Sunday 30 October 2011

David BOWIE: Diamond Dogs

(#142: 8 June 1974, 4 weeks)

Track listing: Future Legend/Diamond Dogs/Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)/Rebel Rebel/Rock 'N' Roll With Me/We Are The Dead/1984/Big Brother/Chant Of The Ever Circling Skeletal Family

I've written about Diamond Dogs before, a long time ago on another blog, and maybe it's a piece too jejeune to warrant a reprint, or perhaps its flapping spirit chimes in more tunefully with the record's curiously jejeune nature; it's hard for me, seven years and a lifetime onward, to call. Half of me says shut up and enjoy the ride, which still seems a lot shorter than its thirty-eight minutes might suggest, and the other half says, wait a moment - did any other number one album of its year, or of its time, push and challenge its audience so firmly and insecurely as this one?

The first thing to note is what a whale of a time this decomposing glitter-Bowie is having watching the world collapse. Let's face it, pop secretly always welcomes the apocalypse - think of Lydon's half-petrified, half-ecstatic tongues at the climax of "Holidays In The Sun," the impatient rush of the Annihilation mix of "Two Tribes," the bit on Public Enemy's "Burn Hollywood Burn" when Ice Cube storms into the picture with his terrifyingly authoritative "As I walk down Hollywood Boulevard"; oh yes, we pop addicts eagerly await The End, our pulses race at the very thought. "Tension, apprehension and dissension have begun," went the leitmotif of the period's most fashionable sci-fi novel, Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, and I always secretly wanted to set that refrain to music (but somehow I always ended up in the neigbourhood of Stan Kenton's "Concerto For Doghouse"). To a ten-year-old besotted with Steve Gerber's Marvel titles and worse, caninohuman immutable apocalypse seemed a more interesting place to visit than, say, Blantyre.

Structurally the record is disjointed piffle, but that works in its favour; the main influence here is not so much Orwell (Sonia saw to any such ideas) as Burgess distilled via Lionel Bart (all these "urchins" bring Dickens far more closely to mind than droogs, but then Bowie has arguably always been far more Bart than Barthes). The lovely thing is that Bowie still, I think, feels deep down that it's 1965, or he's going to try his damnedest to make sure that it is; one of the record's key lines comes amidst the rollerball Philly-lite "1984" when he whispers "I'm looking for the treason that I knew in '65," and the non-closing loop of "Chant" resembles the Yardbirds with their legs broken, trying to relearn Bo Diddley as though relocated to Jupiter.

So much is still invested in the sixties. "Future Legend" tries to scare its listeners witless with drunken electronic pinges, "Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered" guitar meditations and a phased Bowie growling about the end of everything but together it's a lot less authentically scary than something like "Bad Moon Rising" and a lot more like Journey To The Centre Of The Earth having taken a wrong turning in the wrong volcano. The sound of a Faces audience (complete with a distant "Wa-hey!" from Rod) brings in "This ain't rock 'n' ROLL! This is GENOCIDE!!" - startling enough in 1974, but set against a wrecked Lydon addressing a real, living San Francisco audience less than three years later at the end of "Belsen Was A Gas" ("Be a man! Kill yourself!") it sounds timid, a tad showbizzy; Bowie may well have spoken of the "diamond dogs" as so many little Rottens and Viciouses many years later, but perspective is the easiest thing to have.

Still, this is comparatively minor quibbling; the title track and "Rebel Rebel" are unstable photocopies of Stones rockers which make It's Only Rock And Roll sound arthritic (but then the latter's title track grew out of a band improvisation involving Bowie; nonetheless, "Fingerprint File" is the only thing I've ever wanted to retain from that particular mess of a record). They work because their instability is subtle; the stomps go on for just that little too long, when the ecstasy stops and the comedown and headaches start to worm their way into the listener. And also because Bowie sings them like Iggy and the Stones rather than Jagger. On "Diamond Dogs," for instance, the bridge-to-chorus dissonances become gradually more prominent, that cowbell is struck a little too hard to signify eagerness or even rhythm, and above all there is Bowie's own lead guitar (mostly; the Keef stuff on this and "Rebel Rebel" was the work of Alan Parker, who also does most of the guitar work on "1984") which manages to be both naive and commanding. Bowie's rheumatic saxes also reappear, even repeating part of the riff from "Sorrow" towards the end of "Dogs," but the message is still to leave the sixties ("Come out of the garden, baby"). "Rebel Rebel" too is much more of a gruelling grind than the 45 mix - losing the "You're so TACKY!" chuckle but not the 'ludes reference - to such an extent that it is as though Bowie is trying less to rock us than to hit us on the head with a clawhammer until we submit...and submit to what? He does sing "oh baby come unto me" before each chorus of "Dogs," nine years ahead of "Relax," and are those backing singers really singing "Bow wow wow" as though this were some unexpected midwife between Patti Page and Andre 3000?

The "Sweet Thing"/"Candidate" sequence plays like sixteen-year-old Martian Buzzcocks trying to decipher and copy the "Breathe"/"Time" equivalent from side one of Dark Side; the introduction runs backward into itself and Bowie steadily raises his crooning tone from Scott Walker beef baritone to proto-MacKenzie contralto, but still sounds dishevelled and shaken - when he reaches the quatrain "Like a portrait in flesh/Who trails on a leash/Will you see/That I'm scared and I'm lonely?" his voice quivers like Nelson marooned at the wrong end of a drawing pin. Other elements pass in and out of the song's fibres like electrocuted trains; Adam Faith pizzicato strings, a piano line in the second verse which foresees "China Girl," Bowie's wheezing palais alto, martial drums, Mike Garson finally cutting free under Bowie's careful guitar line and flooding the picture. The "sweet thing" becomes a "cheap thing" and goes straight into the babbling stream of "Candidate"; as the PR junk of the opening lines is steadily turned into the tenderest of doomed love songs (culminating in the famous couplet "We'll buy some drugs and watch a band/Then jump in a river holding hands," a dozen years ahead of "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out") the tempo progressively doubles and discordance (principally from Bowie's guitar) becomes denser. Saxes blow raspberries and at one point the song is in danger of drowning in an ocean of tambourines. Then "Sweet Thing" returns, this time as a sneer (yet set against a placid Moog/flute unison); this too eventually gives way to feedback, plectrum scrapings, the song then sloping backwards as though about to tumble off a cliff - and the penny drops; the comparable record from 1974 is Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom (and here we think of "Little Red Riding Hood Hits The Road" which ends up doubling back on itself), a part-gibberish, part-profound response to a world no longer clearly understood or recognised (in terms of Bowie's guitar playing, see also Wyatt's languid beginner slides on the same instrument in "A Last Straw"), where expression can only be reached through multiple alter ego voices - Mongezi Feza, Gary Windo, Mike Oldfield, Ivor Cutler - in the same way that Bowie was now positioning himself as a brand, different with every new release, and distant and quick enough to ensure that his audience didn't latch onto him until he'd firmly moved on. And then, without a break, into "Rebel Rebel" and its foreshadowing of the Runaways' "Cherry Bomb" (with the latter's "Hello dad, hello mom...").

On side two he opens up a little more, just enough for us to touch the waft of his breath, if not his garment; on "Rock 'N' Roll With Me" the cheesy organ and general air of stadium rock anthem parody are mainly there to fool the ear, since this is the record's "Be My Wife" moment, the point where Bowie steps out of his self-administered straitjacket and tells it straight; his performance is too obviously heartfelt to be a put-on - listen to how he mangles the word "tears" in the first chorus, or how his cries of "I'm in tears again/When you rock 'n' roll with me" are too close not to believe. And yet, this may simply be Ziggy again ("I would take a foxy kind of stand/While tens of thousands found me in demand") taking a further step away from the crowd, and at song's end, or at least before it disintegrates under columns of dusty dancehall saxophone, he finds his own way out (after having given away the confession "No one else I'd rather be") with the line "I've found a door that lets me out." Always running away, always moving...away from what, and towards whom?

"We Are The Dead" is performed as a doped New Depression elegy (to an extent the song follows the traces of the old Busby Berkeley number "Remember My Forgotten Man," although "Baby Bankrupt" is only hinted at in the latter rather than outwardly stated). As the song proceeds - and somewhere in the background (as on "Rock 'N' Roll With Me") there is Lulu, doing her best to bring Bowie back to some kind of earth - the narrative becomes heavier, speedier, more disjointed, more pregnant with dread ("I hear them on the stairs") and the song can barely keep up, since it's falling apart with every new disintegrating barline - if glam is to die, Bowie implies, then here is the underlying, spent ugliness. The song falls apart around him, his guitar sounding more and more alien, more desperate.

But remember that "door that lets me out," and there is something in Bowie's awkwardly assured performance in "Rock 'N' Roll With Me" which gives a greater, if subtler, clue than "1984" as to where he's headed. The plastic Philly romp of "1984" - like a de-fanged "Backstabbers" - could have come from Wakeman's Journey, or, more pertinently, from Jeff Wayne's still-to-be-conceived War Of The Worlds, and Bowie races himself against the ascending bass and 'cello lines only to ram himself repeatedly into a wall built of the feeblest bricks.

The police siren electric piano at "1984"'s fade melts into the synthesised trumpet and rock opera grind of "Big Brother" - five years before The Wall, here's Bowie building glass around himself, wanting both worship and forgetfulness, a steady closedown interrupted only by a forgotten folk fragment from when times were still comprehensible - Bowie yelping "I know you think you're awful square" as though he were still fourteen, before correcting himself, and us, with the codicil "Lord, I think you'd overdose if you knew what's going down." After a high howl of "FOOL!" the backing track steadily falls out of synch; again and again, a music on the verge of collapse, and the only way out is...nowhere, a hell of Klook's Kleek, over and over ("Shake it up!" "Move it up!") which eventually slams into itself and Bowie's barked "BRA BRA BRA BRA" locked groove, that's it, you've eaten me, record off the hi-fi, cut to black, ah fuck off.

Additional notes
Bowie's supposedly suboptimal lead guitar is more punk-anticipating than anything else on or about the album, including the dog's balls; he's got enough to scrape by (and of course has Alan Parker on hand to do all the difficult bits, just like he did with Wakeman's piano on Hunky Dory) and sometimes, as he clearly tells us, scraping is the only sane response to madness, the only upright answer to collapse. Whether he meticulously thought this out is beside the point, and if you even have to think that thought, you're not the sort of person for whom Diamond Dogs was intended.

So why the top-whack session musicians rather than the Spiders? Garson's still there, but otherwise it's Herbie Flowers, Aynsley Dunbar, Tony Newman and the aforementioned Parker; does his hacking of their hackwork parallel Lou Reed's very similar approach (with some of the same musicians) on the same year's Sally Can't Dance (except that proud Lou would never admit or surrender to "technical incompetence," God bless him)? A better parallel might be what Carla Bley did a couple of years later on Dinner Music, where she hired the likes of Steve Gadd, Richard Tee, Cornell Dupree etc. - the very best to those who think in terms of "very best" - and set them against unruly playing from Bley regulars like Michael Mantler, Roswell Rudd and Carlos Ward (or perhaps "unruly" was hoped for; the record largely fails because everyone's on their best behaviour and it's only on the Carla-herself-dominant "Dining Alone" and "Ida Lupino" that the music peeks out and looks towards further abrasive disruptions of placidity - nineties Arto Lindsay, for instance).

But yes, hack it up, hack glam to death, the fucker's dead anyway and anybody alive in 1974 can see that; give it to those kids on the roof and there you go, a month at the top for a record that in its own way is as fuck-you as Metal Machine Music. But then yet another 1974 record, On The Beach - remember? - with its huge YES to life disguised as a terminal NO and in the end Bowie's going home with the grin, in case you wanted any other part of him; open the exit door next time long will it take us to summon up the nerve?

Sunday 23 October 2011

Rick WAKEMAN: Journey To The Centre Of The Earth

(#141: 25 May 1974, 1 week)

Track listing: The Journey/Recollection/The Battle/The Forest

There's a quote from a brief Q&A interview with Gilbert O'Sullivan in Uncut magazine a few years ago which has stuck with me: "Between '67 and '77, originality was rife" - the implication being that the advent of punk meant closing down more doors than it opened. Suddenly everything was absolute, year zero, black and white, and so forth, and so mavericks, major or minor, who didn't quite fit in with either camp, or who didn't bear huge metaphorical "I AM A RADICAL" postcards tied around their necks, tended to get conveyed to the reject bin. It'a also interesting that while I sat around thinking what to write about this entry, my friend Mark Sinker posted these highly pertinent comments about the small, mobile, intelligent Victorian working-class unit John Martin, and I think he's got it just about right.

Dinosaurs indeed, and so it was Rick Wakeman's fate, at least for a while, to be condemned as one; yet listening to his Journey now raises the question of how anybody could rationally (or irrationally) conceive of it as representing any kind of an enemy*. Rather it speaks to me of modest, maybe slightly foolish but ultimately harmless dreams trampled over in the snotpush of "progress," even though the record and event remain one of the cornerstones of where British progressive rock had progressed.

(*Semi-digression: This doesn't even begin to mask the hypocrisy at work in much of the year zero ground pseudo-razing; remember that Keith Levene was at the time of Topographic working as a roadie for Yes, and various stock Steve Howe tropes turn up surprisingly frequently in early PiL work. In fact I was struck, while listening to an Old Grey Whistle Test compilation on Radio 2 last week (and thinking about Wakeman and Journey) how, in terms of musical approach and dynamics, there really was very little to choose from between Steve Hackett's "Los Endos" and PiL's "Careering"; both clearly sculpted from the same block - but of course in 1979 what mattered was the context which contributed to making Metal Box one of the albums for my own desert island.)

That Wakeman sounds infinitely more at ease here than on Topographic indicates in itself that Journey was a pet project long in his mind; he'd been thinking about doing it since 1971, and even though he had in the interim scored a major solo hit with his The Six Wives Of Henry VIII project, the British arm of A&M remained sceptical about its chances. No, it's too expensive to do in the studio; fine, I'll record it live (although some sequences, including parts of David Hemmings' narration, subsequently had to be redone in the studio for various technical reasons). Can't you get better-known musicians to play the rock parts; no, these are people I have known and hung out with since the scuffling days of the late sixties, they are the musicians best able to play this music, and I want this to be perceived as a piece of music rather than a superstar jam. OK, but we're still looking at forty grand - you'll have to put up some of your own money; look, whatever I need to do, I'll do it. Call this commercial? We're not going to promote it; I've spoken to Jerry Moss in the States and he says PROMOTE it.

And, of course, Wakeman was right every step of the way; the record sold millions around the world and the green light was given for this other idea he had involving King Arthur, and some ice. Absurd? More idealistic than absurd, I'd say; Wakeman had played on the all-star orchestral version of Tommy with David Measham, the LSO, the English Chamber Choir and Wil Malone's arrangements, and (with some help from Lou Reizner) convinced all relevant parties to embark on thie next adventure. Having just negotiated the challenging bends of Ornette Coleman's Skies Of America, Measham's LSO was fully equipped to deal with anything thrown at it, and their performance on Journey is technically faultless.

Listening to Journey over thirty-seven years later, my general feelings are those of simple pleasure mixed with some melancholy, for the record is as much of a part of the lost treasure world of catch-all/embrace-all of its time as Centipede's Septober Energy or even Cardew's The Great Learning (and it cannot be a coincidence that Dick Whitbread's artwork for Frames, the great 1978 masterpiece by Keith Tippett's Ark, takes its cue almost directly from Michael Wade's work here), although ostensibly there is little "radical" about the work.

Instead, Journey is that most unexpected but most welcome of 1974 things (at least to boys of my age, or slightly older), a rattling good yarn. It came exactly a century after the publication of Jules Verne's original book, which is pretty heavily condensed here by Hemmings' velvety narrator (Richard Harris was the original choice for narrator, and was keen, though was otherwise engaged at the time of the recording; Hemmings, just eight years down the line from Blow-Up, does the story as an amiable uncle with that park still festering at the back of his mind). Tbe book is perhaps more interesting for what it implies than what it tells; it is only partly an adventure story, in greater part a disguised, if digestible, history of the evolution of man, and in equal part a long digression about the importance of talk - much of the book is occupied by lengthy, winding discussions about geological speculation, and if nearly everything that is talked about has since been scientifically disproved, that is almost beside the point; there is no real reason why Lidinbrook and Adl should embark on this trip (there are no women present) other than to speculate, fulfill or surpass notions and schemes concerning giant mushrooms, battling porpoises and sea-turtles. They get sucked into one volcano in Iceland and get flung out on the slope of "the frightening Mount Etna," and somehow that is it; some commentators have speculated on the book as a pretext for exploring the old ego-versus-id inner battle, but the remarkable thing about both book and record is the complete absence of side in either; nowhere in Wakeman's Journey does one think about their trip as being anything but a physical trip, and while there may be merit in thinking about the brown, dull stuff that fills the centre of the Earth and Britain in 1974 - and the irony of one acting as an escape from the other - the record does exactly what it says in its Disneyland Records-type sleeve.

There is probably little need to examine the music in depth; it begins with heroic Richard Strauss French horns and Moog spelling out the work's main musical motif before settling down to become a paradigm of the kind of brooding, battle-anticipating soundtrack work that would many decades later - Lord Of The Rings, Harry Potter, etc. - become lingua franca. Then Ashley Holt sings a tremulous song (the mood, perhaps logically, predicates mid-seventies American AoR pop, most pressingly "Moonlight Feels Right" by Starbuck) and suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, we are flip-flopped into Air's Moon Safari with limpid electric piano carefully traced by Malone's strings. The beat steps up to Lemon Jelly level (under Hemmings' first narrative sequence) before choir and trumpets turn the mood medieval. A cyclical vibraphone line floats under Hemmings, giving way to some Moog spider jiving wherein we are abruptly reminded that this is 1974. Plateaus of strings and woodwind cast their shadow across this picture like a slightly irritable raincloud; there are not only hints of the overture to The Lexcion Of Love here but also an unexpected glance in the direction of the later stages of the Four Seasons' Genuine Imitatioon Life Gazette. A dialogue between Wakeman's Moog and French horns introduces some mild discordance, leading into a hallucinatory drone under Hemmings' "Voices! Voices!!"

Strings cascade down into - of all things - a funky Stevie Wonder-type clavinet workout (this being the commencement of the "Recollection" sequence) leading to a long guitar solo by Mike Egan. Here Malone's strings come into their own; sinister, bitonal, cutting out from beneath (as they would seventeen years hence on "Unfinished Sympathy"), before dropping out entirely to leave the choir to chat with Wakeman's clavinet before Wonderful World Of Disney harp and flutes make their entrance. The track's central song has a lounge mood, and its frequent diversion into unexpected harmonies makes me wish Billy MacKenzie had sung it (Holt is excellent, however; very much out of the trembling Colin Blunstone school of vulnerable). Electric piano argues with 'celli and basses for awhile before hissing wind effects take us into "The Battle." Wakemsn's clavinet riff under Hemmings' "World within a world" echoes "Bennie And The Jets," before the choir ushers us back into 1974. "Save me!" shriek Holt and fellow singer Garry Pickford-Hopkins against the stoic choir, and an effective air of tension is built up, though slightly dissipated by Barney James' slightly too eager drumming.

Everything eventually breaks open into...Shaft? It's cop show theme time ("the STORM!"), perhaps denoting George Sewell in Special Branch. Again, James' drums rush the tempo a little too much, but everyone sounds as though they're having a good time, before clavinet and strings re-enter to depict the "mastodon" and the "proteus." As we move into "The Forest," the funk mood returns, the protagonists spill into one volcano and out of the other, and from nowhere we get an accelerando knees-up of Grieg's "Hall Of The Mountain King" (cop acknowledged in Wakeman's brief, breathless sleevenote). Wakeman's own Moog wobbles in underneath, like a prog octopus, and then it's time for a brassy coda, followed by a pensive strings/Moog section, and then the return of the original theme, complete with florid Rachmaninoff-via-Liberace piano curlicues, the credit-roll choir title-singing, and finally three bangs and a thunderclap of a finish, to tumultuous cheers and applause (there were visuals in the form of stage sets, clips from the 1959 James Mason/Pat Boone movie - who'd have thought Pat Boone would play such a big, if indirect, part in the development of progressive rock? - and so on). As a piece of amiable/crazily ambitious entertainment it more than does its job, and one of my greatest regrets is how little room there would be for such a manoeuvre in today's zipped-up, neatly-demographised world. An enemy? Only to our own shameful preconceptions.

Sunday 16 October 2011

SLADE: Old New Borrowed And Blue

(#140: 2 March 1974, 1 week)

Track listing: Just A Little Bit/When The Lights Are Out/My Town/Find Yourself A Rainbow/Miles Out To Sea/We're Really Gonna Raise The Roof/Do We Still Do It/How Can It Be/Don't Blame Me/My Friend Stan/Everyday/Good Time Gals

"How can a daydream change to a has-been?"

A successful rock band generally has two long-term aesthetic options. It can either expand and develop what it has already done, or simply carry on doing what they know they can do, and if they have any nous they will subtly tweak their music every so often such that they never fall behind the times. Among the latter I would include Status Quo, ZZ Top, the Ramones and AC/DC, and I wonder whether Slade would have been happier in this category, although they had strong ambitions to go beyond the holler-stompers which they felt might still entrap them. They had plenty of opportunity to think; Old New Borrowed And Blue was their first album to be completed following Don Powell's car crash, and I think there must have been a general feeling of, well, if we're going to go anywhere else or do anything else, now is the time to do it and go there.

This is not to say that the record represented an especially radical detour from the Slade blueprint, more that it intensifies what we already knew from Slayed? and the hits and cautiously sticks out its feelers in other directions. The group had already wrongfooted their fans with the post-crash single "My Friend Stan," which climbed with some effort to number two and which in its way was as much of a test of its audience as "Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing In The Shadows"; it reappears here and remains impassively strange, Holder welding together various double entendres over a backing of tack pub piano and Dave Hill's unexpected forays into country rock (it may well have a subtler political subtext at its heart with its talk of blacking eyes and fixing ties, but I will leave that for Lena to analyse when its turn comes).

From this stem comes at least two other tracks; Hill's "Jessica" quotes on "How Can It Be" - lyrically one of the record's more wistful songs, not that you'd know it from Holder's delivery - suggest more moves in the country rock direction although Powell's flat beat and the track's general make-do-and-mend buskerdom come down more in favour of Don Partridge (but watch that odd vocal coda; CSN&Y re-orchestrated by Morton Feldman). Whereas "Find Yourself A Rainbow" is a straightforward music hall singalong, with jangling Russ Conway piano and no side ("Don't forget...April showers"), which was later covered, again without apparent irony, by Max Bygraves. In Noddy there has always been the latent need to be an all-round family entertainer, but it's worth pondering what some of the 500,000 fans who placed advance orders for this album would have made of it (is this what we queued up and paid for?).

The rest of the album is devoted to rockers and mid-tempo rock-pop lopes. The record kicks off with the group's take on Rosco Gordon's "Just A Little Bit," previously a minor hit in 1964 for Merseybeat group The Undertakers (featuring a young but already very confident Jackie Lomax on lead vocals) and covered by many other beat groups including Them and The Animals (although the latter did not record the song until their ill-fated 1977 reunion record Before We Were So Rudely Interrupted) - so Chas Chandler must have recommended the number directly. If anything, Slade appear here to be inventing AC/DC. All the elements are there: the brutally straight guitar riffs and astute use of pauses and silence, and of course Holder's Bon Scott/Brian Johnson-anticipating hoarse shriek ("TURN YER LIGHTS DOWN LOW!"). Clearly a stage favourite, the group effectively turn the volume down, to the point where they seem to be playing with muffs on their speakers, and indeed their fingers are barely touching their instruments. Holder goes down, relatively quiet, developing his mutters of "teeny weeny" into abstract grunts and purrs, before the volume is suddenly jacked up again and they aim for the Zep bravura finale ("NOT 'TIL THE END OF TIIIIIIME!" followed by a bark of "Lo-o-o-o-o-o-ove!") but land nearer a proto-punk ending of messy guitar tunings and cymbal crashes.

On "When The Lights Are Out," one of the rare Slade tracks featuring Jim Lea on lead vocals, they appear conversely (or logically) to be inventing Oasis, their "Merry Xmas Everybody" setting settling into a rolling lope ("Let me feel your warm breath on my neck/It makes me hit the sky"). Slightly too poppy to qualify as pub rock, it nevertheless seems to be a song about the group's gradual disillusionment with the crowd and with unquestioning adulation ("We'll be sitting pretty/Scream a pitiful scream"). Much the same approach is used on "Miles Out To Sea" and the music's relatively restrained arrangement works in the song's favour; such a strange, dissociated song it seems too, with its floating out to the bay, its ghostly tropes of cabaret and red-haired monks - the song is performed as though the group already knows its game is up. As with roughly half the songs on the album, it's notable that Lea's piano is markedly more to the fore than Hill's guitar.

"My Town," hitherto buried on the B-side of "My Friend Stan," is one of Slade's strongest, and in my view least acknowledged, songs - it failed even to make the 4CD Slade Box retrospective - and, also in my view, one of their most heartfelt; it begins in hard rock cliche territory with its "hot shootin' mama," but the latter is only a peg on which to hang one of the hoarsest and aggressive choruses Holder ever screamed: "THIS AIN'T YOUR TOWN! THIS IS MY TOWN!" he repeats. "GET ON YOUR WAY NOW!!" he grunts and snarls. Meanwhile the music inclines towards early Beatles but there is something about Lea's wavering, close-picked, fluctuating bassline which suggests a previously unexplored missing link between Eddie Cochran and My Bloody Valentine. The song's implications go far beyond small-town matters; this seems a clarion cry, a warning from the working class to their interfering "superiors" to stay the hell away, a proud reclamation of working class culture. Did the group consider it too near the knuckle, too close to a truth, to risk putting it out as an A-side?

"We're Really Gonna Raise The Roof" is the nearest the record comes to a standard Slade stomper but there is an unsettling extra luminosity to Holder's screech; already quoting Bob Marley ("Get up, stand up!") and spitting out those "Go, go, go!"s with all the fervour of 1969 Barry Ryan, and the band at points struggle to contain this sometimes terrible power. "Do We Still Do It" continues in the same vein, with a spectral echo in the group's shouted responses, words like "corruptible" and a mantra of "Come on!"s repeated to the point of dervish insanity, or (and I do not use such words loosely) nirvana (and feel free to capitalise that last word; there are roots here too).

On "Don't Blame Me," however, Holder is in danger of blowing himself out of this world. Offering diarrhoeic yells against some scruffily-defined wrongdoing or injustice, Holder's astonishing vocal performance - is it ADT, or multiphonics? - gets the response of a violent, frustrated, wobbling solo from Hill (the furthest out the latter ever went on record). Despite the brief Robert Plant parody near the end, the primal screams on offer far exceed those of Lennon's; this is a pain beyond rational expression. As the track plays out Holder's scream is comparable with the tenor of Pharaoh Sanders or Gato Barbieri, ululatory, completely overwhelming its surroundings; when the ending comes, it sounds as though Holder has literally squashed the rest of the band. It is a terrifying performance.

Then come the strange singles, the already mentioned "Stan" and the highly uncharacteristic waltz ballad "Everyday." The latter is a more unsettling listen than is generally acknowledged; the song itself sounds like something that Gerry and the Pacemakers would have dropped midway into their set to take the pace down (and Holder's vocal, when controlled - in the "And you know that I know" sections - sounds uncannily like Gerry Marsden), but again and again Holder breaks into his holler; and the lyric (in part made up impromptu by Lea's wife Louise) must be the most abstract, haiku-like lyric to any love song this side of "True Love Ways." "One little wave/To say you'll behave"?

Such endeavours may reveal why Slade, despite great and sustained effort, never really broke America; Holder's voice, though capable of scarifying intensity, is not the most flexible of voices. Every song, be it country rock or vaudeville or MoR ballad, involves a swift ascent to scream mode; he lacks Plant's capacity for tenderness, and in truth, even over a modest album length of thirty-one minutes, his unceasing bullroarer, because unwavering, does become more than a little wearisome; it is like standing at the other end of a megaphone of a rabble-rouser at Speaker's Corner. The closing "Good Time Gals" attempts a cowbell-driven "Honky Tonk Women"/"All Right Now"-style return to normal business but it doesn't quite convince; Holder finally dives straight into smutsville ("I wanted to suck your candy - UHH!") and worryingly beyond ("I wanted to wear your clothes"). Despite the attempted climax of four straight "GIMME!"s, the heart is, I suspect, already out of it.

On the positive side, Holder's voice, despite its sustained tone of hectoring, does appear to be slightly more comprehensible than previously; and added to this should be the fact that the likes of Joan Jett and Cherie Currie - not to mention the slightly older likes of Steven Tyler and Joe Perry - were assimilating Slade's example and using it as a template for their own subsequent adventures (the first Runaways album is almost exactly a midpoint equation between Slade, the Sweet and Suzi Quatro). If you don't worry too much about subtexts, then as a rock record Old New Borrowed And Blue is a fine, varied and lively listen. But it is pretty unmistakably the work of a group who know that they have just passed their peak and want a last, loud say before bowing out, or down. Their next move was towards cinema; Slade In Flame is a harrowing and frequently ugly (but more or less truthful) picture of a rotten music industry and what it does to people at the bottom of its bucket, but the crowds were expecting slapstick and laffs; likewise, the film's downbeat and frequently bitter songs were too cold a bucket of water for fans to stomach - despite one final big hit ("Far Far Away") and one of the best songs and performances they ever recorded ("How Does It Feel?," written by Lea as far back as 1968), the soundtrack album stopped at #6, and by mid-1976 their singles were beginning to miss the Top 50; it took a long, slow process of rebuilding their reputation on the heavy rock circuit to enable their comeback in the eighties. Now a version of Slade continues to tour, without Holder, who, sick of touring and stress, has long since switched to broadcasting and occasional acting. Their best music survives, and remains loved, as indeed do the musicians themselves; and Old New Borrowed And Blue - you decide which songs are which - is best viewed as a cheerful last wave before everyone, musicians and fans alike, goes off and gets on with the rest of their lives.

Tuesday 11 October 2011

The CARPENTERS: The Singles 1969-1973

(#139: 2 February 1974, 4 weeks; 9 March 1974, 11 weeks; 1 June 1974, 1 week; 6 July 1974, 1 week)

Track listing: We've Only Just Begun/Top Of The World/Ticket To Ride/Superstar/Rainy Days And Mondays/Goodbye To Love/Yesterday Once More/It's Going To Take Some Time/Sing/For All We Know/Hurting Each Other/(They Long To Be) Close To You

"Think I'm gonna be sad...Loneliness is such a sad affair...Come back to me again and play your sad guitar...Makes today seem rather sad...Sing of happy, not sad..."

You don't have to know the ins and outs of Karen Carpenter's life to realise the mood which prevails throughout this collection; the word keeps recurring throughout the record, its feeling all-pervading. And while I am not necessarily an observer who bases his judgment of art on the life lived by the artist, it is impossible from these dozen selections to avoid the conclusion that Karen was not a happy person. Even when she essays happy, as on "Top Of The World," she never quite convinces the listener; her brightest thought is "I won't be surprised if it's a dream" and her shaky transition throughout the phrase "be the same for you and me" finds her on the verge of suppressed collapse. As with Perry Como, she cannot quite make "Sing" sing true; she is constantly trying to convince herself that happiness is a good idea.

But flawless sadness was what 1974 Britain seemed to want, indeed luxuriated in; this was its year's biggest-selling album, only beginning to step outside the top ten in November (and it did not leave the top five until September). Part of the duo's core appeal was that they sounded like no one else in their time, be it pop or rock or even easy listening, and it is true in the context of 1974 number one albums that they still did not. Everything on the record sounds beamed down from above, even if its words are frequently more in keeping with hell than heaven; it is quite convenient to assume that the Carpenters might have been among the most radical of pop groups, even if their radicalism had only extended to not sounding like Slade or Foghat.

The Singles 1969-1973 is not quite the straightforward greatest hits album it might initially appear; the majority of its tracks featured remixes, re-recorded lead (and harmony) vocals and, throughout side one at least, a spotless segue complete with new orchestral introductions and interludes. That this would herald a lifetime of endless tinkering with the same material suggested that the Brian Wilson influence was more encompassing, or possibly engulfing, than was sometimes apparent. The album begins with the piano/vibes introduction to "Close To You," recalling George Crumb as much as Burt Bacharach; Karen sings the first two lines before a bass slide and decisive snare drum usher in soaring strings, followed by a harp, and then an oboe/strings theme - travelling in less than a minute from Makrokosmos III to Vaughan Williams' A Pastoral Symphony. All very grandiose and Scott Walker a prelude, and it goes straight into "We've Only Just Begun," the bank commercial that Richard Carpenter decided to turn into a hymn.

Actually the Beach Boys connection is deeper; Tony Asher, the Pet Sounds lyricist, had originally been approached to compose the lyrics to the Crocker Bank ad but fell ill and recommended that Paul Williams take over and articulate the music of Roger Nichols. Both of the latter were writers and performers with a history of enterprising avant-MoR work at A&M - hear, if you can find it, 1968's extraordinary Roger Nichols And The Small Circle Of Friends (the CEO of Crocker Bank certainly did, and approached Nichols to write the jingle) - and when Richard Carpenter came across the commercial on TV one night, they were persuaded to extend it into a full song. Here, all is smooth and hopeful; Nichols and Williams might have written it, but only, I suspect, the Carpenters could have derived hymnal salvation from a bank ad - and, as the "Walrus"/police siren piano chords prove, not to mention Karen's anguished multiphonic "live" in the second verse (a regular trope which Karen would practise when she dropped her emotional guard; see also, out of many examples, the "wind" in "wind up" in "Rainy Days And Mondays"), the future is not quite as bright or uncomplicated as she would like. Similarly, "Top Of The World" plays like a simulacrum of a jaunty country song (that high pedal steel sustain which occurs like a wraith after all but one of the choruses), but the main interest here is Richard's arranging and producing - as with "Penny Lane," he subtly alters the mix throughout the song, emphasising different instruments at different points; the pedal steel, the harp, the Fender Rhodes.

A solo piano passage welcomes a swooning orchestral re-entry, followed by more solo piano, then strings and a strangely harsh-sounding cymbal, and finally cascading tubular bells, strings and harp, all of which alight upon the most desolate Beatles cover I can think of; again, Karen does her best to inject more life, less neutered deadness, into her vocal than the 1969 original - for example, in the rise to the final chorus, she now sings "Ohhh..." as compared with what sounds like "Hell..." in the original - but I wonder whether the original blankness didn't make for a more affecting performance. It's as if the sixties have drained away, and they know it; before they announce their official split, they are already mourning for the Beatles (and indeed the 45 of "Ticket To Ride" sold better immediately following the Beatles' split than it had done in the two months previously) - Karen's "don't care when" is a terrifying admission of nothingness and the Beatles' own "My baby don't care" sequence is jettisoned altogether from both readings; it is replaced by a distant wall of harmonised sadness. Welcome to the seventies; still goodbye to the sixties, even almost halfway into the next decade.

The blankness drifts easily into "Superstar," that lament for lost rock ("But you're not really here/It's just the radio"). Karen's vibrato is again teary but there are hidden dramatics; the thunderous low piano which rumbles into the picture following Karen's aghast "wait." Note also the especial subtlety; much was made of the rewrite of the line "I can hardly wait to sleep with you again" into "I can hardly wait to be with you again" - and yet they kept the line "What to say to make you come again?" Strings and trumpet move into a reluctant climax before a harp flourish presses everything down again. The segue into "Rainy Days And Mondays" is hardly noticed, and yet this song - another Nichols/Williams composition - gets surprisingly close to the knuckles of the Carpenters' sadness; "Talking to myself and feeling old," murmurs Karen at the beginning, before progressing through the song. The key word is "down" at the end of each chorus; the first Karen weeps in that multiphonic despair again, but with every recurrence she puts more and more force and confidence into the word. It's "what they used to call the blues" but she is not alone. "Run and find the one who loves me" is, however, a strange expression of relief, and Karen's performance now becomes more attacking, aggressive. "No need to talk it out/We know what it's all about" and the meaning of the song suddenly becomes clear, the hidden radicalism revealed - how many hit songs have there been about that time of the month? As Karen continues her gradual emotional opening up, she climaxes on a nearly triumphant "get" before taking the "me down" down to restless quietude.

An oboe bridges "Mondays" to "Goodbye To Love," Karen's new vocal echoing against piano as though in a dungeon. Sung in a deceptively reassuring G major, the self-constructed despair of the lyric chases itself around its own labyrinth (the long sequence in each verse where Karen sings a complex two-octave line over fourteen bars without pausing for breath), trying its worst to convince itself that giving up on life is the best option, but the pain can scarcely be concealed, which is why Tony Peluso's fuzz guitar solos make such an impact (and provoked hate mail from MoR fundamentalists and even Adult Contemporary radio boycotts) since it expresses everything that Karen cannot dare to articulate; it also reminds us, not before time, that apart from Brian Wilson, the Beatles and Bacharach, Richard Carpenter's main early influence was Frank Zappa - were the Carpenters an extended Ruben And The Jets-type study of "easy listening"?

The segue/suite idea does not extend to side two, whether through loss of interest or other reasons, but this side does spotlight the duo's attempts to pick themselves up again. "Yesterday Once More," their biggest British hit single, was allegedly inspired by the revival of interest in pre-Beatle pop at the time (and if so it anticipated American Graffiti and Happy Days, even though it didn't dare get its hands dirty) but there seems to be a much greater process of mourning at work in the song. It contradicts itself - Karen sings of happy times but then says that these old songs can make her cry "just like before"; and who are those "they" to whom she first sang them? A word here for Joe Osborn's bass, which effectively provides a third "voice" throughout the Carpenters' work; on "Yesterday" he is particularly inspired, virtually weeping behind Karen in the first verse before blossoming out (and note also the importance of the Farfisa organ, just before the climax to "Goodbye To Love" and throughout "Yesterday"). It sounds to me as though they are looking to recapture or retrieve something greater and deeper than golden oldies, and for the complete picture I would really have to refer you to side two of Now And Then, wherein the song bookends a long medley of oldies (complete with Peluso's camp DJ routine and 'phone-in quiz). Since the song made number two here as a single, I will leave detailed analysis to Lena, but in passing I would merely note that, the Beach Boys' "Fun Fun Fun" notwithstanding (and even that was recorded on New Year's Day 1964), there is nothing in the oldies medley beyond the autumn of 1963 and that, redone in the 1973 style, the old songs sound sterile to the point of being scary.

They do a fair job on Carole King's "It's Going To Take Some Time" with Karen's new love resolutions ("I can't make demands...I'll learn how to bend") marred only by a clumsy modulation after Bob Messenger's flute solo. Then the forlorn "Sing" despite the efforts of the Jimmy Joyce Children's Choir (read what you will into that name) - the first time that the voices of actual members of Generation X (the generation/movement, not the Bromley punk band) are heard in this tale - and then "For All We Know" with Osborn's high-pitched, questioning bass; unlike the fairly unambiguous path of "We've Only Just Begun," this song is sung in the foreknowledge that everything might not be perfect (as emphasised by Karen's strange English pronunication of the word "know"; see additionally her "down" on "Ticket To Ride" and her "over" on "Top Of The World") and so happiness seems as elusive as ever.

"Hurting Each Other" dates from 1965 - originally recorded by Jimmy Clanton, subsequently covered by inter alia Chad Allan and the Expressions (who eventually mutated into the Guess Who) and the Walker Brothers - and is the nearest the record gets to open emotional candour; it's the only point where the kettle threatens to boil. The song was clearly built for Scott's roller-coaster baritone but Karen puts extra measures of pain and bewilderment into the song, finally climaxing in something not far away from a shout: "CAN'T WE STOP? GOTTA STOP!"

And so the record stops, save but to welcome back the opening theme and the song where it all, effectively, began for the Carpenters - and, again, it was a song with a history dating back to 1963 - and it still sounds immaculate and felt, so much so that you don't realise that, far from being a happy ending, she doesn't have him; "Just like me, they long to be...close to you." Her contralto is as lost as ever but the musical cushion is impeccable; Richard's harpsichord, barely perceptible underneath the piano, Chuck Findley's cheeky Herb Alpert tribute in the break, above all the oceanic "Waaaaaaaah!" which feels like the singer's head emerging above water for the first time, having scuttled underwater, searching for she knows not what, and feeling the warmth of the sun (you see the Beach Boys subtext sneaking in there again?) - the song is about breathing in fresh air for the first time, the Girl in the Bubble breaking out and connecting with the world. Or so she hopes. Happiness is as uncatchable a horizon as ever (and we'll be getting back to that horizon) but you know that she is intently thinking about these songs, even as she sings them - and what are the two of them really thinking? I sense the Carpenters' key work as a kind of numbed, shellshocked reaction to something that has been lost - and in the world of Watergate in particular, we feel, underneath the layers of smoothness, a rumble; perhaps even a buried rage, on the part of a people who felt that those who were supposed to govern them and watch over them had just packed up and left with their money. SMiLE - which the Carpenters can't not have heard - may yet prove the other end of this telescope.

Sunday 2 October 2011

Perry COMO: And I Love You So

(#138: 26 January 1974, 1 week)

Track listing: And I Love You So/Killing Me Softly With Her Song/For The Good Times/Aubrey/Sing/I Want To Give (Ahora Que Soy Libre)/Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree/I Thought About You/It All Seems To Fall Into Line/I Believe In Music

Though recorded in Nashville and produced by Chet Atkins, who also provides excellent lead guitar throughout, this isn't really a country album, but there are indications that someone was trying to do something interesting with, or exploit otherwise hidden emotions in, Como. It isn't quite Perry Sings The Great Hits Of Today, although the song choices are for the most part not obvious or hackneyed, and I have to be careful not to claim this to be an MoR equivalent of Grievous Angel. However, the seeming lack of adventure and surfeit of contentment in Como are both superficial and misleading factors, and this collection for the most part finds him, of the surviving great Italian-American balladeers, far more comfortable with the then-present than Dean Martin (who by now had almost given up on recording, essaying a reticent collection of twenties and thirties songs which Reprise couldn't find it in themselves to put out until 1978), Sinatra (on the comeback trail with Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back, now with a sardonic and resentful roughness in his voice which often led to an unwholesome sense of superiority in his performance, the winning vulnerability now almost entirely absent) or Tony Bennett (who indeed in 1970 did record a collection entitled Tony Sings The Great Hits Of Today! under pressure from CBS, from which he almost immediately recoiled and returned to jazz).

Part of the clue as to why this should happen may lie with one of the two arrangers engaged on the record; respected Nashville veteran Cam Mullins orchestrated four of the selections (including the title track), but the remaining six were done under the direction of Bergen White. The latter was by this time well into an illustrious Nashville career, but had (also in 1970) recorded the extraordinary collection For Women Only (for contemporaneous developments in American avant-MoR, see also records such as Van Dyke Parks' Song Cycle, Richard Harris and Jimmy Webb's The Yard Went On Forever, Randy Newman's 12 Songs, Lou Christie's Paint America Love, early Nilsson passim, etc.) featuring elaborate internal dialogues between voice and orchestra such as "Let Me Stay Awhile" and "If It's Not Asking Too Much," even venturing into murder ballad territory with "The Bird Song." The experiment was not repeated, but much of its emotion must have stayed with White; compare, for instance, For Women Only's treatment of David Gates' song "Gone Again" with Como's reading of Gates' "Aubrey" here; in both performances, the strings (and in Como's case the flute) do not quite let the singer rest, rather compel the singer to dig deeper into his possibly self-inflicted grief. This Como does - with some inevitable reminders of Scott Walker - with subtle aplomb; note how each verse climaxes in a vaguely despondent, wordless hum. "Aubrey," first heard on Bread's Guitar Man album in 1972, is a complex song, worrying around the notion of a lost, or perhaps non-existent, love, and Como approaches its self-questioning with considerable emotional restraint; his resigned coupling of "moon" with "but where was June?," his slow emphasis on the "came" of "It never came around."

This was bold territory in which to place Como, and it is possible that his absolute, unshakable but relaxed command and self-confidence perhaps work against the record's effectiveness, but this should be placed against the attempts of White and Mullins to coax him gently out of his comfort zone. In this setting one has to imagine Como with suicidal ideations, or having just come out of prison, or engaging in one-night stands, or being a shit, and since none of these is imaginable in Como's case - you cannot even picture him stealing an apple from the grocer's box aged four - the record does sometimes lend itself towards hotel lobby blandness, and in one case worse; White's "Tie A Yellow Ribbon" is an exhausted miscalculation, as though both singer and arranger realised that nothing could be done with this song, thus the reversions to cliche (the Terry And June flute and muted trumpet unisons) and the absence of destination in a song about travelling back home; the crucial "whole damn bus is cheering" is rendered as merely another stop on the endless treadmill, there is no "I'm coming home" fadeout - the bus merely vanishes into the distance.

But most of the record deserves better attention. It bore two major hit singles in the UK - the title track remained in our charts for nine months, and "For The Good Times" for just over six - on the crest of a considerable revival of interest in Como's work, but neither performance is exactly reassuring. The Don McLean-penned title track, for instance, appears to purr contently on its bed of marimbas, but the song is about someone with a dark past, who has known hell and despondency, and is quietly liberated about having life and love returned to him. But Como needs to display no exhibitions of outward ecstasy; his central emphasis on the line "I'm happy that you do" expresses the hardest of won peaces. Likewise, the Kris Kristofferson song had previously been a US country number one in 1971 for Ray Price, who sings this sequel to "Help Me Make It Through The Night" with slightly bemused anxiety (he knows he's being a cad but is trying to cover it up), whereas Como approaches the extended, elegiac farewell to his temporary lover with the same rich exhaustion as the Nixon of Watergate ("...and make believe you love me one more time/For the good times") - a slow, awkwardly stately retreat from a gaze which may be from his lover, or from the uncomprehending world.

In between these twin peaks, one notes the ingenuity of following up a Don McLean song with a song written about Don McLean. White's one-note strings and backing vocals introduction begins promisingly enough, but Como cannot get comfortable with the song, and at many points one suspects that he is singing more of himself than of any muse (for instance, his "I felt all...embarrassed by the crowd"). In addition, his changes of emphasis in the choruses, where the "with her song" and "with her words" do not exist independently, and rhetorically, of the "killing me softly" but rather roll on regardless, dilutes the performance's emotion. Yet he remains capable of altering his mood with near-imperceptible subtleties, for example when he casually runs " all my dark despair" into the slight smile of "like I wasn't there." The cymbal which regularly and threateningly hisses, like a strayed snake, throughout the performance also suggests emotional imbalance. All in all, side one is a surprisingly turbulent (in its slowly burning manners) emotional ride, and by the time Como reaches the ebullient "Sing" with its encouragement of good over bad and happy over sad, he finds himself unable to shake off the residual sadness.

Emotions arguably magnify in the record's second half; "I Want To Give" (arranged by Mullins) may be the keynote performance. Here Como finally lets it come out (as far as he was diplomatically able to do so); his "I beg of you to listen to my heart," his plea "to make a world that cannot fall apart," complete with the Hollywood motion picture ending, suggests a tired God singing (his repeated, and increasingly desperate, "if you'd just let me"s). Thereafter he falls back into reserved mode; "I Thought About You" is not the song on Songs For Swingin' Lovers but moves Como into the unlikely arena of funk-lite, complete with a fuzzed guitar solo (possibly the closest Como ever came to rock), over which Como sings such thoughts as "Once I even thought of dyin'..."; his final "Most of alllll...IiiiiiiIII thought" is shaky and trembling; is he prepared to crack that mirror? Not quite, as it turns out; "It All Seems To Fall Into Line" is a middle-aged variant on "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" and throughout the song Como patiently annotates the gradual stages of decline and collapse in the relationship with a suppressed sob which only really becomes palpable in his delivery of the song's final two lines.

Still, it is important to end each side on an attempted high, and it is significant that the album is programmed such that each side ends with a restatement of the transformative power of music in itself; Como approaches Mac Davis' "I Believe In Music" with genuine enthusiasm, over snappy electric guitar and strings (and eventually handclaps). He sings of something like salvation ("Find out what it really means to be young, rich and free!") and takes the record out on a relative high. And that is what must have appealed to its audience (the album stayed on our lists for over two years and, in a manner entirely compatible with Como's smart casual approach, slowly climbed up the chart for six months before topping it) - life then was tough and unhappy, and people were despairing, or simply bored, but the message was simple and far from plain; believe in music, agree that music is oxygen, and we'll all get by somehow. There are worse sentiments for a popular record to convey.