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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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)

77. THE BEES – EVERY STEP’S A YES (2010)

  If I said The Bees were masters of space and time, you may imagine them to sound something like Hawkwind. They don’t – but I suspect they have heard a fair amount of Hawkwind. In fact, they’ve probably listened to more records than just about any other band around – absorbing such an extensive array of influences from the popular music of the last 50 years that, listening to their albums, one finds oneself constantly attempting (usually unsuccessfully) to join the sonic dots. The Bees’ genius lies in their ability to sew beautiful new garments out of tired old rags. Some touchstones are immediately obvious – take for example the momentary snippet on ‘Change Can Happen’ where the phrasing and even lyrics are suddenly lifted from ‘That’s The Story Of My Life’ (Velvets’ 3rd) or consider how the fadeout of ‘Silver Line’ recalls the gassy euphoria of The Monkees’ ‘Teardrop City’. The Bees are masters of time because the spectrum of influences from which they have drawn – early Pink Floyd, Incredible String Band, Ravi Shankar, CSNY, Shack, roots reggae, Tropicalia et al – is not flaunted unashamedly, but is rather woven so inconspicuously into the band’s sound as to make it unmistakably their own. And against all the odds, their music sounds peculiarly modern.

‘Every Step’s A Yes’, their fourth LP, bears all the time honoured hallmarks of the ‘classic album’ – clocking in at 42 minutes (unusually short for the digital age), it’s ten beautifully crafted songs make for a brilliantly eclectic amalgam of sounds: slow ones and fast ones, toe tappers and ballads – characteristics of those indisputably great LPs of the past. It’s the kind of album which many of us middle-aged folk might find reassuringly familiar. In that sense it may be expedient to be a more mature listener (in years) to garner a true appreciation of it. And yet I am always struck by just how fresh and immediate it sounds. Sure, you’ll find nothing revolutionary here. When the album was released in October 2010, empires did not collapse, nor buildings fall. In fact, it’s probably fair to say, barely anyone noticed at all.

The Bees hail from the Isle of Wight. Perhaps that distance from the mainland has accentuated a sense of ‘otherness’. Because of that, their music betrays not the slightest hint of affectation. I imagine they are less tainted than more connected urban artists by the desire to be fashionable, to be part of a scene, whatever that means these days. They have utilised that space, that separate-ness to its full advantage. They use space in more creative ways too. For instance they recorded their debut album (the Mercury Music Prize-nominated) ‘Sunshine Hit Me’ in a small garden shed. The results – a kaleidescopic potpourri – virtually defied science. As if to emphasise their versatility, they recorded the next album at Abbey Road. The Bees demonstrate masterful control of the way sounds are arranged – the way the instruments move away from one another, at times creating beautifully eerie gaps (the keyboard on ‘Island Love Letter’, the strings on ‘Skill Of The Man’ for example).

‘Every Step’s A Yes’ has a relaxed energy (a ‘more mature’ sound, singer and multi-instrumentalist Paul Butler stated) while triumphantly showcasing their extraordinary palette. The buoyant opener ‘I Really Need Love’ has all the ravishing freshness of a sun-bursting early spring morning – he’s in love and the whole world’s going to know about it (“I wish that love will come/for each and every one/and I know I’m gonna get me some/in the shadow of the sun”) – with a simple breezy acoustic strum for accompaniment the whole thing then takes off in a swirling crescendo of sitars and soaring strings.

Alongside a brush of harp and crisp stinging guitar lines, ‘Winter Rose’ succumbs to a prime slice of horn-locking Lovers’ rock. In sharp contrast the stark folk-rock of ‘Silver Line’ could have slipped off the run out groove of Moby Grape’s debut album, while the controlled reverb in the panoramic production of ‘No More Excuses’ is astounding – one moment the guitars are like little ripples of water gently brushing the boats on the shore, the next they are twisting psych fizzballs worthy of The Chocolate Watchband or The Strawberry Alarm Clock. The arrangements here are exquisite (fiddle, harp, sitar, clavinette, harmonica, trumpet all chip in with a cameo appearance) but the production is never for a second over-bearing – somewhere between Syd’s Pink Floyd and Lennon twixt Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, it’s sublime harmonies soar effortlessly past steeples and peaks to scale the heavens. 

‘Tired Of Loving’ is a pretty if sorrowful plaint with ear melting West Coast harmonies. Then comes a spellbinding triple salvo: ‘Island Love Letter’ recalls the gorgeous ghostly lullabies of mid-period Incredible String Band or even Vashti Bunyan’s naively delicate charm. ‘Skill Of The Man’ has the sort of languid somnolence which Mick Head strove to perfect on the longer tracks from his superb Magical World Of The Strands LP, except that it is in every way superior. And warmer. And that’s a big compliment. Narcotic oblivion beckons with ‘Pressure Makes Me Lazy’, a blissed out potion of drifting guitars horns and strings. Glorious stuff. The album’s closer ‘Gaia’ (the nearest we have to a hit here), recorded with neo-folk wizard Devendra Banhart, is a rallying climax which abruptly brings to halt the ultra-soporific haze by means of a mariachi flavoured Spanish fiesta, calling to mind the band’s earlier flirtation with Latin sound, their cover of Os Mutantes’ ‘A Minha Menina’.

This is not some sub-Weller ‘worthy dad rock’ studiously indebted to rock tradition and empty posturing. The Bees are music lovers, first and foremost: there are no big egos involved, no lascivious tales of rock’n’roll excess. Instead, ‘Every Step’s A Yes’ is the sort of record you might imagine Syd Barrett, David Crosby or Skip Spence having made if they’d just held it together for a little while longer. Unlike those three however – it’s not a fragile album on the verge of disintegration, but rather an assured and confident work. It might well sound like the best album of 1968, or perhaps 1974. It was comfortably one of the finest in 2010, and if it sounded a little out of step to some at the time, that is only because perfectly balanced modern pop albums are a rare commodity these days. I urge you to get your hands on it – it is truly one to treasure. (JJ)

61. JUDY HENSKE & JERRY YESTER – FAREWELL ALDEBARAN (1969)

imageI was never much of a Zappa fan – for me, ‘Freak Out’ was as good as it got – but I must give Frank some credit for overseeing the formation of Straight Records. It’s small catalogue of only 16 albums and a handful of 45s is amongst the most wildly eclectic distributed by any record label. Initially, Zappa envisaged Straight as an outlet for more mainstream artists, allowing it’s partner label Bizarre to focus on experimental/oddball LPs by the likes of Lenny Bruce, Wild Man Fischer and Frank himself. But somewhere along the line the script got mixed up. That the likes of ‘Trout Mask Replica’ and Tim Buckley’s ‘Starsailor’ ended up on Straight and not on Bizarre, seems to indicate that, despite honourable intentions, there was no distinguishable musical demarcation between the labels. It is nigh on impossible to imagine two LPs more audaciously ‘off the wall’ than those two.

Which brings us to Jerry Yester and Judy Henske’s ‘Farewell Aldebaran’, released on June 16th 1969, the same day as Beefheart’s magnum opus ‘Trout Mask Replica’ (catalogue numbers STS-1052 and STS-1053 respectively). The latter, regarded by many as the greatest and most adventurous album in rock history, has a far more enduring legacy than it’s comparatively neglected twin. In its own way however, ‘Farewell Aldebaran’ is as peculiarly eccentric: it is a brave record, not at all easy to fall in love with, and yet an utterly unique and compelling listen from start to finish. It is not strange in the same way that TMR is ‘strange’. TMR, if it sounds wholly impenetrable to some, has a singular vision which might defy easy categorisation, but it’s mixture of free jazz, wild delta blues and ecological concerns gives it a recognisable thematic unity. Not so ‘Aldebaran’, which has an insatiable eclecticism that makes it in many ways an even more challenging listen. It has oft been likened to one of those old record label sampler compilations – ten bands, ten very different sounds – but while this is a convenient analogy to draw, it is a little off the mark. It isn’t ten bands, just Jerry, Judy and a small host of guest musician friends. And if the album has an identity crisis, there are still patterns and motifs which lend it it’s own distinctive aura.

‘Snowblind’, a creeping bluesy howler with a fizzing lead guitar, finds Henske returning from the wilderness years of cabaret performance, wailing her heart out like Janis Joplin with some obliquely gothic lyrics: [‘Fallbrook Sedgewynd gave to Nancy/ringnecks for her coachmen’s fancy/Eggs and emeralds, shocking garters/Devilled prunes to stop and start her/Nancy gave to Fallbrook Sedgewynd/neither nods nor time of day/Love is nasty, love is so blind/Love shall make us all go snowblind.’] Upon closer inspection, it could be a proto-glam stomp, and stands in stark contrast to ‘Horses On A Stick’, a slice of pure bubblegum sunshine pop, reminiscent of The Association (Yester had produced some of their albums) or The Turtles.

After that schizophrenic pairing there are a few songs which are closer cousins, featuring both harpsichord and a theatrical vocal performance from Henske. ‘Lullaby’, sung beautifully in a vulnerable quiver, is a darkly melodramatic way to sing one’s child to sleep [‘The end of the world is a windy place/Where the eagle builds her nest of lace/I rock you asleep in the cradle of end/Listen, baby, to the wind’], while Judy’s instinctive comedic impulse gets an airing on ‘St. Nicholas Hall’. Over some bizarre background overdubs, her vocal reaches a near hysterical crescendo during this fiercely satirical attack on the Church [‘Blessed are the pure in heart
(We need a new organ by June)
Blessed are the merciful
(The old one’s badly out of tune)
Blessed are the peacemakers
(Please send us the money soon)
Sincerely yours in Jesus/Your Dean’
]

Vocal duties are shared on ‘Three Ravens’, one of two gorgeous psych-baroque outings telling tales of knights and maidens and featuring a string arrangement worthy of his friend, the late Curt Boettcher (Sagittarius, The Millenium). It wouldn’t sound out of place on a Left Banke album or even The Zombies genre-defining ‘Odessey & Oracle’. The final coda is sublime making it truly a song to treasure. The other, ‘Charity’, is glorious – it’s folksy guitar might recall once again The Association (specifically their ‘Goodbye Columbus’ soundtrack), but it’s orgiastic organ-driven ending is a masterstroke.

The lengthiest track on the album, ‘Raider’, is the strangest of brews, featuring bow banjo and fiddle, both unceremoniously knocked askew by a clunking harpsichord – if one can imagine a buoyant bluegrass version of the theme for The Ipcress File – a toe tapping knee-slapping classic with great harmonising at the finale. It’s followed by the album’s one weak point – the hazy jazz inflections of ‘Mrs. Connor’ mean it’s the only moment that feels contrived here. The rest of the album if stylistically disparate, manages somehow to feel remarkably organic.

Judy’s strident matronly vocal returns on ‘Rapture’ which once again is unashamedly poetic
[‘Lovers who lie/beneath the night sky/neither speak nor hear/in the perfect stillness/She is near/Her voice in the heart’s blood comes roaring/In rapture they die’] It features a wheezing harmonica and introduces  some Moog (but understated, cunningly rehearsing it’s centre-stage performance on the closing title track), all embellished by strange echo-layered vocal overdubs not entirely dissimilar to engineer Herb Cohen’s work on the aforementioned ‘Starsailor’.

Perhaps producing albums such as ‘Happy Sad’ by a star dancer such as Tim Buckley had opened up new vistas for Yester. The curtain comes down with the staggeringly ambitious title track, where he leaves his Lovin’ Spoonful days for dead with what is undoubtedly one of the very strangest songs of the 1960s. [‘See, she is descending now/Starting the slide/The comets cling to her/The fiery bride/She is the mother of/The mark and the prize/The glaze of paradise/is in her eyes/Her mouth is torn with stars/and brushed with wings/She cannot call to us/She does not sing.’] It’s so ‘out there’, at times I find it near excruciating – a mindbending space Moog prog monstrosity. When those Dalek vocal treatments gatecrash the party you’ll know what I mean. But for all it’s crazed nonsense, on most days I love it to bits. It’s the one moment on the album where Yester sounds possessed. Now there were stars – or perhaps asteroids – in his eyes.

I first read about ‘Farewell Aldebaran’ in Strange Things Are Happening, a brilliantly niche retro rock magazine active (pre-Mojo) between 1988-90. One issue contained a feature on Straight Records. I was intrigued, but tracking down the album proved elusive until I hit the jackpot at a record fair in 1993. At the same event I acquired two other Straight releases, Tim Dawe’s ‘Penrod’ and Jeff Simmons’ ‘Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up’. Collectively, this set me back about £50, a costly business, particularly as ‘Aldebaran’ was the only one of the three with which I was in any way smitten. I’ve long since parted company with the other two, but the music on ‘Farewell Aldebaran’ was different, bursting with ideas, brazenly ambitious, rich in gothic poetry, subtly sublime one moment and hysterically overbearing the next. It had one foot in the past and one in the future, and was maddeningly difficult to pin down…the kind of album you make your own, because you know no-one else is listening. Every collection – yours included – needs a few of those. (JJ)

45. VAN MORRISON – VEEDON FLEECE (1974)

The ‘other’ Van Morrison album you should own is not Moondance but Veedon Fleece. I say this not because Moondance is a weak album – it is in fact, hugely impressive – but rather because Veedon Fleece outshines it in every department, being the only other occasion in the entirety of Van’s recording career where he sailed close to the magisterial heights of Astral Weeks. Its continual exclusion from Classic Albums lists is akin to inaugurating a Jazz and Blues Hall of Fame and omitting to include Miles Davis and John Lee Hooker, and is at once a great injustice. Classic album it certainly is. So might there be a way to convince a mass of Moondancers to switch allegiance and become fully fledged Fleecers?

Inspired by a trip to the Emerald Isle he made in October 1973, Morrison composed this set of songs, where a Blakeian romanticism inhabits the spirits of ancient Irish Saints and mystics, traversing old streets and monastery ruins, everywhere leaving echoes of its ghostly presence. It is truly one of its kind. But it is more likely to hinder my case if I begin by drawing attention to two songs which, situated incongruously in this most organically Celtic of albums, are US-flavoured fugitives,  defectors from another time another place, that clearly do not belong here: ‘Bulbs’ and ‘Cul De Sac’. The former of the culprits, featuring John Tropea’s countrified guitar and a jarring accelerating tempo, is particularly disconsonant; the latter, a rigid, plodding rewrite of ‘Many Rivers To Cross’ adds little save a frown on this listener’s brow. Of themselves, they are not bad songs any more than Moondance is a weak album, but feel completely at odds with the remainder of the record.

So instead, let me wax lyrical over the remainder, all of which is worthy of the highest commendation. The beautifully judged opener ‘Fair Play’, features stately piano over a gilt-edged acoustic strum – this time by Ralph Walsh who plays sensitively throughout. And that voice! It is sometimes easy to forget that Van possesses one of music’s most towering voices – by turns lion’s growl, fragile falsetto or at times an almost gut-wrenching open-throated bellowing of blues’n’soul. Here, his performance is both restrained and gorgeously melodious: (“Tell me of Poe/Oscar Wilde and Thoreau/Let your midnight and your daytime/Turn into love of life/It’s a very fine line/But you’ve got the mind child/To carry on/When it’s just about to be/Carried on.”)

If Astral Weeks was the sound of ‘a man in pain’ (gratuitous link to Lester Bangs’ unsurpassed review – https://personal.cis.strath.ac.uk/murray.wood/astral.html.), then on Veedon Fleece we hear a new man, a man who is in love and in love with life (his new fiancée Carol Guida accompanied him on the Irish vacation where he wrote most of the songs). Van has always insisted that to write enduring music one has to feel happy, and there is a sense of that inner fulfilment permeating the record’s atmosphere.


‘Linden Arden Stole The Highlights’ is punctuated by a series of repetitive rising piano lines – no chorus – with strings bursting in at 1:42, lifting the music to new heights. Purportedly about an Irish ex-pat living in San Francisco – autobiographical? –  with an ominous closing line hinting at a darker underbelly, “now he’s lonely living with a gun“, the onomatopoeic piano tinkle imitating breaking glass is courtesy Lou Reed’s ‘Berlin’, released the year before. If the guitar on ‘Who Was That Masked Man’ is intricate and understated, Van’s vulnerable delivery is a thing of beauty, so much so that one can forgive the more dubious choice of metaphor, “…or wish on a toilet roll” (whoever imagined they would hear that line in a song? A rival to Arthur Lee’s “Oh the snot has caked against my pants“).

Meanwhile, ‘Streets of Arklow’ introduces atmospheric flute – once again building on a repeated rhythm – this time slightly lengthier, with a dramatic orchestral sweep. Like many of the songs, it’s joyous stream of consciousness poetic impulse contains no chorus, no hook, but draws you in helplessly to its alluring depths. Morrison recalls reading books on Gestalt therapy at the time of the recording and there’s no mistaking the depth of emotion in the music. At the end of Side One, the epic ‘You Don’t Pull No Punches But You Don’t Push The River’ soars at the crest  of a group of songs sometimes considered a ‘suite’ (though not spliced together fragments as on Side Two of Abbey Road), but which are rather linked thematically through an evolutionary passage of music of such ravishingly mysterious beauty it sounds like it’s heading inexorably towards some divinely eschatological revelation – which could be the mythical Veedon Fleece of the album title… “We’re goin’ out in the country to get down to the real soul/I mean the real soul, people/…We’re gettin’ out to the west coast/Shining our light into the days of bloomin’ wonder/Goin’ as much with the river as not/…Blake and the Eternals oh standin’ with the Sisters of Mercy/Looking for the Veedon Fleece“.

The closing trio of songs represents a high watermark in Van’s career. The masterful ‘Come Here My Love’ is one of Van’s most enduring love songs. The antithesis of the rent-a-party floor filler that is ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, it is a song where he sounds entranced by spouse, nature, poetry and life itself. “Come here my love/And I will lift my spirits high for you/Id like to fly away and spend a day or two/Just contemplating the fields and leaves and talking about nothing/Just layin down in shades of effervescent, effervescent odors/And shades of time and tide/And flowing through/Become enraptured by the sights and sounds in intrigue of natures beauty/Come along with me/And take it all in/Come here my love“. It was covered by This Mortal Coil in 1986, but their version stripped it of its transcendent beauty (very unlike them) with Van’s very much the superior take.

Van’s capacity to make the simplest arrangement and verse sound utterly profound is illustrated most clearly on ‘Comfort You’ – any analysis of the song’s structure and content would be notable only for its brevity. By contrast the song seethes into one’s consciousness to be recalled time and time again. Contrast too, the way the spirit moves in the closer ‘Country Fair’, liberated from the technical virtuosity of ‘Cul De Sac’ where the highly accomplished playing is cold and static. Here the sparse sound creates spaces for free form flute, double bass (the songs work better without bass guitar) and washed out ghostly choir, recalling the voices in Tim Buckley’s ‘Morning Glory’. It could fit comfortably on to Astral Weeks and I can pay it no higher compliment.

Listening to the album on CD could be a potentially dissatisfying experience, there being no pause between the album’s centrepiece, the nine minute ‘You Don’t Pull No Punches But You Don’t Pull The River’ (how about that for a dressed-up poetic title for a song where someone is receiving a pretty harsh dressing down?) which closes Side One, and ‘Bulbs’ which on vinyl would open Side Two. At least, lifting the needle could afford the listener a momentary pause and an opportunity to avoid such an abrupt rupture in the album’s flow. But get your mitts on whichever format is accessible to you and hear the blues howler, the jazzman, the mystic folksinger, the poet and Celtic Soul Brother make one of the best albums ever recorded. By anyone. (JJ)

29. TIM BUCKLEY – STARSAILOR (1970)

Oblivion carries me on his shoulder: Beyond the suns I speak and circuits shiver” (‘Starsailor’)

It might sound like baloney to claim that Starsailor killed Tim Buckley, but in his resoluteness to go as far with the voice as ‘Trane went with the horn, he came undone. The culmination of this intrepid expedition to the outer limits was a rejection by his audience and a subsequent descent into psychological chaos, exacerbated by spiralling alcohol and (ultimately fatal) drug abuse.

Starsailor has to be understood in the context of Tim’s recording a career. If you are unfamiliar with his work it would be imprudent to begin here. Having said that, much has been written about Tim’s music, some of which is amongst the best rock literature (for example Max Bell’s NME retrospective (http://timbuckley.net/articles/nme-1979.shtml) and there are even more insightful accounts, such as Chronicle Of A Starsailor by Lee Underwood, Tim’s friend, lead guitarist and along with Larry Beckett, closest musical confidante. (http://www.timbuckley.com/tim-buckley-chronicle-of-a-starsailor/

I suggest you read both of these if you get the opportunity. Underwood captures with particularly incisive brevity Buckley’s remarkable musical odyssey:

“I watched him grow from a Bambi-eyed littleboy poet prattling about paper hearts and Valentines, into a hurricane-haired rock and roller, into a madman/genius improvisational vocalist who blew all the pups away, and finally into a lowdown, roadhouse, sex-thumping stomper who injected steam and blood and juice into an r&b music nobody cared about.”

And that really just about sums up Tim’s development as an artist. Starsailor sits as the pivotal moment in a riveting musical journey which has few parallels in the history of rock. Chronologically, it comes exactly half way through Tim’s recording career (1970)  – despite being album number six of nine – and marks the peak of an assurgent creative curve from his  self-titled 1966 debut onwards. After Starsailor, musical compromise set in and the artistic merit of his recordings gradually deteriorated along with his mental well-being.

The album’s most famous track ‘Song To The Siren’ was successfully resurrected by This Mortal Coil in 1983, sung by Elizabeth Fraser. [Elizabeth of course later had an intense personal relationship with Tim’s son Jeff whose short life bore an eerily tragic resemblance to his father’s]  Buckley’s original is pitch perfect: in the context of the album itself you might say delicate, restrained, and along with the charming Parisian caress of ‘Moulin Rouge’, certainly unrepresentative of the bulk of its content.

Many of Tim’s performances on Starsailor beggar belief, understandably inviting those ‘operatic vocal gymnastics / acrobatics’ descriptions which characterise reviews of the album. But this is over-simplistic journalism. After all, acrobats and gymnasts spend years perfecting rigidly complex routines. The reality for Tim was somewhat different. That’s not to say the musical performances here lack discipline. Far from it, but, liberated from the constraints of the rock idiom, head swollen with Stockhausen, Monk, Mingus, Roland Kirk, Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman, he felt compelled to reach further with his voice than anyone had ever gone, and did so with an unbridled and ecstatic inventiveness. 

It is clear from the outset that there are no rigid routines here. No, this is going to be a challenging listen. ‘Come Here Woman’ is a staggeringly ambitious calling card. It begins an ends with an avant-jazz skulk, redolent of the territory explored on his previous proper album Lorca. After the intro, suddenly the song leaps to life with Lee’s dissonantly funky guitar and Tim’s off key bawling. Moments later the skittish electric piano suggests we could be listening to Bitches Brew. It’s complex. It’s all over the place. It’s a fantastic start…

On the brilliant ‘Monterey’ Tim sounds like a lustily crazed chimpanzee who has broken into a Magic Band recording session and wrestled the mic from the good Captain, his yelps,warbles and shrieks providing a bountiful exhibition of his vocal dexterity.

Side Two takes us to rock’s outer limits. ‘Jungle Fire’s moody improvisational beginning is abruptly brought to a close by Buckley’s ludicrously unhinged “deep insi-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-de” Tarzan yodel. What follows next is magnificent: an accelerating riff of earthy funk guitar amidst a blizzard of deranged wails and howls.I picture those kids shaking their hair to the Stones at Hyde Park in ’69 and imagine how much further they would have gone to a soundtrack like this.

The title track is extraordinary, an abstract assemblage of 16 vocal tracks laid over one another to create something that seems to take us into the realm of metaphysics…even as it’s last few notes fade, nothing can prepare us for the headlong rush of the introduction to ‘The Healing Festival’ which is genuinely shocking – goosebumps not only stand to attention but fly off my back in fright, seeking refuge from Buckley’s hair-raising vocal assault, the  aural equivalent of the mass slaughter of 10,000 dolphins. The horns, courtesy Bunk and Buzz Gardner from The Mothers Of Invention are wild and free yet still struggle to keep pace with Tim’s five and a half octave vocal range.

The curtain comes down with ‘Down By The Borderline’ where flugelhorn gives way to the relatively more stoic rhythms that would anticipate the earthy soul of his next album Greetings From LA. A good album that, but by then Buckley had descended from the mountain, reclothed himself in flesh and bone and shifted his energies to the lower half of his body. A brief confused and sweaty future would follow, but he had already taken rock music as far as it could go. 

PostScript: A Personal Footnote

[Misleading album sleeve #429] As a teenager, I had heard of Tim Buckley – his album Goodbye & Hello was referenced as the only one worthy of note in most rock music encyclopaedias, although I had recently spotted an entry for Starsailor in a Critics’ Top 100 Albums book (edited by Paul Gambaccini). I flicked past Starsailor onto the album featured on the next page, which if I recall correctly may have been Private Dancer by Tina Turner!

Instead, my introduction to Tim’s music came while browsing the A-Z in Glasgow’s Virgin Records in February 1987. I had a £10 note in my pocket and back then this was enough to buy two, three, maybe even if one was canny enough, four albums. I was keen to make that £10 go as far as possible before inadvertently stumbling upon a US import of Tim’s Happy Sad. It was priced at a prohibitive £8.99, but the picture on the back of the sleeve was of the coolest man I had ever seen. There were only six tracks, which varied in duration from 2 to 12 minutes. Those  Bowie and Byrds albums would have to wait a bit longer. I simply had to have this. As a devotee of Astral Weeks I was naturally captivated by the music – a bewitching spell of jazz-folk reverie – which matched perfectly the image on the reverse of the sleeve with its hazy forest sunlight bursting through Tim’s Dionysian locks.

  

I returned to the book store once again to gaze at the picture of ‘Starsailor’. Nah, I thought, he looks too happy here – this must have been the contractual obligation album. Its juxtaposition, next to ‘Private Dancer’ did little to allay those concerns. Little did I know at the time that the album would go down in history as one of rock music’s great acts of commercial suicide. (JJ)

5. BRIDGET ST. JOHN – ASK ME NO QUESTIONS (1970)

Bridget St. John is the forgotten femme of English folk. While Sandy Denny remains the more revered and celebrated, and others such as Vashti Bunyan have been rediscovered and championed by the revivalists, Bridget’s reputation has by contrast, stalled if not in fact, been diminished. As a stalwart of the UK folk scene in the late 60s and early 70s, Bridget was a friend and contemporary of John Martyn (who enjoyed longer-lasting success) and Nick Drake, whose posthumous prestige is arguably unmatched by any other British songwriter.

And yet it could all have been so different. Her first three albums, released on John Peel’s Dandelion label feature her languid and slightly fragile songs, delivered unhurriedly in her solemn Nico-esque murmur. Bridget was big news then, a Peel favourite, touring extensively (even supporting David Bowie!) and featuring regularly in Melody Maker end of year fan polls. After the release of Jumblequeen in 1974, nothing much was heard for the next twenty years. An odd live appearance here and there in the late 90s and then…silence.

It is hard to see why she remains in such relative obscurity. This, her debut album, perhaps lacks the lush orchestral accompaniment of its immediate successor Songs For A Gentle Man, but this merely showcases her intricate guitar playing and husky tone more starkly. And the songs speak for themselves.

‘Autumn Lullaby’ barely gets into first gear but is sweet and gorgeously melancholic. Beside it, while just as stripped down, ‘Curl Your Toes’ and ‘I Like To Walk With You In The Sun’ sound peculiarly buoyant.

On a number of songs Bridget laments the end of a failed relationship. On ‘Broken Faith’ with sensitivity she bids her beau farewell “but if along the way, I hold your hand; be not angry, be not hard”, suggesting some inner turmoil of her own – or could this just be a line symptomatic of a lost libertarian age of ‘free love’? ‘Hello Again Of Course’ seems to return to the same theme: “You never really go away; it’s just the space between us growing; A little more than it ever has before.” Delicate, poignant stuff.

On the spectral ‘Lizard Long Tongue Boy’ however, she sounds almost vampish. Here the atmosphere is given an erotic charge which may lack subtlety but demonstrates there is far more to her armoury than her idyllically nuanced verse.

The last 2 minutes of the finale, the exquisite title track, consist almost entirely of birdsong and the distant peel of church bells. Now this is English folk at its most ambrosial.(JJ)