17. PHAROAH SANDERS – KARMA (1969)

It begins with a jaw-dropping celebratory blast of sax that snowballs into a technicolour avalanche of horns and percussive instruments, filling out every inch of the sound until breaking point – a joyous burst of spiritual energy loud enough to raise the dead from their tombs. It then retreats into a restrained and breezy tonal blues (with more than a subtle nod to ‘A Love Supreme’) featuring tropical split reeds and bells which shuffle the rhythm along gently, while vocalist Leon Thomas first sings, then as if possessed by some supernatural force, yodels (!) his hymn of praise, until once again, the momentum catapults the song forward towards its brain-scrambling cacophonous heart, which is as dense and aggressive as anything on ‘Trane’s ‘Ascension’. And we’re not even half way in yet! Welcome to Pharaoh Sanders’ ‘The Creator Has A Master Plan’. The awe-inspiring 32 minute masterpiece is brim full of pregnant passages suddenly bursting ecstatically into feverish and tumultuous tenor saturnalia.

Farrell Sanders, a protege of Sun Ra – who gave him his lordly title – made a series of blinding free jazz albums on the Impulse! label in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Along with Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Alice Coltrane and others, this expressiveness became known as the ‘New Thing’. ‘Karma’ with TCHAMP taking up 90% of the playing time, is surely Sanders’ most perfectly realised moment. We hear his progression from the ‘Nubian Space Jazz’ of ‘Tauhid’ gilding his fresh canvass with brazenly psychedelic colours and textures.
In 1969 the hippie dream was over and heading for the horror of Altamont. The kids were faced with an extended conflict in Vietnam, and in pondering these existential crises crept back into their bedrooms where the excesses of ‘prog rock’ began to ferment ominously. Of course, once upon a time jazz and rock were very comfortable bedfellows; rarely today is that fusion apparent. ‘Astral Weeks’, ‘Happy Sad’ ‘Trout Mask Replica’,’The Soft Machine’; all of these effortlessly incorporated their jazz influences into the rock idiom. This unhappy divorce was exacerbated by the growth and development of electronic music, which has been far more accommodating of jazz influences and this has resulted in a seismic shift in the amount of serious exposure afforded by rock fans to jazz, and even to the classic Impulse! records of the late 1960s and early 1970s, many of which would once have been embedded as staple entries in any serious rock and soul LP collection. From the perspective of the rock fan, with only a passing interest in jazz, here is a good place to start. Somewhere on The Stooges debut album is a bass line lifted from Sanders’ ‘Upper and Lower Egypt’ and that influence would be worn more openly on Side 2 of Fun House with its free jazz given a blistering punk makeover borrowing heavily from Ayler, Coltrane, Sanders and ‘The New Thing’. (JJ)

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16. COCKNEY REBEL – PSYCHOMODO (1974)

cockney rebel

Curiosity can sometimes take years to be satisfied. Cockney Rebel were, along with Sparks, the first band I was a fan of, as Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me) became one of the more unexpected number ones of its time, still some years away from its fate as a staple of the unimaginative pub DJ’s record box, along with 500 Miles, Sweet Caroline, Delilah, Daydream Believer and the monarch of them all, Brown Eyed Girl.
Around this time, its parent album, The Best Years Of Our Lives, arrived in our house. Alongside the star of the show, it ranged from the goofy to the melancholy to, on Back To The Farm, the genuinely unsettling. Aged six, I understood little of this but liked it a lot.
Another arrival was, in hindsight, truly life-changing for me. The NME Book of Rock was not so much a window as an elaborately constructed archway to a world I was far too young for but fascinated by nevertheless. Although baffled by the omission of Mud, I was intrigued by names that would make more sense, and have sounds put to them, later – Pentangle, Third Ear Band, the United States of America and scores of others.
But Cockney Rebel’s entry really confused me. Why were they saying their new album was called The Way We Used To Be when it was called The Best Years Of Our Lives? Even worse, the people playing with Steve Harley on that album had solid, sensible names – George Ford, Duncan Mackay – but this book was telling me the group was full of funny names like Jean-Paul Crocker and Milton Reame-James. Why was I being lied to?
Later, amid punk and post-punk, Cockney Rebel were pushed to the back of my mind, a spell punctuated briefly by a splenetic rant from Harley during an NME (them again) interview with Danny Baker about Joy Division, after he had chanced to see their legendary performance on the BBC’s Something Else. It showed him to be grievously out of touch but, for me at least, his time would come again.
In a fit of youthful nostalgia, at 14 I found myself revisiting The Best Years… and its follow-up, Timeless Flight. This included the grandiose but gripping single Black Or White, which might have eclipsed Make Me Smile had it not been issued two weeks after Bohemian Rhapsody; clearly, there was room for only one overblown orchestral six-minute single released on EMI and the superior one lost out. It also had Understand, an aimless seven-minute groan which taught me the true meaning of boredom – but some months later, Bishopbriggs Library added a casette of Psychomodo to its riches and it’s a record where boredom is as remote as minimalism or restraint.
The aforementioned NME book averred that Cockney Rebel took numerous vogueish styles and moulded them into “one seemingly original mode” and sure enough, it’s hard to pin them down, which is where Psychomodo’s splendour lies. It’s not quite glam, though there’s a flirtation on the R & P (rhythm and pop – a genre is born) of the title track and the sarcastic charivari of their second top 10 hit, Mr Soft. Nor is it prog – they came nerve-janglingly close on Sebastian and Death Trip on their debut album, The Human Menagerie, but Harley was far too close at this stage to the Bowie/Roxy end of the spectrum to be devoured by mellotrons; as such, the symphonic tendencies of Cavaliers are moderated by intemperate language and waterfront harmonica, while the delicately orchestrated Bed In The Corner is more Forever Changes than Topographic Oceans. And it’s definitely not metal, though Sling It!’s commotion puts you right in the midst of the shipwreck it describes.
Dylan and Mott were other frequently suggested touchstones but Psychomodo is encapsulated by its uncategorisable side-closers. Tumbling Down is wistful, moist-eyed and slightly daft as Harley mourns “Oh dear, look what they’ve done to the blues” in a song which owes precisely nothing to Chicago or the Mississippi Delta but a good deal more to Mozart’s Vienna. It’s fitting that it was chosen as a climactic song for Venus In Furs, the band in the film Velvet Goldmine, whose set list is cannibalised from the songs of Cockney Rebel and their contemporaries.
At the end of side one came Ritz, a real lost classic, unlike the lost classics which are lost for an excellent reason. The simple, cyclical acoustic pattern suggests Astral Weeks but never apes Van Morrison directly, with strings hovering like the vultures mentioned in Tumbling Down and brass which strolls coquettishly one minute and has a contract out on Jericho’s walls the next. Above it, Harley’s distorted voice, too mannered for many, shows dexterity with some of his most erudite lyrics (“Couch my disease in chintz-covered kisses/Glazed calico cloth my costume this is”). In one of those irresistible coincidences, this and Psychomodo both namecheck Desdemona – and I was doing Othello at school at the same time I discovered the album.
Three-fifths of the band quit soon after – those funny names and bassist Paul Jeffreys, who would be killed at Lockerbie, prompting Harley, touchingly, to dedicate Sebastian to him on tour the following year. The sensibly named, highly proficient new Cockney Rebel made more fine music and provided Harley with his pension (as he calls Make Me Smile) but would never be as effervescent or kaliedoscopic as on those first two albums or the lovable stand-alone hit Judy Teen. Those were magic – the best years of their lives (PG).

15. COCTEAU TWINS – TREASURE (1984) / (A) COCTEAU TWINS – BLUE BELL KNOLL (1988)

TREASURE

There can hardly be a word in the English language more precisely defined, yet more persistently misused, than unique. It’s really not complicated – it simply means something is one of a kind, nothing more, nothing less. Yet more often than not, it’s used when the word that’s really required is distinctive or unusual. It’s rarely that something truly is unique and this means that the word shouldn’t be bandied about like it belongs in a chat about the weather – we should treasure things that genuinely are unique and, however frequently and hamfistedly they’ve been imitated, I contend that the Cocteaus were, and remain, among them.

You can detect the fingerprints of Siouxsie and the Banshees and, to a lesser extent, Joy Division on their first album, Garlands, but by the time of its follow-up, Head Over Heels, they’d grown to a point where it was hard to divine any obvious influences at all. Robin Guthrie was arguably reinventing the guitar even more thoroughly than Kevin Shields would half a decade later, creating labyrynthine textures from what very soon ceased to sound like guitars. Meanwhile, Liz Fraser sang like she had no choice and, as is well known, literally invented a new language as she strove to express the inexpressible. Even their drum machine was more versatile and dextrous than many of its peers – human or mechanical – and wasn’t there simply because it drank less and took up less room.

Treasure came at the end of a year which had seen the vast Pearly Dewdrops’ Drops – where Guthrie’s guitars are transformed into bagpipes playing a pibroch worthy of Culloden – give them a top 40 hit. Guthrie later furiously denounced the album but I’ve always heard it as the most fully-realised and downright beautiful thing they’d done up to that point, despite a tracklist composed entirely of quaint names that could double for a Hampstead school register.

Beatrix has a music-box sound that’s always put me in mind of cloisters, while Otterley plumbs depths of mystery that you’d need Sonar to penetrate and the almost Californian tinge to Pandora is an unexpected yet completely fitting counterpoint to Fraser’s voice tiptoeing up a spiral staircase.

At the risk of heresy, better versions of some songs were done elsewhere – opener Ivo, which had all the conditions for another hit, on an EP given away by the NME, Lorelei on Whistle Test and Beatrix, under the unrepentantly Scottish working title Wheesht, on a Peel session. But none of this dilutes the majesty of Treasure – they’re complementary to it and a reminder that a band who play a song the same way every time will be a very bored band and it will show.

I was 16 when Treasure came out, restless to move on from school and see more of the world. This didn’t necessarily mean far-off lands and was as much about people as place, people I knew nothing of who could be in towns just a few miles away – the Cocteaus’ native Grangemouth, for example. Their music was one of the foremost soundtracks to these times and that’s at least my perception of it – like your perception of it and like the music itself, it’s unique (PG)

(A) BLUE BELL KNOLL

Conventional wisdom identifies two distinct camps of Cocteaus fans. There are those who reckon Treasure their finest moment, and those who prefer Heaven or Las Vegas. Sandwiched between these two undoubted creative peaks are a couple of oft overlooked gems – which for a minority third camp, might well represent the summit of their achievements.

Victorialand is in some ways a transitional album – while it retains some of Treasure’s icy nerve (as on the closer The Thinner The Air) the listener is no longer made to feel like a worm stuck in a glacier. However, Victorialand, the Cocteau’s aural perestroika, was merely paving the way for the majesty of Blue Bell Knoll.

Blue Bell Knoll contains everything you need in a Cocteaus album. And you do need at least one. The song titles have reached new supra-semantic heights: Spooning Good Singing Gum; A Kissed Out Red Floatboat; Ella Megalast Burls Forever. The music itself is dense, playful, exultant. There is a vibrancy about it that sounds a million miles away from their dour gothic beginnings.

The album has a glowing heart. The outer sleeve with its blurry image of cold grey fingertips opens to reveal the same picture burning gently within. And that’s no accident. The one frosty moment – The Icy Glowbo Blow – transforms itself in a gloriously chiming finale. Everywhere else, the ice has melted. On Phoebe Still A Baby, with its beautiful marimba accompaniment and Cico Buff, Liz is at her ecstatic best – while she recalls recording sessions for BBK as being particularly exhausting, the fruits of her efforts are plain for us to hear. On the magnificent single, Carolyn’s Fingers, and the aforementioned A Kissed Out Red Floatboat in particular, things come together in spectacular style. The latter features a remarkable keyboard part that strangely conjures images of a fluttering locomotive on its way to another solar system.

For some, Robin Guthrie is really more of a producer than a great guitarist. But here even the sumptuous trademark reverb cannot disguise his masterful playing. For me, this is Liz is at her absolute peak and words simply cannot do her performances justice. Indeed when it comes down to it, what do words matter? So if the opportunity to use the familiar adjectives (celestial, ethereal etc) seems wasted, it is only because Blue Bell Knoll transcends these cliches to feel like a meeting with God Himself. (JJ)

14. DADAWAH – PEACE & LOVE (1974)

Ras Michael’s Peace & Love is both a devotional reggae album and a work of great artistic beauty. It transcends the reggae genre musically with its instrumentation more akin to the Temptations’ social consciousness recordings of the early 70’s or even Isaac Hayes’ extended mood pieces from the same time. Think ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’ or the piano riff from Hayes’ Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic’.

Peace and Love was released in 1974 on Trojan, a label famed for its prolific output of punchy 3 minute ska and rocksteady singles. Not so here: 4 songs stretched out over two sides, hardly a money spinner for the label. Michael’s masterpiece isn’t even referenced in Lloyd Bradley’s otherwise magnificently definitive history of reggae ‘Bass Culture’. Perhaps Bradley doesn’t consider it a reggae album at all. Indeed it dispenses altogether with the classic reggae guitar/piano offbeat rhythms. Instead Willie Lindo’s understated guitar licks wouldn’t sound out of place on a Dylan or Van album from the same period. They drift in and out of the spacious sound, while the burning embers of the Nyabinghi-inspired rhythm section provides an inspired hypnotic backing groove to an album bursting at the seams with Michael’s righteous proclamations of Rastafari.

The purists may scoff – and perhaps this is why the profile of the album is so low – but this is genuinely a spine tingling groundbreaking and genre-hopping high point of Jamaican music, up there with Heart of The Congos or East of The River Nile. Listen to Seventy-Two Nations and go out and make some new disciples. (JJ)

13. THE WOODENTOPS – LIVE HYPNOBEAT LIVE (1987)

Sandwiched between their two studio albums, Live Hypnobeat Live is The Woodentops in peak form, recorded live at the Palace Theatre in Los Angeles. Drawn mostly from their first album and a couple of early singles, here the band take them at break-neck speed, one song blurring into another over a relentless groove. Stripped of the marimba, accordian, trumpet, strings etc that filled in the spaces on debut LP Giant, this is how these songs were meant to sound. But rather than pulverise you, it is a sound that just makes you want to move. Everything revolves around the highly caffeinated bass playing of Frank De Frietas which barely lets up from beginning to end. With the bass carrying the rhythm, this allows drummer Benny Staples to play rather than just hit the drums.

Well Well Well kicks things off with mainman Rolo McGintys frantically scrubbed acoustic guitar, the band builds the song through a series of crescendos punctuated by feedbacking electric guitar. Then we’re straight into Love Train, guitarist Simon Mawby tearing it up like Cliff Gallup on the early Gene Vincent records. Both Mawby and keyboard player Alice Thompson are great throughout, leaving space if necessary, every contribution elevating the sound. As Travelling Man turns into Get It On Rolo announces “Yeah were off now”. There’s no turning back now. Like James Browns first Live at The Apollo LP it is clear there is going to be no let up.

Good Thing (one of the most perfect pop singles of the eighties) provides something of a breather, until it too builds to an incredible climax, Rolo preaching now “Rave ON, Rave ON!” complete with heavenly na-na-nahs and a surging key change. Everything Breaks and Move Me bring this breathless album to a close too quickly, and the only option is to play it just one more time.

The Woodentops were a band that should have thrived during the Indie-Dance years that were just around the corner (Why had been an early Ibiza club hit). Unfortunately they were unable to take advantage of the shift in musical tastes that should have embraced them as much as the Happy Mondays. (TT)

12. THE DISTRACTIONS – NOBODY’S PERFECT (1980)

The thrill of the chase is something that’s  been irretrievably lost in the you-want-it-we-got-it internet. My curiosity, fuelled by Paul Morley’s characteristically evangelical assertion that “their music will move you” and its number one position in an NME Manchester top 10 (yus, above NewJoyFallBuzzSmithMagColumn) drove a lengthy hunt for the Distractions’ 1979 single Time Goes By So Slow. It ended at the magnificent Realistic Records, near Glasgow’s Partick Cross, for the price of a packet of dry roasted peanuts and what emerged was a brisk yet serene, sprightly yet weary, sunny yet crushed tale of an inability to let go that topples into delusion.
It’s a recurring theme on Nobody’s Perfect – which I acquired a few months later and on which TGBSS doesn’t feature – as Leave You To Dream sees her oblivious to his attention on the warmest summer evening of the year and Stuck in A Fantasy evokes another vanished detail while describing profound obsession familiar from age to age: “On my TV when the station closes down/Your ghostly face appears to me, laughing like a clown”.
Most hauntingly and unforgettably, Looking For A Ghost is the sound of the guy who missed his chance slipping into her wedding and sitting in the back row – then staying silent as he accepts that the impediment he knows of is not reasonable but, on the contrary, completely irrational, as he’s yet again imagining she’s still with him, while Wilson and Spector conduct the choir in harmonies so dense no laser could pierce them.
If this extraordinary song ever found its way on to a film soundtrack, ubiquity would swiftly follow – though considering this would inevitably entail karaoke pummellings, tone-deaf whistled renditions and weak jokes about gaps in the lyric’s logic
(“One minute he’s saying she’s floating by my side, the next she’s encased inside my head. Eh? Make up y’mind hehehe”) I hope it never, ever happens.
Driven to Distraction was Mike Finney as he sang of heads ransacked by Cupid, in a voice which told of Saturday nights at the Wigan Casino spent trying to forget Friday nights on Deansgate. By this time there’d have been plenty of those – drummer Alec Sidebottom had late ’60s form with the Purple Gang, who gave us the recklessly twee Granny Takes A Trip, while another highlight of Nobody’s Perfect is their version of Eden Kane’s Boys Cry, where the “someone who says goodbye” in the knock-kneed period piece of the 1964 original is transformed from a soon-forgotten tryst into something bordering on bereavement.
Yet there’s real wit amid the desolation, on each side’s closer. Paracetamol Paralysis is pell-mell cautionary punk with sound medical advice on drinking while trying to fend off the flu – and it really is as innocent as that; when they say paracetamol, they mean paracetamol. That pair from Burnage might have managed to come up with this if only they’d kept trying after 1996. Then it’s all rounded off not with the desperate comfort of the penultimate Looking For A Ghost but the sub-two minute sprint of Valerie, where a palm court piano is caddishly shoved aside by a marauding tune fleeing from Pete Shelley as he tries to grab back the greatest song he never wrote. Even here there’s defeat as Finney faces up to the most pulverising blow a heart can take – “I love Valerie but Valerie loves YOU!!”
They ended up as the band that Manchester forgot and were blighted by lousy luck, signing for Factory at almost exactly the same time as Joy Division and Island at almost exactly the same time as U2. Adulation and legendary status would never be theirs but they’re back, having issued a beguiling album (End Of The Pier) and with a compilation (Parabolically Yours) poised to emerge. Maybe it’ll include their final EP, And Then There’s… which I also saw at Realistic but rashly decided to forego until I’d pounced  on Time Goes By So Slow. By then it had vanished  never to return, and it remains a stranger to YouTube to this day. Maybe  the thrill of the chase isn’t gone after all. (PG)

11. THE CHILLS – SUBMARINE BELLS (1990)

martin phillippsIn another world, the Chills might have been the subject of one of those single-frame Viz cartoons in which a band name is depicted literally. They’d have been stood in a circle, chanting “one times two is two, two times two is four, three times two is six”. Stood in front of them would have been John Travolta, his thumb jerked over his shoulder, declaring solemnly: “I got Chills. They’re multiplyin'”.
It never happened. The fair measure of success they enjoyed in their native New Zealand did not travel, despite at least a dozen songs which could have, very conceivably, lodged themselves firmly in the public consciousness, around half of them on Submarine Bells, their second album proper and their first since their departure from NZ’s immortal Flying Nun to Slash, a subsidiary of London and one of a rash of pseudo-indies established by majors in the late ’80s.
The single from the album, Heavenly Pop Hit, fulfilled the two-thirds of the title’s promise that the Chills had control over. It formed part of a tradition of absurdly tuneful songs by acts not necessarily renowned for such things, like Oliver’s Army before it and Friday I’m In Love and – yes – Shiny Happy People afterwards. Martin Phillips and his compatriot, Donna Savage of the also unjustly forgotten Dead Famous People, exult wordlessly on a chorus which produces grins as surely as rain produces puddles- usually. Once, when called upon to help dislodge an unwelcome earworm, I offered Heavenly Pop Hit as an antidote. “Aw, that’s awful – cheeseorama!”, was the response, to my dismay, and the play of the song didn’t even last 30 seconds.
Maybe it needed to be heard in the context of some of their earlier colossal songs, like Pink Frost or Night Of Chill Blue, or of Submarine Bells’ close to perfect first side. Part Past Part Fiction offers vice-like drama and a solo as breathless as it is deft, all undimmed by Phillipps’ clodhopping pronunciation of ‘cacophony’ to rhyme with ‘lonely’. The Oncoming Day is even more frenetic and as anxious as its title suggests, a return to the runaway runway they visited on Brave Words’ Look For The Good In Others And They’ll See The Good In You. I Soar tells of a flight in the southern hemisphere but its cantering rhythm and synthesised woodwind sumptuously evoke the British autmn in which it was recorded.

Side two is patchier but clutches two real treasures. With its high-stepping upright piano, Don’t Be-Memory has always sounded to me like it was recorded in a living room, suitably enough for such an intimate and heartfelt account of missed opportunities, a “desperate deal” conducted with “this greenhouse on,” a nod to the environmental anxiety of the times which produced a spike in the Green vote at the 1989 European elections and which is eloquently expanded upon in the liner notes of Submarine Bells. The song’s odd structure – not one, not two but three bridges – means its poignancy doesn’t let up for a second.
Submarine Bells itself takes the complexity of a Day In The Life, adds the langour of Good Night and creates the proper ending the Beatles’ career never had thanks to their insistence on finishing with the sheer bathos of Her Majesty. It sounds like an orchestra; it might merely be a mellotron or similar. All that matters is that it has a beauty that can barely be described – rarely has ‘rock’ sounded so majestic, so utterly aloof from the common imbecility of rog an’ roll, but without a scintilla of pomposity. It concludes with a glissando that almost certainly tips a deliberate wink to My Way – but again they’re set on something far finer than that karaoke warhorse’s daft bravado.
Like so many bands of the period, The Chills had all the conditions for a breakthrough. The fact that it never came means they’re still there to be discovered by many, all of whom I promise a lifelong treat. (PG)