84. PUBLIC IMAGE – PUBLIC IMAGE (single, 1978) Guest Contributor: Tim Sommer (Hugo Largo / NY Observer)

  

 
“Public Image” by Public Image Limited (1978)
Punk was not a revolution. It was a market correction.

At a different point in my life, I would have regarded that statement as heretical. There are barely words to describe the impact punk had on my teen suburban self. The emergence of punk rock was exactly the right thing at precisely the right time. See, in high school, you are expected to be your most social at precisely the time when it is most horrifying, intimidating, and humiliating to do so. In that devastating, insecure time, I knew that social comfort and musical inspiration was not to be found in the margarine yellow-colored school hallways, amidst the ugly sibilance of slamming lockers, Kansas, and the Grateful Dead; but bands like the Kinks and the Dave Clark 5, not to mention the primitive snarls and chants I heard on the local oldies station favored by the greasers who congregated under wide white skies in the school parking lot, spoke to me. These thumps of rhythm and groans of guitar chords told me there was a visceral, minimalist quality in music that best reached my spine, my soul, my belief that there was more to life than the middling expectations of my education and upbringing. I am sure you recall this, too – we were not black sheep, we were not underachievers, we just saw past the horizon and beyond the edges of the middle of the road.

 So 1976/1977 dawned. It waved a Union Jack and was dressed in narrow trousers, and it seemed to be precisely what I had been searching for. I had absolutely no need nor desire to examine what was superficial or false about the New God, because it rescued me. Those of us saved by ‘77 weren’t fashionable, we were thirsty, and these short, sharp bursts and whirrs were exactly the oasis we had been looking for.

 But I came to realize that punk, regardless of all the extraordinary joy it offered and the inspiration it provided to move my life away from the low expectation of the suburbs and seek The City, despite the lesson it taught me that the greatest deeds could be achieved by those who stood out and not those who conformed, despite the fact that we were presented with some of the most lasting music ever made, despite all those things, the punk movement was, in essence, an energetic and passionate re-assembly of existing pieces, serving the same masters.

 On a purely musical level, virtually all of punk could be traced, almost without hiccupping, to Wilko Johnson or Mick Ronson or Johnny Thunders or Pete Townshend, Dave Davies or Bo Diddley or the Velvet Underground; other times, it was a growled-up return to the brilliantly mongoloid pop values of the more Hodor-like beat bands (which is to say there is a very, very short hop from Herman’s Hermits to the Ramones, and if “I Want You” by the Troggs isn’t a perfect ’77-style punk rock song, I’m not sure what is). And most everyone wanted to be a star, and most everyone was seeking to nurse at the same corporate teat that had suckled all the horrific music punk was supposed to supplant. Not only was the wheel not being reinvented, we were begging the same corpulent salesmen to help us sell it.

 Which is to say, we did not storm the Bastille. We just re-painted it.

 Because the music was so goddamn good and life affirming, only in retrospect did I recognize that the ‘pose’ of punk was deeply misleading. Many listeners, myself very much included, didn’t understand that there was a great gap between slogans and actual activism; despite my deep (and lasting) affection for both the Clash and the Sex Pistols, “White Riot” didn’t incite anything but a pile of haircuts and words on the back of a jacket, and “Give the wrong time/stop a traffic lane” (from “Anarchy in the UK”) literally didn’t do a thing to relieve the oppression of the disenfranchised classes in any country on earth. Listen, despite the stares and sneers it may have gotten you in your school cafeteria, dying your hair pink never fed the hungry or protected a woman from abuse on her way to the abortion clinic.

 But that was not the end of the story. The moment punk rock starts to really live up to its promise and differentiates itself from the renascence of rock and roll’s brilliant old bump, thump, rumble and grind, the moment it stops aping Paul Revere & the Raiders and starts burning the Reichstag, is on October 13, 1978.

 On that day, “Public Image,” the debut 45 by PiL, was released.

 “Public Image” still creates the same utter thrill that it did when it first shocked and elated me 38 years ago. Both reduced and explosive (it mixed maximum minimalism and maximum impact in a way that only, perhaps, “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Autobahn” ever did), it took the reggae bass of doom and replaced the syncopation with a sturdy metronome, ensnaring you with the snaking snail chord change that knows no equal: E/B, endless, except for that little turnaround between verses. I have often thought this was the chord change that wrapped around the heart of the pharaohs and Siddhartha and maybe accompanied the hymns sung after His body had been lifted, broke, bruised and wasted with a fake death, off of his perch at Golgotha. Driven by the Wobble charge (Johnny and Dee Dee and Aston Barrett and Hütter/Schneider all wrapped up in one instrument and one part), “Public Image” storms forward in a manner that was familiar to punk’s acolytes; but there was a cool blast of air in the unrelenting simplicity, and a sizzling, almost sinister flare of art in the barbed spikes of Keith Levene’s guitar, which tossed punk’s Ronson-isms out the window and replaced it with a brilliantly dumbed-down version of Michael Karoli’s transistor-radio spitfire turn-signal distortion guitar.

 With “Public Image,” PiL announced that the children of ’76 were going to make progressive music of great art and adventure. Today, we take it for granted that elements of art and rock intermingle; with the death of radio as an active interface and promotional tool for rock’n’roll, it has become especially common for even the most high-profile bands to integrate the strangest influences in their sound (exhibit one, two, and three: Radiohead; exhibits four through ten, the entire ranged of far-leftisms introduced by Sonic Youth, and all the unshaven and wide-eyed they sired; and that’s before we even mention Stereolab, Arcade Fire, and all the children of Krautrock). But we forget how shocking that was in the mid/late 1970s, when even the most ‘rebellious’ rock bands were still playing off of a model that had been created in the 1950s and early 1960s (recall the Eddie Cochran slurs that begin both “Neat Neat Neat” and “God Save the Queen,” or the Feelgoods/Who/Kinks/Mott the Hoople mash-ups that comprised the backbone of the style of the Clash and the Jam).

 Back in 1978, the initial, unforgettable bass throb of “Public Image” sounded downright bizarre, but in the most immediate possible way; if Lydon’s adamant lyrical statement that the era of the punk lie was now over (i.e., the new boss was not actually more artistically, morally, or politically superior than the old boss), the bass that kicked off the song immediately alerted us to the beautiful artistic left-turn PiL would represent. Other punk-era bands had opened songs with a bass riff – in fact, it was a standard part of the musical arsenal of first-wave punk, as noted in “Neat Neat Neat,” “Motorhead,” the Strangler’s “Peaches” and Eater’s “Outisde View,” amongst many others – but the four-bar tattoo at the front of “Public Image” was something entirely new. Played with the treble dialed off in replication of reggae’s window-rattling pulse, it was virtually Kraftwerkian in its lack of any filigree; it was like a man-machine dub quadruple-timed (though there is a distinct and odd ‘push’ leading into the second and fourth bars of the riff that no other PiL bassist has been able to accurately reproduce). And then, to ears tuned to punk, Lydon’s “new” voice, his urgent, strident, startling muezzin bleat, also underlined that we were in a new land. Unless you were already familiar with world music or the remarkably similar keen of Amon Duul II’s Renate Knaup, it sounded vastly different from any ‘rock’ singer we had ever heard. True, Suicide, the Eels, Throbbing Gristle and other revolutionaries had sought to marry punk-ish simplicity with an aggressively artistic approach, but John Lydon and PiL were doing this in the extraordinarily harsh light of the mainstream, every torch of every journalist and expectant fan turned their way (imagine if the Beatles had released “Tomorrow Never Knows” immediately after “I Want to Hold Your Hand”).

 Framing this entire highly visible artrock engagement was the manifesto John Lydon delivered on “Public Image.” Lydon’s text, desperately rising from his throat like a prayer fueled by bile, grabbed punk’s narcissistic, photo-friendly head by the hair and forced it to look long and hard into a cold, merciless mirror. Reflecting back was the hypocrisy of the movement, which had the same aspirations for high times and kneeling girls as the worst sort of flared indulgences it claimed to unseat. Lyrically, “Public Image” is goddamn close to perfect, right from the opening hello, repeated five times, which could be a mic check but is far more likely a pronouncement of “This is me! This is the Real Me, You thought you knew me? You thought you understood what this was all about? This is me!” After the initial couplet, the mission is further articulated: “You never listened to a word that I said/You only seen me from the clothes that I wear/Or did the interest go so much deeper/It must have been to the color of my hair.” At this moment, Johnny Rotten, a public invention in the tradition of Billy Fury or Marty Wilde or John Cougar, dies, replaced by a man who recognizes the power of music to make a fiercely personal and accusatory statement that the new boss was the old boss, and the old boss was him, and he’s had enough.  

“Public Image” was an adamant announcement that the same star-making/star begging machinery that had always powered the mammon and mammary-driven superficial spirits of rock’n’roll had been behind punk, too. Now, there’s nothing wrong with the preposterous, monstrous and magical beast called good ol’ rock’n’roll, but there was something distinctly fetid about punk’s adamant claim that it stood for something else. “Public Image” points out just how full of corny dreams, old condoms, and the bells of Old Bowie the supposedly new magicians were. Others – most notably the amazing Mark Perry with Alternative Television, and the Saints’ Chris Bailey on Eternally Yours — had toyed with these concepts, but Lydon was going to build a whole band around the idea that we had been cheated, he had been one of those doing the cheating, and it was time to tell a new story.

 Finally, the release of “Public Image” marks, as firmly as any date on the calendar, when punk becomes post-punk. If you imagine punk as a wall of sound made up of tightly cemented bricks of guitars designed to stop the passenger/listener dead in their tracks and pay attention, post punk was an attempt to blow a few holes in that compactly constructed wall and let in some light, without losing any of the impact. On First Issue, released very shortly after “Public Image,” PiL explored this idea even further, taking cues from Can/reggae/dub and all manners of krautrock and art rock, constructing entire songs that emphasized what was not there. PiL took this fully to fruition on their masterpiece, Metal Box/Second Edition, which conjured deeply compelling magic out of a band that was, for all intents and purposes, reduced to Wobble’s patient, pensive, steady throb, the most minimal kick, snare, and hi hat, the opium-empty absentee guitar of Keith Levene, and Lydon’s emotive pleas crossing the landscape like camels crossing the desert on a moon-lit night.

 By the time of Metal Box’s release 16 months later, the impact of “Public Image” and First Issue had already re-set the musical landscape. A whole new generation of bands had discovered that punk’s minimalism had a logical next step: the removal of instruments, the entry of space, the impact of naked rhythm. It’s impossible to hear the bass and drum driven desperation of Joy Division without believing they were as hugely impacted by “Public Image” as I was. Perhaps most remarkably, U2’s “I Will Follow” is an inventive if fairly transparent re-write of “Public Image,” with both a bass line and a guitar part clearly inspired by the PiL song.

 On so very many levels, “Public Image” remains one of the greatest 45s ever released. Many bands have released singles that were both utterly essential listening and also scene-changers in the history of music; but I am hard pressed to think of anyone who did all that while also making an enormous statement, in just three minutes, about the beautiful and sexy false god of rock’n’roll. (Tim Sommer)

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

83. SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES – THE SCREAM (1978) – Guest Contributor: Johny Brown (Band of Holy Joy)/(A) KALEIDOSCOPE (1980)

 THE SCREAM / A FEW RANDOM FRACTURED THOUGHTS

The bass is prescient, thunder before lightning.                                                  

‘So all the things they said about Communism, that we would lose our homes, our savings, be forced to labour eternally for meagre wages with no voice in the system, has come true under capitalism’.

Overground for normality, overboard for identity.                                   

People do moan! You just take a walk up City Road and take a look at the new builds that tower over the advertising boards to reassure yourself, everything is just as it should be, things are normal here, safe, mate.

The voice on this album is mercury slither and razor.                                     

It’s a nice day. The weather is not too bad and the property market remains vibrant. You’re engaged with your handheld. There’s a strong signal in the area. You always find a strong signal reassuring. It’s all good!

My limbs are like palm trees swaying in the breeze.                                        

There was a terrorist scare earlier on but you’re getting used to them now. It’s like that porn habit you had a while back, it was all out of control but then you got desensitised and once that happened you got bored and it stopped.

The guitar is the sheeted window of a glass box new build crashing to the ground.                                    

Nah, all good mate, proper, normal, you didn’t get the raise you wanted at work and they’ve got you working longer hours but it’s worth it. You got ten sympathetic likes on Facebook. You can never be too popular, can you?

Watch the muscle twitch, for a brand new switch.

You do think though, sometimes, when you pause the digital information overload, that maybe you might be a touch scared inside, that you put a front on everything, keep a lid on things, and that you could crack any moment.

The drums on this album are a hammered clockwork jerk.          

 You’ve been picking up on interior voices lately, fractured thought processes, bad feelings, meaningless impulses, needled reactions, weird obsessions, sudden relapses, wallowing, seething, snapping under your normal self.

 Metal is tough, metal will sheen.      

https://open.spotify.com/track/6cVnCavV3ucFY86rox4v69

You find yourself craving, having ecstatic bouts followed by deep sloughs and the prescription meds don’t help and this Brexit thing just confuses you I mean who should you vote for, they all seem so, ah you’d like to take a hammer…

It’s a psychologically disturbed / disturbing record.                                 

And your boss is back and he’s not smiling like he is waiting for the market to crash the bubble to burst the dam to break the virus to spread the earth to swallow you up, but you, you’re not cracking up, no, it’s all good mate.

Television flickers with another news bulletin.                                          

Smoking again. It’s just a habit. Hand shakes. Driving you insane. Sucking up the fumes. So congested and you feel so claustrophobic, like the city is closing in. Haven’t smiled in days and now YOU JUST CAN’T HELP BUT SCREAM.

I’m sorry that I hit you but my string snapped.                                                 

This record stands alone. PiL and Joy Division would carry the concerns and aesthetic of THE SCREAM further and Test Dept and Einsturzende Neaubaten would take it to the logical extreme and maybe better it.

The sleeve represents every drowning voice.                                                          

But this, for myself at least, was the first of its kind of the time, and maybe time hasn’t afforded it the space it deserves. I’d like to state the case that this is a great record. It’s a good soundtrack to this moment now.

See the nicotine start to spread. It’s in my head, it’s in my head.                  

 It’s timeless, it’s serving just as well for me now as it did when I was a confused and alienated 17 year old, disappointed with punk but still wanting some kind of noise to articulate the feeling of otherness I held close.

The image is no images it’s not what it seems….                                             

There is secret knowledge contained within this record. Souixsie and Severin knew. John and Kenny enabled. The record is unspoiled by overt musicianship but is enhanced by a sense of utility dedication and passion for the cause.

All the signals send me reeling.

https://open.spotify.com/track/3xWTQQm2u9KvPL31DT27eM

It’s a minimal, bleak tour de force; no quarter is given and there is no pandering to the bands that were around them at the time. It is haughty yes, but it has purpose and without being overtly political it is a most political recording.

Well you may be a lover but you ain’t no fucking dancer.                                 

And then it all opens up on the last song with a sax driven hallucinatory pagan chant played out on city rooftops under polluting skies. Just as we think the streets and the times are closing in on us they are blasted open again.

It’s not what it seems.                          

The Scream has its desired effect, it breaks a spell, a new age emerges. Playing it the past few days, I know it still works and with everyone mugged / content / sedated / scared inside, I know that this is a now record. It has soul.

When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the ride.                              

 ‘So all the things they said about Communism, that we would lose our homes, our savings, be forced to labour eternally for meagre wages with no voice in the system, has come true under capitalism’.

So look out…

(Johny Brown)

(A) KALEIDOSCOPE  – SIOUXSIE AND THE BANSHEES (1980)

The schism of Siouxsie and the Banshees came as a particular shock. It was so (seemingly) sudden, so final – and so symmetrical. The abrupt flight of half of the band, guitarist John McKay and drummer Kenny Morris, somewhere between Aberdeen and Glasgow (my brother was among the jilted fans whose Glasgow Apollo ticket suddenly became worthless) in September 1979 seemed a fittingly terse and tense end for a band whose approach had always been one of collision – between old and new, male and female, dystopian and utopian, sheet metal and gossamer.
If it had been the end. McKay and Morris were seldom heard of again but Siouxsie and Steve Severin had a contract, tour obligations – and, above all, unfinished artistic business. Faced with a choice to fold or continue, after a sundering which they had not committed, they set about filling the gaps in a manner which, on paper, could have been a recipe for the very antideluvian rock/roll cliches they had come to vanquish and obliterate – they effectively turned the Banshees into a supergroup.
But there was never any prospect of them becoming the Sioux-Severin Overdrive – they swiftly recruited drummer Budgie,  initially a face on the Liverpool scene based around Eric’s (on the other side of Mathew Street) in the semi-mythical Big In Japan, who at various times had also featured Holly Johnson, Ian Broudie and Jayne Casey, and later heard on the Slits’ astonishing Cut. Serendipitously, John McGeoch became available following his increasing disillusionment with Magazine – a matter he was reluctant to expand upon but which put him in a position to play on Happy House, which nobody would have dreamed of calling a comeback single but which many wouldn’t have dared to hope would appear.
It was immediately obvious it was a departure, with the dialogue between McGeoch’s giddy guitar and Severin’s two-note bass hums mediated by Budgie, who lent it what was undeniably a disco feel. Above, Siouxsie declaims a lyric said to be  a vinegar-soaked ironic portrait of domestic bliss but which could also be interpreted as a return to her recurring theme of mental health. It’s also the most overt outing to date for her Bromley accent (“There’s room for you/If you say you do”) which might have had George Bernard Shaw reaching for the phonetic alphabet but was a continuation of one of punk’s lasting achievements – building on the foundations laid by Syd Barrett and David Bowie, the mid-Atlantic tyranny of earlier years had, if not been overthrown, then at least challenged and questioned; at last, we’re getting to the core of what ‘alternative’ actually means.
That recurring theme is unambiguously explored on second pre-album single Christine. Siouxsie unequivocally spells out the solitude and despair of schizophrenia as an endless hall of distorted and destroyed mirrors (“Every new problem brings a stranger inside/Helplessly forcing one more new disguise”). The first line also gifts the album its title (“She tries not to shatter, kaleidoscope style/ Personality changes behind her red smile”) in a reportedly true story, the subject of which finally developed 22 identified personalities; overall it’s a, particularly for its time, compassionate treatment of a too often trivialised and brazenly misrepresented subject. Musically, Severin’s bass is again the  torchbearer, drilling through a wall decorated by synth spangles and McGeoch’s 12-string, limbering up for the vertiginous feats of athleticism he and it would perform on the following year’s Spellbound.
Severin once claimed Trophy almost made the cut for Kaleidoscope’s predecessor, 1979’s frustratingly half-formed Join Hands, but holding it over gave McGeoch the chance to remould it in his own image, to the extent that I carried the song’s riff in my head for quite some time without being able to (re)identify it and convinced myself it belonged to Magazine. He locks in with Budgie at least as tightly as Severin does and the result goes beyond the obvious resemblance to Berlin Bowie to reach as far as James Brown. It’s as funky as the Banshees got, certainly more so than on their later, somewhat ill-advised tilt at Ben E King’s Supernatural Thing, and is goaded on by Siouxsie’s rumination on the title’s dual meaning of prizes claimed by “headhunters, headshrinkers and long-distance runners” and an apparent conclusion of futility in competition in the face of its transient nature.
Hybrid positions McGeogh as perhaps the only realistic successor to McKay as he pulls from the hat the secret weapon he shared with his predecessor: the sax. Both saw it as an instrument which was not there to sooth but to unsettle;  if vampires had shadows, they would be the one’s McGeoch casts here. His guitar runs tread a path The Edge would take a few years later  (listen to this and then U2’s Bad – now do you see?) and Budgie takes  an elementary yet completely coercing roll around the traps. Siouxsie, meanwhile, returns to cockney noir in a mysterious tale of cloning, packaging and fragmentation.
For all its glories, genuine beauty was a quality hitherto largely lacking in the Banshees’ music. It emerges twice on Kaleidoscope, firstly on Lunar Camel, where a suitably Levantine melody on lo-fi synth keeps pace with an alluring rhythm box (not drum machine) which could, if this song’s intro were stood next to that of Visage’s Fade To Grey in an identity parade, lead to a case of mistaken identity. It also shields an outrageous pun in what may or may not be a reflection on the space race (“I don’t have to prove I’ll last longer than you/One hump or two, any handicap will do against you”). And then – an unfeasibly lovely chorus, yet one so simple that even I, a non-musician of an order Eno could only dream of, was able to figure it out on piano. You don’t even notice Sinatra being huckled through as Siouxsie entreats: “Oh fly me to the moon/Get me there soon.” The only word for the backing voices is, I’m afraid, sighing. It’s just what they do and they do it formidably.
Even more pulchritude comes from Desert Kisses, which captures that moment when a spell of sweltering heat is about to give way to a fearsome storm, as the impending torrent hangs in the air like a predator, jaws agape, at once airy and claustrophobic. If  the title promises Valentino, the song delivers Mitchum; the flanged bass, which would come to be a blight on the then infant ’80s, drives both the song’s sensual exterior and its sinister core; the backing vocals, appropriately credited to The Sirens, are near-celestial; so, in fact, is Siouxsie, until you hear she’s singing: “Tidal fingers cling to rocks/A deadly grip, a deadly lock” and repeats “sinking down” – a desert of quicksand. Then finally, “the world is flat/There’s no one here to question that” – half a millennium undone in four minutes flat. It came out in one of the wettest summers in living memory and still carries its humidity.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rtu7IMJlevs
The other guest is a kindred spirit from the old Bromley days – Steve Jones, whose guitar tyranny was second only to Lydon/Rotten’s tomcat timbre in defining the Pistols’ sound, had that not been a notion all concerned would have scoffed at at the time. Jones’ performance on Kaleidoscope is as much a liberation from the Pistols’ vaudeville straitjacket (they imploded at exactly the right time – there was absolutely nowhere left for them to go) as Public Image Ltd had been for Lydon – the serpentine squall he uncoils is only a couple of postcodes away from Anarchy In The UK but the space he acquires here, compared with the claustrophobia of that song and its establishment-flaying siblings, is like a stepping out of a cell into an endless corridor – still nobody’s idea of luxurious but with the capacity to stride and sprint, accompanying Siouxsie’s exploration of unnecessary plastic surgery – something of a cliche now but confined at the time in the public imagination to the artifice state of California (“Hide your genetics under drastic cosmetics/But this chameleon magic is renowned to be tragic”).
Jones is also on brief but bracing semi-instrumental Clockface and the closing Skin, a melodica-frilled, staccato snare-studded diatribe against the fur trade – vanity is again Siouxsie’s target (“Shame about the smell but/They’re fine soaked in perfume”). It also makes Kaleidoscope the third of four consecutive Banshees albums to end with the sound of a lone guitar.
The Banshees followed Kaleidoscope with Israel, a colossal stand-alone single which fell short of the top 40, possibly because it was so intensely charged, emotionally, politically and ethnically, and with Juju, which is often seen as one of the founding texts of goth but which, despite the matt-black textures of songs like Night Shift and Voodoo Dolly, still admitted shafts of upful pop light – just fewer than on its predecessor. Equally often, Kaleidoscope is considered a transitional album but it was Juju which utimately proved to be a sidestep and Kaleidoscope which, by opening a paintbox and freeing the Banshees from the constraints of a fixed line-up, set the tone for the remainder of their time on Earth.
As Jonny Brown has so eloquently and ardently described here on TNPC, The Scream remains their high watermark but it was nowhere near their only triumph. On the index of the inexplicably overlooked, Kaleidoscope rates pretty highly (PG).

 


82. DAVID BOWIE – BLACKSTAR (2016) – Guest Contributor: Paul Haig

 Throughout the 1970s David Bowie’s outstanding and groundbreaking creative output was legendary, with most lifelong fans proclaiming it as his best period. There were a few hits and misses over the following decades, but any new release was always interesting, if occasionally disappointing, only because of the unbelievably high standards achieved in the past.

On January 8th 2013 we witnessed the start of one of the biggest comebacks in music and entertainment history. After a prolonged period of silence with only a few rare appearances and sightings, David Bowie had announced a new song and video on his sixty sixth birthday, taking the general public and music industry by complete surprise. In a day and age where you can feed the cat whilst at the the same time checking out a leaked mp3 via social media of a minor celebrity hiccuping into a empty jam jar, one of the greatest and most important recording artists in history simply released his first new work in a decade, ‘Where Are We Now?’ When I clicked on the link for the video and heard the opening piano chords I thought for a few seconds that it might be just another ballad, until the lyrics kicked in referencing places and streets in Berlin, recalled from his time living there circa 1976-79. To evoke the atmosphere from his greatest creative period in a new song made it all highly emotional and his reflective expression in the video all combined to make an incredibly fragile and moving piece. The album that followed, ‘The Next day’ was indeed a complete return to form invoking classics from ‘Low’ through to ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’. I was really happy he was back and felt that if there was another album to come and it was anywhere near as good then we could look forward to a long lasting exciting new phase from a resurgent, rejuvenated and seemingly happy (but still dark) Bowie.

For the next album you wouldn’t expect the same surprise impact that walloped us in 2013, so there were a few early snippets of information including Bowie’s co-producer Tony Visconti announcing: “It would be different and original, unlike The Next Day which gave a good nod to past glories”. “This is fresh, this came from a different space”.  So, after watching the video clip for the title track ‘Blackstar’, I decided I did like it but wasn’t completely sure how much. However, over the next few weeks it started to invade my head and the manic repetition of ”I’m a blackstar” backing vocals wouldn’t give me any peace! Then came the ‘Lazarus’ clip which was a bit unsettling with a tired and fragile looking Bowie talking about heaven and bluebirds in an isolated asylum crypt-like setting brimming with symbolism. Again the track took time to convince me but it proved to be just as infectious if not slightly more disturbing.

January 8th 2016 and (★) is released. The next morning I decided to purchase my first piece of David Bowie vinyl in possibly thirty years! There had just been a fantastic Jimmy King promo image posted online which looked like he was full of beans, grinning manically and resplendent in a neat suit by New York designer Thom Browne. I remember talking to the guy in the record shop and we both agreed that it would be OK to be doing as well as Bowie when you’re sixty nine years old. I took the record home and propped it up by the turntable, I’d already listened to it digitally but was looking forward to the vinyl in a few days. Then Monday morning came and with it one of the worst pieces of news I’d ever heard: somehow he’d passed and wasn’t going to be around any more…

 http://youtu.be/OZscv36UUHo

(★) is a record I’ll only ever play when there’s time to really listen to it all in one go. I think it’s going to be one of my all time favourite albums, yet it’s mixed with so many questions and conflicting emotions which make it not a wholly joyous experience. It will have a time and place and you just have to be in that moment. I was going to write about all the tracks but I see it more as an overall statement. Was it a parting gift or a body of work from a creative genius trying to move onto the next batch before it was too late? (Visconti has said there are later demos). We might never know.. I’d like to look on it as yet another masterpiece, albeit the last.

I read a moving obituary by Tim Sommer on the Observer website that was recommended to me, it contained a sentence that reminded me of discovering Bowie for myself all those years ago : ‘As many, including myself, will tell you, if you needed to find him, he found you, and if you needed his music, you found it’.   (Paul Haig)

 

 

81. FRANK SINATRA – WATERTOWN (1970) – Guest Contributor: Sean O’Hagan (High Llamas)


Frank’s a great puzzling character. He always had a surprise up his sleeve. Iconic and as tall (short man I know) as the 20th century, bags of curiosity and a habit of sidestepping the caricature when the need would arise. And so it happened in 1969; it was thought that Frank’s sales were slouching and he needed to take a fresh look at his work. It’s possible he absolutely did look around at the world of 1968/69 and think that the finger snapping post-Brat Pack Frank was out of step, or he might have stumbled over an amazing record written and produced by Bob Gaudio for his group, The Four Seasons. It was called ‘The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette’, and it was a record that told a story. Whatever he thought about his career, he wanted to follow this example and hired Bob and lyricist Jack Holmes to write a record which told a story, a concept record.

The story is that of chap who loses his marriage, his wife, for the city, leaving her husband and 2 sons.Watertown is small town America, commuter land and it’s good enough for the narrator but there is not enough there to hold his disillusioned wife. She may have had an affair, we’re not sure until later. But the narrator’s disbelief that this breakdown could happen and his attempt to come to terms with it, is the constant theme throughout. The format is a clever device, as most of the conversations and developments happen in letter writing.

This is heart rending, maybe not the most groundbreaking, but serves the mini epic so well. However, what is so significant is the idea that New York’s galavanting hero, Sinatra, would make a record about small town America. It just was not done back then. Now it’s everywhere. Small town America in 2016 must not be ignored, another cliche. Back then it had critics scratching their heads. Watertown was dismissed as Sinatra’s least selling record, his failure (??) Get back to it Frank!!!

So, the marriage break up happens over breakfast in an undramatic fashion. Everything happens slowly in Watertown. It rains, the dogs move slowly, the locals shuffle down town, and the healing happens slowly. That overriding weight of inertia is the overriding theme.

And so to the music. The most interesting part for me. This is a Bob Gaudio record for Frank. Frank gave a great performance because he knew that the project was right and groundbreaking. The critics did not know this. Even the idea of a concept record succeeds here where others fail, because the writing is so so strong. The arrangements shine, and the writing is sublime, Jimmy Webb moments, Nelson Riddle moments, sweeping and unexpected tunes but tunes, tunes, tunes.

For me its ‘Michael & Peter’ that illustrates this so well. This is American music at its best, the key changes keep coming, the strings climb, the vibes vibe in just at the right time, and the coda is so wonderful, it rolls and rolls and never resolves. It fades into a yearning desire for more, the lyric over and over ”You’ll never believe how much they ‘re growing’‘. This is all said in a letter between the separated couple. There is still love there and the children are still their children. But there is a slight reference to an affair: “least thats all the news I can say, I’ll find the words some day.” Small talk set to music as big as Bernstein or Sondheim.

The intro to ‘For A While’ is amazing – it could be the modern romanticism that the European composers brought to Hollywood in the 1930s. The song then falls into a lovely stroll. Our narrator is just getting on with things, but he’s not over her. As the record moves on the hope the narrator expresses is lamentable. He just does not get the fact that its over. He cannot move on.

‘Whats Now Is Now’ is pure Jimmy Webb. It moves along on an insistent bass, harps and flutes ever present, the harmonica sneaks in. The narrator begs that she should have spoken about the affair. ‘‘We could have got over it” he begs, ”let’s go back to what we had, I can forget”. The sadness is laid in beauty.

‘She Says’ is stark and voiced on a classical guitar. She indicates that she will return… but she does not, as ‘The Train’ leaves us in a quandary. ‘Lady Day’ is a reissue addition. Recorded for original release it was cut, but Frank revisited the song.

Rewinding to the top, the opener ‘Watertown’ kicks off with a slightly menacing bass but quickly opens into gleaming shuffle which is a bit of a Bob Gaudio signature on the record.

It’s a classy sounding record so it is surprising to learn that the orchestral backing tracks were recorded in a matter of days in August 1969. Frank added vocals in October later that year. The idea of achieving arranged perfection in such short a time is quite something.

Frank Sinatra reminds me of Miles Davis in so far as we know these artists as icons in their respective genres , but both risked their critical sanctity by reaching out to contemporary forces in pop in the hope of refreshing their art. After Watertown Frank made ‘Sinatra & Company’ with Jobim, who at the time would have been another odd choice of collaborator. Sinatra was a music fan, but those around him who even then were more interested in his iconic status and legacy than his ambitions, petitioned for him to either retire a King, or snap back to the Sinatra that the public wanted.

A recent BBC TV special on Sinatra dismissed Watertown as his great failure, the rock bottom that, now reached, could only mean a return to better days. It’s a stunning record which is at last being attributed the credit it always deserved, but it’s a slow mend, just like the record, just like the story, just like Watertown.
(Sean O’Hagan)

80. JAMMY SMEARS – IVOR CUTLER (1976)

JAMMY SMEARS – IVOR CUTLER (1976)
The big bang, the sound of medieval voices, the fate of the dinosaurs – unfathomable mysteries all. No one came any closer to unravelling the late Ivor Cutler’s brilliant mind – I once had a shot myself but more of that later.
Whatever label might have been pinned to him  – singer, writer, humourist – none was appropriate. He was all of these things, none of them, more than any of them. It would, for instance, do him a screaming, simplistic disservice to peg him solely as a comedian – the old saw around comedy records is that they don’t bear repeated listens but this, of course, depends entirely on the strength of the material; it was the laugh-out-loud (NO acronyms here) stuff which reeled me into Ivor Cutler’s world on the eve of my teens and it retains its potency every time.
But the layers and nuances later became more and more apparent. There was bewilderment, dread, folly, sordidity, resentment and rage – loads of rage. The father and son trapped in a pulverisingly repetitive diet in Gruts For Tea are in as mutually ruinous a relationship as Albert and Harold Steptoe; the unfortunate bearer of The Curse of smelling like the kitchen sink is shunned even by the Friendless Society, and the stern environment of Life In A Scotch Sitting Room is claustrophobic and, on occasion, simply terrifying.
The names of Beckett and Kafka are frequently evoked when this aspect of Mr Cutler (as he preferred to be called) is explored, with some justification, but he actually sits at a midpoint between them and PG Wodehouse; they rarely admitted any but the briefest shafts of light but Wodehouse was incapable of being sombre; one of his finest creations was Roderick Spode, a thinly-veiled Oswald Moseley spoof in whom fascism was summarily and thoroughly satirised by the simple expedient of being made utterly ridiculous.
His genuinely unique vision went a long way towards his equally unique status of being embraced by the more leftfield tendency of the pop world while, as a proud and long-standing member of the Noise Abatement Society, having little in common with it. His late ’50s/early 60s broadcasts on the BBC Home Service – the forerunner of Radio 4 – made youthful Beatle ears prick up in much the same way as the Goons, leading to his biggest exposure in Magical Mystery Tour, appearing as Buster Bloodvessel in the film in which the world’s most beloved pop stars bemused their audience like never before. The circle was completed the same year when his Ludo album was produced by George Martin, whose Goons work had attracted the Beatles to sharing a studio with him.
In the ’70s, Ivor stood incongruously yet fittingly alongside Gong, Henry Cow and Hatfield and the North, in the ’80s with the Smiths, the Fall and the Woodentops at Rough Trade – and Robert Wyatt at both, appearing on Wyatt’s masterpiece Rock Bottom and having (Go And Sit Upon The) Grass covered by him. All of which prompted John Walters to ask in 1983: “Are you surprised to find yourself – once again – groovy?” The characteristically deadpan reply: “I suppose I must always have been groovy,” the inverted commas so pronounced they needed no spelling out, certainly not with synchronised middle and index fingers.
The genius – I don’t use the word lightly – of Ivor Cutler was to locate acute humour even in the most desperate situations – the existential despair of a saucer realising it’s a saucer, the  vengeance of a waiter whose feet have been sacrified for a diner’s platter. Not for nothing did a manic cackle become one of the Cutler trademarks.
That  cackle isn’t to be heard on Jammy Smears but pretty much every other signifier of the Cutler genius is there. Lest I’ve made it all sound too bleak, there’s plenty that may not be out-and-out wacky but is out-and-out funny and also has a great deal of warmth. When introducing people to Ivor Cutler – a selfless act of real generosity – I recommend you start with Big Jim. A desperate plea from a drowning man goes unheeded because his beguiling voice is too much of a distraction. Then move on to Lemon Flower, a devastating account of lemon juice’s destructive acidic powers which was my party piece for more years than was sensible. Choose either of the episodes from Life In A Scotch Sitting Room, an irritation-free soap opera where a walk in the country fails to deliver the slightest enlightenment on nature and the brain-nurturing power of a diet of herring is tested by a highly singular curriculum.
Ivor had himself previously been a teacher but chafed against a system which required – and would continue to do so until the early 1980s – the brutal administration of corporal punishment; even teaching at Summerhill, the ‘free’ school renowned for giving adults and children equal status, constrained him. What educational system could accommodate a febrile imagination capable of producing both the terse, stern fable of The Turn and the splendidly silly A Wooden Tree?

Beyond his familiar, if unlikely, place as a Peel and Kershaw fixture, I loved seeing Ivor Cutler appear in unexpected places – reciting Gruts For Tea on The Innes Book Of Records on early evening BBC Two (itself an improbable slot for former Bonzo Neil Innes), on flyers for ‘Teatime Special’ readings which I saw being delivered door to door by someone scarcely any older than my 12 years (he dropped one and I grabbed it for myself), in an anthology of nonsense, where How To Make A Friend and The False God nuzzled alongside entries by Spike Milligan and Edward Lear – and in Who’s Who, where he rubbed shoulders with nobility, captains of industry, High Court judges and senior politicians. A contact address was listed – and, in January 1983 , I boldly took the chance to send him a card for his 60th birthday.
A reply came, written on a shopping list and generously accompanied by a pack of stickers which, if swapped with Eno’s Oblique Strategies, could produce intriguing results, festooned as they were with sustaining messages such as “oh you lovely postman!” and “funny smell.” Another sticker on the envelope proclaimed optimistically: “Esperanto is catching on.” It still hasn’t quite stuck but could we give it a shot and see if it works? A postcard had him perched on his basket-bearing pushbike and a speech bubble in that childlike scrawl so familiar from his record sleeves informed me he was off to join Hell’s Angels, whose chains would wilt when faced with the might of the Glasgow Dreamer. All a warm and generous gesture he was under no obligation to make, even overlooking my adolescent impudence in addressing him by his first name and signing off with the description I had offered of him – “a sort of hero.” Not wishing to be a burden to a brilliant mind , I didn’t send another card – to my lasting regret.
In my card, I had lamented that, along with one of my TNPC colleagues, I was a solitary Cutlerite but was assured  I wasn’t alone – we could meet many kindred spirits at a CND rally. Sure enough, I’d come across like-minded souls as the years passed and, following Ivor’s death in 2006, at the age of 83, two motions of tribute were tabled at the Scottish Parliament, garnering between them the signatures of more than 40 MSPs from all parties, some of wouldn’t be seen within a very long range of an anti-nuclear demo.
There have been assorted covers – by Jim O’Rourke, Roddy Frame (who loosely adapted Everybody Got, a disquieting meditation on taboos from the album under discussion) and, most recently, Yorkston/Thorne/Khan. All sincere, affectionate and serviceable homages – but none in that inimitable, bottomlessly lugubrious voice. And uniquely so far among our TNPC choices, it genuinely is all about the words. There’s a range of styles on offer – boogie-woogie on Bicarbonate Of Chicken, Eastern European folk on Rubber Toy (a nod to Ivor’s Hungarian roots – his family is said to have arrived in Britain with the name Kussner) and, on the Scotch Sitting Room episodes, the skirl of bagpipes imitated on the harmonium, an instrument he did as much to proselytise as Nico –  but these are  very much supporting, the canvas on which pictures of wit and acuity are painted. For more illustrations, see the smudged and freckled works in Ivor’s books by sometime Private Eye cartoonist Martin Honeysett – all the rage, fear, warmth and, yes, absurdity of the works is there.
Speaking of supporting, a quick mention of guest artist Phyllis April King, who strews Jammy Smears with wondering sketches of nature, alongside Dust, which delivers a sinister punchline to its reflection on everyone’s least favourite houseguest, and The Wasted Call, where an argument over answering the phone ends up probing far deeper questions.
In his NME review of Ivor’s 1983 album Privilege, David Quantick offered no quotes “because I do not wish to spoil it for you.” I’ve endeavoured to do the same here with Jammy Smears and the entire Cutler oeuvre- and anyway, its brilliance still leaves me tongue-tied.  Hear the lot for yourself – privilege is the word all right (PG).

79. SUN RA & HIS INTERGALACTIC INFINITY ARKESTRA – DISCIPLINE 27-II (1973)

  
 Space for Sun Ra?

Herman Poole Blount didn’t have it easy. For African-Americans from Birmingham Alabama, that was almost inevitable, but he was ‘orphaned’ (or abandoned) by First Grade, living from that time with his Great Aunt, was imprisoned as a CO during World War II, being ostracised by his family as a consequence, and considered himself friendless. Believing with good reason the world to be a brutal violent place full of grasping spiteful men, he – the gentlest of souls – imagined at first – and then possibly convinced himself – he was from another planet, Saturn. He claimed to have met God personally – in New York, on 125th Street to be precise. For him, myths were facts, facts myths, and only one thing mattered: music. He sought refuge in it, learning to play piano by ear at eleven, and never looked back. His career blossomed and album and song titles suggested a supra-cosmological intelligence at work, although occasionally the music was at variance with that. But even the most grounded or earthbound of his compositions contain elements of his uniquely unorthodox method. As John Szwed notes: “Flatted fifths and augmented ninths had been used to enhance an ending or get to an interlude where people would look up and say ‘What’s happening now?’ But he used them all the way through.” He brought idiosyncratic sounds together as an arranger by encouraging each musician to play in a manner true to himself/herself – only they could make those sounds which revealed their true selves.

For many years I couldn’t even listen to Sun Ra. Occasionally I would notice a slightly warped copy of The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra Vol.2 peeking out forlornly from the back of my record collection – seemingly rejected, misunderstood. When I felt like playing some jazz I unwaveringly passed it by. Reflecting upon this now, I can see what went wrong. The Heliocentric Worlds Of Sun Ra Vol.2 was not an ideal gateway to his music. Be as well giving a copy of Metal Machine Music to a youngster eager to check out what all the fuss was about with Lou Reed. It was the first and last Sun Ra album I would buy after watching a documentary on television entitled A Joyful Noise around 30 years ago (the film was was made in 1980). 

I had been captivated by the unearthly sounds I heard as well as those strikingly flamboyant Arkestra costumes. I read what I could about him (there was strangely, little to read in those pre-Internet days) and music critics seemed to disagree as to which were his best LPs. Indeed, Sun Ra rarely makes an appearance in Greatest Albums polls, presumably because he recorded well in excess of 100 studio albums, many of which were only ever briefly available. There is such an exotic mystique about the man that many listeners want immediately to get their hands on something definitive. What they will find is that there is such an incredible musical variety in his output, that it is easy to become frustrated or bewildered and abandon the search completely, for even amongst the titles which occasionally resurface in articles and books as recommended recordings, there is no single unmistakable classic to fix on. The truth is that one could listen to a dozen or so Ra albums without gaining any insight into the intimidatingly latitudinous range of his brush strokes. Like many others I had given up on him after one album. 

I always had the intention of revisiting his music at some point, but tracking down Sun Ra albums can be a bit of a challenge: a small number of people have climbed Everest; less have a full house of Sun Ra albums. And getting a handle on which to give ear to is equally perplexing. His music ranges from big band, swing, straight bop, cacophonous free jazz, bizarre moog experimentation, polyrhythmic chanting, Afro-futurism and moody solo piano works, to gently funky space blues by candlelight. There’s even some disco out there. But if five or six albums are chosen very carefully, one may gain some measure of his music. 

So in a way I’m going to cheat a little here by identifying more than a few, and in truth the selection of Discipline 27-II if not quite arbitrary, is certainly not definitive. It is simply one of several superior outings which could have made the cut. If you’re looking for a way in, you may wish to try Space Is The Place and it’s sprawlingly funky title track, a futuristic interplanetary African spiritual. For a very accessible mid to late period introduction, Lanquidity and Sleeping Beauty (the latter is available on Spotify, you may have to search harder for the former) are superb. Check out the mellifluous ‘Springtime Is Here’ (from SB) – two chords, restrained solos; it’s a peach. You could track down something like ‘Omniscience’ from Aurora Borealis (1980) or become enchanted by the lopsided prettiness of ‘Where There Is No Sun’ from the 1978 double set New Steps. His earlier recordings Supersonic Jazz or Jazz In Silhouette are comparatively more conventional and may be more palatable to some; others may prefer to psych into those strange dissonant flutes and queasy strings that characterise his bonkers free jazz from the mid-60s (check out The Magic City or the two Heliocentric volumes). 

Instead, I’ve plumped for Discipline 27-II,  recorded at the same session as 1972’s Space Is The Place, but long since unavailable. It might seem a less obvious choice than its sister, particularly as it does not even feature the best version of its title track – that honour goes to the ultra rare Live In Egypt ‘71 – but it’s an album which contains a sufficient blend of styles to make it a good starting point and it goes without saying that it contains some great music too.

‘Pan Afro’ typifies this approach, Ra’s improvisational piano knocking out all kinds of strange rhythms which are buried under a smooth funky sax riff from John Gilmore. There’s a beautiful trumpet solo too – not sure if it’s by Akh Tal Ebah or Kwame Hadi who both played on the session.’Discipline 8′ is at the other extreme – a barrage of horns attack one chord from different angles, the tension building until the whole thing unravels in a blaze of squawking sax and then disintegrates completely, the skittering listless drums knocked unconscious, like wounded soldiers on a battlefield. ‘Neptune’ is cut from the same cloth as ‘Space Is The Place’ – one of those elongated space chants (led by June Tyson: “Have you heard the latest news about Neptune Neptune Neptune…”) which somehow contrives to sound both utterly lackadaisical and yet super funky at the same time before everyone lets loose in a free orgiastic finale. Finally, the lengthy title track, despite criticism that it is over long – is one of The Arkestra’s most fully realised creations – this time it’s almost like an interstellar conversation (“For you I gave up everything I never had/For all I never had is the life I abandoned…you’re down here, all isolated from the rest of the planets/don’t you feel lonely?”) – the horns are brilliantly measured – the whole thing is joyful, tuneful and soulful in equal measure. Here the Arkestra sound like they have unlocked the secrets of the universe and in some ways they probably had.

In the original Perfect Collection the authors conceded that “every collection ought to have at least one album by a genius like Captain Beefheart.” Actually, I’d say you need six Beefheart albums but that’s besides the point. In order to get to grips with Sun Ra you probably need about the same.There’s space, a place out there in your record collection for the man they called Sun Ra. That most eccentric of introverts left this planet 23 years ago – his extraordinary life had come to its natural end, but The Arkestra, under the tutelage of Marshall Allan are still painting the cosmos with luminous colours in 2016. (JJ)

 

 

78. SCARS – AUTHOR! AUTHOR! (1981) – Guest Contributor: Rolo McGinty (The Woodentops)

  

The bold cover that looks like an enemy in Tomb Raider 3. Albums would come into the house one at a time, monthly roughly, and be listened to relentlessly. We were in the country so no record shops that nearby: this album did the business. A funky punk sound, quite danceable, in a modern context still valid. Tribal and sticking to the beat. The tinny guitar licks are of the time but with a really full sound underneath. Listening to it now, I can hear something similar in the bands of today, the vocals and drums. Even moments of say Savages the band, are predicted here.

‘Leave me in the Autumn’, ‘Fear of the Dark’ – all cool chords. Dark and interesting on ‘Aquarama’ and always fat bass throughout. Sounded fab on our Sony music system. My brother and I had many a freaking out to music – bop on this one. All the time, that cover image suggesting some bizarre Papua New Guinea or Aztec mystery . 

 The Roland chorus effect was on everything at the time of this album, it’s definitely infecting all the guitar, but as skilfully blended as Public Image or Killing Joke. The Police for example, really over used the effect in my opinion. 

Tempos really vary all the way through. They go fast and they go slow and atmospheric. They do nursery rhyme simple as much as complex arrangement and unexpected changes. It’s well arranged and produced. The vocals full of passion drawing you in to story climax. ‘Je t’aime C’est la Mort’ is a good example of this. The surprise talking voice of ‘Your Attention Please’ was a shocker on first listening. A warning message building and becoming neurosis-inducing shouting like a Robert Calvert science fiction moment in Hawkwind’s Space Ritual. Into the echo it goes. Great!

‘All About You’ is almost Brian Eno, almost Killing Joke, perhaps Roxy Music. Somebody should cover it. A great way to finish. On and up! Fab name, great album of its time, I loved it, still sounds good. 1980/1981. I bet your average music teen would think it was made recently.

I chose the album after thinking for some time through many that could have fit the bill. I do remember being amazed that ‘Author! Author!’ wasn’t a massive hit. To me and my brother, it was huge. So it’s back to that time period I thought I’d go. Cheers, Rolo. (Rolo McGinty)