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 naïve 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?

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.

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?