55. DO THE COLLAPSE – GUIDED BY VOICES (1999)

Indie / Alternative, Rock Music, Uncategorized

DO THE COLLAPSE – GUIDED BY VOICES (1999)
As a comparatively unloved record in the discography of a comparatively unregarded band, Do The Collapse is in something of a double bind. For a band who had earned renown for unvarnished, elliptical, sawn-off songs, being produced by RicOcasekoftheCars, pedlar of incorrigibly MTV fodder, seemed imponderable and impardonable to some, like Lester Bangs agreeing to do a column for the Saturday Evening Post, particularly following the departure of deputy chief songwriter Tobin Sprout.
The sheer prolificacy of GBV and their penchant for brevity  meant they were not immediately packageable but their irresistible way with a melody offered a chink of light to the mainstream – but it doesn’t take much for sellout to be entered on the charge sheet. Furthermore, selling out can be highly relative – Can were accused of it after they joined Virgin, even though they were still capable of breaches of the peace like Unfinished and Animal Waves. Some considered The Fall to have become a pop band in the years when Brix was chief song officer but a world in which Lay Of The Land and US ’80s/90s are pop songs is one which does qualify as wonderful and frightening. And hadn’t Ocasek, two decades earlier, applied a gloss to Suicide’s second album which made it superficially more accessible than their peerless debut but, on closer inspection, retained most of its panic, tension and threat intact?
It’s apt to mention the Fall when discussing GBV, as the simplistic equation I’ve been known to offer for them is “music by Paul Westerberg, lyrics by Mark E Smith.” Robert Pollard’s lyrics and titles devour and defile language in a similar manner to Mark E Smith’s, although it’s his rueful delivery that nudges him in the direction of Westerberg – in fact, the trajectory to Do The Collapse’s measured disarray from, say, the tunefully ragged 1994 EP Clown Prince Of The Menthol Trailer, runs parallel to the path the Replacements staggered along from Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash to All Shook Down.
I purchased Do The Collapse on a whim a few weeks after its 1999 release, reasoning that, while I’d always been impressed and intrigued by GBV, apart from Clown Prince I owned nothing by them and a new album would be a sensible place to start. The years seem to have hardened the cognoscenti consensus that Bee Thousand (which enjoys the accolade of being the subject of a volume in the Thirty Three and A Third book series) or Alien Lanes are the GBV albums against which all others are measured. I’m open to persuasion on this but they were – and remain – less familiar than I’d prefer them to be and I was able to approach Do The Collapse on its own terms.

About two and a half (more of this in a moment) of the songs could have been ripe for MTV mutilation and were within the grasp of Virgin (now Absolute) Radio’s scaly fingers and shrivelled, shrunken playlist but, mercifully, they escaped and I knew this was a far richer, more lasting and more rewarding proposition than flavourless, dehydrated contemporaries (not peers) like Fountains of Wayne or Semisonic.
The two whole songs, though, did reach, perhaps unwitting, wide audiences by other means. Opener Teenage FBI, robotically limbed and with rare lyrical directness, found its way on to the Buffy The Vampire Slayer album (though not, as I understand, the programme itself). The thrust and melody resonate with the driven-in line “Someone tell me why,” though behind the youthful doubt of the phrase, part of me also hears the teacher that Pollard remained for years after forming GBV demanding an explanation for undelivered homework – a brilliantly baffling duality.
The other most radio-ready song, Hold On Hope, would be easy to characterise as a just-add-water Everybody Hurts, a calculatedly poignant work designed to overlay emotionally manipulative montages in reality shows and dramas alike. Except that, firstly, even after two decades of grievous misuse, Everybody Hurts survives as a genuinely moving, throat-swelling song; secondly, the same description applies to Hold On Hope, and thirdly, the hospital series it soundtracked was not the blustering Gray’s Anatomy but a rare moment of pathos in the endearingly silly Scrubs.

The 50:50 split comes in Liquid Indian, where the verses don’t seem too bothered what you think of them, with glowering riffs hoisting lines like “Soft clay orifice quivering like new structures and formations” before the invasion of a chorus which could have stadiums from Shea to Shawfield levitating through nothing more than repetition of a title which seems to celebrate an ink used as a drink – surely the most radical transformation since Lucozade morphed from a pick-me-up for sickly children into an elixir for the modern superathlete. The David verse battles back but the Goliath chorus rises again – it all ends in a draw but there’s no time to go to penalties as there’s too much happening elsewhere…
For instance: Zoo Pie helps itself to the coda of the Clash’s Garageland and has Pollard hollering through a bullhorn in a particularly belligerent moment; Mushroom Art sees him confessing vulnerably “Living without you is difficult” before the odd old instincts kick in and he elaborates: “Cloud faced oldman winking/You see, he tests me.” Its already measured riff is slowed further still on In Stitches, where he promises “Human amusement at hourly rates,” in tandem with a menacing backing vocal which has its flock of wrath turned away by a delicate tremolo. Dragons Awake!, with acoustic guitar, strings and Lennonesque vocal reverb, is less psychedelic than its title promises but is still as close to that status as GBV get, while Things I Will Keep lists, veers and swerves like Prime Husker Du.
And it all came out on Creation, in its very last days. The label may not actually have been brought to the brink of financial bankruptcy by the procrastination of Kevin Shields but creative bankruptcy was definitely wrought by general post-Morning Glory hubris – the recruitment of veterans GBV and Ivor Cutler were just about its only inspired moves at this time.
GBV themselves collapsed afterwards and did so again after a recent reactivation but the songs have never stopped pouring out of Robert Pollard and this prolificacy is almost a recommendation in itself. It’s well- known that actor Paddy Considine is an enthusiastic champion of theirs, perhaps less so that, when Daniel Radcliffe was once  invited to disclose the contents of his MP3, a couple of stray GBV tunes were revealed to lurk within. Since then, he’s gone on to play Allan Ginsberg, one of the great American poets of the 20th century – a category I’d contest Robert Pollard has a powerful case for belonging in (PG).

54. THE BEACH BOYS – SUNFLOWER (1970)

Greatest Records, Rock Music

Lairs of Harmony

The customary Liner Notes of the 1960s and early 1970s album demonstrated little variation. Usually they were insipid, vain attempts by unfeasibly witless record companies to promote their artists (Check out the US ‘Meet The Beatles’ issue: ‘You’ve read about them in Time, Newsweek, The New York Times. Here’s the big beat sound of the fantastic phenomenal foursome. A year ago the Beatles were known only to patrons of Liverpool pubs. Today there isn’t a Britisher who doesn’t know their names…’) Occasionally some aspired to be more meaningful or poetic, although sometimes pretentiously so. For The Beach Boys ‘Sunflower’ album however, a novel approach. Neither witty nor poetic, they serve a quite different purpose. Forgive me for reprinting them in their entirety:

‘This album was recorded at the studios of Brother Records and utilizes the most advanced recording techniques in the industry today. All original recording was done on a special 3M 16-track tape recorder, supplied by Wally Heider Recording Inc., of Hollywood, using 2-in wide tape. Microphones used include: Neumann U67, U87, KM-85, RCA DX77, DX44, EV 666, and RE-15. A custom-built 30 position mixing console, manufactured by Quad-Eight Corporation, provided extreme flexibility and special effects for this album. Tape to disk transfer was done at Artisan Sound Recorders, Hollywood, using the latest Model Neumann computer controlled mastering lathe, equipped with a Neumann SX-68 helium-cooled, dynamic feedback cutterhead. The songs on this record were recorded in true stereophonic sound; they are not 16 monophonic signals placed somewhere between the right and left speakers blended together with echo, but rather total stereo capturing the ambiance of the room and the sound in perspective as heard naturally by the ear. Although more difficult to perfect, this type of recording is far more satisfying to hear, as will be demonstrated upon playing this album.’

And there we have it. No sanctimonious homage, no empty promise that the record will change your life – instead we have a convoluted itemisation of the sound engineering and recording equipment which will make this ‘a more satisfying’ listening experience. Of course in one sense, these are liner notes to be avoided altogether, but if you, like me, have over time, nurtured a tremendous fondness for this album, you just may find yourself returning to them to contemplate what it is precisely about the music on ‘Sunflower’ that makes it sound so incredibly fresh 45 years on? Perhaps the SX-68 helium-cooled, dynamic feedback cutterhead? Or surely the addition of the KM-85? (Those old KM-84s were useless, everyone knows that) The latest model Neumann computer controlled mastering lathe possibly provided the crucial ingredient. Those Germans are very efficient you know. Your eyes may be drawn to that EV-666 – which certainly sounds suspicious. Could those nice Christian boys have struck a deal with Satan? After all, isn’t he supposed to have all the best tunes? On the other hand, these liner notes could be the best – or at least the most honest – ever written. For ‘Sunflower’ does exactly what it says on the tin.

I have played ‘Sunflower’ with greater frequency than almost any other album I can think of, since I first purchased it second-hand on vinyl from a small, oft-forgotten Glasgow record shop called Rebel Records in the late spring of 1988. I distinctly remember the occasion as I handed over my £1.99 to Stuart Murdoch, later of Belle and Sebastian fame, who was serving at the till that day. The shop, located right at the very top of Renfield Street, was often deserted and didn’t stay in business long. Presumably, he would have had more than adequate time to nurture his budding songwriting skills while spending endless hours gazing around his deserted environs listening to his favourite tunes. Time would be kind to young Stuart, while in 1988 The Beach Boys were not as fashionable as they were to become in the early to mid-1990s, perhaps due to the monster Brianless (nope, no spelling mistake) comeback US chart-topper ‘Kokomo’ from 3 years earlier.

I hadn’t heard of the ‘Sunflower’ album before I spotted it in Rebel Records. I treasured ‘Pet Sounds’ of course and had the ’20 Golden Greats’ compilation – the blue one with the surfer on the cover. I figured that was all anyone needed of The Beach Boys. As I perused the sleeve, interiorly debating the wisdom of a potential purchase, the only date visible that I could see was 1980, although the puzzling back cover portraits (Mike with his Maharishi toga ‘teaching the children’, Al – minus only the obligatory lederhosen – decked out for a Munich beer fest; Bruce in a wedding chauffeur costume) suggested an earlier incarnation of the group. It may have been prudent to exercise caution for, if truth be told, when The Beach Boys recorded ‘Sunflower’, they had more or less been written off as an antiquated relic from a distant past. It turned out the album in my hand was a later reissue – and was in fact from 1970, in some ways a forgotten period of The Beach Boys story. The reason ‘Sunflower’ doesn’t feature very often in The Beach Boys story is not simply because it wasn’t a big seller (it reached only #151 on the Billboard Album Charts) but because it dates from a time when Brian was no longer undisputed director of operations and for many people, Brian Wilson is The Beach Boys. If any of that post-‘Smile’ stuff was worth listening to, it may have led one to the dangerously heterodox conclusion that there was more to the BBs than Mr. Brian Wilson. But while it would be more than a little foolish to question Brian’s pre-eminent position in The Beach Boys, that is a pill too difficult to swallow for some, for whom any acknowledgement of a positive musical contribution from Mike Love is a concession akin to climbing into bed with Beelzebub. I’m by no means the defence counsel for Mike Love, but that pantomime villain stuff is just plain silly.

Like it or not, ‘Sunflower’ is undoubtedly the best whole group album the band recorded. From around ‘The Beach Boys Today’ through to the ‘Smile’ debacle, the other Beach Boys were really worker bees, buzzing around their consecrated and dominant queen. Brian had been touched by genius – he had outmanoeuvred The Beatles, and out-Spector’d Phil, but his walls of sound were about to come tumbling down. Subsequent post-meltdown albums (‘Smiley Smile’, ‘Friends’, ‘Wild Honey’ ’20/20’) were decent if unspectacular, but there is a sense that the slide in the Beach Boys popularity in the late 1960s was less attributable to any significant artistic decline than with changing fashions. A mere three years after being the only other band to be voted NME Readers’ Vocal Group of the Year (1966) during the imperious reign of the Fab Four, they found themselves suddenly unhip, passe, their angelic harmonies incongruous with a world of blues heavy guitar heroes and rampant hippiemania. But it is to their credit that they remained aloof from changing trends and watched as those around them burned themselves out like comets as the furious rapacious progress of pop fashion devoured many a bright new thing and spat them out, yesterday’s heroes.

From the mid-1970s onwards, The Beach Boys did not exactly cover themselves in glory, producing material almost unspeakably corny and banal (don’t go near the Light Album – the vomit-inducing title is enough) but the period between 1970-1973 is truly a golden one for the band; a new label (Reprise/Brother), a marked growth in the songwriting of the other group members, particularly Dennis, and three exceptionally good albums: ‘Sunflower’, ‘Surf’s Up’ and ‘Holland’ (‘So Tough’ credited to Carl & The Passions, doesn’t quite reach the same peaks) – the former two the best back-to-back classic pairing of their career (‘Smile’ wasn’t released, remember?) The secret? Well, the liner notes give us a clue. And then there are those harmonies… If Bruce Johnston’s melodramatic ballads are too saccharine for some tastes, it is important to remember that The Beach Boys career is laced with such moments – even ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ (at least lyrically) is prime Camembert, but that doesn’t inhibit our affection for ‘Pet Sounds’ – in fact, it’s all part of its innocent charm. Brian and psychedelics, despite some intriguing results, was ultimately, an ill-judged marriage. And the lyrics – despite Van Dyke Parks best efforts – were always secondary to the music. It’s the harmonies that lure you in. So, in keeping with the spirit of the album’s Liner Notes, allow me to illustrate some of its harmonic brilliance with a few technical notes of my own.

Hear the boys soar on the opener ‘Slip On Through’ at 0:50 – a rushing flood of airborne voices almost as if, like an unstoppable force of nature, they had burst through the studio doors, a human tsunami. Or consider for example, the incredibly complex construction that is ‘This Whole World’; it has a career’s worth of hooks packed into its sub-two minute duration – it is difficult not to succumb to those layers of litany between 1:18-1:31, and the mesmerising ‘Thiiis Whoooole Woooorld’ group harmony at 1:41. For an even more impressive exposition, give ear to the remarkable ‘All I Wanna Do’, where the densely echoed production between 1:25-1:45 almost beggars belief. The song has been afforded the dubious credit of being a virtual blueprint for the Chillwave genre, but really deserves a greater accolade. I would rate it one of the greatest pure pop songs ever written. Remember too, that it was co-authored with Brian by Mike, who sings lead beautifully. Whatever you think of Mike Love, he deserves great credit for this little gem.

Vocal duties are shared out evenly on the gorgeous ‘Add Some Music To Your Day’, a perfectly structured beaut, showing tremendous love and care (check out the little vocal flourish between 0:31-0:37), but the great harmonising and string accompaniment through 1:14-1:31 makes it a showstopper and Carl’s flawless solo gives way to heavenly hums at 2:15. Carl shines too on the luscious ‘Our Sweet Love’ and takes the lead on Dennis’ driving frenzied ‘It’s About Time’ which closes Side One, showing that the boys could rock with the best of them… Meanwhile, Dennis himself, with newfound confidence, takes centre stage with the raunchy R&B of ‘Got To Know The Woman’, while on the wistful ‘Forever’ he creates one of the band’s most tender and perfectly realised love songs – hear the harmonies build irresistibly from 1:05-1:16. If Bruce’s gorgeous ‘Deirdre’ is really top tier MOR, it has a melting Bacharach chord change at 1:01, while his ‘Tears In The Morning’ with cloves of Gallic accordion, features an exquisite coda on grand piano which sounds like it’s being recorded in the room upstairs. Even on Al’s slighter ‘At My Window’ the harmonies at the end are breathtaking. The finale, ‘Cool Cool Water’, salvaged from the ‘Smile’ sessions is both a breeze across one’s forehead and somehow playfully buoyant, providing the perfect vehicle for showcasing the mastery of chief sound engineer, Stephen Desper, who conjures miracles from the mixing desk throughout the record.

I once read an interview with John Cale, where he was asked if he would rather have been a Beach Boy than a Velvet Undergrounder. With delicate Welsh diplomacy, he sidestepped the question, but confessed to owning a complete set of Beach Boys albums upon which he struggled to heap a sufficient complement of praise. In particular, for Cale, like many others, ‘those harmonies were unbelievable’ and he recalled listening to the albums endlessly when he relocated temporarily to California in the mid-1970s. Well, if those harmonies are given a greater exhibition on any BBs album other than ‘Sunflower’ then I for one have not heard it. And I’m pretty certain I’ve heard the lot. In Jim Miller’s original Rolling Stone review, he praised the album’s flawless production, noting it possessed ‘a warmth, a floating quality to the stereo that far surpasses the mixing on, say, Abbey Road.‘ He was right, and wise to overlook the lyrical deficiencies in favour of a total surrender to the music. If the Beach Boys did not have a lot to say – aside from cars and girls and surfing – they had a whole lot of love to give in their music, and they let it shine as brightly on ‘Sunflower’ as anywhere else. When Carl belts out the sublime cry ‘music is in my soul’ on ‘Add Some Music To Your Day’ I suspect few will remain unconvinced by his impassioned declaration. (JJ)

53. TELSTAR PONIES – IN THE SPACE OF A FEW MINUTES

Greatest Records, Post rock, Rock Music, Shoegaze

Sometimes I think the nineties was the worst decade for music to date. The twin behemoths of grunge and brit-pop may dominate any retrospective reviews of the decade but left very few albums that stand the test of time (to these ears) twenty plus years on. There were of course many other interesting things going on, the rise of electronica and dance culture and the global take over of hip-hop even as these genres blanded out and became the mainstream. Looking back now it is the bands that remained underground and retained credibility in the face of the music industries last hurrahs that I continue to return to and which only seem to improve as time passes. Before the internet removed record labels influence and wiped out the music weeklies.

1995 was the year of the jolly ‘oliday that was britpop. While some see the mid nineties as the time when independent music finally went overground to dominate the mainstream, in truth most of what made the charts was at best a watered down version of the music of the past ten years with particular emphasis on the type of bands who wanted to relive the sixties. As bands began to see the charts and major label deals as a viable option, edges were knocked off and sounds blanded out.

In Scotland however the best of the bands that emerged in the middle of the decade made it with their rough edges intact. While Bis, The Delgados and Belle and Sebastian refined melodic indie pop into new shapes bands like Mogwai and best of all the Telstar Ponies took inspiration from across the pond in the previous ten years of American alternative rock. Ignoring the barely disguised sub-metal that was most of the bands that exploited Nirvana’s success, these bands took inspiration from Sonic Youth, a little of the dream pop of Galaxie 500 and Mazzy Star, and the disturbed sounds of Slint and Codeine, and forged their own sound

While Britpop dominated the music press, it’s easy to see why the experimental post rock of Telstar Ponies might not sit well next to Wake Up Boo, Country House et al. But while contemporaries Mogwai (who they shared more than just a drummer with) continued to bigger and bigger stages, the Telstar Ponies folded after the release of the flawed second album Voices From The New Music. In The Space Of A Few Minutes, however is a downbeat, edgy and intense masterpiece. It’s a restless music that can’t seem to settle, it’s the sound of those too hot city summer nights when you can’t sleep, the windows open to street sounds, the sound of frayed tempers and lovers quarrels, its walking home under orange streetlights anticipating confrontation. It is also tender, frightening and ultimately hopeful.

The songs are split between Brendan O’Hare and David Keenan (five each) and Rachel Devine (three), but there is little to separate them. The songs on this album sit together as a perfect whole. The opener The Moon Is Not A Puzzle, is a tense duet between David and Rachel building and building as she repeats “If you stay then I will go”. The vocals are mixed low so you find yourself leaning in, trying to catch what is going on (a couple of songs – Two’s Insane and Maya the vocals are almost indecipherable). Lügengeschichte (tall tale) is a helter skelter descent with heavy nods to from Neu! 2’s Super to, well, Neu! 2’s Fur Immer with great lyrics (I have no thoughts of self control) and ends with some crazy phasing. The single Not Even Starcrossed (taking its title from a line in a Codeine song)is a doomed romance of a song (wishing on a star, never should be wrong, when you got nothing)building to a beautifully elegiac chorus of “I’m in love with you”. Maya always reminded me of the atmosphere of Tom Verlaine’s Words From The Front.

Right in the middle of the album is a magical re-working of Patty Waters “Moon, Don’t Come Up Tonight” re-imagined as a gorgeous torch song. Sung by Keenan, importantly he doesn’t change the gender of the songs subject (these things matter sometimes). It was hearing the records of Telstar Ponies that led me to investigate Patty Waters, Shizuka, Albert Ayler.

Monster is all anguished pounding before erupting at the chorus. Best of all is “Side Netting” which just aches, heaving under a narcotic drift of guitars like The Only Ones Inbetweens. The menacing Her Name (“Me and her won’t sleep tonight”)  and Innerhalb Weniger Minuten as Rachel Devine intones a mystery tale over a brooding soundtrack . It all ends on a hopeful note with I Still Believe in Christmas Trees.

The Ponies managed one more album. The following years Tales From The New Music may even reach greater heights than the debut, but lacks the consistency of sound of their debut. After that there was the odd single released, but nothing else. Some members released further music under various guises, some of it great, all of it interesting, but not reaching the heights of what was achieved here.

As for the 1990’s, it is only when you start adding up the bands that released classic in that decade (Luna, Low, Teenage Fanclub, Mercury Rev, Bardo Pond, Pastels, Spectrum, Dead Moon, Primordial Undermind etc) that you realise it wasn’t all bad. And In The Space Of A Few Minutes is one of the best. (TT)

49. CAT POWER – YOU ARE FREE (2003)

Greatest Records, Indie / Alternative, Rock Music

CatPower-07On an airless afternoon during the height of a clammy Glasgow summer, I first heard her voice. A sluggish drawl, as though vainly battling sleep. In 1999, everyone in Missing Records was listening to Cat Power’s ‘Moon Pix’. I left Missing that summer and forgot all about Chan Marshall and that voice, returning faithfully to my tired LP collection with its familiar sleeves, smells and sounds – like putting on a pair of tattered, but very comfortable old slippers. Only gradually did I rediscover my zest for newer sounds. Four years later, a recommendation from an old colleague during a brief rendezvous in Glasgow’s finest music emporium, Monorail, led me to a (re)discovery. And to one of the very best albums of the new millennium thus far.

In 2003, Chan Marshall was in trouble. One can sense a sombre desolation and sadness on her 5th LP ‘You Are Free’. In her interviews at the time, Chan spoke of her exhaustion with touring and travelling, the conspicuous lack of routine/stability in her life, the meddlesome politics of record companies and the irksome complexities of the nature of studio recording. In the haphazardness of her day to day existence, she perceived the need for a kind of liberation of the soul. They were not the best of times. Live performances were edgy, dysfunctional, often chaotic. She was drinking more, perhaps abusing other drugs. Her latest relationship was nearing its end. A mournful atmosphere pervades the recording, a sense of physical and spiritual dislocation. Some say an artist in emotional turmoil is primed to produce their most soulful art, and in this case, that maxim sings true.

The fourteen songs on ‘You Are Free’ were culled from around forty or so, which Chan had written during a frenetic year of travelling and touring, and were selected carefully for the album with the assistance of engineer Adam Kasper. The songs, at once deceptively simple, uncoil to reveal great depth. Anything superfluous is eschewed. There is no grand gesture, no unnecessary embellishment, no affectation. There is barely a chorus to be heard, and the tempo rarely changes, yet the subtle minimalism of the arrangements provides real depth to the songs.

The opener, ‘I Don’t Blame You’, conversely the last song written for the album, is one of four brilliant piano-led tracks, and contains a reservoir of empathy for the song’s subject. Marshall only very reluctantly revealed the protagonist to be Kurt Cobain, but in truth, that was merely confirming what everyone had long suspected. [‘Last time I saw you/You were on stage/Your hair was wild/Your eyes were bright/And you were in a rage/You were swinging your guitar around/Cuz they wanted to hear that sound/But you didn’t want to play/And I don’t blame you’] Here, the song’s strength lies in its avoidance of any stylistic homage. Rather, Chan’s voice, all raggedy velvet, sounds wise with lifetimes, and over a stark block piano riff she conveys the familiar story with great subtlety in a fitting tribute which reveals a deeper sentiment at the heart of one of the album’s key themes.

The lyrics to ‘Free’ and the album’s title itself could be construed as a rallying call to the listener: [‘Don’t be in love with the autograph/Just be in love when you scream that song’]. The message could be ‘break those fetters’; ‘be who you want to be’, but one suspects it is there to serve as a reminder to the author that she alone holds the power to regain control of her own life?

Amongst the other piano led tracks is ‘Names’, a despairingly tragic account of the abused lives of five of Chan’s childhood acquaintances, and the mysterious closer ‘Evolution’, featuring guest vocal by Eddie Vedder, where a hauntingly cryptic reverie drifts out gorgeously to the album’s close.

At times, there is an Antipodean countryish feel to the album, mirroring the muddied rootsiness of The Triffids circa’ In the Pines’ / ‘Born Sandy Devotional’ or the crawling black death of ‘From Her To Eternity’ era Nick Cave. This is hardly surprising; the aforementioned ‘Moon Pix’ had been recorded in Melbourne with The Dirty Three, and on this outing, Warren Ellis (Bad Seeds) is among the guest musicians. Ellis has a starring role on one of the album’s real highlights ‘Good Woman’, where he manages to conjure an authentically Appalachian violin sound, making this, despite its traditional C&W lyrical content (they could have been written for Tammy Wynette) less Nashville and more Kentucky fried. The childlike backing vocals (credited to ‘Maggie & Emma’) add an eerie quality and the whole arrangement works sublimely.

Elsewhere, over a basic acoustic strum David Campbell’s exquisite string arrangement on ‘Werewolf’ including superb cello accompaniment, lends it a gravitas befitting something from Nico’s’ Chelsea Girl’ or ‘The Clarke Sisters’ by The Go Betweens, and acts as a musical bridge between the sparser solo songs and the more conventional band outings. Starker still is the desperately bleak ‘Baby Doll’, which may be an intimate portrayal of a self-destructive friend, or a confessional autobiographical snapshot?  [‘Baby/Black, black, black is all you see/Don’t you want to be free?/Baby/Red, red fire is what you breathe/Don’t you want to be clean/Honey, the shape you’re in /Is worth every dime you spent/Baby Doll/Turn out the lights/Set yourself on fire/Say good night’] Whatever the case, those little noises scraping along in the background certainly add to the discomfort. And on ‘Keep On Running’, Marshall’s take on ‘John Lee Hooker’s Crawling Black Spider’ there is even less room to breathe freely.

‘Shaking Paper’s little rippling rivulets of feedback groan along queasily, while ‘Speak For Me’ and the single, ‘He War’, are the most conventional rock tracks (drums courtesy Dave Grohl) – both appear to concern Chan’s unravelling relationship. On ‘He War’ she laments [‘I never meant to be the needle that broke your back/You were here, you were here, and you were here/Don’t Look Back’] with an impassioned vocal performance which is palpably soulful and technically dexterous, alongside an infectiously catchy ‘Hey hey hey’ chorus. Marshall was reportedly unhappy with the version recorded for the album, claiming it lacked the raw-ness of the original ‘live band’ recordings.

What it does not lack is soul, and that can be said for everything else on ‘You Are Free’. If I feel uncomfortable labelling American country music ‘white soul music’ (the worst country is often something else altogether) I do so merely to illustrate a point – which is that soul / soulfulness is not confined to any particular musical genre. Chan was already a soul artist long before ‘The Greatest’, most amply illustrated here on ‘You Are Free’. On ‘The Greatest’, she embarked on a soul project that was at times more style than substance. While it is a good album, there was really no need, for Chan’s soul credentials were already well established. ‘You Are Free’ was truly a soul album, it’s rawness and honesty straight from the heart, and conclusive proof that at times, less can certainly mean a whole lot more. (JJ)

45. VAN MORRISON – VEEDON FLEECE (1974)

Folk/ Folk-Rock, Greatest Records, Mystic Celtic Soul, Rock Music

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)

44. SANDINISTA! – THE CLASH (1980)

Punk Rock, Rock Music

SANDINISTA! – THE CLASH (1980)


Sandinista! is a profoundly flawed record, one which, even if its 36-song, two-hour plus content were trimmed by a fifth, would still be carrying considerable excess baggage.
So what’s it doing in The New Perfect Collection? For all its flaws, which will also be explored here, the open-minded, restlessly curious spirit in which it was made, an unexpectedly high strike rate against the odds, and its persistence in standing up to 35 years of out-of-hand dismissal secure it a place in this pantheon of the passed-over.
Few bands have polarised opinion as sharply as the Clash. On one side, they were subjected to rigorous expectations from those who wished nothing more from them than a fistful of rewrites of White Riot each year and a few handily digested slogans (something they were exceptionally adept at; in their first year alone, they came up with at least a dozen). These were, of course, disregarded with wilful brio, while those detractors, who by now saw them as little different to those they were thought to have come to obliterate, hunkered down for the new decade with the entrenched likes of the Cockney Rejects and the Anti-Nowhere League.
On the other, they’re right up there with the Stones, the Velvets and Bowie in having been subjected to screeds of unctuous, over-reverential hagiography. While their detractors will trot out the same, admittedly valid, charges time and time again to condemn them (they signed for CBS and called themselves socialists! They sang I’m So Bored With The USA and then spent half the year over there! Daddy was a diplomat, not a bankrobber!) their champions often show little more imagination (they Famously refused to play Top Of The Pops! London Calling was Famously voted album of the ’80s by Rolling Stone  – even though it came out in the ’70s , y’daft Yanks!). Then there’s the ongoing reductive radio campaign to condense their entire career to three or four songs – I Fought The Law, London Calling, Should I Stay Or Should I Go and, at a push, Rock The Casbah. But what everybody seems to agree on is that Sandinista! is nobody’s idea of a masterpiece and there are those who wish that, like the even-more, and this time justly, reviled Cut The Crap, it would just go away lest it tarnish the legacy.
For a start, a triple album? Just after London Calling  Smash Hits printed a picture of the band which, if memory serves, had them  dressed up as morris dancers and the caption declared that their next album would be a triple enitled Yeovil Calling..What?! Hang on, it was just a joke! But a year later, there it was, housed like its predecessor (and, not coincidentally, labelmate Bruce Springsteen’s just released double The River) in a single sleeve to keep costs down and once again for a capped price – £6 this time rather than £5 but when you’re getting an extra disc…
And then there was what was on those three discs (or reels, if you got the boxed cassette version). The aforementioned conservative (upper and lower case, occasionally both) naysayers were joined by those who heard only a directionless mess, chief among them the NME’s Nick Kent, who labelled the genre jumble “a ridiculously self-indulgent communique.” In more recent years, as the – for grievous want of a better term – world music market has grown, and some of its most earnest advocates have become more precious, Sandinista! has increasingly stood accused of dilettantism or, even worse, cultural colonialism, however benign, as the Clash dip their toes in the sounds of Brooklyn, Havana and Kingston, sing of ghettoes and dictatorships then scurry back to the shadow of the Westway with more cash than the authentic practitioners of all this music could ever dream of.
Again, some valid points. Except – firstly , of course, they’d been exploring other styles for years, ever since their interpretation (they couldn’t have faithfully reproduced it even if they wanted to at this stage) of Junior Murvin’s Police And Thieves on their first album. Also, why not try on other clobber? Why should expanding their sound be limited to a couple of other pre-approved sources? It’s not as if they cast the net absurdly wide and attempted  to take on opera or North African folk; theirs was the same approach that Primal Scream took a decade later on Screamadelica and the Beatles a decade earlier on the White Album but, while those albums were tuned into, and responding to, specific times, moods, spirits and cultures, Sandinista! (which was released days after John Lennon’s murder) fitted nowhere at all  despite being by a band who still commanded more attention than almost any other.
Most importantly, it’s a record made by music fans. The Clash were a punk band but, individually, they were not punks. What they did in 1976-7 was unlike anything that had been done before but the myth that it all descended fully formed from the sky and landed in Oxford Street has long since been quashed. They were people with pasts, hinterlands – Joe Strummer’s prior existence as Woody Mellor the squat-dweller is now well-known; far less remarked upon is Topper Headon’s contribution – superficially, he was often seen as a standard punk dustbin clatterer, like Rat Scabies without the  corny stick-juggling, and, well, he wasn’t even with them from the start, but he actually had roots in jazz and was accomplished on several instruments. Not something you shouted about down the Roxy but by the time of Sandinista! the Clash were answerable to no one and there was no punk worthy of the name left to answer to anyway, so Topper was in a position to nudge them in all manner of new directions.
I have a strong aversion to genre identification games but if you must, there are about 14 on Sandinista! and, at its best, it’s an exemplary kaleidoscope of educated pastiche. Far-sighted, even, on the two rap workouts, The Magnificent Seven and Lightning Strikes, which are relatively conventional band performances, rather than deploying scratch or beatbox, and this, paradoxically, means they’ve aged better than some of the more authentic early rap, which at the time was the sound of the future but now faces the, fairly unjust, fate of being considered as quaint as nursery rhymes.
At the opposite pole, The Sound Of The Sinners is a complete one-off in the Clash’s repertoire, such a perfect exercise in gospel that they didn’t need to repeat it. Its evangelical fervour is undercut more than slightly by the voice of a tweedy, Derek Nimmo-esque vicar (rumoured to be actor Tim Curry, though I prefer to think it was recorded straight from a televised Sunday service) bidding “cheerio” to a departing congregation, presumably to contrast the ardent, celebratory nature of gospel with the staid, Conservative-Party-at-prayer perception of churches they might find closer to home.
Rockabilly gets a runout on The Leader, a masterly, 100-second distillation of the Profumo affair which, again, shows that this type of music was closer to Strummer’s heart than punk ever was and that, on form, he was a lyricist with few equals (“Vodka fumes and the feel of a vulture”); also on Midnight Log, a macabre, blues harp-scarred tale of being in the pay of the devil who, we’re told, “ain’t been seen for years/’Cept every 20 minutes, he zooms between my ears.” I always hear the feedback buzz at the end as the latest of those unwelcome visits.

As always, there’s plenty of reggae but in some unfamiliar guises. Junco Partner, a song shrouded in mystery at the time (to the point of Unknown receiving the songwriting credit) but which turned out to be an early ’50s blues tune; the 12-bar melody always suggested as much but its peripatetic violin was rarely heard in either reggae or blues.
It’s there again in The Equaliser, a dub-heavy, anti-slavery (with or without wages) diatribe which is followed by The Call-Up, uptempo and skanking but deeply melancholy as it contemplates the then very likely prospect of a return to the conscription which had killed so many throughout the 20th century (to remove all ambiguity, NO DRAFT was emblazoned on the label when it appeared as a single), while even deeper reggae is explored on If Music Could Talk and its dub version, Living In Fame, with a toast by the late Mikey Dread, who sternly counsels the young pretenders to live up to their names (“If you say you are Selecter, you’ll have to have a good selection”). Bizarrely, he was at it again years later, when he was by chance captured in a fly-on-the-wall airport documentary lambasting his chosen airline (“Life is not easy with easyJet!!”) . The same tune is re-reprised on the closing Shepherd’s Delight, a poignant finale that turns sinister the second the music stops, to be replaced by what’s always sounded to me like a rocket launch (red sky…). It’s like a bite from a seal. Perversely, they also cover an Eddie Grant song, Police On My Back, and turn it into the most traditionally Clash-sounding thing on the whole album.
Of course, not everything works. About a side’s worth is wholly negligible but one of these songs has to be mentioned as, without recourse to the music, it’s actually the most significant song on the album. Washington Bullets is a Latin/salsa flavoured tune, a style of music I can never help feeling sounds corny, but lyrically, it recounts the 1979 overthrow of the oppressive Somoza regime in Nicaragua by the Sandinista (hence the title) rebels. Unlike the Special AKA’s later Nelson Mandela, it didn’t directly lead to anything but in recounting this episode and other examples of corruption and injustice (notably the odious Pinochet regime in Chile) they raised awareness in many, myself included. And there was plenty to come – Ronald Reagan was preparing to enter the White House and his administration would later pass the proceeds of arms sales to Iran on to the Contra rebels opposing the Sandinista government. I guess the music of Washington Buĺlets is appropriate to the countries it tells of but the arribas and ululations tip it into parody and undermine the power of describing “the cries of the tortured men.”
Ultimately, all the debate, posturing and pontificating you hear about music is irrelevant. All that really matters is what the artists intended when making the music and your own perceptions whenever you hear it. Sandinista! always vividly reminds me of finding my feet at secondary school, so while it evokes Ladbroke Grove, Manhattan and Santiago, it evokes even more double Latin and discovering my ineptitude at throwing the discus. Pre-internet, I didn’t even hear anyone else’s view on many of these tracks for years, such was the sheer volume of material and the bewilderment around much of it, so I was free to form my own images – Sandinista! may be popularly seen as the second biggest runt in the Clash litter but I love it for all these reasons and more (PG).

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

Avant-Garde, Experimental, Greatest Records, Rock Music

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)