Sunday 27 November 2011

Mike OLDFIELD: Tubular Bells

(#146: 5 October 1974, 1 week)

Track listing: Tubular Bells {Part One}/Tubular Bells {Part Two}

Although many observers find it easier to consider Tubular Bells the first New Age number one album, particularly given the involvement of an actual New Age pioneer, Tom Newman, as co-engineer, it is truer to consider it the most popular offshoot of an important and under-celebrated British counterculture. Robert Wyatt summed it up best in his remarks in an Invisible Jukebox feature in the December 1995 edition of The Wire, concerning the meeting point between progressive rock and experimental jazz at the turn of the sixties:

“The connection is very simple – Keith Tippett’s personality. A West Country bloke with a great big heart and completely unlike the Old Boy Network jazz mafia that was the London scene at the time. He had all barriers down, listened to everybody, open-minded, never put anybody down, and one of his things was to get all these different musicians from different genres together – particularly the South African exiles. He would get together these bands and get us into them and then we’d meet each other. So really you could put a lot of that down to one man.”

Tippett had much the same effect on the London scene as another teenager, Kevin Drew, would have on the moribund Toronto indie scene of the nineties; he saw the possibilities, ignored the limitations and set about persuading everybody with whom he came into contact that it would be a great idea if everybody worked and developed together. And so networks developed, and thanks to astute middlemen like Joe Boyd and John Cale, these spread to the States, this time via open-minded musicians such as Dave Holland, Jack Bruce and John McLaughlin.

What I am trying to convey here is that this period – for argument’s sake call it 1968-76 – was one of the healthiest, liveliest and most creative periods for British music, and one I am truly sorry to have been too young to live through properly. In 1970 my father took me to the Lyceum theatre in Drury Lane to see Centipede, the enormous band that Tippett put together, containing all his mates, or as many of them as he could cram onto one stage, and to say it was a formative experience is putting it far too mildly; from what I saw, heard and felt – and this would be reinforced, not just by the subsequent double album that Centipede did (Septober Energy), but also by my subsequent discovery of Carla Bley and Paul Haines’ not entirely unrelated Escalator Over The Hill - I knew that this was what I wanted from music, a true melting pot where everybody played together, regardless of genre or outside demands, where everything linked to everything else, singular pieces in a gigantic familial jigsaw puzzle.

Talk to any of the great musicians who were active at the time and are still with us – and over forty years of informal chat and note-taking with the majority of these players have provided me with much important information, which I still intend to process into book form as time and opportunity allow (as this generation is now in its sixties and seventies, and over the last few years its members have begun to pass away in earnest, it is doubly essential that this information is retained) – and they will all tell you the same story; nobody made any money out of their music, there was a constant battle with funding bodies and oppressive State radio, but the creativity stakes were never higher, the barriers never lower.

Centipede consisted of fifty or so musicians (fifty-five on the album, frequently more onstage) from all walks of musical life; rock was represented by King Crimson, Soft Machine, Patto/Timebox and the Blossom Toes, jazz by representatives from the aforementioned South African exiles (Blue Notes/Brotherhood of Breath) as well as regulars from the Westbrook/Gibbs/Collier bands, the occasional loose Canterbury cannon, old associates from Bristol whose connection with Tippett went back to the Beat Boom days, and a score of young classical graduates from the Royal College of Music. Septober Energy was a bold attempt to make this musical collision work, and was almost immediately savaged by the critics; indeed, Tom Callaghan’s sleevenote to the Beat Goes On CD reissue a dozen or so years ago appears almost to dissuade the casual browser from purchasing, so hard does he find it to summon up any enthusiasm for the music. Yet the intervening decades, and Tippett’s steady progress as a musician and band organiser, prove it to have been undervalued; the music is deceptively simple (as opposed to simplistic), largely based on slowly-evolving drones, chants and riffs over which anything from serpentine jazz-rock via Berio-esque classical abstraction and demented Irish jigs to “wa-hey” freeform freakouts is superimposed. Its cumulative power is crepuscular but immense, and the fourth side – a reworking of “Green And Orange Night Park” from the Dedicated To You, But You Weren’t Listening album – remains one of the most imposing and affecting sides of music to appear on any British record; as Elton Dean undertakes his marathon saxello solo, chants and riffs begin to build up behind and around him in a rough “Hey Jude”-type fashion before they finally engulf the solo voice and the music breaks down, or rises up, into a mass collective improvisation, miraculously held together by the iron grip of three drummers (one of whom, Wyatt, pounds merrily on his unmistakeable kit in the centre of the mix). Although not quite carrying the same impact as a concert performance – one of the saxophonists told me that the sequence in question had to be taped at ten in the morning, not the best time of the day for improvisers – the effect is mesmerising and empowering. You come out the other end thinking that anything is, and should be, possible.

If you’re wondering why I’m spending so much time talking about Centipede and Septober Energy it is because it was one of the main inspirations for Tubular Bells. This is not immediately apparent on listening; the other main influence, Terry Riley’s A Rainbow In Curved Air, is far more palpable. But the teenage Oldfield, already giving a history of folk-rock (Sallyangie, Barefoot) and toe-dipping into avant-improv-prog-pop via his membership of Kevin Ayers’ Whole World, came out of the same background and carried the same enthusiasm for adventure. Even at eighteen his invention is evident; he negotiates the treacherous slaloms of Ayers’ 1971 Shooting At The Moon, in the company of the likes of David Bedford and Lol Coxhill, with great skill and acuity; his talking bass on “May I?” already marks him out as somebody to watch. Although Ayers developed the Whole World specifically to explore further the mechanics of the pop song (which he felt that Soft Machine had somehow lost), his group is strong enough to move from song to free and back without much prompting and with a great deal of empathy.

But Oldfield wanted to develop his own music, and with some encouragement and material help from Ayers and others, he set about laying down the basic demos for Tubular Bells. Were there other influences? Apart from those stated above, yes, but it is unlikely that Philip Glass or Steve Reich (neither of whom was widely known in early seventies Britain, although Glass’ records began to be issued on Virgin in the UK shortly after Bells’ success) would have counted, let alone Bo Hansson’s oft-cited Music Inspired By Lord Of The Rings; since the latter, although available in Sweden since 1970, did not gain a British release until September 1972, by which time the main body of Tubular Bells was essentially complete (and in any case sounds much more like the Pink Floyd of Obscured By Clouds than anything by Oldfield).

Work on the piece continued fitfully, mostly in the room in Ayers’ then-home in Tottenham which Oldfield rented out, by clever manipulation of a reel-to-reel tape recorder which allowed instant overdubbing and “bouncing” of individual parts. Over this period he undertook other work to pay the rent, not only with Ayers but also as a part of the original line-up of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band (Harvey also secured Oldfield a day job as co-guitarist in the West End production of Hair). Despite all this, he remained anxious about his music’s prospects; most established record companies showed him the door, and it was only when nascent indie record shop/label proprietor Richard Branson floated the idea of Virgin Records that the prospect of releasing the music became a possibility. Engineers/talent scouts Newman and Simon Hepworth heard Oldfield’s demos, were knocked out and passed them on to Branson, who was likewise bowled over and offered Oldfield a contract and studio time to help knock the music into releasable shape (little change needed to be made to the original demos, which constituted “Part One,” while “Part Two” was composed and realised in the studio).

Released in May 1973, the record gathered enthusiastic notices, mostly of the kind which welcomed the kind of experimental rock which didn’t need to be dissonant or loud to proclaim its radicalism (which is not to decry, as many ignorant writers have since done, the important loud and dissonant work that was done in this period and write it off as “musical Marxism” – as if that were a bad thing). John Peel was so taken by the record that he spun it in full on his Radio 1 show, which in turn helped propel it into the lower reaches of the album chart; word of mouth, and particularly a BBC2 performance of “Part One" in November 1973, helped raise its popularity gradually. A concert at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall was also organised (much to the chagrin of the then-shy Oldfield, who took much persuading to participate), involving the likes of Steve Hillage, Fred Frith and Mick Taylor, filling out the record’s many guitar parts. Eventually William Friedkin heard the record and incorporated some of its main theme into the score for The Exorcist; although in truth there is little of the demonic about Bells, the gesture worked and the record went global. By the time the record eventually climbed to number one here, some seventeen months after its release, it was as established a part of the post-Beatles rock canon as Dark Side Of The Moon.

So what is there in the record to attract the careful or carefree listener now? It remained on the UK chart for a cumulative total of 279 weeks and sold in excess of 2.5 million copies in Britain alone. Clearly this sort of achievement is not attained without some level of “comfort,” even if the record in itself is often far from “comfortable.” Although Bells sounds almost nothing like Septober, the latter’s influence is measurable in different ways – the reliance on the gradual development and building up of different themes, the rather delightful naivety of its construction (there are many “bum” notes, but these add to the charm, unlike the well-intentioned 2003 note-for-note remake, which loses in spirit what it gains in technical accomplishment), the encyclopaedic embrace that it is the music’s intention to offer.

The music is so familiar that a section-by-section breakdown is, I feel, of little use; I do note, however, that Part One in itself offers a modest flick-through history of post-1955 British rock. Developing its two major themes, one despairingly minor and the other hopefully major, the music moves through discreet but distinct emotional peaks and troughs, from delicate single-note post-Jansch acoustic figures to mass electric thrashes. Within the intervening passages there is much reference to the Blues Boom, and Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac in particular, and a reddening sadness which never quite disappears despite such interventions as the Nasal Choir and accompanying pub piano. Eventually, just as the music is about to climb to a peak, it is cut off by bells, as though someone, or something, has died.

Out of the silence emerges a solo acoustic guitar (eventually joined by the ever-present Lowrey organ) which picks out a “Scarborough Fair”-type melody. This soon becomes brooding, however, and an angry crescendo is again abruptly stopped by a nautical line (“What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor”?) which turns into a long riff section sounding like Mayall’s Bluesbreakers playing with caps on their amplifiers so as not to awaken the neighbours. After a while the guitars and basses are joined by the voice of Vivian Stanshall, announcing the myriad instruments which will make up the fugal section. Inspired by, and hired because of, his work on the Bonzos’ “The Intro And The Outro,” Stanshall’s delivery works because it is done absolutely straightfaced and with tangible delight (contrast with the regrettably hammy contribution of John Cleese to the 2003 remake; he thinks he’s Basil Fawlty reincarnate, whereas Stanshall is funny because he stands stock still and makes no effort to be “funny”). The excitement builds up, and by the time of Stanshall’s awestruck “Plus – tubular BELLS!,” catharsis is released. The undertow disappears, wordless Stygian voices make the boat float, have raised the Titanic, and the music fades away to a calm sea of acoustic guitar, as though Oldfield had been in the folk club all the time, practising, the soundscapes only in his head.

Part Two is inevitably something of an afterthought, but works too in its own way; much of it is perceptibly a series of seascapes, quiet acoustic meditations conjuring up an introspective skipper, out on the ocean, gazing non-specifically at the horizon. But in the second of this sequence’s two themes there comes a heartbreaking move from minor key to major, as if to say; yes, it’s simple, but that doesn’t make it any less meaningful. Eventually high voices and rippling electric guitar begin to create waves and eddies around the music; this leads to a solemn, timpani-led, Gaelic-derived melody which steadily builds to a climax (with live timpani acting as the bassline); dissonance finally introduces itself to the picture, and a rushing “Day In The Life”-style escalation is stopped in its tracks by…

…Captain Beefheart? Well, it’s the “Piltdown Man” section, where in Oldfield has much fun grunting, growling and screaming (if such things can be described as “fun”; the screams in particular exceed those on Lennon’s “Mother”) over Steve Broughton’s drums (hence it’s a sort of “Out Demons Out” variant, though complete with bizarre touches, such as the country-and-western hoedown which appears out of nowhere midway through). Is it a parody of post-Percy cock-rock (is even Oldfield joining in the seasonal sport of outstoning the Stones?) or a continuation of “I Am The Walrus”’ joke-obscuring anguish?

Suddenly the sequence is over and we return to soft guitars, mandolins, harmonium and organ drone, improvising on the previous Celtic melody; gradually all of the instruments drop out of tempo and begin to issue seagull-like cries or oceanic ripples (here is where the Durutti Column begins). Once again the pacific Lowrey organ leads the final minor-to-major move and all settles down in a satisfactory, dying coda…or does it?

The final sequence gives the game away, and it’s a bit like having a custard pie shoved in one’s face; yes, all that you have been hearing have been clever variations on…”The Sailor’s Hornpipe”! Very classical (Elgar, Walton, Vaughan Williams) in nature, very Lord Berners in its final gesture; the original intention was to have the mix with Stanshall, as proto-Through The Keyhole narrator, chase Oldfield and Newman through The Manor, conclude the disc but it was felt safer to end with a straight reading (both are present on the 2009 Deluxe Edition 2CD set; again there is a cleaned-up 2009 remix by Oldfield himself, and again I have based this piece on the original mix, to be found on CD2). It sends its audience out, slightly baffled but oddly moved.

I do believe that the success of Tubular Bells was the definitive gesture in recognising the importance of the culture which enabled it to happen; the number of impressionable teenagers hearing this and being influenced – especially since, at nineteen going on twenty, this was a record made by somebody almost exactly their age – must be incalculable; in itself it marks the beginning of DIY indie rock – this is almost certainly the first record in this tale to be primarily conceived and performed by one person, the partial exception of Band On The Run notwithstanding. But I imagine a whole galaxy of impressionable young Brits – be they Kate Bush or Jim Kerr – hearing this and delving further, including into the other titles that Virgin was able to make possible throughout the period as a result of the record’s success; records by Henry Cow, Comus, Faust, Wyatt, Hatfield and the North, and, as a result of gaining the UK rights to the JCOA catalogue, Escalator Over The Hill itself. Certainly Bells was the record which inspired me to dig deeper into the above, and beyond; I can’t imagine anybody of the period not being affected or changed by it in some way, whether directly or indirectly. It presaged a New Age, all right, and it’s not Oldfield’s fault that the definition of that changed, or was made to change; this initial trilogy climaxed in 1975’s Ommadawn (which, since it didn’t make number one, won’t be addressed directly here) with some of Oldfield’s angriest and most pained guitar playing and writing, and an emotional climax involving the members of South African exile splinter group Jabula which is as eloquent a requiem for Mongezi Feza as Blue Notes For Mongezi. He moved on to other things – and there is much to consider in comparing the double 1978 releases from Oldfield and Tippett, Incantations and Frames respectively – but once you come up as part of a mutually dependent culture, it stays, I think, with you, and in you, for life.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Mike OLDFIELD: Hergest Ridge


(#145: 14 September 1974, 3 weeks) 


Track listing: Hergest Ridge (Part One)/Hergest Ridge (Part Two) 


Author's Note: The history of different mixes of Hergest Ridge is a complex one. Dissatisfied with the original LP mix, Oldfield remixed the album in quadrophonic sound for the 1976 Boxed set. This mix became the basis of all subsequent LP, cassette and CD pressings until the 2010 Deluxe Edition release, which includes two more remixes by Oldfield - and the main 2010 Stereo Mix is also a rather drastic edit, since over two minutes of material are lost from the original. Happily the original 1974 mix is included on CD2, and since this represents the record which people bought and made possible its inclusion in this tale, I have based my assessment on it. 


Before I get going, I should point out that I have not missed out an album; such are the whims and vicissitudes of the album chart that sometimes, not only does the follow-up to a hugely popular album get to number one where the original mostly does not, but that the follow-up can beat the original to the top. In this instance Mike Oldfield monopolised the top of the chart for the best part of a month; I pondered long and hard about whether I should have done this as a double with Tubular Bells, but on reflection the "reversed" order makes some critical perspectives possible which otherwise might not have been conceived.


Not to mention emotional ones. My father bought this album on the day of its release, and I had already been familiar with it for over a week, since it was premiered, in full, on Sounds Interesting, a late Sunday night Radio 3 programme which occupied roughly the same ground Late Junction does now, compiled and presented by the late Derek Jewell. A strange character, Jewell; middle-aged, and already a distinguished jazz and pre-rock popular music correspondent for The Sunday Times for a good two decades, he developed something of a taste for post-Beatles progressive rock and persuaded Radio 3 to run this chink in its classical armour. Essentially an Ellington and Sinatra man - he wrote more than one book about each - he also used the programme to air contemporary jazz and free improvisation releases, as well as some contemporary classical. Eventually punk came along, to which he reacted like a disappointed headmaster, and prior to his death in 1985 he was unfairly reduced to the level of "Derek Dull" caricature. 


To return to the main subject, Hergest Ridge was, as I say, premiered on Radio 3, and my father recorded it on our old Ferguson reel-to-reel tape machine (the spool still exists). Already dazzled by Tubular Bells, I was impressed by this subtle forward move. I listened to Oldfield's work intently for a further two years, following which I got distracted by other music; listening to the album anew this week was the first time I had done so in some thirty-five years, and yet every note and gesture came back to me with immediate familiarity, and not a little emotion.


I should apologise for this extended reverie in my own past, since one of the purposes of this tale is not to get too "personal"; yet the task now becomes more and more difficult since we are firmly into "my time," the period of records fondly loved and memorised at first hand (I have already intimated this to some extent with entries from 1973 onward, but this marks the point where it became, shall we say, more fervent).


And with so personal a record as Hergest Ridge it is almost as impossible to separate the listener from the music as it is to separate Oldfield the young, slightly scared twentysomething prodigy. Oldfield had not expected Tubular Bells to explode as it did, and he became extremely wary of the media attention which the record's success not only warranted but now also demanded. Richard Branson was nagging him to come up with a sequel, but there was, by Oldfield's own admission, almost nothing in reserve.


Never a city person, Oldfield searched for somewhere to live in the countryside, and found a rundown house called "The Beacon" near the Black Mountains, on the Herefordshire-Wales border. Cold, draughty and minimally furnished, the musician set to work converting one of the house's rooms into a studio. In the nearest town (Kington) he made the acquaintance of Leslie Penning, a medieval instrument specialist, and began to work with him and retrieve his muse (it is unclear who is responsible for the uncredited tin whistles and recorders which play the main theme at the beginning and end of "Part One" - possibly it is his brother, Terry Oldfield - but Penning certainly appeared on 1975's Ommadawn). From Kington there is a path, partially straddling Offa's Dyke, which ambles along gently for eight miles or so, eventually taking the walker up to the peak of Hergest Ridge, with its comprehensive, heart-stopping views of the hills of Shropshire and Wales; this provided Oldfield with his main inspiration for the record, although he has admitted that making Hergest Ridge was not an enjoyable experience ("My heart wasn't really into it"). 


Some of this precarious uncertainty certainly flows into the record. Evidently anxious not to present us with Tubular Bells II - that will come eventually, but not right now - Oldfield instead chooses to trace the same compositional structure path with more subtlety and more concentrated variation. The piece begins with a sustained drone over which various rudimentary woodwinds play the first theme (it is a bit like Eno nudging Shirley and Dolly Collins). The theme itself refers back to the climactic theme which closes side one of Bells but the harmonies and arrangement are very different; voices, glockenspiel and vibraharp make themselves evident in sundry corners of the mix before the entry of bass guitar provokes a return to lone mandolin.


The music then works again towards crescendo with military trumpet and snare drum, leading via a modulation to timpani and mild, fuzzed dissonance. A gong gives way to a Lowrey organ bridge, which in turn culminates in the side's second (minor key) theme, played by the oboe of Lindsay Cooper (Comus, Henry Cow, Mike Westbrook Orchestra, etc.). Oldfield's lead guitar superimposes an improvised top line on the basic melody.


A bell - does that ring bells? - leads to another build-up, complete with compressed falsetto voices (sounding like an army of Klaus Nomis). Rather than any outburst of temper, this falls directly into a bass riff, upon which a fugal passage is built with a third melodic theme; this immediately recalls the companion sequence at the end of side one of Bells but is more determined to reach catharsis. A pinprick shift into major key, complete with sleigh bells, introduces a Lowrey organ-dominant melody, highly reminiscent of Robert Wyatt (and I intend to get back to him before the end of this piece).


The theme becomes gradually more animated - exactly where is this leading us to? - and then the gasp, as the air clears, and we suddenly find ourselves (after a suitable rubato bridge) on top of the Ridge, and the staggering, beyond-sublime entry of David Bedford's choir as piano takes over the harmonies from guitar (again, another episode Jeff Lynne must have heard prior to conceiving "Mr Blue Sky"). It is as if pain is being laid to rest, but even here there is little time to pause; the choir suddenly dips down into the original root chord, and the primary melody, and the tin whistles, return briefly before a relatively abrupt fadeout. "Innocence."


If "Part Two" could predictably be entitled "Experience," the music bears this idea out. As with side two of Bells, it begins in a pastoral, acoustic mood with a gradual, guarded build-up of instruments, before a simple, poignant theme is developed (the similarity of many of these melodies to late period Beatles should not be unremarked upon - Picardy third specialists will have much to enjoy here). This is improvised upon by Spanish and electric guitar solos; the harmonies spiral endlessly upwards before mandolins re-enter to state the side's second theme. A short crescendo bursts into the picture before the music dies down again.


There is a return to the original theme (on Lowrey organ) but a bed of more anguished electric guitar rises in a recapitulation of the storm threat posited in "Part One." This gives way to a Philip Glass staccato organ loop, joined by a florid flute line (the latter a variation on the storm motif). Then the thunderstorm breaks for real, and thrashing armies of guitars (reputedly overdubbed one thousand times) muscle their way in for a lengthy workout. At least it sounds mostly like guitars, but the mix is subtly altered such that at times keyboards become dominant, and even the guitars themselves are mixed so closely that they virtually become machines. And somewhere in there is the ghost of punk to come, already trying to sneak in through the door.


A high-pitched organ line steadily makes its way upwards through the dense mesh, now turning into a proto-electronica raga. Characteristic of Oldfield, the music immediately drops back down as it hovers on the point of boiling over, and we are again at peace with nature. But his guitar does not sound particularly happy or quiescent; the side's main theme blooms again with the emergence of Bedford's string section. 


Yet this too offers little succour; the music ends on a suspended, restless, discordant, hushed G major seventh. This is the music of a disturbed mind, and as such its point was entirely missed by nearly all of the record's reviewers at the time. I was not able to find it online, but Ian MacDonald led the critical charge with a closely-printed two-page centrespread demolition of the record in NME; I cannot remember too much about the language but the piece's general gist was a rant against this "mentholated Vaughan Williams" (actually, as Lena quite rightly pointed out, there is a quite considerable Russian tinge to much of the music on Hergest Ridge, particularly in its second part, and it is remarkable that the author of The New Shostakovich should have missed this entirely), if not quite a plea for punk to happen.


In retrospect, this can simply be viewed as another example of MacDonald's endless self-projection masquerading as critical commentary (give him something in 1974 that he cared about - On The Beach again; strange how that record keeps turning up here as a reference point - and he transcended the dusty porthole and flew) and I think to miss the anguish and distress at work in this music is to deny vulnerability or multifocal emotionalism in any musician.


Yes, it is "well mannered," like Vaughan Williams, but like Vaughan Williams - and especially like A Pastoral Symphony, a disguised war requiem directly referred to more than once here (especially when the off-stage Margaret Price-esque wordless vocal steals into the concluding picture) - the manners are there to fool the ear. Moreover - and to get back to Robert Wyatt - Hergest Ridge is the more restrained, more concerned (and arguably darker) stepbrother of Rock Bottom (which came out at around the same time, was recorded at the same studio - The Manor - and in which Oldfield plays a small but crucial part); everything here is suggested rather than expressed (the glorious babble of Windo and Feza's horns, Wyatt's own exultation in unashamed nonsense, or should that be supersense?). Unlike Bells there is no humour, hardly any drums, nothing in the way of mischief; all replaced by a deep, consuming concern. The record's lesson, if any? You can go as far away into the back of beyond as you wish, but wherever you end up your demons stay with you. How Oldfield would address this is a story for somebody else to tell; how he got there in the first place I will deal with next.

Sunday 13 November 2011

Paul McCARTNEY and WINGS: Band On The Run

(#144: 27 July 1974, 7 weeks)

Track listing: Band On The Run/Jet/Bluebird/Mrs Vandebilt/Let Me Roll It/Mamunia/No Words/Picasso's Last Words (Drink To Me)/Nineteen Hundred And Eighty Five

Observant readers will have noticed that it has been quite a while since this tale has had anything to do with Beatles band; two-and-a-half years, to be precise, since The Concert For Bangla Desh. And even Band On The Run patiently inched its way up our charts for over seven months before arriving at the top; it wasn’t an overnight success, either critically or commercially. There was little immediate talk of that then newly-minted critical cliché, the Stunning Return To Form; despite the success of “My Love” and “Live And Let Die,” I suspect most followers had resigned themselves to a life of indie Macca whimsy, not that McCartney had demonstrated any evidence of a plan or tactic in his post-Beatles life. Not that he needed to, either; wasn’t he, of all people (and especially, of all Beatles?) perfectly entitled to do as he wished? If Ram showed a contented man slightly disappointed with the outside world, and particularly with other Beatles, then he continued to drift without evident aim or bitterness; purposely odd singles (“Give Ireland Back To The Irish,” “Mary Had A Little Lamb”) and albums (Wild Life, Red Rose Speedway) which presented themselves as placid proto-blogposts, as opposed to the incensed and increasingly inward-turning proto-blogposts of Some Time In New York City and Mind Games. Meanwhile George wandered dolefully down his own road (Living In The Material World) and Ringo made the most likeable of all these records (Ringo, the only solo Beatle album to involve all four, though not on the same track). The Beatles had done their work and were dutifully ambling down their own duty-free paths. Did it matter if fewer and fewer people listened?

But something about Band On The Run burned slowly into people’s ears and they realised that, in the absence of a twelfth Beatles studio album, this would more than do. Moreover, it became clear that this was the boldest attempt by any Beatle to break free of their past, and in particular the sixties. Look at the cover of Sgt Pepper again; everyone from Huxley to Dylan, against a shining blue sky; then cut to the cover of Band On The Run, taken late at night up against a (stable) wall in Osterley Park, that rootless part of west London which isn’t quite Brentford nor quite Isleworth, featuring a ray of light in the centre of a black hole, in which we see a new seventies unlonely, hearty club, full of celebrity chums, whoever Paul and Linda could persuade to come down and participate.

McCartney was acutely aware that this was a tough and dark time, and so the album is mostly about escape in its various forms. Recorded in Lagos, Nigeria, more out of boredom than anything else, and in less than comfortable circumstances professionally glossed over in Paul Gambaccini’s essay which accompanies last year’s deluxe reissue (including a makeshift, half-broken down studio, a mugging at knifepoint which essentially necessitated starting the record again from scratch, protests of imperialism from Fela Kuti), and without Wings’ second guitarist and drummer, both of whom had quit just before the journey to Nigeria was due, Band On The Run is basically a McCartney solo DIY record, Denny Laine contributing discreet rhythm guitar and Linda contributing backing vocals and occasional Leonard Cohen-level keyboards (orchestral overdubs were taken care of in George Martin’s AIR studios upon their return to Britain, as were Howie Casey’s sax parts and Remi Kabaka’s conga part on “Bluebird”).

It is therefore a tribute to McCartney’s resourcefulness under trying (if self-imposed) conditions that Band On The Run succeeds as a “band” record. And, as implied above, it is arguably the first number one album of the seventies by a major sixties artist which physically tries to rid itself of “The Sixties” and position itself in the present. The title track makes it abundantly clear; it begins with a mournful, plodding elegy which could have fallen off the back of Abbey Road’s Long Medley and takes up where “You Never Give Me Your Money” left off; “Stuck inside these four walls/Sent inside for ever,” sings a saddened McCartney; the “if we ever get out of here” section was inspired by a remark George Harrison made at one of the Beatles’ seemingly interminable Apple business meetings.

But then guitars suddenly rev up and a large double orchestral flourish, succeeded by a sunny acoustic guitar, tells us that the wall, the prison, has been broken open, and that its author has fallen, gladly, into the seventies. The mood becomes optimistic, taunting, assured (“We NEVER will be found!” shrieks an ecstatic McCartney); we are out of the sixties straitjacket, ready to live for now. The couplet “Well, the undertaker drew a heavy sigh/Seeing no one else had come” could be a reference to the cover of Abbey Road or even a throwback to “Eleanor Rigby,” but there is no mourning here; it has been replaced by hope.

“Jet” follows immediately thereafter, and despite the lyrical obscurantism (almost certainly intended as throwaway; in Gambaccini’s notes McCartney refers to “Jet” being the name of one of his black Labrador puppies; elsewhere he has referred to a pony of the same name) is by far the most convincing of post-Beatles rockers; McCartney seems ready to push joy to the foreground and drums, piano, guitar, bass and synthesiser all appear more committed, more ravenous, than before (or perhaps since) – he too is ready and able to outrock the Stones, even including a proto-Neu!/Stereolab Moog-led motorik instrumental break (not to mention his onomatopoeic “ssssssss”s at the end of every “Jet.” But his arranging genius remains intact, and unexpected; instead of a blazing rock finale we get a takedown of a coda with Casey’s sax settling atop smooth strings.

“Bluebird” is a natural cousin to 1968’s “Blackbird” and lyrically similarly concerned with freedom, though the freedom here is more personal than political (love will see us through anything, get us anywhere). But the pace here is more relaxed, less intent on proving something, and it is among the most naturally beautiful of McCartney’s post-Beatle ballads, as well as one of the most artful; the strategically stinging cowbell which cuts through the transcendent second half of each chorus warns against complacency. “Mrs Vandebilt” is similarly like a world-weary descendent of “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da,” with its playground chants (the vocal call-and-responses betraying the very subtle influence of Kuti) but not emptied of hope; the song crawls to an exhausted halt after each of McCartney’s weary, exasperated “What’s the use of anything?”s, the “thing” hanging like Damocles’ sword in the bushy silence before McCartney’s shoulder-shrugging to-hell-with-it bass gets the song going again; there is an unsettling bout of maniacal laughter at fadeout.

This is perhaps the first sign that McCartney’s battle to rid himself of both sixties and Beatles may not be as easy as blasting a hole through the prison wall. “Let Me Roll It” introduces the elephant in the Wings sitting room; with a minimalist guitar riff which plays almost like the exact inverse of Clapton’s lines on “Cold Turkey,” with Elvis echo vocals on full blast against skating-rink organ and an “Oh Darling” rhythm, the song, beyond being a response or reproach to the Lennon of “How Do You Sleep?,” sees McCartney actively trying to “be” Lennon. It isn’t Stan Freberg parody level but the song’s generous openness, together with its similarly minimalist message, comes across as an extended open hand to Lennon (although, in getting his Plastic Ono mannerisms so exactly, it could admittedly be interpreted by some as a mockery; I don’t, however, believe that “mockery” has ever existed in McCartney’s working vocabulary).

“Mamunia” works through the Nigerian influences more soberly with its tribal-sounding choruses alternating with straight 4/4 medium-tempo rock verses, and although its sentiments (“The next time you see L.A. rainclouds/Don’t complain it rains for you and me”) never really rise above Guy Mitchell/Mitch Miller level, their delivery is heartfelt. McCartney is even sufficiently moved to issue a triumphant “Whoo-hoo!” after the phrase “Strip off your plastic macs”; still, the spectre of “Penny Lane” is not far removed.

“No Words” contains the album’s real open letter to Lennon; moving with as much assurance as “Happiness Is A Warm Gun,” McCartney addresses his erstwhile partner straight in the eye:

“You say that love is everything
And what we need the most of
I wish you knew, that’s just how true
My love was.”

The key words “NO WORDS FOR MY LOVE” are written in block capitals on the sleeve, so as to make things even more starkly clear, but despite the aggrieved guitar solo which is rapidly faded out at song’s end, there is no malice at work here; rather McCartney demonstrates that emotionally he has not shifted from “The Long And Winding Road” – his closing words “I wish you’d see, it’s only me…I love you” cannot help but touch the heart, and it’s only too bad that Lennon wasn’t more prepared to listen to them.

“Picasso’s Last Words,” written as an impromptu response to a challenge from dining partner Dustin Hoffman to write a song, there and then, about anything, in this case a magazine article describing the last night of Picasso’s life; giving a dinner for friends, he poured out the wine and exclaimed “Drink to me, drink to my health – you know I can’t drink any more.” At the end of the evening he retired to bed, fell asleep and shortly thereafter passed away. Back in the studio, McCartney worked on and expanded this idea into a miniature Long Medley; beginning as an appropriately drunken campfire acoustic singalong, the song then mutates into an ambient sequence, featuring some unattributed French dialogue, before breaking into a slow, stealthy, string-led revisit of “Jet” against tick-tock percussion. The strings enter in greater number for a Philly-style interlude; this in turn leads to a percussive workout (featuring Nigerian resident and studio owner Ginger Baker on tin can and shakers) culminating in a refrain of the “Mrs Vandebilt” chant, now wearing its African influences more readily. Clocking in at a shade under six minutes, it works because of its ease and patience; it is not painting an obituary for a group, but rather saying a graceful and respectfully mischievous farewell to a kinsman (as well as summing up the album itself).

The record ends by straddling no less than three decades (thus Band On The Run can also be properly described as the first “eighties” British number one album). “Nineteen Hundred And Eighty Five” is a wonderful nonsense Little Richard sex chant (or perhaps McCartney is channelling Robert Plant here) set against a varied musical background; a piano riff which anticipates Abba’s “S.O.S.,” a heavier organ/guitar-driven rock sequence and a poignant chorus/organ ballad section which provides the last link to Abbey Road and the sixties before McCartney cuts the thread; again, it sounds like he is fighting a battle, with his own history, with Lennon (note all the primal grunting and squealing leading up to the track’s climax), before whirring synths and portentous “Thus Spake Zarathustra” brass statements combine with strings to work up towards – calamity? Apocalypse? Haven’t we been here before?

A gunshot which seems to echo across the universe, then a long closing chord – E major, the same as “A Day In The Life.”

We’ve escaped. But don’t fall asleep - there's a repeat to fade of "Band On The Run" itself. The moral: we have to keep freeing ourselves over and over. Does this sound in any way familiar?

Sunday 6 November 2011

Elton JOHN: Caribou

(#143: 13 July 1974, 2 weeks)

Track listing: The Bitch Is Back/Pinky/Grimsby/Dixie Lily/Solar Prestige A Gammon/You're So Static/I've Seen The Saucers/Stinker/Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me/Ticking

His first studio album to be recorded outside Europe, Caribou was named after the Caribou Ranch studios in the midst of the Colorado Rockies where it was made, and was literally done on the turn of a dime, in the narrow space allotted to John, Taupin and their band between two mammoth tours where they were still expected to deliver another album, as per their original questionable contract. If much of the record sounds rushed and on a par with Goodbye Yellow Brick Road: The B-Sides then that is because the songs were written and the basic tracks laid down in the space of nine days before Elton and band headed off for Japan, leaving producer Gus Dudgeon to put them into some sort of order, do guest overdubs, etc. And still John and Taupin were able to produce at least two classics under such hothouse conditions, if indeed some pre-preparation had not already been undertaken.

While Caribou is not entirely dispensable, it is nonetheless a minor work. More problematically it raises the question of whether, in eagerly being all things to all people, Elton was not turning himself into a branded vending machine. You want New Orleans funk? English vaudeville? Cod-French balladry? Country rock? Press a button here, and it will dutifully fill up the cup. Whether any of it gets us any nearer to, or deliberately places us further from, who or what Elton John was in 1974 is another matter.

Caribou is probably best when it's being purposefully silly, and at its worst when it is simply drifting, or trying to be meaningful. I'm not sure how much a seven-minute-plus ballad like "Ticking," an onomatopoeically angry study of a good but emotionally suppressed Catholic boy (but wait, Bernie; what's with the "Grow up straight and true blue"?) who ends up randomly gunning down fourteen customers in a pub in Queens before himself being gunned down by the cops (violent piano arpeggios echoing the "rifle shells"), would have connected with British audiences, and in any case both song and performance are as mirthless and self-righteously solemn as "I Don't Like Mondays." Infinitely preferable is the dumb music hall of "Grimsby" (as with other tracks, much aided by percussionist Ray Cooper's gallery of effects, e.g. the hissing tambourine after "Strangers have found themselves fathers") with straight-faced backing vocals ("The SKINNERS' ARMS") and sudden flashes of guitar, or the deliberately daft "Solar Prestige A Gammon" (into which Taupin still manages to insert five different fishes).

For a lot of the time, though, Caribou cruises, primarily with an ear to the American market; there are ample helpings of the Tower of Power horn section, to occasional good effect; their El Barrio lines do much to make "She's So Static" more than static (along with the song's eventual evolution into a rock tango), and even within the dull blues trudge of "Stinker," Elton is still able to utter a whoop of appreciation after a particularly inventive brass line. Davey Johnstone, too, does characteristically good work on guitar; his gargles on "Static," the way his tremolo touches the "touched" in "Saucers." But "Saucers" itself is boringly "quirky," a sort of anti-sequel to "Rocket Man" where Elton finds himself kidnapped by aliens, or at least dreams about it; and when he sings "flying in formation," even Johnstone cannot do more than provide the stock effects. What does it all mean - and, more pressingly, who would care? "Pinky" is a standard issue Elton ballad which may or may not be about self-pleasure, rescued only by Cooper's rhetorical congas and some Wilsonian harmonies; "Dixie Lily" is amusing solely for the familiar spectre of Englishmen trying to be as one with American folklore.

This leaves the two classic singles, which alone prove that Elton wasn't quite yet an efficient pop machine. "The Bitch Is Back" engages in the then fashionable sport of making better Stones records than the Stones, and through its deliberately tinny transistor production it succeeds; machine gun guitar, tambourine and brass are all on the mark, and the song may itself represent a premature coming out; he doesn't give a fuck, he'll sniff glue and eat steak - though he's stone cold sober - and although he gets an intimation of his own transience ("I entertain by picking brains/Sell my soul/By dropping names") the mood is ebullient, defiant; and the coming out undertow may be amplified by the fact that partially hidden among the backing singers is Dusty Springfield, by then already someone with an eventful past and uncertain present.

But "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me" emerges from the record's faintly pointless bouillabase with a shocking completeness; inspired by "Surf's Up" and bearing a lyric which must have been directed at, or had been intended to be about, the 1974 Brian Wilson, Elton suddenly has to concentrate, and does so with some brilliance - he drops the camp and fake angst and abruptly sounds like a human being again (his desperate "Don't discard me"), while behind him the song builds up with an overarching naturalness (Daryl Dragon, the "Captain" of Captain and Tennille, and an important contributor to the Beach Boys' Carl And The Passions album, was responsible for the arrangement, and Toni Tennille is also on hand among the backing vocalists). Most inspired of all is when the unmistakable voices of Bruce Johnston and Carl Wilson rise like the reddest and most regretful of suns behind Elton's despair; Carl's wordless lines as the chorus reaches its climax are particularly overwhelming and affecting (and having listened to the newly-released SMiLE Sessions collection, probably even more so for this listener) - it is as if something from the promise of the sixties still survives, may yet flourish, if only we could allow it; and this at a time when the seventies were still struggling to free themselves from the apron strings of the sixties. The build-up is epic without being pompous, and if this were indeed conceived within those nine days then its achievement is all the greater, enough to provide a point for the amiable but rather directionless wanderings of the rest of the record. Caribou still did the expected business, both here and in the States; but how much more available could Elton make himself to his audience and yet remain sane and coherent? What was ahead of him but years of work, work, work? The answers, and his responses, were unexpected and often quite contradictory; nonetheless, two terrific singles squeezed out of what was effectively a contractual obligation album are no reason to go crazy, except in ways that are healthy.