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Saturday, 31 May 2008

Written in granite: There Is A River

What was the best reissue/archive release of 2007? Actually I'm not sure but I do know what it should have been. There Is A River: The Elektra Recordings by David Ackles was on the release schedules, copies were sent out to journalists for review, rave reviews were published but no CDs appeared in shops. Apparently legal issues reared their ugly head at the last moment and there's still no word as to whether this astonishing 2CD set will ever see the light of day.

Two things you might know about David Ackles: 1) Phil Collins is a fan and chose Down River on Desert Island Disks. Mr Collins name is perhaps not totally synonymous with quality, but blame this on his eighties solo output (and, given how much money that must've earned him, I suspect he can probably live [in Switzerland] with that) it was not always thus: he played on John Cale's Helen Of Troy and I love early Genesis – the problems started when he came out from behind the kit, as far as I'm concerned. But he clearly has some taste because Down River is my favourite Ackles song too. 2) Elton John is a fan. Actually that's putting it mildly: Elton John is David Ackles with all the rough edges removed, his whole style is based on Ackles' except that it tends to be those rough edges that make the greatest artists. However, as we know, they frequently do not make the most commercially successful ones. But I'm not going to indulge in Elton and Phil-bashing here, there's plenty of that about if you're in that particular mood. I come to praise Ackles. Now unfortunately you'll probably have to take my word for it, at least about some of the material here. However the 3 albums which make up the bulk of this set have been issued on CD and can still be found. They are David Ackles, Subway To The Country and American Gothic. The latter was produced by Bernie Taupin (the third thing some people know about DA). Although the debut album is the best for my money, they're all great in their own ways. The fourth thing (etc.) is that the opening song on DA, The Road To Cairo, was covered by Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and Trinity as their follow-up to This Wheel's On Fire. There's also a French version, oddly renamed La Route À Chicago. Now I happen to speak French so I can authoritatively assert that the French word for Cairo is NOT Chicago. If it's the one in Egypt then it's Le Caire, but this is the one in Illinois. Odd. It's kind of bluesy but it sets out Ackles' lyrical store from the off. He's a storyteller and I'm a sucker for narrative lyrics, hell, I even write them. Is it a coincidence that so many of the lyricists writing more substantial material of this kind were rather older than your average rock star? Leonard Cohen and Ackles were in their thirties by the time they made their first albums, Dory Previn was in her forties. And the great thing was that they weren't simply pretending to be younger than they were, they were writing adult songs. Then there's that rasping voice, it certainly sounds as though somebody has lived in there for a while. I mentioned in my piece on Bill Fay that there seem to be strong parallels between the two; they were working at roughly the same time and both seemed to have a strong theatrical influence. With Ackles you get hints of Brecht, of the French chanson but also something very American. And utterly authentic.

Anyway, in this piece I'm going to concentrate on the tracks on There Is A River that don't appear on the three Elektra albums. CD1 of River features the whole of David Ackles and Subway To The Country plus an interview promoting the latter which I seem to remember hearing on a single, possibly a promo single... I'm sure I've heard it before somewhere, anyway. Then CD2 starts with the 11 songs that make up American Gothic plus another nine, only one of which I'd heard before. Let's begin at the end as, with one exception, the tracks are in reverse chronological order. Track 20 is the aforementioned La Route À Chicago, then before that we have Grave Of God which is very obviously an outtake from the first album, both musically and lyrically. It features a guitar lick not unlike the one from Tim Hardin's Don't Make Promises, but the lyric is pure Ackles and the track itself is wonderfully typical, a story of religious disillusion – which might explain its omission, perhaps it was felt to be a little too similar to His Name Is Andrew?
Old Shoes is another first album off-cut and, while it's good, it's not a criminal oversight. Then, moving backwards, we've got a couple of Subway outtakes in the form of Hold Me In Your World and Such A Woman. The latter, in particular, wouldn't've sounded at all out of place on the album. Hold Me probably would, although that may just be a question of mixing. I'd guess that Hold Me has probably been mixed recently, the vocal sound is completely different, without the trademark reverb found on most of Ackles' vocals. Then there is something really rather wonderful. A single version of Be My Friend. I don't have any sleeve-notes or journalist's crib sheet so I'm not sure whether BMF ever WAS a single, I suspect not. This is a wonderful version of the debut album's closing track, a gorgeous song. It sounds like a completely different take of the song. The LP version is mainly piano, organ and vocal and very fine it is too. The single version is very different, there's a band on there plus wonderfully arranged strings and electric piano. OK, I'm not sure I'd want to give up the album version for this but I'm certainly very, very glad to have both. Finally we come to three tracks from the American Gothic period. One of these is another single version of an album track and it's One Night Stand which has always been one of my favourite tracks from that album. This time it's not wildly different from the version we know and love. Again strings have been added (instead of the woodwind) and the feeling is that the arrangement has been simplified. They've also added a drummer who comes in a minute or so into the song. I do definitely still prefer the album version but again, this is rather lovely and it's great to have both. That just leaves There Is A River itself. In many ways this would've been a perfect fit for Gothic, thematically. Perhaps that was the problem: it's kind of the archetypal track for that record and perhaps the decision was made that it worked better if the ideas were spread across its whole 11 songs, including a few gentler things so that there was some light and shade. It's certainly as theatrical as anything else on that record, and of course it deals with Ackles' homeland. Finally there's I'm Only Passing Through, which is another of those Ackles story songs and... well, you know the title and if you're familiar with Ackles' work then you'll have a pretty good idea of what it sounds like.

So can we please all start to put a bit of pressure on Warner Bros/Rhino to get their arses in gear, sort out whatever problems are preventing the release of this very important set of David Ackles' Elektra recordings.

After Gothic, which was made in England, a classic case of exile giving a new perspective on the artist's homeland, he left Elektra and made just one more album, Five And Dime, for CBS. It's actually a very underrated album and is available from Raven and as bonus tracks you get a number of cover versions of Ackles' songs, including two versions of Phil's favourite, Down River (by Spooky Tooth and The Hollies), the aforementioned Julie Driscoll reading of Road To Cairo and Martin Carthy doing His Name Is Andrew. That's also highly recommended – the sleeve-notes are by Mark Brend, who is himself no stranger to The Granite Shore and whose book on key US singer/songwriters (including Ackles), entitled American Troubadours, is highly recommended.

Plugs aside... I just wish I was plugging River, that's all. David Ackles, like Bill Fay, may not have sold as many records in his whole career (which wasn't a long one anyway) as Elton and Phil have done on single days during theirs, but Elton in particular wouldn't be where he is today without Ackles' genius to inspire him. And, credit where it's due, Mr John has acknowledged the debt on occasion. Obviously, as an American, Ackles wouldn't've been eligible for that knighthood - personally I'd've given that to Fay, who is, but admittedly I'm not generally consulted about Honours' Lists.

So come on Rhino, surely those rave reviews must've meant something? And here's another one, just in case...

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Slabs of granite 1978-82: The View From Her Room

The period from roughly 1978 through to equally roughly 1982 seemed an absolute golden age for singles, and especially singles on UK independent labels. Oh and there were some fairly decent albums too. Things were often label-led, with the likes of Manchester's Factory, Liverpool's Zoo and Glasgow's Postcard all putting out music initially by local groups and managing to find common ground... In Factory's case this was primarily done through the use of one genius of a producer, Martin Hannett, for most of the early records. With Zoo it was far more that the bands genuinely were close, most of them had at least one member who'd been in one or more groups with at least one member of each of the others.

So this will be a series of occasional pieces focussing on one of those classic (or just important) singles. Randomly, the first to fall under our gaze is Weekend's The View From Her Room/Leaves Of Spring, released on Rough Trade in 1982. Rough Trade were in the midst of an extraordinary purple patch. They'd previously been better known as a distributor of other labels' records, although they had put out the odd few things, including the occasional classic such as the Subway Sect's Ambition, a record of enormous importance in terms of what was to happen over the following few years. However, unlike Factory, Zoo or Postcard, each of whom was associated with not just a particular genre but seemed to have its own sound, RT was more eclectic. The only real overall impression you got was perhaps of something slightly spiky, of records made on very tight budgets, often fairly politically oriented (e.g. The Pop Group's For How Much Longer... Robert Wyatt's series of singles collected on Nothing Can Stop Us, the Blue Orchids), but musically they did cover a lot of ground.

Weekend singer Alison Statton had, of course, been a kind of indie forces' sweetheart, pretty much every male in my circle of musical acquaintance (and one or two non-males) had at least a slight crush on her, if not a full-blown passion. I recently tried to explain this to my partner. Looking at a photo of Alison from the time, she couldn't understand why she might've been such a siren. "She's just quite pretty..." and that was the point, Alison was like girls you actually knew, who were pretty without stopping traffic and had nice singing voices but weren't Aretha Franklin or Kate Bush and if they were in a group just kind of stood there or wiggled a bit just like we boys. Indeed Alison's (I do hope she won't mind me calling her "Alison", it's very forward of me, I know) voice was a further embodiment of the same appeal and the fact that she was the very antithesis of the female pop or rock performer of the time. She sang almost blankly, using almost no artifice, no real vibrato, she didn't hold notes longer than necessary, the lyrics were clever in their ordinariness. The Young Marble Giants, her previous group, had made a single album which had sold an astonishing number of copies on Rough Trade, especially considering there was literally nothing to it.

For me I rather think that when I heard View for the first time, it would've been around the period when I was just discovering Joni Mitchell's mid-period masterpieces, such as Court And Spark and The Hissing Of Summer Lawns. These remain among my favourite records, in fact I rather suspect that if there were a way of totalling such things up, these are probably the two albums I have played most consistently over the last 25 or so years. There are many other records I've played more intensively but I doubt that a period of more than perhaps 3-4 months has ever gone past without one or other of those two albums being played in my home. Not that View sounds anything like Joni, it doesn't, Alison is the complete opposite as a singer and the songwriting is totally different. But there's a languid, effortless grace and brilliance to them. One thing that stood out about Room was that it didn't sound much like a RT record; although it didn't sound especially expensive (and I very much doubt RT had the money to fund a really glossy production), it didn't sound spiky at all. It just sounded... Jazzy, I suppose.

The other fascinating thing about it was... well, the title. The view from HER room. This was perhaps the quietest, most seductive and among the most effective contributions to the feminist cause of the time. Punk had encouraged a lot of women to pick up instruments and to join bands on equal terms with the lads (and it'd forced some of the lads to accept this, although many of us were hugely relieved). However the music industry wasn't about to change the habits of a lifetime overnight, so if the girl in question was even remotely "attractive" (in the eyes of the exclusively male record executives, I never came across an A&R woman back then) then she'd have to fight unless she wanted to find herself draped across a car bonnet in something skimpy with her male colleagues sitting in the car looking on. But a lot of the independent labels had women helping to run things or in charge – suddenly the number of mixed gender bands jumped. Only a little over a decade previously Sly and the Family Stone had raised eyebrows and other body hair by not just being mixed-race but also featuring women instrumentalists clearly not there just to look pretty and sing harmonies.

Then there was the feel of the record – and its sound. It came only on 12" and quite rightly so, it'd've been a shame to edit it down and it needed the extra space offered by the medium. 12" singles sounded great, particularly if the record had a real sense of space to it. It opens with a couple of cool chords on guitar, a little flamenco guitar run and then into its groove. Like the Joni albums it's stood up to the test of time superbly. Weekend followed it with another gorgeous, slightly more mournful single, Past Meets Present and then another 12", Drumbeat For Baby, trailing their album, La Variété. The album felt slightly disappointing at the time, somehow the single – especially the 12" - seemed to be Weekend's medium. That's not to say that it's not a fine album, it is, but it perhaps lacks focus. However the current Cherry Red CD version adds all the non-LP single tracks, making it an essential purchase. Before that Vinyl Japan issued two CDs, one with the album plus a few demos and another called Archive featuring the non-LP singles plus selected radio sessions and live tracks.

The View From Her Room (and its wonderful 'b' side, Leaves Of Spring) seemed to suggest a whole world of possibilities ahead of us at the start of a decade that wasn't yet defined. That's the thing about the period we're looking at here. Little did we know that just a couple of years later every record would have to have a Linn drum on it, huge synth parts obliterating everything and your hair would need considerable enlargement, as would your shoulders and other parts of your anatomy. It also comes from the period before the 12" single format turned into the Frankenstein's monster it became for much of the eighties: at this point the medium was used for singles which were just too ambitious to fit into the grooves of a 7" or alternatively to offer four or more songs in EP form. Again, a couple of years down the line the default was to become the example of the razor-wielding engineer's art, where basically you took a 3-minute song, edited its chorus onto its front but in an instrumental version, then edited an extra verse into the middle (also instrumental), and then added an extra 2-3 minutes at the end made out of bits of tape left on the floor, then the engineer and producer had fun fiddling around with echo machines and synths under the impression that they were somehow Lee 'Scratch' Perry. The problem is that they weren't and the majority of these later 12" versions are a bit of a mess. However the 12" single could also be a medium in its own right, there are some singles that are made for the 7" format, most of them, in fact, I'm hardly the first person to note that there's something wonderful about the 7" pop record. But there are others which are in their natural habitat in the more spacious grooves of the 12". The View From Her Room is perhaps the archetype. Oh and it's one of the great summer records too. I almost forgot to mention that as we approach the end of May...

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Written in granite: Looking For A Ghost

There are now very few of my very, very favourite albums which are yet to appear on CD and there's only one I can only think of released on a major label: the Distractions' Nobody's Perfect, which came out on Island in 1980. I remember buying it, it was in a sale and also in that same sale I came across an original US copy of Big Star's Third on PVC records. This was so much better than the UK version, often known as Sister Lovers that even today I always programme the CD to play the fourteen tracks from the PVC version in the order I know and love. But that's a matter for another day because today we're looking at The Distractions.

Should they have been huge? Well... In terms of their songwriting and the records they made oh yes, undoubtedly, they're so much better than their nearest southern equivalent, probably Squeeze. Except that where Squeeze were all nudge-nudge, wink-wink and undoubtedly very clever but ultimately not terribly exciting, the Distractions' records were perfect. However, as the LP title points out, Nobody's Perfect and the band's problem was... there's no getting away from it, I'm afraid – they looked like the junior staff of a bank who'd jumped up on stage at a party. Although this actually endeared them still further to people like myself, it was never going to see them become proper pop stars. A horrible irony as they were one of the first post-punk groups which genuinely embraced the pop idiom. At the time when I first heard them, on the debut EP You're Not Going Out Dressed Like That I was shocked at the sound of the thing. The guitars weren't buzz-saw Ramones/Buzzcocks at all! Pretty much every new group releasing their first record then (the EP came out as a 12" on TJM Records in 1978) had the distortion switched on. Indeed, as Mancunians I was expecting something along the lines of the Buzzcocks, a group I adored at the time as they wrote fantastic pop songs but delivered them with attitude – and a buzz-saw guitar sound. The sounds of the Distractions' instruments weren't punk at all, and in many ways I felt this made them more punk than many of the other records appearing at the time. Like Pete Shelley, they dealt in matters of the heart, but they did so on a much more down-to-earth level; there was nothing coy about them at all. After the EP, which was rough and ready, with very short songs, they released one of the all-time classic post-punk singles and, in a pre-post-modern kind of way it was a classic pop record released on Factory Records, of all labels. Not produced by Martin Hannett either, so it sounded unlike anything else Factory had done up to that point and yet seemed to fit perfectly, because what it did have was class. The song, Time Goes By So Slow, was a piece of 24-carat genius, with an intricate arrangement and a performance that sounded as though it was so breathless it might collapse at any moment until they reached the amazing middle section, with that wonderful jazzy chord at the end of each little sequence. For the first time on this single it becomes obvious that Mike Finney has one of the great pop voices, with a wonderfully broken edge, a catch in his throat that brought a lump to mine. Unfortunately, as I say, he looked like a chubby bespectacled bank clerk although for me this enhanced rather than diminished his stature, it was purely that I rather suspected that he might perhaps never get his due and unfortunately I was all too right. As a fellow wearer of glasses he was one of my heroes and to this day he remains one of my favourite vocalists. Unfortunately he came along just as we were entering the 1980s, a decade when most people agree that the way you looked could be of some slight importance.

After Time Goes By So Slow the band signed to Island and released a new version of It Doesn't Bother Me from the EP as a single (on white vinyl!), and very wonderful it was too. Then they came as close as they were ever going to with Boys Cry. It was so nearly a big hit; it picked up plenty of airplay, it started to sell but stalled just short of being a proper hit. That was followed by the album and one more single on Island, a retooled version of album track Something For The Weekend, a fine enough track but not the greatest choice of single. After that the band were dropped by their label, releasing just one more EP, well up to standard, called 24 Hours on Rough Trade before folding.

As for that album is is absolutely wonderful. It does rather sound as though most of the budget was spent on trying to get a hit with Boys Cry, the only cover version on the LP, which has a huge Spectoresque production although we'll come to the one other big number in a moment. It opens with Waiting For Lorraine, setting out the band's stall perfectly, picked guitars of a kind that echoed later on in the playing of Johnny Marr, a great pop tune, proper chorus, clever teenage angst lyric and that wonderfully perfect pop voice of Finney's. That's followed by the LP version of Weekend, frankly one of the weaker songs (although only relatively speaking) in the standard Friday On My Mind vein and then the aforementioned Boys Cry. Another short, upbeat pop song in Sick And Tired and then one of the album's real high points, Leave You To Dream, a song of such beautiful simplicity it still produces a bittersweet smile almost 30 years on. Side one closes with Louise (see Lorraine) and the amusing Paracetomol Paralysis, a song about... er... well, it's in the title, really, delivered at breakneck pace. If side one is great, side two is even better. It starts with (Stuck In A) Fantasy, another wonderful pop song and then a new version of Nothing, from the first EP, a song well worth revisiting. Another achingly beautiful bittersweet pop song (that's pretty much what the Distractions did, as you'll've gathered by now) called Wonder Girl and yet another called, ahem, Untitled. That brings us to my very favourite song on the album. As with so many of my favourite songs, Looking For A Ghost incorporates elements of both the sublime and the ridiculous. You can pretty much work out the lyric from the title: "People wonder why I smile the way I do/They think I should be sad now you're not around/People wonder why it is I don't miss you/Perhaps they don't know what I've found" it begins. Finney delivers his finest, subtlest vocal performance and, to his enormous credit, he does so to the most over-the-top, preposterious backing vocals ever laid to tape (or any other medium). They start off as silly "boo! I'm a ghost!" ooohs and ahs and then ramp it up from there. By verse 2 you're giggling, the longer the song goes on, the sillier the BVs get. Then we reach chorus 2, and suddenly we have a choir of ghosts... They drop out for verse 3 and then the final chorus is both the funniest and the most touching thing you'll ever hear as the orchestra brought in for Boys Cry plays a few bars as the ghost chorus goes absolutely berserk. It is utter genius. The first few times you hear it you can't help laughing until you cry... But underneath the wondrous bombast there's also pathos... Well, OK, there's also bathos (and, by the sound of the choir, the rest of the Musketeers). It is truly wonderful. They then make sure things end on an even sillier note: as the phantasmal chorus disappears off into the fade-out, in comes a piano, playing Satie-like chords for a few moments... And then in come the band at full-pelt playing a daft song called Valerie at Ramones-like speed. It's a truly great second side to a wonderful album. The songwriting is superb throughout, there's wonderful ensemble playing (no histrionics anywhere, barely a guitar solo), the songs are short and very, very sweet. When I look at the sheer breadth of albums from this period that have been reissued on CD over the last 15 years or so I just can't understand why either Island haven't put it out or at least licensed it to some smaller label. You could compile the entire Distractions catalogue (the EP, Factory single, Island album, 3 singles and 'b' sides and Rough Trade EP) all onto a single CD. Why on earth hasn't anybody done this?

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Written in granite: The Bells of Dunwich

Stone Angel's eponymous debut album was released in 1975, although you'd never know it from listening; if someone told you it'd been recorded in 1875 as a result of Doctor Who going back in time and happening to have a 16-track studio in the Tardis then you'd be inclined to believe it. And that's seriously weird, because the album features electric guitar, an instrument we generally associate with music made from the 1950s onwards. What's more the electric guitar is of the distorted, "acid-fuzz-folk" kind to be found on a certain genre of often rather wonderful folk-rock recordings made post-Liege And Lief in the early 1970s. Things like the Fresh Maggots album... However Stone Angel sounds nothing like Fresh Maggots – the latter is a fine album but very definitely a product of its time, the guitar-playing is essentially blues-based, so the FM sound is basically folk acoustic guitar and blues fuzz electric with the odd bit of embellishment and voices. The Stone Angel album is something else altogether, it sounds so OLD. No, "old" isn't the word... It sounds ancient... antediluvian... Some of the instrumentation might suggest Incredible String Band-type whimsy but believe me, there is nothing whimsical on this album. This doesn't sound like hippies... It just sounds absolutely bloody terrifying, in a Wicker Man kind of way, I suppose. The electric guitar just adds to it, because it kind of drones, playing parts that sound sometimes like some early viol, then there are Jew's harps, pipes... It really is eerie. And it was recorded in 1975. The voices are both male and female, the male vocals sound like some English agricultural worker, who'll join you in a pint down the pub then take you outside for ritual sacrifice at closing time. The female voice is otherworldly.

And then there are the songs. The album opens with The Bells Of Dunwich. Now, given that they were from East Anglia, it seems safe to assume that this is about the legendary lost Suffolk town (indeed the sleeve-notes say something about this) but I'm sure a lot of you will also associate the name "Dunwich" with H.P. Lovecraft. The Dunwich Horror springs immediately to mind. I lived in East Anglia for a few years when I was a child, on the Norfolk-Suffolk border by the sea, and the whole album conjures that bleak but scathingly beautiful landscape and coastline to my mind.

Another of the reasons the album hasn't dated is that there are no drums. The record has phenomenal power, the rhythm comes from the guitars, sometimes the electric droning away, mostly the acoustic thrashing away, with bass occasionally underpinning but more often playing over the top, as on the title track, Stone Angel itself. This record isn't alone in its field of course, there's also other scary folk such as Comus and the less frightening but equally ancient sound of former Incredible String Band member Clive Palmer's wondrous C.O.B. whose Spirit Of Love album is also timeless.

There was a second Stone Angel album, East Of The Sun, made literally years and years later, and there's also a kind of alternative version of this first album called The Holy Rood of Bromholm, although I must admit I've never heard either. I must put this right, for the first, eponymous album, is one of the finest – and most English - records ever made. Oh and did I mention how scary it is? As with Doctor Who, you might find yourself hiding behind the sofa...

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Written in granite: White Horse

I remember it vividly. It was a Sunday probably in spring 1993, and the place was the Les Glòries flea market in Barcelona. I found a cassette of an album called Il Mio Cavallo Bianco by Domenico Modugno. I'd become a huge fan of Italian pop music, especially from the sixties, Jimmy Fontana, Gianni Morandi, Nicola Di Bari and had lots of 7" singles and EPs which I'd got transferred to cassette as I didn't have a turntable at that time nor yet a CD player. So finding a cassette was actually quite a good thing. The album was from the seventies, which I may have been a little dubious about as some of those singers became a bit too rock-oriented by then, losing the wonderfully Italian slant. You might think you don't know any of this stuff but you do, actually. If nothing else then you know Pino Donaggio's Io che non vivo senza di te. Except that you think it's called You Don't Have To Say You Love Me and that it was written specially for Dusty Springfield. Now I love Dusty as much as the next man, but the original is much better, much darker, full of different drama. Or you might know Umberto Bindi's Il Mio Mondo as You're My World as recorded by Cilla Black. Again the original is something else, rising from a whisper to a scream in a matter of seconds. Drama. They know all about that in Italian pop.

Of all of them Domenico Modugno is perhaps the best-known internationally, or rather one of his songs is. Because Domenico wrote one of the most famous and most frequently covered songs of all time, one of those ones that are almost up there with Yesterday in terms of being covered in different styles by vastly diverging artists. For, back in the nineteen fifties, Domenico Modugno wrote Volare. Yes, you know that one, don't you? You might also have heard another of his fifties numbers, Piove, - sometimes known by its subtitle of Ciao, ciao bambina. Now both are fine songs and have been recorded many times (not least by Domenico himself, a man never afraid to cover his own work) but personally I'm particularly fond of his sixties material. There's a wonderful recording of Dio come ti amo – another song from the fifties – which is one of the finest, not to mention most basically honest of song titles: "God how I love you!"; after all, this is the lyrical thrust of perhaps 75% of all popular music (and 90% if we include the underlying message that "well, maybe 'love' is a strong, I'd certainly like to have sex with you"), and songs such as Sopra I Tetti Azzurri Del Mio Pazzo Amore. I hadn't really heard much of his later stuff though.

Cavallo Bianco is a truly extraordinary record. Side two of the original cassette version I had is one of the most perfect sequences of music I've heard in my entire life, there's not a foot put wrong and much of it reduces me to awe and/or tears. As for side one, well... talk about a game of two halves, Brian... It opens with Questa È La Mia Vita, a phenomenal song, gently strummed acoustic rhythm guitar, shuffling drums, female backing vocals and... you just know this is a classic album. Except that this is followed by the first oddity, a version of Mack The Knife which couldn't be more firmly date-stamped "early 1970s" if it had flares and lapels the width of the average estuary and a kipper tie. It's kind of great but it is insane. What the hell is going to come next? Well, for the first but not last time, the album veers from the sublime to the ridiculous back to the utterly sublime with the title track, which is one of the most moving songs I've ever heard and which reduced me to tears from the first time I heard it even though at that time my Italian was very sketchy, based essentially on speaking French, Catalan and Spanish and hoping that the Italian words would be the same. Cavallo Bianco should be corny, it's sung from the point of view of a soldier lying dying on the battlefield who, in his delirium, sees a white horse coming to take him home. Oh and it ends with whistling. Why does nobody whistle on records nowadays? Note to self: put some whistling on the album. It never fails to reduce me to a sobbing blob. Except that then we're back to the odd, with L'annivversario, rather a fine song, but again done with a very seventies arrangement. And then side one closes with the strangest thing of all. I saw that the title was Appendi un nastro giallo but at the time my Italian was too shaky for me to make the connection... Because this is indeed nothing less than Domenico performing an Italian version of Tony Orlando and Dawn's massive worldwide smash Tie A Yellow Ribbon. Er... Flipping the cassette over I was half expecting to find Batti tre volte or something of the kind. What I found was stranger and more wonderful. It starts with Sei una rompiscatole, which I believe means something like "You're a pain in the arse". Nice one, Dom. It sounds like the kind of thing Tom Waits would be doing a decade later, a deranged tango which ends with speeded up tape... It's rather brilliant. And then for the rest of the album we're in totally sublime mode. Noi lo chiamavamo amore, Come un tiranno, E Dio creò la Donna, Un pagliaccio in Paradiso... and then it ends with one of my favourite songs of all time, Direttisimo proveniente da... In the song Domenico is standing on the station platform waiting for the high-speed train from Milan. He describes the bustle around him, apparently you could get beer and sandwiches on Italian station platforms as there's a boy distributing them... He tells us that the girl in the song had written him a letter ending with the words "Help me darling..." Then the train pulls in and she's on it. It's described in beautiful detail. There she is on the footplate glistening with the rain and through all the people she can't see him yet and she's scared in case he hasn't turned up... It's a moment of miniscule, everyday drama and, being an Italian with an instinctive grasp of drama, at this point Domenico howls "sono qui!!!!!" (I'm here!)... Then the train is pulling away again and she's there with him, her fellow-passengers are smiling because now they understand that the reason she didn't talk on the journey wasn't because she's English (OK, I've inserted that bit myself) but because she was prey to this internal drama: would Domenico be there or would he have moved on and built himself a new life, perhaps found someone new? The train's pulling away now, the windows and doors are being closed (in Italy they do this once the train is in motion, apparently) and there's a wonderful moment where Dom and his girl are enclosed in an endless embrace, "inamorati più di prima!!!!" (more than ever in love) as the music soars off into a completely different key for the outro, it sends shivers up and down my spine every time I listen to it, and I also learned a great deal of Italian from gradually piecing together the story.

I've never been able to find a copy of this album on CD – if anyone knows of one do please let me know. I've still got that cassette though, and I've got it as MP3s. I'd've expected Modugno's entire catalogue to be available at least in Italy and thus via import, but all I've ever seen are compilations... If anybody out there can help then please get in touch. The same goes for other Italian music: I've got a CD compilation of some of Jimmy Fontana's hits, obviously entitled Il Mondo di Jimmy Fontana after his biggest hit, which we'll look at in a future piece, because it deserves it. Indeed all this stuff seems to be compilations only, which is a shame as there are some wonderful albums. If anyone does have any of this stuff on CD do please drop me a line, if you'd like to do so then sono qui!!!!!

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Written in granite: Black crow

If you ask most Anglophones to name a Francophone artist working in the genre nebulously known as "chanson" ("song" – although artists notoriously loathe being pigeonholed surely that's so vague as to be near meaningless?) then... well, if you say "chanson" to MOST Anglophones they will probably just say "bless you" and offer you a hankie. So let's narrow it down to Anglophones of a certain kind, with a taste for some of our own more literary songwriters, they'll almost certainly start with Jacques Brel, then Serge Gainsbourg although they probably only know Je t'aime... moi non plus and maybe Bonnie And Clyde because someone sampled it once. Then they'll probably grind to a halt or try Sacha Distel just in case it turns out he was a genius (actually it's Charles Aznavour who's the genius, it's rare for us to get a Frenchman right but by the law of averages it had to happen sometime and it did with Distel). If they're really up on things or familiar with Jake Thackray they might have heard of Georges Brassens. Then of course there's Françoise Hardy, but although she's certainly a chanteuse, her thing wasn't really chanson, at least not the stuff for which she's best known; that's more a rather wondrously melancholic Gallic take on pop music. Hardly anyone on this side of the language divide has heard of Léo Ferré (an anarchist with angelic vibrato who appeared with his pet chimp and then when the latter sadly died, produced what I have no hesitation in declaring the most beautiful, heartbreakingly moving elegy to a dead primate ever written, Pepée. It appeared on an album featuring calls to the barricades, meditations on stardom and the Moody Blues. More about him (and the chimp) at a later date, perhaps. I could go on, suffice it to say that those first four Scott Walker albums didn't appear out of a vacuum.

Probe away for as long as you like but I don't think the name of Barbara will come up. I don't know a huge amount about the woman herself other than that she was both a genius and sui generis. The nearest thing to her I can think of is Kate Bush, except that while the Wuthering One is a genius sitting aloft of her own genre, she's far from alone in it. I've often wondered whether Ms Bush is aware of Barbara's work, I'd like to think she is.

Barbara was certainly a striking-looking lady. She was very tall and, like Masha in The Seagull,
she always dressed in black, although unlike Chekhov's character not because she was in mourning for her life, I don't think. She looks like a slightly scary black bird and that's appropriate because perhaps her best-known song and the one that fired my imagination is called L'Aigle Noir (The Black Eagle) – although I think she looks more corvine than aquiline, which is why I've pinched the title from Joni Mitchell, another genius who she resembles only in being so impossibly unique that nobody has ever successfully managed to copy her. Above all Barbara had true class, in every way.

Follow this YouTube link if you'd like to hear the song. There are other clips up there with better visuals but that one features the original recording of the song, which is what you must hear. It opens with a little piano figure which develops into a beautifully, deceptively simple chord sequence which is developed throughout the composition, changing key in one-tone steps each verse, giving a feeling that it's heading ever-upwards (which it is). Then you hear The Voice, that imperious, bewitching, petrifying Voice: un beau jour, une nuit... près d'un lac, je m'étais endormie... Quand soudain, semblant crever le ciel, et surgissant de nulle part, surgit un aigle noir... And then... And then in come the drums and if you're anything like me the first time you hear it you fall off your chair in hysterics. The record was released in 1970 so chances are they'd just taken delivery of France's first phaser effects unit and the engineer hadn't had chance to read the manual when in walks Barbara and says "what does that box do?" "Oh, it's the latest thing from America, it's called a phaser and... er... you put it on the drums!" So that's what they do and it sounds absolutely mad. But bear with it, you will eventually grow to love this along with all the record's other idiosyncrasies (and there are plenty of them). After a few verses and upward key changes more a guitar and bass have joined the phased drums... Then suddenly it all drops out leaving the piano playing fast arpeggios switched from a major into a minor key and, best of all, with a choir behind her and it's one of the best choirs I've ever heard on a record. It sounds to me like half a dozen probably slightly drunk people in a reverb chamber pretending to be a choir, and it's fantastic. The drums kick back in and speed up, it starts to get a little bonkers and then it all pulls out again, leaving just Barbara and the piano. Then gradually everything returns, the moment when the choir comes back always sends shivers up and down my spine. But there's one final moment of utter madness, as it builds toward the end the drummer... well, it sounds as though he falls off his stool halfway through a bar and accidentally hits a crash cymbal on the way, it leaps out at you and... he does it again, it's one of the most insane and fantastic bits of drumming every committed to tape. It's unlike anything else in Barbara's canon but then it's just unlike anything else, really. It's an extraordinary song but performed in a way that lifts it into the category of the utterly unique.

Most of Barbara's work is just her and her piano, sometimes with a sparse backing, perhaps a double bass, sometimes strings, occasionally percussion, but this is a rare occasion when she's backed by a band, of sorts. She has many other fantastic songs; my own personal favourites include the devastating Nantes, the story of how she arrives just minutes after her father's death, I believe the story is essentially true... But you've got Wikipedia if you want to read how allegedly her father had abused her when she was ten years old so I shan't expand on that, the song is a thing of incredibly fragile grace. I'm very fond of the whole of the Aigle Noir album and also the next one, La Fleur D'Amour... her final, self-titled album is also pretty extraordinary... Well, to be honest, she's one of those artists whose sound is so unique that it doesn't really need to change very much, at the end of the day that voice and that piano style... that's the sound, there'd be little point sticking a beatbox under it...

I'm talking primarily about what we might call her second career, as a singer-songwriter, from the early sixties through until her death in the late nineties. Before that she made her name as an interpreter of the songs of Brel, Brassens and other French and European writers. She made an album in German but had little truck with English. I believe Marc Almond (one of the few Anglophone artists with an understanding of the European "song" culture) did a version of Amours incestueuses, although I must admit I've not heard it.

A couple of years ago I picked up the boxed set of her complete Philips recordings, starting with Barbara chante Barbara, her first album of her own songs which she made when she signed to the label. I had a number of the albums on vinyl but for several weeks I just wallowed. Barbara was in a class of her own. I wonder if she ever regretted that phaser on the drums? I do hope not because, once you've got over the initial hysteria at how insane it is, you come to adore it, you wouldn't want it any other way.




Sunday, 4 May 2008

Written in granite: Play me my song

Back in the Dark Ages (i.e. before Punk threw us into the glare of a light), received wisdom has it that we were all FORCED to buy prog rock albums. We didn't want to do it but what choice was there? We were all heartily sick of these dinosaurs with their lengthy solos, vastly complex time signatures and lyrics cribbed from the back of ancient Tibetan cigarette packets. When we heard the Sex Pistols et al we jettisoned our Yes LPs joyfully that very moment and succumbed to the joys of the Vibrators. Didn't we?

I've tried very hard to remember it that way but I just can't. I suppose there might've been a few people whose first exposure to popular music just happened to coincide with the release of New Rose in late 1976 but I imagine that most people already had records by then. And if they tell you that the only records they owned were the first Ramones album, Horses, the Stooges, MC5 and Velvets and, if pushed, that they also had some Bowie, Roxy Music and T-Rex... Do not believe them, for they lie. Nobody, but nobody was that prescient. I didn't actually hear any punk until early, possibly mid-1977. I was only 13, for goodness' sake. My family moved to London from the Norfolk coast in February 1977, and there was one boy in my new class who was into punk. He was generally derided in March, April and May, although by June people started to like The Stranglers, by July-August The Jam were acceptable... And so it went. There were definitely battle lines drawn, you either loved punk or you loathed it, but the process of switching from one camp to the other wasn't necessarily instantaneous. There was certainly a period of coexistence during which I bought the latest Yes album, Going For The One but also quite a few punk singles and, eventually, albums. By early 1978 the process was complete and I sold all my prog albums for the princely sum of £22. In an irony of which I was totally unaware at the time, I sold them to a bloke called Hugh who'd been in a Hawkwind-related band called Catapilla and who ran a shop of the same name. I then took my £22 two doors down to a junk run by the brother of our PE teacher at school and exchanged the cash for a truly cheap and nasty Japanese copy of a Telecaster called a Jedson for exactly that sum of money. It was a year before I could afford an amplifier to go with it.

That should've been that. The albums I sold that day certainly included Yes' Close To The Edge and the aforementioned One, most of Genesis' work up to A Trick Of The Tail, probably a Floyd LP or two... I probably also offloaded my Led Zeppelin albums at the same time. To get £22 in 1978 money I must presumably have sold the best part of 20 albums. However over the last decade or so, via fortuitous, circuitous paths, I've been led back to a lot of them. Close To The Edge sounds fantastic but Jon Anderson's lyrics are absolutely dreadful. I returned to Led Zep barely a decade after abandoning them, there is something in the DNA of most British males (and it's probably not limited to the UK) which makes them irresistible for long. You might as well tell us not to put vinegar on our chips or Marmite on our toast: there's some possibility we might be persuaded to stop for a little while but we're going to lapse and sooner rather than later. As I was young at the time I wasn't deeply immersed in prog, so I only really discovered Van Der Graaf Generator later (and they were so mad as never to truly be prohibited)...

All of which brings us to Genesis. That's Genesis the prog group... Except that early Genesis are much more of an art-rock band, really, aren't they? When they inevitably succumbed to the fashion for a track lasting the whole of one side of an album it was actually a whole load of songs strung together – as is also the case with VDGG and their Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers. Its lineage is blindingly obvious, the second side of Abbey Road, rather than the classical/jazz pretensions of, say, Yes, who really were coming up with single pieces lasting 22 minutes or more. Frankly these are rarely Yes' finest work, are they? I don't think many people would cite Tales From Topographic Oceans as their favourite Yes LP. Personally I find it as baffling now as I did when I first heard it in 1976 (when I was 12). I didn't own Trespass, I had a double LP, an import, which had Nursery Cryme and Foxtrot packaged together, then I also owned Selling England By The Pound and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. The latter is another of those prevalent trends of the time, a kind of "rock opera" or a "concept album". Like most of its ilk its plot is pretty much unintelligible, a bit like an episode of Doctor Who scripted by a VERY stoned William Burroughs. It does, however, feature a few cracking songs. There's a bootleg called In The Glare Of A Light which, on its second disk, has a kind of shorn Lamb, and it's really rather terrific, I play it more than the official double LP.

Genesis circa 1972-73 were fantastic. They made three superb LPs. There's another bootleg featuring an In Concert performance and a Top Gear session, both recorded for the BBC in 1972 and this is a band at the height of its powers. The wonderful thing about live Genesis bootlegs is that, in addition to the songs, you also get some of Peter Gabriel's monologues, which don't so much explain the narratives in the songs as augment and sometimes obfuscate them. The BBC set includes a wonderful set-up for The Musical Box, the extraordinary opening song on Nursery Cryme. The Top Gear session includes the 'b' side Twilight Alehouse and ripping runs-through of Watcher Of The Skies and Get 'Em Out By Friday from Foxtrot. Gabriel tells stories, and although there's an element of fantasy to them, they are rooted very firmly in reality. Nowhere more so than on 1973's Selling England By The Pound. On the surface some of this might seem like the English disease of chronic whimsy, but dig just a very, very little deeper and you'll find something far more cogent and infinitely stranger: English suburbia. I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe) is one of the oddest of all hit singles, apparently sung by a lawnmower, there's a fantastic story of gang warfare in The Battle Of Epping Forest... This is wonderful storytelling and the narratives make sense, to the extent that they need to, which was the problem with the following year's Lamb which, frankly, didn't. Those three albums are amongst the finest of all English records, and they are almost totally English, a real rarity in itself. There are eminently British records... the obvious one that springs to my mind is Fairport Convention's 1969 milestone Liege And Lief, made apparently as a kind of "if you can't beat them on their own turf try taking them on at home" riposte to the first Band album, but it features songs covering all of the British Isles – Tam Lin is very Scottish. And L&L is all the better for it, but so much "English" stuff is all whimsy. Not that there's anything wrong with a little eccentricity, the country is founded upon that, amongst other traits, but if the only representatives of a firmly English muse were to be the warped nursery rhymes of Syd Barrett and the cut-glass diction of Kevin Ayers (both of whom I love, before the protests start pouring in) then that's not a true picture, is it? Nor is the doomed "born in the wrong century" poesy of Nick Drake. However some of the artists we've looked at in this series do broaden the perspective a little: from Bill Fay and Fairfield Parlour to Mark E. Smith, factor them in and we start to get something a little longer on detail and fabric.

After Lamb Gabriel left, eventually embarking on a solo career, although he never really returned to the narrative wonders of 1972-73. Genesis too carried on. Their first post-Gabriel album, A Trick Of The Tail is a very curious beast. I really liked it at the time and recently – and not without some trepidation – I treated myself to the 1975-1982 boxed set. Listening to that album for the first time in almost 30 years was a peculiar experience. You can almost hear the conversation, with Phil Collins saying that he'll need something to sing, so what did Gabriel used to do and one of the others mumbling that it was all kind of fantasy or sci-fi stories... A bit like Narnia or Day Of The Triffids, so the lyrics for the new album were all about strange creatures and... straight out of Narnia, in fact. However they completely miss the point of Gabriel's lyrics, which is that they are rooted firmly in the real world, as is the case with all of the best fantasy and sci-fi. For this and the following album, 1977's Wind And Wuthering (cue tenuous links to Emily Brontë, completely overshadowed by Kate Bush that same year) they attempted the narrative before quietly ditching it as they prepared to invent the horrors of the 1980s pop sound, all gated snares and sounds so harsh they set my teeth on edge. I found the last 2 albums in the boxed set absolutely unlistenable. But this piece isn't about denigrating later Genesis, it's about celebrating their purple patch. I've found myself listening to Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot and Selling England By The Pound a lot over the last 3-4 years, and enjoying them on levels I never suspected when I was a 12-13 year-old boy waiting for punk to happen. Except, of course, that I wasn't. There, I've said it. Don't we all feel better?

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