Monday 31 December 2012
(#226: 19 April 1980, 2 weeks)
Track listing: Love Don’t Live Here Anymore/Wishing On A Star/I Wanna Get Next To You/Angel In The Sky/I’m In Love (And I Love The Feeling)/I Wonder Where You Are Tonight/You’re On My Mind/Is It Love You’re After/Car Wash/It Makes You Feel Like Dancin’/Do Your Dance/First Come, First Serve/Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is/Ooh Boy
Why, of all the disco, funk and R&B acts which could have been in this space, did Rose Royce draw the long straw? Initially, it’s hard to understand; for the previous three-and-a-quarter years they had enjoyed a run of intermittently big hit singles but they were by no means chart regulars, and by April 1980 singer Gwen Dickey had left the band, which promptly (though only temporarily) disbanded, their hits now largely past them.
But then sometimes things depend on how you present yourself, or how you are presented, and whether it’s done at just the right time; for those still underestimating the group, I have to say that their Greatest Hits collection went platinum in the UK and was outsold in 1980 by only two other albums, neither of which I have yet reached. In other words, they represented the first major single-act R&B/album chart crossover since the Stylistics. And, like the Stylistics, they were far bigger in Britain than in the States, where they had enjoyed only four Top 40 hit singles, and where a similar Greatest Hits package was released at much the same time yet peaked at only #204.
But the two records differ. Cannily, the album was divided into a side of slow jams (the “Romancing” side) and another of uptempo dance cuts (the “Dancing” side). But the sleeves were different, the sides were reversed and there were several differences in track selections and listings. Overall, despite the omission of “I’m Going Down,” later to be brilliantly covered by Mary J Blige, I think the UK edition played more to the band’s strengths; there were enough familiar songs to reassure listeners, but also a sufficient variety of approaches to satisfy doubters.
How did Rose Royce happen anyway? It came down to where Norman Whitfield found himself in the mid-seventies – what do you do after, like stout Cortez, you have glimpsed, and maybe helped create, the future of soul music with the Temptations? But then, by 1976, the days of “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” were long behind him, as was his Temptations’ fairly swift descent into self-parody (by the time of 1973’s hopefully-titled Masterpiece, one commentator wrote that it was good of Whitfield to let the Temptations sing on their own record now and again). Tired of Motown and wanting to strike out on his own, he took with him a Los Angeles group – the musicians came in equal part from Inglewood and Watts – formerly known as Total Concept Unlimited. While backing Edwin Starr on tour in Europe and Japan, the singer introduced them to Whitfield, who used them as both the studio and stage band for middle-ranking Motown artists such as the Undisputed Truth and Yvonne Fair. By now they were called Magic Wand; but the Undisputed Truth’s frontman Joe Harris stumbled upon singer Gwen Dickey while in Miami. She was quickly added to the line-up and given the pseudonym Rose Norwalt.
While assembling this band’s debut album, Whitfield was approached by film director Michael Schultz, lately of Cooley High, with a view to providing the soundtrack to his next film Car Wash. Unusually, the music and the film shooting happened simultaneously, and so each element tended to comment on the other. Seeing his big chance, Whitfield changed Magic Wand’s name yet again to Rose Royce (to fit with Dickey’s “Rose” character, and also to get into line with the film’s automobile theme), and most people know what happened next.
But perhaps most people don’t know Rose Royce as well as they think, or only know parts of them. The wonder of this record – fourteen tracks, not one of which is a dud – is that it amplifies just how terrific and creative they, and their principal writer and producer, were.
Let’s start with the “Romancing” side, the finest of its kind since The Best Of The Stylistics, and two songs – their two biggest British hits – which still stagger with their patient invention and persevering power. With “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” it is as if Whitfield took his Ball of Confusion and ran with it into the 21st century; the opening electronic pulse gradually pulls back its curtain to reveal a singer more bewildered than bereft – how strange a phrase “through the windows of my eyes” is, when you think about it – with regular laps by Paul Riser’s racing strings and an obstinately creative syndrum (this record probably represents the best extended use of the syndrum in pop). The loss is vast, our understanding of it becoming gradually less minute; I remember in the late summer of 1978, when this was climbing the charts, listening to Peter Clayton’s Sunday night Sounds of Jazz show on Radio 2, and in particular to a live session by the Mike Westbrook Brass Band – I think they were playing “Holy Thursday.” Anyway, the music was slow and mournful, and Paul Rutherford was the featured soloist on trombone; but his solo was in two parts. The first was straight balladry, but then halfway through, the trapdoor is suddenly pulled open from beneath and the whole group, led by Rutherford, retreat into grumbling free jazz atonality. It seemed fairly evident to me that this and “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” were coming from the same Sargasso sea of tonality.
A few months earlier there had been “Wishing On A Star,” with oboe and strings doing their best to hold Dickey back from collapse, although the song seems more of a lament for times gone than a love forlorn – “I wish on all the people we might have been,” Dickey sings near the beginning, later on amending it to the more sinisterly poignant “…all the people we’ll never be.” At another point – it’s part of what is not quite a chorus – she sings, virtually in one breath, “Make the best of things oh baby when we’re together/Whether or never.” In other words, even if she got back what she was wishing for, it still wouldn’t be great. And whether or never what, exactly? The song’s arrangement emphasises the near-schizophrenic indecision at work here, seesawing between ascending Moog bubbles and put-back-in-their-place string balladry, never to be resolved, not even in the long fade, when Dickey quietly explodes. With both of these songs – the 1989 Fresh 4 cover of “Wishing” especially on my mind – there is a certain determined stealthiness which puts me in mind of Massive Attack; the very pronounced basslines, the crepuscular creeps.
Elsewhere Whitfield appears to have wondered what the Temptations might have been; “I Wanna Get Next To You,” sung by the very Eddie Kendricks-ish falsetto of guitarist Kenji Brown, is exactly the type of old school ballad for which the Temps may have yearned, but in fact it is a sequel to the not very reassuring “Just My Imagination” in that the singer has now summoned up enough nerve to at least try and speak to the girl. His patter, however, is not exactly persuasive; “Talkin’ ‘til I’m black and blue,” “You and I go sailin’ by,” “And girl, you make me feel so insecure”…who’s going to be captivated by this kind of paranoia? Certainly not the decidedly unimpressed girl to whom the song is sung (and danced!) in the film.
“Angel In The Sky,” however, is a glorious ballad worthy of Thom Bell, which seems to rotate around Dickey’s axis of simple faith; “You were so untrue…but now you’re true,” initially accompanied by only brushes and piano before the song opens out like so many February petals. “I’m In Love,” again sung by Brown, dazzles with displacement; his ecstatic, descending “Your ecstasy-y-y-y-y-y-y,” met by high strings swooping down, his bemused but elated rejoicing (“Wonderful! Marvellous!,” “I feel like a child on Christmas morning”). You may notice that there’s a little fill towards the end which later in the decade will form the basis of “I Wonder If I Take You Home” by Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam.
In “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight,” Dickey grieves eloquently; she is in a ‘plane (“Lookin’ down from Heavensville” as she puts it) searching for the guy (“And hope is my friend,” the obverse of “Goodbye To Love”) who years, or was it days, ago “jumped into your car/With your guitar”; she hears his songs on the radio but cannot find him. Midsong there is a vertiginous breakdown, with disturbing clashing cymbals and adder-like strings, but the overall feeling is that of “Wichita Lineman” crossed with “Country Boy” and exiled into seventies urbanism; at one point I imagine I hear Dickey crossly singing, “I wish you never saw a guitar!”
“You’re On My Mind,” once more I think lead-sung by Jones, is a satisfying side-closer. We are presented with brash Pearl and Dean brass and string fanfares which are silenced by the rattle of a conga. The singer is beyond himself with joy – at one point he exclaims, “I’d marry you NOW!” – and then the song moves suddenly but naturally into a Gaye-esque 3/4 with Fifth Dimension harmonies, before settling on a steadier 6/8 tempo with harp glissandi falling like showers of silver.
It’s back to the disco for the “Dancing” side, and “Is It Love You’re After,” their last significant UK hit, is the best of starts, with its insolently confident synth sequencing, its hyperactive brass, strings and percussion, all working against Dickey’s rather fear-filled vocal (“Do I, bay-bee?” she warily spells out) because she doesn’t know whether she’s going to be properly loved or whether this is just another one-hit wonder…
“Car Wash” itself is pretty much unassailable, I think, with its gradual build-up of handclaps, lead guitar, murmuring bass, etc., into Riser’s courtly Radio Clyde jingle strings, but it also lends clues as to how the film isn’t quite the carefree, laugh-a-minute experience you might imagine; yes, the boss doesn’t mind sometimes if you act the fool, but you don’t get rich (although it’s better than digging a ditch) and the assembly line chant of “WORK! And WORK!” suggests that it’s not a happy-go-lucky free-for-all, like Barney Miller but with cars (that show always reassured me in my younger days, going out as it did Thursday nights on STV, after News At Ten; no shoot-up epics or crises of faith going on, mostly humdrum but congenial day-to-day hustling along in the office). Similarly, the film climaxes with a sacked worker contemplating a robbery and only being talked out of it at the last moment; already everyone in the film knows that they’re going to keep clocking in, washing cars and clocking out for perhaps ever.
The rest of the side you probably won’t know so well, so “It Makes You Feel Like Dancin’,” with its gruffly confident spoken MC introduction – it is like David Ruffin doing Disco Tex – settles very nicely into a squishy Clinton-ish groove. “Do Your Dance,” with yet more booming syndrum, has its highlight when the band, a third of the way through the song, sing “Let’s get it on” and abruptly coalesce in a perfect Heatwave harmony. Dickey has great fun with “First Come, First Serve” – a faster “I Will Survive” with far more fuck-you-Jack content than melodrama – with its plump and funky bass, brass and percussion (“And I’m in desperate need YELP!!” – she does this a couple more times throughout the song, as though having just sat on an electric pin cushion) and insane random synth blasts.
“Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is” sounds as though it stemmed from a jam; if that trumpet fanfare and the subsequent boom of “Talk is CHEAP!” (“That’s RIGHT, honey!,” Dickey replies immediately) sound familiar, it is because Starlight sampled both for their great 1989 dance hit “Numero Uno.” The number sounds like the Ohio Players during a round of poker (“25! 25? Nah, FIFTY!!”) with pronouncements of equal absurdity (“Right on!” “Put up or shut up!,” “Rock steady!”).
Finally, both romance and dance are united in 1978’s very fine “Ooh Boy” with more salty lashings of harp, although the lyric plays like the girl’s response to the protagonist of “I Wanna Get Next To You” (“I want to see you walking past my window/And I don’t even know your name” – plotwise, this is getting like Danny Wallace’s best-selling novel Charlotte Street).
What to make of it all, then? Side one is what might have happened had Whitfield been put in charge of operations at MoWest, with all that strange offshoot’s nocturnal rumblings. But side two makes me think of everyone who would have been listening to and absorbing this record, whether in its British or American form – not just the contemporaneous Solar music from LA (Shalamar, the Whispers), but the young Snoop Dogg and Warren G, and, over here, Martin Fry, George Michael, Mick Hucknall and Trevor Horn, among very many others, learning its lessons (so much of it, not least "Is It Love You're After," would reappear in altered format towards the end of this decade). The record is always approachable – Dickey pulls off the trick of sounding sweet, or hurt, without becoming cloying; her voice is masterfully understated, yet the approach as a whole works magnificently. Another bridge between one version of the seventies and another of the eighties; another building block for what will eventually happen. No wonder so many people loved the record; someone at Universal should think about reissuing this on CD.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 17:03
Wednesday 26 December 2012
(#225: 5 April 1980, 2 weeks)
Track listing: Behind The Lines/Duchess/Guide Vocal/Man Of Our Times/Misunderstanding/Heathaze/Turn It On Again/Alone Tonight/Cul-De-Sac/Please Don’t Ask/Duke’s Travels/Duke’s End
Duke was the fourth number one album in less than a year to be recorded at Polar Studios in Stockholm, and has more than a few things in common with Abba; the treated piano introduction to “Heathaze,” for example, not to mention the general lyrical theme of things and people coming apart and the possible emotional correspondence between “The King Has Lost His Crown” and “Cul-De-Sac.”
But where Abba were – for now – content to keep their countenance and pretend that everything was still holding together, Duke presents us with the uncomfortable picture of a band at war with itself. That may be a slight exaggeration in some aspects, but I recall that this was, after the Pretenders’ debut album, the first number one record to say explicitly “this is the eighties” from its sleeve design inward. It didn’t really feel like a seventies hangover – even though, delving into its fabric, that in part is exactly what it was – but my feeling is that, like so many artists around them in this tale, including Johnny Mathis, the group had come to the point where they realised that the Old Games just wouldn’t work anymore.
What Old Games? My understanding of Genesis in the seventies was based on the efforts of a close friend of mine at school who was mad about the band, in both Peter Gabriel and post-Gabriel incarnations, and was keen to get me interested in them. I remember borrowing quite a lot of albums from him (I gave them back), catching things like “The Knife” and “Supper’s Ready” on Alan Freeman’s Radio 1 Saturday Rock Show, and, I have to say, not really getting “it.” I grasped what Gabriel was trying to do and achieve, and that “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe),” their first hit single, which featured both Gabriel and Phil Collins on lead vocals, was a disturbing thing indeed, like Traffic’s “Hole In My Shoe” having been fed a touch too much Mandrax.
That aside, however, I admired the musical ingenuity of the group’s work without finding much to engage me in their music. They seemed to me the most conservative of prog-rockers, lacking the sleight-of-hand shuffles of King Crimson or the numbing breakthroughs achieved by their older and smarter brothers Van Der Graaf Generator (Peter Hammill as a more forthright Peter Gabriel who didn’t need to hide behind any mask; see 1974’s exacting The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage for evidence). When external factors were allowed to comment, e.g. Brian Eno on The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (easily the Gabriel Genesis’ best and most consistent work), the music became more urgent and driven, as much as it was more greatly tempted to hide itself away.
But put yourself in the shoes of late seventies Genesis; at the height of your initial acclaim, your frontman quits to go solo – and, as if to rub some sort of beneficent salt into the wound, becomes hugely successful almost immediately. You persist with two nice but directionless albums (A Trick Of The Tail, Wind And Wuthering) before your guitarist also decides to take himself elsewhere, having correctly assumed that there wasn’t much left for him to do in the band as it was. So there are three of you left, and you sense all this change happening around you, and probably you already know that the game might shortly be up if you don’t change it, drastically.
So you put out a not-quite-pop/not-quite-prog album bearing a glumly knowing title and somehow wangle a proper top ten hit single out of it, if little else – I never thought much of “Follow You, Follow Me” but the same album includes the great “Many Too Many,” a song encapsulating a time of adolescent sadness; I will always associate it with the train going from Uddingston into Glasgow after the end of the school year, me off to whatever Saturday or summer job I was doing, gazing at Kylepark retreating into nothing on the other side of whatever tributary of the Clyde crossed it, knowing that, somehow, something, a chapter of my life, had ended. It was also not a little fearful, and my fears turned out to be grounded; when I went back for the start of fourth year in August, the same people were there, but they weren’t the same people – what I mean is, other priorities had come to the fore, including the increasingly anxious question of how we were going to earn a living once we’d left school; what was going to become of us. In other words, the time for fun was over, the time for knuckling down to “O” Grades, etc., had begun.
But anyway, somehow you find yourself in late 1979, a year about to become “late”; two of you have put out well-crafted, reasonably-received solo albums and the third guy took time out of the group to try to save his first marriage (as well as to do other things; Collins, a veteran of Cale, Eno and Brand X sessions, double-drummed in an expanded edition of John Stevens’ SME at the 1979 Camden Jazz Festival alongside the missing link, John Martyn on guitar, and went on to produce and play on Martyn’s grimly frank divorce-themed 1980 album Grace And Danger, which could properly have been retitled The Dark Side Of The Duke).
You get back together and realise that, although you still have a hankering for the old regressive progressive days, you really have no choice but to sit down and come up with “songs” if you’re going to survive. And although I really have no idea why they decided to call the album Duke – or entitle one of its songs “Duchess” – the album, the group’s tenth in total, seems to have been specifically designed to resemble its nine predecessors as little as possible. Recorded in Sweden, produced by an American (David Hentschel) and with a comparatively minimalist, cartoon-like sleeve design by a Frenchman – Lionel Koechlin, whose “Albert” character is the large, enigmatic figure pursuing, or being pursued around, the sleeve – and third form handwritten lyrics, Duke was designed to look like a drastic break from the group’s ornate rococo-strewn past.
Whether it was a real break remains debatable. Like many others – and millions of people bought this record without necessarily knowing anything about Genesis or their previous form – I was drawn to Duke by its single, “Turn It On Again,” which sounded so unlike “Genesis” as to squash “Follow You, Follow Me” under an unceremonial steamroller. Brilliantly balancing residual prog tendencies – the 13/4, 4/4, 9/4 tempo leaps – with a genuine sense of The Modern (Collins’ midsong count-in suggesting at least some awareness of “Being Boiled”), “Turn It On Again,” though a group composition with lyrics by Mike Rutherford, demonstrates why Collins had been so keen to play (though didn’t actually play) on Bowie’s Low; it is the group’s “Sound And Vision,” bending the rules of AoR to present a strikingly similar picture of alienation. Like Bowie, Collins is alone in his room, and shut off from the world, with only a TV and radio for company; because he allows himself no distractions, he starts to regard the faces on his screen as “friends,” and even fancies that he falls in love with at least one of them. “Can’t you do anything for me?” asks Collins. “Can I touch you for a while?” Not only “Sound And Vision,” but also Scott Walker’s “Time Operator”; the snazzy prog operative, now arrived at a dead end, expiring in exile, trying out his chat-up lines on people who don’t respond. Had the song been written and recorded now, they could have substituted Facebook for TV without too much need for scene-shifting. And, in the middle of this submerging, subhuman whirlpool, is the “I” of Collins: “I…I…GET so lonely when she’s not there!”
(Compare with Brian Wilson’s “But I can’t help how I act when she’s not here with me” from “You Still Believe In Me” nearly a decade and a half earlier…)
All this having been said, though, “Turn It On Again” was part of a semi-disguised suite which runs, for the most part unassumingly, throughout the record; they had another “Supper’s Ready” ready and knew it, but also knew if anyone was going to take notice, they’d have to chop the sequences up and distribute them readily on the album. Actually, the first three parts, which are interlinked and segued, make up the record’s beginning; then, after “Turn It On Again,” the “suite,” as such, would conclude with the largely instrumental “Duke’s…” sections (and indeed this is how they performed the songs on stage for quite some time afterwards).
So the “changes” seen here may have been for the most part cosmetic ones only. But I don’t think Duke is an attempt by some old prog-rockers to sneak in some mouldy old seventies prog-rock through the back door; quite the reverse, in fact – they know they are dragging some of their past into the eighties with them but are fighting the temptation to cling to it. Hence “Behind The Lines” begins with all sorts of bright Rick Wakeman-ish keyboard fanfares and clattering drum figures; a keen ear can spot the skeleton of “Sussudio” struggling to get through, and when Collins begins to sing (“I held the book so tightly in my hands…”), the listener is thrust straight into what will become the eighties mainstream, with Collins as the decade’s Rod Stewart figure, a questionable constant which will hold out over the entire span.
If the song sounds and feels familiar it’s because Collins would go on to rework it for Face Value, and indeed lyrically it focuses on the stock Collins theme of two people being rendered apart, and how can we repair this, make it better again? Or, if you like, Save Our Marriage. Then the music goes, without a break, into “Duchess” and Collins’ gloomy Roland CR-78 drum machine patterns, interacting with live drumming thunderstorms, like shackles springing to fatal life, go on for nearly two-and-a-half minutes before the “song” begins. Like Scott Walker’s “Duchess” the song considers a lady who once was great and is now in hate-filled decline; unlike the Scott song, however, there’s not much in the way of empathy or identification (no “I’m lying, she’s crying” climax; Walker performs the song as a kind of identical twin to the Pretenders’ “Lovers Of Today,” and wouldn’t Chrissie and the guys have made a fine job of “Get Behind Me”?), much more in the way of self-flagellation masquerading as finger-pointing ticking-off; like several other songs on Duke, you get the inescapable feeling that Collins is singing about the possible fate of his own group, a sense amplified by the brief, morose “Guide Vocal” where a ghost intones “I am the one who guided you this far” before concluding “You’re on your own until the end…/Take what’s yours and be damned.” Is this a ghost, or an elephant in Genesis’ sitting room? Is it the “ghost” of Peter Gabriel?
After that, the seguing disappears (for awhile) and we get Rutherford’s obscurely-defined “Man Of Our Times” – skilful rock with some air of foreboding – and then Collins’ “Misunderstanding,” a mutated doo-wop ballad which, in form and subject matter, could rightly have been retitled “Hopelessly Devoted To You”; she doesn’t turn up to meet him, he goes crazy and ends up doing a bit of stalking, only to find, inevitably, that she’s with someone else (“I still don’t believe it!/He was just leaving!”). You get both the singer’s bewilderment and something of an understanding as to why she might have been uncomfortable staying with him. But oh no, it must be a misunderstanding, mustn’t grumble…and, again, the metaphor of an abandoned rock group, cast aside for a shinier and newer model, makes itself subtly apparent.
When not talking about men and women, Duke tends, awkwardly, to deal with Big Matters; awkwardly in that I have no usable idea what “Man Of Our Times” might be about. Tony Banks’ “Heathaze” is, as far as I know, the first song in this tale to deal with the subject of global warming, and although it builds up nicely and logically enough, there’s nothing in Collins’ vocal or the group’s performance to suggest that this might be the End of Everything; ozone depletion is treated as a mild irritant, and the lyrics, as with “Cul-De-Sac,” are so generalised and unwilling to pin any specific thing or person down that empathy just doesn’t come into it. “Cul-De-Sac” itself is a long, bombastic workout which may be about a tyrant waiting to be deposed, or a rebellious crowd who at the last moment may or may not have the tables turned on them – the deliberately obfuscatory lyrics do anything but help in this regard – or maybe it’s just another metaphor about Old Genesis limping towards extinction. Here, as generally on the album, Banks’ 1975 keyboard kit is a major irritant; instantly dated, getting in the way of whatever future the band, and specifically Collins, whose drumming cannot be faulted throughout, are trying to create for themselves (and, getting back to Walker, it is remarkable from recent listening how Scott 4 contains within its 32 minutes and 26 seconds the seeds of so many other things to succeed it; “The Old Man’s Back Again” could, as Lena pointed out, have been done by the Four Tops, with its throaty, staccato lead vocal and James Jamerson-like bass, most likely played by Walker himself, and we’re nowhere near “Loco In Acapulco” yet. Where Genesis on Duke do sometimes approach Scott’s doompit – “And now that the job is almost done/Maybe some escape? No. Not even ONE” – Walker’s crucial person-specific narratives make the leap Genesis can’t quite bring themselves to carry off. And, turning to Bish Bosch, what is “The Day The ‘Conducator’ Died” if not the belated sequel to “The Old Man’s Back Again,” the twisted “Get Behind Me” fuzzy lead guitar intact?).
“Alone Tonight” is written by Rutherford and “Please Don’t Ask” by Collins but the effect is the same; we already note how the songs, even the group compositions, appear to be based around Collins’ pivotal drumming (this was picked up by that eximious music critic, Patrick Bateman, in his peerless one-page summary of Duke from twenty or so years ago) but now Duke is essentially turning, or being turned, into a Collins solo record, full of divorce-centred moping. His own “Please Don’t Ask” at least acknowledges the existence of other people; she’s split and taken the kids with her, they meet up and he is prepared to take her back for the sake of “my boy” (“I hope he’s as good as gold”) but he’s not sure whether he still loves her; he makes some stupid throwaway comments which unsettle rather than reassure his ex (“Oh, you’ve lost weight, I can see, your hair looks nice…”). He’s willing to try again, but not particularly on behalf of her or him. But there is the incipient glint of the “Jesus, Phil, do you think you’re the only person on the planet with problems?” tendency.
After that, the album concludes with the long “Duke’s Travels/Duke’s End” sequence, which attempts to sum the record up. There is a lengthy and moderately startling opening section of free-form prepared piano and thunder-like percussion, almost as though the components of the introduction to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” (another Pet Sounds comparison point there) had been dissembled and nobody knew quite how to put it together again. Then, eventually, we get into a full-blooded 1971 prog workout, complete with multiple time changes and over-florid keyboard flurries, as though they had decided: shit, let’s go for it one last time before it’s wiped out forever.
Just as it’s about to turn into Chick Corea’s The Leprechaun, however, about six minutes in, a doomy, robotic, deep-throated Collins vocal steals back in, like the ghost of Gabriel, to reiterate the words of “Guide Vocal,” though this time with much more anger (“Take what’s YOURS and be DAMNED!”). Then, like a life flashing back before the eyes of the twentieth floor jumper, the original “Behind The Lines” theme returns, to be followed by what can only be described as a punk thrash through the “Turn It On Again” riff – straight 4/4, plenty of distortion. It sounds like the band are trying to destroy themselves, and at album’s end, they succeed in blowing themselves up. It’s the eighties; if you could feel our pain you’d be better able to glimpse the sun. Enough people said “Maybe we could work this time” to get them to number one, principally on mutual trust, for quite some time after 1980.
The “elephant”’s entrance – and, possibly, response - will not be far behind in coming. Is that him at the front, with his back to us, staring at what might yet become the sun?
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 12:58
Monday 24 December 2012
(#224: 22 March 1980, 2 weeks)
Track listing: Don’t Give Up On Us/Goodbye To Love/Gone, Gone, Gone/Midnight Blue/Solitaire/The Hungry Years/Alone Again (Naturally)/Too Much, Too Little, Too Late (with Deniece Williams)/Without You/It’s Too Late/Laughter In The Rain/You Are The Sunshine Of My Life/Everything Is Beautiful/The Most Beautiful Girl/Betcha, By Golly, Wow/Just The Way You Are (with Deniece Williams)/And I Love You So/Song Of Joy/Life Is A Song Worth Singing/You Light Up My Life
(Author’s Note: the above is the actual track listing as sequenced on the record itself. The listing on the rear sleeve transposes the positioning of “You Light Up My Life” and “Betcha, By Golly, Wow”)
When do the eighties begin, again? If it feels like 1977 once more, then that indicates that a lot of people weren’t ready to make any leap forward, great or even mediocre. There was still a lot of clinging to the past, a dread of letting go, and I suppose this album and its two predecessors directly addressed or reassured the frightened people who bought them; the Shadows doing “Cavatina” and “Bright Eyes” and suggesting to their listeners: don’t worry, we’re going into tomorrow with you, and we’re only fractionally less afraid than you are.
But whereas the Shadows only really sought to tell their audience what they already knew and believed, then Johnny Mathis’ second number one album is an altogether more complicated affair, grappling with “The Seventies” and wondering whether it was ever worth the struggle. The cover of Tears And Laughter speaks for itself, and I doubt whether anyone would get away with a cover like that now. I fully expected this “Collection of 20 Songs” to be more of the same; a Mathis Collection II, an update with cover versions so cosy you wouldn’t notice that “Betcha, By Golly, Wow” had been recycled from the first Collection. Listen to it, glumly tick it off, assuage the impatient wait for 1980’s more “serious” records to appear.
But I didn’t realise there would be so much music on the record. Although only a single disc, Tears And Laughter’s running time clocks in at over 73 minutes, only marginally shorter than Tusk. Presumably shoving all twenty tracks onto one record was done for economic reasons – there was a recession on at the time – but it is difficult to escape the idea that this really should have been another double album, divided as it is into two distinct sides, one of “Tears” and the other of “Laughter.”
In other words, grieve in sorrow and then find redemption in new love. This would have been a tall order for any singer to meet; the ideal would possibly have been a Sinatra double comprising No One Cares and Songs For Swingin’ Lovers, and if that’s a pretty high place to set the bar, then that still underplays how excoriating and intense, and at times unbearable, a listen No One Cares is – the album pointedly did not chart in Britain, indicating that Sinatra, with Gordon Jenkins, had on the record gone a little too far for comfort. Far from being a simple new volume of “saloon songs,” as much as the cover and Ralph J Gleason’s sleevenote try to persuade us otherwise, No One Cares plays like a prayer for the dying – in the middle of a brooding “Stormy Weather,” Sinatra suddenly cries out: “Can’t go ON! Everything I Had Is GONE!,” and few sequences of music are as harrowing as the closing one-two punch (on the original record; overlook the pointless and mood-busting bonus track tacked onto the end of the reissue) of “I’ll Never Smile Again” and “None But The Lonely Heart” where you can actually hear Sinatra cracking up – his “I’m so in love with you” on the former, the way his voice petrifies into bereaved numbness at the end of the latter.
In truth, Mathis does not really attain that level on Tears And Laughter. And before you rush off and declare this a Lost/Neglected Classic, it is my melancholy duty to point out that, with the scope of the ambition that I think is at work here – even though it is basically another compilation of album tracks encompassing the years 1970-79 – Mathis doesn’t always pull it off. This isn’t always his fault either, as he frequently has to struggle against insipid, Formica arrangements made to sound resonant on sophisticated seventies music centres.
But his “Goodbye To Love” compounds both angles of the problem. He doesn’t replicate the distressed continuity of Karen Carpenter’s long vocal lines; he takes breaths between syllables, strategically reorganises the lyric so that he can pause. In addition, there is no response to Tony Peluso’s two guitar solos, the underlying rage articulating the singer’s buried nihilism; instead we get a slushy choir, sub-Alpert trumpets and anaesthetising strings merely reproducing the song’s main melody. There is no real evidence here that this is a singer at the end of his tether. Likewise, compared to Nilsson, his “Without You” sounds as though sung by an army of robots.
Surprisingly, he makes quite a good fist of “Alone Again (Naturally)”; although he struggles (naturally) with such un-American lyrical tropes as “in the lurch,” he seems to recognise what the song is trying to say and actually brings out its real grief; by the last verse of serial parental bereavement he sounds in palpable pain. The trouble is not so much with the ridiculous alto flutes and (again) choir who drown his sorrows in magenta Crown paint, but that the song has far more emotional impact when heard in the composer’s own deadpan, matter-of-fact reading; a British sheen to cover a very Irish pain, the original’s magic lies in the picture of a fairly radical lyric dressed up as an amiable slice of early seventies easy listening.
He does better with Melissa Manchester’s “Midnight Blue” since the song’s post-Bacharach melodic and rhythmic twists do bolster up the underlying existence of some kind of hope (although, as done by Mathis, the Thom Bell influence is also very apparent). Of the two Neil Sedaka ballads on the “Tears” side – and indeed they are set side by side – Mathis’ “Solitaire” is slightly overplayed (his groan of “WHENT” in the phrase “that went unshared,” his mockingbird sustenato of “sleep” in the phrase “each sleepless night”), an approach not helped by the three ascending chord changes at the end, nor by the needlessly busy guitar heard throughout. “The Hungry Years” is more convincing (as is the electric guitar work, although the arrangement generally dies of surfeit of syrup); something in the bends of Mathis’ voice convinces you that this is not the sort of Things Were So Much Better When We Had Nowt indulgence written by someone who possesses the luxury of never having to worry about being poor again, but that the composer’s hungry years were actually not that far away; prior to his Carole King-esque reinvention and resurgence, Sedaka’s stock in the early seventies had sunk so low that he was compelled to go and live in Britain, as he couldn’t get any work in the States, and before being rediscovered by 10cc and others, he played the grim round of northern working men’s clubs, put up with the bingo calls, the raffle draws, the drunks who called out for “Take Good Care Of My Baby” or “Song Sung Blue.” Most importantly, Mathis’ impassioned plea of “Honey, take me home” takes us back to that state of mind we cannot escape.
“Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” gave Mathis his only US #1 single, in 1978, but it has to be said that Deniece Williams’ voice runs numerous embarrassing rings around his – does she really sing, at one point, “The kids are gone”? – and that, although Mathis has to work harder with his voice than he probably ever had to do previously, his lament can’t keep up with hers, and the incompatibility is clear; for this update of “Just To Keep You Satisfied,” Deniece really needed a Marvin Gaye to make us believe “his” side of the story. Still, it is instructive to hear this reluctant, yet agonising, acknowledgement that times have changed and passed away set against his own 1971 reading of “It’s Too Late”; the cumulative feeling that this sequence of music gives us is that we can’t go back, to the seventies or anywhere else; we have to move on, and by God does it hurt – hear how Mathis hangs onto his last “late” like a fingernail slowly scraping its way down the Grand Canyon.
If there is any scant hope left here, then it is with the record’s most recent song, and Mathis’ last significant UK hit single, 1979’s “Gone, Gone, Gone,” in which he tackles disco. Actually he does pretty well against the busy arrangement, particularly the extraordinary guitar which pans from channel to channel, offering skeletal/prototype glide-cum-Britfunk – it is like a cross between Stimulin and My Bloody Valentine, the giveaway lines of “Oooh yes, I tried to change her” and “I just cannot seem to face reality,” and Mathis’ anxiously sustained whimper of “Baaaaby!”
But the “Laughter” side doesn’t really resolve anything either – how could it, featuring as it does “The Most Beautiful Girl,” a song representing the very antithesis of happy (even though the “I lost my head and I said some things” line chimes with the belated admission of guilt in “Gone, Gone, Gone”)? There are attempts at happiness with the juxtaposition of rain (a third Sedaka song) and sunshine, but you never quite believe him.
Moreover, it is clear from this side, which really doesn’t contain much, if anything, in the way of “laughter,” that Mathis is looking towards a more universal definition of happiness. Hence the unfortunate appearance of Ray Stevens’ “Everything Is Beautiful,” where Salvation Army brass band and gospel choir replace the kids – and what a double-edged song it is, implying that the listener should look beyond the length of someone’s hair or the colour of their skin (the implication being that these things in themselves are somehow “bad” – good grief). It irritated me with its phony sententiousness when Stevens did it in 1970 and it still does.
But nothing after it is quite free of darkness, least of all “And I Love You So” with its references to shadows and night, or Mathis and Williams’ duet on Billy Joel’s rather sour “Just The Way You Are,” although the latter does improve on the original because (a) Deniece seems to be answering Mathis back on all that tiresome Archie Bunker stuff about not wanting Clever Conversation, and (b) Williams’ former employer Stevie Wonder, entirely uncredited, pops up on harmonica.
And then the record gets really strange.
First off, we get “Song Of Joy,” a full-blown adaptation of the closing section of Beethoven’s Ninth that I remember being originally done by a Spanish musician called Miguel Rios, though I don’t recall him going as far as Mathis’ nearly five-minute version, with its solemn ‘cello prelude, its overblown symphony orchestra and choir, its rhetorical pauses and the occasional reminder that Brian Wilson learned something about song construction and arrangement from old Ludwig. And, indeed, Mathis’ own stern cry for peace, understanding and a New Age. All rather too much for a side supposedly devoted to “laughter”; when do we get to “Anything Goes”?
But then, everything goes.
“Life Is A Song Worth Singing” is the same Thom Bell/Linda Creed song subsequently recorded by Teddy Pendergrass under the supervision of Gamble and Huff as the title track of his 1979 album. But this is the original, from 1973, arranged and produced by Bell himself, and presented here in its full, uncut, six-minute-plus length – and it is the reason why I urge you to run out after Christmas and track this album down, for it is the long-lost, if more proactive, twin of the Stylistics’ “People Make The World Go Round.”
It begins with a long, abstract introduction filled with howling winds and seemingly random synthesiser notes – what is this, “The Electrician”? – before the rest of the instruments make their separate entrances; low, Norman Whitfield-like strings, then electric piano, bass and vibes, followed by a surprisingly rockist guitar – what is this, the Doors playing “Papa Was A Rolling Stone”? – and, thereafter, clavinet and French horns, then the rest of the string section, and finally full brass, complete with trumpet fanfares. At last – nearly three minutes into the song – Mathis’ voice enters, and it is dour, accusatory, even, at times, mocking (“Too BAD!”). “Only you generate the power to change what you do with your life,” he intones, and although this may be a reflection of the late Ms Creed’s rather dreary proto-Reagan/Romney-isms (a dogged homily-like pseudo-righteousness that goes right through “People” and “The Greatest Love Of All”: nowhere, I think, did she author a song entitled “People Do Not Choose To Live Like This” or “It’s The System, Stupid”), the larger meaning in this context is clear – throughout the record, Mathis has been wallowing in something very near to self-pity, avoiding the consequences of his own actions, but now he realises that everything has to change, a challenge musically posed by the giant, hovering string section question mark which concludes the peace.
Finally, there is the modest catharsis of “You Light Up My Life” with its references to filling the singer’s nights with song – yes, it’s probably another Singer Addresses Their Audience Directly coda – and also including the entire album’s turnaround line, “Could it be, finally, I’m turning to home?” In some ways I find this closing sequence of songs quite moving; in tandem with the others, we are presented with a sort of early eighties easy listening precursor to A Grand Don’t Come For Free. Probably Mathis should have stayed on the Philly tip for longer; and the whole 1981 album that he cut with the Chic Organization, but which was never released, should have been made available. If the golf club didn’t understand, then the next generation surely would have done. But, with Tears And Laughter, we are presented with a picture of a performer who realises that what he has been doing all these years may never really have been enough; note his teeth-down emphasis on the word “gay” in “Alone Again (Naturally)” for possible proof of this.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 12:24
Thursday 20 December 2012
(#223: 1 March 1980, 3 weeks)
Track listing: Riders In The Sky/Parisienne Walkways/Classical Gas/Theme From The Deer Hunter (Cavatina)/Bridge Over Troubled Water/You’re The One That I Want/Heart Of Glass/Don’t Cry For Me Argentina (Recorded live in concert)/Song For Duke/Bright Eyes/Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto De Aranjuez (theme from 2nd movement)/Baker Street
In which former rock radicals opt for an easy life and churn out Hits 4U mood music for eighties Cannon Cinema auditoriums. Worst thing here is the hit, “Riders In The Sky,” wherein they disastrously push the button that says “modern,” with “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” bass sequencers, synthesised handclaps and whip cracks, and what sounds inexplicably like the “Silver Lady” riff superimposed.
The rest offers little improvement; perfectly good songs stripped of their harmonic richness and rhythmic impetus, such that it sometimes resembles an Anne Boleyn Secondary School prizegiving concert. Even on “You’re The One That I Want,” a song to which the Shadows are umbilically linked (as it was written by John Farrar, ex-of Marvin, Welch and Farrar), they mostly fail to shape up. Undercredited bassist Alan Jones does a very good job of holding it all together, while Dave Lawson’s synthesisers veer between tacky (“Classical Gas”) and quietly ingenious (the subtle “Strawberry Fields” paraphrasing on “Bright Eyes”).
Hank more or less sounds petrified throughout. I note how, on “Cavatina,” he sounds like the floating ghost of George Harrison and how, on “Baker Street,” he resembles Clapton. As “You’re The One That I Want” trudges toward fadeout, however, his frustrations abruptly explode and he breaks into a series of lightning Chet Atkins runs. I also have to applaud the manner in which Marvin and Welch turn “Heart Of Glass” into an unlikely country-rock workout. The sole group original, “Song For Duke,” presumably written in honour of the then recently departed John Wayne, also sees them do better as they are trying much less hard; an attractive “Wonderful Land” update for Spyro Gyra fans (and somebody should sample Lawson’s synth riff here too). Gerry Rafferty thought theirs the best of the many cover versions of “Baker Street”; although he might simply have felt flattered, the stripped-down arrangement does indicate the dusty lo-fi road movie to which Rafferty perhaps always wanted to soundtrack the song.
Otherwise, however, it’s sleepy MoR at its drowsiest; I reflect on how interesting “Aranjuez” might have turned out with Shadows disciple Neil Young as soloist and Jack Nitzsche arranging, but as it is, the Shads miss out the closing Picardy third (and therefore the movement’s entire point). Steve Gray’s string arrangements are, shall we say, unobtrusive (perhaps conscious that Norrie Paramor would die barely a month after the album’s initial release in August 1979). Then again, Marvin reckoned “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” to be the best thing he ever recorded. I don’t know what that says about him or the Shadows at the turn of the eighties, but this record is yet another undernourishing biscuit tin of superficial comfort, and I’m not sure whether it was the record they wanted to make or the record they thought they ought to make.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 17:00
Wednesday 19 December 2012
(#222: 16 February 1980, 2 weeks)
Track listing: Three Times A Lady (Commodores)/All Of My Life (Diana Ross)/I’ll Be There (Jackson 5)/What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted (Jimmy Ruffin)/Abraham, Martin and John (Marvin Gaye)/Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me) (Temptations)/Theme From Mahogany ‘Do You Know Where You’re Going To’ (Diana Ross)/You’re All I Need To Get By (Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell)/What Does It Take (To Win Your Love) (Jr. Walker & The All Stars)/Ben (Michael Jackson)/I’m Still Waiting (Diana Ross)/My Cherie Amour (Stevie Wonder)/The Tracks Of My Tears (Smokey Robinson & The Miracles)/It’s All In The Game (Four Tops)/Help Me Make It Through The Night (Gladys Knight & The Pips)/Farewell Is A Lonely Sound (Jimmy Ruffin)/Got To Be There (Michael Jackson)/He’s Misstra Know-It-All (Stevie Wonder)/You Are Everything (Diana Ross & Marvin Gaye)/Still (Commodores)
Saturday, 16 February 1980, was an important day for me. I’m not sure whether you could term it an “experience,” although I certainly would. It was the first time I heard Escalator Over The Hill in its entirety, in the Bridge Street Library in the Gorbals district of Glasgow.
I had just turned sixteen, and already was looking back towards a past, principally because I didn’t think it had been properly ended. Being a devotee of what one might call post-Coltrane jazz wasn’t exactly going to win me friends and a wide social circle. Nobody – but nobody – at school shared my interest, and indeed my interest was largely mocked and ridiculed.
Perhaps that was part of the attraction for me; the knowledge that this music was known, as far as my closeted world was concerned, to me and me only. It was not what everybody else liked. It was a rather pleasing secret, my passion for free jazz, improvised music – call it what you will – and where, and how, it crossed over with or into other musical areas. I got the notion, pretty early on, that the world of free music was not as remote as it seemed, that there were hidden connections to other things, including pop, and I got the buzz of wanting to have a go at joining the dots.
Jazz sections were the desolate wasteland beyond which no sentient human should pass, if late seventies/early eighties Glasgow record shops were anything to go by. Get past the buzzing punk and post-punk frontages of somewhere like Listen Records in Renfield Street, and the jazz section at the back I could have had all to myself, and frequently did. I brought records up to the counter and the shop assistant would give me the most quizzical of looks; a “WTF?” sort of look, as in “you really want this?” But Listen had a very astute jazz stock and were quick at getting new things in, even if (as I eventually suspected) they only got them in on the assumption that I would buy them. Otherwise you looked out for the stray FMP or ICP or Black Saint release in HMV just down the road, or you went to Bath Street’s hipper 23rd Precinct (very good for Ogun releases), or, if you knew even better than that, you would venture out elsewhere; the jazz and folk specialist shop Iona Records at the bottom of Stockwell Street, the Byres Road branch of Listen in Hillhead, which you could see smiling serenely at you in the distance as you made your way down Gilmorehill (whenever I play, for instance, Grachan Moncur III’s New Africa album, I always think of that shop, which was where I bought it), or James Kerr in Woodlands Road, which had an imposing jazz and classical selection.
But none of these places ever quite had what I was looking for; I was told by one record shop assistant (oh, all right, it was the old Biggar’s music shop in Sauchiehall Street) that there was no market for the New Thing (then over twenty years old) in Glasgow at all. The Glasgow Rhythm Club? History stopped when Coleman Hawkins started getting friendly with the beboppers. Magazines? There was the hidebound Jazz Journal which seemed to share with Philip Larkin the belief that jazz died with “Now’s The Time” but apart from sought-after import issues of Coda, Cadence and Downbeat, that was all there was to have.
Except for the then still burgeoning weekly mainstream music press. Throughout 1979 I had been encouraged by the thought that post-Coltrane jazz was coming back into discourse; bands like the Pop Group paid more than lip service to Ornette & Co. and there seemed a general acceptance of the music as a distinct and powerful strain of influence on post-punk and No Wave, from James Chance’s alto blurts to Steve Beresford and others appearing with the Flying Lizards on Top of the Pops. The NME seemed attuned, with Richard Cook just making his way in, Graham Lock flourishing, and Penman and Morley joining their own dots (a major influence on my own). Sounds had John Gill and the not unsympathetic Dave McCullough. And Melody Maker was, until the spring of 1980, back under the direct editorial control of Richard Williams, and so its pages suddenly began to incorporate illuminating discourse from a surprisingly wide range of writers: Jon Savage, the late Penny Valentine, Susan Hill (yes, that Susan Hill), James Truman, Chris Petit (yes!), and a tranche of the country’s best jazz writers – Max Jones, Max Harrison, Michael James, Brian Case (I think Steve Lake, another huge influence on me as a music writer, had by then gone off to work at ECM). Everything was beginning to point to doors, floodgates, being reopened.
The recent past fascinated me. Once done with my Saturday record shopping rigmarole, I would walk off down Bath Street, cross the Charing Cross flyover and go into the Mitchell Library. There, when I was not doing piano practice, I would request huge binders of back issues of Melody Maker in particular; they would be patiently wheeled out towards my desk. I read closely and earnestly through the 1968-76 period in particular, when the new wave of British jazz and improv was at the forefront and looking as though it would generally cross over and – who knows? – even become (part of) pop. Richard Williams was part of the paper from about 1969 onwards, and I read his words with particular closeness as I knew he was a reliable critical beacon.
Almost immediately I became envious that I myself was too young to have been a direct participant in what I still consider to be the most exciting and diverse period in 20th century popular music. All these things happening! All these people coming together! I did get a taste of it in 1970 when my father took me down to London and I distinctly remember seeing Tippett’s Centipede performing Septober Energy at the Lyceum in Drury Lane, and also Sun Ra’s Arkestra as part of the Jazz Expo series at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, even though, being six years old at the time, my comprehension of the totality was necessarily incomplete.
But around a decade later, I had begun to become interested again. I loved the notion of getting in people from all walks of musical endeavour and having them play together meaningfully. I wasn’t sure whether this notion was still valid in 1980 currency. So I became nostalgic at one remove; something which was fairly easy to do because, in 1980, the main problem with this body of music was that almost none of it was readily available in record shops (there was a second-hand shop at the top of Jamaica Street, by the Clyde, but that was strictly rock, pop and MoR only). Half a decade before the “jazz revival,” jazz appeared to have no marketable currency.
If there were two records which for me summarised the glistening hopes of that era most readily, they were Septober Energy and Escalator Over The Hill. I had been aware of the latter for some time, principally because of Richard Williams’ ecstatic Melody Maker review of around March 1972 where he basically proposed that it might be the greatest record ever made. But it occurred to me that I had not really heard anything from it. I knew of Carla Bley, of course, and Paul Haines slightly less so. I had Michael Mantler’s The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra double from 1968 – terrifyingly euphoric music then and now – in which Bley and many others were involved, and I had only just realised that Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra was more or less a Carla Bley record in all but name and central inspiration.
Shortly before 16 February 1980, I extraordinarily dreamed the whole of Escalator Over The Hill; all of it from start to finish, including imagined visuals. It was too much; I had to find out for myself.
But why Bridge Street Library in the Gorbals? Let me explain. I lived in Bothwell, which at the time came under the administration of Motherwell, which meant I could borrow books and records from libraries in the Motherwell area, including those in Bellshill, Uddingston and Hamilton, but not from ones in Glasgow. The Motherwell libraries had much good and valuable stuff but Escalator was not part of that. My father, however, worked in Glasgow, which meant that he, and by extension I (as his son), could read and listen to whatever we liked in Glasgow libraries, but couldn’t take them out. I was given a special ticket which granted me the right to do this.
And Bridge Street Library was a beacon. Remember, this was 1980, a decade before Glasgow became the European City of Culture, and back then it seemed the furthest-fetched of notions. Much of Glasgow was still a ruin; whichever way you came into the city, you always tended to see the worst parts first – rows and towers of desolate housing schemes backing onto untended wasteland (Edinburgh, in contrast, was very good at hiding its deprived bits). Many of the not yet cleaned up, blackened tenement blocks were without windows or inhabitants. Seeing the ominous arch of Springburn and Red Road, coming out of Queen Street station, put listening to something like Mantler’s No Answer or Gil Evans’ “Zee Zee” in an entirely new light.
And the Gorbals then were yet to be scrubbed clean. The Glasgow Underground had recently started running again but really you could have got off at either Bridge Street or West Street station; they were practically next to each other. If you got off at West Street you could see the Bridge Street Library in the distance, glancing at you from the north-west, but you had to cross a desert of rubble to get there. And it was still dangerous doing this at the time; any journey to the Citizen’s Theatre meant potentially running one gauntlet or another.
So Bridge Street Library was in the middle of nowhere, at the corner of a solitary, oddly anachronistic 1920s sandstone block (you could have been in Brooklyn). On the Saturday in question I had wandered all around the south side of the river, as I was wont to do in those days, through all the busily empty sites of the former Clyde shipyards. New things were being built but it was unclear what these things were (if you dared to disembark from the train upriver at Finnieston, now the site of the Scottish National Exhibition Centre, you would be faced with a long, empty walk towards a foreboding blue body of dilapidated tenements and shop fronts – the end of Argyle Street that shoppers tended to avoid). I recall long, generous streaks of blue and yellow sunshine beaming at me as I walked through what felt like long, destination-less supermarket approaches. After a while I didn’t know where I was, but eventually I found myself on Bridge Street, at the entrance to the library.
Inside it couldn’t have been more different. Warm, generous, inviting, and a huge and very fine range of records on offer. There was a seat at the far end of the main library room where you could put on headphones and listen to whatever you asked the library assistants to play – there was a turntable just beneath the main counter. So I found their copy of Escalator – which did not appear to have been borrowed much, if at all – and asked if I could listen to it. They were very indulgent of the need to change six sides of music.
And I listened to it – I immersed myself in it – and it sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before, yet also a melange of everything I’d ever heard before, that was good. Every genre of music appeared to be represented and coalesced with a remarkable symmetry. What were Haines’ words about? I didn’t really know – at the time – yet they blended perfectly with Bley’s music and the committed performances (Jack Bruce, John McLaughlin and Gato Barbieri were just three of the musicians performing at a career best level). The evident passion hooked me. I formed pictures in my mind. I gasped at the beginning of side five – can this brilliant record seriously get any better? – when Don Cherry and his Desert Band made their entrance. Side six is beyond reproach, maybe beyond music. The infinity of the closing moments of “…And It’s Again” transported me, were transcendent – and I thought to myself, at that moment, “I WILL be a music writer. I will celebrate this art with the best words I can find. I will wander the face of this Earth to learn, to grow…to be a music writer.”
The music didn’t shake itself off me. I went home in the evening sunlight, still stunned and spellbound. I picked out the music, or tried to pick it out anyway, on my piano at home but it was just that little bit too evanescent, no substitute for having the record itself.
And, wouldn’t you know, I became obsessed with finding the record. Glasgow being no good on that score, and knowing that in Britain the album was released by Virgin, I travelled to Virgin Records in Princes Street, Edinburgh, a few sunny Saturdays later (Glasgow’s Megastore, at the bottom of Union Street, did not open until later in 1980), to try to order a copy. I remember the glorious, sunshine-smeared approach to Waverley station, the benign early spring atmosphere, the playing off of the orange Virgin bag against the blue Lothian sky. I placed an order and bought a copy of John Stevens’ SME Big Band And Quartet Live, a 1971 recording, the entire first side of which is taken up with an Ayler tribute “Let’s Sing For Him,” performed by a 21-piece SME, including four drummers and five singers. I was duly awed (and still have the album in question, which is just as well because it has never been properly reissued on CD, although its composite tracks have turned up on various different Stevens/SME compilations).
Not long afterwards I was disappointed to hear that Virgin had deleted Escalator at the end of October 1979. If only I’d heard it a few months earlier, I might have had a chance of getting a copy. Eventually, via the pages of Jazz Journal – it did have its uses – I rang up Honest Jon’s Records in Portobello and they had a used copy, complete with lyric booklet, going for £4.50. I didn’t hesitate to order, and when the package arrived in the post a few days later I played it like I’d never played anything before in my life; not with such intensity, anyway (I noted on the back cover the stamp of Lewisham Library). The record wasn’t the only, or even the main, factor propelling me towards moving to London, but it certainly made the difference. The record formed me, informed my entire outlook upon music, and I’ve used it as a baseline standard ever since (when ECM reissued it in its original gold box, complete with photos, just before Christmas 1981, I likewise rushed right out and bought it, and in the late nineties I gave it a CD upgrade).
So this was my musical life as it was at the time – he said, skilfully, if belatedly, tying the story back into the main theme – The Last Dance was at number one. I’m not sure I have much to say about it. Later in 1980 a purple and gold covered double compilation, The Motown 20th Anniversary Album, was released, and I eventually caught up with it as a student as a good beginner’s guide to Motown (and I still have that album too). But the cover of this one – EMTV 20, for those still keeping track – says it all, really; ballad Motown as Radio 2 or Smooth Radio would understand it, and also the opening warning that, like the seventies, the eighties were going to be dominated by that most convenient of catch-alls, “Various Artists” (I got really annoyed when I heard Grayson Perry on the radio recently; speaking of Bowie, he said that the man “bestrode the seventies like a colossus.” Not so; in that decade, as we have seen, he only had three number one albums, none of which dated from later than 1974, and despite his unquestionable overall influence on things and people coming after him, this was not really borne out commercially). An album of “smoochers,” moreover, that includes two tracks that not only have nothing to do with love or romance at all, but are expressly political (“Abraham, Martin and John” and “He’s Misstra Know-It-All”).
Actually EMI could have called the album Where Did All The Good Times Go? It’s frustrating that in a decade which has got off to such a powerful and present tense start, here we are again, already back in the past, wondering where and why everything went wrong.
Then again, the record isn’t that mired in the past. The only pre-1968 song to appear here is “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted,” a record remarkable for two things; firstly, its evocation of an implied reality which takes the song far beyond standard lost love territory – when Ruffin sings of how “I walk this land of broken dreams” to what sounds like funeral music, we know that, as with “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” he’s singing about a greater and grimmer whole. The second remarkable thing is how, despite this portrait of “unhappy endings,” Ruffin turns the entire song around in its last twenty seconds; presumably ad libbing, his words get faster and more decisive – “I’ll find a way somehow (see the premature ghost of “Hurt” there?)! Nothin’’s gonna stop me now!” – until they rebel against the misery previously imposed on them. Defeat is converted into defiance (as the other Dave Stewart would find out a year or so later, when he reworked the song, with a Thatcher’s Britain subtext, for the voice of Colin Blunstone, standing in for an indisposed Robert Wyatt).
Many of the rest of the songs have already been covered in my Motown Chartbusters entries, which takes us to the middle of 1971. Eddie Kendricks, frustrated at Norman Whitfield driving the Temptations towards even newer extremities, asked for a nice old-school ballad like the boys used to sing. He was given “Just My Imagination”; and yet it is one of Whitfield’s most disorientating and hallucinatory fantasies (as Paul Riser’s dazed/stoned string chart makes apparent) – love is there, but only if “she” knew it. He realises he is only dreaming, is unlikely ever to try to turn it into reality, such that the gospel breakdown of the middle-eight (“Or I will surely die” – “This Guy’s In Love With You” at one remove) sounds as though it is slithering down an oily well; such faith, such devotion, utterly defeated in Kendricks’ climactic, melancholy murmur of “She doesn’t even know me…”
“I’m Still Waiting” might be the girl’s answer record, for here Diana Ross too has glued herself to The Past; she has never allowed herself to grow up, can’t shake off what that first feeling was like, is unable to move beyond it and address the future. Not that Ms Ross gives any easy answers here – “All Of My Life” sounds like a commercial for Silvikrin shampoo; the recording of the Diana And Marvin album was an unhappy and uncomfortable experience for both parties, and although Gaye’s shriek of “I just can’t GO ON!” pierces complacent skies, you can’t lose the feeling that seventies Motown has lost so much confidence in itself that it has to do Thom Bell covers to appear remotely relevant (compare Gaye’s exhausted voice here with the brio of his interface with Tammi Terrell on “You’re All I Need…”). The Mahogany song, theme that it was to a rather tawdry movie, still leaves its singer and her audience in limbo – weren’t times so much better when…?
The record, like Motown in the seventies, largely seems lost (it’s maybe not a coincidence that “Abraham, Martin and John” is picked above “Let’s Get It On”). The two Young Michael ballads are rather overfamiliar, and, despite the subject matter of “Ben” (which isn’t really apparent from listening to the song alone), mark him down, at this stage, as a slightly hipper Donny Osmond. The distance from the Stevie Wonder of “My Cherie Amour” to that of “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” (one of two 1974 Wonder hits about Nixon) is far greater than the four or five years would suggest, and neither really comfortably fits with the other here (you certainly cannot “smooch” to the latter).
The real significance of The Last Dance is how it is bookended by two Commodores ballads, both sugary, syrupy and whiter than Dan Fogelberg – they do not really have anything to do with Motown as anyone would know it; yet they probably saved the label from going under. This paradox would continue to haunt Motown for some time, but as with his fellow Alabama native Nat “King” Cole, Lionel Richie would go on to fill an important gap, if not actually creating a new one.
The album also includes the greatest female vocal performance of the last half-century.
Gladys Knight’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night” – no Pips are evident – is here presented in full. A harp strums morosely as Knight begins to talk to the listener, about luck and loneliness. The spoken intro – “a dynamic song” – would in anybody else’s hands be complete cabaret cheese, but Gladys patiently wants you to believe what she feels.
She then sings the song, slowly, not hurrying it, as though trying to savour every last scent of hair, every final trace of ribbon, to convince herself that she didn’t just dream of company. Very gradually, she turns up the emotional dynamic – and her first “Yesterday is dead and gone,” sung over martial drum rolls and “Last Post” mid-range brass, sounds like the final riposte to all the hurt nostalgia being indulged elsewhere on the record. A muted trumpet picks out the tune of “Little Drummer Boy” – and finally Gladys drops all of her remaining guards, and pleas, begs in the listener’s ear, not to be left alone, to be stayed with, to be touched, to listen and to love. Her final triplet of cries – an elongated “THROUGH!,!” “THE!” and “NIGHT!” – are drawn in as fine and painful detail as Gauguin’s Nevermore. She bleeds through the fabric of the song and implores us to look at the bigger picture – that this art is about her, and humanity as she, and she hopes somebody else, understands it. Only Sheila Jordan’s performance on George Russell’s reworking of “You Are My Sunshine” is fit to break bread with it; and isn’t that Sheila Jordan there, “AGAIN” and “AGAIN” at the end of Escalator, beneath Jack Bruce’s chasm of yells and entreaties?
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 16:48
Monday 17 December 2012
(#221: 19 January 1980, 4 weeks)
Track listing: Precious/The Phone Call/Up The Neck/Tattooed Love Boys/Space Invader/The Wait/Stop Your Sobbing/Kid/Private Life/Brass in Pocket/Lovers of Today/Mystery Achievement
“Change has a way of just walking up and punching me in the face” – Veronica Mars
The scene now changes; this blog is now being written by two people – Marcello Carlin and me, Lena Friesen. For the rest of this blog’s (un)natural life we will both be writing here, and it has been a long wait for me to arrive; in part because I am a bit younger, and thus was a mere bystander to the on-going colourful slo-mo crash which was the 1970s. So I am starting right here, in 1980, with the first album I ever owned, knowing that this was my new favourite band; that this was more than just an album, in some ways.
Let me set the scene; it’s Los Angeles, spring of 1980. At some point I get a radio with a tape deck and earplugs; at some point, I get this album on cassette. I know nothing – repeat – nothing about punk. I am so naïve, I don’t even know about Joan Jett, let alone the Runaways or the Ramones – I listen to Top 40 radio and serious AOR stations and Dr. Demento and Rick Dees and KRLA with Art Laboe, who will play oldies, particularly plaintive ballads for the low riders and those who love them. New Wave is a concept I understand; but the radio had so many great singles in ’79 that going out to buy albums seemed unnecessary. Dr. Demento plays the anti-disco anthem out of Chicago and I am suddenly aware there are disco-haters out there, people who would hate my neighbourhood in L.A. – Silverlake - where the Toy Tiger and the Frog Pond are local gay clubs. The New Wave hits keep coming (I now understand some of them as New Pop) – Gary Numan’s “Cars” and M’s “Pop Musik” and even Tusk could be seen as a New Pop gesture. As 1979 waned, there was an impatience in the air, an eagerness, to see this decade out, gone, never to return. A decade of men who could not be trusted, disaster after disaster, the whole way through. But it was also a time when women were, Equal Rights Amendment or not, gaining strength and dominating the radio – Debbie Harry, Donna Summer, Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie and Linda Ronstadt, to name a few that could be heard at almost any given time on L.A. radio, sometimes on FM for a whole commercial-free half hour.
But then Pretenders came out, and assumed (for me, anyway) an overwhelming prominence. I had just turned 13; I’d had a radio for two years, had listened dutifully to it for that time, and had never heard anything even close to this. I was still learning about the history of rock ‘n’ roll at the time, and unwittingly bought only one of the most important albums ever; absorbing it, assimilating it, and realizing slowly that this was new, with the equally newfound arrogance of the teenager who believes she has a favourite band that was far superior to anything else, and that everything in the future would have to be as good as this or she just wouldn’t bother with it. I listened to Pink Floyd’s The Wall because the serious heads at KMET told me it was an instant classic, and I was impressed; but its deeper meanings, because I was naïve, were lost on me. (I had no idea who Syd Barrett was, and FM radio never played any Syd-era Floyd.) But no one needed to tell me Pretenders was a classic; it was mine, and needed no hype.
The album tells a story; so I will go through it song by song. The band were named after the song “The Great Pretender” by The Platters – Chrissie Hynde had a pal who, when he was in a bad mood, would go into his room and play the song over and over. It is a song about being brave and showing no misery after a breakup; one of many songs where the man pretends to be happy when he isn’t. At first Hynde makes it very clear that she isn’t pretending…but is she?
“Precious” is a song of – well, from the first drumstick clicks and inchoate yells, this is not your ordinary song. Hell no. Hynde and James Honeyman-Scott’s guitars surge back and forth so intensely that you know there’s a tug-of-war here; between the nervous narrator (because this album is so autobiographical I will just call the narrator Hynde) and the superior proto-preppie she’s with, the big frog in the small pond (small in Hynde’s view) who leaves her with a “bruised hip” but also makes her feel like she’s “shitting bricks” as she knows she can’t live up to whatever he wants from her. Swearing! Swearing, dammit! It has taken us this long to get to a woman who really doesn’t give a crap and is going to swear, is going to make a lot of those guys who run radio stations a little…nervous. The song’s not even over and I love it already; the dive-bombing guitar as she goes into the break wherein she seems to make fun of…the idea of having a baby which automatically cancels out a thousand ‘baby’ lyrics in so many tacky songs. The conventional life of a suburban Akron teenager was supposed to aspire to, accept. You can just tell she’s not going to settle for that, no way, and then it gets very quiet; Hynde’s voice is miked very close, her every breath and inflection can always be heard. “Trapped in a world that they never made” is what anyone in the 1970s could say, and when Hynde then says, heroically, “Well not me baby I’m too crazy – fuck off” it’s as if the 1970s barely existed. They’re dead, as Hynde escapes in 1973 to be in a rock band in London, come hell or high water. The push-and-pull ends, Honeyman-Scott gets the visa and plane ticket and the door all but shuts at the end, Martin Chambers’ drums providing the slam.
And that’s just how it starts.
“The Phone Call” is one of the many songs here (the album didn’t, and still doesn’t, come with lyrics, and in 1980 you just had to make them out yourself as best you could) that I never really understood, other than it was in an odd time signature (7/8) and was about someone getting a call that was urgent, from a callbox, with the phone ringing and ringing on the other end. The song is urgent, claustrophobic, fixated on the one thing; the security of whoever is supposed to get these messages – a spy? A woman in danger? A gang member? If this is another song about escape, it is an escape that is full of running, sudden stops, pieces of paper shoved under doors – it’s a getaway car ready with the motor running. “This is a mercy mission” she says, her voice muffled as PJ Harvey’s will be one day, with the guitars ascending and descending like the breathing of a nervous person, willing themselves to be calm, only just holding out. It ends with a long exhale of final freedom, with the phone back again, the line engaged. Beep-beep-beep-beep; you hope the person who is there heard about the parcels in the mail. There is danger everywhere, this is the 1970s; or should I say, the 1970s themselves had to be fled, to be escaped. (This album, quite pointedly, doesn’t sound like anything from the 1970s or earlier.) So are we free yet?
“Up The Neck” is a laid-back song about “anger and lust” that is just as claustrophobic in its way as “The Phone Call” except now it’s the apartment, the flat, and not the callbox that’s the setting. The gruesome relationship is spelt out with a veteran’s sneer from Hynde on the one hand, and a kind of crushed innocence on the other. “Under the bed with my teeth sunk into my own…flesh” is how badly she feels one morning – UNPRECEDENTED here in Then Play Long, and her description of sweaty sex as “it was all very…’run-of-the-mill’” then followed by how the relationship was full of “bondage to lust” – the two people as physical beings only, with nothing else between them. Her continuing cries of “I said, baby? Oh, sweetheart…” grow less ironic as she realizes that that’s all there is. Sticky shag rugs, dirty tiles, tongues and lips and bulging veins…and then the relationship dies, the guitars churn and churn mechanically, the ease of the song gone, evaporated. The relationship never got above the neck; it was all kisses and slugs, no heart. She walks out, sorry and rueful, sadder but wiser. (How many girls like me learned so much from this, as opposed to the cheery advice columns in Seventeen or Glamour?)
Pretenders was an album bought by girls, after all. And guys too; Hynde’s no-bullshit singing/songwriting was a fresh breeze at the time, and a big corrective to having to listen to “Whole Lotta Love” and other such paeans to the female sex yet another time. And the next song is one of those that simply separates – as if the three before hadn’t already – this from anything else even thinkable in rock ‘n’ roll at the time. For one thing it’s a 7/4 -4/4 time signature, meaning producer Chris Thomas had his hands full trying to keep this erratic and wild song from coming right off the damn rails. That he and the band could do it was a testament to their intense rehearsing and gigging, meaning that the album was done quickly and (I assume, I don’t know this for sure) as live as possible. This is a band, after all, Chrissie’s band, and the unity and skills shown by everyone here is amazing. Along with Hynde’s voice, the band is also close, all the better to emphasize the intimacy of the songs; you feel as if you are there, though Hynde’s voice is the guide, letting you in on some things while leaving other things to your imagination, which Hynde assumes you have.
“Tattooed Love Boys” rings like a bell and before you know it, the struggle is on. “Little tease – but I didn’t mean it…but you mess with the goods doll, you gotta pay, yeah…” Her “tease” is squeaked out as if maybe she wants to, and maybe, she doesn’t. She knows how to flirt, but she’s not with the flirty types; these are bad boys, the kind she’s read about…and now here they are. The song comes to a stop after yet another unprecedented lyric: “I shot my mouth off and you showed me what that hole is for” and here Honeyman-Scott stings, floats, wrenches his guitar, bitter and fierce, as Hynde groans and says “oh baby baby baby” as if reinventing the blues, the band then leaping from one speed to another out of the mystery of what happened to the consequences. Well, it’s not pretty for him; “you’re gonna make some plastic surgeon a rich man” she crows, with the song ending with nothing but contempt for her would-be…attacker? Rapist? “Another human interest story…YOU ARE THAT.” And the song ends, abruptly as it started. Our heroic narrator survives hanging out with some tough guys who maybe, really, aren’t so tough. She is not singing those kind of blues – not yet, anyway.
“Space Invader” is an instrumental – one that points back to 1970s rock and yet lighter, simpler, pacing around at its root like a lioness stalking prey, or for that matter someone playing the video game of the same name that is sampled at the end. “The pulse of the new” as I noted, and this is where Pete Farndon and Honeyman-Scott shine; the song is like a knot being tied and untied, yet another breakaway from the past, the bomb effectively dropping, the past being destroyed, for lack of a better word. (Already I can sense all sorts of guitar players, teenagers and rock stars alike, listening to this album and playing along, from Johnny Marr to Lindsey Buckingham, from Courtney Love to Neil Young.) The bravado and heroism continue.
“The Wait” is yet another song that is sung so quickly and rhythmically that just what it’s about and what is going on is only half-understandable; even knowing the lyrics now I still don’t know what it’s about, besides a child who is forgotten, alone, kicking a ball up and down the street, an outcast, a loner, who is hurting and who only Hynde seems to care about. But there is the wait; something is coming, something Hynde knows is coming that in the tense breaks of the song – again it is one that is brutally physical, meant for pogoing (in 14/8 time what else can you do?) – and you can hear her breathe as if she has run in the studio, as if she is actually waiting along with the hapless “child” for The New to occur. Hynde is particularly vocal here, calling out, snarling, as the song yanks itself this way and that. Honeyman-Scott’s guitar after the break is nearly atonal, as if he is trying to make the ugly beautiful, the beautiful ugly; in part I think this is due to his not really enjoying doing guitar solos as such, so they tend to be brief and to the point, sardonic even, a good match for Hynde’s voice.
“Stop Your Sobbing” was, as I eventually understood it, their first single, produced by Nick Lowe; it is a song by The Kinks, one I had never heard, and yet another turning-around of rock conventions – Hynde is now singing to some guy that it’s about time he laughed and had fun instead of just crying and bringing her down. Here the band prove that yes, they can play your normal 1960s pop just as well as anything else; and it continues the theme of the crying man, unable to hide his emotions. (“Stop snivelling!” she yells at the guy in “Tattooed Love Boys” – as if she’s the guy now, and he’s the weaker sex. Hmmmm….) Jangly fun, but Hynde’s doubled voice at the end is desperate, as if she is somehow singing to herself as much as him; even from the start, there is the undercurrent of never quite knowing what is going on, in these songs, despite the authority and power of them. It’s itchy and uneasy. Even the future she writes for herself here – meeting and falling in love with Ray Davies, who wrote the song – is going to be unpredictable and troublesome.
“Kid” is by far the most ‘normal’ song here, echoing Hynde’s beloved Beatles; the boy is ashamed of something, feels it’s wrong, and won’t hold her hand; why we never know. He leaves, too proud to cry, though she begs him to cover his face, and Hynde’s voice is direct and yet full of the blues and sorrow that he can’t accept her for what she is; the situation is hopeless, and the song is cheery and upbeat as the scene is quiet, final. “Kid, my only kid” – he goes, beautiful and young and uncaring, it seems, about her feelings. The album is suddenly revealing (literally; this is the other side) that Hynde isn’t just a tough chick from Ohio who has been the victim and victor in physical encounters*. There is another side here, one where a guy will just dump her, and she longs for him, “full of grace” but it doesn’t matter. Write a pretty song about it and have a hit single, I can imagine Hynde thinking; and so they did. But then, Hynde finds herself in a whole other situation.
“Private Life” is a slow reggae – menacing, erupting with nagging/nail-digging solos from Honeyman-Scott that emphasize just how impossible the title really is. A wife – unhappy, theatrical – comes to Hynde and pleads for advice, help. Hynde pushes her away, dismisses her like dirt: “Your marriage is a tragedy but it’s not my concern.” But the woman continues, complaining about her sex life, about everything, and Hynde just tells her to leave the “somebody you deplore” and accuses the wife of “emotional blackmail.” Pity, contempt, hatred; she asks continually to be left out of the whole mess, but the pressure builds and builds, and none of Hynde’s tactics here seem to work. Hynde moans with pain as the guitars pierce her side; “Oh you’re mean!” she says, dying of a thousand insinuations and threats. Does she give in? Has she met her match? It ends so quickly it’s hard to know, but the pressure breaks, and now there is no escape. Hynde the Heroic of the first side is no longer able to conquer; the lies and stories and constant talking of the wife are too much.
After this, “Brass in Pocket” can be seen as a relief but also as a sharp irony. Here is she is, detailing everything about her that is so special, but it seems like an inventory mostly to impress herself; she’s all ready to go, but is anyone actually noticing her? Again the lyrics and music go arm-in-arm, slinking down the street, but the attention she craves never seems to come, and she is alone at the end, and maybe someone noticed her and maybe someone didn’t. She’s got so much to show, to tell, but there is an odd emptiness in the song, a kind of false hope that if she likes herself so much, then surely there must be somebody out there who will really appreciate her. She stood up for herself in the first song, after all; but since then has yet to find that right person. And then…
And then she does meet someone; and there they are, late at night, in bed. He is crying (again, there’s no explanation; he just is) and it is breaking Hynde’s heart. The delicate figures of the song – hesitating, hoping – as she tries to comfort him, tells him that he makes the birds sing and the stars shine – the song leaps up to the dramatic, as Hynde wails her “oooohhh” and their relationship falters, as she tries – tries – to talk to him. Hynde sounds as if she is finally crying too; the whole song is a lament for those who are scared to see people in love, people brave enough to take a chance, and for those who are too scared of having their hearts broken to get involved in the first place. (If Brett Anderson owned this album, as I’m sure he did, this is the song that undoubtedly influenced him the most.) The break is power chord glory mixed with an acidic lace, that this is how it ends. She has tried and tried and found boys and kids and mere children to care about, and now (presumably when she is truly in love, not lust, not bondage) she has to face herself and know herself with as much acuteness as she has brought to bear on everyone else. And it’s terrifying.
“No…noooo…” she sings over and over, in total disbelief. It’s the loneliest and coldest feeling in the world, this one. She can’t leave and shut the door on it. Because for once it’s not him; it’s her. “No…I’ll never feel like a man in a man’s world.” The whole album, nearly, leads up to that moment, as the song fades, as the relationship is engulfed by the sky, the birds, as being a woman is something she has tried to escape, to pretend wasn’t real, that she could move to London and be one of the blokes in a band and hang out with her punk band friends and never get hurt – the vagabond above the law. But there’s law, and there’s what you can’t escape from, which is yourself. She sings a lullaby but sounds as if she’s about to have some kind of breakdown herself; that promise of whoo-hoo self-definition badass which got her this far is of no more use. So now what?
“Mystery Achievement” looks at the facts straight; where is her sandy beach? What is success, in or outside of the band? She just wants to have fun, be in a band, get drunk and dance the Cuban slide but the trophies –the promise of fame and fortune – she could care less about. (How many debut albums come with a song about how the singer doesn’t actually want to be famous?) The song is a classic of a sort – drums first, followed by an audible Hynde sigh, then bass, then guitars. Her worried “oohhs” are all over the place, and the instrumental break is one of joy; you can hear all the band somehow talking to each other, Hynde’s voice coming in for what sounds like her real happiness – finally she has her own band, they’re doing her songs, and they are having fun doing them. (That a bit of it sounds like Magazine is par for the course; I mean, who wasn’t listening to them at this time?) That she has done all this, had hit singles, survived the 1970s – seems unreal to her, as if it was a bad dream, that she is being rewarded for all the wrong reasons.
Privately she may be the woman looking for the one good man, but here in her band, she has gotten what she has had to work hard to achieve; what she set out in 1973 to do, while those in Ohio called her crazy. She was virtually the last one of the Sex shop on King’s Road set to get a band together, to play gigs (the first on the day Sid Vicious died), to make music so stunning that this album was the first debut album by anyone to enter the UK charts at #1. This was in part due to anticipation of the band’s fans, but word of mouth as well, from girl to girl, woman to woman: she is telling it like it is. Pete Townsend found it, well, compulsive listening as did I; there was nothing else like it, and it jolted just about anyone who heard it (including fellow rhythm guitarist John Lennon) into some kind of action. Words like “tough” and “tender” are used to describe Hynde and this album, but her voice has a piercing urgency to it that make generalities like those pointless.
This album is a record (literally) of courage; of chances that led to ugly disasters, bodily harm, but also self-knowledge, to where she ends with a kind of Zen knowledge/not-knowledge situation. She has a lot to learn, but at least she knows what it is she doesn’t know (hello Juliana Hatfield) and what she does; a heart that hurts is a heart that works, and being a woman in a band/a woman otherwise doesn’t have to be – cannot be – an either/or proposition. Hynde showed a whole generation or two how it could be done; how to be frank and noble and most importantly, be herself and have her own band. One woman talks and sings the truth of her life, and a whole world opens up; a world that leads to Sinead and Alanis, to Madonna (who saw The Pretenders live in 1980 in Central Park**) and L7, but just as importantly, to all the young future Britpop stars like Justine and Brett and Damon, who all inherited different aspects of the band’s works. (Heck, even Katy Perry cites Hynde as an inspiration, but then her first album is called One Of The Boys, which this album could’ve been called, too.) The Pretenders succeeded where The Clash, Hynde’s friends from way back, couldn’t; as great as London Calling is, this is what the public wanted***, and the plethora of female voices now springs from only a few voices from the past; and Hynde’s is one of them.****
This was a band that was almost too intense and brilliant to last; just months after the unnecessarily rushed Pretenders II, Honeyman-Scott died of heart failure in June of 1982, just a day after Pete Farndon was dismissed from the band – Farndon died less than a year later. Hynde and Chambers found a new guitarist and bassist, Robbie McIntosh and Malcolm Foster, and continued to record startling singles and a blazing album, Learning To Crawl, the band on the cover dressed in black, as if still in mourning. At the same time she was in love with a new man, and I will be getting back to that relationship in a few years…
And so at 13 I realized that it was possible to go somewhere else - this mysterious place called London - and I looked up to Hynde as a model of what I could possibly, just possibly, be...an American girl in London. I realized there were other places to live, other countries (besides Canada, where I'd already been and would return to sooner than I'd thought)...and as I took Hynde as a role model, I realized there was more to the world, more in the world, and that it was right to be romantic and heartbroken, as long as I kept going. And so I am writing this in London, a place I never thought back then I would get to visit, let alone reside in. But I did visit, and years later, did move. This album started that whole process, that opening up of possibilities.
What else can 1980 offer? As she sings in "Brass In Pocket" Hynde is “Detroit leaning.” And so off to Michigan we go…
*Hynde was attacked by Nick Kent one day in the Sex shop; he beat her with a cheap belt as she tried her best to hide. The album makes it sound as if she dealt out karate chops to guys, but in reality Vivienne Westwood thought she was causing a disruption, and thence Hynde was dismissed and oh-so-coincidentally later Nick Kent was beaten up at a Sex Pistols gig.
**The live version of “Precious” on their EP is from this same concert. It is, if you can believe it, even faster and more intense than the original.
***Note how these days bands like The Specials (whom Hynde also knew) and The Clash will go on the radio and reminisce about ’79-’80 while Hynde pointedly refuses to indulge in any sort of nostalgic looking back. This is more proof, I feel, that Pretenders is a far more rebellious and troublesome album for all concerned, and a lot of the songs still aren’t ‘radio friendly.’
****Hynde herself would acknowledge Sandie Shaw and Joni Mitchell as influences, even as she would downplay her own singing and guitar playing. Part of her appeal is that she’s not a diva in any sense, and is very much someone who would say “If I can do it you can do it, if you have the nerve.”