Friday 28 September 2012

Buddy HOLLY and The CRICKETS: 20 Golden Greats

(#197: 25 March 1978, 3 weeks)

Track listing: That’ll Be The Day/Peggy Sue/Words Of Love/Every Day (sic)/Not Fade Away/Oh Boy/Maybe Baby/Listen To Me/Heart Beat (sic)/Think It Over/It Doesn’t Matter Any More (sic)/It’s So Easy/Well….All Right/Rave On/Raining In My Heart/True Love Ways/Peggy Sue Got Married/Bo Diddley/Brown Eyed Handsome Man/Wishing

Although I am not the world’s greatest fan of The X-Factor, I must admit that the early auditions are, I find, the most enjoyable part of each series. By that I don’t mean the built-in freak show elements – let’s find some hapless no-hopers to laugh at with an air of unearned superiority – but the point when genuine contenders are raw and relatively unformed, before being hauled off into the boring and aptly titled “boot camp” episodes, where every atom of individuality and original thought is surgically excised in the outdated hope that the new Mariah or Bublé will magically emerge.

Somewhere in between those two extremes was the elderly chap – I think his name was Nick – who turned up on the show a couple of episodes ago. He said he had won numerous talent contests over the year, although did not yield locations or dates. He proceeded to perform and it was quickly clear that he wasn’t going to get through; his bodily rhythm did not quite work in tandem with his voice, which in turn wasn’t in complete synchronisation with the song’s melody or beat. Nevertheless, it was heartfelt, and the song he was singing was “Maybe Baby,” a song not written by Buddy Holly, but by Glen D Hardin and Norman Petty (although there are some whispers that Holly’s mother may have contributed the original lyrics). Apart from the eximious Louis Walsh, who voted to keep him on the show, the rest of the judges were aghast and dismissive. Nick roared that they knew nothing, that the whole show was based on lies, and stormed off.

I’m not sure that he was wrong. It did help that “Maybe Baby” was one of the few songs on the show which was more than two years old – and that, along with “Let’s Get It On” (come on, Nathan!), it was memorable in ways that other songs “soulfully” hollered weren’t – but Nick’s performance I found remarkable, insofar as it clearly connected with something, a passion, a glimmer, he had felt in the distant past and perhaps still did; that he was there when this music was new and therefore understood it, knew his way around it, in ways that those who came after him could not hope to know or understand. And also that he understood more about the instinctive magic at the heart of so much of the best pop music than those planning to become Young Business Entertainer Of The Year.

Speaking of instinct and magic naturally brings me back to Buddy Holly. Now, imagine if this were the kind of blog so many people tell me they want it to be, something a lot more “accessible” and a lot less “elitist” (and something which would probably get the blog a whole lot more hits than it gets at the moment). I’d have little option but to undertake a tedious chronological slog through Holly’s brief life and less brief legacy, going through his upbringing in Lubbock, his early interest in Tex-Mex and Western Swing, his Western and Bop band with Bob Montgomery, his initial, unsuccessful Nashville recordings for Decca, his eventual move to Clovis, New Mexico, the formation of the Crickets and his fateful meeting with Norman Petty which led to, as the sarcophagus-like capitalised sleevenote puts it: “9 TOP TEN SMASH HITS” (“IN JUST EIGHTEEN MONTHS”). Then there would be the split from the Crickets, the attempt by Petty to reposition him in a tamer teenpop market with Dick Jacobs’ orchestrations, his move to New York, his rapid courting of and marriage to Maria Elena Santiago, and finally the ‘plane crash and his many posthumous hits, leading to a brief discussion of his legacy, enormous enough to affect most who came after him in rock, from the Beatles on down, and further pondering on the unanswerable question of what might have happened, what he might have done, had he lived (at the time of his death he was just about learning the ways of record production, and indeed had already produced the young Waylon Jennings).

I’m not sure who would sustain the greater insult here; my readers, who such people assume are thick slowcoaches who need to be told everything, baby spoonfeeding style (“Why don’t you do a potted history of each artist rather than assuming that everyone automatically knows who or what you’re talking about?” as one such comment reads, as though brains or Google didn’t exist), or me, for the implication that my writing is otiose and impenetrable (“People these days have a short attention span – they don’t have time to sit down and read long thinkpieces about obscure old number one records nobody’s going to listen to anyway.” One wonders how folk back in Victorian times, without any of today’s technological conveniences to hand, managed to work their way through hundreds of pages of Thomas Carlyle or Henry Mayhew and still do a full, long day’s work, go for long walks and attend to household chores and perhaps also families). Well, I’m not here to patronise, and my assumption is that you are here reading this piece about Buddy Holly because you already know about his life and work and are interested to read what I have to say about him and his music, and in particular those aspects which don’t normally get talked about or which I have, rightly or wrongly, discerned from careful, attentive listening.

There were multiple factors at work with this particular 20 Golden Greats volume, apart from the usual TV advertising-generated nostalgia; in 1978 there was a movie, The Buddy Holly Story, with Gary Busey excellent in the title role, and there was also excitement stirred by Paul McCartney’s eventual purchase of Holly’s back catalogue publishing. There remained, in addition, a sense that the twenty tracks collected here, though only representing a small part of Holly’s amazingly prolific body of work, represented a kind of punk-inspired back to basics approach, a feeling aided by the small monochrome photograph on the rear cover showing Holly to bear a striking resemblance to the Elvis Costello of This Year’s Model. But there was also an expressly British tinge at work here; the cover graffiti, inscribed on the wall of a crumbling (and possibly condemned) building, with cracked plaster and exposed pipes clearly visible, related to an emotion more strongly felt in Britain than in the States, where Holly and the Crickets scored only two million sellers (“That’ll Be The Day” and “Peggy Sue”) and where Holly had no hits after “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” (in the USA, 20 Golden Greats made only #55 on Billboard; here it went triple platinum). In Britain, in contrast, a cult around Holly’s memory slowly built up (Joe Meek, who killed himself and his landlady on the eighth anniversary of Holly’s death, did this more assiduously than most) and the innumerable demos and studio tryouts Petty rescued and recut with New York session musicians continued to provide Holly with major hits right up until the advent of the Beatles. A twelve-track compilation, The Buddy Holly Story, charted soon after his death and stayed on the UK album chart for fully three years (it peaked at #2, behind the immovable South Pacific). So when the message reads “HE WAS AHEAD OF HIS TIME. HE DIED BEFORE HIS TIME. HIS MUSIC LIVES ON,” it was taken a lot more seriously in Britain.

Such devotion would mean little and baffle much if it weren’t for the continued instinctive power of the music of Holly and the Crickets. And yet, for all their instinct, songs like “That’ll Be The Day” and “Peggy Sue,” highly experimental though they are, sound as though the musicians playing them know exactly what they are doing. If one adjective were to be used to best address Holly’s overall demeanour on his hits, it would be “confident.” Even when trying out new ideas, new tempi, new approaches, there is something in Holly’s timbre and bearing which implies that he is never going to be at a loss. And if the relative brevity of these performances and Holly’s early passing suggest rock’s first petit maître, a peerless miniaturist, then it’s also fair to say that he and his players put every speck of attention and concentration on what they are doing, with exceptional attention to detail.

Take, for instance, “That’ll Be The Day,” one of the most insolently confident opening shots in rock ‘n’ roll that I can think of; not only does it formulate, for the first time, the classic self-reliant four-piece rock group lineup – lead and rhythm guitars, bass, drums and vocals, performing (largely) their leader’s own material (though Hardin and Petty contributed more than people think) – but as a song and performance, it dares you to turn away from it. Hidden behind his spectacles, Holly is less the genial geek and more a direct, raging forerunner of Costello; he is mocking his would-be departing lover, basically sneering that she doesn’t have the guts or will to walk out on him, and both Holly’s lead guitar and Jerry Allison’s AK47-like drumming presume – correctly – that she will want to stick around and see the rest.

Whereas “Peggy Sue” seems to have fallen to Earth from outer space, one of those page one pop records from seemingly nowhere which set the tone for everything that comes after it, like “Subterranean Homesick Blues” or “Magic Fly” or “Gangnam Style” (and doesn’t Psy, in his black shock of hair and tidy hornrims, resemble a slightly beefier K-Pop reincarnation of Holly?). I was struck by this after watching, at a young age, Holly and the Crickets performing the song on The Ed Sullivan Show; it is still disturbing viewing – where did these creatures land? Perhaps due to the lack of dimensional perspective afforded by fifties television cameras, Holly, at stage front, looks about twice the size and half the age of the Crickets behind him. With his partially-rimmed spectacles, he gives the impression of a newly-arrived Martian; there is something about the performance which is not quite “real.”

And yet the song is about finding a “love so rare and true.” That being said, Holly does almost nothing on the record to describe Peggy Sue; who she is, what she looks like. Yes, the song may originally have been called “Cindy Lou” before Allison suggested changing it to the name of his fiancée, but “Peggy Sue” here is little more than an abstract, a blank template for the listener to complete (“If you knew Peggy Sue”). Behind Holly’s voice are the murkiest, most thunderous drums you have ever heard (it sounds as though coming from the bottom of a well, and it was not surprising to see the beat returning less than a decade later as the foundation of “Paint It, Black”). Holly is in fact more interested in, and more spellbound by, the grain of those two words, “Peggy” and “Sue”; he rolls them round his tongue and larynx in every conceivable way, experimenting with, and being delighted by, the different effects each can cause, like a jazz musician snaking their way around a standard or a riff; he is clearly exulted by the new possibilities which now lie before him, and before long who or what Peggy Sue is, or might be, is superseded by the use of the name as a signifier without anything obvious being signified. In other words, “Peggy Sue” reminds me of another self-contained four-piece group at work in the same period, whose leader and main composer also came from Texas, and which cheerfully threw standard expectations of melody and rhythm out of the window, replacing them with their own new constructions and devices. Buddy Holly as rock ‘n’ roll’s Ornette Coleman? Not as farfetched as you might think; if there was ever such a thing as “free rock,” then “Peggy Sue” is its epitome, and maybe also its peak. But if “Peggy Sue” exhibits a childlike joy, then Holly’s final, and wholly unexpected, vocal swoop from high to low indicates that this is definitely the work of a grown man, ready to discover the wider world; Peggy Sue, in the meantime, becomes a sort of rock ‘n’ roll female equivalent of Stagger Lee, an abstract folk hero(ine) who can and will mean anything to everyone.

If these two songs are the clear high points of 20 Golden Greats, then the remainder of the songs (on side one, at least) show that Holly never stopped experimenting. With “Words Of Love,” he goes as far as to invent psychedelia ten years ahead of schedule, with its woozy, disorientated vocals and strange syllabic emphases (“feel-AH,” “real-AH,” “hear-AH,” “ear-AH”) which indicate an intoxication of awe. “Everyday” expresses patient expectation with ease, using little more than slapped knees and celeste as musical background; Holly’s onomatopoeic arch of anticipation on “ROLL-er-COAST-er” conveys his excitement very simply and effectively (as does his more subdued “Hey? A-hey-hey”). Rather than knee-slapping, the beat on “Not Fade Away” seems to be thrashed out on a cardboard box (see Lindsey Buckingham some two decades later) and Holly’s words now seem to defy reason as deftly as Dylan’s would soon do, missing out whole streams of syntax (“You know my love not fade away,” “Well love is real and not fade away”). His pent-up sexuality goes from child to man (“A-WAY”) and back again (“How I feel-EE!”). His guitar cuts in halfway like a battleship. By not quite “getting” Bo Diddley, he inadvertently invents something else.

If both “Everyday” and “Not Fade Away” show Holly is up for it, the immediate attack of “Oh Boy” confirms that he is also ready for it; now he growls and shrieks, and even the square backing vocals can’t deter the acidic entry of his guitar solo; at the end of the song, Allison lets off steam with an extended, post-coital cymbal hiss. You almost want to rush up to him and urge him to be more patient. “Heartbeat” had recently been desecrated by Showaddywaddy, its structural subtleties undermined by the crude rugby chants of “I HEAR MY HEART! BEAT!,” so it’s a relief to retreat to Holly’s restraint, although I note that the arrangement more or less “invents” The Shadows (Holly was an early and fervent exponent of the Fender Stratocaster) and the rhetorical role played by Allison’s cowbell at both the intro and outro.

Aside from these, “Listen To Me” is extraordinary in its effortless elisions from harsh to soft, and back again; the curiously over-exaggerated vocal drops of “LIS-TEN-TO-ME-HEE” pretty much writing the template for Merseybeat before dropping back to a honeyed, spoken whisper from Holly: “Listen, listen, listen to me,” to be followed by an excitable lead guitar and, again, a subtly disorientated vocal. If “Think It Over” might have been designed as Holly’s “Jerry Lee Lewis record,” complete with a rattling barrelhouse piano solo, then its implications are wider: Holly, again, teases his would-be Other as much as pleading with her, at one point asking, “Are you sure I’m not the one?” and then intoning “A lonely heart grows cold and old” (it’s the pause in the music that makes you remember the line).

Sides one and two are essentially split between Buddy and Crickets and Buddy post-Crickets (and even post-Buddy) but side two still has “It’s So Easy” with its vocal grunts suggesting that actually it’s very difficult, offset by some strange verbal throwaways (“Gosh darn that love,” “doggone easy”), the supreme “Rave On” with its introductory six-syllable “Well” and a propulsion so powerful that it could almost have been made by machines (and hence it is a natural precursor to rave music, as such); everything here has been accomplished, and works – and the unworldly “Well….All Right” which more or less spells out what McCartney is going to do with the Beatles but also moves with great naturalism between two different dynamic angles (moderately intense, and slightly more intense) with a rhythm that could properly be described as proto-reggae, and some long-form cymbal work from Allison that almost breaks the boundaries of tempo and reminds us not only of Billy Higgins’ cymbal work on Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” but also looks forward to Tony Williams on things like Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage”; drifting and patient.

The rest of the record concerns itself with what Holly did, or would have done, next. “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” the first posthumous UK number one single, was easily his biggest hit here, but although Adam Faith and John Barry would forge entire careers out of its vocals and semi-pizzicato string arrangements (before discovering something of and in themselves in the process and mutating into something different), it does not really convince, partly because its author, Paul Anka, seems to have written the song as a sort of Holly pastiche; so although the singer makes with his “Golly gee”s and “Whoops-a-daisy”s, he comes across as slightly forced, and in attempting to turn him into an adult – or make him grow up – he uncovers levels of accusatory bitterness which had not really been present in his previous work (significantly, he sings nearly all of the song in his lower register). Dick Jacobs’ cheesy arrangements also do Holly no favours on “Raining In My Heart,” a good song and a concentrated vocal ruined by overblown, sound-effect strings, or on “True Love Ways” which, although showing some advance from “Not Fade Away” in its haiku-like lyrical structure (“Just you know why/Why you and I”), is marred by corny Palais dancehall tenor saxophone and piano. If Petty really wanted to turn Holly into a prototype Bobby (he needn’t have bothered; Bobby Vee, who took over and performed the gig Holly would have played had his ‘plane made it, profited almost immediately as a sort of Holly-lite substitute, even going so far as to cut some sides with the Crickets in the early sixties; one album, Bobby Vee Meets The Crickets, narrowly missed the number one slot here in late 1962) I doubt he would have got very far; Holly was a little too animated, insufficiently sedate, for this sort of thing to work effectively.

Much better are the four concluding tracks: “Peggy Sue Got Married,” originally cut with the Crickets but here done with a revamped instrumental backing track, is one of Holly’s last great songs, and one which suggested he already knew that one kind of game was up; throughout the song he is extremely reluctant to tell the listener what has happened, endlessly putting it off or making excuses, but finally – it’s not gospel, folks, but I heard it, so who knows – he reluctantly divulges the titular information, except that he remarks “You recall that girl that’s been in nearly every song” and you realise that actually she only unambiguously appears in one other song, except that all these songs might be about the same, unattainable woman, or idealisation of a woman – Holly as Lubbock’s own Robert Graves, with Peggy Sue his own White Goddess? – and Holly’s guitar solo is appropriately melancholy, clearing the path for George Harrison. “Bo Diddley” is a very decent attempt to expand on, or refract, the “Not Fade Away” template, and Holly clearly has a good time with his ebullient vocal, even attempting an impression of the great man himself in the last line. His “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” with its ukulele-style lead guitar, is more than worthy of comparison with Chuck Berry’s original (which latter is pretty unequivocally a prototype black power anthem). And “Wishing,” which climbed our charts as the Beatles were settling in, is a fitting farewell, handing the baton over, with its foretelling echoes of both Beatles and Shadows, and Tommy Allsup’s extraordinary lead guitar; his run behind Holly’s vocal in the second middle eight recalls nothing so much as Nigerian hi-life music.

So where could Holly have gone? There is of course the example of his near-contemporary from Texas, whose career rose after Holly’s passing; Roy Orbison, who in his own way highlighted what might be described as the darker side of Holly’s muse – not that Holly would have gone in for doomed operatic wailings, but things not represented on this album (“Because I Love You,” “Love’s Made A Fool Of You”) do suggest a shade to the prevalent lightness. Or there is another Texan, born in 1936 – Kris Kristofferson, whose career echoes what might have happened if Holly had become more involved in the country scene, as seemed to be on the cards, and made his subsequent reputation as a songwriter and producer. He might even have discovered and nurtured fellow Texan Janis Joplin, but it would be naïve to think that Peggy Sue could evolve into “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”; as “Peggy Sue Got Married” makes clear, she is now in the world, in the air we communally breathe; Peggy Sue is all around us, maybe even part of us. Still, his death appeared to mark a slow sea change in how pop music was approached and performed; if he was a bridge leading from the original rock ‘n’ roll pioneers, then he could hardly have expected to lead to Fabian or Bobby Rydell. The death of Ian Curtis, though coming from an entirely different, and probably opposite (or opposing), perspective, would have a similar effect on progressive British pop in the eighties. But if you have to look for evidence of Holly, look around you, on every Beatles album up to and including Let It Be, on most Dylan, and even unto “Gangnam Style” where similarly besotted tricks with language, intention and implications are perpetuated to prove an unexpected late bookend to “Peggy Sue,” proving that The X-Factor has not closed off all pop avenues for (anyone’s) good.

Monday 24 September 2012

ABBA: The Album

(#196: 4 February 1978, 7 weeks)

Track listing: Eagle/Take A Chance On Me/One Man, One Woman/The Name Of The Game/Move On/Hole In Your Soul/“The Girl With The Golden Hair” – 3 scenes from a mini-musical – A. Thank You For The Music; B. I Wonder (Departure); C. I’m A Marionette

“If we stick around, we’re sure to be looked down upon.”
(Associates, “Club Country”)

“And when you want the truth, they only spit in your eye.”
(Abba, “Hole In Your Soul”)

Declaration of interest: Abba: The Album - as blank an anti-title as calling a Beatles album The Beatles - was one of the very first albums Lena owned, and she was particularly excited to hear it again for this essay, having danced on the carpet to “Take A Chance On Me,” etc., aged eleven. Then again, after not having listened to it for many years, I think we were both taken aback by how bitter and raging a record it actually is.

Abba: The Movie, which this record was meant to serve as a soundtrack, is really a red herring; or perhaps it isn’t. Like the Streisand-Kristofferson A Star Is Born, I only ever saw it once on television, in the eighties; unlike A Star Is Born, I surprised myself by rather enjoying the film. Like A Hard Day’s Night, it benefits from not being weighed down by too much of a plot; filmed (largely) in Australia, it is basically an excuse for Abba to sing as many songs as possible, interspersed with as much tourist-appeasing footage of Australia as could be assembled. The plot, such as it is, concerns a hapless radio DJ (Robert Hughes, definitely not to be confused with the recently deceased Australian art critic) sent out to get an interview with the group, and his various misadventures as he traipses around various major Australian cities trying to catch up with them. Even here, there is something of a disturbance; I recall that he finally encounters Abba in a “magical elevator,” and, although he gets his interview there, it is unclear whether this is wholly a fantasy sequence and whether this “dialogue” ever actually happens. The director, Lasse Hallström, who was also responsible for the group’s videos, went on to a distinguished film career (My Life As A Dog), but this movie’s mystery remains central.

Similarly, much of The Album concerns itself with unending movement, both as means of transcendence and escape route. The almost six minutes of “Eagle” – an album opener seemingly designed to test their audience – glide on patiently, if agonisingly (both Agnetha and Frida sound increasingly pained with each passing “My-hi-hiiyyy”), charting the course of the bird (the song was apparently inspired by Jonathan Livingston Seagull), before coming to rest on the decisive statement: “What a feeling to fly…and to go anywhere that I please.” Janne Schaffer’s outgoing, onomatopoeic guitar solo says the rest; the song’s emotion suggests severe limitation of personal freedom – the group are indeed soaring over mountains and forests and seas, but always to another concert or television appearance or photo session. In the meantime, the long, grinding secondary bassline is essentially the foundation of the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” and the rippling, indistinct keyboard and guitar lines throughout presage Simple Minds; the production here, as elsewhere on the record, does not sound at all connected to the seventies. “Move On” finds the group back in its flutey, campfire singalong form, but although “the urge to move on” is emphasised in several places, this is not quite the carefree misery of “Another Town, Another Train”; for a start, the opening verse is declaimed by the booming, echoing spoken voice of Björn, as though he were God. Furthermore, the record’s sense of existential crisis coming to a head is exemplified by the song’s metaphysical-philosophical discourse: “And somewhere lies the answer/To all the questions why/What really makes the difference/Between all dead and living things?/The will to stay alive.” A reference to crying seagulls is met by a crying seagull.

Even the big hits are not particularly straightforward. “Take A Chance On Me” boasts production values – a wonderfully rhetorical arrangement, a deceptively complex time signature, finely balanced female and male vocal counterparts – which embarrassingly put most of the rest of its Top 40 counterparts in the shade (in Britain it unceremoniously deposed the Brotherhood of Man’s wretched wish-we-were-Abba “song” “Figaro” after just one week, as if to remind all pretenders who the bosses were). As Lena put it, it was like pitting Usain Bolt against a snail. But the production sounds much more forward and aggressive than their previous hits, the solo features more distressed (“My love is strong eNOUGH!”), and the song itself is hardly reassuring; she offers herself as a lover only if everyone else deserts him (“when the pretty birds have flown”; so much birdsong on this record) and buried within the teasing is a warning (“You don’t wanna hurt me/Baby, don’t worry/I ain’t gonna let ya”).

As for “The Name Of The Game,” it went further, both musically and emotionally, than any previous Abba single and thus got a relatively muted commercial response (although in Britain, loyal fans sent it to number one for a month). Here’s a modified version of what I said about it on Popular:

The groove doesn’t quite sashay, nor does it fully recoil. The palindromic introductory bassline – like the guitar and keyboard, inspired by Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” - comes forward and then backwards, as though indecisive about whether to commit or to retreat, walking the same square foot of pavement.

The singer has clearly been hurt, or even destroyed, by an unnameable pain of her recent past (see “Knowing Me, Knowing You”) and any confidence she might once have possessed has been shattered. She is reapproaching life with such tentativeness it’s arguable whether she’ll survive the second foot of sidewalk. “I’m a bashful child beginning to grow” – sung by a woman who in 1977 was in the region of thirty.

But that’s what life does to some of us; and the triumph of “The Name Of The Game” is to witness its protagonist slowly and painfully piece herself together again as a functioning human being, capable of receiving love as well as giving it – “It seems to me, for every time, I’m getting more open-hearted”; note the serenely rolling four-beat lines as opposed to the staccato two-liners of “Knowing Me, Knowing You.”

“I was an impossible case/No one ever could reach me,” she confesses, “But I think I can see in your face/There’s a lot you can teach me” – and the poignantly fragile way she sings that last line (you can palpate her tremble) makes you want to hug her right here and now. Then the bold rise to the blossomed chorus: “What’s the name of the game? Can you feel it the way I do?” with its brash acoustic guitar thrash – you only notice after several hundred listens that it’s playing “Wild Thing” – before falling back to highlight the singer’s still fearful doubt: “Tell me please, ’cause I have to know.”

Brilliantly, the instruments then drop out to leave a low-register close harmony acappella backdrop with just one bass drum pulse, as the singer, sounding rather like Olivia Newton-John, leans towards the microphone to caress it and know that glorious intimacy once more – or is it for the first time? You can picture her scarcely holding her balance on the romantic tightrope as she trembles through “And you make me talk, and you make me feel, and you make me show” – turn the volume up and there’s a sudden golden ray of maximalist light: “WHAT I’M TRYING TO CONCEAL”; yes, it’s the exuberant, life-adoring human waiting to be released, liberated – then back to a near breathless request for a pledge: “If I trust in you, would you let me down?” before the demand turns into a torrent of transient dread: “WOULD YOU LAUGH AT ME IF I SAID I CARE FOR YOU?” behind which latter half-line there is a gorgeous and typically Abbaesque baroque flourish of post-Dowland lamentation harmonies. “Could you feel the same way too?”

The second verse is make or break, and she knows she must be nothing if she can’t be open and honest: “I have no friends,” she whispers, “No one to see/And I am never invited.” Then, again, the confessional: “”Now I am here, talking to you/No wonder I get excited.” Her delivery is becoming gradually less vulnerable, though she teeters hugely on the line “But it means a lot to me” so that you are left in no doubt that it means life or death. Within the second chorus she retrieves her lost confidence, as the harmonies multiply into artful counterpart: she’s asking him if he feels the same way while her conscience thinks inwardly (“I was an impossible case,” “Got a feeling, you give me no choice”), and when it comes to the second “make me” triptych her voice is no longer shaky; she knows that it is not a unilateral love, she is emerging out of her previously stifled chrysalis, and she knows that he knows that this is happening; she has been rescued, maybe both of them have been rescued, have rescued each other. A shining doorway back to life; wondrous and multidimensional, and its light is so radiant even now that I almost faint in awe of its benevolent genius. So spellbound am I by the record that it is easy to forget that there are two “she”s here, two voices.

I think the above still stands, but The Album has its own “Knowing Me, Knowing You”; the bleakly hopeful “One Man, One Woman,” although this story is told from only one side, that of the wife/lover who is left to fend for herself during the day as her husband grumbles wordlessly through breakfast and slams the door to go to work. She is clearly already shattered, as the waylaying chord changes (e.g. at the line “And I cry and I feel so helpless”) suggest, and, faced with a very familiar empty room with its open window (through which the protagonist struggles not to jump?), she thinks of the Supremes (“Where did all our love go?”) but resolves that it is strong enough, this relationship, to work, to suffer the bad times. “Daydreams of a better life,” the singer muses, “but I have to wake up”; the key turns in the lock, he is back. “You smile” – the implication of liberation in that phrase indicates that was all he had to do, “just one smile” as Randy Newman/Gene Pitney once put it – “and I realise that we need a shake up.” She regains her strength: “Our love is a precious thing/Worth the pain and the suffering/And it’s never too late for changing.” She conserves her hope: “Somehow we’ll help each other/Through the hard times.” And, foreseeing side two, the phrase: “One chance to take that never comes back again.” In its own, unassuming way (not completely unassuming; note the pained extension of the final “end”), the song is the missing link between Scott Walker’s “Archangel” and Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse Of The Heart.”

“Hole In Your Soul” is perhaps as close to punk rock as Abba ever dared to come. Beginning with a tremendous guitar/drums crash, alternating with peppy Supertramp electric piano, Abba rock out as they hadn’t done for quite some time, if ever. Björn’s deep voice – sounding rather like Elvis, which I am sure was not coincidental – comes in underneath the chorus, which pleads the case for rock ‘n’ roll as life saver. The third verse appears to be a critique of Abba themselves – “it all comes out too bright/You know it’s only a lie,” “the songs you sing/Are too romantic” – but the whole song presents itself as its own warning; don’t get too committed to rock ‘n’ roll, as it may not help you at crucial moments. As a record, however, it is dizzyingly heading towards the eighties, with its over-trebly vocals (which turn into dog whistle-challenging screams), punchy tambourine and effervescent staccatos – here is the genesis of, amongst other things, Bucks Fizz at their (“My Camera Never Lies”) best.

And then there is the mini-musical.

The story is that Björn and Benny set out to write a full-scale musical but subsequently put the idea on the shelf, leaving just three songs; there was a fourth, “Get On The Carousel,” which appears in the film but was never fully recorded – much of its lyrical content was reassigned to “Hole In Your Soul.” Listening to the three songs which did survive, however, I am in part sceptical about whether a full musical was ever needed, or even planned, since these three songs tell the same story very directly, and finally, very shockingly.

There was much bafflement at the time as to why “Thank You For The Music” was not released as a single (it only appeared on 45 in 1983, after Abba had split, and after the stable doors had been firmly bolted), but although it remains one of Abba’s most famous and best-loved songs, hearing it in its proper context reveals that its full strength is derived from its relationship with the other two songs; the triptych forms a sort of “MacArthur Park” in disguise. Agnetha sings the lead, and is full of hope, happiness and expectations; there is even an old-fashioned out-of-tempo prelude verse to the song, and the fulsomeness of Benny’s keyboards suggests a brazen joy in writing an old-school theatrical standard (although at one point he paraphrases his own “Dancing Queen”). Agnetha’s ecstasy is so complete and unarguable (“What a joy, what a life, what a CHANCE!” and she turns that last “CHANCE” into five exultant syllables) that you almost forget to warn her not to step off the precipice; there is an unnatural intensity to her happiness (“Mm-HMMM!”), her engagement with music, such that you fear that if she stops singing she will stop living (as both “Move On” and “Hole In Your Soul” have already suggested). Note the sleeve design of a rainbow that is blocked from reaching the sun by a black cloud.

On “I Wonder,” she seeks to take the chance, and leave. The mood is low-key and minor-key, and she makes it clear that she is, by her own account, walking out on nothing; “this dull little town,” “everything old and familiar.” And then I was thunderstruck by this verse, and the music which accompanies it:

“My friends will get married/Have children and homes/It sounds so nice/Well-planned and wise/Never expecting surprises.”

Or, to put it another way, such a pretty house and such a pretty garden, with no alarms and no surprises. How could Abba be aware that they were helping invent Radiohead (and musically the song is not dissimilar either)? But, at the climax of a record whose theme could be summed up by the question “What is freedom?,” which endlessly ponders the questions of escape, reinvention and the taking of chances (“Take A Chance On Me”), she decides…to take the chance. “It can’t go wrong,” she murmurs, and you know in that split nanosecond that things are going to go horribly wrong.

Did I mention “Gold Dust Woman”? It’s in the same key, and maybe an even more frightening end to a number one album.

Because all these chances, all these dreams, have led directly to a trap, a prison a thousand times worse than the one she thought she’d escaped.

For “I’m A Marionette” is a truly horrific finale, a skeletally grinning inversion of everything you thought Abba were about; here they are screaming at their own audience for the truth, hanging from their own strings. Bear in mind that at the time of this record Abba were probably at the height of their popularity, yet also at their critical low; no one takes us seriously, they seem to say throughout the record – well, let’s rub THIS in your faces. Bass and drums throb – “Something’s wrong.” The anxiety, building up all the way through this most anxious of records, comes to a head and the façade explodes; the chorus is a ghastly (using the word in its proper, non-pejorative sense) Kurt Weill rewrite of “What’s New, Pussycat?” (in case you were wondering when I was going to get to the Burt Bacharach influence on Abba) – and yes, it is also in the same key as “Welcome To The Machine.” Here, Abba systematically destroy your perceptions of them; from “Mother says I was a dancer before I could walk” to “And somebody taught me how to talk, how to walk, how to fall” in two songs. The most frightening couplet is probably the next one: “Can’t complain/I’ve got no one but myself to blame.” It’s worse now, because nobody forced her to do this, or them, but there they are, asking their audience, asking us: “Is this what you REALLY wanted? You run all this way after us…and what have you found?” A smirking mockery of what you thought was life. There is an uncomfortably long, War Of The Worlds-style guitar solo section (Ola Brunkert) after which the song lurches back into nightmarish view; the relationship of the keyboards to the chord changes puts me definitively in mind of mid-period Associates, but soon the entire Abba edifice is brought crashing down, with thundering, free-form guitar and drums, and amidst the wreckage, these final lines: “You’re so free/That’s what everybody’s telling me/Yet I feel I’m like an outward bound/Pushed around REFUGEE.”

A “Revolution 9” with no “Good Night” to reassure.

A dreamer who, if she keeps getting pushed around, might end up as the contemporaneous Frankie Teardrop.

A record of songs about escape, freedom and confinement written by a group who themselves have the strings tied around them. And they did the tying.

If you jerk the handle, you’ll thrill me and thrill me and thrill me.

There’s no help.


Wednesday 12 September 2012


(#195: 28 January 1978, 1 week)

Track listing: Second Hand News/Dreams/Never Going Back Again/Don’t Stop/Go Your Own Way/Songbird/Silver Springs/The Chain/You Make Loving Fun/I Don’t Want To Know/Oh Daddy/Gold Dust Woman

Once upon a time there was this family, and it was most unusually headed by two men, who had founded and named the family some number of years earlier. When I think of them, I think of Walter and Toby Shandy, or skip a century to the two old Oxford dons in Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, middle-aged, secure of means and utterly content to talk, in great part, about nothing at all, because they know that is the surest guard against the wars they have previously seen, against the suffocating chaos of anything new. Despite this, the family is endlessly renewable, although its tree has of late grown rather circuitously.

Rather like Drabble’s omniscient narrator in The Ice Age, let us look at them as they were in the second half of the seventies. Let us see and feel how they lived. Now it is no secret that this family, who in a previous life helped give this very tale its title, was in severe disarray. Bonds had been broken, or left or made to break, but still they could not escape each other; they still had to work together even if they could barely speak to each other. There is no need here to recount names and histories that have been told a thousand times over. You know how it was.

And the question any reader has to ask themselves at this point is: why?

Not why they made a record – because, above all emotional else, they were a professional family, and believed in work – but why this record of all records has stayed with us, has never really gone and yet took so long to make its way into this tale, nearly a year after it was released. It has been there, lurking, beneath all these other records I have written about, and around, and even managed to stay on top in the USA for more than half a year. Call it a slow week, call it its only chance here, but…why?

Why Rumours, and not Hotel California?

Indeed, why “Rumours”?

1. They are singing about love and life, not life on the road.
When people talk about Hotel California they are talking about the title track, and maybe “New Kid In Town” and “Life In The Fast Lane.” Nobody remembers “The Last Resort” or “Pretty Maids All In A Row.” As an album it does not hang together with anything approaching the cohesion of Rumours; its metaphors are often stilted and overblown, its desired badge being “This Is An Important Record.”

I am aware of Don Henley, and Stevie Nicks, and “Witchy Woman.”

Whereas listening to Rumours is that most queerly satisfying of sensations; the feeling one is listening to a greatest hits album. At least nine of its tracks have gone into eternal circulation; Lena reliably informs me that you couldn’t spend an hour listening to the radio in late seventies California without hearing one or more of them. But if that achievement is due tribute to highly developed pop sensitivities, then its uncommon sense of integration, as a cycle of twelve songs, comes from emotion. All these songs are about love, or the look of love; listening to them is rather like viewing the same cube from a dozen different angles. Frequently each song comments on another, or is a riposte to another. If most of this intertextuality is based on a “you did that/but YOU did THIS!” dynamic, then there are yet other layers. These people were breaking up, both with each other and in themselves, and quite often you can feel this quite acridly in their music. And yet, they finally pull together; Lindsey is audible on Stevie’s songs, and vice versa.

It is, as Buckingham himself told me, an album predominantly composed of what he calls “femaleness”; even if you couldn’t keep track of who was doing what to whom, the average listener could identify immediately with songs like “Go Your Own Way” or “Don’t Stop”; this was, after all, the seventies, and people needed to be felt they were being talked to, or conversed with. Even in happy, sunny, don’t-need-punk seventies USA. You don’t generally get the same feeling with songs about being on the road. There is no need for the family to declare California a metaphorical hotel; on “The Chain” or “Gold Dust Woman,” the feeling of entrapment is palpable.

2. These people have a history.
“An American Masterpiece” says the removable sticker on the cover of my 2004 2CD redux/reissue copy of Rumours; one done by a group who were 60% British, and moreover came up in the sixties, playing the blues. Perhaps that is why listeners still prefer to keep Steely Dan at a wary distance, even though subsequent things like “Glamour Profession” come very close in subject matter and approach to “Gold Dust Woman”; Becker and Fagen came up via jazz, their skills something to be saluted rather than embraced (all the more so that listeners’ ears would glide over some of the most psychopathic pop lyrics this side of Arthur Lee).

But this family once had three guitarists, all of whom strayed in different but equally wayward directions. Once, above all, there had been Peter Green, whose spirit is constantly summoned up in Buckingham’s guitar playing (Buckingham’s version of “Oh Well,” as heard on the band’s 1980 Live double album, joins those particular dots). “The Chain” is related by key and sentiment to “Man Of The World,” its fast climax inaugurated and led by John McVie’s bass; otherwise we could easily still be in Olympic Studios in Barnes sometime in 1970. From the shrieking ruins of “Gold Dust Woman” the ghost of “The Green Manalishi” fights to come into the frame, as Nicks ends the record with an old and familiar question: “Do you know how to pick up the pieces and go home?,” then gripping on and stretching the word “home” like an electrocuting talisman she doesn’t know how to drop.

It is also very noticeable that hardly anywhere on Rumours do Fleetwood and Mac play straight 4/4; always there is a turn, a symbiotic curlicue, a comment to make; the subtly over-accentuated rhythm on “Dreams,” Fleetwood’s odd flourish of snare drum in response to a particularly fruity comment from Lindsey or Stevie; McVie’s frantic, brief bass run one-third of the way into “Gold Dust Woman.” Not to mention McVie’s morose and at times scarcely audible bass as Christine tells him how good her new lover is on “You Make Loving Fun.”

Also, note that this is an unusually integrated group; the only musicians you hear on Rumours are these five.

3. For the first time since the Beatles, three clearly identifiable and powerful songwriting voices are audible.
Lindsey, Stevie and Christine; three deeply connected but very different voices, and you couldn’t really imagine this version of the family minus even one of them; perhaps that is why the Christine-less Say You Will quartet was a little too intense and unrelenting for many, without that essence of reassurance, that levelling benevolence.

For the most part, you couldn’t really mistake one for another. Lindsey’s songs are scratchy, impulsive, quick-limbed. “Second Hand News” rams into fade-in with a choppy guitar and Buckingham goes “Pow pow pow” at random. The chorus isn’t revealed until well past the two-minute mark. His closing guitar solo is, to put it mildly, jarring. “Never Going Back Again” is solo acoustic, a Camberwick Green romp and a bitter, disjointed vocal (the track is mostly instrumental).

Even when the songs do not directly address each other, they seem conjoined; “You Make Loving Fun,” for example, doesn’t appear to have much to do with “Dreams” but the two songs are related by key, tempo, arrangement and programming symmetry.

But typically, Lindsey rants and hisses; Nicks meditates and asks. “Now here you go again,” she sighs at the beginning of “Dreams” in response to Lindsey’s “Let me do my stuff” on “Second Hand News”; “You say you want your freedom.” Be careful, she is warning him; your freedom will never give you what I was once capable of giving you – the steady oscillations between “what you had” and “what you lost” underline this – and it is almost (the six-note/syllable “go” at the song’s climax) like she’s not the one wanting him to go. The song’s seesaw nature is emphasised by the basic chord structure, veering between F and G (with the occasional A minor bend) and a closing F minor that – thanks to Lindsey’s guitar - might be the saddest closing chord in any pop song.

The other two Stevie songs I will return to later.

Christine – the reliable bedrock, the sensible Third Way. People choosing not to listen routinely consider “Songbird” the record’s one dispensable moment, just as once they thought the same of “Within You, Without You,” but in fact this song – the only song on the record to contain the words “I love you” – is the glue that holds the entire album together. Listen, says Christine, we know we’re all fucked up, but look, there’s still a chance, a hope; let’s at least try and stay together (note that she sings “And I wish you all the love in the world/But most of all, I wish it from [my italics] myself”). On “You Make Loving Fun” she is markedly more sceptical about “the ways of magic” than Stevie with her crystal spheres and mirrors, but she still wants to believe.

And yet, on “Don’t Stop” – another of her Let’s Pull Together songs – she sounds like Lindsey (a tendency accentuated by Lindsey’s guitar solo), while on “Oh Daddy,” she essentially “does” Stevie (“Yes, it’s got to be me,” “Why are you right and I’m so wrong?,” the latter followed by a rhetorical band pause, with electric piano, synthesiser and castanets wandering through the song’s limbo like irretrievable souls. Everywoman – or a voice for all causes, and seasons?

Or is it that the “nice” Christine writes the more forward lyrics, and the “grainy” Stevie the more vulnerable ones?

4. They kept at this even, or especially when, no one else was looking.
Listen to Penguin or Mystery To Me or anything else through the Weston//Welch years and it’s all there; the brooding but rooted adventurousness, the easy playing around with metre and emotion – it just needed Lindsey and Stevie to bring it into sharper focus. Even when you’re a cult band, playing for three winos and a dog in Poughkeepsie, people remember these things when you try to make it big again.

5. It was both the expected follow-up, and a decisive break.
Remember that Rumours was following up a huge record, which likewise patiently spent almost a year to make it to number one (for one week) in the States. Just as we can’t imagine the sunny optimism of Frampton Comes Alive to be believable in any year other than 1976, so Rumours firmly belongs to its time as much as it transcends it. The mood is darker, more suspicious. It was everything their new fans wanted and expected, and at the same time was a radical break even from things like “Landslide” and “Rhiannon.”

This record really isn’t the ideal soundtrack for driving down a coastal freeway in the sunshine; too much darkness, too many interfering whispers.

6. Punk rock started in Sausalito; discuss.
You can hear it happening. “Go Your Own Way,” the album’s first single (and trailer); Fleetwood’s mightily aggressive drum thumps, Lindsey’s stringy desperation (Green’s Mac still flashing throughout the background), and just when you think this album is going to turn into Jerry Springer Rocks, here comes Lindsey’s solo, which has been buzzing and boiling away all through the song; starting conventionally enough but rapidly gaining intensity and anxiety, the latter finally giving way to anger as bass and drums toughen up to Ramones staccato and Buckingham gives up playing notes, resorting to atonal bends and squeals, and finally Clash thrashes. The song feels like the spectacle of something being born.

7. In Britain, the record told us that previous number one albums were lying to us.
“Never Going Back Again,” the song goes, and after this there cannot have been any thought of going back to the yellowed antiquary of Mathis and Sinatra; all these TV collections hiding the truth from us, Rumours ripping the curtain apart as fervently as Bollocks and saying NO. On “The Chain” it feels like a terrible procession of a floating crap game of zombies (emphasised by the marching tempo of the song’s first half), doomed to encircle each other and make the same mistakes again and again. On “I Don’t Want To Know,” the only fully-fledged Buckingham/Nicks duet on the record, they agree to disagree, and while Lindsey’s DIY handclaps or knee slaps help set the ground for what he will do on the next album(s), it comes out: “Finally baby/The truth has been told/Now you tell me that I’m crazy/That’s nothing that I didn’t know.”

8. “Silver Springs”; the record’s Rosebud.
For reasons of long-playing record limitations, Stevie’s song “Silver Springs” was left off the original Rumours and relegated to a single B-side. On the standard CD edition, one still goes straight from “Songbird” to “The Chain,” but on the 2004 2CD edition the song was restored to its rightful, originally intended place, and just as this blog would offer no practical help by insulting its readers’ intelligence and pretending that this edition doesn’t exist, so I cannot now imagine Rumours without it. It is a necessary bulwark between Christine’s reassurance and Lindsey’s accusations, and in the line “Baby, I don’t want to know,” directly refers to track ten. It is the album’s slowest and most emotionally deliberate song as, for once, Stevie drops the mask and lets Lindsey hear the actual truth: “I know I could have loved you but you would not let me,” she sings, and as the song patiently builds up she erupts into “Gold Dust Woman” guttural screams: “You will never get away from the sound of the woman that loves you!” she roars, summoning into being a haunting which in pop will persist to the era of Eminem’s “Stan.” It is frightening, intense and heartfelt, and, finally, indispensable.

9. This is not an ending; this is THE END.
Note how the album has steadily progressed from cheery opening to apocalyptic climax if you’re not paying close attention. For “Gold Dust Woman” is one of the bleakest closing tracks of any album. Fleetwood’s drums mostly tick-tock like a nascent bomb and Nicks growls about death and self-destruction and false riches. Eventually, Buckingham, or the ghost of Buckingham, joins in at the end, and, as with much of the rest of the album, and as it was with Peter Green, his guitar says more than his words; starting with indie scratchiness, his solo builds up and culminates behind Nicks’ now wordless shrieks to produce a terrible dual howling. Phantom power, indeed; this is a fight between the ghosts of the past and the promises of the future. The song and performance’s full indications will not be properly realised until Kristin Hersh does it with “Delicate Cutters” nine years later; its wider implications will be recast in Hole’s Pretty On The Inside.

10. They MEAN it, man.
There is no knowingness or irony on this record. Everything is direct, unambiguous. And so, despite just one week at number one, Britain has kept by it, or kept it by its side; in the intervening years it has to date racked up 489 weeks on our album chart, its most recent appearance being as recently as last month. I would anticipate that people will still be buying and listening to this record long after the people who made it are gone, and their descendants and their families too; like the best art, it will call to people long outside the time when it was felt and made.

Sunday 9 September 2012


(#194: 10 December 1977, 6 weeks)

Track listing: Yes Sir I Can Boogie (Baccara)/So You Win Again (Hot Chocolate)/Float On (The Floaters)/The Crunch (RAH Band)/You Don’t Have To Be A Star (Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis)/Too Hot To Handle (Heatwave)/Red Light Spells Danger (Billy Ocean)/I Think I’m Gonna Fall In Love With You (The Dooleys)/Magic Fly (Space)/Baby Don’t Change Your Mind (Gladys Knight & The Pips)/Silver Lady (David Soul)/Angelo (Brotherhood of Man)/You Got What It Takes (Showaddywaddy)/Telephone Man (Meri Wilson)/Naughty Naughty Naughty (Joy Sarney)/Do What You Wanna Do (T-Connection)/Dance & Shake Your Tambourine (The Inner City Express)/Isn’t She Lovely (David Parton)/It’s Your Life (Smokie)/Looking After Number One (BoomTown Rats)

“Will my whole life depend on fading memories?”
(Hot Chocolate, “So You Win Again”)

“Be strong and leave the past behind.”
(Gladys Knight and The Pips, “Baby Don’t Change Your Mind”)

It comes down to a battle between Beethoven and the Sex Pistols, although it’s not really a battle since each side realise they are fighting a common enemy. Towards the end of Abigail’s Party Laurence gets into an argument with Beverly about “art.” She, he protests, understands nothing of art. Getting nowhere, he tells everybody to “SHUT UP!,” places a record in the radiogram and sits down in rapt and silent attention. He is listening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; Beverly is hiding her face in outsized orange sleeves of embarrassment. As he listens, the heart attack that the whole of the play has been building up to comes on; he utters a few whimpers of pain, then lapses into unconsciousness. In desperation, Beverly rings for an ambulance, and her neighbours get Laurence down on the floor and attempt mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The scene is played for farce, and maybe only Mike Leigh and 1977 could have gotten away with that. From the house next door we can hear the muffled thud of “Pretty Vacant.” Eventually, Angela, the neighbour who is also a nurse, realises Laurence cannot be resuscitated; Beverly is slowly drawn over to his body. She bends down, still railing at what she perceives as psychosomatic shirking, and without moving her yell turns into a terrible, elongated howl. The rest of the cast shout “ABIGAIL!” but she is as invisible and unnecessary as Godot. Blackout.

And so Laurence dies without knowing that within a year Beethoven’s Fifth will appear, in a new arrangement, on a number one album, and that the Sex Pistols will effectively have ceased to exist. But what of Beverly? Like other writers, I am drawn towards the fuller lives of fictitious characters; what happens to them both before and after the play or story or novel or film in question. What happens to Beverly after she is widowed is outside the scope of the drama, but still we must ask ourselves, what kind of fate is set for someone who has so categorically failed to realise the difference between actions and opinions – one draws humans together, the other keeps them apart – and how their perception of reality may be their perception alone, that is, if we think of feelings and thoughts as interchangeable, or at the very least mutually dependent?

In this context, I am concerned about what happens to Beverly afterwards. I suppose she will try to “soldier on,” to use that loathsome phrase – life as an unending procession of fights – and that her neighbours will, excuse me again, “rally round” her. Can she remember what life was like before she met Laurence, and by doing so decide how she is going to live after him? She might remember the dance hall, and that it was all about dancing, and people coming together, and so someone, perhaps even Abigail, decides to give her a special present that Christmas, while she is being invited to everyone else’s party, with varying degrees of embarrassment. Remembering how things used to be, she might have decided to give her a copy of the K-Tel compilation Disco Fever: “20 Original Disco Hits” as it says in several places on the sleeve and labels. Hits of now and recently, a bit of everything, nothing too outré for her. I am not sure how far she would allow herself to be convinced.

I can fully understand why the millions who bought Disco Fever did so; from the cover onwards, the clear target keywords are: Christmas, parties, drunk. For this truly is a record which you would have to dance to while drunk in order to comprehend it. And yet, like so many other compilations of its type, it exudes an area of sober cheapness. I passed the old K-Tel offices on Western Avenue often enough to guess that the cover shot was taken in these offices, using their own staff; note how you don’t clearly see any of their faces – are they laughing, or crying, or hiding? And, if they are hiding, what the hell are they hiding from? The future?

Then I examine the small print, see that of the twenty “Original Disco Hits,” only nineteen were actual hits as the British Market Research Bureau would understand them, and the microscopically printed, syntax-challenging codicil that: “To ensure the highest quality reproduction the running times of some of the titles as originally released, have been changed.” For “changed,” read “edited”; in their keenness to cram as many tracks onto the record as possible, the general policy is to surgically extract the middle section from the hit without a drunken pair of ears noticing, frequently rendering the affected hits senseless. Why cut “Do What You Wanna Do” into random shreds and excise a whole Floater (Paul, who likes “all…women of the world”) from “Float On” yet let things like “Angelo” and “It’s Your Life” run uncut?

The compilation album as prototype mixtape, then, chopping and changing as partygoers allow, but do “Silver Lady” or “Naughty Naughty Naughty” really belong on a “disco” album? Of these twenty tracks, about a quarter at most would qualify as disco; the rest is a scattergun jumble bazaar of MoR, pop-soul, AoR, novelty and the odd soupcon of new wave. Moreover, while I am sure anyone could draw up a list of great singles from 1977 and easily run into the hundreds, no more of a handful of these make it onto Disco Fever. I would call its contents a collective exemplar of what Lena calls “The Void,” but some of these songs are still revived on radio, while others are only played when absolutely essential (e.g. retro chart shows, TOTP reruns). Still, hardly any of them would give the visiting Martian the merest insight into what the year of 1977 was supposed to be all about.

And would it really cheer poor Beverly up? I have my doubts. So many of the songs are concerned with loss, or frustration, or can’t-get-any or its twin don’t-you-dare, or (in one case) accentuated morbidity. “Yes Sir I Can Boogie,” for example, the first of five number ones on the album (how accurately can the record be summed up by whom or what it doesn’t include), spends most of its (unedited) time morosely denying that anything’s good. There is little more embarrassing in pop than a record which pretends to be smarter than it actually is, so all the “I already told you in the first verse” business is not clever, New Pop-anticipating fourth wall intertextuality, but bored entitlement, designed to divert the listener’s ear from the song’s remarkable structural similarity to “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” “So You Win Again,” another cheery ditty, was a long service medal to Hot Chocolate, who had been trying to get a number one for the best part of eight years; but for Errol Brown’s remarkably committed vocal – his mature despair makes you sit up and want to take the song seriously – it’s far from one of the group’s best; a Russ Ballard song composed with the aim of, well, getting a number one, and as meticulously and heartlessly calculated a song as you’d expect.

“Float On,” like Deniece Williams’ absent “Free,” has an umbilical link to psychedelic soul and doo-wop in its undertow (the later Dells sides, for instance: “Stay In My Corner,” “Don’t Try To Change Me Now” etc.) with a rather silly audio dating service on top and an extraordinary, extended free-form coda which recalls nothing as much as Steve Miller’s “Fly Like An Eagle.” I have no idea how Beverly might have responded to such crass come-ons. Nor to “You Don’t Have To Be A Star” in which the two former stars of the Fifth Dimension agreeably articulate how the sort of stuff on which Beverly has built her “life” just doesn’t matter. “You Got What It Takes” tries to convey the same message, but what works as knowledgeable banter between Dinah Washington and Brook Benton flounders badly under the elephantine feet of Showaddywaddy, as depressingly British as depressing British things come.

In instrumentals, too, she may have noticed, if she cared about such things (which I doubt she did), that Britain’s attitude was still lagging behind those of other countries. It would be so easy to label “The Crunch,” an advertising jingle turned into a novelty hit, as a “glam synth stomper” (as the cover of the CD The Crunch And Beyond would have us believe, before leading us into several dreary leagues of what Richard Hewson actually believed in, namely insipid sub-CTI MoR fusion workouts) and as a precursor or parallel to punk (mainly because of the doubles pulled in to be “The RAH Band” on TOTP, as Hewson himself, not thinking for a second that it might be a hit, was otherwise engaged) but I remember hearing it that autumn on the North Pier in Blackpool – we were there for the Illuminations – and again several decades later on Brighton Pier, and thinking: yes, seaside schaffel.

But “Magic Fly,” maybe the one true work of genius on the whole record, was already several galaxies ahead; France, as always, came through and united the future with the past (“Telstar”). Such a melancholy melody, which could have come from Saint-Saens, or Ravel, or (especially) Satie (see Rod Argent’s synthesiser arrangement of “Gymnopedies Number Three,” released as a single late that year, for a useful comparison point), but could equally have come from David Guetta, or Daft Punk, or (especially) Air. Even in its abbreviated form – find the similarly-named album, despite the dodgy titles of some of its other tracks, for the full-length glory – this record sounds and feels utterly perfect; there is nothing I would change in it, and all this pulled off without the need for words. Along with the absent “I Feel Love,” it was the 1977 disco record whose greatness even punks had to acknowledge. Thirty-five years on, it still feels like 1893 or 2199.

Not far behind are Heatwave, with their wonderful “Too Hot To Handle” and its even more wonderful composer Rod Temperton; here too is a glimpse of what pop’s future will look like, the Doric arches of chord changes, as natural as de Chirico’s and as driving as Norman Whitfield’s, the nyah-nyah tongue-out horn section, the chants of “What’s? Da? Funk a-BOUT!” and “SHAWWWWWTER! And SHAWWWWWWTER!!” – now we are really in something approximating disco. It’s the same with Miami’s T-Connection; please find one of the many excellent TK compilations available for the full “Do What You Wanna Do” (and 1978’s even better follow-up, the phenomenal “On Fire”), but there is still a manifest seriousness at work here, and plenty of fun to complement it too. Strangely, or not so strangely, the one track on the album that wasn’t a hit – “Dance And Shake Your Tambourine,” a British cover of a Patrick Adams original (issued under the unbeatable name of The Universal Robot Band; the original 12-inch is well worth finding) - seems to look forward most assuredly to early eighties Britfunk, with its extended percussion breaks and furtive basslines; again, it takes the disco remit seriously.

What does that leave to say about the rest of the record? Is Beverly even still at the party, or has she just fallen asleep after one Warnink’s Advocaat too many? The best I can say is that it is as confused a mess as Beverly’s mind. Ben Findon – so good when writing with Billy Ocean (the superb “Red Light Spells Danger,” even if it does owe something to “Gotta See Jane”), so crap when writing for the abysmal Dooleys (I say “abysmal,” but “I Think I’m Gonna Fall In Love With You” is so generic and Seaside Special unaffecting that it’s almost unnoticeable; if you want a missing link between the Osmonds and the Nolans, there they were. To be fair, their follow-up, “Love Of My Life” was both their best record and their second biggest hit). “Baby Don’t Change Your Mind,” overplayed on oldies radio to this day, finds Gladys Knight and her boys trapped in Van McCoy’s evil evening-out dungeon; great if all you want out of life are handbag dances, not so great when you remember how great her “Help Me Make It Through The Night” was (actually the anonymous party types on the cover remind both Lena and me of those “friends” who come in and help eat Nigella Lawson’s meals at the end of her TV show; you know from the absence in their eyes that they’re not really “friends” but “actors”).

“Silver Lady” and “Angelo” “disco”? And yet, both number one in this most exasperating of years. Hutch, disembarking from the Greyhound bus in the middle of (I guess) Indiana, wandering down the road, jacket slung over shoulder, as happened at the end of every episode of The Incredible Hulk, begging for said Lady’s forgiveness for being, basically, a bastard and running out on her into a world of “back street walkers” (cue clichéd honky tonk piano flourish) and “no star motels.” If I were her I’d take his “last chance” and ram jam it up his Egyptian reggae and go off and live with Paul-Michael Glaser.

And “Angelo,” and the Brotherhood of Man in general – is this just bad Abba, or prototype Throbbing Gristle, as it focuses again and again, like a rubbernecker who can’t tear himself away, on two dead bodies lying on the sand? It isn’t a song, as such; just a cursory (or minimalist) verse and endless repeats of the chorus which do not cry out “overthrow society” so that poor shepherd boys and rich girls wouldn’t have to top themselves to prove they love each other. I can’t remember this being played at all at the Uddingston Grammar Third Year Christmas Disco, or if it was I’ve happily blotted it out of my memory.

Novelty, novelty, anything but facing the world; again, it’s America versus Britain, but can you imagine anybody whose head was decisively turned in 1977 giving a nanosecond of attention to “Telephone Man” or “Naughty Naughty Naughty,” both of which depend on one-joke scenarios (or, in Joy Sarney’s case, no jokes) which quickly outstay their welcome (to be fair, the “additional vocals” on “Naughty Naughty Naughty” might have helped inspire the Shamen)? Can you imagine passing over, say, One World or Aja (just to mention a couple of non-punk head/mind-turning records from 1977) in favour of this supermarket, ooer vicar crud? Did Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell die in vain? David Parton’s Hot Hits cover of “Isn’t She Lovely” made me rush to the shelves for Songs In The Key Of Life, just to cleanse my head (a comparison with Pat Boone un-doing Little Richard in the fifties to satisfy complacent but solvent white audiences springs to mind). Smokie – what the fuck were they doing here, or in any year? A vehicle for Chinn and Chapman to exorcise their “Tom Tom Turnaround” side, perhaps? The joke being that the writers at the time thought this, not their glorious Sweet/Quatro/Mud runs, their “proper” work. I note the “Baby You’re A Rich Man” wannabeisms of the middle eight and the fact that “It’s Your Life” narrowly avoids turning into a Hot Chocolate record before its pretentious pause (pretentious as a pejorative because, like Baccara, Smokie think they’re smarter and artier than they are).

And then, right at the end, what I imagine someone at K-Tel interpreted as being a major kick in the arse – a blast of Punk Rock! Actually, being the Boomtown Rats (“BoomTown” is how they’re credited on the sleeve), it’s more a bleat of Pub Rock, but it’s still a perverse thrill to hear the younger Geldof standing up for his Self and fuming “Don’t give me charity!” while concluding the whole record with a clarion call for the Thatcher generation: “I’m gonna be like ME!” Retrospectively, this could be seen as something of a coup; end the record with a guy who thinks charity is a “stupid idea” and who ends up the only person on the record who actually changes things. But nobody in 1977 could have known that; so it acts as a bit of a frisson, an exotic spicing of wham-bam to tail an excessively polite and mind-its-p’s-and-q’s record.

Another year over, Beverly thinks, and what have we done?

Pop music? That died in the dressing room of the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, during an interval in a production of Orton’s Loot, where it was playing the part of Inspector Truscott.

Or it died as an inpatient of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, of natural causes (and only in its forties); so little work had come its way that it had resorted to making custom birdcages.

Or it died backstage at a small theatre in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, following a rather over-exuberant performance.

Or it died onstage, in front of television cameras, in the middle of its act, in Her Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket, London SW1. The audience, not knowing it wasn’t an act, gave pop music the biggest round of applause it ever received.

Or it died of an overdose of barbiturates and vodka in a small, nondescript flat near Euston station; an open verdict was returned.

Or it got ONE LAST BIG FUCKING BRILLIANT HIT then fell on the bed, fell asleep and never woke up.

Or it was like Beverly Moss, who I would like to imagine came through all the grief and painstakingly rebuilt her life, rather than dying alone in a damp bedsit in Wanstead, consumed by cigarettes and booze, sometime in 1985, surrounded by memories, or sentiments at any rate, but just before the light went out forever she stretched her hand out, and it touched Laurence’s

Wednesday 5 September 2012

BREAD: The Sound Of Bread

(#193: 26 November 1977, 2 weeks; 21 January 1978, 1 week)

Track listing: Make It With You/Dismal Day/London Bridge/Anyway You Want Me/Look What You’ve Done/It Don’t Matter To Me/The Last Time/Let Your Love Go/Truckin’/If/Baby I’m A Want You/Everything I Own/Down On My Knees/Just Like Yesterday/Diary/Sweet Surrender/Guitar Man/Fancy Dancer/She’s The Only One/Lost Without Your Love

“That’s the stupidest title for a record I’ve ever heard!” said my father, in response to the television advertisement for this album. He knew little of Bread and cared less but I was in agreement with him. A very Zen title, The Sound Of Bread; can you hear its silent sigh, does it cry when you put it back in the bread bin and retire to bed? At a time that called for everything but Zen. That is, if you consider “bread” to mean anything other than money, and I’m not sure that David Gates’ courtly troupe didn’t think the making of it was what it meant.

More problematic and emblematic was its place in this tale. It acted like the Sex Pistols had never happened, and by the end of 1977 that wasn’t really good enough. If this story can be divided into two sections – what happened before Never Mind The Bollocks, and what happened after it – then it was clear, even then, that things couldn’t be as they were. Like people mourned after the passing of Neil Armstrong; look, once upon a time man was bold and enterprising enough to set foot on somewhere other than his own planet, and what does that say about mankind now? Yes, I am aware of “Whitey On The Moon” and the first verse of “Inner City Blues” but history has shown that money did not go towards either moonshots or have-nots, but was instead largely expended upon primarily fruitless international military capers. Or when Bradley Wiggins recently fulminated against the failure of the world to change after the Olympics – look, when they were on, people felt and behaved differently, London was a happier, quieter and pleasanter place, but as soon as they ended, the shutters came clanking down again and we were too egotistical and indolent to reconstruct them, or ourselves. And once again we found ourselves in the deeply unpleasant and depressingly familiar world of Simon Cowell, John Terry, Jeremy Hunt, Kim Kardashian and Rita Ora; those stupid short-term fancies that we’re not strong or evolved enough to get rid of, the venal, grabbing, old world which was never in danger of being swept away. Not as long as we wanted more trivia, more gossip, more colouring in of pain and obfuscating of suffering.

It was the same as 1977 groaned to its end. Soft rock, they called the sort of music Bread made, anything to blot out the real world, transient comfort. Rock, it had finally been revealed, had indeed gone soft in the head, indulgent, cosseting rather than provoking. Anything to drown or swoon out that ghastly punk noise, and you can’t even hear the words, is he a man or a woman, I turn into my parents with great, society-crushing joy. What was the state of all the subsidiary stories this tale has told so far? Where had it all got us?

Frank Sinatra was as big as ever, with more than twenty years still to live, gliding into his effervescent, extended twilight.

Richard Rodgers, who with Oscar Hammerstein II once owned the album chart, was an exhausted old man with less than two years to live. After The Sound Of Music and Hammerstein’s death he carried on writing shows with different partners but it wasn’t the same; he never had another big hit, and the world had changed anyway, or been wrested from the picture of it he had recognised.

Rudy Pompilli, saxophonist for the Comets, had succumbed to cancer the year before. Bill Haley, responsible for the first rock number one album, continued to tour and record but he had grown bitter and developed a drink problem, becoming crabby and forbidding. And those piercing headaches.

Elvis was gone; so was Marc Bolan. Others fated not to see 1978 included Groucho Marx, Vladimir Nabokov, Charlie Chaplin, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Angelo Muscat, who played the Butler in The Prisoner. And also Bing Crosby, whose heart checked out on him, on his way back to the clubhouse following a game of golf on a course just outside Madrid. Grace Kelly lived a silvery sheen of a life in Monaco; she had under five years to go. Satchmo, he was six years gone.

Tommy Steele, the first British rocker that most people knew or cared about, continued to be a draw onstage, principally in sparkling musicals at the London Palladium. His movie career was already behind him but his smile was enough to get him what he wanted, and he knew enough to know that was all he needed.

Rex Harrison was semi-retired, and crochety. Julie Andrews was semi-retired and happy, emerging only to appear in films directed by her husband Blake Edwards. Marooned in Gstaad, they would sometimes pass Peter Sellers and Lynne Frederick on the coach run and smilingly shake their heads at each other. Stanley Holloway, amazingly, was still in the present tense.

In 1974 Freddy Cannon had made a guest appearance on the first album by Disco Tex and his Sex-O-Lettes, a favour to his old mentor Bob Crewe. He was still gigging, working the oldies circuit and doing just fine.

The 101 Strings brand continued to radiate between owners and licensees, pumping out robot seduction to anyone who heard but never dared listen.

In 1978 the BBC cancelled The Black And White Minstrel Show, ostensibly due to political pressure but in truth because Light Entertainment needed to make budget cuts and the show was proving too expensive to produce. Nevertheless, on television it had survived almost into the age of Grandmaster Flash. Whatever remained of the Minstrels continued to entertain elderly seaside concert parties, those who caught a glimpse of a wind half a century before and spent the rest of their lives quietly crying over the transience of the breeze.

Cliff and the Shadows, they were secure. Prompted into reforming in the early seventies by John Peel, for whose show they had recorded a session, and who had told them that their time was shortly to come again Hank, Bruce and Brian felt regenerated, and the first serious British rock group, whose two early sixties number one albums had done so much to lay out the ground rules for what came after them, from the Who to Zeppelin (John Paul Jones was briefly considered to replace Brian “Liquorice” Locking on bass in 1963), was reborn. After their first split Hank Marvin had been approached by Roy Wood and Carl Wayne to see if he fancied being in the Move. He was flattered by the offer but tired out by ten years of touring and mangle-pushing and wanted something different, so the job went to Jeff Lynne. Cliff carried on serenely because he literally did not know where, or how, to stop.

Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, in their own individual ways, were getting as far away from West Side Story as possible.

Ball, Barber and Bilk proved indestructible. In an NME interview in the mid-seventies Chris Barber noted that, whatever their individual passions, all music lovers were basically Max Bygraves fans. The late Mr Bygraves does not appear in this tale, despite several close calls, but I am sure he would have nodded sagely at the underlying subtext (“give them what they already know and like”) and strode on with his bits of business.

Despite a number one album, the Beatles were invisible in 1977, except for Paul McCartney, whose band Wings were probably bigger than ever. They opened the year with a number one Billboard triple live album (Wings Over America) and closed it with “Mull Of Kintyre,” a sentimental bagpipe hometown waltz which became McCartney’s biggest British hit single and the first single to pass the two million sales mark in the UK. Not even “She Loves You” had done that. Driving in his car towards the end of that year, McCartney was momentarily perturbed at being flagged down by a couple of passing punks, only for them to tell him how much they loved “Mull Of Kintyre.” He later conceded that it was probably his “punk rock single.”

Dylan, the Stones and the Moody Blues would all return in 1978 with new albums. This tale just misses writing about two of them. Bruce Springsteen, after a protracted legal battle, would also return in 1978 with an album that some thought was better than Street Legal, Some Girls and Octave combined, but he does not enter this tale for some considerable while yet. When he does, however, he will make his presence known.

Mike Nesmith, once of the Monkees, returned to the charts in 1977 with “Rio” and his inventive video for the song gave notice that he was in the process of inventing the prototype for MTV, and therefore the eighties.

Val Doonican continued to entertain Saturday night television audiences with his easy-going mix of song and whimsy. He would still be there as late as 1990.

The Four Tops, Temptations and Supremes had more or less fallen off the radar. Diana Ross and Glen Campbell discovered that the British were more interested in their old records than their new ones.

Scott Walker hears Low and knows it must be now or never. He prepares four songs for the next and, he knows, final Walker Brothers album Nite Flights, to be released in 1978. They still surpass Richard Strauss in that they should have been given the umbrella title “Four Last Songs” since they sound like the last four songs on Earth.

Andy Williams soldiers on, bemused but beaming.

Humble Pie and the Faces now both gone, the Small Faces attempt a doomed comeback. Ronnie Lane is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and Steve Marriott, the greatest British white male singer of his generation, heads for the pub circuit.

In the spring of 1977, Tom Jones’ Billboard country number one “Say You’ll Stay Until Tomorrow” appears at the very bottom of the UK Top 40 for one week only. It will be a decade before he has another hit; in the meantime, the man substituting for Elvis in the TV production of Abigail’s Party is content to record country songs and tackle thrown lingerie in Vegas.

Simon and Garfunkel were still individually visible in 1977, but only just; Simon slip sliding away into cultdom, and it would take the best part of a decade for Britain to remember that he was still in the present tense.

The Hollies hit the album Top 10 with Hollies Live Hits. In 1978 EMI would issue a 20 Golden Greats compilation of their hits, which would peak at #2.

The Seekers had long since disbanded, and the New Seekers only came up for air every now and then.

Eric Clapton released Slowhand; he had beaten drugs but got hooked on booze. Onstage in Birmingham in the summer of 1976, this worked against him.

Ray Conniff continued to glide in perpetual half-life.

Jethro Tull were as big a stage attraction in the States as they had ever been. In Britain their moment had passed.

Steve Winwood released his first solo album on Island, and was set to prosper in the forgiving eighties.

Led Zeppelin would not return until 1979.

Status Quo were enjoying probably the biggest hit of their career with their version of “Rockin’ All Over The World” (an NME number one single), a song written and recorded two years earlier by John Fogerty.

“Once more, Ozzy, and you’re OUT!”

Pink Floyd scored a #2 album in 1977 with the brutal, punkish Animals, a record so extreme its tracks do not get routinely selected for rotation on the Planet Rock radio station. Nick Mason produced Music For Pleasure, the second album by The Damned.

Only Stevie Wonder and the Commodores were keeping Motown going at all.

Emerson, Lake and Palmer did a very punk rock thing in 1977 and released a single, their schaffel cover of Copland’s “Fanfare For The Common Man.” It did considerably better than their two volumes of Works, which were out of time and point, were critically ridiculed and did only mediocre commercial business.

Deep Purple in 1977 did not really exist.

Opportunity Knocks was cancelled by ITV in early 1978. It is said that the last straw came when one show was hosted from within a Polaris nuclear submarine. Hughie Green fulminated loudly and at length, but to no good.

Rod Stewart thought he could just carry on as he had always done, and enough people – though not as many as before – believed him sufficiently to carry on providing him with a living.

Neil Young came through. His triple Decade collection – or Portrait Of Neil, if you must – reminded everyone just how fucking great he actually was. American Stars ‘N’ Bars was routine business by anybody else’s standards but he would soon be singing a hymn to Johnny Rotten.

Lindisfarne would return to the charts in 1978 with “Run For Home,” sounding exactly like Supertramp.

Slade were back on Boogie Street. Their singles, piecemeal compared with those of the Clash or Buzzcocks, now barely troubled the bottom end of the Top 50. The hard rock club circuit would keep them going until spring came around again in the eighties.

Gilbert O’Sullivan had enjoyed his last hit in 1975. He didn’t have much time to record as he was about to embark on a long and costly court case, attempting (successfully) to get his royalties back from his ex-manager Gordon Mills. He continued to make highly worthwhile albums and in 1980 was back on the charts with the rhetorical “What’s In A Kiss?”

Elton John lay, anguished and writhing, in his bed in Windsor, watching these punks on kids’ Saturday morning TV making fun of him and everything he stood for. He had semi-come out in 1977; he had also turned thirty and was weary of work. Consequently he lost a lot of business in the States and didn’t adapt to changing times very well. What use did the Shock of the New have for a double album as morose and overlong as Blue Moods? He appeared on the 1976 Morecambe And Wise Christmas Show, looking and acting like a condemned man (and indeed that strange show culminated in Morecambe and Wise being machine-gunned to death by Des O’Connor).

Alice Cooper played golf.

Bowie, he was the only one paying attention, by virtue of paying no attention whatsoever. He produced five albums in 1977, two of his own, two for Iggy Pop (with whom he also toured) and did Peter And The Wolf for the kids. Kraftwerk namechecked him (and Iggy) on Trans-Europe Express. That year he would also tape television duets with Bing Crosby and Marc Bolan.

Brian Eno released the excellent Before And After Science and did a memorable, multi-part interview with Ian MacDonald for the NME before transplanting his pop heart into Talking Heads. This apart from inventing ambient music.

Bryan Ferry knew what time it was (“This Is Tomorrow”), but moped over Jerry deserting him for Jagger.

David Cassidy was training as a racehorse breeder.

Perry Como was retired from stage work and settled down to enjoy the near quarter-century of life which still awaited him.

Mike Oldfield was preparing a new double album called Incantations, to be released in 1978, and highly influenced by the work of Steve Reich.

The Bay City Rollers’ hit run dried up and soon they would be reduced to sharing children’s television time with the Krofft Superstars.

Engelbert hadn’t had a British hit single in more than five years but “After The Lovin’” did the business everywhere else, so what the fuck.

The Stylistics had their last hit in 1977 with “$7,000 And You,” a record that makes The Best Of The Stylistics Volume II sound like Diamanda Galas’ The Divine Punishment. Thereafter they declined steadily and rendered into rival brands, some members in one, others in another, reunions, pay the bills, and so forth.

Max Boyce continued to be a much-loved entertainer.

Roy Orbison was much where he had been two years previously. Slim Whitman, a man who once responded to an early demo tape of Jerry Lee Lewis by saying “Don’t call me, I’ll call you,” would just miss out on having a third number one album in 1978 with Home On The Range before diverting his telemarketing interests back towards the USA.

The second season of Rock Follies, interrupted as it was by union disputes, was markedly less successful than the first, and the soundtrack album did not even make the top ten.

The Beach Boys Love You, it said; few believed them, fewer at the time noticed Pacific Ocean Blue.

Wilko Johnson had left Dr Feelgood that Easter; they were back with a new guitarist and a Prisoner-themed (or sleeved) album called Be Seeing You but they weren’t the same band that had forced British rock to wake up a year earlier.

Bert Weedon was content to be a benign John the Baptist to British rock.

The Muppets released a “Music Hall” E.P. for Christmas; in Britain it peaked at #19.

Barbra Streisand’s next film was a boxing comedy with Ryan O’Neal entitled The Main Event. Kristofferson evidently had a far happier time doing Convoy with Peckinpah.

Natalie Wood, Keith Moon, Karen Carpenter, Connie Francis and Sid Vicious continued to live through their respective hells.

And so, it has to be asked, whither Bread? Or should that be “wither”? As every schoolboy knows, David Gates – who once wrote “Popsicles And Icicles” for LA girl group The Murmaids and produced Lydon’s hero Captain Beefheart – got together with Robb Royer in the latter’s band The Pleasure Fair, which produced one self-titled album in 1968. Royer then introduced Gates to his songwriting partner James Griffin, and recruiting fourth member Mike Botts, the idea of Bread was born.

Their eponymous 1969 album, well represented on this collection, is by far their most interesting. Songs like “Dismal Day” and “London Bridge” are cloudy pop, if not quite sunshine pop, completely characteristic of the West Coast of the late sixties; it is rather as if the Monkees had kept on going and broken through to the other side. But there is even more going on; “Dismal Day,” with its ludicrous high vocal notes and unexpected chord changes, is so slickly done as to suggest a Zappa parody of sunshine pop. The apocalyptic “London Bridge” (“…has finally fallen down”) is subjected to askew piano chords, waylaying choruses and a fairground Moog. These were both David Gates songs, but the Griffin/Royer collaborations – “Anyway You Want Me,” “Look What You’ve Done” – with their scratchy funk guitars and purposely overdone falsettos, would not have been out of place on the third Velvet Underground album.

But it was Gates’ “It Don’t Matter To Me” – here in its original, and superior, 1969 recording – that set the Bread template; doomed, wistful balladry with sentimental descending staircases of harmonic structures and sung with such palpable (verging on icky) sensitivity that you almost don’t notice that Gates is setting himself up as Prime Seventies Rock Doormat; here, as on “Diary” and “Sweet Surrender,” he is comprehensively trodden on, but issues only understanding whimpers in response. Here you can feel what Bread are grasping at; it is epic, eloquent and never overstated.

However, by the time of their second album On The Waters, it was 1970 and everybody was looking for a way out, and also reassurance. Hence “Make It With You” was a decade’s declaration of principles as earnest as “We’ve Only Just Begun” (“Dreams are for those who sleep,” “Help me through”); a bit of fourth-walling to reassure old heads (“And if you’re wond’rin’ what this song is leading to”), and even an introduction that is almost identical to Thunderclap Newman’s “Something In The Air.” But Gates is not proposing armed insurrection here; rather, all he wants is to… “make it with you,” a sentiment which drags us back a decade to Bobby Rydell and the like; no more dirty sex or noise, let’s understand each other now, not get each other’s pants podied in, bore the world to death. It was their only pop number one in the USA (though followed by several Adult Contemporary number ones) and their only top ten single in the UK. When Gates floats through his “Baby you know that…” he could be waving or drowning. “The Last Time” is Monkees-lite derailed by a hugely incongruous cocktail organ solo. “Let Your Love Go” sounds like “Tobacco Road” and lends the notion of Bread as a sort of intellectual Archies (“Don’t Touch My Guitar”); crafted, studio-based pop which (unlike the Archies) neither offends nor inspires. On “Truckin’,” it could almost be Reggie Mantle singing (“We’re talkin’ bout the highway/Get outa MY WAY!”) a bad Creedence Clearwater wannabe (although Griffin’s lead vocal also anticipates Elton John).

So, if you wonder why it is that the same four or five Bread songs come on the radio, there’s a reason, the same as when you watch a Morecambe and Wise compilation, and wonder why they never re-screen full shows, and then they re-screen a full show and you realise why they do compilations. Not that I’m convinced that Gates’ sourdough meditations are any the better for it; after two lousy cover versions it is a relief to hear “If” being sung by the man who wrote it, but it still remains a hokey song with tangled metaphors and New Age greeting card sentiments. If “Baby I’m A Want You” reminds you of why they were so “needed” by millions (“Like a guiding light to see me through my darkest hours”), then neither “If” nor “Everything I Own” convinces us of either undying love or death-inspired grief, and it is significant that in Britain they became number one hits for other performers; Ken Boothe’s reggae “Everything I Own” gets half the words wrong but is a far more convincing picture of mourning than the original, whereas Telly Savalas’ sprechtesang “If” works because of its sardonic, playful charm (“And when the world was through…MMMMMMMMMM!”). “The part of me that can’t let go,” indeed.

Listening through the rather joyless selections to be found on the rest of side two, it struck me initially that Bread were a band of modest inspiration who hit on a formula and were encouraged to repeat it until infinity (as something like “Sweet Surrender” exemplifies). But I then thought, no, that’s too pat an explanation; the Gates/Griffin struggle for power in Bread (which eventually broke the band up) may be broadly comparable to Archie versus Reggie, but it was Lena who remarked that for a band called Bread, their music was peculiarly insubstantial. “Mindless listening,” she calls it, “like a non-answering answer.” You bite into it and work your way through the crust and the dough but when you get to the centre there’s really nothing there. “Diary” is a creepy song; rather than hit Gates on the head with her diary until he is concussed, his would-be Other proffers nonchalance, and by the time we realise that she is actually in love with somebody else, we are rather relieved by this. “Guitar Man” would dearly love to be “Expecting To Fly” or even “A Man Needs A Maid” but singularly fails to lift off, crowd noises included; the supposedly climactic solo guitar is at times drowned out by the string section, and we are left with a feeling of…the Moody Blues.

Griffin and Royer (or, in one case, Botts and Griffin)’s songs meanwhile get worse, grasping desperately at passing musical fashions. “Down On My Knees” is 1965 Beatles. “Just Like Yesterday,” whose lyric includes the line “Down on my knees I pray,” is almost like Griffin and Royer trying to do a David Gates song. “Fancy Dancer” strives to be Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” which is like Joe Pasquale striving to be Bill Hicks. By the time of “She’s The Only One,” one of just two tracks copyrighted 1977, they are reduced to emulating the Eagles of “Tequila Sunrise” (Hotel California, this year’s elephant in the sitting room, made #1 on NME but was second to Arrival on the BMRB lists).

The album concludes with their big (and only) comeback hit “Lost Without Your Love” with Gates’ clearly coded lyrical signals to his audience (although “a touch without a feel” is a terrible metaphor whichever way you look at it). Listening to the song now, it is clear where its trail will lead, since it sounds uncannily like Air Supply, who will in time take over this demographic, to be succeeded by Savage Garden; the instruments may change but the trend will not. Music for people who don’t like music, who buy an album as though it were another item of grocery, a lifestyle addendum; The Sound Of Bread was and is ideal listening for those wishing to pretend that the world doesn’t exist, or exists only according to their limited desires. In the wake of “Bodies” and “Holidays In The Sun” this will no longer do. A pretty stupid title, it has to be said.