Wednesday 29 August 2012

The SEX PISTOLS: Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols

(#192: 12 November 1977, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Holidays In The Sun/Bodies/No Feelings/Liar/God Save The Queen/Problems/Seventeen/Anarchy In The U.K./Sub-Mission/Pretty Vacant/New York/EMI Unlimited Edition

(or: Notes on Ghosts of Punctum in Towers)

All I see are towers, closing in on me. The same towers that peered down on me, oppressed me, back when I was still in the present tense. No wonder they called this place the End of the World. Beyond here, you still feel it; not antique shops but a wilderness, every man for himself. It is as if everything finishes here. And I had to finish everything somewhere. It wasn’t fashionable, this place, not even forty years ago when I came upon it and took over the shop, because that was the sort of thing you could do in London forty years ago. No dosh? No matter…just look like you mean something, the keys are yours, do what you want with it; make the floor slope, put in a jukebox full of all those singles I got from the back of Shepherd’s Bush Market, punch some holes in the ceiling; ooh, all that flaky old asbestos floating out. I didn’t know that this, of all things and people, was going to kill me; like I say, in London forty years ago you didn’t even think of things like that. All you thought about was the long trudge from Sloane Square, people pounding down the road, wondering where the hell it’s all supposed to be happening, past the tourist bits, past the bridge turnoffs, down to somewhere that was never fashionable except when I was here – oh, the shop’s still here, looking as small and glum as ever, with its big clock going backwards, pretending it can turn back time, when there was a decent market on Beaufort Street instead of oligarchs installing underground cinemas (and I don’t mean that in the Kenneth Anger sense), when everyone and everything mattered…here, at the first major bend in the road.

Record Mirror, mid-eighties, and it was one of their female writers – might have been Sunie, was more probably Eleanor Levy – and I can’t remember whom or what she was fulminating about but the payoff line was something like “the Sex Pistols are as relevant to the youth of today as Eddie Cochran.” A brave thing to say in the era of Sigue Sigue Sputnik, if they’d happened yet…but it wasn’t even a decade since what was supposed to have happened, happened.

It was a shop for him. Never a way of life for us. He just wanted us in to promote his bloody shop. Be nosy and outrageous because that’s what his shop was supposed to be like. He had the T-shirts drawn up before he’d recruited us. Most of us, anyway. I never got on with the rest of them. Boring rockers. They wanted to be the Faces. Nothing more, nothing less. He reckoned the power of the band would lie in the tension between us. Great when you’re touring and trying to record all the time, in each other’s fucking pocket 24 out of 7, except when we gave him what we wanted we couldn’t do anything. Couldn’t tour, couldn’t record, couldn’t write new songs, didn’t want to be in this poxy group anyway. It wasn’t what I wanted. I knew that when I signed up, though. I fucking outlived the cunt anyway. Most of us did. That’ll teach him.

The Caldecot Centre, King’s College Hospital, sometime in the late nineties; we are doing a Christmas staff quiz, and my manager has asked me to come up with a few music-related questions. It’s too long ago, and too much has happened in the interim, for me to remember exactly what those questions were, but I do remember that one of them involved the Sex Pistols and that the word “significant” was somewhere in the question. It was asked, and not answered; and somebody rolled their eyes and said in major disbelief, “The Sex Pistols are significant?” That was when it struck me; their overall impact on Britain had been as a transient late seventies novelty act, a sort of thuggish Bizarro world Barron Knights.

It’s always been about style. About how someone looks. I do not express this as a universal truism, although I know of no other; it is because, as a fashion designer, I cannot think in any other way except that of style. Is it on trend? How long before it slides off trend? Change is constant, as some hippy drummer once said to me. Keep changing the fashions. Why? Because it’s fashion; that’s the definition of the word, something that comes in and thereafter goes out again. As with clothes, so with people. We’re all transient, anyway. See how long I didn’t last.

November 2008, and in the comments section of the website Popular’s piece on “God Save the Queen,” there comes a comment from somebody calling themselves “Warhol didley dye day” who as far as I know has not posted before or since. It is a fairly sluggish comments section where I and others are busy thrashing out what this record ever meant, or might still mean, and it arrives like the bluest of bolts:

“What the f””s this? Nostalgic waffle clap trap? Honestly who gives a stuff The whole idea about punk was making modern music available to the people on the street. WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW – SOD ALL THAT’S WHAT!! Music changed for a while until the money fascists took over. Stop talking dross and change it again if you’ve got the balls!”

“And now I’ve got a reasonable economy.” JOKE! Those bastards left me stranded in the States with no money; I had to wire Branson to get me the fuck out of there. He thought he could carry on with them as a novelty act. Sid singing, Ronnie fucking Biggs singing; who else, Patrick bleeding Mower? I was falling apart, confused and lonely, and did anybody give a fuck? NO. There’s “history” for you.

I wonder whether it was him, but really, blanking out the f*** word? Admittedly, the comments that followed made me realise why the Sex Pistols had to happen in the first place. As though, for some, they were about more than just “money fascism.” A jolly little interlude between the “serious” business of assessing Rod Stewart and Kenny Rogers. I think John Lydon, were he ever to be aware of Then Play Long, would probably hate it at first glance, since it would almost certainly appear to him to consist of nothing but “nostalgic waffle clap trap,” even though I wasn’t alive for the first eight years of it. If I thought this blog was only “nostalgic waffle clap trap” I’d close it down straightaway, but (a) hopefully, as a fellow Aquarian, Mr Lydon could see past first glance and understand exactly what I’m trying to do with this blog and (b) by my own admission, if things had happened the way they were supposed to happen, a blog like Then Play Long would never have been necessary.

It was a great idea, to ask Syd, over there at the other end of the same road, to produce them. I wish he had been here…but “Syd’s not in.” I momentarily thought, however, that he might be. He’d get it.

London, the Olympics, about two-and-a-half weeks ago, and the closing ceremony which played like a cattle truck soundtracked by a Best Eighties Album In The World…Ever! compilation the organiser bought in the British Heart Foundation shop earlier that day; in the diametrically opposed opening, Boyle gave us a snatch of “God Save The Queen” prior to the Queen playing at being a Sex Pistol, but numerous artists were asked to appear in the closing show, saw what they were expected to do or not do, and demurred. The major fuss was over Bowie, and to a lesser extent the Stones, and to zero extent the Sex Pistols. True, neither Pistols nor Stones do anything for free, but they were hardly mentioned; another moderately intriguing meteor lodged in that great crater that landed in British pop between 1975 and 1985. And anyway, hadn’t the Pistols, with Matlock, closed their own circle in Finsbury Park back in 1996? Why would they have needed to do it anyway, when only two-fifths of the Spice Girls acted as though they were bothered?

Has anybody ever been bothered about the Sex Pistols?

Quite a lot of people, and things, were driven or inspired to do and change the world by the Sex Pistols, but “bothered”? I ask this because now they are a fabric in the history they tried so hard not to be a part of; they are looked back upon with dispassionate fondness. They are respected, insofar as they could ever be “respected,” but hardly ever played and still less referred to other than another momentarily entertaining string in the chain of Weren’t The Seventies WACKY? Or, worse, consigned, or confined, to their place in Rock History, a fabric which they had done their best to rent beyond repair – a strand rather than an irruption.

“Do The Irruption” – it wasn’t what Bryan Ferry sang, but it was what he and the song implied.

Because once upon a time before there was no future there were Bowie and Ferry and
I don’t believe I overrate “style.” You have it, you’re born with it, you can’t learn it or inherit it. Fashion is all about personas, and how elusively or cleverly we can slip from one persona to another and still make history look like a perfectly logical catwalk.

Did Lydon ever have a “persona”? Or was that what he was like all of the time. There he is, one morning on Danny Baker’s BBC Radio London show, effing and cursing, and a bored and impatient Baker urges Lydon to stop it: “I know you, John. You’re not like this.”

The blasted “persona,” which, like “fame,” the person ends up having to chew up and half-smile at, because they are lumbered with it, long after everyone has forgotten what they were supposed to be famous for.

Once upon a time when he was a boy John Lydon was

The way he roars “YOU’RE A LIIIIIAAAAAAARRRRRR!!!” on “Liar” like Dylan in the Manchester of ’66. “Judas?” “Some people in England get a little jealous,” as Jerry Lee Lewis had noted eight years earlier.

“Liar,” a song which, when you don’t think about it, sounds a lot like “Do The Strand.” Both Lydon and Ferry extend their vowels through the carapace of the song, as though chewing on a particularly tasteful and elegant mint after a buffalo wing beef-out.

The guitar sounds a little like Queen.


But the Pistols never, I believe, wanted to be part of Rock History, the aroma of “heritage” which is really just a polite way of cutting off one’s necktie.

Yes, Then Play Long shouldn’t exist because the Sex Pistols’ mission back then was to destroy EVERYTHING. Especially “history.” With “England” coming a close second.

Or, this should have been the last entry here – nothing was to follow, except a faintly grim silence.

The album charts, only a few months younger than John Lydon himself, and at twenty-one neither finds that they are particularly happy or satisfied. These cloistered, closed-off, air-sealed TV compilations – they are literally airless (I think the sound production on these records is deliberately aimed at excluding oxygen; one certainly finds it difficult to breathe, listening through some of them) and a product of well-this-will-do Britain. A Britain that never escaped from 1945.

Like Montreal’s Hughie Green, quietly ranting on Opportunity Knocks at the beginning of 1977, “Stand Up And Be Counted” (“Take up a fighting stance/This year of 1977/May be our final chance”). Oh, a change happened in 1977, all right – but not the change Green was expecting or wanting. That is, if anything really did change.

Among the orchestra that day on Opportunity Knocks were two members of the Marxist improvising trio Iskra 1903.

But history – encroaching, limiting

The trouble is: “we” are all supposed to be in such thrall to the Pistols, and punk rock, that we are in many subtle ways not allowed to go beyond them. The dwindling music press, now reduced, with considerable help from the internet, to a series of ticksheets – this week’s Bloc Party is very reasonable, sir, but I’m afraid the new Vaccines is a bit off; rock as Wheelers of St James’s – cannot help but cling leechingly to the notion that thirty-five years ago they all still mattered and were read in their hundreds of thousands, and people acted on what they read, because where the hell in seventies Glasgow were you even supposed to hear this stuff, never mind see it?

Oh, I remember 1977 Lanarkshire all right. The Diamond Jubilee? Just as bad and hypocritical and patronising when it was Silver. But then, what wasn’t? At school, our Rector read out a notice one morning to say that punk dressings, etc., were not allowed at any time. The school, based as it was on an ethos of deliberate snobbery, acted laughingly, as though only the dopeheads in the B and C streams could be remotely interested in punk. Not like we blessed A streamers, who were clearly being tutored for the “best” jobs.

Something from school I’ve never forgotten; passing by an open door one mid-morning, and it was a History B class; one boy was joking and larking about and the furious teacher suddenly hissed: “LOOK! I know you have no future, but at least try and PRETEND.”

That told me all I needed to know about “school”; a Victorian chimera designed not to educate or enlighten children, but to prepare them for the working environment, to produce efficient and obedient workers, by prioritising punctuality and unquestioning respect of authority. And it is true that wherever most of us have gone since, that has remained; the notion that anyone articulating the remotest atom of independent thought or expression is de facto the naughty boy at the back of the class who has to be knocked into shape.

You know those “dopeheads in the B and C stream”; the ones who didn’t have “your” “advantages” but somehow still ended up earning ten times more than you, living in a better house, with children, and maybe now grandchildren, and so forth. Mainly because they had to try harder, or catch up in later life.

Whereas most of the A streamers ended up exactly where they were intended; now they are doctors, lawyers, dentists, CEOs, engineers, and cetera. I said “most,” not “all.” I don’t recall a single one of them having anything nice or interesting to say about punk and especially about the Sex Pistols.

There was Listen Records, in Renfield Street and another in Byres Road in Hillhead whose frontage you could see in the distance, coming down Gilmorehill. The same company owned two Bloggs’ stores, one across the road from Listen in Renfield Street and another at the corner of St Vincent Street. There you could find all the punk, new wave and indie stuff you wanted, and much more that you didn’t know you wanted.

But no punks in Glasgow, unless you count Jim Kerr.

Frothing, foaming Glasgow Evening Times headlines and cross editorials about glue sniffing and the Ramones. But hardly any gigs – the Lord Provost saw to that. The Clash came to the Apollo round about October ’77 and that perhaps proved why these things couldn’t happen.

There was Gloria’s Record Bar, deep in the south side, where people like Edwyn Collins and Bobby Gillespie apparently congregated, but I never went there; it was quite a distance if you’re travelling from Uddingston.

Yes I know, nostalgic waffle clap trap. But hardly less nostalgic or clap trappy than the Good Music Historians who swear by Grievous Angel and The Soft Bulletin and Almost Blue but never listen to the Sex Pistols, except when “Anarchy” gets played on Radio 2, yet proclaim them as an indispensable thread in their fucking Tapestry.

I mean, really (pace Patrick Cargill), which “rock expert” or “record collector” ever puts on the thirty-eight minutes and twenty-eight seconds of Never Mind The Bollocks and listens to it all the way through? Not just sticking it on and programming the singles, but going from “Holiday” to “EMI” and giving all twelve songs their equal and undivided attention? I’d say it was probably zero. And yet there is this gulf, between the history we have received and life as it has actually been lived, which says that the Pistols were significant but does its best to pretend they never existed?

Because it should have been the end of everything.
Because it told “England” a few unpleasant truths about its real nature.
Because the rip it attempted in rock’s fabric should have been an “R.I.P.”
Because they were finished even by the act of putting out an album.
And having all the singles on it.

The trouble is, though, when you shout “NO FUTURE!” in a crowded room, some people are liable to defy that decree, or alternatively be so compelled and moved by it as to wish to fashion something in its shadow. So the final failure of “God Save The Queen” is that its “NO FUTURE!” proved to be everybody’s future. That there existed a future.

Just because the John Lydon of 1977 didn’t have a future? And, if not, who decided that he wouldn’t?

How shit was it to be John Lydon in 1977?

The thing with me was, I loved music, and listening to music, and buying records. What we learned, we learned from the act of buying records and listening to them. Any records, any style of music, it didn’t matter. If it looked or sounded interesting, I’d get it and would listen to it with utmost respect. I wouldn’t necessarily like the record, but I would treat it with respect. Nobody treats records with respect any more; if you’re young, you won’t even know there were once such things as records. But they were crucial to me – Faust, Kevin Coyne, Matching Mole, I. Roy, Big Youth, Graham Central Station, Des O’Connor. Anything that worked. Now imagine it’s 1977, and I can’t even step out my front door without some arsehole wanting to break my jaw. The tabloids stir the hate up because it sells papers. But I always dreamed of singing in a rock group, and now I can’t sing, my group can’t play anywhere, I can’t go out to Harlequin or Rough Trade…it’s like being in prison. So enjoy being pioneers, kids; you won’t get the opportunity to be anything or anybody else.

And yet, the histories tumble forward as they churn backwards; I’ve read England’s Dreaming and Lipstick Traces and Lydon’s own memoir, and a lot else, and remember too much of the music press of the period, and have tried to forget all of them, because only then do I feel I can come to a proper understanding of the Sex Pistols; distinct from theory or attitude or intentions…how good were they, really, and how good are they still?

What the fuck would Malcolm have done without us? Some improvising hippy troupe like Gong, probably. Or Our Kid.

The history in the space where there was never meant to be any history, and indeed I am working from the 1996 2CD edition of Bollocks which I bought first hand in a proper record shop and whose second CD (or, strictly speaking, first CD) includes all twenty-one of the demos they did for Dave Goodman and Chris Spedding in 1976; their first and best legitimate issue. From them, I fear not much can be gleaned; the music is as punchy and insolent, if less distinctly recorded, as anything on Nuggets and you can tell from these anguished scraps of songs-to-be where the band are going.

As though this were Cruft’s dog show, with its pedigrees.

A story, possibly half-true; in the summer of 1977 Carla Bley is in London, rehearsing her band for some British gigs. It is an Anglo-American band, where heavyweight players like Roswell Rudd, Andrew Cyrille and Michael Mantler are joined by some Canterbury-related folk; Elton Dean, Hugh Hopper and Gary Windo (Windo, then working as an auto mechanic to supplement his income from music, makes such an impression on Bley that she invites him to join her band full-time and takes him back to the States). They are running through some tunes when they hear this huge din from the rehearsal room next door. Bley goes to investigate and finds it is the Sex Pistols practising. She is so knocked out by Lydon that she almost wants him to join her band full-time as well; as things develop, they will end up working on the same records in the eighties, as members of the Golden Palominos.

Don’t tell me that Lydon didn’t get Escalator.

The album is a mess, sequentially and emotionally, but it was never meant to be The Sex Pistols Collection, mummified in methylated spirits. The singles are not in chronological order (what IS this record collector waffle clap trap?)

so starting with “Holidays” is a bit like an Elvis Greatest collection beginning with “Suspicious Minds,” but it’s not an ordered, mortified, immobile sequence of stuff.

Love? We do not speak of such things. Nor do the Pistols. I’d sack them if they did. Speaking about the look of love – now, that’s different.

Actually I like the idea of Bollocks beginning with the group collapsing into pieces, atomising. Slade jackboots usher us into the song, then a ire-filled lightning bolt of downward-scraping guitar with car-crash drums to make sure we stay there.

(and yes, there are still otherwise sentient people who complain about the grammar of “HERE’S THE SEX PISTOLS” and who doubtless also complained about the spellings of Slade song titles.)

I’ve spoken of Low; does anyone yet realise that the Lydon of “Holidays” is in the same place? But he is more closely, and therefore more fatally, involved; Bowie is observing memories and his own absence of persona from a studio window before the fresh air hits him like a punch and he says, “Forget it! Forget the bloody lot, get back to life, get back to HEROES!,” proudly striding underneath the shooting jets JUST FOR ONE DAY. Whereas Lydon is trying to GET to the other side, to escape into what he already realises is another prison (“AND THEY’RE LOOKING AT ME!”). The backing vocals chant “Rea-SON! Rea-SON!” in such a way that they almost sound like “Sieg HEIL!” and as the song goes into its collapsed centre, Lydon knows full well that he and the Sex Pistols have failed; surrounded by actual terrorism and destruction, he realises that they are what deep down they have always been – Just Another Rock Group. With that knowledge in his mind, his vocal, and the song, fall apart and he babbles for the rest of it, losing his mind, his faith, his reason; “I DON’T UNDERSTAND THIS BIT AT ALL! PLEASE DON’T BE WAITING FOR ME!” Jones’ guitar less than gently weeps, and then cuts off like a hacksaw. At the same time the Clash were effecting a similar, but polar opposite, transformation effect on “Complete Control” (in the same month, too); what starts off as an everyday rant about record companies and tours becomes, largely through Strummer’s absolute/absolutist commitment and Lee Perry’s echoes (see the song’s unlikely doppelganger “Big Muff” by John Martyn; “Don’t like the music much but absolutely agree with the politics”).

“Small Hours” by John Martyn, from 1977, recorded in the middle of nowhere in the earliest of mornings, out in the open; blissful, aimless, nocturnal, profound. Some blank spaces are filled with daubs of beauty; others with the horror of their own blankness.

And Richard Hell (pace Rod McKuen and the Comets) never meant “Blank Generation” to mean “blank” but a blank space which you filled in however you wanted. Not that Hell has always remembered this.

a declaration of solidarity on the part of a movement which at that point was at the point of breaking into pieces. It is noble; “Holidays” is beaten.

“My SELF! My beautiful SELF! No feelings for anybody ELSE!”
England, this is your future.
The song “No Feelings” musically is highly reminiscent of Status Quo.

“God Save The Queen.”
A blank space at number one in Woolworth’s, Boots and WH Smith’s.
Same with the album, banned by all of these but 150,000 advance orders were always going to be enough to get it in here.

It should be remembered that Bollocks did not get particularly good reviews in the music press of November 1977. Burchill in the NME thought it was crap compared with the Spunk bootleg, which was listed above the album in her review. Jon Savage in Sounds seemed a little disappointed by the inclusion of the hits and a general air of over-production, and constructed the review as an imaginary dialogue between critic and punter. I can’t remember what was said about it in Melody Maker, nor who said it (I read MM for Richard Williams and Steve Lake’s jazz reviews).

But I also remember Williams in MM being rather let down by “Anarchy” when it came out as a single; he thought it too slow and ponderous a record next to the unambiguous sugar rush of the Damned’s “New Rose” (“Nick Lowe understands. Chris Thomas doesn’t,” he concluded). And for a long time I thought he was right; I loved his comparison of Rat Scabies’ drum style – all cymbals, frequently overriding any explicit sense of rhythm – with that of Sunny Murray (“and the guy out of the Stooges”) and quickly grew weary of “Anarchy”’s posthumous status as Classic Rock Anthem, which at the time went largely unplayed on British radio in favour of musical giants like John Christie and Liverpool Express. Both Greil Marcus and Dave Marsh correctly label it as an irruption, the first decisive break with rock’s rhythmic roots in black music (though whither “Anarchy” without “Slavery Days” or “War In A Babylon”?), and while I do not believe it succeeded in destroying everything – because, at the time, nobody could hear it – I have to say that it sounds less slow than it did thirty-six years ago, that Jones’ guitar chorales are masterful (hear the way he breaks out like a faulty electric razor in the final chorus), and that “your future dream is a shopping scheme” is exactly the way things turned out.

“God Save The Queen,” though

Herb Alpert at A&M. God bless him. He okayed the Pistols being fired from the label but signed Ornette Coleman. Dancing In Your Head - now there was the real 1977 revolution I wanted from the boys.

and Marc Bolan, about whose death nobody got into a frenzy like they did with Elvis, although he had all the punk bands on his Granada kids’ teatime show – to a cartoon audience, I ask you – but it shocked me a hell of a lot more (coming home from school on Friday afternoon to find the Evening Times with its headline POP STAR BOLAN DIES IN CAR CRASH, 29 lying on the carpet); he would have loved and understood this – “Summer is heaven in seventy-seven!”

“We love our Queen”
“Don’t be told what you want.”
“It’s the future – YOUR future.”
“We mean it MAAAAAAN!”

And, from “Problems”:
“The problem is YOU!”

We are going to have to think – that is, you, the reader, and me, the writer – long and hard about those “we”s and “our”s and “you”s and “your”s. Were they the same as the “we” of Orson Welles, the “we” who knew the Martians were drawing their plans against us, but also that there was a remote farm in Lincolnshire where every July Mrs Buckley grew peas? That is, who is Lydon talking to, or speaking for? Is it us? The enemy? Britain? The world? Or the “we” who know this stuff too well already, and need to be slapped?

From “EMI”:
“Too many people said: what, us?”

There is an old Schweppes commercial where someone comes on screen and slaps a guy hard in the face. The guy replies: “Thanks! I needed that!”

Were the Pistols what 1977 rock needed?

“God Save The Queen”: it’s not the Queen who is being attacked – Fluff Freeman at the time remarked, “You know, pop pickers, I think they secretly love their Queen, don’t you?” – but The Queen™ , the idea of Jubilee as branded industry: “They made YOU a moron!” “She ain’t no human being” because England has turned her into someone almost ahuman.

“The sky split apart in malice,
Stars rattled like pans on a shelf,
Crow shat on Buckingham Palace;
God pissed Himself.”
(Philip Larkin, unpublished Silver Jubilee quatrain, possibly after Ted Hughes)

Nothing in 1977 was quite as nihilist or punk rock as Larkin’s Aubade, which appeared in The Times that Christmas. Here is the careful notetaking of a man exhausted with life, done in by day and night, probably drained by the passing of his mother earlier that year (McLaren’s own grandmother also died in 1977); in the remaining, slowly suicidal eight years of his life he produced no further extended work of note.

BS Johnson would have hated punk rock but agreed with its politics.

In “Queen” the Pistols, triumphantly (musically)

Oh yes, Sid.

The blank space and yet also the least dispensable one.

He couldn’t really play bass (what you hear on the album are the Matlock originals, and Jones more or less did the bass on the newer tracks) and he didn’t really have a future.

But you can’t imagine the Pistols without him.

Always him. Never me. And he was my best mate, and I saw him get destroyed by this stupid rock and roll business. And fucking Malcolm. You know, that’s the thing with me and Malcolm. I loved the bastard. Absolutely loved him. But he didn’t love me enough, maybe not at all. I don’t know that he loved Sid any more, but he wanted Sid to be the new star and it wouldn’t work, I told them it wouldn’t work. This pathetic leather, drugs and cock schlock. Die a stupid junkie death like Johnny Thunders and David Ruffin and all those other twats. Nancy. I told Nancy to go fuck herself, so she fucked Sid. Ha ha. Actually I just said I wasn’t interested, and I meant it. She rolled over to Sid, and he was.

But Steve Jones and Paul Cook neither. Bollocks is as much Jones’ album, and maybe more his album, than Lydon’s

why are you not calling him Rotten? Because everyone else does these days, and I remember that awful last Peter Sellers film, The Fiendish Plot Of Fu Manchu or whatever it was, and whenever he’s not indulging in masturbatory fantasies about Helen Mirren, his characters have Goon-ish names. One was called “Charles Rotten”; I’ve no idea whether this was a deliberate nod to the Pistols, since by 1980 Sellers had expressed not the slightest whiff of knowledge or interest in punk; he was married to Lynne Frederick and determined to become an old man in severe need of a lie-in.

Come to think of it, there is an awful lot of Peter Sellers in Lydon’s vocal style (see Sellers’ 1957 version of “Any Old Iron”; I do not exaggerate) and an awful lot more Kenneth Williams

Funny how it always comes back to Ken, doesn’t it? By 1977 he was not getting work, or the sort of work that would normally have come his way was going to John Inman or Larry Grayson. Was Williams ever a great actor? I have no documentary evidence to prove this. Old souls speak with some awe of his Dauphin in the 1954 stage production of Saint Joan or in Welles’ Moby Dick Rehearsed the following year, but neither was filmed, and it only takes a second of watching An Audience With Kenneth Williams to know that acting did not dwell within him; it was the eyes, dead to all save himself, betraying a heart not in the trivia into which he knew he had painted his own inescapable corner. So when Peter Cook – who did some preparatory work on the screenplay for The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle and managed to outweird both Lydon and Vicious when he invited them round for tea in Hampstead – and Dudley Moore offered Williams a part in their adaptation of Hound Of The Baskervilles, he jumped at it. Not that it is a great film, because it is anything but, and yet it kept Williams occupied, away from the morbid thought of growing old next door to his mother. If anything, his life ended up in even more of a straitjacket; the late entries in his Diaries are tough going, revealing a man wracked by (in part psychosomatic) pain, fed up with life, getting no work other than the occasional voiceover or quiz show, accelerating his end.

Russell Davies did an efficient editing job on Williams’ diaries, carefully tiptoeing around the things about his life which didn’t quite add up – why the attachment to his mother? Why the reluctance to visit, or even emigrate to, the USA? Why is he so circumspect in his diary entries concerning the strange death of his father?

The Kenneth Williams Diaries, with all its despair over premature suicides or worse – his Orton/Halliwell moment in the mid-sixties, the one time when all his paradoxes came together and made both sense and purposes – and lengthy descriptions of life-changing self-denial, is all the more compelling a read when you consider you are reading the writing of a man who may, theoretically, have killed someone other than himself.

Like poor stupid stoned Sid.

because his endless guitar overdubs create an unbreachable wall which is in harmony with the record’s emotional and socio-aesthetic discordance. In his solo on “Queen” he suggests triumph, hope, and, yes…a future.

“Problems” is easy; some three years later, Chrissie Hynde, who was certainly in on all of this, would write “Private Life” and it is about the same thing (“Eat your heart out on a plastic tray”). The trouble is that Lydon’s “you” seems to extend beyond his hapless, self-pitying subject, and perhaps to some of the people buying or listening to this record. He ends by belching “PRO-BLEM” repeatedly and diatonically, like a robot, long after the music has ended, long after any tempo or heartbeat has disappeared.

“I’m A Lazy Sod,” as everyone called “Seventeen”; slack-jawed slackerism with Jones’ Kraftwerkian guitar bleeps segueing easily into “Anarchy.”

“Sub-Mission” takes the “All Day And All Of The Night” riff and hurls it into limbo, with a backdrop of ghostly howls, dog yelps, etc. Lydon’s “Watery love” is met by a brutal CRUNCH from Jones’ guitar. The climax is rather like a football crowd singing Stockhausen (Donnerstag und Licht, perhaps?).

“Pretty Vacant.”

“This time the boys keep it clean.”

“A-pretty va-CUNT-ah!”

“Don’t ask us what we’re doing ‘cos we’re not aware!” – Christian Wolff in action.

A very Number 6 song, isn’t it, “Pretty Vacant”? “There’s no point in asking/You’ll get no reply.”

It was where The Public finally got to hear what these Sex Pistols were all about, and it was the greatest fuck-you song in rock since “My Generation” and maybe since “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care.” We’re here, it’s the end of Empire, who know of our background who only our background know?

When you hit the pavement at such speed and with such force and determination, that in itself does not guarantee that there will be a beach underneath it to soften your fall. Ask Guy Debord.

Hey, hey, we’re the Pistols, people say we Pistol around.
And the first song we learned to play was “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone.”

The song is about “them” but they rub their “them” in the listener’s face to know they mean what they mean.

And what they mean is THEY DON’T CARE because YOU, by definition, ARE SO SQUARE.

So quickly did punk become square that it’s not even a joke. No, the Pistols were not some stepping stone for whatever crappy loudmouth bunch of indie fuckwits are being hyped up on Xfm this week as The Next (blanks). Their notion of a stepping stone was that you stepped off it and found yourself hurtling down a cliff face, or slipping off the edge of the planet. The point of “Pretty Vacant” was its vacancy, its supremely confident blankness; its message: YOU CAN’T GO BACK NOW.

So many people didn’t, so many more people did anyway. Major new releases that Bollocks prevented from getting to number one included albums by Rod Stewart, Queen, ELO and Genesis. But they all come back to this tale, whereas the Pistols do not. Because they were not meant to come back, or comeback (except for their own reasons).

In the winter charts of 1977 there was a TV-advertised Stones compilation, on Arcade Records of all labels, entitled Get Stoned. Muddy Waters, high on his comeback with Hard Again, was infinitely hipper.

But, you know, there were other songs to write, and if truth be told they weren’t as good. “New York” for instance; is it a go at Nancy? Who cares if it is or isn’t? I remember Ned Sherrin being complimentary about it in the TV Times, and, well, if Ned Sherrin’s on your case that puts you in a place beyond…I don’t quite know what, actually, but he compared it with Ella Fitzgerald’s version of “Manhattan” and not unreasonably (bad cop, good cop, same town). But the OTHER “f” word reeks of desperation, as do the assorted “KISS KISS!,” “You’re just a pile of shit,” animals/bullshit metaphors and even “Sealed With A Kiss” references. The final result sounds like…Guns N’ Roses, for better or worse. “NEVER! NEVER! NEVER!” howls Lydon like some ostracised Shirley Bassey outtake. It ends with a jibe at their old record company, which is fine if you like artists making jibes at their old record company while society is burning, but unlike “Complete Control,” “EMI” doesn’t transcend its context, although it’s still a rousing, flag-waving finale; there, everything the Pistols would have detested.

Poor boys. They just ran out of ideas. I told themIdeas? You ran out on us, you bastardwhere would you boys have been otherwise? The Bayfucking fashion wanker, Max Miller would have PEED on youthe lightTHE WAYThen you went and goneWHY?GIVE IT TO ME, BABIES!!

Look, if you want a Sex Pistols album the way McLaren wanted it, go listen to The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle, twenty-four track CD available for a fiver at all good record shops and quite a few bad ones as well. In fact I probably listen to it more for pleasure than Bollocks but there it is; it was all Malcy’s idea, his Peter Ustinov sixties caper wizard wheeze to con the music business, the musicians and the listeners (and the T-shirt wearers) and the Pistols performances, whenever Lydon is involved, are excoriating.

And if you want a Sex Pistols album the way Lydon wanted it, go listen to Metal Box by Public Image Ltd, which delivered everything the Pistols had once promised to those still listening, including a lament for Lydon’s mother (“Death Disco” or “Swanlake” as it’s credited and mixed on the album) which is every bit as powerful as Larkin’s Aubade. Only Escalator and Rock Bottom are better albums (and isn’t it nice that all three were, in seventies Britain, available on Virgin?).

Because then the times and the context slowly disappeared. There was a new PiL album earlier this year which many missed, and which contains some of the most powerful music the group has made since 1981, but who’s left to pay any attention to anything or anybody other than cheeky Cockernee chappie John Lydon and his butter adverts and jungle capers?

Anybody, any body, any bodies.

“Bodies” is the quintessential Pistols performance (to coin another critical cliché of eternal enmity) because it goes further than any other album track, before or since, to be included in this tale; the politeness of fifties Britain (in 1977 Britain, trust me, if you weren’t in London, it was still the fifties) ripped apart. A story of an abortion told from three perspectives – mother, father, embryo – the talkback is straight out of Marie Lloyd and George Robey (“She don’t want a baby that looks like that!”/”I don’t want a baby that looks like that!”) but the rage is something quite new and unparalleled; the music suggests PJ Harvey a generation ahead of schedule; the “screaming bloody fucking mad” represents the no longer suppressed thoughts of the neighbours avoiding Abigail’s party, where the sound of the new can be heard emanating through the wall while the old world (in the form of Laurence) dies. “I’M NOT AN ANIMAL!” over and over. The ghastly scream of “MUMMY!” which echoes like Armageddon rifles throughout the song’s climax, and thereafter into a lifetime. More than anything there is the realisation that, when faced with the irreducible shitness of life, the only rational response a human being can offer is “FUCK THIS AND FUCK THAT FUCK IT ALL AND FUCK THE BRAT” – Speight or Beckett, you decide. “FUCKING BLOODY MESS” shrieks the aborted foetus.

So don’t talk to me about 2CD reissues (catalogue number: SPUNK 1, but if you have to have this record, then this is how to have it) because what we are dealing with here goes beyond anything that an album, “classic” or otherwise, can hope to encompass. I am not saying that Never Mind The Bollocks demolished everything that came before it on Then Play Long - because it didn’t – but its existence forces us to look at everything that came before it and will come after it in a different way. Because here is the poison within the machine, here is the dustbin holding the flowers (and who is to say what, or who, will flow?); this is Oates going out for some time and deciding to go surfing in Panama. It still sounds like the world’s end.

I’ve no further business here. The future is for others to play with now. Not that they have any idea what is coming because I certainly don’t. But these streets; I could walk round them blindfold and still know exactly where I was. The Conservative Club still here, on the bend; that should tell you how little has really changed. Its look is essentially unaltered. But those towers, they still lean down on me, like the most claustrophobic of citadels.

I am not an empty celebrity for celebrity’s sake. I still have things to say. Is anybody listening? Pardon? Finsbury Park is full of Asian tailor shops now; self-sufficient industry, and all the better for it. Yes, there is nowhere on this record where I sing of things I love, or even like; it is all hatred because in 1977 there was no other channel for it. Malcolm did what he thought he had to do; so did they all, the silly cunts. Treating us like a line of clothing, altering or discontinuing us as he felt fit…he did that, but then he could only think in terms of fashion, persona, style. You know; admire Ziggy Stardust because of Bowie changing his persona and style – it’s overrated. People can’t see that on a record; all they hear is 1972 ITV Schools Rock Opera. Well, that’s MY Controversial Comment for Today.

I see you, Music, I see you.
It’s just that I can’t hear you the same way.

Bill Grundy. Doesn’t he know that Tony Wilson?

Wednesday 22 August 2012

Cliff RICHARD: 40 Golden Greats

(#191: 5 November 1977, 1 week)

Track listing: Move It/Livin’ Doll/Travellin’ Light/Fall In Love With You/Please Don’t Tease/Nine Times Out Of Ten/Theme For A Dream/Gee Whizz It’s You/When The Girl In Your Arms/A Girl Like You/The Young Ones/Do You Want To Dance?/I’m Lookin’ Out The Window/It’ll Be Me/Bachelor Boy/The Next Time/Summer Holiday/Lucky Lips/It’s All In The Game/Don’t Talk To Him/Constantly/On The Beach/I Could Easily Fall (In Love With You)/The Minute You’re Gone/Wind Me Up (Let Me Go)/Visions/Blue Turns To Grey/In The Country/The Day I Met Marie/All My Love/Congratulations/Throw Down A Line/Goodbye Sam, Hello Samantha/Sing A Song Of Freedom/Power To All Our Friends/(You Keep Me) Hangin’ On/Miss You Nights/Devil Woman/I Can’t Ask For Anymore Than You/My Kinda Life

Given that this year has already seen the return of Sinatra, the Shadows, the Beatles and Elvis (though half of these were posthumous returns), it was only logical that we should see the return of Cliff. But isn’t there something ominous about these gatherings, in the same way that, when jumping from a tall building, you are said to see your whole life flashing before your eyes on your way to the ground and a messy demise? It is as though the whole history of popular music has returned to dazzle us once again, one last, fierce burn of the filament before the light goes out forever. It feels like we are heading towards something, something not very obviously welcoming and profoundly disturbing.

That payoff is yet to come – although we are now only a few feet from the pavement, in the hope we might plunge into an underlying beach – but for now, let us examine the strange case of Cliff Richard. “Oh yeah, the British Elvis,” said Paul Simon on breakfast television once, a soft smirk on his face, when asked for his views on Cliff, but not only do I not think that a particularly fitting description of the singer, in the same way that he is not the British Johnny Hallyday or Adriano Celentano, but also that the story presented here – the fourth and, I am relieved to say, last of the forty-track TV-advertised double compilations which have studded this year like formica sarcophagi – is something like Elvis in reverse; it starts doubtful and lost, then steadily moves towards what its singer probably wanted all along.

Moving it, indeed. It’s a strange cover, even by EMI Golden Greats standards, and the two monochrome pictures inside hardly dispel wariness; in one, taken at the beginning of his career, he looks like a Bollywood Presley, while in the other, taken contemporaneously, he is singing, looking pained and agonised, like a cross between Scott Walker and David Cassidy. The self-deprecatory sleevenote by Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch does well to cover the feeling that, whenever Cliff reached an artistic impasse, he called on at least one Shadow to help him through.

Even with “Move It,” his introductory hit from 1958, and therefore by law the track that opens all Cliff greatest hits collections, one gets the feeling that the act then known as The Drifters were already racing ahead of him. His vocal is far closer to Jerry Lee than Elvis, and one wonders at his belief in the long-term power of rock ‘n’ roll, his expressed preference being for “real country music that just drives along.” No other nascent Britrock anthem, to my knowledge, flies the flag for country music, and already he sounds distracted, a heart not fully in it.

The compilation then leapfrogs his entire “rock ‘n’ roll” career to land at “Livin’ Doll,” and for an all-round entertainment crossover hit it remains exceptionally creepy; he’s going to keep his girl locked up in a trunk? Like Bryan Ferry – another Libra – Cliff seems obsessed with pursuing the notion of the Ideal Woman, who in all probability does not, and never can, exist. In the follow-up, “Travellin’ Light,” there is no gravity to speak of. “I’m travellin’ so fast/My feet ain’t touchin’ the ground” – the Peter Pan of pop, anyone? And we all know what happens to Peter Pan at the end of his story, when he tries to fly through the barred windows. Like the Edge a generation later, Hank’s guitar seems free of hands.

As the sixties arrived, he and the Shadows continued in this vein, more etiolated than ethereal, Marvin’s Morse code single notes being yanked out like stray hairs. “Fall In Love With You” and “Please Don’t Tease” are moderately interesting in that they deal with British sexual reticence in differing ways – in one, he sings “Please give me one more chance/This is my first romance,” and in the other he chides, “You love me like a hurricane/And then you start to freeze” – but a certain neutered bloodlessness takes over (so neutered that his Christmas 1960 chart-topper “I Love You” is omitted completely).

It is a wonder how any of his work from this period can be taken seriously; the cumulative effect of listening to dreck like “Theme For A Dream” (with its atrocious dolly bird backing vocals) and “A Girl Like You” is numbing, clinical, the same dentist’s waiting room feeling I’ve felt listening through so many of these number one collections – was blandness really all that mainstream 1977 Britain wanted? This music is so anaemic one longs to drag it to A&E and undertake a four-unit blood transfusion; and yet I suspect Norrie Paramor at Columbia Records designed it as such. Even rockers like “Nine Times Out Of Ten” (featuring Cliff’s priceless “Well!”s and “Yeah!”s, as though just having spotted a two-for-one Golden Delicious bargain at his local Tesco’s) and “Gee Whizz It’s You” don’t make it past the first hurdle, or if they do, it’s entirely down to the Shadows; they roar out of the pitstop for their instrumental break on “Gee Whizz” as though liberated by the British Army (and it’s hardly surprising that any frustration they did harbour was channelled through the far more vital work the group did in their own name).

Film themes like “The Young Ones” and “Summer Holiday” point forward to a hopelessly optimistic future for Britain, and are here mixed with morose ballads – the bizarre “I’m Lookin’ Out The Window,” with his one suit that he wears every day, still searching for his Ideal, is like a crude template for the Scott Walker of half a decade hence – not wholly convincing rockers (his “Do You Want To Dance?” is a failed affair, from its emasculated title downwards, but he does better doing actual Jerry Lee, chuckling his way to the future – “a rocket ship bound for Mars,” “Ah, keep on lookin’, y’all!” – in “It’ll Be Me”) and baffling curveballs like “Bachelor Boy” (which, I now see, points the way directly, both musically and lyrically, to “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”).

Then it was 1963, and the Beatles and Co. had happened, and Cliff was suddenly adrift. Listening to things like the ghastly “Lucky Lips” – even Leiber and Stoller, like Homer, occasionally nodded – it is easy to see why the Beatles had to happen; I don’t think it an over-generalisation, and indeed would still think of it as a truism, to say that the fundamental difference between American and British popular music is that American musicians sound as though they mean it, that they have something to say, to communicate, whereas British musicians primarily seek to impress their superiors and not upset their audiences – so, apart from big exceptions like the Beatles or the Pistols or the Smiths, everyone has an eye on the catch-all/impress-none demographic, or getting a major label deal, or not rocking the boat. British pop quite often has to apologise for being both British and pop, and I think Cliff at his most eager to please, and therefore at his worst, exemplifies this tendency; the same sinking feeling one experiences at seeing diet this or that light in the supermarket, blanded out, neither lovable nor detestable, just in the middle, taking up space, appealing to “everyone,” ultimately an obstruction, a sustained exercise in self-denial (“yes, just give us individual slices of cheesecake because we deserve no better – not like those vulgar Americans who eat WHOLE cheesecakes!” If ever a nation needed a kick up the backside, followed by being dragged by the scruff of the neck, at bayonet point, into the future, Britain still does).

The first half of 40 Golden Greats ends with his tremulous reading of “It’s All In The Game”; he still hasn’t sorted out his lower range, but now he sounds more like an adult, and has the Mike Sammes Singers rather than Estuary-accented dolly birds backing him; this is the beginning of the mature ballad style which will eventually transmutate into the Cliff we know today. Meanwhile, “Don’t Talk To Him” musically acknowledges that there is now this thing called Merseybeat, but remains one of the most paranoid pop hits of its, or any, time, even with its built-in archaisms (“Sue and Jean,” “merely a whim”). Both songs were, I note, kept off number one by “She Loves You.”

As disc two commences (after three record-only double album excursions, or regimens, I felt it right to go for the luxury of the CD edition), we find Cliff in 1964, still busy working things, and himself, out. “Constantly,” a song of French origin, offers him more challenging ballad material, both harmonically and lyrically. “On The Beach,” however, tries too hard to recapture the old magic, with its numerous, desperate lyrical and musical references to bossa nova and “Twist And Shout.” “I Could Easily Fall,” his Christmas offering of that year, is a clumsy mongrelisation of ’63 Beatles and ’62 Elvis with ’64 Supremes handclaps. Number one in the chart at the time was “I Feel Fine”; he was in danger of being lapped on the track.

Perhaps mercifully, his two biggest hits of 1965 – “The Minute You’re Gone” and “Wind Me Up” – were recorded well away from Mr Paramor, in Nashville under the watchful eye of Billy Sherrill. He gives “The Minute” a fine, concentrated reading and it deservedly put him back at number one. “Wind Me Up,” however, is the first in a bizarre series of what I can only describe as melancholic fourth-wall lectures, or pleas, to his audience. He casts himself as a tin soldier – though he was doing pantomime at the time – who is, as he has been in previous tracks, on the shelf. “You don’t really need me/When there’s a hundred other toys,” he sings, and if this sentiment is not that far away from that of Altered Images’ “Dead Pop Stars,” then I think it intentional; he senses that his time might be stumbling to an end, and may even be quietly saying a coded goodbye to his fans, or at least testing their loyalty. “Visions,” from 1966, continues in much the same vein, with one of the most desolate middle-eights in British pop; two repeats of “When will we meet again/When, when, when?” Perhaps to prove to himself as much as his fans that he still knew what time it was, he commissioned “Blue Turns To Grey” from Jagger and Richards, and despite the song’s melodic resemblance to “Here Comes The Night,” he does surprisingly well with a very characteristic Stones riff (and Hank doesn’t do a bad Keef impression either). He then concluded 1966 with the cheery, upbeat “In The Country,” very much in the style of “Paperback Writer” with some McGuinn guitar chorales and, at one point, the sound of breaking glass.

In 1967 he made one of his greatest records, “The Day I Met Marie.” Written for him by Hank Marvin, his dazed (“Baby, go to sleep now”) yet unmistakably English (“Least of all me”) vocal fit in perfectly with that late summer’s disorientated pastoralism, the hazy acoustic dreams alternating with the surreally laughing eyes of a brass band (“Jugband Blues”!). It was strenuously denied that “Marie” was a “girl” along the same lines as the “Mary” of the Association’s “Along Comes Mary,” but Cliff’s wide-eyed innocence confirms that, in his mind, he is singing about a woman, real or (still) ideal.

But he ended that year with another fourth-wall ballad, “All My Love”; not content with the Beatles, he now had Tom and Engelbert pressing in on his audience from the other side, and there is no small degree of resentment in his performance, with couplets including “Now there’s no place for me/In the future you see,” and “I don’t understand you/I’ve done all I can do!” He seemed in desperate straits, and even his momentary Eurovision triumph “Congratulations,” a swift number one in Britain down to residual good-hearted nostalgia – remember how things used to be, guys ‘n’ gals? – wasn’t really enough to stem the downward flow.

Jumping over things like “Don’t Forget To Catch Me” and “Big Ship” – the latter an early expression of his Christian beliefs – 1969 finds him in a deeper hole than ever before, with the extraordinary “Throw Down A Line,” a song Hank Marvin had written with Hendrix in mind (as his own yes-it’s-really-me solo spells out), and Cliff bites down on the song with a terrifying resilience, with all its poor boys hanging in a nowhere tree, its grown talons of steel, and – finally, after all this time – an extended scream: “WHY DON’T THEY SEE THE END?” 1969 was nothing if not a time of apocalypse in our charts – everything from “Grapevine” to “Cold Turkey” signified this – and Cliff found himself right in the middle.

Then things became really problematic. “Goodbye Sam” was MoR bubblegum, feeble even by his own 1961 standards (and I’m not sure that its writers Mitch Murray, Peter Callander and Geoff Stephens weren’t aware of this tendency in him and tailored the song appropriately), but it was his fiftieth single and did decent business, with the accent on both those words. Then the long hardcore Christian spell in the wilderness, here highlighted by the toe-curdling Good News Bible advert that is “Sing A Song Of Freedom” (freedom from rather than freedom to, as the song didn’t point out) and the previously cited “Power To All Our Friends” (although a definitive compilation of Cliff’s early seventies work in this area is sorely needed; gems like “Silvery Rain” and “Jesus” remain largely hidden). By the time of Take Me High, he was making movies on the Birmingham Ship Canal rather than in Greece. “(You Keep Me) Hangin’ On,” his only 1974 hit, is a slightly resentful, country-tinged tribute to the listener: “You know how to…thrill me and control me/Just enough to keep me/A-hangin’ on.”

By now he was being produced by David Mackay rather than Paramor, but in 1975 the hits stopped altogether (not helped by the singer withdrawing his single “Honky Tonk Angel” after someone explained to him precisely what a honky tonk angel was), and by 1976 Bruce Welch was prevailed upon again, pretty much to revive his standing. It was exactly the kick he needed, and he proceeded to put out the best work of his career thus far. “Miss You Nights” may well still be his single greatest performance; an art song, yes, with many poetical curlicues and emotional ambiguities, but Cliff understands the song’s message instinctively and gets completely into its skin. In his performance one can tell that he knows what it’s been like to be hurt, patronised, ridiculed and God knows what else over the preceding two decades, and now he has his chance to show what he wants to do with a ballad, he shows it; sensitively backed up by Tony Rivers and the Castaways, wearing their best Beach Boy hats (including a heartstopping acappella-only verse – “Thinking/About leaving/How to cut the thread and leave it all behind”), he sings as someone who has been, above all, disappointed by life and love, thinking of all the chances he had, wondering whether he should even keep going, although he keeps going, because he doesn’t know how to do anything else. Always understated and heartfelt, never overblown – though the song gives him plenty of chances – “Miss You Nights” is Cliff’s key to the kingdom.

He was on a roll, and he knew it. “Devil Woman” was maybe the most convincing rocker he had ever done – thematically we may not have strayed too far from “Honky Tonk Angel,” but Cliff was having none of that; this was, he said, a song about Satan, and temptation – and his “Um!”s more than make up for his previous “Well!”s and “Yeah!”s. For once, the song crossed over big time to the USA (when asked on radio why Cliff had never managed to extend his worldwide popularity to the States, singer Bobby Vee philosophically replied that maybe he should have toured there more) and after a lifetime of compromise, just as though the Gracelands Elvis was by some temporal miracle moving back towards the Sun Elvis, it seemed as though the real Cliff Richard was at last revealing himself. The two closing tracks here end the album on a high; “I Can’t Ask For Anymore Than You” cocks more than an ear to Leo Sayer (though technically it precedes “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing”) with a completely convincing Cliff falsetto performance, and the symbolic line “I feel like a slave that’s just been freed.” And, finally, what was then his most recent big hit, “My Kinda Life,” a confident rocker owing something to “Johnny B Goode” but otherwise entirely Cliff’s own; here he looks back happily on his pathway, and growls a real song of freedom (now, rather than polite “Well!”s, he growls “WWWEEEELLLLLL-UH!” as Elvis would have done). He is summing it all up, and yet the impression left by 40 Golden Greats is that, despite all the popularity, hits and rewards, he still, somehow, wants something more - and, moreover, is 100% sure that he will get it. He is totally comfortable in his own skin, and it is nice to come to an album which has something of a happy ending, except of course for Cliff it is not an ending; we will be coming back to the next chapter of this story in the late eighties, and it is worth remembering that at this point he is about two years away from having the biggest hit of his career.

It is a reassuring beacon, on a 1977 landscape that is about to have every trace of reassurance removed from it.

Something had to give. And the ground is now touchable.

You know what’s coming next.

Monday 20 August 2012

Diana ROSS and The SUPREMES: 20 Golden Greats

(#190: 17 September 1977, 7 weeks)

Track listing: Where Did Our Love Go/Baby Love/Come See About Me/Stop! In The Name Of Love/Back In My Arms Again/I Hear A Symphony/My World Is Empty Without You/Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart/You Can’t Hurry Love/You Keep Me Hangin’ On/Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone/The Happening/Reflections/In And Out Of Love/Forever Came Today/Some Things You Never Get Used To/Love Child/I’m Livin’ In Shame/No Matter What Sign You Are/Someday We’ll Be Together

Not all of EMI’s Golden Greats series have survived onto CD. One look at this highly regrettable cover should tell you why EMTV 5 did not get an upgrade (actually, the cover was revived in 1998 for a 2CD set entitled 40 Golden Motown Greats which is most assuredly not the same album as this one, and indeed loses some of its most vital tracks; the album remains in print but the cover was discreetly changed). Although it is our duty here at Then Play Long to bring you as many of the original album covers as possible, just so you can see what they looked like, this is the cover I’m most ashamed of putting up since the Blind Faith album – and perhaps tells the curious outsider more about 1977 Britain than they strictly need to know (and this was not even the worst offender in the series; EMTV 6 we’ll be getting to soon enough, but EMTV 7 was the optimistically titled and horrendously designed 30 Golden Greats by our old friends The George Mitchell Minstrels, an album which, happily, will be no concern of this blog; and no, you can’t get that one on CD either).

Far more intriguing is the inner sleeve, and if you encounter this record in your local charity shop, you should make sure you pick up a copy with the original inner sleeve, advertising other Motown records of potential interest to purchasers under the umbrella title “THE MOTOWN COLLECTION.” Alongside firm favourites from the likes of Diana, Marvin, Stevie, Smokey and the Commodores, we have curious items like Jermaine Jackson’s Feel The Fire, the cover of which must surely have helped inspire that of Hot Cakes, the riotous new album by comedy rock band The Darkness; In My Stride by David Ruffin, who looks hip and happy on the cover even though he is in imminent danger of falling sideways into the street; and the unspeakable Musical Massage by Leon Ware. Now maybe this album is a lost masterpiece that has been sampled ten thousand times – not being a “record collector,” I wouldn’t know about such things – but all I can say about the cover is that it must have inspired the twenty-year-old Tim Westwood in ways we really don’t need to investigate in any sort of depth.

But, anyway, the Supremes; Motown’s prize act of the sixties, Gordy’s number one priority, and thus the act which got the pick of the creative juices flowing in and around Hitsville, U.S.A. Their total of twelve Billboard number one singles in the sixties was equalled only by the Beatles, and never surpassed, although I tend not to think of them as “Black America’s Beatles” – that is a title which would more aptly belong to The Temptations – but as Black America’s Beach Boys, and not simply because they sing “Good vibrations” all the way through “No Matter What Sign You Are”; they were a template for increasingly audacious experiments in soul-pop which never lost track of their original spirit, as hard as Diana Ross might have tried to do so. In fact, although Ross was never going to be anybody’s Queen of Soul, her imperfect voice was ideal for the Supremes’ records, allowing the experimentation to filter through while not overpowering her records with her personality.

The first thirteen of these twenty tracks – including all of side one – are about as perfect and breathtaking as pop gets, bridging the gap between two different generations and philosophies of girl groups. “I Hear A Symphony” is as good an argument for not jumping off Vincent Thomas Bridge as any I can think of. The use of the vibraharp on “Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart” is comparable with Gary Burton’s Lofty Fake Anagram. The thing is...I’ve already written about these songs, in entry #52 to be precise, and some three years after writing that, I see no reason to alter or reiterate my views. Indeed, some readers may be surprised to learn that entry #52 is the third most popular entry in this tale to date; only two other entries have achieved more “hits.” I’ve no idea why this should be the case, but clearly I do not wish to meddle with a proven popular piece of writing. Of the later Supremes tracks here, I have dealt with “Love Child,” “No Matter What Sign You Are” and “Someday We’ll Be Together” in the context of various Motown Chartbusters compilations. This means that there are only four tracks to write about here, and the unwary reader is warned that this will regularly recur in future years; recycled or re-ordered compilations about which there will be almost nothing new to say. Those wishing to know why the hits were so important are referred to the original entry.

Of the four tracks still needing rounding up – as though writing about music were rustling – none was an especially major hit, but all are redolent of the same insolent invention present in the better-known Supremes tracks. “In And Out Of Love” ambles along deceptively like a Nancy Sinatra number, only to be quickly detoured by Holland-Dozier-Holland’s characteristic labyrinth of unexpected chord changes, such that the group momentarily encounter orchestral chords that might be better expected to climax a Roy Orbison ballad (“Can’t seem to find that everlasting love,” muses Ross). But in “Forever Came Today,” everything springs into blossom; now Ross is bolder, more confident – note how the orchestra swells up behind her declaration “I know that we had laid the plan for everlasting love – at last, at LAST!” The arrangement brims with originality; stately muted trumpets, baritone sax, electric piano, tambourine, and – buzzing throughout – a theramin. The song takes the pain of “Reflections” and turns it into joy.

“Some Things You Never Get Used To,” written by Ashford and Simpson, finds Ross on the verge of a breakdown; the castanets leitmotif seems to mock her anguish, only for a harp to hopelessly cascade the strings into the studio on the gasped line “I thought I saw a glimpse of you.” Elsewhere, Ross giggles, chides herself, mutters – and for one world-suspending second, the song stops altogether. Finally, “I’m Livin’ In Shame,” written by the same team responsible for “Love Child” (Pam Sawyer, R Dean Taylor and Frank Wilson among them), tries a little too hard to be a follow-up but acts as a nice self-mocking turnaround for Ross, being essentially an update of the Shangri-La’s “I Can Never Go Home Anymore”; Ross, ashamed of her mother’s one dirty dress and vulgar lack of manners (“Never used a fork or a dinner plate”), tries to hide her existence from her “uptown friends.” As she gets on in the world, her mother appears to have gone nowhere – not even using the ticket to a holiday in Spain that Ross bought her – and, worse, is completely unaware that she is a grandmother (“She had a grandson, two years old, I never even showed her”). Inevitably, she dies alone – while making some “homemade jam” – and Ross suddenly realises how vapid, hypocritical and scummy her own life has become. “Mama, I miss you,” she murmurs blankly, more blank than Connie Francis at the end of “Together,” while strings and harp patiently wait for the seventies to happen. The album, if not its cover, is, at its best, as good as albums get, but you do feel towards the end that Ross gets somewhat distracted, waiting to go out there alone, and be her own star. In the seventies, it was the most common of stories.

Sunday 19 August 2012

Elvis PRESLEY: Elvis' 40 Greatest

(#189: 10 September 1977, 1 week)

Track listing: My Baby Left Me/Heartbreak Hotel/Blue Suede Shoes/Hound Dog/Love Me Tender/Got A Lot O’ Livin’ To Do/(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear/Party/All Shook Up/Old Shep/Don’t/Hard Headed Woman/King Creole/Jailhouse Rock/A Big Hunk O’ Love/I Got Stung/One Night/(Now And Then There’s) A Fool Such As I/I Need Your Love Tonight/Stuck On You/Fever/It’s Now Or Never/Are You Lonesome Tonight?/Wooden Heart/Surrender/(Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame/Wild In The Country/There's Always Me/Rock-A Hula Baby/Can’t Help Falling In Love With You/Good Luck Charm/She’s Not You/Return To Sender/You’re The Devil In Disguise/Crying In The Chapel/Guitar Man/In The Ghetto/Suspicious Minds/There Goes My Everything/Don’t Cry Daddy

(Author’s Note: The most pressing problem with this record was what to call it. Working from the original Arcade double LP, the spine says Elvis 40 Greatest Hits while all four of the yellow labels give it the ungrammatical title of “Elvis’s 40 Greatest”, but I’ve gone with the apostrophe-respecting title as featured on the sleeve itself. Perhaps the elusiveness of the title helps pinpoint Elvis as rock’s Rosebud.)

“As his third decade approaches, Presley faces the world secure in the knowledge that as far as its (sic) concerned he’ll be around for ever.”
(Mike Ledbitter (sic), from his sleevenote to Elvis’ 40 Greatest Hits)

How wrong Mike Ledbetter turned out to be, yet how right he ultimately was. You still can’t get away from him. I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing just over thirty-five years ago, on Tuesday 16 August 1977, when I heard the news. I was, as was my custom of a Tuesday evening, in my bedroom, listening to Radio Luxembourg’s Top 30 countdown show, presented by Bob Stewart, who, despite his sonorous Midwest tones, actually came from Liverpool. We had already been told to stay tuned after the show for the eleven o’clock news for “some very important news.” It was about 10:15. “Way Down” had just entered the Luxembourg chart, I think at #29, and was played without comment. But I was listening to the record at, as I remember it, number five – so it may well have been after 10:30 – when my father rushed in to tell me what had happened. We adjourned to the front room, where the grave face of Reginald Bosanquet on News At Ten was reporting a “newsflash” with a recent Presley picture superimposed above him, to the left. He had died, rather ingloriously, on the toilet, of a massive heart attack, at the impossibly old-sounding age of forty-two.

Everybody knew it had been long coming, but to hear of it happening was still a shock. It shouldn’t have been; I recall at least two solemn double-page NME spreads in the preceding twelve months wondering when he was going to end, and whether he could still pull off an eleventh-hour escape. It is not as though he didn’t try – hear his extraordinary 1976 reading of “Hurt” or the first half of side two of his Moody Blue album and tell me he wasn’t making an effort – but…well, I’m convinced that right the way through to the end he would have given at least one limb to be Dean Martin in his old age, to have the ability to do nothing with regal splendour, to sit there watching old Westerns on his TV; but Martin had made, or found, his own kind of peace (out of arguably far more grievous circumstances than Presley). Colonel Parker may or may not have had anything to do with it, but I read somewhere that at the time of his death, Presley was close to broke and had to keep on performing, keep earning. That will have to remain, by necessity, speculative, but despite decades of supposed evidence to the contrary, Presley’s death was real, unavoidable.

People responded in different ways. Lester Bangs wrote that in his neighbourhood the news was met with near-total indifference. He said that if it had been Donna Summer who had died, the whole district would have gone into mourning (as things turned out, who, apart from those who lived through the times, was left to mourn for Summer when she actually did die, earlier this year?). John Lydon and Jerry Lee Lewis were scornful; Danny Baker and Tom Petty were respectful. Maybe how you, as an individual, responded to the death of Elvis marked out which side of the fence you stood behind. In the summer of 1977, that was certainly how it seemed.

After eleven o’clock, Tony Prince took over on Luxembourg; dazed, frequently in tears, just quietly playing Elvis records and reminiscing into the small hours, as long as it took him to negotiate his grief. The world stopped for a little while. Not long afterwards, it was time for me to return to school, for the start of my third year, when we were supposed to start taking this education thing seriously. There was some gentle mocking on the part of my classroom peers over Presley’s passing, and it struck me that, for nearly everyone my age (or so it seemed), Presley didn’t speak for them, or to them. It’s fair to say that the girls in my class tended to like Abba, Boney M, ELO and David Soul, whereas the boys went for Genesis, Queen, AC/DC and Rush. Elvis was somebody your parents liked. He was regarded as something of a square. I am not sure whether any of these artists came close to sniffing his shoes, never mind filling them, and in any case nor could they have done; only Presley could have unbolted the door, made the impact on life – not just on music – that he did. If the postwar generation wanted to burn, not just forget, “the war,” and not grow up as robotic replicas of their parents, Presley was the active agent who forced newness through to that society.

The record at number five that was playing when I heard the news? It was “Something Better Change” by the Stranglers, a coincidence which at the time I thought hugely apt. Lena and I watched the video again this week, filmed on a roof in a presumably now long-demolished part of old (west?) London, and we were struck by how charming the song was at root (despite “stick my fingers right up your nose” and Hugh Cornwell’s half-deranged guitar solo which now makes me think of Thurston Moore); Lena said structurally it could almost be an Abba song, a comparison helped by the uncanny resemblance of drummer Jet Black to Benny Andersson. But at the time it looked and sounded dirty, dangerous, rebellious – in other words, everything that the Elvis Presley of twenty-one years earlier had promised, and much of which is still evident throughout the first one-and-a-half sides of this collection.

Observant readers will have noticed that it took nearly a month after Presley’s death for his back catalogue to flood the album charts properly. Possibly “trickle” is a more fitting verb than “flood,” but it is true that bereaved punters rushed to the shops to buy anything that had Elvis’ name on it. In the week that 40 Greatest made number one – and it should be remembered that it was only at number one for one week – he is said to have had some twenty-seven different albums in the Top 100, a feat never bettered. This may well have been the case, but since the official published album chart at the time was only a Top 60, the deluge was not fully documented. It is salutary to note which of his back catalogue did re-enter that chart; the Moody Blue album, which was his current record, obviously did very well, but so did the easy listening collection Welcome To My World, the soundtracks from G.I. Blues and Blue Hawaii and the second and third volumes of Elvis’ Golden Records (though not, significantly, Volume 1). The budget-priced The Elvis Presley Sun Collection appeared on the lists, as did Charly’s nearly identical compilation The Sun Years. Other compilations included Elvis In Demand, a fan club-inspired collection of rarities, Pictures Of Elvis, a budget-priced collection of his movie songs, and Hits Of The ‘70s.

But 40 Greatest - the third of this year’s mammoth forty-track double compilations to top the charts – did best. Possibly this was because of the legend “Including 18 No. 1 Hits” which is repeated, in varying formats and cases, thrice on the sleeve – but “Way Down” became only his seventeenth UK number one single, and the sixteenth – 1970’s “The Wonder Of You” – is not included at all. How, therefore, eighteen? The answer is: double A-sides (although curiously “His Latest Flame” is not partnered here by “Little Sister”) but both Ledbetter’s sleevenote and the strange sequencing of side four suggest that this compilation may have been in preparation for some time; of the forty tracks here, thirty-five come from before 1964 (“Crying In The Chapel,” though not released as a single until 1965, was actually recorded in 1960) and there is only one track from the seventies.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this album did less than well at the time of its initial TV-advertised chart run. Charting in the summer of 1975, it pottered morosely around the lower end of the chart for several months before reluctantly peaking at #16 at the beginning of 1976. If Presley appeared less marketable in 1975 than Jim Reeves or Perry Como, then this may have been due to constantly changing chart rules (since on its original release in late 1974 it apparently sold well enough to top the charts but did not appear due to a "no TV-advertised albums" policy which was swiftly overturned), but then Presley's shares at that time were generally a listless market. The main Presley event that year was the long-awaited release of the Sun Collection; scholarly, thorough, opening a generation’s ears to where this music, this force, originally came from. The 1975 Elvis had little to offer in comparison; a good Chuck Berry cover (“Promised Land,” top ten in early spring), a forgettable rocker (“T.R.O.U.B.L.E.”) and a humdrum reading of “Green Green Grass Of Home” for Christmas. And at least two “new” Presley albums, seeping out with little art or reasoning; but it is noticeable how resistant Presley’s back catalogue has been to “good taste” – find the nearest bargain bin and wonder at how much ill-planned junk came out, frontloaded with oldies people already had five times over, with two new tracks for the gullible, and whole legions of records where the singer is plainly not really trying, or feels he needs to try. So, when he died, his fans just went out and snapped up whatever colourful postcards they could find, anything as long as it would act as both souvenir and talisman – a deity for the working classes (and do not overlook the ravine of middle class snobbery that supports the airy chimera of “good taste”).

Thus, if his passing were to be commemorated, how better than with a two-year-old TV-advertised album which was far from complete, but included most of the songs people recognised, from a time when they…felt better, about the world and about themselves? When the future was theirs to control as they wanted, before “life” crashed down on them and turned them into their parents. When Elvis stood (up) for…something. Or some thing that they’d never seen or felt before, to make them realise that “the future” was once possible.

It is easy to forget that initial impact, or simply not know it if you were too young to experience it. But the first fifteen or so tracks on 40 Greatest give a palpable idea of how it must have felt. “My Baby Left Me,” from 1956, is an unpredictable opener – but the compilers made a point of throwing in the odd curveball throughout the record – and is the record’s most immediate link to the singer’s Sun past, DJ Fontana kicking down the stable doors with his opening military tattoo, Bill Black hustling in with his jazz bass walk, Presley tackling the song at about twice the speed of Arthur Crudup, roaring “Play THIS blues, boy!” at Scotty Moore, Fontana hurling his snare like a lance at Presley’s two vocal re-entries. He is impatient, ready to kickstart the future.

“Heartbreak Hotel” is a torch song thrown on a pylon to the point of incineration and depicts a battle between respectable past and fuck-you future, Moore’s guitar fighting with Floyd Cramer’s Nat Cole piano tinkles for prominence, Presley smouldering inside like a Memphis terrorist, so torn apart by loss and anger that words become merely a hook for his glottal mumbling to hang suspended. Moore ends the song by inventing Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross” and starts a whole lot of other ones.

“Blue Suede Shoes” and “Hound Dog” add to the demolishing of the past, forming perhaps the most powerful and enraged sequence of rock singles that side of the Pistols; the Jordanaires’ nice antique barbershop harmonies on “Hound Dog” get engulfed by Moore’s hysterical guitar and Fontana’s Gatling gun snare; that politesse won’t work anymore. Presley is spitting out the future; how many singers sound as furious and betrayed as he does on “Hound Dog”?

After that, his RCA work became more obviously “produced,” but the power is still vividly present. “Got A Lot O’ Livin’” demands tomorrow happen (and his “c’mon bayyyy-bee!”s already sound like Jerry Lee Lewis), and with “Teddy Bear” he fights any nascent imposed Fabian tendencies (the teen singer, not Sidney and Beatrice Webb) with nothing more than a priapic mumble (“Jussswwwoooooonnnnnabe…”). The tasteful Shearing block chords of “Party” are met by a hangdog refusal to let go of the song. Nobody can really argue with “All Shook Up” or “Jailhouse Rock” – the latter is so besotted with the notion of rebellious communal bonding that thoughts of sexuality or co-ed jails simply do not come to mind. Even the Dixieland horns which pop up briefly on “King Creole” or more fully on “Hard Headed Woman” cannot impede the sheer momentum of Presley’s force; he sings in the full knowledge that these are his times and he feels pretty good about it. “Big Hunk O’ Love,” released when he was already in the Army, more or less invents Led Zeppelin, with Presley’s eight “NO!”s answering the Jordanaires’ deep growls, askew piano and drums, a strobe-driven, near-electronic rhythm (a possible Eddie Cochran influence?) and the singer’s unmistakable Plant-inducing vocals: “But I ain’t greedy, baby/All I want is all you got!” before Fontana’s cataclysmic drums massacre the track.

And yet it has to be recognised that the reason why millions loved, mourned and still love Presley is perhaps not because of Presley the Rock Rebel. Clues can be found early on, in “Love Me Tender” and “Old Shep” – their love may more readily be based on the notion that Presley was the greatest popular balladeer his side of Sinatra. If the history of twentieth-century popular singing represents a gradually increasing closeness between singer and listener, then with each phase, each major singer became closer and, therefore, more emotional. Via Crosby’s confidential whispers through Sinatra’s tangible emotionalism, Presley’s ballad style introduces a more naked emotion; when his voice trembles, so does the listener’s heart. In a world seemingly falling to pieces, the vulnerable listener may find concomitance with the possibility that Presley himself is falling to pieces. It gives them a weird but sensible feeling of security.

So on “Love Me Tender,” on RCA’s part not just his first movie song, but also part of a longer-term plan to widen his appeal – the “folksinger” aspect prevalent throughout Rock And Roll No 2 - Presley drops to reach the listener’s ear, and the listener gets something they might not quite catch from Sinatra. Something that reminds them of ancient winds. “Old Shep” is maybe the most startling of all these early songs. Always an Elvis favourite amongst his Scottish fans – see, the King can do “sentimental” too! – this is actually quite a bleak performance, accentuated by Fontana’s rhetorical cymbals, blowing in another wind; rarely has a major performer sounded so utterly alone as Presley does when he’s standing at the back of the barn, gun aimed at the sick old dog’s head, and intones, quietly, “I’ve nowhere to run/I wish they would shoot me instead,” and suddenly he is not singing a sentimental old tale about the bond between a boy and his dog but about himself.

“Don’t,” aside from being a possible jibe at Pat Boone’s “Don’t Forbid Me” – his 1957 attempt to “do” Elvis – is a profoundly disturbing record. Presley’s pleas, if pleas they be, sound more than vaguely threatening; nowhere in the song is there any indication that this is happening with the woman’s consent. “If you think this is just a game I’m playin’,” he hisses at one point, and at another, “I will never leave you…heaven knows I won’t.” Every time he tries to touch her, she says – or screams? – “Don’t.” At the other end of side two, this scenario is revisited; on “I Need Your Love Tonight” he sings, or sneers, “You better stay/POW-POW!/Don’t run away!” On “Stuck On You” – his artistically and commercially disappointing post-Army comeback record – he chortles “Hide in the kitchen! Hide in the hall!/Ain’t gonna do you no…GOOD at all!” before he rumbles “Becoooooozzzzziiiiiimmmm…” Nowhere on this side is he ever fulfilled, romantically. On “A Fool Such As I,” he is nearly overwhelmed by the contrabass of Felton Jarvis, and the similarities to “Way Down” – same tempo, same key – cannot be over-stated. On “I Got Stung” one is struck by the records’ exponentially increasing tempi. As for “One Night,” he sings the clean lyrics dirtier than he would ever have sung the dirty ones; that is, until he got the chance on the ’68 TV Special, when quite a lot of pent-up, held-in resentment was suddenly released.

Still, the rockers were getting formulaic, so Presley – or Parker – was probably right to concentrate on ballads this side of the Army. Side three begins with “Fever”; though a grievously overrated song, Presley can still give a convincing impression of a simmering pot on the point of boiling over. Then he got his chance to be Dean Martin, but somewhat outdid him; his “It’s Now Or Never” foregrounds the vulnerability that is essential if we are to listen to his impatient demands for sex. The spoken word setting for “Lonesome Tonight” would be beyond corny in anyone else’s hands – and the theatrical analogy is rather overdone – but again Presley sings it as though he were about to shoot his pet dog in the head, followed by himself. He turns camp into actual camp by never laughing (which is why the subsequent “corpsing” live version breaks the dream). He makes you believe in trash, and thus elevates it to high art.

“Wooden Heart” is dreadful Lawrence Welk stuff, but on “Surrender” Presley is positively febrile; unlike “It’s Now Or Never,” and despite also reaching number one, this Neapolitan song variant is almost never revived, and it still sounds unsettling, Presley going from screeching bellow to pleading whimper and back within the space of one bar, desperate to have it (“And your heart’s on-a-FYAH!” “Won’t you please (he pleads, before suddenly diving to the floor of the ocean) SURRENDER TO ME?” The song is hastily faded, presumably before any further damage can be done. “His Latest Flame” is virtually courtly in comparison, but already we feel a sense that things are now happening beyond the singer’s control; he sounds peeved rather than angry or hurt that his girl has run off with his best friend. “Rock-A Hula Baby” is chiefly notable for its Adam and the Ants percussion intro and some mildly unhinged, pinging guitar work.

But this side also boasts three of his greatest ballad performances; the arrangement of “Wild In The Country” doesn’t do him any favours, but his is an extraordinary sensitive vocal, at times androgynous (and sounding like Antony Hegarty). Similarly, “There’s Always Me” is nearly undermined by bombastic Sons of the Pioneers choirs and a preposterous orchestral climax, but nothing can obscure Presley’s remarkable vocal; the song could lope from the annals of doo-wop (as “Crying In The Chapel” was derived from the Orioles’ 1953 original) but now Presley is no longer hungrily demanding love, but plaintively requesting it, and then only if all else fails or falls through – it is a song of emotional patience and Presley renders it with a justice he perhaps could not have imagined even three years previously. And “Can’t Help Falling In Love” may yet be the key to Elvis’ kingdom, where all these elements coalesce and unify, and he turns the performance into a hymn.

All of which makes the final side extremely problematic. As though having exhausted his emotional reserves, the Elvis of 1962 decided to make like any everyday pre-Beatles teen idol; all of the first four tracks on this side made number one, but they are listless and really could have been done by any Bobby or Brian of the time. By trying to appeal to everybody, he lost sight of what originally made him appeal to everyone. “Devil In Disguise,” which was lucky to scrape a single week at number one at the outset of Beatlemania in 1963, was an example of shutting the stable doors after the horse had bolted; the attempts to “rock” now sound desperate, epileptic. The success of the five-year-old “Chapel” showed up the rest of his 1965 output rather embarrassingly, and so he became as irrelevant to the world as any Brian or Bobby of their time, turning out the hack movies, living if you could consider it living, or a living.

To have just five tracks to cover this “latest” stretch seems perverse and as rushed as the last verse of “We Didn’t Start The Fire” (“Moonshot! Woodstock! Watergate! Punk! Rock!”). 1968’s “Guitar Man” was not a great record, but at least showed him trying to become relevant. Then the Resurrection, the TV Special, and finally back to Vegas; but the fact remains that trying to shoehorn his entire post-Beatles output into five songs renders him the equivalent of some bobbysox star who grew his hair in 1969 and tried to be “with it.” “In The Ghetto” was as solemn and, I think, heartfelt as “Love Me Tender” – but did he really believe it? Meanwhile, “Suspicious Minds” was less a major comeback, more a shattering apocalypse; now he has no power to make his Other go or stay, he is pleading with her to believe him with the gnawing realisation that this decade didn’t turn out to be his playground the way the fifties were; all he can see on the horizon is work, work and more work, more self-mockery, more shit to block out the deepest of pains, and quite apart from a “Hey Jude” let’s-all-pull-together scenario, “Minds” is a nightmare loop from which Presley knows he can never escape; the song makes to fade but then comes back in, like the phantom he can’t shake off, the feather weighing his shoulder down at three in the morning, dreaming of the virgin Evangeline but becoming lost in the darkest of forests (is the Cure’s “A Forest” an Elvis tribute? – “The girl was never there/It’s always the same/Running towards nothing/Again and again and again and…”) and which could theoretically repeat forever until he has the courage to switch it off, or alternatively if life switches him off.

Two inconclusive tracks to conclude. This “There Goes My Everything” is from 1971 – as mentioned above, the only track here that comes from the seventies - and his voice is audibly fragmenting “SlOOOOOOOOOOOOOOwly walkin’,” as if he doesn’t give a damn that his life is ebbing away from him. And rather than “The Wonder Of You,” which would have made a far more fitting ending, and maybe even a happier one, being cheered by his audience (“You touch my hand and I’m a KING!”), we have the most desultory of endings, 1969’s soppy “Don’t Cry Daddy,” where he can’t even cope with children overriding his grief. His baby left him at the beginning, and at the end he is left with a baby. It is annoying – you mean you’ve taken us this far, just to drop us off in the middle of nowhere? – but entirely in keeping with the semi-random nature of the record; it was enough for his fans to mourn for a week, that is to say, a lifetime, before the world moved on, even though for most of his fans, the world could never really move on, or be moved the way he moved it. He’ll be around for ever, all right; if you want a monument to Elvis, look around those places many people would be reluctant to look at in the first instance.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

Connie FRANCIS: 20 All Time Greats

(#188: 27 August 1977, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Who’s Sorry Now?/Stupid Cupid/My Happiness/Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool/Carolina Moon/Pretty Good Lovin’/Where The Boys Are/Robot Man/When The Boy In Your Arms (Is The Boy In Your Heart)/Mama/Lipstick On Your Collar/Among My Souvenirs/Many Tears Ago/Breakin’ In A Brand New Broken Heart/V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N/Together/Jealous Heart/You Always Hurt The One You Love/My Heart Has A Mind Of Its Own/My Child

With this record, Then Play Long reaches an important milestone. In over twenty-one years of album charts, Connie Francis – albeit with the latest in the seemingly unending line of TV-advertised oldies compilations – managed to do what Doris Day, Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin and Carole King had not, and became the first female solo artist to have a number one album in Britain. In a lot of ways she was there first; Wanda Jackson may have been hipper, and Brenda Lee, who would come on the scene a little later, was more naturally adaptable, but in terms of fifties/pre-Beatles solo girl pop, Francis carried the banner more or less single-handed; she was the first female teenager to get a British number one single – “Who’s Sorry Now?” topped our lists while she was nineteen – the first female singer of the rock era to score three US number ones (her record would not be equalled until Diana Ross in 1976), and worldwide the best-selling female vocalist of the fifties and sixties.

And yet the trailblazer has, by necessity, to be alone, and although surrounded by people, it is fair to say that Francis, though never really alone, was on her own, ready to make all the mistakes so that those who came after her wouldn’t. Her father, George Franconero, Sr, was a roofer from Newark, New Jersey, and while I am sure that he loved his daughter and probably, deep down, wanted the best for her, I am reminded of what that lynchpin of modern philosophy, Linus van Pelt, had to say on the matter: “No greater damage has been done to humanity than by people who thought they were doing the right thing.” For Francis’ father became a monster, an unwanted mash-up of Murry Wilson and Colonel Parker.

It all started innocently enough. Noting his three-year-old daughter’s interest in music, he bought her an accordion in the hope she might one day open a music school. She found she could sing, too, and from the age of four was put to work, performing at local talent shows, beauty contests, etc. and building up a reasonable local reputation. In 1953 she made it onto Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, whereupon Godfrey advised Concetta Franconero to anglicise her name and drop the accordion. Years of apprenticeship followed; she sang demo discs for the attention of other singers and got to know a young impresario named Don Kirshner. He got her work singing on advertising jingles, some of which Kirshner co-wrote with a kid from the Bronx named Walden Robert Cassotto, who later changed his name to Bobby Darin. She made some records of her own with only limited success, and by late 1957 her label MGM was ready to drop her and she was ready to go and study medicine at New York University. She had one last session, and her father insisted on recording this antediluvian song from 1923 with a “modern” arrangement, figuring it would hook both old and young listeners. Francis hated the song, and argued heatedly with her father about it, but in the end she laid it down with only a few seconds left on the reel tape (her voice noticeably rallies in the final verse as though knowing she’d only got so much time to do it).

The song, as Francis had predicted, did nothing, but then Dick Clark chanced upon the recording, raved over it and signed Francis up to perform the number on his 1958 New Year edition of American Bandstand. “Who’s Sorry Now?” took off thereafter, in the States the first of about a dozen million sellers for the singer, and in Britain her first number one. Following it up, however, was difficult; repeating the formula with “I’m Sorry I Made You Cry,” a song which dated back to 1918, proved a mistake (although it still reached #11 in the UK, it is not included in this collection). In an attempt to get her second big hit, Kirshner asked Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield to go play some of their songs for her. They mostly brought ballads, which bored Francis to tears; while playing one of them, she scribbled in her diary – Sedaka pleaded to see what she had written, but Francis was resolute that it was private (the only thing left for Sedaka to do was to go and write a song about it – “The Diary,” which helped launch his own performing career). The singer was getting impatient; didn’t they have anything uptempo? With some embarrassment, Sedaka and Greenfield pulled out a (as they saw it) dumbass rocker (which they had written with the Shepherd Sisters in mind). It was “Stupid Cupid”; Francis immediately perked up and said, “That’s my next hit.”

Francis attacks “Stupid Cupid” with some gusto and not a little resentment (“I’d like to clip your wings so you can’t fly”), and in places sounds like a female Jerry Lee Lewis (“I like it fi-i-i-iiii-yiiii-ne!,” licking her lips). In the USA it got her back onto the Top 20; here it was a double A-side with the old school ballad “Carolina Moon” and promptly became her second UK #1. This more or less set the pace for her bisected pop career, alternating between brisk proto-bubblegum for the kids and ancient weepies for their parents, though on “Carolina Moon,” as on some of her other ballad performances, there is an uncommon purity and clarity in her tone and delivery which puts me directly in mind of Linda Ronstadt (if only Francis had made her own Heart Like A Wheel or Mad Love) and despite the seemingly cut-and-pasted harmonica it’s not a bad reading.

The pattern continued. “My Happiness” was her biggest US hit thus far, peaking at #2, and her third UK top ten single. The song dated from 1948, and Francis holds her own against a baffling backdrop of jaded tenor saxophone and whirring strings. Then came “Lipstick On Your Collar” and it is apparent to me that, even when singing of childish things in a time now as remote as that of the Corn Laws (“record hop,” “soda pop”), Francis is always addressing matters from an adult perspective. Thus there is a mixture of real hurt and pretend petulance, as well as a conflict between staying a teenager forever (“Mine was baby pink” – read into that whatever metaphor you will) and facing the less certain and clearcut world of adulthood; Francis even wrestles with her own perspective, following “boy” with “man” in the fadeout. In the follow-up “Plenty Good Lovin’,” she sounds the most happy and carefree she ever sounded; her downward helter skelter slides on “lovin’” and “kissin’” are a direct precedent of Belinda Carlisle, and she effortlessly negotiates two key changes (“and I must repe-HE-eat!”).

Then it was back to the ballads – “Among My Souvenirs,” the first of two tracks here which originally hit for Paul Whiteman back in 1928, is impeded by a dreadful cocktail bar organ. But then, in 1960, there came another double A-side which spelled out Francis’ internal conflict. One side was “Mama,” an Italian song dating from 1941 – my mother bought, and still has, the 78 of Luciano Tajoli’s recording of the original (then called “Mamma Son Tanto Felice”) – which had been a UK Top 20 hit for David Whitfield in 1955. Francis came to the Abbey Road Studios to record the song, under the direction of Tony Osborne, for an album entitled Connie Francis Sings Italian Favourites, and it is one of her deepest performances; as someone of Italian descent for whom English is not, strictly speaking, a first language, I automatically emphasise when I hear other Italians, or Italian-Americans, sing in their native tongue; they seem to reach a deeper emotional truth than when they switch back to English (Francis’ reading is bilingual, but principally Italian). And although the original song title translates as “Mother, I Am So Happy,” there is little if any happiness to be sought here; Francis’ performance is desolate, bereaved, pained.

Meanwhile, on the other side, there was “Robot Man” with its distended introduction and insane backing singers, in which Francis loudly declares goodbye to love (do you see who else might have grown up listening to her?) and expresses her preference for a machine which won’t let her down, betray her, or worse; in a creepy way, this is a precedent, not just to Dee D Jackson’s “Automatic Lover,” but even unto Bananarama’s “Robert de Niro’s Waiting.” Its subtext should have been “To Hell With All Men.”

With “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool,” she finally made it to number one in the States, and it’s a perky enough pseudo-rocker in the “Love Makes The World Go Round” mode, hampered by the chirps of holiday camp organ and the booms of sub-Mitch Miller backing singers. To her second US number one, I will return towards the end of this piece (her third US number one, 1962’s “Don’t Break The Heart That Loves You,” only made #39 in the UK and is absent from this record, where you will also search for “Frankie,” “If I Didn’t Care,” “Baby Roo,” “Second Hand Love,” “Fallin,” and many others in vain).

Francis’ 1961 proceeded. “Where The Boys Are,” one of those Sedaka/Greenfield ballads, was the title song from a movie; other movies in which she appeared included Follow The Boys, Looking For Love, When The Boys Meet The Girls, When The Girls Meet The Boys, Boys! Boys! Boys!, and Enough Of The Boys Already. A transatlantic top five hit, it’s one of Francis’ best and most controlled ballad performances; she flies around the song like a worried robin, her voice swooping down, then up (“I’ll climb the highest steeple”); swooning as though blowing in the wind, and it is here, as well as in her US-only single later the same year “When The Boy In Your Arms” (its gender promptly changed by Cliff Richard for his own hit version) with her shivering descent of “day-and-night” – and despite the cappuccino guitar and accordion (the latter perhaps a nod to Francis’ own past) – that we see where Karen Carpenter found and got “it.” Before either song, there was “Many Tears Ago,” whose arrangement suggests a possible broadening out of her style in order to reach the country market (in spite of a hugely incongruous whistle which materialises near the song’s end); note that she seems to be clenching her teeth and hissing the line “But I am only foolin’ myself.” “Breakin’ In A Brand New Broken Heart” suggests one further step towards Nashville with its slightly out-of-place lead guitar which appears to be getting ready to emigrate to Brian Hyland’s “Sealed With A Kiss”; Francis’ last “heart” is half-sobbed.

“V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N,” whose title and performance both explicitly look forward to the Go-Go’s and their song of the same name – one last, powerful flaring up of the light (“AND I CAN’T WAIT TO GO! GO! GO!” Francis virtually shrieks) and her last top ten hit in either Britain or the States. Thereafter, the Beatles happened and wiped most of their pop predecessors off the face of the Earth. But there are five songs to go on this record, and I cannot believe that their placing and ordering are not deliberate.

The key is Bobby Darin. They met up in the fifties while doing commercial work, argued like tigers and inevitably then fell in love. Knowing about Francis’ father, and the prescription drugs to which she was already addicted, he proposed they elope and marry. But George Snr got wind of the plan and came backstage at one of his daughter’s rehearsals, waving a gun and ordering Darin to vacate himself from her life forever. Rather than calling the police or doing what Sinatra, an earlier escapee from the Italian-American ghettos of New Jersey, would have done in the same situation, he ran off; but then he knew, with his unreliable heart, that he might give out any day, and thus, not wanting undue pressure in his life, sought a quieter life with Sandra Dee. I do not believe Francis ever properly recovered from this; none of her subsequent four marriages worked.

With the last five songs on this record, Francis appears to look her predicament square in the face. “Together,” from 1961, was her second hit recycled from Paul Whiteman’s 1928 bandbook, and almost immediately – including her chilling talkover – it is easy to see how her records might have reached Sweden, for she sounds exactly like Agnetha Faltskog. It is a stately waltz but they are parting (dancing while the music plays on, indeed). “Darling,” she speaks, “Wherever you are…we’ll always be…” but it’s the way that she speaks it; a quite terrifying, robotic blankness, as though she were Stephen Hawking come early. A mind numbed by circumstance, cowardice and tradition. “You Always Hurt The One You Love” comes from 1958, and her reading is unusually intense, even for her; towards the end, she even sounds like Bobby Darin. Her second US number one, “My Heart Has A Mind Of Its Own,” is second last here, and she sees, with terrible clarity, the corner into which she has been painted: “No matter how hard I try, I just can’t turn the other way,” and, worse, “I’m just a puppet.” There is an ironic swirl of pedal steel at the end.

In the USA she had no Top 40 hits after 1964 (her last being “Be Anything (But Be Mine),” a song from 1952) but in Britain she enjoyed a minor comeback in the age of Britbeat, and it is these two songs I have saved until last. One, “Jealous Heart,” was her very last British hit, from early 1966, and in it she finally points the damning accusatory finger at her father. “You have driven him away forever,” she cries, over a bombastic orchestra and chorus, and though she supposedly blames herself, there is no mistaking the real target of her anger – and she is angry here. All was good, and then you had to come in with your stupid gun and your stupid lontano history of is he from the right family/is he the right religion/buona sera then ya bastard (apologies to James Kelman and his imagining of the chip shop family in A Disaffection) and he pissed off to Sandra Dee and where have you left ME with NOTHING you BASTARD…

But it’s “My Child,” the closing track here, and her almost entirely forgotten British Top 30 hit from 1965, that cuts the deepest, and not just because the “child” whom she is addressing was never born. She already sounds at the end of her tether as she lists, with quiet fury, the advantages any child of hers will have – “I will build a better life for my child,” “No man will ever make her cry,” “She won’t make the same mistakes as I.” Meanwhile the orchestra, which has been unobtrusively building up behind her, abruptly roars to an apocalyptic coda where the world is drowned and everything, including percussion, is shaken to pieces – the Wall being demolished for good.

All of which may help explain why, by 1974, the biggest-selling female artist of the fifties and sixties should find herself playing state fairs in out-of-town New York state and staying in the Jericho Turnpike Howard Johnson Travel Lodge. What happened? The Beatles, that’s what; the world changed overnight and suddenly the old ways didn’t work, that is except for those other Italian-American boys from the Italian Down Neck, the Four Seasons, who were smart and brave enough to move with the times rather than get caught out by them. But Connie Francis didn’t have that sort of resilience, and so as the sixties turned into the seventies, and the world turned away from what she represented, she worked for money, singing, recording and performing for whoever would have her, enrolling on humiliating sixties nostalgia tours where other pre-Merseybeat innocents – and many one-shots who briefly rose in the wake of Merseybeat - were obliged to work to scale, or for less, for blue-rinses who remembered something, even if they were no longer sure what. And so she was staying at some crummy motel, far out of New York City, when she was horribly raped and nearly killed.

Some of her did die at that point, and although she successfully sued the motel chain for inadequate security, thus providing a test case which ensured substantial upgrades in hotel and motel security across the States, there she was again – the lonely woman who had to do it first, or have it happen to her first, so that it wouldn’t happen to others who might follow her. The subsequent story is not a happy one; there is a strong case for asking whether she, at the age of just thirty-eight, was even aware that she had a number one album in Britain. At the time she underwent botched nasal surgery which led to her losing her voice and having to relearn to sing. There were breakdowns, suicide attempts. In 1981 she watched her younger brother, George Jnr, a lawyer, being gunned down in front of the family house in what looked like a professional hit. In 1983, concerned by her manic depression, her father had her sectioned in several psychiatric hospitals for the next four years, and although he remained her “financial manager” until 1990 – he lived on until 1996, aged eighty-five – the final rift between daughter and father came then, and was never mended. Although she continues to record and perform, she is still on lithium, still has her darkness.

And so the music on 20 All Time Greats, and especially “My Child,” acts as a sort of warning to those who will follow Connie Francis’ example. Madonna was born the year Francis started having hits – another Italian-American from the northern industrial belt - but while she too had problems with her father (as “Papa Don’t Preach,” “Oh Father,” etc., make explicit) she had the nerve to come through on her own terms. In many ways, the career of Madonna can be interpreted as the revenge of, or for, Connie Francis. “Don’t do what I have done,” is the message she bores on “My Child” to all her children (think of an alternative universe where Francis and Darin marry and she gives birth to – Jon Bon Jovi?), whether adhering to her own original straight line (Katy Perry) or using and exploring the chances she was never given in 1958 (Lady Gaga, a direct link in the leyline) – all of this exists because, once upon a time, one put-upon teenager was called upon to set the guidelines. How this had the potential to suffocate others seemingly stronger and more powerful, I will examine in the next entry.