Monday, 31 March 2008

CANDY FLIP: Strawberry Fields Forever

Yesterday’s Pick Of The Pops sounded like a demographic experiment, bold by Radio 2’s standards, featuring as it did the charts of 1984 and 1990 – although both are now at some generational distance (24 and 18 years respectively), the choice was practically avant garde for a comfy Sunday afternoon audience; I wonder what the cardiganed sixtysomething Bachelors fans made of Queen Latifah or Orbital. The 1990 list struck a particular resonance with me since – as reminded by the Boat Race – this was the Top 20 in the week of the London poll tax riots, and a markedly celebratory chart it seemed, if sometimes a rather threatening one. In that context, Snap!’s “The Power” was the timeliest number one since “Ghost Town,” its menace palpable, while “Love Shack” in second position sounded like the party the day after the revolution, especially since the riots ensured that Thatcher’s days were numbered.

But the record with which I felt most emotional congruence on yesterday’s listen was this cover version, universally derided as a cash-in on baggy and/or rave and/or Madchester and unjustifiably so. I can’t remember at this stage whether or not Candy Flip came from Manchester (answers in the comments box please) but I think this a remake or reshaping of some genius. “Strawberry Fields,” as a record more than a song, is something which defies any notion of interpretations by others as, despite its speed-variance cut-and-paste assembly, the original sounds so complete – at least until you listen to the 27 different takes of the tune which Lennon and George Martin recorded, slowly working towards its final form.

There is something genuinely heartbreaking in the song’s original existence, as a worried but gentle acoustic ballad which could easily have fitted into Revolver, but then the rest of the Beatles, and other elements, are systematically added in – even at this mid-stage, prior to all the backwards tapes, orchestral overdubs and other special effects, there is a chastening humility about the song’s nakedness, a true sadness reaching out to a childhood which either cannot be retrieved or never happened in the first place; emotionally and structurally it’s hardly any distance from “In My Life.”

But it reached its definitive form (by Martin’s standards, if not to Lennon’s satisfaction) as a sort of challenging gateway to 1967 (whereupon Larkin’s cloakroom girls and typists instantly clutched to Engelbert for fear of something worse); and then, in 1990, it came back for another era of hopeful happiness. Still there remains something ineffably sad about Candy Flip’s revisit, an Elysium of damp Northern streets still awaiting transformation. The heavy, slow, chugging and clanking breakbeats locate it in the road adjacent to Saint Etienne’s “Avenue,” and if St Et had done this themselves it would have been universally applauded as a classic. The singer isn’t quite there or here and yet not really everywhere; he croaks the song in post-comedown bliss – the arrangement itself sneaks in a few structural clues which led some people to think that this was a SAW production on the quiet – but the song itself is treated with utter and delicate respect; it doesn’t mechanically strive to be “out there” but subtly distorts its own picture as it proceeds like some Victorian hansom cab ready to be repainted in colours primary. The chords and harmonies are pared down to the necessary minimum, such that the deliberate discordance of “nothing is real” is emphasised more dramatically, and the song simply ends on a final, rueful (“The End”?) fanfare of electronica; a new start, a second chance, a second summer, try to hang on to the love this time around. In 2008 the extra poignancy time and circumstance have afforded cannot be missed. How could we get it so wrong, again? As for Candy Flip, however, two of their number contributed writing and production duties to Robbie Williams' Rudebox. The subtle battle continues.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

STEPHEN "TIN TIN" DUFFY: Kiss Me (Mixe Plural)

SPLASH! Sex, trash, James Joyce; are these outtakes from Leonard Woolf's memoirs? The days of effortless (or effortless looking) artpop; strict bubbles of mischief crowning the indecision. Still, Duffy's decision to leave Duran Duran before they proceeded to make fools of ourselves was wise and prescient. "Kiss Me" was a dance hit in 1983 America and not much of anything here despite the pounding sterling efforts of Peter Powell; then some Art of Noise input (J J Jeczalik co-produced) ensured its glide into a 1985 spring top five ("wows are few, frustrations more common") desperate for recent New Pop oxygen.

The 12-inch stands immortal for sex, trash and Joyce alone (or together?) before Duffy enters with his politely confused tones, a Spaghetti Junction Neil Tennant not yet potent enough to scrape the grey sky (but "Wow, I feel so fresh today"!) and how preferable his "barefoot in the snow" is to Fish's contemporaneous dancing stilettoes! He needs her kiss but does he need the wine more, and is his own wine sufficient if he saves too much for himself?

The music chimes with turquiose lustre, its condensed electro-history translating Heaven 17's industry into Paul Haig synth-flute whistles (but then "Big Blue World" came after the original "Kiss Me") and those Duck Rock/Into Battle samples thud like his soul against the bedroom floor plankage. Glamorously provincial in its reddened reserve (who is that woman who suddenly materialises to sing the final chorus?), the song is brought to a traffic light-frozen halt to allow gentle Japanese falls of glockenspiel snow, the music box slowly disintegrating to reveal...a sustained Frankie Goes To Hollywood chord. Little wonder, then, that Duffy proceeded to run away from electricity and towards the Lilac Time just as Van's teenager flees Madame George...and then his train unexpectedly detoured to Robbie Williams' station and he became able to bookend this story.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008


I don't think it particularly helpful for the Hercules & Love Affair album to be promoted as merely another in the line of winking post-LCD backward looks to unlived through days of Moroder or Studio 54 or Chicago warehouses but with added Antony, but then again without the added Antony I doubt whether I would have lent the record a listen. It is a semi-successful album in that half of it relies a little too much on the honda-honda bass memory set and a little too little on actual emotion, but its other half - i.e., and unsurprisingly, the half largely involving added Antony - is remarkable. Rather than a revived ball of ageing gaudy strobe, HLA mainman Andrew Butler locates the secret source of the original post-disco worry and concern; much of the record plays to a dankly lit 1981 of hidden corners of riots, economic terminalism and ungainly fits of thwacked bass and careering trumpets (trumpeter Carter Yasataki is an essential foil here).

Perhaps the best of the non-Antony tracks is "This Is My Love," sung by Butler himself in an Eno deadpan baritone, over quiet skittles of beats and occasional flourishing flashbacks to primordial tinsel, as he describes his passage from his formerly "twisted face - the only one I knew" to discovering the real future ("In all the searching we do to find love's gentle being/If we open more than just our eyes, we might know what we're seeing"); his eyes blink with disciplined wonder ("I listened to the night time breeze/but she is quiet as can be") as a blanket of electric trumpets enfolds his newly-born joy.

Even when Antony is not primarily involved he cannot help but imbue the music with his intensely damaged character; note how he gradually takes over "You Belong" with its delicious warps of Inner City's "Good Life" from the background. And "Blind" has in other places been acknowledged as the masterpiece latter-day Bryan Ferry could never quite drive or provoke himself to produce; at the exact midpoint between "Both Ends Burning" and "Same Old Scene," Antony weeps, detests and worships his childish dreams of stars without hope of escape from his current unwilling loneness...he hangs onto these repeated and increasingly pained variants on the word and act of "feeling" like a mask of purest oxygen.

But "Easy" seems to me the hidden striking point and the album's most quietly smouldering song; over Sylvian anti-percussion and Sakamoto contra-drones, Antony sings like a low and threatening cloud, intoning directions to "come down easy" with the sun or the clouds or the drums and the songs that "she" plays like John Martyn filtered through 1980 Robert Palmer (and Palmer was always most convincing in low voice - see "Johnny And Mary," "I Didn't Mean To Turn You On," etc.); the pace is an unhurried flow until 2:35 when multiple Antonys abruptly blossom in flowering penitence of passions: "Walk, walk slowly!/Don't run!/There is no 'where' to get to!" before the rays of sun cast towards the ground again and Antony whispers a warning: "Stay with your family.../This day she gives us/It is a gift/Honour your family," before the song slowly disappears from view but not from mind. I sense another pre-apocalypse coming together; don't be distracted by the gaudy from revealing the Gaudi within...soap bubbles of hope, washing us clean.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

BILLIE DAVIS: The Last One To Be Loved

The public didn't quite trust Billie Davis; there was something subtly but unrelentingly defiant about her which prevented easy love, and despite this, or because of this, she has remained one of the least revisited of Sixties Brit girls, and unjustifiably so. Her career was awkward; one big hit in 1963 with a reading of the Exciters' "Tell Him" with a near-punkish delivery - her high pitch is awkwardly aimed at, but she doesn't really seem to care. There is the feeling that she urgently needs to cry this out to you, rather than just telling you, an overt emotionalism which didn't fit with the bouncy 1953 countenances of fellow chart inhabitants such as Maureen Evans or Susan Maughan. Good advice is ignored as thoroughly as Girls Aloud would do four decades later.

Then there was the affair with Jet Harris, lately blackened out of the Shadows, the car crash and the scandal; after which she was kept at a commercial distance, shuttled between different record labels (with the consequent difficulties in assembling a thorough one-stop compilation of her work) like Monopoly railway stations. Her output was not evenly glorious, but had its clear peaks; when in 1968 she threatened a major comeback with "I Want You To Be My Baby," still one of the sexiest of all British pop records with a Greek chorus encompassing everyone from Denny Laine to Kiki Dee, her record label's pressing plant staff went on strike just as it was about to hurtle into the Top 30.

Amidst all this confusion, there is the quietened prayer of "The Last One To Be Loved," which has remained a relatively obscure Bacharach and David song, recorded for Pye in 1965. After a huge triple orchestral sweep of apocalyptic question marks, the music crouches down to the characteristically florid-alternating-with-sparse Bacharach structure (via Milhaud and Jobim) of piano and hushed rhythm section. She's not quite young any more; everyone else has systematically paired off, and finally, belatedly, it's her turn. She is quietly euphoric and fearful in roughly equal measures; she wants it and dreads it at the same time. Her anguish increases in volume with the chorus - "Remember I'm the last one to be loved/The last one to be KISSED and CARESSED AND to be blessed from above" - which in turn resolves with monumental staircases of block piano chords (played by Bacharach himself?) before receding back into soft worry: she might be holding him too tight or kissing him until both are out of breath but "forgive me - I am so new at this" she asks before confessing that she's "scared to death" of the happiness about to be revealed, and yet she knows there's no way back.

The instrumental break expands as hugely as "Walk On By" before she returns for one final reassurance, and now she is sure: "I'm so glad I saved all my love for you," she cries, but adds that if he should leave her, as orchestra and chorus venture to the edge of the abyss and stop dead, "I...would..."


Big finish?

The quiestest ever "die" you ever heard, even closer to silence than Herb Alpert's "die."

The music resumes quietly towards fadeout with her repeating her mantra: "I'm the last one to be loved..."

Throughout her voice is tremulous with a slight, concealed edge of harshness, but her tentative delivery suits the song's initial extended uncertainty of emotion. Her vocal grain also sounds surprisingly close to Duffy's, without the suffocating need to "impress" people or "stand" for something...she knows her limits but also how and why and when to hold back. She can be trusted.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008


In early 1988, Stuart Maconie opined with some confidence in an All About Eve article in the NME that certain things were absolutely assured in life, including the fact that Patsy Kensit would never have a hit single. One month later she was in the Top 20. Stuart's a wise man more often than not, but here he failed to take the real X factor into account - namely, the Pet Shop Boys.

If "I'm Not Scared" is really Patsy plus PSBs rather than Eighth Wonder, as such, then that is no disgrace; on the contrary, in the charts of its time its exquisitely painful shine was even more radiant than might have been expected. Despite the attempts of certain oldies shows on certain national radio broadcasters to paint a revisionist picture of 1988 pop as being about huge, flashy boulders of pseudo-bigness - the migraine-inducing industry of Bros, the shoulder-padded gloss of ballad Whitney - it was a time of crimson and yellow explosions of newness; around every corner was a Coldcut, a Bomb the Bass, an Eric B and Rakim, a Vanessa Paradis, a Primitives, to confound and delight the discerning pop fan further and further...and it was still only March!

And "I'm Not Scared" might be the most brilliant of all of these diamonds; foreseeing the 1988 chart-topping Kylie of twenty years hence, there is a depth, a natural elegance to its processional which betrays an astonishing beauty. Not only does Patsy sing like the Kylie of 2008, but she also predicates Sarah Cracknell and defines a path which a more generous Madonna might have trod - crucially she keeps the vocal low and confidential; she knows her limits but is faultless within them.

The PSBs knew what she might be thinking, too; every turn suggests a twist in Kensit's sobriety ("What have you got to hide? What do you need to prove?" "Tonight the streets are full of actors") - outwardly opulent but inwardly in great fear, running from an unspecified past ("I thought that if you paid/You'd keep them off our backs" - the downside of the credit boom foretold, or just the nearest newspaper editor?) towards an even less certain future.

And yet, and yet...she won't be shaken or put off; she will walk right through the arena of prematurely pouring blood and know she is still heading in the right, the only, direction, even towards a place which actually might be her real home ("Where do we have to be, so I can laugh and you'll be free?"). The overwhelming feeling, however, is that they are free to go anywhere.

The music is glorious, post-Debussian outflow of careful, staccato electro beats powering a seemingly placid surface with the kind of chord changes which can't be learned at the Brit School. On their own version of the song, which appeared on the Introspective mini-album later that year, the PSBs make the allusion explicit, topping and tailing the song with crowd noises from the '68 Paris riots - and of course, as punctum is heaped upon punctum, Patsy switches at the song's climax to French, now demanding, rather than asking, that these dogs be taken away from her.

The moment when the song turns a corner and turns, practically, into Joy Division's "Decades" is heartstopping; you feel privy to a richness absent from the pallid gloss prevalent elsewhere, and in Patsy's breaths you sense the slowly dawning realisation that she is participating in one of the greatest of pop records ("But I can...I can fight"). But the Paris riots are themselves a metaphor for the crushing blows of Thatcherism, as demonstrated in the world-stopping climax where - over those Joy Division synths and newer order regrets - Patsy intones "If I was you, if I was you, I wouldn't treat me the way you do" as she makes up her mind to engage in the battle, and thereby with the world, with equal ounces of pity and threat, before subsiding again into French whispers - "J'ai pas peur," she prays into the record's final grooves; has she been speaking to herself, or to us, urging us to stop being frightened or hypnotised and strike back, regardless of the packs snapping around our feet? Only the PSBs could have created it, perhaps only Patsy could have sung it truthfully, and perhaps only in 1988 could it have carried its huge moral and aesthetic weight. Never say never, again.

Monday, 17 March 2008

THE MOVE: Cherry Blossom Clinic

The Move were always too awkward for their time, even when their time was one of the most awkward; onstage extremism which attempted to outdo the Who, but the lead singer leaned more towards cabaret, and extravagant fantasies of drug-eroded autodestruction composed by the only member of the group who was a Rechabite, a total abstainer. Straddling the gap, and opening new chasms as they stamped their way past, between sixties Brumbeat and seventies Brummetal, Bev Bevan's foursquare brute force drumming actually makes perfect sense in this context; "Night Of Fear" is clearly ready to burst out of its post-Cavern corset (and its B-side, "Disturbance" goes gruesomely further). Everything is too top heavy for visions of light utopias.

Thus "Cherry Blossom Clinic," the clear masterpiece on their eponymous debut album which, true to their awkwardity, didn't appear until the spring of '68 (i.e. far too late) and the true beginning of ELO and Roy Wood's expansiveness. It shuttles violently between relatively straightforward verses - structurally the exact martial midpoint between "Flowers In The Rain" and "Blackberry Way" - where Carl Wayne describes the cold realities of being sectioned ("I was gonna be kept in a bed owing to my state of mind," go the curiously chaste lyrics, "and then I found out that the authorities had said, um, that I'd gotta have special food fed to me for my thoughts, um, and I think it's because, er, because I was going off my...HEAD!") and fantasy bridges and choruses where the shrill lightness of Wood's voice takes over as he tells of 20,000 butterflies, asking the Queen to tea, even as his reverie is interrupted by Bevan's five stroke hammering descents of drums as though the patient is being pushed down several flights of stairs, before paranoid Psycho strings slash their way into the bright piccolo trumpet fanfares, trying hard not to turn into screams.

This cherry blossom dream offers no escape; witness the ECT icepick of high strings which slices in after Wood's "trying hard to meditate." Callous friends and suffocating blankets are kept as much at bay as possible as the schizophrenic tries to preserve what's left of his vision(s) as brass and strings - expertly marshalled by arranger Tony Visconti - coalesce into ruined puddles of poison even as he hails the sun shining "like a tea tray in the sky" before he cheerfully concludes "Probably feel better when I'm dead"; all to a smart bubblegum tune being forced into drowning by piercing cries of wounded eagles, carousels mutating into daggers, barely exceeding two and a half minutes but slicing deeper in its own callous manner than "Walrus." The Move thrashed their psychedelic vistas against a Brummie brick wall of hardness, and conformity, and commitments in a mess. Half a decade later, ELO's "10538 Overture" would describe how the same refugee attempts to make his escape. Then think of another pop record Visconti helped bring into being yet a half decade later, full of pale blinds and electric blue...and wonder into how many pieces Jimmy's scooter actually splintered...

Friday, 14 March 2008


The most prolific winner of the NME's Single Of The Week award - six times - and probably the winner who gained least benefit from this distinction, Champion Doug Veitch, who came from Hawick and had apparently previously been a dustman, released with careful carelessness a series of intermittent singles through the central bone of the eighties as inventive in their own low-wattage way as Kevin Ayers or Badly Drawn Boy; played endlessly on distinguished radio shows of the period but flitting in and out, nervous of fitting into any less than suitable flame. "Lumiere Urban," "Not The Heart," "One Black Night" and more - all inventive, as though Vic Godard had snagged himself on a tightrope stretching from Western Swing to Hyperdub.

The King of Caledonian Swing, he called himself, and 1985's "Jumping Into Love" was maybe his modest masterpiece; produced by Tony McDermott and crucially mixed by the Mad Professor, it's a woozily attractive effusion of Burrito Brothers and Aswad, firm horns and dub echoes (Roger Hilton's Simmons drumkit being the only acknowledgement that this was the eighties) blending with liquid Sneaky pedal steel flotations (courtesy of one "Gentleman" Jim Craig). Over this backdrop Veitch sings, in accent, of his multiple misfortunes with love ("When my heart leans on my head, it's for the door/I got burned more times than I got fingers") but is still manifestly in love with the idea of record as thing in itself ("Feel like dancing into love - play 4/4!" he exclaims at the end of the second verse).

Two-thirds of the way through he jumps into a startling and unprecedented blur of Borders MC toasting, fleet of tongue, rabbiting on about wearers of American tweed south of the border, Kinshasa, and people who think that reggae and country can't mix - "Listen to this tune, your brain will FIX!" he squeals - occasionally switching into an unsettling falsetto before resurfacing to complete the song. With his "bloodshot eyes" he leaves trombonist Dave Killen to take the record out. It sounds warm, approachable and cheeky, music concocted for the love of watching what happens with the accidental ballets of its elements. He subsequently set about recording many worthy artists, most notably the Bhundu Boys, and in more recent years has kept a certain distance from music. However, these singles are in urgent need of CD compiling and his tweedily twirling visions should be championed anew.

Thursday, 13 March 2008


It would be overstating the case to claim that Bill Laswell's production work of the eighties has endured particularly well, though I ascribe its dated failings to the general preference for stifling mid-range treble to any meaningful bass response (ironic given the fact that he is a bass player). At the same time, however, it would be foolish to deny that "Rockit" or Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decode Yourself or the first Last Exit album or Sly and Robbie's Rhythm Killers - or the better parts of Material's One Down - are superb and significant records more than worth the work that will be involved in tracking down some of these twenty years later.

The Golden Palominos were the idea of drummer Anton Fier, and throughout their procession of eighties and nineties albums they made the fairly standard for the times move from post-no wave freeform shakeouts to metapop to agonised, nostalgic country rock to somewhere just behind Mazzy Star in the 1993 queue. Throughout Fier and Laswell indulged their what if/daydream group line-up fantasies, and they tended to work more often than not; their personnel stretched from Michael Stipe to Mick Taylor, from Sneaky Pete Kleinow via Bernie Worrell to Carla Bley.

"The Animal Speaks" was released in two versions, both utilising the same median punk-veering-on-BIGNESS backing track of stormy drums, migraine lead guitar and several strata of background nerve root intensity. The words are lost in a placid mid-eighties just before midnight storm, ice cubes mutating into daggers, searching for lust to conceal the real quest for an exit. "It's about how you move me and how I'd like to make you feel (but in your mind, charades?)" which quickly escalates (ahem) to the concealed prayer of "no one can save me if I cannot save myself."

One version is sung by Jack Bruce; he plays it as a somewhat cynical, overaged roue with a permanently eyebrow-raised delivery. He realises the futility of trying to find anything but can't help being tempted by it, for avoidance of any grey space which he would otherwise have to inhabit. He sounds as though trying to chat up Kelly McGillis on a wet Wednesday evening. Nothing more foolish than an old fool pretending to be in love, and well he knows it.

But the second version is sung by John Lydon, and from his initiation belch you can tell that he's already gone one door beyond; he screams, cries the tail of every line upwards like an unending borealis of fuckyouness. He sneers his "pretending not to know what it's all about," howls the "save myself" line with fearsome truthfulness, mourns his "alone, afraid, living as fast as I can," snorts his "Does the desperation show?" and only he makes that question rhetorical. As multiple guitar and Hammond organs burn behind him he goes down with this wretchedly rickety ship in the full knowledge that he will not drown but enter into a brighter and better world. His closing, extended, single breath rattle of a wail feels as though he's damming up "the eighties" forever. Metal Box meets Escalator eye to eye. It couldn't not have happened.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

TALULAH GOSH: Escalator Over The Hill

Giving a song a title like that is the very definition of the term "trying it" but you have to applaud Talulah Gosh for their courage. I have often wondered these past score years and two whether I was responsible for the existence of this song, since when I wasn't a student in the early-mid eighties I worked in the long-vanished Music Machine record shop in Oxford's Cornmarket Street, and I know that (a) several key members of freethinking Oxford-based proto-C86 collective Talulah Gosh used to frequent said shop with some noticeable regularity and (b) I used to make a habit of noisily recommending the original EOTH to my customers. Still, Chris Scott, the band's primary theoretician and sometime Monitor contributor, is a smart chap and I trust his ability to find things out for himself.

Their "Escalator" is another regretfully rolling ballad, nearly country in its approach - a bit like Mekons Junior - and Amelia Fletcher's vocal, though not always decodable, seems to carry several loads of sorrowful burdens. "If angels high should weary you," she ponders, "what would you find to remind you?" Later there are specks of missed buses, unrecordable dreams, rushing ahead as kids and accidentally stumbling into the barrier to this escalator. "I want to hear your voice" she plaintively proclaims halfway through - and after the second chorus huge Phantom Musics of guitars roar into ascension with some deep traces of organ behind the phalanx, exploding with startling alacrity, until the music calms down once more and is summarised by a final, beyond regretful, "You can't go back." The dreams of eternal childhood about to be overtaken and nullified by the needs which a pitiless society demands.

I miss the spirit which Talulah Gosh helped to convey; a very feminine (but far from soft) response to the idea of interdependent community, a sense of belonging which, as Simon Reynolds noted at the time, couldn't be gleaned from hot hip hop and House imports (although I loved those as well), a feeling of deserved restraint. Many of Talulah Gosh subsequently stepped up their game in the early nineties and became key movers in the inception of Riot Grrl (UK variant), particularly in the confines of Huggy Bear; it was the only possible response to those altered times. And of course Belle and Sebastian, and their innumerable satellites, have now helped extend (if not necessarily develop) the original C86 sense for over a decade - and the attitude and precepts engendered by C86 may finally have found its logical and natural homes in both Toronto and Wales. I think Emily Haines' dad would have approved.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008


Norman "Hurricane" Smith has just died; his was not a wasted or prematurely curtailed life - he was eighty-five - but it was an ebulliently singular one. Already in his mid-thirties, he lied about his age and became an engineer at EMI, where he ended up as George Martin's right-hand man, engineering all of the Beatles' records up to and including Rubber Soul. Then he saw the youthful Pink Floyd, and when Joe Boyd couldn't continue to produce their records after "Arnold Layne" for contractual reasons, Smith took over for everything from "See Emily Play" to Atom Heart Mother.

In Studio 1 at Abbey Road, he encouraged Syd and the boys to go even further out than they had anticipated, and Piper At The Gates Of Dawn bears articulate witness to an absolute union of artist's vision and producer's flair - Sgt Pepper was being constructed in Studio 2, and Smith and Martin frequently went next door to each other to exchange ideas and advice, as indeed did the musicians themselves - and it is a tribute to Smith's expertise as much as the Floyd's imagination that Piper has stood up so brilliantly; he remained keen to realise and expand the group's ideas over their next three albums, all of which still sound beamed from a parallel universe '68-'70. At the same time he encouraged thug R&B perennials the Pretty Things to indulge their adventurous notions and helped put together S.F. Sorrow as well as the dazzling associated singles, most notably of all "Defecting Grey" which changes mood and direction approximately two dozen times within its five or so minutes; Phil May has attested that Smith worked with the band purely with a view to experimentation and adventure rather than the thought of any financial rewards. In 1969-70 he part-produced Resurrection, the only recently resurrected album by the Aerovons, a bunch of Beatles-fixated teenagers from St Louis with a world of ideas but little money; they scraped together what they had, borrowed some more from their parents and somehow made it to London, and to Abbey Road, where the exquisite "World Of You" and a dozen other gems were recorded. Sadly individual band member personal crises ensured the premature dissolution of the group and the album disappeared until its eventual reappearance on CD, but the music remains strong and the production actively defiant of anything resembling 1969.

Then, to everyone's surprise, Smith resurfaced in 1971, nearly fifty, as a recording artist of his own. "Don't Let It Die" was only kept off number one by the unassailable "Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep" and it remains one of the strangest of early seventies pop smashes; written with the World Wildlife Fund in mind (and possibly commissioned by the WWF) it is a doleful ballad with distorted piano and restrained strings which Smith sings in a voice which made most people think it was Danny Ross (Alfie Hall in The Clitheroe Kid); on TOTP he was represented by a silhouetted figure seated on a stool. The world is already dying ("The world is ours to tear apart/But what if it's too late to start again?") and although clearly a flag-waving fundraiser ("It's up to me/It's up to you") it possesses an eeriness peculiar to its age and evokes considerably more potent thoughts of "hauntology" than several more distinguished exemplars.

In 1972 he returned with the even stranger "Oh Babe, What Would You Say?," a deliberately old-fashioned but thoroughly endearing forties-style croon (but growled in his post-Formby contralto and with intermittent rasping sax solos) - though in the context of Gilbert O'Sullivan and Peter Skellern it probably wasn't as strange in Britain as it must have been in the States, where it became a number one. Thereafter he gradually slowed down towards retirement - although, delightfully, he turns up as one of the trumpeters on the Teardrop Explodes' Kilimanjaro - but seems to have lived a long, happy and blameless life and I would ask readers to listen to "Interstellar Overdrive" or "The Word" or "Baron Saturday" or "Oh Babe, What Would You Say?" tonight and raise a glass to his placid inventiveness.

Monday, 10 March 2008

ERYKAH BADU: Telephone

The factor most noticeable throughout New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), the first album by Erykah Badu in some five years, is the marching rhythm which underlies, in various forms of disguises, most of its dozen tracks. It's quite a while since such militancy made itself known in mainstream R&B (as opposed to pre- and post-Kanye rap), and its nearly perfect mixture of anger and tenderness is the rarest of combinations in current pop.

In case you fell asleep halfway through the above paragraph I have to report that this record is a major, major work of black protest, as enraged as Shepp, as devious as the Chambers Brothers, as crouched in worry as Riot Sly, as delicate as Jimi - it was recorded in the Electric Lady studios, and the ghost of Hendrix stalks the record's darkened corridors; consider as you must the extraordinary coda to "Twinkle," where the sweet everythings of "they keep us undereducated sick & deprived/they end up in blood" are succeeded by a weightless guitar interval, performed by the Mars Volta's Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, over which guest Bilal utters an ancient chant which gradually gets mangled up in increasing distortion before it gives way to Spartacus-like proclamations, the speech which I hope Obama will eventually make; behind his climactic "I'm a human being dammit! My life has value!," Omar turns the pedal and feedback higher and higher until we are in "Star Spangled"/Woodstock territory; screams and growls and howls.

Certainly the Roy Ayers-produced opener "Amerykhan Promise" sounds like the most explosive and righteous opening to any recent album; over snappingly lethal funk licks, Badu pledges herself to do right by America ("I'll love you tooth for tooth and eye for eye") while both she and her child are menacingly heckled throughout the track by the harsh voice of officialdom; Customs Office as big pimping ("We take your history and make it a modern mystery," "Give me a brain tissue sample - that might be good for later"); deliberately frightening.

Otherwise, the revolution is stated in an artfully subdued fashion; the quite gorgeous tiptoe through the midnight landmines that is "The Healer" where over distended koto and celeste notes and sampled war chants ("Kono Samourai") Badu is serenely confident of her people's eventual triumph ("I told you we ain't dead yet...we been livin' thru your internet") even as a ticking clock turns into a revving warplane motor. Again, the hint of Hendrix's "Angel" cries with quietened joy far in the background. Eddie Kendricks' "My People Hold On" is turned upon itself and becomes an electro-march, 1987 drum machine out of synch with 1983 PacMan ping pong bleeps, its pledges all swallowed into a backwards breath, out of which emerges a morning call and abruptly harsh radio static.

There are glorious stretches of flotation R&B and jazz-funk hauntology (absolutely justified in this context) with gorgeous Rotary Connection chord changes and aqueous Bob James Fender Rhodes ripples; I could bathe in the serrated spa of "Me" forever, even when, right after it namechecks Farrakhan, it changes into a scat/trumpet unison (Roy Hargrove) which could have come straight out of Was (Not Was)' "The Sky's Ablaze."

The idea of utopia is never discarded - as readers alert enough to know of unheralded but important recent precedents such as The Healing by the Strange Fruit Project or As If We Existed by Solliloquists Of Sound will already know - and even as Badu does the rollcall of those to be saved over the "Strawberry Fields" mellotrons and flutes of "Soldier" (the boys in the Iraqi fields, the picket lines, the girls on prescription pills) she keeps the Gaye/Mayfield breeze of optimism alive and active, as the "Freddie's Dead" elements which seep through and under "Master Teacher" confirm ("A beautiful world I'm trying to find").

The beauty of this magnificent record resides in how its songs always finish in a place distant and unimaginable but still connected from where they started; thus "Master Teacher" turns into a vintage 1973 Stevie Wonder roll of buoyant balladic grace (though the alien electronic voices begin to lurk in its background) and, most profoundly, in "That Hump" where the liquid grind of struggle in the first half is separated by a central explosion of vocal torment from Badu, leading to a gorgeous brass/organ-driven ballad section through which she gradually collapses on endless reiterations of the phrase "tired of this dope," her vibrati and instabilities becoming very reminiscent of the Prince of "Adore." The suffocating "The Cell" imagines Betty Davis scatting over Jack Johnson and remixed by A Tribe Called Quest with odd interjections of petrol station synths and a hook of "shitty-damn-damn-baby-bang" of which Scritti would have been proud, or at the very least pleased. The brass band fanfares of "Real Thang" step effortlessly onto the menacing post-Whitfield/Temptations escalator ("I think you'd better tell your soldiers to FALL BACK!"), while the regularly detonating "Honey" (complete with "We Don't Talk Anymore"-style sudden mains switch-off) is glorious post-SOS Band handclap-friendly soul-pop.

But it is on "Telephone" that Badu digs deeper and hurts the deepest; it is a slow, patient seven minute plus elegy to J Dilla, apparently written the day after his funeral, and it is heartbreaking, beginning with phantom sirens, electric piano ripples, guitar scrapes and eventually a peaceful procedural of bass (played by Michael Elizondo) and a feather bed of flutes. Badu doesn't say much apart from the incantations needed - "Just fly away to heaven brother, make a place for me brother, put in a word for me" - but the grief is palpable and tangible and the music so beautiful as to make one want to head away from the earthly for good. Throughout, Mike Chavarria's guitar weeps the gentlest of tributes to Hendrix; and then the dignified backing chorus and handclaps increase the song's intensity - what a contrast to the mechanical PASSION button which such things signify in mainstream pop - as Badu sings, "Celebrate your life - OH! I love you!" - but even she collapses; starting at 6:12 she embarks on a literally breath-taking forty second emotional breakdown of mourning using only the expressions "mmmm" and "ooh" and turning them into an otherwise inarticulable sadness, almost in one unbroken breath. At the end, after her mumbled "thank...thank you" and tolling bells, even her producer and backing musicians sound scared of such intensity, and one almost regrets that the album doesn't end here (though "Real Thang" is listed only as a bonus track, and "Honey" is not listed at all, so perhaps that was the original intention).

However, this is a vital and unmissable document - there are further instalments to come, Rufus/Want-style - and unreservedly recommended to those who want to listen to where soul music is actually going in 2008 rather than clinging to whitening memories of what it might have sounded like in 1968. The forward march continues, with or without anyone's permission.

Friday, 7 March 2008


There are two options in life which can usefully bear a car-as-life metaphor when things have been upended. You can resign yourself grievously to the slow corrosion of Jim White's "Corvair," marooned in the yard for fifteen years and now a home for the birds, or you can shrug your shoulders and try to find a way out. The latter stage usually isn't reach until prolonged, agonising, self-hating periods of the former. The ability to reach the loving nonchalance of "oh the dashboard melted, but we still have the radio" is hard to achieve and we should unreservedly applaud those who manage it.

So Modest Mouse had their number one album and allegedly "sold out," i.e. became happy rather than spend their lives as a would-be bird's nest, but do they care? "The windshield was broken but I love the fresh air y'know" in that excitable ten-year-old Tom Verlaine on Christmas morning of a voice suggests that there are more important things to care about. Disaster? Busted? All out of luck? So what if the car's on blocks - they're here, exactly where they wanted to go, which is here and now. One can speak of nothing and everything and yet there is always something to be salvaged, eternally a greater reason to proceed than to freeze. "The last laugh of this show"? Who could deny it to them?

The beats snap like newly walked icicles (the phrase "more than I wanted you to know-oh-oh-oh-oh" followed by an instantaneous "Now here we go!" as the band seem to go underwater is like Zeus clapping apart suffocating waves of indifference. And of course there is Johnny Marr, unavoidably beaming from stage/channel right, with his endless and gladdening variations on the funk cracker, now staccato notes, now quiescent, now bold and flowing, adapting and altering the group's angles with ways that could only be beneficial. It breathes and rocks like more rock should; it would've been could've been worse than anyone could ever know, but the gloriously decisive indecision ends the song with a mighty door slam of confidence, making sure that everyone who wants or needs to be in their room is present and content, having dashed away from the bored.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

THE ANIMALS: Inside - Looking Out

1966, and the Animals were slowly coming apart, but there was one last blast of agony to come before they devolved into going to San Francisco, discovering future rock stars and other less strenuous activities. By now they had moved away from Mickie Most and Columbia towards Decca and Tom Wilson, a man who had or was producing records by Cecil Taylor and the Velvet Underground - indeed the production of "Inside - Looking Out" immediately preceded that of the first Velvets album.

Although subsequently ruined by Grand Funk Railroad, whose 1971 9:53 33 rpm 7-inch live version held the title of longest UK hit single prior to the emergence of the 12-inch, "Inside - Looking Out" is one of the bloodiest and least inhibited of singles even by 1966's notoriously bloody standards. It was their penultimate hit but already they looked set to vapourise. It begins with huge slamming cell doors of beats as Burdon beats a chain around his own head, unsure whether to be scared or glad of his confinement; the operatic weeping "surroundin' me" is counterbalanced and perhaps negated by the proto-Iggy purr of "sympathy, yeah" in the next line. However, the tension immediately bubbles upwards; I can't think of any of its chart contemporaries musing about keeping themselves sane in a burning oven - and then he goes into overdrive; he might be chanting "my reason" but it sounds much more like "rebirth" and he shrieks it over and over as Hilton Valentine's guitar snaps and gurgles behind him (and with Dave Rowberry's organ one is already thinking: this is already beyond the Doors) before giving way to a hysterical and eventually arrhythmic call-and-response of "yeah"s and "baby"s as the group turns into a self-loathing machine gun.

Burdon sweats over his caressed "canvas bags" as the music subsides back into the verse, but once more there's an explosion of screams and feedback. Eventually Valentine has no option but to go onomatopoeically out behind Burdon's grunts, whispers and pleas, loving her, wanting her, demanding her freedom - and given the involvement of Chas Chandler it sounds like a direct precedent to and negation of Hendrix's "Stone Free" as though they are laying the ground for Jimi to coruscate. Again, Burdon whips the band up for the final onslaught :"Can't you feel my love? Can't you see my skill?") as the music eventually throttles itself towards orgasmic release. All this in three minutes and 45 seconds; it's as though all of rock had been condensed and squeezed into this tiny oven and challenged to survive and thrive. It took the man from Seattle to pick up the gauntlet that it fearlessly thrusted onto an unwilling ground.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

LOS CAMPESINOS!: You! Me! Dancing!

At last, a British band prepared to take on the challenge of New Toronto - and there is a sweet logic about the fact that they are Welsh - so much so that they signed to Arts & Crafts in Canada and got Dave Newfeld to produce this song for them. Six-and-a-half minutes and not a second wasted, and it is only one of a dozen delights on their debut album Hold On Now, Youngster... There are seven of them and they all play and sing whatever is necessary, and the fact that among their number is a glockenspiel player should already have made them essential listening.

Any song whose lyrics include the ironic admonition "You know that we could sell you magazines if only you could give your life to literature; just don't read Jane Eyre" has to grab discerning attention instantly, and the smashing thing about this album is the long-withheld promise in contemporary British guitar music of never being quite sure where the music is heading; frequently the Sherbet Fountain rush of guitars and anxious voices are intercepted by solemn, quiet processions of slow meditation (Harriet's violin, walking in the direct line of lineage from Owen Pallett, and also the mid-eighties Nightingales, is a crucial instrument of change here) such that songs like "Broken Heartbeats Sound Like Breakbeats" drift off into lands of deeper, slower drifts of intensity, all the better to make the moments of restored catharsis - the thrilling intrusion of exuberant mass choruses at 2:20 on "We Are All Accelerated Readers" ("NEVER LEAVE THE HOUSE!") being just one blissful example - stand out even more nobly; note also the Toni Braxton and Bonnie Tyler namechecks in the same song and the references to K Records T-shirts and White Noise elsewhere.

But "You! Me! Dancing!" is their masterpiece to date; beginning with guitar chords as slow and pensive as Hendrix at his most introspective (and slightly reminiscent of the intro to "America No More" by the KLF), the "Rock Island Line" express train rhythm starts up, and sweeps the sound into a giant, escalating whirlpool of feedback which then detonates reams of glorious freeform noises, the phoenix rising (or 1967 Pink Floyd rising anew!) before the drums at 1:39 cue the song proper; a sweating reflection on indie club night encompassing Bis and dance heroes ("if they existed") with a cautious nod at the previous generation of "crop tops and testosterone passion" before they realise that it doesn't matter that they "can't dance a single step" because, in the end, "it's you! It's me! And there's dancing!" because this is now their moment and nobody can reclaim or repossess it, and since they only have to live up to their own standards they can celebrate what they know is right and fit and the happiest of all possible existences, over a Wedding Present/Pulp thrash which resolves into magnificent consolidations of nowness: "And if it's all flailing limbs at the front line," the final manifesto proclaims, "every single one of us is Twisted By Design and dispatches from the back of my mind say 'so long as we're here, everything is alright.'" The lesson stood at the 2Is in 1957 and still does; the explosion is ours, the ecstasy contagious but non-transferable, the path is re-created. Wales' own "Windsurfing Nation." Value its never more generous awe.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

RACING CARS: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

They came from Wales - the song could almost be the Manics, five years from now - and their lead singer/songwriter, who called himself Morty (real name: Graham Mortimer) was short, stocky, bearded and had the voice of an androgynous angel. They were tipped by music papers as one of the big hopes of 1977 as backs were purposely turned on what was really going to happen that year.

But they must have known, surely they must have known, since "They Shoot Horses" sounds even more of an ache of a farewell to a certain era of music than "Silver Shirt," and it was fitting that in this week's Top 20 chart of 1977 it was the next door neighbour to Bowie's "Sound And Vision," another examination of wilful self-erasure. The song is a slowly unfolding tear duct the size of the Severn, one last dance in the manner of "Who Knows Where The Time Goes?" and its words are based on the plot of the film, from the perspective of the last two standing, or maybe crawling - although there seems to be a greater fatigue seeping through the song's crevices. "It's making no sense, but we'll stay here 'til the end...whatever...this time"; almost Beckettian in its pregnant fatalism. The song pauses for its great median marbled arch of a chorus and then pauses again before the even more hurting second verse; the high single guitar notes of dissonance which materialise like gaseous drops of fatal sweat, Morty's near-complete collapse on the line "it seems so lo-o-o-ong," already as ready to go as the Cash of "Hurt." Then there is just one last chorus, followed by a Sargasso Sea of single note-held string synthesiser (which makes me think, for snowy reasons, of Joy Division's "Atmosphere"). The song tolls its tiring bell and gradually retreats from a stage which it knows will imminently be overrun by other, more energetic spirits; punk and disco will between them drown all the quietened voices, and the song's liquid squeezes itself into the smallest possible rivulet, but does not expire, as Bill Fay was to begin to prove a few months later, crouching like a coracle so that it might see the bright lights tomorrow.

Monday, 3 March 2008


If Felt Mountain is still the best Goldfrapp record, it's because it finds Alison Goldfrapp as close as she has ever come to expressing her real self, even with the thin but stubborn line of gauze between artist and recipient in situ; there were songs and feelings on that record worthy of Billy MacKenzie, and on the evidence of Tricky's "Pumpkin" alone she had greatness nestled inside her awkward coat of dubious fibres, not to mention everything that she did with/to Orbital and Add N To X.

I never really got on with the glitter Goldfrapp, to me always a Kristine Sparkle version of Miss Kittin, a duffer Duffy take on Peaches, an Annie Lennox photocopy of Grace Jones (but then hadn't we done the latter already?) - what was she hiding from? Seventh Tree fails to resolve this dilemma entirely, and despite considerably more radiant moments than anything on her second or third albums, I still suspect she is overprotecting herself behind masks of assumed mirth. Nor am I certain of the validity of a hauntology record at this late hour; the 1971 gusset glow, Will Gregory's 1971 spectacles, the inexact refraction of predecessors from Boards of Canada to Saint Etienne - all of which take her further away from a 2008 Marianne Faithfull than draw her closer. There were the Lesley Duncans and Linda Perhacses and Bridget St Johns of 1971 but their inheld pastoralities were set against an unavoidable backdrop of grimy cities and political crises rather than a flaky frisson of dandelion to enable deliberate ignorance of the burning world surrounding them like a flaming circle of aggressive wagons.

Except these are simply more masks behind which Seventh Tree can protect its story of lost love, extreme desperation and final, cautious renewals, and its highpoints deserve to be beamed into the spotlight. The schaffel hasn't quite vanished entirely - "Road To Somewhere" chirpily draws the listener's attention away from its underlying beats - but there are pauses of wonder, if not quite utopian transcendence. The single "A&E" is exemplary; a cooed sequence of coded bewilderment which steadily and frighteningly comes into focus as the boxed-in guitars and drums seem to batter against her cocoon as she slowly reaches full consciousness - "How did I get to Accident and Emergency?" she asks, still drifting, still floating as she awakens from what was evidently an attempted and thwarted suicide ("dancing on the floor"); more polite than Amy or Adele, but delving infinitely further into nooks and dreads unreachable by the latter.

On the final re-consummation of "Monster Love" she even sounds like Olivia Newton-John waking up in 2008 after 37 years of sedation, though her thoughts are not quite idyllic ("The folly of a monster love"), and although it cannot begin to match the closer than this closing of "now"s at the end of Perhacs' "Delicious," nor the very environment of things like Catherine Howe's Such A Beautiful Place, let alone the markedly superior work in the same field of Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man a half-decade (!) ago.

But the opening "Clowns" seems to me the album's clear achievement. Low strings and a Joni-ish vocal but this is neither "River Man" nor Blue, and as you creep closer to its marginally less than welcoming beauty you notice the mumble, as though Goldfrapp, bound and gagged, is trying to communicate something through the tightly woven cloth, leather and rope; these are not the giddy abstractions of a Liz Frazer. The struggle of someone trying to escape a sunny, golden hell.

Then you refer to the lyrics, for once printed in full in the CD booklet, and what she is singing is the precise antithesis of a halycon Wicker Man daydream (the paradox!) - "Only clowns would play with those balloons/Whaddya wanna look like Barbie for?/Dear oh Lord, it's easy/Roasting, roasting, roast indeed, mahogany titties that live on and on, on and on." A swift blow to both the anorexic supermodel anti-culture and a subtler swipe at the secondhand bliss of recalling sunblessed ghosts of a childhood which might never have existed; you approach Goldfrapp passively at your peril.