- That’s the Way It’s Got to Be – The Poets
- Entry of the Gladiators – Nero & the Gladiators
- Pretty Ballerina – The Left Banke
- Song for Jeffrey – Jethro Tull
- Christine’s Tune (aka Devil in Disguise) – The Flying Burrito Brothers
- Rhyme the Rhyme Well – Beastie Boys
- Outdoor Miner – Wire
- Sunny Sunny Cold Cold Day – Herman Dune
- Warning Sign – Talking Heads
- Insight – Joy Division
- (Intro/Tokyo) City Girl – Kevin Shields
- Cruiser’s Creek – The Fall
- Record Collection – Comet Gain
- Come Back Jonee – Devo
- King of the Rodeo – Kings of Leon
- Mod Lang – Big Star
- Road to Nowhere – Hearts and Flowers
- Angel – Rod Stewart
- Tell Me Why – Neil Young
- Girls Like That – Weird War
- Silly Girl – Television Personalities
Record stores come and go. Growing up in Plymouth, I used to shop at HMV and Our Price on New George Street, Rival Records on Royal Parade, and Virgin Megastore on the corner of Cornwall Street and Armada Way. I say ‘shop’ but I’d mostly go just to look, often on my way home from school after taking an unnecessary detour via the city centre, thus postponing the laborious task of tackling the homework set that day. Later, once I found a use for secondhand material, I’d frequent Purple Haze at Drake Circus, the Music and Video Exchange in the Pannier Market, Different Class on Frankfurt Gate (not so much), and Really Good Records back when it occupied one of a row of Victorian tenements next to Plymouth Library.
The only one of these businesses still doing business is Really Good Records. After occupying a plot in the now defunct Bretonside Bus Station, it can now be found on Exeter Street just above. A guy called Mike runs the place and he won’t open up before 10:30 a.m. – or at all if it’s a Monday. He is very persuasive. If money was tight I’d think twice about paying a visit knowing that I might leave with more than I literally bargained for. I once dropped in for a Jethro Tull album and left with two (This Was and Aqualung), as well as a psychedelic/garage rock compilation entitled Illusions from the Crackling Void, and only narrowly avoided adding something by The Seeds to my collection. When I returned some months later for Devo’s first album I also came away with Real Life by Magazine.
This sort of thing could happen on any one of my tri-annual sojourns to Plymouth to see family and catch up with friends. These apportioned visitations would further reveal sudden physical changes to my hometown’s landscape, often to my dismay, occasionally my pleasure. Some were more substantial than others. When the council finally gave permission for the old Drake Circus to be redeveloped it came down very quickly, as most buildings do once the wrecking ball moves in, radically changing the terrain in and around. The planning process had been so drawn out that by the time the new Drake Circus Shopping Centre opened in 2006, it was immediately considered démodé. Not that I imagine the shopping obsessed hordes particularly cared; only those of us who remembered fondly Arcadia, Olympus Sport, Purple Haze or The Unity were in any way bothered by it.
Illusions from the Crackling Void turned out to be quite the coup. It is a collection of late 1960s psychedelic rock released on the Bam-Caruso imprint, the same people who put together the Rubble anthology comprising the same sort of thing, which was in turn inspired by the Nuggets series begun by Elektra and continued by Rhino Records. Most of it is fairly obscure, although The Poets, who were from Scotland, were probably one of the better known groups of the ‘freakbeat scene’, which was really just a British term for psychedelia with a mod-ish slant.
“What the hell is this?” quoth my lady friend; “It sounds like clowns on acid!” The song, written by Czech composer Julius Fučík, had indeed found fame as a circus march, but why the allusion to hallucinogens? Nero & the Gladiators belong to that rather tame strain of instrumental rock & roll that was popular for a time in the early 1960s, as exemplified by groups like The Shadows, The Tornados, The Ventures. The source in this case was a long player entitled Decade of Instrumentals: 1959~1967, which was one of a number of the records The Former Cohabitant From Brighton brought over for me to listen to when I was living at 27 Hanworth Road. A man who moved house often, his records had since become an encumbrance and so he decided to pass them on to me. Entry of the Gladiators starts with applause, then the spoken words, "Hey, say there Brutus man, like, here come the gladiators,” before a woozy, reverb-drenched guitar kicks off the tune’s chromatic scale, making some sense of my female companion’s startled appraisal. In retrospect, I’m surprised it never made it onto The Heroes of Hanworth.
Baroque pop is pop/rock that utilises traditional classical instruments, such as strings or harpsichords, and may employ musical strategies more usually associated with classical music. The Beatles were arguably the genre’s most accomplished exponents – In my Life, Eleanor Rigby, Fixing a Hole, The Fool on the Hill, etc. (it seems to be more McCartney’s thing) – but the Stones contributed too, probably at Brian Jones’s behest – Play with Fire, Lady Jane, She’s a Rainbow. It wasn’t by any means a British phenomenon. Love dabbled, and The Beach Boys too, but it was perhaps New York band The Left Banke who came the closest to being defined as an actual baroque musical act. Pretty Ballerina is the last track on Illusions from the Crackling Void. In the 1967 television documentary Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution, Leonard Bernstein cheerfully observed that it incorporated, “a combination of the Lydian and Mixolydian modes,” although did then go on to urge us to, “never forget that this music [as in popular music generally] employs a highly limited musical vocabulary.” But he was right to single out Pretty Ballerina, even if I don’t quite understand his reasoning.
I had recently seen exerts from The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus (which funnily enough opens to the sound of Entry of the Gladiators) and had been very impressed by Jethro Tull’s contribution, Song for Jeffrey. My fondness for vinyl is based on its superior sound quality, and if the packaging is any good it’s a bonus. The front cover to the Jethro Tull album This Was depicts the group dressed up as old men surrounded by dogs, as if in a forest or wood. On the reverse, the band as they are, laughing, but not in colour as on the front, but in a monochrome yellowish green with the band’s name and the album title writ large in red. It’s gatefold, and so on the inside we get a picture of the band live on stage, the track listing and recording information printed over the top. The card itself has a pleasing lustre. I don’t mean to say that it is attractive, but the copy I purchased was in mint condition and makes for a curious object. I concede to be slightly underwhelmed by the music itself, although Song for Jeffrey lived up to its initial impression.
1968 was a period of transition for The Byrds. Having removed David Crosby from the fold, they were struggling to perform The Notorious Byrd Brothers in a live setting to a satisfactory standard. Enter Gram Parsons, initially on keys and then guitar. Gram had already cultivated a country-rock sound with his group The International Submarine Band, so it was a willing combination. By August, The Byrds had recorded and released their next album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, regarded by some to be the first pure country-rock record. I bypassed this album – for now – and went straight for The Flying Burrito Brothers, the band Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman formed shortly after the release of Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Whereas The Byrds had become Roger McGuinn’s band, The Flying Burrito Brothers was certainly Gram’s. I can only assume Chris Hillman enjoyed playing a supporting role, which is not to undermine his contribution or even how his contribution was perceived: just as Hillman is given credit commensurate with McGuinn on The Notorious Byrd Brothers, so he is with Parsons on The Gilded Palace of Sin (Sweetheart of the Rodeo consists mostly of covers). Band politics aside, the movement of staff doesn’t impact much on the music. Both Sweetheart of the Rodeo and The Gilded Palace of Sin are sincere exercises in fusing rock and roll with country and western, demonstrating a complete disregard for the psychedelia or R & B that was more fashionable at the time. One wonders why Christine's Tune wasn’t released as a single like Marrakesh Express was, which featured David Crosby on harmony vocals.
It had been six years since the release of the Beastie Boys’ last album, Hello Nasty, and I hadn’t listened to much hip hop in the intervening years. My youngest brother burned me a copy of To the 5 Boroughs, with some Jurassic 5 tacked on the end of it, which I took back to London, along with all the stuff I’d purchased from Really Good Records. The album is more minimal than Hello Nasty, and Rhyme the Rhyme Well is a good example of this. Save for the sampling of Chuck D’s opening salvo on Public Enemy No. 1, the track is built around nothing much more than a strong thumping beat and a weird descending keyboard effect. Country rock and hip hop aren’t the most complimentary of styles and I wonder whether the pared down sound of Rhyme the Rhyme Well is what allows it to follow on from Christine's Tune without too much bother.
To supplement my modest income I’d been attending ‘focus groups’ on a fairly regular basis. They typically paid in the region of £50 for a couple hours of your time, give or take, and there might also be free food and drink. Since the last June, I’d offered my thoughts on Anadin paracetamol, Burger King, Twix, Foster’s lager, Threshers off-license, Right Guard, the BBC website, iced tea, Budweiser, and cigars. I didn’t even smoke cigars.
The day after expatiating on the subject of cigars, for which I was awarded £60, I was back in London to see Herman Dune at the 100 Club with The Chap Who Introduced Me to Sarah Records. This means that he would have already made me the compilation that included Herman Dune’s Sunny Sunny Cold Cold Day, as well as Outdoor Miner by Wire (the album version). Wire had the same look about them that a lot of those early British post-punk bands did: Gang of Four, Magazine, Joy Division, and Siouxsie and the Banshees to an extent. It’s a very simple, understated look made up of plain shirts, suit jackets, sensible shoes and slacks in muted colours. I’ve often wondered where it derived from. Was this a deliberate attempt to eschew the showier visage of early punk: the torn fabric, piercings and sculpted hair of bands like the Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned? Or was it a nod to the drab functionalism of Dr Feelgood and the pub rock scene? Television, Blondie and Talking Heads manifested it too – all of them American – so maybe not. Anyway, Outdoor Miner by Wire doesn’t sound much like Wire – they’re not normally so melodic – but how is this for an opening stanza:
No blind spots in the leopard's eyes,
Can only help to jeopardize,
The lives of lambs, the shepherd cries.
Talking Heads: I’d owned the live album Stop Making Sense since my first year at university (on tape). In about 1998, I’d purchased True Stories on a hungover Sunday morning with The Guy Who Used to Own Many Indie Tapes, who by now owned just as many CDs. I suppose the intent was always there to explore the group’s back catalogue in more detail, but the Stones and David Bowie and The Byrds and Led Zeppelin and jazz and funk and ska got in the way.
There are only so many defining moments in one’s life, and relatively few really. How many more records will you listen to that genuinely fill you with the same sense of awe or glee you felt when introduced to a favourite album? Maybe twenty, probably less. How many more times will you sit down with the express intention of listening to a particular record from start to finish, and to only listen and nothing else. Perhaps five or six? And yet it all seems limitless.
I purchased More Songs About Buildings and Food on a whim after coming across it in the ‘£5 or less section’ of HMV in Hounslow. The front cover intrigued me – a group portrait made up of 529 individual Polaroids – and its date – 1978: the same year of Plastic Letters by Blondie and Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! by Devo – inferred the album might exhibit the sort of new wave qualities that appealed to me – intelligible vocals, keyboards, rhythmic guitars. On playing the CD this was found to be true. I was taken aback by how good it was and also how unfamiliar; how so few of the songs had been released as singles (just one: Take Me to the River, a cover of an old Al Green song). I liked the record so much that I quickly surmised it might be one of my favourites. To satiate any curiosity you may have upon this subject, here are my 10 favourite albums of all time in the order I came across them:
Sign o’ the Times – Prince
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back – Public Enemy
Step in the Arena – Gang Starr
One for All – Brand Nubian
Modern Life is Rubbish – Blur
Tindersticks (first album) – Tindersticks
This Nation’s Saving Grace – The Fall
Mars Audiac Quintet – Stereolab
Forever Changes – Love
Stardust – The Sea Urchins (not strictly an album but a collection of the band’s singles)
A Northern Soul – The Verve
Exile on Main Street – Rolling Stones
Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul – Otis Redding
More Songs About Buildings and Food – Talking Heads
The eagle-eyed amongst you will notice that I’ve listed more than 10 albums. I tried whittling it down but couldn’t get any lower than 14, and I’m not even sure I’ve got that right.
Warning Sign is a very highly strung song. It starts with Chris Frantz knocking out a few bars on drums, Tania Weymouth then embarks on a wandering groove, David Byrne’s guitar gradually chimes in before Jerry Harrison joins on second guitar, and then BAM! – Byrne mutates his instrument into a discordant siren, demands we admire his hairdo and tells us that he’s ‘got money now’. It could be a comment on how wealth corrupts the individual, but I can’t be sure.
What Brian Eno brings to More Songs About Buildings and Food is comparable to that which Martin Hannett lends to Unknown Pleasures. Both producers subject their musical constituents to echo and delay, with a particular emphasis on drum and bass, to create a sort of industrial sonority. However, the prevailing mood on Joy Division’s record is very different. Insight: a distant drone, a faint whir and the sound of a door being opened and shut – a prison cell is implied. Cymbals and guitars gradually fade in, then Peter Hook’s bass in a register diametrically opposite to Tina Weymouth’s. The variance between the respective vocals is even more pronounced. Where David Byrne offers abstruse verbalism, Ian Curtis’s tone seems to be one of resignation. His inflection is more nuanced than he’s given credit for, and nowhere is this more true than on Insight, his bass-baritone sounding at moments almost fragile.
I used to watch more movies in those pre-internet days, such as Lost in Translation. If I had been connected to the internet then I probably would have downloaded City Girl, but instead I had to buy the film’s soundtrack, and did so for this song alone. When it came to including it on Aka ‘Devil in Disguise’ I was unable to physically dissociate it from Intro/Tokyo, a segment of ambient sound that wouldn’t feel out of place on the second side of “Heroes” by David Bowie. This turned out to be not such a bad thing, providing a dissonant bridge across from the relative clarity of Insight to the melodic oddness and distorted guitar of City Girl. It’s a song that doesn’t really resolve itself. The same chord cycle just repeats itself four times, without any real regard for what might be a verse or a chorus, except each time the tempo is increased slightly. I could listen to it all day.
For my birthday, the Wilkinsons very kindly gifted me The Fall: The Complete Peel Sessions 1978–2004. The Fall was known to be 'my' group. In truth, I hadn’t listened to them much over the last five or so years and hadn’t bought any of their records for longer than that, but I welcomed the prospect of reacquainting myself with the world of Mark E Smith. These Peel Session tracks would proceed to form the backbone of the ‘Best of The Fall’ playlist I subsequently compiled, and prompted me to purchase a few of the earlier albums that had previously escaped my attention. For the time being, Cruiser’s Creek features here.
Comet Gain are another by-product of the compilation the chap who introduced me to Sarah Records put together. The song Record Collection tells of not being able to listen to certain records because they remind the protagonist of his ex. Sarah Records guy and I have a shared appreciation of many musical moments: the sudden shift from Gbm to D in Marbles by the Tindersticks; the strained harmonies in Solace by The Sea Urchins; Arthur Lee pleading that, “we’re all normal and we want our freedom,” towards the end of Love’s The Red Telephone. On the other hand, whereas I’m very interested in rhythm, Sarah Records guy is all about melody – he has no time for The Fall and prefers a good tune. If there’s a space where we meet in the middle, Comet Gain occupy it. He took me to see them at The Water Rats in King’s Cross at the beginning of the year, and I understood perfectly.
I doubt very much the chap who introduced me to Sarah Records has much time for Devo. This is because he would perceive them to be a ‘comedy band’, and if there’s one thing he can’t stand it’s that (he has no time for Half Man Half Biscuit). But he wouldn’t be quite right. There’s certainly a humorous element to Devo’s act, but it’s equally kitsch, subversive and satirical. Not that that would impress Sarah Records guy either – as far as I know, he has no time for Weird War. Myself, I have no problem mixing mirth with music. How I laugh to myself every time I catch a glimpse of the back cover of Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! depicting various band members with stockings pulled over their heads (actually a stilled image from the band’s extended music video The Truth About De-Evolution, which I recommend highly).
It might appear that I was still avoiding contemporary music but this is only partly true. In September, I saw Stephen Malkmus touring his latest album, Face the Truth, supported by a band called Clor. My friend who passed out in Debenhams pointed me in the direction of Tom Vek by way of the video for his new single C-C (You Set The Fire In Me). Field Music, who had impressed in support of The Go! Team the previous year, released their debut album. Weird War had a new record out – they even played twice in support of it: at the Camden Underworld in May and again at the Highbury Garage in November. Aside from Illuminated by the Light by Weird War, bought within days of its release, it took me a while to absorb the rest, but ultimately I did. In the meantime I purchased Aha Shake Heartbreak by Kings of Leon.
I have Aha Shake Heartbreak on 2 x 10” vinyl. It is a nice object and a good album. The drums are sometimes off the beat, the guitars often in conflict with the melody, and Caleb Followill’s vocal delivery is intense. The only downer is that lyrically they seem to be interested in nothing more than sex, drugs and rock & roll. This ended up being somewhat true of The Strokes too.
Are we not men? No, we are Devo.
Early in the year I thought I’d have another stab at Big Star. I took a chance on #1 Record and liked it so much that within a matter of weeks I’d bought Radio City.
It can be hard to discern from my playlists what sort of thing I might have been into at the time I compiled them. Generally speaking there’s no particular strain of music that predominates, but sometimes there is. I’m alluding to music in the wider sense, encompassing a broader aesthetic. For example, the collective presence of Blur, The Jam, the Small Faces, early Rolling Stones, Love, The Beatles, Herbie Hancock, The Yardbirds, and St Etienne on Carrington Classics and The Heroes of Hanworth is indicative of the Britpop scene and its many cultural accoutrements: Fred Perry polo shirts, V-neck jumpers, desert boots, and anoraks; films like Blow Up and The Ipcress File; cafes; an almost Ballardian relationship with one’s environment; a sense of irony; whatever Graham Coxon was into. By the time I’d made Bully for Bulstrode such inclinations had dissipated. After the eclecticism of the ‘French Gite’ compilations my view began to narrow once more (although this didn’t really take hold until after my travels in 2002/03). The artistes this time around were The Byrds, Gram Parsons, Neil Young, Syd Barrett, The Amboy Dukes, Led Zeppelin, Big Star, golden era Rolling Stones, and, as we have seen, a miscellany of psychedelia, garage and country rock. It was something approaching ‘Americana’ and found its representation in: pale-blue denim, checked shirts, Cuban heels, black leather bomber jackets; films like Zabriskie Point and Buffalo 66; the works of Hunter S Thompson; the tattered reputation of Richard Nixon; my American ‘road trip’ of the 2004, which was basically the enactment of some sort of fantasy; Keith Richards sat outside the burnt hulk of his Redlands estate in cut-off denim shorts and a tight-fitting shirt with the sleeves rolled up. These are trivial matters, but when I look back over certain periods of my life, to the clothes I wore, the places I ventured, the music I listened to, the films I watched, then suddenly there’s meaning where there didn’t appear to be at the time.
Anyway, Big Star: I’d explored ‘power pop’ without having to resort to Cheap Trick or The Knack.
Let’s all give Mike at Really Good Records a big round of applause. The third and final track taken from Illusions from the Crackling Void – and there could quite easily have been more – is Road to Nowhere by Hearts and Flowers. You might call it country rock but it’s probably more rooted in the American folk-rock tradition. It could be seen as the climax to the compilation – it has that quality to it, approaching the sublime.
As much as Rod Stewart’s personality can be slightly nauseating, he’s undoubtedly a great singer. There’s a folksy feel to Angel, which follows on from Road to Nowhere very nicely, although it was Jimi Hendrix’s tune originally, about his mother. Ronnie Wood’s guitar playing is quite loose, sometimes behind, sometimes ahead of the beat, always deliberately so. The verse builds to a crescendo, and at the moment of release we get congas.
A lot of country, folk and psychedelic rock is fairly interchangeable (excepting the strain of British folk-rock that developed into the Canterbury Scene, but that’s not relevant here). Take Neil Young’s work with Buffalo Springfield. At the time it could conceivably have been characterised as folk rock with a psychedelic edge. When Young went solo he jettisoned the psychedelic and rockier elements in favour of a more country inflected sound, and yet you’d be hard pushed to call it country rock in the vein of The Byrds or The Flying Burrito Brothers. Nor could you call it ‘southern rock’, a derivative of the genre that was gathering pace. What you might call it is country folk. Pedantic taxonomy aside, I added After the Gold Rush to my collection and sought to include a track on this compilation. Still beholden to MiniDisc, I was going to go with Cripple Creep Ferry but found I had almost three minutes to spare on account of opting for Silly Girl by Television Personalities, at 2 minutes 45 seconds, ahead of Cross-Eyed Merry by Jethro Tull, which comes in at 4 minutes and 6 seconds, and so settled for Tell Me Why, which lasts 2 minutes and 54 seconds.
I was initially a bit disappointed with Weird War’s Illuminated by the Light. It lacks the urgency, the mania and the effect pedals of its predecessors. However, its lethargic, folksy funk grew on me, and the material worked well live. But Svenonius was done with Weird War. He took a break and returned four years later with a new outfit, called Chain & the Gang.
In October, my lady friend and I moved to the more salubrious environs of St Margarets, Twickenham. I didn’t want to but circumstances dictated that we did. I had liked living in Isleworth, having the Red Lion as my local, St John’s stores at the end of my road, the H37, ‘St John the Baptist’.
Silly Girl by the Television Personalities, courtesy of the chap who introduced me to Sarah Records. I’ve only got two Television Personalities songs to go on: this and a track called Back to Vietnam which the chap who introduced me to Sarah Records played to me around the time he introduced me to Sarah Records, and did so with slight smirk. I don’t know what to make of them and haven’t invested the time to find out, which I should probably put right.