Thursday 4 August 2011


(#132: 27 October 1973, 1 week) Track listing: Roll Over Lay Down/Claudie/A Reason Of Living/Blue Eyed Lady/Caroline/Softer Ride/And It's Better Now/Forty Five Hundred Times Sir Clive Woodward, the former England rugby union coach, came up with the phrase, and it remains applicable, not least to the efforts of the current England cricket team. The phrase, or tactic, is "incremental accretion of marginal gains" and what it means is that a team hones itself in meticulous, microscopic detail, slowly working on improving every aspect of their practice and play, however seemingly irrelevant (hence, work on your palms because sweaty palms mean you don't bowl so well). The factors run into their hundreds, if not thousands, and the team is invariably the better for it. Likewise it is sometimes the case in rock music that the spoils go to those who don't set out to cause controversy, or make extravagant gestures, but rather work hard on honing the one thing they know they can do. As with sport, the prize quite often goes to the player who doesn't "want" it as much as their opponent, and throughout their remarkable four-and-a-half-decade career (which at the time of writing shows no signs of winding down), Status Quo have never presented themselves as the kind of band which "wants" something, other than to rock. There is no indulgence in their work, but instead fierce concentration (its fierceness amplified by the group's surface amiability). They may never have made a Sgt Pepper but neither are they liable to make a Goats Head Soup; they have simply carried on working on their thing with unflagging intensity and minute attention to their craft. Of course, none of this - particularly the word "craft" - is particularly sexy, and a music based on craft and effort alone would not be one to warrant major attention. It is probably true to say that Piledriver, this album's immediate predecessor, is the core Quo record; nothing but guitars, recorded practically as live, the purest vintage. But Hello! is seen by many as the definitive Quo album, and its many surprising variations on what might initially seem to be a monumental, one-string template suggest that it might be the ideal album with which to teach a new follower or listener how to play rock. What is offered here certainly isn't unwavering three-chord boogie, even though it might sound like that most of the time. For instance, "Roll Over Lay Down" is a surprisingly brutal (and possibly even brutalist futurist) opener with many touches of inspiration in its arrangement; the subdued and subsidiary role played by Alan Lancaster's bass, for example, which sets itself as part of a call-and-response routine which lasts for the song's first half. Similarly, John Coghlan's drums do not settle down, seem always poised for action. There is the group's trademark usage of silence as punctuation, as well as an effortless control of the loud-to-quiet-then-back-again procedural, such that it all ends in a furious, hammering climax, accompanied by an ironically desolate Moog wind roar. It is all about the group, however; it doesn't really matter whether Francis Rossi or Rick Parfitt is soloing at any given time (although as Rossi is credited with lead guitar I am assuming that most, if not all, of the solos are his work) - like Keith Richards and his various sparring partners in various editions of the Stones, they sound telepathic, ready to swap the lead/rhythm roles, and back again, at a mere second. And lyrically - though road manager Bob Young was responsible for most of their lyrics - there is a good deal more trouble being expressed than the music would superficially suggest. Both "A Reason For Living" and "And It's Better Now" explicitly speak of religion - the latter song owing a good deal in its construction and delivery to George Harrison (but, again, with ingenious stratagems deployed throughout, from the introductory Wilsonian vocal harmonies through the stop-and-start guitar/bass unisons to the final counterpart, gradually thickening in texture and spreading out before returning to the original setting and ending with a fast-drawing signoff) - and the protagonists of "Blue Eyed Lady" and "Caroline" are worse off due to an absence of faith, usually on the part of their respective cheating women ("To whom do you belong?," "How come you're all alone?," "When I'm thinking of you sleeping/I'm at home alone and weeping"), while the central emotional tenet of "Forty Five Hundred Times" - it comes down to the simple plea of "Be my friend," as basic and harrowing in its seemingly benign way as Richard Manuel's vocal on The Band's contemporaneous "Share My Love" - emphasises the record's theme of loneliness and detachment. When they stray from their patent, it doesn't always work - "Claudie" is a pleasant midtempo meditation, melodically slightly indebted to "Maggie May" but rescued by its astute harmonic variations at the end and its brush-off vaudeville finish; "Softer Ride," already available as the B-side of the single "Paper Plane," bases itself on a drone model, over which Rossi and Parfitt glumly intone "I ain't gonna work/I ain't gonna work no more," before bursting into focus. "Never no more will I have to be..." - cue three harsh guitar "DO DO DO!"s - then the most deadpan "down" you are likely to hear, prior to ending on a harmonic question mark - but their modest commitment to adventure does them credit. Note the compelling structure of "Blue Eyed Lady," which, following a harmonically adventurous duet between ascending guitars (we could almost, for a few seconds, be listening to Yes), goes into boogie mode, but with a colourful array of key variations and a central hook which is only played and heard once. Coghlan's emphatic cymbal and snare bashes build up the tension which we already half-know is never going to be released. "Caroline" and "Forty Five Hundred Times," however, are the record's main events; in its elementary tension-and-release palindromic structure, "Caroline" is one of the most natural rock hits of its, or indeed any, day; the group play with absolute assurance and deceptive lightness, Coghlan once again outstanding on drums, while Rossi sings his carefree lament in a what-me-worry (well-maybe-I-do) south London nasal tone which often creeps into the Kent backyards of Robert Wyatt. Piano (played largely by Parfitt) is added to the mix (as it is on other tracks), but does not overwhelm or impede the music's propulsion. Apart from a few keyboard and lead guitar overdubs, the feeling is live, and the attraction is instant. "Forty Five Hundred Times" is the group's magnum opus, clocking in at nine minutes and forty-five seconds - and if the long-playing record format had allowed, it could theoretically have gone on forever - and presenting a virtual handbook on the moods and dynamics of a rock band, not to mention an advertisement for Quo's entire repertoire of styles and gestures. It begins with a quiet, contemplative first verse (with Parfitt taking lead vocal), before the familiar midtempo stomp asserts itself. There is the hint of "Peter Gunn" in the bassline underpinning the song's main riff. Complex but canny guitar/bass unisons follow, then a guitar solo which could have sprung out of the happier pages of Aaron Copland. The song metamorphosises into a more familiar Quo tempo before accelerating with subtle speed; guest pianist Andy Bown essays minimalist high piano plink-plink notes straight out of John Cale's textbooks. The tempo grows faster still, asserting itself as the song's third palpable rhythm, before turning the volume down for another quiet interlude, guitars now scratchy fragments of notes (as with Mingus, Quo are experts at turning around when everything appears to be at the point of boiling over), but Rossi hits on a riff, both Bown's piano and Lancaster's bass pick up on it immediately...and then the group zones in on this motorik totality which reminds me how Quo have less to do with the history of rock than with what is to come, and in this case it is Kraftwerk (via, clearly, Neu!; the track is self-evidently Quo's "Hallogallo") - their assurance and community verge on ahuman, but at the same time they pull themselves back from the robot brink by their palpable enthusiasm for playing these riffs. The beauty of "Forty Five Hundred Times" is that it doesn't offer a solution, or a climax; the music gradually builds up again but just as it's about to climax it comes back down again and the song fades out, possibly to eternity. Seriously (because they're not taking it so seriously) outrocking the 1973 Stones, Quo sound as though they eat, live, breathe and sleep rock, and it is as untrammelled and welcoming as any rock of which I can think. All the detail, every single polish, or scrub, or tone-up, moves their music towards a greater good. They, for now, are British rock, and certainly capable of becoming a machine - until those winks and grins remind us that it's all for us, too.