89. SIMPLY SAUCER – CYBORGS REVISITED (1989*)

Art Rock, Greatest Records, Proto-Punk, Psychedelia

   
 I’m due to hear from frontman Edgar Breau next week, so you might think it unusual not to delay TNPCs inclusion of Simply Saucer’s Cyborgs Revisited until after we speak. The thing is, I’ve constructed my own myth around this album, I’ve rewritten rock history in my head, and I’m reluctant to let it go, for surely if rock’n’roll is about anything, it’s about gratuitous escapism – so I’m going to hang on to this movie script for a little while longer…

“What a fantastic movie I’m in / what a fantastic scene I’m in…”

[Scene: Backstage, Velvet Underground performance, Max’s, August 22nd, 1970]

Any similarity to characters real or fictional is…blah blah blah…

DY: What’s the matter with you Lou – that was some hokey shit tonight?

LR: Cuz the whole thing’s fucked you asshole. Your stupid Cyborg obsession – it’s getting us nowhere. What the fuck is a Cyborg anyhow?

DY: Remember when you used to be rock’n’roll? Long time ago. You’re not even a footnote now. There’s stuff out there which is unbelievable Lou – wash out your ears, how can you not hear it? Look at the Ig guy – he’s insane. It’s just pure rock’n’roll… 

LR: Let him go and do his shit. Who’s gonna remember that? They called it right. Stooges!! Just a noise goin’ fucking nowhere Doug…Forty people out there tonight...Brigid snapping awaywho’s gonna want tapes of us playing this shithole?…

[SM (barely audible):hey…someone tell Jonathan to beat it…Jonathan get outta here man, go home…its late…]

DY: Are you outta your mind? It’s not like we’re reaching out Lou – nobody came then, nobody’s comin’ now, nothin’s changed; let’s face it. But til now, at least we’ve been able to hold our heads up man. You know, I’m beginning to think Cale got it right. He got out cuz he knew this lame loser shit was on the way

LR: Hey, I got rid of that asshole… that’s precisely the kinda bullshit I might expect to hear from him!…I mean…avant garde, avant garde?! – thinks he’s John fucking Cage. One letter outta place in the name he thinks he’s a fucking genius. That one letter makes all the difference! He was never gonna be a star and neither are you Dougie boy. I’m a star, just like Andy says, and not for fifteen minutes either…just try to stop me honey.

DY: I didn’t join the band to become a star Lou. You want your face on a magazine cover, that’s your business – I want more. I want people to talk about my music 50 years from now.

LR: Your music!? What are you, some kinda comedian? What’ve you ever done? You’re just hanging on my coat-tails you asshole – just along for the ride! Playing supper clubs for twenty people ain’t gonna pay the bills. Well, what you gonna do after tomorrow, you’ll be on your own…cos it’s over…? 

DY: Asshole! 

LR: No, you’re the asshole…

Of course, as we all know, Lou walked out the very next evening, before Yule dragged Velvets’ devotee Jonathan Richman with him and they, together with a noisy young Rimbaudesque poet called Richard Meyers, went on to blitzkrieg the vacuous coked up pomposity of early 70s rawk, with all its ludes and bad hair and mind numbingly bland guitar solos, via their paradigm-shifting interstellar punk rock…

Or perhaps not… this is only a movie after all. 

…In actual fact, Yule made Squeeze the ‘fifth’ VU album, which nobody recognises as an authentic release – it wasn’t of course, as it featured none of the original members. By 1974 he had done nothing else but add guitar to Reed’s Sally Can’t Dance. He would resurface again with the feckless country rock of American Flyer just as punk was exploding. It turned out Doug Yule was never going to do anything authentically punk. But it was not outwith the realm of possibility that he could have been the prescient saviour of rock’n’roll. After all, he joined the Velvets right after White Light White Heat. The last ‘song’ they recorded before he walked in the door was ‘Sister Ray’. If that didn’t put him off, then it was still a hell of a long way to slide before he got to writing ‘Dopey Joe’… so my guess is he must have possessed a tiny kernel of the punk gene, but he buried it. Somewhere deep. Unless of course, he was, as Lou says, just along for the ride…

So, instead it was left to some scraggy music & sci-fi obsessed teenagers from Ontario to pick up the mantle…their lives would be saved by rock’n’roll and they aimed to save it from annihilation along the way. 

“I like the way that you treat me like dirt…”

Hamilton lies close to the Canadian/US border. The two US cities in closest proximity are Detroit and Cleveland – and if you’re looking for clues as to the origin of Simply Saucer’s sound, you need look no further. While the primary influence was undoubtedly The Velvets, Simply Saucer’s true kindred spirits were Iggy, MC5, Mirrors, Rocket From The Tombs and The Electric Eels, alongside a hearty dose of Krautrock and a psychedelic spattering of Syd’s Pink Floyd and Hawkwind.

The band – Edgar Breau (guitar, vocals), Kevin Christoff (bass, vocals) John LaPlante – aka Ping Romany (electronics) and Neil De Merchant (drums) would hardly become household names; formed in 1973, they only ever released one single (in 1978) before quietly disbanding. It would take another ten years before an album collection finally emerged. Culled from only two sessions – one recorded in Bob and Daniel Lanois’ mother’s home in 1974, the other recorded live in Hamilton a year later – Cyborgs Revisited was the first full length document of their incredible music, and as such is one of the great lost albums of the 70s.

A virulent distillation of acid-fried space rock and brutal urban punk, it comes over as a deranged masterpiece. ‘Instant Pleasure’ possesses the shambolic jerk of the Neon Boys’ ‘Love Comes In Spurts’ although predates it. As Breau pleads “Let me sleep inside of your cage / I want to feel your sexual rage”, Christoff’s impossibly spasmodic bass convulses around Romany’s anarchic theremin noodlings. ‘Electro Rock’s garage riff could be something off MC5s High Time. Delivered in Breau’s slovenly sneer it is laid to waste by a collision of screeching guitar, pummelling bass and some bizarre electro-magnetic loops. ‘Nazi Apocalypse’ degenerates magnificently into a big Ron Asheton wah-wah scorched earth guitar storm and the instrumental ‘Mole Machine’ is like a psychic summons to outer space by a college of math rock guitar freaks beckoning with all their might (and incomprehensible formulae) the descent of the mothership…it succumbs gladly to their invocation.

On ‘Bullet Proof Nothing’ Breau does indeed does sound like Yule having a crack at ‘Sweet Jane’ with The Modern Lovers providing the back up. (“Treat me like dirt, drive me insane / treat me like dirt now, tear out my brain… I’m just bullet proof nothing to you / Point blank target for your waves of abuse.”) Despite the nihilistic sentiment, it’s the most accessible thing on here, and would have fitted comfortably onto Loaded or even Transformer and even ennobled both of them. At any rate it truly is one of the great lost tracks of the 70s.

But it is no exaggeration to say that the live tracks (which comprise Side Two of the album) – recorded on a roof on Jackson Square on June 28th 1975 are just staggering – a revelation. The live version of ‘Here Come The Cyborgs’ is an astonishing sonic assault with more killer guitar riffs than James Williamson could accumulate on the entire Kill City LP. And that’s saying something. It briefly melts down into a blues jam and then knocks satellites out of the sky before the discordant thrash at the tail – a precursor to The Fall’s ‘Hip Priest’. Meanwhile, ‘Dance The Mutation’ is like a Jumpin’ Jack Flash Jagger cranking it out over an unstoppable tidal wave of nuclear moog radiation from Romany which evidently hungers to swallow up everything in its path. And as for ‘Illegal Bodies’ well, it captures on tape one of the most viscerally exhilarating guitar performances ever recorded. Think for one moment of ‘Run Run Run’ – it’s a smack song right? Well, ‘Illegal Bodies’ has that guitar, but Breau propels the song forward with such amphetamine fuelled momentum that, cut loose from its moorings, it spills its guts out all over the place…a sprawling mess of sheer punk adrenalin.
Now imagine if Breau, Romany and co had been afforded proper exposure at the time. Surely rock history would have been rewritten and perhaps punk would never have happened at all. There would have been no need. Julian Cope wrote a genius review of it on his Head Heritage site around 15 years ago – it’s here (https://www.headheritage.co.uk/unsung/albumofthemonth/simply-saucer-cybords-revisited) and no-one has came close to it since, so there may be a chance you’ve tracked it down before now, but if it’s something you haven’t heard yet, then I envy you your first listen. This is the stuff you’ve been looking for. (JJ)

77. THE BEES – EVERY STEP’S A YES (2010)

Baroque Pop, Folk/ Folk-Rock, Indie / Alternative, Neo-Psychedelia, Psychedelic Folk

  If I said The Bees were masters of space and time, you may imagine them to sound something like Hawkwind. They don’t – but I suspect they have heard a fair amount of Hawkwind. In fact, they’ve probably listened to more records than just about any other band around – absorbing such an extensive array of influences from the popular music of the last 50 years that, listening to their albums, one finds oneself constantly attempting (usually unsuccessfully) to join the sonic dots. The Bees’ genius lies in their ability to sew beautiful new garments out of tired old rags. Some touchstones are immediately obvious – take for example the momentary snippet on ‘Change Can Happen’ where the phrasing and even lyrics are suddenly lifted from ‘That’s The Story Of My Life’ (Velvets’ 3rd) or consider how the fadeout of ‘Silver Line’ recalls the gassy euphoria of The Monkees’ ‘Teardrop City’. The Bees are masters of time because the spectrum of influences from which they have drawn – early Pink Floyd, Incredible String Band, Ravi Shankar, CSNY, Shack, roots reggae, Tropicalia et al – is not flaunted unashamedly, but is rather woven so inconspicuously into the band’s sound as to make it unmistakably their own. And against all the odds, their music sounds peculiarly modern.

‘Every Step’s A Yes’, their fourth LP, bears all the time honoured hallmarks of the ‘classic album’ – clocking in at 42 minutes (unusually short for the digital age), it’s ten beautifully crafted songs make for a brilliantly eclectic amalgam of sounds: slow ones and fast ones, toe tappers and ballads – characteristics of those indisputably great LPs of the past. It’s the kind of album which many of us middle-aged folk might find reassuringly familiar. In that sense it may be expedient to be a more mature listener (in years) to garner a true appreciation of it. And yet I am always struck by just how fresh and immediate it sounds. Sure, you’ll find nothing revolutionary here. When the album was released in October 2010, empires did not collapse, nor buildings fall. In fact, it’s probably fair to say, barely anyone noticed at all.

The Bees hail from the Isle of Wight. Perhaps that distance from the mainland has accentuated a sense of ‘otherness’. Because of that, their music betrays not the slightest hint of affectation. I imagine they are less tainted than more connected urban artists by the desire to be fashionable, to be part of a scene, whatever that means these days. They have utilised that space, that separate-ness to its full advantage. They use space in more creative ways too. For instance they recorded their debut album (the Mercury Music Prize-nominated) ‘Sunshine Hit Me’ in a small garden shed. The results – a kaleidescopic potpourri – virtually defied science. As if to emphasise their versatility, they recorded the next album at Abbey Road. The Bees demonstrate masterful control of the way sounds are arranged – the way the instruments move away from one another, at times creating beautifully eerie gaps (the keyboard on ‘Island Love Letter’, the strings on ‘Skill Of The Man’ for example).

‘Every Step’s A Yes’ has a relaxed energy (a ‘more mature’ sound, singer and multi-instrumentalist Paul Butler stated) while triumphantly showcasing their extraordinary palette. The buoyant opener ‘I Really Need Love’ has all the ravishing freshness of a sun-bursting early spring morning – he’s in love and the whole world’s going to know about it (“I wish that love will come/for each and every one/and I know I’m gonna get me some/in the shadow of the sun”) – with a simple breezy acoustic strum for accompaniment the whole thing then takes off in a swirling crescendo of sitars and soaring strings.

Alongside a brush of harp and crisp stinging guitar lines, ‘Winter Rose’ succumbs to a prime slice of horn-locking Lovers’ rock. In sharp contrast the stark folk-rock of ‘Silver Line’ could have slipped off the run out groove of Moby Grape’s debut album, while the controlled reverb in the panoramic production of ‘No More Excuses’ is astounding – one moment the guitars are like little ripples of water gently brushing the boats on the shore, the next they are twisting psych fizzballs worthy of The Chocolate Watchband or The Strawberry Alarm Clock. The arrangements here are exquisite (fiddle, harp, sitar, clavinette, harmonica, trumpet all chip in with a cameo appearance) but the production is never for a second over-bearing – somewhere between Syd’s Pink Floyd and Lennon twixt Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, it’s sublime harmonies soar effortlessly past steeples and peaks to scale the heavens. 

‘Tired Of Loving’ is a pretty if sorrowful plaint with ear melting West Coast harmonies. Then comes a spellbinding triple salvo: ‘Island Love Letter’ recalls the gorgeous ghostly lullabies of mid-period Incredible String Band or even Vashti Bunyan’s naively delicate charm. ‘Skill Of The Man’ has the sort of languid somnolence which Mick Head strove to perfect on the longer tracks from his superb Magical World Of The Strands LP, except that it is in every way superior. And warmer. And that’s a big compliment. Narcotic oblivion beckons with ‘Pressure Makes Me Lazy’, a blissed out potion of drifting guitars horns and strings. Glorious stuff. The album’s closer ‘Gaia’ (the nearest we have to a hit here), recorded with neo-folk wizard Devendra Banhart, is a rallying climax which abruptly brings to halt the ultra-soporific haze by means of a mariachi flavoured Spanish fiesta, calling to mind the band’s earlier flirtation with Latin sound, their cover of Os Mutantes’ ‘A Minha Menina’.

This is not some sub-Weller ‘worthy dad rock’ studiously indebted to rock tradition and empty posturing. The Bees are music lovers, first and foremost: there are no big egos involved, no lascivious tales of rock’n’roll excess. Instead, ‘Every Step’s A Yes’ is the sort of record you might imagine Syd Barrett, David Crosby or Skip Spence having made if they’d just held it together for a little while longer. Unlike those three however – it’s not a fragile album on the verge of disintegration, but rather an assured and confident work. It might well sound like the best album of 1968, or perhaps 1974. It was comfortably one of the finest in 2010, and if it sounded a little out of step to some at the time, that is only because perfectly balanced modern pop albums are a rare commodity these days. I urge you to get your hands on it – it is truly one to treasure. (JJ)

20. MATT JOHNSON – BURNING BLUE SOUL (1981)

Post-Punk

So much for British psychedelia: Syd’s Pink Floyd the only enduring body of work from a time when the top of the UK charts was ring-fenced by Englebert Humperdinck, the whole hippy dream lampooned mercilessly by the Small Faces and the best we could do aside from letting the mad genius play, was – apparently – Status Quo. Ok, there was The Beatles – who did it well, sometimes very well – and, ahem…’Their Satanic Majesties’. The odd hidden gem such as The Eyes’ ‘You’re Too Much’ or ‘I Must Be Mad’ by The Craig if you looked a little harder, but as for great albums…nothing much doing. Some might point to The Yardbirds or The Creation and of course there was the plain weirdness and wizardry of The Incredible String Band but arguably nothing besides that to take you to the aural outer limits.

The prevailing perception is that psychedelic music was an historical (largely US) phenomenon which materialised around 1965, peaked two years later on the West Coast, and gradually burnt out thereafter as the decade drew to its unhappy close. The long-playing record was its principal currency. But this perspective is a narrow one. When I first heard those Grateful Dead albums, the promise of their garish dayglo sleeves (so intriguing to a teenager with a 1960s fixation) was quickly nullified by the content within. So this is psychedelic? It seemed to me that the copious use of hallucinogenics led only to overinflated egos and particularly unadventurous sets of extended blues jams. This was clearly not the mind-expanding experience I had so enthusiastically sought. And I, in my youthful innocence, was looking for something which might distort my perception of reality just enough to take me to another world for 45 minutes or so…I persisted with my search and soon found an unlikely source.

The The’s debut album ‘Burning Blue Soul’ was released in 1981. For contractual reasons it was credited to its creator, Matt Johnson. He was 19 years old. Even now, few would classify it as a ‘psychedelic’ album. But let me go one step further. I contend that not only is BBS a great ‘psychedelic’ album but it is possibly the greatest ever British psychedelic long player. It is however a particular species of psychedelia, peculiar to a post-punk UK landscape, one brought about by a failing industrial economy, and an emerging nihilistic moral vacuum.
So what makes this record psychedelic? Perhaps let’s begin with a definition:

Psychedelic (adj): of or noting a mental state characterized by a profound sense of intensified sensory perception, sometimes accompanied by severe perceptual distortion and hallucinations and by extreme feelings of either euphoria or despair. (www.dictionary.com)

Nothing here about ’free love’ and getting it together (maan!) Matt Johnson was not the cheeriest of chaps in 1981. While he often claims that this, his debut album is full of wry humour, it frequently reads like a teenage suicide note.

‘I have no future for I’ve had no past
I’m just sittin’ here pullin’ arrows out of my heart.’
‘…See me dwindle, watch me dwell
In my cut out corner, in my plastic world.’ (‘Icing Up’)

‘Saturday night and I was lying in my bed
The window was open and raindrops were bouncing off my head
When it hit me like a thunderbolt
I don’t know nothing and I’m scared
That I never will.’ (‘Another Boy Drowning’)

100,000 people today were burned
I ‘felt a pang of concern
What are we waitin’ for
A message of hope from the pope?
I think he got shot as well.’ (‘Song Without An Ending’)

Johnson’s dogmatic pessimism – such a contrast to the ridiculously utopian optimism of the 1960s – seemed so beguiling to me when I first discovered this album as a 19-year old in the late 1980s. I was helplessly drawn to this strange otherworldly concoction as I stared gloomily at the bedroom ceiling. Today for some, its self-obsession and sixth form existential angst appear naiive and suggest the author was still a little wet behind the ears. But it is the music that really counts here, and for that we can forgive Johnson his lugubrious self-indulgence. Matt was concerned that people would find his lyrics too direct and worked tirelessly to bury the vocals deep in the mix, and this only serves to intensify the disorientation of the listener.

There are all kinds of things going on here: some have criticised the album’s ‘crude tape-splicing’, rather than appreciate it’s brilliant range of guitar and keyboard treatments. Consider for instance the inauspicious and relatively uneventful opener ‘Red Cinders in The Sand’ where a subterranean tribal drum pattern emerges from a piercing sonar tone before breaking briefly into a middle-eastern raga-type dirge. Then we have what sounds like large metal sheets being thrown unceremoniously onto a truck. A pulverising industrial beat emerges accompanied by shards of feedback and a droning tuba (?). It’s an unnerving sound reminiscent of Throbbing Gristle and pre-empting the kind of territory that would be explored by the likes of Test Dept. in the mid-1980s.Or listen to the feverishly voltaic spittle of guitars over a portentously motoric bass riff on ‘Out Of Control’, which could have served as a fitting soundtrack for the classic lost 1970s BBC TV series ‘The Changes’.

‘Song Without an Ending’ is truly astounding. A bass-driven hurdle over nervy jagged guitar lines with the kind of riff the likes of Hot Chip would sell their souls for. Listen to the swell of the surf-style reverb break in to the relentless groove at 1:14, followed swiftly by a paranoiac backwards guitar accompanied by an expansive keyboard part which, synthesised with the galloping clutter of beats manages somehow to make the song feel simultaneously claustrophobic and panoramic. Quite an achievement.

It’s not hard to detect the sleight of hand of Wire duo Gilbert and Lewis on a few of the album’s more abstract moments. They are at work on one of the oddest of all, ‘The River Flows East In Spring’ where the spiderlike guitar picking of the intro is abruptly assaulted by what sounds like a stampeding fanatical Maoist (?) chant.

And to top it all there is the aforementioned ‘Another Boy Drowning’ where Johnson’s palpable despair sits incongruously with perhaps the most gorgeous melody of his career. It’s written like it was his last day on earth – and perhaps he feared it might have been.

Recently, listening to one of my favourite albums from recent years, the justly celebrated Loud City Song by Julia Holter, I was struck by the profusion of ideas on the record. It’s what set it apart from the competition in 2013. A line from one of her songs seemed to encapsulate this: ‘There’s just no room for all our thoughts’ she purrs on This Is A True Heart. Well, although Loud City Song is a more cohesive and assured record than Burning Blue Soul, by comparison with the sheer volume of ideas on Johnson’s debut, it sounds positively anaemic. There is such a proliferation of mindbending moments on Burning Blue Soul that it’s hard to draw comparisons with other ‘out there’ records. It could be a spiritual cousin of ‘Metal Box’ and rivals the likes of ‘Starsailor’ for sheer inventiveness and ‘Sister Lovers’ as a capsule of psychological meltdown. But while flawed and in some ways a sprawling mess, Johnson dazzles us on BBS with his musical dexterity and with a kaleidoscopic palate, which unleashes a deluge of visionary dreamscapes. If psychedelic has anything to do with loss of ego (the ‘I’), then Burning Blue Soul is a spectacular failure. It’s narcissistic traits leave no room for doubt on that front. But if we go by the definition above – while there may be only sporadically euphoric moments, the songs on his debut album take us on those profound and intense hallucinatory journeys from which our fragile minds will never fully recover…(JJ)