Sunday 29 April 2012


(#167: 10 April 1976, 2 weeks; 1 May 1976, 1 week)

Track listing: Sugar Mountain/Good Behaviour/Stairway/Daddy/Lamplight/The Road/Glenn Miller Is Missing/Biba Nova/Talking Pictures/Hot Neon/Roller Coaster/Rock Follies

“I know what it's like not to be able to do what you want to do, 'cause when I go home that's what I see. It's no fun. It's no joke. I see my sister and her husband. They're living the lives of my parents in a certain kind of way. They got kids, they're working hard. They're just real nice, real soulful people. These are people you can see something in their eyes. It's really something. I know a lot of people back there..." The picture looms vivid in his mind, so does what can only be described as his mission. "That's why my album, a big part of it, is the way it is. It's about people that are living the lives of their parents, working two jobs... It's also about a certain thing where they don't give up. I asked my sister, 'What do you do for fun?' 'I don't have any fun,' she says. She wasn't kidding... I'm just really thinking about a whole lot of things.”
(Robert Duncan, “Lawdamercy, Springsteen Saves!,” Creem, October 1978)

“The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—Is this all?"
(Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, WW Norton and Co, 1963, Chapter 1)

“Rock was experienced as a new sort of sexual articulation by women as well as men. The music was, in Sheila Rowbotham’s words, ‘like a great release after all those super-consolation ballads.’ Rock, writes Karen Durbin, ‘provided me and a lot of women with a channel for saying ‘want,’ and for asserting our sexuality without apologies and without having to pretty up every passion with the traditionally ‘feminine’ desire for true love and marriage, and that was a useful step towards liberation.’ At a time when girls were still being encouraged from all directions to interpret their sexuality in terms of romance, to give priority to notions of love and commitment, rock performers like the Rolling Stones were exhilarating because of their anti-romanticism, their concern for ‘the dark side of passion,’ their interest in sex as power and feeling. But the problem quickly became a different one: not whether rock stars were sexist, but whether women could enter their discourse, appropriate their music, without having to become ‘one of the boys.’”
(Simon Frith, Sound Affects: Youth, Leisure And The Politics Of Rock ‘N’ Roll. London: Constable and Company Ltd, 1983, Chapter 10: “Rock And Sexuality”)

There have not been too many journeys into the musical in this tale since The Sound Of Music. In fact, with the exception of 25% of the That’ll Be The Day soundtrack, there has been none since 1965. There have been plenty of musicals in the interim, of course: Fiddler On The Roof, Oliver!, Hair, Tommy, Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, Cabaret, The Rocky Horror Show (and Escalator Over The Hill) to name but a few. None of the accompanying albums made it to number one in Britain since there was greater competition than there had been in the pre-Beatles days. Rock Follies is not without its own history - Julie Covington appeared in the original casts of the UK premieres of Godspell and (as the female lead) Rocky Horror - but it is fair to say that there has been nothing like it before in Then Play Long, and no clear precedents in the 166 number one albums which preceded it.

Its radicalism remains startling – for this is one of the most radical albums ever to top the chart. In 1975, expatriate New York writer Howard Schuman was commissioned by Thames Television to come up with a series about a three-piece girl group – to be called, with much deliberate irony, The Little Ladies – and their sundry travails while trying to make it through the murky streams of the music business. Note that there were in the mid-seventies television executives with enough vision and imagination to commission a work of this nature. There was no “demand” on the part of the public for a series of this type, just as there were no focus group calls for The Prisoner or Boys From The Blackstuff or Father Ted. While it is somewhat overdoing it to cite the show as a direct precedent to Dennis Potter’s musical dramas, as happens in the Wikipedia entry – Potter’s use of music in Pennies From Heaven onwards comes from an entirely different aesthetic and historical viewpoint, and was in any case something Potter had been working towards for some time (since 1969’s tale of fatal Al Bowlly obsession Moonlight On The Highway) – its story remains an engrossing one; an initial six-episode series, shot on minimum budget directly to video, with careful balances of grim reality and dream fantasy and a decidedly pessimistic, if not contemptuous, view of the music business in general and of men in particular. The three lead female characters are constantly pitted against egotistical con artists and swines, all of whom are men; there is not one sympathetic male character to be found anywhere. The fusion of song and story was not yet complete; long, combative dialogues were the programme’s mainstay, although the sought fusion was more closely and clearly realised in the following year’s sequel Rock Follies Of ‘77. But other things had happened by then, and many of them are anticipated in this record.

Throughout one or two mutual friends, Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay was asked to write the music for the series, and for Schuman’s lyrics in particular; with Roxy about to go on an extended sabbatical after Siren, this was the perfect opportunity for Mackay to develop what he had learned from and in that group. Mackay was also charged with putting a house band together for the series and the songs; as lead guitarist and occasional string arranger, a wild card was enlisted – Ray Russell.

Russell’s story is one of the most singular in the admittedly singular-centred history of post-Beatles British music. Today, in his mid-sixties, he is recognised as a world-class guitarist, having worked with just about everybody worth working with, a highly-respected music educationist and tutor, and a renowned television composer; his credits include A Touch Of Frost and The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries amongst many others. But in the years preceding his work on Rock Follies the story was rather different. Some of his work from this period was briefly made available on CD at the turn of the millennium; 1969’s Dragon Hill is mostly a record of bracing, straight-ahead jazz-bordering-on-rock workouts with a quartet and occasional horn section. But on its final track, “Mandala,” Russell moves into free improvising territory with a ferocity that is still in some ways intimidating. Inevitably, this indicated the direction in which he would move; 1971’s Rites And Rituals, probably his best album of the period, is an exhausting yet oddly poignant blast of post-Ascension modal catharsis; Russell and his rhythm section seem to want to eradicate “rhythm” entirely, shrieking and rumbling against the horns’ counterpoint of mournful klezmer melodies. His Live At The ICA set from the same period, involving amongst others Harry Beckett and Gary Windo, gives new definition to the term “uncompromising.” Add to this his tormented work on Bill Fay’s Time Of The Last Persecution and the unhinged out-ness of his Rock Workshop project (some of which involved his erstwhile West End Hair pit band colleague Alex Harvey) and it’s clear that Russell was shaping up as Islington’s own Sonny Sharrock. He did time in a prog-rock band called Mouse. Beckett hired him for his otherwise airy, laid back group Joy Unlimited, and initially Russell was anything but; listening to 1975’s live Ogun set Memories Of Bacares, he scratches, snaps and squeals throughout, like a paranoid jaguar, and Brian Miller’s demented electric piano at times almost outdoes Russell (see for instance “Can’t Think About Now”).

But then something happened. Listen to the third Joy Unlimited album, 1978’s Got It Made, and the playing of Russell, the only other musician retained from Bacares, is a model of restraint and close melodic attention. Since then he has moved steadily away from being merely The Noisy One, and although I would not wish to speculate here about reasons for this change, or transition, Rock Follies may well have been a turning point for him; a lot of the record’s tension relies on his barely-coiled guitar playing – although he never plays “out” as such on Rock Follies, the listener does get the feeling that he’s barely suppressing the urge; for instance, the downward high-pitched babble which accompanies Covington’s “nappies” on “Good Behaviour” or the abrupt way in which his guitar snarl shuts down the end of the title track. Peter van Hooke, the record’s drummer, would become a regular musical partner of Russell’s; both, for example, resurface seven years later on Scott Walker’s Climate Of Hunter.

But then the record is all about suppressed tension, the need to escape the living death of mundanity, and above all expressing the woman’s point of view to a degree not previously seen on Then Play Long (despite, or possibly because of, the words being written by an American male). That Covington’s is the best of the three voices was a deliberate choice; the original premise was that her character (Dee Rhoades – see “The Road” formulating out of that already?) was the only trained singer of the trio. Q, played by the then-unknown Rula Lenska, was a lapsed chanteuse, while Anna Wynd, played by Charlotte Cornwell (the half-sister of John le CarrĂ©), was a slightly pompous Shakespearean actress. The three bump into each other at an audition for a crappy play, and although they don’t get the parts, and don’t particularly get on well to begin with, they agree to come together and form a group. They tour, and find that, although the life is dank and joyless, the buzz they get from appearing on stage, however bad the venue or the audience, is, they feel, more than worth it.

There was in-depth examination of the girls breaking away from their fairly dull lives, families and friends, and then it got a little silly; a sneaky impresario signs them up as an Andrews Sisters tribute act and they do their best to get out of the situation, but nothing is resolved until the theatre in which they plan to perform a WW2 salute is blown up by a bomb, and they are free to be themselves again. Perhaps the world of early 1976 demanded such ready and prophetic anarchy.

Still, some thirty-six years later – the series has never been rerun on terrestrial British television, though is readily available, as is its sequel, on DVD – it is the music that needs to stand up, and stand up it does. One of the most remarkable things about the record is that its Island Records packaging is surprisingly contemporary; look at the deep blue inner sleeve, complete with pictures and lyrics, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was 1979, or 1981. Nothing on the record sounds like 1976; much of it, indeed, sounds like 1978 has already happened.

“Sugar Mountain,” with van Hooke’s stern four-bang gavel of a drum intro, is I suspect closely and sardonically based on “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” and along with the remarkably pre-emptive jerky New Wave of “Good Behaviour,” demonstrates that the beginning of the record more or less tells us how the girls are going to go about the record, and hence their career; “Sugar Mountain” is an already world-weary treatise on ambition, where the group plans to go, whereas “Good Behaviour” describes what they’re getting away from; annoying kids, alcoholic three-fucks-a-year husband, but note the empty lift shaft of echo which answers every “hey hey hey” – to be followed by a moderately ironic cry of “I’m free again.”

“Stairway” is, I think, the record’s key song; the group have already made up their minds to take the risk, to try to make their music work. Will they escape or get stuck in quicksand? “Stairway – is it iron and marble/Rococo gilt stairway/Or rotting old pine and jerry built?” The music is a nice halfway house between meditative “Past, Present And Future”-era Shangri-La’s (the out-of-tempo verses) and jaded Shirelles (the choruses). They end the song by climbing the stairway, singing about it as though going to their execution.

The lyrics to “Daddy” are not printed on the sleeve, and although the track itself is a brisk two-minute rocker, its sentiments again appear central, not least the demonstrative repeats of “I want to be a WOMAN” and “A WOMAN wants a MAN.” But this is still far away from what the teenage Runaways would unleash a couple of months hence; the Little Ladies never let you forget that they are adults, and British adults at that.

The last two tracks on side one are relatively restrained. “Lamplight” – not the David Essex song – is a very touching and stark ballad about the absence of love and light whose 1971 folk tinges recall the younger Covington of “Winter Kept Us Warm” vintage; her husband hardly talks to her, makes love to her with the light out so he can’t see her, while her one night stand keeps the light on but disappears, leaving only “two grey hairs on the pillowcase.” In both cases she ends up crying, while Mackay’s technical skills lead the song through sundry trapdoors of harmonic modulation before a cradle of saxophones provides some scant comfort. Side one finishes with “The Road,” which pitilessly describes the gruelling slog of touring, and having to play before three drunks at the Cambridge Geology Disco – and yet somehow they feel it’s worth it, for “those incredible gigs” where “every cell is electrified.” The “energy rise” expressed here – the song varies between mid-tempo ballad and rock ‘n’ roll rave-up, with Russell and Mackay trading some fours – made Lena think of Courtney Love; although barely eleven when this came out, and almost certainly entirely unaware of the show, there is a similar dedication – both Love and the song are very vocal at expressing what it is like to be a female performer, what a woman gets out of being on stage (“There’s a buzz/Shakes the nicotine in your chest”). This, it is implied, is why any musician goes out and lives this kind of life; more importantly, it suggests that women both could and should be doing it too.

Side two is more angular and emotionally unexpected. Given that this album coincided with the Glenn Miller “revival,” “Glenn Miller Is Missing” couldn’t have been more timely; it is a desolate number with distant soprano sax and tinkling electric piano suggesting, of all things, the work of the ECM record label. There is no joy or nostalgia to be gained from trying to bring the music, and therefore the musician, back again; as the song makes clear, such a desire verges on necrophilia (“But the music/Lies dead/Like a ghost/In my head/He’s still missing”). The song disappears with the ethereal sigh, “Why do I feel so old?” There is deep sorrow and deeper trouble, and reviving something from three-plus decades ago isn’t going to help anybody. As they see it.

“Biba Nova” plays a similar game with the past, and were it not for the rock section of the song (“We’re all gonna live forever”), we might as well be listening to Saint Etienne; sparky, spacey bossa nova backdrop, words about silent ghostly limousines taking them to spent Chelsea nightclubs, even a violin solo (performed by one Robin Williams; I don’t think it’s that one). “It’s after four/The stars won’t wait/She’s feeling faint/He’s feeling fate/They dream of 1968 and Biba Nova,” sung in a breathy proto-Sarah Cracknell voice, succeeded by a mournful trudge of an ending (“Biba Nova/It’s all over”). The implication this side is making is that we remain in the past at our peril, perhaps even at the cost of our own lives.

“Talking Pictures” is a jaunty rock shuffle, Mackay’s sax stutters very predictive of Madness, and a broad forties parody with words which wouldn’t be out of place on the second Throbbing Gristle album (“A tiny bit of tit,” “A modern Goldilocks who is raped by a bear – YEAH!”). The introduction to “Hot Neon” – Russell and van Hooke – invents future Island recording artists U2. The vocals are bending, warping, undulating, swoon on the title, as the Greek Street view is gradually revealed as a prison. The middle eight is reasonably raunchy, but Covington’s howl of “GO!” on the second “It won’t let her GO!” sounds desperate as the track builds up to its big finish. Still, the relative absence of gravity in the track, and much of the vocal delivery, put me in mind of early Kate Bush.

The brief “Roller Coaster” is the track with the most obvious debt to Roxy, with its Eno-ish synth burps, its onomatopoeically unstoppable, rapid rush and another preview of stop-start New Wave mores. As the girls shriek “And we’re sure we’re gonna die tonight” the track cuts off immediately, as though snipped with a carving knife.

The album ends with the title track and theme tune; beginning with the “Be My Baby” drumbeat played as though at a funeral, accompanied by a terrible, distant guitar drone. Strings dazedly wander in and out of the mix as the singers spit out a fusillade of vitriol which could easily have been delivered by John Lydon, with the song’s talk of “plastic haunted smiles” and “men willing power” (not to mention “the publishers and wankers”). The song heads towards apocalypse as thousands cram into the metaphorical theatre (“The stage begins to crumble/It cannot hold them all”) and we remember the origin of the term “Follies,” from the French word for madness. The strings take precedence towards the end, as the chorus line of ambition is revealed as a concentration camp queue, and, as I said near the beginning, are finally yanked into non-existence by Russell’s grumbling guitar.

As potentially furtive and pointless the push, however, the record leaves no doubt that the need to push ahead is predominant. A generation ahead of the Spice Girls, Rock Follies looks at its own background and circumstances and finds just about everything wanting. This was an argument sufficiently powerful in its time to pull in 20 million viewers and release a soundtrack album which even managed to keep Wings At The Speed Of Sound at number two. And in many ways it could not be followed. As I said above, there followed Rock Follies Of ‘77 which periodically involved a fourth Little Lady – one Sue Jones-Davies – and even produced a top ten single (“OK”; “You want to do me/But I don’t want/To be done/OK?”). But the run was fraught with problems; a technicians’ strike at Thames meant that the second half of the second series didn’t run until November 1977, a full six months after the first half. Momentum was lost and the soundtrack album only managed a five-week chart stay, peaking at #13. However, as already intimated, by then irreversible changes had happened; maybe its time had been and gone. As a direct result of her performance in the first series, Covington was approached by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice with a view to taking the female lead in the album recording of Evita! (their first choice Elkie Brooks having declined the offer). Her recording of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” made number one in early 1977 and sold just a few copies short of a million; at the time the biggest-selling single by a solo British female artist (and the record would stand for some years afterwards). So by the time Rock Follies Of ‘77 convened, she was already a bigger star than Lenska and Cornwell, although in the end all three returned to full-time acting. But those changes I mentioned? They had happened in music and in other areas of British life. None of this, however, alters my perspective, which is that, although in common with much other music of this period, Rock Follies knows that something is about to happen, that something must happen, even if it doesn’t quite yet know what form it will take. The difference is that Rock Follies looks and plays as though punk had already happened; although its schemata inevitably radiates more of the West End stage show than rock ‘n’ roll as such, the music and outlook are ahead of their time and the implications are felt even today – the need for “the problem with no name” to be solved, the realisation that life is about more than just surviving, and above all a clarion call for the voices of women to be heard, on their own terms and on their own behalf. A more engaging year, this 1976, than I suspect some might have initially suspected.