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:
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 (X–Dreams). 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)