Sunday, 21 December 2008

No Barriers: John Lennon "(Just Like) Starting Over"/Adam and The Ants "'Antmusic'"

There are certain years where the obvious domination of a sound, a look, a geographical area makes it easy for music writers to sum up a year in a hundred words or less; these years are often so important all you have to say is their names – 1964, for Beatlemania, for instance, or 1977 for punk. What happens after these landmark years, however, is not so easily summed up. People who like easy shorthand for years get lost in, say, 1966, or 1980. By the end of the summer of ’66The Beatles had stopped touring; and by the summer of ’80 punk was a greater force musically in the U.S. than in the UK (it could be argued, though I am not going to do it here, that the U.S. invented punk and it was taken to its logical conclusions first in London and then around the rest of the world in short order). In 1980 the UK charts were not moribund, exactly, but there was a distinct void of one ‘kind’ of music. New Wave, Adult Contemporary, Disco, Pop, Ska – all had their moment at the top; from the fantastical “Xanadu” to the maudlin Orbison cover (Don McLean’s “Crying”), from ABBA escaping back into their polar north to Kevin Rowland’s contemporary soul bringing back the urgency of the past into the urgency of now – it might well seem to some that the charts (and hence the public) were willing to throw their pence at anything going, from The Special AKA to Blondie, Barbra Striesand to Odyssey.

But a strange parallel story is carefully walking through the charts, occasionally bobbing up to the top, but keeping its head down, so as not to be noticed. The first
indication something was up? In late June, “Funkytown” by Lipps Inc. got to number two, thumping and bumping and beeping like an alarm clock programmed by M; the only bright light in a chart that was otherwise, despite itself, mostly depressing. Then in August, ABBA with their epic “The Winner Takes It All” – a song where the singer goes through the song, her voice cutting through it like so many shrouds of useless camouflage…or if you like, using the song against itself to make her point, a ju jitsu move that makes the song quite superfluous by the end, once she is done singing.

Not long after this piercing, if you like, of the sonic fourth wall, comes another in September – “Start!” by The Jam is a direct statement from the band to the audience, not just the fans but anyone who hears the song – that ‘what you give is what you get’ and that the link between the song and its listeners is what will last, is what is ultimately important. Not fashion, not video, not even a name; it is the connection that counts.

It is quite possible that John Lennon heard this song (the band appeared on a US show, Fridays, that July, to play “Start!”), but then, maybe not. Its similarities to “Taxman” are obvious, but the meaning couldn’t be any different. Something must begin, Weller seems to be saying, and it doesn’t have to be an epic event; it could be as anonymous as someone hearing a song on the radio and having it stand for something, though that something may not be readily or easily apparent.

These two songs, while not New Pop in and of themselves, helped to introduce a rawness and freshness that was direct and positive, setting the stage for something…unthinkable and unpredictable; a passing of the torch, so to speak, between two people who had (as Weller predicted) never met.

In October, Adam and The Ants began their pirate raid on the charts – they had, to say the least, their problems in the past with one M. McLaren, and were determined to show that they had a right to the charts – not just to do well, but to get to the top, swinging in on a rope when least expected. The UK public was, shall we say, mostly unprepared for tribal drumming, Native Indian/Pirate/Highwayman chic and a lead singer who did not believe in typical English reserve. All this may be stating
the obvious, but Adam and The Ants were punks through and through, having survived ’77 and all that, and not much was expected of them. “Dog Eat Dog” got to #4, however, on the sheer energy and yes, charisma of the band and Adam in particular. “Same Old Scene” by Roxy Music came out soon after, insisting that ‘nothing lasts forever’, a hypnotic and despairing and falsetto-laden song of supper club regret and longing – is the past really better than the present? IS there any division between the past and present? Can something ‘extreme’ (one can only wonder what Ferry thought of Adam and The Ants) be the solution?

In December, just as ABBA were providing valuable distraction, two answers to Ferry’s dilemma were climbing the charts – the one being Adam and The Ants' epochal “'Antmusic'” and the other, John Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over.” Lennon’s song was an open celebration of love and recognition that time had gotten the best of him and Yoko, that they needed to fly away somewhere, be alone - to, as Roberta Flack might put it, celebrate their love. The past is there in his Elvis/Orbison tribute and beat, but the longing for a future (airport noises at the end, after a pause) is there as well. Same old scene? Not exactly, but a renewed scene of love and commitment, for sure. (For someone who has been called a ‘weirdo’ as of late it is odd to hear this song, as it is utterly non-political and actually charmingly square, really.)

So, Lennon is positive and hopeful; Adam Ant is less so. Adam would be the one who heard, via who knows what grapevine, about Ian Curtis’ death. (Is this the ‘big NOTHING# threatening me’? I cannot help but point out that 1980 ends with a zero, a noose, a circle, a fresh slate – an absence that nature, abhoring a void, will fill with something, anything…)* Adam Ant demanded that music – not pop, not rock, but ALL music in the jukebox be damned, because it (like Lonnie’s chewing gum) had lost its flavor, its punctum. Sad New Romantic kids could scram, Adam and The Ants were single-handedly going to revive music, period. The song leapt and bounded up the chart, regarding not the Christmas sentiments, but oddly complementing the sadly successful Lennon song, a song that plainly stated that growth and love were compatible. Even after Christmas, it kept rising, until it was halted at #2 by a song that Lennon had written years before punk – “Imagine” – a song that was as punk as could be, demanding peacefully what Adam and The Ants were chanting and yelping – the past is the past, the future must be newly remade in order to be livable and bearable, and that rejecting old ways of thinking was the only way forward.

# The way he sings ‘nothing’ sounds uncannily like John
Lydon, though at other times Ant sounds like Tarzan – he
is as passionate as Lennon was doing “Twist and

*Michael Stipe once said the worst year of his life, so
far, was the 25th one. Rock music turned twenty-five in 1980.
(Coincidentally, R.E.M. played their first gig in April, 1980.)

Friday, 5 December 2008


I am thrilled - ECSTATIC! - to announce that my world has today changed forever, and for the better; Lena's wife visa application has now been officially approved and she will be coming to join me here in Britain very shortly indeed. So the gigantic pause button that has been pressed down on OUR lives these last 12 months has FINALLY been released; and I'm overjoyed to announce that normal service on this blog will resume shortly - indeed that's an understatement, since there are forthcoming major changes to BiA which will become immediately apparent, including the long-awaited End of Year lists; did I say "lists" as in plural? Well, that's not the only plurality you can expect on BiA...keep an eye open for further announcements!

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

YMA SUMAC: Ataypura

Yma Sumac died eight days ago, one day before the world changed; she was 86, and hadn’t been well for some time, and even though most artists hailed as great influences and monumental figures when it’s too late to be of any use to them – as the current unsubtle posthumous threading of Jeff Buckley into the tapestry of heritage indicates, as opposed to when he was alive and active, when his records struggled to get past #50 in the charts and the music press could take or leave him – Sumac suffered more than most.

She was a generation, and possibly two generations, away from the World Music security blanket, though one wonders whether Daniel Lanois or Ry Cooder would have misread her as avidly as Les Baxter or Billy May did. Even when she was a brief, florid sensation in various parts of the fifties – a declamatory Esther Williams of song – there was the expected poking about, the “Amy Camus” apocrypha, fits of temper, punch-ups, an uncomfortable marriage, the limited lifespan of someone who, despite or because of her background and the noted four octaves, could do little but be “exotic.” A colourful novelty which fissured when the colours of the sixties broke into bloom, but what contribution could a better managed Sumac have made to 1967?

Influences, however, are rarely a matter of straight, manicured highways from A to B. Sumac was unavoidably Peruvian, yet famous songs like “Wayra” sound Chinese in their stop/start glossalia. “Ataypura,” however, sets out what she was about with a sensitivity that wasn’t always available to her; a bifurcated study in perspective whose first section commences with careful tom toms, bowed bass, hushing strings and lighthouse French horn, over which a contralto rises, wordlessly but panoramically; without foreknowledge the voice is nearly androgynous, or possibly supra-human, an instrument expressing only what it knows it wants to express.

There is the faint gingham thread of showbusiness exoticism about this sunrise until, after an abrupt sharp dip in the string line, the song breaks open with percussion and (mock?)-ritual chants and Sumac’s solemn sustenatos give way to playful pointillism; blurring, whooping, yelping and chattering – the track fades at just after three minutes but, like the end of Van Morrison’s “Slim Slow Slider,” seems to be suggesting a fulsomely unstable parallel universe under its surface. And it’s here that we get Sumac’s real (Western) legacy; not just the anti/above-language intonations that would stretch past Billy MacKenzie to Elizabeth Frazer, not simply the unfettered abstractions that would inform Diamanda Galas and both Buckleys (think of Cathy Berberian, her improbable but logical twin, as Yma Sumac on Mars), but the joy of tonguing and voicing for its own sake, for service to expanding the palette of her music, a link which extends right through one of the essential leylines of European improvised music in particular, from Evan Parker’s soprano to Julie Tippetts and her glass blowers and vacuum cleaners; environment/home as developmental factor and invisible participant in collective music making. She should have been encouraged further out there, maybe even taking her sedate audiences and comedy impersonators with her; yet her blood, her being, flows through many important arteries of what we today know as music. The Peruvian tribes from which Sumac sprang – like the tribes of Kenya – have a patient and systematic way of changing the greater world, and succeeding, wiser generations have their patient and systematic way of ensuring that justice is eventually seen to be done.

Friday, 24 October 2008

KATE BUSH: Sat In Your Lap/ASSOCIATES: Kitchen Person

Two singles from a summer that changed everything that needed changing; sneaked previews of albums still being imagined, and songs about the chaos of finding out and knowing everything. In some 1981 ways “Sat In Your Lap” – The Dreaming was maybe a quarter completed by then, but EMI needed something out, hence the calming opposition of its B-side, a fragile but fecund version of Donovan’s “Lord Of The Reedy River” – is a more hyperactive “Computer Love”; it sees the future coming and although it protests of absence of energy or will, Kate is astute enough to know that any future worth coming will bring the knowledge to her, but wise enough to realise that the active (“knowledge is something that you never have”) has to be balanced by the passive (“knowledge is something that’s sat in your lap” and that “lap” might as well be “laptop”).

“I must admit,” she just fails to admit, “just when I think I’m king,” and there are yet more (independent) parallels with a key song from that winter, “Ghosts” by Japan, but while Sylvian’s meticulous calm freezes his profound regret, Kate is straining at her bound chair; “There’s nothing that can move me,” she snarls in a low voice pleading for movement. “But I really can’t be bothered,” she sighs as she sees the web escalating over the hill, “just gimme gimme gimme GIMMEGIMMEGIMMEGIMME!” She ends of dreaming of travel to Salisbury , to Jeddah, across the elements, in the knowledge (ha!) that she can access all of these, Huysmans-style, from her “dome of ivory.”

The song is like every 1980 UK disco hit gone wrong; warped, erratic time signatures, a groan(eth)ing drum machine ping that turns out to be Kate’s Fairlight-sampled voice, Geoff Downes’ berserk trumpet-synth static (recalling Mongs on “Little Red Riding Hood” for the second consecutive day) threatening to render the song into scarred strips of silk, and the Bush herself, screaming, hissing, smiling, winking, raging, knowing.

“Kitchen Person” converts Bush’s passive lucidity into active jumble but there is the same neck-bracing pace of elements which cannot totally be ascribed to the human hand, Billy’s voice somehow an uber-voice in the same way as Kate’s, soaring above the tattered/shattered junctions of smoothed-out discourse but eager to dive down and immerse itself in the pacific chaos of Rankine’s arrangement. All that can be discerned here are scraps retrieved from the burnt kitchen floor; a hint of Weill (“I’ll meet you at the gin house/I wasn’t walking that way”), a lot of the Mael Brothers in how the Associates make a Mael meal of this diffusely imploding music – it does feel like the Big Bang in reverse and in terms of 1981 dreamlike epicity it was only approached in quality and ambition by the Passage’s “Taboos” – and quite a bit of Barry Ryan in Billy’s crooned howls, his shrieks which represent either drowning or laughing, or possibly both, ramming himself against the ivied ramparts of this mobile mass of music; dissonant organ chords which sound like Michael Mantler’s flugelhorn/soprano sax voicings on the JCOA’s Communications, a universe wide web of interlocking xylophones, a devouring guitar sounding like Black Forest gateau ice cream being scooped up from the whale’s belly; MacKenzie all the while ranting about his “drunk parade” and, in a moment of rare and startling clarity, crying “Help me out…to be sane, to be SANE, to be SAAAAAAAA-ANE!” Set to be danced to by the legs of Bunuel goat-towing pianos, or alternately by Mitzi Gaynor on the rear cover of the South Pacific soundtrack album cloned into a million mermaids, it dredges up the wreck of the Wall of Sound (“Kitchen Person” is the afterlife of “River Deep, Mountain High”) even as all its components converge onto the song’s central square of shrug, finally resolving in one big, planet-swallowing Hughie Green grin of Stars On Sunday organ. The song of someone who’s absorbed it all, and deep to himself knows everything, but hasn’t yet worked out how to order it; the blizzard on his strangely-linked laptop converting into the life preserving waters and caramel 1967 tarmac of “White Car In Germany.”

Thursday, 23 October 2008

BLUE NOTES: Blue Notes For Mongezi

The most of many salutary things about the Ogun Collection, the new and much awaited 5CD box set retrospective of the Blue Notes, is the accentuation that the accompanying booklet gives to the celebratory nature of their music and the celebratory music of their nature. Previously the accent has tended to be mournful, which, given their story, and also the fact that three of these five CDs are effectively tributes – threnodies - is to be expected (not to mention the fact that another of the CDs features music literally recorded on pain of death). And yet – as survivor Louis Moholo movingly and eloquently states in the poem that he contributed to the sleevenotes of the Legacy – Live In South Afrika (the “k” is deliberate) 1964 album, their song turned out not to be in vain; their song contributed directly to the conditions which allowed Mandela’s reborn SA to flourish, and the memories collected in the excellent booklet from a cross-section of key figures put the emphasis on how utterly joyous their musical rebellion sounded, and still sounds; recasting the Blue Notes as the living, active, eager musicians that they were rather than ciphers.

My relationship with this music is indirect. I was too young and in the wrong place to witness the occurrences of the sixties; by the time I became aware of the Blue Notes and the after-effects of their diaspora – for me it really started with Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom, and wondering who that trumpeter flooding the canvas of “Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road” was. Then I heard (and once, in Bologna , saw) the Brotherhood of Breath, and then Dudu Pukwana’s Spear, and then yet others, and it all gradually became clear and enticing. I think I may have seen the Blue Notes with my father at the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow in 1977. I certainly saw Pukwana’s Zila in a Sunday open air concert in a rather cloudy and cool Jubilee Gardens on the South Bank in late 1989 about six months before he died.

But in late seventies Glasgow I was pretty much on my own in my love for this music, and for post-Ornette jazz and improvised music in general; the jazz sections of Glasgow record shops were the least visited and most unloved of all the sections, faintly embarrassing to most, particularly the counter clerks who usually made no attempt to hide their disgust at the records I purchased, busily pretending to like punk when secretly worshipping Rod Stewart and Led Zeppelin – and there wasn’t that much call for post-punk in my area either, come to think of it; Bloggs in St Vincent Street wasn’t exactly bursting at the seams with customers of a Saturday lunchtime. As for reggae, or dub, or funk – you guessed it; it seemed that no one in Glasgow was buying this stuff except me (clearly others must have been, but I never came across them in the course of my regular travels). Releases on labels like Ogun or Incus trickled up in minute quantities but usually if I wanted anything remotely interesting or new I had to send away for it to Mole Jazz or Honest Jon’s or the labels’ own mail order services; this was a major factor in my early decision to move to London (there was the James Kerr shop up in Woodlands Road, near Charing Cross, which specialised in jazz, but that seemed to draw an aesthetic line at around 1955).

The Blue Notes were not entirely alone when they settled in London – as Evan Parker’s memoir in particular demonstrates, very far from alone – but they too trod a relatively solitary path and probably paid for it. Nevertheless it would appear that finally, in 2008, this music is getting its proper due; it has been reissued and received warmly, and in the post-Mandela light is at last being seen for the extraordinary thing that it was, and is – angry but never raging, hardcore but mischievous, free but intrinsically swinging, and indomitably passionate.

Possibly the most euphoric and heartrending of these five CDs is the first one; the aforementioned Legacy, recorded in an illegal club in Durban under virtual samizdat conditions (see the very telling note by Tony McGregor, Chris’ brother, in the sleevenote wherein he details the long list of relevant apartheid laws) in 1964, just before the group fled SA. The tension is palpable but the ecstatic reaction is electric. Essentially hard bop/soul jazz with a good deal of township roughage, and accompanied by vibrant whoops zinging between musicians and audience (so that they all fuse into one brotherhood of breath, as such), Legacy plays like a realer deal variant on Cannonball Adderley’s contemporaneous Live At The Club and I’m sure would have found an equally big crossover audience had this music been allowed to travel beyond Jo’burg. McGregor, Dyani and Moholo provide the rhythm; Pukwana, Feza and tenorman Nick Moyake form the frontline, but such boundaries quickly dissolve. No one plays “out” as such but it’s clear where they’re heading; in the astonishing, climactic “Two For Sandi” we hear Mongezi’s triple tongue quiver and Dudu’s overblowing, straining at the borders, and Moholo is already busy subdividing the beat into a near-free rush (and the audience cheering all of them on, to climax after climax). Moyake, the man who taught Dudu the saxophone and the one who did return home (where he died of cancer in 1969), is a fascinating player; his tenor is sturdy and robust, somewhere between Coleman Hawkins and Gene Ammons, and his feature on “I Cover The Waterfront” demonstrates just how strong an improviser he was (though it remains unclear whether he would have joined the rest of them in their subsequent free zone). This “B My Dear” is one of the loveliest of all recorded interpretations of Pukwana’s ballad; Mingus would have bowed if he’d heard it.

It’s tough to move from the good natured rave-up of “Dorkay House” to the genuine, unhinged rage and sorrow of the music which opens the second CD, music recorded over a decade later, with people missing and Mongezi Feza in particular newly gone. Many neophytes may be right to be puzzled by the passage between what they’ve heard in a remote room in Durban in 1964 and what they’re hearing in a remote room somewhere in north London in 1975, and to wonder what happened in the intervening span of time. For the answer to that it will be necessary to listen to the parallel series of reissues that the Fledgl’ng label has been putting out over the last year or so; 1968’s transitional and transformational Very Urgent (with Ronnie Beer coming in for Moyake on tenor, and controversially credited to the Chris McGregor Group rather than the Blue Notes) which marks the definitive recorded move from post-bop to free; 1969’s very free (but surprisingly also very light) Up To Earth septet session (Evan Parker and John Surman both coming in for Beer, the absent Dyani depped for by Barre Phillips on one session and a surprisingly effective Danny Thompson on the other); the two RCA Brotherhood of Breath studio albums; the historic 1971 Berlin Eclipse At Dawn live set on Cuneiform; the explosive 1972 Live At Willisau; Pukwana’s 1975 album Freedom Express, one of the last studio sessions on which Feza appeared and crucially proving that both retained a keen ear for bop; and the dozens of other records on which various Blue Notes appeared in various roles.

But the Ogun box necessarily cuts straight to Blue Notes For Mongezi, and as the redux version now occupies two full CDs this will be the main attraction for many buyers. Although the Blue Notes had not played together as the Blue Notes for some years, they nevertheless reunited at Feza’s memorial service and without saying much of anything went straight to a rehearsal room directly afterwards, set up their instruments, and played and played and sang and played for something like three and a half hours without a break. Due to the limitations of vinyl, the original double album was necessarily a set of highlights but still made for one of the most harrowing listening experiences I can recall; the passion, the grief, the words, above all Johnny Dyani’s words, seemed almost too painful for public consumption, but as an act of catharsis and reconciliation it was surely needed, and over the course of its four sides the music did seem to reach a point of acknowledgement and resolution.

Over two CDs, however, the playing time has effectively doubled in length, and we now have the complete record, or as complete a record as we’re going to get, of everything that was played and taped on that day; according to engineer Keith Beal, the musicians started playing practically the moment they came into the room, while the recording equipment was still being set up, and there is an abrupt but small break in the music between the two CDs which marked the point where the tape reels had to be changed, but otherwise the performance is complete.

The completeness also alters the listener’s perspective on the music radically, such that one is effectively listening to a new extended piece of music altogether; the grief is immediately apparent as the music fades in, Dudu’s alto squealing, Dyani’s bowed bass scribbling, McGregor’s piano an abstracted ghost on the far left, Moholo’s drums busy but strangely subdued. The pace is necessarily slower and more organic than on the original vinyl release but the overall picture is critically more detailed; we have Dyani’s urgent ostinatos and parched Xhosa (and occasional English) cries but they are now set in a more complex landscape where there are long periods of straight swing or Coltrane-type waltz passages. In the “Second Movement” Dyani’s bass solo remains poignant to the point of unlistenable (in terms of unalloyed, bereaved sorrow), though clearly influenced by Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra recording of “Song For Che” with rattling percussion from all direction accompanying his playing and Dudu’s solemn alto succeeding him in the foreground with an eventual martial feel of defiance in the group’s rhythm. This is then succeeded by Dyani and Dudu’s vocal harmonies and chants, again accompanied only by free percussion.

From this point of prayer-filled stasis, the music gradually picks up again on the third CD; Pukwana picks up on “Yellow Rose Of Texas” from nowhere in particular (though in the English vocal sections I notice lots of “We love you”s but also Dyani’s ominous “We know your enemies”) and turns that too into an ANC-worthy anthem of hopeful triumph, while the band as a whole suddenly swing through a whole series of Blue Notes/Brotherhood standards, most notably a spirited run through Feza’s “Sonia” with a terrific McGregor/Dyani duet section. Ultimately we arrive, after a lengthy and patient set-up, at the lilting major key tribute to Feza which concluded the original album, where the Blue Notes appear to will their own rebirth and “live” once more. Blue Notes For Mongezi is their “Everything’s Gone Green” and just as devastating a listening experience.

The fourth CD contains Blue Notes In Concert, an expanded version of the album recorded at the 100 Club in April 1977. It is difficult for me not to type the word “1977” and instinctively follow it with the phrase “at the height of punk” but to me it seems increasingly relevant (particularly as it was the 100 Club); this was British jazz’s own punk rock and its equally passionate adherents are easily audible on this fine recording. By now the Blue Notes’ freedom is more readily reconcilable with the roots of their music; freed by the 1975 threnody, they move back and forth between bop, township and free with instinctive ease, and “Manje” (a modification of the tune “Now” which opens Legacy) has a delightful yet forceful decisiveness to its swing, though the album still ends with chants and mass percussion, still yearning for home. There is an ineluctable lightness in this music but also immense depth; everyone is concentrating on the music as well as enjoying it.

The box concludes with Blue Notes For Johnny, recorded a decade later. The approach of the surviving members to this record differed radically from the Mongezi tribute; the recording took place in August 1987, some ten months after Dyani OD’d in Copenhagen , and is largely structured as a series of interpretations of tunes by Dyani and others. As McGregor’s brief note makes clear, Dyani’s place in the group could not be filled; there is no bass on this album, and consequently the trio have to work harder to complete the musical picture. In doing so, though, they appear to complete the circle; much of the music here harks back to their early Jo’burg days, with blues, bop and balladry much in evidence and played relatively straight. Still, Dudu’s grief is especially apparent; he double tracks himself on “Funk Dem Dudu” but his alto cuts to wounds still raw and still explodes regularly. Once more, there are vocal invocations, to Feza as well as to Dyani, and nine or so minutes of cautiously free improvisation in the McGregor/Moholo duet “Monks & Mbizo”; I’ve never quite been sure of the meaning of the brief conversation which links this to the closing “Ithi-gqi” except that it’s possible that the improvisation was being recorded before, or as, Pukwana arrived at the studio; Pukwana queries the key and everyone launches into Dyani’s tune, which in turn resolves itself into “Nkosi Sikelele L’Afrika,” the ANC anthem, played plaintively and passionately, framing the story and providing what eventually turned out – even if only Moholo would live to see it – to be a happy ending. And it is especially pleasing that despite the sorrow, the Blue Notes’ tale has now been accepted as a cornerstone, not only in the development of jazz and improvised music in Africa and Europe , but also in the reformation of a sick country. This tale takes some telling, but every second is worthwhile and true.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008


I saw Tom Jones for the umpteenth time on Later With Jools Holland last night. I mean, leave it alone. If you want an example of a Welsh veteran who manages to live in the present tense with far less fuss and much more style, Dame Shirley trumps Sir Tom every time. 51 years after she first hit our charts, her policy seems to be to peek in at pop about once a decade, have a careful look at what's happening, say her piece and get out again. Dignified, subtle and daring. Come in on the beat with Big Beat in the nineties, emerge as pink as Pink (avec Glasto wellies) in the noughties.

But her eighties glance was at the peak of one of pop's most lithesome dreams. 1987, the year of Hammering It Into Your Head, for better (Young Gods, Public Enemy, M/A/R/R/S) or worse (Johnny Hates Jazz, Wet Wet Wet, Terence Trent d'Arby), and here on this Swiss casino mountaintop emerged a butterfly of rare and true aristocratic grace. The stories about how Old Pop confirmed her mothering of New Pop differ; some say that Bassey had known Dieter Meier since the sixties, had met many times over the roulette table; others that she was intrigued by the tape Yello sent her and wanted to do more.

But there was also Billy MacKenzie, poor fucking Dundonian inadvertent life-saving bastard visionary, who worshipped Shirley, and there is no reason to doubt that Shirley knew more than something of the Associates' work - she is so much better at not falling asleep than, say, Madonna - and so this "Rhythm Divine" was a blessed union, a mirage of never-to-be pop, everything floating, impalpable, except for the closely touching voices; Shirley out front, rumbling and shaking with as she hungers and shakes, tears streaming in that same gradual, crystalline descent that once might have graced Dorothy Squires' banisters - there is a history to Bassey's futurism that can't be avoided - as she cries for salvation in this winter of roses, this whitened absence of substance. Boris Blank does exactly what you would expect him to do with the music, and it rends your heart more staggeringly as a result - so delicate and patient and mourning.

And, behind Shirley, all around Shirley, within Shirley, there is Billy, the tremendous tremble of the baton being passed from one Pop to another (and, as it turned out, back again), hovering like cuddly bear icebergs, rods of radiant red, from Warsaw to Rome, never out of time (how do you sail that space?), and even though the semitonal Doric arch of "With you in my heart" gives us clues as to what will happen, it's not until the song has ended on the fourth or fiftieth listen that you realise that Bassey's voice, striving higher and yet higher, now sounds like Billy's, and it not only tells you where he came from but also sounds with scarlet stun as though Shirley is turning into Billy, that she has joined the Associates, that these kindling spirits have merged, that here is an important and vital blessing, a ballet free of arch, the punch never more affectionate or soulfelt.

Monday, 25 August 2008


Well, this blog has been running for the best part of a year and its simple pleasures have been extremely pleasurable to write and I hope even more pleasurable to read, but every blog reaches its plateau and I reckon it's happened with BiA. So while I'm not saying that it ends here, I'm definitely going to give it a rest for a little while.

The principal reason for this - in addition to natural fatigue - is that I've just launched myself brain-first into this certifiably insane new blogging project; every UK number one album ever? Send for the white coats now! And I'm only going to be posting there weekly, but hopefully the quality of the posts will be equal to five weekly BiA posts. For now, abundant thanks to everyone who's read this blog and responded positively, either in the comments boxes or via email. There will be more to come here in the fullness of time, and I may even clear up some unfinished business on this ruined city of a blog - but for now, enjoy the albums blog and modify your blog rolls accordingly!

Thursday, 21 August 2008

THE FALL: Rowche Rumble

A snatch of real seventies Britain just as the seventies were about to be snatched away, the ominously seesawing two chord (with occasional additional flattened extras) Farfisa organ has for me always conjured up Carla Bley's organ bursting into the middle of the democratic chaos on Charlie Haden's "Circus '68/'69" except that the song's drugged-up clouds defy anything or anybody being overcome, today or next century. It lumbers like its own ghost through the brown radiogram cabinets through which "Rowche Rumble" is best heard, trebly grotesque. Smith retches and tuts through his solemn list of pharmaceuticals designed to keep the 1979 housewife shaking her vac in the hope that it's a gold elephant; in the year of Britain's first female Prime Minister, a thorough throwback to building asylums in their own minds, to stop them from getting any ideas, whatever the size. Seventy years previously it would have been straight to the asylum; now they're confined to their shiny daytime bunkers and woe betide anyone who wanted out - and equally the ruinous non-raunch of "Rowche Rumble" helps you understand exactly why the breakout had to happen - it was freedom or "no culture or love, no gamble."

The groaning Farfisa is fortified by a characteristic, handclap-assisted Northern Soul beat on the bridge, heralding yet more controlled dissonance as Smith rants against the canting anti-drug voices there to make the illusion of community more bearable - they "do a prescribed death dance/While condemning speed or grass" (MES spits out an unanswerable rejoinder of "They got an addiction like a hole in the ass") before turning to stare the fourth wall down: "Physician, heal thyself" he intones, and then "Our Government's built an expense account" before a stern interrogation of his audience which remains unutterably terrifying: "What is the fear for? Whose do you think your body is?" He confesses to previously "abusing my body to a great end" but mumbles rhythmically that he'll never never NEVER NEVER do it again like a Freddie Starr impression of the Stranglers; as the internal world burns, drums and organ (and Marc Riley as Greek chorus) do a fantastic Nutopian job of buffing the song's anger around its severely enclosed cardboard box - the tribal memes, a year ahead of the Ants and the Wows, the violent closing signature scattering Smith's 70 pounds (rather than the housewife's 70p) of Swiss gnome placebos - "Rowche" equals "Roche" - into the woeful winds of Prestwich.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

WILEY: It's Only Right

Charging over city-sweeping Indian polyphonic orchestral lines like roughshod freight trains, “It’s Only Right” reminds me heavily of Chris and Dudu’s Blue Notes towards the end of the sixties – the hitherto unreleased Chris McGregor Septet 1969 recording Up To Earth, wherein the likes of Evan Parker, John Surman and even Danny Thompson manage to find common ground with the regulars - has recently been issued on CD for useful comparison purposes – with its mixture of collective noise and unique blend of rage and humour. Its rapid fire list of “only”s is like a supercharged equivalent of Scritti’s “Lions After Slumber” as skittle beats bowl over and under their vocal throws. Guest rappers Brazen and Flowdan take turns – or, more properly, solos – as the others riff vocally behind them. Its temperature steadily rises until Flowdan’s explosive barrage, as fearsome as his contributions to London Zoo, where the urgency of their delivery becomes life-enabling and he rants excitingly about their being “soldiers” bringing the track to a shrieking climax – again, I think of Shepp’s similar tactics with his crowning solo on “Mama Too Tight.” Fearlessly omitting “Wearing My Rolex,” Grime Wave entrances with its collusions of wit and rebellion and, at this late stage, Eskibeat wins us back again and grime is, for those of us who have quietly kept a discreet eye on its progress, once more vital.

Monday, 18 August 2008


"Rock Around The Clock" was one thing - or at least it would be before 1955 was out - but this still feels astonishingly radical for a 1955 top five hit. Admittedly there may have been the faint air of travel agent exoticism as a reason for despoiled British record buyers to buy into it, and at times one can easily visualise Morecambe and Wise bounding onstage in their frilly shirts, comedy sombreros and overactive castanets.

But that cheapens an extraordinary record for which I can find no proper comparison in its peers; it was orchestrated by Werner Muller from a 1929 piano piece called "Andalucia," written by the Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona, a man to whom even Ravel bowed. A breeze? Muller's strings and aggressive post-Kenton brass make it sound like a terminal hurricane, swirling gales almost beyond tonality, smashing up against stone or iron gates; Valente's voice laments on a distant volcanotop like a rather distressed Yma Sumac.

After one final non-tonal trumpet scream, however, the song itself gently emerges, although the whirligig of strings never lets up in its comments, Valente nobly battling the elements as she sings of love lost and hopes torn - her swooning regret on the "care" of "you no longer care" would have been sufficient to refloat the Titanic - with an echoing pride which puts me in mind of some of the early Gerry Anderson puppet show closing themes (especially "Aqua Marina" from Stingray); she covers four-and-something octaves so silkily you only notice and count them after she's done, but her "strange, mournful tune" indicates that, devastated as her world is, she will survive, as the orchestra sweeps back in for a final imperious snarl.

Friday, 15 August 2008


There are so many anthems in this miraculous year of hip hop which I ought to be hearing sung and/or shouted in every street, bus, train and house I pass and "Hero" bulges with intentional bigness. Nas' burningly intense and righteous sleevenote to the New Album Which Has No Name (Reclaim!) pulses with as much justifiable anger as Shepp's did in the sixties, and given the welcome miscegenation of which "Hero" is just one of many recently added parts it becomes even more absurd that this music should have to plead or yell for proper air time or respect.

Now Nas takes it upon himself to stride out into the streets with his banner of stellar hope; swim in the tremulously twinkling starlights of the verses, plucked harp strings from a Vangelis arpeggio until everything is SLAMMED together in an unbelievable all-Human-League-choruses-at-once resolution, Keri Hilson coming over the mountain top as Nas reluctantly agrees to heroism. Astral bodies converge, converse and fuse as the rapper continues on his quest, even though he be beset by "crooks and castles" alike. He reflects on his fallen colleagues who had to be content with breaking into shops rather than having shops closed especially so they could shop but his most ferocious roars are reserved for the "universal apartheid" that corporate media are keen to promote everywhere, the continued conspiracy on the part of mainstream radio, television and press to present their willingly traduced demographic with the illusion of greater choice even as they narrow any real "choice" down to make it as invisible as possible, and on the part of multinational record companies to prevent Nas from using the words and terms he knows that he needs to use and cleanse; over a sudden surge of angry rock guitar he yells "Try telling Bob Dylan, Bruce or Billy Joel they can't sing what's in their soul!" "Think about these talented kids," he warns, "with new ideas being told what they can and can't spit" and we know why he has to go on, as the colours of the chorus again unfurl and crystallise in the black-blue sky with its awe-filled surges, its Barack-ushering in panopticon of hope. Number one by November, please.

Monday, 11 August 2008


You know, I think we're going to have to get over "My Humps" and what have you because whenever is engaged in extracurricular activity he is creative to a degree which isn't particularly noticeable in the Peas environment; think of the tremulous quiet of a rebel shout that was Mos Def's "Umi Says" or the various things he's done for and with Estelle (not least "American Boy").

Or indeed the super-stratospheric "In The Ayer." I'm pretty sure that ex-prison officer (and ex-2 Live Crew associate member) Flo Rida didn't have intentionally stuffy semi-broadsheet newspapers in mind when he called his new album Mail On Sunday but it's an apt title since its music represents everything likely to induce arrythmia in Associated hearts everywhere.

The magic of "In The Ayer" as it appears on the album (as opposed to sundry subsequent remixes) is its complete understanding of the importance of the singular moment in the pop song, the breakthrough point, the peak which everything else in the record leads up to and away from (transformed). It's a stormer of a post-"Planet Rock" electrobomb (not surprising given its sampling of the long forgotten "Jam The Box" by Freestyle Express), its "ayers" a clever counterpart to Nelly's "herre"s with starkly stellar curtain raisers of Numan grindcore synths;'s choruses authoritatively naughty, Flo Rida's verses anxiously eager to get moving - bend with that 16 rpm "ride with me" halfway through verse two and don't avoid that "ain't gon' treat our city like the Mayor (Mayor)."

But the punctum here is Tiffany Villarreal, the backing singer; she appears in only two choruses but makes both of them count; in the first, indeed, she is only audible in the second half, singing unison with a relishable tang to her tongue, but the second - at 2:18 - is the key to the whole record; the Southern robot of her deadpan "DAMN" in response to's "Oh hot damn," and then the equivalent "JAM" to "This is my jam" and suddenly it becomes a radiant National Grid of pop currents. On the original this moment materialises only once though it becomes an unstoppable refrain on remix.

Nevertheless, after the second chorus, the song suddenly turns a darker corner, heralded by's "Alright now, STOP!" The key drops, the skies darken ("It's a STICK UP stick up stick up!" - the tripartite call and responses here the counterpart to their lighter hearted equivalents on "American Boy") and eventually we return to the chorus in a lower key, now intoning a baritone "DAMN" and "JAM" before the light burns itself out.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

R. KELLY: Touched A Dream

What, really, is deep soul? As Dave Godin invented, knew and used the term, it meant music whose emotions reached out from within the fabric of a song or a record to touch the listener without noticeable mediation, dilution or interference. It represented a rare emotional directness which, even if the song was being acted out melodramatically, by its natural force transcended notions of showbusiness or artifice and punctured – can you tell where I’m going here? – the listener directly. Usually ascribed to the peculiarly intense branch of sixties soul (though considering the tenor of the times, its intensity was perfectly understandable and not at all peculiar) it nonetheless doesn’t – or shouldn’t – recognise any temporal boundaries. It’s about how expression of a particular emotion or emotions in a specific way can reach and hopefully change the listener. The dazed joy of Jaibi’s “You Got Me” is as recognisable in its depth as the mounting dread of Kenny Carter’s “Showdown.”

And it has survived, sometimes in the strangest of pockets; one example from the seventies of which I’ve very recently been reminded is “Lean On Me” – not the Bill Withers song – recorded by Melba Moore in 1976. If you only know Ms Moore from her disco hits (“This Is It,” “Love’s Comin’ At Ya”) then this will come as an especial surprise. For two-thirds of its duration it comes on almost like a standard Vegas floorshow ballad with chintzy orchestration and backing vocals, but the already peculiar intensity of Moore ’s voice keeps you anchored and waiting for the explosion. As the song progresses her reiteration of faith takes on near-operatic tones, but it’s only in the closing third that she explodes, quite unexpectedly, with shrieks, squeals, growls and a near ahuman climactic 30-second sustenato of a dog whistle of a high note. It is like the exact halfway house between Linda Sharrock and Jennifer Holliday, and you are left stunned, floored by her staunchness, her demands for reception of her unquestioning love.

“Touched A Dream” is unmistakably deep soul in its intent and execution, even if one finds it hard to accept from R Kelly; if you can negotiate your way past the hits, the gloopy schmaltz of “I Believe I Can Fly” or the rather odious R&B laddism of “Ignition” – remix or no remix, the spirit of Rod Stewart at his hot-legged worst is never far away from the latter – there are plenty of gems to find in his catalogue, but “Touched A Dream,” which currently only appears on his greatest hits compilation The R In R&B, is exceptional. The rhythm is midtempo and the beats are firm but not overpowering. Waking up, Kelly is evidently still astonished by what he and his Other achieved the night before and he makes his revelations sound like the morning after Barack’s victory (fingers crossed) when everyone has woken up on a brilliant day.

In addition to his ecstasy, Kelly also invokes the spiritual plurality which is a direct inheritance from the legacy of Coltrane; nature seems to open herself up to him totally – the rhetorical tripartite preacher-like intensity of his trio of “Last night”s, the raining down of heaven, the sun, moon and stars coming together, the angel speaking to him (Blakean soul!) – “he said us forever,” visions of a tropical river. He makes rewriting the book of love sound like cleaning up the original scrolls of the Bible.

His view expands; eagles, massive choirs, and ultimately the real transcendence: “Last night, I saw the world living in peace and harmony.” His voice steadily increases in intensity, dazzled over the conversion of his fantasy to a reality, and soon we are in “Can’t Get Next To You”/”Voodoo Chile” territory where Kelly is capable of jumping mountains and touching skies, confirmation/consummation furnished by the divine chord change over the “fly” in “over the sea, baby, we can fly” (well, YES!). By the time he’s seeing “the flowers the trees the birds the bees” – he’s given up pausing for breath by now – he’s launching to take off and that he does over the final furlongs of the song; he soars over the world and breaks free of any known “song” format, practically speaking in tongues – “love making queen,” “love making king,” the invocation of God, reciprocity and “amorocity;” the spiritual babbling brook is unabated and he climaxes with a howl of “That’s why I ain’t gon’ let the Devil steal my joy from me,” a sentiment whose history goes back almost beyond any of us. He whoops with justification and starts the hard work of climbing back down to Earth as the song’s radiant happiness dances into the deepening distance.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

RED RAT WITH CHICO: Girls Dem Highway

Released three or four years earlier, this might have been a number one in the wake of “Oh Carolina,” and it’s not Red Rat’s fault that things had “moved on” (others’ definition; not necessarily mine) by 1997, but everyone with warm ears – ask Ian Brown for confirmation - was blown away by the album Oh No!...It’s Red Rat!, an absolutely key record in the advancement of ragga and dancehall, or maybe back to redder basics.

Producer Danny Brownie very cleverly structures and mixes “Girls Dem Highway” to make it sound strangely old and familiar; the “Reet Petite” blasts of brass, the general 1955 timewarp feeling, countered by Red Rat’s pratfall sensitivity. Chico – nothing to do with The X-Factor – sings with a cream as smooth as the skin Red Rat desires, from his opening ululatory “I-need-I need-I-need-a-lover!” to his confident frat sweater delivery of “I’m searchin’ in the alley/I’m searchin’ in the street.” The purity of his quest, as he sees it (“I’ve got to find a lover to make my life complete,” “I need a girl from round the way, I need a new beginning”) is offset, and possibly exposed as a fraud, by the cataleptic sopranino shrieking and toasting of Red Rat who tosses in highly unsavoury concepts like “girl snatcher” and “bounty hunter” and is extremely particular about which sort of girl he would like (he chews and swallows 20 lollipops in his squeal of “CUTE!” in the phrase “cute face” before matter-of-factly adding “I’m not being rude, I’m just blunt”). “Every day I-a give her what the doc prescribes!” he wails like a cross between Terry Scott and Shabba Ranks at 78 rpm as the music gently swings behind him with subtly infiltrative nineties beats, before turning to his best Dick Van Dyke Cockney (“Ex-cewuse ME! Can Oi speak to yew for a minn-itt?”) and launching into a hysterical, semi-decipherable pledge of love before concluding “I’m just being a baby…I’m a GOOOOD BOYYY!” a la Ranking Norman Wisdom. Unlike the Sean Kingston of “Beautiful Girls” – where the youthful purity is just a front for another dreary laddish moan about the opposite sex – Red Rat’s absurd philosophising is narrowly excusable since he is acting exactly like an excitable 14-year-old who might like girls if he ever meets one; for the time being, though, revel in his (despite all the puerility) confident rhythm attack (“Trendsetter EY! Hotstepper EYY!! Cool dresser!!!”) and his anguished sign-off desire for a girl “who wears spandex and leather.” Tighten up, lad!

Monday, 4 August 2008


Listening to the performance of Stimmung by Theatre of Voices at the Proms this Saturday just past, I almost cursed the New Seekers and Bucks Fizz for not having the gumption to do a cover version – certainly it could scarcely be further out there, or anywhere, than the former’s Tommy medley or the latter’s “My Camera Never Lies” – since in any version it is a deceitful lullaby; you can lie back and let the microphonic and vocal overtones and undertones feed through you, only to be jarred by a sudden surge of rasping dissonance, or the hint of a meaning above “just intonation.”

I won’t go through the compositional and organisational mechanics of Stimmung here since this should be about how Stockhausen’s blue colours my air; enough to say that in the cupped cautiousness of Singcircle’s mid-seventies Paris Version or the more confident and overt theatricalism of Paul Hillier’s subsequent Copenhagen Version – the latter has been recorded but is still best experienced live, as it was on Saturday, with the vital room for mistakes and intuition – we can discern six people sitting in a room, around a table like the Knights or the Bront√ęs, quite unlike the room everyone else is in now, and how their stories intermingle into one slow and subtle attestation of unattributable faith. Or you could simply view it as eighty minutes or so of long, self-phasing drones interspersed with occasional mutters of variable volume.

Certainly the Paris Version came to my teenage attention at more or less the same time as Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians – a comparison at which Stockhausen would instantly have bridled, since he would have argued Stimmung as being the natural extension of one word, or even one syllable, rather than repetitive rhythms; nonetheless, polyrhythms and repetitions provide Stimmung with its vital mechanics, though the speed is necessarily far less busy and workmanlike than Reich’s. Yet its patiently unfolding meadows are a joy to absorb, not least because of the hindsight which allows us to discern the processional garbling of meaning into reverberative syllabic fascination as it would subsequently be filtered through Kraftwerk and Faust and even unto Timbaland and the Neptunes. Some of Stimmung is very sensual indeed, which is hardly surprising since many of its “words” are based on erotic love poetry that Stockhausen wrote for his wife in – guess the year, can’t you? – 1967, and the twelve most sensitive ears on the planet may go so far as to spot the Van Morrison in Stimmung; once more, when least you’re expecting it, The Word reveals itself – “Barbershop!,” “Thursday!” And how could I get this far without acknowledging the unending humane drone which begins and ends Escalator? If Music For 18 Musicians exposes the industry behind making music, then Stimmung prolongs and emphasises the art and for many still provides the easiest starting point for one of this past century’s most remarkable aesthetic arcs.

Friday, 1 August 2008

STEREO MCs: Elevate My Mind

I'm not too sure that I approve of the general past tense of this blog; the trouble is that the new music which matters takes time to get analysed, and quite often defies analysis - most of the time I just want to revel in its giddy nowness or enjoy it in strict privacy (i.e. with my wife). But cubes from the past have their own amiable way of refracting onto the present. Right now I'm reeling from the astonishing rejuvenation of hip hop, largely from where I'm sitting a rejuvenation directly from New Pop; listen to Li'l Wayne's "Mr Carter" or Nas' "Hero" or DJ Khaled and the rest of the world's "Out Here Grindin'" or Jiggs' "Walk In Da Park" and the mind's internal rotation is at least as active as it was in 1981, when movements in music were equally as new.

But "Elevate My Mind" is 1990, from Supernatural, the Stereo MCs album everyone forgets about (see also: all other Stereo MCs albums bar Connected) and its grey semi-raving remains a useful tonic; indeed the general talk about Midlands internal depression ("So I release more charge from my battery," "Out the bed, clothes, answer the door") and thence the greater world, if "greater" is the correct comparative ("There goes the Mayor, his nose is brown") and its pretend-nonchalant delivery seem to be a direct precedent to the Streets, although the song's roll is more evidently willing to rumble; its stirring churn is as wobbly but purposeful as any long-defunct East Midlands tram link and Cath Coffey's distantly positioned euphoria is deliberately ambiguous - "I wanna go higher" seems from several miles to be an invitation to colour and life but the corresponding "White Lines" sample reminds us of the potential crash. Still the Nottingham trio shamble through to engage in a haphazard communitarianism; seeing the rave, self-hatingly reaching out to touch it, but forward, always forward: "Don't hang about!"

Thursday, 31 July 2008


I'm just a bachelor! I'm looking for a partner!" exclaims Ginuwine at the beginning of "Pony" and in light of the subsequent Judge Dread level of subtlety of his modest proposals to his hoped-for Other, it seems unlikely that he will find his partner soon. But all the sensuality that his naively relentless double entendres lack ("Someone who knows how to ride without ever falling off" and later he even refers to "every single portion" as though she were a bag of chips), not to mention all of the genuine cheekiness to which he aspires, is encompassed in this startling early Timbaland production; I more than most have been guilty of undervaluing him in recent years but "Pony," now twelve years old, jerked me out of my seat at the time since its beats suggested that Ginuwine and/or Timbaland were wading through a squelchy swamp in Matalan economy wading boots at the time; or else you can see the splashes of contrabass vocoder undertow as a continual, frustrated burp.

Ginuwine sings it fervently, though, and without explicit sauce; he is desperate and hungry, probably hasn't even worked out the basics yet ("my saddle's waiting"), but he means no harm; he won't get anywhere but the lovely, dreamy floating-in-space interlude (brief but meaningful) which comes after his attempted crescendo of "you'll be on my jockey team OHHHHHHH!!!" indicates: just tighten DOWN a little (it's oxymoron time!), relax, put away the Kleenex and he'll be fair for a game. Oddly touching in delivery but dynamically pregnant with apocalypse musically; and the, er, juices which flowed from its youthful arteries proved particularly, um, fruitful (that's enough Carlin; much more of this and we'll be getting complaints from Robert Plant - Ed.).

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

KING CRIMSON: Matte Kudasai

Another memory of that watery, chimerical early winter of 1981, and this one I've always paired in my mind with Foreigner's "Waiting For A Girl Like You," mainly because key Crimson members are involved in both and there is clear evidence of the direct and indirect spread of Frippertronics in each. I can't really recall why Fripp felt it necessary to revive the Crimson name but seven or eight years after the unsparing prairies of Starless and Red he was wise to refocus on the song as small intelligent mobile thing in itself.

"Matte Kudasai" - phonetically it's Japanese for "Please Wait" - seems to have been Adrian Belew's baby; he writes and sings the song, though Fripp takes the instrumental lead, his guitar delay rendering his testimony hand-free; the Fripp drift is slightly too pronounced and carries a distinct air of sinister in the intro but soon glides and cries over the gentle landscape which might be the missing link between Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac and Bill Frisell's Power Tools. A ballad in the line of "North Star," sung by Daryl Hall on Fripp's Exposure two years previously, Belew's lyric is a yearning haiku. Comparisons with Don McLean were made at the time in relation to Belew's vocals, though in reality - and with the benefit of jarring hindsight - they predict Rufus Wainwright, in both grain and subject matter, to a degree which goes slightly past uncanny. The pane in the window by which she's sitting, sleeping, mingling with the pain of the rain falling outside; "she waits in the air.../she sleeps in a chair/in her sad America."

More than that, though, we can easily also pair the performance off with another spectre of that November, "White Car In Germany" by the Associates, with its similarly guitar-less guitar lines and a similar craving sustenato to Billy's - "When was a night so long?" Belew sings for a very long time, "Long like the notes I'm sending?" She's waiting for a boy like him to come into her life. The two-way mirror must give way sooner or later.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

NEW ORDER: Turn The Heater On

A humid evening which had no need of additional heating, at least not in that sense; a bedroom in the growing but no less warm darkness. Unquiet student nights, nearly out of the first year, just about nearly, and New Pop at its Cortesian/Cartesian peak. The Peel show which some numbed skulls at the time felt was already slipping out of touch, but always the magic, always the essence of everything that mattered, including New Pop, and a magic song from nowhere, although I knew that really it came from everywhere.

I’ve been concernedly cagey about talking on the subject(s) of Joy Division and New Order on any of my blogs since together (and how could anyone think of their story as separate?) they are my favourite pop group and provoke thoughts and emotions too private for even (or especially) this privacy-shredding world. The Associates, yes, double ice cream cones yes, and their tragedy was to play out the Joy Division/New Order story in reverse, but New Order were the best; after all, were they not directly (if inadvertently) the cause of New Pop in the first place?

They were on the ascendant with “Temptation” in the charts of the time (and what better time for the charts?) and the Peel session received the first of its numerous airings on Tuesday 1 June 1982. We already knew that they had forced themselves past the grief barrier with “Everything’s Gone Green” – and I don’t think there will ever be a better example of that phenomenon, the pop single – and not only managed to extricate themselves from the quiet horror of mourning but also invented something new in the process.

Their version of “Turn The Heater On” helped complete the transition (and another of that evening’s session tracks, “4-8-6,” is a prototype for the definitive conclusion and beginning of “Blue Monday”). The original version appears on Torch Of Freedom, one of the less locatable of Keith Hudson albums which was probably far easier to find in seventies Manchester than it is in 2008 anywhere (a French CD issue briefly appeared in the mid-nineties and you had to be fleet and foxy to get a copy) and clearly its sentiments of “gonna beat them all, gonna beat them all” carried rather severer resonance in Jamaica. In that setting Hudson ’s pleas to “hold me” and “squeeze me” bear a literal life-and-death subtext.

New Order moved the realm of the song very naturally from the political to the personal; their take on reggae is so instinctively right in its lightness of touch that their “Turn The Heater On” glides effortlessly into their world; you notice Barney’s melodica (inspired by Augustus Pablo, that remarkable musician who turned what is generally regarded as an instrument for schoolchildren into as eloquent a vehicle for expression as Davis’ trumpet or Rollins’ tenor) tooting its islet of lament in the distance but also the very familiar rain of that string synthesiser – it’s not until several listens that you shiver at the eventual recognition that this song has the same chord sequence as “Decades.” Sumner sings without vibrato or noticeable straining; his plea for reassurance and salvation is immediately palpable, his “For I feel so cold at night” immediately striking (in slow motion) the post-Curtis ice. Around this spiritual – there truly is no other word for it – guitars cuddle up to each other from across the channel, Hook knows exactly when to arch his bass and bend it back down again, Morris’ drumming miraculous and enough for three “normal” drummers, simultaneously providing that seamless dub undertow and a straighter 4/4 rock overtone, but even “rock” seems such an intrusive word to use in this world; the detritus of the old world clanks around the corners of what New Order perceive to be their new world. “Blue Monday” would see them drive out the secondary demons for good but this told me at the aptest of times that the vital key was still in their possession.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

JOHN OTWAY: Bunsen Burner

America has Jonathan Richman; we got John Otway. A successful thirty-year career as an unsuccessful singer/songwriter; he's to be envied. He bounced out of Aylesbury and onto the top of his guitar speaker (which he promptly fell off) while bashing out "Cor Baby That's Really Free" with erstwhile partner Wild Willy Barrett and sneaked into the Top 30 (produced by Pete Townshend) as 1977 jerked to its end. And that was it as far as "hits" were concerned; he did masochistic electropunk ("Headbutts," 1981), pained five-and-a-half minute ballads backed by a 100-piece orchestra ("Geneve," 1978), undercut Tom Jones twice in the nineties with individualistic covers of "Delilah" and "Green Green Grass Of Home" and even nearly got a second Top 40 hit with "DK 50/80" - in collaboration with two-drummer Oxford punk band Ken Liversausage - which sounds like Julian Cope being run backwards through sand dunes in Dunwich.

But nothing hit as such, until he decided in 2002 that he'd quite like a second proper hit to mark his 50th birthday. How his fanbase put this into action is well documented in his Greatest Hits compilation of the same year (which characteristically has subsequently gone out of print) but it's worth noting that the notion of marrying his chemistry lesson as sexual metaphor poem "Bunsen Burner" to the tune and beat of "Disco Inferno" originated with one Barry Upton, formerly a member of a later edition of the Brotherhood of Man and later producer of Steps and also Otway's occasional keyboard player. It was maybe the most welcome and applauded of all British singles chart hypes and it got him back into the charts - all the way to number nine, some 18 places better than "Really Free" had managed - and back onto TOTP in time for his half century.

"Bunsen Burner" is utterly charming and easily one of the most good humoured of all British hit singles. "I'm an ALCHEMIST baby!" he groans excitedly in his Home Counties Gone West voice at the beginning and proceeds to do every chemistry double metaphor in the book (although the poem was originally written to help his daughter with her chemistry lessons at school) - "check out what's in the test tube baby," "feel the heat of the naked flame" etc. In the middle eight there's an exciting conjunction of electronic white noise and "BURNIIIIIIIIING!" female backing vocals and his increasingly febrile intonation of the hook "Science tells us love is just a chemical reaction in the brain" is delivered in tones of John Noakes eagerness. "I know what I'm doing, I am a chemist," he grins just before the record is curtailed by an explosion of covalent bonding. When's the third coming?

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

BARRY ANDREWS: Win A Night Out With A Well Known Paranoiac

It's easy to forget what a creepy, crypto-apocalyptic time 1980 was in Britain - the beer breath whispers, the conspiracies, the slumbering rightward lurch - indeed it's almost as easy to forget as the same factors occurring in Britain in 2008 (and probably every year in between - see Iain Sinclair's London Orbital for the post-nuclear, stick-throwing shutdown) - but this song captures the butterfly-knife stomach feeling of that age more effectively than most. Andrews was XTC's Eno (and it's therefore apt that he should have turned up on Eno's recent Another Day On Earth); he left the group at an early stage, worked on Robert Fripp's Exposure (and was a member of Fripp's shortlived League of Gentlemen group) and eventually co-founded Shriekback. "Win A Night Out..." was the B-side of his solitary solo single (and presumably the sales figures precluded progression to a full album). The A-side "Rossmore Road" is a curious, quavery tribute to a dull rat run street the wrong side of Marylebone, down which the 139 (from West Hampstead to Waterloo) bus now runs; a "dolls' house shop" (i.e. DHSS office) at the junction with Lissom Grove, sundry Belisha beacons and traffic lights, public buildings, quasi-threatening references to Regent's Park, Baker Street and Balcombe Street, with the anti-matter refrain of "All humming now."

But "Win A Night Out" is extraordinary. Across a fractured quasi-jazz background (both Fripp and Patti Palladin seem to have been involved, amongst many others) Andrews' craven narrowed wideboy Cockney narrative runs down the hinge of the rusted spine of real Britain; he meets up with her in a country pub ("where the landlord sports moustaches, just like Jimmy Edwards, and the crisps and pickled onions on the bar are numberless as the stars at night") but his reverie is interrupted by "two neckless men in blazers and cravats" who inform them, in about 200 words, that this is not the place for them (general summing up: you are inferior, bend your head "and furthermore, you worm, there is mud on your plimsolls"). He tries to convince them of his Cuban Royal Family ancestry but they intone "in this life, it's either U or non-U and if I were you I'd make myself BLOODY SCARCE!" Just as they are on the verge of duffing him up he swings into the damaged Dixieland of the song's chorus.

The next verse finds them in "an Iberian eatery in the West End." His stifled scream of "we could have so much fun" suggests imminent electric chair status. He talks about wanting to discuss Communism and chart positions but ends up telling a dodgy joke in a very loud voice; the child at the next table cries and her dad promises her that her crypto-Fascist Uncle Roger is on his way to "make quite sure he doesn't upset any little girls...little GIRLS?...any more..." and again it's back to the chorus.

Even the Sunday morning bed is no refuge; they are intruded upon by her mum and dad, who have been secretly taping their doings ("he's looking DAAAAAAAAAAANGEROUSLY pale!"), and moreover her mum is wielding an Army surplus bush knife ("All," observes Andrews soberly, "is not too groovy"). Then his partner starts laughing at him as her mum is about to "get stuck in...just below the navel." As the music hurtles dangerously towards freeform chaos it suddenly recedes..."I wake up...and was all a dream."

But he has woken up to something worse. "I'm really in a hospital bed...there is a smell of formaldehyde in the air..." Swastika-clad doctors fiddling with the brain of a sheep, and then he realises with obliterating dread that "I can't feel me legs! And the shape of the bed isn't my shape at all! And I wanna cry out but I can only bleat!" Which takes us into the final chorus and fadeout; a jolly romp (as with so much in this period, definitely post-Dury) about the unutterable. Its six minutes and 19 seconds seriously scared me at the time and still sound uncomfortably contemporary.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008


My wife has suggested an unlikely but I think viable comparison point for skiffle; the frantic but near weightless rhythm, the rhetorical/ritual repetition of phrases and gestures until fascination hypnotically takes precedence over meaning – it’s the unacknowledged grandparent of House music! In that context, Cort’s original recording of “Six-Five Special” – as opposed to the tidied up version by Don Lang and his Frantic Five used as the theme tune for the similarly named BBC “pop” show – is the D-Mob/”We Call It Acieed” of its day; a transcription of essentially American gestures (though with common British roots; New Pop in the case of House, Scottish folk and dance music in the case of skiffle) into contemporary British terminologies and tropes.

This didn’t always work as well as skiffle’s practitioners might have hoped; hear, for instance, Cort’s recasting of Chuck Berry’s “School Day” in an effort to make it into a tea chest manifesto (“Hail, hail, skiffle and roll!” doesn’t quite carry the same resonance). But his “Six Five Special” works because of assured control of the song and style’s motors; the Home Counties “over the points” leitmotif in a Britain where travel, regardless of distance or destination, was considered nonpareil exoticism (and still was three decades later; see It’s Immaterial’s “Driving Away From Home” with its melancholy refrain of “Thirty miles or more.” Thirty miles? Gentlemen, Edwin Starr WALKED 25 of them!). Cort, meanwhile, is bursting with purple wax darts of expectation; he needs her to get to the station, and everything and everyone is working to speed its flow, including Cort himself, with his teeteringly near-sensual “wah wah”s (echoed by strident whistleblowing lead guitar George van Eps block chords), his capturing and chewing of the word “bright” and his astonishing growl of “HARRRRRRRD!!” as the brakes come down (we sense EXACTLY what he means).

The ritual story is that the make do and mend/air raid shelter worthiness of skiffle was eventually leapfrogged by the feral fuckability of rock ‘n’ roll, though in reality both happily co-existed in the charts until young Cliff and the Parnes stable decided to increase the post-Elvis stakes for a Britain no longer reliant on ration books and pressingly preserved lines of string. And, in truth, whatever one’s perspective on the Colyer/Donegan chicken/egg story, Lonnie (with the inescapable aid of his nominal engineer but actual producer Joe Meek) was able to push it forward into a quasi-surreal future; put his “Gamblin’ Man” or “Cumberland Gap” (both number ones in 1957) next to the affable growls of Wally Whyton and the Vipers and it’s clear that, as good as the latter are, the former constitute something beyond “good” (though the lineages are still profuse; the lonesome, isolated wail of Nancy Whiskey amidst the goods trains of Chas McDevitt’s Skiffle Group predate the lonesome diva wails which would characterise post-House dance and rave). Still, “Six Five Special” represents a decisive and rather merry turning down of the coin with “pay for the war” inscribed on both sides.

Friday, 18 July 2008

THE BROTHERS JOHNSON: Strawberry Letter 23

Another 1977 which I’m not sure has still been properly understood; another hot summer, NME front covers about punk but also about Zen and sunglasses, my dad yelling at me to get the hell out into the street and the sunshine - in both situations, you learn to keep yourself to yourself – wandering circuitously around the village as though it were the world, searching in vain for familiar faces from school, realising they were absent, off into their own, or their families’, world, unresolvable crushes. Dreams of hearing a kiss from a lover…was this really 1977?

Was it really 1977 (that knowing chuckle of “is it cool? Is it cool?”), with the carousel gliding from channel to channel, fading out, and then…harpsichords and words which sounded ten years old but also an endless spaciousness of rhythm, bass, drums and guitar all playing distant triple ping pong on the planet Venus, and then a Rundgren “Hello, my love” with references to red magic satin, west purple shower bells and tea in the garden – but, as in “Flowers In The Rain” by the Move, the real rain is endless. Not that this lover cares; orange birds, green-clad river cousins, blue flowers and cherry clouds, and always the music you’ll never be able to hear on an iPod; the world as it thrives and breathes despite everything we throw at it.

Because he’s with his Other, he’s empathically free, as the curtains of the song slowly draw even more open to reveal the drift of the glide, over the sea (even then I was dubious that I’d find salvation in my home village); he has this letter scented with strawberries (“Strawberry letter 22” to which letter 23 is a euphorically pink reply), and after every fancied colour imagery of 1967 has decorated his path he abandons the need for words altogether, the harpsichord tinkling the main melody and deep but lush “oooooooohhhhhhh”s speakers of kite drifting happily around the lover’s mauve field with a sudden burst of floridity as guitar erupts from the sea in a kettle of idealised ecstasy, echoing its external rotation into and of itself before drums signal a return to the placidly plaid dream.

As the song itself advises, playgrounds will laugh, and no doubt they would have done if I’d tried to explain this unforeseen magic in any “realistic” consideration of 1977’s music – you learn to keep such things to yourself – and Quincy ’s expert deployment of echo and space was a path he’d been patiently pursuing for at least the previous fifteen years. Only later, in a different century and nearing the end of a different life, did I hear the original on Shuggie Otis’ Inspiration Information, recorded in 1971; an extraordinary bedroom tape of an indie-soul-God knows what fusion album which would long since have been worshipped had it been early Beck or Ariel Pink (and without the advantage of subsequent technology), and its procedurals are different (beyond rudimentary drum machines – but then, 1971!) but its aims the same. And now I’m able to talk about the magic and the associated pattern. I no longer need to keep anything to myself.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

SUPERCHUNK: Skip Steps 1 & 3

A boom and a curtain of swooping blades unveil this example of a strain of indie guitar rock that seems to have become lost to pop follow-up. No Pocky For Kitty was Superchunk's second album, and the North Carolina four dipped back into contented obscurity after briefly being a music press future in the very early nineties, but "Skip Steps 1 & 3" has a three-dimensional attack to its brushes - together with its similarly sliding vocals - which fix it in the firm, immediate post-Daydream Nation "tradition." Albini recorded it, but production "credits" on the sleeve were given to bassist Laura Ballance, who "sat in the right chair" albeit with "eyes closed."

With its increasingly frantic, popping cries of "Why don't you move?" and climactic refrain of "you've been sucking wind so long," the song is an impassioned cry to action and decision - remember that this just about preceded Nevermind and everything that allowed and condemned - from bop-boggling Mac McCaughan tearing at the cocktails of if only and yes but. "Well it's your free time in the back of your skull," he observes, "and that's fine for now, but what comes after?" The propulsion is pop but the threat or promise of immolating noise is always in the middleground, even though it is forever on poise and never forces itself forward. The overall feeling is not one of frustration but of overdue joy, and Sloan, among others, took up some of this slack from thereonin.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

GEORGE JONES: These Days (I Barely Get By)

If Deep Soul is a state of mind then it can be found anywhere and in anyone, even though some are better at articulating it than others. Like sportsmen, the best - or at least, the most "soulful" - of singers frequently turn out to be those who don't appear to be trying or sweating as hard as others; it's the old faithful of matches or races being won by those who try less, or seem to need the victory less.

Listening to George Jones it's hard to pinpoint exactly where his magic occurs, although it is obviously present. He never seems to do much except sing in what is more or less his normal, used-for-speaking voice. There are no vibratos, no acrobatic grandstanding, and yet, through its slow, painful patience, his voice punctumises you dead centre.

"These Days" is a tacit case in point. Recorded towards the end of 1974, two weeks before Christmas Day and two days before he walked out on Tammy "for good," it presents us with a picture of Jones seemingly willing his own premature and ruinous end. It is, essentially, the same old same old, except that his woes methodically stack up like an especially shaky house of bamboo cards. And he of course has his unobtrusive techniques for communicating this to us; the extended "aching" in the first line illustrates both his early frustration and the hint of Lear-esque descent to come. The last thing he feels like doing is working, but he'll give it a try, even if he has to thumb all the way - his car's in the shop, but by the glassy stress he puts on the word "shop" the implication is that it's there to stay because he can't afford to pay the labour costs. No clearcut city like London or Toronto, this, with its convenient buses and tubes.

The music is standard Sherrill-issue C&W waltz grief; a choir of angels even materialises at the start of the second verse in expectation as Jones experiences further microhumiliations - he has to walk all the way home from work and it rains all the way. So sodden with self-pity is he that he doesn't even realise that he's answered his own question: "My wife left and didn't say why," he says, before immediately noting "She laid all our bills on the desk in the hall."

The sorrow grows more constant and gruelling. He puts his last two dollars on his favourite horse; it loses by a nose and he cries, but puts all the crying weight through the word "nose." Then his boss comes and talks to him; we fear a fiery firing, but he's as mournful as George and suggests that "come winter we'll all be laid off."

It is at this point that he collapses, weeping on high on the extended "wanna" of "I wanna give up, lay down and die." He makes it clear that his wife's departure is the main source of his pain, but at the end turns to the fourth wall and proclaims in a curious Sandringham Palace-via-Nashville tone that "oh, these days, one barely gets by," fully aware that he has worked hard at building one's own crucifix.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

ORNETTE COLEMAN: Beauty Is A Rare Thing

I’ve been bombarded with emails (OK, I had one email) asking me why I haven’t “done” Pacific Ocean Blue yet and the simple answer is that I’m not sure I’m qualified to write about it; as magnificent as it is (and the extra tracks, including all the surviving material, complete and incomplete, from the Bambu sessions, make it even more magnificent than the humble, Walkman-friendly cassette reissue I bought out of Virgin in 1992 and luckily kept – younger readers may wish to consult their grandparents for full explanation of what a “Walkman” was), I feel that proper understanding of its spaces, its long, measured (or immeasurable) silences, its sudden Neptunian eruptions, can only really be gained by full immersion in its Californianess; i.e. you have to have lived in California to appreciate its sense of isolation, benign or otherwise, breathed the same atoms (or versions of them), appreciate the vastness. I think this may be one for my (Californian) wife to tackle.

Likewise, although the four members of Ornette’s 1961 quartet all arrived from different places, they were all more or less raised in Los Angeles , and “Beauty Is A Rare Thing” is a glassy pearl of sparkling hugeness which I think could only have been conceived in L.A. With Coleman’s music, but especially with his ballads, you have to think of his songs – and true songs they all are – as gently unwinding stories rather than squared-off declarations of schematic intent. Perhaps this more than anything was what warned off all the jazz boys back in that particular day; barlines occurring as naturally and unforcedly as commas or semi-colons might appear in a long, meditative piece of literature. So the top line melody of “Beauty” is a declaration – although there are no words as such, Coleman’s pauses while playing the tune suggest that, like Lester Young, he’s working very hard to remember the lyrics – which takes as long to state as nature and life require. Behind – no, around – him, Haden and Blackwell stay on bowed bass and (mostly) tuned tom toms throughout the performance, their waves quietly but intently lapping at the feet of Coleman’s soul.

There is a climactic squeak from the alto, but as this returns at reasonably regular intervals throughout Coleman’s subsequent solo we can delineate this as an aural comma or barline, punctuation to help determine the part of the exposition that we have reached. Cherry nudges in like rusty marmalade; picking up immediately on Blackwell’s New Orleans subdivisions he seems on the verge of turning the performance into calypso (and as Kevin LeGendre’s sleevenote to the CD reissue of This Is Our Music attests, I’m not the only one who spots prototype rude boy in those shades Cherry’s wearing on the cover) but catches himself and drifts between warm extended tones and quick but not frantic flurries of notes. Periodically he and Coleman lock blessings of horns and squeal, fulfilled, towards the sun.

Then Coleman re-enters, methodically unpicking and expanding the central song; Haden’s continuo suddenly responds with an impromptu, upwardly scuttling figure and he becomes more active, Blackwell always alternating between solemn tom tom circularities and gauze mists of cymbals. The music absorbs, contracts and expands with a solitary sense of community, priceless, exotic, tender, stroking, endless, green, turquoise and then aquatic blue and they combine for a sated sigh of an ending and it is, as simply as anyone could phrase or frame it, love.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008


Happy Hardcore, the people's music that never really went away, much as other people would have liked it to; first Scooter get a number one album, then Darren Styles' double CD package Skydiving goes straight into the top five and stays there. Formerly half of the duo Breeze and Styles - much played on Peel's show, lest any of us forget, and a few of their greatest hits are dusted down here, most noticeably the magical "You're Shining" lent immense extra poignancy by Lisa Abbott's cracked, straining voice - he has proved very astute; as with Jumping All Over The World, Skydiving is a double, one CD "hardcore" and the second "commercial," and 2008 pop is unlikely to get perkier.

As I say, the music has both survived and thrived despite blanket ignorance on the part of radio and TV, the true soundtrack of the British working class, the thrust you hear leaking out of every headphone on a council estate bus, music by and for The People; it would seem that, just as the Beatles are unlikely to vanish as a talisman for some demographics, equal numbers (and in 2008 Britain it's very likely to be equal) have never forgotten rave and what it once promised and what it can yet promise, to the splendidly great inconvenience of those who would presume to run our affairs.

The remarkable thing about Skydiving is that its Stylistic division appears both schizophrenic and entirely symbiotic; several tunes appear in different versions or mixes on both CDs and each version complements the other as naturally as the two versions of "Hey Hey, My My" which bracket Rust Never Sleeps. Listen to the "commercial" "Save Me" for instance and you might wish to shake yourself from the dream of a lost Howard Jones album, only much, much better; Styles seeks not to proclaim his changing of your world but sings in a pinched, enthusiastic, vibrato-free high voice, direct and truthful. Much of the "commercial" CD pitches itself in a late eighties recreation scenario far more securely than hamfisted revivalists like Neon Neon; again, the lightness is crucial to help see the light.

The divergence and convergence are best demonstrated by the two versions of the title track. The "commercial" "Skydiving" is fairly straightforward post-eighties pop of the quality to which the likes of McFly aspire, bouncing, bounteous and always with the hint of the rave lurking behind its aquamarine corridors of life, as well as the lyrics; most of Styles' lyrics repeatedly hark back (and forward) to the credos of rave, lots of skies and heavens ("I feel like I'm drifting through the sky/Through the heavens I can hear your voice"). But, and again crucially, Styles' outlook is always optimistic and filled with renewed awe; "Skydiving" is far from the only track where he emphasises the liberation of "feeling alive"; "Take me to a place where I can dream/So we can climb up above the clouds and feel/So free" - we are on very familiar territory here.

But also: "And as we fall I'll take your hand." On the "hardcore" versions the anticipatory beats are radiantly itching to go and the song kicks into fulsome, hands up, klaxons at the ready, stadium Happy Hardcore wherein Styles sounds even freer - the great axial lurch of his warped synth bass as he steps up the power is akin to the thumb of God pressing the remote control of eternity - and it's simple to understand why this represents freedom, rather than escapism, in the turgid, pitiless Britain of these times; here's a way out, here's a laugh and a smiley face in defiance of grey compromise, here's some of the finest pop music of current times. Like New Pop, no one can truly kill this floating but rock solid spirit.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

SUPERSISTER: Dona Nobis Pacem

Strange, or not, how I've recently been veering back to the curvatures of Canterbury Rock, the coils of organ awaiting encasement in fuzz bass with flyswatter drumming and the occasional winsome vocal. It all seems agreeably perpendicular and light with the continued (if seldom fulfilled; tension band wiring was the glue that held Canterbury Rock together) promise of explosions. Supersister were Canterbury Rock as viewed through a North Sea telescope; they were from the Hague, teenagers or thereabouts (but mostly, or totally, child prodigies, particularly keyboard man Robert-Jan Stips), and their non-Kentness created an airvent of new inspiration down which new breaths of retrospective influence could flow, not that they've been revived as such until very recently.

Present From Nancy, their debut album, is from 1970, and a remarkable 47 minutes' worth of homework; it essentially takes its lead from Wyatt-led song form Soft Machine, yet although there are "songs," they are liable to swerve into fuzzier, extended waters, hence "Memories Are New," a generation ahead of Stereolab, begins by swooning over spent tropes ("Forever try to live in the past" as bassist/singer Rob Van Eck sighs) before driving into 11/8 cataclysms, Stips thrashing his organ as much like a guitar as he can get away with, always stepping halfway over the tonality brink, or fussing at one wah-wah note until it curls up into a soup, balanced out by the contemplative flute of the late Sacha Van Geest, until finally organ and flute unite for a slow ice lake dance of Lytton Strachey damaged elegance. They tried singles as well; the first, "She Was Naked," essentially is the album in precis (with the calamitously brilliant line "Reveal philosophies like instant pudding"), cantering from moody musing to near-freeform detonations (and it still nearly made the Dutch top ten).

But "Dona Nobis Pacem" is perhaps the record's simplest track as well as its deepest. A semi-solemn Gregorian procedural (also bearing hints of Beaver and Krause's Gandharva in places), it steps along in ominously beautiful manner, a pacing four-note bass line providing the margin for flute and keyboards to breathe in, and out, and slower, and more regularly; a huge hug of grace to conclude the album's scattering adventures, and then, after seven or eight minutes, the tempo gradually quickens and the pitch systematically heightens as though the musicians are negotiating their way across the narrowest of drawbridges to reach a pinched, nearly airless apex. As the journey converges Stips abruptly (but logically) converts into a bouncy Blackpool Tower Ballroom/Organist Entertains melody (fooled you! Or have we?) but then persists with his extended, terminal, deep, key-ambiguous sustenato; after one final, minute scatter for seeds, a giant, stereophonic gong crash wakes us all up. Custard pie as salvation?