130. THE ROLLING STONES – BETWEEN THE BUTTONS (1967)

Baroque Pop, Greatest Records, Psychedelia, Rock Music

For me, the best Stones album by some distance is Beggars Banquet. Although Brian Jones played only a small part in its creation, it was the last and greatest LP to feature the original five. By the following year the band’s sound, as well as its understanding of itself, had altered irrevocably. After Beggars Banquet, while the highs were often ecstatic ones, much of their music became progressively more hackneyed over time, and while some of their records (particularly those made between 1969 and 1972) are amongst the best and most confident they would ever make, never again would they sound so natural nor exuberant as they did in ’68.

The two albums which preceded BB offer a glimpse into the Stones’ orbit before they became self-proclaimed ‘greatest rock and roll band in the world’. The dayglo psychedelic experiment Their Satanic Majesties Request has undergone something of a critical reappraisal in recent years, its excesses (of the sonically adventurous kind) perhaps easier to stomach than those (of the dead-eyed smacked out type) of the ‘70s, so candidly chronicled by Nick Kent in Apathy For The Devil.

But TSMR‘s predecessor Between The Buttons is better still, an effervescent pop potpourri which saw them step outside of their R&B roots to incorporate elements of country and western (‘Who’s Been Sleeping Here?’), baroque (‘Yesterday’s Papers’) and Kinks-ish music hall (‘Cool, Calm & Collected’,’ Something Happened To Me Yesterday’) alongside their first organically psychedelic inflections.

’67 was the strangest year for the Stones. They would make newspaper headlines for the wrong reasons (the famous drug bust at Redlands) and Between The Buttons – while it performed fairly well in the charts (although not as well as Aftermath) – was somewhat overshadowed by the subsequent court case. A shame, because it’s one of the very best albums they ever made.

On January 15th they ‘spent some time together’ performing their new AA-sided 45 on the Ed Sullivan Show. Sullivan censored the lyric while Jagger rolled his eyes and deliberately fluffed his lines. As was oft the case, the single cuts (‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’ / ‘Ruby Tuesday’) were included on the US version of the LP which would be released in February. The UK version, released on 20th January, omitted both. Curiously, when I began building my Stones collection, the US version was more widely available and therefore I didn’t hear the album in the form it was originally intended to be heard, for many years. And when I did, the album finally began to make perfect sense.

The first of the two tracks to make way for the hits on the US version of the LP, contains the kind of embellishments which would remain absent throughout their ’70s oeuvre. ‘Back Street Girl’ sees Jagger lampoon the hypocrisy of the aristocracy, it’s ‘lord of the manor and his mistress’ lyric stapled to one of the Stones’ gentlest melodies, a waltzing companion piece to ‘Lady Jane’, featuring Brian on vibes, Jack Nitzsche on harpsichord with Nick de Caro lending some Gallic charm on accordion. “I wrote this in some weird place which I can’t remember. It’s got the feeling of a French cafe about it” Jagger explained to Keith Altham of the NME. Years later, he suggested it was the only song on the album he was happy with. It’s an album he sorely underestimates.

Brian’s fingerprints meanwhile, are everywhere in evidence, pulling the strings and twiddling the knobs on the second of those tracks, the Bo Diddley on (a)steroids runout ‘Please Go Home’. Jones had big plans then, and his interviews always made good copy. “I believe we are moving toward a new age in ideas and events. Astrologically we are at the end of the age called the Pisces age…We are soon to begin the age of Aquarius. There is a young revolution in thought and manner about to take place”, he told Keith Altham shortly after the album’s release. Maybe one eye was already on the band’s next more explicitly psychedelic project, but those roots were sewn on BTB not only through Brian’s dilettantish peppering of the material with sitars, oscillators and flutes, but also with Keith’s heavily distorted reverb on ‘Yesterday’s Papers’ and the menacing ‘My Obsession’. Sessions were engineered by Dave Hassinger and the hovering dynamics here recall his similarly impressive synchronous work with The Electric Prunes.

On ‘Yesterday’s Papers’ the miraculous interplay between Nitzche’s harpsichord and Jones’ vibraphone hangs like draped finery over Keith’s pulsating generator. Jagger had envisaged the song entirely differently. “It was going to be very straight but it’s ended up donging about all over the place. All tinkling and weird. Charlie said he wanted to think up a weird drum rhythm for it and brought about two dozen different drums into the studio for it, then he asked me if I thought he was getting contrived?” he told the NME at the time. Contrived or not, it is a hugely undervalued gem and for many, the album’s defining moment.

The Stones hadn’t forgotten how to rip it up as evidenced by the delightfully rambunctious ‘Miss Amanda Jones’. ‘All Sold Out’ and ‘Connection’ are feisty little rockers too, the latter’s irresistible staccato guitar riff and prescient lyric anticipating the personal problems to come (“The bags, they get a very close inspection/I wonder why it is that they suspect ’em?”), while the former is ’embellished’ with more superb guitar work alongside Jones’ tone deaf recorder. The mid tempo ballad ‘She Smiled Sweetly’ is less successful, possibly the album’s weakest track, and despite Keith’s versatility his efforts to edify the thing with solemn church organ – Jagger claimed the track was “quasi-religious” – are in vain. Even his bass part is bewildering, as if he’s playing on one string, and a broken one at that. One might guess they ran out of time and everyone else had disappeared for the evening.

‘Who’s Been Sleeping Here?’, a kind of countrified Dylan pastiche, is a peculiar marriage of his mournfully melancholic ‘She Belongs To Me’ with the bawdy ‘Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35′, but against the odds it works splendidly well, with particular credit to Jones’ understated harp playing. It’s also interesting to note the progression from here to ‘No Expectations’ from the following year’s Beggars Banquet. As for the closer, ‘Something Happened To Me Yesterday’, it is one of the oddest songs in the Stones’ canon, and musically at least sounds like an out-take from The Kinks’ Face To Face. As for the subject matter, Jagger was somewhat cryptic: “I leave it to the individual imagination as to what happened. The ending is something I remember hearing on the BBC as the bombs dropped.” A red herring probably – it is more likely to be about his first encounter with LSD. And that experience would of course lead them to unexplored pastures.

It is often overlooked, but Between The Buttons is quirky and ingenious, and if at times a little too polite for some tastes, reassuringly devoid of the rawk posturing to come. It is the Stones’ brightest album, and also their most English – their very own Village Green. (JJ)

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99. KAREN DALTON – IT’S SO HARD TO TELL WHO’S GOING TO LOVE YOU THE BEST (1969)

Folk Blues, Greatest Records

Imagine waking from a blissful dream where everything was perfect, to drops of freezing cold water falling through a crack in the ceiling onto your face. Gradually, you remember a bitter argument you had the night before. Your head is aching, your eyes swollen and you don’t know why. What you do know is that you can hear your children crying. One of the poor little beggars is shuffling around looking for something to eat. There’s not a morsel to be had and not a dime to spend. Then you see a note nailed to the door. It’s from your partner and they’re not coming back. 
 

It’s the story of the blues. If this particular version of the story wasn’t entirely familiar to her, she sure sounds like it was, because few if anyone, sang the blues with as much conviction as Karen Dalton. Each note she chokes from her gut possesses an aura of total wretchedness, like words scrawled on a suicide note. 

Dalton was born in poverty in Enid Oklahoma, but experienced an itinerant roving lifestyle, eventually settling in an old disused goldmining cabin without central heating or running water, in rural Colorado. She lived a troubled life, one ravaged by substance misuse and poor health. Her peers (Dylan for example) regarded her as the greatest singer of her era, but she somehow contrived to evade commercial recognition. Dylan’s patronage was scant consolation for someone whose natural gift was so remarkable that it should have made her a household name and a lorryload of bucks along the way, but it wasn’t to be. Ultimately she wasn’t prepared to play the game and although she possessed great self-belief, her prodigious talent was matched only by a crippling shyness that would make her trans-Atlantic contemporary Nick Drake seem like David Bowie by comparison. Indeed Dalton had to be coaxed, even tricked, into recording her first album, entering the studio on the pretext that she would cut a song as a favour for her friend Fred Neil. Somehow she was persuaded by producer Nik Venet to sing a few more and did enough for him to assemble a half hour’s worth of material which eventually became It’s So Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best.

 The Cherokee Billie Holiday couldn’t write her own songs but it didn’t matter, because she rewrote others’ as she sang them, and what’s more she played the guitar “like Jimmy Reed” (as Dylan quipped) and the long-neck banjo for good measure (she was even the cover girl for Ode Banjos). She released only two albums in her lifetime. The second, In My Own Time, is a fairly mixed bag. Some of the selections seem incongruous with Dalton’s folk blues heritage, and at times the arrangements are an encumbrance, cloyingly at odds with the authentic spirit of the songs. Nevertheless, those bruised tonsils are in splendid form on the opening track, ‘Something’s On Your Mind’, perhaps her most famous interpretation of all, raw, peppered with wrong notes, cracks, unironed blemishes, and all the better for it. If she was around today, they would autotune the life and soul out of it. The album might have been worth including for ‘Katie Cruel’ alone. Dalton had been singing this traditional folk tune since she first held a guitar in her hands. Based on an old Scots rhyme – and prophetically biographical – it is here given a just treatment, far weightier than on 1966 or Cotton Eye Joe, two posthumous releases, both nevertheless deserving of an ear themselves. Besides Dalton’s mesmerising vocal performance, it benefits greatly from Bobby Notkoff’s electric violin, lending it the peculiarly eerie quality he likewise achieved on Neil Young’s ‘Running Dry (Requiem For The Rockets’ on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. It is a haunted masterpiece.

 But overall, the raw minimalism of her first outing is more sympathetic to her gruelling performances, steering clear of glaring misjudgements like ‘How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You’ and the perfunctory professionalism of the session musicians’ performances. Thematically too, the first album, despite its broad range of material (Jelly Roll Morton, Leadbelly, Tim Hardin) has an organic flow, culminating in two of the most crushingly beautiful songs you will ever hear. Hardin’s ‘How Did The Feeling Feel To You’ is stunning – Hardin often sounded as if he was struggling to get to the end of each line without recourse to a nebuliser; Dalton sings it as if her heart is about to give up at any moment. Here over the most fragile of melodies her voice bends and breaks over the prettiest of guitar lines which seems to sing along with her as if offering gentle reassurance to keep her going. If that is good then ‘Right, Wrong Or Ready’ is simply sublime, a genuine tearjerker. Penned by Major Wiley, I am never sure whether the tears it procures come from empathy for the singer or the miraculous beauty of the gently ascending chord sequence. It reminds you that music can take you places you may not have wished to go. But once there, you know you’ll have to come back for more. Don’t just take my word for it – go find out yourself and listen to them in the album’s proper context for a true appreciation. 

Elsewhere the influence of Fred Neil is most obvious, although it’s entirely possible Neil had been first rapt with Dalton’s pained voice and mimicked her style. Perhaps Tim Buckley is to Fred Neil as Neil is to Karen Dalton? Her take on Neil’s ‘Little Bit Of Rain’, a most delicate reworking is excellent, and the deftness to her playing on ‘Ribbon Bow’ a genuine treat. The Billie Holiday comparison is at its most apparent on ‘I Love You More Than Words Can Say’, which haemorrhages misery. When she groans those lines (“living without you is so painful, I was tempted to call it a day”) we don’t need any convincing that she means it. 

After her second album, Dalton retreated even further from the music scene, but even by the time she had cut those two albums, she was a little late for the party. By ‘69, the Greenwich Village folk blues boom was passé, but freed from their socio-cultural context, we can now appreciate how genuinely timeless her renditions of these songs sound today. When she died of AIDS in 1993 at the age of 55, it had been 22 years since she had last set foot in a recording studio. Her legacy lives on in artists as diverse as Beth Gibbons and Madeleine Peroux, although by comparison, Peroux is a mere stylist where Dalton was the real deal. This debut album, released to little fanfare at the time, should serve as her definitive musical statement. (JJ)

 

73. MAGAZINE – REAL LIFE (1978) / (A) THE CORRECT USE OF SOAP (1980)

Greatest Records, Post-Punk, Punk Rock


REAL LIFE – MAGAZINE (1978)

Like history as a whole, the chronology of music is not a neat, compact narrative. However much some might try to corral it all into tidy, reductive processions of cause and effect, it’s far too multi-layered, unscripted, complex and, in truth, messy, to be so easily, glibly packaged into received wisdom. Did Buddy Holly’s death and Elvis’ draft really lead directly to the neutering and ocean-level dilution of rock ‘n’ roll? Was the Beatles’ vertiginous take-off in America truly the result of a bereft and bewildered nation looking to assuage its grief over its slain leader? And can anyone really definitively call New Rose the first British punk single, as if genre can be as precisely prescribed as geography?

Near the head of this parade of assertions, which marches along the main thoroughfares, bypassing the blind alleys, cul-de-sacs and branch roads which lead to equally captivating destinations, is the notion that the Pistols’ gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in June, 1976 directly unleashed the ferment that would pour forth from the city for the best part of two decades. Without question, it was a catalyst, but in the literal, chemical definition of accelerating something happening independently. The proof is that the event – an alternative to an evening’s viewing which included Des O’Connor Entertains and Winner Takes All with Jimmy Tarbuck – was organised by two Mancunian minds which had been fizzing with original but hard to fulfil ideas for some time – Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley of the slowly but resolutely burgeoning Buzzcocks.

Shelley had already been exploring electronics for a number of years – his composition Sky Yen, recorded in 1974, resembled a loop of the ZX Spectrum programme he would later include on his solo album XL1 – while ultra-literate humanities student and Dylan fan Devoto (ne Trafford, a name too Mancunially loaded to keep in that city for long) would soon be honing one of the sharpest and most original lyrical styles in music.

After Buzzcocks recorded the groundbreaking and still astounding Spiral Scratch right at the end of ’76, Devoto was out before British punk had even got its Docs on. He already found it had become “aesthetically ugly;” while it wouldn’t be truly straitjacketed until the lamentable arrival of oi!, he was right to be plotting a way out before expectations became too rigid and the horizons of some barely spanned from thumb to forefinger.

His response was Magazine, who announced themselves with Shot By Both Sides, not so much a single as a manifesto, broiling with as much energy as any of its peers but voicing cold war anxiety in a manner which reminded you that these weren’t just pat, flip cliches – if somebody flips a switch, that’s it, for all of us. This, you feel, is what Devoto is getting at when he declaims: “I was shocked to find what was allowed;” no one had ever sounded as sardonic as this – not Dylan, not Reed, not even the Rotten rapidly turning back into Lydon – and you can hear his mouth crumple into a virulent grin at the end of every line. But the shock is not the synthetic outrage of a middle-market tabloid reader. It’s that of someone with a conscience, a moral centre, unable to take in what they see, when “They all sound the same when they scream,” like the creatures at the end of Animal Farm looking from pig to man and man to pig, by now indistiguishable.

Magazine and Buzzcocks actually took closer paths than is often acknowledged – behind the beguiling melodies and ambiguous love songs, the latter were continually messing with texture, rhythm, noise, the Can influence always just a micron below the surface, and Shot By Both Sides was the gene Devoto left behind. With Shelley’s lyrics, it became Lipstick for Buzzcocks, ushering in a small but significant post-punk strand of joint custody songs (also Read It In Books by the Bunnymen/Teardrop Explodes, Adventures Close To Home by the Raincoats/Slits, Sister Midnight by Iggy/Red Money by Bowie and Our Lips Are Sealed by the Go-Gos/Fun Boy Three.

The keyboards are barely audible on Shot By Both Sides but, beneath the fingers of Dave Formula, they would be what most immediately set Magazine apart from most of their contemporaries – apart from Ultravox!, hardly any others dared to commit such a technoflash transgression. Compared with the concert-piano level synths by then being deployed by Bowie and Kraftwerk, Formula’s are harpsichords and spinets but like those instruments, they radiate extraordinary beauty, like the Heath Robinson glories of Eno’s non-musician adventures in Roxy Music or the HG Wells future visions of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr – a Magazine fan from the start who would later have the effrontery to purloin the title of Real Life for his own band’s worst album – once declared that, Devoto excepted, they were “wallies…dullheads, completely unaware of the greatness they were part of.” Well, he met them, I didn’t, but it seems an extraordinarily harsh judgement on Formula, a former R & B musician whose youthful imagination had been fired by Yuri Gagarin’s trade union-brokered 1961 visit to Manchester; on bassist Barry Adamson, who would go on to be the heartbeat of darkness on the Bad Seeds’ most unforgiving adventures and to legitimise almost single-handedly the whole dubious enterprise of imaginary film soundtracks (his reward being to get to soundtrack actual films by Carl Colpaert and David Lynch), and on the late John McGeoch, born in Greenock – not 20 miles from where I’m writing – who approached the guitar in the way a brutalist architect might approach bricks, not setting out to make something beautiful and making few concessions to accepted notions of beauty but frequently achieving it anyway.

Take Definitive Gaze, one of the most assured and self-possessed openers in history. Adamson pursues the melody, a vigorous funk figure trapped in proto-video game Pong, while drummer Martin Jackson displays as much flair for tension and release as any chops-wielding session pro, pocketing the odd rimshot when nobody’s looking, and Formula combines freeform discordant piano flourishes with suitably spooky synth (I once put this song on a tape for an obsessive Cure fan who, disappointingly, found no trace of the influence on his heroes, instead hearing only the theme from Scooby Doo). McGeoch plays only what he needs to play – not a note more or less – and Devoto describes an all-seeing eye which appears to be more curse than gift (“Clarity has reared its ugly head again…Now I’m lost in shock/ Your face fits perfectly”).
He takes a similarly skewed view of affairs of the heart on Burst and Parade, the songs which once closed each side. On the former, McGeogh takes Hendrix’s The Burning Of The Midnight Lamp as a tuning fork but heads off in a very different direction, creating a claustrophobic and clenched setting for one of Devoto’s finest anti-love songs (“Once you had this promise/On the tip of your tongue/Needless to say/It went on too long). Despite the title (as in “burst into flames”) it’s compressed, a big crunch waiting to happen as Devoto repeats “You will forget yourself in my happiness,” like the incantation of a contract hypnotist – all as taut and coiled as Television’s Torn Curtain.

Parade is mellower, more refined, with elegant piano by Formula, frissons of wah-wah by McGeoch and a striding rhythm box underpinning Jackson’s tympani-like thunderclaps. But it’s still Howard Devoto out front and he sounds no more comfortable than before, still refusing to bow to sentimentality (“Sometimes I forget that we’re supposed to be in love/Sometimes I forget my position) offering yet more claustrophobia, this time shackled to paranoia (“It’s so hot in here/What are they trying to hatch?”) and proposing desperate courage as a solution (“We must not be frail – we must watch). It’s the fate of all slow and stylish songs to be labelled ballads but it would be an outright misnomer for songs as fraught and gripping as these – if you can think of a better word, let me know.

The fleet and the florid combine in Motorcade, where early languour yields to a pace almost beyond human capacity and McGeoch triumphs again, building on a well-worn siren sound by twisting it into unidentifiable shapes. It seems to allude to the Kennedy assassination but it may be too obvious – and where does the bathos of “The man at the centre of the motorcade/Has learned to tie his boots” fit in? Still, no one ever got right to the root of Oswald’s motive, so enigmatic images of “a snake in the closet” and the choice between coffee and tea are yet more layers on an unfathomable puzzle.

Magazine were never more brilliantly brash than on The Light Pours Out Of Me – come to think of it, not many others have been. Its rhythm could keep a city’s lights on if played on a loop and McGeoch takes a familiar glam riff out of its platform heel into a glass slipper. Formula’s synths are again sparingly used but the space left by their absence creates a canyon for Devoto to descend “like an insect/Up and down the walls.” He’s still accepting no commissions from Hallmark – “It jerks out of me like blood/In this still life/Heart beats up love-” and we’re back to full Buzzcocks circle, with the last line escaping from its earlier appearance on the sleeve of Spiral Scratch. There are more thrilling, elemental, force-of-nature songs than The Light Pours Out Of Me – but not many.

Unfortunately, many of those in awe of Magazine missed the opportunity to make their own magic from their influence. Magazine inspired Simple Minds at their best but were powerless to prevent them sinking to their worst. Mick Hucknall is said to have been a regular at their early gigs. Marti Pellow once averred that, early on, Wet Wet Wet wanted to be Magazine – Magazine, a band of potency and dexterity, utterly devoid of clumsiness, smarm or schmaltz – what happened? I guess it’s just real life but you can always turn to Real Life instead (PG).

THE CORRECT USE OF SOAP (1980)  “I am angry, I am ill and I’m as ugly as sin / My irritability keeps me alive and kicking.” (A Song From Under The Floorboards.’)

One might surmise from his recordings that life for Howard Devoto was a cruel joke. Love meanwhile was a pointless charade, a game played by fools. There’s a 1980 Australian TV interview with him (sporting a Nietzsche baseball cap) larking around in a laundrette – where he discusses ‘superior hygiene’ and ‘ulterior cleanliness’ as well as his imaginary Ni-etz-sche Removal & Trucking business venture. Devoto cultivated the image of irascible bugger, someone to rival Mark E Smith or John Lydon for ultra-contrariness, Scott Walker or Eno for inscrutable mystique. What is more interesting about the interview is Devoto’s response to being questioned about his decision to leave The Buzzcocks in order to form Magazine. He attributes that to his ‘revolutionary idea that one could play slow songs‘. If Magazine harnessed some of the fizz and fury of punk, they also recognised in its mediocre uniformity, something stultifying rather than liberating. Without question, Howard would rather have been Bowie than Strummer, and Magazine likewise Can, Roxy or Ubu instead of The Pistols.

“You could do me a favour/Do whatever you want to/I will let you hurt me/Because I know it hurts you/It hurts you.” Devoto snarls with trademark acridity on the wonderfully odd ‘I’m A Party’, which while featuring a slightly extraneous jazz break, unfurls to reveal Dave Formula’s filmic synth and John McGeoch’s nervy guitar lines. McGeoch was one of the great under-rated lead guitarists; he often sounded like he was working in his own little bubble, nowhere more than here, surreptitiously stitching out taut geometric patterns redolent of a column of ants scratching out a new colony. Or listen to him virtually ignite his fretboard on the magnificent speed-fuelled ‘Philadelphia’. Here is Magazine in all its glory – Barry Adamson’s throbbing bass bubbling like a pregnant geyser, Formula’s shrieking keyboard wizardry and Devoto’s rueful witticisms: ‘Everything’d be just fine/If I had the right pastime/I’d’ve been Raskolnikov/But mother nature ripped me off…‘ Glorious stuff.

In some ways the flamboyance and range of the music is utterly at odds with the bleak cynicism of the lyrics. And Devoto makes true on his promise to play some slow ones, these offering a sharp contrast to their more convulsive companions. The stately piano and soulful backing vocals on ‘You Never Knew Me’ sound warmer, but Devoto’s lyrics remain implacably acerbic (‘Thank God that I don’t love you/All of that’s behind me now/Still seems to be above you’), rivalling Dylan at his sardonic ’65 peak; while elsewhere he confesses to his own (masochistic?) weakness and compulsion: ‘But I still turn to love, I want to burn again.’

That dark sense of humour is accompanied by both political observation (‘Model Worker’ envisages the moral quandary of the Soviet proletarian who dares to dream of a better future: ‘I’m sick of working on the land/I wanna work with machines and look handsome.’) and an incisive eye for detail: ‘We drank from cups on standard issue/Sofas under scaffolding/Informed sources said we were seen/By observers it’s a meeting.’ (from ‘Sweetheart Contract’ – a genuinely classic single).

One can as easily imagine Devoto firing the band and taking himself off in a huff to record the whole thing on an acoustic guitar. Then he might have delivered a rival to ‘Sister Lovers’ or ‘Blood On The Tracks’. But as he says himself: “I know beauty and I know a good thing when I see it” so thankfully Magazine’s audience was gifted with songs like ‘Stuck’, a squelching stinging funk conundrum which comes across as something like a post-punk Weather Report and is quite magnificent.

If their brilliant debut ‘Real Life’ had a bold, metallic and expansive sound, Magazine’s follow up, ‘Secondhand Daylight’ was dense, feverish and – on the colour spectrum – undoubtedly grey. With Martin Hannett – having recently applied the finishing touches to ‘Closer’ by Manchester’s more celebrated musical sons – at the mixing desk, ‘The Correct Use Of Soap’ successfully managed to add a layer of polish to proceedings, but the album’s claustrophobic sound and misanthropic soul gave new meaning to the old cliche ‘all that glitters is not gold’. It sounds as thrillingly vibrant today as ever and stands unparalleled as a gallery of lavish but caustic portraits, a repository of glistening miserabilism. (JJ)

PS. ‘I’ve got a good face for memories’:
The first critics poll of greatest albums I remember (and still my favourite list of this kind by miles), was the MME’s (100) Greatest Records Ever Made, published in November 1985. It was the first time I had ever bought an issue of the NME, and I in my innocence immediately took the contents of its poll as gospel, seeing in it the definitive selection of the essential albums every serious music fan should own. It was a marvellously flawed collection, by turns intriguing (only one Stones, no Sgt. Pepper), eclectic (plenty of jazz, blues, reggae and soul alongside a plethora of post-punk) and bewildering (no Can, Byrds or Fall, while ‘Mad Not Mad’ at no. 55 today looks simply bizarre). To the best of my knowledge, it is the only such list ever to feature The Correct Use Of Soap, a mere five years young at the time.* I built my record collection around that list, beginning with the low/mid-price albums which had the coolest sleeves and graduating on to the more expensive ones afterwards. It was an education of sorts. I eventually got round to buying The Correct Use Of Soap, fittingly from Virgin Records, in January 1987, proudly clutching to my chest its glitzy post-modernist sleeve alongside another purchase I made that day, Sly & The Family Stone’s star-spangled ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’. My abiding memory of that evening is hearing two very different but equally blistering versions of Sly’s ‘Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again’ which to my complete surprise, appeared on both albums.

*[Sounds magazine retorted with their own Top 100 and that one featured Real Life, but as it had four Alice Cooper albums in there, I figured the NME probably had it right. No harm to Alice Cooper, but four!?]

71. RANDY NEWMAN – RANDY NEWMAN (1968)

Greatest Records, Singer-Songwriter

RANDY NEWMAN – RANDY NEWMAN (1968) 
My introduction to Randy Newman came even earlier than I realised. It was 1974, I was five and I was a few green months into primary school. Before the ruthlessly efficient, stripped-and-stranded TV scheduling of today, unforseen gaps would on occasion appear between programmes, in the grand interlude tradition of the potter’s wheel and the kitten frolicking.
One such hole was plugged by a cartoon accompanying a song which told the commonplace story of a couple travelling through life. I hardly knew anything of such matters at the time but it appeared straightforward enough: meeting; marrying; having children. Only the last line of the song stuck but it haunted me for years: as I recalled, it was a female voice singing: “We’ll play checkers all day/until we pass away,” as the now elderly couple vanish from either side of the board. It may well have been the first time I gave any thought to mortality, so strange and sad did I find it.
Scene fades…it’s now 14 February 1988. Without the remotest prospect of getting a card, it’s just another day for 19-year-old me but, it being a Sunday, Annie Nightingale is on and she’s doing a Valentine’s Day special, in which every song played includes the word ‘love’ in  the title and is one more display of the sheer unpredictability of her show which reached its apogee the night she played Duran Duran and immediately followed  them with Bogshed . I hear what are by now the familiar tones of Randy Newman – droll, drawling, dry – clothed in sumptuous orchestration which gives way to a similarly lush  chorus echoing Spector with precision. Hints of Dixie jazz, hints of minstrel tunes – and then that lifelong  game of draughts again. Love Story by Randy Newman – first part of the mystery solved.
It would take the internet’s reduction of total mysteries to double figures before the puzzle would be complete. The first version I heard, complete with animation, turned out to be by Sonny and Cher – they’d performed it for their own show, even as it was rapidly losing autobiographical status for them.
And Love Story turned out to be the opener of Newman’s debut album. Even in 1968, its subtitle – Randy Newman Creates Something New Under The Sun – must have seemed a shade brazen. Though decades would pass before all the possibilities of Popular Music were finally exhausted, there was already an end-of-history mood prevailing. Psychedelia and its attendant adventures far from rock ‘n’ roll’s roots were already being dismissed by many – and still are to this day – as an aberration. Practically every leading figure released something that year which, while ranking among their best, was again holding fast to Earth rather than exploring further into space, even as the first lunar footfalls approached fast (years later, in his soundtrack for Apollo documentary For All Mankind, Brian Eno would explore the paradox of astronauts listening to country – one of the most Earthbound of all genres – as they ploughed through the vastness).
But like The Band, and to some extent Bob Dylan, Newman was digging back further still. Not quite as far as The Band’s evocations of the Civil War but to the first third of the 20th century,  a superficially genteel land of barbershop quartets, rocking chairs on antebellum porches and straw boaters tipped to every passing parasol-twirling dame, all the stranger for being well within living memory yet utterly bygone. He was steeped in this stuff, with with three composer uncles whose credits stretched from Modern Times, The Grapes Of Wrath and The Best Years Of Our Lives to Cleopatra and Alien. Characteristically, he embraced his heritage but with more than enough guile, bile and style to find favour with the burgeoning Serious Rock audience. As a practitioner of the now thoroughly debased (with a few exceptions, trite, wheedling and spectacularly point-missing in the 21st century) singer-songwriter genre, Dylan comparisons came like death and taxes…but listen to him singing “so hard” on Living Without You and then Boaby’s “so bad” and “so sad” on One Of Us Must Know and it’s valid for a moment at least.
And they’re both controversial voices. Add them to a long list – Ray Davies, Neil Young, Bryan Ferry, Robert Wyatt, Joanna Newsom, Anthony Hegarty; in fact, the oft-told story about Newman’s debut is that Reprise felt compelled to advertise the album with the somewhat backhanded  tag  “Once you get used to it, his voice is really something” but in vain  – low sales followed. True, Newman does usually  sound like he’s never more than a few seconds away from making a wisecrack about your choice of shirt but he sounds genuinely wounded on the aforementioned Living Without You, while the sauntering melodic nonchalance of Bet No One Ever Hurt This Bad belies what seems to be real sorrow – or is it one of the double bluffs which Newman tosses up to keep us on our toes? (see also: Rednecks, which satirises not only the racists but also the smug superiority that wealthy, educated types feel towards them; Mr Sheep, which mocks not the office drone but the arrogant rock star sneering at the office drone, and, most notoriously, Short People, which was proven to be a masterclass in genuine irony by its mass misinterpretation). Maybe they can just be taken at face value after all – I’m not aware of  him having done his own version of I Don’t Want To Hear It Anymore but Dusty Springfield’s interpretation reaches Great Pumpkin levels of sincerity. When Newman sings, though, he just keeps you guessing; the son in So Long Dad seems as devoted as he needs to be but is still impatient and in a hurry (“Just drop by when it’s convenient to/Be sure and call before you do”) yet its mirror image, Old Man (on 1972’s Sail Away) ends with as devastating a line as you’ll find anywhere – “Don’t cry old man, don’t cry/Everybody dies.”
Another likely consequence of the divisiveness of Newman’s voice is that
many of his songs have become  better known through versions by others but few of these have improved on his. One of the best known covers is Three Dog Night’s version of Mama Told Me Not To Come, from 1970’s 12 Songs. Newman is said to have observed that they gave it a chorus he never did but I’ve always found their attempt pretty awful – I’m usually a sucker for electric piano but theirs is a smarmy burble and that chorus is in the type of hammy, overwrought voices which were all too prevalent at the time. They also had a stab at Cowboy, which is on Newman’s first album – it’s more tolerable but again, he triumphs easily – the verses are sotto voce but the arrival of the orchestra for the chorus is truly startling,  batwing doors not so much flung open as  breached with a battering ram.
With Newman’s own arrangement and the deft production of stalwarts Lenny Waronker and Van Dyke Parks, it’s the sort of thing John Ford might have commissioned (commanded?) for one last bold sweep of Monument Valley before the credits roll. The lyrics, though, reflect more a Sam Peckinpah vision of a landscape changing too rapidly for its inhabitants to keep up with (“Cold grey buildings where a hill should be/Steel and concrete closing in on me.”) It was a reality for many as alleged progress rode roughshod over communities – Family offered a British perspective on the same theme later the same year with Hometown.
I Think He’s Hiding is one of Newman’s numerous meditations on the nature, attitude and, ultimately, existence of God. Here, he offers the view of those who believe in both a merciful (“There’ll be no more teardrops/There’ll be no more sorrow”) and a vengeful (“When the Big Boy brings his fiery furnace/Will He like what He sees/Or will He strike the fire and burn us?”) deity before hedging his own bets to a hushed and subdued accompaniment. Even more minimal is I Think It’s Going To Rain Today, which has become possibly Newman’s most covered song – maybe because it’s so spare that there’s a widely felt need to embellish it. There’d be a decent album to be had from compiling the best versions but Newman’s would have to be among them – you strain to hear him whisper (even Leonard Cohen took 20 years to reach this depth of register) and when you catch what he says, it still seems densely enigmatic (“Scarecrows dressed in the latest styles/ With frozen smiles to chase love away). In its strange invocation of solitude in a sparse landscape, like many songs here it’s unequivocally American but deals in universal themes, in style as finely etched as a Whistler and in content as acutely observed as an Edward Hopper – and the whole album packed with these brilliantly crafted miniatures is over in under 28 minutes.
Newman seems so unassuming on the cover; in houndstooth jacket and yellow turtleneck, and minus the curls and glasses which would later be his visual trademark, he could almost be mistaken for Neil Sedaka. There’s no more sign of him as the unofficial biographer of human foibles than there is in some of his more recent, far better known activities. To many, he is just Toy Story Guy, and that’s fine – there aren’t many films that offer more sheer joy (though for what it’s worth, I actually prefer Toy Story 2) but there’s a further frisson to be gained from the knowledge that he could also write (from Laughing Boy): “Find a clown and grind him down/He may just be laughing at you/An unprincipled and uncommitted clown/Can hardly be permitted to/Sit around and laugh at what/The decent people try to do.” (PG)