Thursday, 30 December 2010

VARIOUS ARTISTS: 20 Dynamic Hits


(#113: 17 June 1972, 8 weeks)

Track listing: Hold Your Head Up (Argent)/Storm In A Teacup (The Fortunes)/Fireball (Deep Purple)/Butterfly (Danyel Gerard)/When You Get Right Down To It (Ronnie Dyson)/Something Tells Me (Something’s Gonna Happen Tonight) (Cilla Black)/Witch Queen Of New Orleans (Redbone)/Tonight (The Move)/Say You Don’t Mind (Colin Blunstone)/Softly Whispering I Love You (The Congregation)/Oh Babe What Would You Say (Hurricane Smith)/Black Night (Deep Purple)/Iron Horse (Christie)/Family Affair (Sly & the Family Stone)/Everybody’s Everything (Santana)/Tom-Tom Turnaround (New World)/Rosetta (Fame & Price)/Banner Man (Blue Mink)/Don’t Let It Die (Hurricane Smith)/Go Down Gamblin’ (Blood, Sweat & Tears)

It may well have been hard for the solemner minds of 1972 to accept that the year’s album chart champion was a former Teflon pan salesman from Winnipeg. Philip Kives was the original brain behind K-Tel, which he gradually developed from its feather duster/amplified kitchen knife beginnings to incorporate pop music, or any music that could readily and quickly be identified as popular. Inspired by his success at selling devices directly via television, he applied the same principle to records; 1966’s 25 Great Country Artists Singing Their Original Hits was to most intents and purposes the first TV-marketed album, and the formula – expanded from what a reluctant Kives initially saw as a leftfield one-off venture – proved so workable that it was inevitably expanded outside America. Aided by his cousin Raymond and Australians Don Reedman and Ian Howard, K-Tel commenced its British operations in the early seventies, and 20 Dynamic Hits was its first attempt to repeat its success here. That it worked is an understatement; no album sold more copies in 1972 Britain, and K-Tel, together with its American rival Arcade Records, dominated the top of the album chart for the rest of the year; with one exception (entry #115), these compilations make up the remainder of the TPL 1972 tale.

How did they succeed? Primarily, it was by being so single-minded about the profit motive and not really worrying about aesthetic concerns; these records were not built to last, to be acknowledged Classic Albums, but rather to catch the crucial part of the record-buying public who had hitherto had to settle for the soundalike albums documented throughout the second half of 1971 and who were still unable or unwilling to splash out sizable sums of money for a substantial tranche of hit singles. There was no pretence to K-Tel’s procedurals; 20 Dynamic Hits, as with its many successors, was subject to a brash, in-our-faces TV advertising campaign with loud, excited voiceovers, rushed three-second snippets of the tracks featured and a packaging strategy which was, to put it mildly, utilitarian; gaudy, primary-coloured sleeves with unfeasibly large print, dotted by monochrome circled portraits of the featured artists. The design was intentionally disposable (“Look out for exciting new releases on the K-Tel label!”) and the intent unapologetic; these were, the publicity emphasised, the ORIGINAL HITS by the ORIGINAL STARS (i.e. NOT soundalike session covers), with rights and royalties negotiated directly with the artists and their record companies (the sleeve credits the album as a co-production with EMI and CBS). The albums were available in department stores, newsagents, supermarkets, even electrical goods stores – and they retailed at a canny midprice (since, unlike the budget Top Of The Pops/Hot Hits series, midprice albums were not at this stage excluded from the main album chart).

The novelty was overwhelming, so much so that most consumers didn’t really care that the “hits” featured on the album were for the most part considerably less than “dynamic”; there are three number two hits featured but no number ones, the tracks come almost exclusively from 1971, and indeed two of the tracks did not trouble our singles chart at all. If glam rock was in the ascendant you wouldn’t have known it from here; T Rex, Slade, Elton etc. are conspicuously absent, and the conclusion has to be that K-Tel settled for whatever tracks they could negotiate onto the record. Many tracks be familiar to TPL readers from the 1971 soundalike phase; “Tom-Tom Turnaround” and “Don’t Let It Die,” for instance, turn up for the third time in this tale.

Still, this doesn’t mean that all of the tracks on 20 Dynamic Hits aren’t worth writing about; far from it, since the best thing about the compilation boom is that it allows me to bring people directly into this story who otherwise would have remained outside. In addition, the seeming semi-randomness of the twenty selections here make for a jarring listen; one, for instance, realises that from this picture, British pop music is still mostly (but not wholly) stuck in a rut and America is running (away) to unexpected (and in one case extremely disturbing) places. As with future entries of this kind, I propose to divide it up into digestible sections, artist by artist, or movement by movement, even if only to prove that, although released only as a means of maximising income from songs past their commercial peak (and the income was quite considerable; the record labels got a 16% royalty rate per track), there are always unexpected social and aesthetic truths to be uncovered, or disproved.

The Zombies Diaspora

Thanks to K-Tel, I do get to write about the Zombies themselves at greater length at a later date, but it is worth noting that, even though the band had officially split after Odessey And Oracle, they never quite grew apart. Rod Argent and Chris White, quite apart from their own duties in the group Argent, are all over One Year, Colin Blunstone’s debut album, whether as backing musicians or songwriters or arrangers or producers. Their own “Hold Your Head Up” is a fairly unremarkable would-be rock anthem made interesting by the restless (and characteristically Zombies) bass, Rod Argent’s oscillating keyboards (like a conservatory-trained Eno) and some of the percussion work, especially the cowbell manipulation in the break and the upward acceleration of the drums following the line “Change a thing that you’re doing.”

But One Year is something else entirely. Conceived as a ten-song diary of a year in the life of its singer – July to July – it moves patiently through the mechanisms of a break-up, the hapless feelings of abandonment and loss, then the awkward grope to find the world again, and the final return of love. What gives the record its inner energy – quite apart from the faultlessly controlled voice of Blunstone himself – is its continuing sense of harmonic dissatisfaction. This begins from the moment that the bass descends in unexpected, partly dissonant paths out of the standard rock-out of “She Loves The Way They Love Her,” and towards the remarkable dialogue staged throughout the record between Blunstone and Chris Gunning’s string quartet; Tim Hardin’s oft-covered “Misty Roses” begins as a straightforward bossa nova duet with Alan Crosthwaite’s guitar before the gloomy, suspended entry of the string quartet turns the song into a Bartokian quasi-nightmare. Again, on “Though You Are Far Away,” the simple accompaniment of a solo harp is derailed by the questing strings, now seeming to be ruminating on some of the implications of Beethoven’s late quartets. The more conventional pop songs, such as “Caroline Goodbye” and “Mary Won’t You Warm My Bed,” despite their straighter-edged Tony Visconti string and brass charts, still betray the seeping of desperation; the odd accentuations of the drums, Blunstone’s gasping emphasis on consonants – he is trying to find his way back but it’s not going to be as simple as he thought. John Fiddy’s brass band cushion on “Let Me Come Closer To You” suggests that he’s nearly ready to accept love again.

And then, finally, we get “Say You Don’t Mind,” written by Denny Laine in 1967 for his shortlived Electric String Band (ELO, effectively, five years ahead of schedule), and released twice as a single in its original version without success; here Blunstone turns the song’s desperate mixture of guilt, promise and faith into a performance of remarkable strength and vulnerability. The string quartet “rocks” after a fashion, but the responsibility is all the singer’s – he has spent half an hour, or twelve months, searching for this plateau, wanting love and life back, and now he has it he’s afraid that it will crumble; his “but I’m scared of you going” has a feathery pain to it which Laine doesn’t quite achieve (see also his four-syllable “po-oo-ooh-ool,” his “ha-a-a-ve”). This is something he has snatched back from the jaws of oblivion, such that as the strings dizzingly peak, circling around him like birds, and he reaches that terrible/liberated extended falsetto of “TIIIIIIIIIIMMMMMMEEEEE!!!,” one feels that this is the nirvana which Nick Drake was never quite intended to reach (and vocally and orchestrally there are obvious links with Bryter Layter, although there are also less obvious and arguably deeper links with Scott Walker; One Year is almost like an inversion of ’Til The Band Comes In, Walker’s doleful baritone replaced by Blunstone’s airy alto, everything scored high rather than deep, looking at the sun rather than pining for the moon). As a performance it soars out of the K-Tel grooves; heard in its original context it is cathartic to a level which few other British records of its period could match.

Speaking Of Birmingham...

The second time around for “Tonight” and it doesn’t grip any more firmly than it did the first. Message From The Country remains an untidy final Move album, which is hardly surprising since the group was already more than halfway towards turning into ELO but contractually obliged still to be the Move. Generally its tracks hark more towards Roy Wood’s Wizzard with their back-to-basics rock and multitracked sax smears, although Jeff Lynne is beginning to become a dominant voice (e.g. “The Words Of Aaron” and the title track). There is even a shift towards Zappa/Mothers-style musical expansion in tracks such as “It Wasn’t My Idea To Dance” (which would be explored further on Wizzard’s albums). “Tonight” itself did not form part of the original album, and it still sounds like a throwaway; vocally and musically divided equally between Wood and Lynne, it is nevertheless Lynne’s George Harrison-esque lead guitar which makes the greatest impression (although the closing quickfire “His Latest Flame” quote was almost certainly Wood’s idea). The Move were a great singles band which never quite progressed (if “progressed” is the correct word to use) towards making a great album, but “Tonight” itself was hardly one of their finest singles.

Also Appearing On The British Half Of The Bill

It really is an effort to find much to say about the majority of the British tracks on 20 Dynamic Hits. Most of them are so workaday and ineffectual that even Dale Winton would stifle a crafty yawn. “Storm In A Teacup,” for example; early Lynsey de Paul, a suburban Formica variant on “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” performed with great efficiency by Brumbeat sometime-rans the Fortunes (and sometimes when they weren’t in the charts they really did run; see, for example, their remarkable brace of 1967 singles, “Our Love Has Gone” and “The Idol”), pitter-patters out of one’s mind the second it fades. “Rosetta,” too; Georgie Fame and Alan Price, teaming up temporarily, always on The Two Ronnies with their two grand pianos diagonally facing each other, clearly having a good time with uncomplicated pub rock, but for Britain’s Mose Allison and for someone who was, and is, at his best, Britain’s Randy Newman, this is very thin meat indeed, a romp evidently far more fun to record than it is to hear.

As for Hurricane Smith, both of his major hits remain endearing – and “Don’t Let It Die” at times sounds like the missing link between the late Danny Ross (connoisseurs of vintage British radio comedy will recall him as Alfie Hall in the beyond-bizarre The Clitheroe Kid) and Roger Waters (and we have to remember that this is the man who produced Syd’s Floyd, and indeed went on to contribute half of the trumpets to Kilimanjaro by the Teardrop Explodes); heartfelt yet rather sinister. “Oh Babe,” in contrast, a UK #4 hit and a US #2, was an utterly charming trinket of twenties revivalism, beefed up by Frankie Hardcastle’s rasping tenor sax throughout.

Of “Iron Horse,” Christie’s third, final and least hit (one week at #47), there is almost nothing to say, except that singing “across the great divide” does not make you The Band, and that any advance on “Yellow River” (originally intended for the Tremeloes, but CBS decided to run with Jeff Christie’s own take) was invisible and indeed inconceivable.

Deep Purple

“Fireball” makes a welcome return here (and lends a supplementary premise of 20 Dynamic Hits being an examination of how different musicians fell out of the sixties, and where they landed) and “Black Night,” based on a James Burton lick from Rick Nelson’s cover of “Summertime” which Blackmore must have remembered from his Outlaws days, also appears here; good to hear a still relatively unconstrained Blackmore wig out in his first solo before his more pensive second one. The spirit of Meek continues to pervade both tracks.

The Two Rogers Question

Cook and Greenaway. Tireless songwriters, ever-present hitmakers of the time. And yet, what the hell is going on here?

There is “Something Tells Me,” the theme from Cilla’s then-current TV series which provided her with her last top ten hit, which tries without much success to be the theme from the Mary Tyler Moore Show; a muted climax to a musical career which had more than its share of unexpected delights (including a similarly discursive take on “Misty Roses”). There is the inexplicable “Banner Man” – a top three hit in the Orange Lodge style. There is the positively frightening (look at their picture on the sleeve!) “Softly Whispering” in which a boys’ choir fights with Glasgow’s Brian Keith, ex-of Plastic Penny (“Everything I Am,” top ten in early ’68), attempting to be a No Mean City Levi Stubbs. Apart from explaining with icy clarity why glam had to happen – what the hell is going on here?

Miscellaneous

“Tom-Tom Turnaround,” as previously mentioned, turns around for its third visit, this time in its original, in-tune version, and continues to leave no feelings in this listener other than finger-drumming impatience – were its composers really only eighteen months or so away from “Blockbuster”? Danyel Gerard was one of France’s first authentic rockers, up there with Johnny Hallyday, and “Butterfly” was simultaneously his most atypical and (internationally) his most popular song. The discordant guitar bends halfway through each verse demonstrate where he’d been but the singalong is strictly bier keller standard, even with choir, trumpets, and so forth. Redbone were at least authentic Red Indians and although “Witch Queen” still comes across as Tommy James doing Dr John, it still packs a minor punch, largely through its emphatic door-knocking drums and unstable string/Moog lines and wobbles. Ronnie Dyson probably deserved better in his brief life (he died in 1990, aged just forty) and his cover of the Delfonics’ “When You Get Right Down To It” was much more of a turntable hit on British radio than a hit single as such (it peaked at #34) but he handles Thom Bell’s curves well enough for Bell himself to produce a series of fine proto-Philly singles for Dyson shortly thereafter. Look out for the squelchy water-tap Moog which materialises under the line “Wash away the bad times” and the way in which the choir suddenly invades the song, like marigolds.

The Ones Which Didn’t Chart

Not quite the case with Santana, since Santana III, from which “Everybody’s Everything” is taken, was a substantial hit album here (#6). Nonetheless, in the face of such dithering pitter-patter, it is refreshing to bathe in this furious yet reassuring percussion/brass/organ workout; Carlos himself turns up near the end and the band’s other main guitarist, Neal Schon, prepares to begin his own jazz-rock group – Journey. My favourite Santana album, Caravanserai, came out towards the end of 1972 – and I will be returning to Santana in the very long term – but the track does fine in this (and any) context.

Blood, Sweat and Tears, in contrast, were past their peak; “Go Down Gamblin’”’s parent album, BS&T4, did no business here, and the Tom Jones-style vocal idiosyncrasies of Canada’s own David Clayton-Thomas may continue to grate for some, but this isn’t too bad a track in itself and a pretty strong and florid closer to the album as a whole, even if, for me, Canada’s Lighthouse (featuring the younger Howard Shore) did the whole jazz-soul-fusion thing a whole lot more lightly and a hell of a lot more convincingly.

But One Of These Things Is Not Like The Others...

YOU DON’T KNOW WHO TURNED YOU IN

But it wasn’t anyone in your family. You know what it’s like; Shaun Ryder certainly did when he revisited the scene of the imploding disaster in “Lazyitis” a generation later and a country apart. Sometimes you stick by people, blood being thicker than mud and everything, the pain being louder than that bomb tick of a drum machine. Some grow up good, others want to burn, maybe both themselves and others. But you stand by them when everything else falls apart, and even when it doesn’t.

And here they are, brother and sister (literally; that’s Rose Stone on Fender Rhodes and co-lead vocals), with Bobby Womack’s punching (out the clock) guitar, tick tock DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT IT’S LIKE?

“Family Affair” was always going to stand out like the reddest of veins on a record like this, but it drives us towards the mucked-up, fucked-up blood which stains this part of our tale like so much else of its time tried to do. Exile you could, and can, take; there is trouble, there is indeciperable code, murky moths of memory, but always that hope, always the rescuing cheek, the shared knowledge of a decade that the Stones had with their fans that this was where, finally, where we were all going to be heading; and we can come out the other end as well.

You don’t feel that with There’s A Riot Goin’ On, although newcomers to the record may point to the stalky lightness of its funk and wonder where the pain is lurking. Even though those of us of more hurtful experience can sense it, can sometimes breathe it – why is he yodelling through “Spaced Cowboy,” and why are we willing him on? Can’t we see that he’s destroying himself – or even his self?

Riot was the USA’s Christmas number one album of 1971, beating out even Led Zeppelin IV; many who didn’t have a stake in what it was suggesting didn’t want to know, tuned out (just as they would do a few months later with its semi-visible twin, Miles’ On The Corner) – hey, why bother us with this pain? It’s so ill-measured, so...impolite.

But the clock ticks all the way through Riot without an alarm setting; this was Sly telling us that everything he’d been telling us over the previous three years was a lie, that it was all coming apart, most of all his self, or even himself, that it was going to be every bastard for themselves from now on; the perception that “we” still have to hang together to change anything, but also the horrific self-realisation that he might not be a part of it, but apart from it. He didn’t have to say anything after Riot and by and large it was as if he didn’t. But who could have said anything after the gauntlet that record threw down? The pregnant, giving-birth wail/cry at the end of “Family Affair” keeps turning up all the way through the album; “Poet” and “(You Caught Me) Smilin’” hammer their own vowels into their crucifix, “Just Like A Baby” and “Brave & Strong” seem to imply that any way out will only turn out to be another drug. “Africa Talks To You ‘The Asphalt Jungle’” has Sly losing himself as comprehensively as the Bowie of Low, but unlike the latter he is actively being chased off his own record by the rest of his group (and whoever else would turn up, including Billy Preston, Miles and Ike Turner), screaming “TIMBERRRRRR!!!!” back at them before the remorseless horseshoe clips of the rhythm cut him off like a scythe. On “Runnin’ Away” he is hardly there; his singers appear to be laughing at him; you fucked up, you come back home – back to what, you dumbass sucker? Finally, a long, draggy, sloping upwards towards the cranium, haul through a more hopeful song of old, now just reduced to an eking out of existence, the crawl on the narrow window ledge; does he have enough energy to jump, or more energy to stay there, and throw society off the thirtieth floor instead?

“Nobody” (except Sly’s core constituency, i.e. the people the events on Riot were more likely to affect, and the scores of black musicians inspired or relighted by its example) wanted to hear this, just as “nobody” wanted to know about Lennon saying fuck the Beatles and the dream is over. Lena reckons that the record is a pretty accurate aural description of what it was like to be staggering through the California of 1971; for myself, I put it next to On The Corner, to Exile, to Escalator, as a stark yet rich portrait of what and how things really are. Think of those unspoken lines of Paul Haines’ near the end of Escalator, the ones about “A new day dawns/You do not want it/Only the humor that stops things from becoming funny.” Riot counts, as almost nothing else on 20 Dynamic Hits does, because we can dress life up in the loudest and flimsiest of colours, and have our fun, but look at those wrinkling corners, look at the only people here who don’t resemble 1972 darts or snooker champions – it’s 1972’s direst warning, and its burial in this least expected of packages perhaps makes it all the more frightening.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The ROLLING STONES: Exile On Main St.


(#112: 10 June 1972, 1 week)

Track listing: Rocks Off/Rip This Joint/Shake Your Hips/Casino Boogie/Tumbling Dice/Sweet Virginia/Torn And Frayed/Sweet Black Angel/Loving Cup/Happy/Turd On The Run/Ventilator Blues/I Just Want To See His Face/Let It Loose/All Down The Line/Stop Breaking Down/Shine A Light/Soul Survivor

”Say now baby, I’m the rank outsider.”

One reads so much about the darkness, the near nothingness, that engulfed the recording of Exile that it’s easy to get misled – that is, before the music itself begins to mislead the listener. For such a supposedly grim and dank record, the surprise comes in how light the record sounds, how completely assured and planned are its eighteen struts of bedpole-tipping and aisle-bending. Noticeable too is the sheer zip of the thing; its sixty-seven minutes fly by quickly, it plays like, if not quite a greatest hits collection, then a compilation of B-sides (as others have also previously noted). Hardly any time is wasted; only one track exceeds five minutes and most clock in at considerably less. There is no escaping the feeling that the Stones, contrary to all other reports, knew exactly what they were doing, even if that meant being the Stones better and longer than anybody else.

And that was perhaps their point. Is Exile really the white Riot? A caged crawl along an imaginary window ledge, wondering whether any of it, the fame, the money, has been worth anything, whether it was all an illusion, a schemata to keep the real world out and away from gurgling, self-consuming faces? Sonically there isn’t the uncommon fusing of weightlessness and heaviness that we get through Sly’s most tortured and torturing fifty minutes; Exile is the Stones assessing everything they’d learned in the preceding decade, bottling it up and gushing it out with a oneness (add the “l” for “loneness” if you’re so inclined) that was only theirs.

Is it their best album? Certainly it is their only album, and one of only a very few albums, about which this tale will have to write twice; and yet, outside Stones cognoscenti, who knows more than (if they’re lucky) three or four tracks on it at the most? The definitive portrait of the Stones as a working rock group from which its rhythm section is absent for about half the record. The contradictions are enough to crucify the unwary.

There’s “Rocks Off” for a start, and in my days of compiling tapes for friends to introduce them to a certain strand of rock I would always kick off Side A with this and follow it up with the New York Dolls’ “Personality Crisis.” The rock is treble-heavy, and Jagger’s voice swoons and croaks around the song’s fibres (“Your mouth don’t move but I can hear you speak”). He’s lost, can only escape from the pirouetting come rush by dreaming; the city, the world, overwhelms him (“Headed for the overload/Splattered on the dusty road”), and he wishes to be kicked until he can feel pain no more – Keats checks in on Lou Reed’s credit card. Jim Price’s horns shake and shine like the Brotherhood of Breath, Charlie Watts disintegrates the song in its closing moments, subdividing the beat into Tony Williams fractions (though using the snare rather than the ride cymbal).

Maybe there’s a little too much eagerness here to not be construed as forced. “Rip This Joint” is the most furious rock and roll song that could be heard in 1972, so fast and unforgiving that its spits at Pat and Dick, at Alabama and Little Rock, are liable to whizz past the ears too readily (“WAOW YEAHH!!” Jagger exclaims at strategic points). Its pounding is a desperate one; tear those nails out of the coffin that Don McLean built (Bobby Keyes’ tenor is the definition of “ripping”). Yeah, they seem to say, you think we’re finished, you lousy little pseudo-poets? Not for the last time on this record, I think of what might have happened if Funhouse had gone triple platinum and Iggy had decided to go for the stadiums.

And then there’s “Shake Your Hips,” a shake-up of a Slim Harpo song from the time of Aftermath; Jagger does bad, bad things with his echoing purrs, almost willing his prey to be a robot, betraying things about the story of R&B that maybe 1972 R&B wanted to forget; even the knitting needle percussion is sexy, the tenor/bass creaking bedhead unison an invitation to slur up instructions, the whole crawling down to our level, wanting a word in our ear; the fuckness brilliance of not hiding or cleaning up desire. The Stones were still prepared to podie their pants in ’72; the song is almost like a précis of Meltzer’s Gulcher, while mentioning nothing about American football or supermarket prices.

It continues; “Casino Boogie” settles down to accommodate Mick Taylor’s old bluesbreaking ways while it sings about the lights going out, trapdoors vaporising to accommodate the noose, “grotesque music, million dollar sad”, and “Tumbling Dice” (the single, and the one song on Exile that “most people” know) which is just another of Jagger’s love ‘em but why they’re all cheating fucks anyway self-immolating laments which never quite frees itself from its own maze of structural and emotional locks.

If side one of Exile rocks, like the Pequod, then side two is where Exile reaches its lowest depths – and I mean “deep” as in “profound.” Did long-term French villa visitor Gram Parsons play on this sequence? Who can remember (he’s not listed on the credits), but I can’t imagine the spiritualised grace of the sequence being conceived without his influence. “Sweet Virginia” – pretty much about as extreme a difference 1972 could muster from, say, “Virginia Plain” – is a campfire singalong with acoustic guitars, barrelhouse piano, tenor sax, drums and Jagger’s harmonica, all slightly out of step with each other; it is akin to Christian Wolff tackling Folkways. Eventually there’s an emphatic on-beat, there are handclaps, Jagger’s “yeooowwww” on the final chorus being as peaceful and orgasmic a resolution as Molly Bloom’s. “Got to scrape that shit right off your shoes” indeed. “Torn And Frayed” is better still; listen to the way in which the harmonies dissolve into Jim Price’s organ, which hovers in the middle distance, underscored by Al Perkins’ steel guitar, slightly deviated by Nicky Hopkins’ piano, which appears to reach back into 1967 and “We Love You.” But then Keith Richards slides in with an elegant shrug for his brief solo, Jagger suppresses something resembling rage in the “way” of his “steal your heart a-way” before the song moves into Staxville for the fade, Steve Cropper licks and all; it’s impossible to not be touched by the simple belief in their work, as the Rolling Stones, which underpins the song; sure, the admin and the business might be shit most of the time, the drugs will never work, but come back to that guitar and that ripped coat you’ve had since you were nicking neighbours’ milk bottles in Edith Grove. “Sweet Black Angel” was for Angela Davis, with Richard Washington (billed as “Amyl Nitrate”) on marimbas, Jimmy Miller on distant clip-clop Tonto drums, a genteel acoustic shuffle with a purely rhythmic harmonica. The “judge” lines are delivered staccato, like Archie Shepp re-orchestrating Gilbert and Sullivan.

But finally it’s back to love and simple happiness; “Loving Cup” sums up the questing mood of its side with a clarity and truthfulness which are extremely moving. The gospel piano intro gives way to Miller’s dramatic drum entry, and we reach the nub, the core, of Exile; for maybe the first and last time on a Stones record, the revolution comes in the phrase “What a beautiful world.” Redemption, the uplifting of the uprising; we are here and we are fucked but fuck it we are happy and you can’t kill us. Jagger gasps a parched scream, horns blast their way in with ambiguous harmonies, and the mood changes, slowly and subtly, from the spiritual to the carnal (it is the sexual-religious equivalent of the near-unnoticeable transition from West to East that marks the Beach Boys’ “Cabinessence”). So low down are these Stones, yet so high up are they also; they have never sounded so much of either than here.

Did someone mention “Happy”? The second track that some people are most likely to know from Exile, and doesn’t Keith’s voice come across like Neil Young? Horns are strident, Taylor’s guitar rebounds like a safe house pinball machine. “Keep on dancing!” he exclaims as he aims for absurd high notes – and keeps getting them. “Turd On The Run” rolls, so to speak, but Jagger’s momentarily cornered; realising that it might all be for nothing, but where Keith can happily shrug off Lear jets, Jagger obsesses about diamond rings, Vaseline and disease, about throwing the bastard to the sharks, and is he singing to himself? “Ventilator Blues” is driven by sinisterly low-pitched bass, piano and drums, and even more unsettlingly settles for a refrain of “What’cha gonna do about it?” against Richards’ worrying guitar and Hopkins’ grave piano; a recall, conscious or unconscious, of the first hit by the Small Faces (“Don’t forget it!”). This leads without a break into the uncanny “I Just Want To See His Face” in which the Stones, essentially, do John Coltrane. It’s all there; the damaged veins of spiritualism, Miller making like Elvin with his drum accents, Richards’ quivering electric piano, the ghosts of 1964 Impulse! and Blue Note making themselves felt (and simultaneously getting ready for trip hop), the two basses (Bill Plummer on acoustic, Taylor on electric). “It’s all right!” strikes an unexpected Elvis – oh, come on, Crudup – gong.

Spiritual? “Let It Loose” could almost be the Stones’ condensed All Things Must Pass with its slow, Leslie cabinetted guitar, its “Dear Prudence” descents, its hymnal piano; the mood is Harrison and/or Clapton, the search perhaps truer. There ensues a brilliant sunrise of horns and Jagger’s most sheerly passionate vocal on the record. Other voices – among them, Shirley Goodman, Tami Lynn and Dr John – drift in and out; the salvation becomes commensural and as the whole dissolves into an unexpected refraction of the closing moments of side one of What’s Going On?, at least one message is clear; here, with the way we are and the way things are, anybody can be a Rolling Stone. Membership – before the gates subsequently closed again - was as open as that of the Scratch Orchestra.

“All Down The Line” is generic Stones rocking, but a fine example nonetheless, given extra vivacity by Keith McDonald’s androgynous backing vocal which at times threatens to obscure Jagger altogether, and by the horns, which render bebop lines rather than straight lines. And yet, at its centre, that same Anne Boleyn Secondary School sadness: “Won’t you be my little baby for a while?” asks Jagger, over and over, as though grasping for oxygen.

And then we get back to the source of everything (here); “Stop Breaking Down” finds them back with Robert Johnson, back where they began (the sleeve’s “Trad. arr.” credit notwithstanding). And yet this is not quite the old blues; Jagger’s harmonica bleeps out Morse code, the underlying carpet of troubled funk gives a prediction of “Superstition,” although Jagger’s concern here is the personal rather than the political; he’s had it, had more than enough of cheating and stealing and phoniness. Watts rolls over Taylor’s solo, while Richards places a Concorde drone under Taylor’s bottleneck. “Shine A Light” starts a little like “Sour Suite” by the Guess Who but soon moves into unexpected “Let It Be” solemnity (and there, on cue, is Billy Preston and his keyboards). The song alters the quiet and loud; and yet, all the while, there is this weariness, an exhausted plea for the next life: “Come on up, come on up now, come on up now.” Is he thinking of jumping?

(Secret answer: “Never.”)

I’m thinking of a lot of things here, not least My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (for Robert Johnson, read Gil Scott-Heron), where Kanye summons up everything he believes he’s learned over the past decade and lets it leak out over a marathon of self-loathing and occasional life-denying (is it a “masterpiece”? Scrambled-up anti-reportage might be closer), since Exile - or, at least, this version of it – concludes with “Soul Survivor,” the record’s most ostensibly “Rolling Stones” track, with a tiger of a riff which appears to have leapt straight out of the “Gimme Shelter” cage (and the riff then mutates into a predication of Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back”), but continually rising and rising until revolution, and not just of the record, seems more than a distinct probability, even if it comprises revolt against the self (“You’re gonna be the death of me!”), and again, that urge to chase the whale; “I’ll stowaway at sea/You make me mutiny.” The Stones, running away, or being driven, from their home (by the Inland Revenue), holing up at an old Nazi compound with neither food nor heating, and yet theirs is the most conspicuous and gaudy display on anybody’s Main Street. But theirs, in 1972, was maybe still the most unique; the word “concentrated” springs to mind, as if the Stones bunkered down and put everything they knew into its purest use, being the purest they could ever hope to be. And the purity paralleled their peak; where were the Beatles in 1972, where was anybody? Perhaps I can answer that question further as this tale is about to devolve into records by “everybody” and nobody in particular. But here we still are, the Stones say, still untouchable, unreachable, at the top of the mountain and we can’t get down but the loneliness – as in, who else is up here with us? - is also our oxygen. Keep those tears hid out of sight, since you down there at the bottom, all those freaks and antiques on Robert Frank's covers, all you Vietnam mourners, all you juke joint Coke-dippers; you are our mirrors. Look at that title again; not "Street," but "St." Saints? Why not? Everyone needs sympathy.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

T. REX: Bolan Boogie




(#111: 20 May 1972, 3 weeks)

Track listing: Get It On/Beltane Walk/The King Of The Mountain Cometh/Jewel/She Was Born To Be My Unicorn/Dove/Woodland Rock/Ride A White Swan/Raw Ramp/Jeepster/Fist Heart Mighty Dawn Dart/By The Light Of A Magical Moon/Summertime Blues/Hot Love

From the sleeve design – the rear cover is a blurred, silvery shot of Marc in action – I wouldn’t expect that the people at Fly Records gave more than a couple of minutes’ attention towards putting this compilation together. Clearly exploring – and exploiting – the suddenly profitable back catalogue at their disposal, Bolan Boogie is nonetheless a very useful primer for the newer Bolan fans of 1972; as well as a handy summation of his hits to date, it also cunningly traces the route Bolan took towards usurping the Beatles (Ringo directed his Born To Boogie movie and nearly made number one with his Bolan pastiche-tribute “Back Off Boogaloo”); the route, to be specific, from acoustic to electric, from wistful to sensual, and how one didn’t necessarily supplant the other.

In fact Bolan Boogie takes off pretty much from where entry #110 left off, albeit cursorily from the Steve Peregrine Took perspective; “She Was Born To Be My Unicorn” appears as the sole representative of Unicorn, the third Tyrannosaurus Rex album and the last with Took; symbolically, Took’s percussion is now a distant bash – it could almost be a drum machine – while Bolan experiments with his voice and his arrangements; his climactic, smacking “high, high, high, high” suggests an increasing sexuality as a didgeridoo, or possibly a processed ‘cello, drones in the middle distance.

The fourth album, A Beard Of Stars, represented here by three tracks, brought both Mickey Finn and electricity on board and the transition is gradual but unmissable. Its single “By The Light Of A Magical Moon,” is the most immediately memorable of this trio, although Bolan is still working, or clawing his way, towards pop; the hooks are there but the mood remains somewhat shambolic (Bolan even presages Bryan Ferry in his vocal here to a minor extent). The profoundest of the three is “Dawn,” an early indication of how well Bolan would be able to carry off the pop ballad; the song is slow, crouched, low, and is a song of love, of yearning, of need, showing a rare humility and vulnerability in the singer; eventually he has to resolve the song into a winsome wordless alphabet with some markedly George Harrison-esque electric guitar commentary, underscored by a remarkable bass improvisation. “Fist Heart” is an energetic midtempo workout, and even here the listener should marvel at Bolan (and producer Tony Visconti)’s arranging genius; so many different things are going on throughout this track, some close up, others in the far distance, yet all are audible and relevant – a thousand variations of invention, and a fine presage of what was about to come.

1970’s T. Rex album – the group’s first to be credited as such – proved to be the crossover. In “Beltane Walk,” all the wonder present in Electric Warrior is apparent and radiant; Bolan’s extremely careful Estuary English pronunciations, the 45° angle between strings, tambourine and bass, the lovely and unexpected major-to-minor-to-Picardy-third chord changes, and a surprisingly simple message: “Gimme little love from God’s heart,” mutating into “Give us little love from your hearts.” The fusion of Chinese Opera strings and Chuck Berry riffing is past inspired, while Bolan’s voice cracks into throaty duality towards song’s end, his guitar, as Lena remarked, snarling “like this massive mosquito,” leading to a pair of crashing feedback clusters at the close. “Jewel” takes the acoustic Tyrannosaurus template, moving it past its unspoken missing link (“Oh Well” by Fleetwood Mac) towards electrified magic and a prediction of Suede in both Bolan’s vocals (Anderson) and guitar (Butler). The third chorus, however, suddenly explodes into a freeform miasma followed by a splenetic Bolan solo; the song ends rather in the manner of late eighties Sonic Youth.

And then there was the album’s single, the breakthrough smash “Ride A White Swan,” the highway back from the perfumed garden towards Route 66; along with Dave Edmunds’ “I Hear You Knocking,” its defiantly unassuming nature – Finn’s tambourine being the only percussion on the record – was immediately arresting, the lyrics silly enough to entrance younger listeners (including myself) and yet telling enough that their accidental profundities are easy to miss (“In the morning you’ll know all you know – oh”). After the posthumous apocalypse that was “Voodoo Chile,” here was a new start, something that even Lennon could understand and grab onto (“Rock and roll I can understand!”). Note the gently, upwardly undulating string line and Bolan’s Prince/Jackson-anticipating gulps, gasps and scats (the latter will be the unshakable core of T Rex’s pop work). As though to underline the continuity, its B-side was a take on “Summertime Blues” arguably more radical than the Who’s on Live At Leeds since Bolan turns it into a raga, with the intermittent entry of a blast furnace drone. The secondary riff toes a fat line between Duane Eddy and Ravi Shankar, while Finn’s hyperactive bongos sound like Tommy Hall’s jug in the Thirteenth Floor Elevators. The whole is so transformatively compelling that you hardly wonder at the prospect of a kid from Hackney calling his Congressman.

Then in the early spring of 1971 came “Hot Love,” their first number one, and it made the likes of Mungo Jerry sound like the 12th century. The song possesses such grace and glide of line; among its many highlights are the Gene Vincent guitar which leaps out like a friendly pink panther in the instrumental break (as well as its divine counterpart, two “OW!”s – why, hello there, Joan Jett! - and one deliciously stretched “OOOOHH!!,” from Marc), the undoubted stimulation of Bolan’s vibrato…and there was nothing tiresomely macho, and everything divinely androgynous, about lyrics such as: “I’m a labourer of love/In my Persian gloves.”

Those “uh-huhs,” those elemental repeats of “Well she’s my woman of gold/And she’s not very old” are so simple and clearly must have evoked what the Elvis of ’56 must have signified, or begun, in our forebears. Much more than “the new Beatles,” T Rex’s triumph was I think to re-engage the duende of that original Elvis. The long, increasingly ecstatic outro, which lasts nearly as long as the “song” itself, in combination with Visconti’s low-bearing ‘cellos and Flo and Eddie’s wailing sopranino backing vocals – and absolutely crucially, the kind timidity and artful generational placement of “I don’t mean to be bold/Ah, but-ah may I hold your hand?” (what a contrast to something like “Baby Jump”) spelled it out: for those of my generation, this was our “Hey Jude,” and really, even more than officially “starting the Seventies,” T Rex were the first pop group my generation could really call “ours”; it was as their sixties selves had been reincarnated, made anew, refined. The Grinderswitch rolling blues bass was there, as were the guitar references to Tony McPhee of the Groundhogs – but this was not a browning artefact of a recent past. It was a maxi-single, and both of its B-sides are also present here; the daft “Woodland Rock” motorvates like old school fifties bop until Bolan’s lead guitar starts chopping into the scenery like a shark for its solo. Strings do not enter until the end, and despite the “Don’t Be Cruel” quotes, there is still a curious detachment in the group’s performance. “The King Of The Mountain Cometh” plays like the last remnant of the extinct Tyrannosaurus, being largely acoustic and driven by Bolan’s organic, universal sigh-gasp mongrelisation at the end of each chorus, but Visconti is hard at work, too; the strings work up towards a high-pitched atonal screech and numerous other elements – didgeridoo, Jew’s harp, studio chatter – stumble in and out of the mix over the song’s endlessly repeated riff before shuffling into its station, startlingly in the manner of Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express.”

There is no need to reiterate what I wrote about “Get It On” or “Jeepster” in my discussion of Electric Warrior except that here they represent the marvellous culmination of everything towards which Bolan had been working; completely assured, confident and sexy, sounding like little else in the 1971 charts. But there is an urgent need to write about “Raw Ramp,” the five-minute-plus B-side of “Get It On,” and the great lost T Rex track, which opens side two of Bolan Boogie to such astonishing effect. It begins as a stately ballad, very Lennon in its mood. Then, after a meaningful pause, it rocks up and turns practically Beefheartian in its smouldering strut (“Baby, your mouth is like a ghost”), transmogrifying freely towards its subject from “baby” to “woman” and back again (“I’m just crazy ‘bout your breasts!”). “You think you’re a champ,” snarls Bolan,” but you ain’t nothin’ but a RAW RAMP!” Both lead and backing vocals rise and fall like waves of something that is not water; even by Bolan’s own exceptional standards of sensuality, this busts open a few stubbornly closed doors. Bolan breaks into impure vocal abstraction before a second pause ensues – leading to a virtual replica (musically) of the introduction to “Get It On,” although, if the words are anything to go by, the story is that of Bobby Goldsboro’s “Summer (The First Time).” “I got on my knees and begged to the sun/And knew that my manhood had begun,” confesses Bolan before roaring “Electric boogie COME ON!” Fulfilled and complete, he sings, “Embrace your brother/Dance in the mud/Like a Palomino stud!” and the fadeout is exultant, triumphant and – yes – consummated. Record company cash-in or not, Bolan Boogie is an exhilarating listen, and yet, Various Artists compilations aside, marks the point where TPL takes its leave of Marc and T Rex; despite supposed six-figure advance orders, The Slider, the next T Rex album proper (and a severely underrated one), only peaked at #4, and the gentle downward incline of Bolan’s career began as his contemporaries not only caught up with him but also (as this tale will demonstrate when it reaches 1973) drastically outpaced and outran him. At the time of his death in 1977 he was on the verge of a major punk-inspired comeback, and one can only speculate how he would have fared in the age of New Pop and beyond. But, for now – and for many of his fans, for some considerable time thereafter – he had all the answers.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

TYRANNOSAURUS REX: Prophets, Seers & Sages The Angels Of The Ages/My People Were Fair And Had Sky In Their Hair...But Now They’re Content To Wear...



(#110: 6 May 1972, 1 week)

Track listings:

Prophets, Seers & Sages...: Deboraarobed/Stacey Grove/Wind Quartets/Conesuala/Trelawney Lawn/Aznageel The Mage/Salamanda Palaganda/Our Wonderful Brownskin Man/O Harley (The Saltimbaques)/Eastern Spell/The Travelling Tragition/Juniper Suction/Scenescof Dynasty

My People Were Fair And Had Sky In Their Hair...But Now They're Content To Wear Stars On Their Brows (to give the record's full title; the combined total must constitute the longest title of any number one album): Hot Rod Mama/Scenescof/Child Star/Strange Orchestras/Chateau In Virginia Waters/Dwarfish Trumpet Blues/Mustang Ford/Afghan Woman/Knight/Graceful Fat Sheba/Weilder Of Words/Frowning Atahuallpa (My Inca Love)

(Author’s Note: The estimable marketing people present at Fly Records in 1972 appear to have packaged this budget double reissue in such a rudimentary fashion that the two albums are listed and sleeved in reverse chronological order; for the sake of my and your sanity, I am addressing the records in the order in which they were conceived, recorded and released, even though only three months separate the two)


By 1972 Marc Bolan had decamped to EMI, complete with his own label, The T Rex Wax Co, and his former record company, Fly, were determined to milk his back catalogue as shamelessly as anyone did that side of Silvertone Records and the Stone Roses, and incidentally remind Bolan’s new, younger army of fans that he didn’t spring from nowhere. Thus the first two Tyrannosaurus Rex albums – originally released in July and October of 1968 respectively – reappeared in the spring of 1972 as a two-for-the-price-of-one package and sprang straight to the top. Even given that the proverbial telephone directory recitation would probably have got Bolan to number one at that stage, the reissue’s utilitarian packaging does lend a soupçon of nostalgia for a time when (as previously mentioned in this tale) reissued records were simply reissued records, without re-contextualising in the form of learned sleevenotes, retrospective hindsight-aided commentary from surviving parties involved and/or rare photographs (as per the admittedly excellent Universal 2004 CD repackagings). You were expected to take returning records at face value and make your own decision about them.

And what must Marc’s screaming fourteen-year-old female fans have made of this artefact from a past which, although only half a decade ago, already seemed to some as remote as Beowulf? Well, after listening to it, I can immediately think of one fourteen-year-old girl in Kent who would have absorbed the music and poetry, and understood (see, for starters, entry #237). But the questions which both records raise overrun any antique curiosity approach.

For instance, the blueprint for what Tyrannosaurus Rex would eventually become is loud and present on the opening track of each side of their debut; “Hot Rod Mama” and “Mustang Ford.” Both rockers, and rocking as feverishly as anyone or anything without ready resort to an electricity supply could have managed in early ’68, “Hot Rod Mama” in particular is a brain-boggling opener, beginning with guitar, bongos and Chinese gong hammered as though the junior Sonic Youth were busy warming up and moving straight into a frantic 12-bar blues-folk strum. Bolan’s wall of acoustic guitars, careering in and out of tonality, creates its own feedback, while Steve Peregrine Took’s Chinese gong effectively gives the go-ahead to the Jesus and Mary Chain. Through all of this Bolan is singing, screeching, hiccuping...what? It doesn’t particularly matter; at this early stage he was already talking about the sound (and the grain) of his voice exceeding whatever flung-together bits of Tolkien, Hindu, Inca and Aztec mythology, Lear, Ginsberg, Dylan, Anthony Burgess and Spike Milligan were emanating from it. John Peel, then his great friend and most fervent promoter, once (fondly) spoke of Bolan’s lyrical approach as “a ratatouille of notions” and that seems a fair enough summary to excuse any in-depth examination of the lyrics to these twenty-six songs; again and again, I was drawn to the entrancing power and mischief of Bolan’s voice above and beyond what vowels it was garbling up, although I note the return of the Old English good manners here and there – the purring “it was grand” which materialises in the middle of “Scenescof,” for example; this latter track being more considered than “Hot Rod” but still diverted into unexpected directions with the duo’s multitracked wordless frat backing vocals (sounding exactly like Flo and Eddie).

And so it proceeds. “Child Star” speaks wistfully of Mozart, Beethoven and waste as it slows down and speeds up pretty much at will, Bolan’s single-note Robert Johnson guitar quivers unresolving into drenching noise. The Eastern drift of the duo’s approach begins to become really apparent here – it makes perfect sense that the disillusioned Mod that was late sixties Bolan should be recharged by seeing Ravi Shankar perform. “Strange Orchestras” is more of the same, albeit more frantic, sounding like a hobbit jug band with Took’s mysterious “Pixiephone” belches and Bolan’s boozy roar of “Ya-HEY!” upending any notion of comforting tofu cushions.

Finally, on “Chateau,” we get the first real template for Bolan’s later ballad approach, although its chord changes are reassuringly unpredictable; but then the texture thickens and as the instruments (and remember, this is an essentially acoustic recording) multiply out of rational recognition and the tonalities waver like the mutinous Shannon, we are presented with nothing less than yet another signpost to My Bloody Valentine; words here are a mere sheer of ecstatic sighs, Ray Bradbury’s A Sound Of Thunder being caressed to glide.

Would a later musical reincarnation of William Blake have made music like this (George Underwood’s very Blakean cover design appears to agree)? “Dwarfish Trumpet Blues” potters along nicely enough until Took’s gong signals a toughening up of sonics, until the two men’s vocals end up stumbling over each other and degenerating (delightfully) into incoherent yelling. A Citizen Kane cockatoo screech from Bolan drives the song, and side one, towards an abrupt end.

With “Mustang Ford,” it’s all there, everything that was to become familiar two or three years hence; the Berry/Vincent/Cochran homages fed through a traceable beaker of Narnia/Rings/assorted otherworldly stuff, all scooched together by this remarkable twenty-year-old Jewish lad from Hackney (thanks, Lena) and a great personal friend of Syd Barrett (which Took was, well into the seventies). But Barrett’s approach to limericky nonsense or anti-sense is utterly opposed to Bolan’s; for a start, despite the admirably shambolic approach adopted throughout Children - imagine what a stir the record might have caused if it had appeared on SST or Homestead or K Records in the mid-eighties – Bolan never sounds like anyone less than someone who knows exactly what he’s doing; he was the Mod acting as a hippy, whereas Took was unquestionably the real deal. The combination was acidic enough to work (although inevitably contained within it the seeds of its own rapid destruction), and it would be disingenuous to ignore or underrate Took’s contributions to their work. “Mustang” certainly rocks like the cat which Bolan would eventually become, but what about those Looney Tunes/Goon Show voices in which Took indulges from midsong onwards? Once more the song veers into unintended atonality until it reaches a plateau of rhythm and riff which continues to chug upwards in intensity, like a hyped-up Flying Scotsman train deciding to take on the Lake District at its own game.

“Afghan Woman” is another Bolan ballad paradigm and drifts along agreeably, although Took is careful to maintain tension by unpredictably subdividing the tempo and his bongos’ accents from the beginning of verse three; Bolan brings the song to a natural end with a soothing Japanese koto-impersonating coda. “Got to get it together, yeah,” Bolan sings early on in “Knight” – and where does that voice come from, and will I ever cease to wonder where? The song scutters along as gladly as its natural masters, the Incredible String Band, but the chord changes are straight out of Chuck Berry, and Bolan does a good Muddy Waters anguished howl tribute in his brief but quite, quite gorgeous guitar solo before resorting to barking like Howlin’ Wolf on meths; the song nevertheless resumes its gentle canter before being kissed off to bed by two delicate curlicues of guitar and voice.

Ah yes, the voice, and the homing waltz “Graceful Fat Sheba,” with its repeated leitmotif of “meat cleaver,” Took’s bongos growling like Weybridge thunder. Donovan of course, and probably Buffy Sainte-Marie, and maybe even Bessie Smith...but who else? We’ll have to give this some thought. Again, “Weilder Of Words” gives fair warning of what will be coming in the long term, from its “na na na na” chorus upwards; the chorus then develops into a new riff before descending into a semi-singalong howling coda and thence (or is it ascending, like Ascension?) into lovely chaos.

“My Inca Love” sets off at a midtempo pace, and melodically points in part towards “Life’s A Gas” before speeding up slightly. The melody is a wandering slalom, or hall of mirrors, daring the listener to wish its resolution. Eventually the song settles for a hoarse “Hare Krishna!” mantra which continues to increase in intensity and distortion before breaking off to allow John Peel to narrate a children’s story (written by Bolan) which seems to take the lead from Wind In The Willows with its “mole-ish” protagonist and his “yellow Rupert trousers,” albeit on some decidedly strange medication; Peel also manages to sneak in a reference to “bluebeat rhythms” although musically this is much closer to David Peel and the Lower East Side than the Skatalites. The duo then return for a brief closing sprint through the unlisted title track, perhaps foreseeing the decline of their era – were the children of 1967 really prepared to settle for the morsels which 1968 was offering to them?

Producer Tony Visconti – Children was his first job in this capacity – has admitted that the chaos was the thing and that he was learning on the job. Hence, Prophets is ostensibly a much better “produced” record (although perhaps released too soon; the debut made a very respectable Top 20 showing in the UK but its follow-up failed to trouble the scorers) – if maybe not quite as fun – and giving us a clearer picture of where Bolan (if not necessarily Took) was going. “Deboraabored” was a purposely sloppy re-recording of their surprise hit single “Debora” (which preceded both albums, and duly returned to the Top 10 as a double-header with its follow-up “One Inch Rock” around the time of this reissue). Bolan shrieks and scats and halfway through the song reverses, plays backwards and Bolan and Took improvise atop; given the bongo attack in particular, this is a clear influence on Robert Wyatt’s “Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road” six years later. “Stacey Grove” takes us back to the jug band workout with Bolan’s grinning refrain of “He’s a nice cat!” “Wind Quartets” comes on like George Crumb’s Makrokosmos III for meditation fans with its atonal saucepan strokes and the Silver Surfer reference reminds us exactly what year we’re in (even if, in this context, it’s four years ago), not to mention the awestruck “aahh”s from both Bolan and Took (a recurrent feature through both records) – we are not too far away from Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake second childhood (because where did the first one go?) nirvana. “Conesuala” sounds exactly like “Debora” except that it’s about a woman who makes clothes for animals (remember how popular T Rex would prove with children in particular; Bolan always had that Jackanory thing about him, as well as everything – or anything - else). “Trelawney Lawn” is a pleasant acoustic stroll through the orchard rudely gravelled by Took’s freeform bongo irruptions, leading to a passage of tritonal whistling and an odd, Pauline Oliveros deep frequency coda. “Aznageel” sounds exactly like “Conesuala” except with higher pitches, more pastoral and more staccato. “The Friends” is a breathy fragment which passes almost under the listener’s door before escaping quickly through the window. “Salamanda Palaganda” introduces new textures in the form of Chinese temple bells and rudimentary flutes, not to mention Bolan’s stopping making sense refrain of “Zoo-zhoo-zhue-zu-zhoo” and the assorted “Tu whit tu WHOO!”s and climactic “MEOW!” “Brownskin” (you just wouldn’t get away with that title now) sees Bolan still experimenting with song forms, here constructing the song in a conversational manner, accompanied by Took’s chattering teeth.

Catching the Village Green Preservation Society strut which subtly walks through “O Harley,” I wonder how many managed to miss out the Ray Davies influence on Bolan’s voice. With its confident pace and vibrant finger-snapping, both of which eventually combine to resolve into a rather catchy hook, we are clearly moving towards the more familiar T Rex model, although Took’s oddly distant, off-mike backing vocal at song’s end reminds us that we’re not quite there yet.

And with “Eastern Spell,” from its handclaps inwards, we could almost be listening to a surviving 1968 Buddy Holly – again, how could anyone miss that influence on the voice? – and if that sounds unlikely, think of the slapped knee on “Everyday” or the packing case on “Peggy Sue” (which we will be doing in the fullness of time). “The Travelling Tragition” introduces yet more unfamiliar textures – in this case, what sounds like the distant cry of a celeste, although any maudlin tendency is ruthlessly stamped upon by Bolan’s “Rat-a-tat-tat”s and “de-boom, de-BOOOM”s; eventually the song turns into a hobbled country stroll out of a never-realised Ladbroke Grove equivalent to Harvest. “Juniper Suction,” a barely disguised sex-pant (Bolan being married to June at the time), takes the form of an ungainly, gnawing-on-itself waltz, with express tritonality and that MBV preview scenario again; guitar unstable, bongos rattling, megaphone whispers.

But, with its “one-two-free-FOAH!” intro, the closing track, “Scenescof Dynasty” (a reworking and upgrading of track two of Children) gives the most overt indication of Bolan’s soon-come future. Bolan carries the melody entirely in his vocal, his only accompaniment being handclaps and assorted comedy-cum-horror backing vocals. I note the uncommon emphasis given on the word “machétè” and the deep breathing gasps which go on behind, and around, Bolan. As if he’s already about to bring this manifestation to an end and move forward.

There would be one further album by the duo, Unicorn, following which Took was replaced by Mickey Finn; on a fourth record, A Beard Of Stars, Bolan plugged in his amplifier for the first time since his John’s Children days (were they really only two years ago?) and the stealthy move towards abbreviation and stardom continued. Took saw out the seventies at the helm of innumerable bands, principally various manifestations of the Pink Fairies, and remained a true Ladbroke Grove hippy until his premature death in the autumn of 1980; where Bolan went after the times and the moods changed, this tale will assess sooner than you might think. In the meantime, the renewed success of this work - as with other contemporaneous manifestations such as the delayed success of the Moody Blues' Days Of Future Passed in the States - serves to remind us that, even though we are treading fairly deeply into the seventies, we cannot yet leave the sixties behind; and also it should be noted the quintessentially British character of Tyrannosaurus Rex's work cannot be undervalued - apart from the possibility of an urban London equivalent to the kind of country-blues-rock brew people like Taj Mahal, and to a lesser extent Country Joe and The Fish, were cooking up, there really is no meaningful transatlantic comparison point, which may in part explain the otherwise baffling failure of Bolan to export his seventies success to the USA.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

DEEP PURPLE: Machine Head


(#109: 22 April 1972, 2 weeks; 13 May 1972, 1 week)

Track listing: Highway Star/Maybe I’m A Leo/Pictures Of Stone/Never Before/Smoke On The Water/Lazy/Space Truckin’

Accidents can make great records happen as much as, or perhaps more than, meticulous preplanning. In late 1971 Deep Purple were looking for a suitable place abroad to record their next album, mainly to escape the clutches of the Inland Revenue but also to refresh themselves in a new environment. Montreux seemed as decent and quiet a place as any to wake up, and so the band, accompanied by the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio, travelled there with the intention of recording the album “as live” in the Casino, home of the Golden Rose Awards and the jazz festival. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention (then still including Flo and Eddie) were scheduled to play the last gig in the Casino before it was turned over to Purple, and it went well enough until “some stupid with a flare gun” (and it works so much better, on a “stoopeed” level as well as a scansion level, without the expletive) shot sparks into the roof halfway through Don Preston’s Moog solo on “King Kong” and the place slowly caught fire. Mark Volman solemnly announced to the audience, “Arthur Brown in person – FIRE!” and Zappa asked that the premises be vacated. Everyone, including Deep Purple and their crew who were seated in the front row, left the building but there wasn’t much evidence of anything except stray smoke, so much so that Roger Glover re-entered the empty auditorium shortly afterwards to inspect and drool over the Mothers’ equipment (two synthesisers!). Not long thereafter, however, the fire took firm and immediate hold and the place was gutted. Seated on the terrace of their hotel on the other side of Lake Geneva, the musicians watched the wind blow the flames and smoke across the expanse of water; the venue’s owner, promoter Claude Nobs, was more concerned about what the band were going to do than the destruction of his own property and living, and quickly sought alternative arrangements. Inevitably, in the midst of all this, the germination of a song entered some of the band’s heads.

The song, based loosely on the group’s perennial closing stage jam “Mandrake Root,” a riff developed by Ritchie Blackmore from his time in Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages. However, another Savages guitarist, Bill Parkinson, claimed that “Mandrake Root” had been ripped off fullscale from his own composition “Lost Soul.” Thus it is possible that the man responsible for “Mother Of Mine” was also indirectly responsible for “Smoke On The Water” although legal niceties remain opaque (Parkinson did get a modest settlement for “Mandrake,” but as he himself has admitted, pursuing a claim for “Smoke” would “open up a whole new can of worms”).

Nevertheless, Nobs earmarked the Pavilion Theatre as a replacement recording venue, although only the backing track for “Smoke” was completed there; while recording it, the police were attempting to gain entry into the building – there had been complaints from elderly residents about the noise. Marooned for the next week, Nobs finally found somewhere handily out of town; the Grand Hotel. I am unsure whether Machine Head is the only number one album principally recorded in a hotel but the group made the best of it and came out with what many still feel is their best album; not quite as in-your-face as In Rock or as experimental as Fireball, but the definitive portrait of what the group was capable of at their peak.

Amazingly, nobody in the group thought of “Smoke” as anything but another track; it appears at the beginning of side two, was the last of the album’s songs to be added to their stage act and was not considered as a possible single; “Never Before” was the surprising choice for the latter. It’s a decent enough example of the group at work, starting off with a patient would-be Meters strut before rhythmically becoming more familiarly Purple, with subtle “Day Tripper” references from Jon Lord’s organ at the end of each chorus (Lord’s own solo on the song tickles like a seldom-disturbed duster before moving into a sequence that is remarkably prescient of the work of Dave Greenfield in the Stranglers) and standard woman-done-we-wrong wails from Gillan with a descending escalator of a chorus (“Never-felt-so-bad”). Earmarked as a surefire hit, it does its business but doesn’t quite grip in the manner of “Black Night” or “Strange Kind Of Woman”; the single poked its nose briefly into the top forty and most fans preferred to wait for the album.

But “Smoke” is the middle of the album’s three peaks, as towering in their ways as the distant Alps which the band would espy as they made their precarious way from studio to balcony to guest room to mixing desk several dozen times a day. Beginning with Blackmore playing that riff – so simple, so Sky Saxon – and joined systematically by (unison) organ, then drums, then (crucially) bass, the song’s dynamics stem from an understanding of funk as opposed to rock; Ian Paice is quite the funky drummer here (galloping up the pace for Blackmore’s solo, firing up the ride cymbals towards song’s end), and the whole suggests not crushing, abscess-filling rock, but (again) an almost New Orleans approach to the business of rhythm and space. Lord’s organ emits some onomatopoeic ’67 squeals as the song fades. Gillan’s vocal is careful, generous and quietly powerful. The production allows the performance and song to breathe, such that – and this is the secret of its continuing success and influence – you feel you are in their living room, and that you could play along with them. Wisely resisting the temptation to turn the fire into a symbol of sixties idealism burning to cinders, they recount, as though writing a diary, and tell their tale as any folk musician would, and it has correspondingly endured for far longer than more apparently “meaningful” and “profound” pronouncements.

The great thing about Machine Head is the joy of listening to the group just playing, and/or playing around, and the unexpected signs its road flags up. “Highway Star,” for instance, starts like Stereolab (specifically “John Cage Bubblegum”), with Lord’s jolly clockwork Bontempi and a rushing but not rushed rhythm before Glover’s bass and Gillan’s shriek rise like Man-Thing as played by The Odd Couple. Organ/guitar unisons take root while Gillan roars “Nobody gonna have my girl!” Riding over the descending chords of the middle eight, Gillan does indeed conjure the spirit of Arthur Brown, gleefully comparing the sex drive of cars and girls (“I LOVE her!”). Lord offers an energetic bouillabase of an organ solo, incorporating baroque bends and Eastern/Klezmer hiccups, while Blackmore quotes both Bach and Johnny Burnette in triple time. This Apollo Age rockabilly (with, again, Beatle nods, specifically “Drive My Car” in the “and everything” bridges) ends atomised, splintered.

“Maybe I’m A Leo” (it’s Gillan’s sign) goes on a trip-up “Black Dog” ride with a “Come Together” overlay (Lord’s Leslie cabinet-filtered Fender Rhodes) and is yet another woke-up-this-morning grievance, although this loneliness is set down more deeply in “Pictures Of Stone,” Gillan’s best vocal performance on the record. Paice knocks over several cases of cutlery in his introduction and Blackmore’s Leslied-up guitar meditates at half tempo over the busy “Black Night” backdrop – Blackmore really is a sample machine here; after the half-tempo main riff he makes with James Burton licks for the next two bars before wobbling back into the song. His own solo makes judicious use of the tremelo arm, high-pitched and unstable, before settling on one concentrated note of grief which he rapidly cuts off with a brusque wave of the tremelo arm. Meanwhile, Gillan could almost be predicting Ian Curtis or even David Sylvian here – “A prison of my own making,” “Where have they hidden my throne?,” “I don’t belong here” (Radiohead already?). Lord essays a one-man organ/Fender Rhodes duel, all up and down flurries over a Status Quo backbeat. Even Glover gets a bass solo; Lord then embarks upon a upward atonal organ cluster, and the song stops before everyone goes over the edge. After a meaningful pause, the song restarts, Lord’s organ now barking like a distressed Irish setter beneath Blackmore’s guitar, “whispering pictures of home.”

“Lazy,” based on an old Oscar Brown Jr riff (with a touch of Jimmy McGriff in Lord’s Hammond), begins misleadingly with a drone phaser box/organ fade-in before Lord and Paice’s cymbals set up an “Eye Of The Tiger” punch bowl. Blackmore then creeps into the picture and before you know it we’re back in Klook’s Kleek with some old-school grits n’ chitlins via Wardour Street boogie. Finally, Ian Gillan makes his belated entry (whereupon Paice immediately settles down) and berates his slacker subject for not getting out of bed, wanting bread, &c., even resorting to harmonica when words fail him. Then the group steps up the pace with furious organ blasts. Blackmore plays a more aggressive solo before all falls back down on a stock bar band ending.

The album ends with the superb “Space Truckin’,” which begins as though it were “Annalisa” by Public Image Ltd, Paice’s cheerleading stomp being the exact midpoint between “Dance To The Music” and PiL. The triplicate “Come on!”s recall the Troggs, the descending guitar/organ unisons in the choruses even suggest Joe Meek (as, inevitably, do Gillan’s deliberately silly lyrics, which despite or because of their silliness resonate in relation to the past as lovingly as Plant’s in “Rock ‘N’ Roll”: “Remember when we did the Moonshot?”). The overall effect is one of what Jefferson Airplane’s Blows Against The Empire might have sounded like if Sly Stone had still been producing them (and yes, Blackmore “samples” some Paul Kantner lines in his solo here). Paice’s solo revs up the Sly subtext as abstract keyboards float and flutter in the background (including I Hear A New World-esque beats). Then Gillan returns with a mighty shriek as Paice bangs and hiccups his way out of the song and into the fade.

As far as influence goes I would suggest that Machine Head’s is twofold; the cleanness of the riffs, together with their plentiful suggestions of what has gone before them, points the way towards the clinical-but-still-powerful likes of Boston and the legions of stadium pop-rockers who would follow in both their and Purple’s wake; whereas the childish naughtiness of the record’s multiple musical borrowings, tinted by a friendly dammit-let’s-just-dig-it aesthetic view, leads in part to the Jesus and Mary Chain. These fellows love their music; the love is unmissable. And yet, less than a year later, both Blackmore and Gillan would be looking for a way out. Never mind (and did you spot the other path there?); Machine Head remains definitive, not because it was more militant or further out there (where?) than any of their other albums of the period, but because it simply presents its audience with a group doing something better than anyone else at the time was doing it. Many times, that’s enough; the happy accident of getting it right.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

LINDISFARNE: Fog On The Tyne



(#108: 25 March 1972, 4 weeks)

Track listing: Meet Me On The Corner/Alright On The Night/Uncle Sam/Together Forever/January Song/Peter Brophy Don’t Care/City Song/Passing Ghosts/Train In G Major/Fog On The Tyne

Many of you will recall the seventies British situation comedy Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads. In their original sixties incarnations Rodney Bewes’ Bob Ferris and James Bolam’s Terry Collier were appropriately laddish swingers of the Men Behaving Badly variety, but when they returned in a different decade they found that their world had changed. Bob had moved steadily upward into the white-collared middle classes of Newcastle, but Terry had been away in the Army and comprehended almost nothing about the city and the people to which he had returned. Things hadn’t really worked out for Terry, but he seemed infinitely more assured (and resigned) about his current station in life than his ostensibly better-off mate.

Much of the comedic content of the series has not endured; it is largely typical fear-of-mother slapstick which has dated badly. But the elements which have remained with me are the lengthy, non-comedic interludes where Bob and Terry walk around their city, watching the haunts of their younger days, the buildings and things they assumed would always be there, being demolished and destroyed, with nothing much (as yet) to rise in their place. The feeling would be familiar to almost any British city dweller of the period but the remembrances are auburn and rueful; where are our roots now, where exactly do we go from here? The British economy was in almost as bad a state as now, and familiar mutterings about cuts to public services were in effect. Is anything, you wonder while watching these virtual documentaries, going to survive?

I say this because it may go some way towards understanding why Lindisfarne – on the face of it, an unpretentious, good-time folk-rock group from Newcastle – became so popular during this period. Folk music is about the most difficult of musics to categorise, since there is a different strain of folk which applies to every different village, and in some cases every different street. But something about Lindisfarne seemed to brush the rawest of nerves in many British people of this time. I’m not sure who might qualify for the present day title of “people’s band” in Britain – the Arctic Monkeys briefly came nearest to qualifying, and Mumford and Sons most certainly do not qualify (do you hear their songs being hummed on the bus, or in the pub?) – but Lindisfarne assumed the role of people’s band over the period 1971-2; Fog On The Tyne was one of the largest-selling albums by any British act released in 1971, and took its time climbing to the top (reviving its previously uncharted predecessor Slightly Out Of Tune in the process). The sepia-pink cover struck its own chord; an engraving – real or fake, it doesn’t matter – of Newcastle as its inhabitants might have known it in the days of Jane Austen, a peaceful but defiantly working-class city, and there is that same air of quiet defiance about the group’s music.

“Meet Me On The Corner” was the album’s big hit single, set in a square bass drum and harmonica dance pattern, and musically slightly reminiscent of “Mrs Robinson.” Singer and mandolinist Ray Jackson – you may remember his vital contributions to entry #99 – speaks to us about dream sellers (because “dreams are all I believe”), ways not of escaping but ways of examining his own reality far more happily (“Lay down your bundles of rags and reminders/And spread your wares on the ground”). The harmonies on the choruses, as elsewhere, are strongly predicative of the Electric Light Orchestra, but Alan Hull’s staccato Gilbert O’Sullivan piano intensifying the song’s harmonies on its first chorus takes us decidedly back down to earth, Jackson’s harmonica puffing ceaselessly like the most determined of trains.

“Alright On The Night” is far more intense, however, as one would expect from its writer, Alan Hull (generally, Hull writes the album’s darker songs and Rod Clements the lighter ones); he shares vocal duties with Jackson and Si Cowe and is palpably angry: “Can you tell me exactly what it is about me that’s so unclean?” he protests over a deceptively laidback “Maggie May” setting. “Take that stupid look off your face,” he continues, “Everything I say I mean.” He is not trying to repel his accuser, but instead inviting him to join him in his world (“Come and live with me in a cave”) – drummer Ray Laidlaw’s triple cowbells after the first chorus are like golden hammers striking an unknowing head. The choruses promise a straightforward good time, come out for a drink on Friday, that’s all we ask of you. The song’s subtle rhetoric persists – the guitar/mandolin interlude after the second chorus, Clements’ bass roving around the periphery of the men. The mood is almost one of a pastoral, provincial Stones, but there is another unexpected comparison which comes to mind (and with which Lena came up) – to which I will return shortly.

“Uncle Sam” is Cowe’s song – his first – which Jackson sings in muted breath over quiet guitar, mandolin and organ. Words such as volunteers, uniform, frail, jail, hang and blacklist make it abundantly clear what world we’re in – the war is still going on – and Laidlaw’s drums circle the song briefly before landing, together with harmonica and piano, to set up a Band-like midtempo mourn. “Well, I’m goin’ across the border,” Jackson tells us – to Canada? Or is he in 1746, in his own doomed-to-be-repeated history? – and after his “Watch what happens to me,” there is a short pause before Laidlaw’s drums rain down on his head; he’ll be on the road if anyone wants him, and one reflects on how huge and inescapable a shadow The Band are continuing to cast over unexpected regions of music at this point; the multi-vocal/instrumental approach, the deliberate archaism (masking an unanticipated newness) – but even this anti-Vietnam song could only have stemmed from the docks of the North-East.

With “Together Forever” – written by the great St Andrews folk musician Rab Noakes – the group moves back towards good-time mode, but there is a deeper tinge of true happiness; they’re sitting on top of the bus, in the front (“watchin’ the people who don’t look like us”), they have no money, but what do they care? Jackson sings the song truthfully and moderately lustily, and the band cruises along behind him like the most becalmed yet confident passengers, even offering an ascending music hall guitar signoff; they are perfectly happy being who they are and what they are, where they are, and are keen to let you know this.

Hull’s “January Song” leaks back into wistfulness with its acoustic guitar and roving bass, or at least pretends to do so; yet Hull’s own voice veers between several strips of agonised – there is an unavoidable Dylan tinge to his tone but the guitar appears to turn to acid behind him; The Modern Man, losing his way, unable to reach out and touch anyone or anything, and Hull’s blanching beg for him to rediscover what he’s supposed to be here for (“I sometimes feel the fear/That the reason for the meaning/Will even disappear”). The song drifts into an extended chant of “You need me need you need him need everyone” – should that “him” be spelt with a capital “H”? – as Laidlaw’s drums finally kick in and Jackson’s mandolin strums its vivid way into the picture. It is immensely moving.

But Hull’s gloom scarcely lifts. I have been unable to find out exactly who Peter Brophy was (or still is) but again it hardly matters; he could be singing about T Dan Smith or John Poulson – central and crooked figures in the demolition of old Newcastle – or simply The Man; but Hull puts every shade and nuance of emotion, disbelief, grief and hurt into his multiple “You don’t care”s. His voice becomes steadily more animated and dissolute, crescending into rage before falling back into simple regret; the lyrics are post-“I Am The Walrus” cod-surrealism but the anger does not fade (unlike the near-sibilant harmonica which cushions Hull’s quieting fury at fadeout); is this what we came through the sixties for?

With “City Song,” Hull finally cracks; he has had it with “the city” as he is compelled to know it (“I’ve been too long travelling on your train”) and sends modernity (as he thinks it) towards damnation; “Your tatty tricks to me/Are now really rather lame,” he sings, and later adds, “Your music doesn’t speak – it swears.” From most other people this would come across as crass reactionism but he is clearly attempting to grasp for something deeper, a slipped loss he is trying to regain. “Back to the garden,” “country lady,” “magic children” – it remains so hard, so impossible, to run from the sixties. The harmonies come in on the second chorus and fill up the song like semi-distilled nectar. In “Passing Ghosts” – the ghosts get thicker with every song; this is supposed to be a good-time band? – Hull’s voice and melodic construct are strikingly similar to those of his contemporary Bill Fay (his “sleep with we,” for instance) and he ends by resorting to the phrase/incantation “Come together” (upon which drums and bass make a very belated entry), Jackson’s rivulet of mandolin tinkling behind his despair. His grave might be ready (and still), but in the meantime he wants to pass the time, like a pewter mug of beer, between himself and his fellow human beings. That might be all he ever wanted.

“Train In G Major,” another Clements tune, is sprightlier. If the Dylan comparisons are inescapable (Bob Johnston produced the record), with the train indeed coming slowly, the record’s central message is as red as its boiler; “Take me to some better place to be...Awwww, wow, tell me baby!” Hull essays a brief “Ballad Of Bonnie And Clyde” piano quotation. The harmonica provides the engine, the walking bass lays down the tracks, and electric guitar offers rays of sunshine shivers towards song’s end. We’re finally getting out of “here” – and it might not be a geographical “here.”

No, because the title track, which closes the album, says strongly and proudly that they’re staying right where they are, Hull’s spirit finally satisfied and approaching modest euphoria (he shares vocals with Jackson and Cowe). “Think I’ll sign off the dole!” he exclaims (with two wake-up cowbells in response). The verse/chorus sequences work on tension and release; is this the first song in this tale to deploy the word “presently”? But again they tell us that this is what they want – the crappy sausage rolls, the pub, themselves and their own kind; it’s what they know and clearly what much of their audience knew and craved. Harmonica, fiddle, piano and mandolin patiently work the song up towards a satisfying, mantra-like climax. Understand us, they are saying, and you might understand yourselves. And indeed, turning back to “Alright On The Night,” its lyrics and general melodic structure, if set to a different tempo and different instrumentation – not to mention a different decade – remind us of a Newcastle teenager who at the time was playing in a folk group called Dust. His name was Neil Tennant. “Everything I say I mean”? Whatever was going to happen to the likelier lads of Tyneside in times to come, this record, entirely lacking in side or irony, tells the people who needed to hear and know it: we are still all in this together, and in a much more touchable and workable sense.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Paul SIMON: Paul Simon



(#107: 18 March 1972, 1 week)

Track listing: Mother And Child Reunion/Duncan/Everything Put Together Falls Apart/Run That Body Down/Armistice Day/Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard/Peace Like A River/Papa Hobo/Hobo’s Blues/Paranoia Blues/Congratulations

”Reality but reality grimly seen/And spoken in paradisical parlance new.”
(Wallace Stevens, “An Ordinary Evening In New Haven,” Section XII)


Or: Spiro Agnew Stole My Chinese Food.

Paul Simon’s first solo album is the ideal, mechanical twin to Harvest. He may be scooting and quietly howling around the encased claustrophobia of Manhattan rather than blowing down wildly open roads, but the story is the same. More than anything else on the record, “Paranoia Blues” gives his game away, and in it he’s on the brink of giving his city away. It helps that musically (as elsewhere on the record) he is in the same place as the recent Stones, with Stefan Grossman’s unquestionably authentic bottleneck and Hal Blaine and Simon’s deadpan Sonny Boy Williamson beats. You can love a city as much as you like, but when you turn around and someone’s run off with your Chinese food then you know it’s time to go. The dreading of the interrogations in the little room at JFK Airport assumes an equal force to the Lin’s Chow Fun abstracter. “Whose side are you on?” he keeps asking, and the overall mood (“I got some so-called friends/They’ll smile right to my face/But when my back is turned/They’d like to stick it to me”) anticipates the O’Jays’ ostensibly scarier “Backstabbers.” Simon’s “oh no”s sound like sobs, the horn section resembles an incontinent kazoo convention; there’s a quick, wriggling pause – should he stay or should he go? – before the thump picks up again and Simon wails with the forlorn brow of a man who knows, just like the protagonist of “The Boxer,” that he may never get out of here.

Most of the emotions on Paul Simon centre around the idea of things coming to an end – “Everything Put Together Falls Apart” being but the most explicit expression and aptest summation of the notion - and if the record comes over as a sophomore-level tour of New York then it speeds through its streets in the knowledge that the city as it stands in 1972 is reaching something of a nadir, as proved to be the case, and that either the city needs to get out of itself or the author does. Or at least do something else; Simon spent most of 1971 teaching songwriting (his students included the Roches and Melissa Manchester) and if the record stands as a final, queerly euphoric sneak out of the need for Art Garfunkel - without the requirement for two-part harmonies, Simon's songs manifestly speed up in both construction and delivery - there is a sense of loss and discontent that his supposed new freedom cannot quite mask.

For instance, the record begins with a death and another Chinese meal, which is what a Mother and Child Reunion actually is (fittingly, it is a combination of chicken and egg), with a song recorded in Jamaica under the supervision of the great producer Leslie Kong (who, like Paul Simon's family dog, would not live to see 1972). "No, I would not give you false hope/On this strange and mournful day," Simon immediately warns us, although the warm spirit of the music - he is accompanied by most of the Maytals (including the staccato, single-note lead guitar work of Huks Brown which makes the song sound like a mutation of early sixties Drifters), as well as the subtly indispensable piano of Larry Knetchel (he tumbles, like the singer's soul, down from the second verse towards the chorus) and a quartet of backing singers which includes Cissy Houston - gives the misleading impression of happiness. In fact the mourning was due, as intimated above, to the death of the Simon family dog (he is seen on the sleeve sitting, alternately solemnly and laughingly, with what presumably was the new dog).

Still, the song isn't just about the death of a dog and the eating of a Chinese meal to cheer up the mourner; one always has to watch out for Simon's symbols. "I know they say let it be," he mentions in a direct reference to the Beatles, but adds that "the course of a lifetime runs over and over again," and all of a sudden the song reveals itself as a quiet snub to death and impermanence, as seemingly carefree as Bolan's "Cosmic Dancer" with its unending womb/tomb cycles. "The mother and child reunion/Is only a motion away," may be in part a reference to "Hey Jude" but fundamentally the symbolism is to do with regeneration, rebirth, returning to the original source - peace like a river indeed.

But if you want to get out of New York, where else is there to go? "Duncan" is a lighter fusion of "The Boxer" (in its Band-influenced storytelling) and "El Condor Pasa" (Los Incas are back with their charango and flutes) and thus lightens up the darkish road of its tale; Lincoln Duncan is a fisherman's son in Nova Scotia, gets bored and decides to up and move down to New England. He describes being penniless and rootless, stuck in a thin-walled motel while his neighbours fuck for the Olympics ("Bound to win a prize/They've been going at it all night long"), losing his innocence to a street preacher in a tent in the woods and relishing the memory (his "oo-wee"s and "oh-oh"s) - "Just thanking the Lord/For my fingers," and he doesn't just mean the ability to play his guitar. Behind Simon's unusually expressive voice (although the rest of the record will prove that it's not that unusual), the Andeans hover in the middle distance like the suspended lights of Interstate 95.

Contrast this with "Papa Hobo," where Simon's protagonist is sufficiently desperate to quit New York that he dreams of Detroit ("It's carbon and monoxide/That ol' Detroit perfume.../Detroit, Detroit/Got a hell of a hockey team") and working on the motor assembly line. Charlie McCoy's raspberry bass harmonica is back from "The Boxer" (blowing a particularly ripe one in response to Simon's "Sweep up!"). Knetchel offers a careful continuo on harmonium and the song moves into a McCartney daydream - "And the weatherman lied" - before Simon scats out to fade; is he singing "Never go to heaven"? This leads into one of the record's few escape hatches, or perhaps it's just his ripest daydream; "Hobo's Blues" is a quick, snappy instrumental jaunt for Simon's coffeehouse guitar and Stephane Grappelli's immediately recognisable violin, almost heartbreaking in its brief revelation of the wider world concealed beneath the shell of urban stress - and we remember that the term "hobo" was originally an abbreviation of "homeward bound."

Elsewhere it's about misadventures and mishaps and what the hell is this day supposed to look like; "Run That Body Down" is a lateral meditation on the legacy, if any, of the sixties - his doctor tells him to stop the abuse, he in turn tells his then-wife Peg to do the same. At the title there are four rapid smashes of acoustic guitar chords (played by Simon and David Spinozza); Simon's "Who you foolin'?" falsetto and his "IIIIIIIIIII" sustenati go almost into the airy abstract. Jerry Hahn's seagull-like wah-wah electric moves the song into a more contemplative quarter but the message is unabated; how long can any of us go on pretending that it's still as it was five years ago - the war's still on, people we know have died; how much longer?

Ah, yes, the war that was still on, and the ineffable weariness of a nation which Simon articulates so perfectly on "Armistice Day"; he's down in Washington DC looking to speak to his Congressman but he's still waiting and getting tired. The symbolism here is clear and abject, but note the unorthodox chords which greet the revelation "She was there," backed by Airto Moreira's tick-tock percussion. Simon and the group hold on that last chord and turn the song into a modal drone, featuring the horns and Hahn's energetic electric guitar which steadily gets funkier and more inventive. Again there is an unexpected feeling of the Delta about the piece; where does that "When I needed a friend she was there/Just like an easy chair" come in? He's tired but he's also playing away ("Oh Congresswoman/Won't you tell that Congressman?") - you do what you have to do in order to live, as well as exist, while you're waiting; look, he says, how far down I have been dragged.

"Peace Like A River," however, is the closest that Simon has ever got to an explicit protest song, or as explicit as he wishes it to be; the mood is bluesy, patrolled by Joe Osborn's strolling bass, and as the song progresses the work of the three musicians (Simon on guitar, Osborn, and drummer Victor Montanez) moves more towards Timbuktu; at times we could almost be listening to Ali Farka Touré. But then Simon's guitar fills out into a background chorale for the choruses; they have been waiting, this crowd, for something to happen, or to be delivered - they are not quite free yet and expect more pain before the final freedom happens, but they will not be deterred; "You can beat us with wires/You can beat us with chains/You can run out your rules," sings Simon in the most atypical chorus he ever wrote, "But you know you can't outrun the history train." Once more, the grain of Simon's improvising voice is remarkable; his breathing "Aaaaaaah"s, his fluttering "Oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh"s, his no longer weary "four in the morning." Christgau has referred to this song as Walter Carlos Williams after the repression but to me Wallace Stevens (despite being markedly more of a political conservative than Williams, or for that matter Simon) is a more fitting comparison point; Stevens understood that reality had to form itself out of dreams before it could become real and that perspective and emotion, and the poet and reader's relationship to both, were what counted. Over and over in his work Stevens questions himself, his art, his tools of imagination, but it is all put in the service of a successful and revelatory consummation of desire and action.

Thus it doesn't really matter what the (imprisoned? About to be released?) audience of "Peace Like A River" are waiting for, just as it doesn't matter what misdemeanours have caused him and Julio to make a run for it; Airto's whooping percussion on "Schoolyard" remains a delight, but this song (even with its whistling) is not free of grenades; the "radical priest" who gets the kids out of jail and onto the cover of Newsweek has to be one of the Berrigans, two of the most vocal opposers of Vietnam and of Nixon (remember Daniel Ellsberg and that Ray Conniff concert?). "Well I'm on my way," sings Simon. "I don't know where I'm going.../I'm taking my time." Are we all ready for the country, in either sense?

But then there is "Everything Put Together Falls Apart," the record's equivalent to "The Needle And The Damage Done" and musically as stark, even if Knetchel's harmonium and Fender Rhodes express alienation in a language that the Manhattan wine bar would understand; the song strolls cautiously through myriad chambers of unexpected chord changes as Simon effortlessly repositions Young's howls in the city. "Taking downs to get off to sleep/And ups to start you on your way/After a while they'll change your ways," he warns, before breaking into an inexpressible falsetto ("Ooo-oo-oo-ooh") on the heels of the starkest last couplet of any songs upon which this tale has thus far stumbled: "But when it's done and the police come, and they lay you down for dead/Just remember what I said," following which Simon's acoustic stings and Knetchel takes the song out on a horrifically ironic barrelhouse of keyboards. This is not the reason why we did and believed all that stuff, you remember...or do you?

The record itself closes with "Congratulations"; Knetchel's electric piano shivers like a trapped eel through the centre of the song's bridge (all those bridges, all this trouble) before switching to stately, spiritual organ. Hal Blaine's drums are a literal heartbeat, meeting Osborn's rising bass. Meanwhile Simon has had enough; he takes his world and the immediate past to pieces ("Ohhhhhhh, and I don't know when" - the exhausted cry of a defeated urbanite); what did those sixties, that supposed love, get for us, or where did it get us? "I notice so many people/Slipping away" - their numbers get fewer by the day - "And many more waiting in the lines/In the courthouse today...in the courthouse today"; the unions divorcing, the splits rendered. "Love is not a game, love is not a toy," he says, exasperated, and finally, as all of the lights go out, Simon concludes, alone and utterly apart, with a final, exhausted question: "Can a man and woman/Live together in peace?" before issuing a last plea, the simplest of all pleas - "Oh, live together in peace." Knechtel's piano escorts us from the scene.

There were of course other accounts of collapsing society to account for at the time - not least, There's A Riot Goin' On - and although Simon is less obviously in pain than Sly Stone, the aura of imminent extinction remains high, and this album sets Simon's lines against as unapologetically real a background and environment as they ever found; it is hardly surprising that Simon never quite managed to stare reality this starkly in its face again - the following year's There Goes Rhymin' Simon was necessarily a happier affair, but his attitude towards what was real and not became more equivocal ("Kodachrome"); and despite many fine records of variable popularity in the interim, it isn't until the rueful maturity of 1983's Hearts And Bones that Simon really gets back to this territory and speak to it as directly as he does here ("The Late Great Johnny Ace" remains the wisest and calmest response to Lennon's passing expressed by anyone in popular music). As 1972 moved into its uncertain spring, Simon tells it as he thinks it is - and the world was as near to his thoughts as it dared, or could bear, to get.