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

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)