at times threatens to obscure Jagger altogether, and by the horns, which render bebop lines rather than straight lines. And yet, at its centre, that same Anne Boleyn Secondary School sadness: “Won’t you be my little baby for a while?” asks Jagger, over and over, as though grasping for oxygen.

And then we get back to the source of everything (here); “Stop Breaking Down” finds them back with Robert Johnson, back where they began (the sleeve’s “Trad. arr.” credit notwithstanding). And yet this is not quite the old blues; Jagger’s harmonica bleeps out Morse code, the underlying carpet of troubled funk gives a prediction of “Superstition,” although Jagger’s concern here is the personal rather than the political; he’s had it, had more than enough of cheating and stealing and phoniness. Watts rolls over Taylor’s solo, while Richards places a Concorde drone under Taylor’s bottleneck. “Shine A Light” starts a little like “Sour Suite” by the Guess Who but soon moves into unexpected “Let It Be” solemnity (and there, on cue, is Billy Preston and his keyboards). The song alters the quiet and loud; and yet, all the while, there is this weariness, an exhausted plea for the next life: “Come on up, come on up now, come on up now.” Is he thinking of jumping?

(Secret answer: “Never.”)

I’m thinking of a lot of things here, not least My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (for Robert Johnson, read Gil Scott-Heron), where Kanye summons up everything he believes he’s learned over the past decade and lets it leak out over a marathon of self-loathing and occasional life-denying (is it a “masterpiece”? Scrambled-up anti-reportage might be closer), since Exile - or, at least, this version of it – concludes with “Soul Survivor,” the record’s most ostensibly “Rolling Stones” track, with a tiger of a riff which appears to have leapt straight out of the “Gimme Shelter” cage (and the riff then mutates into a predication of Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back”), but continually rising and rising until revolution, and not just of the record, seems more than a distinct probability, even if it comprises revolt against the self (“You’re gonna be the death of me!”), and again, that urge to chase the whale; “I’ll stowaway at sea/You make me mutiny.” The Stones, running away, or being driven, from their home (by the Inland Revenue), holing up at an old Nazi compound with neither food nor heating, and yet theirs is the most conspicuous and gaudy display on anybody’s Main Street. But theirs, in 1972, was maybe still the most unique; the word “concentrated” springs to mind, as if the Stones bunkered down and put everything they knew into its purest use, being the purest they could ever hope to be. And the purity paralleled their peak; where were the Beatles in 1972, where was anybody? Perhaps I can answer that question further as this tale is about to devolve into records by “everybody” and nobody in particular. But here we still are, the Stones say, still untouchable, unreachable, at the top of the mountain and we can’t get down but the loneliness – as in, who else is up here with us? - is also our oxygen. Keep those tears hid out of sight, since you down there at the bottom, all those freaks and antiques on Robert Frank's covers, all you Vietnam mourners, all you juke joint Coke-dippers; you are our mirrors. Look at that title again; not "Street," but "St." Saints? Why not? Everyone needs sympathy.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

T. REX: Bolan Boogie

(#111: 20 May 1972, 3 weeks)

Track listing: Get It On/Beltane Walk/The King Of The Mountain Cometh/Jewel/She Was Born To Be My Unicorn/Dove/Woodland Rock/Ride A White Swan/Raw Ramp/Jeepster/Fist Heart Mighty Dawn Dart/By The Light Of A Magical Moon/Summertime Blues/Hot Love

From the sleeve design – the rear cover is a blurred, silvery shot of Marc in action – I wouldn’t expect that the people at Fly Records gave more than a couple of minutes’ attention towards putting this compilation together. Clearly exploring – and exploiting – the suddenly profitable back catalogue at their disposal, Bolan Boogie is nonetheless a very useful primer for the newer Bolan fans of 1972; as well as a handy summation of his hits to date, it also cunningly traces the route Bolan took towards usurping the Beatles (Ringo directed his Born To Boogie movie and nearly made number one with his Bolan pastiche-tribute “Back Off Boogaloo”); the route, to be specific, from acoustic to electric, from wistful to sensual, and how one didn’t necessarily supplant the other.

In fact Bolan Boogie takes off pretty much from where entry #110 left off, albeit cursorily from the Steve Peregrine Took perspective; “She Was Born To Be My Unicorn” appears as the sole representative of Unicorn, the third Tyrannosaurus Rex album and the last with Took; symbolically, Took’s percussion is now a distant bash – it could almost be a drum machine – while Bolan experiments with his voice and his arrangements; his climactic, smacking “high, high, high, high” suggests an increasing sexuality as a didgeridoo, or possibly a processed ‘cello, drones in the middle distance.

The fourth album, A Beard Of Stars, represented here by three tracks, brought both Mickey Finn and electricity on board and the transition is gradual but unmissable. Its single “By The Light Of A Magical Moon,” is the most immediately memorable of this trio, although Bolan is still working, or clawing his way, towards pop; the hooks are there but the mood remains somewhat shambolic (Bolan even presages Bryan Ferry in his vocal here to a minor extent). The profoundest of the three is “Dawn,” an early indication of how well Bolan would be able to carry off the pop ballad; the song is slow, crouched, low, and is a song of love, of yearning, of need, showing a rare humility and vulnerability in the singer; eventually he has to resolve the song into a winsome wordless alphabet with some markedly George Harrison-esque electric guitar commentary, underscored by a remarkable bass improvisation. “Fist Heart” is an energetic midtempo workout, and even here the listener should marvel at Bolan (and producer Tony Visconti)’s arranging genius; so many different things are going on throughout this track, some close up, others in the far distance, yet all are audible and relevant – a thousand variations of invention, and a fine presage of what was about to come.

1970’s T. Rex album – the group’s first to be credited as such – proved to be the crossover. In “Beltane Walk,” all the wonder present in Electric Warrior is apparent and radiant; Bolan’s extremely careful Estuary English pronunciations, the 45° angle between strings, tambourine and bass, the lovely and unexpected major-to-minor-to-Picardy-third chord changes, and a surprisingly simple message: “Gimme little love from God’s heart,” mutating into “Give us little love from your hearts.” The fusion of Chinese Opera strings and Chuck Berry riffing is past inspired, while Bolan’s voice cracks into throaty duality towards song’s end, his guitar, as Lena remarked, snarling “like this massive mosquito,” leading to a pair of crashing feedback clusters at the close. “Jewel” takes the acoustic Tyrannosaurus template, moving it past its unspoken missing link (“Oh Well” by Fleetwood Mac) towards electrified magic and a prediction of Suede in both Bolan’s vocals (Anderson) and guitar (Butler). The third chorus, however, suddenly explodes into a freeform miasma followed by a splenetic Bolan solo; the song ends rather in the manner of late eighties Sonic Youth.

And then there was the album’s single, the breakthrough smash “Ride A White Swan,” the highway back from the perfumed garden towards Route 66; along with Dave Edmunds’ “I Hear You Knocking,” its defiantly unassuming nature – Finn’s tambourine being the only percussion on the record – was immediately arresting, the lyrics silly enough to entrance younger listeners (including myself) and yet telling enough that their accidental profundities are easy to miss (“In the morning you’ll know all you know – oh”). After the posthumous apocalypse that was “Voodoo Chile,” here was a new start, something that even Lennon could understand and grab onto (“Rock and roll I can understand!”). Note the gently, upwardly undulating string line and Bolan’s Prince/Jackson-anticipating gulps, gasps and scats (the latter will be the unshakable core of T Rex’s pop work). As though to underline the continuity, its B-side was a take on “Summertime Blues” arguably more radical than the Who’s on Live At Leeds since Bolan turns it into a raga, with the intermittent entry of a blast furnace drone. The secondary riff toes a fat line between Duane Eddy and Ravi Shankar, while Finn’s hyperactive bongos sound like Tommy Hall’s jug in the Thirteenth Floor Elevators. The whole is so transformatively compelling that you hardly wonder at the prospect of a kid from Hackney calling his Congressman.

Then in the early spring of 1971 came “Hot Love,” their first number one, and it made the likes of Mungo Jerry sound like the 12th century. The song possesses such grace and glide of line; among its many highlights are the Gene Vincent guitar which leaps out like a friendly pink panther in the instrumental break (as well as its divine counterpart, two “OW!”s – why, hello there, Joan Jett! - and one deliciously stretched “OOOOHH!!,” from Marc), the undoubted stimulation of Bolan’s vibrato…and there was nothing tiresomely macho, and everything divinely androgynous, about lyrics such as: “I’m a labourer of love/In my Persian gloves.”

Those “uh-huhs,” those elemental repeats of “Well she’s my woman of gold/And she’s not very old” are so simple and clearly must have evoked what the Elvis of ’56 must have signified, or begun, in our forebears. Much more than “the new Beatles,” T Rex’s triumph was I think to re-engage the duende of that original Elvis. The long, increasingly ecstatic outro, which lasts nearly as long as the “song” itself, in combination with Visconti’s low-bearing ‘cellos and Flo and Eddie’s wailing sopranino backing vocals – and absolutely crucially, the kind timidity and artful generational placement of “I don’t mean to be bold/Ah, but-ah may I hold your hand?” (what a contrast to something like “Baby Jump”) spelled it out: for those of my generation, this was our “Hey Jude,” and really, even more than officially “starting the Seventies,” T Rex were the first pop group my generation could really call “ours”; it was as their sixties selves had been reincarnated, made anew, refined. The Grinderswitch rolling blues bass was there, as were the guitar references to Tony McPhee of the Groundhogs – but this was not a browning artefact of a recent past. It was a maxi-single, and both of its B-sides are also present here; the daft “Woodland Rock” motorvates like old school fifties bop until Bolan’s lead guitar starts chopping into the scenery like a shark for its solo. Strings do not enter until the end, and despite the “Don’t Be Cruel” quotes, there is still a curious detachment in the group’s performance. “The King Of The Mountain Cometh” plays like the last remnant of the extinct Tyrannosaurus, being largely acoustic and driven by Bolan’s organic, universal sigh-gasp mongrelisation at the end of each chorus, but Visconti is hard at work, too; the strings work up towards a high-pitched atonal screech and numerous other elements – didgeridoo, Jew’s harp, studio chatter – stumble in and out of the mix over the song’s endlessly repeated riff before shuffling into its station, startlingly in the manner of Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express.”

There is no need to reiterate what I wrote about “Get It On” or “Jeepster” in my discussion of Electric Warrior except that here they represent the marvellous culmination of everything towards which Bolan had been working; completely assured, confident and sexy, sounding like little else in the 1971 charts. But there is an urgent need to write about “Raw Ramp,” the five-minute-plus B-side of “Get It On,” and the great lost T Rex track, which opens side two of Bolan Boogie to such astonishing effect. It begins as a stately ballad, very Lennon in its mood. Then, after a meaningful pause, it rocks up and turns practically Beefheartian in its smouldering strut (“Baby, your mouth is like a ghost”), transmogrifying freely towards its subject from “baby” to “woman” and back again (“I’m just crazy ‘bout your breasts!”). “You think you’re a champ,” snarls Bolan,” but you ain’t nothin’ but a RAW RAMP!” Both lead and backing vocals rise and fall like waves of something that is not water; even by Bolan’s own exceptional standards of sensuality, this busts open a few stubbornly closed doors. Bolan breaks into impure vocal abstraction before a second pause ensues – leading to a virtual replica (musically) of the introduction to “Get It On,” although, if the words are anything to go by, the story is that of Bobby Goldsboro’s “Summer (The First Time).” “I got on my knees and begged to the sun/And knew that my manhood had begun,” confesses Bolan before roaring “Electric boogie COME ON!” Fulfilled and complete, he sings, “Embrace your brother/Dance in the mud/Like a Palomino stud!” and the fadeout is exultant, triumphant and – yes – consummated. Record company cash-in or not, Bolan Boogie is an exhilarating listen, and yet, Various Artists compilations aside, marks the point where TPL takes its leave of Marc and T Rex; despite supposed six-figure advance orders, The Slider, the next T Rex album proper (and a severely underrated one), only peaked at #4, and the gentle downward incline of Bolan’s career began as his contemporaries not only caught up with him but also (as this tale will demonstrate when it reaches 1973) drastically outpaced and outran him. At the time of his death in 1977 he was on the verge of a major punk-inspired comeback, and one can only speculate how he would have fared in the age of New Pop and beyond. But, for now – and for many of his fans, for some considerable time thereafter – he had all the answers.