29. TIM BUCKLEY – STARSAILOR (1970)

Avant-Garde, Experimental, Folk/ Folk-Rock, Greatest Records, Jazz Rock, Singer-Songwriter

Oblivion carries me on his shoulder: Beyond the suns I speak and circuits shiver” (‘Starsailor’)

It might sound like baloney to claim that Starsailor killed Tim Buckley, but in his resoluteness to go as far with the voice as ‘Trane went with the horn, he came undone. The culmination of this intrepid expedition to the outer limits was a rejection by his audience and a subsequent descent into psychological chaos, exacerbated by spiralling alcohol and (ultimately fatal) drug abuse.

Starsailor has to be understood in the context of Tim’s recording a career. If you are unfamiliar with his work it would be imprudent to begin here. Having said that, much has been written about Tim’s music, some of which is amongst the best rock literature (for example Max Bell’s NME retrospective (http://timbuckley.net/articles/nme-1979.shtml) and there are even more insightful accounts, such as Chronicle Of A Starsailor by Lee Underwood, Tim’s friend, lead guitarist and along with Larry Beckett, closest musical confidante. (http://www.timbuckley.com/tim-buckley-chronicle-of-a-starsailor/

I suggest you read both of these if you get the opportunity. Underwood captures with particularly incisive brevity Buckley’s remarkable musical odyssey:

“I watched him grow from a Bambi-eyed littleboy poet prattling about paper hearts and Valentines, into a hurricane-haired rock and roller, into a madman/genius improvisational vocalist who blew all the pups away, and finally into a lowdown, roadhouse, sex-thumping stomper who injected steam and blood and juice into an r&b music nobody cared about.”

And that really just about sums up Tim’s development as an artist. Starsailor sits as the pivotal moment in a riveting musical journey which has few parallels in the history of rock. Chronologically, it comes exactly half way through Tim’s recording career (1970)  – despite being album number six of nine – and marks the peak of an assurgent creative curve from his  self-titled 1966 debut onwards. After Starsailor, musical compromise set in and the artistic merit of his recordings gradually deteriorated along with his mental well-being.

The album’s most famous track ‘Song To The Siren’ was successfully resurrected by This Mortal Coil in 1983, sung by Elizabeth Fraser. [Elizabeth of course later had an intense personal relationship with Tim’s son Jeff whose short life bore an eerily tragic resemblance to his father’s]  Buckley’s original is pitch perfect: in the context of the album itself you might say delicate, restrained, and along with the charming Parisian caress of ‘Moulin Rouge’, certainly unrepresentative of the bulk of its content.

Many of Tim’s performances on Starsailor beggar belief, understandably inviting those ‘operatic vocal gymnastics / acrobatics’ descriptions which characterise reviews of the album. But this is over-simplistic journalism. After all, acrobats and gymnasts spend years perfecting rigidly complex routines. The reality for Tim was somewhat different. That’s not to say the musical performances here lack discipline. Far from it, but, liberated from the constraints of the rock idiom, head swollen with Stockhausen, Monk, Mingus, Roland Kirk, Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman, he felt compelled to reach further with his voice than anyone had ever gone, and did so with an unbridled and ecstatic inventiveness. 

It is clear from the outset that there are no rigid routines here. No, this is going to be a challenging listen. ‘Come Here Woman’ is a staggeringly ambitious calling card. It begins an ends with an avant-jazz skulk, redolent of the territory explored on his previous proper album Lorca. After the intro, suddenly the song leaps to life with Lee’s dissonantly funky guitar and Tim’s off key bawling. Moments later the skittish electric piano suggests we could be listening to Bitches Brew. It’s complex. It’s all over the place. It’s a fantastic start…

On the brilliant ‘Monterey’ Tim sounds like a lustily crazed chimpanzee who has broken into a Magic Band recording session and wrestled the mic from the good Captain, his yelps,warbles and shrieks providing a bountiful exhibition of his vocal dexterity.

Side Two takes us to rock’s outer limits. ‘Jungle Fire’s moody improvisational beginning is abruptly brought to a close by Buckley’s ludicrously unhinged “deep insi-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-de” Tarzan yodel. What follows next is magnificent: an accelerating riff of earthy funk guitar amidst a blizzard of deranged wails and howls.I picture those kids shaking their hair to the Stones at Hyde Park in ’69 and imagine how much further they would have gone to a soundtrack like this.

The title track is extraordinary, an abstract assemblage of 16 vocal tracks laid over one another to create something that seems to take us into the realm of metaphysics…even as it’s last few notes fade, nothing can prepare us for the headlong rush of the introduction to ‘The Healing Festival’ which is genuinely shocking – goosebumps not only stand to attention but fly off my back in fright, seeking refuge from Buckley’s hair-raising vocal assault, the  aural equivalent of the mass slaughter of 10,000 dolphins. The horns, courtesy Bunk and Buzz Gardner from The Mothers Of Invention are wild and free yet still struggle to keep pace with Tim’s five and a half octave vocal range.

The curtain comes down with ‘Down By The Borderline’ where flugelhorn gives way to the relatively more stoic rhythms that would anticipate the earthy soul of his next album Greetings From LA. A good album that, but by then Buckley had descended from the mountain, reclothed himself in flesh and bone and shifted his energies to the lower half of his body. A brief confused and sweaty future would follow, but he had already taken rock music as far as it could go. 

PostScript: A Personal Footnote

[Misleading album sleeve #429] As a teenager, I had heard of Tim Buckley – his album Goodbye & Hello was referenced as the only one worthy of note in most rock music encyclopaedias, although I had recently spotted an entry for Starsailor in a Critics’ Top 100 Albums book (edited by Paul Gambaccini). I flicked past Starsailor onto the album featured on the next page, which if I recall correctly may have been Private Dancer by Tina Turner!

Instead, my introduction to Tim’s music came while browsing the A-Z in Glasgow’s Virgin Records in February 1987. I had a £10 note in my pocket and back then this was enough to buy two, three, maybe even if one was canny enough, four albums. I was keen to make that £10 go as far as possible before inadvertently stumbling upon a US import of Tim’s Happy Sad. It was priced at a prohibitive £8.99, but the picture on the back of the sleeve was of the coolest man I had ever seen. There were only six tracks, which varied in duration from 2 to 12 minutes. Those  Bowie and Byrds albums would have to wait a bit longer. I simply had to have this. As a devotee of Astral Weeks I was naturally captivated by the music – a bewitching spell of jazz-folk reverie – which matched perfectly the image on the reverse of the sleeve with its hazy forest sunlight bursting through Tim’s Dionysian locks.

 

I returned to the book store once again to gaze at the picture of ‘Starsailor’. Nah, I thought, he looks too happy here – this must have been the contractual obligation album. Its juxtaposition, next to ‘Private Dancer’ did little to allay those concerns. Little did I know at the time that the album would go down in history as one of rock music’s great acts of commercial suicide. (JJ)

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22. THE FALL – DRAGNET (1979) / (A) THE FALL – SLATES (1981)

Greatest Records, Indie / Alternative, Post-Punk, Punk Rock

DRAGNET

It might seem odd to talk about a departure in the Fall’s sound but if there ever was such a moment, it came with Dragnet. Yvonne Pawlett had gone through the exit, on possibly the last occasion before the hinges needed fixed, dragging behind her the endearingly spooky organ that had been as central to their early sound as Tony Book had been to Manchester City a decade earlier.

Enter Craig Scanlon and Paul Hanley, neither of whom could ever be described as lieutenants to Mark E Smith- could anyone?- but who, as dramatically outlined in Hanley’s memoir The Big Midweek, stayed for the best part of two decades as the fist-close witnesses, and unceasingly compelling soundtrackers of, Smith’s, well, ownership of a band that previously borne a vague resemblance to a democracy.

It still (a word that always recurs in Fall reviews) stands as one of their most gripping statements, though I’m quite aware Smith is unlikely to take kindly to such a view about a record made as long ago as 1979. A Figure Walks is as terrifying as you’d expect a song about stalking to be and, along with Muzorewi’s Daughter, shows that tom-tom thunder is possibly the most thrilling sound yet discovered by scientists. They had never yet been so downright tuneful as they are on Your Heart Out and Flat Of Angles, despite reliably unsettling lyrics (“Then they take your heart out/ With a sharp knife, it wasn’t fake”) nor as plain brutal as on Spectre Vs Rector, which served notice that this band were probably not in music to make money and certainly weren’t in it to make friends. Before The Moon Falls sounds like the title of a lovely Al Bowlly-crooned ballad from somewhere around 1932. It isn’t. It’s classic Fall.

And what’s classic Fall? It would be more than slightly churlish to say that if you have to ask, you’ll never understand, so one listen to this song – and this album – should give you pretty shrewd idea. (PG)

SLATES

If I were allowed but one Fall record in my collection I would probably choose Slates. This primordial slab of Salford sludge finds MES at his most cryptically acerbic and blisteringly bewildering and the band making a glorious amphetamine-fuelled racket.

Slates was released in an unusual 10″ format, two years into Thatcher’s premiership at the height of the Brixton Riots of April 1981. It clocks in at a little over 22 minutes. In fact, it’s safer to say that it’s an EP rather than an LP, but with 6 tracks it’s just unclear enough to ignite a discussion on the matter.

The first half kicks off with Middle Mass. Musically, a Velvets-y organ drone breaking into a jaunty Beefheartian guitar break, it is ostensibly a yarn about the drinking habits of football fans during the close season; while others have divined a tirade about Marc Riley (‘The boy is like a tape loop’). More likely the kicking is aimed at Mark’s favourite target the middle classes themselves. Just quite what Mark is getting at with his repeated declaration that ‘The Wermacht never got in here’ is anyone’s guess.

‘An Older Lover etc’ is probably about… well, his older lover (11 years older) at the time, Kay Carroll. Here his cerebral ponderings are rawly laid bare. It’s accompanied by one of those spookily amateurish guitar rumbles, like the Magic Band tuning up, and is punctuated by Mark’s indignant yelps…’Dr. Annabel Lies’ – she being the mythical agony aunt for Mark’s self therapy session

I must have listened to Prole Art Threat around 100 times but I’m none the wiser – one can surmise it has something to do with the surveillance or suppression of working class culture in Thatcher’s new Britain. Or is it? For a more extensive and insightful analysis I refer you to Taylor Parkes’ superb piece in the Quietus (http://thequietus.com/articles/03925-the-fall-and-mark-e-smith-as-a-narrative-lyric-writer) Musically, a magnificent Fall moment – driven by one of those ferocious cyclical riffs, rising, falling, FALL-ing – like only The Fall can – Hanley and Scanlon brutalising their collective ten strings, the groove intermittently suspended by the guitar squealing in protest at its ill treatment. The band were rarely if ever, tighter than on this track – every note sounds both harsh and wild and yet is delivered with military precision.

Mark sounds buoyant on Fit & Working Again, back observing the world around him after an unexplained layoff? For me it’s the slightest musical and lyrical achievement here, Mark chopping away on a solitary piano key over a skiffle-like rockabilly rhythm. But that only makes the final twosome sound even more spectacular.

A million words have been spent attempting to decode and deconstruct The Fall’s ‘definitive rant’ – who or what exactly are the Slags, Slates etc’ of the title? Accountants in suits, the pub bore, plagiarists, ‘dead publisher’s sons, material hardship pawns, The Beat, Wah! Heat – male slags…?’ I’ve even read some analysts identify the slates as vinyl records, particularly 7 inch reggae singles? To be honest one can only ‘have a bleedin’ guess.’ I am sure MES must get a kick out of reading ‘academic male slags’ trying to piece together his cryptic declamations. And their vain attempts no doubt conveniently provide him with useful material for his next rant. So forget the mystery of the subject matter and celebrate instead the vigorous kick in the gonads provided by the huge two chord guitar riff that – combined with Steve Hanley’s bowel bursting bass intro, never seems to relent. It makes for one of the greatest ever Fall tracks, enhanced further by Mark’s immortal interjection to the boys: ‘don’t start improvising for God’s sake’ – demonstrating both a natural flair for tyranny and a sensitive ear for musical purity. Bloody marvellous!

‘Leave The Capitol’ provides a fitting climax. It’s wiry and punchy and bouncily infectious in equal measure, as Mark’s invective spills over in this Arthur Machen inspired tirade at old ‘Lahndan Tahn, (‘this f-ing dump’) where he exhorts himself to ‘Exit this Roman Shell!!’ Holed up in his hotel room where the ‘maids smile in unison’ and where ‘the beds are too clean’ and the water ‘poisonous’ – you can just see him there can’t you? Pining desperately to return north to his fags’n’beer an’ a bit of proper culture…God Bless him!

Selecting one album from The Fall’s extensive repertoire is not a simple task. And the one I’ve picked is not even an album. But with prodigious economy, Slates – more than any other – is a one stop distillation of the Fall sound. Reasonable people may argue with this choice, but perhaps it would be most fitting to let the children of the Wermacht offer the final word on the matter. See below: (JJ)