121. CALENTURE – THE TRIFFIDS (1987)

Greatest Records, Indie / Alternative, Post-Punk

CALENTURE – THE TRIFFIDS (1987)

Calenture – a word so arcane, so esoteric that a compulsion was felt, either by Island Records or by the Triffids themselves, to carry its definition on the back cover: a tropical delirium which would, after months at sea, lead sailors to see the ocean as a field and wish to propel themselves towards it. A soaked mirage, you might say.
Daniel Defoe mentions it in Robinson Crusoe and another lesser-known novel, Captain Singleton; Joseph Conrad, remarkably, never seems to have referred to it at all, though something similar appeared to afflict many of his characters, notably the deranged, Gollum-like wretches which recur throughout his novels and are ripe for exploration in a PhD. The Triffids saw it as an apt metaphor not only, in a novel twist on a well-worn subject, for the nomadic existence of a touring band but also for their own deracination.
Like the Birthday Party and the Go-Betweens before them, the Triffids left Australia for the UK to get things done but there are probably more traces of their homeland in the records they made among the Poms than in those of their compatriots. Vast, uncultivatable inland spaces, jagged shores and tough lives of soil and toil largely prevailed on 1986’s Born Sandy Devotional over the stereotype of quasi-Californian coastal city lifestyles that was rapidly emerging through soap operas (more on that soon), linking it closely to their earlier records and making it a companion piece to REM’s Fables Of The Reconstruction – which was also recorded in London a few months earlier and had an even more forlorn yearning for a warmer, unreachably distant home.
Calenture,  by contrast, has appropriately, a ceaselessly flowing, liquid sound and is, unambigously, huge. In sound, scale and ambition, it dwarfs the sound of the Triffids’ contemporaries: of U2, whose multiplanetary success bankrolled the Triffids and who were filling spaces they could never approach; of the Waterboys, who had coined the term Big Music but were in fast retreat from it, and Echo and the Bunnymen, whose masterpiece Ocean Rain, for all its own grandeur, resembles a demo next to Calenture’s torrential kaleidoscope.
Much of the credit for the record’s water sculpture presentation lies with Gil Norton who, after reportedly unsuccessful tryouts with Craig Leon and Lenny Kaye, was brought back to revisit the sterling job he had done alongside the Triffids on Born Sandy Devotional (most of the Triffids were also fresh from backing Bill Drummond on his wonderfully odd solo album, The Man). Norton may have lacked the CBGB scene pedigree of his predecessors but knew how to make a sound swell, sheen and surge at the right time in the right way – he had already done so with the Bunnymen (among the ‘All Concerned’ who produced Ocean Rain) and Throwing Muses and would do so again with Blue Aeroplanes and, perhaps most celebratedly, Pixies on Doolittle.
It’s there on opener Bury Me Deep In Love, where agile strings, choir and tympani – loads of tympani – embellish the Triffids’ already florid core sound, resting on Jill Birt’s rich keyboard orchard and the magnificent voice of David McComb, one of the genuinely great male singers of his day, who steered Scott Walker from California and Paris, and Ian Curtis from Manchester and Berlin, to some unknown, but far from neutral, meeting ground. It was a voice that was emotional but never sentimental, strong but never brutish (not even when shouting on Born Sandy Devotional’s Stolen Property), vulnerable but never weak. On this song, he shifts the identity of the buried, from “me” to “him” to “them,” and the scene of the commanded burial, from a chapel to a precipice to the rocks below and back to a “tiny congregation” – just in time for the wedding of Neighbours characters Harold and Madge, which it would later soundtrack. Despite the song’s glories and universal sentiment, the British and Australian record-buying public instead opted for Suddenly by Angry Anderson when the bells rang in Ramsay Street again.
One of Calenture’s few flaws is exposed at the start of the solemn yet triumphant Kelly’s Blues. Birt whispers: “You think of everything, my dear, but you do not think of me” – and that’s the closest she gets to a lead vocal, despite leading her voice to some of their most vivid and stirring songs up to then (Raining Pleasure, Tarrilup Bridge, Tender Is The Night). Like McComb, her range isn’t huge – no falsetto or melisma in this band –  but she also brings this song a voiceless chorus on a piano figure that glows like a September sunset. It’s also seared by a clarion guitar that the Mission might have offered the same year and is a personal tour de force for future Bad Seed Martyn (P) Casey, whose elastic bass unleashes unexpected shafts of funk, not the Level 42/Seinfeld horrors that might be feared but a genuinely lithe journey to the lower end, following Les Pattinson’s highway code.
There’s an even more burnished piano twilight on Blinder By The Hour, a song which puts me right where it wants it like few others. The place is just off one of Bordeaux’s main thoroughfares, Rue Ste Catherine, and I’m transported there every time, “down Roman streets through your secret back door” – a line which echoes the puzzling entrances of Dylan’s Temporary Like Achilles and holds a similar sense of fervent yearning, while there’s a snapping regret at “the damn all we said and the damn all we wrote” that harks back to the Triffids’ own doom-laden Life Of Crime. And that chorus – the appeal for peace of “lay me down now,” the resignation to fate of “take me down,” which are a twist from the version recorded earlier in a woolshed for In The Pines, where the plea of “lay me out now” suggested abandonment to the vultures. Many times I sat there outside cafes with this impossibly beautiful song pursuing thoughts around my ahead – I barely feel able to do it justice and can only recommend you secure your own moment for it.

Jerdacuttup Man (named after a tiny Western Australian settlement) also shares imagery with Blinder By The Hour; again the narrator has sewn-up eyelids and teeth of dice but not without reason; he’s a 10,000-year-old prehistoric dweller sentenced to a living death as a museum exhibit. McComb’s monologue was largely seen as comical, with his character anachronistically blighted by “no luck in business” and shruggingly conceding “you could say I’m a chump.” But listen to his tumbling delivery of the second verse’s latter lines: “I tried to object but the words didn’t come/Say ‘you’re making a mistake boys, you’ve got the wrong one/I’m a little out of shape but I’m too young to go’/But my throat just seized up and it started to snow.” There’s a universe of here-and-now suffering in there – poverty, homelessness, miscarriage of justice – aptly set to an intermittent hammer-on-anvil/galley rowers’ rhythm and hauling slide guitar, though it makes periodic breaks for freedom on the unlikely wings of uillean pipes, which by 1987 were already a cliched signifier of Celtic authenticity and would be finally, irrevocably, Titanically tainted a decade later but actually work here by adding to the prehistoric murk.
A regrettable period detail is similarly avoided on Hometown Farewell Kiss, where a sax steps forward not once but twice to take a solo from a rearguard of growling Stax horns. Fortunately, it’s muted and enveloped in a packed and seemingly disparate arrangement, where organ, marimba, gospel voices and the steel guitar of ‘Evil’ Graham Lee also jostle for position – and somehow all manage to find it. Meanwhile, McComb blurs the line between literal and metaphorical as he tells mysteriously of “my hometown city burning down…I just came back to see the people and their houses burn” then issues the command for his name to be crossed off his lover’s “fiery list.”
And so another element arrives to challenge water’s dominance of Calenture but it’s short-lived, as Holy Water douses the flames with a sequencer undertow that’s at once metallic and mellifluous and a melody so effervescent that it’s odd it took almost a whole year after the album’s release for it to emerge as a (non-hit) single. It’s also the indirect source of the album’s title – when McComb came across the word that purred, he had already written the lyric which told of “an ocean like a meadow” and the coincidence couldn’t be fought.
The soothing washes of Save What You Can are the last word beyond which little can be added. It opens with a figure which would later be rejigged on tack piano by Neil Young on A Dream That Can Last and which speaks wordlessly of yearning, memories of sunsets, times which maybe really were as idyllic as you remember. It’s a song not so much about aging as power fading though changing times, time running out (“Time is against us, even love conspires to disgrace us…We used to walk in the flames/Now somebody’s taken my arms”) until self-preservation and self-interest become the only options (“You save of yourself what you can save…If you don’t get caught, then steal it all”). It comes over as a twist on the French equivalent of ‘every man for himself,’ which translates as ‘save yourself if you can’; it would be a punishingly sombre ending were it not for its glorious musical setting and the wit and open-heartedness which surround it elsewhere in the Triffids’ annals. It cuts as deep as Dive For Your Memory, which closed 16 Lovers’ Lane for their countrymen/women the Go-Betweens the following year; that is deep.
Following one more album, 1989’s diverse but uneven Black Swan, time was up for the Triffids. One horrible day a decade later, the news came through of David McComb’s death at the age of 36;  it truly choked me in its suddenness, its seeming arbitrariness and the feeling – not for the first time, certainly not for the last but profoundly just the same – of a life and voice stilled, an ornate and panoramic vision summarily extinguished.
The ripples of that vision spread over the years – to Shiva Burlesque, Midlake, Arcade Fire. Arcade Fire were of primary school age when the Triffids were in their prime, so theirs may be a coincidental or at-several-removes echo, but the shortest distance between two points can be traced between the two bands’ theatrical flourishes, the tension in both their native countries’ frontier struggle past and chic urban present, even their line-up dynamics, with siblings (David and guitarist/violinist Robert McComb) and a couple (Birt and drummer Alsy MacDonald).
Even so, despite their penchant for the anthemic (Win Butler has been honest enough to concede that his band has, even if only indirectly, inspired a good deal of pretty awful music) Arcade Fire have always sounded pretty lean and spindly next to the Triffids’ watercolour roar. Calenture has possibly aged better than any of their albums, lacking as it does the gated snare wallop of Born Sandy Devotional, the pointed downhomeness of In The Pines and some almost too-in-the-moment elements of The Black Swan. This shouldn’t be seen as a dismissal of any of those still magnificent records but, for exquisite, pomposity-free orchestral rock music, Calenture is right up there with Forever Changes, Paris 1919 and the aforementioned Ocean Rain – it’s that good (PG).

120. GENE CLARK – WHITE LIGHT (1971)

Country Rock, Folk/ Folk-Rock, Greatest Records, Singer-Songwriter

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)

119. NICO – THE MARBLE INDEX (1969)

Experimental, Psychedelic Folk, Singer-Songwriter

I’d forgotten all about The Marble Index, such a crushingly pessimistic listen, that each and every remnant of its shimmering beauty seemed to have been catheterised by some dark unbearable grief. But recently I found my way back to it alongside it’s shining sister Desertshore, through an obsession with the last few Left Outsides albums, whose forest-spirit avant-folk seemed to rekindle some latent inclination towards the vaguely morbid. Or perhaps that was simply the onset of winter.

Nico had already recorded her first solo album, an exquisite assemblage of chamber folk, Chelsea Girl – by the time she reunited with former VU companion John Cale. I know of at least two people who believe that album to be the greatest record ever made, period – and I must say I like it a lot myself – but Nico detested it, seething with frustration when she first heard its neutered production. Even so, few could have predicted what would emerge from the sessions at the recording studio on Cienega Boulevard in LA in September ‘68. After all, Christa Päffgen had a face made for superstardom – icy blonde, geometric cheekbones – but there had been signs on Chelsea Girl (in particular on ‘It Was A Pleasure Then’ where accompaniment was provided not by Jackson Browne, but by the Velvets’ core, so it came out howling and droning like a wrung out ‘Black Angels Death Song’) that she was striving to be taken seriously as an artist too.

To that end, she rejected her own beauty, dyed her hair dark red, wrapped herself in a shroud of death and like Scott Walker – a contemporary also at pains to prove he was more than simply a pretty face – reinvented herself as existential goth queen. I’ve always suspected an additional element of contrariness in this transformation which happened just as she moved from NYC to sunny California, but who knows? For certain the timing must have made the contrast in her appearance seem even sharper.

The album’s desperate bleakness resulted from a confluence of factors. Cale cultivated in its timbre a sound reflecting his interest in modern European classical music and Nico had been feeding off the mad ramblings of Jim Morrison who encouraged her to explore her inherently darker sensibilities, and gorge upon the opium-fuelled poetry of Coleridge. She had also acquired a harmonium and it’s droning wheeze perfectly captures the album’s dark spirit.

According to some accounts, Nico and Cale reputedly spent the whole time feuding whilst strung out on smack. All too much for in-house producer Frazier Mohawk, who could barely bring himself to put the finishing touches to the album, first of all consigning four of its bleakest compositions to the dustbin of history and then handing over the reins to Cale who became defacto producer. Cale claimed Nico’s harmonium was out of tune with everything but that didn’t matter, and in some ways it was entirely fitting. When after being left alone for two days, he played back his mix of the album to her, Nico reputedly wept with joy.

The album’s title is taken from a line in Wordsworth’s Prelude, which also lends its title to the short but incredibly beautiful opening instrumental. After that brief moment of transcendence darkness descends, beginning with ‘Lawns Of Dawns’ whose sonic refractions – like mirrors on the ocean, now glistening on the surface, now submerged beneath – parallel its author’s psychological disintegration. “Can you follow me?/Can you follow my distresses/My caresses, fiery guesses?/Swim and sink into/Early morning mercies”

There are dissonant chamber pieces (‘No-one Is There’) and ‘Ari’s Song’ (named after her son) which promises some relief but replete with droning pump organ entangled in some strange sonic barbed wire, was reckoned by Rolling Stone to be “the least comforting lullaby ever recorded”

On ‘Facing The Wind’, whose bizarre martial piano comes across like a discarded instrumental from Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs, Nico’s voice is electronically distorted giving it an even eerier more expressionistic quality: “It’s holding me against my will/And doesn’t leave me still/Amazons are riding out/To find a meaning for the name, my name.”

Cale’s fingerprints are everywhere in evidence but nowhere more so than on ‘Frozen Warnings’ whose bubbling ‘Baba O’Riley’ type pulse is underwritten by the insistent and unfluctuating drone of his viola.

And as far as apocalyptic finales go, the sinister spiralling ‘Evening Of Light’ takes some beating. “In the morning of my winter/When my eyes are still asleep/A dragonfly laying in a coat of snow/I’ll send to kiss your heart for me/Midnight winds are landing at the end of time/The children are jumping in the evening of light/A thousand sins are heavy in the evening of light.” It is ‘Tubular Bells’ turned inside out by Beelzebub, an agonising descent – as the last rays of light are slowly extinguished by the clattering noise and chaos of the welcome party for Hades.

The album clocks in at a mere half hour. Not everything about The Marble Index is black, but almost everything is. Its doomed unremitting litanies suggest catastrophe but it possesses an undeniable ‘slash your wrists’ nocturnal beauty and marks the moment Nico’s career as an artist truly began. (JJ)

118. CRAIG DAVIES – LIKE NARCISSUS (1988) Guest Contributor: Edgar Breau (Simply Saucer)

Greatest Records

Edgar Breau is frontman of Canadian psych-punk legends Simply Saucer, still going strong after 40 years. The band’s classic Cyborgs Revisited featured in TNPC last year. We invited Edgar to write about one of his own favourite underrated albums. As lost gems go, this takes some beating…

I found this beguiling LP by Manchester singer songwriter Craig Davies on an afternoon foray through the junk store aisles of Bibles for Mission thrift store on Upper Wellington St. on Hamilton Ontario’s ‘mountain’, as we call it, really it’s an escarpment. There lying next to the usual Mantovani, Percy Faith, James Last. polka assortments, scratchy beer stained country albums and obscure hillbilly gospel local legends, was an LP on Rough Trade by someone I had never heard of but which I picked up, curious . The record was entitled Like Narcissus, the cover a blurred orangey blotchy photo of Craig. My copy was a ‘Special Low Price LP Limited Edition’, used of course, and at 49 cents, a real bargain as I would soon discover. The insert told me that the great Danny Thompson, founding member of Pentangle played stand up bass on it. Recorded in 1988, the songs are timeless classics sung in a strange, oddly adaptable quivering voice at times reminiscent of Marc Bolan, Tom Waits, Bowie perhaps but finally in the last analysis totally Craig Davies and strikingly original.

There’s a bluesy, New Orleans folk jazz beat poety approach on all the material. It’s a rainy day record, darkly comic at times, romantic. Think the Buckleys, a bit Scott Faganish, I dunno you decide. A find! Worth the trip to a most unlikely place to find a cult artist of this stature. I’m ordering his second 1990’s offering, Groovin’ on a Shaft Cycle. Can’t wait!!

Edgar Breau (November 2017)

117. PAUL BUTTERFIELD BLUES BAND – EAST-WEST (1966) Guest Contributor: Rick Brown (The Misunderstood)

Greatest Records

TNPC is delighted to invite frontman of legendary ’60s psych outfit The Misunderstood, to tell us about one of his favourite ‘lost gems’.

During the mid 1960s the electric guitar as a lead instrument came of age in the UK. It seems to initially have been brought to the fore by his holiness Eric Clapton, but carried to perfection by his successor Jeff Beck.

Beck combined sustain, fuzz and treble with style, progressing with each song until finally, in ‘Mister You’re A Better Man than I’, he gave birth to the phenomenon of the lead guitar solo being the stand out part of the song. Subsequently people would anticipate the next Yardbirds release just to hear the guitar solo.

But back in the USA, the guitar players were nothing of the sort. If British lead guitarists could have been compared to “Mods on acid,” then the USA versions were more like “hillbillies on glue”. This was the thinking at the time The Misunderstood went to UK in 1966.

In London we were excited about the lead guitarists, from late Mick Wayne (Junior’s Eyes) up to Beck – the master himself. In UK, lead guitar was supreme; and we were in awe of the British “metallic” sound of The Creation and The Who, etc., etc.. So much power and ‘edge’. Even Hendrix had to tap into that British sound in order to make it.

But from the Yank ranks we had no one to brag about, except Mike Bloomfiefd. It seemed like Bloomfield was the only American lead guitarist who was respected in the UK at the time East-West came out.

East-West was the 2nd album by Paul Butterfield Blues Band – and featured the long instrumental of the same name. The title track takes the listener around the world musically, and Bloomfield is fantastic. At some points the drone becomes so intense it can give one goosebumps.

Other outstanding tracks on the album, including ‘Walkin’ Blues’ are all powerful electric guitar and harp driven blues rockers – better heard than explained. The entire album is outstanding. Nevertheless East-West has fallen into some obscurity now, and I have been surprised by the number of people who have never heard it. Of course the harmonica playing of Paul Butterfield is a whole other subject.

This album is worth a listen by any one who loves intense lead guitar and harmonica. East-West never gets outdated.

Rick Brown (The Misunderstood, Nov 24, 2017)

116. THE MISUNDERSTOOD- BEFORE THE DREAM FADED (1982*)

Garage Punk, Greatest Records, Psychedelia

When it comes to the Champions League Cup Final of pub debates – that of course being which are the greatest albums ever made – there inevitably arises the odd point of contention. For instance, there are those records which proffer such a sharp contrast in styles between their two sides so as to make consensus virtually impossible. These albums may be a major triumph (Low, Bringing It All Back Home, Neu ’75), a minor triumph (Rust Never Sleeps), or perhaps something less than a triumph (Abbey Road). Then there are those double albums (The Beatles, Tago Mago) and triple albums (Sandinista!, All Things Must Pass) which some will argue would have been better as a single volume, and others (Tales From Topographic Oceans, The Wall) which others reckon ought not to exist at all. Next there are those albums let down by at least one clunker (Surfs Up, Younger Than Yesterday, dare I be as bold to suggest Revolver?) But might it be a legitimate choice to include a record based on the merits of only one of its two sides? I certainly think so. Take for example Da Capo by Love, justly lauded in the original book The Perfect Collection. A magnificent first side certainly, but who ever really listens to ‘Revelation’? Then there’s the whole issue around the validity of including compilation albums. Often a hung jury is declared on that one.
Given the latter two considerations, it may appear like utter folly to make allowance for one whole side of what is ostensibly a Best Of compilation, for that album would for many, fail the test on both counts. And yet it would be equally foolish to exclude Before The Dream Faded by The Misunderstood on the basis of the otherwise quite reasonable gripe that it contains only six tracks worthy of note. For what if those six tracks authentically rank among the greatest psychedelic tracks ever recorded?

The Misunderstood were formed in Riverside California in 1963, one of the many thousands of garage bands to spring up across the States following the Brit Invasion. And like so many other bands of the time, their sound was a coalescence of bruising R&B, Bo Diddley shuffles and high-powered beat music. Nothing particularly new there, but by ’65 the embryonic fourpiece had gained a reputation as a fearsome live act. Not only that, but they also staked a claim to be one of the first bands to pioneer the live psychedelic light show. John Peel, then working as a DJ at KMEN in California, immediately recognised their potential, rating their performance at Pandora’s Box in Hollywood in early ’66 as one of the ten best live performances he ever witnessed in his life. At Peel’s behest the band were persuaded to move to London, in retrospect a somewhat strange move, considering the explosion of acid rock and psychedelia taking place back home in California. By then however, they had undergone some personnel changes – guitarists Greg Treadwell and George Phelps were replaced by Tony Hill and Glenn Ross Campbell respectively – leading to a vital and inspirational alteration of their sonic landscape. Now, with Campbell’s steel guitar at the centre, no-one else sounded remotely like them. The future looked promising, but after recording only seven tracks in London, vocalist Rick Brown was forced to return to The States to face the draft board. Eventually Fontana picked up the band, releasing two 45s before they disbanded. Peel famously quipped that: “By God, they were a great band! If they hadn’t been broken up by the US Government when they tried to draft Rick … they would have ruled the world.” Of that claim, one can only speculate. The four sides of those 45s along with two other tracks recorded at the time, make up the first side of Before The Dream Faded. And well, this is really about as good as it gets…

On ‘Children Of The Sun’ which initially appeared as one side of the second 45 from the sessions, Steve Whiting’s turbo charged bass struggles to wrap itself around Tony Hill’s scything feedback-drenched guitar. This is ‘Shapes Of Things’ on a seriously heavy dose of steroids and Whiting’s three-dimensional throb takes on a life of it’s own, predating John Cale’s jaw dropping outro on ‘White Light/ White Heat’ by over twelve months. Meanwhile, Rick Brown’s primitive howl seems at first to speed up then to slow down – is it poor mastering, or is it designed to mess with your head? – as he emphatically proclaims his acid-fried manifesto: “Let go lovely children/Close your eyes and drift away/When you wake again tomorrow/You’ll be born again to stay/Thus the word of love has spoken/You’ve joined the children of the sun.”


As explosive as ‘Children Of The Sun’ is, ‘My Mind’ is even more innovative, beginning with some Eastern raga-esque harmonics before Whiting’s pummelling sliding bass distortions take over. Brown is on top form now: “If there is anyone in my mind/Would they please take themselves away/Cause all time to stop/Cause all light to fade” …then a stuttering frenetic mess of thoughts and sound:..”There is no sense in this dimension/If I could leave there’d be no question/Of what I’d find/Peace of mind yeah…” and then…suddenly…the strangest intrusion you will ever hear in the middle of a madcap psychedelic wigout – Campbell’s steel guitar. Playing a different tune. On its own. It belongs as much here as a theremin solo would in the middle of ‘Pretty Vacant’ – at first that sense of utter incongruousness is unavoidable but slowly gives way to the realisation that this is insanely beautiful, utterly inspirational.

Next up and you expect they might have dug out their old workclothes to tackle Bo’s ‘Who Do You Love’. Not so. First of all the intro segues so seamlessly from the tail of ‘My Mind’ as to render the junction indistinguishable, before it’s zig zagging chords slowly begin to relent and Diddley’s standard is savagely ripped apart like a rag doll. And then Campbell repeats his feat, although this time, it seems less a bizarre musical interlude, than one of the most beautiful and haunting instrumental sections in all of popular music. If, on acid, Brian Wilson really did see God, then Campbell must have ingested a double dose of the same compound, for this brief but bewitching passage is genuinely paradisaical.

The macabre lyrical content of ‘I Unseen’ (“I’m only seven although I died/In Hiroshima long ago/I’m seven now as I was then/For I am dead, yes I am dead/My hair was scorched by swirling flame/My eyes grew dim, my eyes grew blind/Death came and turned my bones to dust/And that was scattered by the wind”) is adapted from a work by Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet (The Byrds’ did likewise on ‘I Come And Stand At Every Door’) and might possibly even outweigh its sonic potency, while the intensity and immediacy of its galloping rhythm illustrates the crucial advantage of a perfectly fluid album sequence. The first chords of this Yardbirds raveup turned inside out, are merely a bugle blast short of the charge of the Light Brigade, and provide the perfect counterpoint to the twisted elongated coda of ‘Who Do You Love’. Brown’s stonking harmonica solo is just the icing on the cake.

By the time ‘Find A Hidden Door’s demented staccato rhythms begin to melt your mind, Campbell’s steel guitar is now orchestrating proceedings like some all-seeing eye. By now the tempo is relentless, and one’s mind begins to crave momentary respite from the onslaught…

Cue ‘I Can Take You To The Sun’, the first 45 to appear on Fontana. In 1968, Peel famously called it “the best popular record that has ever been recorded”, and he wasn’t far off the mark. It plays with light and shade, power and fragility, as skilfully as The Velvets and Syd did at the same time. Building to a pulsating crescendo, suddenly the valves are loosened, and Hill demonstrates his versatility with a beautiful acoustic passage, the balalaika-style picking just unnerving enough to leave you suitably disoriented before the needle locks into the run out groove.

The second side here – a collection of recordings, most of which date from a year earlier, and which feature the original lineup, are by no means bad, but they do not compare with the sheer power, verve and originality of the later tracks, and seem to exist as if merely to emphasise the incredible metamorphosis in the band’s sound. Suffice to say, the songs on the first side more than make up for it. The band’s promise may have been tragically unfulfilled, but the dreams they have woven will never fade. (JJ)

115. BABY’S GOT A GUN – ONLY ONES (1980)

Greatest Records

BABY’S GOT A GUN – ONLY ONES (1980)


“Their third. Their best.” The advert’s assertion was blunt, a brusque collision of commercial and artistic imperatives, but few agreed, then or now.
Possibly including me. Of the Only Ones’ three albums, the middle, 1979’s Even Serpents Shine, is often pushed forward as their masterpiece but there are three places on a podium. Serpents… lunges over the line powered by a higher consistency than its siblings, while the first, eponymous album, is noticeably more uneven but will always be distinguished by having by far the best known Only Ones song, Another Girl, Another Planet, rightly famed for its cardiovascular propulsion, John Perry’s skyscraper-scaling solo and its impeccable timing in unravelling itself in exactly three minutes.
As it wasn’t a bona fide hit, apart from reaching 17 in the 1978 Festive 50, it was an albatross they were able to wear comparatively lightly in their lifetime.The dead hand of mythology and the deadweight of telecoms advertising would increase the pressure years later but, more than probably any other supposed one-song band, the Only Ones were nothing of the sort.
Perfect as it is, Another Girl… was just one arrow in a quiver packed with swift, lethal bolts – Lovers Of Today, City Of Fun, The Beast (notwithstanding Motley Crue later -surely unwittingly – duplicating its riff on their horrible, even by their standards, Girls Girls Girls) Flaming Torch, Miles From Nowhere – and a sizeable proportion of Baby’s Got A Gun, which here gets the leg-up that posterity has too often denied it.
It’s a simplistic sketch to say the least but if there was ever a British answer to Television, it was the Only Ones. Skilled musicians with too many miles on the clock to be strictly punk (as well as Perrett’s prehistory with England’s Glory, bassist Alan Mair was a mid-60s veteran of Glasgow band Beatstalkers, whose hometown appearances sparked riots  before they’d so much as issued a record and were the subject of at least three front page splashes in the city’s Evening Times in 1965-6, while late drummer Mike Kellie had seen quite different service to the Only Ones in Spooky Tooth) but more than enough internal combustion to be as near as dang, an Impressionist painter’s exquisite craft and dissolute demeanour, singers pouring their hearts out in steady trickles – the pieces mirrored each other like the coasts of Africa and South America.
In Peter Perrett, the Only Ones had a frontman whose weary disposition belied a heart that sparked and crackled like all the world’s cities on New Year’s Eve. Second only to Syd Barrett in unequivocal Englishness, his speciality was to make the most straightforward and heartfelt romantic declarations, offset by further pronouncements that were either self-lacerating or simply peculiar, like these masterly and flawlessly delivered lines from Lovers Of Today: “If we ever  touched, it would disturb the calm/Physical exertion often causes mental harm/I don’t have the energy/You could say things get pretty tranquil with me/Maybe you can’t see that I love you, baby/Much more than me.” Ardour and desire, tempered by a fragility possibly linked to Perrett’s long-running problems (more than enough said about that elsewhere, nothing to add here; some of his his many face-value love songs  could well also be metaphors, though he recently maintained they weren’t all about one thing) but also the  product of an emotional candour which is there in plain view anyway.
It’s there on  Baby’s Got A Gun’s opener, The  Happy Pilgrim, where Perrett’s Canterbury Tale, initially, couldn’t be clearer, or more tender: “I’m gonna give it to you, all the love that’s in my heart/I’m gonna give it to you/We’ll never part, you and me.” But then: “Take me into your heart/Protect me from myself…Keep me safe from evil…I’ve had enough of tragic people.” Suddenly, the love song of promises has turned into a prayer of pleas but it’s such an abrupt volte-face that you end up wondering if there’s a proto-Morrissey wink in Perrett’s eye. It’s likely the Bard of Stretford was listening; it’s almost certain that Johnny Marr was too, with this song’s subtle yet vigorous trajectory finding echoes in him a few years later; it also has more than a few contemporary ripples towards the Jam.
The same rock’n’ romanticism is in Reunion, where Perry’s cocky riff builds a seemingly unlikely bridge between the south bank of Sweet Home Alabama and the north bank of Dum Dum Boys. It sounds celebratory but Perrett’s heart is mourning: “I had so much love inside me/I don’t know where that feeling’s gone/I’m mortified by this recurring dream.” The reunion seems to be either a distant memory or a remote possibility, even as his sister-in-law, Koulla Kakoulli, chimes in on what are not so much harmonies as shadows.
Trouble In The World charges in on a steed of a bassline from Mair as the band  fashion an edifice from a couple of rock’s sturdiest pillars, with Perrett and Perry pulling blades like Richards and Jones on the Stones’ version of I Wanna Be Your Man and Perrett unpacking a prime Dylan delivery. It starts as one of his gloomiest lyrics: The ‘Trouble’ is the final inevitable and, as Nick Drake did on Pink Moon, he reminds the biggest and the toughest that they won’t wriggle free either: “If you do happen to be stronger/It only means you’re gonna take longer to go under.” Later, though, he seems to find at least some hope, pleading: “Don’t be scared to have children” and making it the only song I’ve ever come across to include the word “preordained.” Please let us know if you’re aware of any others.
The two shortest songs on Baby’s Got A Gun are unlike anything else they ever did. Castle Built On Sand opens, genuinely unsettlingly, with the cry of a baby but before you can run to fetch the bottle, it’s gently pushed aside by a Barret-esque (him again) melody, complete with carnival organ and incongruously forceful drums from Kellie. It effortlessly sidesteps the now-cliched sinister nursery rhyme schtick and, in well under two minutes, finds room for plenty of apocalyptic imagery of “masked men on horses” at Traitors’ Gate and “jackals fighting for the carcass”; meanwhile, not only is the disappearance of the protagonist in the first and repeated last verse acknowledged as a mystery but we’re given no indication of why he should be “overcome with guilt.”
Fools is  a duet between Perrett and  Pauline Murray, who had recently split Penetration and was putting together her one brilliant album with the Invisible Girls (aka, among others, Martin Hannett, John Maher and Vini Reilly). The single from the album and a  rare cover – of a song by country singer Johnny Duncan – it could have been only a Radio 2 whim away from becoming a hit, though you would never have had the people who previously sang Language Problem and Firing Squad gazing gooily at each other as they harmonised. Even so, it foregoes the saccharine that blights country at its worst and tells of a love that seems at best ill-advised, at worst illicit or mutually destructive.

 https://youtu.be/SnlavQAnzI8

Then there are the two longest songs, which occupy opposite extremes. While Me And My Shadow is the album’s one real misfire, its Diddley skeleton poking too visibly through the flesh of a somewhat ungainly, overlong song, the Big Sleep is its centrepiece. The Chandler-derived title again hints at mortality but it’s something Perrett has been rescued from. For what, though? He insists it’s love but “you taught me how to think cheap…there’s no such thing as glory…I don’t have the strength to break an empty shell.” It’s no good for him but it’s what he wants and the turmoil boils over in a melody that rolls endlessly like the boulder of Sisyphus, up one hill trod earlier on Roxy Music’s In Every Dream Home A Heartache and down another trod later on REM’s Camera.
“They’ve made this album before, though not necessarily in this order,” said David Hepworth – paraphrasing Eric Morecambe – in his Smash Hits review of Baby’s Got A Gun. This lukewarmth would take hold as the shadow of Another Girl’… grew ever longer in the public imagination and the album would dwell – if it dwelt anywhere – in the answer to the pub quiz question about albums which don’t feature their title track (other residents: Waiting For The Sun; Houses Of The Holy; World Shut Your Mouth; Screamadelica; Sheer Heart Attack).
But only a little scrutiny reveals a record of joy in the face of horror, defiance in the face of meanness, a battle for redemption in the face of ill-will. Perrett has now finally prevailed and, after a couple of false restarts, delivered a fine solo album, How The West Was Won, but even if none of the Only Ones had been heard of again after they came to an end in 1981, their stamp had already been left. It is – as they put it themselves – The Immortal Story (PG).

 114. NEIL YOUNG (1969)

Country Rock, Greatest Records, Rock Music

The hideous painting on the sleeve was a little off putting to say the least. The song titles too were unfamiliar, but in the top right hand corner the price label read £1.99, so it had to be worth a shot. Yet another bargain from Rebel Records. As soon as I put it on the turntable, it began to crackle away. A good sign. It must have seen some proper service with its previous owner. It’s the unplayed records you want to worry about. But the surface noise could not disguise the fact that something had gone badly wrong with the production – the electric guitar seemed suffocated, its strangulated stabs and squeals occasionally puncturing what sounded like a thick protective quilt. And those trebly tonsils, buried so low in the mix. But here was a record I couldn’t help but fall in love with, and it has been a favourite ever since.

Even I’m not convinced it’s his best album, but it’s almost universal dismissal I find irksome: “a godawful debut”; a “stuttering false start” to his solo career, or at best a mere “prelude to Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere“. It’s as if he was saving everything in reserve, gearing up for the real thing, but that rarely happens with debut albums. Popular music is all about the present moment, and by autumn ’68, Neil Young had a point to prove. The wax on the last Buffalo Springfield album had barely had time to dry before Neil Young hit the stores. The cover of Last Time Around told the story of Buffalo Springfield’s sad and premature demise. The photo montage pictured Young positioned with his back to the others, steadfastly facing in the opposite direction as if he could no longer even bear to pretend anymore. Bruce Palmer’s departure in early ’67 had effectively sounded the death knell for the band. Palmer had been, according to Young, the “soul of the band”, if you will,  Buffalo Springfield’s very own Brian Jones. The clash of egos would play out a familiar battle and everything soon fell apart. Last Time Around was a hastily assembled contractual obligation album, but it had in effect delivered Young’s first solo recording to the world, ‘I Am A Child’, which foreshadowed the bedsit folk troubadour of After The Gold Rush.


By August 1968, Young was back in the studio with David Briggs and Jack Nitzsche. It was in many ways a painful time. In Jimmy McDonough’s bio Shakey, Young recalled: “It was either a lonely experience or a labour of love. I was really glad when it was over, because it was so technical, took so much thinking.”

The instrumental overtures which kick off each side provide scant indication of any ‘labour of love”, at least on Young’s part. The laidback country twang of the first, ‘The Emperor of Wyoming’ is matched to a relatively unfussy string arrangement, while the second, the brief Nitzsche-penned ‘String Quartet From Whiskey Boot Hill’ only hints at some of the complexity characteristic of the rest of the album.

A more explicit benchmark of the album’s ‘everything bar the kitchen sink’ production, is ‘The Loner’ where strings soar beneath meaty chunks of stomping guitar, at times fizzing like a squadron of mosquitos fighting for air in a glass bottle, which has the subtle acoustic interludes running for cover. There’s s parallel performance on the conquering metallic riff of ‘I’ve Been Waiting For You’, which renders as mere subtext the intricate underlay of piano and organ.

Young has stated that he wished his voice on the record to sound “a million miles away, but right there” and in the floating reverie of ‘I Could Have Her Tonight’ his wish is granted. Barely whispered, it’s unassuming country jangle has a strange little twist in the tail which Television may have lifted for the coda of ‘Torn Curtain’.

Perhaps the most polarising track on the album is ‘The Old Laughing Lady’. Jack Nitzche’s overwrought orchestration often comes in for some criticism, but when Ry Cooder’s languid guitar and Nitzsche’s fluid electric piano ooze into the big soul chorus – take a bow Merry Clayton, Brenda Holloway, Gloria Jones et al – the results are utterly euphoric. It’s simply magnificent.

If Nitzsche’s aspirations were ambitious here, then David Briggs’ contributions were equally so. ‘Here We Are In The Years’ – on the surface a stately ballad – weaves little melodic miracles throughout its patchwork structure and features one of Young’s most earnest vocal performances: “Here we are in the years/Where the showman shifts the gears/Lives become careers/Children cry in fear/Let us out of here!” “We got tones nobody’s ever got, even Hendrix” said Briggs at the time, and here – bizarre moog solo aside – the balance was just about right. Similarly on ‘I’ve Loved Her So Long’ the arrangements (vibes, electric piano, soul chorus, even woodwind) are well-balanced, pretty and entirely satisfying.

The best tracks more than offset the album’s one blatant misstep, the bumblingly neurotic and supremely self-indulgent nine minute acoustic dirge ‘Last Trip To Tulsa’, of which the less said the better.

I am sure I speak not only for myself when I adjudge the best Buffalo Springfield moments to be ‘Expecting To Fly’ and ‘Broken Arrow’, both transcendent sound collages, as opposed to ‘For What Its Worth’ or Neil’s very own ‘Burned’. That he aimed to crystallise some of that airborne-ness, and twine a few fragments of baroque into the album’s tapestry is most certainly a plus, and not a minus. Neil Young is the last time he would venture quite as boldly in that direction. The great sin from that moment onwards was to ‘overthink’ composing and arranging. That perhaps accounts in part for such a prolific output. Perhaps he was right too, but undoubtedly something  was lost in the process. For the man himself, Neil Young represented a steep learning curve, and if for him it was a failure, for us it was a glorious one. (JJ)

113. ORANGE JUICE – TEXAS FEVER (1984)

Greatest Records, Indie / Alternative, Post-Punk

I could begin with a sad lament about how Orange Juice should have been the greatest pop group of the early ’80s. But I’ll leave that ’til the end.

So let me tell you instead about ‘The Bridge’. Who, but Orange Juice, could so naturally calibrate a perfect synthesis of Chic and The Velvet Underground, blending them together with such effortless joi de vivre, then, as if playing ‘keepy-uppy’ with a 5-0 advantage, leavening into the mix some owlish ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ ooh-ooh-oohs, not to mention having the downright audacity to be the only band in history to reference Isambard Kingdom Brunel in popular song? PS. This is a rhetorical question.

Or I could have begun by arguing that You Cant Hide Your Love Forever, more than any other single LP, invented ‘indie’ music, and taken my cue from there. No OJ, then no Smiths, no Pastels etc etc.

But instead I’d rather ask you a question about ‘Craziest Feeling’. Did you know that Malcolm Ross could play guitar with the same shrapnel spraying agitation and wit (yes, guitars can be witty too) as John McGeoch, or that Edwyn Collins, while unashamedly a savant, had a huge passion for the bubblegum trash culture of 50s America and a devilish sense of humour to boot? Or that he really just dressed up some good old-fashioned love songs in a modernist post-punk garb and a pair of dark shades? Or had you forgotten about all that? Then either you are too young or have a short memory.

Now why didn’t I start by eliciting readers’ nostalgia through fondly recalling some happening nights at ‘Texas Fever’ (or ’46 West George St’ to us Glasgow folk), the indie disco named in honour of this very record? That would have made sense.

But at this point I am half way through listening to the record again – wait a minute, no, I am half way through Remain In Light, or am I? – and in the midst of Edwyn’s sudden despair: “And I can feel the black lies fly/They’re in my sleep, they’re in my eyes/I hate this head, these feet and hands/I’m tired of being a man”, he exclaims on the scything dark bubble-funk of ‘Punch Drunk’, probably the best Josef K record that Orange Juice ever made. That’s because it was written by Malcolm Ross. It might be a million miles from the positivity and innocence of YCHYLF, but that’s because Edwyn knows what it means to be happy and to be sad. Sometimes all at the same time. 

I should have set out some context and told you how 1984 was a dreadfully difficult year for Orange Juice. It undoubtedly was. Four would soon become two. And not long after, none. But you can read about that elsewhere. 

The real truth of the matter is that David McClymont’s fingers fell off playing bass on ‘The Day I Went Down To Texas’. Yes sir, they fell right clean off. He and Zeke had to work their goddam socks off to put ’em back on. Son of a gun.

Surely it would have been prudent and fitting to acknowledge Edwyn’s heroic and courageous battle in his recovery from a dual cerebral haemorrhage? Heartbreakingly sad. 

But I think Edwyn would be happier knowing that his songs – songs I’ve lived with and grown up with and played air guitar to and danced along to and thought about and cried over (“There’s a place in my heart/I wish that your eyes could see/And there’ s no one on earth/Who loves you as much as me”) and laughed about (“Glory hallelujah, gonna sock it to ya!” – both from the same song people!) – are loved very dearly indeed, almost none more so than ‘A Place In My Heart’ with those little Buffalo Springfield guitar licks gilding a sublime slice of blue eyed soul.

Let’s talk about whether or not Texas Fever is an album or a mini-album or an EP? On second thoughts, let’s not bother. Who the hell cares?

I keep thinking as that bass intro steadies it’s nerves at the beginning of ‘A Sad Lament’ that we’re heading into ‘Sister Ray’ and while I adore ‘Sister Ray’ it’s hard not to feel an overwhelming sense of relief and then joy, yes joy – a goosepimply shivery crying and laughing at the same time kind of joy – when that organ arrives to elevate it and save it from the devil’s clutches. Why is it when Edwyn sings: “You came exactly on the hour/Such precision worries me” that I want to punch the air with delight? Or that today ‘A Sad Lament’ sounds not only like Orange Juice’s greatest ever moment, but the finest pop moment of the ’80s? If I could tell you why I surely would. 

I was going to begin with a sad lament about how Orange Juice should have been the greatest pop group of the early ’80s. But then I remembered that they were. (JJ)

112. BANDSTAND – FAMILY (1972)

Greatest Records

BANDSTAND – FAMILY (1972)
Any mention of John Peel, particularly since his horribly untimely death, will invariably prompt a roll-call of the acts he cherished the most: the Undertones; the Fall; the Smiths; the White Stripes. It’s usually a pretty reductive list, indicative of an approach summed up by Lauren Laverne as simply pulling out Teenage Kicks and declaring “job done.”
It’s an overly simplistic view of tastes which spanned half a century, could test even those who consider themselves musically unshockable and embraced an often-overlooked predilection for novelty. What’s unarguable, though, and was something Peel took pride in, was his forward-looking, close to scorched-earth attitude. He took only his most prized memories with him and few of those dated from the early ’70s. When the Strange Fruit venture gave overdue official releases to sessions previously blighted on tape by unbidden coughs and unsolicited percussion from the kitchen sink next door, his lack of enthusiasm for that era was palpable – he was perplexed by his one-time fondness for “unutterable crap like James Taylor” but alongside oft-proclaimed stalwarts like Beefheart, Robert Wyatt and Kevin Coyne, one of the few to escape the Me Decade purge were Family.
This wasn’t particularly surprising. Family tend to be conveniently dropped in the prog bag these days and while that was one of the points on their compass – it undoubtedly describes possibly their best-known song, the deathbed drama Weaver’s Answer, though that’s one I’ve never got on too well with – they rarely had the requisite pomposity or verbosity. Only four songs across their seven albums exceeded six minutes and they were just as likely to dally with folk, R & B, psychedelia or flat out hard rock.
They weren’t inherently seers or visionaries – and I’d suggest they had that in common with the Beatles. But also that both bands had insatiably curious ears and a willingness to try anything, while always having their R & B/ R & R roots within grasp and returning to them as they neared their respective ends. In fact, one of the most frequently told anecdotes about Family is that they were among the very few who ever got their way at the expense of the Beatles. They nabbed the title Music In A Doll’s House for their 1968 debut while the Quality Quartet – who had mooted a similar title for their upcoming album – prevaricated, compelling them to go eponymous and White a few months later.
It’s also often observed that they were named Family by Kim Fowley, as their sharp-dressed, imposing demeanour put him in mind of East Midlands mafiosi. Not quite the full Corleone but definitely one of the most convincing gangs-as-bands of their era. Liam Gallagher fondly sees their Leicester successors, Kasabian, as a gang but does so merely by defining them, Paul Calf-style, in opposition to stuuudents. But what he thinks Kasabian are, Family actually were – they simply got on with job of, if not upsetting the hippy applecart, then at least discombobulating it.
An extended Family too – in common with another true gang, the Ramones, they adopted when siblings went astray and racked up 11 members in their seven years (perhaps more like a football team – after all, they were depicted as Leicester City players on the cover of a posthumous Best Of album and were introduced at their 2013 reunion gigs by the legendarily free-spirited former Foxes striker Frank Worthington; Gary Lineker was presumably unavailable). And like yet another, Dr Feelgood, a surfeit of Johns pressed nicknames and middle names into service, so that John Whitney became Charlie, John Palmer was reborn as Poli and, for his time as a Family guy, the late John Wetton was dubbed Ken. John Weider had the privilege of getting to keep the name.
It all added to the picture of an outwardly ramshackle yet acutely questing squad, though by the time of Bandstand, their penultimate album, a degree of professionalism was in place. There had always been spiny tangents to their sound – Peace Of Mind from …Doll’s House (which the Damned, psychedelia connoisseurs that they are, were most assuredly familiar with, if their Disco Man is anything to go by) was underpinned by the carpet burn violin of Ric Grech, shortly before he was poached by Blind Faith; Hung Up Down from 1969’s Family Entertainment had woven into its belligerent stomp a flute which, given time, starts to make sense but never ceases to be slightly incongruous, and Save Some For Thee from 1971’s Fearless was all but thrown off course by the almost non-sequitur intrusion of a marching band. Bandstand was one of their most conventional outings but was still also one of their most diverse and inventive – their shirts were still hanging out but one or two of them were at least sometimes wearing ties.
Not singer Roger Chapman, though – not then. Not ever. Few voices have ever been so polarising – Joe Cocker was a boy soprano next to this fellow, who claimed he was simply interpreting in his own way the R & B voices he’d grown up hearing. His stage presence put breakable objects as much at risk from his
flailing limbs as from his gargling-with-sand vibrato – both among the attributes which caught Peel’s attention the most. “You were always grateful for a few bodies between you and Roger,” he once observed, and Chapman was one of the most obvious manifestations of his penchant for extreme vocalists. As unlikely as it may seem, Chapman had a good deal in common with another, Marc Bolan – it was polymorphism for the ears. If Bolan was diamond, Chapman was graphite.

You can hear all of this coalesce on Bolero Babe, which, in time-honoured Peel-challenging fashion, fades in to proto-synth bleeps and Rob Townsend’s drum tattoo nodding vigorously to Ravel’s classic a full decade before anyone had thought of skating to it, while showing it was equally suited to looning. The lofty strings echo those which Bolan and Tony Visconti superstitously put on T Rex singles after the success they brought Ride A White Swan, as well as anticipating, oddly, those of Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy. Where you expect a chorus to surge and thrust, you can almost hear this one being held back – as Chapman exhales: “I can see it shine/ Light years from here” is he declaring “its” mighty brightness or silently adding: so why bother going to it? But this sounds not like proto-slackerdom, nor the indolence which had become so prevalent, but a protective restraint.
Dark Eyes, by contrast, is a whisper that fills a room. Less than two minutes long, it announces itself with the most sweetly discordant piano you’ll ever hear, an acoustic guitar pirouettes and a double-tracked Chapman sings, not for the last time on this album, with compassion and empathy (“A shadow of the evening/And your baby at your side/ A sadness that’s within you/Your eyes refuse to hide”). A flute adrift from Bryter Layter finds shelter before the sudden fade – it all sounds as soothing as pretty much everything was for me as a pre-school child while they recorded this. I was oblivious to this song, this band, and to the turmoil they soundtracked that was as prevalent as it’s ever been – Dark Eyes occupies the gap between those worlds.
As, to some extent, does My Friend The Sun, which could be interpreted as an opportunistic pitch to Rod Stewart’s by then massive audience. But it’s not remotely calculated and even if it was, cause shouldn’t be emphasised over effect, as it’s simply the most beautiful thing Family ever did. It’s bucolic without emphasising the colic, the sound of that morning moment when you realise it doesn’t matter if you don’t do a thing all day. Chapman is again at his warmest- “I know that you’re lonely, come in from the cold/Your shoes they need mending, your clothes they look old” – and if, as we’re often told, the difference between violin and fiddle is attitude, this song is poised at the exact moment where the attitude switches. Harmonies descend like a freewheeling downhill cyclist though, as if to remind us we’re still dealing with the Strange Band, the tape lead is dislodged and reinserted at the very last moment. And no busker’s bass drum and tambourine to create an unnecessary Mumfords hoedown 40 years before the fact. It’s said to have been played at a number of funerals in recent years, reflecting a shift from mourning who we’ve lost to celebrating who we had and fitting to the bittersweet brew of this song.
Far more bitter than sweet – in fact, a riot – is Broken Nose. For precisely three seconds, it offers the promise of a Hispanic voyage – Crude Sketches of Spain, maybe – before becoming a barrage during which the titular injury could easily occur. The chorus stomps through the floor and waves to Sly and the Family Stone’s I Want To Take You Higher on the floor below, before all is subsumed by the swell of a Charles Babbage synth. Somehow, room is found for one more layer in the backing vocal of Linda Lewis, later to have a hit with High Wire and to cover My Friend The Sun.
It took me years to figure out that Glove is something of a gem, too ribald to be tender yet also too poignant to be seedy. It’s a balance Mott the Hoople were particularly adept at striking and Family locate that sweetest of spots here – nudged forward by a bassline so simple you wonder if Wetton has temporarily forgotten his proficiency, and with a wholly secular yet thoroughly gospel melody and arrangement, Chapman gets as close as he can to crooning as he performs what, lyrically, is effectively a folk ballad. He returns the dropped garment to a lady who ultimately invites him, in keeping with tradition, to “accompany me to walk awhile.” There’s no chance, though, of Chappo swapping his vest and braces for doublet and hose; this courtly request doesn’t come before “I swore and bit my clumsy tongue” but the surreptitious crescendo and chivvying strings push them off into the sunset – in the manner of a Charlie Chaplin finale, gauche and touching at the same time
.Closer Top Of The Hill opens like a soul stew, twinkling and bubbling to set the scene for the entrance of Stevie Wonder, Al Green or even Alan Toussaint. It maintains this pretence for more than a minute before a terse riff kicks down the door and a clenched, breaking-point drama barges through. It simmers with unresolved tension as the strings swoop like a squadron of pterodactyls and race Palmer’s vibes to the summit. But they’ve not seen Townsend surreptitiously scaling the south face and he gets there first – with an unforeseen snare roll, he plants the flag and Bandstand is done.
Family had one year left. They would sign off with It’s Only A Movie, which largely took its cue from Bandstand’s opener Burlesque – a song which gave them their third and last top 20 hit and, with its bawdy Faces stomp, really was an incursion into Rodland. They split in, it would appear, comparatively amicable circumstances, too soon to be sitting ducks for punk ire but, despite their prog toppings, their vigorous bravura might have spared them the worst of it – in fact, a decade and a half later, the very same accidental urban sage spirit would be all over, under and inside Happy Mondays.
They stayed split for a full 40 years and even those reunion gigs were a brief visitation, played, furthermore, without the now seemingly retired Whitney.
The reverence handed down through the generations to Zeppelin, Floyd and Sabbath has eluded them but at their best, they rivalled them for, respectively, tenderness abutting steamhammer momentum, what-does-this-button-do inventiveness and realising industrial landscapes in blasted, lurid sound. If that makes them prog, I’ll get my cape  (PG).