Sunday 27 May 2012

The BEACH BOYS: 20 Golden Greats

(#171: 24 July 1976, 10 weeks)

Track listing: Surfin’ U.S.A./Fun, Fun, Fun/I Get Around/Don’t Worry Baby/Little Deuce Coupe/When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)/Help Me Rhonda/California Girls/Barbara-Ann/Sloop John B/You’re So Good To Me/God Only Knows/Wouldn’t It Be Nice/Good Vibrations/Then I Kissed Her/Heroes And Villains/Darlin’/Do It Again/I Can Hear Music/Break Away

“Southern California has the sweetest and highest life style developed by the race. Its surface manifestations – riding in open cars, surfing, being in the sun, making love and watching tv – can be deceptive and puzzling, like Stonehenge and the Aztec temples. Pacific American civilization is a startling synthesis of opposites – sad rootlessness and loving homeyness, crazy speed and narcotic calm, ugly plastic and the orange sun – the wise mindlessness of extreme America.”
(Lilian Roxon, Rock Encyclopedia, New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1969, from her entry on the Beach Boys)

“’That summer was such an extraordinary event,’ says Sophie Richmond. ‘I was out of the country a lot but as soon as you got halfway down Scotland, you noticed. Aberdeen was really lush, and then after that everything was brown. And it seemed that everything was getting out of control on a larger scale.’ As the heatwave intensified, drought conditions prevailed; by late August, columns of smoke from small fires dotted the landscape like warning beacons. When the weather broke in early September, the apocalyptic mood did not.”
(Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock, London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1991, chapter 17, regarding the summer of 1976)

“All those movies, hundreds a year for fifty years, with only seven or so story structures in all of them. I can see through the window the street lamp on the corner saying Bedford Falls is safe and civilized. And there is the light in my window that anyone passing by might call tranquil home life, or anxiety’s tireless friction.

I write by night.”
(David Thomson, Suspects, London: Secker & Warburg, 1985)

So gold, so great, so bright and optimistic – that is, provided you’re not awake at 4:48 in the morning thinking about the darkness. A British summer so hot that it verged on meltdown, and this was the record, the music, we felt fitted the time best. But note the record’s unusual rapidity and continuing changes in focus; a record that begins with a man wanting to embrace the world and the world to embrace him, calling out loud for a sharing of his passions, his culture, and ends, six years and just over fifty-one minutes later, with the same man lying in his bed, hearing voices in his head. Is this really the sunshine of music, or one of the grimmest horror stories in pop?

Sometimes it’s nicer to think of the manifesto starting with “If everybody had a notion” when we really know it’s “If everybody had an ocean,” but the British wing of EMI had a notion in 1976; flushed with their successful re-marketing of the Beatles’ back catalogue earlier that year – did half a dozen old Beatles discs in the Top 40 signify a mark of respect or cultural starvation? – and aware of the continuing success of compilation albums from K-Tel, Arcade and Ronco, the company decided to launch its own television advertising division with a view to producing a series of basic compilations – the Golden Greats series - and promoting them aggressively in order to invigorate underperforming artist back catalogues. This was also the “EMTV” series, and the Beach Boys’ album – catalogue number: EMTV 1 – was the test run. The tracks appeared without contextualising sleeve notes and, in many cases, including the Beach Boys, without photographs of the artists themselves. Some tracks were faded early in order to cram them all in – the version of “Do It Again” here, for instance, is minus the SMiLE “Workshop” run-out groove – but, sensing a wider audience who wanted the hits and only the hits, the formula worked; with one exception, the first ten EMTV releases were all marketed as Golden Greats, and eight of the ten made number one over the next two years. Why fuck with the formula, as someone else might have said?

The Beach Boys had already hit number one for a week in the States in October 1974 with a double album of early cuts, Endless Summer, which overnight revived the band’s fortunes (and ensured they remained in demand as an oldies act); in the wake of Watergate and other misdemeanours, one can understand the appeal that pictures of a younger, less complicated life presented to a generation of disillusioned American baby boomers. 20 Golden Greats, however, ran through the sixties gamut of their music (as both compilations came out on the Capitol label, only their sixties material could be included) and is so swift and brutal a summation of the group’s travails through that decade that it’s a wonder that anyone considered it an ideal soundtrack for their outdoor barbecue or seaside picnic. Side two of the record is disturbing enough to make its listeners forget about the barbecue.

But there are important differences in how Americans and Europeans react to the Beach Boys’ music, and much of the Americans’ passion for their early work derives from the wider world it promised. There is this thing in America’s history and ethic about progress, moving on, crossing more and newer frontiers, about setting out – since one of the purposes of that original boat at Plymouth Rock was to set out – about going as far as you can. And what happens when you reach Southern California, which is as far as any American can go, and look out onto the endless, placid blueness of the Pacific? Do people even realise how gigantic and encompassing that stretch of water is? But if you come from there and grow up there, you quickly realise that it’s always going to be there; a reminder of how far you’ve come but also of how far you can go.

The Beach Boys, when they first set out, were about nothing if they weren’t about setting out. They grew up in Hawthorne, west of downtown Los Angeles, a place not quite on the seashore but close enough to know that the infinite water is there. And this family of Beach Boys – do not forget that we are essentially dealing with a flesh and blood family here – choose to love the ocean, want to drive down there, eat and drink there, maybe even surf there (and as every schoolboy knows, only one of them could surf; also the only one of them to die at sea). And they want these good times – contrary to popular belief, Southern California is not endless sunshine; there are dreary times of cloud and rain like anywhere else – and finally they want everybody else to know how good their times are; to extend the mission, to show the world just what is so good about America and its spirit. The story of the group and its members has been told so many times that regurgitation here is redundant, but whatever else you think about the relationship between Brian Wilson and Mike Love – and I’ll have more to say about that later – think of the two boys, back then, over half a century ago, crouching in Brian’s Nash Rambler at dead of night, listening to Johnny Otis’ show on KFOX radio, because – well, because they just have to.

For a while, when they started out, the Beach Boys nailed it. We are now exactly twenty years down the line from Songs For Swingin’ Lovers - a record which shares a label and studio with some of the Beach Boys’ work – and it would seem that in the interim so much has happened yet so little has fundamentally changed. And maybe the Wilsons looked back on that, and Brian in particular to Gershwin, Foster and others, but what they managed to pull off with their early work was a quietly artful assimilation of differing strands of American music – the cool, disciplined harmonies of the Hi-Los and Four Freshmen, the angelic swagger of doo wop (particularly its youth wing in the form of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers), the breezy bustle of Chuck Berry – which in its way rivals that of The Band in its ambitions towards a definitive all-American music (see also the overlapping lead vocals which remained a Beach Boys characteristic). We look at Terry Pastor’s cover artwork – Pastor being a British artist best known for designing the covers of Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust - and, provided we don’t look too closely at its faceless artifice, the image is all the music needs, even if you forgo straight-down-the-line celebration; think of the Lonely Surfer as a variant of The Band’s “worried man,” forever on the move, wondering why he can’t or won’t settle down, secretly worried that these waves might ultimately eat him up.

So what to say here, except that the key track might be the very first. Was there ever a pop record which bundled along with so much animated promise as “Surfin’ U.S.A.”? I note, in the bicentennial summer of 1976, just how much “Surfin’” and “Fun, Fun, Fun” sound like the Ramones (you only have to listen to “Rockaway Beach” for the umbilical link); indeed, had Brian rechanneled his art-statement mind to that same initial happy spirit, and more importantly if he had remained in a position to do so, he might have come up with the Ramones himself. Pop art minimalism? If nothing else – and that does not imply that there is nothing else – the best of the early Beach Boys work points out just how crazy all of mainstream America’s schemes were at this time; the arms race, the space race, Camelot – somehow, the Beach Boys both made this stuff look as silly as it was, and yet celebrated it for its very silliness. What is “Surfin’ U.S.A.” – apart from a “Sweet Little Sixteen” cop, for which Chuck Berry subsequently won a co-composer credit – if not a message to the world about what America could be like? The eager guitar (Carl Wilson? David Marks? Tommy Tedesco?) munching up the beat like one of those new lawn mower gadgets, the heartwarming openness of the “Inside, outside U.S.A.” backing vocals, the namechecks for all the country’s best surf locations. Look, the song seems to say, this is what we stand for, this is what we can give you, as the world. Don’t, it winks, you want to be us (or “U.S.”)?

“Fun, Fun, Fun” is the same, except it takes “Johnny B Goode” as its lead rather than “Sixteen” and makes a pretty unavoidable equation between cars and sex (it’s clear from the guitar break alone what the grounded girl wants to do). “Little Deuce Coupe” goes one step further with its obsessing over the car as phallic object, and I don’t think the teenage Springsteen missed this as a flag-up. But note the reverb which swoops like the most elegant yet inexplicable of waves over the end of the “There’s one more thing” section; already we get the feeling that this is not enough in itself.

The whole thing came to a head with “I Get Around,” the only pre-1966 Beach Boys single to make the UK top ten (others did reasonably well in Britain, but there was limited scope for Deuce Coupes in a land of Robin Reliants). With a very subtle wave to the mood of “La Bamba,” Mike Love’s vocal is distinctly more frustrated than previously (“I’m gettin’ bugged drivin’ up and down the same old strip”) and Brian’s music seems to share this frustration with its minimalist guitar, rumbling Johnny and the Hurricanes organ, and above all the far more complex web of vocal harmonies. The track wants to move on.

“Don’t Worry Baby” was “I Get Around”’s B-side here, and the single as a whole was rated so highly in Britain that the NME placed it, as an unofficial double A-side, in fourth position in its 1976 writers’ Top 100 Singles poll (when this poll was redone in 1987, the single did not even place in the Top 150, although this reflects certain aesthetic battles at work in the paper at the time). Of course the JFK era had already come to its abrupt end, and it’s not exaggeration to say it left a scar in the group that never really healed – not just “The Warmth Of The Sun,” but think about that “Brother John” sleeping in “Surf’s Up.”

But “Don’t Worry Baby” went further than the group had previously envisaged. Taking some inspiration from the Four Seasons (did you catch the “walk like an ace” backing vocals in “Fun, Fun, Fun” and think instantly of “Walk Like A Man”?) as well as from their easy listening/doo wop predecessors, Hal Blaine sets up the “Be My Baby” beat for Brian to sing of – well, continuing subjective inadequacy, but then the song is about, of all things, a drag race. He’s been shooting his mouth off about how good is car is and someone’s called him in on it; he frets about losing face or possibly even losing his life (“Tell Laura I Love Her”) but the important thing is “she” is there, reassuring him, comforting him, and it is only when you delve into the song’s more remote crevices that you realise that he feels like this all the time. Meanwhile, the lead guitar is minimalist, and there is a transitional chord from chorus to verse which harmonically has no precedent in Beach Boys singles.

Even from here there was no way back. “When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)” introduces block chords and unresolved sevenths so severely that you wonder whether its composer is trying to compensate for the possibility that he might not grow up. The harpsichord is new, and the whole, particularly its vocal harmonies, points the way towards the Monkees. “It won’t last forever/It’s kind of sad” warns Love as the track fades. “Assessment of “Help Me Rhonda” is not helped by the fact that the version included here is not the 45 cut, but the Today album track with its tambourine, ukulele and stereo scans (and minus the single’s crucial guitar and piano breaks). Still, the determination in the performance is fairly fervid, the drums are variegated in approach and the whole suggests a halfway house between Spector and Motown. Their version of “Then I Kissed Her,” though rushed out as a stopgap single in ’67 by Capitol in Britain, partly to cover for the protracted genesis of SMiLE, and partly for other reasons, comes from around this time and is markedly faster and more punkish than the deceptive elegance of the Crystals’ original; here there is no ambiguity about the deeper world the word “kissed” signified.

“California Girls” sees the transition solidifying. If in its emotional openness and vulnerability, contrasted with the richness of the harmonies, “Don’t Worry Baby” more or less set the scene for sensitive Laurel Canyon work in the seventies – the Eagles are there, as is the Buckingham/Nicks Fleetwood Mac, as is Jackson Browne – then the prelude to “Girls” which we not entirely inexplicably find returning in altered form as the introduction to “Tonight’s The Night” and the leitmotif of A Night On The Town, points towards the future, even if some radio stations just head for the song itself and Love’s entreaties to the daughters of Midwest farmers. Although the song was conceived and recorded around the time Brian first took acid, this does not really impinge upon the song itself, a heartfelt celebration of the Golden State and its women which I know makes my Californian wife feel all warm and content.

“Barbara-Ann,” a throwaway from the equally throwaway Party! album – so throwaway that a visiting Dean Torrance, from Jan and Dean, ends up doing most of the lead vocals – was, to the disgruntlement of some band members, their breakthrough single; in Britain it was their first to make the top three. In its own way – a cover of an old doo wop hit by the Regents – it does, however, set the scene for “Sloop John B,” an old Leadbelly number that Al Jardine had the bright idea of updating to fit the group’s sound. With a busy, baroque arrangement and ambiguous drums (are they playing fast or slow?), Brian managed to turn the song into something of a lament; you can smell the boat rocking in the waves, but also Brian’s increasing disquiet; “This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on,” he sings at one point, and it doesn’t sound as though he’s referring to a boat; when the drums eventually do double their tempo at fadeout, and Carol Kaye’s bass immediately locks into the throb, there is a strange but entirely logical resemblance to the Who’s contemporaneous “Substitute.” “You’re So Good To Me,” another try at a Motown four-on-the-floor stomp-along with guitar which predicates Eddy Grant on “Baby Come Back” which also showcases Brian’s blossoming interest in thick, continuous textures of harmony, appeared as “Sloop”’s B-side.

That latter track opens side two of 20 Golden Greats, and the Lonely Surfer is already in danger of vanishing from view. In fact, for many American critics, the Beach Boys’ work from 1966 onward continues to represent a door through which they prefer not to venture. The lack of understanding of Pet Sounds in Mystery Train is a major blemish in that study; other critics continue to flick their metaphorical locker room towels. Dave Marsh’s The Heart Of Rock And Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made is no such thing (in either sense) – this is a book which manages to find room for Billy Ocean’s “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” but not for “Good Vibrations”- and is really the story of a decent blue collar Detroit type who just wants the equivalent of the music he heard when he was twelve and thirteen (thus it’s a good guide to doo wop and the sounds of immediate pre-Beatles US radio but not much else). The Beach Boys appear five times in the list, and it’s all early work, including a B-side, with ceaseless snide remarks about Pet Sounds, “Surf’s Up” and so forth in the reviews themselves.

To try to determine why this is the case is to try to read the minds of post-war American baby boomers who heard “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and “Fun, Fun, Fun” at a time when they were just coming to terms with themselves, discovering their own joys and happinesses within a country which, it seemed to them, did its best to deny fun of any kind (the draft, let us remember, was a constant Damoclean sword at this time), and when things became more complicated as the sixties wore on, began to drift into something approaching disillusion. They wanted the striped-shirt Beach Boys, the fun n’ cars n’ girls n’ surf Beach Boys – they wanted to remember who they were - so didn’t, or couldn’t, or wouldn’t, comprehend “Over and over, the crow cries uncover the cornfield” or Vietnam or drugs or Manson; the Beach Boys’ position in all of these respects by about 1968 was not quite so clearcut. “Never Learn Not To Love” – who said you shouldn’t?

One person who probably agreed with all of this was Mike Love. I have no wish to delve into the murky depths of the word of one camp of followers against the other; it is, I think, sufficient to make an unlikely comparison here. Mike Love and Brian Wilson are like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Farfetched? Like Dino, Love was cool, easy, instinctive, happy to keep doing what he was doing forever as long as people wanted it and it kept paying. Whereas from 1966 the suspicion grew that Brian might be something of a Lewis; a fusspot perfectionist, endlessly tinkering with material in order to get it right, or to locate a particularly elusive “it,” and someone who finally lost touch with the artistry that made him special, in favour of increasingly mawkish and unapproachable work.

This tidy theory is upended by several factors, including that Love gave Pet Sounds its name, that he went down with Brian to Capitol HQ to plead the record’s case, and that he made “Good Vibrations” complete; when the band returned from tour to rejoin Brian in the studio, the composer played the various, seemingly unending takes and fragments of the song to them but confessed that there was something missing and he didn’t know what. Love recognised the problem immediately: “You need a hook,” and so went off and wrote one.

Likewise, one could go on about SMiLE - Love might have balked at “Over and over, the crow cries…” but on “Cabinessence” that’s Mike Love singing it. Taking this into account, and everything else leading up to and including the current That’s Why God Made The Radio, what I am trying to get at here is that cousins Brian and Mike are joined at the hip. They are two sides of the same coin. Like Jagger and Richards, or Daltrey and Townshend, they might not always get on but they need each other; Mike needs Brian’s creativity, Brian needs Mike’s commercial knowhow, and above all he needs Mike’s voice.

So Pet Sounds, the record that almost closed them down in America but opened them up fully in Britain (where it was a sensation, acclaimed by critics and only kept off the number one album slot by the perennial Sound Of Music) – and what a bright and disturbing half-hour it is. I’m not too sure that excerpting it is the best way to listen to the record – like Dark Side Of The Moon, it needs to be heard as a single entity – but the double-sided “God Only Knows”/”Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” (the sides were reversed in the States) single is as good a summary as any. Far from being an agreeable, upbeat introduction to the record – although as an embroidered rocker it works well, its use of studio space and unusual instrumentation (accordions, baritone sax, oboe etc.) paving the way for the work of Todd Rundgren and Roy Wood in the seventies - “Nice?” is a rather embittered record about the impossibility of growing up (since, in Mystery Train, Marcus asserts that the central failing of the Beach Boys was Brian’s inability to grow up). “Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older?” the song initially asks; like Paul and Paula, or Tony and Maria, they want to stop having these stupid obligations and live the way they want to live, the way America keeps telling them they should be living. Harmonically the song is an inversion of “California Girls” but the dominating mood is one of wretched uncertainty; and, again, what they really want is the joy of sex. But note how the song slows down to almost nothing so that their flower can blossom (“We could be married” they have earlier blissfully sighed) and the central failure of the American dream can be described: “You know the more we talk about it/It only makes it worse to live without it” – so no wonder that, shortly afterwards on the same side of the same album, the words “don’t talk” appear.

But then there is “God Only Knows,” the song and record which told George Martin and the Beatles that they had to do better than they had ever done before; a song where the singers prayed before recording it, a song with the word “God” in its title, which, if not as unprecedented as Brian thought (“God Bless The Child”), was nonetheless still extremely rare in 1966, a song of beyond-living devotion which begins with the line “I may not always love you.” There are hardly any lyrics to the song beyond the chorus and two haiku-like half-verses but it is the ambiguous despair that Brian and lyricist Tony Asher wanted us to feel – and who says that the song is being sung to a person, and not state, or a country (or possibly God Himself – might this just as well be a hymn)? Remember that they are looking out at the Pacific, looking back at where they live and where they are now, their part in the greater scheme of things, and thinking: “Well, I may not always love you – you may betray me in too many important ways, lead me up the garden path, send me off to die – but what else have I got?” What else, but this country which he only wanted to share with us in the first place? Musically the optimism is still all there – the accordions again, the French horn, the little alto and bass flute rondo, the solemn, Schubertian string quartet materialising in the midway break, the exulted/querying pause before same, with its angulated steps and spaces – and there remains that sunshine which it was so critical for 1966 to have. “God Only Knows” is a record which looks forward to the future, because it is already creating its own future, the multiplying voices at the end repopulating the land, giving birth to Generation X.

Then it was time for “Good Vibrations” and maybe for SMiLE. The best one yet, the one that’s going to leave the Beatles and everyone else gasping to keep up. Who knows how a finished 1967 SMiLE might have played – a silencing masterwork that would have been enough to compel the rest of pop to give up, or an already over-quaint and dated folly that would have been laughed at for a week then forgotten and remaindered forever? Wasn’t one of the great attractions of SMiLE its long virtual invisibility, the fact that, bootlegs aside, it couldn’t be listened to or assimilated? Wouldn’t a finished SMiLE have been pop’s biggest disappointment?

These questions will probably never be satisfactorily answered. Delving into the endless bootleg albums of SMiLE and/or “Good Vibrations” outtakes indicates a record which potentially could have gone on forever, continued to expand until it filled the world. I applaud Brian’s “completed” version of SMiLE in 2004, admiring its architectural ingenuity while still wishing Carl and Dennis had been singing their lines and Blaine and Kaye playing the music. I salute last year’s The SMiLE Sessions, essentially a superbly remastered “best of the bootlegs” collection, while wishing that Brian had had the wherewithal to complete it with Van Dyke Parks at the time.

But SMiLE is a journey that might never end. Its broad precepts are simple enough; a journey through American space and time, from Plymouth Rock to Hawaii, and at the end ejecting the listener, Chuck Yeager-style, into the future of “Good Vibrations”; a structure not dissimilar, at least superficially, to the late Donna Summer’s I Remember Yesterday where Moroder and Bellotte constructed careful pastiches of past ages of pop before hurling into the now and tomorrow of “I Feel Love” (as a closing album track, it still packs something of a shock). But “Heroes And Villains” is a meditation with no end; even in its abbreviated 45 form here, without the cantina and multifocal sections which elsewhere extend the song to well over ten minutes, it is startling and baffling, a cascade of slide whistles, snarling trombones and concealed bicycle riders, with threatening organ booms and a motif which in the context of SMiLE rides throughout the piece as blithely as any bicycle rider. Even in its 1967 world, it has the power to transfix and muddle, sounds coming unexpectedly towards the listener from endless directions (and recall, too, how the Smiley Smile package which eventually replaced SMiLE was far, far stranger than the original record).

There really isn’t too much to say about “Good Vibrations,” though, apart from saying that it represented a liberation of, or dead end for, the pop single in the sense that after it the concept of the pop single could not really go further, except in terms of evolving into albums. Thanks to Love’s hook, the song changes from what was initially a rather creepy tale of lust into one of bowled-over love, and so now has a central mechanism from which all of the song’s other sparks can fly; every ten seconds or so of the single gives us a new picture, a revised perspective, with even more abstracted combinations of instruments – oboe again, flutes, riffing ‘cello, boxcar harmonica, tack piano, Jew’s harp, plaintive soprano sax, fractured drumming…and the theremin, giving the song its heartbeat, every new angle to the song describing in itself the sensation of falling in love, the bizarre wonder of it all. In the final chorale there are references going right back to Plymouth Rock, but the average music radio listener of 1966 must have felt like stout Cortez abruptly discovering that same ocean on hearing “Vibrations” as a new record. There is the precedent of “Telstar” (one that did not escape the attention of Joe Meek, then with less than three months to live). But if the radicalism of “Vibrations” is by necessity flashier than that of “Surfin’ U.S.A.” then that simply meant that changing times demanded a more sophisticated reaction, or the same reaction in a more sophisticated way. It was something that could not be topped, least of all by the Beach Boys themselves.

So the promise receded and the collapse began to take effect. SMiLE would not happen. Brian drew into himself so completely that invisibility would have been a distraction. There were legal battles with Capitol. Realising that Brian could no longer steer their ship with assurance, the rest of the Beach Boys had to develop as best and as quickly as they could as songwriters. Matters with Pet Sounds were not helped by the appearance of a Best Of The Beach Boys compilation, pointedly of their early work, only a few weeks after the album’s release. This too made number 2 on the UK album chart, but stayed in there much longer; for many entranced by “God” and “Vibrations,” this was an entry point into what they had done beforehand. While in late sixties America their stock steadily dwindled to sock hop level, they continued to write and record, and their popularity in Britain did not recede; 1968’s “Do It Again” barely dented the Billboard Top 20 but went all the way in the UK, putting them back at number one less than two years on from “Vibrations,” and they remained a hugely popular live attraction in Britain.

What is left on this collection is some sweeping up and summing up. “Darlin’,” from late 1967’s back-to-basics Wild Honey, is probably Brian’s best Motown pastiche, Carl giving a very fine performance of Love’s less-than-fine lyrics. “Do It Again” was entertainingly wistful nostalgia with a purposeful Carl guitar solo and Brian’s proto-synth delay double drum sound. “I Can Hear Music” found Carl picking up the Spector pieces and arguably making a better fist of the song than the Ronettes’ original. Whereas the concluding “Break Away” has an ambition which Brian’s underselling production doesn’t quite match (the complex harmonies at the record’s climax, for instance) but depicts a picture of its alienated author which would grow starker in the seventies.

But all of this was deposited into the middle of 1976 and it was loved, this record which in truth flashes through Brian’s development and decline in a blunt, no-nonsense fashion; going through its tracks is rather like flicking through the various sections of “Vibrations” – look! He did that! Now he’s doing this! What does he think he’s doing here? – and it’s not, as I hope I’ve demonstrated even on this cursory level, a particularly pretty story. It is the story of a man and his friends who hoped to show America to the world at its best, but also of someone who by the end of the story couldn’t even think of showing himself to himself. “Vibrations” was reissued as a single to promote the album, promptly returned to the Top 20 and made every other record in there feel ashamed. But, despite the wretched state of Brian Wilson himself in the summer of 1976, it is not true to say that he couldn’t benefit from or capitalise on the record’s success. There was in fact a new Beach Boys album, released just a few weeks after this one, called 15 Big Ones, involving Brian and all cover versions. It received moderate nods in the music press at the time (though Melody Maker’s Richard Williams hinted at deeper stuff going on outside the record’s grooves) but 20 Golden Greats cancelled it out; the album peaked at #31 and stayed on the chart for just three weeks. While by no means a great album – these had stopped after 1973’s Holland - its failure suggested that the audience for the present record were not concerned about the Beach Boys “now” but about their own, fallible memories. As it happened, Brian was still in no shape to contribute fully – the endless “Brian’s Back” stories of the mid-to-late seventies were as wearisome and unconvincing as Sly Stone’s I’m OK, Honest-type string of album titles over the same period. There remains serious doubt over whether he still is. We, sadly, know better now. We know that even outer space couldn’t satisfy the urgent need for constant expansion. We know that in the last fifty years or so the utopia outlined in “Surfin’ U.S.A.” failed. We need to retain these songs more as a warning than a reminder. But we also need to think of people like Kevin Shields, or the Reid brothers, people who knew their Brian Wilson, knew about propulsion and maybe a little too much about studio perfectionism. More than anything, we need to retain the dim light these songs throw on what is about to happen. And watch out for that mindful wisdom, and wonder whether Music For Big Pink superseded the need for SMiLE, or said the same things differently.

Sunday 20 May 2012

Rod STEWART: A Night On The Town

(#170: 10 July 1976, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Tonight’s The Night (Gonna Be Alright)/The First Cut Is The Deepest/Fool For You/The Killing Of Georgie (Part I And II)/The Balltrap/Pretty Flamingo/Big Bayou/The Wild Side Of Life/Trade Winds

“Unhappy faces behind a painted smile,
Heartache and loneliness dressed up in modern style”
(“Trade Winds”)

When did Rod Stewart stop being a human being and become a drawing? This isn’t the first of his albums to feature himself as a cover painting, but nonetheless it is an improvisation on Renoir’s “Bal du Moulin de la Galette” in that his grinning face is inserted in the middle. He is looking towards a woman with child but the woman is taking no notice of him, speaking instead to the man sitting opposite. Everyone in the picture appears to be having a good time but keen eyes may note that Stewart is the only one bearing an unambiguous smile. On the reverse is a photograph of Stewart, taken at dawn, still in his boater and cravat, holding his glass of non-sparkling champagne, staring with dead eyes at the camera. The unasked question is inevitable: is all this worth it?

There is an answer buried within A Night On The Town, but it’s not an easy one to find. Now settled in Los Angeles, and with Britt Ekland, something or someone at his shoulder presumably reminded him that he was Rod Stewart and that he’d better have something to say. The record uses more or less the same musicians as Atlantic Crossing, though most of it was recorded at the Cherokee studios in Hollywood, with only “First Cut” being cut at Muscle Shoals (and string and some vocal overdubs/retakes done at Miami). The personnel are listed as per an old public school register; D. Dunn, S. Cropper, special guest J. Walsh and so forth. Stalwart A. Newmark and W. Weeks are also present, and all that is missing is H. Hancock with some funky Moog spider jiving. Stewart gives a little more of himself in the credits than on Crossing, paying due tribute to Al Jackson and thanking “B.E. for her multilingual vocal appliances.”

Still, I’m not sure exactly what Stewart’s fans were expecting from the record. “Tonight’s The Night” was the album’s lead single in Britain, while in the States it spent seven weeks at number one over Christmas. No doubt some were anticipating the inception of his Barry White phase, since it appears to celebrate unbridled lust and sex, even though most of its lyric reads like military orders, full of instructions to his would-be lover on what and what not to do. The opening sequence of out-of-tempo guitar, electric piano, organ and harp is a leitmotif that regularly reappears, in slightly different forms, throughout key points on the record. Stewart reverses the old blues tropes (“Stay away from my window/Stay away from my back door too”), turning them from dread to anticipation. His “come inside” on the line “Spread your wings and let me come inside” sounds rather forceful, and one’s face freezes at “Don’t say a word, my virgin child” (to which saxophonist Jerry Jumonville immediately responds with a sarcastic groan; Ekland was more or less the same age as Stewart and by no means a virgin in 1976). Instead of fleeing the premises for fear there might be a head in the refrigerator, Ekland responds with some half-hearted French come-ons; scarcely “Je T’Aime,” but the backdrop of hissing organ and panting guitar leaves no room for misinterpretation.

But instead of recasting Stewart as some kind of Brentford Walrus of Love, A Night On The Town seems to spend the rest of its time rebutting this initial manifesto; after all, there’s no evidence in the song that Stewart ever makes it out of the bedroom. Instead we get his take on Cat Stevens’ “First Cut,” issued as the other half of a double A-side to Crossing’s “I Don’t Want To Talk About It,” a number one single in the UK some ten months later. While the reasoning behind this coupling is logical – an intense song about the end of an affair, and an intense song about trying to begin something new in light of previous failure – amazingly, Stewart doesn’t quite nail it. He does try – indeed the whole song swivels around the concept of trying – but the arrangement is too intrusive, with machine-gun drums rattling into the second chorus and a solo guitar arising from the other side. Moreover, the most bothersome thing about Stewart’s performance is the baffling “Whoo!” he issues prior to the final choruses, as if to signify…exhaustion, or frustration at being unable to love again? Either way, we are faced with a song celebrating sexual initiation followed by a song concerning potential sexual inadequacy.

“Fool For You” isn’t too dissimilar in tempo and arrangement from the Stones’ “Fool To Cry,” and is not quite as convincing; there is over-fruity electric piano and organ and generally Stewart relies too much on overfamiliar devices such as framing the song in the context of a letter. But this is no Maggie May from whom he is taking leave; he talks about the mysterious woman wanting St Tropez, Chanel and Cartier, he is anguished by seeing her in the “national press/On the arm of so and so” and is slowly realising that he has been sucked into a falsehood from which he cannot instantly escape; hence his voice wavers on the “Pride” in the line “Pride won’t let me stay,” each chorus finds the music stopping altogether for a pause while Stewart sings “Guess I’ll always love you for the rest of my life,” as though he has to coax his own confessional, and there is real hurt palpable as he digs into the “ca-y-yare” of “I don’t care what your friends say.” Despite all this, he concludes with an off-mike “So long, baby” and departs with a bout of whistling.

I have little to say here about “The Killing Of Georgie,” since as an unedited single it made #2 in the UK (and thus falls under Lena’s remit), but having little to say is not the same as having nothing to say, since this appears to be one of the album’s lunged-for twin peaks; that is, Stewart was clearly duty-bound to conclude each side of the record with a Major Statement. As a song, never mind a statement, “Georgie” is too close to Dylan for comfort; in great part “Simple Twist Of Fate,” in lesser part “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll” and in minute part “Hurricane” (and I note the considerable influence of “Walk On The Wild Side”). As “the first hit single to feature an openly gay protagonist” (innumerable editions of Guinness) “Georgie” is also unsatisfactory, since it runs on the already (in 1976) tired, though well-meaning, conceit of portraying gays as de facto victims. Although Georgie is the only character on the record who finds true love, he has a pretty miserable and shitty life overall, grabbing his brief moment when he can (and as he advises Stewart). I’m afraid I can find no greater message in the song than, when out at night in mid-seventies New York, it was perhaps not the best idea to take a short cut home. Hence the drawn-out coda is ponderous and claustrophobic, only Georgie’s comment that “Youth’s a mask but it don’t last” bearing direct relevance to the themes of the record as a whole.

In reverse order to Crossing, side one is the Slow Half and side two the Fast Half, and it’s with the latter that we find a deeper problem. Taken superficially – blasting it out of the car on a hot July afternoon – tracks 5-8 are among the most convincing rockers Stewart ever made. With Tower of Power horn blasts and on-the-spot playing, Primal Scream would be proud to make an album even half as rocking as this sequence. Stewart has a ball in “The Balltrap,” telling his one-night client where to get off – again, note, sex is not enough - and the whole band seems to bounce off his enthusiasm. But his downward laugh of “C’mon honey!” is curiously mirthless, although Joe Walsh’s guitar is like an aural trampoline, and by the time Stewart gets to his Tarzany “Owwoooowowwww!” he’s already halfway down Park Lane. His noble attempt to toughen up the flimsy “Pretty Flamingo” nearly comes off – he lends the line “Crimson dress that clings so tight” a lewdness which Paul Jones wouldn’t even have considered, and is mildly reproachful on the second “If she just would.” He yelps his way out of the song (“Come on, baby! Arf! Aarf!”) but alas the pointless brass and string arrangement halts the flow of desire, and the flute solo is, to put it mildly, out of place.

“The Big Bayou” is the most intriguing track in this sequence; Stewart neatly inverts the desperate craving of Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” (“I spent all my hard-earned money I had saved to get me there”) in that he makes the journey but finds there is nothing to see but yet more illusions. He goes through Memphis, Nashville and Hollywood before deciding that he would have been better off staying at home. David Lindberg’s unmistakeable guitar rides the song like a stubborn pigeon. At the end Stewart even takes a sideways backward glance at “Maggie May”: “I’m gonna catch a southbound train home/One of these days.” I am not sure about the hillbilly tendencies of the string section as the song pulls out, except as a sort of bridge to his version of “Wild Side Of Life” (the album’s third cover version, again looking back to a time when none of this seemed to matter to Stewart). Very different from Status Quo’s near-contemporaneous reading, Stewart emphasises a rock beat and uses it as a moral stick to beat over the head of the “honky tonk angel” he is leaving – it’s there once more, sex being no substitute for love, no more of this business. An uncredited violinist does their best to fill the Dick Powell role. The lead guitar (or guitars?) puts a greater intent into the performance than Stewart seems to want to express.

The final track is not fast at all, but does resemble what Brits of my generation would term the “Mike Yarwood moment”; after this one-man variety show, trying his hand at anything and everything, Stewart solemnly turns to the audience and says “And this is me” – and it is time for the sermon, complete with misplaced gospel choir. “Trade Winds” attempts to be a State of the Nation address; he looks around and sees a not dissimilar sight to Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver being about to be released in cinemas). Stewart puts rhetorical emphasis on the “mor” of “tomorrow’s youth” so tight he could grit his teeth to dust. He turns the “you” of the climactic “The choice is up to you” into three hurting notes and vowels. The choir gets in the way (“Love is what you really need”) and the whole finally drifts away into what sounds like the anti-“Sailing”; instead of the latter’s careful optimism, we see nothing but the end. Stewart comments on “Unhappy people living in sin and shame/Reflections of myself”…and that’s as near to an actual confessional we are likely to get on this record; all this money, all these women, all this supposed power, and yes, none of it makes him happy.

The more pressing question is whether this sort of thing makes any audience happy, or just reassured, and after careful re-listening I have to say that it’s no longer enough. At the beginning of Grace Jones’ Slave To The Rhythm album, reference is made to a quote from Edith Piaf: “Use your faults, use your defects; then you’re going to be a star.” In other words, embrace your flaws. The trouble with Rod Stewart’s music of this period is that it is, perversely, flawless; there are no mistakes and therefore no scars. The undoubted ability of the musicians, particularly on side two of A Night On The Town (and one has to ask after listening to this; what sort of night and what kind of town?), is too pronounced; they are in many ways too good, in ways that are confining. The Faces tripped over themselves more often than not, musically, but the point is that their approach suited Rod. Given that the evolution of Rod the self-contained solo mogul was pretty much Rod’s idea – remember how he didn’t even bother to turn up for half the sessions on Ooh La La? – I can put the blame for this decline at his feet only. Be careful what you wish for, as the homily goes. Since many of these musicians played with palpably more commitment and interest on contemporaneous records by the likes of Jackson Browne and Steely Dan, I must also conclude that the players do not connect with Stewart on a basic level – certainly the fast tracks “rock” but if you listen any more closely there is something missing. The musicians are playing the songs but not engaging with them, and maybe they never could. There is none of the symbiosis arising from being in a close-knit working band (which is why Springsteen and the E Street Band sound so natural); one cannot picture Stewart hanging out in the bar with Steve Cropper or Roger Hawkins. Perhaps they were seeking something more challenging than playing “Wild Side Of Life” for the ten thousandth time.

More pressing, though, is the question of what the Rod Stewart of 1976 was about. Like so many other musicians this survey of 1976 has covered so far, I am sure – and “Trade Winds” as good as makes it explicit – that Stewart knew that things were changing, that a big shift was on the horizon. But look at it from his perspective; he is in a happy permanent relationship (for now), already has more money than he can ever hope to spend – and if there’s something that critics (and eventually punters) don’t like, it’s extended moans about how tough life is when you’re rich and famous (see, in good time, the strangely parallel case of Mike Skinner). It certainly didn’t wash well in 1976 – the troubled musings of a multimillionaire sex bomb – and I’m not convinced that it does now. You can tell Stewart is trying – he is virtually straining at every sinew to make this record work – but I previously cited A Night On The Town as a primary reason why punk had to happen, and see no reason to change my views now. These were extremely troubled times, and a new generation was coming up, without two pennies to rub together (as had been the case with Stewart scarcely five years previously) and feeling exceptionally infuriated by the spectacle of rich rock stars bemoaning their lot. In some senses I think of Ekland’s previous long-term partner in comparison; like Peter Sellers, in 1976 loping his way through the last few wretched years of his life, via endless Clouseau romps (and how fitting, incidentally, that the man who played the Pink Panther theme, Plas Johnson, is the tenor soloist on “Trade Winds”) to a sort of international hotel lobby anonymity, to all intents and purposes a living death. Stewart wisely never went that far, but all I hear on this record is an earnest man, lost, with too large a bank balance and too cushy a life to gain either our sympathy or our empathy. Even if they are still quoting Isley Brothers lyrics.

Sunday 13 May 2012

ABBA: Greatest Hits

(#169: 8 May 1976, 9 weeks; 16 October 1976, 2 weeks)

Track listing: SOS/He Is Your Brother/Ring Ring/Hasta Manana/Nina Pretty Ballerina/Honey Honey/So Long/I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do/People Need Love/Bang-A-Boomerang/Another Town, Another Train/Mamma Mia/Dance (While The Music Still Goes On)/Waterloo

(Author’s Note: The track “Fernando” was added onto the end of the UK issue of the album following its success as a single. Although the addition doubtless aided the album’s long run at the top, the song was not part of the original concept of the album, and as there will be ample opportunity to discuss it in at least one later entry, I have decided to base my assessment on the album as it was originally released and charted.)

On the face of it, it does look like a bit of a cheek, not to mention a conceit. One of the major acts of the seventies – on a global scale, the major act of the seventies – opens their number one album account with a Greatest Hits collection, although only five of its fourteen tracks were hits in Britain, and only about half the songs on the album in total charted significantly anywhere (there was a sixth hit, “Fernando,” climbing the charts at the time of the album’s British release, and this would eventually become a fifteenth track, although a cover version of “Honey Honey” by the duo Sweet Dreams did make the UK top ten in 1974). What amount of chutzpah does that sort of gesture necessitate? Who did this group Abba think they were – a question which never really went away during their performing lifetime.

Of course, it was never that simple. The original Greatest Hits package – in reality a pocket introduction to the first three years of Abba, compiling tracks from their first three albums – was rush-released in Scandinavia in late 1975 as a response to compilations coming from elsewhere, including France, Germany and Australia. The album was released everywhere else, albeit with varying track listings in different territories, in the spring of 1976; it may be crucial to note that the familiar cover as reproduced above was not the cover of the original Swedish issue – this was an illustration by the artist Hans Arnold, and a rather crazed and disturbing one at that, depicting Frida as a cartoon Goth and Benny cheerfully banging the keyboard attached to a lederhosen-clad Napoleon, with bats in the belfry circling around their heads.

So the image of Abba as conveyed elsewhere was a very different and noticeably softer one. But despite the frantically reassuring group shot in the gatefold sleeve, all grinning and laughing, the shot remains a disturbing one; they are seated on a park bench, it is late autumn. Björn is engrossed in a medical journal concerning antibiotics. Agnetha sits next to him, bolt upright and staring with ghostly terror directly at the camera. They are clad largely in reserved blue denim. Next to them, and present on the back cover, we have Benny and Frida, dressed in exuberant red and white, passionately embracing. It is not reassuring, but then neither is much of the music.

It is one thing to speak, as David Thomson does in his entry on Ingmar Bergman in A Biographical Dictionary Of Film, of “the rather precious political neutrality and social enlightenment that Sweden embraced, and…its overriding sense of guilt,” except that at least two of the songs on Greatest Hits are effective manifestoes for socialism; perhaps the group’s eventual (and not voluntary) realisation that their personal anguish could be refracted out into the world and made universal is more relevant. But to say, as Lester Bangs does in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock & Roll, that Abba “have been releasing what amount to bubblegum records for years” and that the “real truth” of bubblegum “is that there will always be at least one tender spot deep in the heart of rock and roll which should never grow up and never will,” is not really justified, since nearly all the songs on Greatest Hits are to do with growing up and becoming less tender. I quote some lyrics, not quite at random: “Though I try, how can I carry on?” (“SOS”), “How can I go on here without you?” (“Ring Ring”), “I can’t do without you” (“Hasta Manana”). In the nearest song to come to a happy ending, “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do,” the central and opening premise is “Love me or leave me/It’s your choice.” In at least two key songs – “Waterloo” and “Mamma Mia” – the singers gain happiness only at the cost of some sufferance.

Once again, I am not sure that the track ordering is conducive to revealing a full picture of the development of Abba, so the only solution is to assess chronologically. The reason why four of the album’s tracks are not credited as belonging to a parent album is that the album in question had not at the time been released in Britain. 1973’s Ring Ring is not even credited to Abba as such, but to the somewhat ungainly umbrella title of “Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid.” The reason for this is that the Björn and Benny duo were to some extent the senior partners in the group; both women had been discovered by them, as artists, and only then did love and marriage follow. Tracks like “People Need Love” and “He Is Your Brother” reveal the early Abba as a sort of Swedish Blue Mink/New Seekers crossover, with plenty of folk influence from their Hep Stars days but also a liking for jaunty, utopian sing-alongs. But even here there is some refusal to accept things as they are. Both men and women get a verse in “Brother,” both leading to the same conclusion (the men get into a fight, the women meet a beggar in the street); the bridge is unexpectedly reflective and the thudding bass drum could have been taken straight from “Admiral Halsey.” Likewise there is an equitable distribution of male and female vocals for “People Need Love,” with snarling backwards guitar pauses inserted before the second and third choruses and a bizarre “Edelweiss”/yodelling fadeout.

There is also “Nina Pretty Ballerina” with its train whistle and crowd noise effects which in its “Cinderella” setting manages to foresee some of the group’s future; indeed, one of their last songs is foreshadowed in the backstory of ordinary woman stuck in a dreary commuting/office loop (“The Day Before You Came”) and part of the song’s exultant chorus states “Now she is the queen of the dancing floor.” The ingredients are all there but not quite fully cooked as yet (“This is the part that she likes to play/She would like to play it every day”). Meanwhile “Another Town” is a rare Abba end-of-affair song sung from the man’s viewpoint; Björn and Benny sound almost Irish (especially with the recorder backing), although the lyric’s semi-fractured English (“You and I had a groovy time,” “You would have to find me gone,” “Guess I will spend my life in railway stations,” “the dreams we dreamed were made of sand”) suggests a not yet fully understood Simon and Garfunkel songbook in translation.

The version of “Ring Ring” featured here is the remodelled, remixed edition from their second album, 1974’s Waterloo, with some lyrical/translational help from Neil Sedaka and Phil Cody (in other words, the quartet, already highly influenced by sixties girl groups, were heading straight for the Brill Building source), and sounds more exuberant in its desperation, and especially its sinister bridge (“Can you please understand the need in me?”), with florid bells and elbow-to-keyboard piano which I note is taken at the same tempo and in the same key as Mungo Jerry’s “Baby Jump.” From the same album we get the original “Honey Honey” – a sneaky variant on “Sugar Sugar” which nonetheless exhibits the same ambition to jump boundaries; the gasping “Nearly kill me,” the unexpected male response vocal in the middle-eight and the sophisticated dreaminess into which that same middle-eight drifts (the “where I would rather be” section). “Hasta Manana” was an obvious Eurovision attempt – “Ring Ring” had only made third place in the local primary Eurovision rounds – and for some time was preferred over “Waterloo,” but it was wise to keep it as an album track (and a single in some territories; it hit particularly big in South Africa and Australia); an oddly old-fashioned campfire farewell ballad, borrowing its mood in equal parts from “Tie A Yellow Ribbon” and “We’ll Meet Again” with a vocal pitched somewhere between Julie Andrews, Nana Mouskouri and Olivia Newton-John, complete with banjo and a spoken word section, though note how “until then” is made to sound like “until death.”

“Waterloo” won through in the end, but at this stage I have to question whether the performance at Brighton, and the record, really did mark the moment where pop displaced rock, as the late Richard Cook opined at the end of 1982, a time when such things were urgent matters of debate. To begin with Eurovision itself, the song undeniably shattered a lot of barriers; ebullient uptempo replacing gloomy balladry, sung in a non-native language, sung with platform and satin attitude. But the 1974 Eurovision field was a particularly strong one; Gigliola Cinquetti, Italy’s 1964 winner, nearly stole the show with her “Go (Before You Break My Heart),” while Dutch stars Mouth and MacNeal made a lot of friends with the catchy but non-trite “I See A Star.” The only real lame horse in the race was, alas, Britain; Olivia Newton-John represented, but had to go with the British public-selected “Long Live Love,” a hopelessly dated oompah frolic about Salvation Army bands. As someone who in the States had a parallel and far more successful career at the same time as a credible country-pop crossover artist, this must have been particularly embarrassing for Olivia, an embarrassment not helped by the fact that, of all the songs I have mentioned, “Long Live Love” was the only one not to enter the UK top ten as a stand-alone single (it symbolically peaked at #11).

Still, “Waterloo” deserved to win; it demonstrated a force and even a sexiness that had hitherto been dormant in the competition, and may have been almost completely extinct in 1974 pop (most of the glam heroes and heroines now overstretching themselves, wanting to become Serious Artistes). But, given its admitted debt to the work of Roy Wood and Wizzard, it has to be said that, just as the cover of Greatest Hits is abundant in denim, so Abba’s work is a lot closer to rock ‘n’ roll than is usually admitted; it is fair to say that the fifties rockers, the girl groups and the Beatles all helped make Abba what they were – only it was down to Abba to twist them into new, unfamiliar, Swedish shapes. And dour, indigestible prog rock did not suddenly curl up and fly the white flag when “Waterloo” triumphed; rather, the song initiated some changes in music so slow and subtle that their influence would take some considerable time to filter through. It did prove that pop was not quite over, and that it was perhaps time to speed up the tempo, laugh and party again.

Yet, even as the osmosis took the best part of a decade to spread, what a strange song and record “Waterloo” is. Its slashes of close-miked acoustic guitars and echo-aided piano cut like scimitars; there is little doubt that these people mean business. There are the handclaps and the saxophone. There are the “My, my”s. And yet the girl is not winning; she is constantly and evidently being led up the garden path by her Other, and probably knows that this is not the ideal situation, in fact quite far from it, but in the end accepts it – and the song contains the most revealing and definitive line in the whole of Abba’s work: “I feel like I win when I lose.” Bear in mind that this, as with all the songs here, is the work of men, writing for female voices. How much of this work is an attack, how much a knowing inversion?

“Dance (While The Music Still Goes On),” also from Waterloo, is the one that inspired Lowe and Costello to do “Oliver’s Army” – it’s pretty much the same riff and arrangement – but its sentiments are very different; it is the end of the affair and the lovers urge each other for one last dance, to the music that brought them together in the first place. There is undoubted poignancy in lines like “Dance and forget our time is gone” – not to mention two key changes to underline that this is The End Of Something, and a couplet (“God knows that we’ve been tryin’/But we didn’t make it”) which shockingly leaps out from the ghost of Gaye’s “Just To Keep You Satisfied” – but there are also constant comments which suggest that neither partner really wants it to end (“You tell me it’s over/What more can I say?,” “Why did things turn out so bad?/Was it just a dream – everything we did, everything we had?”). Who knows – perhaps the dance will last so long that they’ll resolve to give it another go.

1975’s Abba, however, from which the album’s remaining five tracks are taken, represented a major advance. Despite the huge success of “Waterloo” - #1 in Britain, #6 on Billboard - it proved, like most Eurovision winners, a tough act to follow; “Ring Ring,” rush-released in Britain as a follow-up, made only #32, and the next single, and the first fruits of the group’s next phase of work, “So Long,” failed to make our chart at all, and performed relatively poorly elsewhere. Dismissed at the time as a pallid copy of “Waterloo,” it is actually nothing of the kind, and indeed is one of their most ambitious singles; with a shrieking, ascending electronic wraith of an introduction (and instrumental break) straight from “Telstar,” this is a far more aggressive song and performance, as it is to do with rejection rather than acceptance. Agnetha sounds agonised and even angry over the minor key bridge; the tempo is slightly too fast to be comfortable. The backing vocals appear to be a fervent chant of “Money, money, money.” The handclaps return, but the discomfort remains; at the song’s natural end, there is a rubato piano passage which, as with so much else of Abba’s work from 1975 onwards, leads directly into the work of Anne Dudley and Trevor Horn – and meanwhile, as the song fades, the horn section begins to play a Mingus riff.

The adventure continued. “Bang-A-Boomerang” was hardly the group’s crowning lyrical achievement – although I gather it has something to do with Australian aborigines, perhaps a nod to Abba’s increasing popularity in that land at the time – but musically is bristling with invention and artfulness; its “Groovin’ With Mr Bloe” bassline blends with the shuffling express train drums, and the whole is far more opulent than had been the case two years previously, with mature pauses for bridges, a general floating feeling which looks forward to eighties American AoR and a shrill organ which builds a path to Blondie. “I Do, I Do…” is maybe the record’s most exuberant track (and it was a much bigger hit in the States than in Britain, where it was still a little out of synch with the times) with clanging wedding bells, Fats Domino piano and a palais band sax section, inspired in equal part by fifties bandleader Billy Vaughn and the Germanic schlager song tradition (although I also detect some Hurricane Smith influence and, again, Wizzard).

Despite great international success, Björn and Benny (and the silent third man, the group’s manager Stig Anderson) were peeved that they couldn’t get another major hit in Britain (“it meant a lot to us to be successful in the home of the Beatles”) and so sat down to write “SOS” with the specific intent of achieving this. It worked, restoring the group to our top ten in the autumn of 1975, and justifiably so; there was nothing like it in these charts, or anywhere in pop. Constructed on a near-classical level, with subtle phasing permeating the entire track, and solemn but decisive piano, Agnetha sings as though already nearing the end of her tether (“It used to be so nice, it used to be so good”). Spring flower Minimoogs pop out of the picture, introducing colour and life, and everyone joins in for the chorus, underpinned by powerful, pervasive lead guitar (towards song’s end, the guitar begins octave leaps). The keyboards reinforce the final chorus before everything falls away like petals of glass, leaving the original, damaged flower, but the Minimoog, and the song’s insistence on quiet-loud-quiet alternations, eventually travel towards Buggles; the record sounded futuristic enough at the time, and now sounds prophetic.

“Mamma Mia,” the song which brought them back to number one in Britain, is a partial reversal of “SOS” with its tick-tock rhythms now shared by a marimba, its speed doubled, and its dominant key now major. And yet the victim of love continues to suffer, and endure it; he keeps cheating on her and walking out, or is thrown out, but she can’t handle things alone, without him, and so with some reluctance she keeps taking him back. The “why, why did I ever let you go”s are clearly rhetorical, and as the arrangement builds and builds, clues begin to accumulate; the unexpected violence underlining the delivery of phrases such as “slam that door” and “not that strong,” the referral back to previous desperations (“I can hear a bell ring”) and the realisation that it might just all be bullshit (“It’s a game we play,” “Leave me now or never,” “Just one look and I forget everything,” and, almost beneath the level of hearing, and towards the end, “Does it seem forever?”). The message: this will do for now, but something has to crack and break soon, so in a lot of senses “Mamma Mia” is the most ominous and unsettling of these fourteen songs, in that in its supposed jollity it clearly, and starkly, highlights what is to come in the group’s work.

“Mamma Mia,” of course, was the record that displaced “Bohemian Rhapsody” from number one, and it is tempting to see its triumph as a moment of transition in pop; if the Queen record represented the culmination and end of something, then the Abba record stood for the beginning of the next, new phase. But a lot of Abba doesn’t really fit any known pattern in pop; they were perhaps the most disruptive of all pop groups, maybe in their own way more so than the Beatles or even the Pistols, because they neither spring from nor fall into a known tradition. There’s the rock ‘n’ roll and there are the girl groups but Abba do not sit comfortably in any “tradition”; indeed, their success raised a number of important questions about the uses and purposes of pop music. Why Sweden? What do men write for women to sing, and how do either feel when they are writing or singing it? What do we want or demand from pop music? Is it illegitimate or unworthy to say that advances in pop can be made by musicians who are neither American nor British? And how difficult was Abba’s example to follow? As this album made its way to number one, another Eurovision winner was topping the singles chart, performed by the Brotherhood of Man, a group who had recently been given first refusal by the composers on “Mamma Mia” and who subsequently proved with their own work that no group was harder to emulate than Abba.

For Abba represent another important bend in the road; in a greater sense than the Carpenters, and excluding practitioners of soul, R&B and country (and nascent punk), they represent the most prominent voice for women in the pop music of this period. Like the Rollers, they appealed far more to girls than to boys. Unlike almost any other group I can think of, they were self-contained with two married couples. Note that “almost”; there is one other important group (to whom I’ll be getting in good time) which shares this status, and possibly took it to greater extremes. And yet, they take over; in the context of this tale they are without question the decade’s predominant act. Who did this group Abba think they were? And how guilty did they feel about thinking, if thought and guilt are mistakenly perceived to be two sides of the same, glaring coin?

Sunday 6 May 2012


(#168: 24 April 1976, 1 week)

Track listing: Achilles Last Stand/For Your Life/Royal Orleans/Nobody’s Fault But Mine/Candy Store Rock/Hots On For Nowhere/Tea For One

The circumstances surrounding the conception and recording of Presence differ slightly in the telling, depending on whose history you read, so the best way to tell the story is to itemise:

1. Following the success of Physical Graffiti and their successful run of shows at Earls Court, Jimmy Page and Peter Grant decide the time is right for a major Zeppelin world tour. This is tentatively scheduled to begin on 23 August 1975; meanwhile there is time for Page and Robert Plant to take a holiday with their families.

2. Page and Plant first travel to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco in order to realise a long-cherished dream of recording with the Berber tribes there; this is directly referenced on “Achilles Last Stand.”

3. Page then travels to Sicily as he has heard that a farmhouse there which once belonged to Aleister Crowley is up for sale. Plant, his then wife Maureen, and his children, as well as Page’s daughter Scarlett, settle on the island of Rhodes.

4. On 5 August 1975, eighteen days before the start of their tour, Plant and his wife are involved in a major road accident when their car crashes in Rhodes. Plant’s wife is not expected to survive, but pulls through. The children are miraculously unhurt. Meanwhile, Plant has suffered multiple leg fractures and is under doctors’ orders not to walk for the next six months; there is the risk that he may never be able to walk again.

5. Page and Grant decide that, since a tour is now out of the question, the band should devote their energies to recording a new album. For various bureaucratic reasons the Plants have to wait for some time before they can leave Rhodes, and for a while lodge in Jersey. As “Hots On For Nowhere” implies, Plant in part blames Page and Grant for the hold-up.

6. The band rent a beach house in Malibu and work on some material. While they are doing this, a freak storm washes half the house away. Not to be deterred, they move to a recording studio in Hollywood where they do more writing and rehearsing.

7. They eventually relocate to Musicland Studios, situated in the basement of a hotel in Munich. Plant is in a wheelchair, claustrophobic and severely homesick. If you believe the account in Hammer Of The Gods, a taste for heroin starts to infiltrate the sessions.

8. Zeppelin can only use Musicland for eighteen days, as the Stones have booked the same studio to come in and work on Black And Blue. Realising that he is not quite going to make the deadline, Page telephones Jagger and asks for and gets two days’ grace. He and engineer Keith Harwood stay up for 20 hours a day to finish all the guitar overdubs and mixing. When the Stones come to town, they can’t believe that the album is finished and mixed. On listening to the final product, Keith Richards comments that the band should seriously consider hiring a second guitarist since Page is now in his opinion the most overworked guitarist in rock. But how can they? They are Led Zeppelin; their “fourness” is unique and indivisible.

The main reason for telling this story is to underline how much of a reaction against everything surrounding them Presence was; it really was a case of Zeppelin versus the world. I am still unsure whether the record has ever been completely understood; it alternately baffled and annoyed reviewers when it came out, and if Wikipedia is to be trusted it remains Zeppelin’s lowest-selling studio album. Much of the commentary at the time was to do with the alleged enigma of the black mini-obelisk which Hipgnosis had added to stock fifties photographs on the outer and inner sleeves; Page has spoken of a force, an aura, that was Zeppelin and was there wherever you went, but being Zeppelin I am sure there was at least one private joke at work.

Nevertheless, the puzzle effectively detoured any proper addressing of the record itself, and in the Zeppelin discography it has remained something of a puzzle. On the contrary: Presence contains some of the most brutal and direct music Zeppelin ever made, and had to represent a war against the chain of disasters detailed above.

For Zeppelin were not only battling their own misfortunes but the wider notion that they were slowly slipping from favour, that they weren’t quite as immutable as they had been even a year previously; that they represented some kind of unwelcome decadence and opulence in rock, getting further and further away from the things which originally powered them. One question would be: what would Pink Floyd have done if the same things had happened to them, and why didn’t they? The answer is that Pink Floyd stayed in Britain and Zeppelin didn’t. It’s true that much of Zeppelin’s situation arose from their tax exile status, but it was their decision, and it’s far too late to quibble whether the record could have been done at Olympic or Wessex, and if so – given infinitely more time and resources to make it – the record would have carried quite the same degree of urgency that it does.

It’s very rare that I come across a number one album that was made because it absolutely needed to be made, but Presence is one of those, and there are fewer opening tracks to any album which carry the same degree of uncompromising desperation as the ten-and-a-half minutes of “Achilles Last Stand.” As extreme a piece of music as any band of Zeppelin’s status would have dared to record in 1976, it is the sound of four men fighting to bring down the world. The rhythm rocks like a not-quite-out-of-control train. Bonham’s drums exceed thunder; they are as pitiless and single-minded as anything he ever played – at one point you can clearly hear his cymbals cracking in half. Plant ostensibly sings about his adventures in Morocco, but his tone betrays a greater message, one of weariness with the world, and of the suspicion that what he and the band have worked for these past eight years may amount to nothing. The Albion reference inevitably conjures up Blake, the analogy of Atlas the mountains and Atlas the god is not overcooked, and Page intelligently varies his approach so as not to overload the track; his first solo is slow and pensive but undoubtedly heartfelt. But the song grinds on relentlessly with a terrible yet compelling certainty. While Plant again points the way to Jeff Buckley (the “I know the way…” sequence), Page is busy setting up his stalls for the future; the military staccatos – almost inhuman – pave a path to Metallica. It’s also the case that Heart – big Zeppelin fans, and about to break big themselves – got some inspiration from here (as “Barracuda” would soon demonstrate). Moreover, as the surprising but logical quiet guitar interlude makes clear, there is unfinished sixties business; that the song contains elements of both “The Green Manalishi” and “Rhiannon” confirms that the band are building something of a bridge between Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac and Lindsey Buckingham’s Fleetwood Mac, between what has come and what has yet to pass. This being borne in mind, it is entirely correct that so seemingly unforgiving a piece of music should conclude, or fade, with a carillon of guitars that could have come straight out of the Byrds.

The attendant irony of a band once known as the New Yardbirds should now record a song entitled “For Your Life” need not be underlined, since there is no real connection between the two songs (the composer of “For Your Love” at this time being involved in such affairs as “I’m Mandy, Fly Me”) and there is certainly no jolly sixties optimism at work here; against a backdrop skilfully constructed to sound random and ungainly, Plant cites “The Lemon Song” before going into a long rant against cocaine, and the difference between drugs and love, using none too subtle sexual metaphors. Page’s soloing is more agitated than has ever been heard on a Zeppelin record, while Plant’s own delivery veers from the disinterested (his second “damned” in “Oh, oh, babe, damned”) to the vulnerable (his voice wavers in the “flow” of “I said, just go with the flow”). Once more recalling Buckley fils, Plant’s vocal culminates in a long, piercing, upward, drawn-out cry.

“Royal Orleans,” a shaggy dog tale in the recent tradition of “Lola,” attempts some light relief (Plant’s exasperated hisses of “Whiskers!”), but nobody told Bonham, who rumbles on like an express train jammed with nuclear chemicals. Furthermore, Page’s needling guitar and John Paul Jones’ sighing bass musically make me wonder whether this isn’t 1981 and Josef K.

“Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” a Blind Willie Johnson derivé which may or may not be about drug addiction (“The m-m-m-monkey on my back-back-back”), complicates the picture further. Page begins the track with a phased wasp drone of chattering guitars akin to splintering glass. After a brief wordless voice and guitar unison, the track settles down into the blues – except that it never seems to settle, stopping and starting almost at random while Plant describes his story of woe (he grits his teeth on the line “Gonna change my ways tonight” as though he knows he’s never going to do it). Page’s guitar fights not to bury itself with its own feedback. Indeed, the whole structure of the track suggests to me that Steve Albini must have been listening; specifically, the relationship between guitar, drums and silence is further explored in Albini’s work with the Breeders (Pod) and PJ Harvey (Rid Of Me - and we know that the younger Polly grew up listening to this stuff). And there is still a pitilessness in the track’s approach that leads directly into Big Black, even if Albini used a drum machine there rather than a Bonham (Then again, the quiet-loud-quiet-loud format was about to be kick started by Boston, whose debut album came out at around this time; also largely masterminded by a studio-obsessed guitarist with pictures flowing through his mind).

The whole album plays like an indie Zeppelin; there is only the briefest of gaps between tracks (I note Frank Black is at this time twelve) and the attempted throwback of “Candy Store Rock” might be the record’s most Albini-esque track; it pretends to go back to fifties Elvis (and, having deposited a get well telegram to meet Plant at the airport as he flew to California, it’s inconceivable that Presley wouldn’t have heard this). Plant cheerfully goes through every “baby baby” cliché/double entendre he can conjure up, but the drumming is out of place, the guitar is more reminiscent of Hendrix than of Scotty Moore, and some of the desperation even transmits to Plant (“Don’t make me sta-harve!” he wails at one point; and his repeated assurances that “it’s alright” are maybe the least convincing I have ever heard).

“Hots On For Nowhere” gets steadily more disturbing as it goes on, particularly the nonsensical “La la la” chorus which gets more menacing and prominent with each repeat. A fairly standard Zeppelin strut of a shuffle, periodically intercepted by sudden scrabbling noises, Plant expresses his frustration and disgust at the whole situation (“I’ve got friends who will give me fuck all,” and he tries to sing it as “fluck” but nobody was convinced); he is getting older and the old games won’t work any more.

As indeed they do not on the closing track, “Tea For One,” one of the most moving things Zeppelin ever recorded. The sprightly opening is deceptive, for the track swiftly settles for a long and mournful blues workout. Bonham seems to be drumming a million miles away, yet his rising snare rolls under Page’s guitar and his general air of compassionate rectitude put me in mind of the late Levon Helm. Jones’ deep but resigned bass holds the track together. And in the middle of all this, or to one side of it, there is Plant; while this does not literally repeat the trope of previous number one albums in concluding with the singer alone at sea, miles from shore, it as good as defines it.

Plant is alone, impatient, sad, watching the clock that never changes, wanting, aching to go back to his woman; memories slip through his unglued mind and not once does he explode, emotionally; he sits back and lets the song come to him. But he knows this whole business may always have been for nothing, and is not comfortable in this knowledge. He is plainly asking us: this rock ‘n’ roll thing…what was it ever supposed to be about, and if it were ever supposed to be about anything, but primarily making us feel better and more alive, then how come it has brought us here? Here, where it might as well still be 1968, Page standing on a provincial stage, playing the blues…and “Tea For One” is anything but rock ‘n’ roll, and everything to do with the blues. There are two abrupt moments of hammering grief from Page and Bonham, but otherwise nobody does so much as raise his voice. There is an impatience at work here, but also a balancing wisdom which says that all this anguish about waiting is only going to make you wait more. With his endless perfectionism, overdubs and overall sonic vision, Page perhaps isn’t that far away from Brian Wilson, and “Tea For One” only (only?) a close neighbour of “Caroline No.” But Page’s solos here are among his most nakedly emotional and articulate; in his first (and main) solo he combines the explosive efficiency of Hubert Sumlin with the declamatory yet compassionate eloquence of BB King, while at track’s end he nods to Freddie King – somewhere in between these, an overlap with Mike Oldfield cannot be overlooked. His playing throughout this track is like a parade of ghosts – shadows (capital or small “s”) from the sixties, that decade that just won’t leave this decade alone, come filtering through in solemn procession…and what is this song, in the end, if not another cry to go home?

I feel a kinship between Presence and another major British rock album which came out at around the same time, another record of relatively few (but long) songs concerning alienation and the questioning of one’s role in the world, let alone in rock, and which concludes with a long, meditative wander through an old movie ballad. That record is Station To Station - those who don’t feel the relationship between the reserved pain of “Tea For One” and the expressive restraint of “Wild Is The Wind” aren’t really listening to either – and, in common with Presence, and so many other records under consideration in this year, their fear and resolution (not a contradicting pair) are based on knowing that time is running out and that something else is coming. But Zeppelin weren’t going to go down without a fight, even if on a personal level there was much, much worse to come; that this is not their last appearance in this tale suggests that the will to fight was unquenchable, regardless of whatever came along to try to quench it.