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)

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95. ATLAS SOUND – LOGOS (2009)

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Bradford Cox often seems completely baked. When he sings, it sounds like he’s sucking a tin of spaghetti hoops through his front teeth. He remains an enigma: interviews are relatively rare and he doesn’t really do social media (his blog seemed to dry up around three years ago). His band Deerhunter are indie big hitters: prolific, consistently remarkable. His solo project Atlas Sound has remained in the band’s shadow, despite yielding three fine albums, the second of which, Logos, was released during a genuinely purple patch of creativity, sandwiched between Deerhunter’s two best albums Microcastle/Weird Era and Halcyon Digest. And I think it could very well be the best thing Cox has ever done.

The sleeve, a bleached flashlight image of a skeletal torso turned inside out must surely be Cox? He suffers from Marfan Syndrome – but here it looks as if someone has reached in and pulled his heart from his chest. It can sound that way too at times. Cox plays around with different styles and genres. He is clearly someone who lives and breathes music. His songs are readily identifiable – drifting shells of wasted reverie with ghostly voices (‘The Light That Failed’, ‘An Orchid’…) irresistibly infectious slices of dislocated rhythmic pop (‘Shelia’, ‘Logos’, ‘Quick Canal’ – a lengthy motorik thang featuring Letitia Sadler), malformed garage sludge (‘Kid Klimax’), cryptic psych-collages full of electro-magnetic signals (‘Washington School’) and retro doo-wop’n’roll delivered by Cox like a faded angel through a couloir of cracked reverb (‘My Halo’).

And then there’s ‘Walkabout’ the album’s showpiece, made in collaboration with Noah Lennox  – a genius take on The Dovers’ obscure 1965 garage track ‘What Am I Going To Do?’ Mr. Panda Bear, as ever, sounds like he’s singing underwater, but like everything else on here the guiding hand is Cox’s. Ecce homo. Bradford Cox is the man and Logos his eternal word. (JJ)                               

91. DISCO INFERNO – THE 5 EPs (2011*)

Disco Inferno: A Sense Of Otherness  Somehow I contrived to miss Disco Inferno. They arrived either ten years too early or ten too late, it’s hard to tell, but by the time they had established themselves, popular music’s few remaining visionaries were retreating into hibernation. 1991 proved a pivotal year. It was the year of Laughingstock and Loveless, as well as the last significant records by Public Enemy and The Young Gods. And then, suddenly, as those few flickering wicks burnt out, indie music was plunged into its Dark Ages. The air was thick with the stench of grunge and grebo – Neds Atomic Dustbin and their ugly ilk – while the nightmare of Britpop hovered vulture-like, ready to strip its rotting carcass. Britpop would become a model of retro complacency, mostly underwhelming, largely uninspired. Many of us felt queasy and headed for the dancefloor. I had a pretty good time there. The one regret I have is that I missed Disco Inferno. 

DI were, on the surface, a conventional post-punk (guitar/bass/drums) trio – Ian Crause, Paul Wilmott & Rob Whatley – with a penchant for early Joy Division and Wire. They began to suffuse those primary influences with the spirit of ’88 (AR Kane, Public Enemy, Young Gods, My Bloody Valentine), and then, following the release of their first album Open Doors Closed Windows in 1991, they stretched out into genuinely new and uncharted territory augmenting their sound with sampling technology alongside a proliferation of inspirational ideas. Crause recalls: “I had been at home with my guitar synth and sampler since late ’91. We came back in to rehearse again with the sampler and what I had written on it in about April or May ’92, not really knowing how it would all piece together as a band. We had a whole week of rehearsals booked and by the end of the week we were kind of stunned at ourselves ‘cos none of us had ever heard anything like it before, not even stuff like Public Enemy or the Young Gods. It just sounded so fucking odd…all of us were completely thrown by the noise in that room.”
A succession of spellbinding EPs followed between 1992-94, gathered together here on this 5 EPs compilation. And they are brilliant. At the time, those critics in the know wilted, quickly running out of fresh superlatives with which to embroider their reviews. Crause knew the band possessed something very special indeed, but the public wasn’t ready. And there was nobody else doing what they were doing. “Oh we were in the middle of fucking nowhere from the start of using samplers ’til we split.” Despite that, by the time Britpop hijacked the airwaves, DI were continuing to make authentically original music, uncompromising, challenging, visceral and at times breathtakingly beautiful. “When we were recording ‘DI Go Pop’ and ‘Summer’s Last Sound’, Charlie, our producer, did say he was finding it hard going as we had chosen the sounds for their narrative and not musical qualities.” Lyrically, Crause steered an uneven path from (poetically) documenting existential crises (“All the joy in my life had rotted away/I saw a vision in blue and my blues flew away/And just for a second I truly believed/Though I don’t know what in” – from ‘Second Language’) to caustic social commentary. It was often dark stuff.
“And the gulls are coming in off the coast/the smell of corpses pour from in/mass graves uncovered/must be abroad, it can’t be here/I can sense your violence, but I still don’t understand/the way the past looks dead when you’ve got the future in the palm of your hand.” And so begins ‘Summers Last Sound’ a magnificently unsettling fanfare to this most fertile of periods. 
Shrill screams undercut a naggingly insistent guitar riff on ‘A Rock To Cling To’ while ‘The Last Dance’ & ‘The Long Dance’ (from ‘The Last Dance’ EP) are poppier, more infectious, almost straying into mid-period New Order territory. But it is the more experimental tracks which sound positively scintillating. Crause has expressed his distaste for ‘Scattered Showers’ mainly due to what he regards as its lyrical deficiencies (“they really let the thing down. I was so far off the mark with it.”) but I can’t help but hear The Velvet Underground’s ‘The Murder Mystery’ being leaked through a distorted PA system at Brands Hatch. Here and elsewhere, the band utilise their Foley’s Sound Effects toolbox to its full potential, yielding extraordinary results.
Then there are the glistening guitar lines of the aforementioned ‘Second Language’, which alongside those on ‘At The End Of The Line’ recall Vini Reilly’s wonderfully inventive work with The Durutti Column. In actual fact, as Crause explains, those songs bore a more surprising influence: “The original guitar sound I had, with a lot of delay lines, was inspired by a German guy I saw on telly called Eberhardt Weber. He put his cello through massive delay lines and I was stunned by it. I liked Durutti Column what I heard, but I didn’t hear an awful lot to be honest…I realise it can sound very similar sometimes.”

There is huge variety here, a veritable smorgasbord of sonic adventurousness. Best of of all is ‘Love Stepping Out’ which sounds like Kraftwerk’s ‘Europe Endless’ playing as the wedding guests spill out into an old English churchyard. It is simultaneously naturalistic and disorientating, and crucially, entirely devoid of rock cliche. “Punching women, kicking men/Five on one, one on ten/These fuckers getting all that they deserve/It’s just tricks with mirrors/that makes them think they’re in the right.” There is so much going on here musically and lyrically, it needs a dozen listens to unmask its own face. What was the aim behind it? “To try to create a sonic environment where the real world conducts itself like music but stays psychoacoustically in situ so it feels like the world is playing itself like a composition.” Crause wrote it on his electric guitar, “but I ripped the pickup off so had to use the nylon acoustic guitar sample which came on a floppy with my sampler to replace it. That just went through a delay like the original guitar had done.” Suffice to say, like everything else on here, it is bloody magnificent.
Disco Inferno may now be considered a seminal influence on ‘post-rock’ while Crause has continued to make stunning music of his own. Despite their inability to make any commercial breakthrough, he continues to be much respected “by the same people who were well receiving the Disco Inferno records in ’92 and ’93 like Stubbs, Reynolds, Kulkarni, etc, who understood what we were doing and what I do.” And rightly so. If I missed Disco Inferno the first time round, then it has been a fascinating late discovery. Sometimes one can have the most bewilderingly thrilling time catching up. (JJ)

72. MANUEL GÖTTSCHING – E2-E4 (1984)

The Game Changer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

43. CAPTAIN BEEFHEART & THE MAGIC BAND – LICK MY DECALS OFF BABY (1970)

The Art of Beefheart


I imagine my affinity for Beefheart followed a trajectory familiar to many. It began with a bizarrely alluring earful on John Peel; leading next to the perusal of a few rock encyclopaedias and the NME and Sounds Greatest Albums lists of the time (1985); followed subsequently by the purchase of ‘Trout Mask Replica’; then swiftly by the indignant return of said item to the record store. Even as I handed my tenner over to the hippy at the HMV till, his derisive expression let me know in no uncertain terms that he fully expected me back within 24 hours. He was of course correct. My virgin ears felt like they had been defiled and my brain pillaged by this artless racket, created by people who clearly had not taken the trouble to learn how to play their instruments. I was inclined to steer clear of Beefheart for some considerable time afterwards, but as I became ever more conscious of ‘Trout Mask’s conspicuously lofty critical approval rating, my frustration began to grow. Was I missing something? Perhaps I was the victim of some cruel hoax? I resolved to find another way to appreciate the Captain’s art, if indeed this really was ‘art’ at all?

Art. Don Van Vliet always had a fascination with art, demonstrated most visibly in his own primitively  idiosyncratic paintings, but extending also to his music, the prime expressions of which are the two albums he made for the Straight label in 1969 and 1970, ‘Trout Mask Replica’ and ‘Lick My Decals Off Baby’. Every Beefheart aficionado has their favourite album and I am no different. In fact, not selecting ‘Trout Mask Replica’ for TNPC feels in some ways tantamount to a betrayal, but it is a record which has been extensively discussed, written about and salivated over elsewhere, and whilst undoubtedly amongst my own Top 3 Albums of All-Time, I fear there is nothing much else to add to what is a well-worn story. Those who find ‘TMR’ too arduous a listen [I had to strengthen my constitution with the solid meat of the early Fall albums before I persevered and eventually succumbed] tend to plump instead for the crisper cleaner ‘Clear Spot’, the warmer more colourful ‘Shiny Beast’ or more commonly, as in the estimation of the authors of The Perfect Collection, the classic 1967 debut, ‘Safe As Milk’, which memorably showcased Ry Cooder’s stunning slide guitar work. While these albums served as friendly pathways to a reappraisal of ‘TMR’, my way in to Beefheart actually came with the purchase of ‘Lick My Decals Off Baby’. Those who treasure ‘TMR’ may feel that it’s slick sibling sequel gives it a run for its money as The Magic Band’s greatest moment, despite it having lived forever in the shadow of its illustrious predecessor.

Indeed, there are some who swear that ‘Decals’ actually eclipses ‘TMR’ as Beefheart’s finest hour, but be as well comparing Ulysses to Finnegan’s Wake. Nevertheless, those will point to the following: ‘Decals’ – unlike ‘TMR’, which bore the imprint of Zappa – was produced by Don himself and is therefore incontestably his own creation; secondly, where ‘TMR’ is a sprawling mess, ‘Decals’ by comparison is both streamlined (all killer, no filler) and strangely symmetrical (both sides have overtly lascivious openers, anarchic hornfests to end, and in the centre, two baroque math-folk instrumentals, Bill Harkelrod – aka Zoot Horn Rollo – conjuring that almost medieval lute-ish sound from his guitar); thirdly there is a greater refinement of song composition and structure – where ‘TMR’ sounds like a bizarre experiment, the playing on ‘Decals’ sounds more controlled, sophisticated even (visually implicit in the contrasting choice of band costumes for the album sleeves); fourthly, the polished marimba of Art Tripp brings another dimension to the sound, working a similar effect to Bobby Hutcherson’s vibraphone on Eric Dolphy’s classic ‘Out To Lunch’. These for some give ‘Decals’ the edge.

However, the rubbery booglarized guitar sound, which contrasts sharply with the scratch and bite of the guitars on ‘TMR’ polarises opinion. Additionally, the explicitly carnal lyrical onslaught may not be to everyone’s taste: at times Don sounds almost predatory like a rhinoceros on heat (“Rather than I wanna hold your hand/I wanna swallow you whole/’n’ I wanna lick you everywhere it’s pink/’n’ everywhere you think/Whole kit ‘n’ kaboodle ‘n’ the kitchen sink…”), albeit a rhino with a darkly mischievous sense of humour (check out the even more hilarious ‘I Want To Find A Woman That’ll Hold My Big Toe ‘Til I Have To Go’) and a wild poetic gift…

Yes, the poetry. The lyrics are not all as bawdy but are staggeringly brilliant, full of free association surrealistic impulse (“Glasses look out on the pale hell bent /Moon milk run / O’ lady go home / Lord they done cookin’ done / Black lady, Black leather lady / Done had a white, white, white poor son”) and humane ecological concern (“If the dinosaur cries with blood in his eyes/’n’ eats our babies for our lies/Belches fire in our skies/Maybe I’ll die but he’ll be rumblin’ through/Your petrified forest.”)

If the words are wonderful, then the music is a match for them. The album’s most famous song – covered by The Buzzcocks/Magazine – is ‘I Love You, You Big Dummy’ (‘nobody has love/love has nobody/I love ya y’ big dummy/quit askin’ why!’), a rhythmically straightforward thrash enlivened by Don’s wild harp (it sounds like he’s blown it to pieces), which could be a demented cast-off from ‘Strictly Personal’ and anticipates the unabashed blues growl of his next studio album ‘The Spotlight Kid’, while ‘Woe is Uh Me Bop’ – which ‘crinkles along mechanically like walking Tinkertoys’ (copyright Lester Bangs – I can’t beat that folks) is a virtual blueprint for the triple salvo of Tom Waits Franks Wild Years period, the most obvious comparison being ‘Clap Hands’ from ‘Rain Dogs’. The marimba here adds little strokes of light which de-intensify the urgency of the rhythm. Conversely, on ‘The Smithsonian Institute Blues (or The Big Dig)’ the sudden change of tempo, with the marimba and guitar scattering in opposite directions, unseats a vibrant footstomper, yet showcases the band at their most viscerally spontaneous and intuitive. Again there is a delightful play on words (“It sure looks funny for a new dinosaur/To be in an old Dinosaur’s shoes/Dinah Shore’s shoes/Dinosaur shoes”). There are other delights and surprises along the way, not least the interval in the closing ‘Flash Gordon’s Ape’ (great title) where the orgiastic cacophony is halted for a marimba solo.

No-one else in rock music has innovated on the same scale as Don Van Vliet. Oh, The Beatles and The Velvets  could stake a claim, and were undoubtedly even more influential. But with his music, Beefheart invented an entirely new art form. I can’t pretend to be an art connoisseur, and  I’ve never really understood the Jackson Pollock analogy – I’ve always imagined each splash and stroke of his work to be something of an accident. Nor – though I appreciate the visual image it conjures – can I fully agree with Andy Partridge’s contention that Beefheart’s music “sounds like a piece of the Somme, lifted up and put in an art gallery.” Another fairly unsatisfactory comparison would be that of a collection of jigsaw pieces fitted randomly together, as this presupposes a final abstract image without a recognisable pattern or design. Instead, when considering a Beefheart composition from this period, I prefer to visualise four or five light aircraft taking off together which also land simultaneously: but while airborne, the planes might fly at different altitudes; some are faster than others, each creating its own unique flight path, until at certain points, as if jerked by some centrifugal force, their zig-zag wanderings cease and they line up with Red Arrows precision. Again, they may fly off suddenly in wildly different directions before this telepathic convergence repeats itself. From one journey the planes may return to the ground at awkward angles, from the next they arrive in neat lines. This sound has been imitated by many performers of good will – aesthetes, punks and outsiders, but each has been too indebted for true greatness. Beefheart’s innovations are unique in rock history and alongside its big brother ‘TMR’, ‘Lick My Decals Off Baby’ deserves to take its place as a uniquely esteemed example of American art primitivism.

[If there has been noticeable mainstream infiltration by some of today’s more left field artists, it is worth remembering that ‘Decals’ stayed eleven weeks on the UK album chart, peaking at no.20. Sitting imperiously at the summit was Andy Williams’ Greatest Hits] (JJ)

42. MONSTER MOVIE – CAN (1969)

MONSTER MOVIE – CAN (1969)

“Birth of a new line,” assert the sleevenotes of Monster Movie. Ay – you could say that. There had been little, if anything, like this before and it’s a record which simply could not have been made at the start of the decade it appeared in, or even three years earlier. Astonishment at how far ahead of its time it is increases, not recedes, with time and it still sounds utterly fresh.
Only a few others – Beatles, Velvets, Hendrix, Floyd, Beefheart – rival Can for sheer originality but they dragged things even further forward and outward than any of them. They never made any secret of their early debt to the Velvets, in particular, but just as Shakespeare influenced Joyce, another completely new language was created,  complete with (very) tenses and (extremely) irregular verbs.
The band’s German majority had disparate backgrounds in rock, jazz and avant-garde classical, the last element in particular setting them apart from the British-American axis which had hitherto dominated popular music. Even so, equally distinctive was the contribution of American singer Malcolm Mooney, whose schooling was in art and who found himself in Europe to keep away from the very real prospect of the draft.
If Mooney was battllng an all too present threat, so were his colleagues, although theirs was one shaped by the immediate past. The generation gap in the UK was at least partly a product of perceived ingratitude of youth towards the parents and grandparents who had fought and won for their freedom; Germany had lost, had to deal with a horrifying legacy and, despite a vast economic regeneration and a genuine will to atone, many of those who were children in the war or were born afterwards were unconvinced. Whatever they did or thought at the time, or afterwards, West Germany was still being run by a generation directly involved in the war and many of the youth wanted only a clean break. This, and a more prosaic distaste for the prevalent schlager music (crudely, caricatured Eurovision knees-ups blended with old-style north European oompah) gave much of the impetus to the extraordinary torrent of innovation from Germany from 1968 onwards.
Can weren’t as politically radical as Amon Duul II, as consistently on the edge as Faust (though they were easily a match at their most extreme) or as sonically advanced as Kraftwerk ( but, at first, neither were Kraftwerk). What gave them the edge was a staggering versatility and a mastery of the most elusive alchemy – the ability to be experimental, groundbreaking and accessible at the same time. All of which made them an irresistible, unfathomable force of nature.
I first heard Can in 1980, as the summer of Closer, Crocodiles and Seventeen Seconds gave way to the autumn of More Specials and Remain In Light. Their name was being bandied around as post-punk precursors but I had little idea what to expect from Cannibalism, the compilation borrowed from Bishopbriggs Library which housed three of Monster Movie’s four tracks.
They shared an opening track, Father Cannot Yell, a title which to my 11-year-old mind seemed the result of a combination of prog pomposity and English as a second language (not quite grasping yet that the singer at this stage was a native English speaker). My initial response was irritation – what’s with the two-minute repetition of “uh-uh-uh-uh?” Is this him driving home the point that father indeed cannot yell? Or is he just vocalising worldlessly? The irritation soon turned to mesmerism and I came to realise the wisdom of Pete Shelley’s sleevenotes, in which he admitted to hating some Can songs at first but was forced to concede first hearings can be misleading. Now, I’m hard put to think of a mightier, more compelling or simply greater opening track – Wire’s Reuters and Robert Wyatt’s Sea Song are up there – which wrong-foots you immediately on its era, with Irmin Schmidt producing a crazed Morse code from some form of keyboard, which or may not be a primitive synth, while drummmer Jaki Liebezeit and bassist Holger Czukay dominate the song, demolishing any preconceptions you might have of what a rhythm section is and setting up a wind–tunnel barrage punctuated sparingly but scorchingly by the late Michael Karoli’s guitar tirades (solos really doesn’t cover it). Julian Cope described his first band, the appropriately Germanically-named Softgraundt, as “pure Can, all bass and drums” – presumably, Father Cannot Yell was the touchstone, as it was for. to name just a handful of others, Joy Division, Public Image Ltd, Siouxsie and the Banshees The Fall, Wire and Pere Ubu.
Mary, Mary So Contrary is the one Monster Movie song not to appear on Cannibalism and so I first heard it years after the rest. The lyric is, largely, made up of the near-eponymous nursery rhyme, a sign that even ultra-modern Can weren’t completely immune to the otherwise ubiquitous hippy whimsy. In keeping with the lyrical theme, it’s partly medieval-sounding, albeit in a manner similar to Venus In Furs, and also points a way forward, sharing some ground with Deadlock, which would be recorded a year later with Mooney’s replacement, Damo Suzuki. It’s also Mooney’s most restrained performance on the album, although these things are relative, just as Al Pacino is more restrained in Serpico than in Scarface.
One word has always encapsulated Outside My Door for me – exhilirating. It has a fuller band sound than anywhere else on the album, with unexpected colour from a harmonica and, in the coda, what is either a hammering piano or a tolling bell. Liebezeit’s scatergun drumming parallels Keith  Moon at his most freeform and opens the door to Buzzcocks’ John Maher, while Karoli’s suitably buzzsaw solo is an object lesson for the same band’s Shelley and Diggle. Mooney, meanwhile, invites James Brown and Otis Redding along and succeeds in drowning them out.
The former side two is occupied in its entirety by the 20-minute Yoo Doo Right, for many the crowning glory not just of Monster Movie but of Can’s entire repertoire. It is, of course, fantastic but – here comes the heresy – it does go on just a little.When we taped it (it never did kill music) from Cannibalism, the album shared a C90 with side two of Talking Heads ’77, meaning that Yoo Doo Right ended after nine minutes (at “Gotcha, gotcha, doo wa”) and I’ve always felt that most of the highlights come before this cut-off point: the first shift of the bass from riff to melody at 0:25 (Czukay once likened his instrument’s role to the king in chess – moving little but changing everything when doing so); the single-note organ figure at 1:56; the most metalically chiming guitar you’ll ever hear at 4:16; a single, possibly accidental, cymbal crash at 6:27; a guitar turning into a raygun at 6:44 and the final collapse at 8:05, leaving nothing but Mooney exhaustedly contemplating “a drumbeat 21 hours a day” and every second of those hours being ticked off. But there still remains plenty of tension and drama in the second half, with Mooney’s very real isolation unresolved – at the end, as at the beginning, “I’m in love with my girl, she’s away/Man, you gotta move on.”
Can would take on many more influences – funk, Eastern European folk, traditional African music – and would shed many more skins to become ever more magical. If ever there’s been music that takes you places, that music belongs to Can – they stand up to repeated listens more than just about any other band and the disparate strands of their sound prompted me to seek out as much about the world as I ever learned in geography.Monster Movie was one of their first steps, and some dismiss it in favour of the admittedly brilliant Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi, but it captures them at their most viscerally thrilling (PG).