Saturday, 17 November 2007

C.C.S.: Whole Lotta Love

It begins like an interlude from the soundtrack to a subdued, downcast study of Northern Britain starring Albert Finney; Tony Coe's clarinet delineating the melody (or riff) line slowly and lugubriously over John Cameron's piano (and thereby inadvertently raising the issue of the similarity of the "Whole Lotta Love" riff to the main melodic motif of Coltrane's Ascension - it's the same five notes in the same order) before Alan Parker and Colin Green's guitars thrust themselves into the more familiar form of the tune derived from the Willie Dixon number played and taught to Robert Plant when he first came down to London and kipped on the sofa of Alexis Korner. So there is a nice and I am sure deliberate closing of the circle here, since Korner and Cameron were the founders of the band fully known as the Collective Consciousness Society.

Drifting into existence at the partial suggestion of RAK Records boss Mickie Most - Cameron was a regular arranger on his productions, notably on Donovan's sneakily gaudy string of hits - CCS were the user-friendly face of the multifaceted explosion of the large-scale British jazz ensemble of the early seventies, the point of entry to the palace in which Keith Tippett, John Surman, the two Mikes (Gibbs and Westbrook) and others were busy demolishing barriers, getting disparate and seemingly irreconcilable camps of musicians to work and play together. Largely a studio operation, it combined rock (Herbie Flowers and Tony Carr, along with the abovementioned guitarists, provided that element) with innovations and consolidations in Britjazz; its ranks included familiar names like Wheeler, Beckett, Lowther, Don Lusher, Ray Warleigh, Peter King and Ronnie "Walk On The Wild Side" Ross amongst many others.

And, most crucially for their recasting/reclaiming of "Whole Lotta Love," there was the white Jamaican flautist/saxophonist Harold McNair. Cameron himself says that McNair was the only flautist he knew who could carry off the Roland Kirk vocalising trick with conviction and used him on most of his sessions. His early death from lung cancer in 1971, not yet forty, and the consequent scarce discography, have conspired to absent him from critical acknowledgement, but the situation has now been at least partially corrected by the recent augmented CD reissue of his remarkable 1970 album The Fence (with its gorgeously minimalist cover design of small pink rectangle at the top right hand corner of what is otherwise an ocean of ultramarine), muscular yet thoughtful jazz-folk-rock workouts with a typically amazing supporting cast including Danny Thompson and Terry Cox from Pentangle, Steve Winwood and a very young Keith Tippett.

It's McNair's furious overblowing flute melody which marks CCS' "Whole Lotta Love" as a major achievement, ushering in the massed brass section which then descend a sliding scale of semitones until climax is reached and the track stops allow Korner and Peter Thorup's echoing call and response vocals to float out of tempo: "What" they sing...and that is all they need to sing before the surge of guitars, percussion and brass sweep the ship away again. It was used for a decade as the theme to Top Of The Pops, where its twists and turns perfectly soundtracked the mounting dramatic excitement of the countdown of a chart whose conclusions were, in those days, mercifully unknown.