Thursday 30 June 2011

David BOWIE: Aladdin Sane

(#125: 5 May 1973, 5 weeks)

Track listing: Watch That Man/Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)/Drive-In Saturday/Panic In Detroit/Cracked Actor/Time/The Prettiest Star/Let's Spend The Night Together/The Jean Genie/Lady Grinning Soul

Let's begin with Charlie Chaplin. Why not? Did he not also come out of south London, eventually to find his way to Detroit and machines? The differences between Chaplin and Bowie are otherwise too numerous and irrelevant to examine here, but note that in Modern Times he sees the automobile conveyor belts of Detroit as something approaching an end; an end, he scarcely needs bother to underline, of and to everything he cherished or nurtured about humanity. But in 1936 he could hardly see how those same belts could indicate a regeneration, a way forward for the otherwise abandonable, a future of Berry Gordy and Derrick May and Marshall Mathers...oh, and Iggy Pop. Contrast with the euphoric downhill helter-skelter lines of "Panic In Detroit" and it's clear that the chaos in itself provides the elements of what Bowie perceived in 1973 as being the future; he finds this man, a hero, a semi-shadowed representation of a recent, redder past ("the only survivor of the National People's Gang"), he runs around in rage, perhaps collecting a fantasy ransom, but when he returns the man is dead ("A gun and me alone"). There's norhing for it save to turn into his hero; there are too many riots, too much blood, too many foreboding shadows - but the performance is anything but sinister, Linda Lewis' backing vocals erupting into hysteria, Mick Ronson's guitar scratching furious atonalities. He is scared, this man, but there's hardly any doubt that he wants it.

And it is that wanting that makes Aladdin Sane such a violent and precious bursting out from the embryo of Ziggy Stardust, this forsaking of smallness, of provincial vulnerabilities, cutting all his foolish mash-ups and crazy patchwork quilts of twisting pop history and miraculously making it all fit, and also focus. Although the era's music press was generally unhappy about it - the term "sellout" recurred in reviews - the album thrust Bowie unquestionably into the foreground, an abruptly-arrived main event; this was the active catalyst which put the rest of his non-Deram back catalogue into our Top 30 (and only The Man Who Sold The World failed, and only just, to crack the 20), which forced a lot of people to realise that, suddenly, new things mattered, even if their raw material was often as old as, and sometimes older than, those who were to be replaced, superseded.

Without wishing completely to drop the necessary wariness when around Bowie, Aladdin Sane pulled off the trick of sounding better than anything else around it while simultaneously sounding like nothing this tale has yet seen, not even the Bolan tribute "The Prettiest Star," originally recorded in 1970 as a flop follow-up single to "Space Oddity" complete with guitar solo by Bolan himself. On this version the T Rex rhythmic throttle is introduced but there remains the odd Kurt Weill-isation of a hitherto relatively conservative song (the torchy "cold fire"s at the beginning chill the singer's tongue) and Ronson's solo is rather more anxious and angry than Bolan's. And in the meantime Bowie sings of the golding past and how it could still prove to be the future.

The record was a major development, even (or especially) from Ziggy; the latter has always borne for me the air of a Home Counties secondary school attempt at a rock opera; the singer's pronunciations on "Five Years" and "Rock 'N' Roll Suicide" are very actorly in an auditioning-for-RADA manner and Bowie and Ken Scott's production is underpowered, waferthin, and I think deliberately so; the music smells of stained nylon, festering fifties cupboards, forlorn boarding houses, damp pre-rock streets, and it may well be that this was a quiet revolt against glossy, bombastic, state-of-the-art seventies rock. Everything on The Rise And Fall seems to sneak under the duvet, cosying up to one's eyes or ears like a forbiddden comic book, or a microscopic transistor radio emanating Radio Luxembourg, assuring its listener (as "Suicide" makes clear) that he or she is not alone in feeling like they do - this could represent a way out, and for a few million teenagers, bored with their big brothers barking on about the sixties, it represented much more than that.

What Aladdin Sane does, however, is marry up the spirit of nearly-newness in Ziggy with a sounder development of the various ideas hinted at on 1971's Hunky Dory, the first Bowie album to sound like an integrated, conceived sequence of music. The lyrics are at this stage still largely nonsensical, but there is already an impatience boiling; "Life On Mars?," resurrected as a top three single some 18 months after its initial album release, is lyrically one of those inane Waste Land pastiches which every impressionable schoolboy writes at age sixteen, but somehow Rick Wakeman's piano, Buckmaster's strings, the telephone in the bathroom, all combine to make it something more than its parts; a jumbling up of the immediate past in order to enable a foreseeable future. Songs like "Andy Warhol" and "The Bewlay Brothers" build on this ambiguity and jog, if not yet quite run, with it.

Ziggy changed the world for everyone who heard it (and dressed up like him, and went to see him in concert, running the gauntlet of jeering school peers) but Aladdin made that change definite and more reaching. Its songs were written on the road in the States, where Bowie had toured throughout the final quarter of 1972. As his fame grew he took others, his own avatars, along in his slipstream; in 1973 he helped bring both Iggy (and the Stooges) and Lou Reed back into prominence (or into prominence for the first time) - if Iggy is turning into one of the secret heroes of TPL, and if "The Jean Genie" is by the writer's own admission a portrait of Iggy, hanging out with Bowie in denim-washed California, then the Stooges' grind motors even into "Panic In Detroit"; if Iggy is not the "man" then he wouldn't turn down the chance of being, or becoming, him (so that Raw Power is all the pent-up frustration of Ziggy re-thrashed into unsentimental odes to nothingness, and Transformer is the elegant dinner party accessory to second-person decadence; both seem to jut out of Bowie's orbit like particularly well-fed satellites).

But none of this shelters you from or explains the immediate impact of opener "Watch That Man" which with civilised contempt throws down the glove at the Stones and the Faces and endeavours to make mincemeat of both. Nothing on Ooh La La is as chillingly thought-through as this; and Exile has notice of competition; indeed, upset at RCA's decision to mix his vocals to the foreground in the track, Bowie prevailed and buried them back in the muddy mix. His chief read in late 1972 was Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies, a still startling and self-deconstructing novel - does Ginger ever exist, except in Adam's unending dream about treasure and drunken majors? - which begins at the kind of twenties party which the song's scenario is reviving, with its references to Benny Goodman, "Tiger Rag" and - or but - "the bodies on the screen stopped bleeding." In Waugh's book, Adam somehow progresses, or degenerates, or regenerates (the concluding baby is as ambiguous as the child at the end of 2001), from flappy fop to soldier of the apocalypse, receiving dud cheques amidst the fallout. Already Bowie is wondering what would happen if this room, this facade, were to melt to nothingness, to confusion, to atrophy; what if the world is going to collapse, and - pace "Five Years" - what fun the ending would be.

The title track draws out the analogy further - is this a 1929 Quentin Crisp, or a thirteen-year-old Morrissey, or just Bowie himself, eagerly awaiting finality (as the schoolboy parenthesis confirms). Everywhere in the song, amidst its purple pores, the apparent grandeur slowly and methodically disintegrates; he is trying to sing this ballad about dead roses and songs about ballads ("Saddening glissando strings") but the atoms of the song won't let him rest, especially not the piano of Brooklyn's Mike Garson which slopes back and forth between McCoy Tyner/Roger Williams curlicues, intricate Cecil Taylor/Keith Tippett free runs and semi-random quotes ("Rhapsody In Blue" and "Tequila" being only the most obvious). The role of the piano here is ambiguous; does he represent the apocalyptic running down of everything, or a frantic attempt to reassemble everything in a new order? Whatever, the combination of ascetic croon (and, over Garson's second solo, some asthmatic John Tchicai-ish alto from Bowie himself) and post-Coleman jazz traced an irremovable scar on its listeners; certainly, I know of at least one nine-year-old Aladdin Sane admirer who might not quite have persisted with improvised music without this example, or confirmation.

"Drive-In Saturday" is arguably more avant-garde yet, and undoubtedly one of the strangest and most extreme singles to have made the UK top three. Cocking an astute ear to the imminent cleansed revival of the fifties, Bowie sets this selective nostalgia within a post-apocalyptic future, whose survivors - are they mutants, or cyborgs? - can only relearn the art of copulation and reproduction by watching remnants of old fifties movies; thus the creaking Palais saxophones combining with post-Eno electronic whooshes, the references to Jung, Jagger and (yet to be realised!) Sylvian, Bowie's sometimes reflective, other times barking vocals - the song is a warning about allowing the past to dominate our future so heavily if we cannot actively use it to get ourselves forward, or indeed back. Side one finishes with "Cracked Actor"; while touring the States, Bowie spoke of seeing an old Hollywood actor (identity never specified) down on his luck, out of money, full of booze and almost out of life. More than booze, too; there are references to crack and smack, and to "suck baby suck"; give this fallen star a last fuck before he pigs out of the system and down the drain. And yet, somewhere not quite indistinct in the middle, a plaintive "Please stay," maybe remembering the Cryin' Shames' nearly-hit, almost Joe Meek's last prayer for life. Somewhere else in the track there may be a harmonica, and there is the suggestion of two different tempi, as if fussily making up his mind whether or not to live.

Then there is "Time" with its easy outrages - the "wanking," the "quaaludes" - the glance at the fifth form watch, and its reminder to us that there are still, at this point, Jacques Brel and Scott Walker, there are still the rep theatre diphthongs, but the song builds in its great, damaged regret to something grander, from Garson's deadpan piano fills to full band and brass section, and somehow, in this furried mist of vague recollections and mislaid memories, the album's central line, and, I feel, its central premise, materialises:

"We should be home by now."

This is not merely the understandable cry of the touring artist, but something more, a recognition that he too has travelled from the sixties, but that too many people did not find their way out, were still not doing so; the piecemeal determination of the song "Aladdin Sane" inevitably puts Syd Barrett into mind (it can't be him - can it?), and in "Time," following one of Ronson's most unhinged solos on the record, the song too "goes home" and a choir of Bowies emerges for the long "Hey Jude" singalong. "YES!!!" he exclaims. "TIME!!!!" he sobs. Grab it back, wrench the magic from their fingers if you have to.

And so it comes to pass with his "Let's Spend The Night Together." In contrast to the gaucherie of the early '67 Stones - and 1967 was a year where they really didn't know where they were supposed to be going - and Jagger's hope-in-his-pants gung-ho, Bowie and his group storm through the song with a terrible assurance. From its introductory electro-whooshes and Garson's elbow-on-keys snigger, Bowie develops the song to such an extent that he is virtually daring the Stones of 1973 to better it, to be smarter, more astute. He does it as electropop and boozy bar boogie, pretty much at the same time, he gives a ridiculous "ha-HA-HA-HA-HA!" cackle in a astounding Gerry Monroe falsetto (though one can argue that the former Gateshead miner and Opportunity Knocks winner Monroe was a direct stylistic forebear of Billy Mackenzie). The song is taken faster and straighter, at least until the gaping black hole of an interlude wherein Bowie rants on about "Our love comes from ABOVE!" - Prince is fourteen going on fifteen - before which Ronson and Garson more or less demolish the song.

"The Jean Genie" was the album's other big hit single, and interestingly number two in our charts behind "Blockbuster" by the Sweet - both based on the same riff (the Yardbirds' "I'm A Man" which was Sonny Boy Williamson anyway). The Sweet are still my preferred option, if only for their remarkable ability to make apocalypse look and sound like a custard pie fight, but "Genie," though overplayed to the point of nullity on oldies radio, works far more dynamically in the album's context. The music's dynamics are slow-building rather than melodramatic, and that Keith Relf harmonica reappears prominently; Bowie drawls about degradation and fetishes like a newly drunken Dylan and the band are fist-tight around him, rattling tambourine and cobra guitars (especially at the word "reptile"), everything building up, boiling down and coming back for an even greater, if abruptly cut off, climax. No one was being as louche and as popular as this.

'Hullo, I'd forgotten all about you,' said the General. 'I picked up this little lady on the road. I can't introduce you, because I don't know her name. Wake up, mademoiselle.'

Such an unforgiving album, Aladdin Sane, a record revelling in the destruction and re-ordering happening around it, a record arrogant enough to take on the Stones and, moreover, keep the Beatles' red and blue retrospective albums off number one and out of this tale. As a gesture it was unbeatable; this, the new generation said, is ours - more so even than Electric Warrior, it was a declaration that any future, however topsy-turvy and otiose, was preferable to waddling in the detritus of any past. The two will violently collide again in entry #127, but in the meantime Aladdin Sane ushers us out and is finally generous enough to bestow upon us a happy ending, maybe happier than Chaplin and Paulette Goddard walking out into that most uncertain of futures at the end of Modern Times; Garson's florid cocktail piano flourishes set the solemn scene, and then in steals the voice:

"She'll come, she'll go..."

...and it is like the future being born (specifically it sounds like Billy MacKenzie emerging fully-formed from his chrysalis) as the song meanders through impossibly lovely, achy chord changes. There are some Spanish guitar flurries over Garson's ripples which are more Lorca than Dave Dee; "Don't be afraid of the moon," Bowie urges, before fading into his own imperceptible distance ("She will be your living end"), thinking of Scott and "Boy Child," dreaming of everything that will sooner or later emerge because of this record, these gestures, the look - is he naked in that centrespread or just newly dressed? The man who spent the greater part of the sixties as a catch-all joke strides back, in his good time, takes a look, and says: excitement, machines, riots - remember how good these felt, and who knows where they might still take us, with our unbottled courage? That thunderbolt down his face; don't you recognise a kiss when you see it?

Thursday 23 June 2011

The FACES: Ooh La La

(#124: 28 April 1973, 1 week)

Track listing: Silicone Grown/Cindy Incidentally/Flags And Banners/My Fault/Borstal Boys/Fly In The Ointment/If I'm On The Late Side/Glad And Sorry/Just Another Honky/Ooh La La

If five years in rock and pop can seem a long time, then eighteen months can conversely seem longer, but even a cursory listen to The Faces' only number one album would be sufficient to sense that something had changed, and not for the better. Consider that since the day of Ogden's Nut Gone Flake - although at least one future was heavily hinted at during that record - pop had, in some ways relevant to this tale, turned into rock, and not long thereafter both Steve Marriott and the rest of the Small Faces had gone into keep-it-simple boogie rock; away from the sculpture and towards the chisel.

But Rod Stewart was already going somewhere else. His Faces - and how quickly they became "his" - were loose and messy in the best and worst ways. Always best experienced onstage, if you caught them on a good night it would be like swimming in the greatest pub you never built. Like Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath, they shambled quite a bit, but all of a sudden they'd pull into tight focus and bear you along with them. They were mates, up for it, and their innate generosity towards their audience can be heard throughout the rockier moments of Ooh La La; Kenny Jones' truncheon-banging beats throughout "Borstal Boys" or his triple rat-tat-tat response to Stewart's "Shake me"s on the very silly "Silicone Grown," or Ian MacLagan's generous, front-mixed keyboards on "Cindy" or "My Fault" - they want us to join in, celebrate the Carlsberg laddism while rubbing out all the bad parts.

The trouble was that Rod was always more about pop than rock, about the business of constructing and delivering songs rather than rocking to randomville, and in the eighteen months since Every Picture had unexpectedly broken big, it's not hard to see how his craftsman hat was in danger of getting carelessly tossed about by The Faces' primal stampedings. Or, if that sounds too unduly harsh, that he was growing away from The Faces, perhaps even felt a little embarrassed about having to keep this boozy company. Ooh La La's predecessor, 1972's A Nod Is As Good As A Wink...To A Blind Horse (kept at #2 by Electric Warrior) was probably The Faces' best album, but Stewart appears on barely half of it; the hit "Stay With Me" notwithstanding, the things one remembers from it are the inventive work of the group as an instrumental entity (the inspired about-turn and osmosis which occur halfway through "Miss Judy's Farm") and, above all, the contributions of Ronnie Lane - "You're So Rude," "Love Lives Here" and in particular "Debris," the latter the profoundest thing the group ever did.

Remember also that Every Picture began its unexpectedly long life as a no-budget busman's holiday from The Faces, but suddenly - for whatever reasons, the foremost being probably that Stewart had the good sense to leave a lot of the solo groundwork to others - it overwhelmed its parent group. They would turn up for a concert and people assumed them to be Rod's backing band. Neither party was happy about this, as evinced by the grim sepia mock-portrait shots on the rear cover; only Lane appears to be smiling, and then only to keep from crying, and only he stares directly at the camera. Everyone else is turning away as though something horrendous has happened, and they cannot face up to its nature.

On the face of it, Ooh La La seems a slapdash effort - the record's total playing time scarcely exceeds half an hour - but much of this was down to the non-appearance of Stewart in the studio. If you wonder why the pleasant but pointless instrumental "Fly In The Ointment" - a sedate jaunt through the netherlands of Booker T and the Allman Brothers - appears at the start of side two it's to compensate for lack of Rod; he didn't turn up until fully two weeks into the recording sessions, and again is only really evident on about half of the tracks. The album is evenly divided - side one the rockers, side two the thoughtful stuff - and while no rock in 1973 was as matey and ready for action as "Borstal Boys" or "My Fault," it's not clear whether you'd want to buy most of these songs a second pint. From "Silicone Grown" onwards, Rod makes a decent show of being up for it - his purring "Wellllllllll" after the second verse, his "Sing it!" after the first instrumental break - but already there is that "lead singer" tone in his delivery which had been absent from his solo work, or at least kept at bay.

Moreover, there is in his work here a definite sense that he wants to move on. "Cindy Incidentally," the album's single hit, is in its honky-tonk ways an indirect precursor to "Born To Run"; there's no franticity about its wary strut - Jones goes for a martial beat - but it's clear that Stewart wants out: "This dream can pass just as fast as lightning," and I don't want to end my days in an upstairs pub room gargling out "Memphis Tennessee" for the ten thousandth time. "My Fault" sees him defiant in his stance; "I was just born this way/Yes, I was born this way" - does this remind you of something to come? - "I ain't gonna change for nobody, never, NEVER gonna change!" Both this and "Borstal Boys" could almost be described as The Prisoner gone to boogie ("Call out your number!" cries Stewart on the latter. "Who's a non-conformer? Not me baby! Oh yeah!"); I, chaps, am going to do whatever the hell I want whether you dig it or not.

But then there is Ronnie Lane's half to consider, and with his five songs Ooh La La becomes a markedly different proposition. "Flags And Banners" is a sobering shock of a haunted trip, over virtually before it starts; he is having a nightmare, the echo is crashing through the trees, and his Other is slipping away from him via a "scarlet door"; "your brothers' helpless prayers were all in vain" - a "Mandolin Wind" without any warmth or hope of a happy ending.

Lane gets Stewart to sing "If I'm On The Late Side" and coaxes the singer's best vocal performance on the record. The story of a delayed, or imagined, reunion - will she wait for him, will he get on any train, late or not? - Stewart keeps reasonable control over Jones' tramping foot percussion and the two Ronnies' roving guitar and bass. Although his performance is relatively subdued, there are still the mannerisms; Stewart does better on the unfortunately-titled "Just Another Honky," about an ending relationship, and it's difficult not to see the song as Lane writing about Rod, and indeed about the collapsing Faces ("It hurts me to think that I'll keep you in chains/Than if you were to leave me," "You can go if you want to/I don't own you, go be wild" - from inclusivity to indifference, all emotions are covered). At the song's end, Rod too collapses; his shivering "forevermore" sees his voice shatter into nameless splinters of dread, as if he too realises that there is no way back, no means of retrieving what he's lost; the football chumminess of the pictures in Never A Dull Moment suddenly seem as far away and irretrievable as Atlantis.

Lane sings "Glad I'm Sorry" in the voice of someone who has simply given up on the world (echoed by Ronnie Wood's pining guitar solos); his refrain of "Can you show me a dream/Can you show me one that's better than mine/Can you stand in the cold light of day?/Neither can I, neither can I" is as bleak as anything to come out in 1973 that side of Berlin. He gives the title track to Wood to sing in his adroitly strained tenor, a folk jig about grandfathers and grandsons and women and you don't know the half of it and we're forever doomed to repeat our predecessors' mistakes and, oh dear, fall in love. The fireside singalong, fuelled by MacLagan's tack piano and Wood's hearty acoustics, takes the record out; Stewart almost immediately alienated the rest of the group, and Lane in particular, by speaking in the music press about how bad the record was and how much better they could have done. Sensing no future, Lane unhappily quit the group in June and formed Slim Chance; after all, had the album not been a mess because of the absence of its main focus, too busy being a global superstar to come to the studio (producer Glyn Johns, by now an old hand at sorting out messes, did as good a job with his sticky-back plastic as could have been expected)? The Faces never made another coherent album again, though were capable of an unexpected autumnal evensong of a farewell with 1974's single "You Can Make Me Dance, Sing Or Anything..."; by the time they officially split in December 1975, Wood was already a Stone and Stewart was in another country. But he hasn't quite gone yet; the intervening two years would likewise prove to be an extremely long time.

Sunday 19 June 2011

LED ZEPPELIN: Houses Of The Holy

(#123: 14 April 1973, 2 weeks)

Track listing: The Song Remains The Same/The Rain Song/Over The Hills And Far Away/The Crunge/Dancing Days/D'yer Mak'er/No Quarter/The Ocean

Listening to the scratchy indie jangle of "The Song Remains The Same," the unwary might have to pinch themselves that they are not listening to the Scritti Politti of 1978; the unexpected bar lines and harmonic developments almost act as a precursor to "Skank Bloc Bologna." Alternatively, listening to the easy-angled hard-verging-on-soft rock of the same song, one might discern the Heart of Dreamboat Annie - a happy sixty-first birthday to Ann Wilson, incidentally - or, listening to the oblique bass/guitar relationship and stiff-armed drumming of the song, one might sense a prediction of Ornette's Prime Time ensemble. Then again, listening to the sped-up (sounding) vocals of a furiously mixed-back Plant - towards song's end he sounds as though in receipt of helium - and the staccato harmonies in the song, one could easily predict Queen. Those unanticipated three-note basslines from Jones even foresee the Associates. The harmolodic Byrd mutation of the extended intro settles down to a swampy strut for Plant's entry, and Page is in hoedown mood, doing his best at times to turn the song into an Allman Brothers homage.

If some of these references appear fanciful (which I do not believe they are) then that underlines the multi-hued prism of influence that was the Zeppelin of 1973, even on what was once assumed to be one of their lesser records. In fact I enjoyed listening to Houses Of The Holy more than any of its three predecessors in this tale; its lightness is a salutary repose after the intensity of Four Symbols, and although it wrongfooted nearly all critics at the time of its release - what, no rockers, no anthems, what's with all this eclectic shit? - this is nearly always to the record's advantage.

At this point Zeppelin albums divided fairly reasonably between the Monoliths of Major Statements (II and IV) and divergent backwaters or detours giving them the freedom to experiment and regenerate (III and the present example). If much of Houses is dedicated to good-natured goofing around, it bears a lightness inaccessible to most of the group's peers. "The Rain Song," for instance, proceeds along much the same path as "Stairway To Heaven," yet, perhaps because it doesn't strive for effect, I find it rather more moving. Mostly, even in the "rock" sections, the mood is quiet, predominantly acoustic, albeit with Jones' Mellotron providing a useful readymade string section (with occasional atmospheric whooshes). Page works through some jazz chords and generates an atmosphere of Hawaiian lounge music, ambient and subtly laid with traps (Jones responds with a few cocktail piano tinkles). Plant sings through a simple four seasons of love analogy (though still manages to get in curveballs like "This is the mystery of the quotient" and quote Ben Jonson - "Speak to me only with your eyes" - and his "Talk Talk" as Bonham's drums nudge their way into the picture and the song turns to electricity sets a path which will ultimately lead to Spirit Of Eden). Melodically and structurally there is more than a passing resemblance to the Guess Who's 1969 US top tenner "Laughing" but "Rain" is fundamentally a very different song, far more meditative, and, when, Plant's "But I know" ushers in a hushed return to the original setting to welcome amd embrace his "...that I love you so," immensely affecting. Page's acoustic strums eventually resolve into the opening of "Over The Hills" which again demonstrates the proximity of Zeppelin's folkier rock to that of Fairport Convention (even though it gives Jones a bass solo).

But then the record loosens up and the party, such as it is, begins. "The Crunge" is a quite brilliant James Brown pastiche, Bonham's B-boy beats and even Jones' occasional harmonium-like synth bleeps providing a perfect backdrop for Plant to wreak audacious havoc over the angular 9/8 backing; again, the unwary listener may need to pinch themselves that they are not listening to 1981 post-punk funk, although Plant's deliberately ludicrous interjections - at one point paying homage to Otis by citing "Mr Pitiful" and "Respect" - seem somewhat warmer and more approachable than those of, say, James Chance. In fact Plant hams wonderfully throughout the track ("Ah, will you just excuse me," he coughs near track's end, before a Goonish dialogue about finding the bridge brings the track to a satisfactory halt). More significantly, the homage does considerably greater service to Brown's power and continuing influence (1973 was the year of the excoriating, blacker-than-Beckett The Payback) than some of his worthier white disciples, and Plant's vocal curlicues and teases also suggest a familiarity with Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic theatre of R&B superrealism, then only just emerging into the mainstream.

"Dancing Days" provides yet more proto-No Wave angularity with Jones' organ squelches, Page's jittery guitar and Bonham's deadpan drums while Plant merrily deconstructs the love song ("I got my flower, I got my power," "You'll be my only, my one and only/Is that the way it should start?" - just how familiar was Green with this record?). The unexpected Rough Tradery of the album continues with its big hit, "D'yer Mak'er," wherein Plant croons a minimalist "Unchained Melody" variation over more scratched guitar, occasional barrelhouse piano and, above all, Bonham's cardboard dustbin of drum fills; the obvious antecedent is that of the Police - at one point Plant even sings, "Every breath I take/Every move I make" - but the energy is considerably greater and the song's essential good nature has made it last a lot longer, again, than more slavishly adherent eulogies to pre-dub JA.

"No Quarter" is the album's one nod to Epic/Future Stage Perennial but, although I think it the record's least convincing track, it does to its credit try its best to keep all of its elements within severe reserve; it bears no climactic rock-out, and while Plant's lyrics, decidedly within the Dungeons and Dragons section of the Zep oeuvre, are as silly as ever ("The winds of Thor are blowing cold"), the song perhaps relates most closely to the cover image of multiple child brother and sister crawling over the Giant's Causeway naked, not an image which would pass any contemporary board of control, in its aura of impending doom, or possibly a disguise of doom to conceal hope ("They carry news that must get through/To build a dream for me and you"), and Jones has a whale of a time with his various synthesised processors; the piano/guitar dialogues between Jones/Page are well coordinated, the build-up of the song gradual and logical. Against that, Plant's furiously phased vocal sounds a lot of the time like a subdued Ozzy Osbourne, and at fadeout he has an attack of the Barry Ryans ("I'm cold! I'm cold!").

Nevertheless, "The Ocean" - the nearest Houses comes to a "rocker" - provides a happy ending, its instantly recognisable riff rejuvenating the listener in a second (if you're wondering which Beastie Boys track sampled it, it's "She's Crafty") together with Bonham's characteristically monumental M25-building beats. Again, Plant sounds speeded-up but euphoric - somewhere between Brenda Lee and Noddy Holder - and there are nice nods to the fifties with the acappella doo-wop break midsong and the closing Fats Domino rave-up (Plant exclaiming, "C'mon, so GOOD!" at something Page plays). The song is about Plant's daughter Carmen, and the band's audience ("The Ocean" are they, and Houses Of The Holy the venues where the band had played), and although there is still an intimation of apocalypse ("Used to sing on the mountains but the mountains washed away"), we stroll away with kind hearts and generous spirit. A fabulous and unexpectedly prophetic album which may yet prove among the longest-lasting of Zeppelin records.

Sunday 12 June 2011

VARIOUS ARTISTS: 20 Flash Back Greats Of The Sixties

(#122: 31 March 1973, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Yakety Yak (Coasters)/Splish, Splash (Bobby Darin)/Tired Of Waiting For You (Kinks)/Surfin' Surfari (sic) (Beach Boys)/Johnny Get Angry (Joanie Sommers)/Hats Off To Larry (Del Shannon)/Sweet Talkin' Guy (Chiffons)/Time Of The Season (Zombies)/Don't Throw Your Love Away (Searchers)/Save The Last Dance For Me (Drifters)/Here Comes My Baby (Tremeloes)/Hey, Paula (Paul and Paula)/Wild Thing (Troggs)/24 Hours From Tulsa (Gene Pitney)/Venus In Blue Jeans (Mark Wynter)/Young Girl (Gary Puckett & the Union Gap)/Colours (Donovan)/San Francisco (Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair) (sic) (Scott McKenzie)/Mr. Tambourine Man (Byrds)/Blue Velvet (Bobby Vinton)

"A collection of individuals...They make sounds for what we see, experiments with wood, glass and air for half-formed things. These small shards and movements can be scooped up together and rolled into something like a place or a landmark."
(From the sleevenote to Sketches and Spells by The Focus Group, 2004)

"for your pleasure
in our present state
part false part true
like anything
we present ourselves"
(Roxy Music, "For Your Pleasure," 1973)

"There's someone in my head but it's not me"

Like anything, the sixties can be re-presented in any way that happens to suit the individual, or the crowd of any given subsequent era. We clean up our attics of memory in preparation for a spring which may or may not deliver what a previous spring might have promised; maybe it's better like this, to hold the spectacles and above all the sounds at a certain distance, not being directly mixed up with them, or imbued with them as they were happening. Perhaps it clears our private airs for proper thought, or improper regret.

Everyone who went through the sixties, including this writer, who was but a toddler but did live through the main part of the decade, has their own story, their private meaning of what the time meant to them, and thanks to the cycle of self-preservation and the technological recycling of selective nostalgia, so does everyone else, including the grown generation who never experienced the sixties first hand. We have not been allowed to forget the sixties, yet thanks to demographic-manufactured/serving nostalgia so much of and from the sixties has been allowed to seep through into the dusty backroom of unwanted, unretrieved memory. Cut the experience down to 200 easy songs, and nobody will complain, other than perhaps about revolutions which echo those of their time a little too uncomfortably.

But there is another, artful way to sculpt these stories, to take what is screamingly familiar and arrange its elements to tell a story which makes us wish we weren't so susceptible to the erasure of total, messy recall. If you're really clever, you can thrust them all into the present time's nowness and help build a path to the future - who knew how exotic Ferry and Eno could make all these elements sound if they arranged or distressed them in a certain way ("ta ra" or "Tara," gone with another uncaught wind) - or if you simply wish to point a few, possibly moving, things out, you put together a collection like 20 Flash Back Greats Of The Sixties, a group of songs orchestrated in such a criss-crossing order as to deny the supposed randomness of K-Tel compilations; as with their previous fifties set, this sets out, I believe, to tell a very deliberate story. It is, I should state at this early stage, also a pronouncedly white one - there are only two tracks by black artists, and both of these were overseen by Leiber and Stoller - but the sixties of James Brown, of Motown and Atlantic and Stax, or even of Chess, or Delmark or Nessa or Impulse! or ESP, have their own stories to tell and their own narrators.

No; this album tells the tale of the not-quite-silent majority (of its twenty tracks, only seven are by British artists, and three of these are covers of American songs), the bit players, the extras. A fairy tale with most of the major characters absent. The remote and nearly forgotten byways of an extraordinary journey from pop to "Protect Other People"; a story, too, which was not without its immediate parallel.

Speak To Me

Yes, the album, which purports to be about and from the sixties, begins with two cuts from the fifties, but even this does not appear random or sloppy; instead, these two songs between them set the parameters for what is to come in the wake of their flood. Leiber and Stoller referred to "Yakety Yak" as "a white kid's view of a black person's perception of white society," but for most people it came as a wisecracking torrent of thou-shalt-nots, all the stupid rules and appropriateness which the fifties were itching to kick right out the window into the garbage. The singers voice the parental admonitions as high-octane neurophysical hysteria, suddenly dipping down into dictatorial "Don't talk back"s as the kid renders their pseudo-morals as rubbly gibberish.

"Don't give me that do goody good bullshit"

The real statement here, however, needs no words; King Curtis snatches his tenor and converts adulthood into baby babble. The use of the saxophone to express the otherwise inexpressible or inadequately expressed would not be lost on others.

"Up and down/And in the end it's only round and round and round"

Do The Strand

It started as a bet; Murray the K wagered Bobby Darin that he couldn't work a song out of the phrase "Splish, splash, I was takin' a bath" and Darin took him up on it. What an extraordinary disc it remains; it happily sweeps away any concept of parenthood or authority - the guy gets out of his bath, looks into his front room and suddenly there's a party happening, complete with Little Richard intertextualities. How did they get in there? Does he know any of them? How did they find him? Is he imagining all of it? In the end, it doesn't matter, he gives up the bath, puts his dancing shoes on, goes in there and joins in with the celebration. What are they all celebrating? Nothing less than the power of this pop, the ability of rock 'n' roll to move souls as well as, or better than, butts. Suddenly, all those threats about spending cash are more than ready to take out with the trash. The sixties are ready to go, if you want them.


Abruptly we find ourselves right in the middle of the big banging sixties - this album's chronology finds its own logic - and there is this recurring leitmotif of waiting; the kid in "Yakety Yak" is waiting to grow up, but now he's grown up, found someone who's taken him out of being "a lonely soul" and, worse, "nobody," but the speed rush of "You Really Got Me" and "All Day And All Of The Night" is already wearing off; the Davies harmonies float at half-tempo above guitars and rhythm - "it's your life and you can do what you want" - and they sound exhausted, impatient and impotent; through how many more hoops will they be compelled to jump until they get what they want? How easy is it, even in 1965, to throw down that spade and tell the guy to dig his own holes? Where is the thing we were promised?

On The Run

Back a few years to the Californian kids, the ones fired up in part by "Yakety Yak" and the Lucilles and Mollies which inspired it - and who knows that some of them will end up reprising the parents' part? - who hear Chuck Berry and modify it in their engines, who want us to understand that their pastime will, by virtue of the necessary beach and sea, spread to the entire planet ("Everybody's learnin' now"), even to South Africa and "the coast of Peru." Make no mistake, they are convinced that their song is the right one and are committed to telling us which way the waves are crashing, knowing that - at least for now - they're destined, or doomed, to come out on top. Mike does lead, Brian and Carl are there in the middleground, the horizon is already endless.

Beauty Queen

Who was Joanie Sommers - she is still with us, so I have to be careful with that tense - and why "Johnny Get Angry"? Well, this is the impatient cry of someone who has perhaps had enough of her waiting. What to do in order to kick this guy's ass so that he can show that he actually loves her (if indeed he does)? She offers him multiple cruel temptations - she tells him they're through and he simply hangs his head (it "Makes me wish I was dead"); she allows someone else to cut in on the dancefloor and he meekly acquiesces - all in order that he can overcome the low-slung bass and guitar unison figure and be made to explode into colour. A shame that her manifesto is laid down with such comic ineptitude; she wants him to get mad, to "give me the biggest lecture I ever had," to be a "brave man" and a "caveman." None of this is convincing, and the mass kazoos of the middle-eight do nothing to make it believable or anything less than a dainty step away from the eternal darkness of "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)." The Carol Deene version which was a minor hit in Britain is exactly like an Englishman impersonating a Japanese comedian when he doesn't speak Japanese.

"could it be evil thoughts become me
tell us what you're thinking now
some things are better left unsaid"

Strictly Confidential

But then she has enough, leaves Johnny for Larry, whereupon Larry promptly does the same thing to her. No pre-Beatles pop star of the sixties, not even Orbison, crouched so firmly in unreachable shadows as Del Shannon; even when he appears to give himself a happy ending, there's none of the knife-edge euphoria of a "Running Scared." He stays in his corner, with his webs and plans, terrified that he will be tracked down and found out. He claims that, despite her laughing at him when she walks out, he still wants her back, but his howls of "cry, cry, CRYYYY-EE!" are as impenetrable as the most barbed of wires. The Musitron - his King Curtis (actually played by organist Max Glass, and no, I don't think he became Philip) - quivers in slithering sopranino terror. He never stopped hiding.

"You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today"

Editions Of You

Who knew in 1962 where, or what, these Californian waves would wash up, who would go on to swim in the Wilsons' waters? The Chiffons were one of the last of the original wave of pre-Motown girl groups to survive into the Beatles era (and clearly were an influence not lost on at least one Beatle) but 1966's "Sweet Talkin' Guy" proved their last big flush; their biggest hit in almost three years and also their last US Top 40 entry. It didn't become a hit in the UK until 1972, when the Northern Soul boom swept it into our top three, but both song and arrangement are so clearly indebted to Brian Wilson (and, given that Pet Sounds was yet to be released in the spring of 1966, the record is arguably ahead of Wilson) that it's indecent. As indeed is the song's progenitor; the guy's a shit, or at least she's saying so, warning every other girl to keep well clear of him, but something deep in her still wants him, his hunkily persuasive bullshitting. Meanwhile, the music moves from rather foreboding string slashes (reminiscent of Psycho) through to the pacific oboe and 'celli of the middle eight. Piano and harmonica also foresee "God Only Knows," as do the cascading triplets of the "You'll never win" sequence. Three contrasting views, then, of what might well be the same man.


"To hear the softly spoken magic spells."

Recorded in the same studios five-and-a-half years earlier by a group who were more or less falling apart, so little regarded by their own record company that they were obliged to pay for part of their studio time with their own royalties and savings, the cautious sunniness of Odessey And Oracle belies the painful process of its recording; well, almost - things like "Butcher's Tale" and gestures such as the abrupt nuclear button ending of "All Our Friends," the rather sinister undertow to the chirpiness of "Care Of Cell 44," the dusty, languid piano and wordless falsettos which take out "Hung Up On A Dream" (a response to Hardin's "Hang On To A Dream"? Even if not, it sounded startlingly contemporary when heard on a Discman in Albarn's West London of summer 1995) suggest a terminal to this particular beach.

But the record ends with "Time Of The Season," a belated US top three smash (Cashbox placed it at number one) in the spring of 1969, when the Zombies had long ceased to exist and Colin Blunstone had returned to the insurance office day job. It successfully combines menace and reassurance, promises of darkness and pleas for light. The track relies on Chris White and Hugh Grundy's booming drum n' bass by accident - Paul Atkinson's guitar lines were largely left out of the final mix - but Blunstone's cavalier vulnerability benefits as a result; he is left to carry the tune virtually alone, guitar only entering with the partially comforting chorus. The song itself is a photocopy of summer of love chat as depicted in a darkening front room; the season's tropes - "what's your name?," "who's your daddy?" - fold back on themselves like a particularly hip-sounding Mike Sammes jingle over the "Stand By Me" backdrop. And like "Stand By Me" both song and performance rush to stop the mountains from crumbling, the world ending; out blossoms, straight from the Beach Boys via the Master Singers, the perfect harmonic triple and pledge: "It's the time of the sea-ea-son for lo-ving." Rod Argent's organ grabs the space whenever it can find it and indeed doubles in the long fadeout, each solo fighting against, or coaxing, the other, and yet more and more organs pile on as though to say: enough of this pussyfooting about faith and truth and bravery - this is a church which might resolve everything, if only you wanted it, racing around to come up behind us again, but on this occasion offering an embrace.

Breathe Reprise

"Don't Throw Your Love Away" was originally a 1963 B-side by proto-Philly soul vocal group The Orlons but Liverpool's Searchers took it to number one (their third chart-topper) in the UK (and to #16 in the US) in the optimistic early summer of 1964. The influence of Mike Pender and John McNally's Rickenbackers on The Byrds has long since been acknowledged but this song acts as a calming elder brother to "Time Of The Season" and offers a warning not to lose what we have in ourselves, wherever we are heading and whatever we are planning to do with the rest of this decade, "for you might need it one day." The song and performance perhaps foresee with all too much melancholy the ruination into which the sixties would eventually collapse, as well as giving subtle hints as to what might happen - the Indian drone elements which creep halfway into each middle-eight, the brusque triple guitar thrashes leading back into the verses. But keep your love, preserve it, develop it; it might, the record suggests, be all you need.

The Great Gig In The Sky

"Go on and have your fun," sing The Searchers on "Don't Throw Your Love Again," and so does Ben E King on "Save The Last Dance For Me"; the bookending of side one by child-to-man Leiber and Stoller tells its own story. Inspired by co-writer Doc Pomus' generosity towards his own wife - he suffered from polio and needed crutches to mobilise, but was happy for his wife to go out, socialise, dance and enjoy herself, trusting completely in her - this is as unmistakably an adult record as "Yakety Yak" is prophetic juvenilia. Using a deceptively busy Latin backing, the lyrics seem almost tailored for the rhythm, the consonants and vowels enunciated in as Latinate a manner as possible but still (if tenuously) remaining English. King's natural nobility sees the song through; he is the "man" of whom the singer of "Johnny Get Angry" can only imagine, he has enough confidence to know that she can go home with no one else but him, and we have no cause to doubt him. This is the ideal, the plateau, towards which the rest of side one has been working; no waiting, no hats on or off - we believe in this mutual fealty, as clearly as we can glimpse the ghost of Spector to come in the record's fibres. The development from King's lascivious "Mmm!" at the end of verse two to his final, satisfied "Mmmmmm" signifies a rite of passage for which the singer (bolstered by the high harmonies hovering behind and above him, like the most benevolent of protecting angels) is eminently qualified.

The Bogus Man

The second of Cat Stevens' three comings showed a slyer operator than the convenient sensitive singer-songwriter bracket was able to support. At this point Stevens was roughly halfway between his "Matthew And Son" days and things like "Was Dog A Doughnut?" but, as with his then labelmate Bryan Ferry, he was already very conscious of his history and the need to remould it if he were to count for anything, or anybody. His "Here Comes My Baby" is as rabid a rustling of its immediate pop past as anything on the first two Roxy albums, with its rapid-fire citations of "In The Midnight Hour," "A Picture Of You" and "You'll Never Walk Alone." Stevens was reportedly disgruntled by what he saw as The Tremeloes' pillaging of the song (including excising the entire final verse) - what, a serious song of hurt presented as a "La Bamba" rave-up?

Again, this shows how little musicians sometimes understand about their own music, what happens with it, or to it, when it's taken into the air, redistributed for the breath of everyone else. The Tremeloes treated the song just as they treated most of their other post-Brian Poole hits, as party time; they would burst onto TOTP waving their butchers' hands, yippeeing and whooping, and on record it was just the same - so much so that one wonders exactly how bothered they are at watching the girl of their dreams waltzing off with somebody else, with their cowbell whacks and their whistling (whistling!) breaks. Oh well, that's that, on with the party - or, like Smokey, are all the laughs there to hide all the pain?

Editions Of You (Slight Return)

"Hey, Paula" sounded almost from its conception like a crude pain-concealing mechanism, particularly as there was no "Paul and Paula" - it was Ray the student and Jill his landlady's niece who together knocked something up for local (Texas) radio, and the little ditty spread. The pledge of true love, and the virtues and disadvantages of patience ("I can't wait no more for you"), seem strained, overstressed. The two sound as though singing in separate universes; the church organ promises some kind of purity but the syrup of its would-be climax ("True love means waiting...") turns the record into a complete chimera. "TRUE LOVE IS NOT A HIGH SCHOOL PROJECT!" yelled an exasperated Lena, and indeed this is not the reverse of the frustrated "Tired Of Waiting For You" coin.

For Your Pleasure

"Wild Thing" comes as a major relief after "Hey, Paula"; this, the record screams, is what really goes on at high school. No conditions or boundaries here; the two are out on the dancefloor, moving to Buddy Holly (that "Shake it, shake it!" at the outro); the downward tongueing lick of guitar represents a move from child to man, "Louie, Louie" ground down halfway to fuck-tempo; Reg Presley (the glorious conceit of that name!) takes his time, lets the music pause and breathe before thrusting his tractor hack into the centre of things, even allowing a smudged ocarina into the picture. At climax, the band seem ready to fall over themselves, everything collapsing in orgy; this was the revenge of the dirty garage over the clean soda fountain. Reg Presley would never have got in the bath to begin with!

Brain Damage

But sometimes there is no turning back, especially if you make the wrong move. Throw that love away, or is it the early groaning of the adolescents of "Wild Thing" grown up and forced to accept, or face, responsibility? The singer of "Tulsa" is clearly an adult, yet his acts are perhaps the most childish on the record - and Bacharach and David knew this just as surely as they knew their audience. Pitney was never really allowed to be happy - whenever he was, the record flopped - and his croaking voice, as though in the middle of swallowing a dozen red barbiturates, was perfect for this quiet nightmare. What is he doing out on the road, a day's travelling away from getting home? Musician? Salesman? Will he ever send the letter? But he stops off at a motel for the night and meets a girl who behaves unexpectedly (he asks her to "stay," she says "OK." Just like that?). He asks for food, inspiring one of the most sinister of pop double entendres, "and she showed me where"; then they dance, they hit it off or at least Pitney thinks they do ("Told her I'd die before I would let her out of my arms" - her reaction is not recorded)...and that's it. "I can never...go home again," he sings in the manner of Mary-Ann Weiss' errant uncle; the ghost town chorus and Bacharach's final hanging-in-the-air duo of piano chords offer little guidance or exit. As they dance and get closer, the high trumpets shiver their rapid strokes, echoing Pitney's nerve-shredded heartbeat, the bloody coursing of his veins; he's excited, he's broken out of the straitjacket - but he is hardly joyous; it is as if he has already died. Maybe they'll run the cafe together and end up the parents from whom Tracy Chapman will a quarter-century hence be only too eager to flee.

Grey Lagoons

The old ways, what the parents in "Yakety Yak" would have liked, although I suspect even they would have blanched at a record which perfectly illustrates immediate pre-Beatles notions of pop, namely as something best kept in 1951, or at least sent back there. "Venus In Blue Jeans" was an American song - Jimmy Clanton's original made the US top ten earlier in 1962 - and while very far from a masterpiece, or even a passable pop song, Mark Wynter is careful, in the manner that a subordinate frightened of the sack is careful, to extract every element of space, yearning, desire, love from it. Drowning in Sargasso treacle, it plays, or drones anyway, like a flaccid Xerox of a long-spent desire, its surface opulence hiding a terrible emotional poverty, or should "poverty" be replaced by "constipation"? A last cry of a passing order...or was it?

"Run rabbit run"


"Young Girl" is from the other end of the sixties - it's as far as this compilation dares go - but equally sounds as though rock 'n' roll need not have bothered happening, even if it is one of the record's most disturbed and disturbing songs. "Young girl," croons Gary Puckett over static, springtime strings, fooling us into expecting a Johnny Mathis tribute, before the band snaps shut on him like a mousetrap; for the rest of the record, he wriggles in hurt, confusion, paranoia. By comparing it with Morrison's almost exactly contemporaneous "Cyprus Avenue," I do not mean to inflate "Young Girl"'s aesthetic worth, but simply mean to point out that where Morrison's driver is hurt because he is obsessed by a love that he knows he can never openly declare - she's fourteen, you can't touch her - Puckett is tortured by the knowledge that he has walked right into something he can't control. In one of the most overt demonstrations of projection on any number one record, however, Puckett tries to turn the tables on the girl, implying that she led him on, that she's responsible for all the come-on stuff, that it's all her fault, just as Pitney screwing the waitress was all the waitress' fault for existing. He goes even further, trying to spread out a flimsy moral blanket, but Travis Bickle he is not (and she, whoever she is, is probably not Iris). Puckett sounds scared, petrified, frozen; he wants to walk away but knows deep in himself that he won't, that he is scoring his own tragedy. Goodness knows what that says about what "the silent majority" wanted in their 1968 pop. Did somebody once say something about hoodlum friends, or dancing shoes? It seems so far away.

Any Colour You Like

And then the story changes, or deepens. We are in 1965, with this peaked-cap Glaswegian fellow whose guitar says "This machine kills" (because he wrongly reckoned that there weren't any fascists in Britain) who sings what initially seems to be an easy sunrise of a folk song, still hugely redolent of Dylan. There is simple joy in his craftily innocent double entendre ("In the morning...when she rises") and his already unorthodox guitar tunings (together with his close-miked voice, setting the pace for Nick Drake and others to follow) weld perfectly with the record's gradually thickening texture. His "When I see her...mmm, hmmm/Oh gosh" prefaces Bolan.

But then the song takes a different lyrical turning. "Freedom is a word I rarely use without thinking," twice with two "mmm, hmmm"s, then the codicil: "of the times that I've been loved." Thus does the song subtly branch out from the personal into the political (if you equate "love" with "respect" and "rights," and there's nothing in Donovan's dreamily determined croon to convince me otherwise), directly prefiguring "The 'Sweetest Girl'" by more than a decade and a half, and the seemingly unassuming "Colours" is perhaps this record's most radical track with the widest subsequent reach of influence; it is already heralding both seventies and eighties, it deconstructs the pop song (or even the folk song) to a modest degree, and yet its roots go much further back than any other track on the album, back to the nineteenth-century weavers and drovers.


A harsh categorisation? Possibly not, but although Scott McKenzie and John Phillips, not to mention the San Francisco tourist industry, did very well financially from the success of this accidental anthem, and despite the song's origins as a promotional tool for the Monterey Festival, I can still listen to "San Francisco" and hear a heartfelt, if very politely expressed, call for radical change, a siren song to the counterculture, a plea to turn away from money and think of society again. So much of what makes the record count lies in its spaces, the floating glockenspiel (an earthly counterpart to John Cale's airy celeste on the Velvets' "Sunday Morning"), the subtle nods to Spector, the role of bass, bells and sitar in the complex middle-eight ("People in motion"), the ability of the song to suggest endless room in which to breathe. Perhaps in its own way it was as much of a chimera as "Hey, Paula" but it sounds infinitely more convincing; forget all that, the song tells us, let's just walk away and start something new. And keep it going? Well, that's the hard part.

Us And Them

And here is the song which signalled the change; McGuinn learning from The Searchers but making the quantum leap which was always just outside the Liverpudlians' reach (they had the rock but not the folk background) and once more, by simplifying Dylan's endless torrent of an original to what would pass in 150 seconds of a pop single, McGuinn somehow manages to say all that needs to be said; he sees these visions, this vizier whom he will follow, emulate and one day exceed. Everything is freed from gruelling, grey gravity; the float of the song is amorphous, McGuinn, Crosby and Clark piloting the ship into cosmos still to be imagined. Look upon this time, people of 1973, and look what you once might have had.

As opposed to what you settled for.

In Every Dream Home, A Heartache

As if to torment us, those of us who still cared enough to care, the record finally rewinds almost to the very beginning, before there were any Beatles or visible counterculture, to a song which closes the pages in a way which might dissuade some from reopening the book and attempting a rewrite. But chart history eventually rewrote itself; a US number one from 1963, "Blue Velvet" would finally rise to #2 in the UK as late as 1990, provoked by a television ad campaign (for Nivea hand cream) and general David Lynch mania caused by the airing of Twin Peaks. Impossible though it now is to listen to Vinton's reading (and there are others; Tony Bennett had the original hit in 1951, and the astounding doo-wop reading of the song by The Clovers came along in 1959) without thinking of severed ears, sordid underbellies of suburbia or Dennis Hopper's inhaler, even without that knowledge it would still sound like a pop record from Mars; the backing chorus is a little too clearly delineated, the spaces are so evenly spaced as to be not human (and the glockenspiel from "San Francisco" reappears, as does the space) - over this, Vinton is almost, albeit politely, at the end of his tether; much more than "Venus In Blue Jeans" or even "Young Girl" (for perfect symmetry, "Save The Last Dance For Me" should have been paired with "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town"), this spells out an ending.

It's impossible to listen to that last four-song sequence in particular and not be profoundly moved; here, discreetly underlined, is a story of what might have happened and what we didn't allow to happen, and it reflects our own painful craving for retrospective resolution. For in 1973 we were in large part all still trapped in the sixties, or its broken promise, as trapped as the man sung about, lamented, mourned, in the album this record kept at number two and out of Then Play Long (at least directly). These tunes were not quite everything under the sun - indeed, far from it - but even by this moment in history the eclipse had already taken hold. Disposable darlings or silver starfish with honeymoons? Think about the landmarks before you mourn.

Sunday 5 June 2011

ALICE COOPER: Billion Dollar Babies


(#121: 24 March 1973, 1 week) 


Track listing: Hello Hurray/Raped And Freezin'/Elected/Billion Dollar Babies/Unfinished Sweet/No More Mr. Nice Guy/Generation Landslide/Sick Things/Mary Ann/I Love The Dead 


In rock, honesty and artifice are commonly held as polar opposites, even though they are almost always two sides of the commonest of coins. After all, if a performer not only owns up to the primacy of artifice, isn't he or she being as honest as they can possibly be? Either they rejoice or grieve for our secondary pleasure, or they revel in poking their ringed fingers into the fourth wall, and perhaps we as listeners or consumers feel as guilty in either case; we invest so much time and emotion in somebody who tells us that they are but a cartoon, yet how else do we treat our idols if not as abstract graven images worthy of temporary worship?


Myself, I'm not so sure; both honesty and artifice have many levels, and many of these are concurrent and interdependent. This is the first entry of what might superficially be described as American hard rock, or heavy metal, and pretty much the only American glam-rock entry (of its time, not counting manifestations in future generations), and it comes from someone who remains unapologetic about being in it for the money - Cooper, after all, was in part a protege of Frank Zappa - and being a superficial entertainer, all the mock theatrics being at strictly kindergarten level, a device to help disaffected teenage kids (almost all of them boys) get through difficult times.


The billion dollar bill which came free with the original LP of Babies was deliberately ambiguous in its design; an exultation at the power of what Kubrick called FUCK YOU money could bring - Alice in his counting house, reclining amidst his towers of coins - and a warning as to what untrammelled capitalism for its own sake could lead; the crowd taking their hats off to the USAF-10 warhead being towed along, as though Washington were the Kremlin. Likewise, just because Cooper laughs and tells us that it's all a joke doesn't necessarily make it so. Artifice is, amongst other things, a useful hiding place for concealing hidden intents, and beneath and even among all the showbizzery of Babies there is a deadly serious undertow.


The opening "Hello Hurray" - significantly not written by Cooper himself, but a cover of a song by Canadian Rolf Kempf - lays down his essential cards. Moving from its initial Righteous Brothers funereal pace via a distorted, slowed-down "Be My Baby" whiplash beat to an ominous, progressing march dominated by trebly synthesiser, anguished lead guitar and restless bass - the overall feeling and harmonics point directly towards Talk Talk's "Life's What You Make It" - Cooper appears, imperiously; he's about to go onstage, welcoming the dark embrace of his audience. It is clear that he's been anxiously impatient about this opening in his life ("I've been waiting so long to sing my song") and offers himself to his disciples, pulled or coaxed from the ranks of the disillusioned ("I've been thinking so long I was the only one"). But, with his repeated and increasingly frantic protestations that he is "so strong," doubt creeps in; maybe he's as weak and demolishable as his audience, but doesn't dare to tell them that openly. It's all very transitory and unstable, this perceived strength, and as a top ten single in early 1973 it was a startling betrayal of frailty, impermanence.


After that, the album settles down a bit; these days, a song called "Raped And Freezin'" would cause a slight shoulder shrug from followers of Nine Inch Nails or Agoraphobic Nosebleed, and in its own days it prompts little more reaction, a straight Stonesy rocker where Cooper amusingly partakes in some role reversal antics - he is picked up by "some old broad down from Santa Fe" who proceeds to launch herself on him, chides him for his impotence and throws him out of her car, leaving him "naked, stranded in Chihuahua," giving a Lennon-esque wail to the latter word. Following some multifocal primal screaming, the band then launches unexpectedly into a berserk "La Bamba" speedfreak romp as Cooper settles for incoherent babble.


Indeed, much of Babies recalls what Lennon might have done at this time, free of constraints and commitments (i.e. a sort of Paul Lynde variation on Noddy Holder). "Elected" was a vastly improved rewrite of "Reflected" from Cooper's 1969 debut Pretties For You (which is not a buried treasure awaiting recovery or rehabilitation) and as a pop single was an inspired blast of supercharged corn; he sings it like a Mick Jagger who's just been caught with his hand in the Watergate handwash basin, with some cheek but absolute, or absolutist, conviction; he never stops ranting, whether in the instrumental break or through the elongated brass-dominant coda (the musical star here is drummer Neal Smith with his ice-slippery rolls). The pledges are as spurious and banal as those of Number 6 in "Free For All" but Cooper knows it, swims in the relieving ecstasy that the hollowness brings. In its 45 form it was a magisterial custard pie in the face of respectability and trust, and his crowning "I DON'T CARE!" - the last coherent thing we hear from him before the song fades - reminds us why John Lydon was and is such a fan. The title track alternates between Zeppelin/Plant parody and "Hernando's Hideaway" lounge interludes, complete with mumbles from guest vocalist Donovan, and lyrically appears to be treading the same ground as Roxy Music's contemporaneous and colder (if wiser) "In Every Dream Home, A Heartache" (inflatable doll as life-saver/late capitalist metaphor) before Smith's machine-gun drums beat the song to a dusty pulp.


Meanwhile it is fitting that side one's culminating setpiece reflects Cooper's fear of going to the dentist's; "Unfinished Sweet" begins with tick-tocking bass and drums before Glen Buxton's guitar enters, progressing towards a proto-motorik groove which sounds remarkably like Neu!'s "Hallogallo" before "rock" becomes, once again, predominant. The tempo is punctuated by dentist's drill whirrs which recalls Eno's sine-wave oscillator; James Bond theme paraphrases follow before guitar and synth trills bring the song to an abrupt halt. Then we are left with a bewildering (but bewitching) passage of abstract noise, with industrial feedback drones, a wheezing bassline which floats in and out of the foreground, prior to returning to the original song, complete with Keith Richards-copping guitar riffs. A fake fadeout gives way to agonised patient groans, interspersed with a few werewolf howls. And all because the gums have got to go.


"Nice Guy," also a major hit single, is a neat turning of tables; Cooper blames the media for turning him into a demon, complaining that his neighbours and even his pastor are the real villains, slapping him away from goodness. But what does that tell us, or what is he telling us, about his relationship with his fans? He seems to relish the growl of "Mean!" at the end of the second verse, and Smith's drums collapse at song's end like a pre-built cage falling into submission. "Generation Landslide" plays like a White Album outtake, a jolly semi-acoustic pastoral romp, but Cooper uses it to nail the natural successors to Nixon's "silent majority," the baby boomers - i.e. his own generation - in the full knowledge that they will end up exactly like their parents, except less ashamed. His "la-da-da-da-daaa!"s are anti-romantic - cold rationalist, one might say - and he delivers phrases such as "pink high chairs" in a markedly proto-Lydon sneer. There is the faintest tint of "Sympathy For The Devil" to the song's swing, and a forest of harmonicas and piano ripples escorts us towards fade.


Cooper delivers "Sick Things" in slow, measured tones over distorted electro-bass and then stately brass and reeds, interrupted periodically by a clattering junkyard of guitar feedback phantom music; if that last phrase suggests, once again, Escalator Over The Hill, then Sick Things reminds me very pointedly that this album could almost be a junior school EOTH. There is a gradual build-up of huge grandeur, Buxton's guitar moving to a cleanly played lead, phased piano notes, the brass and woodwind suggesting the ship of Nixon, slowly sidling into dock. Is Cooper addressing his fans as his "things," or does he imagine himself as the immediately pre-Watergate Nixon, frantically scanning his people and reassuring himself of his total dominance?


As with EOTH, this album strongly suggests a society collapsing in on itself, everything about to tumble - and there is no India refuge here, whether real or fictional; instead the song segues into a...jaunty Gilbert O'Sullivan piano riff. "Mary-Ann" is brief, with its one-joke (and very simple) lyrical twist and "Ballad Of Bonnie And Clyde" coda (the piano being multitracked into opaque whirlpools, and the track fades with trademark Gilbert oompah-oompahs, or should that be Kurt Weill?).


Finally comes "I Love The Dead" wherein Cooper ups the ante and goes for the necrophiliac vote. With its echoing piano and (yet more) primal screaming, it plays rather like the Plastic Ono Band tackling Gainsbourg. Eventually the song resolves into a massed "Carry That Weight"/"Hey Jude" singalong, complete with bursts of unilateral copulating grunts, before returning to its initial balladry; with the repeated "We love the dead"s, however, we progressively think less of Cooper the playground sicko and more of Nixon and Kissinger, salivating over the cadavers they have created (Cooper's howls of "Cadaver eyes"). The escalating string section calls for a double stop, Cooper gravely swallows, and we are left in an uncertain mid-air.


Billion Dollar Babies is based on a central concern for moral structures (again, consider the picture on the original sleeve of the band surrounding the baby, smeared in Cooper make-up) and stands as a subtle critique of its America, of the dishonesty of its own artifice. What has happened with America, the album appears to ask - has something gone too far, or do its people simply have too much? The sense of acidic satire, as well as the predominance of guitar solos (not all played by an ailing Buxton; Dick Wagner, amongst others, anonymously helped out), betray Zappa's influence, but the beach Cooper approaches here seems infinitely more terminal. His group were apt to conclude their stage act of the period with a non-ironic rendition of "God Bless America" - but was God still watching, or had he thrown up his hands and given up on his self-benighting subjects?