72. MANUEL GÖTTSCHING – E2-E4 (1984)

The Game Changer

The world’s most enduring game of strategy can evoke contradictory reactions. For some, playing chess is so mind numbingly dull, be as well painting a wall with water. Strange then that others – like the Saudi mufti who recently declared it ‘haram‘ – recognise in it something potentially more harmful. Perhaps his was an extreme reaction, one expressed by an individual who would have us return to a medieval world of theocratic absolutism. As much as he might disagree, there are always two ways of looking at things, not least a chessboard, particularly if you are sitting, clocks set, opposite your opponent, planning the first few moves. The first move, in algebraic chess notation, is usually e2-e4. It is only after that inconsequential beginning, that the mind games begin in earnest.

If by mind games one means consciousness expanding ‘head music’, then Manuel Göttsching has always enjoyed mind games. It also seems fitting that the sleeve of his inspirational ‘E2-E4’ album, features a chessboard. His musical career has featured some of the strangest moves in the history of popular music, it’s unique trajectory surprising many. Who, least of all Göttsching himself, would have anticipated that the journey which began with the kosmische explorations of Ash Ra Tempel, included sonic interludes with acid guru Timothy Leary and continued with his own experiments on electric guitar, would somehow eventually find its way on to Larry Levan’s turntable at the legendary NYC discotheque, Paradise Garage? From there the influence of ‘E2-E4’ would ripple outwards into new and alien territory – a dance culture with which Manuel was quite unfamiliar, and at times palpably uncomfortable.

For many, the discovery of ‘E2-E4’ is a revelation. If you like me frequented the dance clubs of the early 1990s, often the pinnacle of those evenings – perhaps three quarters of the way through the DJ’s set – was a lengthy building hypnotic groove of house or techno. This could have been a slice of Strictly Rhythm style ‘Wild Pitch’ or possibly the sumptuous minimalism of ‘Acid Eiffel’ by Laurent Garnier. Best of all though had to be Derrick May’s remix of an Italian house track ‘Sueno Latino’: eleven goosebump-arasing minutes of aural bliss. It was the tune – the one where there was a coalescent transcendent moment of sheer joy and uninhibited love of the music. I soon discovered that this ‘balearic’ classic had been reworked from an original composition by a Krautrock stalwart, the former guitarist of Ash Ra Tempel, and this rather deliciously, made it sound even more remarkable.

By the late 1970s, Göttsching had moved well beyond the undisciplined Grateful Dead-inspired psychedelic space rock of Ash Ra Tempel. He had discovered within the classical minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, a new way to distil new concepts of his own which he felt he could apply using his electric guitar. Along the way he had also become acquainted with synthesisers, experimented with a range of sounds and instruments and recognised the advantages of programming music using sequencers. Shortly before he hopped aboard a flight from Berlin to Hamburg in December 1981, he dropped by at Studio Roma, ostensibly to record some rough ideas floating around in his head, so that he could listen to them on his Walkman during the flight. He tuned his guitar from E2 to E4 (lending the album it’s title in the process), settled down for an hour and recorded one of the most influential albums of all time. Influential. That term gets bandied about all too often, but in this case it is truly deserved. As influential albums go this is close to being untouchable.

Göttsching recalls making several recordings around this time but with ‘E2-E4’ he experienced “a moment where everything was perfect, the technique was perfect, everything was floating…” He didn’t release it until 1984, but it still sounds like a beautiful unrepeatable accident. The patient deliberation of each movement, the concentration on method, wonderfully mirrors the wide angle perspective of a chess grandmaster who contemplates his game plan slowly unfolding to fruition. The music comprises one lengthy fluid hypnotic repetitive rhythm. Each part or movement is given a title, by turns descriptive (‘Moderate Start’) or chess wordplay (‘Queen A Pawn; ‘HRH Retreats’) but in truth these are meaningless – it is really one continuous suite, incorporating a series of inconspicuous little shifts in instrumentation – minor surges and ebbs, nothing dramatic but something constantly evolving, moving forward.

Some will feel more comfortable with the first half which is more synthesiser-led. This part in particular is the prototype for much of the electronic music produced during the following 20 years; while the second half is more guitar-led: a nod to Robert Fripp here, Mark Knopfler there, perhaps even Wes Montgomery. A bit jazz muso for some but of a piece with the rest of the music. And it is best listened to as a whole, having the capacity to induce in the listener a virtual trance like state – no doubt the reason Larry Levan would play the album in its entirety at the end of the night.

‘E2-E4′ was a real game changer, it’s legacy far reaching – everything from Basic Channel to LCD Soundsystems (check out ’45:33’) contains in its DNA, Göttsching’s handiwork. It’s one of those albums which has cultivated a kind of gnostic mystique and so often misses out on lists of Greatest Albums. In reality, while there is some complexity in the method, part of its enduring allure is that it sounds so simple. And isn’t that the mark of genius – making something complex sound very simple? Having said that, it is music that does require some patience and concentration from the listener too. Five minutes in and you’re either hooked or have given up. For me – and many others – I was sold instantly – checkmate in two moves. (JJ)

71. RANDY NEWMAN – RANDY NEWMAN (1968)

RANDY NEWMAN – RANDY NEWMAN (1968) 
My introduction to Randy Newman came even earlier than I realised. It was 1974, I was five and I was a few green months into primary school. Before the ruthlessly efficient, stripped-and-stranded TV scheduling of today, unforseen gaps would on occasion appear between programmes, in the grand interlude tradition of the potter’s wheel and the kitten frolicking.
One such hole was plugged by a cartoon accompanying a song which told the commonplace story of a couple travelling through life. I hardly knew anything of such matters at the time but it appeared straightforward enough: meeting; marrying; having children. Only the last line of the song stuck but it haunted me for years: as I recalled, it was a female voice singing: “We’ll play checkers all day/until we pass away,” as the now elderly couple vanish from either side of the board. It may well have been the first time I gave any thought to mortality, so strange and sad did I find it.
Scene fades…it’s now 14 February 1988. Without the remotest prospect of getting a card, it’s just another day for 19-year-old me but, it being a Sunday, Annie Nightingale is on and she’s doing a Valentine’s Day special, in which every song played includes the word ‘love’ in  the title and is one more display of the sheer unpredictability of her show which reached its apogee the night she played Duran Duran and immediately followed  them with Bogshed . I hear what are by now the familiar tones of Randy Newman – droll, drawling, dry – clothed in sumptuous orchestration which gives way to a similarly lush  chorus echoing Spector with precision. Hints of Dixie jazz, hints of minstrel tunes – and then that lifelong  game of draughts again. Love Story by Randy Newman – first part of the mystery solved.
It would take the internet’s reduction of total mysteries to double figures before the puzzle would be complete. The first version I heard, complete with animation, turned out to be by Sonny and Cher – they’d performed it for their own show, even as it was rapidly losing autobiographical status for them.
And Love Story turned out to be the opener of Newman’s debut album. Even in 1968, its subtitle – Randy Newman Creates Something New Under The Sun – must have seemed a shade brazen. Though decades would pass before all the possibilities of Popular Music were finally exhausted, there was already an end-of-history mood prevailing. Psychedelia and its attendant adventures far from rock ‘n’ roll’s roots were already being dismissed by many – and still are to this day – as an aberration. Practically every leading figure released something that year which, while ranking among their best, was again holding fast to Earth rather than exploring further into space, even as the first lunar footfalls approached fast (years later, in his soundtrack for Apollo documentary For All Mankind, Brian Eno would explore the paradox of astronauts listening to country – one of the most Earthbound of all genres – as they ploughed through the vastness).
But like The Band, and to some extent Bob Dylan, Newman was digging back further still. Not quite as far as The Band’s evocations of the Civil War but to the first third of the 20th century,  a superficially genteel land of barbershop quartets, rocking chairs on antebellum porches and straw boaters tipped to every passing parasol-twirling dame, all the stranger for being well within living memory yet utterly bygone. He was steeped in this stuff, with with three composer uncles whose credits stretched from Modern Times, The Grapes Of Wrath and The Best Years Of Our Lives to Cleopatra and Alien. Characteristically, he embraced his heritage but with more than enough guile, bile and style to find favour with the burgeoning Serious Rock audience. As a practitioner of the now thoroughly debased (with a few exceptions, trite, wheedling and spectacularly point-missing in the 21st century) singer-songwriter genre, Dylan comparisons came like death and taxes…but listen to him singing “so hard” on Living Without You and then Boaby’s “so bad” and “so sad” on One Of Us Must Know and it’s valid for a moment at least.
And they’re both controversial voices. Add them to a long list – Ray Davies, Neil Young, Bryan Ferry, Robert Wyatt, Joanna Newsom, Anthony Hegarty; in fact, the oft-told story about Newman’s debut is that Reprise felt compelled to advertise the album with the somewhat backhanded  tag  “Once you get used to it, his voice is really something” but in vain  – low sales followed. True, Newman does usually  sound like he’s never more than a few seconds away from making a wisecrack about your choice of shirt but he sounds genuinely wounded on the aforementioned Living Without You, while the sauntering melodic nonchalance of Bet No One Ever Hurt This Bad belies what seems to be real sorrow – or is it one of the double bluffs which Newman tosses up to keep us on our toes? (see also: Rednecks, which satirises not only the racists but also the smug superiority that wealthy, educated types feel towards them; Mr Sheep, which mocks not the office drone but the arrogant rock star sneering at the office drone, and, most notoriously, Short People, which was proven to be a masterclass in genuine irony by its mass misinterpretation). Maybe they can just be taken at face value after all – I’m not aware of  him having done his own version of I Don’t Want To Hear It Anymore but Dusty Springfield’s interpretation reaches Great Pumpkin levels of sincerity. When Newman sings, though, he just keeps you guessing; the son in So Long Dad seems as devoted as he needs to be but is still impatient and in a hurry (“Just drop by when it’s convenient to/Be sure and call before you do”) yet its mirror image, Old Man (on 1972’s Sail Away) ends with as devastating a line as you’ll find anywhere – “Don’t cry old man, don’t cry/Everybody dies.”
Another likely consequence of the divisiveness of Newman’s voice is that
many of his songs have become  better known through versions by others but few of these have improved on his. One of the best known covers is Three Dog Night’s version of Mama Told Me Not To Come, from 1970’s 12 Songs. Newman is said to have observed that they gave it a chorus he never did but I’ve always found their attempt pretty awful – I’m usually a sucker for electric piano but theirs is a smarmy burble and that chorus is in the type of hammy, overwrought voices which were all too prevalent at the time. They also had a stab at Cowboy, which is on Newman’s first album – it’s more tolerable but again, he triumphs easily – the verses are sotto voce but the arrival of the orchestra for the chorus is truly startling,  batwing doors not so much flung open as  breached with a battering ram.
With Newman’s own arrangement and the deft production of stalwarts Lenny Waronker and Van Dyke Parks, it’s the sort of thing John Ford might have commissioned (commanded?) for one last bold sweep of Monument Valley before the credits roll. The lyrics, though, reflect more a Sam Peckinpah vision of a landscape changing too rapidly for its inhabitants to keep up with (“Cold grey buildings where a hill should be/Steel and concrete closing in on me.”) It was a reality for many as alleged progress rode roughshod over communities – Family offered a British perspective on the same theme later the same year with Hometown.
I Think He’s Hiding is one of Newman’s numerous meditations on the nature, attitude and, ultimately, existence of God. Here, he offers the view of those who believe in both a merciful (“There’ll be no more teardrops/There’ll be no more sorrow”) and a vengeful (“When the Big Boy brings his fiery furnace/Will He like what He sees/Or will He strike the fire and burn us?”) deity before hedging his own bets to a hushed and subdued accompaniment. Even more minimal is I Think It’s Going To Rain Today, which has become possibly Newman’s most covered song – maybe because it’s so spare that there’s a widely felt need to embellish it. There’d be a decent album to be had from compiling the best versions but Newman’s would have to be among them – you strain to hear him whisper (even Leonard Cohen took 20 years to reach this depth of register) and when you catch what he says, it still seems densely enigmatic (“Scarecrows dressed in the latest styles/ With frozen smiles to chase love away). In its strange invocation of solitude in a sparse landscape, like many songs here it’s unequivocally American but deals in universal themes, in style as finely etched as a Whistler and in content as acutely observed as an Edward Hopper – and the whole album packed with these brilliantly crafted miniatures is over in under 28 minutes.
Newman seems so unassuming on the cover; in houndstooth jacket and yellow turtleneck, and minus the curls and glasses which would later be his visual trademark, he could almost be mistaken for Neil Sedaka. There’s no more sign of him as the unofficial biographer of human foibles than there is in some of his more recent, far better known activities. To many, he is just Toy Story Guy, and that’s fine – there aren’t many films that offer more sheer joy (though for what it’s worth, I actually prefer Toy Story 2) but there’s a further frisson to be gained from the knowledge that he could also write (from Laughing Boy): “Find a clown and grind him down/He may just be laughing at you/An unprincipled and uncommitted clown/Can hardly be permitted to/Sit around and laugh at what/The decent people try to do.” (PG)

70. ANNETTE PEACOCK – I’M THE ONE (1972)


Cover versions are more often than not a waste of time, but not always. The best recorded versions of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and
‘Love Me Tender’ are not by Elvis Presley, but by John Cale and Annette Peacock respectively. Cale recognised the potential for a sonic overhaul of Mae Boren Axton & Tommy Durden’s classic, in order to provide a more suitably unsettling backdrop to the familiar tragic narrative. Similarly, with ‘Love Me Tender’, Peacock was able to excavate the cracks and crevices of that yawning cave to extract from it every ounce of emotional nectar, every last drop of raw-nerved soul. Hers is one of the most striking cover versions ever recorded and one of the highlights on I’m The One, her first official solo album released in 1972.

In addition to being a great interpreter of others’ songs, Annette Peacock is also a true innovator. I first heard ‘I’m The One’ around 25 years ago. I had given one of my TNPC colleagues a loan of Tim Buckley’s Starsailor LP, and in return he had alerted me to Annette’s solo debut. Comparisons have sometimes been made between the two. However, unlike Buckley, who reputedly eschewed any electronic augmentation of his voice on Starsailor, Peacock was unafraid to embrace new technologies – she had already written, performed and recorded experimental music with the late free jazz pianist Paul Bley in the late 1960s (including a showcase performance at the Lincoln Centre, NYC) and was keen to explore the possibilities of processing her voice through a Moog synthesiser. The story of her acquisition of this equipment and it’s incorporation into the recording of ‘I’m The One’ has been documented elsewhere, including in a brilliantly insightful interview with Annette in The Quietus – see below:

(http://thequietus.com/articles/15423-annette-peacock-interview)

The results were sensational. What I heard then astonished me. Even though the album was almost 20 years old, I felt immediately transported 50 years into the future, as if I was suddenly creeping through a smoky jazz bar in a sparsely populated embryonic human settlement on a Martian plain. A slinky, incredibly hip android fixed me with her gaze. From behind a stack of strange electronic equipment, she sang her visionary take on the blues.

Today, in a world of vapid auto tune and essentially formulaic stylised X-Factor singing, which follows a peculiar trajectory from Stevie Wonder through Mariah Carey and Alicia Keys, and which often values technical virtuosity above authentic soulfulness, how refreshing it is to hear something both at once so earthy, rooted firmly in jazz and blues, yet at the same time wildly unconventional and truly original. Peacock’s musical ethos was simply to sound as contemporary as possible, not to be wilfully obscurant or self-consciously avant-garde, but as a consequence of her enthusiasm to explore and innovate it is only now that I’m The One is getting some long overdue recognition. The world it seems is still catching up.

From the Sun Ra-esque introduction featuring a startling vocal ascent through the scales, Peacock rips through the material, a vivacious blend of avant-garde jazz, funk, blues and soul (‘One Way’ has the lot: space age jazz, swinging cabaret, squawking horns, Annette’s wild shrieking and not least, Tom Cosgrove’s formidable coiled guitar)

On ‘Pony’ the voice processing is integrated so smoothly that it sounds akin to some of Miles’ horn squeezing from On The Corner. Here the electronics bubble and fizz, as if Alan Ravenstine from Pere Ubu has been let loose to roam the stoned corridors of a Curtis Mayfield blaxploitation groove. It’s one of the coolest, funkiest things you’ll ever hear. ‘Blood’s improvisational synth rumblings are darker, befitting Annette’s anguished delivery, but give way to Bley’s more bluesy (almost Touissaint-y) piano at the finale.

But it is the title track itself which best encapsulates Peacock’s vision. I’m trying hard to imagine what this must have sounded like in 1971 when it was recorded. This would have been around the same time as What’s Going On,  Hunky Dory’ etc. Indeed David Bowie was so taken with it, that, a year or so afterwards, he attempted to entice Peacock to contribute to his work in progress, Aladdin Sane. She refused. What sounds initially like a cerebral intergalactic conference becomes a red-blooded alien seduction – a lusty and libidinous Venus flytrap [I’m the one,/I’m the one/You don’t have to look any further/I’m the one/…I’m here, right here, for you/Can’t you see it in my eyes/Can’t you hear it in my voice/Can’t you feel it in my skin/When you’re buried deep within me/I’m the one for you]

Laurie Anderson, Eno and Bjork are amongst many who succumbed to the spell. Peacock would go on to deliver a follow up of equally intense and frank eroticism (XDreams). That one featured an all-star cast including Mick Ronson, Chris Spedding and Bill Bruford. But little of what was happening in 1971 compares to the power and glory on display here. This my friend, is the one. (JJ)