7. ROBERT WYATT – ROCK BOTTOM (1974)

Art Rock, Greatest Records, Jazz Rock

ROBERT WYATT – ROCK BOTTOM (1974)

If  Rock Bottom were issued today, it would probably receive the flippant response that it was the only occasion in history when a couple performing their infantile private jokes has elicited anything other that irritated nausea. This would gravely short-change, not to mention insult,  both Robert Wyatt and his wife, Alfreda (Alfie) Benge; firstly because, as is well-documented, she had just supported him through the ordeal of paralysis from the waist down after falling from a window the previous year (with characteristic restraint,  Wyatt has since suggested the accident had a liberating effect on music he’d already largely written) but also because the record is genuinely – to use another debased adjective- awesome. The pet names and in-jokes that permeate the Alifib/Alifie medley are affectionate but also more than slightly unsettling, suggesting almost a regression to a childlike state, particularly as Gary Windo’s tenor sax scurries in like a venomous snake seeking prey. There’s another pair of twins in Little Red Riding/Robin Hood Hit The Road- the former in particular almost defies description, as Wyatt pleads “Oh stop it, stop it” and the whole song begins to run backwards like an engulfing mudslide and the matchless Ivor Cutler peers out of the sludge to taunt with talk of “lunchtea” and joining  a hedgehog in bursting tyres, and it all culminates in an endless fade of what sounds like an entire nation sounding a fanfare. In fact, it’s the trumpets of one man, Mongezi Feza, who would die of pneumonia the following year. Then there’s Sea Song, possibly the most aptly named song ever, its restful drift the sound of moorings slipped and shoreline receding further and further until things get choppy with a piano solo which matches Aladdin Sane for sweet discordance and Wyatt calls out wordlessly, not waving…
If Robert Wyatt is, as he once memorably described himself, a “gawping tourist of jazz”, Rock Bottom takes him- and the listener- to the jazz pyramids, Florence and Niagara Falls. Start packing now. (PG)
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Grant Hart - Intolerance (1989)

6. GRANT HART – INTOLERANCE (1989)

Greatest Records, Indie / Alternative

grantGRANT HART – INTOLERANCE (1989)

Dropped by Warners, Grant Hart found himself back on SST, the label that had released Husker Du’s three best records. Stripped of Bob Mould’s fizzing guitar and his own skittering drums, Harts first release after the acrimonious split of Husker Du is a hypnotic meditation on regret and loss, full of mystery and magic, and littered with characters struggling to make sense of their chaotic lives, and which may include himself and his former band mates.

The opener All Of My Senses offers few clues as to what will follow, coming on like a lo-fi New Order. Warm keyboards and hand claps replace the harsh drones and groans that open the record. According to Michael Azzerad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life, Hart was using methadone in an effort to conquer his heroin addiction when Husker Du split, although he was sober by the time Intolerance was recorded. Whether or not the song is auto-biographical, its hard to hear Hart singing “I’m using, I’m using” while the gospel backing singers sing “Pulling a plough but I don’t know how” without the feeling that he’s referring to his own struggles with addiction.

The guitars are back for Now That You Know Me. It wouldn’t have been out of place on Warehouse Songs And Stories (it was performed by Husker Du live), but a wailing harmonica gives it an almost Dylanish feel (they are both from Minnesota!).

Fanfare In D Major builds tension in the verses with rolling drums and sawing strings before exploding with one of Grants greatest pop choruses.

Drug references are most explicit on the junkie gospel sea shanty of The Main which creaks and sways like great big clipper ship (I avoided policemen when I went to cop, De Quincey, smack in the middle, the hell that I went through when I stuck it into etc). Grant seems to be saying the experience is universal – “Reeperbahn, Christiana, Pigalle all the same” (these being notorious drug dealing areas in Hamburg, Copenhagen and Paris).

Side two opens with Twenty Five Forty One, nostalgia for a shared apartment after a broken relationship. From the sound of it he’d rather be back where “we had to leave the stove on all night so the mice wouldn’t freeze” than where he is now. Given that the title is taken from the address of Husker Du’s rehearsal house where all the members had lived at some point, you wonder if he’s also missing his former band.

The inconsequential instrumental Roller Rink leads into the soulful You’re The Victim, the only song I can think of that combines jaunty whistling with what sounds like a dentists drill! Another one that has you wondering if it’s directed at a former band mate ”Every thing you do to hurt me makes you the victim”.

On Anything Hart sings of “climbing mountains in my sleep”. She Can See The Angels Coming could almost be a sequel to The Main. Organ drones and cymbals swell, giving the song an oceanic sense of lives pulled this way and that.  Reprise returns us full circle for a minute or so of the banging and clanking drones that open All Of My Senses.

Intolerance, on which Hart reputedly plays all the instruments himself is a warm, personal, confessional record, which despite its subject matter in the end is cathartic and uplifting . A triumph. (TT)

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

Folk/ Folk-Rock

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)

Kraftwerk- Autobahn

4. KRAFTWERK – AUTOBAHN (1974)

Electronic, Krautrock

kraftwerk

Bournemouth, July 1982. A church fete during a holiday. Amid the ketchup bottles and the jettisoned Hammond Innes paperbacks, this seemed to be the only record on sale. But it couldn’t be for sale- why was a Kraftwerk album being so blithely discarded not even six months after they’d been at number one? “Is it being sold?” I demanded incredulously with an edge of panic, clutching it covetously in its Highway Code-themed sleeve. “50p please” was the wonderful reply. Only much later did I figure out the likely chain of events – somebody had been seduced by The Model’s future-now charms and was eager to discover more but, confronted with a 22-and-a-half minute distillation of a gruelling drive which sounds like it’s being undertaken out of necessity, thought: naah. Whoever you were, es ist deine Sache and this is where I came in. To everyone else: never let yourself be fobbed off with the single version of the title track; it would be like passing off the Q volume of Encylopaedia Britannica as the whole thing. From the sun-dappled valley to the frustration of swelling traffic to the closing lullaby for the passengers asleep in the back  every one of its 1350 seconds is essential. And don’t overlook the supporting cast of jiving comets, babbling brooks and squelching but still sinister bats on the former side two. (PG)

The Chocolate Watchband - Forty Four

3. THE CHOCOLATE WATCHBAND – FORTY FOUR (1984)

Garage Punk, Psychedelia

The Chocolate Watchband – ‘Forty Four’

The Chocolate Watchband only recorded three albums in their short lifetime. Unfortunately none of those records was recorded in its entirety by the core line up of Dave Aguilar, Sean Tolby, Bill Flores, Mark Loomis and Gary Andrijasevich. Instead producer Ed Cobb used  a combination of friends and session musicians to fill out their records. Even their most famous song ‘Let’s Talk About Girls’ was released before singer Aguilar could record his vocals. Admittedly some of the longer psychedelic instrumental on their first two records are pretty great. But it is a crying shame as these guys were the real deal, street walkin’ cheetahs on the Sunset Strip, capable of blowing any of their contemporaries away.

Fortunately this situation was rectified in 1984, with the release of Forty Four, which compiles the cream of the San Jose Five’s output. Rockers like Sweet Young Thing, Sitting There Standing, Don’t Need Your Lovin’ and Are You Gonna Be There may show the obvious influences of the Stones and the Yardbirds but are played with the aggression and raw power of the Stooges and the MC5.  Loomis and Tolby’s guitars roar and bite, snarl and zing in the same way that Wayne Kramers and Fred Sonic Smiths do.

There was more to them then mere power merchants. They could dish out gorgeous folk rock like Misty Lane and She Weaves a Tender Trap, out Davie Allen on his own fuzz-toned Blues Theme, psychedelia on No Way Out, genuine weirdness on Loose Lip Sync Ship. Best of all is the shimmering Bo Diddley trance dance of Gone And Passes By.

So what held them back? Could have been their own irreverent attitude (theres a story of them supporting the Seeds, and only playing Seeds covers! That’s my kind of band!). Most likely it was just that the label saw them as a vehicle for Ed Cobb’s more experimental ideas, and the deal they signed gave them no control over what went on the records.

The Chocolate Watchband were one of the sixties biggest could-have-should-have-been bands. Perfectly programmed, Forty Four lays out their legacy for you, and deserves to sit  alongside Safe As Milk, Teenage Head and High Time. (TT)

Girls At Our Best - Pleasure

2. GIRLS AT OUR BEST – PLEASURE (1981)

Post-Punk, Punk Rock
Pleasure- Girls At Our Best!
Considering the Jupiter-sized egos usually involved, it’s inevitable that there’s always been plenty of room for self-mythology in music. For two decades and more, it’s been an article of faith in hip-hop but can be traced at least as far back as Bo Diddley, who pulled off the remarkable trick of repeatedly deploying the third person without ever appearing deluded. The Beatles dabbled briefly but memorably in it on Glass Onion and practically every Clash album contained at least one ode to their own legend but what all these had in common was that their mythology either already existed or proved to be self-fulfilling.
This was somewhat less the case with Girls At Our Best!, whose approach appeared to be that if they didn’t mythologise themselves  nobody else would – but was more likely a satire on self-proclaimed legends who were often within their rights to bluster as they did  but could come over a bit daft at the same time.
It all began on Warm Girls, one half of their debut double A-side from 1980.  Discordant and tuneful in equal measure, and  a grotesque caricature of beauty pageants (no one would now even consider writing a line like “I love mental  children”, owing to a combination of  understandably but over-zealously heightened sensibilities and the utterly devalued, bankrupt currency of irony), it ended with a repeated refrain of the band’s  name, followed in the fade-out by a tantalising preview of the song’s sequel (and, with poignant symmetry, GAOB’s final single) Fast Boyfriends.
The other side,  Getting Nowhere Fast, is their best remembered song,  at least partly because of the Wedding Present’s cover from their single-a-month camapign of 1992, but it’s actually fairly untypical, being rawer and scruffier than the rest of their repertoire, while singer Judy Evans pretty much chants the lyric without going anywhere near the stratospheric registers which would become her trademark.
Fast Boyfriends wouldn’t emerge for another year  and a half, when Pleasure was launched to a public who would have been ungrateful if they weren’t so oblivious. Neither song from the debut single appeared on the album – but they were on the lyric sheet, along with  the equally absent and equally magnificent follow-ups Politics!/It’s  Fashion and Go For Gold. It’s as if GAOB knew their tiny-but -massive output – which would amount to just 18 songs, including a cover and a medley – had to be seen as a whole, not an immaculately sculpted oeuvre but every facet of a sparky, at times infuriating  but ultimately downright lovable personality.
With a profoundly English perspective on Blondie’s Manhattan scuzz, GAOB were ultimately left at the gates by Altered Images in the race to take sweet but skewed pop to the  masses but it really didn’t matter as GAOB were a cult in the truest sense – comparatively few people knew about them but just about everyone who did loved them fervently and embraced the shockingly compulsive da-da-da chorus of She’s Flipped,  the aural bouncy castle (a compliment, trust me) of Waterbed Babies and that self-mythology again in the Ants-pulsed sales pitch of £600,000.
This song, combined with the free, more innocuous than it sounds Pleasure Bag (a paper bag with postcards and stencils containing a photo of the band) and the CB radio celebration of Fun City Teenagers, as well as the Stars On 45 medley they did for a Peel Session, lock Pleasure, and GAOB as  a whole, as firmly into 1981 as an episode of Not The Nine O’Clock News. Mercifully, they left the song about the Rubik cube to the Barron Knights but ceased to exist some time in ’82, vanishing like a neighbour on a moonlight flit.
Their lack of success means that there’s no place for them on the sorrowful parade of ’80s nostalgia tours, where the notion that there’s something inherently amusing about the music of that benighted decade is pandered to in an ever downward spiral, but it also means they can be remembered, discovered and cherished unblemished and intact. One day they’ll get caught… (PG)
Hugo Largo - Mettle

1. HUGO LARGO – METTLE (1989)

Dreampop, Indie / Alternative, Post rock, Shoegaze

Melody Maker famously called 1988 “rock’s greatest year” – perhaps with some justification. Across the Atlantic there was a proliferation of post-hardcore experimentation in guitar noise (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Pixies, Butthole Surfers etc) while at home, others (AR Kane, MBV) absorbed some of that inspiration to create something even more ravishingly beautiful and radical. If the apex of this first ‘blissed out’ generation was AR Kane’s aptly titled  Up Home! EP (which Simon Reynolds memorably described as “rock’s Antarctica…it’s final petrifying spell – the sound of a million icicles”) …then Hugo Largo’s Mettle was stretching the limits in the opposite direction. Their only full-length album was released on Eno’s Land label, but the crucial rule here was not to remain on terra firma. As if Brian would sanction that. If the likes of MBV were rocketing through the sonic stratosphere, then it was only natural that their visionary (distant) cousins should aim to go back down again, down as far as one could go, even into the womb – to the warm blue belly of a new aquatic Eden.

Their singer Mimi Goese probably believed in new age crystals. She sang about turtles and Native American  philosophy. She threw a few words of Japanese into the mix. All in the name of art you see. Pretentious? Perhaps. Don’t you know it’s dangerous to play with knives girl? But did it matter? Not a bit. The band broke all the rock rules. No guitar in sight. Hearing and seeing them for the first time in 1988 (supporting That Petrol Emotion bizarrely!) that seemed strange enough, but it took me a bit longer to realise that the drummer hadn’t simply been given the night off. Instead the soundtrack was provided by two bass guitars and a solitary violin. You might think there’d be something missing from the sound, but no, it surrounded and enveloped the listener like a velvet glove.

Hahn Rowe’s undulating violin tugs like the undertow around the rippling melodic lines of the brace of bass. The songs are strong, the melodies soporific yet full of surprises. Mettle may not be a post-rock blueprint (AR Kane’s 69 has a greater claim to that title) but it is a post-rawk blueprint. It is also the bluest album ever made, and by that I mean azure, the colour of the ocean, rather than morose. In fact it’s quite the opposite of blue in that sense. “Try taking off your noisy head; rest it on a pillow soaked in melting wax” Mimi sings with almost evangelical zeal on ‘Hot Day’. Quite. (JJ)