Wednesday, 31 October 2007

HOLYFUCK: Lovely Allen


I have no idea whether they mean Woody or Lily or Ginsberg, but it is one of the great instrumentals of recent times. The Toronto duo’s LP is Rough Trade’s current best seller and a startling spectacle it is too; Neu! filtered through Lightning Bolt with a touch of Martin Rev, hardcore but clean avant-dronerock. “Lovely Allen,” however, is the standout track and TV companies should be elbowing each other out of the way with electrified Bulgarian Army surplus cattle prods to get to use it as a theme tune. Starting with a electrified radio scan replica, guest Owen Pallett’s string motif is immediately taken up by the keyboards, which in turn are joined by Loel Campbell’s mighty drums and Michael Bigelow’s thudding, continent-demolishing fuzz of a bass to form a huge anthem which I fully expect to hear played at next year’s Olympics. Over the underlay, ecstatic noise guitar sweeps the sky with rollerskate tinsel. It makes you want to summon the rays of the new beneficent light from the summit of the Ark building in Hammersmith! Best of all perhaps is the closing section where Pallett’s stately strings abruptly come into elegant focus before being scorched by 1972 Eno synth/oscillator whooshes, a bass now so fuzzy you could comb Mount Rushmore’s hair with it and a guitar nearly beyond the remit of any non-general assembly. It ends with trails of ARP comets, like the promise of “Telstar” finally, if belatedly, fulfilled.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

MIKE REID: Freezin' Cold In 89 Twoso


Possibly the nearest that seventies British mainstream comedy-but-with-music got to its own Finnegan’s Wake, this song began life as a huge Continental avant-dance hit – “Prisencolinensinainciusol” by Italy’s own Gainsbourg, singer/writer/comedian Adriano Celentano, much played on Luxembourg and in knowledgeable clubs but not a chart hit in Britain, a deliberately mangled, semi-rapped exercise in Italianoinglese which stands somewhere between “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “He’s Gonna Step On You Again” with a lead guitar going systematically berserk in the right channel and an enthusiastically uncomprehending chorus of backing singers.

For reasons long since submerged, somebody at Pye Records decided that it would be a good idea to do a “British” cover version, and assigned the task to Mike Reid, who at the time of his untimely passing this summer was best known as Frank Butcher in EastEnders but then was still an up and coming cheeky Cockney comic who looked inpatient to escape the frilly shirt/bowtie identity parade; he was perhaps best known in the seventies for his intermittent stewardship of the children’s TV game show Runaround in which he made no secret of his contempt for both contestants and audience (“Migraine, MIGRAINE!” he would howl when the cheering got too fervent). In 1975 he even scored a top ten hit with his Cock-er-nee update of “The Ugly Duckling” (another result for Junior Choice).

But the re-Anglicisation which emerged as “Freezin’ Cold In 89 Twoso” is if anything even stranger than Celentano’s original. The lead guitar here is noticeably more polite, mainly sticking to reasonably funky chordalities, but the “Magic Fly” synths seem ready to suck all of the participants out into a parallel asteroid belt. Meanwhile Reid’s hoarse Stepney hugeness belting out frankly indecipherable lyrics (“When I sing the toon I call Mrs Mangle and I hurry maybe for a cuppa sometime” is a completely uneducated attempt at the first line, and the second - "Brrrrr chickens in my head a-keep the cold hold baby Suzy yeah Little Joe!") suggests what might have happened if Jimmy Pursey had been kidnapped at an impressionable age, taken to Manchester and pressganged into joining the Happy Mondays, a feeling enhanced by his occasional asides of “Little Joe - right on!,” his dip into cabaret/pub singing in the final chorus and the inevitable insertion of his then catchphrase “TRIFFIC!” (there was even a Triffic chocolate bar in brief existence). It gives the impression of some very peculiar purple fluid having been poured into the barrels round the back of the Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club and is the seldom acknowledged accidental surreal masterpiece of its age, flapping awkwardly between Pete and Dud’s “The L.S. Bumble Bee” and Alexei Sayle’s “’Ullo John, Gotta New Motor?” He ends by attempting to join in with the closing harmony chorus but they are out of his range so he instead offers impersonations of incipient constipation before breaking into fits of sinister giggles to fade. The man is much missed.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

ROISIN MURPHY: Overpowered


Overpowered, the album, looks to its cutlery bones like a ZTT record; royal blue borderlines, a vicious pink centre (phenomenal!) and at the front, Roisin beaming knowingly at the camera, seated in a working man’s café with appreciably greasy full English on her table; the other visible customers do their best to ignore the fact that she is dressed in the bright red costume of a medieval court jester. Judging by its decidedly undersold profile in the capital’s record shops this weekend, it may well follow antecedents like Anne Pigalle and ACT into the rapid bargain bins; a gesture of primary colour wasted on a world happy with, and in, grey – most of the major record shop front spaces were occupied by the new record from exciting, forward-looking Welsh Conservative pub rockers the Stereophonics.

I am not entirely sure whether Overpowered, the album, is a classic or a dud, but since I’ve played it half a dozen times in full, and the title track approximately two dozen times, thus far I think I may veer towards the former. As with Moloko, the overwhelming impression is one of punctum Eurythmics – where Dave and Annie could have gone after Into The Garden if they’d kept a little more Holger Czukay and a lot more Grace Jones instead of trading them in for a lot more Elkie Brooks and a little more Ronnie Wood – or a properly golden Goldfrapp; the CD design is beautifully pretentious, encompassing highly relevant texts from Beckett (“For Murphy had such an irrational heart that no physician could get to the root of it”), Douglas Adams (“He hoped and prayed that there wasn’t an afterlife”) and Laurie Anderson, who gets the credit for dancing about architecture, as well as parallel views of Sheffield and Lady’s Bridge – the missing link between Richard Hawley and Relaxed Muscle – fish, One From The Heart, sausages and CORRECTED*.

Other than that, “Scarlet Ribbons” is wonderfully vermillion skank-folk for those nights now fairly drawing in, “Tell Everybody” is so perfectly weighted as a pop song that one almost regrets its premature retreat, and there is more to be discovered…but the title track currently owns everything. “When I think that I’m over you,” she coos, “I’m overpowered” as the rhythm line comes in, drawing the expected line from Kraftwerk through to Bangalter, with Air poignant sparks of melody and trying to avoid ecstasy by detailing chemical reactions and biological quarks as the stuff of life (“Your data, my data,” pronounced in the manner of “tomatoes” and “tomatoes” of old); there are “amarant feelings” and “a cognitive state,” but it’s no use; those lustrous Chic synth bells chime their way in as Murphy surrenders to her better instincts (“It’s long overdue,” she shivers). “As science struggles on to try to explain,” she perorates like a Lennox reborn in Billy MacKenzie’s trunk, “Oxytocins flowing ever into my brain” (“Kissing the love object”, she notes on the sleeve, “causes the hormone oxytocin to explode like a firework display in the brain”) and she ends up gladly unwilling to explain anything: “Alien feelings – me have to accept.” Grandiose yet tactile, quivering but vulnerable, “Overpowered” ends in a ghostly resolution of divergent harmonies like the sun daring to shine through the half-submerged porthole (why do I think of the end of American Music Club’s “Last Harbour”? Why not?). Beautiful, sublime and bifurcating endlessly onto the scrolls of new, Roisin again proves that there’s no limit to where the bop will stop – and “who would’ve expected this?” Book your pool of light while the offer stands.

Monday, 22 October 2007

ROBERT WYATT: Out Of The Blue


Like The Drift, Wyatt’s new album Comicopera seems to have been consciously undersold by its reviewers. The now familiar landmines of three stars (for devotees only) and the re-employment of the word “experimental” as a pejorative glisten like newly rained upon roadkill, even though Wyatt’s methodology is the same “experiment” which he has been carrying on for nearly four decades. While Wyatt continues to be “respected,” it is in the same, nervy way as Walker; just as secretly they only want Scott wearing his 41-year-old cloak of loneliness, they desire only the Robert Wyatt of “Shipbuilding” – the tragic story, the plaintive voice singing songs everyone can understand, a cuddly rock Alan Bennett. Such is the continued curse of market economics and the associated pseudo-socialism which insist upon only that brand of art which is “easy to understand,” and condemn any art which suggests more complex and painful patterns as anti-people, and in certain heavily vested corners a global evil comparable with the state capitalism which masqueraded as Communism in the East (although “Marxist” is as a predictable rule always substituted for “state capitalist”).

There is very little of comfort about Comicopera; indeed it may be Wyatt’s most unsparing record since The End Of An Ear (but again, how contemptuously ironic is the term “Wyatting,” an act – if act it be – of contempt towards the minds and hearts of ordinary people, and if its purpose is to clear pubs, then doesn’t the perpetrator, in the end, despise the music as much as he would like everyone else to?). Divided into three parts, the first (Lost In Noise) is for this listener the hardest going, not because of its frequently lovely music – “Just As You Are,” a carefully barbed but fear-filled duet between Wyatt and Monica Vasconcelos, is one of the most spellbindingly beautiful songs he has ever written – but because of its unwinding account of a collapsing love and the final ghosts which herald loneliness; “A.W.O.L.” is scarcely bearable in its pitiless account of “the tick and the tock of the damnable clock” (cf. “The little clock’s stopped ticking now/We’re swallowed in the stomach room”) ticking its hapless protagonist a few further seconds towards solitary death. I do not intend it as an insult to Wyatt if I say that I don’t have any room for this kind of thing in my life at the moment, since this is toweringly great music – it’s just that I existed through five years of knowing, smelling, breathing and re-breathing every fibre of that dust-filled room and now I’m breathing fresh air; this I hope separates me from the red-nosed circus acts of the “my life is OK now and therefore this record’s no good” variety which certain, infamous scribes have been allowed to make their stock in trade. I applaud Wyatt for reminding me so gracefully but I will leave the making of it to others more emotionally qualified.

The second “act” (The Here And The Now) starts out as a bemused but amused sixtysomething look at the increasingly absurd world in which he is compelled to live; “A Beautiful Peace” and the self-mocking pro-atheist ode “Be Serious” remind us of Wyatt’s vocal and songwriting debts to Ray Davies, but soon passes towards graver matters; the government’s foreign policy is suitably belittled in “Mob Rule,” cut down to the level of a Town Hall meeting, before “A Beautiful War” – utilising the same tune as “A Beautiful Peace” – begins to chill the blood as the pilot in Iraq prepares to unload his cache of bombs (“Re-live my beautiful day…/How they got no time to flee/Total success/We’ll all be free”).

And then, in “Out Of The Blue” – this album’s “Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road” – it all blows apart; an uncompromising, arduous drone of synthesised choirs (Eno’s sampled voice combined with Wyatt’s sampled voice) hum down the eaves of destruction as Wyatt, with plaintive ire, delivers his lyric to a descending tune which could have come straight out of 1967 (“Secret” by Virgin Sleep?). Behind and around him, Annie Whitehead’s multiple trombones, as free as I’ve ever heard her play, fulfil the Mongezi Feza role, cascading, sliding and screaming in torrents (Gilad Atzmon’s solemn tenor honks acting as an anchor), while Wyatt surveys the beautiful day from the perspective of the victim – “Something unbelievable has happened to the floor,” “The upper storey’s out of reach/The stair’s no longer there.” Finally he settles into an intense chant of “You’ve planted your everlasting hatred in my heart.” It is virtually the last thing he sings on the record in discernible English.

In the final section (Away From The Fairies) he escapes, finds both rebellion and refuge in other languages; singing songs of unceasing battle for justice and a better world in Italian (“Del Mondo”) or Spanish; the Lorca interpretation (“Cancion de Julieta”) is a melancholic tour-de-force, Chucho Merchan’s multiple bowed basses acting as a viciously slicing string section while Wyatt demonstrates that his trumpet playing continues to improve in leaps and bounds, though he wisely avoids Feza’s virtuoso triple tonguing in favour of carefully sustained tones of Miles/Chet moodiness (in addition he handles most of the percussion duties on Comicopera; his cymbal work is as slashing and angry as I’ve heard him since the Softs days). Finally, as if to prove that it is we, not he, who have changed, he concludes the recital with a lustrous reading of “Hasta Siempre Comandante,” the folk song sampled by Charlie Haden on his Liberation Music Orchestra recording of “Song For Che” – and, of course, Wyatt covered the latter on Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard a lifetime (32 years) ago. This seems to furnish some hope with which to end the record, but note how the tune finally dissolves into the agonised screams of Maurizio Camardi’s saxophones – remembering not just Gato Barbieri’s contributions to Liberation Music Orchestra, but also that long-term hurt cannot easily be wiped away in the space of an hour. The record’s bosom is broad enough to begin with an Anja Garbarek tune (“Stay Tuned”) and take in an extended piece of avant-ambience (vibraharpist Orphy Robinson’s “Pastafari” which Wyatt compares in his notes to taking a swim), and, like all the best and most lasting of art, doesn’t go for the easy answer.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

EELS: Susan's House


Was this really a top ten hit a decade ago? What were we dreaming? I can remember exactly where we were when we first heard "Susan's House" (and Eels); it was on Saturday mid-evening Radio 1 in one of those calmly golden lazy weekends we used to love. Stuart Maconie played it on his show as a sample off this interesting new album which at that moment was only available on import; we scooted off to HMV in Cornmarket Street Sunday lunchtime and there was one import copy (a bargain at £9!) in the racks. Like all the best music and musicians, it didn't quite fit anywhere in particular - a Boy's Own Cibo Matto with angst instead of recipes? A blackly comedic Beck? - and Beautiful Freak, the album, managed to be simultaneously unsettling and comforting; the Generation X lullaby of the title track ("And I'll be here to see that you don't fade away") is still profoundly moving.

But "Susan's House" got the nerve conduction studies going; a waking dream of a less than golden kind...he walks through this muffled landscape, the music scraping its way through a fog of dread; he sees the crazy old woman smashing bottles, the paramedics stripping down the shot kid, Echo Park, Baywatch seeping into black, crack spammers, the popsicle and the pram...but there's no Travis Bickle vengeance programme at work here; if he starts a little smug ("Nothing hiding behind this picket fence") he ends up furtively watching his own breath ("And I keep walking"). A Strawberry Fields where he wishes none of this was real.

And all of this contrasts with the rest, the pause, the meditation, the pledge to continue until he reaches Susan's house ("She's gonna make it right," "I can't be alone tonight") with the notion that it is far realer than Paolo's Chinese house; the fog clears, the sunshine and blue blink, an old Gladys Knight electric piano beeps a welcome (sampled the wholly appositely titled "Love Finds Its Own Way" - and I didn't have to look that one up) and Mr E becomes plaintive, almost noble; what struck us at the time was how the chorus suddenly turned "Susan's House" into a Blue Nile song...the purity determined not to be contaminated by what stumbles or avoids its path. Let's go in tonight.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

SINEAD O'CONNOR: Success Has Made A Failure Of Our Home


The story that Sinead has offered Britney her home as a refuge is heartwarming, even if the offer is unlikely to be taken up; the right of women to go mad, to break down, and not be ridiculed or vilified for doing so, and even, or especially, to be helped gently back to recovery, cannot be underemphasised, particularly in a world which otherwise shows all the signs of regressing to the Dark Ages. Doherty is cheered; Winehouse is jeered.

Recent interviews find Sinead to have achieved at least some semblance of peace and contentment, and she deserves both more than most. In 1992 the sales of her own psychotherapeutic covers album, Am I Not Your Girl?, were demonstrably hit by the controversy spun around her exercising the democratic right to speak her own mind, and so its unresolved journey from childhood pain to abuse and exploitation was largely missed. “Success” was originally a C&W weepie made famous by Loretta Lynn early in her career; O’Connor and (re)arranger Doug Katsaros leave only the tune intact but change the harmonies and mood entirely. She has suggested that the performance can be viewed as an allegorical statement on prosperous Britain using its monied lever to suppress the Irish; whether it can be applied to her own situation at the time is debatable, though I note the prominent credit to then-husband John Reynolds on drums.

Thus “Success” gets the swooning Broadway treatment with an ominously confident tread of a rhythm which seems to approach from another direction entirely; during verses trumpets and trombones snarl out from unexpected angles, strings shimmer uncertainly in the middleground, and at the point where it looks about to grind to an elegiac halt, with her whispered sob “of our home,” Reynolds kicks the orchestra back towards its systematically more unsettling coda; the song and sentiments now entirely Sinead’s: “I never changed,” “You’re killing me,” and finally a repeated and increasingly frantic rosary of the semi-rhetorical question “Am I not your girl?” as the luxurious surroundings deconstruct behind and to both sides of her, melting into a barrage of free noise as the players steadily break into collective improvisation like a thousand resentful butterflies – not a thousand miles away from the climax of Septober Energy, although these are studio players rather than jazz improvisers per se; still, Lew Soloff is prominent on cackling trumpet, and several of the players were veterans of Mingus’ Let My Children Hear Music sessions (not to mention Bob Carlisle, from Escalator, among the French horns). The catharsis dies down, still unresolved (“Am I not…?”) before an untidy final chord abruptly terminated by the conductor’s whistle. Bulging with emotion and scope never likely to fit into a Top 20 – and yet it did go Top 20 as a single – “Success” marks a success for “our” side, though we should be careful not to wash our hands in unaccountable pools of ecstasy over her grief when the point is to help us to decodify and understand it.

Monday, 8 October 2007

LESTER BOWIE: The Great Pretender


Thinking about Richard Cook, and by extension about Lester Bowie doing “Thriller” as opposed to Jacko – assuming that there even needs to be an “opposition” – reminds me that this Bowie did understand the mechanics and emotions of pop to a sublime degree. Indeed, through his involvement as arranger and lead trumpeter on Fontella Bass’ “Rescue Me,” one could argue that he helped lay the ground on which the werewolf Jackson could prowl. “The Great Pretender,” though, is his key to the pop kingdom. Recorded in June 1981 as the title track of an album he made for ECM – it was released in May 1982, at the height of New Pop, received rave reviews and incredibly (especially from this distance) very nearly charted – Bowie is perceptible on the front cover only as a white-suited wraith, intangible at the far end of a murkily blue pond in the “Atmosphere” dead of night; it is no accident that the album’s final track is entitled “Oh, How The Ghost Sings.”

On the nearly seventeen-minute title track he is accompanied by a group of mainly non-stars; only long-time collaborators Phillip Wilson (drums) and Hamiet Bluiett (baritone sax) would have been well known at the time (as well as the occasional backing vocals of David Peaston and the aforementioned Fontella), and pianist Donald Smith and bassist Fred Williams never seem to have become “big,” which in Smith’s case at least seems an injustice. The Platters original would have been familiar to the teenage Bowie’s turntable – as perhaps was Stan Freberg’s brilliant parody with the recalcitrant jazz session pianist itching to play anything other than “cling-cling-cling” – but Bowie uses the song as a basis for exploring everything he feels about music and his chosen instrument, rather than just pop alone. Certainly the track gives rein to his full range of techniques; opening with Smith’s grave, rumbling piano, Bowie’s trumpet kisses with tremulous intimacy, a tender tribute to Miles, perhaps even an unspecified requiem, leaning close to the listener’s ear, so close you can hear him breathing. Then abruptly he jumps back, increases his volume – and the band evolve, or groan, into being behind him – and interspersing darting, Mongezi Feza-style runs with raspberries, slurs and half-valve burps. This in turn leads to Bowie’s hilarious Freddy Kruger-style slurring/cackling recitation of “Yes, I’m the great pre-TEN-DER!” before he swings the tune into familiar action, complete with authentic 1956 doo-wop piano and sax honks. Even then he refuses to play it straight, with acute octave leaps as though having just sat on a pin cushion, howls, entreaties, slowing the “oh-ah-oh-ah” backing vocal bridge to a funereal crawl before “YEAH!”ing the tune back into focus.

Then he gives way to Bluiett’s solo, as the rhythm section swings into a Brubeckian 3/4 tempo, but even this doesn’t remain stable for too long since Bluiett soon slides into his habitual “tonight Matthew I’m going to be John Surman” upper register squeaks and incontinent freakouts. Smith initially comps deadpan but soon moves into Keith Tippett abstraction, followed by both sax and piano winding in and out of freedom and tune. Bowie re-enters to calm things down, authoritatively authorising Smith’s still rampant piano antics, before taking the temperature yet further down to engage in pointillistic free group interplay; Bluiett briefly roars back into focus for a tumultuous free-for-all but Smith’s piano insistently polices the proceedings, allowing Bowie’s valve manipulation slowly to gather the pieces of the song back together. Bowie teases, hints, doesn’t quite reveal, but finally – and absolutely on cue with a triumphant “YAYYYYY!!!!” goes right back into the tune, on beat and on key. He comes down one final time – Bluiett’s baritone now taking the deadpan comping role – with some sensual trumpet talk, including a brief agitated moment where he seems to be disentangling a pair of underpants from the bell of his horn, before coming back for the final chorus, played with Satchmo pride, and then brings the performance to its natural end, returning gradually to his opening, muted tenderness of remembrance – before signing off with “I’m here, baby! I’m HEEEERRRRE! I’ve arrIIIIIIved!” and ghostly chuckles which exactly parallel those of Vincent Price on the original “Thriller.” He knew how to prowl around pop, all right.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

GEORGE KRANZ: Din Daa Daa (Trommeltanz)


Released right at the end of 1983, and one of the first dance records to pick up on what Art Of Noise were playing at, “Din Daa Daa” is an unprecedented, even on a Sandy Nelson/Cozy Cole/Cozy Powell basis, and unrepeated piece of iced avant-bubblegum. Built around a DAF-type vocal sample of the title, drummer Kranz proceeds to have a mental breakdown, barking, hissing and screeching his drum patterns as he plays them – “boomboomboom BAP DAP do-do BASH!” “Ratatatatatatatataaa rrratatatatatatattt” – sometimes going into prolonged screams, but all the while skilfully building up the tension until the record breaks free of the water to become an oceanic jewel of deep sea synthesisers and a second, longer post-Duck Rock vocal sample for the bassline of the chorus, not that that stops Herr Kranz from shrieking or paradiddling.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, the record remains a guaranteed boggler of any mind, and I have always been quietly been delighted by the fact that it was arranged and produced by Christoph Franke, then still a key member of Tangerine Dream, since if it was Phaedra which first fired up the young Morley’s imagination sufficiently enough to get into music, write about it and eventually produce it, then there’s a lovely completion of the circle as Tangerine Dream derive renewed inspiration from something Morley dreamed up on a wet Wednesday afternoon. Given that an early and seldom heralded member of the Tangs was Peter Brötzmann (what I’d pay to hear tapes of those recordings, if any exist!) I think I can conclude with at least semi-authority that if Han Bennink had ever set out to make a dance record, “Din Daa Daa” would have been it. The breakthrough mid-song is like opening the windows wide on a Arctically cold December morning and letting the whitened sunshine flood your world with implications of warmth.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

P J HARVEY: The Mountain


My first instinctive thought when I heard about White Chalk was: she’s trying to do a Cat Power with her prepared pianos and ruminatively mournful lyrics. But P J Harvey is one of the few artists whose records I still instinctively buy on the basis of trust. Usually she works best at extremes – the labiodental expectorations of Rid Of Me or the unsettled silences of Is This Desire? – and I must say I’m glad that she’s decided to pursue the path opened up by the latter, for me still her most undervalued record. Such gladness, however, is not necessarily balanced out by the will to listen repeatedly, because as stark records go White Chalk is blacker than Dylan Thomas’ Bible; ancient sounding tack pianos, a “broken harp,” caressed or singed zithers, space and crusted pauses, barely coaxing itself over half an hour. And there are scores to settle, with families who didn’t want her, with grandmothers she misses, hammers into heads, conveyor belts and Dorset, a future as hopeless as Tess’ or Jude’s.

“The Mountain” is the final track and offers climax but no redemption. Pianos ripple a riff which would have given Kate E Mellower or Kate E Turnstile a hit in a different, whiter arrangement, but Harvey simply lets the riff ripple into its own stagnant pool. She stretches the words – the eagle calling the faltering soldier on the mountain, prey or saviour? – in a manner familiar to anyone who knows the Julie Tippetts of Sunset Glow. As the keyboard refractions intensify and an inhuman bass undertow appears, however, she proclaims “By the mountain I feel nothing, for in my own heart, every tree is broken.” The zither appears to be slashed with a Stanley knife, and finally firm but minimalist drums enter as she screams to sky and ocean alike, “Since you betrayed me so” in a voice high and desperate enough to puncture the stars, the music pulsating with etiolated memories of “Beatrix” by the Cocteau Twins – that other otherness – finishing with a sopranino death rattle squeal of “Since you”…and then cutoff. Even then, though, you know she’ll be back moaning about her hairdresser on the next album. Like Wyatt or Walker or Coleman, I stick by her, if not to her.

Monday, 1 October 2007

FUNKY MONKEY: Peaceman


The musical factor which tends to make me most homesick for 1967 is that of the gargantuan, opulently compressed orchestra. There’s been a lot of reminiscing on radio of late with the 40th anniversaries of Radios 1 and 2 and the concurrent demise of pirate radio, but it’s the hugeness, the cavernous echoes, which speak to me most dearly – think of George Martin’s original “Theme One” (described by a veteran BBC producer at the time, and not altogether disapprovingly, as “William Walton gone mad”) or David Sinclair Whitaker’s 16 rpm reworking of “The Last Time” (later the foundation of “Bitter Sweet Symphony”) or Mark Wirtz’s piccolo trumpets, harpsichords and Home Service strings on “Excerpt From A Teenage Opera.” And that’s without mentioning Wally Stott and Peter Knight’s work on the first Scott Walker album, let alone “A Day In The Life.” Of their time, yet simultaneously behind and ahead of it, this music still speaks to me of promises – some fulfilled, others trampled over in the progress of time.

“Peaceman” inspires similar feelings in me; if Radio Caroline had still been a going concern in 1998/9, I could well imagine their using this as a station ID, or an anthem. Funky Monkey – which seems essentially to have been producer and sometime Saint Etienne collaborator Gerard Johnson - were one of a thousand Big Beat hopefuls of the period; their records were diverting (extra chutzpah points for including the original, undiluted Oliver Nelson Six Million Dollar Man theme on their debut, Come Together People Of Funk) if not especially radical, and apart from the unsatisfactory compilation Join Us In Tomorrow, with a considerably inferior six-minute mix of “Peaceman,” their work has vanished from the racks.

No, “Peaceman” must be heard in its original, slowly unfolding, ten-minute, ten-second version. It begins with a Bach prelude played on a string synth which is steadily engulfed by the sound of riots and police sirens; a police radio voiceover (“Big shanks, good shanks”?) is turned into the foundation of the track as the beats systematically make their entrance; first one rhythm, then a grittier overlay, followed by electric piano and bass. Comparisons with Primal Scream’s “Come Together” would not be farfetched, except “Peaceman” is faster and slightly brighter.

An intriguing harmonic sequence is developed by the electric piano (using the initially cited Bach melodic sequence as a springboard) and the bass over the now danceable rhythm, until, at 4:45, the sunrise of synthesised strings, playing a gorgeously painful major/minor melody, casts its yellow shadow over the proceedings. A rhythm breakdown follows until the melody re-enters, reinforced, at 6:47, followed at 7:22 by Denise Johnson’s voice (hence the Primal Scream connection) singing, or intoning, “Come together, people of funk.” I think of Number 6, freed and back in London, on the verge of tears as he surveys the Houses of Parliament and the South Bank, with “Peaceman”’s swelling melody in my ears and mind. Listening to it is like standing on top of Parliament Hill Fields as the clouds steadily begin to clear, the Highgate church spire behind me, the city ahead of me…it is lump in the throat time. Finally the music fades away to leave the electric pianist (billed on the credits as “Vegas Love”) improvising on the chord sequence (cf. Anne Dudley’s piano at the end of the album version of Art of Noise’s “Beat Box”) before drifting into another song altogether and then swiftly ending with a final flourish. A masterpiece which deserves salvation from wherever you can find it.