45. VAN MORRISON – VEEDON FLEECE (1974)

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

The ‘other’ Van Morrison album you should own is not Moondance but Veedon Fleece. I say this not because Moondance is a weak album – it is in fact, hugely impressive – but rather because Veedon Fleece outshines it in every department, being the only other occasion in the entirety of Van’s recording career where he sailed close to the magisterial heights of Astral Weeks. Its continual exclusion from Classic Albums lists is akin to inaugurating a Jazz and Blues Hall of Fame and omitting to include Miles Davis and John Lee Hooker, and is at once a great injustice. Classic album it certainly is. So might there be a way to convince a mass of Moondancers to switch allegiance and become fully fledged Fleecers?

Inspired by a trip to the Emerald Isle he made in October 1973, Morrison composed this set of songs, where a Blakeian romanticism inhabits the spirits of ancient Irish Saints and mystics, traversing old streets and monastery ruins, everywhere leaving echoes of its ghostly presence. It is truly one of its kind. But it is more likely to hinder my case if I begin by drawing attention to two songs which, situated incongruously in this most organically Celtic of albums, are US-flavoured fugitives,  defectors from another time another place, that clearly do not belong here: ‘Bulbs’ and ‘Cul De Sac’. The former of the culprits, featuring John Tropea’s countrified guitar and a jarring accelerating tempo, is particularly disconsonant; the latter, a rigid, plodding rewrite of ‘Many Rivers To Cross’ adds little save a frown on this listener’s brow. Of themselves, they are not bad songs any more than Moondance is a weak album, but feel completely at odds with the remainder of the record.

So instead, let me wax lyrical over the remainder, all of which is worthy of the highest commendation. The beautifully judged opener ‘Fair Play’, features stately piano over a gilt-edged acoustic strum – this time by Ralph Walsh who plays sensitively throughout. And that voice! It is sometimes easy to forget that Van possesses one of music’s most towering voices – by turns lion’s growl, fragile falsetto or at times an almost gut-wrenching open-throated bellowing of blues’n’soul. Here, his performance is both restrained and gorgeously melodious: (“Tell me of Poe/Oscar Wilde and Thoreau/Let your midnight and your daytime/Turn into love of life/It’s a very fine line/But you’ve got the mind child/To carry on/When it’s just about to be/Carried on.”)

If Astral Weeks was the sound of ‘a man in pain’ (gratuitous link to Lester Bangs’ unsurpassed review – https://personal.cis.strath.ac.uk/murray.wood/astral.html.), then on Veedon Fleece we hear a new man, a man who is in love and in love with life (his new fiancée Carol Guida accompanied him on the Irish vacation where he wrote most of the songs). Van has always insisted that to write enduring music one has to feel happy, and there is a sense of that inner fulfilment permeating the record’s atmosphere.


‘Linden Arden Stole The Highlights’ is punctuated by a series of repetitive rising piano lines – no chorus – with strings bursting in at 1:42, lifting the music to new heights. Purportedly about an Irish ex-pat living in San Francisco – autobiographical? –  with an ominous closing line hinting at a darker underbelly, “now he’s lonely living with a gun“, the onomatopoeic piano tinkle imitating breaking glass is courtesy Lou Reed’s ‘Berlin’, released the year before. If the guitar on ‘Who Was That Masked Man’ is intricate and understated, Van’s vulnerable delivery is a thing of beauty, so much so that one can forgive the more dubious choice of metaphor, “…or wish on a toilet roll” (whoever imagined they would hear that line in a song? A rival to Arthur Lee’s “Oh the snot has caked against my pants“).

Meanwhile, ‘Streets of Arklow’ introduces atmospheric flute – once again building on a repeated rhythm – this time slightly lengthier, with a dramatic orchestral sweep. Like many of the songs, it’s joyous stream of consciousness poetic impulse contains no chorus, no hook, but draws you in helplessly to its alluring depths. Morrison recalls reading books on Gestalt therapy at the time of the recording and there’s no mistaking the depth of emotion in the music. At the end of Side One, the epic ‘You Don’t Pull No Punches But You Don’t Push The River’ soars at the crest  of a group of songs sometimes considered a ‘suite’ (though not spliced together fragments as on Side Two of Abbey Road), but which are rather linked thematically through an evolutionary passage of music of such ravishingly mysterious beauty it sounds like it’s heading inexorably towards some divinely eschatological revelation – which could be the mythical Veedon Fleece of the album title… “We’re goin’ out in the country to get down to the real soul/I mean the real soul, people/…We’re gettin’ out to the west coast/Shining our light into the days of bloomin’ wonder/Goin’ as much with the river as not/…Blake and the Eternals oh standin’ with the Sisters of Mercy/Looking for the Veedon Fleece“.

The closing trio of songs represents a high watermark in Van’s career. The masterful ‘Come Here My Love’ is one of Van’s most enduring love songs. The antithesis of the rent-a-party floor filler that is ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, it is a song where he sounds entranced by spouse, nature, poetry and life itself. “Come here my love/And I will lift my spirits high for you/Id like to fly away and spend a day or two/Just contemplating the fields and leaves and talking about nothing/Just layin down in shades of effervescent, effervescent odors/And shades of time and tide/And flowing through/Become enraptured by the sights and sounds in intrigue of natures beauty/Come along with me/And take it all in/Come here my love“. It was covered by This Mortal Coil in 1986, but their version stripped it of its transcendent beauty (very unlike them) with Van’s very much the superior take.

Van’s capacity to make the simplest arrangement and verse sound utterly profound is illustrated most clearly on ‘Comfort You’ – any analysis of the song’s structure and content would be notable only for its brevity. By contrast the song seethes into one’s consciousness to be recalled time and time again. Contrast too, the way the spirit moves in the closer ‘Country Fair’, liberated from the technical virtuosity of ‘Cul De Sac’ where the highly accomplished playing is cold and static. Here the sparse sound creates spaces for free form flute, double bass (the songs work better without bass guitar) and washed out ghostly choir, recalling the voices in Tim Buckley’s ‘Morning Glory’. It could fit comfortably on to Astral Weeks and I can pay it no higher compliment.

Listening to the album on CD could be a potentially dissatisfying experience, there being no pause between the album’s centrepiece, the nine minute ‘You Don’t Pull No Punches But You Don’t Pull The River’ (how about that for a dressed-up poetic title for a song where someone is receiving a pretty harsh dressing down?) which closes Side One, and ‘Bulbs’ which on vinyl would open Side Two. At least, lifting the needle could afford the listener a momentary pause and an opportunity to avoid such an abrupt rupture in the album’s flow. But get your mitts on whichever format is accessible to you and hear the blues howler, the jazzman, the mystic folksinger, the poet and Celtic Soul Brother make one of the best albums ever recorded. By anyone. (JJ)

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

Avant-Garde, Experimental, Greatest Records, Rock Music

The Art of Beefheart


I imagine my affinity for Beefheart followed a trajectory familiar to many. It began with a bizarrely alluring earful on John Peel; leading next to the perusal of a few rock encyclopaedias and the NME and Sounds Greatest Albums lists of the time (1985); followed subsequently by the purchase of Trout Mask Replica; then swiftly by the indignant return of said item to the record store. Even as I handed my tenner over to the hippy at the HMV till, his derisive expression let me know in no uncertain terms that he fully expected me back within 24 hours. He was of course correct. My virgin ears felt like they had been defiled and my brain pillaged by this artless racket, created by people who clearly had not taken the trouble to learn how to play their instruments. I was inclined to steer clear of Beefheart for some considerable time afterwards, but as I became ever more conscious of Trout Mask’s conspicuously lofty critical approval rating, my frustration began to grow. Was I missing something? Perhaps I was the victim of some cruel hoax? I resolved to find another way to appreciate the Captain’s art, if indeed this really was ‘art’ at all?

Art. Don Van Vliet always had a fascination with art, demonstrated most visibly in his own primitively  idiosyncratic paintings, but extending also to his music, the prime expressions of which are the two albums he made for the Straight label in 1969 and 1970, Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off Baby. Every Beefheart aficionado has their favourite album and I am no different. In fact, not selecting Trout Mask Replica for TNPC feels in some ways tantamount to a betrayal, but it is a record which has been extensively discussed, written about and salivated over elsewhere, and whilst undoubtedly amongst my own Top 3 Albums of All-Time, I fear there is nothing much else to add to what is a well-worn story. Those who find ‘TMR’ too arduous a listen [I had to strengthen my constitution with the solid meat of the early Fall albums before I persevered and eventually succumbed] tend to plump instead for the crisper cleaner Clear Spot, the warmer more colourful Shiny Beast or more commonly, as in the estimation of the authors of The Perfect Collection, the classic 1967 debut, Safe As Milk, which memorably showcased Ry Cooder’s stunning slide guitar work. While these albums served as friendly pathways to a reappraisal of TMR, my way in to Beefheart actually came with the purchase of Lick My Decals Off Baby. Those who treasure TMR may feel that it’s slick sibling sequel gives it a run for its money as The Magic Band’s greatest moment, despite it having lived forever in the shadow of its illustrious predecessor.

Indeed, there are some who swear that Decals actually eclipses ‘TMR’ as Beefheart’s finest hour, but be as well comparing Ulysses to Finnegan’s Wake. Nevertheless, those will point to the following: Decals – unlike TMR, which bore the imprint of Zappa – was produced by Don himself and is therefore incontestably his own creation; secondly, where TMR is a sprawling mess, Decals by comparison is both streamlined (all killer, no filler) and strangely symmetrical (both sides have overtly lascivious openers, anarchic hornfests to end, and in the centre, two baroque math-folk instrumentals, Bill Harkelrod – aka Zoot Horn Rollo – conjuring that almost medieval lute-ish sound from his guitar); thirdly there is a greater refinement of song composition and structure – where TMR sounds like a bizarre experiment, the playing on Decals sounds more controlled, sophisticated even (visually implicit in the contrasting choice of band costumes for the album sleeves); fourthly, the polished marimba of Art Tripp brings another dimension to the sound, working a similar effect to Bobby Hutcherson’s vibraphone on Eric Dolphy’s classic Out To Lunch. These for some give Decals the edge.

However, the rubbery booglarized guitar sound, which contrasts sharply with the scratch and bite of the guitars on TMR polarises opinion. Additionally, the explicitly carnal lyrical onslaught may not be to everyone’s taste: at times Don sounds almost predatory like a rhinoceros on heat (“Rather than I wanna hold your hand/I wanna swallow you whole/’n’ I wanna lick you everywhere it’s pink/’n’ everywhere you think/Whole kit ‘n’ kaboodle ‘n’ the kitchen sink…”), albeit a rhino with a darkly mischievous sense of humour (check out the even more hilarious ‘I Want To Find A Woman That’ll Hold My Big Toe ‘Til I Have To Go’) and a wild poetic gift…

Yes, the poetry. The lyrics are not all as bawdy but are staggeringly brilliant, full of free association surrealistic impulse (“Glasses look out on the pale hell bent /Moon milk run / O’ lady go home / Lord they done cookin’ done / Black lady, Black leather lady / Done had a white, white, white poor son”) and humane ecological concern (“If the dinosaur cries with blood in his eyes/’n’ eats our babies for our lies/Belches fire in our skies/Maybe I’ll die but he’ll be rumblin’ through/Your petrified forest.”)

If the words are wonderful, then the music is a match for them. The album’s most famous song – covered by The Buzzcocks/Magazine – is ‘I Love You, You Big Dummy’ (‘nobody has love/love has nobody/I love ya y’ big dummy/quit askin’ why!’), a rhythmically straightforward thrash enlivened by Don’s wild harp (it sounds like he’s blown it to pieces), which could be a demented cast-off from Strictly Personal and anticipates the unabashed blues growl of his next studio album The Spotlight Kid, while ‘Woe is Uh Me Bop’ – which ‘crinkles along mechanically like walking Tinkertoys’ (copyright Lester Bangs – I can’t beat that folks) is a virtual blueprint for the triple salvo of Tom Waits Franks Wild Years period, the most obvious comparison being ‘Clap Hands’ from Rain Dogs. The marimba here adds little strokes of light which de-intensify the urgency of the rhythm. Conversely, on ‘The Smithsonian Institute Blues (or The Big Dig)’ the sudden change of tempo, with the marimba and guitar scattering in opposite directions, unseats a vibrant footstomper, yet showcases the band at their most viscerally spontaneous and intuitive. Again there is a delightful play on words (“It sure looks funny for a new dinosaur/To be in an old Dinosaur’s shoes/Dinah Shore’s shoes/Dinosaur shoes”). There are other delights and surprises along the way, not least the interval in the closing ‘Flash Gordon’s Ape’ (great title) where the orgiastic cacophony is halted for a marimba solo.

No-one else in rock music has innovated on the same scale as Don Van Vliet. Oh, The Beatles and The Velvets  could stake a claim, and were undoubtedly even more influential. But with his music, Beefheart invented an entirely new art form. I can’t pretend to be an art connoisseur, and  I’ve never really understood the Jackson Pollock analogy – I’ve always imagined each splash and stroke of his work to be something of an accident. Nor – though I appreciate the visual image it conjures – can I fully agree with Andy Partridge’s contention that Beefheart’s music “sounds like a piece of the Somme, lifted up and put in an art gallery.” Another fairly unsatisfactory comparison would be that of a collection of jigsaw pieces fitted randomly together, as this presupposes a final abstract image without a recognisable pattern or design. Instead, when considering a Beefheart composition from this period, I prefer to visualise four or five light aircraft taking off together which also land simultaneously: but while airborne, the planes might fly at different altitudes; some are faster than others, each creating its own unique flight path, until at certain points, as if jerked by some centrifugal force, their zig-zag wanderings cease and they line up with Red Arrows precision. Again, they may fly off suddenly in wildly different directions before this telepathic convergence repeats itself. From one journey the planes may return to the ground at awkward angles, from the next they arrive in neat lines. This sound has been imitated by many performers of good will – aesthetes, punks and outsiders, but each has been too indebted for true greatness. Beefheart’s innovations are unique in rock history and alongside its big brother TMR, Lick My Decals Off Baby deserves to take its place as a uniquely esteemed example of American art primitivism.

[If there has been noticeable mainstream infiltration by some of today’s more left field artists, it is worth remembering that ‘Decals’ stayed eleven weeks on the UK album chart, peaking at no.20. Sitting imperiously at the summit was Andy Williams’ Greatest Hits] (JJ)