119. NICO – THE MARBLE INDEX (1969)

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)

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70. ANNETTE PEACOCK – I’M THE ONE (1972)


Cover versions are more often than not a waste of time, but not always. The best recorded versions of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and
‘Love Me Tender’ are not by Elvis Presley, but by John Cale and Annette Peacock respectively. Cale recognised the potential for a sonic overhaul of Mae Boren Axton & Tommy Durden’s classic, in order to provide a more suitably unsettling backdrop to the familiar tragic narrative. Similarly, with ‘Love Me Tender’, Peacock was able to excavate the cracks and crevices of that yawning cave to extract from it every ounce of emotional nectar, every last drop of raw-nerved soul. Hers is one of the most striking cover versions ever recorded and one of the highlights on I’m The One, her first official solo album released in 1972.

In addition to being a great interpreter of others’ songs, Annette Peacock is also a true innovator. I first heard ‘I’m The One’ around 25 years ago. I had given one of my TNPC colleagues a loan of Tim Buckley’s Starsailor LP, and in return he had alerted me to Annette’s solo debut. Comparisons have sometimes been made between the two. However, unlike Buckley, who reputedly eschewed any electronic augmentation of his voice on Starsailor, Peacock was unafraid to embrace new technologies – she had already written, performed and recorded experimental music with the late free jazz pianist Paul Bley in the late 1960s (including a showcase performance at the Lincoln Centre, NYC) and was keen to explore the possibilities of processing her voice through a Moog synthesiser. The story of her acquisition of this equipment and it’s incorporation into the recording of ‘I’m The One’ has been documented elsewhere, including in a brilliantly insightful interview with Annette in The Quietus – see below:

(http://thequietus.com/articles/15423-annette-peacock-interview)

The results were sensational. What I heard then astonished me. Even though the album was almost 20 years old, I felt immediately transported 50 years into the future, as if I was suddenly creeping through a smoky jazz bar in a sparsely populated embryonic human settlement on a Martian plain. A slinky, incredibly hip android fixed me with her gaze. From behind a stack of strange electronic equipment, she sang her visionary take on the blues.

Today, in a world of vapid auto tune and essentially formulaic stylised X-Factor singing, which follows a peculiar trajectory from Stevie Wonder through Mariah Carey and Alicia Keys, and which often values technical virtuosity above authentic soulfulness, how refreshing it is to hear something both at once so earthy, rooted firmly in jazz and blues, yet at the same time wildly unconventional and truly original. Peacock’s musical ethos was simply to sound as contemporary as possible, not to be wilfully obscurant or self-consciously avant-garde, but as a consequence of her enthusiasm to explore and innovate it is only now that I’m The One is getting some long overdue recognition. The world it seems is still catching up.

From the Sun Ra-esque introduction featuring a startling vocal ascent through the scales, Peacock rips through the material, a vivacious blend of avant-garde jazz, funk, blues and soul (‘One Way’ has the lot: space age jazz, swinging cabaret, squawking horns, Annette’s wild shrieking and not least, Tom Cosgrove’s formidable coiled guitar)

On ‘Pony’ the voice processing is integrated so smoothly that it sounds akin to some of Miles’ horn squeezing from On The Corner. Here the electronics bubble and fizz, as if Alan Ravenstine from Pere Ubu has been let loose to roam the stoned corridors of a Curtis Mayfield blaxploitation groove. It’s one of the coolest, funkiest things you’ll ever hear. ‘Blood’s improvisational synth rumblings are darker, befitting Annette’s anguished delivery, but give way to Bley’s more bluesy (almost Touissaint-y) piano at the finale.

But it is the title track itself which best encapsulates Peacock’s vision. I’m trying hard to imagine what this must have sounded like in 1971 when it was recorded. This would have been around the same time as What’s Going On,  Hunky Dory’ etc. Indeed David Bowie was so taken with it, that, a year or so afterwards, he attempted to entice Peacock to contribute to his work in progress, Aladdin Sane. She refused. What sounds initially like a cerebral intergalactic conference becomes a red-blooded alien seduction – a lusty and libidinous Venus flytrap [I’m the one,/I’m the one/You don’t have to look any further/I’m the one/…I’m here, right here, for you/Can’t you see it in my eyes/Can’t you hear it in my voice/Can’t you feel it in my skin/When you’re buried deep within me/I’m the one for you]

Laurie Anderson, Eno and Bjork are amongst many who succumbed to the spell. Peacock would go on to deliver a follow up of equally intense and frank eroticism (XDreams). That one featured an all-star cast including Mick Ronson, Chris Spedding and Bill Bruford. But little of what was happening in 1971 compares to the power and glory on display here. This my friend, is the one. (JJ)

54. THE BEACH BOYS – SUNFLOWER (1970)

Lairs of Harmony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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