125. THE LILAC TIME (1987)

In late 1986 Stephen Duffy decided it was time for a change of direction. His second solo album Because We Love You, was a commercial flop and his record label, the Virgin subsidiary, 10, hardly enamoured with the plans he had for its follow up, proceeded to dispense with his services. Duffy regrouped with his brother Nick and their friend Michael Weston to record some new songs inspired by their shared love of folk and country music. His discovery of a compilation album by Nick Drake entitled Heaven In A Wild Flower in ’87 gave this vision crucial impetus. Drake’s reknown was much slighter then than now, but the record’s impact was such that Duffy decided to christen the new band using a lyric from one of Drake’s songs. The trio, now reborn as The Lilac Time, soon signed to a small independent label called Swordfish, which, with little fanfare, released their (eponymously titled) debut album to quietly enthusiastic reviews at the tail end of ’87.

The switch to making more traditional music surprised many. Stephen’s pop pedigree was undisputed. He had after all been the founder of Duran Duran, and had written sizeable hits (‘Kiss Me’ and ‘Icing On The Cake’) not without flair and finesse. He was unmistakably a savant, his lyrics knowing and clever (how many Top 10 smashes possess lines such as “When I grow old I won’t forget / To innocence my only debt”?) On The Lilac Time, his pop sensibilities would remain intact, seeing him pen songs like ‘Return To Yesterday’ which had a chorus The Monkees would have died for, alongside its own banjo-fuelled rustic charm. In a similar vein, ‘Together’ was masterfully crafted and equally joyous. Pop would always be part of the package, but elsewhere Stephen finally sounded free to explore the music he loved, liberated from any pressure to populate the charts with hits.

To open the album with ‘Black Velvet’ was not only a brave move, but also a perfect calling card for Duffy’s second coming. As gentle as a snowflake, it sounds as if Stephen is hiding from the world – in some ways he was – but the sheer beauty and poetry of the lyric [“Found me a language that talks without blackmail…/ I called for you without words / And you answered like a kiss.”] slowly sweet-talk the sparse instrumentation out of the shadows, and if one listens closely enough, the  little cracks and tremors of yearning in his voice lend the song huge emotional weight.

‘Love Becomes A Savage’ mines even greater depths. [“And if you get married / You’ll find out that it’s true / Love becomes a savage / Who’s going to savage you.”] Frank, more than a tad fearful (oh youthful pessimism!), genuinely erotic, possibly even a little self-righteous, it – for a fleeting moment – appears to cradle in its arms the secret to happiness in human relationships, only to concede – like sand slipping through one’s fingers – to their impossible fragility. It’s the sort of thing Leonard Cohen may well have conjured up, although Lenny, God rest him, would no doubt have been tempted to inject a profanity or two into the mix. For art’s sake.

These two songs could have been written yesterday. That the album made few concessions to modernity lends it a certain timelessness and consequently it has aged remarkably well. Even its humble sleeve – with a picture of the house where the band rehearsed – suggested a new back-to-basics stoicism. Only the gothic country of ‘Rockland’ incorporates some technology of sorts. Indeed, it could quite feasibly read as a prescient state of the nation address [“Our leaders are assassin’s friends / And we aren’t needed for their ends / No industry or open wars / They cut health care and lock the doors.”]

Duffy must have divined he was onto something special and he was determined to make it happen. After only a few months on the shelves the band signed to Fontana, and The Lilac Time was quickly  given a production makeover and reissued in early ’88. There issued one deviation in the album’s running order (‘Rockland’ swapped places with ‘Return To Yesterday’), but it was on the more uptempo tracks where one noticed the extra polish and depth of the remix, particularly on ‘You’ve Got To Love’ and ‘Too Sooner Later Than Better’, both of which were virtually hoedown barndancers by comparison to ‘Love Becomes A Savage’, surely symptomatic of the underlying musical contentment of its creators. But it did also contain more elusive moments, harder to read, such as the bittersweet ‘Road To Happiness’ whose theme seems strangely at odds with the solemnity of its music, which could be preparing for its own burial.

‘And The Ship Sails On’ meanwhile is without doubt one of the great lost pop songs of the ’80s. ‘Return To Yesterday’ may have made a more obvious choice as 45, but it could quite as easily have been this. It is a picnic on the meadow in summertime, a curtain blowing gently before the stillest ocean, and is the song that The Lightning Seeds always wanted – but were never quite able – to make [“And the ship sails on / And when our lives have gone / What epitaph will mean a thing? / What’re you gonna say when the phone don’t ring? / Was your life quite good? / And were your book shelves made out of wood? / To hold the books they write when their heroes die / And the loss they always find / Beyond words.”] Pure gold. And to finish, Duffy instituted a Lilac Time tradition by closing the album with an instrumental, the gorgeous ‘Trumpets From Montparnasse’, whose stark banjo plucking gives way to a magnificently rebellious melody that meanders its way through the Balkans until it comes across some singing travellers, with whom it dances the night away in front of the fire. And there’s not a trumpet to be heard anywhere!

It’s sometimes easy to forget just how many brilliant wordsmiths there were making music in the ‘80s (Morrissey, Costello, McGowan, McAloon, MES, Tom Waits, Nick Cave etc). But few have lasted the pace as well as Stephen Duffy. He has made consistently great music over the last 30 years, and the band’s latest offering Return To Us, scheduled for release later this year, even features on its sleeve the aforementioned old rehearsal house from the first album. Perhaps things have come full circle for Stephen Duffy. But whether or not there is more to come from him, it remains undeniable that on The Lilac Time his tongue danced like a butterfly and his fingers ached to touch. The music may have been as gentle as a feather floating through the air. But when that feather came to rest on the surface of the ocean, what great depths lay beneath. To paraphrase a certain man, his songs were innocent as doves and yet wise as serpents. (JJ)

Interview with Stephen Duffy, July 2018

TNPC: When you started out together how did you envisage The Lilac Time? It seemed at the time a strange digression from Ups & Downs. 

SD: There were hints – B sides – the version of ‘Wednesday Jones’ that came out on an ep – but certainly songs like ‘Sunday Supplement’ and ‘Julie Christie’ on the Because We Love You album. A song called ‘Cocksure from that time could have been on the first Lilac Time album. To me though The Ups & Downs was the digression.

I was always a folkie. The Incredible String Band were the first band I ever saw was I was 9 or 10 and remain my favourite band. They were produced by Joe Boyd who went on to produce Nick Drake & Fairport Convention who were also very important to me. Bob Dylan was a major obsession for me in my teens. Planet Waves was released when I was 14, Blood on the Tracks and The Basement Tapes when I was 15, Desire – 16. In-between discovering the other previous 12 records, I even bought Dylan. I loved the Pat Garret & Billy the Kid soundtrack. I found the Albert Hall bootleg in someone’s record collection. It was all mind blowing to the teenage me. It still is.

But it was the release of the Nick Drake compendium Heaven in a Wild Flower and the first UK terrestrial television broadcast of Don’t Look Back in 1986 that forced the issue. I recorded half of the Lilac Time album (‘Return To Yesterday’, ‘Rockland’, ‘And the Ship Sails On’ and a couple of othersas my next Virgin/10 album. They wanted me to make dance records so I knew they’d hate it. I was dropped. So I recruited Nick and Michael and called it the Lilac Time and recorded the rest of it.

TNPC: Did your approach to making music closely reflect what you were listening to at the time? Beyond Nick Drake, were you influenced by contemporary songwriters (Morrissey, Forster & McLennan etc)?

SD: The Smiths, Prefab Sprout, REM, The Replacements, Echo & The Bunnymen I’d always check out their new releases but I don’t know if they had any direct influence. I was still too enthralled by the mechanics of the old records and perhaps too jealous of everyone else’s success. There was so much old stuff to discover. I’d been hip to the Witchseason artists, Dylan, The Beatles and The Stones. And then came the great punk wars which put a dent in things. After that it was all about playing catch up. Tim Hardin, Townes Van Zandt, Gram Parsons, Later Byrds albums. So much to listen to and all in the second hand stores in their original pressings with any luck.

I was and still am great friends with Nick Laird Clowes of the Dream Academy, his enthusiasm for music was an influence. I think I got heavily into Crosby Stills Nash & Young at this point. I wanted my own Broken Arrow ranch which took us the Hereford side of the Great Malvern Hills. I was reading a lot of Iris Murdoch too.

TNPC: Songs like ‘Black Velvet’ perfectly capture that quintessential Englishness, that many strive for but few are able to achieve. What inspired the lyric here and can you please tell me where is ‘Butcher Town’?

SD: I got really drunk one night with the best friend of one of my exes. Which led, tortuously and eventually, to a relationship. This was the night spent falling down on Black Velvet. That was the starting point. Black Velvet in the Fox on Hurst Street was cider and Guinness. There is a Buchertown in Louisville Kentucky but here it substitutes for Birmingham.

I’d been reading a lot of twentieth century poetry, just beginning to grasp its immensity and greatness and wanting assimilate or subsume some of that vast poetical warp and woof into the songs. I figured I could go further, that I’d been holding back in a kitchen sink drama of my own making. I was very taken by a Stephen Spender poem called Your Body Is Stars. (“Your body is stars whose million glitter here/I am lost amongst the branches of this sky/Here near my breast, here in my nostrils, here/Where our vast arms like streams of fire lie.”) And on the day I read it I wrote ‘Black Velvet’, ‘Road To Happiness’ and ‘Love Becomes A Savage’. Poetry was quite potent back then.

TNPC: When you wrote ‘Love Becomes A Savage’, was the lyric contemporaneous with the experience you mention or were you speaking about something from the past? It’s such a beautiful song lyrically, but I’ve always felt raw listening to it, like I’m intruding on something far too private and personal.

Yes, it’s become my Lady of the Island. Too embarrassing to sing, although we did at last years Port Eliot Festival. We were going to play the whole thing but I got too bored with it in rehearsal. I didn’t want to inhabit that 27 year olds shoes and limitations. Originally “love becomes a savage who’s going to savage you” was “loves a noble savage who’s going to damage you”. I changed it because I felt the noble savage was a racist concept and not something philosophical of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This hunch was proved right but I only found out when they invented the internet. So after the noble savage disappeared it became more personal. Why did people, usually my girlfriends, want to get married when all of the young married people I knew seemed so unhappy and destined for divorce? Speaking as a 57 year old whose life was perhaps saved by marriage I wouldn’t write it now. But it was true then. You don’t get many songs about female pubic hair these days and I think the world is commensurately worse off.

TNPC: The Lightning Seeds would trade their England shirts for German ones to be able to write something as effortlessly brilliant as ‘And The Ship Sails On’. Were you not tempted to release it as a 45, or did ‘Return To Yesterday’ seem a more obvious choice?

SD: I wonder why we never remixed ‘And The Ship Sails On’?It was a big step for me to go “I’m not going to try and come up with a new riff, I’m going to use the ‘Sweet Jane’, ‘Love Minus Zero’, ‘If Not For You’ chords instead.” I think I’ve written three or four others subsequently, ‘In The Evening Of Her Day’ being the best. I suppose we thought “beyond words” wasn’t a big hook. ‘Return to Yesterday’ is a bit of a mission statement though isn’t it? It tells you all you need to know about the band and the state of the world. We’ve got one on the new album the title track Return To Us.

The next single was ‘You’ve Got To Love’ which started off with a line of Bobby Sands but I can’t remember which now, or if it made it to the finished track. Then we remixed ‘Black Velvet and out it out at Christmas but it didn’t knock Noddy of his perch.

On the Dreaming tour just before we split up in 1991 this guy would come to the gigs and request “Ship, Ship!” he’d shout. We had a guitarist with us on that tour and our shouter thinking he might not know it alternated shouting “Ship“ with shouting the chords “C to F” he’d shout “C to F”.

TNPC: ‘Trumpets From Montparnasse’ sounds completely joyous, almost like a Balkan wedding band at the height of the festivities. Tell us a little about it…

I wonder when I said to Nick “Do you have an instrumental to finish the album?” We’ve certainly stuck with it. All 10 albums have instrumentals, lilac6 has two. It’s our most heard song as it was used as a Flora margarine advert and a television programme about narrow boating. I love a banjo tune being called Trumpets. The new one on ‘lilac 10’ is called ‘King Kopetsky’.

TNPC: The Lilac Time is a record shrouded in mystery. [Appears to little fanfare on relatively obscure label late ‘87, a few glowing reviews, disappears briefly, returns ‘remixed’ in early ‘88] but has slowly garnered great critical acclaim over the years. Did you have a sense that this was a great record? Was its temporary disappearance an act of desperation – did it need another push to try to seek a wider audience? Or had Fontana noticed its potential and made particular demands? Or was the remix less to do with the record’s marketability and more for artistic reasons? Looking back, what would you say is the difference between the two versions?

SD: There was a third version released by Mercury Records in the United States of America. I felt at the time this was the best version. It had the ‘Black Velvet‘ remix on it. I wonder if I have a copy. David Bates at Fontana wanted remixes and I was happy to do them. We added more backing vocals. I think I replayed the bass on something. It sounded better to me although I’m sure the Swordfish version is charming.

We were finishing the record in August/September 1987 and I called up Swordfish records in Birmingham, a record shop and a label, and I asked them if they could turn the record round before Christmas. They said yes and so they did. I’d known Gareth and Mike since the Duran days so it was very friendly and collegiate. We’d recorded the record at Bob Lamb’s studio which was also in Birmingham. The house on the cover was where we rehearsed.

I sent a few records off to the press and everyone gave it good reviews. We then should’ve signed with Go Disc which would’ve been cooler. But my manager thought sign with the big guys. I got a big publishing advance from Lucian Grange who now owns the music business and bought a house in the Malverns which was kind of impractical. Mercury were trying to break us in the States and we’re rehearsing in a 17th century farm house without a phone…

TNPC: Have you always been more content to live in the shadows – or has that been more by accident than design? You seem to have slipped out of the spotlight at important moments. Anything to do with pressure, fear of compromising your artistic integrity or have there been other factors?

SD: I was very briefly a pop star and I think I’ve pretended to be a pop star ever since. I thought it would be easier than coming up with another pose. It’s easier to do this kind of thing if you pretend to be a pop star because pop stars think everything they say is interesting. But truthfully if you’ve had a hit in the eighties you are exempt from certain things. You don’t have to go out in the rain for instance and of course you can wear sunglasses at night.

I alternate pretending to being a popstar with genius of this parish and slightly tipsy unpublished poet. None of these make you a hit at dinner parties or indeed in the public bar.

I think I’ve always expected great success but have always been contrary. If dance music is big I assume people will want country pop folk rock. My shoegaze grunge era record I made with Nigel Kennedy. I made my Brit pop era record in Kernesville North Carolina with Mitch Easter. My memoir is called What The Fuck Was I Thinking?

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124. MY BLOODY VALENTINE- ISN’T ANYTHING (1988)

First things first, Isn’t Anything > Loveless.  I’ve written regularly in these pages about the music of 1988, and twice during the course that year, in Glasgow and Manchester, I was fortunate enough to witness the new improved My Bloody Valentine in action. The title of their second (mini) album Ecstasy (released late ’87) had promised euphoria but hadn’t really delivered. Still, the record was a marked improvement over those early shambling – if faintly charming – singles and EPs for which the critics as well as the record-buying public had little time. By summer of ’88 however their ‘You Made Me Realise’ EP had completely transformed indie guitar music in the UK. If there remained subtle traces of the familiar janglepop, those pretty melodies were now buttressed by dissonant metallic chunks culled from the Transatlantic sounds of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. But songs such as the ravishing ‘Slow’ confirmed the extent of their reinvention, owing as little to C86 as to US Hardcore, and sounded as if they had discovered sex and noise on the same day, fully immersing themselves in both without the slightest inhibition. This was an altogether more enthralling proposition, so much so that, surveying the audiences at those gigs, one envisaged every boy suddenly reimagining himself as Kevin Shields, stealing the odd glance at those guitar pedal boards whenever his gaze could avert itself for one moment from Bilinda Butcher.

Holed up in the studio surviving on little more than two hours sleep per night, the conditions were less than ideal for making music, and the album sleeve with its bleached out faces mirrored the opaque out-of-focus blissfulness contained within. MBV would prove themselves to be master manipulators of sound gliding their guitars through accelerating/decelerating warped arcs of noise, procuring shivering little eargasms all over the place. The hard graft on the album’s opening track ‘Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside)’ was undertaken by Debbie Googe’s bass which maps out a melody over a grating twisting dragging guitar riff, which can’t be bothered to get going at all, with the beat equally laborious, as if Colm was nodding out or the drum machine had broken down.

That almost post-coital languor and imprecision characterises much of the album – be it the hushed crescendos of ‘Lose My Breath’ or the whirring cloudbusting atmospherics of ‘No More Sorry’, while on ‘Cupid Come’ the verses collapse on top of one another, almost as if Colm had accidentally overextended the beat by a few lengths, forcing the others to slow down to accommodate his error. It’s not all hazy and nebulous atmospherics of course, with ‘(When You Awake) You’re Still In A Dream’ and ‘Feed Me With Your Kiss’ proving that Shields, despite the blurry weightlessness elsewhere, still had a penchant for some good old-fashioned rifferama.

At its pinnacle, on ‘All I Need’ (there is nothing quite so ‘out there’ on Loveless I assure you) we find MBV rewriting the rule book completely to create one of the most authentically psychedelic things I’ve ever heard. Here our intrepid sonic explorers climb aboard some pulsing spacecraft attempting to negotiate its way through the eye of a terrifying cosmic intergalactic battle – comets flying in every direction – with the machine’s engine slowly burning up. Or at least that’s what I’m hearing.

On Side Two the tempo and energy is relentless. ‘Feed Me With Your Kiss’ was the follow up to ‘You Made Me Realise’ released just prior to the album itself – this one’s all about the rhythm section. If at times on the album Colm’s drumming is narcoleptic almost arrhythmic, here he could be Keith Moon on a strict diet of super strength amphetamine while Googe’s skullcrushing pummeling bass riff drives the whole thing. You shall submit. ‘Sueisfine’ (is that really what we’re hearing?) meanwhile could be Husker Du blasting out ‘Blue Jay Way’ inside a hornet’s nest. But almost everywhere else, buried beneath those layers of distortion are melodies to die for. ‘Nothing Much To Lose’ (almost conventional by the rest of the album’s standards) is torn to shreds by a monster riff and a blizzard of feedback, while the dark droning  beauty of ‘I Can See It (But I Can’t Feel It)’ leaves us aching and aching for more.

At the very least the sonic leap forward from Ecstasy to Isn’t Anything is a far greater one than that from Isn’t Anything to Loveless. Loveless gets all the plaudits, perhaps rightly so – it took three years to refine the rawness of the experiments on Isn’t Anything, and is in some ways the latter album is even more pinkly delicious, but by then we fully expected it to be so, and I actually recall it coming as something of a minor disappointment at the time. By contrast not a soul would have been disappointed by Isn’t Anything, bursting as it with ideas and energy and awash with sheer beautiful ecstatic noise.  (JJ)

123. ISAAC HAYES – BLACK MOSES (1971)

Before immersing myself in his music in the early ‘90s, I had long imagined Isaac Hayes to have a penchant for sheepskin rugs and mirrored ceilings. How else was I to read that sly smile on his lips and the kilo of gold hanging from his neck? I always suspected the ‘love woes’ of which he sang to be indulgent exercises in self pity, narcissistic, and possibly even imaginary altogether. And there, on his fifth studio album Black Moses, the velvet-voiced lothario was at it again. The confessions he whispered on ‘Ike’s Rap II’ (“I abused you, took advantage of you, used you selfishly”) existed only as the preamble to renewed utterances of seduction.

In that sense Black Moses appeared to be a triumph of opulence over frugality, and artifice over sincerity. Yet as I was later to discover, Hayes recorded these songs during a wretched time in his personal life. “When I recorded Black Moses in 1971, my marriage was breaking up and I was broken-hearted,” he recounted to author Vivien Goldman. “Most of the titles were about relationships ending. I used to stand in front of the mic and cry. I had to have my secretary hold my hand while I was singing tunes like ‘Help Me Love’.” Indeed, on that particular track, one can hear him edge ever closer to emotional breakdown with a near deranged “ple-ea-ea-eaaaase” falsetto at 3:39 and again at 6:56, those ascending strings continuously strangled by the mournful brass tugging from below as if to hammer the point home: God, how hard it is to get up when you’re broken.

It seems my initial judgement of Hayes’ music had been grossly unfair. I had underestimated him, mistrusted him even. Foolish of me, for paradoxically, when it came to the task of reworking others’ songs, there is no one I would have trusted more than Isaac Hayes. No one. Despite his hugely successful songwriting partnership with David Porter which yielded major hits for Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Johnnie Taylor and many other Stax artists in the late 60s, Ike had established himself first and foremost as a masterful interpreter of others’ songs. By the time of Black Moses, his music had become almost exclusively about those extravagant embellishments which had become progressively more ambitious in scope. There didn’t seem to be any three minute classic Hayes couldn’t stretch into fifteen, all the while keeping you captivated, often hypnotised, until the very last note (He once famously quipped that this allowed radio DJs sufficient time to nip out for a coffee!)

‘Walk On By’ and ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ from the groundbreaking Hot Buttered Soul, ‘I Stand Accused’ from The Isaac Hayes Movement, ‘Our Day Will Come and ‘The Look Of Love’ from To Be Continued were cases in point – they were extraordinary recreations, some of which contained lengthy monologues before transforming into masterfully hypnotic extended grooves. Hayes had been blessed with a divine gift, and the four sides of Black Moses afforded him ample opportunity to flaunt it in style.

The choice of material at times may have confounded expectations, but almost everything worked well, sometimes spectacularly well. The smouldering takes of ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ and Gamble & Huff’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ (first recorded by Jerry Butler) are expertly handled. The bubbling organ of Toussaint McCall’s ‘Nothing Takes The Place Of You’ (made more famous on William Bell’s Soul Of A Bell album) and the earthy bump and grind of ‘Good Love’ add a little southern grit to proceedings while ‘Part-time Love’ is euphoric and funky. Far from pedestrian but undoubtedly less ambitious are his takes of ‘For The Good Times’ and ‘I’ll Never Fall In Love Again’. Elsewhere folks we’re talking seriously blissed out. Underneath their weighty orchestration Scott Walker’s songs may have creaked with existential angst, but for Isaac Hayes the luxurious accompaniment seemed – despite his emotional turmoil – entirely designed to bestow pleasure. ‘A Brand New Me’ had been recorded exquisitely by Jerry Butler, Dusty Springfield and Aretha Franklin, but is distilled by Ike to perfection. Here, as elsewhere on the album, much of the credit must lie with the incredible backing vocals provided by Rose Williams and sisters Pat and Diane Lewis (aka Hot Buttered and Soul). That paradisiacal chorus of “It’s just because of you” seems like it is destined never to end, and indeed why would you want it to?

‘Going In Circles’, written by Jerry Peters and Anita Poree, had already been a hit for the Friends Of Distinction, but it is as nothing compared to Hayes’ spiralling rendition with its lavish orchestration, near hysterical falsetto and – the genius part – a stunning shadow melody played out on those horns from the Milk Tray adverts of the ‘70s. The moody loungecore template of ‘Your Love Is So Dog-gone Good’ repeats that trick and could have worked perfectly as one of those mainstream late ‘60s films masquerading as modernist / arthouse, or at least as something you might have imagined Pearl & Dean producing for period cinema advertising in between the trailers. Then there are two Curtis Mayfield-penned covers, ‘Man’s Temptation’ and ‘I Need To Belong To Someone’, each borrowed from the Impressions’ 1966 classic Ridin’ High LP. The former features a dramatic intro and sweeping strings alongside some seriously taut wah wah guitar from Charles ‘Skip’ Pitts making it overall a slightly more gritty outing than its companion. The latter is a little shorter, beginning with electric piano and skyscraping strings before adding stabs of brass and those coiled guitar licks (worthy of Cropper or Mayfield himself), but both are marvellously OTT. He even takes the  mammoth MOR hit by the Carpenters, ‘(They Long To Be) Close To You’, immediately locating the g-spot of its melody, before scaffolding around it honeycoated rhythms (by the marvellous Bar-Kays) and supremely unctuous sighs and harmonies.

That divine inspiration is present not only in the music but also in the visible portrayal of him as Biblical African-American prophet on the album’s sleeve. The title was conferred upon him by an enthusiastic security guard at one of his shows and envisaged him as a uniting figure for black Americans, leading them out from slavery and finally breaking those chains of bondage. Nevertheless Hayes was anxious about how the sleeve (which folded out to reveal him in a crucified pose) might be interpreted by the media. At the time a Christian himself, he recalled “I thought it a bit sacrilegious. But when I realised the relevance it had to black people, I wore it with pride.”

Hayes moved soul music forward at a brisker pace than many would give him credit for and his records sound incredibly modern today, which is doubtless why his songs (he surely earned the right to call them his) have been so heavily sampled by artists ranging from Portishead to Public Enemy. Black Moses stands as perhaps his most definitive (certainly his most comprehensive) artistic statement and is a fitting testament to his genius. (JJ)

122. AR KANE – SIXTY NINE (1988)

No subsequent calendar year has yielded quite the same abundance of brilliant new music as 1988 did. Looking back, I could barely keep pace with it all, and neither could my student grant. It seemed an altogether more adventurous time, more creative. Everywhere bands seemed to be taking risks, determined to outdo one another in their inventiveness – artists who sounded very diverse musically, seemed connected by some invisible thread of inspiration. Daydream Nation, Surfer Rosa, Blue Bell Knoll,16 Lovers Lane, Miss America, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, Hairway To Steven, Tender Prey, Bug, The House Of Love, Bummed, House Tornado, California all nuzzled up beside one another on record store racks itchy with expectation.

But even these terrific records sounded little more than the next natural step in the artistic evolution of their creators. Two other albums – by contrast both radical departures – would deliver a more significant sonic leap forward: Isn’t Anything by My Bloody Valentine and Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden. And then there was Sixty Nine, the only debut album of ‘88 whose vision reached as far as, and possibly even beyond that of its contemporaries.

And yet, upon first listen, Sixty Nine was for me a major disappointment. Often the most adventurous albums elicit that initial impression. It certainly did not sound as I had expected it would, but in hindsight that shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

They weren’t wilful obscurantists, but intrinsic to AR Kane’s mission was the desire to break with convention, defy expectations. It is unsurprising, given that Alex Ayuli had been the brains behind successful creative PR campaigns for Saatchi & Saatchi, that he and Rudy Tambala were savvy in their dealings with the music media, presenting as much or as little as they felt expedient, carefully nurturing their own enigma in the process. To begin with they were two black London boys reared on a diet of dub, jazz and dance music, who were making ‘rock’ music seemingly tailored for the indie market. If that sounds like a crass or racist comment, this was most certainly out of the ordinary in 1988. Their name was somewhat obtuse too, even if on closer inspection it could be at least partially decoded; thirdly, rather confusingly, their first three EPs were each on different labels (One Little Indian, 4AD, Rough Trade) – were these guys petulant, demanding, awkward to deal with?; then there was the collaboration with Colourbox on the MARRS single ‘Pump Up The Volume’, which seemed a bizarre move (it wasn’t really – AR Kane were responsible for the flip side – a very different proposition from the runaway chart-topper); finally the music itself – hazy, nebulous, fluorescent, ecstatic, whether drowned in feedback or shrouded in dubby experimentation – was almost impossible to categorise. So Alex and Rudy were left to do that themselves, coining the term ‘dreampop’, and inventing a new genre into the bargain. It was an apt definition in the sense that their career followed the logic of a dream, each move they made unprecedented, sometimes downright confusing to the point of being frustrating, but never what one had the right to expect from them.

If there was sufficient thematic unity in those early EPs, with a few instantly recognisable touchstones (The Cocteau Twins, The Jesus & Mary Chain), yet there was always another dimension to their sound, as if they were reaching beyond the infinite. The Up! Home EP was a case in point, and had critics near tongue tied in their loquacious commendation. Still, no one could have anticipated what was to come next, possibly even Alex and Rudy themselves. And that is the point. The pair’s “fragile but telepathic” sixth sense ensured the process of composing and recording the album would be an organic one, spontaneous, unpredictable, as they indulged their love of jazz, dub, world musics and the avant garde. With the resources at their disposal from their recently acquired 16-track studio (for AR Kane always a crucial instrument in itself), which they embedded in the basement of Alex’s mum’s house, they sought to capture on tape the pearls of inspiration issuing freely from their collective imaginations.

The opening track provided scant indication of the almost polymorphic iridescence which would follow. That’s not to suggest ‘Crazy Blue’ is a conventional rock track. It was anything but, the bass (courtesy Ray Shulman, ex of prog band, Gentle Giant) providing almost all of the melodic content, the main guitar line gently metronomic, with the second pealing like a hundred broken bells clanging inside an aluminium cage. The elasticism of the bass becomes more taut on ‘Suicide Kiss’, sucking into its vacuum washes of feedback as guitars seeking an escape route eventually burst the walls of the dam and suddenly we’re left with Hendrix submerged beneath the waves bashing out an orgiastic version of ‘If Six Was Nine’! It was this kind of noise which gave rise to the description ‘oceanic rock’.

‘Baby Milk Snatcher’ (read Thatcher – in ‘88 edging towards her last moments as PM) successfully harnesses together the archetypal (Wobble-y) bottom end (this time by regular bassist Russel Smith) and the band’s flight towards the stars. There are little sonic shoots sprouting all over the place, and here, the feedback which drowned the version on the Up! Home EP is absent allowing the band’s masterful use of space and dynamics to take centre stage. Lyrically, like in much of their work, there was no overtly political sentiment, in its place vaguely erotic inferences (“Baby suck seed slow slow slow”), which often seemed a by-product of the prevailing atmosphere of playful experimention.

If those two tracks are definitively left field, the brief acoustic wriggle of ‘Scab’ threatens to rein the weirdness back in again, but we are soon reassured by arguably the least reassuring piece on the album, ‘Sulliday’, which closes the first side. One imagines the preliminaries to have included a discussion around how many different sounds guitars can make. It captures what sounds like a lengthy experimental (de)tuning of their instruments, sewing sounds on top of this static industrial heartbeat, while a madman sings gentle lullabies to himself. It’s, shall we say, ‘out there’.

If ‘Sulliday’ takes us close to the abyss, then ‘Dizzy’ drags us kicking and screaming inside the corridors of the asylum itself, the solitary cello solemnly soundtracking Alex’s deranged call and response. It’s a disturbing noise, recalling Beefheart’s hysterical wails over Jeff Cotton’s lead vocal on ‘Pena’. In complete contrast, ‘Spermwhale Trip Over’ is surely the prettiest thing here. If the template is undoubtedly Robin Guthrie, yet the waltzing rhythm and wiry fluorescent guitar shapes take us into even more blissful territory. It may be wise for novices to begin here.

Until now the album has had something of a schizophrenic feel: blissed out but chaotic, unsettling but narcoleptic. But now it’s time to throw caution to the wind, and with painstaking concentration enter once and for all into the void. From this point forward Rudy and Alex elevate Sixty Nine onto a higher plane altogether. This is not some embracing of art for arts sake, but a total surrender to the moment. In truth, I’ve no idea how they created the astonishing sounds on ‘The Sun Falls Into The Sea’ and I wish I’d asked Rudy when I had the chance, but those shimmering uncoiling filigrees of guitar are like the ultimate aural benediction. “Cast your shadows like dreams and whispers/And I can see your breath/The sun is on the sea” sings Alex, enraptured, possessed, but what are words anyhow? For now they are meaningless.

The penultimate track, ‘The Madonna Is With Child’ is just as gorgeous – a patient spiral of piano, injections of shrieking feedback and Alex, lost to the muse. Then, finally, a doff of the cap to Miles Davis with the aquatic abstraction of ‘Spanish Quay’, its eddying guitar pattern returning us safely to the harbour,

AR Kane’s very next move was the Listen Up 12-inch, which saw them more openly incorporate their dance roots. A flawed but ambitious double album (‘i’) would follow in ‘89. It was poppier if less intense but showcased an even broader range of influences. Their profile then dipped significantly – with sporadic recordings until the mid-‘90s – although many bands have cited them as a formative influence, including Bark Psychosis, Seefeel and Slowdive. Over the past few years, Rudy has been working once again under the name AR Kane. I spoke with him about the early days and in particular his recollections about the making of Sixty Nine. (JJ)

Interview with Rudy Tambala (January 2018)

Your early EPs invited comparisons with The Cocteaus and The Jesus & Mary Chain, yet you claimed at the time all you were listening to was Miles Davis! Were you just playing with the press? 

“Not sure we said that. From the start, we cited CTs as a big influence; they made us want to start a band. But it was as much their spirit of newness, experimentation, as it was their actual sound. We were not indie fans, didn’t even know what indie was. We were very much into Miles and Coltrane and Sun Ra, and similarly, more for the spirit than the actual sound. Although we loved the sound too. As for JAMC, I remember Alex getting the album because someone that’d seen us live said we sounded like them, so we played it one evening when we were song writing and decided to approach one song with some of the elements, specifically the feedback layers of noise and the big reverbed drums. That was our first single, but not really anything after that. Oh, and the attitude. I would say that Cindytalk and Joy Division and Bowie were just as much an influence at that time. I had been to university and been exposed to so many different musical styles from people I met. Likewise, Alex was out in the big bad world, getting influenced by stuff. So yeah, maybe playing with them a bit, the writers, but there was a core of truth; our main musical influence was a free kind of jazz, and experimental music, like the dreamscapes you hear on the 80’s ECM label, that Manfred Eicher sound, a kind of jazz rooted in a European tradition, as opposed to, or maybe complementary to, the African blues root.”

The Up Home! EP was in many ways a blueprint for the Shoegaze Scene, albeit much more than that. Simon Reynolds hailed it as rock’s “Antarctica – its final petrifying spell”. When you read reviews like that, how did you respond at the time? 

“We laughed. Sometimes we rolled on the floor crying with laughter, reading bits to each other aloud between hysterical fits. It was a way of coping I guess. It was so over the top, like these writers were competing with each other to compose the most pretentious and absurd prose, but absurdity as art. We knew what was happening; a symbiotic relationship with Simon and a few other intellectuals. We, as people on ‘the scene’, and our sound, for a while, defied categorisation, and so this gave them a big space to play in. At the same time it was amazing, to be found interesting, at that level; these were not blogs, they were music fans’ weekly bibles. People we knew, so-called friends, were freaked. Envious. They didn’t see the humour in it all, and they didn’t get why the press loved our sound so much. We made it look easy, to get in the press every week, but we were not actually doing it. We knew we were not in control of it, so we decided to just enjoy the trip. It encouraged us to go even further out there. That was the best effect.”

Hearing Sixty Nine was a real shock at the time. It wasn’t like anything else you’d done. Had that always been the plan – to create something quite different from the EPs, or did the sound and direction develop organically in the studio? On first listen, it sounded quite formless? 

There were some things that we figured out early, one being that the studio is itself an instrument. Growing up with dub music this was natural. We recognised that in the pro recording studios we were limited in the level of experimentation we could achieve. We were treated like proper musicians. We never thought of ourselves in that way, it was quite limiting, and always a struggle “no, you can’t do it like that, it won’t work, this is the way it’s done…” and that kind of crap. Kill the idea before it wreaks havoc. Don’t get me wrong, working with Ray Shulman, Robin Guthrie, John Fryer; these guys were gods to us and the EPs we did with them were sublime, but we could not have done 69 with them, in the that familiar studio setup. We didn’t want to fight for our ideas, and we didn’t want to seek approval or ask permission. Even the subtlest of implied resistance would have killed the vibe we needed, the playful experimentation. We needed to understand how it all plugged together, how and why things were used. Then we needed to fuck it all up. We needed our own studio.  

So we took a small advance from Rough Trade and bought all the gear necessary for a 16 track studio, with a sequencer and a sampler and a drum machine, reverbs and fx boxes, a quirky ½” tape machine that gave the mixes a fat, warm and bright sound. Set it all up in Alex’s mums cellar underneath 53A Romford Road, Stratford, E.15. We hung old carpets over a couple doors to make a vocal booth. It was cramped and damp and smelly, but when we shut the door, it was like a starship to us. Lift off! We recorded and learned at the same time. Only way to do it. Without pro engineers, producers and pro attitudes, we were set free. We were in a state of extreme excitement the whole time. We were able to freely experiment and play. Yeah, playful freedom. Kids in candy store. We never had a particular structure in mind until it came to mastering the album. We went from one song to the next, without pause. Sometimes we brought in an idea, a guitar part, some words, whatever. Other times we just hit record and did stuff. Compiling the songs for the master is where the final structure started to crystallise, and we took the tapes to Abbey Road to do this. We expected the engineer to say it sounded shit, technically I mean, but he was really cool and said it sounded fine and didn’t really need much tweaking. I think we were influenced by records like Pink Floyd’s DSOTM, the idea of three-machine cross fades, to blend tracks, one into the next. To create something seamless, and let the narrative emerge. And welcome happy coincidences. Songs take on a different meaning, and the listener experiences things in a more holistic way. Great for tripping to, or so I am told. Might try that before I die. Just before.”

I always detected in there elements of PiL, Basement 5 etc. Were those influences conscious, subconscious or would you not acknowledge them at all? 

“PiL for sure. Alex owned everything they created, I had a couple LPs. The Jah Wobble bass, Levine’s Guitars, Lydon’s weird charismatic genius – this was to us a high standard. A very high standard. Basement 5 less so, although we knew some of their stuff, I think it was too obvious in a way, not the same spirit. I wonder if you pick them because they’re black and punky? Anyway, The On-U sound was a big influence too – Playgroup, New Age Steppers, etc. A Certain Ratio Sextet LP – still play that. The punky reggae vibe but very much out-there kinda thing I guess. 

Can you describe what the atmosphere was like in the studio during the recording? How long did it take to complete and who made key contributions apart from yourselves? 

Kinda already touched on that. Experimentation. The willingness to try an idea, go with it or kill it, quickly. The willingness to be surprised. A degree of discipline – we both had a strong work ethic – would start in eve’s after dinner and work thru till sunrise. Weekends we were like monks; locked away. H.Ark! Studio was out of bounds to girlfriends and old friends. We never recorded on drugs, but when we felt we had a mix we’d spliff up, sit back, hit the lights and have a proper mashup listen. We probably took a month to get all tracks down, but I’d need to check the masters for all the dates. We had several contributors. Russel Smith played bass on number of tracks. As did Ray Shulman, who doubled as mentor and technical guru. Billy McGee played cello. Maggie Tambala sang backing vocals. Stephen ‘Budgie’ Benjamin, clarinet. We’d just ring people and say, hey wanna come and play some shit on this, or what? Sometimes they gave us the ‘or what’. We were a bit stroppy. We upset a few folk. This was because we put the music above people’s feelings. If they weren’t cutting it, we said so. Without the least bit of tact. Listening to ‘Crazy Blue’ over Christmas, I remembered singing the bass line to Ray and saying, I want it to sound like that Weather Report sound. He played it in one take, with improvisations. Fucking amazing. Russel, our bassist and third member at the time arrived while Ray was laying. He was really pissed off. I think he may have left the band that day, but it’s al a bit of a blur. I must ask him. Russel was, in person, quite edgy. Nervous. Unconfident – is that a word? – in many ways. Hilariously funny, in a dark way. But when he picked up the bass he was a rock. Solid, calm, perfect feeling, tone and timing. I badgered Russel to bring in songs of his own for 69, but he never did. I remember he had a 4-track set up in his living room, with guitars and effects, and he was working on a version of ‘Golden Hair’, it was extremely far out. Would have been interesting if that had been on 69. He completely got us, and mentored me with hot knives and Sonic Youth, Syd Barrett, Butthole Surfers, Swans, and such things. He brought some real avant-rock knowledge into the band, without which I think we would have been less out there. Maggie would drift in, do her part, float out again. Spacy chick.  

Alex and I argued all the time, on every subject. We had been friends since we first met at primary school, aged 8. Our arguments were silly, like “Genesis are better than the Sex Pistols because …’, anything really. We enjoyed this exchange, and in retrospect I see we were just exploring and challenging each other, sharpening our wits. From this we developed our own language and a point of view. It was a clique of two. Sometimes, in a very cruel way, we would turn our wit onto others, and pick them apart, like pulling the wings off a fly.  We could be horrible. But anyway, I digress. The point I’m getting too, the relevant bit, is that over two decades we became very close, connected, to the point that when we discovered music, we no longer argued. We poured all that energy into discovering sounds, pushing each other further, supporting each other’s efforts. We hardly ever spoke when we were in the basement. It became a kind of telepathy. A trust. Very intense, but in that focused way you see when children are building something or drawing. As soon as it was right, good enough, we moved on. We instinctively avoided over doing it. We knew that we needed to leave imperfections.”

With something like ‘The Madonna Is With Child’, did it only last 4 minutes or was it culled from a longer improvisational piece? 

“That was pretty much it; a fade at the end but not much edited out. Interestingly, a cool US producer and fan offered to remix the entire album for the 30th anniversary, and I was wondering if it could be longer or different. Recording this weekend, a new song, and remembering how the experimentation works, I kind of felt it would be pointless to try and remix it. It is what it is. Was what it was. Of its time. It could be fun though.”

The album got a lot of good press – how did it do commercially? 

“It did pretty good. Number 1 in the indie charts. Can’t remember where it was on the pop charts. I remember around 60,000 units moving in the first year, across all formats and territories. I guess that’s OK for something so uncommercial sounding. If everyone that bought it played it right now, at full volume, it would make a right bloody racket. I don’t think we even thought about how ‘well’ it would do while we were making it. I listen to the radio from time to time, or hear music in shops and eateries, and always feel sad that once great pop songs that sold millions, for example from Motown, sound so worn out now, flat, like when you’re waiting for someone and can’t see the world around you. Guess I’m glad we made ours sound fucked up. Still sounds fresh. So yeah, commercially, did ok. When Rough Trade went down the pan in the 90’s, Brian Bonner from the pressing plant, and One Little Indian, swooped in like carrion crow and picked up our entire catalogue for pennies. They have sat on ‘69’ for 20 years and done nothing with it. I tried to get them to release the rights back to the band but they refused, they are a nasty bunch of artistic slavers. The contracts bands signed in the 80’s were a complete sham; so-called right on indie labels were worse than the majors, where at least they were upfront about raping you. These indie labels that coerce young talent into these deals are con men, dressed up as ‘the alternative’. They have no scruples, and little business talent, so they can only cut it by ripping off the artists. So, 69 and the rest of ‘our’ catalogue has been pretty much shelved, except an awful digital copy on iTunes that has completely lost the dynamics of the analogue master. OLI are threatening to re-release it this year on vinyl – they do not have the masters so it will probably be CD to vinyl. For Fucks Sake! This might be the saddest end to our story I can imagine. I personally will not endorse this. Our plans to play 30th anniversary shows this summer and re-release 69 ourselves from the original tape masters, are dead in the water. Rough Trade and OLI sold us down the river, to quote the prescient lyric of ‘WOGS’.

You always had one foot on the dance floor, with the MARRS project and it was no surprise to hear more of a rhythmic dimension to the sound on ‘I’. Did you and Alex see eye to eye on this? Was it your very eclecticism which caused things to unravel in the end or were there other factors? 

“We both grew up on dance music and clubbing, not indie rock, which is the whole fucking point, n’est-ce pas?. By age fourteen we were clubbing in the West End, doing bank holiday soul weekenders, vibing to jazz funk, funk, soul, ska and reggae, and the emergent electronic sounds from UK and Europe, Chicago and Detroit. Both feet solidly in the fucking dance floor. Alex and I were completely in sync about this, he would sing a melody to me, and I’d say wow, that’s like MFSB, we need strings, or I’d play a guitar chord and he’d send it to the Copycat tape echo to get that rythmic dub effect. Even in the more rocky songs, we tried to add a groove element, with beats or a deep bass. Sometimes it might just be implied, like on ‘Scab’. This is essentially what separated us from the indie bands, alienated much of the white indie crowd, and endeared us to other musicians, DJs and producers, like Andy Weatherall, David Byrne, Saint Etienne etc. I’ve said this before, about the ‘unravelling’ as you put it, that A.R. Kane was two people acting as one. Like when you are deeply in love. The telepathy, the connection, the intensity, all were necessary, and all were fragile. These essential ingredients did not survive physical separation, and so when Alex moved to California, A.R. Kane became A & R Kane. The connection was lost. We began to argue in the studio about the music we were supposed to be creating together. This was exactly like those moments of insanity in a relationship, when instead of fucking, you fight. You watch it happening, it’s unreal, like watching a bad moving with awful actors. The music suffered, it was less spontaneous, less honest. We didn’t so much forget how to do it, we could no longer, ‘sense’ how to do it. A shared sixth sense was lost. We used to call the actions derived from that sixth sense, ‘Kaning it’. If a track was slightly off, we’d say ‘let’s Kane it’, and it shifted us into a different way of working. Like a magic spell. Alex might turn his amp to 10, and chuck his guitar on the floor and attack it with a screw driver, or I might sample a door slamming and use it as the kick drum, or we might cut up the lyric and randomly rearrange the words, then start screaming them through a massive reverb, while I did a poor imitation of Theolonius Monk on the piano. There would be no discussion, just set it up quick, hit record, see what happens.” 

121. CALENTURE – THE TRIFFIDS (1987)

CALENTURE – THE TRIFFIDS (1987)

Calenture – a word so arcane, so esoteric that a compulsion was felt, either by Island Records or by the Triffids themselves, to carry its definition on the back cover: a tropical delirium which would, after months at sea, lead sailors to see the ocean as a field and wish to propel themselves towards it. A soaked mirage, you might say.
Daniel Defoe mentions it in Robinson Crusoe and another lesser-known novel, Captain Singleton; Joseph Conrad, remarkably, never seems to have referred to it at all, though something similar appeared to afflict many of his characters, notably the deranged, Gollum-like wretches which recur throughout his novels and are ripe for exploration in a PhD. The Triffids saw it as an apt metaphor not only, in a novel twist on a well-worn subject, for the nomadic existence of a touring band but also for their own deracination.
Like the Birthday Party and the Go-Betweens before them, the Triffids left Australia for the UK to get things done but there are probably more traces of their homeland in the records they made among the Poms than in those of their compatriots. Vast, uncultivatable inland spaces, jagged shores and tough lives of soil and toil largely prevailed on 1986’s Born Sandy Devotional over the stereotype of quasi-Californian coastal city lifestyles that was rapidly emerging through soap operas (more on that soon), linking it closely to their earlier records and making it a companion piece to REM’s Fables Of The Reconstruction – which was also recorded in London a few months earlier and had an even more forlorn yearning for a warmer, unreachably distant home.
Calenture,  by contrast, has appropriately, a ceaselessly flowing, liquid sound and is, unambigously, huge. In sound, scale and ambition, it dwarfs the sound of the Triffids’ contemporaries: of U2, whose multiplanetary success bankrolled the Triffids and who were filling spaces they could never approach; of the Waterboys, who had coined the term Big Music but were in fast retreat from it, and Echo and the Bunnymen, whose masterpiece Ocean Rain, for all its own grandeur, resembles a demo next to Calenture’s torrential kaleidoscope.
Much of the credit for the record’s water sculpture presentation lies with Gil Norton who, after reportedly unsuccessful tryouts with Craig Leon and Lenny Kaye, was brought back to revisit the sterling job he had done alongside the Triffids on Born Sandy Devotional (most of the Triffids were also fresh from backing Bill Drummond on his wonderfully odd solo album, The Man). Norton may have lacked the CBGB scene pedigree of his predecessors but knew how to make a sound swell, sheen and surge at the right time in the right way – he had already done so with the Bunnymen (among the ‘All Concerned’ who produced Ocean Rain) and Throwing Muses and would do so again with Blue Aeroplanes and, perhaps most celebratedly, Pixies on Doolittle.
It’s there on opener Bury Me Deep In Love, where agile strings, choir and tympani – loads of tympani – embellish the Triffids’ already florid core sound, resting on Jill Birt’s rich keyboard orchard and the magnificent voice of David McComb, one of the genuinely great male singers of his day, who steered Scott Walker from California and Paris, and Ian Curtis from Manchester and Berlin, to some unknown, but far from neutral, meeting ground. It was a voice that was emotional but never sentimental, strong but never brutish (not even when shouting on Born Sandy Devotional’s Stolen Property), vulnerable but never weak. On this song, he shifts the identity of the buried, from “me” to “him” to “them,” and the scene of the commanded burial, from a chapel to a precipice to the rocks below and back to a “tiny congregation” – just in time for the wedding of Neighbours characters Harold and Madge, which it would later soundtrack. Despite the song’s glories and universal sentiment, the British and Australian record-buying public instead opted for Suddenly by Angry Anderson when the bells rang in Ramsay Street again.
One of Calenture’s few flaws is exposed at the start of the solemn yet triumphant Kelly’s Blues. Birt whispers: “You think of everything, my dear, but you do not think of me” – and that’s the closest she gets to a lead vocal, despite leading her voice to some of their most vivid and stirring songs up to then (Raining Pleasure, Tarrilup Bridge, Tender Is The Night). Like McComb, her range isn’t huge – no falsetto or melisma in this band –  but she also brings this song a voiceless chorus on a piano figure that glows like a September sunset. It’s also seared by a clarion guitar that the Mission might have offered the same year and is a personal tour de force for future Bad Seed Martyn (P) Casey, whose elastic bass unleashes unexpected shafts of funk, not the Level 42/Seinfeld horrors that might be feared but a genuinely lithe journey to the lower end, following Les Pattinson’s highway code.
There’s an even more burnished piano twilight on Blinder By The Hour, a song which puts me right where it wants it like few others. The place is just off one of Bordeaux’s main thoroughfares, Rue Ste Catherine, and I’m transported there every time, “down Roman streets through your secret back door” – a line which echoes the puzzling entrances of Dylan’s Temporary Like Achilles and holds a similar sense of fervent yearning, while there’s a snapping regret at “the damn all we said and the damn all we wrote” that harks back to the Triffids’ own doom-laden Life Of Crime. And that chorus – the appeal for peace of “lay me down now,” the resignation to fate of “take me down,” which are a twist from the version recorded earlier in a woolshed for In The Pines, where the plea of “lay me out now” suggested abandonment to the vultures. Many times I sat there outside cafes with this impossibly beautiful song pursuing thoughts around my ahead – I barely feel able to do it justice and can only recommend you secure your own moment for it.

Jerdacuttup Man (named after a tiny Western Australian settlement) also shares imagery with Blinder By The Hour; again the narrator has sewn-up eyelids and teeth of dice but not without reason; he’s a 10,000-year-old prehistoric dweller sentenced to a living death as a museum exhibit. McComb’s monologue was largely seen as comical, with his character anachronistically blighted by “no luck in business” and shruggingly conceding “you could say I’m a chump.” But listen to his tumbling delivery of the second verse’s latter lines: “I tried to object but the words didn’t come/Say ‘you’re making a mistake boys, you’ve got the wrong one/I’m a little out of shape but I’m too young to go’/But my throat just seized up and it started to snow.” There’s a universe of here-and-now suffering in there – poverty, homelessness, miscarriage of justice – aptly set to an intermittent hammer-on-anvil/galley rowers’ rhythm and hauling slide guitar, though it makes periodic breaks for freedom on the unlikely wings of uillean pipes, which by 1987 were already a cliched signifier of Celtic authenticity and would be finally, irrevocably, Titanically tainted a decade later but actually work here by adding to the prehistoric murk.
A regrettable period detail is similarly avoided on Hometown Farewell Kiss, where a sax steps forward not once but twice to take a solo from a rearguard of growling Stax horns. Fortunately, it’s muted and enveloped in a packed and seemingly disparate arrangement, where organ, marimba, gospel voices and the steel guitar of ‘Evil’ Graham Lee also jostle for position – and somehow all manage to find it. Meanwhile, McComb blurs the line between literal and metaphorical as he tells mysteriously of “my hometown city burning down…I just came back to see the people and their houses burn” then issues the command for his name to be crossed off his lover’s “fiery list.”
And so another element arrives to challenge water’s dominance of Calenture but it’s short-lived, as Holy Water douses the flames with a sequencer undertow that’s at once metallic and mellifluous and a melody so effervescent that it’s odd it took almost a whole year after the album’s release for it to emerge as a (non-hit) single. It’s also the indirect source of the album’s title – when McComb came across the word that purred, he had already written the lyric which told of “an ocean like a meadow” and the coincidence couldn’t be fought.
The soothing washes of Save What You Can are the last word beyond which little can be added. It opens with a figure which would later be rejigged on tack piano by Neil Young on A Dream That Can Last and which speaks wordlessly of yearning, memories of sunsets, times which maybe really were as idyllic as you remember. It’s a song not so much about aging as power fading though changing times, time running out (“Time is against us, even love conspires to disgrace us…We used to walk in the flames/Now somebody’s taken my arms”) until self-preservation and self-interest become the only options (“You save of yourself what you can save…If you don’t get caught, then steal it all”). It comes over as a twist on the French equivalent of ‘every man for himself,’ which translates as ‘save yourself if you can’; it would be a punishingly sombre ending were it not for its glorious musical setting and the wit and open-heartedness which surround it elsewhere in the Triffids’ annals. It cuts as deep as Dive For Your Memory, which closed 16 Lovers’ Lane for their countrymen/women the Go-Betweens the following year; that is deep.
Following one more album, 1989’s diverse but uneven Black Swan, time was up for the Triffids. One horrible day a decade later, the news came through of David McComb’s death at the age of 36;  it truly choked me in its suddenness, its seeming arbitrariness and the feeling – not for the first time, certainly not for the last but profoundly just the same – of a life and voice stilled, an ornate and panoramic vision summarily extinguished.
The ripples of that vision spread over the years – to Shiva Burlesque, Midlake, Arcade Fire. Arcade Fire were of primary school age when the Triffids were in their prime, so theirs may be a coincidental or at-several-removes echo, but the shortest distance between two points can be traced between the two bands’ theatrical flourishes, the tension in both their native countries’ frontier struggle past and chic urban present, even their line-up dynamics, with siblings (David and guitarist/violinist Robert McComb) and a couple (Birt and drummer Alsy MacDonald).
Even so, despite their penchant for the anthemic (Win Butler has been honest enough to concede that his band has, even if only indirectly, inspired a good deal of pretty awful music) Arcade Fire have always sounded pretty lean and spindly next to the Triffids’ watercolour roar. Calenture has possibly aged better than any of their albums, lacking as it does the gated snare wallop of Born Sandy Devotional, the pointed downhomeness of In The Pines and some almost too-in-the-moment elements of The Black Swan. This shouldn’t be seen as a dismissal of any of those still magnificent records but, for exquisite, pomposity-free orchestral rock music, Calenture is right up there with Forever Changes, Paris 1919 and the aforementioned Ocean Rain – it’s that good (PG).

120. GENE CLARK – WHITE LIGHT (1971)

The Perfect Collection was crammed full of records by The Byrds. Hardly surprising – if ever there was a total Byrds nut it was the book’s author, Tom Hibbert. Their first five studio albums all featured in its pages and Hibbert singled out Fifth Dimension as possibly his favourite album of all time. He even found room in the ‘U.S. Seventies’ section of the book for Gene Clark’s ’74 solo masterpiece No Other, which at the time (1982) had been virtually forgotten by everyone else.

Discovering Clark’s post-Byrds solo output proved almost as thrilling as listening to those Byrds records themselves for the first time, and, of the original band members, his own solo work is by far the most accomplished. For those who had been paying attention, Clark had already proven that he wasn’t simply the ‘guy with the tambourine’ (see ‘I Knew I’d Want You’, ‘I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better’, ‘If You’re Gone’, ‘Set You Free This Time’ for starters) and for many, myself included, he remains the greatest Byrd of all.

After his initial departure from The Byrds in 1966, he hadn’t wasted any time in recording his debut album, Gene Clark with The Godsin Brothers, later repackaged as Echoes. It was a strong album, the songwriting mature and confident, although one clearly indebted to the sound of The Byrds, a comparison particularly difficult to ignore given that it hit the record stores in the same week as Younger Than Yesterday in February ‘67. As if resigned to the idea that the umbilical cord could not be entirely severed, Clark even rejoined the band, albeit very briefly, in late ’67. But the marriage wasn’t to last.
He found a truly authentic voice of his own on his brilliant forays into roots music with Doug Dillard, releasing two groundbreaking albums, The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark and Through The Morning, Through The Night. Perhaps as much as any other album of the time, the former of those encapsulated the shift in American popular music away from psychedelic excess towards a ‘back to the country’ retreat (from Vietnam; from political assassinations; from inner city breakdown; from LSD overkill), in the process laying the foundations for the more laid back country rock of the early ‘70s.
At the dawn of the new decade Clark kept himself busy, contributing to albums by The Flying Burrito Bros, and also recording a few songs of his own, including the fabulous ‘She’s The Kind Of Girl’, originally intended as a single for A&M, but which, owing to record company problems, remained unreleased until Roadmaster surfaced in ’73.
Relocating to Albion California, Clark was sustaining himself on Byrds’ royalties (the Dillard & Clark albums didn’t sell), then after getting married (to Charlie Lynn McCummings), and fathering two children, he began work on White Light. It too would disappear almost without trace, but its reputation has steadily grown in stature since Clark’s tragically premature passing in 1991.
‘The Virgin’, upon first listen a solid if unspectacular beginning, reveals not only the great warmth of Clark’s homespun rootsy sound, but also the new depth to his lyricism. Dylan had long been the template for Clark’s wordsmithery, but by ‘71 the apprentice had arguably overtaken his master, although the influence was still too transparent for some: “From her dancing love and young soul/And the gypsies in her dream/To the pulse of stark acceptance/When the winds began to freeze/With no curfews left to hold her/And no walls to shield her pain/Finding out that facts were older/And that life forms are insane.”
The playing throughout the album is unfussy and economical, but everywhere the melodies niggle and ache, the spaces between those miraculous little chord changes growing ever more taut, nowhere more so than on ‘With Tomorrow’. Immediately afterwards the title track provides the album’s only noticeable change in tempo. Encompassed all around by delicate songs of rugged beauty, its buoyant country quickstep garners visions of cotton pickers holding on to their hats on the roof of a steam train hurtling to freedom across the prairie.
‘Because Of You’ boasts a denser arrangement, but retains that poignant mournful timbre, while the brooding ‘One In A Hundred’ re-recorded from the earlier A&M session in 1970, has since become one of his most celebrated songs. It’s barely whispered, the tone fragile, and he sounds like he needs those backing vocals to get him over the line.
‘For A Spanish Guitar’ on the other hand, may possess the most beautiful guitar line of his career, augmented by the most heartbreaking harmonica solo this side of ‘You’re A Big Girl Now’ and some fairly impenetrable philosophical discourse which reads once more like Dylan’s great poetry of yesteryear: “And the laughter of children employed/By the fantasies not yet destroyed/By the dogmas of those they avoid/Knowing not what they are/And the right and the wrong and insane/And the answers they cannot explain/Pulsate from my soul through my brain/In a spanish guitar.” Dylan by then however, was churning out the worst music of his career, so Clark had to dig a little deeper for the obligatory cover version (‘Tears Of Rage’) which he carries off in fine style.
‘Where My Love Lies Asleep’ nicks the bottleneck guitar line from The Stones’ ‘No Expectations’ (played beautifully by Jesse Ed Davis, who also produced the album), but is nonetheless entirely gorgeous for all that, and the finale (‘1975’) pre-empts the spiralling chord sequence of Neil Young’s ‘Lookout Joe’, recorded two years later in ’73, and a key track on his classic Tonight’s The Night Set from ’75.
With White Light, Clark was halfway up the mountain. At the summit was the gilded karmic conquest of No Other, but in these sparse and humble love songs he created one other album you certainly ought to have in your collection. (JJ)

119. NICO – THE MARBLE INDEX (1969)

I’d forgotten all about The Marble Index, such a crushingly pessimistic listen, that each and every remnant of its shimmering beauty seemed to have been catheterised by some dark unbearable grief. But recently I found my way back to it alongside it’s shining sister Desertshore, through an obsession with the last few Left Outsides albums, whose forest-spirit avant-folk seemed to rekindle some latent inclination towards the vaguely morbid. Or perhaps that was simply the onset of winter.

Nico had already recorded her first solo album, an exquisite assemblage of chamber folk, Chelsea Girl – by the time she reunited with former VU companion John Cale. I know of at least two people who believe that album to be the greatest record ever made, period – and I must say I like it a lot myself – but Nico detested it, seething with frustration when she first heard its neutered production. Even so, few could have predicted what would emerge from the sessions at the recording studio on Cienega Boulevard in LA in September ‘68. After all, Christa Päffgen had a face made for superstardom – icy blonde, geometric cheekbones – but there had been signs on Chelsea Girl (in particular on ‘It Was A Pleasure Then’ where accompaniment was provided not by Jackson Browne, but by the Velvets’ core, so it came out howling and droning like a wrung out ‘Black Angels Death Song’) that she was striving to be taken seriously as an artist too.

To that end, she rejected her own beauty, dyed her hair dark red, wrapped herself in a shroud of death and like Scott Walker – a contemporary also at pains to prove he was more than simply a pretty face – reinvented herself as existential goth queen. I’ve always suspected an additional element of contrariness in this transformation which happened just as she moved from NYC to sunny California, but who knows? For certain the timing must have made the contrast in her appearance seem even sharper.

The album’s desperate bleakness resulted from a confluence of factors. Cale cultivated in its timbre a sound reflecting his interest in modern European classical music and Nico had been feeding off the mad ramblings of Jim Morrison who encouraged her to explore her inherently darker sensibilities, and gorge upon the opium-fuelled poetry of Coleridge. She had also acquired a harmonium and it’s droning wheeze perfectly captures the album’s dark spirit.

According to some accounts, Nico and Cale reputedly spent the whole time feuding whilst strung out on smack. All too much for in-house producer Frazier Mohawk, who could barely bring himself to put the finishing touches to the album, first of all consigning four of its bleakest compositions to the dustbin of history and then handing over the reins to Cale who became defacto producer. Cale claimed Nico’s harmonium was out of tune with everything but that didn’t matter, and in some ways it was entirely fitting. When after being left alone for two days, he played back his mix of the album to her, Nico reputedly wept with joy.

The album’s title is taken from a line in Wordsworth’s Prelude, which also lends its title to the short but incredibly beautiful opening instrumental. After that brief moment of transcendence darkness descends, beginning with ‘Lawns Of Dawns’ whose sonic refractions – like mirrors on the ocean, now glistening on the surface, now submerged beneath – parallel its author’s psychological disintegration. “Can you follow me?/Can you follow my distresses/My caresses, fiery guesses?/Swim and sink into/Early morning mercies”

There are dissonant chamber pieces (‘No-one Is There’) and ‘Ari’s Song’ (named after her son) which promises some relief but replete with droning pump organ entangled in some strange sonic barbed wire, was reckoned by Rolling Stone to be “the least comforting lullaby ever recorded”

On ‘Facing The Wind’, whose bizarre martial piano comes across like a discarded instrumental from Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs, Nico’s voice is electronically distorted giving it an even eerier more expressionistic quality: “It’s holding me against my will/And doesn’t leave me still/Amazons are riding out/To find a meaning for the name, my name.”

Cale’s fingerprints are everywhere in evidence but nowhere more so than on ‘Frozen Warnings’ whose bubbling ‘Baba O’Riley’ type pulse is underwritten by the insistent and unfluctuating drone of his viola.

And as far as apocalyptic finales go, the sinister spiralling ‘Evening Of Light’ takes some beating. “In the morning of my winter/When my eyes are still asleep/A dragonfly laying in a coat of snow/I’ll send to kiss your heart for me/Midnight winds are landing at the end of time/The children are jumping in the evening of light/A thousand sins are heavy in the evening of light.” It is ‘Tubular Bells’ turned inside out by Beelzebub, an agonising descent – as the last rays of light are slowly extinguished by the clattering noise and chaos of the welcome party for Hades.

The album clocks in at a mere half hour. Not everything about The Marble Index is black, but almost everything is. Its doomed unremitting litanies suggest catastrophe but it possesses an undeniable ‘slash your wrists’ nocturnal beauty and marks the moment Nico’s career as an artist truly began. (JJ)