Sunday, 24 February 2013

JACQUES BREL - "La Belle Affaire!"


"Quand je serai vieux je serai insupportable         "When I'm old I'll be unbearable
 Sauf pour mon lit et mon maigre passe                 Except to my bed and my meagre past
 Mon chien sera mort, ma barbe sera minable      My dog will be dead, my beard shabby
 Toutes mes morues m'auront laisse tomber"       And all my whores will dump me"

                                                             "LA, LA, LA" - 1966

By the time he finally stepped off the stage in May 1967, Jacques Brel had almost reached the end of his artistic course.

With a few notable exceptions, the songs recorded in this period would see him re-working the same lyrical obsessions he'd been ploughing since the late 50's, with only the lusher arrangements offering any real musical progression. In addition, each LP was now peppered with self-deprecating references to himself in third person, designed to send a signal to his audience in Brechtian terms that the show was nearly over. And so just as he'd abandoned the safety of his father's Brussels cardboard factory 15 years previously to become the star of the Parisian music-hall, so he decided to step off the carousel once and for all and indulge himself in something new.

A keen aviator, Brel passed his pilot's license in Switzerland and then took up the offer to launch himself into the world of celluloid, first as actor then director. These twin obsessions would dovetail to fine effect in the overhead panning shot of the Blankenburg tram trundling over the dunes, which opened his directorial debut "Franz", which premiered at Cannes in 1971. This dark melodrama starred Brel himself as a composite Brelien figure, marooned in the geographical and tragi-comic end of his own back-catalogue. The cinematography impressively captured the haunting monotony of the Belgian countryside and won plaudits from the critics as a first noble effort. But commercially the film failed to live up to his landmark break through back at the Olympia Music Hall back in 1961, when his name became the toast of toutes Paris. And so with time ticking by and dreams still to be realised, Brel added a boat to his escape plans, said goodbye to wife and daughters and set sail for a desert-island exile in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.






By the middle of the decade with failing health, he found himself making regular trips back, island-hopping to Los Angeles and then onto Brussels or Orly depending on the consultation required. Accompanied by his partner, Madly, the couple played cat and mouse with the "Paris Match" paparazzi, hungry for snaps of the ailing monstre sacre. Lying low behind hotel curtains during the day, the nights were spent re-visiting old haunts such as "Chez Leon" off the Brussels Grand Place, re-living the years of triumph in the company of old cronies from his touring entourage with occasional visits from the likes of Claude Lelouch and actor Lino Ventura. And it was here that serviette scribbled doodles, risque jokes and boozy reminiscences would coagulate, re-fuelling the chansoniers fires to lay down a final testament to his lyrical obsessions. By 1977 the urgency to record them would become acute as the advancing stages of lung cancer threatened to extinguish any thoughts of a final performance.

And so it was that a final session was convened that autumn in the company of his established accompanists, Rauber, Jouannest and Azzola. The songs picked up the same familiar themes, the quartet locked into the same musical patterns. Here was a slow moving ballad, here an uptempo march with accordion fills. One track would suggest acute vulnerability only for the mood to be broken by a ribald portrait of crude misanthropy. The humour was black the sentimentality brutally honest, but underscoring every note there was something new. From the beginning his songs had meditated on the limited course of the human condition, but at that autumnal session in 1977 every single song bears the heavy presence of impending expiration.




The years of isolation at Hiva-Oa had left Brel pondering a number of unanswered questions and the death of his manager and confident, Jojo Pasquelier in 1974 precipitated a deeper contemplation of his world. From here he wrote touchingly about his friend "Jojo", imagining them re-united,"six feet under", swapping moth-eaten anecdotes and Brel even suggesting their graveyard be transformed into the heyday of their professional triumphs back at the Paris L'Olympia. This song took the male-bonding of the earlier "Jef" that bit further, focusing unashamedly on his own personal loss and the theme continues in "Voir un Ami Pleurer", which similarly pulls no punches with it's description of a friend bereft, a sight even sadder than the "towns exhausted by 50-year old children". The inevitable decline into old age permeates everything and "Viellir" describes it as a fate far worse than death itself, with that final " belle affaire" served as the only respite. The song's transcendent chorus echoing the triumphant fatalism of the earlier "La Mort" and "Le Dernier Repas".

In "Orly", Brel stands in the shadows watching a young couple violently disengage from each other; the girl finally engulfed by a monstrous bourgeois crowd of onlookers "nibbling" at her as though she were fruit. In this song Brel seems to be saying that their long cold journey into old age is only beginning. In "Avec Elegance", one of a brace of songs recorded at the same time, he remarks how men at 50 know they should leave for the provinces, simply through looking into the indifferent eyes of the beautiful women they encounter on city streets. To retire, to be put out to grass, "to be desperate but with elegance".  Another song inexplicably left off the album, "Sans Exigences" describes the winding down of a relationship in desperate yet noble terms to the touching accompaniment of an unusually minimal and skeletal harpsichord. Each verse conjuring up the de-escalation of passion and the resignation of trust.

Possibly in the interests of balance, though more likely designed to reinforce his bravura stage persona, Brel off-set these honest statements of decline with a slew of minor, up-tempo songs that pitted his "characters" against the old enemy; women. Sounding like a bastard soundtrack to Fellini's contemporaneous "La Citta Della Donna", the songs unbalanced the album and lead to renewed criticism of the author's barely disguised misogyny. In "Les Ramparts Des Varsovie" this is joined by a dash of homophobia, whilst in "Les F...", Brel gives himself over to quite earnest racial self-loathing. In this song his hitherto merely hinted at disdain for Flemish nationalism is made explicit against a highly ironic disco backing. The song with it's infamous accusation of his fellow countrymen being "Nazis during the wars and Catholics in between" leaves no margin for misinterpretation or ambiguity by a final line in which the author states, "And if your cowardly brothers don't protest, too bad for them, me I stick to my guns, signing off, Jacques Brel!". The song would lead to anti-Brel graffitti along the Brussels railway sidings and polarise the affections of his local fan-base. But in this unforgiving final performance Brel was taking no prisoners.

If women and his homeland get a raw deal, then it was matched by a refreshed onslaught against another ancient foe; organised religion. Throughout the LP, Brel makes it clear time and time again that he had no intention to make peace with his maker. If a feeling of bittersweet loss is the mood of the un-issued war memory "Mai 40", then the air is thick with anarchy for the LP's opening song "Jaures". This song, a rare political tribute to the anti-militarist leader of the French left, assassinated in 1914, at the outbreak of a war made with "priests blessings", explicitly outlines Brel's despair in religion. In asking why Jaures was killed, Brel seems to be addressing "Le Bon Dieu" Himself, and in the song of the same name he finds the answer, declaring him to be no maker of miracles, but something better, "You are a man!" Just a man.

Brel the man passed away in October 1978, 12 months and 8 days after recording the album's closing tribute to his island hideaway. In 1961 he'd celebrated the dream of "Un Ile", "out in the open sea of hope, where men would not be afraid". By 1977, the island described in "Les Marquises" is one of eerie menace and stultifying disorientation, where seasons don't exist and time stands still. But by this time Brel was done with romance and as the last words he would sing declare;

"Veux-tu que je te dise gemir n'est pas de mise    "I tell you what, whining isn't the thing to do
  Aux Marquises"                                                          In the Marquises"





Friday, 7 December 2012

The World of JOHN CAMERON

JC. Hard at it.
One of the many back-room Johnnies that pulled the strings for a string of front-room favourites, John Cameron's name keeps cropping up in my record collection. As a result I feel compelled to honour the range of his arrangements and at the same time purge myself from listening to him again and again and again. I hope this draws a line under it.

By way of introduction I am including one of the TV shows he was responsible for and one that in my opinion never really added up. And  I mean literally. You had these impressive opening titles where all sorts of stuff was going on but because it was only on for 30 minutes there was never enough time for anything to actually happen. I constantly felt shortchanged. All through my youth.


DONOVAN, "standing by The Everyman digging the rigging in my (his) sail...", encountered JC and installed him as his musical director from whence he oversaw a truly inspired evolution from folkie to what (in the books) is officially called  psychedelic minstrel. Much lyrical waxing ensued against the sound of harpsichords and the big-chinned Dylanist was never the same again. Cameron took Don through the changes, with the pair briefly relocating New Orleans to St Albans with a series of swinging jazztastic odes hammered out in the company of regular sidemen Spike Heatley, Candy Carr and The Hipster himself Harold McNair. Try "Preachin Love" for proof. It's like Georgie Fame but in a slightly fey Scottish brogue.



Meanwhile somewhere under Greek Street the Canadian chanteuse JULIE FELIX was hitting the same string bass notes, her "Saturday Night" restyle of "Young Girl Blues" coming out a very worthy cover and Cameron followed her onto the BBC for the duration of a TV show. In this canon mention must be made of PETER SARSTEDT's "Step Into The Candlelight" and a particularly forgotten progressive folkie of the same bent TIM HOLLIER. His LPs have some very big Cameron arrangements such as the sweeping "In The Light of Sadness".

Hanging round the BBC (in an entirely work based capacity I must stress) Cameron must have bumped into southern belle BOBBIE GENTRY, as he ended up acting as her MD for her criminally wiped shows. (I mean what were they doing at the BBC in those days....?)

Pinching her distinctive Chickasaw County Sound he turned "On a Monday" by JIMMY CAMPBELL into some sort of my woman done-like gone-like, mersey delta blues. (Fans of this singer will not need to be reminded of The 23rd Turnoff's monumental "Michaelangelo"). The phenomenon of Donovan inspired a couple (?) of tribute albums recorded by VIC LEWIS at the arse-end of the 60's and Cameron turns up arranging Vic's spectacular take on Macca's "Blackbird". It's interesting to hear the MIKE SAMMES SINGERS sending the bird in a distinctly mid-Atlantic direction.

For the PICADILLY LINE Cameron is in restrained form. The sleeve of their album suggests full-on Toy-town psych but it's actually very measured, softly swinging folk- baroque (shit I've used all by labels!). "On the Third Stroke" sounds like something off a Simon & Garfunkel album, which is no bad thing. But Cameron was a man of many parts and word should be made of his northern soul credentials with his work with The Flirtations and one-offs like the Cam arranged "Look at the Lights Go Out" by HOPSCOTCH, a band previously called The Scots of St James (a play on words on the club The Scotch of St James ....a popular club in St James with a Scotch theme - I think they ended up as Marmalade, a breakfast condiment).

And then there's "No More" by American singer JON HENDRICKS, previously of the Lambert, Hendricks & Ross scat group and "Twisted" fame. He was in London at the time working with Ronnie Scott who was also acting as sideman for the former singer Scott Walker, Hendricks appears as a guest on an April 1969 edition of Scott's TV Show. (And we wondered once opon a time why the saving of these shows was low down the BBC priorities...). LIONEL BART's progressive 1968 LP doesn't so much divide opinion as draw together an overwhelming consensus that the song "May a Man Be Merry" is the only thing worth listening to on it! (file next to JC's soundtrack to the Peter O'Toole vehicle, "The Ruling Class". But only if you want).
In this period Cameron oversaw Melanie's second LP and her soundtrack to the Tom Bell vehicle "All The Right Noises" as well as sessions with ex-Manfred and budding Brit-actor Paul Jones. ALAN DAVID was another with thespian credentials appearing in "Gonks Go Beat" and the TV Show "Gadzooks Its All Happening" (no not exactly The Cottesloe, was he?). He didn't seem to have any other credits after this. "Oh What a Naughty Man" is a decidedly camp affair with more than a touch of late 60's Bowie about it. (The b-side "I've Got to Know" is a spot-on Barry Ryan impersonation by the way for those who are interested. And for those who are VERY interested there's a good cover version of it on Petula Clark's "C'est La Refrain De Ma Chanson" LP.).

I suppose I should mention JC's work on singles by Gloria Hunniford and Freddie Garrity in this particular part of the appraisal but I won't. Of far greater interest is John Cameron's masterwork from 1968, "Run the Length of Your Wildness" by well-connected American singer KATHE GREEN. Enclosed within a creepy Hammer Horror-inspired sleeve, JC comes as close as anyone to recreating Jim Webb's weirdly wonderful arrangements for the Richard Harris LP's. Indeed it was the man they called Hoarse who inspired Green's album title. Songs like the title track and "Primrose Hill" pack a heavy emotional punch with JC given free-reign to belt out almost Wagnerian soundscapes. Balancing this are more wistful titles such as the meticulously arranged and sung "Ring of String".


The album also has a great version of one of Cameron's best known compositions, "If I'd Ever Thought You'd Change Your Mind", a song covered by many singers of the day including the eternally undervalued CILLA BLACK. (there's also a very nice Gil Evans-type jazz version of this by the mystic Californian trumpeter Maynard Ferguson). Welsh wanna-be-Cilla SAMANTHA JONES did a rousing version of JC's other famous song "Sweet Inspiration" which is well worth a spin even if her vocal does get a little over exposed amongst Mark Wirtz's ersatz parping horns.
Cameron's big hit was however in the company of the Collective Consciousness Society - CCS - and their big band reworking of "Whole Lotta Love"which left a deep impression on many British childhoods as the theme to BBC's "Top of the Pops" (It's not the easiest thing to listen to these days I might add...) From their first LP the "Waiting Song" is a particularly fine showcase for the cream of British jazz that resided in this band's line-up. No Alexis Korner on it either.  LESLEY DUNCAN's career flitted between session work (I think she's on much of the above songs I've wittered on about) and obscure singles. "Love Song" is her most famous song but this was the original version with its use of atmospheric street sounds. This is one of those VERY London songs - up there with the stuff off Drake's "Bryter Layter" and that Murray Head LP where he goes off his trolley - "Nigel Lived".

Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" is in my opinion given it's most evocative  interpretation by FRANCOISE HARDY. This wins over the French version by the the erotic pronunciation of the word:
 "o-rang-es" near the start.
One wet Sunday afternoon at The Belgrade Hotel in Oldham, I handed over a fiver for "Les Grandes Success" LP and the veteran Brummie record dealer cooed back at me, "Oooh Francoise!". In a split second, and much to my chagrin, the crowning peak of this man's entire adolescence had been eternally forced upon my consciousness.

Growing up with exposure to the Bam Caruso "Rubble " series I came across a couple of acts with Cameron arrangements, both good examples of how ill-defined much of the music we call/called psychedelic really is. Both THE KALEIDOSCOPE's "Black Fjord" and WORLD OF OZ's "Like a Tear" are very difficult to pin-point. The consistent element is the imaginative arrangements, the former bombastically epic, the latter incalculably subtle.
Over the North Sea The Tages were the most Beatle-like of the Swedish bands and by the end of the 60's they had become BLOND (I mean they already were but they changed there name to BLOND). They drafted JC in to give them a revamp and ended up recording the "If I Ever Thought You'd Change..."song. They also recorded something of an epic called "The Lilac Years" which seems to be about the immigration of Scandinavians to America. It's all very BIG and ends up with a slightly unexpected crumhorn solo.

What else...what else...well there is of course the work he produced under his own name. In the mid-60's he knocked out a couple of LPs "Cover Lover" and "Warm & gentle" which were fairly bog standard easy comps of popular tunes, a bit like the work of Sounds Orchestral and other John Schroeder produced concoctions.
In fact it is JC on JS's "Dolly Catcher" LP which spawned the memorable "Explosive Corrosive Joseph" amongst others. Of greater worth is the classic "Troublemaker" LP with Harold and co all in place. (PS - it's quite popular in clubs). The other stuff has been leaked out by that other Johnny, Mr Trunk with the soundtracks to "Kes" and "Psychomania".

Elsewhere his Library work can be found on the internet (this). These LPs were recorded for commercial purposes and there is a LOT OF IT. Bonne chance to the man who wants to track it all down. However some of it is top notch with the KPM series spawning things like "Liquid Sunshine" and the Sound Gallery-famed "Half Forgotten Daydreams"

Any road I'm done. I'll leave you with this:


Monday, 9 July 2012

PETE TOWNSHEND - 1968: A year between the cracks

It's worth quoting in full:

"They're the scruffiest bunch of Poms that ever milked money from this country's kids...they took nearly 8000 teenagers for $2.60 to $3.60 each. All the kids got for their money was an ear-splitting cacophony that was neither musical nor funny...They did more to harm the British image in a few days than Harold Wilson or Edward Heath could do in ten years. I'm ashamed to have come from the same country as these unwashed, foul-mouthed, booze swilling no-hopers. Britain can have them"
The Truth, Paul Rodgers
(New Zealand  tabloid  - 6th Feb 1968)

And so ended The Who's tour of the Antipodes; a two week slalom of long-haul flights, harassed air hostesses, rotten P.A's and lots of tinned beer. Two years on they'd be touring opera houses for the crowned heads of Europe, riding high on the back of a critically acclaimed magnum opus that would make them millionaires.

In between all this was 1968.

Fluck & King's design classic
The December 1967 release of the remarkable post-modern masterpiece "The Who Sell Out" turned out to be a dead-end. In fact it happened in Pete Townshend's head when the taster single "I Can See For Miles" failed to sell. "I spat on the British record buyer" is the oft-quoted remark that draws a line under this period. Townshend had leapt forward as far as anyone could in bringing the audio-visual concepts of management to fruition, but the lack of commercial success compounded some significant inner turmoil. The summer had taken its toll with the guitarist personally scarred by a number of nightmarish mid-flight incidents whilst touring the States. After their performance at Monterey he tripped badly all the way home on his first and last experience with STP, whilst an emergency landing on a foam covered runway at Rhode Island would flashback in an unexpected direction.

"I say without reservation, we ain't getting much higher"
At the start of the New Year the band put down a rag-bag selection of songs destined for a motley sequence of releases over the course of the next 40-odd years. The uncharacteristically sober, "Faith in Something Bigger" hinted at the post-acid comedown that had lead Townshend towards spiritual rejuvenation in Indian guru Meher Baba. At the same time a more explicit expression of his self-reflection was to be found in the dramatic "Glow Girl"; a fiery re-incarnation horror story complete with a pop-art plane-crash guitar solo no less. The guitarist was edging towards something here. Some sort of statement. The rejected promo artwork is a classic of the time pop-collage, with Sitting Bull, Henry Kissinger and Tor Johnson from "Plan 9 From Outer Space", all heading towards their maker.

"The sun is shining, but not for me...the sun is shining BUT NOT FOR M-EE"

Back home in his studio in Belgravia, Pete demoed a song rooted  in the English winter. "Melancholia" would erupt into life in the hands of the band later on in the year, but in the author's original recording we hear a crazed scientist pottering about in his lab. The home-made drums and treated vocals lurch against the anarchic tempo like neurones bouncing across a traumatised cerebral cortex. This was the sound of a straining lurch into the abyss. It's bloody good but Townshend clearly didn't  know where HIS band were heading.

Studio time in L.A squeezed between an inter-state Spring tour produced "Call Me Lightning", a remarkable throwback to an earlier Who (a return to a lost Who?). "Little Billy" was no less interesting and confusing, commissioned as it was by the American Cancer Society. On stage at the Fillmore East in April Townshend explained it as;

"A song about someone that doesn't smoke and doesn't die of obesity, even though he is very fat - and ends up looking after all the children of the people that died of cancer"

At the same concert the band delivered a blistering extended version of "Relax" from "The Who Sell Out" whilst "Shakin' All Over" and "My Generation" formed a blueprint for the improvised soloing that would become the band's hallmark in the years to come. Recorded a day after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Townshend marked the occasion by replacing his usual conclusion of "You are forgiven" at the end of  "A Quick One" with a mind-numbingly inappropriate throwaway that encapsulated the band's wild sense of naivity and exhuberance abroad:

"That certain person that shot that certain person - is forgiven"

Back home in the midst of a tour of University Hall's, the humour was restored to a somewhat more benign if bizarre tone when the band decided to issue a calculated if ill-fated stab at the charts. In retrospect the release of running mates The Small Faces' "Lazy Sunday" in April was perhaps not coincidental in the decision to let loose "Dogs" with all it's cockney ooh-la-la. The Track Records promotional material did little to help it sell but today we can but glory in the song's sheer mind numbing irreverence. And listen to those harmonies at the end!


Back in a variety of studios the band continued to accumulate songs. At Track headquarters in Soho, manager Kit Lambert was intent on collecting these sods and odds into an LP intended for a July release to coincide with the Wimbledon tennis tournament. Exactly why "Who's For Tennis?" would have been an appropriate move based as it was on a very lame title joke has been lost in time. However it reveals the dire straits the band were in and firmly explains where The Who were in the rock firmament. If it had been released it would have been a fittingly perverse addition to the band's recent career moves, that it wasn't released, marks the point where the band's fortunes were irrevocably altered.

As the Summer of '68 slipped into Autumn, Pete found himself focussing on something altogether more substantial and with Lambert egging him on, the band began work on a batch of new songs assembling under the working title of "The Deaf, Dumb and Blind Boy". Unbeknown to them, the sessions at IBC, Portland Place would occupy the better part of the next 8 months.

To bridge the gap, the band resurrected the Bo Diddley-inspired "Magic Bus", a non-performing US-only single which in sound resurrected another echo of the lost Who. In fact so low down was this piece in Townshend's ambitions, he'd given the song away 12 months previously to a hopelessly obscure act appropriately called The Pudding. Their version flopped too.

On the 7th October (the day of this scribe's birth no less), the band flew to Bremen to publicise the song on the German "Top of The Pops", "Beat Club". But in a clear sign that management had lost track of their target audience, the Track promotional machine cranked up with wildly misplaced overkill.

What was it about this song? In America the song had titled an outrageous rip-off of an LP called "Magic Bus: The Who on Tour". Released to look like a live album the record was in fact a dodgy compilation of b-sides and singles. The band raged against it's release yet there they were on the 9th October aboard a vintage bus which followed a circular route from Shepherd's Bus to Holborn via Oxford Street and Trafalgar Square. On board were a baby elephant, a parrot and two dolly birds who would go onto infamy later on that month when they posed nude for the Track Records-Dave King designed, "Electric Ladyland" sleeve. A week later the whole lot of 'em repeated the same journey!

LOOK there they are!


















In November the band joined a package tour across the provinces which climaxed in a performance at the Empire Theatre, Liverpool where the audience were treated to an eight man super-group of Who and Small Faces. For the latter group there would be only another month before their implosion and though it had seemed inevitable for Townshend's bemused charges, The Who MkII were actually about to crank it up to full throttle.

In December they appeared in a TV studio in Wembley as members of the The Rolling Stones "Rock'n'Roll Circus" extravaganza. Designed to triumph where the Beatles '67 "Magical Mystery Tour" had merely baffled, the whole thing eventually collapsed when the Stones forgot to bring the house down. In the re-issued film bleary-eyed punters dressed like extras from "The Prisoner" make desperate efforts to whip themselves into a frenzy as Mick and the boys finally hit the stage. But Wembley at 6am in the morning is a cruel place to be and there is nothing more painful than watching a band perform their set AT their audience. The Stones were approaching their creative peak but they hadn't got under the skin of their material yet, and compared to the other acts they simply didn't seem hungry enough.

But none of them were hungrier than The Who and this performance above all demonstrates the strides the band had made on stage by the relentless touring that year. One legend persists that Jagger (or manager Allen Klein) attempted to sell the whole thing back to the band as "The Who's Rock'n'Roll Circus". Whatever the truth, posterity records that suddenly the bass boomed like never before, the vocals swaggered with greater conviction, the drums rolled like exploding grenades and Pete slashed at his guitar with almost devotional violence.



Monday, 30 April 2012

MARSHA HUNT - Woman Child LP


By her own admission, Marsha Hunt was maybe not the most technically accomplished of the many female vocalists to make their mark in the 1960's and on occasion she seemed to overcompensate for inappropriate material by singing in the style of someone trying very hard to get noticed. This collection of songs covering sessions from 1969-1971 is a hotch-potch of bluesy show tunes, swamp rock, Dylan, The Band, Traffic and a brace of songs by the fledgling Marc Bolan. Sometimes she's backed by strings, jazz musicians, rock stars and sometimes it sounds like its a bit of everything.

But like Hunt herself, the whole package gels as a sum of its parts, pulling you back again and again for repeated listens. Whether it's her unpredictable vocals, the ambitious range of material or the top-notch backing, the whole thing seems to work!

What was she anyway? A singer, an actress, a model, a dancer... a groupie? In fact she was all these things. The timeless story of a young ambitious "face" propelling herself into whatever the people with money and influence wanted her to be.

Whatever it was Marsha Hunt ensured she was part of it!
Yes it's Marsha's.

Her route to fame was legendary. From a mid-60's Berkeley hanging out with Jerry Rubin, to the London blues scene in the company of Alexis Korner, John Mayall and Long John Baldry. She then auditioned for an unimaginable Soft Machine line-up, gaining UK residency and a husband through a marriage of convenience to keyboardist Mike Ratledge. From a minor role in the major musical "Hair", her exuberant kinky afro soon ended up on all the promo posters and album sleeves and modelling contracts with Lord Litchfield and Horace Ove soon followed.

Dracula AD 1972...err...1973 (in Spain)
Suddenly everyone wanted a piece of Marsha Hunt. The Stones wanted her in the publicity photos promoting their "Honky Tonk Woman" single which she turned down, but by November 1970 she'd given birth to Jagger's daughter and their union immortalised in the Stones iconic "Brown Sugar".  In this period she also appeared in the rock-Othello theatre production "Catch My Soul" and added glamour to the Chelsea-set Hammer horror film "Dracula 1972" (AKA "Dracula Chases the Mini-Girls"). She topped this playing The Nurse at the Rainbow Theatre, Finsbury Park in a symphonic "Tommy" appearing in an admittedly b-team (though eclectic) line-up of David Essex, Elkie Brooks, Vivian Stanshall, Roy Wood, Jon Pertwee and...Bill Oddie.

She got around!


Amongst all this in 1969, she picked up a track from Dr John's "Gris Gris" album and unleashed an inspired "Walk on Gilded Splinters" on a quite unprepared British public. The Marie Laveau voodoo bit and the impact of her provocative couture, ended up jamming the BBC switchboards long into the night. Future Yes-man Rick Wakeman contributed the keyboards, but it's the sinister cor anglais obligato that pushes this song beyond the boundaries and into somewhere very dark. The full BBC clip has gone down I'm afraid but you get the gist from this:




The flip of the single, a trilled flutes and funky bombast version of Marc Bolan's "Red Hot Poppa" was just as good and the package paved the way for the release of a double Bolan-penned follow-up single "Desdemona / Hippy Gumbo". When originally recorded in 1967, Bolan's band Johns Children imploded in the aftershock of a BBC ban which effectively decapitated their chances of achieving any lasting fame. That the ban was a result of the following lyric says much about the rapid speed of change in those late 60's:

 "Desdemona...Desdemona...Desdemona...
  Lift up your skirt and FLY!"

Slowed down into a funky groove, Marsha lives the lyric, crafting the definitive interpretation to the extent that it could have been written for her alone. Of particular note is the superb choir of fellow yank exiles Madeleine Bell, Nanette Workman and Doris Troy. They would appear on multiple records in this period, including The Stones "Let it Bleed" and their backing vocals add a sweet counterpoint to Marsha's exuberant wailing. When their soul chorus merges halfway through with the string arrangement, "Desdemona" is propelled high indeed. Great piano too!


The Bolan connection came about through producer Tony Visconti, another displaced American carving a niche for himself in a vibrant London scene. Working on Tyrannosaurus Rex's "Unicorn" LP at Trident Studios in Soho he introduced the pair and as he memorably recorded:

"you could see the shafts of light pouring out of their eyes into each other...We finished the session unusually early and Marc and Marsha walked out into the night"

Hunt and Bolan clicked and in addition to composer royalties the diminutive one hung around long enough to add memorable backing vocals to a dramatic cover of The Supremes "My World is Empty Without You". His un-restrained ejaculations add a haunting presence to an already edgy inversion of the Motown template. Visconti's sweeping strings go even further turning this into something akin to an Anglo-American "Je T'aime Moi Non Plus"!


Other songs of note include the spooky title track "Woman Child" and the old-time jazz excursion "Moan You Moaners" cut with a visiting Count Basie Orchestra. The LP was recorded on Track Records with label boss Kit Lambert overseeing production of a couple of songs and in-house genius Pete Townshend adding the flesh to a rolling version of "Long Black Veil". Its also The Who-man's distinctive guitar runs that slash through an admittedly ragged "Wild Thing" finale, recorded in the company of Ron Wood, Kenney Jones and Ian McLaglen of The Faces.

To these ears the Simon and Garfunkel song is a mistake and there is a very unflattering YouTube clip of a pregnant Marsha BLARING this out to an absolutely bored Italian TV audience. The pre and post song interviews are particularly painful with her hair-style occupying the most coherent question and with arms folded she strains to hide her irritation. Track down the 1972 Italian TV performance instead with her frugging away on oversized building bricks with a Roman version of the Young Generation. For a moment she looks like she is going to be very big indeed.


It is a flawed LP (and it is after all a compilation) but the great moments are many and when it hits its stride the overall sound works wonders. There's a great deal of care given to the arrangements and the ensemble playing is consistently impressive in both the thrashing rock and the moody ballads. Once again we're reminded of how much talent was around at the time and these recordings sound like the collaborative effort of friends as opposed to rivals. There were plenty of egos on show but it doesn't come across.

One final request - go back to the top and really blast out "Hot Rod Poppa". And when you've done it can someone please tell me who the hell is playing that guitar?

Saturday, 31 March 2012

The Fifth Cord / Footprints - LUIGI BAZZONI - Director

The Fifth Cord (Giornata Nera Par L'Ariete) - 1971
Footprints (Le Orme) - 1974


In the first film, a disorientated man becomes entangled in a web of murder and vice, in the second a lonely woman drifts through time and space towards a recurring nightmare. The films are by the little known Luigi Bazzoni and they capture the essence of giallo.

Italian for yellow, the term giallo came to signify the mystery genre in Italy due to the popularity of the yellow-spined novels that appeared from the 1930's onwards. The likes of Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler and even Edgar Allen Poe, all found a home between the garish covers printed on cheap paper ubiquitously sold in garages and newsagents the length and breadth of the Italian peninsula. After the war the term encompassed the full range of imported crime films, taking in film-noir through Hitchcock to the German krimi productions of the Edgar Wallace mysteries. As the 1960's progressed, elements of the French fantastique genre mixing comic book, horror and sci-fi were added to the mix, which by the end of the decade resulted in a complete re-marketing of the giallo-product.

The commercial success of Dario Argento's iconic 1969 film, "The Bird with the Crystal Plummage" set the template for this new breed of stylistic thriller with worthy contributions soon following from the likes of  Mario Bava, Luciano Ercoli and Lucio Fulci. "The Bird With the Crystal Plummage" not only set the template for the look and the plotting but also the bizarre zoophilia in film titles that became a requisite selling point until the mid-1970's. "The Black Belly of the Tarantula", "Lizard with a Woman's Skin", "The Cat O' Nine Tails" and "The Case of The Scorpion's Tale" would all follow, culminating in Fulci's ill-fittingly titled masterpiece "Don't Torture a Duckling". In this context Luigi Bazzoni's 1971 entry "The Fifth Cord" at least merited an alter-ego based on its Italian title as "The Black Day of the Ram".

The film is a memorable addition to the genre containing many of the core iconic requisites. The sad-eyed Franco Nero plays the hero implicated in the mysterious crimes, unravelling the complex plot through a depressive whisky hangover. (The ubiqutious product-placement of the J&B label on show in this film is a recurring giallo within giallo.) The black gloved killer pursues his victims from a point of view perspective and there is a de rigour subplot in which morally corrupt older men exploit young people, mirroring the generational conflicts in contemporary Italian society. The stylish camera-work and lighting, working in tandem with the immaculate Ennio Morricone score, raise the overall product above a plot which like so many giallos twists and turns around a fairly preposterous motive for the actual murders. Indeed the whole genre, more accurately labelled thrilling all'italiana, is an abject lesson in Italian style over essence. Even when the blood comes it's bathed in chic profundo rosso.

That said, this is not to denigrate "The Fifth Cord" or the genre itself as mere vacuous exercises in style. These films were made to look good and 40 years on their immaculate "look" remain an integral and inescapable part of the viewing experience. In 1974's "Footprints", when Brazillian actress Florinda Bolkan walks from her ultra-modern office, framed by a towering block of steel and glass, we go "wow!" because she is a beautiful woman giving meaning to the modernist architecture of the surroundings. The giallo offers us an alternative universe in which the concrete visions of Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemayer cast 70's Italian cities as modernist utopias. The characters exist in surroundings torn straight out of Sunday colour magazines with their style complimenting the narrative as fully as the shadow photography of Film Noir or the horses charging through the Monument Valley Western.  

Adding futurist landscapes to a story that loosely plays with Science Fiction gives the mystery at the heart of "Footprints" a profundity somewhat deeper than the average giallo. As a result the film stays to haunt the audience long after the end credits, inspiring repeated viewings.
The memorable Florinda Bolkan

We wonder what planet Bolkan's character Alice is actually on when she visits the out of season resort of Garma. The mosques tell us she is in Turkey but it is never mentioned. The mysterious Garma is a strange place somewhere in the subconscious. This Alice in wonderland is drawn to the resort through an instinctive feeling that it holds the key to an understanding of her loss of memory and her recurring sedative-enhanced nightmares. Where in "The Fifth Cord" the mood is dark and oppressive with distorted camera angles mirroring the disorientating decadence of narcotics, "Footprints" takes place in clear Mediterranean light. Where the mysteries of the former film are hidden in shadows, Alice's fears are to be found within a fracturing mind, straining like her eyes in the bright sunlight of the day. It's an unsettling contrast. 

Edwige
The popularity of the genre ensured that the more lurid traits of giallo found expression in a number of lesser works that either cranked up the grand guignol horror or provided exposure to a cavalcade of European lovelies. (The work of Edwige Fenech springs to mind in the latter category). Many of these films maintain the high production values, but the routine nature of their contrived plot-construction leave them largely forgettable. It is a brave man indeed who sets upon the task of consuming the 200-plus films made within this period that feature some elements of the iconography. But dip into giallo with this double-bill of Bazzoni films and you might be pleasantly surprised with what you find. 

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

ROBIN GIBB - Saved by The Bell

Fifth of November 1967, the Hastings to London train, from it's tracks...was driven.

In his control box the Hither Green signal guard reported the wheels as burning white hot. The impact sent the 17 year old Robin Gibb, dressed in mac and trilby, head-first from his seat into the overhead luggage rack. His 19 year old girlfriend clutched her mother's bread pudding for dear life as rails smashed through the window, inches away from her head. Before long there were 53 dead passengers scattered across the tracks and 78 severely injured, many receiving on the spot amputations. Face black with oil, Gibb assisted the survivors including a small boy who screamed "The driver's dead! The driver's dead!". Not long after, Gibb entered a period of sustained post-traumatic shock. Already a sensitive child, brother Barry opined, "he was never the same again".




Robin Gibb's AMBITIOUS title track to the 1968 double album "Odessa" would be the culmination of the Bee Gee's intense synthesis of the late 1960's music scene. Like an immensely gifted ocean cruise band, the brothers whipped their way through Beatlesque pop, blue-eyed soul and sweeping ballads, even dipping their toes into voguish swamp rock and country and western sounds. It was all here. Arranger Bill Shepherd was given free reign to articulate their grandiose visions and the pudding was predictably over-egged with the inclusion of instrumental tracks representing each brother. Robin's "The British Opera" closed proceedings in a suitably epic fashion prefiguring his little heard massed strings and choir "Moon Anthem", recorded in tribute to Apollo11. In the pressing plant, the unique red flock cover of "Odessa" forced a rash to break out on the assembly line, but within the family more significant problems were breaking out.

In an atmosphere of rising egotistical tensions which were seemingly orchestrated by management, Robin left the band to venture out into a wilderness of legal writs and bad blood. Amongst statements confirming his admiration for Charles Dickens, talk of a film about Henry VIIIth and a brace of anachronistically jingoistic comments about Empire, he embarked on a series of nocturnal recordings at the IBC studies in Portland Place. His single "Saved By The Bell" followed the established formula of emotional balladry entwined in quavering falsetto harmony and strings, but the sessions also utilised a primitive drum machine and a plinking plonking moog synthesiser. At nearly 13 minutes the sweeping  "Hudson's Fallen Wind", was like a dark cousin to the Beach Boys "Smile", recounting as it did the chaos and disaster inflicted on a Mid-West farmer in the storm season. Gibb's verse concerning the screams of cattle lost to the maelstrom of a typhoon seemed to bring to mind his own recent traumas.

Austrian sleeve
The resulting album "Robin's Reign", would feature only a fragment of this track, with the running order dedicated to his slightly troubling ballads. The mood was dark and strange with songs that evoked another age. "I get the feeling I was born in the wrong century" he would quip to reporters, glossing over a lyrical content not only influenced by Victoriana but one seemingly contemplating the sacrifice of The Great War. Another lost track , "Alexandria Good Time", which was considered as a possible b-side, sets Winston Churchill's "History of the English Speaking Peoples" to a dirge-like funeral procession. "Gone Gone Gone" was one of many meditations on loss whilst the LP closer "Most of My Life" repeats the same words over and over:

"Most of my life I had to run away
 Life was a game and I just had to play
 The friends that I thought I had, were never there
 You look for love, but you don't know where" 

Other intriguing songs remain as mere titles. If we can hazard a guess about the subject matter of "My Love Life Expired", one can only wonder about what was going on in "The Band Will Meet Mr Justice" and "The People's Public Poke"?

A solo concert in New Zealand resulted in a memorable performance of "Massachusetts" with a tomato hitting him at the start of the song and a girl pushing him into the on-stage orchestra at the end! Back in London he complained to the press of living in poverty in his big house in stockbroker belt Virginia Water, fuelling accusations of exploitation by his 22 year old wife (the girl with the bread pudding). This period resulted in Gibb having the ignominy of being made a Ward of Court by his concerned father. (Hugh Gibb was also tellingly the Bee Gees business manager). The solo path was proving a strange place to be and made all the more strange when interviewed by very strange men from German TV:


The recordings continued into 1970 and if anything Gibb was becoming increasingly avant-garde. The songs from this period have been widely bootlegged but this doesn't make them the any easier to compehend. The mood is austere with an anguished sub-text that even brings to mind the distinctly alien feel of Nico's harmonium-accompanied recordings. Scott Walker would certainly have been the life and soul of the party compared to this stuff! The lyrics are deeply mournful and seem to sketch out a possible war-time story-line. The overall atmosphere is actually enhanced by the rough bootlegged quality, as though it was pressed on scratchy early-20th Century shellac. This gives it the convincing sound of music made in another age, an accident that Duchamp and the other cut and paste surrealists would certainly have approved of ! The actual recordings are a marked improvement on the previous album's almost low-fi sound with more cohesive arrangements that in their ambition quote such diverse sources as Gustav Holst, Richard Strauss and "Big Country" composer Jerome Moross. But for the most part it is simple orchestration, harpischord and Robin's multi-tracked vocals, quavering over moody doom-filled lyrics. The LP was rumoured to have been titled "Sing Slowly Sisters" after the following song and it gives a good representation of the sound:


The record was never released and remains one of the few remaining holy grail's from the period yet to see light of day. A substantial and very satisfying Bee Gee's reissue programme has been under way now for a few years and the 1969-70 period is in theory the next period to be covered. We can but hope.

Father Hugh, Robin, Barry, drummer Geoff & Maurice
By the summer of 1970 Robin was back in the fold and the brothers Gibb were once more The Bee Gees. In interviews his relief at being returned to the fold was palpable and his statements dismissing his solo work sound like the words of a young man chastised for staying out all night. He was now back at the table and the band continued where they left off. This 1971-72 period resulted in albums that contain a wealth of unfairly neglected material and both "To Whom it Might Concern" and "Trafalgar" demand re-appraisal. In the latter you can hear a band making up for lost time with the album concept a probable hangover from Robin's history fix. The inside sleeve of the gate-fold features Barry as Admiral Nelson with Robin leaning over him as Hardy. Tellingly father Hugh looms over the pair keeping a watchful eye on his combative child prodigy's.

The 1969 break-up would prove to be an aberration in a career which would go from strength to strength. They would conquer America, establish themselves in the international pop firmament and tan wildly. Whether the stuff they knocked out from the mid 70's was any good is far beyond this humble scribe's remit. But I can certainly confirm that the under performing records from their crisis years and the stuff left mouldering in cardboard boxes in Marylebone recording studios, is very good and demands pulling out.

Here's Robin, back on track, proving the point:

Saturday, 14 January 2012

The Teenage Opera - MARK WIRTZ / TOMORROW

"Stop what you're doing, put the ironing board down and listen to this! It's the new single from the Teenage Opera!"
(DJ Tony Blackburn, BBC Radio One, Nov. 1967)

Like a call to arms, the message spluttered over a million transistor radios the length and breadth of the British Isles that Autumnal morning in 1967. The Portland Place relay bounced with an unstoppable momentum winding over field and dale to the Eastern lowlands of Trimley St Martin and on past the vast conurbations of the industrial North. Over the Welsh borders and deep into the pork scratchings heartland of the Black Country. The message finally settling in the blinking transmission mast located in suburban Sydenham, high above the "Great Wen" itself.

This was it! After many months of careful preparation the latest instalment of "The Teenage Opera" was ready to be unleashed...!


And if they wern't sitting down when it started they most certainly were by the time it ended. But unfortunately nobody seemed to get up again to go out and buy it and another hype drifted into the ether.

Mark Wirtz. Hard at it.
The failure of the record put paid to the release of the mooted film, stage show, double album...probable moon-shot... and all the feverish debate that had dominated the music press since that July. The concept's signature-tune smash, "Grocer Jack (Excerpt From a Teenage Opera)", had swept all before it that summer and seemed to usher in the next paradigmatic shift in pop music production, originating as it did from from the very same studios that had given birth to "Sgt Pepper". The songs were the brainchild of German wunderkind and Abbey Road staff producer, Mark Wirtz, sometime MOR songwriter and arranger of period curios for the likes of Caroline Munro, Bob Monkhouse and Barbara Windsor ("Don't Dig Twiggy"... anybody?). Wirtz was also the producer and mentor to underground pop-group Tomorrow and for much of that year, band members Steve Howe and Keith West found themselves cajoled into extra-curricula "Teenage Opera" sessions when not working on their own album.

Tomorrow were a band dogged with frustration despite their recognition as founder members of the original British psychedelic wave. Their club appearances were contemporaneous with the likes of Soft Machine, Pink Floyd and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown but bad luck and management saw them miss commercial opportunities for wider success. In 1966 the band auditioned for Michaelangelo Antonioni's opaque and frankly loopy swinging city statement "Blow Up" starring David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave, but they lost the gig to The Yardbirds. They did however wind up in sister Lynne Redgrave's almost anti-"Blow-Up" satire "Smashing Time", written by surrealist jazzer George Melly. In this exuberant and genuinely uplifting camp romp, the band had an acting role as "The Snarks" appearing in a manic custard pie fight and an even more manic party at the long-gone revolving restaurant of the Post-Office Tower. By the time of the film's release their album was in the can but the unexpected success of "Grocer Jack" convinced EMI to sit on it.

Tomorrow (Keith West & Steve Howe left)
The company found themselves with a potential money-spinner with Wirtz creating manifold spin-off songs to bulk up a full-on concept album. What the concept was wasn't exactly clear, but that year's new children's show "Trumpton" seemed to be sipping the same creative juices and one imagines a film version might have ended up like the whimsical 1969 featurette, "Les Bicyclettes De Belsize". Unfortunately for vocalist and co-writer Keith West he found himself an integral part of the whole package and when Tomorrow left London to tour the wild provinces that year, they found themselves compelled to play the song in their set. Exactly how this came off without the orchestra and children's choir is anyones guess!

The failure of the brilliant, "Titfield Thunderbolt"-inspired, "Sam" brought the curtain down on the whole thing but for Tomorrow it was too late. Media-promoted psychedelia rapidly came to a close with The Beatles "Magical Mystery Tour" film fiasco and at the "Christmas on Earth" extravaganza at Olympia in December, the band shared the stage with a rapidly imploding Pink Floyd and proto-metal showman, Jimi Hendrix. The year gave way to the cold reality of 1968 and with the momentum lost the band members split for pastures new. West tried for an Apple contract but lost out whilst guitarist Howe, responsible for the impressive West-coast raga-rock sound on the band's eponymous Parlophone album, finally released in February 1968, had to wait a good 2 years to find a similar band to match his talent. (Yes I know he joined Yes!)
 
In the meantime Wirtz soldiered on with his backlog of recordings issuing a number of singles under different guises, including another remarkable excerpt from "The Teenage Opera" under his own name. The February 1968 single "(He's Our Our Dear Old) Weatherman", was another Toy-Town masterpiece with Wirtz fashioning a Wagnerian cacophany of BBC light programme strings, children's choir, kazoos, tub-thumping drums and trademark balalaikas. His phased teutonic phrasing make this a particularly memorable number. It beggars belief that this was released as a single and needless to say it sank like a stone:



Phil Smee of Bam Caruso fame compiled a "Teenage Opera" facsimile a few years ago on RPM Records which shouldn't be too tricky to track down. (He once taped for me a Czechoslovakian "Beat 67" LP which I never thanked him for...) The CD is fleshed out with too much material to make it a comfortable listening experience but one is grateful for the effort put in and great fun can be had assembling an ideal 45 minute LP from the sessions (...I mean if you've not much on!). At times it's easy listening, at times it's whimsical pop but throughout it's uniquely Mark Wirtz, with the kitchen sink never far away. It's not the British version of "Smile" but I can't think of too many other pop records with such misplaced ambition. This is my cut:

Side One                                                                   Side Two
Theme From a Teenage Opera                               Grocer Jack        
Festival of Kings                                                        Sam
Grocer Jack (Excerpt From a Teenage Opera)     Farewell To a Broken Doll
The Paranoic Woodcutter #1                                   He's Our Dear Old Weatherman
Mr Rainbow                                                                Knickerbocker Glory
Possum's Dance                                                       Shy Boy
Dream, Dream, Dream                                            The Paranoic Woodcutter #2
Love and Ocassional Rain                                       Theme From a Teenage Opera (End Titles)

As the summer of 1968 saw the last vestiges of psychedelia give way to hard rock and roots music, Keith West in the company of Ron Wood, Aynsley Dunbar and Steve Howe, returned with a solo single. The quite beautiful "On a Saturday" gives a hint of the star West could have been if things had fallen into place. The song's summer into autumn feel, pensive lyrics and jazzy guitar and drums offer a sweet counterpoint to Wirtz's sturm und drang excesses.

I think I'll leave you with this. A bit like a cool mint after a rich curry: