110. HARTLEY C. WHITE – RUN THE GAUNTLET (1991) Guest Contributor: Chris Cohen

A few months ago, we invited Gerry Love to talk about his work with Teenage Fanclub and then to write about his favourite under-rated album. Gerry chose Chris Cohen’s marvellous Overgrown Path.

Now Chris has chosen a favourite album of his own and on the eve of a short European tour, has written exclusively about it here for TNPC. 

In 2011 I visited musician and OSR label founder Zach Phillips in Brattleboro VT – he had a box of Run the Gauntlet cassettes and gave me one. I listened in my car a lot; at first I just liked the novelty of it but then it became kind of an obsession. After a listen or two I could hear there were definite aesthetic rules to it but could not quite tell what they were. I would also get certain lines stuck in my head, like “this time, I’m holding out for you, oh tell me that you’re holding out too/so no matter what you say, no matter what you do just remember, I’m holding out for you” or the refrain: “whose music, your music, my music…” Hartley C. White has an incredible story – the quick version is that he “came from Kingston, Jamaica to Queens in the 1980s. A student of martial arts since 1966, Hartley is the progenitor of a style he calls Who-pa-zoo-tic Music, ‘a non-classical music’ based on the ‘broken rhythm’ of Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do.”1  I highly recommend this 2011 interview. [http://osr-tapes.tumblr.com/post/83828921021/interview-with-hartley-c-white-by-zp-2011]


Hartley is a keen observer of the ways of world and has led an incredible life. To me, Run the Gauntlet is a revolution in music. It does so many of the things that music can do: it talks to you, puts you under its spell, skillfully manipulates tension and release – but does so using none any of the traditional means. It doesn’t stay in any meter for more than a moment, makes no reference to traditional harmonic movement (though it makes some incredible harmonic moves). It has a very loose though distinct sense of melody, and truly relates to no other musical genre than its own. It never plays on anything recognizable from the world outside, though Hartley has a vast knowledge of popular music and is by no means an outsider from the world of music (his father was president of the Jamaican Musicians’ Union in the late 60’s/early 70’s). He’s a fan of everything from 10cc to Captain Beefheart, the Meters, Manhattan Transfer, Weather Report to Neil Young – but he decided to make a totally new kind of music and release it on his own Who-pa-zoo-tic Music label in 1991. 

After listening to Run The Gauntlet many many times over the years, I still find new ways of understanding it but feel that I never truly will. That is the key to its success – the more you engage, the more it shows you, but there is always something beyond. Also it is pretty near impossible to listen to as background music, something I take as a hallmark of its greatness.

Made of repetitions of irregular-sized rhythmic cells, its syntax feels asymmetrical but always right. If I understand correctly, Hartley’s music literally follows rhythmic patterns he’s learned from martial arts. Like Jeet Kune Do and Capoeira, Hartley’s Who-pa-zoo-tics is based on the idea of studying another person’s timing and then “breaking” that timing by striking during the gaps in its phrases. On this subject Hartley told me in an email that “Who-Pa-Zoo-Tic Music is less about fitting the parts together and more about playing the spaces between each note.” 
Rhythm is only one of many aspects of this music that are unique – Hartley’s sense of orchestration and his concept of multitrack recording on Run the Gauntlet are like nothing that came before. Either working in unison or responding to his voice, the instruments rarely play through an entire song or even section or line. Digital synth bass, cuica, wood block, snare drum, chimes, tympani, and electric guitar come and go over the course of each song, just accenting the voice which is Run The Gauntlet’s only continuous element. (Hartley played every instrument himself). His voice appears and re-appears in many different characters – sometimes whispering, sometimes singing falsetto, just talking or harmonizing. Horizontal rather than vertical, the arrangements combine unlikely elements in a completely original way that never feels patchy or random. 
The songs are melodic in their own way and very catchy at times – Hartley’s sense of pitch is continuous, a kind of intonation that is not talking, not rapping, not any other kind of singing but just purely his own. Run The Gauntlet discusses politics, faith, love, culture, consciousness, creativity, and emotion. In Hartley’s words: “I believe ‘Life’ is not always supposed to be happy. I also believe that it’s by overcoming the obstacles that we build character and better learn to relate to each other, as none of us are perfect and we all make mistakes. I also believe, as musicians, artists, that one our jobs is not only to record and witness the history around us but also to carry our own dreams as well as those of others, especially in times of uncertainty, and when necessary remind ourselves and others of the best that we can be.”  
Hartley makes me feel that music and life itself are inexhaustible. Run the Gauntlet is only his first record- Coming Out Fighting continues in a similar but even more intense vein, then each of the next 5+ records are all different and equally worth investigating. His last, Something Better (OSR 2016), is maybe his darkest and most apocalyptic. In the history of recorded music – I think Run the Gauntlet stands alone – complete, coherent, always rich with inspiration and always new. I hope that music lovers and musicians of the future know about it… (Chris Cohen)

1 http://osr-tapes.com/hartleycwhite.html, accessed 4/23

109. BRIAN ENO & HAROLD BUDD – AMBIENT 2: THE PLATEAUX OF MIRROR (1980)

Occasionally, very occasionally, music delivers a transitory release from the things in life that we find perplexing or unbearable. In an instant it can make the world look and feel a very different place.     Ambient 2: The Plateaux Of Mirror by Brian Eno and Harold Budd is one of those records. Unremarkable to many, perhaps as much for the contrast it provides with Eno’s more immediately gratifying post-Roxy output as for its sonically supine disposition (try hearing it out after a hard day’s graft), Plateaux Of Mirror is one of the few records I know of which has the capacity to utterly transport me – not simply to some soporific place of refuge, but to a subconscious realm of half-forgotten memories and fragments of dreams never lived. 

    By 1979, Eno had already demonstrated unmistakable signs of disaffection with staid rock conventions, firstly in his work with Cluster, and in particular, with his inaugural foray into ‘ambient’, Music For Airports. Eno’s recorded output was prolific during this period, yet still struggled to keep pace with his inherently inexhaustible appetite for experimentation with treated and textured sound. Just prior to recording Plateaux Of Mirror in late ’79, he had collaborated on a second album with Cluster’s Moebius and Roedelius and made Music For Films. Before the latter was finished, he was already hatching plans to work alongside Laraaji and Jon Hassell for future releases in his Ambient series. 

    By then Harold Budd had developed a reputation as a highly respected avant-garde pianist and composer. On Plateaux Of Mirror, Eno offered him full range of expression in his utilisation of electric and acoustic piano, while he himself constructed a backdrop of minimalist soundscapes within which Budd could improvise. Together they produced a miraculous minimalist classic, characterised by short pieces such as ‘Steal Away’ – washed out, dissolving in its own timorous flightlessness, and lengthier pieces which to some may sound monotonous upon first hearing, but patiently reveal marvellously disorienting little secrets. For instance, on the album opener ‘First Light’, it takes the best part of six minutes before Budd’s impressionistic sonata cedes to a wash of ascending synth, almost as if suddenly, and very discretely, a trifling little celestial drama has unfolded somewhere in the heavens. It and its reprise ‘Failing Light’ (the closer), have a steady tempo, whereas the gaps in ‘Above Chiangmai’ are wider, the harmonics looser, the playing irregular, creating an atmospheric stillness that is taut and unsettling. It makes Erik Satie sound like Fats Domino. 

Meanwhile ‘An Arc Of Doves’ resembles something from Eno’s Another Green World, but Budd’s playing is pretty and optimistic.

    The title track, ‘Plateaux Of Mirror’ possesses these unbearably poignant melodic shifts which – much like the music on Victorialand by The Cocteau Twins (future Budd collaborators) – bring you face to face with childhood memories, real or imagined, the faces of loved ones past and present, beautiful landscapes once observed or perhaps not. Here, it’s capacity to extract from the deep well of the subconscious parallels the work of Boards Of Canada, if not musically, then certainly spiritually.

    A little incongruous upon first listen is ‘Not Yet Remembered’ – a voiced consonant amongst ariated vowels, it’s sudden increase in volume and utilisation of choral synth make it the most human and earthbound thing on the album. It contrasts sharply with something like ‘The Chill Air’, which barely seems to exist, leading us to doubt whether these sounds are the work of human hands at all. Instead they sound like a strange balancing act of nature.

     The other day I passed a woman struggling up a steep hill with her pet on a lead. It wasn’t a dog she was dragging along, but a ferret. A young girl cycled past her, pedalling on the wrong side of the road. Her protective headgear looked like a WW2 Nazi helmet and she had a big old leather rucksack tied precariously to the back of her seat. It was stuffed full of plastic bags. Then a car came thundering down the road with its exhaust hanging off, making a dreadful noise. I turned round and noticed a van parked in front of someone’s driveway. It had tasteless heavy metal style signage on its carcass, although I can’t recall what it said. I did however notice that behind the windscreen sat an ugly toy gorilla. The gorilla looked imperious, holding his Flying V guitar. How strange this life is, I thought to myself. And then a gust of wind came along and it blew hundreds of tiny little cherry blossom petals in my face. I looked up and the sight and sound of the wind breathing through the oak trees almost made my heart burst with joy. In a moment the world was transformed. (JJ)

 

108. FOXBASE ALPHA – SAINT ETIENNE (1991)

FOXBASE ALPHA – SAINT ETIENNE (1991)
‘Record collection rock’ was a phrase tossed around with vigour and no little relish in the early ’90s. It epitomised a mood of intense self-consciousness and an eagerness to have and eat cake – to demand that music be dumb, artless, rock ‘n’ roll (adjective more than noun) yet still be dissected within an inch of its life.
It was a loaded phrase, at best mildly cynical, at worst plainly pejorative, telling as it did of a genre perceived to have nowhere left to go but to recondition its past and reassemble prepackaged ingredients. But hadn’t this already been going on for decades? Wasn’t half the Beatles’ early repertoire drawn from the rock ‘n’ roll, r & b and soul records they eagerly acquired after they passed from the US Navy into eager young Merseyside hands? Wasn’t the mythical meeting of Jagger and Richards at Dartford railway station occasioned by the clutch of blues albums the former was holding, just some of the many the Stones would go on to plunder for material? And while it’s debatable how many records he may have been able to afford to buy, was Elvis not a human jukebox, absorbing everything he heard – and covering much of it, often radically- on the radio and at the diner?
The truth is, record collection rock is as old as rock itself and even Simon Reynolds, one of the writers most exercised by the concept, was compelled to concede around the end of 1991 that three of the albums which had given him most pleasure that year were prime examples of the art: Primal Scream’s Screamadelica; Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque – and Saint Etienne’s Foxbase Alpha.
Maker writer Bob Stanley found himself embroiled in this debate, not only through what he wrote but also by being written about by his colleagues as he pursued extracurricular adventures in the Saint Etienne ranks. In his tastes, he was an entire mischief of magpies on his own, devouring acid house, French yeye and bubblegum with equal relish, while also finding a place for the perceived higher art of canonical acts. He was rightly withering of many of his contemporaries, bewildered by “people who got into music two years ago who think Jesus Jones are better than the Beatles” and saw no cause for celebration in the supposedly alternative mediocrities invading the charts in a charge of the featherweight brigade. Certainly, it was a grim time in a highly peculiar decade, in which many of the most prominent players gained their status from origins which were unlikely (Nirvana, Oasis, Primal Scream) unpromising (Radiohead, Blur, the Prodigy, Beck) or both (Manic Street Preachers).
All this, though, led to his needlessly absolutist claim that that pop music “shouldn’t be intelligent; it should be completely unintelligent.” I previously covered what I make of this view in my review of Blue Aeroplanes’ Swagger  (no 35) but suffice to say I don’t agree; neither did one of Stanley’s colleagues, Andrew Mueller, who said it best when he chided his fellow Maker man with the unarguable caution: “Without intelligence, there is no imagination…the alternative doesn’t bear contemplating” and added that the quality of Saint Etienne’s music was “no mandate to talk such cobblers.”
The evidence of that quality runs through Foxbase Alpha like the Thames through London, the only city on Earth where it could have been made, one they paintly as richly as, if less literally than, the Kinks, Ian Dury and Madness. Despite this unmistakably metropolitan hue, though, Saint Etienne presented their hometown as much as a global crossroads as a mighty collision of villages, particularly much later in Tales From Turnpike House. The tour of their cosmopolis begins with a reminder of their Francophone roots, a snatch of radio dialogue introducing commentary on the football team who gave them their name and whose lurid green shirts were the last word in calcio chic in the mid ’70s.
Then it’s off to Laurel Canyon via Pimlico and Toronto for the song they announced themselves with – a cover of Neil Young’s Only Love Can Break Your Heart. About time we had some more heresy here at TNPC so here goes – I actually prefer their version to the original, which is, of course, a beautiful and poignant piece of work but it plays into the hands of Young’s detractors by sounding the way many of them think he always does. With the slightest tweak of the melody and the empathic tones of one-off guest Moira Lambert, Saint Etienne lift the song out of the maudlin and into the sweetly sorrowful by way of the dancefloor.
That’s one of their natural habitats and they stay there, in varying guises and modes, for much of Foxbase Alpha. Stoned To Say The Least kicks off with a wry sample from Countdown, the first programme broadcast on Channel 4 in 1982 and a staple there to this day. It’s fairly fitting, as it’s a close relative of the majestic The Sun Rising by the Beloved, whose singer, Jon Marsh, was a contestant on that very programme when his band owed more to the New Order of Ceremony than of Subculture. The subdued bass and swooping backwards guitar, congas and interjections of cowbell and Italian house piano all make for a compendium of the ideal early ’90s dance tune – but it still finds room to wrongfoot you with an extended feedback fade. Record collection dance music in action – and ignore anyone who tells you that sounds no fun at all.

 


The rapidly cliched perception of Saint Etienne was of Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell as a parallel universe Blue Peter team or red Routemaster bus travellers tagging along with Rita Tushingham and Adrienne Posta. They were always a good deal more nuanced and savvy than that but on London Belongs To Me, they provide the soundtrack all those films could have had if they’d just had a word with Delia Derbyshire. It strolls, cascades, shimmers like the sun that makes you realise you’ve forgotten your shades – on the summer day you have to remind yourself to savour every minute of. It shares only a title with the 1948 drama starring a young Richard Attenborough, already specialising in misfits, tearaways and purveyors of cold evil at outrageous odds with his latterday ‘Dickie’ persona.
Like The Swallow is as odd, ambitious and outright headswimming as anything a chart act – for that’s what Saint Etienne were – has ever come up with. The washes of sound it opens with resemble Mercury Rev’s Holes, Talk Talk’s The Rainbow, even parts of the very un-pop It’ll End In Tears by This Mortal Coil, and it proceeds, as steadfast and unhurried as a symphony’s first movement for three-and-a-half minutes before vocals are even considered and even then, it’s a Cracknell cameo – she’s gone in less than a minute, buoyed by percussion which in other  places would sound martial but here prove that it is entirely possible – in fact, desirable – to march for joy. Speaking of drums, listen out for the snare thunderclaps that pursue a sampled Levi Stubbs through She’s The One – the sound of the Four Tops was once magnificently likened to the roar of a wounded lion and that holds true here as well, except this one has see Androcles run by with no time to pull out the thorn.
And do not dismiss Dilworth’s Theme purely because it’s the last song and is less than a minute long. In the spirit of the Time Bandits scene where Ian Holm as Napoleon rants about similarly petit conquerors (“Alexander the Great – five feet exactly…Tamburlaine the Great – four foot nine and three quarters) I give you a similar roll call of chronologically challenged but magnificent songs: Cockney Rebel’s Chameleon – 47 seconds; the Incredible String Band’s Son of Noah’s Brother – 16 seconds. Dilworth’s Theme – a dumpy little 38 seconds but
a beautiful, rainy day drawing room reverie, like Bowie’s Eight Line Poem with the comedy cowboy locked out of the house. The very fact that it’ll take you less time to listen to it than to read what I’ve written here about it says plenty about its condensed glories.
There’s  more, much more, to say about this record but I’d need as many words to do it justice as there are in Peter Ackroyd’s London:The Biography – in a very odd way, a companion piece – or Bob Stanley’s own, staggering Yeah! Yeah! Yeah, which takes on the fearsome labour of charting the history of post-war popular music and triumphs, omitting nothing and vividly illuminating everything. Not unlike Foxbase Alpha, really (PG).

107. HÜSKER DÜ – CANDY APPLE GREY (1986)

By the time they had signed a lucrative contract with Warner Bros in early 1986, Hüsker Dü’s implosion was well underway. Tracked by the label for the previous twelve months, the band had opted to remain with indie label SST until the completion of their fourth album Flip Your Wig. Hüsker Dü had outgrown SST, but the move to Warners didn’t go down well, and as a consequence, any objective critical analysis of their first album for them, Candy Apple Grey, has been rare. In an otherwise formidable canon, it is almost universally regarded as the runt in the litter, falling way short of masterworks such as Zen Arcade. It is time for a reappraisal.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that the major label debut album of the beloved independent band almost invariably elicits a hostile response from the hardcore fan. After all, he was there when it all began. He can vividly recall his idols heaving their own gear into some piss-stinking dungeon of a venue where they performed before an audience whose animosity could not have been greater had you announced you’d had intimate liaisons with their mothers the night before. But he was instantly hooked. He bought their first record on the day of its release at the little backstreet indie store, the only one with guts enough to stock it, and he has followed them ever since. Until now that is. Because now they are working for the man. Look at those Johnny-come-latelys wearing those t-shirts emblazoned with the new album sleeve. Where were they three years ago?! You can’t call them real music fans. They are living proof that the incorruptibles have become corrupted. If the only thing Warners are interested in is product and shifting units, it follows logically that the band have the same aspirations. To hell with those corporate whores, and their fawning new legions of gullible lemmings.

It is a peculiar relationship the one between pop star and fan. Many of us at sometime or another, may have borne this conceit. It is a well-worn cliche that rock stars, simply by virtue of their status, have realised their dreams and fantasies. But it is equally true to say that pop fans often inhabit a fantasy world of their own making. It is all inside their heads. Songs and albums may well seem very personal to the listener, a unique meeting of souls. But they are not. They are simply recognisable expressions of one particular aspect of the human condition. A coalescence of timing and circumstance might propel them deep into our subconscious. What might mean nothing to one person, could be the only thing preventing another person from putting an end to it all. Because of that, music can assume a gravitas beyond its rather humble ingredients. But to believe a rock band is one’s own private possession is both extraordinarily deluded and somewhat infantile.

It was to precisely this type of indignant response I first declared my fondness for Hüsker Dü. Occupying one half of an old C90 cassette was a recording of their penultimate album Candy Apple Grey. It was summer 1987, a few months after the release of their heroic double swansong Warehouse: Songs & Stories. The tape had been handed to me by a fellow student – being students we had little money to buy the records themselves – but the scorn he reserved for the album was merciless. In fact he’d only given it to me so I could hear Side Two (if I recall correctly the Homestead compilation, Wailing Ultimate!) “Ignore the other side” he warned. I could not.

The album was created in the most challenging of circumstances. A home movie style video for the Grant Hart penned 45 ‘Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely’ may have reflected the searing intensity of the band’s live performances, but it was captured at a time when relationships between the trio had broken down irreparably. Personal differences had been growing; Hart’s drug abuse accelerating. At the time Mould was quoted as saying that none of the three wanted to continue, but ironically, the band had reached their commercial zenith. That sense of confusion and disintegration permeates an album often labelled a sell out. But any doubts of musical compromise should have been dispelled for good on the album’s opening track, the finger-shreddingly ferocious ‘Crystal’, where Mould, hoarse with fury, rages at the chaos surrounding him (“When civilization falls in its grave/Technology throws on the dirt/You realize the finest things in life/Are the ones that can never be hurt”). Meanwhile, the guitars in time honoured tradition explode like a coalition of cheetahs leaping through an avenue’s worth of shop windows.

The communication breakdown, which Hart accepts ultimately led to the suicide of the band’s manager David Savoy a year later, allowed greater room for the expression of each individual’s musical and emotional idiosyncrasies, and Candy Apple Grey undoubtedly displays the greatest musical variety of any Hüsker Dü album. In Mould’s case at least, the ensuing turmoil led to the more introverted songwriting style he would follow into his solo career. It is undeniably true that on Candy Apple Grey he frequently sounds in despair, bereft. His energies were at an all time low, but this was misconstrued by fans as a mellowing out. His solo acoustic venture ‘Too Far Down’ (“I’m too far down/I couldn’t begin to smile/Because I can’t even laugh or cry/Because I just can’t do it”) is hardly the product of a singer seeking a wider audience. If Hüsker Dü had always struck a fine balance between melody and discord – it was the tempo which was unrelenting – they also possessed a more sensitive melancholic dimension to their sound. Consider ‘Perfect Example’ and ‘Celebrated Summer’ from New Day Rising, or even ‘Diane’ way back on the Metal Circus EP. No, these slower songs are the sound of people having to get to grips with the very real challenges of life, the turgid reality of having to work alongside people you once loved but can no longer look in the eye, and even, no matter how banal it sounds, with the life-work balance. The band’s output had been prolific, they had become exhausted by an unforgiving touring schedule. And their personal lives were unravelling. On ‘Hardly Getting Over It’, a song he continues to perform today, Mould reflected upon his awareness of the impact of loss and bereavement in his own life. “My parents didn’t even mention my grandfather’s passing to me for months, for whatever reason. Presumably it would upset me.” It was a heartfelt confessional, but all people heard was the volume reduction. The sound may indeed have been quieter, but the message sang loud and clear .

The band’s bastardisation of The Byrds’ folk-rock is most obvious on Hart’s ‘Dead Set On Destruction’, while his ‘Sorry Somehow’, the album’s second 45 is much more immediate, belying its author’s fragile psychological state. While the bitterness in the sentiment is acute (“There’s no need to talk to you, well to know what’s on your mind/There’s no need to see you either, no, I’m just being kind/You want me to beg forgiveness, tender an apology/It’s not my fault and you’re not getting one from me”), it’s infectious and muscular Hammond-driven riff seems perfectly tailored for alt-college radio. It is interesting to note that college rock darlings, fellow Minneapolitans The Replacements, had signed to a major label (Sire – also distributed by Warners) shortly before Hüsker Dü, yet there has never been any charge of ‘sell out’ levelled at The ‘Mats’ first major offering, Tim.

On ‘No Promise Have I Made’ Hart was accused of sailing perilously close to the bombastic coastline -over a skin of shivering cymbals and an automotive synth sounding like a multi-tracked vocal, its epic piano motif builds to an ecstatic climax powered by Greg Norton’s Herculean bass riff while at the finale Hart thrillingly hammers home the point orally as well as physically with emphatic angst.

Out of chaos occasionally emerges something beautiful, honest and true. If songs like ‘Crystal’, ‘Eiffel Tower High’ and ‘All This I’ve Done For You’ would have fit comfortably onto New Day Rising, Candy Apple Grey delivers a broader palette, reflecting a depth of emotional involvement unmatched elsewhere on any other HD album. As individuals they were suffering but growing up too, perhaps against their will. The case for the album being a sell out simply doesn’t hold water. It is a wounded bewildered beast, certainly without thematic unity, but made entirely without compromise. It is the album Hüsker Dü would have delivered no matter which label was pressing the vinyl. Time has been kind to its shortcomings. So should you. (JJ)

106. VERGOGNA SCHIFOSI – ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK by ENNIO MORRICONE (1969)

For Peter

Vergogna Schifosi (Dirty Angels) is an obscure 1969 Italian thriller directed by Mauro Severino, purportedly a thinly veiled attack on bourgeois hypocrisy (I don’t know for I have never watched it),  given impetus by political events across Europe in ’68. It is probably fair to say that commercially it didn’t amount to much, and the film also has a poor critical standing. The few clips available on YouTube might arouse your interest – they did mine – but that’s likely to be because of the music you hear in the background.    

The soundtrack to Vergogna Schifosi is 23 minutes long. The LP could set you back £25 or so, if you can find it (Light In The Attic reissued it a few years back). In fact, ten minutes worth is really a variation on the title theme, which makes three appearances including as a reprise. Hardly value for money you might think. Well, think again. Entitled ‘Matto, Caldo, Soldi, Morto & Girotondo’, it is very possibly the most beautifully bewitching suite of music I have ever heard in my life. A simplistic nursery rhyme melody with some faintly erotic girly cooing at the beginning – or perhaps that’s just the seductive Italian accents –  gathers inexorable momentum as a swirling spiral of strings, celeste and harpsichord oscillate alongside some choral accompaniment by the I Cantori Moderni di Alessandroni ensuring it’s ecstatic ascent continues via a spectacularly beautiful OTT performance from renowned Italian singer Edda dell’Orso (a veteran of several Morricone film projects including Once Upon A Time In The West) taking us all the way up to Dante’s angelic ninth sphere of Paradiso. Upon its arrival there we have the soundtrack’s second theme ‘Un Altro Mare’, which plays out like a blissfully harmonious marriage between Krzysztof Komeda and Burt Bacharach. These two pieces are so ravishing, so utterly beguiling, I feel guilty for listening to them – as if I have uncovered some unspoken secret fron the world to come. Each time I give ear to it, I am convinced my life expectancy will diminish a fraction further, as if some cruel variation on the law of Karma is invisibly balancing out my euphoria. Perhaps I have heard too much, seen the unseen, tasted forbidden fruit?  But I continue go back, slavishly, for more. In fact the music here – with the exception of a badly dated (and best overlooked) three minute sub-Beatles pastiche near the beginning –  is virtually impossible to dislodge from one’s head. I wonder how I have managed to live without it for so long. 

I am no authority on Il Maestro – I have the odd compilation lying around, but that’s about it. I know very little about him, but have often been tempted by those garish late ’60s soundtrack sleeves. Nevertheless, I have baulked at the thought of purchasing them before now, imagining the films to be of highly dubious quality and the music too expensive a gamble. But if you, like us at TNPC, are a fan of Stereolab and High Llamas, you will recognise instantly an essential ingredient of their sound. I should have taken Sean O’Hagan’s advice years ago when he spoke so enthusiastically of its magic. Morricone’s output during this period was prolific so I expect my late conversion to cost me a small fortune. But this one without doubt is a must have. (JJ)

105. COLD SUN – DARK SHADOWS (1970*)

My record collecting began in earnest in 1985. By that time, rock & roll was around 30 years old. I was still in my teens. I wasn’t around when Elvis started shaking his hips, and in my efforts to map out the history of popular music, my reference points were fairly limited. In some ways, this made the discovery of Tim Buckley, The 13th Floor Elevators, Love, Sly & The Family Stone, Nick Drake and Captain Beefheart even more thrilling, for I couldn’t imagine anyone else sounded quite like them. Of course over time perspective becomes clearer: recognising how The Velvet Underground or Can fit with the past and present lends their legacy even greater import. Then an LP like Cold Sun’s Dark Shadows comes along and I’m thrown into confusion.

So when Julian Cope suggested that Cold Sun invented post-punk, he must have been equally bewildered by what he heard. Nothing remarkable about that comment except that Dark Shadows was recorded around 1970. And just to clear up any confusion, the punk to which Cope was referring was not the ’60s garage variety. 

Cold Sun were formed in Austin, Texas. Bandleader and electric autoharp wizard Bill Miller, was obsessed by fellow Texan psych freaks The 13th Floor Elevators. He modelled his vocal style on Roky Erickson’s and like Tommy Hall, chose a unique instrument with which to make music. In many ways, Cold Sun are the Elevators’ spiritual heirs. The band made little impact during their short lifespan, and disbanded in 1973. Miller would go on to join Erickson as a member of The Aliens in the late ’70s.


    Mystery surrounds the recording of Dark Shadows; the band had signed to local independent label Sonobeat, but the label faced bankruptcy before any of their music could be sculpted onto wax. Even after the album was eventually granted a release on Rockadelic in 1989, not everyone hailed it a great lost psychedelic masterpiece. Indeed there is a Texan Psychedelia website out there where the contributors make little effort to be diplomatic. They make no bones about it: they hate Cold Sun. The threads are filled with denigrating remarks about how they ‘suck ass’ and so on. Unless the website is run by some longtime adversary of Miller, then it’s a genuinely puzzling reaction, for Dark Shadows has stood the test of time remarkably well. Indeed it is every inch the travelling time capsule that Cope suggests.

   ‘Ra-Ma’, a one-stop potted history of psychedelia starts out like some weird discordant tonal experiment in math rock from the mid-’90s, Miller’s autoharp sounding like switchblades being sharpened, before morphing into some Roky-inspired demented stream-of-consciousness rant about Egyptian mythology over the fried desert psych sound of Bull Of The Woods. There’s some genius guitar playing from Tom Mcgarrigle as he trawls through the debris of late ’60s Velvets’ via a prophetic detour to the ’80s, where The Chills’ feverishly tumbling ‘Pink Frost’ is, unbeknownst to itself, gifted some fresh ancestry. It sounds like nine separate ideas thrown on top of one another, and is insanely beautiful. ‘Ra-Ma’ would appear as the opening track on the original Rockadelic issue of Dark Shadows from 1989, but the track sequence on the first issue was not that which the band had intended, with ‘Ra-Ma’ originally envisaged as the last track. Curiously, the track earmarked by Miller as the album’s opener was ‘South Texas’ whose beginning is virtually identical to ‘Ra- Ma’. “Inspired by a weekend in Texas with two girls from Corpus Christi and a big bowl of peyote salsa at a drive-in Mexican restaurant”, ‘South Texas’ is a place where lips whisper of strange visions, cracks in the wall procure geckos whose stares bore into the soul and guitars weep and bleed in equal measure.

     The Velvet Underground – that most un-psychedelic of bands – played some shows at The Vulcan Gas Company in Austin in October 1969. One can only suppose Miller was in the front row. Ostensibly a Roky tribute, ‘See What You Cause’ is a primitive little VU rocker, like a two chord rhythm being bashed out on tin cans.

      It’s not all brilliant. For some ungodly reason, ‘For Ever’ reminds me of the Steve Miller Band’s ‘Jungle Love’. What concerns me even more is that I actually know that song! There’s a bizarre little glam break, after which the rhythm decelerates before speeding up into a frenzied SST-style thrash.

     There are so many touchstones here, most of which are from albums made after Dark Shadows, for instance the bawled phrasing over these lines from the seven minute rave-up ‘Fall’ (“Bullets, cannons roaring past, yet he does not hear a sound”) anticipates Patti Smith’s primal scream on ‘Land (of 1000 Dances)’. It contains a berserk cameo for the harmonica – there is another one on ‘Ra-Ma’. The first few bars of ‘Twisted Flower’ meanwhile are borrowed from The Zombies’ ‘She’s Not There’, although ultimately the song bears more than a passing resemblance to the obscure sub-Doors psych nugget ‘Suicidal Flowers’ by The Crystal Chandelier.

     One can forgive ‘Here In The Year’ it’s occasional meandering intrusions into groovy Strawberry Alarm Clock territory and even its momentary collapse in the middle, for it is bookended by two of the most sublime passages of music on the album. The first has the sort of pretty little butterfly picking that might have floated off the grooves of a Felt record from 1986; the second refracts the same melody through the most gorgeously transcendent use of feedback I have ever heard – think Galaxie 500 stretching out the beautiful tension of ‘Heroin’. It sounds twenty years ahead of its time.

    Dark Shadows is the fearless creation of a unique foursome of peyote-fuelled Texan heads, so obsessed with making music that they believed they could change everything. In that sense, it is a tragic, even desperate failure, but I’d recommend you give it a moment: it will seek out your soul and suck you in with its deranged beauty. (JJ)
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104. CALIFORNIA – AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB (1988)

CALIFORNIA – AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB  (1988)

To paraphrase  Malvolio: some songs are born ubiquitous, some achieve ubiquity and some have ubiquity thrust upon them. Then again, some seem to wriggle free of the ubiquity that could be just one film, TV programme, advert or cover version away – such was the route Hallelujah had to take to earn its hard-won ubiquity and Dream Baby Dream seems set to follow a similar path.

Many, if not all, of us have this type of Classic In Our Own Heads and we’ve proffered a range of them so far on TNPC – the Chills’ Submarine Bells, the Distractions’ Looking  For  A Ghost,  Cockney Rebel’s Ritz. We can guarantee more will follow and the latest stop on the line is American Music Club’s Western Sky.

It’s a song of such simplicity and understatement yet also such a perfectly realised portrait of unfulfilled dreams, time passing and parting of the ways that it may not quite register at first. A muted arrangement, far from disguising the melody’s beauty, casts it into greater relief as Mark Eitzel recounts emotions everyone must have felt at some point (“I don’t belong in this place…you may feel the parade has passed you by”) and makes a bold promise which seems impossible to keep (“I’ll take you in my two weak hands/And I’ll throw you so high”) before the bridge brings almost complete silence and a self-deprecation at such depth that puts even the few remaining hopes at risk (“I won’t see you no more/Who am I to rate that high?”). Ultimately, all that remains is consolation but not of a hollow kind – “You can still see it shining.” The title inevitably prompts comparisons with Nick Drake’s Northern Sky (which also had a considerable influence on their later song Heaven of Your Hands) but, 270 degrees around, it occupies its own compass point and stands shoulder to melancholy shoulder with it as a deep expression of that nebulous and spurious concept, emotional intelligence.

 

For all its taciturn majesty, though, Western Sky is first among equals on California, a microcosm of an album with an emotional heft capable of pulling a liner across the Pacific and back again for decades. Don’t be deceived by the apparent slightness of opener Firefly – surely no one could get away anymore with a chorus, straight-faced or ironic, of “You’re so pretty, baby/You’re the prettiest thing I know” but it sounds here like the outpouring of a long-term shelf-dweller whose time has finally come, getting further even than Limey cousin Morrissey after his strange fear gripped him. More web-weaving subtlety, too from Mark ‘Vudi’ Pankler, AMC’s secret weapon and Eitzel’s amanuensis in reverse, whose textures and flourishes give beyond-words articulation to the songwriter’s lead-weighted heart – here, he does so with steel guitar that’s beyond the sucrose saturation of country’s worst excesses but tapping into the tenderness and open-heartedness it displays at its best; less incendiary, perhaps, than the Misunderstood’s Glenn Ross Campbell but with a surer route to Cosmic American Music than even Gram Parsons had (he may have coined the term but he didn’t make a great deal of it himself –  bar three or four songs across his solo albums, his music, wondrous as it was, was largely terrestrial, right-in-the -soil country).

The name American Music Club is at once balmily bland, brazenly hubristic and a justifiably bold statement of intent, in keeping with their penchant for geographically blunt album titles (California, United Kingdom, San Francisco) which easily resonated  enough with their postmarks to live up to the names. I would expect a song titled America to cover, at the very least, the drafting of the constitution, the Gettysburg Address, the New Deal and Watergate –  but none of this is really explored in “What a drag it is, the shape I’m in/Well, I go out somewhere and I come home again.” AMC, though,  really were purveyors of that elusive Cosmic American Music – if not all, then many strands of the knot woven in the last century or so are there, if only in the form of undertows – inevitably, the fathoms-deep sorrow of the blues and the rueful  resignation of country but also soul’s unbreakable grip on the heart (find that on Why Won’t You Stay from 1991’s Everclear) and folk’s resilient compassion. But since America is a vast, unfathomable collage of traditions and cultures, and remains so – doesn’t it?? Even now, doesn’t it?? – AMC still import new members from other lands – as well as the aforementioned and unequivocally English Nick Drake, they drink in healthy measures of chansonniers and there’s even room for the odd dash of klezmer, or something resembling it.

Back to California – another oft-made comparison was to Tim Buckley, much more the valiant serenader of Once I Was and Sing A Song For You than the intrepid astronaut (literally, star-sailor) of Jungle Fire and  The Healing Festival – but riding into battle on a steed is as bold an act as spacewalking and Eitzel is prepared to risk all in the pursuit of a heart. He sure loses it all often enough, if many of California’s songs are anything to go by.

Laughing Stock predates  by three years Talk Talk’s namesake masterpiece – it’s unlikely to have been an influence but Eitzel subsequently claimed that albumas one for himself – and it simmers and fizzes with the humiliation the title implies without making it explicit. The crypic, whispered “The world is made of rock/That some grow happily on/But that’s hard for some” is followed by the gently swaggering refrain “You ask me why/That’s your alibi” which single-handedly rescues a word that recurred in some of the eponymous state’s most self-regarding music, not in its true legal sense but because it rhymes with “surprise” and “apologise” and “excuses” doesn’t (let’s exempt Like A Rolling Stone – it was first, could be interpreted as using the word properly and was recorded in New York – yep, Bob’s alibi checks out) . Then comes one of the most discreet false endings you’ll ever hear – no crescendo, no sudden burst, it simply stops for just slightly too long to qualify as a pause then resumes, like a brief drift into sleep or a surreptitious departure from the room to see if anyone’s noticed.

Blue and Grey Shirt is such an overwhelming dissection of a mind in turmoil that I should be calling it a bravura performance but it’s far too dejected, too despondent to be any such thing. If anything, it’s an anti-bravura performance – when Eitzel sings “Where’s the compassion to make your tired heart sing?/ I’m tired of being a spokesman for every tired thing,” he sounds every bit as weary as he says he is, carrying a weight of expectation that would only get more onerous – as it would for the emerging Kurt Cobain, the fuzz-pedalled Charlie Brown with the aching stomach who couldn’t be reached inside his cartoon frame and who could very well have been inclining an ear to AMC up the coast. “Now I just sing my songs for people that have gone” Eitzel sighs – really sighs – at the end of one of many songs which prompted speculation on his own life; all I’ll say is if it’s not autobiography, it’s certainly empathy and either way, its Marianas-deep.

So, too, is Highway 5, which, despite being superficially about California’s vast open landscapes, achieves a choking claustrophobia by using them as an unsubtle but still potent metaphor for empty hearts and spirits – “To the left, a beautiful California landscape/Dead ends in the sky/And to the right, beautiful mountains rise high and dry/Another futile expression of bitterness/Another overwhelming expression of uselessness.” As in so many songs before, from Whispering Grass and Raining In My Heart to Who Loves The Sun and (Pulp’s) Trees, nature offers no solace or escape but is instead a mocking, scoffing witness – all making the second heaviest and most abrasive song on California.

After Bad Liquor, easily the most contentious song on the album and one which I made my peace with only comparatively recently. Not that I dislike it in itself, it’s simply the sheer incongruity of a hardcore ode to/lament for the bottle in the midst of such intensive soul scrutiny, like a roundelay arriving in the middle of a Black Flag album. But it’s a handy snapshot of Eitzel’s past in punk bands and it’s that very positioning – track one side two in old money – that gives it the feel of a bracing shot consumed at the bar during the interval. Furthermore, liquor does, for better and worse, have a habit of showing up around the time feelings are running high. And it’s kind of funny – as with the Smiths, AMC’s wit was often overlooked and the perception of them as hangdog emoters stuck to them unjustly like a toffee wrapper on the floor of your local indie club. For more of their humour, I also refer you to second track Somewhere, particularly the encounter on the bus described in the second verse, which is like an Ivor Cutler vignette transposed from Paisley Road West to Lincoln Way.

The terrain explored by American Music Club is now as despoiled as Machu Picchu or the beaches of Goa, swarmed to,  unthinkingly trampled upon, denied the care it needs and deserves. Through uninspired songwriting (as often as not with the fabled Four Chords), platitudinous lyrics and a failure to invest any imagination or even real thought into taking it in any unexpected directions, it’s experiencing a drought from which it may never recover. But a careful listen to AMC at their finest – ardently articulate, frighteningly self-aware yet never needlessly lachrymose – could show how this desert could be replenished. Who’ll start the rain? (PG).