Wednesday, November 17, 2021
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 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 Preacher.
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.
Oh wait a minute.
Friday, May 07, 2004
SELECTED AMBIENT WORKS VOLUME 2
TEN YEARS AFTER
The following is an experiment in uniting thought and expression of emotional reactions to music. The words which you will read have been improvised and written spontaneously in real time while listening to the two CDs which comprise this album, an album which is one of the author’s absolute favourites, and a record which carries past associations to a degree abnormal even by the intense standards of this website. No conscious effort has been given to organising these thoughts into a formal writing pattern; any coherence is dependent upon the inner coherence of the writer. The aim is to minimise as far as possible the gap between the germination of thoughts provoked by the music and their written articulation, and therefore achieve a greater degree of real feelings and emotions as they are made manifest.
As Richard D James does not apply verbal titles to each track, but rather gives them visual titles – designs mainly in various shades of orange and yellow, with the colours acting as triggers for the pictures which the pieces are presumed to paint (this is consequent to, but not derivative of, the similar experiments of Anthony Braxton, who generally names his pieces with appropriate combinations of numbers, symbols and graphics).
The explicit association with the concept of lucid dreaming, as pioneered by Dr Celia James, is for the purposes of this piece taken as read and understood.
Needless to say, this piece will be best experienced if read in tandem with listening to the record and specific tracks in question.
Baby talk. Birth. Major key. Already trying to make it minor. Rhythm like bloodflow. The quiet bits of Art of Noise’s Into Battle were always the deadliest. Again and again, I’m drawn to music which sounds like STARTING AGAIN. Afterbirth, afterlife, after apocalypse. There a marimba. Generating an echo. Wish I was six again. Marimbas in pop, feel warm and comforting, like a big gigantic hug. Just My Imagination. Vincent. And I Love You So. Music sounding like we’re learning to talk, to communicate. Original Whim by Extradition. What would it be like if we made music for the first time? That’s why the Gail Brand/Morgan Guberman record matters – listen to it in the sense that these are two people, two creatures, trying to learn the art of communication with each other, their efforts to form a language. The trombone is treated more like a drum. Rowing away rowing away. Boats in Stanley Park, 1968. That 1968. Boards of Canada of course, as if I could get away with not mentioning them. Magic, baba, papa. Voice stuck on a papa loop. You like your father, isn’t it? Careful the seesaw doesn’t collapse mid-swing. Gurgling Gail and gabbling Guberman. That marimba. Learning to distinguish what notes are in a primary school class. Walls of wood. Minds of steel. Because, look, we’re here and how is it we’re here, but while we’re here. Now nothing left except the marimba. It’s a beginning. Blurring slightly out of focus and then BACK IN again. In the back of the taxi coming back from Glasgow Royal Infirmary, December 1964, having escaped death for the first of several occasions in my life. So far it’s the first of four. Does oblivion or familiarity wait at the other end?
I can’t grasp these chords. They’re wavering. Mummy. Like the corn. We never had corn in Bothwell, just cricket stumps. It looks so real, doesn’t it? But can you touch it? Corstorphine Road in the Wednesday morning September sun, just after a rainfall. Not quite South Kensington. Though sometimes you’d like it to be. Duffle coats. When you’re in the coach and it’s midwinter and it’s raining and blowing so hard that you momentarily move into nowhere – the subnormal lighting of the old A40 route, or the Lake District at 3 am in December. David Penhaligon. What caused that? Thinking of the drowning. Never quite got away from it. What’s that quack? There’s a duck above me. And to think I’m scared of drowning, feart because I might end up getting eaten by a duck. This music’s trying to raise its head upwards, above the water. Let’s Evolve. Sudden Sway. The glistening gills as you BREAK THE SURFACE to find Port Meadow still there. Remember to keep your eyes tightly shut at all times. Keep out the greenness. And the salt. Because you could be floating nowhere. And that strange steepness near the top of Muswell Hill. Hidden record shops in Cambuslang Main Street. Blue Circle cement factory. From the school playground it could have been the Himalayas. I didn’t forget Martin Denny. Bend those rhythms, as you can, because you’re trying not to be born, nor to founder somewhere in Kidlington. She was taking photos in Stamford the Sunday before it happened. The last good Sunday. “She looks so like her mother.” Even then we knew. So did she.
The North Sea. St Andrews, 1981. Michael Furey. The Bog of Allen. Ghost ships. South Queensferry. Aberdour. Burntisland. Everything looks like you’re in heaven. Flying over people. Why do I keep thinking Architecture and Morality? Fennesz, of bloody course. That cracked old gargoyle of a face of a city. The most colourful city in the world, although no one who actually lives in it will ever acknowledge it. And the Oxford. And the river behind the Hall of the Lady of Margaret. The mists as I was escorted to my interview, Tuesday 9 December 1980, the morning after Lennon was shot. Cole Porter. How did he get in? Remember the shot of him, lying, grinning, in his own grave. The best thing about the White Stripes. Sealand Sealand SEALAND. Where no one can touch me and where I can never be touched. Observe passivity as your tool of trade but never mistake it for a token of affection. The doing of nothingness. The cottages at Anstruther. The 95 bus, but what if we stayed on it all the way to Leven? Would we, could we, ever find our way back? What lay behind the Ploughman’s Tower? Or was it the Plowman’s Tower? That Chaucer block of slums in Tooting, hidden safely away, protected by the ruthless bend of Garratt Lane. So grand in its emptiness. There a bassline, steadily and methodically proceeding around the wreck of a melody like an exhausted lighthouse keeper. Silhouette, the horse and the campfire. Where Gabriel ceases to exist. When he realises he has lived for nothing because he can never compete with someone who is beyond competition, because they are safely dead and DIED FOR HER OH YES BEAT THAT. The snow is general, the fog less obviously permeating the atoms which make up you. All good ghosts of heaven and hell unite on the second promontory to the left of the eighteenth hole.
Sirens. Take the song, twist it, shift it out of focus, down several registers and it becomes a WARNING and suddenly you are SNAPPED OUT OF THE REVERIE OF GHOST SHIPS AND ARE FACED WITH THE PROSPECT OF IMMINENT GHOSTHOOD HAPPENING BEFORE YOUR EYES AS IT IS NOT THE HOOT OF A SHIP’S SIREN OR THE POLICE TRYING TO SHOOT YOU AS YOU STAND WITH YOUR MELODICA ON THE BEACH AT PORTOBELLO IN OCTOBER 1987 but is an ECG machine, or the hum of a ventilator, there QUICK there the snatch of an organ YOU’RE ALREADY HEARING THE FUNERAL the memories have not yet happened AND NO ONE SHALL BUILD A STATUE FOR ME and suddenly the sounds have become cold, steel and real, you are not in an idyllic afterlife of endless bookshelves and the reproachful rooftops of SW10 but in a ward watching life drain away systematically HOW COULD YOU HAVE THOUGHT THAT IN 1994 it is true, in 1994 I merely thought of ships, of ghost Lancasters flying over our heads, the police helicopter which always used to hover in the wastelands across the way from the train station with a tonality as uniquely dissonant as that of OMD’s “Statues” but it fitted in with Springsteen’s “Streets Of Philadelphia” but you are in REALITY and it’s all functional fuck function it’s fading she’s going.
Great, vast industrial mechanisms. Brunel where are you operating now. The Hawaiian waving grasses having been nuked. Nothing but the sea, and there, my God there, coming in, looming in from the distance, alternating semitones and bitonal semitones at that WHAT IF THERE WERE NOTHING ELSE ON THIS EARTH BUT THIS the waves of water and the ghosts of never-existing ships? How would you feel? Would there be a you to feel? The southern tip of Goldsmith’s College, radiant in the greyness of a Camberwell afternoon. That Friday, walking back from Denmark Hill to Victoria. Kids passing by outside the curvature which shields the Oval cricket ground from humanity. Oval House there on the other side, where he had previously been many a time to witness improvisatory goings-on, before the money ran out, but is it still open for gatherings? No obvious point of entry. And down the road, just behind me, the Imperial War Museum. Can I venture there alone? Can I feel emptier there than anywhere else in the world. It’s all moving in slow motion. Steadily, without fuss. The radiation from the MI5 building. Getting a bit too Iain Sinclair. But you can work it out. The 1928 meets 1971 façade of the redbrick grocery shops which form the corner of Fentiman Road and South Lambeth Road, just as the latter turns into Portugal. There a crescent, across the road from the library, Tradescant Road. This was a soundtrack to the daily re-enactment of the final journey of Elias Ashmole which I undertook every working day. Tautology. Ha ha. Nothing ha ha about that siren which has gradually been breaking free from the music. But is it an air raid? Happening twenty galaxies away or just around the corner? Could I still hear that howl all the way down, the entire fucking length of, the Botley Road? Right the way down to Habitat? The Sunday Times. A different West Way, but if you stuck to the path and headed due south you would end up on the real Westway. Westminster Way, even. Did they think to call that Botley shopping centre Westminster? Just to kid us that it might be an obscure, obsolete extension of Westminster? Where Politico’s bookshop is shortly not to be, round the corner and into Victoria Street. Sometimes that’s like venturing out of Greenland. So alien. So un-London. I close my eyes for not too long else I might probably find myself in Botley when I open them again. Frequently I did. Did I mention sex yet? Because, in a way…where are you going?
What’s that voice saying? Twin? Plan? It sounds a lot surer of itself. Does that mean it’s growing up? Oil refineries. Grangemouth. How could the Cocteau Twins have come from anywhere else? Do we have to mention Kraftwerk? How all of this is being dreamed and how after a while I expect not to be entirely conscious while I’m typing this? The war memorial at Ebury Bridge. At least I’ve always assumed it to be one. Keep your views to yourself. Can’t understand why I understand Maxinquaye without knowing it. Where’d that come from? The ‘90s. Extinction not a thought then. Nowhere near my mind. As if. Bright, this beat, bright and sprightly. Then it momentarily rests but I know it’s coming back. It’s just stopped to get the paper and a Yorkie and change a tenner. It dies down to almost a funereal tempo, slowing down and you imagine it’s never going to speed up again, but there the voice, battling to bring it back again, now muffled, now processed, but keep at it…no, it’s a goner.
Angels skating in the park. On a deserted Sunday evening, no, afternoon, in November. It is dark. But they are happy. Such grace, such ineffability in foreseeing its own closure. The darkness of the surrounding trees form their own protective cradle for us. If I knew how to skate. Christ Church Meadow on the first Friday in January, when it’s bled white with frost and no one, no tourist, will venture into it. We have all of it to ourselves. That blinking light, a signal to let us know, to remind us, where we are, even though we are nowhere. A dance which will last forever as it is self-regenerating. The effortlessness of anti-gravity. The understanding – Guillem as Juliet – that to be lifted is to be transcended. She has to KNOW that she can fly, can be passionate by how her body relates to gravity, to the lover supporting her, can reach to become more than flesh and blood, even if it’s the absolute core of why she’s doing it. Why can I not listen to this music forever? A Charleston, denuded of gaucheness, for the benefit of the ghost of Dick Diver. The implied secondary rhythm throughout, like a central pulse which will beat regardless of the moves you are making in the snow, on the ice. It’s a Sunday. Everyone’s away. Alice blinks as the most abstruse of conceptions. You start to imagine higher registers – no, hang on, there it is, sure and stubborn. And the funny thing is that, although it’s winter, we feel warm. Warm, snug and cosy. That was very important to us. More important than you realise. That vague sense of yearning towards the end. The music box imperceptibly winding down. To a graceful gavotte. Alvin Lucier’s grandson tapping the radiator in the kitchen, echoed and reproduced into infinity, until the radiator in the kitchen becomes indivisible with the ice rink of your mind, your heaven, and in 1994 it does not seem like an afterlife, not like the junction of Stamford Brook Avenue where it turns into King Street and suddenly begins to become the shabby genteel end of Hammersmith, Ravenscourt Park, those familiar-looking joggers vaulting the fences at 6:28 am, impatient for their run so that work can happen. Where there is a definite gateway between an imagination of the world and its concurrent reality. Strand on the Green. Or Gunnersbury. Or life. Or death. Or ice. Slow down now. Come to an end. Shut off.
Why am I thinking of the “Three Fingers” 16 rpm mix of “Moments In Love”? Such vastness of grieving, such elementary ghosts being coaxed out of that piano Midge Ure abandoned thirteen years previously. Where is your Vienna now? Left to the whims of the deadly electrician. The most aggressively solitary of musics in its stateliness. Abandoned mansions. The winding river of abandoned boats. Sometimes your misinterpretation of others’ words can accidentally lead you to the emotional core of what they’re trying to say. And I am thinking 4AD. Such coldness. I’m shivering. A 38th birthday spent alone, in wreckage. A 30th birthday spent in ecstasy. The sun was still shining then. Still this music cut through me then. I didn’t want to guess. The great baronial desuetudes of the nursing home halfway up Nightingale Lane. That piano trying to creep upwards. Random. Robert Wyatt’s Sea Song. Of course. It’s again. Of course, again. On course to drown. And become something else. When the light distils itself into the negotiating shades of early winter, and you are impounded within a somewhat unreal world. What do you need me to tell you? How I still see and converse with her ghost when I am dreaming at night. How lucid can this possibly get? How long can I stay alive?
Beat a little more assertive. Edging back into the major, key-wise. Robert Wyatt, again, Matching Mole. You’re waiting for the Lear free associations and bass clarinet to make their way back in. But they do not. There, another nursery melody, on a distant organ. Sean O’Hagan caught that mood, just short of wistfulness, in the later stages of Stereolab’s Mars Audiac Quintet. Almost a light interlude. A testcard for an alternative 1969. It does feel like that. You’re trying to discern the music; you can hear it but it doesn’t quite fit with what you recognise as a tune, and at that moment you realise you are dreaming, you are in fact quite conscious that you’re dreaming, and for the briefest of lucid moments you revel in the dream-ness of your dream. You are exceeding yourself because for that moment, just for that micromoment, you are truly yourself as you cannot be touched by anyone else or made to change into someone you are not. That’s why we like dreams; because then we are in control of our lives. An anvil. Can’t quite banish the Stakhanovite reality to which you are forced to awaken. Keep it at bay for a little while. Who knows, if you can control yourself sufficiently you might never wake up! There what I recognise as the closing motif. Time gentlemen please. No good moaning about it. What if I kept on doing this in decreasing, declining states of wakefulness – I mean it is getting fairly late – and managed to finish this piece while I was actually dreaming? How would you like me then?
That bass sonority is sounding a threatening cloud again. Because it’s back to fucking reality, isn’t it? The emptiness of the corridor at night, unlit except for the steadily diminishing contents of the confectionery vending machine? Walk out into Banbury Road (at one end) at a certain time of night and you feel that you have entered a zone of the dead. Walk out into Walton Street (at the other end) and all you’ll get are hoohahs and hurrahs edging out of the Phoenix cinema and the winebars and whatever the Jericho Tavern’s now calling itself. And now you realise you’ve been looking at one thing from ten different angles – so far – getting closer to, approaching, those ghosts, those ships which sail serenely up what should be tramlines. But that hum, in the unpopulated ground floor corridors of the Radcliffe Infirmary. I DID NOT WANT TO GO BACK TO FUCKING WORK I WANTED TO STAY THERE AND NOT HAVE TO BE OBLIGED oh what’s the use what good could that or I have done and what’s this all got to do with 1994 anyway every perspective is by necessity tainted. What if there were nothing except that one string synthesiser line, yearning, but no there’s that crocodile of a bass, munching its way back in to devour the whole bloody album if he gives it a chance. And then it’s away again. And back. And forth. Maybe it’ll swallow me up in the end and I’ll never have to think again. Who said anything about thinking? Porphyria, Philadelphia, Padlocks, peppermint, plantars downgoing. The Persian army without all the deserters coming over from the Spartan side. Because they wanted to be on the winning side. They thought they could delay their deaths. Now a Fender Rhodes trying to wander into the territory, the prohibited post-nuclear territory, and did a bomb go off why of course it did, right before this record started. The side-streets which lead off the Banbury Road. Thence begins Antarctica. You can’t get away from the thing which is with you at all times, even past what used to be the tip where there was a very decent burger van, the best burgers I’ve ever tasted in fact, and that thing is death, my friend, death which follows you the other way, past the Park End Club, whether you’re walking past there at 4:48 am or on a 100 bus, there’s no escape from it. Or past the deceptive ashen sunrise over Ladbroke Grove, as you passed it that Tuesday morning in October, looking down at it from atop the Westway, briefly looking back before the turnoff into St Mary’s to see those plumes of smoke wafting up like forgotten chimneys.
What, there’s more to say? A blip. The marimbas again. Circularity. Like Terry Riley. But not really. Slightly blurred and bleary. Imaginary, yellow-walled chip shops in Hatcham at 2:34 in the morning. When nothing is quite palpable, least of all your own sanity. A sharp intake of footsteps. An ECG machine which drones at sopranino pitch as if you’ve somehow neglected to breathe. Balletic. What if I woke up and found myself in a yellow-walled chip shop in a part of the city I could never find it in myself to place, except I’d have to go out of it at some point and what the fuck would I do if I were confronted with the dome of St Paul’s, at eye level to me, at 200 times its normal size, and would I expire from the sheer shock, and is that why I am reluctant to exeunt from that yellow-walled chip shop, because despite the almost racing certainty that I will emerge into a non-specific, undefined southern high street with nothing and no one to populate or desecrate it, there’s just that slimmest of possibilities that the next station from Sloane Square will not be Victoria, but rather Baker Street? And what if it were Dover Street tube station? And that I will, I might, come out of it and walk straight into my own cemetery? Without a middleman? Or walk out and be gobbled up by…that damned ECG bleep, it subtly penetrates everything, doesn’t it? The ardour, the candour, the fear, the faithlessness. That melody, it’s now warping ever so slightly. Where shall I find myself when it has ended? I haven’t forgotten to acknowledge Chesterton. Thursday’s face filling, and finally constituting, the entire sky shining above Earl’s Court, which suddenly becomes Leicester Square? What horses could be so swift?
It’s a voice! Voices! A frantic bell ringing! But they’re speeded up, I can’t make out what they’re saying. They’re laughing. But I’m disturbed. What fucking mutation of a shop have I just walked into? Or am I hearing the biased voices of the doctors trying to save me? There’s a laugh, but what theatre am I lying in? Screech of brakes, there, was it? Almost into focus there, I nearly got it, but it’s blurred back out again. Tibetan bells, if you feel that way. The strange comfort you feel when you’re immobile and semi-conscious in intensive care, the relief at never having to do anything for yourself again.
Someone is hammering on my coffin. Trying to get the heart started again. But time’s running out, so I have to get everything in. That melody which swoops down to embrace me. The clock is ticking away, can you hear it? What can I tell you about names to be named? There are too many and some of them, if not all of them, wouldn’t want me to name them in this context. Double speed and half-speed. Because there was the Muiredge, and there was the Grammar, and once upon a time there might have been an Uddingston, and there was certainly an Oxford, as there is just as certainly a London, even if it doesn’t exist except when I’m there, as with all of these places. That’s why if I go back to Uddingston, people still greet me routinely as if I hadn’t been gone for 23 years. But I can see that light, just up there, and I’m not sure whether it’s the sky or whether they’ve set my bunker on fire. I’m shortly to find out one way or the other, however. Is that a vibrato I can detect in the synth line there? Pop, pop. Popping music. Unthinkable without that speed bump of a heartbeat, just to be sure. And it could be such banal matter if not seen in extreme close-up and magnified in extremis. The belching of the sugar refinery at Silvertown. Chartres Cathedral. The medieval city of Bruges, which I am fearful of gazing upon lest I find myself in a parallel universe Oxford. Lincoln Cathedral, of course, the grandest approach to any city on any rail network in Britain, with the possible exception of Waverley. The way in which you feel you are going underneath, excavating, Princes Street and the Castle. Especially when it’s a cloudless blue sky.
Harsh, sawtooth, what is this language and what are you trying to communicate to me with it? A drill. Machinery. It could be a sterile non-world. MRSA lurking beneath every veneer of cleanliness. Yet that implacable melody constantly asserts itself – and this is another in a major key, oddly imposing, like Arthur’s Seat – as a monolith which can never be destroyed, even if gnawed away at for centuries. That intimation of the minor, though. Gradually the melody becomes predominant at the expense of the bassline drill, or at least tries to. Sometimes it sounds as if it is sobbing. For us, for you, not really for me. But certainly by me. That subterranean bassline which keeps looming back into view, like a benign whale. A drone, a continuo. It breaks slightly, the solidity. And becomes luminous, untouchable, Rothko-esque in its grievously isolationist sureness of colour. Eventually the drone fills all of your head. The thoughts you cannot expel or excuse. Il miglior fabbro. Now, see how they’ve come a semitone apart and become dissonant right under your very nose, between your very ears? The nobility of indeterminate ruination. It dies off at the fade, diving down back towards the seabed, confident of its own extinction.
Static explodes into rhythmic life. Shall we dance? All you had to do was ask! That beat, though, crackling up as though it’s being burned for bacon. That sudden HOWL there! Joe Meek trying to claw his way back to us! A SCREAM, almost! Made me jump! The acetate of this music is burning up faster than we can register it. The semblance of what might once have been a guitar meme. Now the bass comes in. Underworld at 25 rpm. Can’t get started.
A desolate, mighty wind. Or is the might imaginary, from my perspective only? Is that someone trying to get through, to tell us that they’re still alive? The shifting, whispering sands. A tinkle of bells (to remind us that there was once a thing called Christmas) now giving way to a burbling synth line. All comprising trapped voices, voices of long-gone people doomed to resonate in space forever, at consistently diminishing levels, but still succeeding in existing? Then back to the wind, and are those footsteps or a gong? The howling wind becomes higher in pitch, searing, and then vanishing. Now, low noises like nature being wound backwards. Trying to restart the world. I see. Does he succeed?
I managed to avoid mentioning Kraftwerk until now. But in another life this formed the basis of a minor Top 40 hit single (“On” - #32 in November 1993). A beningly burping melody, reflecting upon itself with moderate lustre. Not too demonstrative, lest the hall of mirrors be irrevocably revealed. And so brief.
Beaver and Krause again. It had to happen. Those undulating flutes. The ghosts of Strawberry Fields Forever as well, naturally. Tablas. The things which trigger off the process of remembrance in your life. Flutes to a three-year-old mind in 1967. Gas stations. Strawberries. Was I ever young? Was I ever young like that? Was I once a child in Glasgow? The TV was on in the dark. Destination Moon. Central Pier. Aston Martins. Norman Vaughan. Robert Kennedy. I remember it all. Somerfields when it was called Coopers. Thinking that Tommy Cooper ran it. Mary Hopkin. Cornelius Cardew. Counting rods of different colours, from one to ten. The Marble Arch record label, forever hitless. Don’t try to tell me that I dreamed it all. What else could have constituted reality? That little acknowledgement of 1983 electro there. That whistling’s steadily getting more piercing. Then it goes on its rounds.
I don’t suppose we can escape – or at least I can’t escape, you’re free to go at any time, reader – a reading of religiosity in this music, somewhere down the line. And here it is, a church organ, as someone paces patiently up and down the aisle – it surely cannot be another clock ticking. Art of Noise – “Memento.” Those footsteps continue – wait, they’ve just stopped. They never approach the listener, us. But there is also a great deal of Sylvian’s spirituality here (I keep thinking how so much of Fennesz’s stuff is predicated by this record). The footsteps return. Not going anywhere especially. Worship. Awe. Marriage. Death. Never birth. Not yet anyway. The contented hum of a power supply which will continue to be operative for as long as anyone wants it to be. The careful ticking of the heart at the earth’s core. Deeply moving. Some people just won’t get it. But I can almost feel at peace listening to this. Hear how it is slowly rising out of the waves, Atlantis reborn, counter melodies and counterparts methodically being added to the central motif. A generator which will continue to generate after all generations have departed. Astute readers will notice how I’m not writing so much for each track now as the record progresses. Because sometimes you have to sit, pause and worship. You just have to. Is this still coherent? Was it ever? What are you to make of me, who for the last two-and-a-half years has not been talking about this record specifically, aside from continued leitmotif-style passing references – those footsteps have slowed down to a halt again – and what am I to make of what you should make of me? Does it mean I still have the right to be, to exist? Because we’re getting near the end now, reader – two more dislocated footsteps, then another little collection, falling into disrepair, into unconsciousness, into death, and here, HERE, when there’s nothing left but those three organ chords, is where it transcends everything. Into somewhere else.
Could almost be the introduction to a David Gray record or something, couldn’t it? Good grief (and there’s no good in grief, only good as a consequence of grief), it looks like the sun might be trying to shine again – I think remotely of the chorus of Madonna’s “Take A Bow,” forgetting that the latter song’s all about saying goodbye. A clarinet is not quite forlorn in the distance. As the underscoring melody line comes in, it’s a reassertion of life, despite everything. Uplifting, it feels as though the drowning artist has finally broken the surface of the sea and can make his way safely to shore, to refuge. The distant Vienna piano returns, now sounding reassuring, re-enlivened. There has to be a happy ending somewhere. Although there is still unfinished business to clear up. Is that an alarm clock going off at the end? Do you fancy waking up? I haven’t even been to sleep yet, though am rapidly getting there.
Now we’re flying. Untethered to the earth. We could have died of course, can’t quite rule that out. The feeling of mortality which Vaughan Williams’ music could never quite avoid. Synthesised woodwinds play as if waiting for Nick Drake to give them words in the next world. Astonishing, the light which has intruded into the latter quarter of this record – strayed would be a better word than intruded – because now we’re back on the beach, and I’m five again, and I’ve said all this before. New Age by any other nitwit’s name, but as a kind of contented coda to the disturbances which have gone before, it is immensely affecting. I think of the summer of 1994, I think of how happy we were for so long a time, of who and what existed then and who and what now exist only in my memory. The brilliant Saturday morning sunshine. We always liked to face the sunshine. God help me live.
God help me hold on, because those howling winds won’t go away – they’re slightly further away from me now, and there are more definable voices, though still not so definable that you can hear what they’re saying, but it sounds like a female voice, and do I have to keep being dragged back to the horrid reality of the August Bank Holiday weekend of 2001 because it was so fucking hot, so horrendously hot and stultifying and suffocating that I still dread the coming of the month of August every year with an intensity that no one else will ever quite understand. WHAT ARE THEY SAYING? AM I THE ONE WHO’S DYING? Well, take me instead, she’s got a future, I’ve lived my life. But no one would listen or heed. I CANNOT KEEP ACKNOWLEDGING THIS, THE CLOUDS HAVE TO BREAK AGAIN, THE SUN HAS TO SHINE AGAIN, HOW CAN I HOPE TO LIVE IF THE SUN NEVER SHINES AGAIN, STOP THIS STOP THIS REVERSE THIS BUT IT’S IMPOSSIBLE. Impossible. The choir holy. Cannot get away from it, it pursues me because I keep allowing it to pursue me. Where’s the way out? Forwards or back, progression or regression? Those voices persist, and everything on this track sounds as if it were generated by a human voice, and yet I know there is no humanity here; it is the most deliberately abandoned of musics, a music stripped of human beings, a desolate landscape which exists for a reason long since forgotten, and STOP STOP STOP STOP
A drill runs through my head. A curious melody, like a desecrated brass band, tries to break through, but I’m letting the pain exclude all of it. It’s uncomfortable, fucking unbearable in fact, in its extreme closeness. The phantoms of old Shadows riffs recede sadly in the background, but then you realise that the sounds are doing their best to try and kill you. The melody, the scant remnants of beauty, cannot be reached and can only be heard with difficulty because THIS FUCKING DRILL is cancelling all of it out. Cut the thread, cut the oxygen, have done with it and buona sera you overrated fucking planet. I don’t know about dreaming; all of a sudden I’m wide awake again and this sound is unimpeachably and indisputably real and it goes ON AND ON AND ONANDONANDON so get the memories while you’re here oh shit oh no they’ve all been written down all the important ones anyway just go and read them and then do something else and I can’t bloody think because it’s HURTING it’s FUCKING TEARING MY HEAD APART and my head needs to be SOMEWHERE ELSE WHY CAN’T YOU LET ME BE A KID AGAIN IS IT SO WRONG TO WANT TO BE A KID AGAIN because it had its flaws admittedly I’m not concealing those but it was preferable to being systematically buried in concrete and that drill isn’t even going to help me drill my way out again once I’ve been entombed and DIDN’T I DESERVE BETTER THAN THIS WHERE’S THE TUNNEL THE SCREENS THE SCREENS THE SCREAMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM
Now I’m buried, but here I am, I’m still trying to breathe, breathe deeply, and the oscillating synth sounds return, those dessicated Hank Marvin lines, repeating and entwining themselves – there I growl – now I leave the melody line to itself, bemusedly adapting into a different focus, one which isn’t quite mine, because of the alternative perspective, that of the living dead, and now there’s a cackle there, a laugh, and it’s a palpable laugh which sounds like it’s coming from a viably real human being – not speeded up or distorted, but a loop of a laugh. Then of course it’s just a loop, like Neil Innes’ laugh at the end of “Slush” by the Bonzos – the progenitor of the laugh perhaps themselves long gone. A bassline attempts to sidle its way upwards, through and past the undergrowth, but it’s a forlorn mission. More voices on the right, then trying to cross the barrier, but no, they’re distant again, nothing really to do with me, they can’t be talking about me, can they? They cannot be mocking me when I can’t respond? The pitch of the laugh has become lower, less human, more grotesque in its unrealness. Tantalisingly close these voices come sometimes, but now closer than the ear can hear (Escalator!). Now everything’s sounding unnaturally close up, and I’m now not entirely sure that I’m dreaming this, or that I’m having a dream that is distorting my perception of this music. Strange when you think of all the times I’ve listened to it – and we DID things to it – in full consciousness. On such occasions you tend not to notice a lot of the music’s components. They only become apparent once you have loosened your conception of consciousness to a small but sufficient degree. Thus am I half asleep, but still wanting to find my way out of this now forbidding labyrinth. The bassline’s back again, slightly more to the fore. I must have imagined that laugh. FUCK THEY’RE COMING INTO THE ROOM RIGHT UP TO MY FACE AND THEY ARE TALKING TO ME AND I CAN’T FIGURE OUT WHAT THEY’RE SAYING AND NOW THE LAUGH’S AT 200 RPM – this might be a worse hell than the drill and if I’m not typing doggerel by now which I might have been doing all along – there it slows down to let me breathe and figure out an exit.
The release. I had to face it. It’s 1976, I am 12 again, and a tune and a bank of synthesisers straight out of side two of Vangelis’ Heaven And Hell. And it’s all in front of me, I’ve got it all to look forward to though am vaguely conscious that I might already have had the best of it. A Hollywood ending; how appropriate. Now everything, look, is coming into focus; I could scarcely be more lucid because, here, Blake’s engravings, and there, the stone in Virginia Woolf’s coat pocket, and over there, the last minute reprieve for Hart Crane, and there, resplendent and profound even to a schoolboy with Saturday morning satchel westering to his spiritual home in Kelvingrove, the sublime and holy art of Sir Stanley Spencer for the goodness and benefit of all humanity to enrich our spirituality and sexuality because it was about sex, Christ (Resurrection!) I’d worked that out at a very early age, because that’s what it’s been about all along, that’s how everything keeps coming back to the glorious and beautiful resurrection which shall await everyone who deserves it and in whom I believe and have never ceased to believe.
A cut-off point. Abrupt.
Life before it’s lived.
But not life before it’s ended.
Wednesday, May 05, 2004
“I could afford to be arrogant if I wanted,” chuckles an impossibly youthful-looking Sir Joe Meek, gazing out from the top floor of his recently refurbished Triumph plc Studios in Holloway, “but I realise that a lot of what I’ve achieved in my career has been down to luck as well as my skills, such as they are. I’ve had a lot of bad breaks followed by an avalanche of good ones. Most people buckle under the bad ones. I ought to know – I nearly did.”
Looking back at Sir Joe’s remarkable career, it’s easy to forget how close he came to a nervous breakdown in early 1967. His run of pop hits had dried up and he was in imminent danger of eviction and bankruptcy. “God it was depressing,” he reflects. “I’d wake up every morning and argue myself into existing for another day. That is if my landlady didn’t start the arguing first. I didn’t feel I was getting anywhere. The money from ‘Telstar’ was tied up in a court case, money wasn’t coming in elsewhere because I wasn’t getting any hits, I was doing drugs – I really felt like packing the whole thing in, and I don’t just mean the music business. Everything seemed dead or in the past to me.”
As everyone knows, salvation came in the unlikely shape of Kenneth Williams, with whom Meek was in the tendency of socialising in the Holloway area around that time (“Don’t forget, it was only made legal towards the end of ’67…”). Impressed by his performance in the 1963 Home Service production of Gogol’s Diary Of A Madman, Columbia Records had asked Williams whether he wanted to turn this into an album.
“They had strange ideas,” remembers Sir Kenneth, now 78. “I think when they heard the original BBC broadcast they were interested in the sound design as much as, if not more than, my actual performance of the text. So Columbia wanted me to come into the studio and redo it as a record, but they wanted to update the background – ‘make it more psychedelic,’ I was told at the time, though of course then I didn’t have the faintest idea what that meant. But it seemed as though they wanted the sound design to be a bit more far out, to mirror the narrator’s gradual mental disintegration. When I asked about who was going to oversee the production of all this, they suggested Joe, whom I knew vaguely from the gay scene of the time, as someone who was good at producing interesting noises. I was sufficiently intrigued to say yes. And I’m glad I did because that experience really opened a door for me – before then I was going nowhere in all these farcical comedies, Carry On and what have you, and I was getting pretty frustrated about it I can tell you. I was just past forty and just about ready for the scrapheap, or at least that’s how I felt. But after doing Diary Of A Madman with Joe, I felt less pent-up about trying new and different things and I came out of it with a determination to improve my skills and develop myself as a proper actor, not just some lard-faced raconteur. Hard to know where I’d be today if I hadn’t taken the chance and done it.”
Williams’ career – including his surprise 1973 best actor Oscar for his performance in Death In Venice – is of course well documented. And, on Diary Of A Madman, Meek also enlisted the musical aid of a group of Cambridge art students who would become as closely identified with him as the Beatles with Lord Martin – Pink Floyd.
“They were a fairly standard blues band of the period,” recalls Meek, “but Syd in particular was interested in stretching the music out. He was listening to Stockhausen, Coltrane, all sorts, and that was very much the direction in which he wanted to push the group. In particular he was very interested in sonic manipulation – getting weird effects out of his guitar, the use of pure feedback, etc. – which I suppose must have been a consequence of Hendrix coming over here. It took a while but the rest of the band slowly followed his lead. And when I was looking for musicians to work on Diary Of A Madman, Pink Floyd sprang immediately to mind.”
Diary Of A Madman caused a sensation when it was released in March 1967. Hailed as the first true British psychedelic album almost by default, it notoriously sent the Beatles, then ensconced in Abbey Road recording Sgt Pepper, into a tizzy. “Our mouths dropped open when we heard the playback,” remembers Paul McCartney. “It was like, how the hell are we going to top this? We’re sitting here doing jolly little songs about traffic wardens and old age pensioners – clarinets, if you will – and we knew immediately that that wasn’t the way forward.” Thus the astonishing Sgt Pepper album which emerged, and which blew virtually all of pop music apart in that summer of 1967 with its extraordinary tracks such as “Carnival Of Light,” “A Day In The Life” and “Revolution #9.”
It certainly caused Meek’s shares to go up. Soon afterwards, he and Pink Floyd locked themselves away in the Holloway Road studio to record their classic double album debut Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, with side four given over to the 25 glorious minutes of “Interstellar Overdrive.” Says Meek, “It pretty much gave me a kick up the arse; I knew that I didn’t necessarily have to stay with pop, that I could go and explore different and new territories and that somehow I’d still find an audience. I think the experience was good for the band as well. I was very old-school strict with them; no drugs, no booze. One day Syd came in with some funny-looking pills which he said some German mates had given him. I took one look at them and immediately flushed them down the toilet. Syd was just about ready to take a swing at me, but ever since then he’s thanked me for doing that, almost on a daily basis.”
Further extremes were to come. In 1967 Pink Floyd shared management with the then already notorious improvising collective AMM, and it was on the direct recommendation of Syd Barrett that Meek was approached to produce AMM’s second album for Elektra Records. Remembers AMM percussionist Eddie Prevost: “Joe didn’t just produce it, he effectively became our fifth member. The nuances of his production – done live, on the spot – gave our music a new dimension in which to move, more sounds to manipulate and nurture.”
The Crypt became a surprise bestseller, the essential record to be seen with in every student bedsit, a Top 3, gold album in the UK, and a declared influence on Hendrix’s approach to production on Electric Ladyland. Suddenly Joe Meek gained the reputation of the most happening, avant-garde record producer in Britain, if not the world. And while he was busy breaking sonic boundaries with Pink Floyd and AMM, he was continuing to produce equally extraordinary pop hits, including “Fire” by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Scott Walker’s groundbreaking number one hit of February 1969, “The Electrician” (“Scott was screaming for my services! Joe’s the only one who will understand where I’m going with this! He probably could have done the job just as well himself, as he’s proved on his records since then”).
With the “Telstar” court case finally resolving itself in his favour in July 1968, Meek’s royalties were unfrozen and he received a welcome flow of several million pounds into his bank account. “Nothing could stop me then,” he recalls. “It was the ideal opportunity to upgrade the old Holloway studios. I was able to buy the whole building outright – as well as pay for a nice cottage for my long-suffering landlady to retire to! – whereupon I gutted the place, completely refurbished the studios and made it as state-of-the-art as I could. I think I had the first polyphonic Moog synthesiser in England.”
Among the lengthening queue of musicians queuing up outside his doors for a touch of that Meek magic was David Bowie. “David was at a bit of a loose end by ’69,” says Meek. “He’d been knocking around the fringes of the scene for so long, no one was taking him seriously any more. He had this song about being an astronaut, and having heard songs I’d done like ‘Sky Men,’ thought I’d be the ideal person to arrange and produce it. He was very worried about turning into an Anthony Newley for the ‘70s, with the working men’s clubs but without any money or career to speak of. He didn’t want ‘Space Oddity’ to be a cheesy novelty.
“So I really worked on it for him, put everything I could think of into the pot. I got Keith Rowe to play that amazing guitar line which sounds like 20,000 pods exploding in gravity-free silence. Echoes, backward phasing…as far out as it was possible to get in 1969. And it got to number one. He trusted me after that.”
In fact, Bowie trusted Meek enough to let him oversee most of his classic early albums – 1971’s Ziggy Stardust, for example, with its startling number one single “Boys Keep Swinging.” And all the while Meek continued to develop his close relationship with Pink Floyd, culminating in their record-breaking 1972 epic Kid A – a pioneering album which ran the gamut of sonics, involving the participation of a 190-strong line-up of Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra on one track, and the entirety of side two being performed by the band on household objects. In the grey autumn of 1972, Kid A struck a resonant chord, giving Meek a double albums and singles number one, as it topped the album chart the same week as Lieutenant Pigeon’s “Mouldy Old Dough” – virtually a throwback to Meek’s Tornados days - made it to the top of the singles chart.
When punk came along, Meek was immediately sought out by Malcolm McLaren to produce the first Sex Pistols records. However, Meek got on particularly well with John Lydon – who admitted that his “I Hate AMM” T-shirt was ironic – and as such was instrumental in the startling personnel changes which saw Steve Jones and Glen Matlock replaced by Keith Levene and Jah Wobble (Meek: “I mean, I turned down the Beatles in ’62, silly fool that I was – why would I want to produce them again?”) and even more instrumental in the era-defining first Sex Pistols album, Metal Box (1977), with its songs like “God Save The Queen” (which, as number one in Jubilee week, kept another Meek production – Hot Chocolate’s “Put Your Love In Me” – off the top), “Death Disco,” “Poptones” and “Submission” which forged a decisive way out for the cul-de-sac which punk was then already becoming.
Work with the Damned, Alternative TV and Magazine followed – how different would the latter’s “Permafrost” have sounded without Meek’s inspired input? – and he was also responsible for producing the original RCA demos of Joy Division, though the band demurred from using him as producer of their debut album (“too much fookin’ Kraftwerk and Moroder, not enough Iggy!”). Trevor Horn, a session bass player on some of Meek’s mid-‘70s hits (for example, Tina Charles’ 1976 number one “Search And Destroy”) and later a studio apprentice of Meek’s, certainly took many of Meek’s lessons to heart when embarking on his own production career (Meek was the arranger on Dollar’s “Give Me Back My Heart” and Propaganda’s “P.Machinery,” and judging by his epic work on the Pet Shop Boys’ “Rent,” Meek later seemed to have learned something from Horn in return).
In recent years Sir Joe has concentrated on recording contemporary classical and improvised music (“Those royalties have to be put to some use; you can’t shove all of it up your nose!”) though in 2003 made a surprise return to his early ‘60s roots with his production work on the White Stripes’ Elephant album (“they came to me and asked if we could make it exactly as I would have done in 1963. Naïve pair – I had to explain to them that it wasn’t quite that simple, but I think they were more than satisfied with the results”). However, of his recent work he will probably be best known for his astonishing sound design for the films of David Lynch – he won an Oscar for his innovative “score” to Blue Velvet (Lynch: “I’d been listening to I Hear A New World quite a lot and wanted the bones of the music to be re-gutted, like a candle, only middleweight”) and his seamless fusion of abstract sonics and pure song for Mulholland Dr. has rightly been adopted as a template for future development, although, as Meek says: “It was only the logical development of what I’d started with the KLF when they asked me to produce their Chill Out album. It was a bizarre experience, trying to resuscitate Acker Bilk…” Living in domestic harmony with his partner of 20 years, the playwright Lord Orton of Leicester, one suspects that the best of Joe Meek is yet to come.
Monday, April 05, 2004
We think we know David Essex. We have him pinned down as a slightly less naff ‘70s equivalent of Robbie Williams, all self-deprecating cheeky chappie grins with an actorly luvvie overlay. But we need to think again, because the six albums he made for CBS between 1973-77 have now been reissued in three two-albums-per-CD editions – respectively paired as his first and fourth (Rock On and the for-hardcore-fans-only live On Tour album), second and fifth (David Essex and Out On The Street) and third and sixth (All The Fun Of The Fair and Gold & Ivory) albums, presumably for commercial reasons; one album with hits on it and another with no hits on it. However, we can safely say that on the basis of these five studio albums, David Essex’s music of the ‘70s really was fucking weird.
Take, for instance, his 1973 breakthrough smash “Rock On.” Rarely has such a nostalgic record sounded so futuristic, and yet somehow lost (“Where do we go from here?/Which is the way that’s clear?,” those “ups” and “downs” which bounce. muttering, between channels) And credit is sorely overdue to Essex’s visionary producer Jeff Wayne, who with his dub spaces and raised-eyebrow strings, is the missing link between Norman Whitfield and Lee Perry, taking the logistics of proto-dub to even more minimalist spaces than Mike Leander managed with Gary Glitter.
Rock On, the album, similarly journeyed to some very strange universes. Laden throughout with backward drums, absurd vocal phasing and guitar barrages, a song like “We All Insane” could pass as an outtake from Eno’s “Here Come The Warm Jets.” And Massive Attack fans may be startled to discover the origin of their “I was looking back to see if you were looking back at me” refrain in Essex’s extraordinarily vicious clenched teeth epic “Streetfight.” Initially straightforward ballads like “Ocean Girl” are diverted by weird orchestral manoeuvres – those Oriental strings again, anticipating both Chic and Soul II Soul. And that’s without even mentioning the stoned music-hall jaunt of “Lamplight,” the least likely of these tracks to be picked as a follow-up single, and yet, in the still relatively open atmosphere of 1973, still comfortably making the top ten.
1974’s self-titled second album was even more bizarre. True, there was the cheerful satire of “Gonna Make You A Star,” with its inadvertent nods to Don Everly’s “Warmin’ Up The Band,” but there was also “Stardust,” far more suicidal than Ziggy, from its opening Cat Power ghost piano chords and never-closer heartbeat to its climactic drowning gongs (fact: to mirror musically the closing “Rock and roll king is DOWN” refrain, percussionist Ray Cooper brought a small bath into the studio, filled it up with water, struck his gong and then lowered it into the bath to produce that “falling star” effect) and the mindbending proto-industrial urban nightmare of “Windows” which almost outdoes Nine Inch Nails in its brutality, culminating in a cacophony of police sirens and a child’s voice screaming “Mummy!” Meanwhile, “Good Ol’ Rock And Roll” pounds along like an outtake from the first Roxy album, guitarist Chris Spedding and saxophonist Alan Wakeman in a splendidly barbed, bad-tempered mood.
All The Fun Of The Fair (1975) has Essex on its cover standing at the fairground entrance, Romany shirtsleeves rolled up, looking vaguely like Too-Rye-Ay-era Kevin Rowland, grinning maniacally on the cover, as if he’s about to slit your throat. The album’s concept was to evoke the darker realities behind the fairground’s superficial brightness. Indeed, on the title track Essex snarls his welcome and the list of dubious attractions (it’s like “Let Me Entertain You” done by Nick Cave), and musically it builds up to the point of catharsis where the band, led by Spedding’s guitar and Mike Garson’s piano, sounding as if they thought they were on a John Cale session, explodes into an all-out atonal freeform pile-up as Essex screams, proto-Lydon, “Let’s take a rrrrrrIDE!”). The noise segues directly into the jolly grannies’ favourite “Hold Me Close,” and this segue remains one of the most startling in all of pop; it will certainly make you view the cheeky-chappie chart-topper in a radically different light, especially as it segues out again into the dark thrashing of “Circles.” The ballad “If I Could” (also a single) is a slightly more optimistic first cousin of Cale’s “I Keep A Close Watch” but as tremulous and uncertain as Bedingfield’s “If You’re Not The One.” The fanciful dream of domesticity and happiness (“When I come home from work/I’ll change me shirt”) is wiped out by the closing, massive synth chord which sounds like an icepick stabbing his hope to death. And then the clearly Whitfield-inspired “Rolling Stone” with Essex and backing singers The Real Thing both fighting to stay sane – “A long way from HOOOOOOOOMMMMMEEEE,” they howl in the chorus like mortally wounded coyotes, another strange mirror of the tottering, collapsing female backing vocals (“DIEEEEEEEEE!”) on Cale’s version of “Heartbreak Hotel.” And this, incredibly, was a top five single.
But Out On The Street (1976) is Essex’s stomach-clenching, gasp-inducing masterpiece; 47 minutes of nervous breakdown set to music – almost the Sister Lovers of glam – from the slow death of the ten-minute title track (“PIMPS and PONCES!”) via the terrifying faux-glee of “Just Wanna Dance” (listen to that extended fadeout, with Essex desperately trying to stay afloat – “I wanna dance! Like Barry White! Do the Hokey Cokey!” – and the curiously carnal, Steve Harley-ish non-hit single “Ooh Love” (“Pink gin? Cheers!”) through to the exacerbating seven-minute death disco of “City Lights,” with its bassline which, shall we say, anticipates “Guns Of Brixton,” and a sax riff which gives us a preview of Wayne’s “Eve Of The War.” Essex sounds hoarse and near-psychotic throughout. This is the album which Robbie Williams is yet to make.
After that, Essex tried his hand at self-production in 1977’s back to basics Gold & Ivory. Although musically far more conservative, the element of doubt is still present in songs like “Good Morning (Darling)” – perhaps the most chilling song Essex has ever written, depicting the troubled state of an unloved wife composing goodbye letters to her husband in her mind, but who on every occasion (that small “OK” at 3:48 which turns the entire premise of the song around) decides against escaping and sentences herself to living death. Richard Hewson’s subtle string arrangement echoes the dilemmas tearing her head apart. The album also includes the remarkable requiem “Britannia,” in its own way as punk as anything else in 1977 (“Complacency shat in your eye”).
Think you know David Essex? I would recommend that you explore this extraordinary body of work – rather than an East End Donny Osmond, he was pop’s answer to Peter Hammill and Kevin Coyne. Listen to Hammill’s The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage, then follow it up with, say, Out On The Street, and think again.
Wednesday, March 03, 2004
“Fleetwood Mac is subverting the music from the inside out, very much like one of John Le Carre’s moles – who, planted in the heart of the establishment, does not begin his secret campaign of sabotage and betrayal until everyone has gotten used to him, and takes him for granted.”
(Greil Marcus’ review of Tusk by Fleetwood Mac, Rolling Stone, October 1979)
That is certainly neither the first nor last time that Fleetwood Mac – or, to be precise, Lindsey Buckingham – will be yanked into perspectival cohabitation with British improv on this website. Kenny Wheeler himself would almost certainly deny being a mole. He has described his big band compositions as an attempt to “write soppy melodies, laced with a bit of chaos.” Frustratingly – not least, I expect, for Wheeler – in the 36 years of his big band’s intermittent existence they have only been documented thrice on record, and for the last 14 years the only one available has been the most recent, ECM’s Music For Large And Small Ensembles (1990). The mastertapes of the other two, 1968’s The Windmill Tilter – made, strictly speaking, under the aegis and with the personnel of John Dankworth’s big band – and 1974’s Song For Someone (Incus 10, as was), had long been thought lost.
Gloriously, however, the mastertapes of the latter seem to have resurfaced as Song For Someone, Wheeler’s greatest big band record and one of the key British big band jazz/improv records of the last 40 years, has now been remastered by one of its key participants, Evan Parker, together with Martin Davidson, and is imminently due for reissue on the psi label. Having waited the best part of 25 years for this music to be made available again, this author almost wept when he saw the CD in his mailbox (for that is the prerogative of the music lover) – it is the equivalent of Celine and Julie Go Boating popping up as a Sunday matinee at the Clapham Picture House – and as equally blown away by the record (Melody Maker’s 1974 Jazz Album Of The Year!) as he was when he first heard it.
Examining the list of musicians playing on Song For Someone, one is instantly drawn towards the question: “Could a record/band like this possibly be made/exist now?” As with Tippett’s Centipede or Guy’s LJCO, however, the seemingly disparate castlist represents a gathering of the musicians with whom the bandleader had worked most closely in different musical contexts. In the case of Kenny Wheeler, this meant incorporating musicians whom he knew from his hard-bop days in the ‘50s and early-mid ‘60s and with whom he had associated in the various large ensembles of Dankworth, Harry South and Tubby Hayes – for instance, Ian Hamer, Keith Christie and Alan Branscombe; on the surface some of the unlikeliest names ever to appear on an Incus record – combined with his hardcore improv associates such as Parker, Derek Bailey and Tony Oxley, and those who at the time (January 1973, recorded a fortnight before my ninth birthday) had a foot in both camps (Mike Osborne, Chris Pyne, Malcolm Griffiths, Ron Mathewson, John Taylor).
In fact Wheeler admits himself in his brief sleevenote that the aim of his big band was to bring together “special musicians from and into different areas of jazz…that is, the idea of the musicians came first, then the music.” Nonetheless, the band still had to function as a big band, which meant that a cast of strong ensemble players had to be formed to work with (and sometimes against) the more flexible improvisers, but also that the ensemble players themselves were sufficiently flexible and open-minded to dip a toe into freer areas. Useful comparisons can be made with Tubby Hayes’ 1969 fusion of big band jazz and free improv, 200% Proof, in which many of these musicians, including Wheeler, were involved. In both cases the musical architecture proves both imposing and loose, ready to change mood at a second’s notice.
But with Song For Someone there is a more gradual and insidious process of radicalisation which makes itself apparent throughout the suite’s 43 minutes. The album begins with the hard-hitting big band blast of “Toot Toot”; a restlessly swinging minor key theme jacked up to the point of anxiety by the superb writing for the iron men who constitute the trumpet section (Greg Bowen on lead, Hamer, Dave Hancock and Wheeler) and its counterbalance with the brilliant use of the voice of Norma Winstone as another horn – fittingly, on the personnel listing, Winstone gets second billing below Wheeler himself, listed with the horns. Although instrumentally the personnel is reminiscent of Gil Evans – heavy on mid and lower range brass (five trombones and a tuba) and light on saxophones (just three) – musically the writing tends more towards the Bill Russo/Bob Graettinger side of things, with forceful brass (no mutes were deployed in the making of this album) and, the occasional flute notwithstanding, no woodwind doubling-up. Thus the writing has a very pronounced emotional impact.
There are also two electric pianos – played by Branscombe (who seems to be on the right channel) and Taylor (on the left), which may be an askew nod to electric Miles but are put to slightly less ambient use here. On “Toot Toot,” Branscombe (on acoustic piano) takes up the thematic lead immediately for his solo, ducking and diving with Oxley’s wonderfully insolent guess-which-accent’s-coming-next drumming (the sort of thing which makes me wish he still did more of the straight big band drumming – he is absolutely brilliant at it, as indeed he is in his better-known improvising environments. Then Wheeler takes over for one of his trademark elliptical-but-mournful solos, sprightly jumping octaves like an uncertain leveret hopping across the cornfields at dawn hoping not to get shot. Finally, Taylor muses briefly at his Fender Rhodes before the theme comes back in. Note, however, how Oxley’s drumming is already indicating to us that this album isn’t going to go the way you think it might.
“Ballad Two” begins with one of those sombre brass chorales – no wonder David Sylvian was so keen to work with Wheeler; there are certain melodic and harmonic overlaps in the former’s writing – which resolves itself into a slightly slower 4/4 saunter. There’s an elegant solo by who I assume is Dave Horler, on valve trombone (irritatingly the sleeve, as with the original, doesn’t list individual soloists – most are, of course, easily guessable, but clarification of the contributions of the trombonists in particular would have been helpful). This leads to a balletic aqueous duet by Branscombe and Taylor, then a more reflective solo from Wheeler’s flugelhorn and finally a statement from the gorgeously warm-toned tenor sax of Duncan Lamont – though hear the next warning sign as the trumpets peak with a dissonant chord, flinging Lamont, Taylor, Mathewson and Oxley into semi-free territory. Lamont, however, is unshakeable, insists on some order as he improvises intelligently on the melody (rather than the chords) and interacts very subtly indeed with the rhythm section (hear especially his deadpan responses to Mathewson’s occasional frenzied arco leaps) – in best Warne Marsh-with-Tristano style, he is left to take the piece out on his own.
Then there is the very brief and beautiful title track, almost unbearable in its air of grieving, Winstone’s voice and Taylor’s piano anchoring the brass from different angles.
More sombre electric piano rumblings lead us into the bright waltz of “Causes Are Events,” but no sooner has the first thematic statement climaxed than Parker roars out of the traps on soprano for a free skirmish with Oxley. Even with the benefit of three decades’ hindsight and familiarity with the different strands of Britjazz and Britimprov, it’s still a startling climactic change, more so to be reminded of just how feral Parker’s playing could be at this stage in his career – his soprano spluttering out gnarled curlicues, rhythmic momentum still, I think, having the upper hand over motivic development (though the latter, if you listen closely enough, is in evidence). Oxley’s response is restrained; shadow-boxing Parker’s testimony.
The band then returns, thematic statements alternating with freely improvising subdivisions – compare with the various bands-within-a-band approaches used by Westbrook on Metropolis, another project involving Wheeler – now giving way to a partly free improvisation led by what sounds like Chris Pyne on trombone (what, one wonders, did the late Keith Christie, veteran of several Humphrey Lyttleton bands and the Christie Brothers Stompers, make of all this? Quite a lot, I suppose, otherwise he wouldn’t have been there), later to a substantially more troubled conversation between the two electric pianos. It is as though the darkening clouds are slowly encroaching upon the music’s original brightness.
Even this does not prepare us, however, for the album’s centrepiece and masterpiece, the 15-minute “The Good Doctor,” on which Parker and Bailey appear in full flow. They in fact begin the piece with some low-key free duetting – a modified howlin’ wolf blues for coyotes lost on the postmodern prairie – and one of the piece’s several moments of punctum occurs as the great, ominous wall of low brass slowly ascends into view behind them, the thematic statement shared between Winstone’s voice and Bowen’s elegant lead trumpet, and improvised upon by Wheeler’s increasingly agonised flugelhorn. Bailey’s guitar at times sounds as if it is weeping.
Then the piece modifies into a 6/8 electric piano-driven groove. The second theme – part-Spanish, part-Eastern sounding – is stated successively by flute/valve trombone/voice (Lamont/Horler/Winstone), lead trumpet/alto sax/voice (Bowen/Osborne/Winstone) and finally by the whole brass section. The impact is maddeningly exciting and overwhelming, Oxley’s drumming all the time stirring up the intensity even further. Finally the clouds part briefly for another solo trombonist – unmistakably Malcolm Griffiths – to declaim as the brass and rhythm continue to build up and burn behind him.
As this section climaxes, Branscombe and Taylor take us into a more conventional, though still far more complex than it sounds, 4/4 minor theme. Oxley and Mathewson continue to stoke up the steam as Mike Osborne steps forward to solo on alto, eventually bursting into free territory as he furiously trades blows with Oxley’s forceful percussion.
(And, incidentally, while I’m here, wouldn’t it be nice if the Thom Yorkes or Damon Albarns of this world who profess an interest in leftfield music could donate some of their considerable income to Hazel Miller over at Ogun Records so that we could have a Mike Osborne box set in the style of the superb Harry Miller tribute box set issued some five years ago? No, but wouldn’t it?)
Now worlds away from “Toot Toot,” this would be enough to climax any normal post-Ornette jazz record, but the intensity now climbs to a virtually unbearable peak as, following another brass fanfare, Parker (on tenor), Bailey and Oxley thrash their way back in to blow a beyond-awesome free meltdown. It’s still an electric shock to hear it on headphones; as a ten-year-old I remember running behind the sofa when I first heard it (this having been the first I had heard of Parker, Bailey or Oxley playing) – I was actually scared of it. And when, at the piece’s end, great cliffs of brass return against which Parker howls and screams in the trusty Pharaoh-with-Mantler’s-JCOA tradition, it is as if the entire history of jazz – fuck it, the entire universe - is being pulled down with them.
Nothing for it now except the finale “Nothing Changes,” a song sung straight by Norma Winstone which could comfortably fit onto any Desmond Carrington programme – the necessary calm after the phenomenal storm. Again, a gorgeous harmonic path down which Winstone muses (the lyrics are hers) about the nature of radicalism and newness. We have experienced catharsis and overthrow and now it is time for consoildation and meditation. But what a fantastic singer Winstone is – the punctum here comes at 3:33; the way she sings and stretches out the syllable “sad” in the line “things that will sadden you” as if she could lament no more gravely.
Listen to the whole thing and you will wonder why so many kudos are given to the well-meaning-but-let’s-be-honest-Dankworth-was-doing-this-in-1960 Matthew Herbert Big Band (much as I love most other things which the good Dr Rockit does) when Song For Someone remains stunningly contemporary in outlook, construct and delivery – all the more so when you consider how close to impossible it would be for a record like this to be made in today’s comfortably sectioned-off tapestries of music. A band which by contemporary parallels might include, say, Courtney Pine, Jamie Cullum and THF Drenching…you might need someone with the diplomacy and adventure of, ooh, Lindsey Buckingham to pull that one off.