Monday 26 December 2011

Engelbert HUMPERDINCK: His Greatest Hits

(#150: 8 February 1975, 3 weeks)

Track listing: Release Me/Quando Quando Quando/Les Bicyclettes De Belsize/Spanish Eyes/Am I That Easy To Forget/There Goes My Everything/A Man Without Love/Another Time, Another Place/Love Me With All Your Heart/The Way It Used To Be/Winter World Of Love/The Last Waltz

There is a famous photograph from 1967 which features Engelbert Humperdinck and Tom Jones, Decca and the year’s golden boys, lounging back, grinning, against their respective Rolls Royces, as if in affable disbelief – how come they haven’t rumbled us yet? Or, more precisely, the Likely Lads of post-Beatles British balladry, or, more floridly (according to the late Billy MacKenzie) “Thunderbirds in pop.”

For a while, to the public, they were inseparable – hanging out together, appearing on each other’s TV shows – and must have seemed like two sides of the same coin. These days, though, I think of Humperdinck as a kind of Pacino to Jones’ de Niro; the two styles need each other but Jones’ persona is the less trustworthy, the more evasive – he is able to scurry under his varying masks of toughness and roughness, stutters and mumbles in his songs, gives the impression he’s always two further corners round the corner than you might find comfortable. Whereas Humperdinck wouldn’t have a heart if he didn’t wear it on his sleeve; he is painfully conscious about setting his own record straight (as a singer) – Jones laughs or hiccups off sorrow and suffering, but Humperdinck thrusts his loneliness in our faces.

And lonely he was fated to be, just like Gene Pitney and George Michael (two other singers whose audiences have not taken well to finding happy – look at the top row of photos on the rear of His Greatest Hits, taken, as with the star shots for Elton John’s Greatest Hits, by Terry O’Neill, and you’d swear it was George circa 1985); it was for a time his oxygen, his lifeline. Never forget that when “Release Me” blasted off from the bottom of the bill at Sunday Night At The London Palladium and into the world, he was already thirty with nearly a decade of failure behind him; sometime nightclub performer, both as singer and saxophonist, he had been laid low for a fatal while by TB, and by the time Gordon Mills proposed the name change from Arnold (“Gerry”) Dorsey he was struggling to support his wife in a cold, bare flat in Hammersmith. This was his last roll of the dice; if “Engelbert” didn’t work, it would be proper job time.

But it did work, and not necessarily in the venerable “you’re too beautiful to suffer” trope of pop idolatry; there was that Anglo-Indian unplaceable exoticism about him – more pronounced than that other Anglo-Indian re-import, Cliff Richard – and the idea that he popped out from nowhere and seemed to come from everywhere provided sufficient allure for the demographic Lena has elsewhere termed “the Housewives of Valium Court”; left alone by their day job husbands to dream of other and better things. In his palpable suffering, he provided a relief projection screen for the pains of his audience.

Not that Humperdinck has ever been a tortured soul, or at least not in ways he has decided to divulge to us; he is generally self-deprecating, amiable, wears “vain” like a Better Badge. When hustled onto a package tour in early ’67 with Hendrix’ Experience and the Walker Brothers he surprisingly bonded with Jimi, who would study his act closely from the wings and to whom the older man would offer tips on how to work an audience. Once he even provided understudy guitar for Humperdinck (“You can’t do this, Jimi! You’re a star!” “Oh don’t worry, I’ll stand behind that curtain and nobody will know it’s me”), who remarked (approvingly) that it was like being backed by three guitars. In more recent times he has happily provided the vocal for “Lesbian Seagull,” and upon discovering Damon Albarn had asked him to participate in Gorillaz’ Plastic Beach and that his management had turned Albarn down flat, an appalled Humperdinck promptly dismissed the team and installed his son as manager.

It’s a remarkable story in many ways, but it’s all the sadder that, despite the Pacino comparison, Humperdinck had for the most part to deal with the equivalent of – Val Guest, or Gerald Thomas. The arrangers who contribute to these twelve songs are none of them awful as such – on the contrary, they include top names of the period such as ex-Joe Meek conspirator Charles Blackwell, Johnny Harris and Mike Vickers – but none seems to have been inspired to provide more than the obvious. Too many of these songs follow an identical formula, with tinkling piano, obligatory key changes for the final verse (to show off Humperdinck’s range) and, worst of all, a horribly obtrusive Light Programme choir who seem intent on pushing the singer towards heaven, or hell, as quickly as possible. You can tell why something like “Am I That Easy To Forget?” didn’t do quite as well as his ’67 trilogy of hits; the Horlicks singers are blocking Humperdinck’s emotional path, the watching-as-she-walks-out-on-me scenario too familiar; the formula was becoming tired.

Those ’67 trilogy of hits, however, the three biggest selling singles of a year which supposedly opposed all that these songs stood for; if anything, quite apart from providing some sort of reassurance to maturing screamers finding Revolver a bit much, these performances solidify and refract their inbuilt misery. “Release Me” was built on the template of Little Esther Phillips’ 1962 version, but holds none of the knowing sass of the impetuous and bored fourteen-year-old girl playing patient emotional table tennis with her backing singers. And just because Phillips’ version is the more “approachable” or “authentic” (in relation to what?) does not necessarily make hers the superior reading. Humperdinck captures his own mounting desperation very effectively, starting low and gradually building up to the point where, when he finally reaches the top C of the final “So,” he can barely balance himself. It is almost like a plea from the future to the past to let it escape, and live, and maybe has more in common with “Strawberry Fields Forever” than it cares to admit. In a nation where no-strings divorce had not yet quite been legalised, this cut through to a lot of disappointed hearts, and the single remained on the chart for well over a year (in part bolstered by its ebullient B-side “Ten Guitars” which latter sadly does not appear on this compilation). At least in “Release Me” he has another (and realer) love to go to, or go off with, but the two follow-ups cut off these escape routes. “There Goes My Everything” is enhanced by John McLaughlin’s imaginative guitar comping but cannot be taken seriously due to a bumptious bass trombone which plods through the arrangement like a doped elephant, let alone the “there goes my only possession” leitmotif (is he waiting for the repo men to come and pick her up?). With “The Last Waltz” there is little left save piano, and echoes (both oddly reminding me of Ultravox’s “Vienna”) and the trail of the song is anyway confusing; in its tenure he appears to meet the girl and finish with her in the space of two minutes. Muscially, too, Les Reed achieves a crafty fusion of new and old; the verses are a competent Bacharach pastiche but the chorus could have come out of Victorian operetta. But it doesn’t seem to presage anything approaching a desirable future.

Even when Humperdinck is “happy” there is always a sting in his wink. “Quando Quando Quando,” one of his most popular tracks (though a surprisingly under-performing single in the UK) and certainly one which I heard in my youth performed by endless Italian wedding bands, does well with Harris’ criss-crossing vertigos of strings and woodwind, but he hasn’t won her yet and it’s debatable whether he will. His “Spanish Eyes” is also less assured (and wobblier on the diction front) than Al Martino’s hit version, and brings out some of the song’s innate absurdities (suddenly they’re in Mexico! Say “si si”!). Still, we recall that in The Good Life, when Paul Eddington’s henpecked executive Jerry is having a rare afternoon off, he stretches himself out on the sofa, pours out some liquor and revels in a Humperdinck album; here is also the man many men of their time wished they could be.

The loneliness, meanwhile, gets worse. If not tackling Les Reed/Barry Mason originals, he’d most often be found reworking translated Italian San Remo weepies. Thus “A Man Without Love” strolls merrily on its ground of sprightly acoustic guitar, French horn, harp and accordion, such that we hardly notice what he’s singing: “I cannot face this world/That’s fallen down on me.” Like David Ruffin in “I Wish It Would Rain,” he cannot even leave his room. He even cites “If You Go Away” (“slowly dying”). “Les Bicyclettes De Belsize,” written by Reed and Mason for a scatty short film about a bloke on his bike and a billboard model who comes to life, tries to breathe carefree but again and again the mourning chords (and muted trumpets) drag it down. “Come the dawn,” concludes Huperdinck, “they are all dead – yes, they’re dead.” We could almost be listening to Scott 3.

1969’s “The Way It Used To Be” is possibly Humperdinck’s most tortured record, in that Mike Vickers’ orchestra and chorus seem to pummel into his head – there he is, out of his room, but he’s in the dark corner of a restaurant, on his own, and everyone and everything else in there seems to be laughing at him, ganging up on him. As with Herman’s Hermits’ contemporaneous “My Sentimental Friend,” he asks the band to strike up an old love song, in the meagre hope that “she” might be passing by and look in, and be changed “even if the words are not so tender.” His mirthless laugh of “Ha!” is bitter, and the song tries very hard not to be “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” (“It’s quite easy to let go/Then the song begins again”). Note the “crowded room” appearing yet again, like a harsh reminder of earlier and better times.

Reed’s arrangement of his and Mason’s “Winter World Of Love” does show some imagination, progressing from the icy “Il Silenzio” trumpet at the beginning to the hearth rug of Home Service strings which end the song, with Humperdinck progressively modifying his “O-ho”s to “Oh no” – but are they really going to stay in their bunker “until summer comes again” (well, it is the end of the sixties)?

As the seventies rolled around the Brtish hits began to dry up, although Humperdinck’s personal popularity did not and, if anything, increased abroad, especially in the States; 1970’s “Love Me With All My Heart,” a variation on “Love Is A Many Splendoured Thing,” did no business in the UK (there is a case for Humperdinck as inventor of X-Factor pop, with those bravura high notes, climactic key changes and choirs). His most interesting record of this period was 1971’s “Another Time, Another Place,” written by Mike Leander and Eddie Seago, which with its whirlybird arrangement is almost the anti-“Quando Quando Quando”; here is perhaps Humperdinck’s greatest torture – he keeps running into his ex no matter where he goes, and it’s always friendly and she’s almost always with somebody else – but the Strictly Come Dancing flourishes of Laurie Holloway’s aptly garish arrangement serve to mask deeper pains (“And I try desperately to hide”). Occasionally he even breaks into proto-Martin Fry mock-exasperation. And again, that word which keeps cropping up through the record, “regret.” Regret for not being hip, for sticking himself in , or to, the past?

But never, unlike Jones, does he do revenge songs. No, his is the epitome of pure romantic suffering; it’s a wonder that Mills didn’t think to rechristen him Heathcliff – it’s that intense and windblown. And that quality was still being clung to by a number of people, enough to get this last-ditch best-of to number one and on the chart for thirty-four weeks (last-ditch in that Humperdinck’s Decca contract was coming to an end, and so Decca took note of what K-Tel, Arcade and Ronco had been doing and advertised the record aggressively on TV; a signifier of a trend set to dominate the top of the album chart for the next fourteen years or so – single-artist retrospectives, and eventually the return of “Various Artists,” all aimed at relatively undiscriminating Woolworth’s buyers). But things were changing; Humperdinck, realising it was all finally rather ridiculous, if admirably so, ensconced himself happily on the Vegas circuit (and went on to score many more hits everywhere except Britain), Barry Manilow was waiting round the corner, and this year of 1975 will end in a quite different place, with another exotically glamorous, reinvented man of uncertain pedigree. But here we start, with the way it used to be, and who would ever think of trading in those Rolls Royces or conspiratorial schoolboy winks?

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Elton JOHN: Greatest Hits

(#149: 23 November 1974, 11 weeks)

Track listing: Your Song/Daniel/Honky Cat/Goodbye Yellow Brick Road/Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting/Rocket Man/Candle In The Wind/Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me/Border Song/Crocodile Rock

(Author’s Note: the above track listing refers to the UK and Australian edition of the album; in the USA and Canada, the non-single “Candle In The Wind” was replaced by “Bennie And The Jets,” and on the 1992 CD edition which has now become standard, both tracks appear)

At some point on the day this album began its second week at number one, Nick Drake died.

He died of an overdose of prescription drugs, almost certainly accidentally, but this didn’t stop the cult of explicable depression rising in popularity in tandem with his posthumous reputation. His death was noted in the music press at the time but not many words were expended on it; in November 1974 hardly anyone had heard him, or even of him, and the NMEs and Street Lifes of the time had bigger ghosts to pursue, the living phantoms of Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson being just two of them. It maybe wasn’t until later in the seventies, or even with the ascent of a new generation in the mid-eighties, that Drake’s life, work and anti-work were pulled into a spotlight of belated golden, with the accompanying romanticisation of untimely death and thwarted beauties that has kept a thousand lesser poets in bread slicings since the days of Chatterton.

What this means is that it’s difficult to listen to Drake’s music without the curse of foreknowledge. The act of dragging oneself back into a period when all of this was new, sort of hip and smart in its internal chat is a difficult one, not helped by the greying elegy offered by Ian MacDonald in The People’s Music, and which I now see was really an extended attempt to excuse MacDonald for whatever awful decisions he might take; the rationalisation of depression, the convenient cloak of the Horrid Modern World (with all those computers; the irony being that, at the time of his death, Drake was looking into training as a computer programmer) – above all, the refusal to face both himself and the inconvenient truth that depression is a thing, a condition, that happens, no matter how firmly you shut yourself off from the world or how courageously you attempt to continue walking in the world with a world of people to support you.

What this is all leading to here is the possibility of the existence of a benign double, an odd doppelganger (emotionally if not physically) who, unlike the depressive, is able to face the world and take it on, a lot of the time against his tightest will. Or perhaps this is simply a disguised self-meditation on whether it’s better to cut yourself off from the world or fight your way back into it, a question you wouldn’t think would require any hesitation in answering, but that presupposes the absence of a darkness.

Back in 1970, when Drake was still in a condition to face the world – up to a point – Joe Boyd hired Elton John to record an album’s worth of songs by other contemporary British songwriters; John was then just beginning to make a name for himself, and Boyd thought that this friendlier approach would be a way of getting unsuspecting listeners into the world of sprites like John and Beverley Martyn, and Drake himself. Elton recorded four Drake songs and his readings take the songs’ furrowed brows and point them some way towards the sun (especially the fatalistic “Saturday Sun”). It didn’t really do Drake any good – largely because, scarred by a misguided season of playing Northern working men’s clubs, he then ran a mile from any live work – but the work indicated that here was someone a little braver than Drake, someone not without his own demons (as even a cursory listen to Empty Sky will confirm) but who was crucially able to laugh them off. There’s a famous Val Wilmer photo of Elton from ’68; it is winter, he is standing warily at the side of a dirt track backed by a few trees, but is wearing a fur coat and a large, fetching hat. You couldn’t imagine Drake making any effort beyond wriggling into his creased jacket. And at the time Elton was just another Denmark Street hustler; with Taupin, he was attempting to churn out off-the-peg bubblegum before being taken under the wing of the two Rogers – Cook and Greenaway – who encouraged the duo to find their own voices and develop them, rather than follow the charts (Cook himself appears as one of many backing vocalists, in addition to Paul Buckmaster’s choir, on “Border Song” along with the likes of Tony Burrows, Lesley Duncan and Madeline Bell - the session singing Premier League, in other words – and one can explain its inclusion on Greatest Hits as a nod to his mentor, as well as a reminder that as a session pianist he had recently appeared on the Hollies’ “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.” It is na├»ve but not unpleasantly so, and you can already tell that he wants to get someplace else; Aretha heard the song and subsequently took it over).

But there are strong reasons why “Your Song” has had a million plays on oldies radio and become a standard and “Northern Sky” has not; imagine, if you can, and I realise it may be almost impossible, that you have never heard this song, this record, before. It made the top ten in both the States and Britain in early 1971, and it’s fair to say that it was quite unlike anything else in those lists, even the seemingly compatible singer-songwriter musings of the likes of Cat Stevens. For one, it buckles at the thought of bedsit-compatible vulnerability; this is a song which knows exactly what it’s doing, which is deconstructing the notion of writing a song, wondering about the purpose and eventual vision of a song, how it can best touch another’s heart even if you can’t remember what colour her eyes are. The hesitation (“Anyway…the thing is…what I really mean…”) is theatrical (since it’s all done with perfect actorly timing) but what it’s trying to express is pretty well worth expressing, even if it is that all this writing and balled-up paper isn’t going to replicate the electricity, the ecstasy, of falling in love or expressing your love for another, it’s better than keeping it all hidden, cradled away from anyone’s vision. It is the overgrown student, still living in his virtual hall of residence, not quite sure of what he wants to do other than he wants to do something and that something is better than nothing, or nothing-ness (I don’t believe Drake ever gets near nothing-ness, not even with “Black-Eyed Dog,” but his music is something you view with a telescope, or listen to with the benefit of twenty years in Oxford behind you for context; come closer and he’ll scratch, just a little, but just enough). Even for a Nick Drake to carry on living, whatever it took, and have no reputation as such beyond his peers, to be another veteran of the circuit, just like Keith Christmas or Howard Werth or John Howard (the latter is the exact missing link between Elton and Drake; hear 1975’s Kid In A Big World for someone wrapped up in himself but inquisitive enough to pierce the parcel’s paper), or be like Bill Fay, shrug your shoulders when the first and second albums don’t sell and return to the day job, fitting in songwriting and music in your spare time.

And “Your Song” is a smart record, too; Barry Morgan’s drumming is a minor masterclass in stoical response to compressed emotional turmoil (his impatient tick-tocking before finally setting off in the second verse) and Buckmaster’s strings don’t overwhelm or drown the singer. Nowhere does he make any mention of being dead, even though (as it would transpire) he had already attempted suicide once. You come back from that, you stay away from it or end up playing hide and seek with it until it (like it did with MacDonald) corners you.

And there is so much trouble in the seemingly benign lanes of Elton’s Greatest Hits, a very cleverly sequenced set of songs (and punchier and crisper than their album equivalents, too; these were clearly taken from the 45 mixes and therefore sound like the intended souped-up pocket transistor), yet also so much good humour. The backbone of “Daniel” is solemn but Elton’s playful semi-yodelling “Spayayayayain” puts me in mind of Steve Bent’s “I’m Going To Spain” (“The factory floor/Presented me/With some tapes of Elton John”). But then there are two differing songs on the same subject; disillusion with the Big City (read: Modern World) and desire to return home, as impossible or impractical as that may now be. So “Goodbye” swoons with its echoed regret, but “Honky Cat” swaggers along in a self-defeating James Garner fashion (“I QUIT those days and my…REDneck ways!”). Actually John’s vocal on “Cat” might be my favourite of his; whooping (those high “New” and “fools”) and regretting nothing in a damn-you way. His piano is enjoyably bombastic, towards the end veering towards Taylor forearm-to-keyboard blocks and Tippett-like runs (never forget where he got the “Elton” from – stalwart Keith Tippett right-hand men Elton Dean and Marc Charig once played with the erstwhile Dwight in Bluesology).

It also characterises an utterly British approach to American music; the Beatles never really grew out of being fans, and neither did Elton, the ultrageek, collector of and keen listener to virtually every record released; and thus both were able to relate very naturally to American audiences. “Yellow Brick Road” for instance clearly takes its lead from The Band in its weary, knowing trudge but in ways which could only have come out of power-cut early seventies Britain. The omniscient approach was also Elton’s greatest weapon; listening to Greatest Hits is akin to having a jukebox in your home, almost machine-like in its affable and infallible versatility. You want supra-Stones rock? There’s the blitzing “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” (“It’s seven o’clock and I wanna ROCK!” Bryan Adams is 14). Sensitive memoria? The original “Candle In The Wind.” A plea for life and a future that Drake could never quite summon enough of himself up to express? “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” complete with Spectorian/Wilsonian tambourine (and, of course, actual Beach Boys in the middleground). There’s the affectionate slug to the shoulder of pop history that is “Crocodile Rock” (Prince is 12). There’s the detail (Nigel Olsson’s shivering triple snare drum flourish in response to John’s “switchblade and a motorbike” in “Saturday Night’s Alright”).

And there may also be the suspicion that this is as good as Elton might get. Add “Bennie” (with its processed audience effects, the bridge between Simone’s “Ain’t Got No – I Got Life” and “Purple Rain” – those PURPLE flashes of synth!) and you effectively have here the entire range of songs on which his reputation has been built. Worldwide it’s still his best-selling album, and while there will be more hits and sidetracks to come (many of which this tale will go on to address) there is in this Greatest Hits the air of a summing-up, the conclusion of a phase, a period. This turned out to be the case; Elton, having been written about four times in two years, now disappears from TPL for almost sixteen years, and, as a new year begins and the 150th entry looms, there begins a bend in the road and the start of a very different set of priorities in our number one albums. But for now, think of Drake dressing up as Marie Antoinette, wowing a Vietnam/Watergate/recession-depressed American public, making out like Jerry Lee Lewis were merely a tougher version of Liberace, and conclude that whatever life throws at you, sometimes, when it matters (and it almost always matters) a custard pie remains the best response. Look at the white stick sitting astride the piano, directly behind Elton on the Terry O’Neill cover; not a crutch, but a walking stick. A guide, rather than an end.

(and in case you're wondering, "Rocket Man" was a #2 single in the UK, and so is mostly for Lena to evaulate and write about, but all I'm going to say at this point is that I can't think of any harsher, more alienating portraits of a deadening "straight world" than this; "zero hour, 9 a.m." is sung as though heading for the gallows, there is the question of whether he really is a rocket man - "I'm not the man they think I am at all" - and the multiple subtexts of "in fact, it's cold as hell" and "I'll be as high as a kite by then," together with Davey Johnstone's guitar lines which swoop and climb like someone else we might know, may suggest what might have happened had Drake invested in a synthesiser and how hard his fall might otherwise might have been.)

Sunday 11 December 2011

Rod STEWART: Smiler

(#148: 19 October 1974, 1 week; 2 November 1974, 1 week)

Track listing: Sweet Little Rock 'N' Roller/Lochinvar/Farewell/Sailor/Bring It On Home To Me-You Send Me/Let Me Be Your Car/(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Man/Dixie Toot/Hard Road/I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face (Instrumental)/Girl From The North Country/Mine For Me

As the game became bigger, so the music diminished. Every Picture was a bunch of guys in a small but happily crowded room, swapping stories and feelings; Dull Moment was a slightly larger group of people in the mouth of a goal, and Smiler is a pub lock-in (the Prince of Wales pub in Holland Park, to be exact). The old faces (and Faces) are back, perhaps with too many new ones added, but there is no disguising that the singer, despite his continued, matey, now faux self-deprecating liner notes, is no longer existing on rice and beans and is a multimillionaire (or soon on his way to becoming one). A certain distance is growing, and along with it comes a similar degree of carelessness, and not the joyous kind.

Smiler was Stewart’s last album for Mercury (and held back for several months because of contractual dispute between Mercury and Warner Brothers), and the last of his “British” albums, and so, despite there being nothing about goodbyes in the packaging, there is definitely a sense of something ending, as in falling to bits rather than careful resolution, not that the latter was what the early seventies Stewart was ever about. Take it on its surface and it’s a fine, drunken fall-about of a record, the kind of louche, fuck-non-giving record which Primal Scream would love to be able to produce (but possess too much self-consciousness and history to do so). But peer a little closer and the exuberance is forced, the juxtapositions of loose playing and ultra-professional backing vocals and horn/string charts too ill-fitting. “Sailor,” for instance, flays like a ship flung between two icebergs; a T Rexy stomp (complete with possibly speeded-up backing vocals) and a barely controlled wind-formed monument of impassibility; pianist Pete Sears gives up keeping up and settles for Taylorish forearms to the upper keyboard, and the whole thing blows itself out into a free passage for tenor, guitar, organ and bass, Stewart meanwhile shouting exuberance, or confused instructions. Few tracks have controlled beginnings or endings; Berry’s “Sweet Little Rock ‘N’ Roller” begins like the end of Pet Sounds, with dog barks, and some noodling improv from Ronnie Wood which eventually unfolds into the song – certainly this track contains the album’s most creative rock playing, with drums and guitars impressively managing to criss-cross and maintain two different tempi at once, vigorous enough to ignore the probability that twenty-nine-year-old Rod is a little too old to be slavering over nineteen-year-old girls any more.

Everybody involved is just trying too hard and becoming exhausted as a result; but then maybe the formula itself was close to exhaustion. “Farewell” tries for the old “Maggie May” magic, complete with Martin Quittenton’s acoustic guitar and Ray Jackson’s mandolin, but the song simply isn’t there and its sentiments standard and banal; despite being a comfortable top ten hit single (#7 in the UK), the song has to my knowledge never been played on radio since. Indeed Dick Powell and Wood’s violin/guitar unisons become uncomfortably jagged towards song’s end and the music degenerates into disorganised busking, perhaps with a hopeful ear to John Cale (but likewise Fear or Helen Of Troy this is not).

The messiness finally becomes oppressive rather than liberating; by inviting all his friends round to the virtual pub, Stewart manages to drown out everything about himself that made him worth our attention. Elton pops up to contribute the rocker “Let Me Be Your Car” – by the sound of it, a Caribou reject – whereupon the record immediately turns into an Elton John record, with Rod reduced to distant backing vocals on his own album. Similarly the front line of Chris Barber’s Jazz Band, absent from TPL for twelve years, comes close to drowning Stewart out on “Dixie Toot.”

Elsewhere the extra voices are intrusive. Vanda and Young’s “Hard Road” – another of the album’s songs on the subject matter of leaving – tries for hangdog laxity but Ray Cooper’s bongos are far too prominent in the mix and Doreen Chanter’s “Sweet Home Alabama” background yelps obscure any intended poignancy or weariness. Like most of the rest of the record, the track thinks it’s outrocking the Stones, but isn’t. His reading of “Girl From The North Country” similarly seems disinterested; whatever closeness he once might have felt is rendered opaque by the over-miked drums, various aircraft/ambient sound effects, overzealous zigzag strings – little wonder that when he reaches the “And I never, never, never, never, never…” section he gives the impression that he wants nothing more than to retire. And the Sam Cooke medley/tribute is a shambles; not even approaching the still shocking, multiphonic, cataclysmic mash-up offered by Cooke onstage in 1963 (see Live At The Harlem Square Club, complete with approving byline by Stewart himself), the music limps into being from a strange, out-of-tempo intro, and again any spontaneity is immediately cancelled out by an absurd Chinese Opera/Radio Clyde string section – Stewart’s chatter and laughter seem pressurised, unreal. Possibly the lowest point is reached by Stewart’s well-meaning but hopeless re-genderisation of Aretha’s “Natural Woman” which is fundamentally wrong in all senses, from syntax to word flow to delivery; there isn’t the sense of shocked self-rediscovery, the justified reclaiming of one’s rights, nothing approaching catharsis (the track instead potters out of the door in an unremarkable fadeout).

The lack of direction persists. Why the harpsichord (or clavinet?) and acoustic guitar interludes? Where is the sense of any human contact with another human being? If all you want is an unregulated blowout, then Smiler is the album for you – the presence of stalwart Andy Newmark and Willie Weeks on “Let Me Be Your Car” once more implies a damn-you Sally Can’t Dance subtext (if Rod were capable of imagining one) – but offers little to touch or retain. The two tracks which stand out, as gum wrappers might stand out in a peat bog, are the closing reading of McCartney’s “Mine For Me” (a Paul-Linda co-write which McCartney himself does not seem ever to have recorded) which, although ostensibly working against the theme of leaving home (it’s all about leaving the “sweet painted ladies” behind and coming back), is set rather gloomily, as gloomily opulent as Ferry at the end of “Sunset” (if less creatively or emotionally expressed); Stewart even essays a couple of McCartney impressions (“Don’tcha know that the woman who love me…”) as a steel band approximates exotica in the background, before signing off with a resigned, knowing “Yeah, yeah, yeah”; and the other is the aforementioned “Dixie Toot,” which at least offers some sense that doing what he is doing is ridiculous (“I might even lose my trousers”); the repeated, diminishing emphases on “a good time” – beginning with the mourning that “It’s been so long since I had a good time” (and listening to Smiler, one can easily agree) and ending with the sod-it-I’m-off-to-heaven reveries of “Let’s have a good time really.” Finally he becomes more bitter, and realising the futility of all of this smoke and mirrors, signs off with a mutter: “I didn’t give a fuck/I had a good time.” Though the package attempts to emulate the feeling of all-mates-together, it is documented fact that by late 1974 the Faces (or what was left of them) hated each other, had grown tired of attempting to carry on making music together (and yet, at their death throes, they reconstituted for one last single, which may be the best thing they ever did: “You Can Make Me Dance, Sing, Or Anything…”), and that, equally tired of 93% top-rate income tax, Stewart was looking for a way out. Or perhaps just somewhere where he could be more easily heard – like in the old days, when all he had to worry about was whether to have one bar on the electric fire switched on, or both. Before, as the cover of Smiler suggests, he became another wee hairy Highlander, mocking the tourists.

Sunday 4 December 2011


(#147: 12 October 1974, 1 week; 26 October 1974, 1 week; 9 November 1974, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Shang A Lang/Give It To Me Now/Angel Angel/Be My Baby/Just A Little Love/Remember (Sha La La La)/Saturday Night/Ain’t It Strange/Please Stay/Jenny Gotta Dance/There Goes My Baby/Summerlove Sensation

Two of the things which British pop may have lost forever to its impoverishment, aside from its sense of humour, are (a) excitable sleevenotes which manage to get the names of band members wrong (“Lesley Richard McKeown,” “Derek Longmuir…[‘s] brother Ian”) and (b) band questionnaires. No one now, not even N-Dubz, would risk losing their supposed cool answering straightforward Q&As, but the sleeve of Rollin’ has them; Eric Faulkner’s likes include “Lively Audiences” and “Alan’s Singing,” Alan Longmuir’s favourite musicians are the Carpenters, Led Zeppelin and Yes, and Woody Wood’s favourite TV shows are Top Of The Pops and Cartoon Cavalcade (Glen Michael is still around, but whither Paladin the lamp now?). The overall impression; five young, unpretentious Edinburgh lads wanting to please their audiences and themselves.

For a while, they pulled it off. The Rollers are TPL’s first wholly Scottish act, and for a time I wondered whether their first album would mark the point where the seventies finally begin, free of history. Not so easy, of course; both cover versions here are from the sixties, and the hits hark back even further. Indeed the Saxons, the Edinburgh beat group from which the Rollers arose, were in operation from the late sixties onwards; a random pin in a map brought the name change, and the recruitment of singer Nobby Clark brought minor success. They managed a top ten single in 1971 with their curiously-produced and arranged (by Jonathan King and Johnny Arthey respectively) cover of the Gentrys’ “Keep On Dancin’” and then failed to find a satisfactory follow-up. Numerous personnel changes ensued, and finally reliable (if then slightly naff) hitmakers Bill Martin and Phil Coulter were recruited to get them another hit. The first take of “Saturday Night” was unlucky not to make the Top 50, and after recording “Remember,” Clark became disillusioned and quit. Les McKeown, whose slight air of “one of these men is not like the others” worked to the group’s overall advantage, came in as replacement lead singer. In the meantime “Remember” took off and gave them a second top ten hit, but the versions featured on Rollin’ include hurriedly re-recorded McKeown vocals (unfortunately the Clark originals do not appear on the CD issue for comparison purposes).

The follow-up, “Shang A Lang,” hooked the cloakroom girls’ younger sisters, though. Easing up on the Spectorian echo, Martin and Coulter distilled the sound down to straight Glitterbeat thud with slashing guitar power chords, flowery piano triplets and buoyant harmony vocals (complete, on the singles, with a strange, strangulated voice which comes in at chorus fadeout to add a rough top harmony). The subject matter, as with the song’s successor “Summerlove Sensation,” could properly be described as saudade, nostalgia for a time Martin and Coulter might have remembered first hand but which the band and its followers almost certainly could not; the “blue suede shoes” and “doobie doo-way” of the fifties. The overall effect is something like a greyly optimistic spin on “Beach Baby” (and take it from this Glaswegian; the summer of 1974 was a bit of a washout) but the effect was insistent, and simple, and to a lot of working-class girls rather more fun than Jon Anderson or Mike Oldfield; suddenly they could dress up again, scream again, project their fantasies (the Osmonds had recently occupied the top two slots of the UK singles chart, but this was their last flourish betraying a fairly rapid decline in popularity; and furthermore the Rollers were here rather than in Salt Lake City). Pop, in the interregnum provoked by the decline of glam, was unexpectedly back.

All three singles (and “Saturday Night” to which I’ll return) are present here, in more or less their correct places, but as ever, the real fascination in Rollin’ is seeing what else they could get up to. The singles apart, there are three other Martin/Coulter compositions, the aforementioned two covers, and four band originals. The use of tympani on the singles and their suspiciously clean production may suggest the use of outside session musicians, but I think it safe to assume that everything else here is the work of the band themselves. The covers are not without their respective interests; their “Be My Baby” cannot hope to match the braised majesty of the Ronettes, as they clearly must have known, but there are some nice unexpected touches to the arrangement including a piano line lifted directly from John Cale’s “Paris 1919,” Derek Longmuir’s little tribute to Ringo’s solo on “The End” and the disturbingly solemn organ which appears in the track’s final moments. “Please Stay,” originally recorded by the Drifters, is best known here for the 1966 version by the Cryin’ Shames, almost Joe Meek’s last testament and a considerably bigger hit in Scotland and northern England than in the rest of Britain, and the echoes of ancient Edinburgh dancehalls are unmissable; McKeown, though, sings the song like a frightened auditionee, and listening to the song stumbling over itself and the many missed high notes and miscues (complete with a brief “talking” section) is rather like witnessing a Scottish male equivalent of the Shaggs, a feeling reinforced by the engaging shambling of “Jenny Gotta Dance” with its Max Wall drum hook, its echoing semi-swagger looking a year ahead to Hello’s “New York Groove” and its general air of proto-C86 indie (it shares its “angel”/”devil” divination with the group’s own “Angel Angel,” a standard rock ballad underscored by some surprisingly savage guitar chording from Faulkner).

Actually, they prove themselves capable of rather better than that, even in the unintentionally hilarious “There Goes My Baby” (their composition, not the Drifters hit) with its lyrical lift from Charlie Rich’s contemporaneous “The Most Beautiful Girl” and McKeown’s priceless Broomhouse talkover (“MA babeh…”), since the track climaxes, while we’re not looking, with a speedy conga and drums break which begs to be sampled. In terms of outstoning the Stones, the Rollers do not exactly set out to rock here, but amazingly they (with Martin and Coulter’s help) come up with a sort of Junior Choice version of “Midnight Rambler”; the playground blues strut of “Give It To Me Now” is quite unexpected in the deceptively reassuring wake of “Shang A Lang” (as I’m sure was Martin and Coulter’s intention). There are some good hissing coils of percussion; Derek’s drums rhetorically slow down and speed up, Faulkner does a fair Mick Taylor, and McKeown, bless him, does his best (he sounds most sated in the unlikely phrase: “Ah yes indeed”) even with words such as “Shim-sham-sham-a-ram/Baby I’m a ram” to negotiate.

Moreover, on their two self-penned acoustic forays, the Rollers find themselves a potentially promising direction; both “Just A Little Love” and “Ain’t It Strange” are thoroughly agreeable CSNY/America-type canters; indeed it is hard to listen to the arching bass, delicate conga counterpoint and tremulous lead vocal of “Just A Little Love” and not think of Belle and Sebastian; had this been a Mellow Candle B-side from 1970 I am sure it would long since have enjoyed a hallowed reputation (and Johnnie Walker might have played it). Likewise, “Ain’t It Strange” is a more than decent Rod Stewart pastiche, together with a violin solo from Faulkner himself, meandering mandolin (also Faulkner), a doorbell ringing at the sight of the word “doorbell”; Stewart could have done worse than cover the song himself.

Rollin’, finally, is the sound of a band trying to find their own voice while having to contend with the inconvenience of being the next Beatles (or T Rex, or David Cassidy, or…). “Saturday Night,” however, is rather more than that; a polished-up mix eventually went to number one on Billboard (in time for Christmas 1975) but this “original” take (i.e. with McKeown’s vocal rather than Clark’s) is really not that different, apart from bearing a punchier, tougher mix; the chants and accompanying descending guitar chords are irresistible, McKeown’s accent (“date,” “wait”) completely charming, the power pop organ considerably ahead of its time, the cobbled-together lyric (“the good ol’ rock and roll roadshow” indeed!) falling into perfect place. And in its dynamics and confidence of attack, it’s easy to see how this managed to inspire the Ramones and the younger Cobain and Love (and there’s a good dollop of G Glitter influence too, “Leader Of The Gang” most notably); here, kids, is a way out. What’s Les McKeown’s ambition? “To go to the moon.” Who could deny such bonnie chutzpah?