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.