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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

John Lennon: Life With The Lions

JOHN LENNON: LIFE WITH THE LIONS (1969)

1) Cambridge 1969; 2) No Bed For Beatle John; 3) Baby's Heartbeat; 4) Two Minutes Silence; 5) Radio Play; 6*) Song For John; 7*) Mulberry.

General verdict: Curious as an audio document, controversial as a piece of art, useless as a listening experience.

Although this record is subtitled Unfinished Music No. 2, implying a thematic unity with the No. 1 of Two Virgins, the goals of the two are actually quite distinct. Two Virgins was simply a spontaneous gesture of defiance; by the time John and Yoko got ready to produce a second record, they seem to have worked out an explicit purpose — make a series of audio-documents that would trace their life together, a life now ripe with adventure, excitement, sociopolitical activity (as the Stooges put it succinctly about 1969 — "another year for me and you, another year with nothing to do"), and all sorts of stuff that John could have never gotten from his previous wife (Paul McCartney). Consequently, Life With The Lions (apparently a pun on the British sitcom Life With The Lyons, but also a nifty way to self-aggrandize) is... well, not listenable as such, but at least, er, uhm, acquaintable, and is a good travel companion if you want to learn more details about ʽThe Ballad Of John And Yokoʼ, or are busy reading one of Lennon's biographies.

Granted, I have only ever been able once to sit through the entirety of ʽCambridge 1969ʼ, which is essentially Two Virgins taken to the stage — twenty-six minutes of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's revenge on decadent Western society, exacted March 2, 1969, before a living and breathing audience that largely consisted of condemned students at the University of Cambridge. Yoko is screaming, John is producing mountains of feedback that would put Lou Reed to shame, and later on, a couple jazz musicians, including the well-known avantgarde saxophonist John Tchicai, join them because apparently they had nothing better to do. The best I can say about this piece is that it is at least better recorded than Two Virgins, and even has faint hints of thematic development... well, at least the screaming gets more intense towards the end. As a document, though, it is important — marking the beginning of John and Yoko as a public live act, and laying the ground for the subsequent creation of the Plastic Ono Band.

The second side of the album brings in diversity. ʽNo Bed For Beatle Johnʼ is even marginally hilarious — featuring John and Yoko chanting press clippings about themselves from their suite in Queen Charlotte's Hospital. ʽBaby's Heartbeatʼ is a recording of the palpitations of Yoko's miscarried child. ʽTwo Minutes Silenceʼ is, understandably, a tribute to Cage. And ʽRadio Playʼ features twelve minutes of toying and tampering with radio knobs, as John makes additional phone calls in the background and life goes on as usual. Now, ain't that some major diversity we got going over here? Theater, nature sounds, musique concrète, industrial?...

Maybe the biggest problem was that, unlike Two Virgins, Life With The Lions no longer had the chance to bring on true shock value. Its sleeve was far more conventional, its (anti-)musical content was no longer surprising, and it did not even begin to match the US sales of its pre­decessor, because, well, the record buyers already knew far more about John and Yoko than they ever wanted to know. The fact that a special sub-label of Apple, Zapple Records, was set up to manufacture and promote albums like those never helped anybody either (in a few months, Allen Klein would come into the business and, as befits a solid businessman, stamp out all that non­sense anyway). But, once again, it is kind of fun to look back at it half a century later, just to remember through how much crazy stuff these guys were ripping at the time. As a work of modern art, Life With The Lions will probably not find a lot of support even among those who pretend to be able to distinguish good modern art from bad modern art. But as a document, it does a nice job of bringing that era, already so distant, back to life for a bit — even if I still prefer to do it through 15-second snippets of each track rather than go for suicidal overkill.

Once again, the CD reissue somewhat naïvely tries to «musicalize» proceedings, by throwing on the very brief ʽSong For Johnʼ (another ʽJuliaʼ-type song — apparently, John was unwilling to lend more than one chord sequence to anything Yoko was trying to co-write at the time) and the 9-minute freakout ʽMulberryʼ, where, instead of feedback, John goes apeshit on acoustic slide, which is at least a more novel approach. However, this time the additions do not even give the impression of a proper coda; they simply add to the overall rag-taggy nature of the entire experience.

John Lennon: Two Virgins

JOHN LENNON: TWO VIRGINS (1968)

1) Two Virgins No. 1; 2) Together; 3) Two Virgins No. 2; 4) Two Virgins No. 3; 5) Two Virgins No. 4; 6) Two Virgins No. 5; 7) Two Virgins No. 6; 8) Hushabye Hushabye; 9) Two Virgins No. 7; 10) Two Virgins No. 8; 11) Two Virgins No. 9; 12) Two Virgins No. 10; 13*) Remember Love.

General verdict: Some records are better admired than heard. And I mean mentally, not visually.

It is actually quite hard to find the proper tone in which to discuss this record. The two most likely candidates are Vicious Sneer (of the «crazyass egomaniac» or «witchy woman» variety), particularly if you play the part of the simple-minded Average Joe or the self-righteous Bullshit Fighter; and Respectful Homage (of the «who gives you the right to decide what is art and what is not?» variety), particularly if you play the part of the Progressively Open-Minded Intellectual. Years ago, I'd probably be happy enough to take the Sneer and use it to nuke the hell out of the Open-Minded Intellectual. But today, I find this all too boring and predictable. It is all too easy to write off Two Virgins — or any other early experimental release on Lennon's part — as stupid crap. On the other hand, trying to go the other way and fit it into some equally stupid conception of Art is no fun, either. Or maybe it is fun, but it's highly pointless fun.

I think it is futile to deny that Two Virgins, as a phenomenon worthy of our attention, only exists within the general framework of the history of The Beatles — but within that framework, it carries quite a bit of importance. If we exclude soundtracks as a special type of affair (leaving out George's Wonderwall Music), Two Virgins were the first proper solo project by any Beatle. The album marked the existence of a special spiritual — and, of course, physical — union between John and Yoko. And the album took John's rebel image up a few notches: the rowdy Beatle was always the most unpredictable of them all, but Two Virgins was his biggest and harshest slap-in-the-face to public taste up to date. Whatever one thinks, even given John's near-Godlike status around the world in 1968, doing something like this was a bold risk, and a six-month delay in release over the protests of the other Beatles, most notably Paul, was understandable.

We all know what this record contains — the results of a spontaneous «experimental» recording session that John and Yoko held on May 19, 1968, at John's house in Surrey (with Cynthia happily out of the way), before allegedly making love for the very first time (the photo, apparent­ly, was taken several months later, by which time they should have grown accustomed to the sight of each other's privates). Describing, decoding, evaluating, or philosophizing over these results is a pointless waste of time: where something like ʽRevolution No. 9ʼ is at least a well thought-out sonic collage that tells a story of sorts, Two Virgins just throws together some tape loops that John had around the house and puts Yoko's talking, singing, screeching, and kitten torturing on top of them. On that night, they simply allowed themselves to behave like curious 12-year olds, suddenly having access to their parents' recording equipment — then, by morning, they hit the age of consent, and signed the death warrant for The Beatles in the process.

Was it egotistic and arrogant to actually have this shit packaged, distributed, and sold to poor unsuspecting customers (apparently, the album managed to sell about 25,000 copies in the US — though it was never certified how many people bought it for the musical content and how many merely wanted to make certain if their dick was bigger than John's)? This is a moral question that does not have a certain answer. In a way, the very idea of an album like this — random, barely listenable noise wrapped in an openly offensive sleeve — is appealing: there is no precedent, not in the Sixties at least, for an artist of such high stature as John Lennon making such a defiant gesture. And, after all, it's not as if he was forcing the record down anybody's throat. There must have been a bit of a mean streak in his intentions — clearly, people were going to buy Two Virgins just because it had John's name attached to it, but perhaps he also regarded this gesture as a nasty medicine against fanboyism, and that attitude, too, is justified in a renegade sort of way.

Having gotten all that out of the system, I must safely state, though, that while over the years I have changed my mind about many things, certain antipathies remain as constant as the speed of light, and one of them is the vocal art of Yoko Ono, allegedly grounded in traditional Japanese practices, but actually having very little in common with those particular traditional Japanese practices with which I have had the honor to become acquainted. I do believe that Yoko is in possession of a very special gift: not everybody has the range of vocal frequencies required to repeatedly drive a listener up the wall. Each time the bleating starts, I find myself ready to under­stand the opinions of those who still believe that the woman was an evil witch who had to brew poor John a really strong pot to put him under her spell. Then again, it must have been precisely in John's character to pick out somebody like Yoko — so completely extraordinary, an almost alien presence on Earth, yet at the same time more agreeable and, as it turned out, more amenable to a reasonable family life than somebody like, say, Anita Pallenberg.

Anyway: the only reason to listen to Two Virgins in its entirety is if you have made a noble vow to hear every fart officially recorded by any of The Beatles. If you have not, a thirty-second sample from YouTube or whatever is fully sufficient to give you a comprehensive understanding of what the record is about. Owning the album, however, is a must for any respectable music lover — at least it makes for a somewhat classier wall decoration than your collection of Cannibal Corpse sleeves, although Hieronymus Bosch would probably have a hard time deciding between the two. Additionally, if full frontal is not for you, you can turn it to the other side and alternate between contemplating the two lovers' somewhat shabby asses and one of the most enigmatic quotations ever credited to Paul McCartney ("When two great Saints meet it is a humbling experience. The long battles to prove he was a Saint" — allegedly, something randomly extracted from a copy of Sunday Express, but who can prove this now?).

Odd enough, the CD reissue of the album (yes, somebody actually remastered this stuff) throws on a bonus track: ʽRemember Loveʼ, Yoko's B-side to ʽGive Peace A Chanceʼ, a half-baked acoustic ballad that has John doing the same picking style he used for ʽDear Prudenceʼ, ʽJuliaʼ, and, later, ʽSun Kingʼ (in fact, the concluding acoustic flourish here is precisely the same as used on ʽSun Kingʼ). The decision to throw on a piece of actual music at the end is a bit jarring, as if the CD buyer was earning a right to a brief bit of redemption after having just endured half an hour of aural boredom / torture. On the other hand, it might just be a subtle hint so that we our­selves would never forget that behind all the screeching, behind all the silly loops and feedback, behind the provocation, there was, you know, love. In that way, ʽRemember Loveʼ would fulfill the same calm-after-the-storm function that ʽGood Nightʼ fulfills for ʽRevolution No. 9ʼ. With the appropriate corrections — ʽTwo Virginsʼ has nothing on ʽRevolution No. 9ʼ, and ʽRemember Loveʼ, with its completely redundant nature, has nothing on ʽGood Nightʼ.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Marvin Gaye: Recorded Live On Stage

MARVIN GAYE: RECORDED LIVE ON STAGE (1963)

1) Stubborn Kind Of Fellow; 2) One Of These Days; 3) Mo Jo Hanna; 4) The Days Of Wine And Roses; 5) Pride And Joy; 6) Hitch Hike; 7) Get My Hands On Some Lovin'; 8) You Are My Sunshine.

General verdict: Solid, but ultimately redundant, party-level entertainment.

I would presume that this record mainly exists because of James Brown's Live At The Apollo, whose success four months prior to the release of Marvin's first live experience must have con­vinced labels that demand for hot 'n' spontaneous live recreations of studio hits was a real thing. (RCA had almost managed to trump them all, recording Sam Cooke at the Harlem Square Club as early as January '63 — but then they were too afraid to release the results, shelving the album for more than two decades). Considering that Marvin suffered from stage fright and was never known as a particularly gifted and inventive stage performer, there is no other explanation than Motown somehow desperately pining for their own answer to the hardest workin' man in show business. After all, James Brown is a dancer first and foremost, and dancing is hardly relevant when we're talking live albums, right?

The good news is that even if Marvin did have stage fright, he never showed it much on that night when he gave the show in question at the Regal Theater in Chicago — comforted, perhaps, by the friendly support of Martha & The Vandellas and the positive response from the audience. The bad news is that his composure and self-confidence were sufficient for successfully recreating the excitement and melodicity of the original hit singles, and little else: the only reason somebody could favor these renditions of ʽStubborn Kind Of Fellowʼ, ʽHitch Hikeʼ, and ʽPride And Joyʼ over the originals are the whoops and wows of the enthralled listeners — provided they are not overdubbed (which could also be possible), there is a friendly and cheerful party atmosphere here that could be appropriate for... well, a party, I guess. But I would not go as far as to suggest a deep bonding between Marvin and the audience — certainly not on the shamanistic level of James Brown, as his goading of the charmed teens into action during the final moments of ʽStubborn Kind Of Fellowʼ sounds just a wee bit formalistic.

In terms of new material, there has to be at least one throwback to Soulful Moods, in the guise of ʽThe Days Of Wine And Rosesʼ (no better or worse than any of Gaye's other stabs at the G.A.S.); at least one ritualistic bluesy romp, in the guise of ʽMo Jo Hannaʼ, a long and mildly funny, but not very memorable, groove (essentially, I think, a missed chance at really suggestive interplay between the singer and his sexy backups); and at least one tribute to Ray Charles — the show ends with ʽYou Are My Sunshineʼ done Ray-style and The Vandellas impersonating The Raelettes. A decent enough impersonation, but only an impersonation nonetheless.

The record is almost surprisingly short — clocking in at about 26 minutes — but this was probably the average length of a Marvin Gaye performance at the time anyway, what with most shows being multi-artist revues and all; as such, it is nice to have it surviving as an authentic document, but, unfortunately, Brown's and Cooke's performances from the same year still blow it out of the water. Not for a second does Marvin sound truly bad or unconvincing, but the best live albums from the R&B / soul department are ecstatic quasi-religious rituals, and Gaye was always much too restrained to allow himself to head off straight into the stratosphere.

Marvin Gaye: That Stubborn Kinda' Fellow

MARVIN GAYE: THAT STUBBORN KINDA' FELLOW (1962)

1) Stubborn Kind Of Fellow; 2) Pride And Joy; 3) Hitch Hike; 4) Got To Get My Hands On Some Lovin'; 5) Wherever I Lay My Hat; 6) Soldier's Plea; 7) It Hurt Me Too; 8) Taking My Time; 9) Hello There Angel; 10) I'm Yours, You're Mine.

General verdict: Three great singles in a pool of personal charisma, with delicious Vandella coating on top.

Perhaps not so stubborn after all: dismayed by his failure as an attractive modern day interpreter of Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, Marvin Gaye had no choice but to give up and start writing and singing «simplistic» love songs for teenage audiences — the right choice, as it turned out. Most of the songs on this LP, coming fresh on the heels of his two big chart successes (title track and ʽHitch Hikeʼ), are co-written by Marvin himself and one or two different Motown professionals (most commonly Mickey Stevenson and/or George Gordy), and although it is impossible to tell who contributes what, I would guess that Marvin is responsible for the «soul» of the songs, whereas the professionals get busy packing them into catchy formats — a damn good balance that, if we are allowed to run a bit ahead, would be somewhat shattered in the future, once Marvin had wrestled complete creative freedom from his superiors.

It is difficult to explain — difficult to understand, even — what exactly makes Gaye's early successes fundamentally, or even superficially, different from the «average goodness» of contem­porary Motown product. Marvin was certainly far from the only great singer on the label (Smokie Robinson? Eddie Holland?), though arguably the most passionately energetic; and catchy or not, the tunes are hardly free from the general shackles of the pop-meets-R&B formula. Yet there is an urban legend about Phil Spector losing control of his car in excitement when he first heard ʽStubborn Kind Of Fellowʼ over the radio — and he'd already been quite an established figure in the production business at the time. Perhaps he was just jealous that somebody else had finally managed to satisfy his gold standard for aural excitement. But how?

One major circumstance, if I am getting this right, is that somehow, in those early days at least, Marvin's singing style worked much better as part of a call-and-response session than directly on its own: small wonder that in the upcoming years, he'd be having some of his biggest successes with duet albums (Mary Wells, Kim Weston, and particularly Tammi Terrell). On ʽStubborn Kind Of Fellowʼ, he is backed by the earliest and freshest incarnation of Martha & The Vandellas (still known as The Del-Phis) — and «backed» is an understatement, since their participation on the song is every bit as strongly emphasized, even if it is largely restricted to ooh-wows, yeah-yeah-yeahs, and parrot-echoing some of Gaye's lines. Their interaction creates an atmosphere of playful seductiveness — neither a polite, gallant, sentimental romance, nor a showcase of cocky sexual bravado, but rather something in between: the best type of love song for those who wish to avoid excessive sugar-sweetness, yet do not want to limit themselves to pure animal lust, either. From a certain point view, those "say yeah yeah yeah, say yeah yeah yeah"'s do precisely the same thing for the American (or African-American, whatever) pop market as "she loves you yeah yeah yeah" did for the British one — in a slightly less frenzied, more relaxed manner, but still far more vivacious than the honey-mouthed Smokey Robinson's.

It does not hurt, either, that occasionally these songs were equipped with unforgettable musical moves — like that knock-on-the-door rousing pattern that opens and guides ʽHitch Hikeʼ, whose excitement would penetrate all the way to New York's underground five years later (when Lou Reed nabbed it for the purposes of his own sexual provocations with ʽThere She Goes Againʼ). Message-wise, it repeats the intentions of ʽStubborn Kind Of Fellowʼ all over again ("I've got to find that girl if I have to hitch hike 'round the world"), but music-wise, it builds up even higher upon that playful vibe, and now The Vandellas are all but teasing the lead singer, always on the horizon but steadily out of immediate reach with their parrot-echoing. (One reason why, in this particular case, The Rolling Stones could not outdo the original: they had to supply the backing vocals themselves, and, well, let's just put it mildly that they weren't... umm, girly enough to nail it. For that matter, Martha and The Vandellas' own version was fatally flawed as well, because... well, goddammit it, it's a 100% heterosexual song anyway).

Completing the holy trinity of «Marvin and The Vandellas» is ʽPride And Joyʼ, an even bigger commercial success on which the lead singer's stubborn hitch-hike is finally rewarded, as symbo­lized by the song's forceful blues-rock stomp (is it a coincidence that pretty much the same stomp would later also be selected by Stevie Ray Vaughan for his own ʽPride And Joyʼ, or is it just something that goes naturally and predictably with feelings of pride and joy?). It's fun, but the stomp itself is not nearly as impressive as the main melodic hook of Marvin's fourth great single, one that, unfortunately, came out a little too late to be included on the album, and somehow fell through the LP cracks in the process — but for every possible reason, ʽCan I Get A Witnessʼ should necessarily be a bonus track on every reasonable edition on this album. Earl Van Dyke's twin-chord-based piano riff is the perfect minimalist setting, and Marvin's obsessed, broken-up, yet interminable rant where it is barely possible to distinguish between verse, bridge, and chorus still remains one of the most brilliantly constructed melodic monologues in the history of R&B. On this song, he is backed by Holland-Dozier-Holland and The Supremes instead of The Vandellas, but here what matters is the rapid-fire monologue delivery, not so much the interplay (which makes perfect sense: this is one rant that should be delivered outside the immediate presence of your partner), and this is also why The Stones had their own field day with the song, whose spirit was perfectly re-conveyed by the young Mick Jagger in his own way.

It should not be surprising that most of the other songs do not rise to the level of the big singles, since, at best, they recycle the style of the singles with weaker hooks (ʽGet My Hands On Some Lovin'ʼ), and at worst, put Marvin into smooth and sentimental Miracles territory, which happens to be more questionable in general and somewhat redundant for us listeners in particular — we already have one Smokey Robinson, why should we need another one on songs like ʽHello There Angelʼ? Occasional experiments like ʽSoldier's Pleaʼ, set to the somber melody of a slow military march, are nice, but you could have such stuff from Elvis without bothering to recapture it from Motown. Yet this is precisely what is to be expected from the era: throughout the Sixties, Marvin Gaye would largely remain a «singles artist» like most of his brothers and sisters in Motown arms, and most of these LPs may only be judged by the quality and quantity of the guiding missiles. Personally, I'd say that three out of ten — considering the fairly pleasant and generally tasteful nature of the remaining filler — is fairly impressive.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Sufjan Stevens: A Sun Came

SUFJAN STEVENS: A SUN CAME (2000)

1) We Are What You Say; 2) A Winner Needs A Wand; 3) Rake; 4) Siamese Twins; 5) Demetrius; 6) Dumb I Sound; 7) Wordsworth's Ridge; 8) Belly Button; 9) Rice Pudding; 10) A Loverless Bed (Without Remission); 11) Godzuki; 12) Super Sexy Woman; 13) The Oracle Said Wander; 14) Happy Birthday; 15) Jason; 16) Kill; 17) Ya Leil; 18) A Sun Came; 19) Satan's Saxophones; 20) Joy! Joy! Joy!; 21) You Are The Rake.

General verdict: Pleasant, inoffensive muzak to get by on. Lazy summer morning for perfect configuration.

First and foremost, let us get this bias out: it is hard for me to tolerate artists who produce frickin' eighty-minute albums on a regular basis. Eighty minutes — this is only ten minutes shorter than the entire White Album, and if you are just one lonesome singer-songwriter and not, say, a multi-headed mastodon like Chicago, you have to be one hell of a musical titan to pull it off successfully. Is Sufjan Stevens that kind of titan, or is it simply that he is really called Sufjan which gives him that kind of confidence?

We will try to answer this question gradually and tolerantly, fully understanding that his first record, A Sun Came, released in 2000 on his own independent label Asthmatic Kitty (already a factor in his favor — how can you have anything against asthmatic kitties?), was exactly that — a first record. However, it was already eighty minutes long, with 18 songs and three brief spoken links on it, and has therefore to be taken seriously, as an ambitious statement from an aspiring young artist. In fact, other than length, it already has many of the elements that would charac­terize Sufjan's «mature» work: eclecticism, prettiness, psychedelia, and the man's usage of his voice as an «undercurrent» rather than an outstanding instrument. Oh, and multi-instrumentalism, of course, as Stevens is credited for playing more than 20 different instruments here, probably breaking any records set by Paul McCartney, Roy Wood, Prince, or any other of those suckers.

On the other hand, at this point there is still relatively little to distinguish the results from the average... well, let's say the average art-pop representative of the flourishing indie community. Some of these songs sound close to Neutral Milk Hotel, some to Wilco, some to Flaming Lips, and others to a hundred different acts by Nineties' heroes. Word of the day is diversity: if there is one underlying theme to the album, it is in its mixture of Western, Eastern, modern, and medieval elements, as Sufjan is bravely attempting to condense space and time to the density of one laser disc. Had the project been truly successful, an eighty-minute running time might have been fully welcome. Unfortunately, since it is a project by Sufjan Stevens, it has a very odd model of success built into it, to put it mildly.

In a way, the very first song on the very first Sufjan Stevens album already hints at everything that is good and bad about the man, despite, naturally, not being typical of his output as a whole. A sympathetic Celtic groove, wound in a thick rope of banjo, acoustic guitar, woodwinds, and God knows what else, it takes you on a soft, careful, elegant, yet not particularly exciting merry-go-round — looped for over five minutes without an explicit reason; the addition of still another layer of instruments halfway through gives the illusion of a monumental crescendo, but essen­tially it's just an extra bunch of stoned fairies wobbling around the sacred stones. The lyrics toy with all sorts of religious imagery without ever getting across any specific points, and they are delivered in Sufjan's nice, windy, butter-melting voice — according, I guess, to his strict principle that a truly spiritual singer should be, um, felt rather than heard. The result, for me, is meandering: this is neither authentic Celtic folk, nor truly interesting Celtic-based art-folk or whatever. Super­ficially, it is pretty, well-arranged, and geared for emotional uplift. On the inside, however, it feels like an empty, derivative, calculated gesture that, at best, proves its author's love with his influences — but not his ability to improve upon them.

Regardless of how many different styles are explored on the rest of the record, their «core» is always the same. Sufjan's music — at this initial point at least — is highly static, with most of the songs establishing a (generally familiar) groove and then riding, riding, riding it for 3–6 minutes as the man adds his softly whispered, barely comprehensible, symbolist-absurdist lyrics on top. The groove may come from alt-folk territory (ʽA Winner Needs A Wandʼ), or from watered-down stoner rock (ʽDemetriusʼ), or from piano balladry (ʽDumb I Soundʼ), or from acidic trip-hop (ʽA Loverless Bedʼ), or even from Islamic territory (ʽYa Leilʼ), but they are all slow, sludgy, quiet (sometimes to the point of lethargy), and fertilized by the Holy Ghost of St. Sufjan as it glides across these grooves, barely getting its ghostly feet wet.

There is exactly one song on the album that breaks away from this formula, and, unsurprisingly, this is also the one song that people tend to dismiss from the start — because ʽSuper Sexy Womanʼ is essentially a musical joke, where Stevens records two vocal tracks, one in his regular voice and another in a hokey falsetto, and, instead of something holy, sings about a lady with "superhuman thighs" and "superpower hips, for super reproduction" who will "shoot a super fart, the deadly silent kind". Shamefully and perversely, this is the only song from this album that managed to register on my radar, and I would not feel embarrassed about memorizing it had everything else been good.... as it is, a situation in which the album's crude joke relief is more memorable than its prime content is a dire situation indeed.

Well, okay, there is also the case of ʽSatan's Saxophonesʼ, two and a half minutes of atonal jazz that not a single human being would have a single decent reason for listening to — this guy ain't Albert Ayler, and even if he were as good as Albert Ayler, there would still be no reason to hear him engage in two and a half pointless minutes of Aylerisms. Unless we are supposed to interpret it as a free-form intro to the album's liveliest track, the dance-pop anthem ʽJoy! Joy! Joy!ʼ which still somehow manages to sound sludgy and lethargic. Perhaps that kaleidoscopic panorama of electronic samples circling around the blandly chanted "I believe in peace, I believe in peace" is supposed to cause some psychedelic epiphany — I just find it completely empty of any emotional content, like most of this album.

That said, if you are a big fan of Stevens and happen to be working your way backwards after having already been indoctrinated with Illinois and / or Carrie & Lowell, by no means stay away: sure, all of this material is melodically less challenging than Illinois and substantially less attrac­tive and accessible than Carrie, but the man's basic sunny viewpoint is already established, and you are guaranteed to find enough vibes here to carry you through. My own organism simply does not operate on this kind of frequencies — the «bland» kind, as far as I'm concerned.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Radiohead: Pablo Honey

RADIOHEAD: PABLO HONEY (1993)

1) You; 2) Creep; 3) How Do You?; 4) Stop Whispering; 5) Thinking About You; 6) Anyone Can Play Guitar; 7) Ripcord; 8) Vegetable; 9) Prove Yourself; 10) I Can't; 11) Lurgee; 12) Blow Out.

General verdict: Solid, accessible, soulful rock music for sensitive, vulnerable clients of the genre.

I probably need to get this out of the way at the very start: in my opinion, or, more accurately, in my heart Pablo Honey, the much-maligned debut of Radiohead, is a better record than at least anything that this band has offered the world since Kid A. It took the world the smash success and artistic innovation of The Bends and OK Computer to take more accurate notice of the relative virtues of Pablo Honey, but the truth is, no matter how derivative and unimaginative these songs might seem, the classic spirit of Radiohead permeates them — and at this point, the classic spirit of Radiohead is still unencumbered by the fervent idea of «we are Radiohead, the world expects nothing but the best from us» that, as far as I'm concerned, has sharply sabotaged their career in the 21st century.

True, in 1992, Radiohead were just a rock band: five college guys, inspired by the Neil Young / Lou Reed school of merging noise with beauty, anger with idealism, and self-pity with self-promotion. Against a background of dozens, if not hundreds, of bands with the same agenda, there was fairly little hope of them registering in any special way on the pop scene radar. In retro­spect, we can see how Thom Yorke's distinctive vocal style already transcended the stereotypical grunge pattern, with additional shades ranging from lyrical to epical; and how Johnny Green­wood's noisy guitar riffage was already much more melodic in general than the monotonous rhythmic buzz expected from the average grunge outfit. Back in 1992-93, though, critics and general listeners alike may have well been excused for failing to note that, what with the market being oversaturated with noisy rock muzak in the wake of Nirvana's explosion.

The thing is, Radiohead were actually quite good at noisy rock muzak. All of these songs, and I do stress, all of them are quite well written: all of them are meaningful, catchy, energetic, and generally well-recorded rock songs that reflect the formative, insecure, but tentatively self-asser­ting nature of a bunch of young college kids as perfectly as, say, Please Please Me reflected the formative, brash, life-conquering nature of a bunch of young Liverpool hoodlums. Despite having certain elements in common with grunge, Pablo Honey is not about wanting to sound like Cobain or, God forbid, Eddie Vedder: it is about using the musical experience of the underground movement to convey a set of somewhat less harsh, but equally stinging feelings about your own insecure place in the universe.

No matter how much they used to hate it themselves or how much it has been overplayed, ʽCreepʼ, the visiting card of Pablo Honey, still remains a masterpiece. (Ironically, records show that it was not even a big hit in the first place: its popularity was tube-grown from the original small bunch of Radiohead fans). Few songs capture that aching sentiment of being frustrated over your own limitations as compared to some unreachable ideal with so much precision: most, when they try, simply go on whining about it, but ʽCreepʼ carefully manipulates you into exploding — Greenwood's famous «dead notes» before the explosion are particularly great, like somebody kicking a malfunctioning detonator in total frustration — and, most importantly, even once the loud distorted guitars kick in, the song never loses its romantic flavor: there is a tenderness in Thom's delivery of the "I'm a creep, I'm a weirdo" lines that is then taken to the next level in the "she's running out again" bridge — look how effortlessly the song flows into it from the chorus, with the rise to falsetto and the clever mix of desperation and admiration. No matter how much Radiohead have progressed since then, ʽCreepʼ already offers us their main agenda in full — pity for the sinner in the here and now, beauty for the Platonic idealist in whatever lies beyond. Every­thing that comes later is just technical innovations on the same artistic subject.

The worst thing that can be said about the other songs is that they all follow that same agenda, too: every other tune is about how the various imperfections of the protagonist prevent him from getting the girl or getting to Heaven, which, in the grand symbolic scheme of things, is pretty much the same shit. But how is that a problem when each song has its own individual merits? To knock off just a few examples: ʽStop Whisperingʼ has a complex, technically difficult, twisted, but catchy vocal path from verse to chorus — perhaps the closest Yorke has ever come to sounding like Bono, and he does a pretty good job at this; ʽRipcordʼ puts a fairly generic descen­ding chord pattern to great symbolic use, creating the illusion of crashing down once it is paired with Yorke's constant invocations of the «ripcord» (or, rather, the lack of it) motive; ʽLurgeeʼ somehow manages to impress by having essentially one line stubbornly repeated over and over — but I guess that there is no better way to convince people of how shitty you really feel than by end­lessly chanting "I got better, I got better, I got strong"... and so on.

Also, although in terms of technical mastery and musical complexity Pablo Honey has nothing on whatever would follow, it should be pointed out that even in this unexperienced state, these guys are already capable of producing impressive sonic panoramas: in particular, the whirlwind finale of ʽBlow Outʼ, closing out the record, is handled quite professionally, creating a terrifying musical vortex into which, as I guess we are supposed to imagine, the protagonist is finally sucked — for better or for worse, nobody can really tell. (But I'd guess for better: since there are no themes of Hellish retribution on the album, I imagine he is being sucked into Heavenly bliss, where he can finally get a proper chance at being so fuckin' special). Nothing particularly new or mind-blowing about this, but hey, it works, and that is far more than I can say about dozens of New Musical Ideas in Radiohead's 21st century catalog.

Cutting a potentially long story short, I do not recommend the somewhat typically condescending attitude towards Pablo Honey — like the young Beatles, the young Radiohead had a certain subtle special something to offer that can no longer be found on their «mature» albums, and that special something is not necessarily just limited to «more rock, less experimentation». One might scoff at these conventional song structures, limited influences, and vocal hooks rooted in rock and pop rather than Richard D. James and Krzystof Penderecki, but one cannot deny that songs like ʽCreepʼ, ʽLurgeeʼ, or ʽBlow Outʼ belong to Radiohead and nobody else — not Blur, not Oasis, not Pearl Jam, not Dinosaur Jr. For 99% of modern indie bands, this kind of quality would probably remain unsurpassed, anyway.

On an amusing technical note, acoustic Radiohead at this point sound very closely to the way that Neutral Milk Hotel would sound six years later on In The Aeroplane — the expanded 2-CD version of Pablo Honey throws in their earliest EP, Drill, whose ʽStupid Carʼ, perhaps with just a slight change in tonality, could be easily added to NMH's masterpiece and nobody would have noticed. All right, so maybe Thom Yorke has this tearful component in his voice that Mangum generally lacks (Thom seems to take life more seriously in most cases), but the cosmopolitan loose-soulful-rambling vibe is there for sure. He would rarely allow himself to be so upfront and singer-songwriterish in the times to come.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Joy Division: Unknown Pleasures

JOY DIVISION: UNKNOWN PLEASURES (1979)

1) Disorder; 2) Day Of The Lords; 3) Candidate; 4) Insight; 5) New Dawn Fades; 6) She's Lost Control; 7) Shadowplay; 8) Wilderness; 9) Interzone; 10) I Remember Nothing.

General verdict: The absolute best that New Wave has to offer in the neural shock department.

For all the negative energy released during the punk / New Wave «silver age» of rock music, it probably took the movement a good two or three years before it started generating genuinely bleek, depressed, when-will-it-end sort of music. The punk crowds protested in hopes of a better life, the early post-punks went beyond that by deconstructing the very idea of protest itself, and for all the seriousness of Talking Heads' scenic image, the complexity, symbolism, and humor of their music never left much space for genuine terror or depression. Looking back at the big critical and commercial successes of 1977-78, I can find surprisingly few, if any, examples of records that suppressed, rather than nurtured, hope and optimism (maybe some of Patti Smith's material could be quoted, and the first albums of Siouxsie & The Banshees, but on the whole, Patti Smith is really just as idealistic as most of us, and Siouxsie were too much of a theatrical act in the first place). Not that, God forbid, there's anything particularly wrong with that, but great changing times do call for great tragic artistic outlooks, and just as the Flower Power age in 1967 sorely needed its Doors for balance, so did the revamped musical world of 1979.

That the band ultimately named itself «Joy Division», referring to the Jewish girls in House of Dolls, was not itself very indicative, considering the frequent fascination of punk bands, beginning with the Sex Pistols, with various Nazi imagery, for shocking allegorical purposes. However, once you actually give it some thought, this particular allegory becomes fairly frightening, and, if you ask me, the name choice and Ian Curtis' suicide are both rooted in pretty much the same psychological processes. As long as the band was still named «Warszaw», they mostly played routine, derivative punk stuff; the name change was accompanied with a major stylistic shift, as they toned down the raw energy in favor of extra heaviness and bleakness — the kind of music that still took its foundation from contemporary punk bands, but its spirit from Jim Morrison. In doing so, Joy Division opened more than just the doors — the floodgates for legions of bands in their wake: post-punk, Goth, grunge, alt-rock, emo, you name it, they all owe some sort of debt to Ian Curtis and his bandmates. Some of that influence may have become more strongly appreciated in retrospect, but the fact remains that, at the time of their existence, Joy Division simply had no competition in whatever it was they were doing, and in the end, as you investigate the roots of modern pop bleakness, it all comes down to Unknown Pleasures, whether you want it or not.

Recorded over the first two weeks of April 1979, in Stockport's Strawberry Studios — originally set up by founding members of 10cc and so named in honor of ʻStrawberry Fields Foreverʼ, although this bit of trivia is unlikely to provide any insight into the genesis of Joy Division's music (there's not much in common that it shares with 10cc, anyway) — Unknown Pleasures involved only the band members themselves, plus just one additional musician — the band's producer Martin Hannett, who contributed some synthesizer parts and was largely responsible for the overall claustrophobic sound of the record (allegedly, not too admired by the band members themselves, who were displeased that the studio record came out quite removed from the raw-aggressive sound of their live performances, but time has shown pretty strongly who was wrong and who was right about that). The music itself largely followed the classic Doors scheme: Ian Curtis as the lyricist / vocalist / «shaman», and the three bandmates actually writing and recording the music around his shamanism, with but a few minor exceptions.

Chart impact of the album was minimal (#71 on the UK charts, and not released overseas at all), not so much because the people were scared of the sound as due to complete lack of promotion: the band did not even put out any singles to accompany the record. (Closer would be far more fortunate, but its popularity was unquestionably much boosted by Ian's fate: cynically speaking, nothing like a good suicide to get your songs to sell). Contemporary reviews were largely positive, but still, to a large degree the legend of Unknown Pleasures and Joy Division in general was cultivated a posteriori, and the record's final deification must have taken place somewhere around the early 1990s, when depressed grungers and alt-rockers kicked out 1980s' hedonism and became the new flagbearers of guitar-based popular music. That does not mean that the impact of the music on contemporary musicians wasn't huge — if not for Joy Division, we probably wouldn't have The Cure the way we know them, or Bauhaus (or, for that matter, a large chunk of the Russian rock music scene, with Kino, the Russian national icon of rock music, often described as «Russia's Joy Division», with a modicum of truth to that). But yes, in terms of overnight popularity Joy Division could never match The Doors, although that may not so much be an indication of relative quality as it was of the relative difference between musical attitudes in 1967 and 1979.

Like all great artists, Joy Division made their music stand out so much because of skillful and inspired synthesis and «fertilization»: most of Unknown Pleasures sounds like the joint work of loyal and arduous disciples of Jim Morrison, Tony Iommi, and Tom Verlaine. Indeed, the similarity between the voices of Curtis and Morrison is so uncanny that I can easily imagine people in 1979 catching echoes of Joy Division songs on some underground radio station and going «JIM??!! I knew there was something fishy about that heart attack story!» — in fact, I do believe that one of the reasons why the man switched to different vocal registers so often on Closer may have been related to the desire to establish his own, fully independent vocal style. But even so, that is no flaw — the musical structures and arrangements are so different from The Doors that only professional haters could ever accuse the music of being a rip-off. It is not a rip-off; it is contemporary punk music, inseminated once again with elements of «old school» pop and hard rock, yet at the same time also looking to the future.

It is hardly a coincidence that the album opens with a few bars of Stephen Morris' drums, because the electronic drum sound happens to be one of the album's calling cards. Punk bands at the time preferred it raw, and «electronic drumming» was still a novelty, usually reserved for the likes of highly experimental artists; on Unknown Pleasures, you get this slightly «plasticized» drum sound all over the place, and the rest of the instruments sort of follow the drum lead — guitars and bass are all heavily processed, courtesy of Hannett and his extensive use of modulators, echo effects and various experimental production techniques. Pretty soon, that kind of sound, with new technologies revered and abused, would become a suffocating norm, but in 1979, it was still relatively novel, and it gives the record a unique dual personality — it's like «Kraftwerk meets The Clash», where at the musical core you have an energetic rock'n'roll band, but then they are placed in this «force field», as if you were watching them play their energetic rock'n'roll in a small containment area permeated with ion radiation or something. It's like... well, like something you'd probably do if you were playing «classic rock» and yet you hated the idea of having your music go to classic rock radio stations. I am not even sure myself that I actively «love» this decision, but to deny its artistic purpose and potential effectiveness would be highly unjust.

In a way, Unknown Pleasures still preserves elements of «transition» from the band's (and New Wave's in general) earliest days to the classic age. The first song, ʻDisorderʼ, is still something that you could — in a different arrangement, of course — theoretically imagine on a record by, if not The Clash, then at least The Adverts or some other intellectually-searching punk band of the times. But already the second track, ʻDay Of The Lordsʼ — the first of the album's several mini-masterpieces — kills off all excitement and sets you up for an atmosphere of ponderous gloom. My favorite part are the first thirty seconds — the introduction, where, to the sound of a jangly-droning guitar and a threateningly ascending bass part, you make your final climb, only to see below, with the thrash of one doom-laden power chord at 0:21 into the song, the terrifying wasteland panorama of that particular circle of Hell to which you have been assigned. The lyrics are, indeed, speaking of eternal torment — here on Earth, which makes the whole thing even scarier: Sumner's creepy, Sabbath-influenced riffage and Ian's stone-faced "where will it end? where will it end?", delivered with a frightening mix of Biblical solemnity and personal pain, have nothing «theatrical» about them, and I can hardly make myself apply the «Goth» moniker to it because most «Goth» music/art implies a certain amount of theatrical symbolism, whereas here, the music and the voice are all alive with the spirits of real demons inhabiting the band's frontman, and occasionally infecting his crewmates as well.

Actually, nowhere is this infection as vividly evident as (let us skip a few titles for the moment) on what has always been my favorite track on the album — ʻShadowplayʼ, a song that most perfectly combines the frontman's «determination-flowing-into-desperation» attitude with a well-oiled rock band's speed and tightness. There's the never-faltering bassline that keeps you pinned to the seat all the way through; there's the odd percussion effect when, after each culminating fill, the drums somehow «explode» as if the drumsticks were loaded, Keith Moon-style, with real gunpowder; there's the lyrics that you can interpret in a thousand specific ways, but all of them have to do with irretrievable loss of all hope and ideals. But most importantly, there is that guitar solo, first echoing the vocal lines, then temporarily exploding into maniacal white noise, and finally, towards the very end, skyrocketing into the atmosphere like a last desperate cry for help or, perhaps, like a musical banshee into which the protagonist's spirit ended up transforming. Odd enough, the closest musical analogy here that I can think of is neither punk music nor The Doors, but the fast-paced final section of Fleetwood Mac's ʻThe Chainʼ — which may very well have been an influence, especially if you think how much that hysterically ascending final guitar part is reminiscent of Lindsey Buckingham's playing style; and, for that matter, no guitar player ever succeeded better than Lindsey at inducing an atmosphere of hysterical depression (remember ʻI'm So Afraidʼ?), so I'd be very much surprised to learn that the similarity was just a coincidence. Also, to truly appreciate the power of ʻShadowplayʼ it helps to listen to The Killers' cover of the song, thirty years later — technically competent, yes, but with about 0.5% of the emotion expressed here in Ian's vocals and in Bernard's guitar playing.

While the rest of the album has always paled a bit to me next to these two highlights, it is only because all the other songs have to scale almost unscalable heights of emotionality; but each of them tells its own story, all of them connected with a single thread but showing their own peculiarities. Sabbath influence echoes once again on ʻNew Dawn Fadesʼ, whose opening riff is reminiscent of Iommi's work on ʻN.I.B.ʼ — remember that superficially corny tale of the Devil and his bride, through which Tony and Ozzy actually delivered shades of eternal loneliness, worthy of Lermontov's poem? Here, there is no Devil in actual sight, but there is just as strong an aura of eternal damnation, generated by means of a relentless bass pulse, a nerve-rattling guitar drone, those «intentionally lifeless» drums, and Curtis' solemn singing, gradually increasing in volume and hysteria but never losing its romantic nobility — highly moving. Then there's a bunch of tales from the madhouse — ʻCandidateʼ and ʻShe's Lost Controlʼ, the latter sung from the outside point of view of a terrified observer and the former from the inside point of view of the committed patient; note that in none of these cases does Curtis ever stoop to blood-curdling screaming or barking — the point of Joy Division is to stay as cold as possible most of the time, to embody a state of absolute calm as the best equivalent for total spiritual chaos. Something much harder to do effectively, by the way, than the grinding madhouse of The Birthday Party; and, who knows, there might be something far more terrifying in the quiet resignation of Ian Curtis than in the wild exhortations of Nick Cave (at least, early Nick Cave).

But we should not forget, either, that Unknown Pleasures is not just, or even not so much a multi-movement philosophical statement as it is a collection of short, catchy pop songs — okay, so it is both at the same time, and without being both at the same time, it could have never achieved its current status. I mean, ʻInterzoneʼ, one of the loudest and punkiest songs here, is just so darn catchy, isn't it? Great garage-rock riff, high intensity, and that strange mantra of "I was looking for a friend of mine", delivered hurriedly and out of breath as if the singer owed us a quick explanation (please do not bother, Mr. Curtis; it might be in our best interests to remain uninformed about this particular friend of yours). The droning guitar/bass riffs of ʻInsightʼ and ʻShe's Lost Controlʼ, the odd broken patters of ʻWildernessʼ, the simple, but curiously optimistic power pop melody of ʻDisorderʼ (like I said, pretty much the only song here that is hiding under the belly of the Depression Train rather than riding first class), it's all cool from a simply musical standpoint, even if without Curtis' presence some of these tracks might have gelled together. And then there is the production — all those endless sound effects, incessant bits of clanging, scraping, factory puffing, and above all — breaking, breaking, breaking, culminating in the shattered glass soundbits of ʻI Remember Nothingʼ. It would be way too much of a stretch to call Unknown Pleasures an industrial album, but it was certainly influenced by early industrial experimentation, and put all those exciting, but much abused ideas by Throbbing Gristle and early Cabaret Voltaire to effective work in a pop setting way before Depeche Mode succeeded in monetizing them.

It would be a stretch to insist that all the melodies here are 100% original and emotionally resonant. Occasionally, it is the production that makes them come across as such: quite a few of the song structures do not stray far away from generic punk riffage, and for every fine touch like the Ramones-worthy riff of ʻInterzoneʼ there is a ʻWildernessʼ where the stop-and-start bits are attention-attracting, but the verse melody is really just a power chord mess (which still does not spoil the song too bad, because there is a compensatory mesmerizing bassline out there, and Curtis — well, Curtis is almost always compensatorily mesmerizing). ʻI Remember Nothingʼ almost has no melody at all — just a metronomic rhythm pattern, strewn across with seemingly randomized funky lead phrasing, fully dependent on production tricks and atmosphere (in a way not too dissimilar to ʻThe Endʼ by The Doors, and you could easily see the song extended from its six minutes to twelve in order to match Morrison's epicness; considering that they had plenty of space left on the LP, they probably did not do it just so that they wouldn't be written off as total Doors clones).

Theoretically, one could also complain about the monotonousness of the single permeating mood here; but that argument would ring hollow, since, as I said, there are many different shades to that mood (ranging from the moderately uplifting variety of ʻDisorderʼ to the detached-descriptive attitude of ʻShe's Lost Controlʼ to the utter hell of ʻDay Of The Lordsʼ), and besides, you do not really opt for diversity on an album whose main theme could be simplistically defined as «real Hell is inside you, and you'll be taking it with you wherever you go», so why even bring it up?

As far as I'm concerned, there was not a single LP out there before Unknown Pleasures that said "I'm in eternal pain with no hope of a better end" as explicitly, honestly, and with so much style. If you think this is an exaggeration, let me remind you that this statement is not necessarily a compliment — saying something, period, is not quite the same as saying it well, and in certain cases, too, it is better to shut up than it is to speak. In particular, the musical backbone of Pleasures is visibly straining from the psychological overload, and even with the astute help of the producer, the melodic content is not always fully adequate to the task, considering that, after all, nobody in the band at the time had too much composing or playing experience. Later on, Robert Smith's team would take this music to new heights of professionalism — but The Cure were very much about "Depression Theater", whereas Unknown Pleasures has the seemingly clear benefit of reflecting reality (and it is rather pointless to ask yourself the question, "would we think the same way if Curtis did not hang himself?", because the odds of Curtis making the record and not hanging himself should have been assessed as minuscule even back then).

So while I am not sure that Unknown Pleasures is the most depressing (or, rather, depressed) album ever made, I am sure that it is the most depressed album ever made by the most depressed frontman who ever set himself the goal to record the most depressed album there ever was. Its greatness, like almost any greatness, does not follow directly from that — more from a fortunate mix of circumstances, which placed this tormented frontman in the company of several talented musicians and an understanding producer in a general age of musical change and artistic innovation — but still, its major asset is in how well it expresses one man's emotional turmoil. It is influenced by a decade of «mope rock», yes, but where so many later dark-themed records, though superficially good, end up feeling like «Oh, I just listened to Joy Division and I decided to make some really depressed music, too», Unknown Pleasures never feels like «oh, I just listened to some Morrison and I thought, hey, this New Wave era of ours still doesn't have its own Morrison, so let's hurry up before somebody beats us to it!» It just feels like the state of mind of somebody for whom the world has already ended, and even if his bandmates are slightly lagging behind to reflect that feeling, the averaged result is still a timeless memento of what it feels like to be living a life with no purpose.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Giles, Giles & Fripp: The Cheerful Insanity Of Giles, Giles & Fripp

GILES, GILES & FRIPP: THE CHEERFUL INSANITY OF GILES, GILES & FRIPP (1968)

1) North Meadow; 2) Newly-Weds; 3) One In A Million; 4) Call Tomorrow; 5) Digging My Lawn; 6) Little Children; 7) The Crukster; 8) Thursday Morning; 9) How Do They Know; 10) Elephant Song; 11) The Sun Is Shining; 12) Suite No. 1; 13) Erudite Eyes; 14*) She Is Loaded; 15*) Under The Sky.

General verdict: An eccentric, charming, and overall kooky anti-prequel to King Crimson.

Enlightening fact: if you only listen to the three compositions on this album that are credited to Robert Fripp, this does not sound that unlike In The Court Of The Crimson King. Granted, ʽLittle Childrenʼ is a fluffy jazz-pop number (though slightly weighted down by the Mellotron in the background) that fits in very well with the Giles' brothers materials. But on the second side of the record, ʽSuite No. 1ʼ is a multi-part mix of jazz (including Robert doing some credible Wes Montgomery impersonations), baroque, and psychedelic influences, some of whose ideas would later crop up in ʽMoonchildʼ; and ʽErudite Eyesʼ is a sentimental waltzing ballad that, nevertheless, hosts a whole array of different guitar tones and styles, showing how this newcoming guy can easily outplay the likes of The Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead, at least, even if his lack of flashiness still does not allow us to decide if he's as good as Jimi.

That said, links may be links, but the overall tone of The Cheerful Insanity certainly has little to do with either the ambitious bombast of early King Crimson or the geometric perplexity of later King Crimson. Rather, this music belongs to the same boiling pot that gave us the Bonzo Dog Band and, in a different medium, Monty Python — with slightly less emphasis on comedy and slightly more reverence rather than irreverence towards the good old British stereotypes: some­thing that would actually go on to be firmly upheld by Ropert Fripp in his personality, if not necessarily in his music. How in the world did Fripp manage to get mixed up with the Giles brothers remains a bit of a mystery, particularly given the circumstance that the advertisement they placed called for a «singing organist», whereas Robert was a taciturn guitarist; but I guess that blindly trusting fate was somewhat of a common place back in 1968.

It did not hurt, either, that brother Michael, at least, was a genuinely talented fellow: a well-trained drummer with a knack for effortlessly knocking out tricky jazz patterns, and a gifted songwriter at the same time — he has more songs on this album than Peter, and most of the best ones are his. Peter Giles is no slouch, either — listen to his expressive and agile zoops on ʽNewly-Wedsʼ, for instance — yet it is perhaps not surprising that he was the first to back out of the business when it became clear that the group was not geared for success. In any case, the common causes that brought them all together are clear — a love for jazz, a desire to integrate jazz elements with pop and rock styles, and a penchant for eccentricity. The latter being, above everything else, well reflected on the cover of the album, although, frankly, a cover like that probably cost them most of the sales back in 1968.

On the surface, the first side of the album is far more eccentric than the second one. Dubbed «The Saga Of Rodney Toady», it is a string of short, light, coquettish musical vignettes separated by bits of a spoken word piece — the only time that Robert Fripp himself ever stooped to putting spoken word pieces on an album of his. The spoken word piece may have been slightly autobiographical, even though I have no evidence of Robert Fripp being called «fat and ugly» back in his teenage days — but somehow I do not doubt that the man shared Rodney Toady's interest in «rude books with rude pictures», although, happily enough, the prophecy of the protagonist being destined to hook up with a fat and ugly girl did not come to pass (unless you think Toyah Willcox is fat and ugly, the first of which would be objectively untrue and the second of which would probably depend on her choice of her next scenic image). In any case, the importance of the spoken word piece is singular: it tells you the story of an outcast, implying that this whole experience may be for outcasts — or for downright whackos.

Which it is only partially, because if you take something like ʽOne In A Millionʼ, you end up with a perfectly normal, pretty, catchy Brit-pop song that would seem to come right out of Ray Davies' pocketbook, if it weren't that deeply rooted in the jazz paradigm. The lyrics make perfect sense, the atmosphere of simplistic, sympathetic melancholy rings genuine, and the swirling flutes add this complacent pastoral flavor that will be enjoyable to anyone with an ear for melody. The other single, ʽThursday Morningʼ, is an even more sentimental little ballad, cleverly mixing rhythm guitar jazz chords with a baroque classical string arrangement; taken outside the context of the album, it is perfectly normal and certainly does not require having an odd sense of humor — then again, it might have sounded a bit too fluffy and hookless for the single-buying public.

In fact, the only openly weird piece on the first side, barring the spoken word interludes, is ʽThe Cruksterʼ, a minute and a half of rambling poetry set to folk / jazz / free-form guitar impro­visation — a rather forgettable track, but one that offers us our very first, very sketchy glimpse into the endless world of Fripprovising. More glimpses will be offered on the second side, parti­cularly in the mid-section of ʽSuite No. 1ʼ, but all of them will remain glimpses: Giles, Giles & Fripp were all about pop songwriting, not about using skeletal ideas as launchpads for unpredic­table musical adventures.

For some reason, the most memorable musical moment for me is the brass riff of ʽElephant Songʼ — in fact, that brass riff is the only memorable musical moment in ʽElephant Songʼ, which other­wise consists of pseudo-Dylanesque absurd verses recited, rather than sung, against a rootsy background of guitars and harmonicas. This is arguably the most Bonzoish of all the songs here (Viv Stanshall should be proud), and one number for which it would really be a chore to locate any parallels in the King Crimson catalog. But it is fun, and the riff somehow manages to put together notes of martial triumph and thrilling suspense — in such a blatantly comical manner as would never again soil the gentlemanly purity of patented Fripp product. (Although, as the future would show, the man would still retain a subtle passion for elephants).

It does seem a bit unjust that The Cheerful Insanity has always existed largely as a curio piece, technically immortal because of the role it plays in King Crimson history but never seriously appreciated by the world at large. There is a certain streak of innocence and crystal clear humor in it that not a lot of albums from the same epoch can be said to share; and in some ways, it is one of the most inventive and accessible syntheses of light jazz, baroque pop, and avantgarde from said epoch. But it is also true that we do tend to judge art pieces by their «emotional fields», and as The Cheerful Insanity makes absolutely no pretense at «seriousness» — there is no way anybody could be driven to tears by ʽThursday Morningʼ, or enflamed with ardent passion at the nimble jazz picking of ʽSuite No. 1ʼ — its status as a historical curio seems to have been cemented once and for all.

Nevertheless, it is still a must-have if you are a fan of King Crimson (since it opens up a whole new dimension in one's understanding of the intricate ways of Robert Fripp), if you are a fan of jazz-rooted pop music, if you are fond of Monty Pythonesque absurdism in music, if you like dressing up in bowler hats and bowties, and if you like coming up with long lists of «ifs» because they look good at the end of your cheaply manipulative essay.

As it turns out, the album in question did not put a final stop to the career of Giles, Giles & Fripp. Subsequent sessions were held, of which two unreleased outtakes have subsequently been added to the CD re-issue of the record, both of them superb: ʽShe Is Loadedʼ is a fun, catchy pop-rocker that somehow manages to veer between Beatles and Beach Boys moods, while ʽUnder The Skyʼ is a transitional art-pop song that already presages the folksy vibe of ʽI Talk To The Windʼ. The detour into folk territory almost morphed into something serious when, in addition to new member Ian McDonald on saxes and flutes, the trio recruited the services of ex-Fairport Conven­tion vocalist Judy Dyble — for a very brief while (the final months of 1968), it might have seemed as if this new combo could work well enough to take the band out of the age of bowler hats into the age of codpieces. Fortunately, or unfortunately, it did not work out, but since the results of that brief experiment are now publicly available as The Brondesbury Tapes, this subject deserves a special discussion. The reality is that with the arrival of McDonald and Dyble, the «cheerful insanity» essentially came to an end anyway, so this is where we end our review.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Pink Floyd: The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn

PINK FLOYD: THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN (1967)

1) Astronomy Domine; 2) Lucifer Sam; 3) Matilda Mother; 4) Flaming; 5) Pow R. Toc H.; 6) Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk; 7) Interstellar Overdrive; 8) The Gnome; 9) Chapter 24; 10) Scarecrow; 11) Bike; 12*) Arnold Layne; 13*) Candy And A Currant Bun; 14*) See Emily Play; 15*) Apples And Oranges; 16*) Paintbox.

General verdict: One of the first "quintessentially mad" albums in rock history, no?

There is a good reason why there is such a large gap in quality between Pink Floyd's universally acclaimed debut, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, and their big-ass hit albums of the Seventies. Like The Doors across the Atlantic, Pink Floyd was a band consisting of a flashy, charismatic, eccentric, and mad-as-a-hatter frontman — and three gifted, diligent, intellectually stable working men, able to get in tune with the madness of the frontman, but biologically unable to cultivate that same madness within their own souls. In both cases, the inevitable outcome was the physical or mental death of the frontman — and while with The Doors this ultimately led to the group's demise, Pink Floyd had to go through a transition phase where, eventually, they had to realize that they simply could not live up to the legacy of Syd Barrett, so they simply had to live up to something completely different.

And that they did, but for now, we find ourselves in 1967, as four young and talented English­men are looking for brand new ways to open up your mind at EMI Studios, just as four other young and talented Englishmen are recording Sgt. Pepper across the hallway. The comparisons between Pepper and Piper are nearly ubiquitous, and whenever they arise, the outspoken outcome is almost always not in favor of Pepper: fans of early Pink Floyd are known to deride the psychede­lia of Pepper as rosey, juvenile, and superficial next to the heavy astral shake-up of Syd and his gang. However, as ridiculous as it is to compare those two records from a who's-better-who's-best perspective (ʽApples And Orangesʼ indeed!), it is certainly not ridiculous to put them in mutual context — both musical directions set only partially intersecting goals, and it is instructive to realize the different ways in which they complement each other.

First and foremost, Piper is a «naughty» album. It is so often referred to as one of the greatest psychedelic records ever made that it is almost easy to forget how deeply British it is in essence, and not just British, but Nursery British, if I may say so. Syd Barrett's heroes are not Timothy Leary or the Maharishi — they are gnomes, scarecrows, black cats, little boys listening to their mother's tales and playing counting-out games. Occasionally, they are also perverted gentlemen stealing ladies' lingerie, if you count in ʽArnold Layneʼ, the band's first single; and most of the time, they look and sound creepy and disturbing, which, if you think about it, is quite a logical continuation of the overriding themes of the nursery rhyme tradition. Yet this is not exactly «dark humor» in the vein of, say, The Who's John Entwistle: emphasis is on the strangeness of what is going on, without an explicit wish to spook the listener. In other words, most of the songs on Piper are quite safe for kids (provided their DNA is substantially divergent from Syd Barrett's in the first place, otherwise there may be complications).

This centuries-honored British eccentricity is, perhaps, the main difference of Piper from, say, contemporary Hendrix psychedelia — even more so than the widely different styles of Jimi's and Syd's guitar playing. But it is not at the forefront of the album: our induction into the acid world of Pink Floyd is with ʽAstronomy Domineʼ, a composition as staggeringly unique as they come, almost as if it is placed there strategically so that, with our minds properly blown, we would lack the energy to laugh at Barrett's cuddly gnomes and scarecrows. This is the second face of early Floyd — space-rock — and while it shares certain features with the first one, it is also the face that far more clearly transcends the Britishness of the music. It is also a face that bravely treads the turf of ʽTomorrow Never Knowsʼ and ʽThird Stone From The Sunʼ and is not afraid to com­pete with the visions of John or Jimi.

Here, the difference made by Floyd is that they do not make music about the beauty of the uni­verse, or about its majesty, or about its transcendence. Whether we are talking about ʽAstronomy Domineʼ or its even bulkier instrumental twin, ʽInterstellar Overdriveʼ, the imagery is that of a spaceship, making its way with much difficulty through endless fields of cosmic debris — plane­toids, asteroids, deadly cosmic rays, weird particles, bizarre alien life forms, an enormity and a diversity too terrifying for words. Or, perhaps, not too terrifying for words: "Neptune, Titan, stars can frighten", upon which an array of nasty stars begins spooking you with ghostly falsettos. Maybe the music itself is not exactly terrifying, but when played loud enough in headphones, it is disconcerting: where the kaleidoscopic overdubs of something like ʽBeing For The Benefit Of Mr. Kiteʼ create the illusion of a mesmerizing magic show, the interactions of Syd's scraping guitars, Rick Wright's funereal organ, and Waters' occasional bass bombs are more like a musical battle­space, littered with life-threatening cosmic junk.

If there is actually a close stylistic parallel here, it would be the sonic experiments that the Stones had on Satanic Majesties' Request — the album that tends to get a lot of flack for allegedly ripping off Sgt. Pepper, when in fact its «terrified-of-space» vibe on songs like ʽ2000 Light Years From Homeʼ is far closer to the material of Piper. But the Stones, even if they may have been duly stoned at the time, were not crazy — their vision of deep dark space was almost analytical when compared to stuff going on in ʽAstronomy Domineʼ and ʽInterstellar Overdriveʼ. The most amazing thing about it all is that none of these guys were seasoned professionals or virtuosos — most of the instrumental parts, though sometimes compositionally unusual, seem to be fairly simple, well on the level of your local garage band. Deep artistic vision can sometimes be downright terrifying all on its own.

The «missing link» between these terrifying visions of space and the cuddly scarecrows is ʽLucifer Samʼ, Barrett's ode to his cat, powered by a Bond-like dark surf riff, subliminal whispers, bowed bass passages, and an overall feel of cruising through one of Hell's ventilation shafts. This is where, on the surface, things get sort of mundane — it is about a cat, after all, not about Jupiter and Saturn — but leave it to Syd to be the first pop artist to properly explore the Satanic connec­tions of our favorite felines. "That cat's something I can't explain" is just as powerful a statement of our helplessness in mastering the universe as is "stars can frighten", regardless of the diffe­rence in scope. No wonder it comes to you on the musical wave of a spy movie theme.

Much of the album's quieter content would probably be called «alt-folk» today, and belongs to the same thematic stock as the music of The Holy Modal Rounders and The Incredible String Band, both of whom probably influenced Syd quite a bit. Floyd's take on folk is far more accessible: the musicians were not skilled enough to seriously dabble in dissonance and challenge conventional harmony rules — but they could evoke strange feelings simply by finding an odd balance between their instruments, and at this stage in their career, the presence of Rick Wright in the band may have been even more quintessential than in the Waters years: his array of different keyboard tones and instruments, from Farfisa to celesta, is impressive, and he remains the key ingredient on every tune that is not expressly dominated by a heavy Barrett riff. The mid-Eastern soloing on ʽMatilda Motherʼ, the quiet ambient tones accompanying the hypnotic chorus of "look at the sky, look at the river, isn't it good?" of ʽThe Gnomeʼ, the pseudo-bagpipe imitations on ʽScarecrowʼ, the creaky, broken-up musical box impersonation on ʽBikeʼ — that cat's something I can't explain, not in a pre-prog rock age when keyboard players in rock bands were generally expected to play supportive rather than primary roles. (Again, is it that much of a coincidence that at the very same time, Ray Manzarek was challenging that assumption in The Doors?).

But in the end, it still comes down to Syd and his demons: lucky as he was to have the support of his talented buddies, it is his vision that permeates all these songs — the vision of a nearly autistic person, capable of going beyond the common perception of objects at the price of cutting himself off from the world at large. If you look real close at the lyrics to ʽBikeʼ, they are really disturbing — rooted in count-out rhyming, no doubt ("I've got a bike, you can ride it if you like..."), but ultimately sounding like a monologue out of the mouth of some alienated Twin Peaks personage, and with such complete conviction that any serious psychiatrist, I'm sure, who might have had the chance to listen to the song back in 1967 would come up with a diagnosis right on the spot. It is in these relatively quiet moments, not in the album's loud ones, that the madness really becomes evident. It's an awesome madness, one that lets you catch a glimpse of whatever is going on behind the proverbial doors of perception, but it also makes you aware of all sorts of morally challenging questions — or, at least, it should make you aware, because most of the time people just enjoy the cool music, without giving much thought to the deeply deranged conscience behind the art.

Anyway, the amusing thing about Piper is that a couple of its most superficially deranged tunes were written by thoroughly sane people — and, unsurprisingly, they are among the album's worst offerings. I am primarily referring to ʽTake Up Thy Stethoscope And Walkʼ, the first officially registered songwriting credit of Mr. Roger Waters, who, in his desire to challenge the artistic vision of Mr. Syd Barrett on Mr. Syd Barrett's own terms, came up with an ugly, irritating, and utterly pointless avantgarde piece that marries bad wannabe-beatnik poetry ("Gold is lead, Jesus bled, pain is red") to a post-Yardbirds bluesy rave-up passage that pushes you all the way back to around 1965 and would probably merit a scoffin' sneer from the likes of Jeff Beck. Another tune that, to me, breaks up the smooth flow of the album is ʽPow R. Toc H.ʼ, credited to the entire band — it is essentially a lounge jazz instrumental, where Wright turns into an underworked Bill Evans clone for a few minutes; the attempt to disguise it as a psychedelic piece of art by inserting a short free-form noise interlude does not really work too well. These two tracks presage every­thing that would be bad about Pink Floyd in the next several post-Barrett years, namely, the inefficient attempts at «mad music» as produced by very sane people.

But even these setbacks are instructive: the weak links of the record only make its strong parts, which are far more numerous, more impressive (and, upon further thought and analysis, more disturbing) in comparison. Conversely, the only Barrett track that I have always found weak is ʽChapter 24ʼ, a brave, but less than satisfactory attempt to set a bit of The Book Of Changes to music — the result comes across as a pile of verbal mumbo-jumbo set to incidental music from a traveling magic show, and Barrett's own personality is much less prominent in this track than in any of the others. (Then again, I've never really liked The Book Of Changes all that much, either: to me, it is one of the least attractive pieces of ancient Chinese literature, precisely because of its all too puffed-up enigmaticity).

Returning to the Pepper vs. Piper debate (because why not?), it is clear that Piper could never truly compete with The Beatles in popular conscience — despite the importance of all the players, and Rick Wright in particular, it is essentially a «singer-songwriter» type of record, revealing the inner world of a solitary — and somewhat dangerous — person, and, like a Lynch movie, is forever doomed to cult status. But it is one of the first and best, and luckiest, cases of a happy matching between a deranged artistic personality and the immense new possibilities offered by the musical and technological breakthroughs of its epoch. It is so very British, so very loony, so very melancholic, and it was recorded at EMI Studios, and produced by The Beatles' own sound engineer — what's not to like? I'll tell you what's not to like: Roger Waters looks highly uncomfortable in all that psychedelic garb on the front cover. Then again, come to think of it, Roger Waters always looks highly uncomfortable, period.

On a technical note, everybody should probably own the 40th Anniversary Edition of the album, which throws in both mono and stereo mixes and, most importantly, finally collects all of the band's contemporary singles on a third disc, making it no longer necessary to own masterpieces such as ʽArnold Layneʼ and ʽSee Emily Playʼ on separate hit collections such as Relics. Oddly enough, the original US release of the album, totally fucking over the track order, replaced ʽAstronomy Domineʼ with ʽSee Emily Playʼ — no doubt, completely changing the American listeners' percep­tion of the band — but, on the other hand, it cannot be disputed that these songs encapsulate just as much of Syd Barrett's soul as any of the Piper tracks, and now, in the digital age, you can make your own perfect Piper for yourself. I'd suggest, personally, throwing out that stupid ʽStethoscopeʼ bit — ʽApples And Orangesʼ would fit in that slot so much better.