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Monday, June 21, 2004

THE NAKED MAJA’S TOP 100 BRITISH ALBUMS

Why? Because I knew exactly which 100 albums were going to be in the Observer poll, because I knew exactly in which order they were going to appear – those handy braces of Beatles and Stones – because I knew exactly which lightweight point-missers were going to vomit whatever counted as the counter-argument (which fundamentally comes down to loving it anyway), because the Observer Top 100 British Albums list is a monkey on our collective back and we need to shake it off, actually forcibly remove it, with a JCB digger or a hydrogen bomb if necessary, if “we” are ever going to get “anywhere,” because I knew that Morley was going to be placed at the list’s head, giving head to the list, to try to con us that, yes we know you know what’s going to be in here, and you know we know you know that this list is going to be indistinguishable from the Virgin Megastore’s three-monthly Best of British 5 for £30 sales campaigns, because we need to forget every one of these 100 albums if we ever hope to make 100 more albums, because you know the order gets minutely tweaked every half-decade or so, because you know we know you know we know that in 1985 Songs From The Big Chair would have been up there, not to mention Welcome To The Pleasuredome (does anyone ever mention Welcome To The Pleasuredome?), or perhaps in an NME 1985 it would have been Mad, Not Mad, closely followed by All Mod Cons, closely followed by Diamond Life, closely followed by the first Fine Young Cannibals album, all closely following each other like a Soulboys on Parade demo halfway down Victoria Street, but there you are you see, we know you see, we cannot do anything about these lists, everybody knows the dice are loaded, everybody knows that a Naked Maja Top 100 British Albums list is just a shining artefact of the past, but nevertheless putting Morley at the head of this list, thereby implying that Morley is actually more important than any of the 100 albums which will follow guiltily, if closely, on his trail, not that Morley has any compunction or compulsion to acknowledge the footsteps following him (does anyone ever mention Franco Nero?). might betray the notion that this is the most subversive of lists. I mean, look! Right at the top, at the front of the queue, or indeed in front of the queue, there’s Morley telling us that the list we are about to read is the most wearisome, deadweight, neutered list we are ever likely to read. By quickly reminding us of who exactly is absent from this list – and therefore, subliminally, why – Morley is telling us that this is going to be not only a predictable pile of crap, but also that what will be written about each of these 100 albums will be an equally predictable pile of pabulum. Comfort ticksheets for solvent retards, as Ben Watson might say, or would say with might, because the dead fortysomething Observer readers will doubtless divulge much delight from this dubious delving because really the Observer thinks it was all over in ’68 so their readers will glance guiltily at the familiar, cosy, Sunday morning list and reassure themselves that their lives are unchanged from 1968, that they are not wrong, that the world hasn’t slipped away from them while they weren’t looking, or while they were looking at the Corrs or David Gray or Jools Holland and missed Dizzee Rascal snipping their oxygen feed round the back, but then there’s Dizzee Rascal in the list, at a supremely token #95; it seems fitting that Boy In Da Corner should be a token of newness (or did no one vote for it except Reynolds?) – here you are, there’s one seat spare upstairs right at the back, #95, please sit up straight at the back of the bus sir, as proof that the readers of the Observer newspaper can reassure themselves that they have not, as yet, died, that they do feel a small but crucial bit more guilty about all these new fangled records (i.e. records made after 1968) which they never really got their heads around, but then they went off and lived a life instead, and who in their right mind would exchange living a life for listening to music, as though the two were forever deemed and doomed to be incompatible?

And of course the greatest and ultimate triumph of the Observer Top 100 British Albums list is to provoke pissed-off Sunday morning newspaper readers such as myself to go and compile another list, but then wasn’t that the idea all along, but then my lists are more interesting and intertwined than the Observer list could ever be, but then my lists would be non-existent without the Observer list to prod them into being, but then shouldn’t I just stick to the Review and OM sections instead, and pretend to care about Plum Sykes and Richard Jobson and how all the telly last week was for blokes and how the Observer can’t get any better than Victoria Coren or Mariella Frostrup to say these things and how I should be writing a sequel to Vernon God Pierre instead, but then I am doing one and submitting it to Poptones as a Morrissey review, so there you are and there I am and there are these 100 albums which the Observer will not allow us to forget, or Q, or any other classmates of Tony Blair who just will not SHUT UP AND LET US LIVE, but then youngsters probably think the same about The Naked Maja, ach all he does is bleat and blurt about the evergreen daze of 1982 or 1994 or whichever year he woke up with in his head this morning, but then it would be impossible for me to deny that, for example, and with the best will in a parallel world, reading Blissblog these days is like watching a Japanese comedian when you don’t speak Japanese (I feel the same whenever I glance through a current-ish issue of The Wire), so really who the fuck am I to protest when I’ve been nurturing my own dreary canon of favourites, but nevertheless my dreary canon might be someone else’s rainbow shopping list, and you can never discount or cheapen that, and therefore this list which you are about to read here, if you so wish, might be a list of records to which you might wish to listen instead of the 100 records of the Observer, for no baser reason than anybody who fancies being a musician might have a better chance of inventing something new, or at least be novel in a novel way, if they listened to these 100 records rather than the century of song which I fear is dragging all of us down to the bargain basement of art. You might question the motive behind this if I tell you that there is an overlap, that records in the Observer Brit 100 reappear in the Naked Maja Brit 100, to which all I can offer in terms of excuses is that, well they’re in better and/or different company here (“Here’s to Kenny getting out of Farley Court and into somewhere that’s RIGHT for him!”) and might make more a difference to the future of music if viewed as equals and not as tokens, such that in an important way, the most important of ways really, I am rescuing Rock Bottom and Metal Box from being discardable, I-suppose-we-had-to-put-them-in-somewhere-grudge-grudge token tokens.

Further confusion will be stoked up by the revelation that this Naked Maja Top 100 list may not, strictly speaking, consist of 100 albums, in fact may consist of a good deal more than 100 albums, for those of you who insist upon counting, that not all of The Naked Maja Top 100 British Albums will necessarily have been made by British musicians yet are still incontestably British, that they are in no numerical order because – well, Escalator’s #1 position in my life’s music list is not negotiable, and even though the record’s greatness depends on the fulcrum of two British musicians, it’s still essentially an NYC record, could never have been recorded in London (some of Jack Bruce’s vocal tracks notwithstanding), so I can’t really put Escalator in there, and after all Escalator’s #1, so how could I say that, say, Selected Ambient Works Vol 2 should be #1, because it’s not an exercise of working your way mechanically down the list from 1 to 100, ticking them off comfortably, because it’s a guide, an expression of something, even if it’s only the mood of a pissed-off Sunday morning newspaper reader, even if I’ve already told you what might be #1 in this list had I decided to order it in that way.

But I will do it alphabetically, except for the items which deliberately do not appear in this list, because in fact after this list there will follow an infinitely more important list. If we’re talking about matter that matters.

I also note with no small degree of smug satisfaction that the Observer simply asked for everyone’s favourite British albums (no genre required, even though everyone went for the foursquare rockin’ rock). It does help.

The 100 albums are as follows:

10cc – Sheet Music*****
A Certain Ratio – Sextet
Adam & the Ants – Dirk Wears White Sox
Alternative TV - The Image Has Cracked
Altern-8 - Full On Mask Hysteria
AMM – AMMMusic
Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works Vol 2
AR Kane – 69
Art of Noise – Daft*****
Associates – Sulk
Aswad – Live And Direct
Au Pairs – Playing With A Different Sex
Kevin Ayers – Whatevershebringswesing
Derek Bailey – Aida*
Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night**
Bee Gees – Odessa
Cilla Black - The Best Of Cilla Black 1963-1978
Colin Blunstone – One Year***
Bonzo Dog Band - Cornology
Betty Boo - Boomania
David Bowie – Low
Cabaret Voltaire – Red Mecca
John Cale – Music For A New Society***
Martin Carthy – Out Of The Cut*
Coldcut – Journeys By DJ
Company – Epiphany/Epiphanies
Crass - Best Before 1984: The Singles
D*Note – Criminal Justice
Lynsey De Paul – Greatest Hits
Denim - Back In Denim
Disco Inferno – DI Go Pop
Distractions – Nobody’s Perfect
Dollar – The Dollar Album****
Lonnie Donegan - Skiffle Sensation!
Nick Drake – Bryter Layter***
Earthling – Radar
Brian Eno – Here Come The Warm Jets
David Essex – Out On The Street
The Fall – Unutterable******
Bill Fay – Time Of The Last Persecution
Fire Engines – Fond
Robert Fripp – Exposure
Fun*Da*Mental – Seize The Time
General Strike – Trouble In Paradise
Alexander Goehr – The Death Of Moses
Goons – The World Of The Goons
Peter Hammill – The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage
Roy Harper – Stormcock
Joe Harriott/John Mayer Double Quintet – Indo-Jazz Fusions Vols 1 & 2
Tubby Hayes Quartet – Mexican Green
Mike Heron – Smiling Men With Bad Reputations
High Llamas – Gideon Gaye
John Howard – Kid In A Big World************
Human League – Dare
Infinite Livez – Bush Meat
Jazz Insects – Swing Theory*******
Justified Ancients of Mu Mu – 1987: What The Fuck’s Going On?
Killing Joke – Revelations
King of Woolworths – Ming Star
KLF – Chill Out
Level 42 – World Machine
Loop – Heaven’s End
Lunge – Strong Language*******
Malcolm McLaren – Duck Rock
Magazine – Real Life
John Martyn – One World
Peter Maxwell Davies – Songs For A Mad King
Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath – Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath********
Joe Meek et al – The Alchemist Of Pop: Home Made Hits & Rarities 1959-66
Misty In Roots – Live At The Counter-Eurovision 1979
Morrissey – Morrissey, You Are The Quarry************
Motorhead - No Sleep 'Til Hammersmith
Mum & Dad - Mum & Dad
My Bloody Valentine – Isn’t Anything*********
Gilbert O’Sullivan – The Berry Vest Of Gilbert O’Sullivan
Omni Trio – The Deepest Cut Vol 1
Orbital – Snivilisation
Mike Osborne Trio – Border Crossing
Oxide & Neutrino – Present The Solid Sound Of The Underground
Tony Oxley – Four Compositions For Sextet
Evan Parker – The Snake Decides
People Band – People Band***
PJ Harvey – Rid Of Me
Primal Scream – Xtrmntr******
Prodigy – The Prodigy Experience (Expanded)
Public Image Ltd. – Metal Box
Kevin Rowland – My Beauty
Scritti Politti – Songs To Remember
Shadows – 50 Golden Greats*/***********
Simple Minds – Empire And Dance
Siouxsie and The Banshees – The Scream
Slapp Happy – Casablanca Moon
Slits – Cut
Spacemen 3 – The Perfect Prescription
Spontaneous Music Ensemble – The Source: From And Towards
Streets – A Grand Don’t Come For Free
Suede – Dog Man Star
David Sylvian - Blemish
Talk Talk – Laughing Stock
Richard & Linda Thompson – Pour Down Like Silver
Throbbing Gristle - 20 Jazz-Funk Greats
Keith Tippett’s Ark – Frames: Music For An Imaginary Film
Julie Tippetts – Sunset Glow**********
Traffic – Smiling Phases
Underworld – Dubnobasswithmyheadman
Various – Routes From The Jungle
Wagon Christ – Throbbing Pouch
Scott Walker – Tilt********
Mike Westbrook Concert Band – Marching Song
Kenny Wheeler – Song For Someone********
White Noise – An Electric Storm
Wire – 154
Roy Wood – The Singles: As and Bs***
World Of Twist - Quality Street
Robert Wyatt – Rock Bottom**********

*Both these albums came out in 1982 and represent perhaps the most chilling and violent use of the acoustic guitar in British music. Throughout "Paris," the 20-minute-long track which occupies side one of Aida, Bailey sounds grieved and violently troubled, assaulting his six-string with his plectrum and making it sound like an axe cutting down a forest. He sounds markedly relieved when an audience member’s watch alarm starts bleeping; out of the trance, out of the nightmare, “that’ll do.”

Carthy’s rendition of “Reynard The Fox” might well qualify as the most chilling performance in British recorded music, not simply because he sings the song in the first person, in the persona of the fox whose life is about to end violently (listen to the virtual punk snarl of “By hounds that would run like a cow”), but also because of what Carthy does to his guitar; he plays the song as a drone, plucking out individual notes above the basic chord like Reynard plucking the feathers from newly-slaughtered geese. There is nothing in British music which chills the blood as profoundly as Carthy’s pronouncement of “’Twas in Stony Fields that they killed me”; the sentiment seems to radiate and expand to suggest other areas of British life and violent death, by extension to Peterloo or to Thamesmead or to Verdun. The three brutal chords with which Carthy ends his performance sound like a guillotine falling thrice upon the murderer; the antithesis of “Shantih, shantih, shantih” (compare also with Tony Meehan’s triple snare drum assault at 1:43 in the Shadows’ “Apache”).

**Because it was their best record, wasn’t it?

***Blunstone’s vision is as bleak and unresolved as that of Drake, but Blunstone lives on and is forgotten, while Drake died and is remembered. Perhaps the saddest song on Bryter Layter is the closing instrumental “Sunday” with sometime People Band member Lyn Dobson singing the unsingable on flute. Talk about “Music To Commit Suicide By.” Or indeed talk about how Cale Anglicises his celeste line from the Velvets’ “Sunday Morning” to such wonderful effect on “Northern Sky.” Or in fact the final, draining scream of “DEAAAAAAAAAD-AH!” with which Cale’s voice exits from Music In A New Society before drowning in Rachmaninov on the radio.

****If only for the singles. But what singles!

*****You couldn’t have had one without the other.

******Their best albums, both released while you were napping.

*******Just because we’re mates doesn’t make your music any less great.

********Yes I know they’re not “British.” But these are records which couldn’t have been made anywhere else except in Britain. In any event, Scott Walker’s lived in this country for nearly as long I have. And as for a band of South Africans, West Indians and Brits, produced by an American…whereas Astral Weeks, for instance, is about the least British of records and the most Irish-American of records that one could imagine.

*********Because everyone deifies Loveless – not without reason – and ignores its superior predecessor which really did do all the ground breaking.

**********Sunset Glow was at least in part conceived as an answer record to Rock Bottom, and their aqueous desires work very well together indeed.

**********I did get somewhat annoyed to read Morley in Words And Music saying “…a group called the Shadows should have been better and stranger than the group called the Shadows actually were.” Actually the Shadows were one of the strangest groups there ever has been, but then my definition of strangeness has been defined and tempered by parameters which take the business of British politeness into deep account. In a sixth sense, the Shadows lived out their entire career in a series of shadows – the shadows of a richer and brighter post-war America, the suffocating shadow of ration(alis)ed post-war Britain, the blinding shadow of pre-war British showbiz under which the Shadows were forced to dwell. They couldn’t just drift through the Soho drains which Gordon Burn irrigated so intensely in The North Of England Home Service, mainly because they were legally compelled to change their name from the Drifters. It might have been a more appropriate name for them – refugees drifting back from the apocalypse of WW2, trying to find their own home or build a new one – but then we tend to forget that it was the forgotten Shadow, Jet Harris, who suggested that the group be called the Shadows. The tall, blonde, enigmatic six-string bass player who was also to be the group’s second victim; for the group was driven by two vaguely pissed off Geordies, pissed off at not being Americans. How else to explain the impossible exoticism of a name like Hank Marvin (as opposed to the distinctly unglamorous name of Brian Rankine with which he was blessed at the wartime font) – the extra “B” was added at the same time as the Shadows walk was invented, but had anyone worked out that the B in Hank B Marvin stood for Brian, they would all have down the Evacuees’ walk from the theatre. Or “B” as second-class, second-rate. “B” for British. Perhaps it’s little wonder that he recently declined the OBE offered to him; has that inferiority complex really persisted for all those decades?

Or perhaps the Shadows were just pissed off at being roped in to be the grinning backing group for a conveniently clean and polite British pop icon-to-be. Everything of interest that happens in Cliff’s early hits is basically down to Hank Marvin; the stinging nettle of a Fender Stratocaster which cuts through “Move It,” the desolate sighs copped off Santo and Johnny which turn “Travellin’ Light” into one of the most emptily spacious hits of the ‘50s.

How badly did the Shadows want to be Americans? When taking the UK/US non-relationship in terms of ‘50s pop into consideration, there are two different histories to consider. Firstly, the British pop market of the ‘50s was compelled, for economic reasons (that post-war, post-Beveridge balance sheet again), to pretend to be self-sufficient. In practice this meant keeping a gimlet eye on the Billboard Hot 100 and cherry-picking songs for lost, pallid Britboys to cover. Thus America got Dion and the Belmonts and we got Marty Wilde; Sam Cooke over there, Craig Douglas over here. Only with artists too big to ignore – Elvis and what else they had – could ‘50s Britpop explicitly acknowledge that the question of American input had to be answered. True, Lonnie Donegan was enthusiastically popularising the likes of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, but you’d have been hard pressed to find any of their records in provincial Britain. If you weren’t fortunate enough to be living in London, then the next best way of doing this was to live next to a busy merchant port, with exotic and dangerous records (and, occasionally, exotic and dangerous musicians, MU stipulations notwithstanding) straight off the Merchant Navy boats – in other words, somewhere like Liverpool or Glasgow (and that in itself begs the question: when the time came, why did Merseybeat happen and not Clydebeat? Probably because, throughout the greater part of the ‘60s, folk and jazz carried much greater currency in Glasgow than pop – ask Billy Connolly or Bobby Wellins for confirmation). People like Duane Eddy and Les Paul did score mainstream hits, but if you could tell the difference between Glenn Burton and Scotty Moore and Link Wray then you were probably a musician already (The Kids weren’t too bothered about who played guitar on Ricky Nelson or Elvis records). It was your job to find out and know these things. Or you had to be sufficiently obsessed to want to find them out. So it was with Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch, going nowhere in South Shields and then coming straight down on the train to the 2 I’s and reinventing themselves as they felt was necessary, teaming up with a couple of London ace faces, Jet Harris and Tony Meehan.

But when it came to the Shadows’ music, it wasn’t an easy case of Let’s Do American Music; more the socially-conditioned perennial British attitude of trying to copy Other music, not getting it quite right and thereby inventing something new by accident (see subsequently Dexy’s, ACR, etc.). What is immediately striking about listening to “Apache” is the bifurcation between wanting to do a Duane Eddy/Ventures-style slow-burning instrumental rocker and the reality of not being able to discard English politesse, of instinctively recalling the dance band comping of your Bert Weedon or your Ivor Mairants (and, lest us not forget, your Basil Kirchin) – the need to show consideration for fellow residents or neighbours (speaker muffs in the garage!), the unshakeable work ethic, the need to show consideration for and not overshadow the singer or band you are accompanying – and hence the quietest rock music there has been this side of the Chills (“Pink Frost” would have been right up the Shadows’ street in terms of emotional intensity in inverse proportion to actual volume). In other words, they want to break out – again note that savage Meehan triple snare thrash at 1:44 – but keep everything pent up; in, as it really was, the shadows. The pop group with an absent centre. The single went to number one less than a month after release.

And that image – the spectacles straight from Buddy Holly, but as a sociological tool they were invaluable. Holly proved that you could be a geek and still (a) get the girls and (b) rock, but now here was Hank, our own British geek for uncertain young boys to idolise and emulate (the missing link, in a lot of divergent ways, between Buddy Holly and Arto Lindsay – though the Shadows never managed to break big in the States, their shadow shines all through DNA; in fact DNA bring to mind what Hank might really have wanted the Shadows to sound like, if he’d had a (Cliff) free hand).

The Shadows’ music would have been unmanageable without all their carefully suppressed aggression. Observe Hank’s sudden, jagged outburst which seemingly comes out of nowhere in the middle break of the Edgar Wallace TV theme “Man Of Mystery” before quickly retreating to the shades; or the faux-boldness of “F.B.I.” (which could easily have been titled “Don’t Try It”). On stage, however – and this is another aspect we latecomers miss – they were reportedly proto-punk. Listen to their Live At The ABC Kingston set, issued on CD in 2000, for an inkling of how they played In Real Life; for 1960 it is in its own way as startling a live document as the contemporaneous Mingus At Antibes.

Inevitably, it couldn’t last. Meehan – whom Hank later described as “a prototype Keith Moon” – got his cards in 1961 when he turned up late for a gig once too often, and Harris walked out not long afterwards. So an element of danger was forever lost from the Shadows, and their records immediately became more benign; the daft optimism of “Kon-Tiki” for instance, and more problematically their 1962 eight-week chart-topper “Wonderful Land.”

If the Shadows’ records were now ostensibly brighter, they were also noticeably more elegiac. Interestingly, on the 50 Golden Greats compilation, “Wonderful Land” is divested of its French horn and string accompaniment. No doubt intended as a kind of British equivalent of the Duane Eddy/Lee Hazlewood smash “Because They’re Young,” the removal of the orchestral overdubs, if not an accident, seems to me a quite deliberate gesture; Bruce Welch in particular was sceptical about adding anything to the basic Shadows sonic template, but also it’s a sad acknowledgement that the future which the song promises never actually came to pass. It is as though the optimism has been surgically stripped from the performance, and all we are left with are the Shadows themselves, playing a minor key anthem whose time has now irrevocably passed – the lament which Marvin plays in the song’s middle eight becomes even more poignant.

Perhaps they were aware that time was already starting to overtake them. The Tornados’ “Telstar,” number one everywhere in the autumn of 1962, seemed to come from a place that the Shadows were unable to reach; unquestionably futuristic, slightly threatening but ultimately one of the saddest pop records ever made, Meek knowing that his time was limited. Meanwhile, the big American instrumental hit of late ’62 was Dick Dale’s “Misirlou,” where Dale’s lightning rod of a guitar seems to smirk a gigantic FUCK YOU to any notions of politesse. In contrast, the Shadows’ then-hit “Guitar Tango” sounded like Geraldo trying to keep up with the New Thing. In even starker contrast, “Diamonds,” the first hit from Harris and Meehan as a self-sufficient act (although written by Jerry Lordan, the author of “Apache” and “Wonderful Land”) seemed like an aural approximation of the balls the other Shadows were too scared to show (although the career of this potentially revolutionary group, including within its ranks as it did John McLaughlin, John Paul Jones, John Surman and others, was abruptly curtailed after Harris narrowly escaped death but not obscurity when involved in a car crash while asleep with his head on Billie Davis’ lap – he was not the driver).

And then there were the Beatles. And then there was fucking Cliff with his eagerness to please everybody and his films which required the Shadows to frolic about with Richard O’Sullivan and Melvyn Hayes and his fucking panto seasons – as mild-mannered drummer Brian Bennett remarked in Bob Stanley’s splendid Shadows piece in last month’s Mojo: “Getting thrown through a mangle by Arthur Askey every afternoon wasn’t what I had in mind when I started drumming.” Add to this most grotesque of nightmares a basic wage of £50 per week which remained basic for most of the group’s existence.

In 1963, “Dance On!” and “Foot Tapper” (the latter improbably commissioned but never used by Jacques Tati) indicated some kind of vague toughening-up in response to the nascent Merseybeat, but despite a late attempt to become cool again with 1964’s “The Rise And Fall Of Flingel Bunt,” the accent by this time was decidedly on the fall. Consequently they floundered rather helplessly. They tried singing on “Mary-Anne” and “Don’t Make My Baby Blue,” but by opening their mouths the (men of) mystery vanished and they revealed themselves as just another reasonable, harmless harmony pop group scarcely distinguishable from the Rockin’ Berries or the Ivy League. Hank tried fuzzboxes (“Stingray”) to little effect (“like a wasp stuck in a jamjar” he later reflected) and despite the introduction of new bassist John Rostill, a tall, saturnine chap who wouldn’t have looked out of place in Joy Division (and appropriately died young in 1973, the victim of dodgy guitar circuit wiring), their decline was seemingly final. Their last single, “Slaughter On 10th Avenue,” lasted over five minutes, came out in early 1969 and was heard by few and bought by fewer. They must have looked at the number one success of “Albatross” – a record unimaginable without the precedent of the Shadows - with no small degree of regret and frustration. Or indeed at the continued success of their Stateside equivalents, the Ventures, who in 1969 enjoyed the biggest-selling single of their career with the theme tune to “Hawaii Five-O.” Almost in terms of a last-ditch attempt to summon up past ghosts, Hank displays every guitar style he can think of during “Slaughter” – fuzzbox again, delicate acoustic picking, wah-wah pedal – before finally walking into the sunset with his original tremolo arm from “Apache.” The echo which will refuse to die. In the year of Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner,” it must have seemed dreadfully out of place.

It also provided the bridge for the Shadows’ economically profitable but musically shaming second career in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, when pomp finally got the better of Hank and he micturated over the likes of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” and “Theme From The Deer Hunter,” which proved depressingly popular, as though the dance band option had finally won out. And yet they tried so hard to be credible in their mid-‘60s mid-life – sides like “Scotch On The Socks” with its deadly ironic “baby” asides, or “Voyage To The Bottom Of My Bath” saw them manfully trying to harden up, but still in need of aesthetic Viagra. Their backing of Cliff on “In The Country” is surprisingly spiky, and in the early ‘70s there was even an attempt to become a British CSNY with the ill-fated Marvin, Welch and Farrar. Then came Eurovision in 1975 and that was that as far as credibility was concerned.

And yet one still feels that Hank Marvin certainly deserved better. Following the involuntary liquidation of the Harris/Meehan group, Meehan abandoned drumming and turned to production, his great masterpiece being John Howard’s recently reissued 1975 epic Kid In A Big World – a remarkable record; from its cover alone you realise where Neil Hannon got it all from, but the album itself is deliciously suicidal ‘70s neurotic AoR on the verge of turning sour. Listen to Howard’s amazing vocal performance on tracks like “Gone Away” – the song the Scissor Sisters are trying to write – and pity the pathetic public who didn’t buy this at the time when needed. But Marvin and Welch have struggled, aesthetically if not financially, settling for soundalike covers of quavering power ballads suitable for cinema intervals. Marvin did appear twice on BEF’s 1982 Music Of Quality And Distinction Vol 1 – he’s there, if only barely, backing Sandie Shaw on her reading of “Anyone Who Had A Heart,” and again backing Billy MacKenzie on his slightly over-egged cover of Orbison’s “It’s Over.” Scuppered somewhat, as is the rest of the album, by an incredibly insensitive production which buries everything in the same cement-mixer of a mix, with the horribly dated Linn drums given inexplicable prominence, it’s nevertheless an intelligent arrangement performed by a bizarre cast of musicians including, as well as Hank, John Foxx on acoustic guitar and the Raincoats’ Vicky Aspinall among the string players. It’s Hank, though, who makes the greatest impact, his low-tuned Fender snarling through the mix under the “It breaks your heart in two” middle eight, the razor making itself ready for the disconsolate but ready wrist. Subsequently, however, he emigrated to Australia and became a Jehovah’s Witness. One supposes it beats panto as a career option.

************ Article forthcoming, but as yet I’m not quite sure where.

I said that the above list would be followed by another list, perhaps the most important list you’ll read on either of my websites, certainly the one with the most importance to me personally, undoubtedly the one which has proved most painful to compile, but for the necessary record, here is another list, indeterminate in number, but if Laura were still here these are the British records she would have picked above all others:

Action – The Ultimate Action
Arab Strap – Mad For Sadness
Virginia Astley – From Gardens Where We Feel Secure
Ballboy – Club Classics 2001 (the last record she bought)
John Barry et al – James Bond Greatest Hits
Big Audio Dynamite – Megatop Phoenix
Blossom Toes – We Are Ever So Clean
Boards Of Canada – Music Has The Right To Children
Al Bowlly – The Very Thought Of You
Roy Budd – Get Carter (OST)
Kate Bush – The Kick Inside
Chemical Brothers – Dig Your Own Hole
Clash – The Story Of The Clash Vol 1
Cocteau Twins – Heaven Or Las Vegas
Dexy’s Midnight Runners – Searching For The Young Soul Rebels
Dufay Collective – Miracles
Durutti Column – L.C.
Ian Dury – New Boots And Panties!!
Edward Elgar – The Dream Of Gerontius (Malcolm Sargent, Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Huddersfield Choral Society et al – 1945 recording)
Fad Gadget – Incontinent
Future Pilot AKA – Vs. A Galaxy Of Sound
Jack Hylton & his Orchestra – Jack’s Back
Jam – Sound Affects
Joy Division – Closer
Kitchens Of Distinction – The Death Of Cool
Lo-Fidelity All-Stars – How To Operate With A Blown Mind
Mogwai – Mogwai Young Team
Morrissey – Viva Hate
My Bloody Valentine – Live At The Town & Country Club, 15 December 1991
New Order – Movement
Pet Shop Boys - Behaviour
Police – Regatta De Blanc
Portishead - Dummy
Prefab Sprout – Steve McQueen
Psychic TV - Force The Hand Of Chance
Pulp – His ‘N’ Hers
Chris Rea – The Road To Hell
Saint Etienne – Tiger Bay
Small Faces – Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake
Specials – More Specials
Stereolab – Mars Audiac Quintet
John Tavener - Innocence
Tracey Thorn – A Distant Shore
Stan Tracey Quartet – Under Milk Wood (1965 recording)
Tricky - Maxinquaye
Various – Pennies From Heaven (OST)
Ben Watt – North Marine Drive
Who – The Who Sell Out

Thursday, June 17, 2004

...BUT WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE ERIC DOLPHY?

He was on screen for barely two seconds in the 'Trane doc (and not at all surprising, incidentally, to read in Victor Lewis-Smith's review of same in today's Standard that Yentob is a confessed jazz hater) and already seemed like the ghost of a feather. A few trills on his flute, the waft of that unmistakeable beard, and Eric Dolphy stands back again to let 'Trane blow himself Out Of This World.

I'd meant to talk about Dolphy following Wingco's superb piece in The Wire - written from the perspective of a self-confessed "non-jazz person" and therefore exactly the sort of thing which Yentob should have tried to convey. For it is unlikely that there will ever be a Church of St Eric Dolphy; it was never really his mien to be a leader of men. And yet...and yet, listening to Impressions or the Complete Village Vanguard Concerts, I'm wondering whether Dolphy cut 'Trane in the same way as Pharaoh did. His bass clarinet and/or flute are always hovering in the middleground, sometimes forming an impromptu two-bass hit with Reggie Workman, sometimes forcing themselves politely into prominence.

Dolphy could be considered another of these transitional musicians, like Don Byas a generation previously, who weren't quite mainstream or quite so avowedly avant-garde, and therefore get passed over in the manner of any common or garden bridge. But he had no manifesto to proclaim, no particular stomach for hyping himself - he simply concentrated on playing with 200 times more imagination, technical brilliance and emotional profundity than anyone else. But what were these emotions? Examination of his life reveals a pretty standard career equal to that of any journeyman jazzer...until he began to surround himself with distinguished and visionary men. His life was free of trauma, drug or alcohol abuse, criminality or scandal - the only problem being that of his diabetes mellitus, which lay undetected and undiagnosed until one day when it provoked an onset of uraemia which in turn dealt him a fatal heart attack at the age of 36 in July 1964. No suicide, no accidental overdose, no shooting...a sudden wave and then he was gone, barely having been here when he was here.

Throughout Dolphy's comparatively brief career in the major stream of developments (seven years) there doesn't seem much in the way of earthly concerns in his music. The particular lack of carnality in his playing makes one all the more surprised when, in Frank Tashlin's 1957 film The Girl Can't Help It, we see a besuited (and already bearded) Dolphy taking his place in the horn section backing Little Richard (now there's a subject for a thesis: the parallel piano/poetry paths of Little Richard and Cecil Taylor). It's a bit like seeing a young Pope John Paul II playing bass with the Spotnicks.

Perhaps more startling still is the fact that Dolphy achieved his fiercest and truest voice under the mentorship of the most carnal and troubled of jazz musicians, Charles Mingus - and Mingus in turn had at his disposal the best musical alter ego he ever had, Dannie Richmond (a saxophonist whom Mingus rebuilt from scratch as a drumming version of himself, after his first choice Elvin Jones opted to join Coltrane's quartet) notwithstanding.

The most concentrated fruit of the Mingus/Dolphy relationship is to be found in the 1960 Candid album Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus - a record whose immense importance is often forgotten, for it stands as the first post-modern jazz record, perhaps the first album in any genre to deconstruct itself (and its assumed pretext) as it goes along. Little wonder that Cassavetes chose Mingus to provide the soundtrack for Shadows, for Mingus was Cassavetes' exact equivalent in jazz - a futurist traditionalist whose main aim was to break down the pretences, the showbiz, in his field of art in order to better reveal and articulate the bared emotions and repressed feelings of human beings. And yet Mingus' most effective means of keeping it real was to make his records as unreal as possible - very rarely does he fail to remind you that you're listening to a recording, or even several at once; the multitracking and repeated "samples" throughout The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady predate In A Silent Way by half a decade, and it's enlightening to listen back to back to Mingus' Let My Children Hear Music and Miles' On The Corner - more or less produced back to back by Teo Macero throughout '71/2, and two very different approaches to tape splicing and the "reality" of the music to which you're listening. Thus, in Mingus Presents Mingus, he set up the studio to resemble a nightclub setting (dimming the lights, etc.) and throughout the record makes announcements to a non-existent audience ("No applause, please, no rattling the ice in your glasses..."). All the better to clear the ground for the most intense conversation Mingus achieved on record. On Mingus Presents Mingus there are just four musicians, a pianoless quartet (perhaps acknowledging the structural, if not the harmonic, influence of Ornette) comprising Mingus himself, the two musicians who understood him best (Dolphy and Richmond) and 23-year-old apprentice trumpeter Ted Curson.

To tell the truth, Curson is a bit of a loquacious bore throughout; on "Folk Forms #1" or "Original Faubus Fables" one twiddles impatient fingers, waiting for Dolphy to come in and get on with it. Nevertheless, "Folk Forms #1" represents jazz quartet interplay which is pretty well unparalleled elsewhere in jazz (the Bechet/Mezzrow pianoless quartet of the early '40s being a possible exception).

And then there's "What Love?" Dolphy has been nagging on bass clarinet all the way behind Curson and Mingus' solos, and then his turn comes to participate in a verbal dialogue with Mingus' bass, as radical as Coltrane's hymnal on A Love Supreme, but with a good deal less fuss. The conversational pattern is easy to follow; Dolphy wants to leave the group and forge his own music, Mingus is at first dubious and then argues with him violently, they tussle and finally reach a reluctant compromise. Its intensity is near intolerable - it's almost the musical equivalent of Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk in A Woman Under The Influence; one going mad, the Other trying and failing to make her see reason, largely because of his own reluctance to participate fully in her pain. But it is a fantastic performance.

When the band was recorded at the 1960 Antibes Jazz Festival (subsequently released as Mingus At Antibes on Atlantic) Dolphy went one step further even than that. It happens on the opening "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting." This time in front of a real - and huge - audience, Mingus expanded his group by adding the journeyman R&B tenor of Booker Ervin - perhaps to reassure the audience, give them a rail to hang onto while they enjoy the trip? But this particular gospel is set to explode and liberate in a different way. The whole performance is constructed to lead up to Dolphy's climactic solo; as Curson and Ervin plod through their dreary paces, the rest of the band are improvising riffs in the background and offering free crescendi at key orgasmic moments. Then Dolphy enters and EVERYONE shuts up. Mingus yells, "Talk about it Eric!" and his alto suddenly cuts through every level of coolness and enters a blissful stream of post-Parker consciousness - purely rhythmic, talking in its own tongues, with only oblique harmonic references, straining at the 6/8 bounds. The audience senses that something is happening here. Mingus gets everyone to do their Sunday morning in the pews handclapping as Dolphy continues to plough further and further out. Finally, as the other horns reach their next crescendo, Dolphy's agitation finally breaks the bank of tonality and he EXPLODES into free honks and squeals (1960, don't forget) as Mingus and Richmond accelerate behind him and the audience goes completely batshit. It's as if Dolphy has been repositioned and revealed as the real inventor of free jazz.

He always seemed to function better as a collaborator than a leader. Listen to how his hyperactive flute on Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments" perfectly counteracts Nelson's deliberately mournful, slow-motion tenor, or how his alto solo on Nelson's "Hoedown" takes that tune into a new dimension altogether (both are on Blues And The Abstract Truth). Or indeed his seemingly functional but actually quite rhythmically subversive transposition of McCoy Tyner's piano comping for a low brass-heavy orchestra (French horns, euphoniums and tubas in abundance) to back Coltrane on Africa/Brass (the free-ish yelping of the massed horns at key points on "Africa" in particular looks forward to Mantler's JCOA Communications series). On Max Roach's Percussion Bitter Sweet his alto is near feral in its intensity on the crushing "Mendacity." On Andrew Hill's Point Of Departure he imparts a directness and intelligence in his commentary for which the pianist has not really found an equivalent. And on George Russell's uncharacteristically corny take on "Round Midnight" - all Hammer horror creaking piano strings and muted brass purrs - Dolphy again rips up the edifice to deliver a torrential and passionate alto solo which literally sounds like someone crying. Again, at the piece's end, he erupts beyond the music's polite boundaries and seems to go to a universe beyond the reach of, and ultimately apart from, what the other five musicians are doing.

As a leader his discography is frustratingly scrappy - there's really only Out There (with Ron Carter's cello doubling as Mingus' scary love child?), parts of Iron Man, the amazing cyclical solo bass clarinet take on "God Bless The Child" (listen to that six-note refrain which underlines the whole performance - Philip Glass before Philip Glass!) which this writer, as a teenage clarinet student, was obliged to learn, and of course Out To Lunch. I say "of course" because, as Wingco pointed out, the sleeve design has inadvertently tipped Out To Lunch into the ghastly bland broth of '80s aspirational "jazz," the facile jazz of Sade, Kronenberg adverts, Style Council B-sides and Blue Note album covers (even if the albums themselves aren't listened to). Yet this is a fantastically assured and creative session, bursting with originality - hear how, on the 12-minute title track, Dolphy and his four accomplices proceed to turn every Blue Note cliche inside out; or indeed the grimly sane duel meditation by Dolphy's bass clarinet and Richard Davis' bowed bass (the ageing estranged couple of "What Love?" with passion replaced by reason) which climaxes "Something Sweet, Something Tender."

Of course death claimed him before he could follow any of this up properly. As a pointer to where he might have gone after 1964, there's his Last Date, recorded in Hilversum with a rhythm section including the Laurel and Hardy of European improv, Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink. Of course, having been a key participant in Ornette's Free Jazz double quartet recording - his bass clarinet nicely balancing out Coleman's alto - he surely would have been a shoo-in for Coltrane's Ascension (it's something of an irony that the only musician actually to appear on both records was effectively the straight man on both - trumpeter Freddie Hubbard), and Dolphy's ghost pervades quite severely the playing of both the altoists who did appear on Ascension, Marion Brown and John Tchicai.

But I suspect it's more likely that Dolphy's career would have followed the same trajectory as that of the recently departed Steve Lacy - a musician travelling the world, travelling through all genres; a musician, moreover, who virtually singlehandedly restored an obscure instrument to the working vocabulary of jazz (and it's a measure of his achievement how few bass clarinettists of perceptible character have come after him - Gunter Hampel, Willem Brueker, John Surman, David Murray and Don Byron, and that's kind of it; Anthony Braxton's contrabass clarinet is an honourable exception) but who didn't feel comfortable imprisoned in any one genre of jazz (indeed it is more than regrettable that both Dolphy and Lacy were in the reed section for The Individualism Of Gil Evans, but neither was given a solo!). I do regret not being able to hear Dolphy with Derek Bailey or Evan Parker, or in Globe Unity, or - well, how about Coltrane, Dolphy and Miles all coming together to record a parallel world Bitches Brew? For now, however, immerse yourself in the records which Dolphy did make or participate in, and hear a voice which, less fervently but perhaps more pervasively than that of Coltrane, still cuts through, in terms of its emotion and intelligence, any notion of "jazz" and penetrates the open-minded listener profoundly.
COLTRANE: THE TAINTED SAINT

Last night's BBC1 documentary on Coltrane was predictably unfulfilling and frustrating. OK, (un)fair enough, we know that because the BBC is what it always denies it is, Coltrane is allotted 45 minutes in a vacant post-World Cup slot whereas if, say, Michael Frayn popped his Chablis tomorrow he'd get a suffocatingly reverent four-part series. We are under no scores in that illusion. But at no point during the programme did Yentob convey the impression that he had to make this documentary, that he was so consumed by the consumption of Coltrane that this programme could not have waited.

Thus we got the usual incomplete litany of bullshit; 'Trane emerging seemingly from nowhere in Miles' 1956 group - never mind the apprenticeships with Dizzy, Johnny Hodges, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, his still unacknowledged but gigantic debt to Dexter Gordon, and I'm hearing people scream SO WHAT? already but if you want to understand where he was going, you have to know where he came from.

Even - especially - as an effort not to do Another Jazz Documentary and explain Why Coltrane Mattered beyond the realms of jazz, the programme failed dolefully. Not a word about how his influence spread into rock and even pop - the ghost of Hendrix must be wondering if he's deliberately being written out of history, never mind Carlos Bloody Santana, never mind the inadvertent stylistic feedback into Electric Miles. Not a word, either, about his crucial period with Thelonious Monk - if you want to understand A Love Supreme, you have to know where - or whom - he gleaned his concepts of motivic development from.

So he became hooked on heroin and Miles fired him and then he came back and NOT EVEN ONE WORD ABOUT KIND OF FUCKING BLUE, the one meme which would drag even the smuggest of Norah Jones fans out of their futons, oh no he did more albums and Giant Steps was just the same as Coltrane Plays The Blues was just the same as My Favorite Things, and then all of a sudden he wishes to thank God for helping him come off heroin and comes up with A Love Supreme - shutting himself off for five days after the birth of his son; how good a dad is that?

And the question is: given that the purported point of A Love Supreme was to thank God and demonstrate humility after coming off heroin, why did he then dive arm-first and enthusiastically into LSD, and then let one of his final recorded utterances be: "I would like to be remembered as a saint"? Not much in the way of humility there!

And another question which no one, most of all Yentob, dared to ask, was: was 'Trane actually any good as a free improviser? Nope, far easier to panhandle gullible viewers by talking about how Coltrane's later music was "chaos" (which it patently wasn't). Consider the footage of 'Trane with Alice, Garrison and Ali at Newport '65 (albeit soundtracked by "My Favourite Things" off Live At The Village Vanguard Again from '66), all gleefully grinning and having a ball. Also the single most interesting insight in the documentary came from photographer Chuck Stewart, who took pictures for the Ascension sessions; after recording the first take, 'Trane suggested a break for lunch, and we saw some priceless pictures of these eleven allegedly angry men playing ball, eating sandwiches, LAUGHING (yes, musicians are sometimes HAPPY shock horror!) in the garden out the back of the studio, before he called them all back in to do Take 2.

(The choice of interviewees was, I suppose by necessity, limited - Cousin Mary, an overly diplomatic McCoy - now the sole surviving member of the true Fab Four of the '60s - Archie Shepp, Benny Golson, etc., but crucially NO Alice Coltrane and not only NO Pharaoh Sanders, but not even a MENTION of the latter chap who was, let's face it, a billion times better at the Newer Thing than 'Trane. Difficult to formulate a proper view of Coltrane's last years without input from the two most important contributors to them. They presumably thought it wiser to keep out of the whole mess)

Meanwhile, Yentob walks right past the Village Vanguard without mentioning it, and walks into a deli which used to be the Half Note club. "It was here," he declared solemnly, "that Coltrane invented the avant garde" (no it wasn't and no he didn't). Lots of asides about Miles, one sideways mention of Ornette, and one tantalisingly brief glimpse of an archived Dolphy (of whom, more later).

(N.B.: it was nice to hear Val Wilmer and Alan Skidmore's reminiscences of 'Trane live at the Kilburn State Ballroom in '61, but what the documentary failed to mention was that he was actually the SUPPORT ACT - the headliner was his former employer/mentor, Dizzy Gillespie, who according to my late dad - who was at the gig - came on after the interval, smiling but somewhat bemused. Also in that audience: Hank Marvin)

BUT HOW GOOD WAS 'TRANE AS A FREE IMPROVISER? Actually, he was superb provided he had the right musicians to respond to, and to an extent keep guard over, him. Listen to the Antibes live recording of A Love Supreme (which you can do, on the second CD of the 2CD redux edition on Impulse) and he blasts off with perfect control from the template carefully laid out for him by Tyner and Jones. But put him in a band with younger, less set musicians and he suffered. Coltrane's is perhaps the least interesting solo on Ascension; he sounds virtually like Cool Dad trying to do Albert Ayler, almost crying out for Red Garland or Wynton Kelly to lay some nice major thirds underneath them. He sounds rather marooned - compare with the unhesitant cheek and boldness of Sanders' entry into the Ascension arena, where the man from Little Rock surfs the polyrhythmic waves with absolute, insolent certainty. Only on the Interstellar Space duets with Rashied Ali (heard from in the documentary, but far too briefly) does 'Trane appear to find some new air to breathe (the record sounds as though they're trying to rediscover how the saxophone and drumkit work in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust).

Would he have stayed a resident of the free state? Probably not - by the time of his death, he had already experimented with a lyricon, was getting interested in electronics and "world" music and no doubt would have come up with the idea for Weather Report (albeit a somewhat stormier Weather Report) a couple of years ahead of Zawinul and Shorter.

But the urgent and key question is that there was nothing in this documentary which would have been likely to convert an unbeliever; just another nutty jazzman who went off his head, then didn't, then went crazy avant-gardy, then died. It was, admittedly, nice to see the Church of St John Coltrane in San Francisco again - having had the pleasure of visiting there back in February - but the rationale (if any) behind the hagiography was never really explored or explained; the idea that his example could help other addicts come off heroin, repudiated by the reality that his example could not stop himself moving on to acid. It will be interesting to see the Coltrane sales figures on next week's Jazz FM 40. No doubt everyone will continue to stick to Katie Melua; the closest thing to crazy not actually being the same thing as, and therefore infinitely more comfortable than, crazy.

Friday, June 11, 2004

DON'T LET THE BLOGOSPHERE CATCH YOU CRYING

So: Elvin Jones gone, Robert Quine gone, Steve Lacy gone, and, last night, the biggest of the lot, Ray Charles, gone, also from liver cancer, aged 73.

If you remember that Stanley Spencer's Church Of Me was a deliberate marriage of the sacred and the carnal, then that's what Uncle Ray did, a thousand fold, to popular music. Beyond question, he was the chief inventor and architect of what we know as soul music; he it was who, in parallel with his jazz equivalent Charles Mingus, dragged gospel music out of the church and ensured that it podied its pants in the bedroom. It might be hard for contemporary ears to believe how revolutionary - and blasphemous - songs, or adaptations, or mongrelisations, like "I Got A Woman" or "Hallelujah I Love Her So" were in the Dogville-fixated '50s Bible belt America (the same benign incomprehension that enabled Reagan's future career). You can hear Ray making a jump from the Louis Jordan jump-band rave-up style of the former song towards the more frenetic and physical emotions of the latter.

Ray Charles lost his sight at the age of seven, following the gradual onset of glaucoma, but it is believed - certainly his adopted mother believed it - that this was a psychosomatic after-effect of watching his six-year-old brother drown in front of him when he himself was four. They were fooling around by the river; his brother George fell in, and Ray tried to pull him out but he was too heavy to pull. That early trauma would be enough to make even the least impressionable of four-year-olds to never want to see anything again.

And in Ray's voice there was always, always vulnerability - listen to the way he cracks on the word "heart" when he sings "they say that time heals a broken heart" in the first verse of "I Can't Stop Loving You," or anything throughout "Take These Chains From My Heart."

But of course there was also the sexuality. Above all, consider "What'd I Say (Parts 1 & 2)," up there with Ornette's The Shape Of Jazz To Come as the most revolutionary piece of vinyl recorded in the 1950s. Trawl through the charts on either side of the Atlantic throughout the '50s and you will find nothing, not even within the domains of Presley or Donegan, like this record. For a start there's Ray's Fender Rhodes, which in 1959 must have sounded (and in that context still does sound) inconceivably futuristic. Again and again you have to nudge yourself and think: "this was 1959??" Nearly two minutes before he starts to sing. And what he sings, as with the melody, arises from the essential rhythms already set up, taking us on from "Roll With Me Henry" to even more explicit carnality - hear that winking "yeah, yeah" at 3:35 after he's sung "See the girl with the red dress on/She can do the Birdland all night long." Virtually everything we know, from Sam Cooke down to Usher, stems from this. And he's in no rush to end the song either - there are nearly seven minutes of it in all, half of which is taken up with a semi-improvised call and response routine with his backing singers, the Raelettes, which sounds, frankly, like sex.

"What'd I Say" derived in part from Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On," which Ray dutifully went on to reinterpret that same year, gleefully mixing up proto-Brotherhood of Breath brass blasts with - sacrilege! - a steel guitar (this nearly a full decade before James Carr's "Tell Me"). And that was of course viewed at the time as equally blasphemous - how dare an R&B fellow cover a C&W song!

He took this idea further, of course, in 1962's two-volume Modern Sounds In Country And Western set. As controversial in its day as the Pistols on Grundy, this was music of the oppressors sung (and outsung) by the oppressed. Let not the Ray Conniff backing choir ("Sing the song, children") and lush strings delude or denude the degree of subversion that was at work here.

But he could do practically anything - straightahead hard bop, on piano, organ and alto sax (e.g. 1961's Soul Meeting with Milt Jackson, or 1960's Genius + Soul = Jazz - Atlantic definitely counted him in as being with Mingus and Ornette), subversive balladeering ("Drown In My Own Tears," where it's never quite clear from his ambiguous vocal whether he's drowning or planning to drown his betraying Other). Listen to the benign nastiness of "Don't Let The Sun Catch You Crying" (nothing to do with Gerry and the Pacemakers, and an older, wiser version of "Fuck It (I Don't Want You Back)"). Over Nat 'King' Cole piano arpeggios, Ray sadly reproaches his soon-to-be ex ("Baby, you made me feel so sore" and he clearly doesn't mean spiritually), but hear how he chuckles over lines like "You can beat your head on the pavement." Tony Bennett's "I Wanna Be Around" doesn't even enter the equation in comparison. Yet, via his production and patronage of Jimmy Scott, he was equally capable of helping to fashion the most blissful of ballad records - Falling In Love Is Wonderful.

However, two tracks stand out for me in particular. There's 1959's "I Believe In My Soul," the flipside of "I'm Movin' On," with an astonishing proto-psychedelic swirling organ intro - you momentarily have to remind yourself that you're not listening to the Seeds or the Doors - which eventually reveals itself as a modification of old R&B memes (that familiar horn line) but sculpted slightly out of shape; those backing vocals are a little too close to the mike, enough to sound unreal, and the rhythm track is cleverly bi-functional, an implied 6/8 over the underlying, but not explicitly expressed, 4/4 rhythm which anticipates Mingus' use of the same device in The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady by four years. The ineffable sadness of Ray's voice as he whimpers, "I heard you say (backing Raelette: "Hey Johnny!") when you know my name is Ray" (and contrast that with the surprisingly cheerful resignation in his voice when he himself is sent packing in "Hit The Road Jack").

And, of course, there is his greatest achievement, his astonishing reinvention of Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia On My Mind." With a vocal recorded in one take, and Ray reportedly on the verge of tears when singing it (you can hear him break when he gets to the first "Georgia" in the final verse), this is a profoundly disturbing performance. Although subsequently adapted by the state of Georgia as its official anthem, Ray makes it implicitly clear that this is a past, a history, from which he is running away in abject terror. "Other arms reach out to me" - specifically, those of the Ku Klux Klan. And there's the repeated insistence: "No peace I find," followed by the suppressed bitterness of "just an old sweet song/keeps Georgia on my mind." The closing, unresolved string section chord sounds like a knife, or an axe, being sharpened.

All of the abovementioned tracks appear on the 2CD Rhino compilation The Definitive Ray Charles, which, despite an unfortunate gaffe in Peter Doggett's sleevenote wherein he comments "He's been recording for more than half a century, without ever losing sight of what he does best," is among the least dispensable of records. Go and listen to it this evening, then try working your way through the source albums, and remind yourself just how comprehensively Ray Charles redefined our music.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

BLOCK OUT THE WRITER

These two articles have really knocked me for seven. The Propertius quotes in the second one hit me particularly hard like the punch of an oncoming and long-deserved fist.

The moot questions being:
1. Do I really only have a limited number of aesthetic pieces to juggle in a slightly different order every time I sit down to write? Is that all there is to me as a writer? Once the autobiography is exhausted...then what? Live another life? Or is it too tiring to contemplate the prospect of having to write about that as well?

2. (and by several galaxies the more important question) Am I being true to Laura's memory by writing these blogs or am I just trying to make a name for myself through someone else? Is this commemoration or cannibalisation?

If it's the latter then I'm very tempted to delete both of these blogs, as they would both be based on a criminally wrong foundation.

But what else should I do? Punish myself for living when someone else can't? Or punish myself because I could and should have done more to help her live?

"Live easily, outlive me" as Arto Lindsay memorably put it. It didn't happen. But it would be good advice from me to all the rest of you.

Advice on the ethics of widowhood, writer's block and anything else you think would come in handy, to marcellocarlin@hotmail.com.



Thursday, June 03, 2004

WHAT THE ALBUM MADE TO LOVE MAGIC BY NICK DRAKE IS LIKE

Like installing a lifesize cardboard cutout at the dining room table and pretending you're coming home to her.
Like cooking Marks and Spencer meals for two, eating it all yourself and pretending that you're having dinner together.
Like walking through Tate Modern or the Imperial War Museum on your own and thinking that it's the same thing.
Like taking out his Scalextric models and tracks and saying that you can see him now playing with them.
Like not having a care in the world.
Like not caring about what other people think.
Like doing a crappy Photoshop montage is going to change what we know about the life of a man's mind.
Like there being plenty of seats left for Freddie Garrity in The Jolson Story at the South Pier, Blackpool.
Like Freddie Starr changing the lyric of American Trilogy to sing "Hush, Lisa Marie, don't you cry."
Like Lisa Marie would cry.
Like overdubbing a John Lennon demo and pretending the Beatles are together again.
Like doing the right thing 36 years too late is going to bring anyone back.
Like someone's just received a large tax bill.
Like getting to number 27 is more than he managed.
Like displaying his school ink exercise jotters on the coffee table, typing them up and calling it his debut novel.
Like Kid Creole whooping desperately throughout his dismal, cheap new album as if the bailiffs hadn't cleaned out the joint.
Like sitting on an upturned cardboard box after the bailiffs have visited and calling it a chair.
Like there isn't a difference between "tow" and "toe."
Like a graduate of Marlborough and Eng Lit student of Fitzwilliam wouldn't know the difference between "tow" and "toe."
Like five overaged YTS failures coming onstage at 2 am in New Cross and calling themselves "The Temptations."
Like he would have made any more music had he lived.
Like he lived.
Like he would have come through the pills and settled into a day job, seething internally for 30 years.
Like he wouldn't have ended up co-writing "The Lady In Red" with his Marlborough schoolmate Chris de Burgh.
Like he would have made it up with Joe Boyd.
Like this album has been made up.
Like people can't read sleevenotes.
Like they wouldn't notice that "Black Eyed Dog" was recorded five months before any of these other 1974 songs.
Like he might have been feeling up in July.
Like he might have been feeling equally up in November.
Like smelling her clothes, her perfume, still fragrant in her side of the wardrobe.
Like listening to her answering machine message, her voice still in existence, three months ago.
Like finding a boot floating in the Severn and pretending it's a missing Manic Street Preachers.
Like pretending you're happy when you're blue.
Like a woman from the Evening Standard making an exact replica of Tracey Emin's tent and it's supposed to be the same thing.
Like Kenny Ball and the Jazzmen playing "March Of The Siamese Children" and it's supposed to be the same thing as "West End Blues."
Like putting a photograph of her on the dressing table and it's supposed to be the same thing as coming home to her.
Like clubbing a few old rejects together, tarting a couple up a bit "the way he would have wanted it," and calling it a new Nick Drake album.
Like it's going to bring him back.
Like music can bring anyone back.
Like this blog can't bring Laura back.


Monday, May 24, 2004

OGUN RECORDS UPDATE - URGENT AND KEY!

Talk about synchronicity. Well you can talk about any Police album you like, but you'd be far wiser to get to your nearest decent record shop, as I did on Friday, only to find, reissued as two albums on one CD, two of the great Mike Osborne masterpieces on Ogun of which I spoke a couple of weeks ago - Border Crossing (OG 310) by his Trio, and Marcel's Muse (OG 810) - now available at a competitive price for you to purchase.

And although The Naked Maja cannot claim responsibility for this happening, it's a nice coincidence that it is. It's also useful for me to be reminded that the Peanuts Club was based in Bishopsgate, not Stockwell (that'll teach me to confuse it with the Plough, which WAS in Stockwell)! Beautifully remastered and repackaged, if rather sad to see the lengthening list of names who are no longer with us, either in body (Miller, Peter Nykyruj, Marcel's Muse annotator Charles Fox) or in spirit (Osborne), readers are advised to skip lunch for a week in order to purchase this essential and indispensable CD.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

EUROVISION

I would guess one way to start would be to observe how Greece managed to come second in this year’s contest with a Jazz Insects cover version. No, alas, it was a different “Shake It,” an energetic does-what-it-says-on-Ricky-Martin’s-tin dance romp with a touch of postmodern Bucks Fizzism (the innate genius of Bucks Fizz lying in the fact that they never KNEW they were being postmodern – staunch Tory Jay Aston cheerfully chirping the anti-Thatcher anthem “Land Of Make Believe”) in that the David Van Day wannabe in the centre ripped the skirts off both of his female assistants, whereupon they immediately ripped off his Mr Byrite collapsible one-wear jacket, causing him to do an involuntary somersault.

One could also observe that Belgium were robbed – Xandee’s fantastic “1 Life” came on like Propaganda doing East 17; an immense improvement on their truly dismal effort last year (I recall the Belgian lass saying that it was a deliberate attempt to lose so that Belgium didn’t have to stump up the cash to host the concert this year). In addition, both Sweden and Germany deserved to do better – Lena Philipsson’s “It Hurts,” rather cattily dismissed by Wogan as “a bit dated,” provides exactly the kind of pain I wanted to extract from Agnetha Faltskog’s rather flat ‘60s covers album. And the German entry – Max’s “Can’t Wait Until Tonight” – was everything the British entry should have been and wasn’t; every other commentator has mentioned comparisons with Weller and the Style Council and are pretty on the money doing so – despite some upper register trouble near the end, this was a terrific straightforward ballad (because it wasn’t quite straightforward) which got straight to the point around which the hapless James Fox dallied rather too aimlessly. True, Britain isn’t much liked in Europe at the moment, but as the juries proved – even with their admirably defiant cries of “to our neighbours!” – a common consensus will usually arise, and the consensus here was that Britain’s entry encapsulated pretty well everything that’s wrong with what I’ll call post-Parkinson Britpop; desperate in its eagerness to please every Daily Mail reader, it ends up making everyone fume with the odours of its miserable politesse (was there even a SONG there?). A country which could present Lorraine Kelly grinning gleefully slap bang in the middle of Old Compton Street – see, we KNOW our core audience! – is capable of offering a far better song.

I would much rather have had Athena (now there’s a defiant name for a Turkish ska-punk band!) coming second or third with their “For Real,” which brought to mind the Higsons playing the second half of “Hey Ya!” with the Bodysnatchers’ rhythm section. And if you’re going to do an unashamed Ibiza anthem, then “Shake It” didn’t for me work nearly as well as Rámon’s fantastic “Para Llenarme De Ti.”

Nevertheless, it is I hope beyond question that the best song won; not only did Ruslana’s“Wild Dances” stand almost embarrassingly towers and plinths above everything and everyone else in the contest, in terms of sex, mischief and an innate understanding of the mechanisms of pop, but it might also represent, as Mark S has intimated elsewhere, a decisive continental shift in pop from West to East. We saw this starting to happen with tAtU – and how appropriate that they should have participated in last year’s Eurovision, even if only as prophets – but it was only with this year’s unquestionable takeover by the Eastern bloc countries, and the results that this produced, that one starts to wonder whether this isn’t the second or third time in history when Eurovision might be said to have changed the story of pop. Compared to the jaded post-Cowell coitality of post-Parkinson Britpop, even the token flute-driven folk song (from Serbia & Montenegro) seemed more actively involved in pop than anything we could drum up (one imagines the James Fox of Performance lurching elegantly around the 1969 Madrid stage crooning “Les Sucettes”).

The first and most important occasion when Eurovision did change pop was of course at the Brighton Dome in 1974, when the screaming confidence of “Waterloo” put out pomp rock at a stroke and ignited the fuse for pop to rule again – Andersson and Ulvaeus had the assurance of old-timers when it came to tailored pop writing, but the other importance of “Waterloo” lies what Abba inadvertently invented while they were trying – essentially - to emulate Wizzard and write a Roy Wood song. As with Dexy’s and A Certain Ratio, they accidentally invented a whole new future for pop.

The second occasion – this time for the negative – may have been with the 1982 contest. That year’s British entry, “One Step Further” by Bardo, was by a country mile the best – acutely in touch with New Pop, crafted and produced by Andy Hill, the Bucks Fizz producer who at the time was involved in an informal cutting contest with Trevor Horn (via Dollar) to see who could make the most avant-MoR electropop record (“Give Me Back My Heart” vs “My Camera Never Lies” – two records which sound weirder and weirder with every passing year). But the Falklands war had just kicked off and Britain was derided by all of Europe for being too frisky and facetious and HOW CAN YOU BOUNCE AROUND THE STAGE SUGGESTIVELY WHEN PEOPLE ARE BEING KILLED, so we ended up a fairly ignominious seventh, and the contest was won by the German entry, “A Little Peace,” crooned nervously by the Austrian nun Nicole (complete with Julie Andrews acoustic guitar) in order to Teach Us A Lesson About Pride And Dignity (are we sure that Gavin Martin and Robert Elms weren’t on the judging panel that year?). Thus pop was frowned upon and the path was open for the ghastly duo of Authenticity and Reality to plough their miserable, life-denying way forward through our failed furrows.

My personal favourite Eurovision entry is simultaneously the most and least straightforward – Luxembourg’s 1965 winner, “Poupee de Cire, Poupee de Son,” sung by France Gall and written by Serge Gainsbourg. Musically it comes across as a cattle prod wedding between “Music To Watch Girls By” and “Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West)” over which Gall’s fragile 17-year-old voice (did Our Serge ever work with any non-fragile female voices?) alternates between the sensual and the defiant (in fact, Mme Gall went on to have the big hit in France with Gainsbourg’s “Les Sucettes,” and was reportedly horrified when the meaning of the lyrics was explained to her). In fact, 1965 seems to have been a vintage year for Eurovision, for the runner-up was a British belter – “I Belong” sung by the doomed Kathy Kirby; a phenomenal eruption of a pop song, worthy of Dusty or Petula (though one wonders whether either wouldn’t have been more suitable – Kirby never quite shakes off the Joan Regan 1950s plummy, vowelly vibrato) complete with a London Palladium standing ovation final big band chord. Kirby ecstatically bellows “All my dreams are answered!” though the preceding doubt of “Too many hours slipped away/Too many loves came my way” unfortunately seems to have presaged the remainder of her life.

However, the Eurovision song I find most touching is the 1975 winner, Holland’s “Ding-A-Dong” by Teach-In. As with Abba (and as with Nabokov, really), they use their linguistic inexactitudes to quite stunning effect. Apart from the fact that Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards must have been listening – compare the arrangements on “Ding-A-Dong” and Chic’s “I Want Your Love” if you don’t believe me – one is retrospectively drawn to the fact that this is a song about living in defiance of death. “Ding-a-dong every hour/When you pick a flower/Even when your lover has gone,” they sing with beautifully absurd sincerity. And later: “Try to smile while you say goodbye,” then, at 1:23, before grief has a chance to drown you, the song suddenly veers into a Ray Conniff jolly augmented major fifth chord before returning to the minor (though still uptempo) song proper. So many songs end up coming back to this core truth. That’s why so much of Patti Smith’s recent work fails; there’s so much more life in the damn-you-world defiance of Horses – with just that tiny, aching little elegie at the end to remind us what lies at the bottom of it.

But back in the “real” pop world, what songs should Britain have put forward instead of James Fox’s accursed tastefulness (post-Parkinson, post-Holland, post-Hornby; it all adds up to the same mush)? What songs which actually became hits, which sold millions (or at least thousands), would have done well at Eurovision, and which not?

ONES WHICH MIGHT NOT HAVE DONE WELL

QUEEN Bohemian Rhapsody (1975)
Never take too long about your song in Eurovision; the audience and judges will begin to get restless (the greatest pop album title of all time remains Roxette’s greatest hits compilation, Don’t Bore Us – Get To The Chorus!). Finland essayed a three-part mini-suite in 1983 and got the inevitable nul points. Also, given the logistical nightmare of recreating the middle section on stage, and the ongoing mood and stylistic changes, the judges will probably forget to give you any points as they will have mistaken you for the interval act.

BONNIE TYLER Total Eclipse Of The Heart (1983)
Again, it’s about length and pace. On the face of it, this empress of all power ballads sounds like it would walk it – passionate vocals, a musical backdrop escalating in intensity, an earnest choir, thunderclaps for drums – but as with all Jim Steinman’s work, it seems cramped when forced into a four-minute seven-inch format. “Total Eclipse” needs to be experienced in its full seven minutes – especially the crucial second verse which is always missed off radio edits (“(Turn around) Every now and then I know you’ll never be the boy you always wanted to be/(Turn around) But every now and then I know you’re the only boy who wanted me the way that I am” – and the way Tyler almost weeps the word “universe” in the third line of that verse, as if she knows she can never be God, that she’ll have to make do and mend with this slob of a boyfriend of hers, but by God does she love him, even if at times she sounds as if she wants to kill him – “EVERY NOW AND THEN I FALL APART!” – “and then I see the look in your eyes”). Might be a bit rich for a Eurovision audience to digest in one sitting.

THE WALKER BROTHERS The Electrician (1978)
Now you’re just being silly. Or am I?

ONES WHICH WOULD PROBABLY HAVE WALKED IT

THE BEATLES Hey Jude (1968)
Seven minutes 25, but that singalong with All Our Mates clambering up on stage dressed up as Napoleon, Bertrand Russell, etc., would swing even the most cynical of judges.

FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD Relax (1983)
But in the 1984 contest, instead of Belle and the Devotions’ Vernons Girls throwback “Love Games.” With the whipping cream and the Esso tiger. And everything else. Imagine what we didn’t try.

KEANE Everybody’s Changing (2004)
It’s a moment of rare luminosity in pop, and by the evidence of their dull album it might turn out to be their only moment. It’s not only the absence of guitar and bass which does it here, but what is done to the piano and keyboards throughout – the triple echoes, the frantic backwards rewind at the end of each chorus – which makes this sound like Marmalade trying to play “Double Barrel” with a subtle nod to New Order’s “Thieves Like Us.” It’s a recognisably 1971 type of bleakness we’re dealing with here – a 1971 which none of these three musicians is old enough to remember – but the desperation in Tom Chaplin’s voice is palpable and connective. Note – as with Gilbert O’Sullivan’s 1971 masterpiece “We Will” – how the band prepare to ascend the chorus (the “Thieves Like Us” reference underscores “Try to understand that I”), and then we have those three steps to heaven again: the first cautiously hopeful (“Try to make a move just to stay in the game, I…”), the second verbally less confident, but musically going for the big climactic push (“Try to stay awake to remember my name, BUT…”), and on that “BUT…” the ants are rebuffed by the sadist’s index finger and slide regretfully down to the bottom again as the music diminishes in key – “Everybody’s changing and I don’t know why.” A very British failure to win or comprehend. Europe would have loved it.

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