34. MERCURY REV – YERSELF IS STEAM (1991)

When Paul Rothchild was recording the first Doors album, he banned the group from using any effects. He felt this would keep the music timeless, not being sonically linked to any of the current fads or gimmicks. Mercury Rev achieved the same end on Yerself Is Steam, by different means. They use EVERYTHING. They had a flute player. They had a visionary producer (the scope of this record is so wide it had to be recorded on 35mm magnetic film). Their two guitar players are aware of the lineage of psychedelic punk rock history that led up to their particular place and time, but not enslaved or restricted by it in any way.  There’s never a feeling of them trying to ape anyone, looking over their shoulder saying “Are you sure Jimi did it this way?” No, they sound more in love with the sheer joy and chaos they are wringing out of their strings. They also had David Baker, a loose cannon credited with “vocals (when it sounds like something he would do)”. This wasn’t something that just happened on record. When I saw them in Glasgow around the release of this record, he’d climb off the stage and wander around the venue when not involved. The tension between his David Thomas-like bellowing, crooning, whispers and mumbles and Jonathan Donahue more melodic “vocals (when left to himself)” would only survive one more album (the equally great Boces), but for a couple of years there wasn’t another band like them.

Chasing A Bee opens the album. The line “my primitive words match my primitive heart” sums up an air of innocence that runs through the album. Starting slow and low with flute and acoustic guitar David Baker sings of mellow seducers meeting eager seekers. Jonathan Donohue takes over for the chorus, and the song builds beautifully until the 3 minute 10 mark when all holy hell is unleashed. A descending four note flute battles with screeching guitars, and the whole thing builds and decays into the two chord Seeds style stomper Syringe Mouth.

Coney Island Cyclone is sheer joy. The sound on this is as refreshing as a sea breeze in your face. The opening guitar sounds like its trying to work out The Creation’s The Girls are Naked. The refrain of “I won’t chicken out” will worm its way into your brain until it becomes your mantra for life. David Baker is back with an absurdly low voice on Blue and Black, as the band behind him channel side one of Neu! 75.

The brilliantly titled Sweey Oddysee Of A Cancer Cell T’Th’ Center Of Your Heart closes side one (or Rocket Side) which sounds like they’ve copped Billy Duffy’s guitars circa She Sells Sanctuary before galloping off like Black Sabbath at their most motorik (really!) or Will Sergeant jamming with Godspeed! You Black Emperor. This doesn’t do the song justice. Really, you need to hear this.

Just as Tommy Hall conceived Easter Everywhere as two complete halves, each side designed to be listened to on repeat, Yerself Is Steam works best on vinyl. The second side (or Harmony side) has a completely different atmosphere, more introspective and melancholy, like side two of On The Beach. Frittering is a meandering acoustic Sunday night come down of a song. Its beautiful chord progression isn’t a million miles away from the more conventional songs that would provide them with greater success on Deserters Songs, but here they just let it drift around, soothing your soul for nearly nine gorgeous minutes.

After a brief noise interlude, the twelve minute Very Sleepy Rivers closes the album. Live this would be played as part of a medley with Miles Davis’ Shhh/Peaceful, and gives you a good idea of where their heads were at. I’ve never really had a clue what this song was about, David Baker’s vocals, when he’s not whispering are very low in the mix, just another instrument. One of those songs where I’d rather leave its spooky mystery intact

This line up would only manage one more album together. David Baker would leave after Boces, and Suzanne Thorpe would leave after See You On The Other Side. The band that would record Deserters Songs, although great, were a different proposition altogether.  The genius of this record is that it sounds like it was either thrown together or meticulously planned. I suspect the latter, given the subsequent records they would go on to make. No band gets that lucky. (TT)

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Glasgow 1991
When David Baker, strolled nonchalantly through the sparse audience towards the bar, it was during the middle of a song. More specifically, it was during the middle bit of a song. Perhaps you remember the ‘middle bit’? For the uninitiated, the ‘middle bit’was the cacophonous (90 second or so) build up in the heart of the song, preceding the climax, and at the 1980s indie disco one regularly struggled to find the dance moves to fit this shapeless passage of sound. Sonic Youth were fine purveyors of the middle bit (think Expressway To Yr Skull or Silver Rocket) but by 1991 signed now to a major label, they were long past the godlike glory of their Sister and Daydream Nation albums. But Mercury Rev had stepped into fill the void and, to these ears at least. their first album remains their most satisfying. It may not have the refinement and poise of Deserters’ Songs. As their debut, it certainly had only a fraction of the audience. But it contains their original essence: meandering pulsating space rock (‘Chasing A Bee’) with some disturbingly eerie melodies (‘Frittering’, ‘Very Sleepy Rivers’) amidst the white noise. What’s more, it is one of only two album recordings to contain the mad ramblings of Mr. Baker – a true rock’n’roll eccentric. The later albums may have hit big but they missed his spooky charm. (JJ)
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32. FUNKADELIC – MAGGOT BRAIN (1971)

George Clinton is back, and career retrospectives and reappraisals are being rewritten with relish. He has undoubtedly been one of music’s most colourfully charismatic and anarchic performers over the past 60 years. Yes, that’s right, sixty.  A true eccentric to rival those other freakish musical mavericks, Lee Perry and Sun Ra, Clinton’s influence on the evolution of popular music has been incalculable. So, in assessing the relative merit of his oeuvre of recordings, where should you begin? One might stake a claim for Parliament’s P-Funk bomb ‘The Mothership Connection’ or Funkadelic’s acid-fuelled eponymous debut or it’s insane follow up ‘Free Your Mind…And Your Ass Will Follow’. Perhaps even the later sorely under-rated ‘Cosmic Slop’ could come into contention. Parliament’s ‘Motor Booty Affair’ is also worth a mention. In the NME’s recent ‘500 Greatest Albums of All-Time’ list, the 213th greatest album ever made was reckoned to be Funkadelic’s ‘One Nation Under A Groove’. The inclusion of that album may have been designed to offset a peculiar exercise in bad taste which managed to find room for Green Day, Pearl Jam and Whitney Houston, while simultaneously overlooking the tour de force of psychedelic stoner funk that is Funkadelic’s third album ‘Maggot Brain’. To my mind, even the noblest of record collections is incomplete without it.

‘Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time
For y’all have knocked her up
I have tasted the maggots in the mind of the universe
I was not offended for I knew I had to rise above it all
Or drown in my own shit.’

Along with the mischievous black humour of Clinton’s lyrics, ‘Maggot Brain’ is most often remembered for the guitar solo of its title track. If, like me, you hit your teenage years at some  point after 1977, you probably grew up during an era when the legacy of punk dictated that there was no legitimate place for the guitar solo in music. This was on the whole a good thing. There may have been space for the jagged interplay of Verlaine and Lloyd, but their dazzling art-punk virtuosity stood in stark contrast to the supercilious phallic extension building of the Jurassic ‘guitar heroes’.  The Buzzcocks’ sardonic piss-take of the guitar solo on ‘Boredom’ was a bona fide punk statement of intent if ever there was one. Be as well outlawing the guitar solo right there and then. [During these years, I recall one of my TNPC colleagues and I smuggling ‘Led Zeppelin III’ home to listen to, as if it were contraband material fit only for a brown paper bag hidden under a trench coat]

So, it is important to state that ‘Maggot Brain’ is not simply about that guitar solo. And it has more in common with punk – if not aesthetically then certainly attitudinally – than you might think. Punkadelic? Well, that would be stretching the truth, but it’s fair to say that Funkadelic were punk in their own inimitable way. Not only did they occasionally share the stage with Detroit’s finest proto-punks The MC5 and The Stooges, but ingenuously, they kept sufficiently aloof from the prevailing musical and political trends to cultivate an attitude that may have been construed as nihilistic. Although it was a time of increasingly radical political consciousness for African-Americans, for Clinton & Co. there were darker energies at work, as exemplified by the inclusion in the sleeve notes of extracts of literature from The Process-Church of The Final Judgement with their bizarre syntheses of Satanism and Christianity. And the band shunned the Motor City’s premier hit-making factory, preferring instead to forge their own unique path. Times were changing of course and even Gordy’s Motown marionettes were embracing the new zeitgeist, casting off the oppressive shackles of the two and a half minute pop single to venture out into uncharted musical terrain, this new expressionism pitched against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights / Black Power movement.

There is no sharp suited foursome instructed to smile into the camera for this album sleeve. Instead, we have a picture of a woman’s head emerging from the earth, which is either screaming in agony or laughing maniacally? Inside, there is an image of the band, standing on a bit of spare ground, looking menacingly hip, no doubt tripping on acid. They did a lot of that at the time. Those smiles may not be friendly ones…

There is a macabre myth associated with the inspiration for the album title: that George Clinton’s brother’s corpse had been lying for such a length of time that maggots were found to be found crawling through the eye sockets of his empty skull when his dead body was finally discovered.  And death seemed very much on everyone’s minds during the recording sessions for the album. Consider for example, the title track, the album’s most celebrated moment. If this brain-scrambling finger-blistering slice of melancholia is a cathartic experience for the listener, just imagine how it may have felt for its protagonist Eddie Hazel. It is well documented that Clinton instructed him to ‘Play it as if your momma just died.’ Some claim that Hazel only discovered his mother hadn’t died after the recording finished. Whatever the truth, and the bulk of personnel involved in the recording have very little recollection of the event, the result was something extraordinary. An impassioned slow burning guitar that cries, weeps and wails its sorrowful eulogy, is only slowly and gradually released from its agony after a gruelling ten minutes. While Hazel sounds on his knees his guitar knocks asteroids off their courses. I imagine the walls of the recording studio sweating blood by the end, the guitar shrivelled up like a piece of dead fruit after it’s exertions. Stylistically, the track could be interpreted as an homage to Hendrix who had died shortly before recording sessions for the album began, but the moment belongs to Eddie Hazel. When Hazel died in 1992, fittingly the song provided the soundtrack at his funeral.

While Hazel was digging Hendrix, there were other influences that shaped the band’s sound, most obviously the rhythmic funk of James Brown and Sly Stone. Listen to ‘Can You Get To That’ or ‘Hit It And Quit It’ where the positive Family Stone influence is at its most bold and infectious, if made even more flamboyant by Bernie Worrell’s intensified keyboard work. On ‘Super Stupid’ Hazel amplifies the decibels with an even heavier sound – George referred to it as ‘a louder Temptations, The Temptations on acid’ – on a song that tells the story of a fatality caused by mistaking heroin for cocaine.

The ten minute finale, ‘Wars of Armageddon’ is the strangest of trips  –  percussive anarchy, frenzied axe-grinding, bubbling organ, screaming, freedom chants, airport announcements and ridiculously crude lyrics merge together in what sounds like one big Parliafunkadelicment orgy. One can divine its influence in the abstract Afro-funk of the title track to Miles Davis’ fabulous ‘On The Corner’, released the following year. It also anticipates the real party to come, aboard that Mothership…

Has there ever been a more fitting name for a band than Funkadelic? Says it all really. Perhaps if Roxy Music had been called Glam Art Trip or if Kraftwerk had simply been dubbed The Robots. In the evolutionary development of Parliament-Funkadelic, and indeed of the music of the period, the album serves as a missing link – both musically and chronologically – between Jimi’s ‘Electric Ladyland’ and Parliament’s aforementioned ‘The Mothership Connection’. There are lots of stopping-off points along the way of course, not just in the Parliament-Funkadelic canon, but this evolution was paralleled elsewhere: in jazz (the post ‘Bitches Brew’ fusion explosion) and in soul [Ernie Isley’s guitar work with The Isley Brothers for example]. Into that melting pot came Clinton and Funkadelic. They partied, preached and pounded, and alongside their monumental guitar solos, they funked it up like nobody else. (JJ)