32. FUNKADELIC – MAGGOT BRAIN (1971)

George Clinton is back, and career retrospectives and reappraisals are being rewritten with relish. He has undoubtedly been one of music’s most colourfully charismatic and anarchic performers over the past 60 years. Yes, that’s right, sixty.  A true eccentric to rival those other freakish musical mavericks, Lee Perry and Sun Ra, Clinton’s influence on the evolution of popular music has been incalculable. So, in assessing the relative merit of his oeuvre of recordings, where should you begin? One might stake a claim for Parliament’s P-Funk bomb ‘The Mothership Connection’ or Funkadelic’s acid-fuelled eponymous debut or it’s insane follow up ‘Free Your Mind…And Your Ass Will Follow’. Perhaps even the later sorely under-rated ‘Cosmic Slop’ could come into contention. Parliament’s ‘Motor Booty Affair’ is also worth a mention. In the NME’s recent ‘500 Greatest Albums of All-Time’ list, the 213th greatest album ever made was reckoned to be Funkadelic’s ‘One Nation Under A Groove’. The inclusion of that album may have been designed to offset a peculiar exercise in bad taste which managed to find room for Green Day, Pearl Jam and Whitney Houston, while simultaneously overlooking the tour de force of psychedelic stoner funk that is Funkadelic’s third album ‘Maggot Brain’. To my mind, even the noblest of record collections is incomplete without it.

‘Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time
For y’all have knocked her up
I have tasted the maggots in the mind of the universe
I was not offended for I knew I had to rise above it all
Or drown in my own shit.’

Along with the mischievous black humour of Clinton’s lyrics, ‘Maggot Brain’ is most often remembered for the guitar solo of its title track. If, like me, you hit your teenage years at some  point after 1977, you probably grew up during an era when the legacy of punk dictated that there was no legitimate place for the guitar solo in music. This was on the whole a good thing. There may have been space for the jagged interplay of Verlaine and Lloyd, but their dazzling art-punk virtuosity stood in stark contrast to the supercilious phallic extension building of the Jurassic ‘guitar heroes’.  The Buzzcocks’ sardonic piss-take of the guitar solo on ‘Boredom’ was a bona fide punk statement of intent if ever there was one. Be as well outlawing the guitar solo right there and then. [During these years, I recall one of my TNPC colleagues and I smuggling ‘Led Zeppelin III’ home to listen to, as if it were contraband material fit only for a brown paper bag hidden under a trench coat]

So, it is important to state that ‘Maggot Brain’ is not simply about that guitar solo. And it has more in common with punk – if not aesthetically then certainly attitudinally – than you might think. Punkadelic? Well, that would be stretching the truth, but it’s fair to say that Funkadelic were punk in their own inimitable way. Not only did they occasionally share the stage with Detroit’s finest proto-punks The MC5 and The Stooges, but ingenuously, they kept sufficiently aloof from the prevailing musical and political trends to cultivate an attitude that may have been construed as nihilistic. Although it was a time of increasingly radical political consciousness for African-Americans, for Clinton & Co. there were darker energies at work, as exemplified by the inclusion in the sleeve notes of extracts of literature from The Process-Church of The Final Judgement with their bizarre syntheses of Satanism and Christianity. And the band shunned the Motor City’s premier hit-making factory, preferring instead to forge their own unique path. Times were changing of course and even Gordy’s Motown marionettes were embracing the new zeitgeist, casting off the oppressive shackles of the two and a half minute pop single to venture out into uncharted musical terrain, this new expressionism pitched against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights / Black Power movement.

There is no sharp suited foursome instructed to smile into the camera for this album sleeve. Instead, we have a picture of a woman’s head emerging from the earth, which is either screaming in agony or laughing maniacally? Inside, there is an image of the band, standing on a bit of spare ground, looking menacingly hip, no doubt tripping on acid. They did a lot of that at the time. Those smiles may not be friendly ones…

There is a macabre myth associated with the inspiration for the album title: that George Clinton’s brother’s corpse had been lying for such a length of time that maggots were found to be found crawling through the eye sockets of his empty skull when his dead body was finally discovered.  And death seemed very much on everyone’s minds during the recording sessions for the album. Consider for example, the title track, the album’s most celebrated moment. If this brain-scrambling finger-blistering slice of melancholia is a cathartic experience for the listener, just imagine how it may have felt for its protagonist Eddie Hazel. It is well documented that Clinton instructed him to ‘Play it as if your momma just died.’ Some claim that Hazel only discovered his mother hadn’t died after the recording finished. Whatever the truth, and the bulk of personnel involved in the recording have very little recollection of the event, the result was something extraordinary. An impassioned slow burning guitar that cries, weeps and wails its sorrowful eulogy, is only slowly and gradually released from its agony after a gruelling ten minutes. While Hazel sounds on his knees his guitar knocks asteroids off their courses. I imagine the walls of the recording studio sweating blood by the end, the guitar shrivelled up like a piece of dead fruit after it’s exertions. Stylistically, the track could be interpreted as an homage to Hendrix who had died shortly before recording sessions for the album began, but the moment belongs to Eddie Hazel. When Hazel died in 1992, fittingly the song provided the soundtrack at his funeral.

While Hazel was digging Hendrix, there were other influences that shaped the band’s sound, most obviously the rhythmic funk of James Brown and Sly Stone. Listen to ‘Can You Get To That’ or ‘Hit It And Quit It’ where the positive Family Stone influence is at its most bold and infectious, if made even more flamboyant by Bernie Worrell’s intensified keyboard work. On ‘Super Stupid’ Hazel amplifies the decibels with an even heavier sound – George referred to it as ‘a louder Temptations, The Temptations on acid’ – on a song that tells the story of a fatality caused by mistaking heroin for cocaine.

The ten minute finale, ‘Wars of Armageddon’ is the strangest of trips  –  percussive anarchy, frenzied axe-grinding, bubbling organ, screaming, freedom chants, airport announcements and ridiculously crude lyrics merge together in what sounds like one big Parliafunkadelicment orgy. One can divine its influence in the abstract Afro-funk of the title track to Miles Davis’ fabulous ‘On The Corner’, released the following year. It also anticipates the real party to come, aboard that Mothership…

Has there ever been a more fitting name for a band than Funkadelic? Says it all really. Perhaps if Roxy Music had been called Glam Art Trip or if Kraftwerk had simply been dubbed The Robots. In the evolutionary development of Parliament-Funkadelic, and indeed of the music of the period, the album serves as a missing link – both musically and chronologically – between Jimi’s ‘Electric Ladyland’ and Parliament’s aforementioned ‘The Mothership Connection’. There are lots of stopping-off points along the way of course, not just in the Parliament-Funkadelic canon, but this evolution was paralleled elsewhere: in jazz (the post ‘Bitches Brew’ fusion explosion) and in soul [Ernie Isley’s guitar work with The Isley Brothers for example]. Into that melting pot came Clinton and Funkadelic. They partied, preached and pounded, and alongside their monumental guitar solos, they funked it up like nobody else. (JJ)

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31. THE RAINCOATS – ODYSHAPE (1981)

“We want to put a bit of distance between what we do and the rock’n’roll tradition.”

The Raincoats interviewed by Greil Marcus

The Raincoats initially formed after Gina Birch, inspired by the chaotic energy of The Slits, teamed up with guitarist Ana Da Silva in 1977. An all-female line up was completed the following year with classically trained violinist Vicky Aspinall, and drummer Palmolive jumped ship from The Slits. It was this line up that recorded the ramshackle and scratchy debut album for Rough Trade. However, following its release, Palmolive left, forcing the band to write songs for the next album without a drummer. Just as losing a drummer allowed Spacemen 3 to make the minimalist masterpiece that is Play With Fire, this seems to have freed up their sound, and coupled with the purchase of a bunch of exotic instruments from a visit to New York, and the punk practice of swapping instruments helped to push their songwriting into uncharted territory.

In Simon Reynolds excellent Rip It Up And Start Again, Gina Birch is quoted saying “You couldn’t find a band that rehearsed more than we did, but we always fell apart. We always pushed ourselves a little bit beyond where we were capable of playing”. Listening to Odyshape now, 34 years after it was released and 18 years after I first heard it, just makes me wonder why more bands can’t or won’t push themselves that far, when reaching beyond their abilities resulted in a record that is sparse and spiritual, and almost completely uncategorisable. At the time the NME bemoaned the fact that there were no musical comparisons to be made, not even to their previous album. The Raincoats were now walking through a different musical terrain.

The influence of everything from folk, punk, reggae, krautrock (Can circa Ege Bamyasi) to all  kinds of ethnic music can be heard throughout, but each sound is woven into the fabric of The Raincoats music so perfectly it never sounds like genre tourism that occasionally  plagues music post eighties. Everything here sounds like Raincoats music, just not the Raincoats that had played on the first album. The use of such un-rock instruments as sruti box(?), claves, kalimba, timpani, balafon, ektare and finger symbols sets this record apart from many of its contemporaries and closer to the wyrd atmosphere of records like Dr Johns’s spook-fest Gris Gris or Tim Buckley’s free folk’n’jazz Lorca. Perhaps the appearance of Rough Trade label mate Robert Wyatt on a couple of tracks should give us a clue to the difference in sound from the first album. Maybe Gina Birchs involvement alongside Swell Maps Epic Soundtracks in the Red Crayola was an influence.

So is there any point in trying to describe an album that is as difficult to pigeon hole as this? I think there is.

Shouting Out Loud is a frantic Countess From Hong Kong, bass and drums circling like crows around intense passages of violin and guitar duels. The lack of drums on Family Treet allows the instruments to push and pull at the tempo as its tale of very english melancholy unfolds. Only Loved At Night builds verses around a killer scratchy guitar riff and chorus around kalimba. The epic Dancing In My Head (“Long, long way to go”) always made me think of Debra Keese’s Travelling without sounding much like it. The opening verse sounds like it’s heaving under a heavy weight while the chorus (“My spirit is dancing in my head and in my heart”) with great piano playing from Vicky Aspinall lifts you somewhere completely out of yourself. I would love to hear Joanna Newsom sing this.

The title track kicks off with a circular chiming guitar riffs around a lyric dealing with body image in magazines. The benefits of writing without a drummer seems most pronounced on And Then It’s Ok where the tempo refuses to settle in one place for too long, the guitar switching from a frantic Feelies strum to almost Dark Star Live Dead picking. Baby Song is Congoman put through Can’s Future Days filter, all shimmering rhythms and heat haze harmonies. There’s an almost Cajun flavour to the violin at the start of Red Shoes. Go Away closes the album in fine punky style even as the violin echoes Kashmir.

Odyshape is as classic as anything released during one of the most fertile periods for British music.  Despite people like John Lydon, Sonic Youth and Kurt Cobain heaping praise on the band, it rarely gets mentioned alongside Metal Box or Unknown Pleasures, never mind making those Greatest Records Of All Time lists. Perhaps this is down to its un-rock leanings, or possibly it is down to its influence being harder to trace. I can hear reflections of Vicky Aspinalls violin in Hahn Rowe’s work in Hugo Largo, in P J Harvey at her most English. It doesn’t sound out of place amongst the post 2000 music dubbed New Weird America or freak folk. Whatever. Kim Gordon called their music “defiant in its spirituality without being corny” and that pretty much sums this record up. (TT)

30. PROPAGANDA – SPARKS (1974)

There can’t have been a more unforgiving year in music than 1974. Hardly anything fitted in – its time had either been and gone or was still to come. Glam was over – Bowie and Roxy were still delivering but, post-Ziggy and post-Eno respectively, they seemed in transition and this was doubly so for T.Rex and  Mott, as those desperate dirges Teenage Dream and Saturday Gigs testified.
Music had come so far in the previous decade that it could hardly see back to where it had come from and had little idea where it was going. Revival of early rock ‘n’ roll had become big business but these lingering gazes in the rearview mirror at irrevocably lost pre-Vietnam times – embodied by the admittedly wonderful American Graffiti  – took eyes off the road ahead. Meanwhile, the idealism of seven or eight years earlier had long since curdled, calcified and ossified but many from these periods were still around yet cut adrift and much of what’s now considered classic from ’74 or thereabouts didn’t even gain enough of a profile to be ignored; what audience was there still left for the ex-singer of the Box Tops and his new band? For the guy who left the Byrds after two years? For the guy who sang The Wanderer and Runaround Sue?
Nor was there yet much of an audience for leather-jacketed bubblegum, played faster and louder than it had ever been before, for Who pasticheurs in suits, nor even for Runyon-by-way-of-Scorsese mock epics set in New Jersey. As for the Stones, the Who themselves and sundry solo Beatles, they had crested, peaked, plateaued and were settling in for Olympian sessions of water-treading. Zeppelin and Pink Floyd had the commercial momentum but, as the planet became barely big enough to accommodate them, the controls were already set for them to hit the wall. And then there were the Bay City Rollers… the truism that you have to know where to look, which has sustained many music fans through barren times, was seldom as true as in 1974.

It was in this blighted, benighted, blasted environment that Sparks made their impact and there was no one smarter, fresher or more zestful to be found anywhere. The calcium carbonate and Camembert Mael brothers, Ron and Russell, had started off in their native California as Halfnelson, named after a wrestling hold, and while the camp theatricality of American wrestling had some resonance with the music they produced, their fine debut for Todd Rundgren’s Bearsville label, and its follow-up , A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing – their first as Sparks – cut little ice in a market made for the Allmans and the Dead.
The land where Mick McManus plied his gravelly trade in the ring was in thrall to the aforementioned glam gargantuans and had just embraced Lou Reed – if not yet the Velvets – so a move for the Maels, avowed Anglophiles both, made palpable sense. Of course, everything took off swiftly after their no 2 hit, This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us, a song which, despite the best efforts of some to wreck it through overplay, I simply never tire of hearing. Received wisdom – something I often find myself concurring with but always strive to avoid taking as gospel –  has it that parent album Kimono My House was Sparks’ early high watermark but my acquaintance with it at this time was fleeting. Its follow-up Propaganda is often dismissed as a hastily-conceived sequel, arriving as it did just six months later, but it’s the one that found its way into our house, that I had the time to get to know, and which confirmed Sparks as the first band I properly got into.
I was in the early stages of primary school and it helped immensely that children are a recurring theme on Propaganda, stories told with directness and empathy from their point of view, and what could have been objectionably twee in other paws is an endlessly productive grin factory instead, albeit with a sober edge. The message Never Go With Strangers, printed on flyers alongside a ghostly silhouetted figure, was being drummed into us and was as horribly urgent as it’s ever been; on Thanks But No Thanks the Maels characterise the strangers as “The merry band of how-are-yous/In tweedy suits and pointy shoes.” in Russell’s incomparable falsetto, I heard nothing sinister and thought instead of Enid Blyton’s mischievous goblins and brownies, who I always favoured over the all–too-human Famous Five, and as a mesmerising extended fade geared up, I sympathised with Russell’s bewildered infant as he mused: “My parents say the world is cruel/ I think that they prefer it cruel.”
Even so, parenthood is made to sound as much unalloyed fun as childhood on Who Don’t Like Kids, though this is as much down to reassured egos as anything else – the kids are “proof that I’m not just a vegetable” and get to chant the title between a circular riff that would have caused more than a few copies to be checked for stuck grooves. Less gleeful is Aaron,  the deserted father narrating BC who, for reasons not fully explained, loses both Betty and Charlie, paradoxically to the most upful, high-kicking melody on an album exploding with the things.
The other most prominent members of Propganda’s cast are flustered would-be suitors. The marauding, propulsive At Home, At Work, At Play recounts the familiar tale of the unattainable girl but this time she’s out of reach not because of mystery or aloofness but because of a relentlessly packed social and professional diary. The extended military metaphor of Reinforcements is characteristically clever, if not quite subtle, but enables the Maels and the piledriving but skilful band they recruited in London to spin another scintillating coda. And there’s real pathos on the album’s first single, Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth, where brevity – it’s barely two and a half minutes – is no barrier to them executing their most beautiful moment to date, while relating an enigmatic story of emotional chaos and a strange interlude of “three days and two nights away from my friends” before remorse forces temporary abandonment of the wit and smart wordplay: “I’ll admit I was unfaithful/But from now I’ll be more faithful.”
The biggest riot is reserved for Achoo, a song I was warned got loud before I heard it for the first time. A patient bass riff from Ian Hampton and a strangely menacing keyboard fanfare from Ron usher in an epidemic of “La-las with a powrful sting/That’ll stop any opera or any Bing.” Russell once observed that, in true pantomime tradition, the song lent itself to audience participation; by the time the grandstand of mingled Californian and English sneezes is done, quarantine would be strongly recommended.
There can be little doubt that Billy MacKenzie and Martin Fry were listening as closely to Sparks as to their more established contemporaries. Ron’s primitive synths teeter on the edge of Yes-scale pomposity on the closing Bon Voyage, which could redefine every notion you have of bittersweetness, but it was 1974, after all, and Sparks were tossing around incalculably original ideas which helped to ensure pop, or rock if you must, survived its most fraught period to date (PG).

29. TIM BUCKLEY – STARSAILOR (1970)

Oblivion carries me on his shoulder: Beyond the suns I speak and circuits shiver” (‘Starsailor’)

It might sound like baloney to claim that Starsailor killed Tim Buckley, but in his resoluteness to go as far with the voice as ‘Trane went with the horn, he came undone. The culmination of this intrepid expedition to the outer limits was a rejection by his audience and a subsequent descent into psychological chaos, exacerbated by spiralling alcohol and (ultimately fatal) drug abuse.

Starsailor has to be understood in the context of Tim’s recording a career. If you are unfamiliar with his work it would be imprudent to begin here. Having said that, much has been written about Tim’s music, some of which is amongst the best rock literature (for example Max Bell’s NME retrospective (http://timbuckley.net/articles/nme-1979.shtml) and there are even more insightful accounts, such as Chronicle Of A Starsailor by Lee Underwood, Tim’s friend, lead guitarist and along with Larry Beckett, closest musical confidante. (http://www.timbuckley.com/tim-buckley-chronicle-of-a-starsailor/

I suggest you read both of these if you get the opportunity. Underwood captures with particularly incisive brevity Buckley’s remarkable musical odyssey:

“I watched him grow from a Bambi-eyed littleboy poet prattling about paper hearts and Valentines, into a hurricane-haired rock and roller, into a madman/genius improvisational vocalist who blew all the pups away, and finally into a lowdown, roadhouse, sex-thumping stomper who injected steam and blood and juice into an r&b music nobody cared about.”

And that really just about sums up Tim’s development as an artist. Starsailor sits as the pivotal moment in a riveting musical journey which has few parallels in the history of rock. Chronologically, it comes exactly half way through Tim’s recording career (1970)  – despite being album number six of nine – and marks the peak of an assurgent creative curve from his  self-titled 1966 debut onwards. After Starsailor, musical compromise set in and the artistic merit of his recordings gradually deteriorated along with his mental well-being.

The album’s most famous track ‘Song To The Siren’ was successfully resurrected by This Mortal Coil in 1983, sung by Elizabeth Fraser. [Elizabeth of course later had an intense personal relationship with Tim’s son Jeff whose short life bore an eerily tragic resemblance to his father’s]  Buckley’s original is pitch perfect: in the context of the album itself you might say delicate, restrained, and along with the charming Parisian caress of ‘Moulin Rouge’, certainly unrepresentative of the bulk of its content.

Many of Tim’s performances on Starsailor beggar belief, understandably inviting those ‘operatic vocal gymnastics / acrobatics’ descriptions which characterise reviews of the album. But this is over-simplistic journalism. After all, acrobats and gymnasts spend years perfecting rigidly complex routines. The reality for Tim was somewhat different. That’s not to say the musical performances here lack discipline. Far from it, but, liberated from the constraints of the rock idiom, head swollen with Stockhausen, Monk, Mingus, Roland Kirk, Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman, he felt compelled to reach further with his voice than anyone had ever gone, and did so with an unbridled and ecstatic inventiveness. 

It is clear from the outset that there are no rigid routines here. No, this is going to be a challenging listen. ‘Come Here Woman’ is a staggeringly ambitious calling card. It begins an ends with an avant-jazz skulk, redolent of the territory explored on his previous proper album Lorca. After the intro, suddenly the song leaps to life with Lee’s dissonantly funky guitar and Tim’s off key bawling. Moments later the skittish electric piano suggests we could be listening to Bitches Brew. It’s complex. It’s all over the place. It’s a fantastic start…

On the brilliant ‘Monterey’ Tim sounds like a lustily crazed chimpanzee who has broken into a Magic Band recording session and wrestled the mic from the good Captain, his yelps,warbles and shrieks providing a bountiful exhibition of his vocal dexterity.

Side Two takes us to rock’s outer limits. ‘Jungle Fire’s moody improvisational beginning is abruptly brought to a close by Buckley’s ludicrously unhinged “deep insi-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-de” Tarzan yodel. What follows next is magnificent: an accelerating riff of earthy funk guitar amidst a blizzard of deranged wails and howls.I picture those kids shaking their hair to the Stones at Hyde Park in ’69 and imagine how much further they would have gone to a soundtrack like this.

The title track is extraordinary, an abstract assemblage of 16 vocal tracks laid over one another to create something that seems to take us into the realm of metaphysics…even as it’s last few notes fade, nothing can prepare us for the headlong rush of the introduction to ‘The Healing Festival’ which is genuinely shocking – goosebumps not only stand to attention but fly off my back in fright, seeking refuge from Buckley’s hair-raising vocal assault, the  aural equivalent of the mass slaughter of 10,000 dolphins. The horns, courtesy Bunk and Buzz Gardner from The Mothers Of Invention are wild and free yet still struggle to keep pace with Tim’s five and a half octave vocal range.

The curtain comes down with ‘Down By The Borderline’ where flugelhorn gives way to the relatively more stoic rhythms that would anticipate the earthy soul of his next album Greetings From LA. A good album that, but by then Buckley had descended from the mountain, reclothed himself in flesh and bone and shifted his energies to the lower half of his body. A brief confused and sweaty future would follow, but he had already taken rock music as far as it could go. 

PostScript: A Personal Footnote

[Misleading album sleeve #429] As a teenager, I had heard of Tim Buckley – his album Goodbye & Hello was referenced as the only one worthy of note in most rock music encyclopaedias, although I had recently spotted an entry for Starsailor in a Critics’ Top 100 Albums book (edited by Paul Gambaccini). I flicked past Starsailor onto the album featured on the next page, which if I recall correctly may have been Private Dancer by Tina Turner!

Instead, my introduction to Tim’s music came while browsing the A-Z in Glasgow’s Virgin Records in February 1987. I had a £10 note in my pocket and back then this was enough to buy two, three, maybe even if one was canny enough, four albums. I was keen to make that £10 go as far as possible before inadvertently stumbling upon a US import of Tim’s Happy Sad. It was priced at a prohibitive £8.99, but the picture on the back of the sleeve was of the coolest man I had ever seen. There were only six tracks, which varied in duration from 2 to 12 minutes. Those  Bowie and Byrds albums would have to wait a bit longer. I simply had to have this. As a devotee of Astral Weeks I was naturally captivated by the music – a bewitching spell of jazz-folk reverie – which matched perfectly the image on the reverse of the sleeve with its hazy forest sunlight bursting through Tim’s Dionysian locks.

  

I returned to the book store once again to gaze at the picture of ‘Starsailor’. Nah, I thought, he looks too happy here – this must have been the contractual obligation album. Its juxtaposition, next to ‘Private Dancer’ did little to allay those concerns. Little did I know at the time that the album would go down in history as one of rock music’s great acts of commercial suicide. (JJ)

28. CROSSING THE RED SEA WITH THE ADVERTS – THE ADVERTS (1978)

CROSSING THE RED SEA WITH THE ADVERTS – THE ADVERTS (1978)
The notion of alternative culture has been diluted enough to leave a gap where the Pacific used to be. What purports to be an alternative is, all too often, scarcely any better than – or even much different to – the thing it’s offered up as an alternative to; trace a line in 2015 from celebrity culture to hipster culture and you’ll hardly travel the length of your own toes; the distinction has been all but erased and there are  far too many intersections at Ukulele Junction, Animals In Adverts Corner and Live Lounge Ring Road. And maybe it’s an inevitable by-product of the passage of time but when some of the most emotionally complex and ideologically committed artists of the last half century – the Smiths, the Jam, REM, Radiohead – end up on a Conservative Prime Minister’s Desert Island Discs, is there anywhere left for anything to go? Yes, I’m well aware that there’s still much that’s radical to be discovered  but even its most ardent champions have seen it all, heard it all and the notion of anything even vaguely subversive penetrating the mainstream now seems as fanciful as the discovery of a bootleg of Geoffrey Chaucer reciting his own work.
Consider, then, what the Adverts and their peers were up against in the late ’70s. There were no politicians or ubiquitous TV presenters self-consciously and ingratiatingly clamouring to prove how really into this groovy punk stuff they were. Who were they surrounded by when the unforgettably gruesome Gary Gilmore’s Eyes became an improbable hit? Smokie, The Dooleys, Brotherhood of Man; Crossroads, Des O’Connor Tonight and Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club on TV; Keith Joseph and Willie Whitelaw on the news. Punk defined itself against all of these; if they were aware of it at all, the response to it was a deeply-felt revulsion, shown most viscerally towards the Pistols but nobody was immune.

The Adverts stood out as close-quarters observers of the culture they were part of but seemed to be ambivalent towards. On their torrential debut One Chord Wonders (which, along with Gary Gilmore’s Eyes and Safety In Numbers, formed an opening volley of singles fit to stand alongside any), TV Smith berates an indifferent audience which starts off as irate hippies (“Come back when you’ve learned to play”) but turns into fickle, bandwagoneering punks (“We must be the new wave, they’ll like us next year). Safety In Numbers adds a double meaning to its title’s readymade cliche – not only did the scene’s proliferation provide plenty of lookalikes to hide behind but it also eroded its impact. Meanwhile, to the most mellifluous melody of their early period, New Church acknowledges this conformity but urges you to turn it to your advantage (“strength within you, not without you”).
More obliquely, On The Roof slows the headlong charge to a surreptitious tread and Smith appears to be calling for an escape from everyday pettiness (“We’re fighting on the floor for a ha’penny”). On Wheels is much more specific, a reflective and, for its time, bold contemplation of life with disability. It’s less blunt than Peter Hammill’s similarly stark Handicap And Equality, which appeared the following year, but both are notable in dating from a time when a whole lexicon of breathtakingly tactless terms was still applied, without qualm, in official circles to people with disabilities.
The dyspeptic jewel in this tarnished crown is Great British Mistake, one of the most unblinking examinations ever of the nation’s conscience, as lyrically forensic and musically excoriating a dissection as any performed by Weller, Costello or Morrissey. The error is diagnosed as “looking for a way out…getting complacent, not noticing” and personified as people “out of the prepack, into the fear, into themselves.” Torpor and resistance to ideas are the consequence and Smith is fearful – “When will it be over? How can they avoid it?”
It took the Adverts a full year to deliver Crossing The Red Sea… and it appeared a month after the Pistols’ ignominious implosion. I’ve never held with the notion that punk was all over by 1977 – for me, it flourished as late as 1980 – but the Adverts themselves didn’t capitalise on the detonation of this album. A series of strong but sporadic singles came over the next year and a half but the follow-up album, Cast of Thousands, was dangerously flawed. It had one of their finest moments – the untypically gentle, Television-echoing but profoundly sinister I Will Walk You Home – and probably their worst, the hysterical and frankly awful I Looked At The Sun, which ELP would have rejected for being too pompous. But at their peak, they had few equals ; they were once described as “a great band, for a moment” – Crossing The Red Sea… was that moment (PG).

27. GRIZZLY BEAR – YELLOW HOUSE (2006) / (A) VECKATIMEST (2009)

To propose that there might be a genius or two creating popular music in the 21st century may be anathema to those of a certain vintage. After all, Lennon, (Tim) Buckley, Van Vliet, and co. are no longer with us. Indeed one is liable to invite ridicule at the mere suggestion, but I would venture that if people are prepared to look hard enough there are at least a few, one of whom is Daniel Rossen, co-contributor to the wonderful NY foursome, Grizzly Bear.

Grizzly Bear began as a moniker for Ed Droste who, to little fanfare, released a low-fi debut entitled Horn of Plenty in 2004. For the second full-length feature, the ranks had swelled to include three other members, most significantly 23-year old Department of Eagles multi-instrumentalist, Rossen. Droste’s recruitment policy demonstrated shrewd judgement – in fact it was a masterstroke, Rossen’s widescreen West Coast sensibilities were less a musical appendage than the catalyst for a revolution in the band’s modus operandi.

The first fruits of this remoulding, Yellow House (recorded in Droste’s mother’s house), might sound at first like a bunch of (flamboyantly) half-baked ideas toiling in vain to find conventional form, and could be easily dismissed as such by the more casual, less discerning listener. But as the saying goes: ‘a new home slowly reveals it’s secrets’, so too with Yellow House.

Take the album’s opener for instance. ‘Easier’ patiently emerges from atmospheric woodwind and upright piano before being transfigured by Disneyesque harmonising and then an amalgam of sounds which I can only describe as a fantasia of bluegrass-flavoured Impressionism. Like much of the album, it features banjo, autoharp and glockenspiel, and if someone said to you that it was the most beautiful song they had ever heard, you could not feign surprise.

If Marla’s stalking waltzlike piano conveys a sense of foreboding, it is soon transfigured by a string arrangement which sounds like ghosts escaping from one of Debussy’s tone poems, weaving into the solemnity their alluring supernatural tapestries.

But it is not all rhapsody and capriccio. After a breezily acoustic beginning, the guitars on ‘On A Neck And A Spit’ hurtle, crash and collapse together causing an unnerving pile up, before Rossen raises the tempo with a buzzing (Roy) Harper-esque bastard-folk foot stomp. ‘Lullaby’ does what it says on the tin, until half way in it is violently ambushed by a gaggle of Grizzly guitars. While ‘Knife’ is at least more musically orthodox, and easily the closest to a ‘hit’ here, it’s lyrics  ( I want you to know / When I look in your eyes / With every blow / Comes another lie / You think it’s alright / Can’t you feel the knife?) mean it is unlikely it will find its way into your repertoire of songs to sing in the shower.

There is such a range of genre-hopping versatility on show here, that the result is the creation of something almost uncategorisable, and there is some evidence to suggest the band seek further afield than most for their musical inspiration, in particular to film soundtracks. Consider for example the unearthly harmonising on the incredibly complex ‘Central and Remote’, eerily redolent (3:24-4:03) of Krzysztof Komeda’s score for Polanski’s ‘Fearless Vampire Killers’. And is it just me, or does the achingly beautiful ‘interlude’ on the incomparable ‘Little Brother’ parallel Вячеслав Овчинников’s exquisite music for the ‘apples and horses’ dream sequence in Tarkovsky’s ‘Ivan’s Childhood’? In each case the meticulous craftsmanship, borrowed reference points or not, is to be admired and cherished.

The closer ‘Colorado’ with its densely layered vocal overdubs has to be heard to be believed. Imagine the Beach Boys ‘Smile’ version of ‘Cool Cool Water’ being recorded by Big Star during sessions for their ill-fated third album and you may get close. It’s a bewildering end to a bewitching album, one that ranks alongside ‘Forever Changes’ and ‘Spirit of Eden’ as one of music’s great documents of reinvention.

The last time of any note a group of precocious and wide-eyed musicians in their mid-20s retired to an old house to express with such versatility and virtuosity a new musical language, the result was Music From Big Pink’, an album that changed the course of popular music. No far-reaching influence was to follow from Yellow House but it is an historical document that will surely be blessed with similar longevity. It leaves you wondering: why isn’t all music this imaginative? The answer to that question is no secret. Put a sign up outside that Yellow House: ‘Daniel Rossen: Genius At Work’.

VECKATIMEST

What is implicit on Yellow House is made explicit on Veckatimest; what was alluded to is now clearly defined; what was hidden is now revealed; where there was a sophomoric air, there is now professorial authority; what sounded exploratory has now reached perfect distillation.
I can barely bring myself to talk about Veckatimest for fear of allowing some of it’s magic to somehow escape in a cloud of loquaciousness. It will suffice to mention that ‘Southern Point’ is the best one stop introduction to the band’s music, and that ‘I Live With You’ is one of the most impossibly beautiful things I have ever heard. So let me keep it simple: Veckatimest is very probably the greatest album of the 21st Century so far. (JJ)