... your heart out
... and then again
Heuristic – serving to find out or stimulate investigation ... Hew – chop, cut with axe ...
“For those who worked in the shadows must know more than those in the daylight ...”
John Buchan, A Prince of the Captivity
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org www.myspace.com/yrheartout
Singers and their songs. Singers with something about them. Songs with that something more about them. Singers and their sets of songs. Sets of songs that are that bit more than simply sets of songs. Songs that are thematically linked. Song cycles. Suites. Conceptual works. Musicals. Musical dramas. Oratorios. Operas. The full works. In an age when music is increasingly marketed as being about individual songs, virtually, available as separate entities, it is a treat to come across something a little out of the ordinary. Something like Metropolis – The Chase Suite by Janelle Monáe. I like it a lot. I like the fact that Janelle Monáe’s career trajectory to date is a little odd. Odd but it at least has got her a Diddy deal many would dream of, so there could be some sort of moral there about the rewards of taking chances. It’s great music. Full stop. But all the more impressive as there’s a real story behind the music. A very real sci-fi style story. In the great tradition of Deltron 3030. Or Ursula Le Guin. The first of a series of Suites I hope from Janelle. As for this one. Well, it’s way into the future, and Cindi Mayweather, the heroine of The Chase, is an Alpha Platinum 9000 android on the run because she's fallen in love with a human being, a situation that is forbidden in the future landscape of Metropolis. En route she becomes the rebellious voice of a new form of pop called cybersoul, and escapes into the Wonderground, where she is still hunted. Great stuff. And in its way a cutting commentary on the mess that is the modern world. The whole concept works on whatever level you choose. As pop, yes. In a dramatic way. The references in the sleeve notes to Judy Garland as
well as Erykah and Lauren are telling. That wholly appropriate cover of Smile at the end. Conjuring up images of Chaplin in Modern Times. Or hearing Nat King Cole sing that number. Or perhaps June Tyson singing with Sun Ra. Smile. Though your heart is breaking. That sense of putting on the agony, putting on the style. Style. There’s something about Janelle that’s possibly reminiscent of the Grace Jones twist on disco, turning heads, with the Warm Leatherette set, Wally Badarou, Sly and Robbie, that Compass Point sound, the Jean Paul Goude stylings, and the performance as art thing opening up minds to the potential of pop being more. Well, just more! I am hoping that the inevitable overwhelming success of Metropolis will turn many heads, and trigger a real flurry of ambitious projects that are something a bit more than throwing together a dozen or so songs. Because you know, oh you just know, that the funny thing is the people who are stretching themselves, trying to do that little something a little bit different, are actually better at the basics anyway. Like, say, Sudden Sway could write better pop songs in their sleep than S.A.W. so Janelle Monáe can do the r’n’b show stopping ballad thing better than any worthnothing in their next-to-nothings.
and singer. Working with the live incarnations of Nouvelle Vague and Bang Bang. Recording for Marc Collin’s boutique label Perfect Kiss. Making one of the best records of modern times. A huge hit in a parallel universe where Matthew Herbert is king, Bjork is queen, and breakfast TV presenters talk of Camus and Robert Rental.
“The idea of the sophisticated tough attracted us greatly. Montherlant and Camus were both goalkeepers; a Paris-Match photo of Henri de going up for a high ball, which I sellotaped inside my locker, was as venerated as Geoff Glass’ signed portrait of June Ritchie in A Kind of Loving” -
Julian Barnes, Metroland
Olga Kouklaki’s Getalife is one of those unexpected treats of modern times that come a creeping up when you’re least expecting it and proceed to tickle your neck and whisper naughty things in your ear. How can you resist? Why should you? This was after all what the pop music of the future was supposed to be like. Synthetic, electronic, slightly eerie and strangely sinister. With the pop heart of daytime radio and the darkness we love so much in a Siouxsie Sioux. Getalife is such a great set of songs. The work of an Athenian exile in Paris, learning her trade as a producer, composer, arranger, DJ
Olga Kouklaki. A fan of Matmos and Murcof. Her album is produced by Marc Collin. A bonus for us, as Collin is one of our favourite arch conceptualists in his own right. A man seemingly incapable of just throwing together a dozen or so songs that just happen to be ready. His name I’m sure will be most familiar from the Nouvelle Vague projects. You know, the easy listening, bossa nova, folk flavoured performances of new wave nuggets sung by a pool of singers, including the very great Camille Now the Nouvelle Vague project has a troubled younger cousin, the Hollywood Mon Amour set of ‘80s works re-imagined in a stripped down melodic way of a 1970 Françoise Hardy record. The formula that worked so well on the Nouvelle Vague sets. A challenge perhaps for the pop cognoscenti to appreciate covers of Simple Minds, Duran Duran, and so on. But with verbosity verboten, it works nicely. Particularly the cover of Call Me. There was also somewhere in between for Marc Collin the Enchanted Cinema project. More tempting for the pop aesthete. This was Marc working with muse Marie Celeste (you’ll have heard her singing Grauzone) on a suite of songs pulled together from the French films of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. Lovely stuff it is too. Enchanted Cinema is an affectionate doff of the hat to the genius of Michel Legrand, Francis Lai, Philippe Sarde, and so on. And the stars that sang their songs for the silver screen. Brigitte, Serge, Joanna Shimkus (Lady Poitier! She stole my heart in De L’Amour ... ah!), Romy Schneider (you need to see the footage of her singing La Chanson D’Helene ...), and so on.
Now, to be fair, Collin was not the only person involved in the Nouvelle Vague project, and his co-conspirator Olivier Libaux is no stranger to conceptualisations. Indeed his recent Imbecile project is a real treat for those that like a little something out of the ordinary. It’s basically a musical drama, featuring four characters, four old friends, at a dinner party in a house by the sea, as the wine flows and the souls are bared. Among the participants are pop royalty Philippe Katerine and Helena Noguerra. Peers of the realm who in turn are no strangers to a good theme related project or two. Helena, for example, having been part of the Dillinger Girl and ‘Baby Face’ Nelson road trip/country soul excursion , with a knowing nod or two to Bonnie & Clyde and Delaney & Bonnie. Those in the know will know of a Noguerra/Collin connection when they both participated in the Ollano project, back when Paris was vying with Bristol for the triste hop title, with a strong squad featuring La Funk Mob, Air, Alex Gopher, and so on. A bit of a golden age for music. A thoroughly recommended visit to YouTube would allow you to see Helena as part of Ollano singing Latitudes, which is itself a reverential homage to Paris Texas. Now that’s an obvious example, but I do like the French unashamed delight in demonstrating a certain knowingness. You can trace it back to the nouvelle vague films, and Godard say with his loving references to films and books that inspired him, which he weaves into his own works. If you pick on the references then it adds to the fun, and if you don’t then nothing is lost. Here, pah! You’d have cultural commentators sneering. Look at the way say Julian Cope or Bobby Gillespie used to be lampooned for enthusiastically sharing their passions and including the odd reference point. You’d think they were committing heinous crimes. Knowledge is looked down on. There’s that old saying about being too clever for your own good. What’s that all about? It is as though ignorance is a virtue. The past is something to be oh I don’t know accepted at face value. Don’t you dare challenge authorised versions.
There’s a bit in Joe Boyd’s White Bicycles where, with reference to the folk revival, he says only in Britain would people be uneasy with its heritage or roots. He had a point. Anyway, another of Marc Collin’s projects is Two For The Road. Aw, there it is again. That knowing wink in the direction of the Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney visual treat. Aural treat too. Great Mancini soundtrack. Anyway, Collin’s conceit is a story, a travelogue, about these two people, who were in love when they were kids, and they were supposed to be the perfect pair, but it never quite worked out like that, and hooking up again years later they know this is their last chance to salvage something. I suppose it’s meant to be an electro-acoustic Antonioni thing. Reminds me of that Pale Fountains line about how in a cheap hotel room she bucked up when he said she was incredibly beautiful. Mind you, that line was a whole film in itself. Anyway, yeah, Two For The Road. A treat of a film. A treat of a record. The female lead. Katrine Ottosen. She’s got a great voice. I think she’s from Denmark. Exiled in Paris. I think there’s a precedent somewhere there. Now did someone mention there’s an unfinished Ollano record featuring Camille? Now that is something I should very much like to hear. Just hope it’s not a mythical thing like the elusive 23 Skidoo/Mica Paris thing. Camille, naturally, is something of a patron saint around these parts. What is particularly interesting is that her works resonate so significantly within the more adventurous parts of the r’n’b communities, which sort of fits doesn’t it if you listen to Music Hole?
There is that great Willa Cather quote about how a pioneer should have imagination, should be able to enjoy the idea of things more than the things themselves. Quite. I’m no pioneer, but that how it was with me and jazz singers for quite some time. Specifically the idea of the jazz singer, the torch singer, struggling, staying true to her art, despite the threat of rock’n’roll, as the ‘50s melted into the ‘60s.
Gradually, though, I became more and more in love with the actual recordings made by these idealised jazz singers. Starting with the familiar. Peggy Lee, Julie London, June Christy (ah! The cool school!), Anita O’Day, Helen Merrill, Blossom Dearie. Working my way through Chris Connor, Jeri Southern, Sheila Jordan, Irene Kral. On to Ann Richards, Audrey Morris, Beverly Kenney, Pinky Winters, Betty Blake. And so on. Oh sometimes these discoveries were, shall we say, virtual ones. Sometimes though they were very real. And almost inevitably the Japanese got this very right. They do the whole reissue thing on CD so well. The heavy facsimile original cardboard sleeve. With elegant liner notes in Japanese that preserve the mystery by being totally unintelligible to the ignorant occidental consumer. The Japanese have done a particularly impressive job in salvaging recordings from the legendary Bethlehem label and in rare moments of indulgence I have acquired beautiful editions of vocal jazz sets like Marilyn Moore’s Moody and Helen Carr’s wonderful Why Do I Love You. The latter featuring the great Howard Roberts on guitar. There is something about those two records. The vocal performances. Elegant ballads sung in a way very much coloured by Billie’s blues. So discovering Nancy Harrow’s 1962 recording on Atlantic, You Never Know, was a
real treat. Beautiful cover. And a particularly appealing set of songs from a moody Miss in that intimate, sombre style. Quite pointedly bluesy at a time when sounds seemed to be somewhat more blowsy or shall we say saccharine. The name was new to me, but she seemed well connected. Co-conspirators included John Lewis, Connie Kay, Phil Woods and one Gary McFarland. One number in particular, Song For The Dreamer, became a real favourite. And I followed the trail back to an earlier set, Wild Women Don’t Get The Blues, which was recorded under the patronage of the great Nat Hentoff, and features a showstopping seven-and-a-half minute workout on Blues For Yesterday. Not knowing too much about Nancy Harrow I did what you do these days, and started up the old search engine, which in turn took me to her own website, which indicated that after a substantial hiatus (oh you know the beat boom and families and work and so on) she had been busy singing and recording again over the past 20 years or so. Fine, I thought. Pinky Winters and Helen Merrill are singing still, too. Anyway, loving You Never Know so much I drifted back to her biog and reading it more thoroughly found she’d recorded a cycle of songs based on Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady. Ah! I had to have that. Jazz ballads and the works of Willa Cather. Two of my favourite things.
And A Lost Lady is one of my very favourite Willa Cather works. Perhaps not my very favourite. That honour is reserved for Death Comes To The Archbishop, which is just a beautiful book. But, A Lost Lady. I have an unforgiving habit of scribbling down favourite quotations or passages in old hard backed notebooks. Here’s one I felt I needed to write out after reading A Lost Lady. “The Old West had been settled by dreamers, great-hearted adventurers who were unpractical to the point of magnificence; a courteous brotherhood, strong in attack but weak in defence, who could conquer but could not hold. Now all the vast territory they had won was to be at the mercy of men like Ivy peters, who had never dared anything, never risked anything. They would drink up the mirage, dispel the morning freshness, root out the great brooding spirit of freedom, the generous, easy life of the great landholders. The space, the colour, the princely carelessness of the pioneer they would destroy and cut up into profitable bits, as the match factory splinters the primeval forest.” You see? You can apply that to anything. It was, however, written about Willa’s Old West, the mythical place that provides the setting for her best books. A Lost Lady, O Pioneers! and My Antonia. The recurring theme of bold adventurers, immigrant communities, grand achievements, fading dreams, determined ladies trying to find their way. It’s easy to see why her books are apparently so embedded in the American psyche. Interestingly Willa Cather, a great favourite of Truman Capote if I remember rightly, was a literary editor by trade. Something she had in common with Nancy Harrow. Lost Lady, recorded in 1993, was Nancy Harrow’s first diversion into themed dramatic works, and it is an absolute delight, which is almost incidental as the combination of jazz and Willa is so perfect per se. But it is great. If anything Nancy’s singing is closer to June Christy mistiness than the quiver of yesteryear. And her compositions are executed very sympathetically, with some nice touches from old compadre Phil Woods. And this is far from a one-off success.
Nancy’s portfolio is by now quite impressively packed with jazz oratorios, ranging from the tales of Maya the Cat to the life of F Scott Fitzgerald. I have yet to catch up with all of these, though I would wholeheartedly recommend her work based on Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun (ah the ignominy of having to admit I haven’t read the original text ...). Nancy’s ‘melancholy melodies’ are arranged by Sir Roland Hanna, and participants include the great Grady Tate who sings the lead vocal role. It is all great stuff, and a real riposte to the naysayers who only see the musical world in terms of what is in the charts or on the covers of magazines. The funny thing is that while immersing myself in Lost Lady and The Marble Faun, looking at the CD jewel cases, I was irked by a nagging sense of strange familiarity. It was a while later that I noticed that the cover designs were by one Naomi Yang. Aha. That explained why the typesetting seemed somehow familiar. Fine. I knew Naomi did graphic design. Then rereading the sleeve notes to The Marble Faun I noticed a reference by Nancy to her son in real life Anton Krukowski. Funny, I thought, that name seems familiar too. Then it all clicked. Krukowski. Of course. As in Damon. As in Damon & Naomi. I do vaguely remember an old interview where Damon mentions that his mum was a professional jazz singer. Ah. And people go on about the Wainwrights and the Thompsons. Pah! Now how cool is it to be able to say: “Oh, my mum, she writes jazz oratorios ...” The funny thing is I remember reading an interview with Damon & Naomi, who we must point out are among our favourite purveyors of sad hits, where they talked about their favourite record sleeves, one being Sandy Denny’s The North Star etc, and say: “For a year, Naomi and I stared at this album and Sinatra’s No One Cares side by side. Tea and whiskey; the seer and the drinker. Two versions of melancholy – a his-and-hers set.” Yes, but that cover of You Never Know ...
Strangely Genesis seems McFarland’s least and most typical project. Least in the sense it was an incursion into pop – sunshine pop, West Coast psychedelia, whatever you want to call it – but it’s very typical in its adventuresomeness, its lush arrangements, exquisite harmonies and seeming effortlessness. It’s rightly become a huge cult favourite forty years on, partly due to the enthusiastic championing of Stereolab’s Tim Gane and Mike Always at él. I’m sure it was from this record that Always joined the dots to the eventual reissue of America The Beautiful/Does The Sun Shine On The Moon. Two sets that show two sides of McFarland.
I was playing Nancy Harrow’s You Never Know. The early Gary McFarland song on there, Why Are You Blue? And thinking that in
McFarland used his magic touch on such a spectacular array of sounds.
From Anita O’Day’s All
The Sad Young Men
Moreira’s Natural Feelings. Not that I am an expert on Gary McFarland. I’ve a lot to learn. I am aware there’s a film that’s been made about McFarland. I would very much like to see that. I think. There’s also one about searching for Jackie Paris, the great jazz singer. That sounds good too. On what I know though I rate McFarland as a composer, arranger, producer, vibraphonist and visionary up there with Oliver Nelson, David Axelrod, Lalo Schifrin, Charles Stepney, Richard Evans. I was just thinking that it would have been a few years ago that I first came across McFarland via the good people at él records’ inspired pairing of the great man’s America The Beautiful and Does The Sun Really Shine On The Moon. That’s when the name really registered. Though I would have seen the name before. I certainly would have seen it on the sleeve notes of Wendy & Bonnie’s Genesis. That incredibly beautiful record that’s become an integral part of the hipster canon.
America The Beautiful. Jazz rock. Third stream. Don’t labels make you despair? What the hell. It was 1968. A time for ambitious works. Miles Davis’ new Directions in Music. Heavily influenced by Hendrix and James Brown. But despair was in the air. Political disillusionment in the US. A tiredness. You can hear it in Phil Ochs’ works of the time. And it’s there in America The Beautiful. The disgust at the despoliation of the land he loved. The destruction of the sort of things Willa Cather wrote about so vividly. It’s a quite beautiful and moving recording. In a Joe Zawinul, Filles de Kilimanjaro, Gil Evans way. It’s a serious work, but one not without precedents in the McFarland canon. Earlier sets like Points of Departure and the collaboration with Bill Evans were stately, sad, sombre in tone. Ah, did anyone make a bad record with Bill Evans? There was also the later Journeys of Odysseus, a jazz suite for chamber orchestra by Bob Freedman, which McFarland made possible and produced. Now I don’t know much about Freedman I’m afraid, though I am aware he did the arrangements for Sarah Vaughan’s It’s A Man’s World, which is one of our favourites. Does The Sun Shine On The Moon showcases the other side of McFarland’s works. The controversial side, typified by the Soft Samba and In Sound sets. Call it what you will. Easy listening. Lounge. Mod jazz. Who cares? I suppose simply it was often interpretations of pop hits and soundtrack highlights, with bossa or latin colouring, gorgeous vocalese settings. The epitome of sophistication perhaps, but a little too light for jazz snobs seemingly. Pah. He just saw the possibilities of pop, and thought he could add something to the emerging art form.
Having said that, you see all this stuff about McFarland being rejected by the jazz cognoscenti, and yet he went on to be involved with a whole series of records for Impulse! Hmm. There is a tendency to think only of Impulse! in terms of the Coltranes, Pharaoh Sanders, Archie Shepp, and so on, but its output was much more kaleidoscopic. McFarland’s Impulse! collaborations are of particular interest, and recommended without exception if you get the chance to hear them. Latin Shadows with Shirley Scott. Tijuana Jazz with Clark Terry. Gypsy ’66 and Sympatico with Gabor Szabo. The October Suite with Steve Kuhn. Fantastic. From the same time there are his two greatest collaborations with fellow vibist Cal Tjader. Incidentally I am all for vibes in jazz. I am definitely a vibes man. I am a sucker for vibes, flutes, guitars and choirs in jazz. And I love Cal Tjader’s Soul Sauce and Solar Heat. Absolutely essential latin jazz for the discerning progressive modernista. Still. Actually any of Cal Tjader’s ‘60s sets with McFarland involved are essential. There’s a great Bacharach set, and they even make the Banana Splits theme tune sound impeccably cool. Cal was one of McFarland’s closest musical partners. The other was Hungarian guitar virtuoso Gabor Szabo, his old friend from the Berkeley School of Music. Szabo had worked closely with the great Chico Hamilton on a number of sets (again for Impulse! And from what I’ve been privileged to hear these are essential modernista fare …) before joining up with McFarland for the Gypsy ’66 set. The modus operandi on this and subsequent collaborations (like the Bacchanal and 1969 sets salvaged by el records for example) is that mix of invention and interpretation, often reimaginings of contemporary pop hits with Gabor’s guitar to the fore which work every time for me. Easy listening sure, but I remember an impassioned defence of this particular art form by Julie Burchill in The Face way back when with particular reference to the works of Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick I would suspect.
It’s funny isn’t it when you listen to jazz vocal records of the 1950s which I do a lot the same songs from the Great American Songbook recur so often with different emphases and yet pre-rock’n’roll these were the pop songs of their day. I do understand where the likes of McFarland, Szabo, Tjader and of course Charles Stepney and Richard Evans were coming from and what they were trying to achieve, and I get a little sad it’s something of a dying art. You have to mention in passing the art of reggae, and more specifically lovers rock with its special reinterpretations of soul hits and ballads. The holy trinity of McFarland, Szabo and Tjader would briefly become partners in a record label, Skye, which has a fantastically inventive catalogue. Apart from the absolutely essential Wendy and Bonnie set, my favourite Skye recordings have to be the Grady Tate titles. It’s a great story. Hotshot drummer (what didn’t he play on?) becomes ultra-cool crooner overnight. A singer for whom the words mellow and mellifluous must have been invented. You need his Windmills of Your Mind set if nothing else. Trust me! One of the last records McFarland was involved with, before his tragic death in 1971, was Airto Moreira’s Natural Feelings, the great percussionist’s first full set, cementing a love affair with the music of Brazil that goes back a decade to his then revolutionary Big Band Bossa set with Stan Getz. Natural Feelings is a record of scary beauty, and when you think of the people involved like Sivuca and Hermeto Pascoal you can understand why. One record I absolutely worship is Hermeto’s Slaves Mass, which is breathtakingly beautiful, and you listen to that and wonder where McFarland might have gone next. Ah well. There’re still gaps in my collection to fill.
It has to be one of the great pop moments.
about how he doesn’t believe you really like Frank Sinatra. It is also one of the strangest lines ever.
It must seem
stranger still now, somewhat removed from its original context.
Sinatra. There, There, My Dear. Montgomery Clift on the cover of that single. A still from From Here To Eternity, where he was Sinatra’s co-star. Sinatra. In the context of 1980. Sinatra back in action again. A hit on his hands with the theme from Scorsese’s New York, New York. Namedropped by hipsters. As something of a defiant pose. Subway Sect had been saying it for ages. Ian Curtis was reputed to have drawn inspiration from Sinatra’s singing. Ian McCulloch was a fan. So was Pete Wah!lie. And he had to let everyone know. These were his maverick years, when he was moving towards being Shambeko! Say Wah! Inspired by the antics of a jazz loving anti nazi youth gang. Wah!lie as ever was a geyser gushing, barely able to contain his enthusiasms. So what? To some though such enthusing came across all wrong. Some found themselves fingered as academic thingies reeling off names of books and bands. Poor Wah!lie had the finger pointed at him. I myself was a little uneasy. Did I really like Frank Sinatra? I thought I did. My parents were not great record collectors. But Sinatra was a big part of what they had. I had been for some time (and we’re still in 1980 here) surreptitiously playing those LPs. Particularly September of My Years. With It Was A Very Good Year. The song Wah!lie cites in Shambeko. Oh I wish I could say my parents had all the other great Sinatra sets. The other
Gordon Jenkins arrangements, and so on. No One Cares. In The Wee Small Hours. All Alone. Where Are You. Sings For Only The Lonely. Point of No Return. The Sinatra/Jobim set. And Watertown. Ah Watertown. A record that is becoming as much a part of the progressive modernista’s hip canon as Wendy and Bonnie or the Free Design. Hopefully. Watertown. The concept album Sinatra (and Sinatra was no stranger to themed records) made at the start of the ‘70s with Bob Gaudio of the Four Seasons and songwriter Jake Holmes. It’s as wonderful and as ambitious as anything Jim Webb did with Richard Harris, Thelma Houston, Glen Campbell, Fifth Dimension. It’s that good. It’s like a Richard Yates novel. That good. Librettist Jake Holmes tells a great story. And his own is just as good. Tracing it back Sinatra had heard a copy of the record Holmes created for the Four Seasons. The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette. What the Four Seasons hoped would be their Sgt Pepper but turned out to be a whole lot stranger and more beautiful. And Sinatra loved it. Just as the Four Seasons had liked the title song when they heard it on a record Holmes had made. One of two early solo LPs which are strange and beautiful but biting and mean. But then this guy did work with Tim Rose early on. He also wrote a song called Dazed And Confused which someone ripped off, but don’t ask me about that.
Anyway, Watertown. You wonder how you’ve missed out. It contains some of my favourite Sinatra songs. If I Knew Then, and Lady Day which really is a Richard Yates book in a few verses. Vocally it contains some of Sinatra’s bleakest performances. Elizabeth. That’s a fantastic song. As beautiful as that recent Kevin Rowland song, It’s OK Johanna. Sound wise I guess the closest thing would be the LPs Grady Tate made with Gary McFarland around the same time. That same mix of experimentation and exquisite execution. Funnily enough around the time I was surreptitiously listening to Sinatra in my teens the talk was of a new inventive MOR music. This was the time of Vic Godard’s Songs For Sale, Weekend, Pale Fountains, and so on. And yet here you really did have inventive MOR music which was as strange and as beautiful as anything. Watertown, the Sinatra/Jobim album, those Grady Tate records. You know it was there, the inventiveness. Listen to Grady singing I Think It’s Going To Rain Today. The voice is velvety, treacly. Almost too good to be true? It’s a thought that’s troubled me often. I’m sure I’m not alone in mulling over such contradictions. Can a singer sing too well? Hmmm. I bet there are people out there who are really into the John Coltrane of Ascension, Expression, Interstellar Space. The most out there moments on Impulse! But these very people would find it very difficult to understand another Coltrane Impulse! set which he made with Johnny Hartman. I do like the idea of people finding Johnny Hartman’s voice deeply unsettling. Personally I absolutely adore the John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman record. All those elgant ballads. Coltrane’s lyrical tone. Hartman’s bass relief. And remember this was somewhere in between Africa/Brass and A Love Supreme, some more of my favourite things. The Coltrane/Hartman set though is more radical in its way. The epitome of effortless elegance. A resolutely romantic record. A beautiful idea of ‘Trane’s beautifully executed. Remember Hartman may sound
ultra smooth and as suave as hell but he had his troubles too getting accepted. A black man singing romantic ballads. That ain’t right … he’s meant to play the fool. Coltrane knew Hartman from way, way back, and wanted to demonstrate something of where he’d come from. I guess the set helped raise Hartman’s profile, and he did make further sets for Impulse! I Just Dropped By To Say Hello and The Voice That Is! Beautiful records. Fantastic. If not exactly what the hipsters and flipsters have come to expect from the Impulse! catalogue. I doubt if my parents had ever heard of Johnny Hartman. So I can’t pretend I was sneakily listening to his recordings when I was taking a break from my XTC or Skids singles. They did have some Nat King Cole though, and I had a real soft spot for his records. And that really did trouble me in lots of ways. The phrase guilty pleasure has inveigled its way into our vocabulary in rather a horrible way, but it really does describe my mix of emotions over enjoying Nat King Cole. Was it right to gain so much pleasure from the beautiful renditions of Mona Lisa, Unforgettable, Stardust, that strange enchanted boy, and so on. I thought it must be me, getting my aesthetics confused. Now I know better. I’ve read all about the impact Cole’s singing had on the greats right around the world, whether it be Marvin Gaye, Joao Gilberto or Dennis Brown. I remember reading how Joao Gilberto had been standing somewhere and Nat had passed by him, just a few feet away, and Gilberto had been mesmerised, and apparently said that he’s not black, he’s blue. Gilberto’s big thing was playing and singing as quietly as possible at the start of the bossa nova revolution, which was very much shaped by Cole’s smooth delivery. For his own part Nat’s career trajectory shows a willingness to realise there was a world out there, and try a few different things, picking up the samba and bossa of Brazil for example, even recording with Sylvia Telles in 1959. My interest these days is piqued by the immortal Gordon Jenkins arrangements, and the intimacy of the sound.
changed their tune and devoted column inches to Colin’s comments. Goth dad says: “Call that singing? It’s like a cat in trouble …”. Colin’s contention was that winners and singers like his Caressa may be hitting all the right notes, but they were singing all wrong. “And these praying mantis panellists are persecuting us …”. Colin’s candid comments struck a chord with quite a chunk of the population, and bizarrely the couple became celebrities in their own right, with a newspaper column and radio show of their own. The denouement being that some shrewd industry insider had poor sweet Caressa record a version of the early Psychic TV song Just Drifting, backed with another of those oddly beautiful Velvets/Kevin Ayers ballads that popped up on records like Dreams Less Sweet. Of course Just Drifting was a Christmas number one, and the family was, ahem, united once again. The film will finish with that song being played on the radio.
I’ve been working on a script. A film treatment of my successful short story. The one about the X Factor/Pop Idol winner, Caressa. It revisits all the tabloid fuss about when revelations emerged about her estranged parents being mad fans of outfits we may know as Nurse With Wound/Psychic TV/Current 93. It was a field day for the Sundays. All those gleefully outraged strap line permutations of pierced, pagan, pervert, black magic, ritual, sex, cult, satanic, tattooed, Goths. Perm any three … Then the news agenda took an unlikely turn when the parents appeared on one of the BBC’s Five Live news shows. Apparently a researcher who knew his Throbbing Gristle from his Test Department persuaded the couple they would get a fair hearing if they put their side of the story. Well, they did appear, and the couple, Colin and Linda, a quietly spoken Black Country pair, turned things upside down, explaining their disappointment at how their little Caressa had turned out. “We tried to open her mind, but she ended up singing Whitney Houston songs in a karaoke bar,” they said. “We did our best for her, and this is what happens. Now we can’t even go to the shops without the press chasing after us …” The show was besieged by texts and e-mails of support and sympathy. So much so that the tabloids, never slow in jumping on a bandwagon,
“The terror is in your radio,” sang Mark Perry. I know what he meant. What they play on the radio scares the hell out of me. With so much supposed choice there seems so little to listen to. One show I do enjoy is Russell Davies (not the TV producer) on BBC Radio 2 of a Sunday evening, celebrating the art of song, sort of inheriting Benny Green’s mantle, showing impressive knowledge of singers and songs, joining the dots with erudite ease. He is though a stickler for singers singing the right notes, and singing the right words, which I have to confess is something of an anathema to me. “The chords and notes don’t mean a thing,” sang Mark Perry. I know what he meant. Maybe it’s because I grew up listening to and loving singers like Mark, like Vic Godard, Edwyn Collins, Ramona Carlier, Ana da Silva, Mark E Smith, and so on. As wonderful as these singers were (are!) they’ll never be classic singers in the way Russell Davies would understand. So what? When you hear the ululation and caterwauling that passes for singing on talent shows, give me the falterer … I genuinely think Mark Perry is one of the great singers. A complete natural. Take one of his solo singles. The cover of the reggae classic, Whole World’s Down On Me. It’s got a deliberately ugly cover pic of Perry. And the singing. It’s defiantly flat. But it still makes me laugh out loud. Beats International did a cover a few years later, and it’s so tasteful and lacking in any spark of magic that you just want to give up. But Mark’s version. I still love it. I remember first seeing that single on the wall of the Virgin shop that was downstairs on Oxford Street. And if you’ll excuse the nostalgia, I can still remember the first time I heard Mark sing. It was How Much Longer. The first ATV single.
It was a Saturday afternoon. Alan Freeman on the radio. He played a lot of punk stuff, though that seems to have been forgotten. I can remember hearing the Killjoys’ Johnny Won’t Get To Heaven on the same show. Mark Perry. Kevin Rowland. Me, 13, in the living room, playing Subbuteo on the carpet. Loving life. That early ATV. Whew. I loved its uncertainties and instabilities far more than, say, the convictions of a Joy Division. I liked all the twists and turns, the contrariness, the tantrums. Ah. ATV. Action Time Vision. The modernista anthem. An anthem for the ancient rebels. Remember that song? “They meet up with loads of fools, doing stuff without the rules. Now they live again as they learn to sing another snappy turn. Back among the dark in town, the anger’s being passed around. The ancient rebels, so they say, will live to fight another day”. Mark was involved in some pretty challenging and liberating projects. Vibing Up The Senile Man. Good Missionaries. Snappy Turns. When art was whatever you could get away with, and you could get away with plenty in those dark days. Anyway, that little lot was followed by Mark’s most overtly pop project, Strange Kicks, where he was reunited with old ATV compadre (and Postcard producer lest we forget) Alex Fergusson on an outrageously catchy collection for Miles Copeland’s IRS label. Miles Copeland. Hmmm. An interesting one. He seems one of those people you shouldn’t like. But it’s interesting to note in Mark E Smith’s memoirs he is less scathing about Copeland than about many more supposedly sound people. Copeland does remind me of one of those old record company executives for whom all music is alien so you might as well sign Captain Beefheart as The Carpenters. Copeland’s involvement with punk era labels is intriguing. Step Forward, Illegal, and so on. There was some cracking stuff there, on those labels. The Cortinas, Models, The Fall, Transmitters, Sods, Menace, Lines, Cramps, and so on. It’s easy to overlook that. I have no idea what Copeland thought of punk and everything, and I’m not sure I want to, but … The Ancient Rebels came out on Copeland’s majorsponsored IRS outlet, and Richard Mazda (of the Tours/Cosmetics) was drafted in as producer. He would also produce Hex Enduction Hour, write for Ultra Naté, and act in Eastenders. He was also involved in that rum Jamie J Morgan Shotgun record, which bafflingly has perhaps the greatest list of participants ever. Mazda’s name appears alongside those of Bruce Smith, Sean Oliver, Caron Wheeler, Ivor Guest, 3D, Mushroom, Tim Simenon, Nellee Hooper, Phil Legg, Neneh Cherry, Sam Sever, Fred Wesley, Neville Brody and Swifty. I’ve never quite worked out what was going on there. With those credits it should be one of the great lost records, yet it’s anything but.
I love The Ancient Rebels. It’s like method acting, where the theme is creating bubblegum/glitter gems, with the sort of zealous role playing Denim and Sudden Sway would later bring to the fray. The ultra-pop sensibilities of Alex Fergusson are matched with Mark’s deadpan delivery and air of oh my life’s a mess but it gives me something to write about. Brilliant. And it’s easy to see with Fergusson’s involvement in the early Psychic TV why they might have melodies to melt the heart of prime time Saturday night TV audiences. Mark would go on to be involved with The Reflections, something of a punk age super group, with Karl Blake, Dennis Burns (his fellow traveller from ATV) and Nag from The Door and The Window. The Slugs and Toads LP they made for Cherry Red remains a lost classic. In a way it seems they were doing a Gary McFarland thing, adding new twists to post-punk templates. Wire, The Fall, Gang of Four, Madness, The Pop Group. But then you think hang on a mo these guys were there first anyway in their way. And some songs like The Interpreter are more like John Le Carré meets John Cale. Brilliant record. The Reflections would also sing: “There’s a song inside everyone”. And certainly Mark Perry is seen as the harbinger of DIY. His “here’s three chords now go out and start a group” mantra begetting the Desperate Bicycles’ one of “it was easy, it was cheap, now go out and do it …” which inspired groups like The Door and The Window who would jump onstage though they couldn’t play, and then proceed to play just about anything. Oh, it’s something of a minefield. The infinite monkey theorem. Give a monkey a typewriter and infinite time it will come up with the works of Shakespeare. Something appropriated by the Mekons for their debut LP on Virgin The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strnen. A rubbish record. A massive disappointment. The thing is I still find that title infinitely sad. The Mekons had released one of the all time great singles on Fast Records. Never Been In A Riot. Essentially a group of punks going crash, smash, crack, ring, and coming up with the new thing, unwittingly, then following it up with an even better pop song in Where Were You with possibly the best intro ever to a single, then signing to a major, finding out how to play, and going sterile. Sad. It is one of life’s strange ironies that the greatest advocates of and enthusiasts for the anyone can get up and do it thing, these self-sufficient DIY hussars, like the Desperate Bicycles, Door and the Window, Marine Girls, TVPs, just happened to create fantastic pop music. Strangely so many of the technically proficient and supposedly preternaturally gifted types really haven’t a clue, and can succeed only in sucking the lifeblood out of anything.
their songs did connect, and did get sung. Some aren’t so lucky. It is one of the tragedies of our times that the best songwriters are not getting their songs sung by other people. Oh, there are exceptions. That song by The Knife that Jose Gonzalez had a huge hit with, for example. That was a good example. We like The Knife. We like the fact that they are writing an opera for a Danish theatre group to celebrate the centenary of Darwin’s Origin of the Species. Funnily enough I would say the last Slumber Party LP (Musik) had something of The Knife about it. That’s what I heard today at least.
“Ain't it fascinating the difference between those who have it ... You know there's those who make it and there's those who never may And it's fascinating because it's really very clear You've either got it honey or you ain't...” Over the past 10 years or so Slumber Party has been just about my favourite group. I like the way every two to three years they casually cast a pearl on the sea of pop and nonchalantly wait to see what waves it makes. Oh they had all the right credentials to make waves. Born in Detroit, christened by Kim Fowley, sponsored by the Kill Rock Stars label. But somehow … Pop platitudinarians would have it Slumber Party do that Velvets thing. Maybe. But I’ve always heard more. Different things at different times. Reparata and the Delrons. Françoise Hardy. Skeeter Davis. Kendra Smith. Suicide. Nara Leao. Raincoats. Pearls Before Swine. Depends. But if you stick with that Velvets thing, then it needs to be said Aliccia Berg Bollig’s Slumber Party does the Velvets better. And it does it better because Aliccia just happens to be a brilliant songwriter. Her songs are as classy and as catchy as hell, even if there is an uneasy undercurrent. I have this thing about songwriters. That is something about it being almost incidental or irrelevant what medium they choose as an outlet. They would be great wherever, whatever. Some choose a medium where they are seen to shine. Some choose a medium where they make it as difficult as possible to be recognised. Some seem to fall somewhere in between the two. Laura Nyro and Tim Hardin spring to mind. Their own recordings may have been a little overlooked but
Actually what I’m really trying to get at is the idea of songwriters writing songs FOR other people. Bespoke works. Commissioned works. Take Vic Godard. Who’s taken the trouble to get him to write songs for them? Oh I know Johnny Britton did one of his lost Northern Soul songs. And the Secret Goldfish did something. But is there an LP of someone doing songs Vic wrote for them? The same with Michael Head. I mean the Pale Fountains’ Head, not the classical guy. Michael did adapt The Wicker Man’s Landlord’s Daughter for Autour de Lucie, and that’s quite beautiful, but … You see, a lost art. There are exceptions, of course. Billy Childish with Thee Headcoatees. Ryan Leslie with Cassie. That sort of thing. él Records tried to keep the tradition alive. The Anthony Adverse vehicle for Louis Philippe springs to mind. Then in France, Philippe’s progeny, Burgalat, Katerine, Collin, Biolay and so on have played their part. And Françoiz Breut’s records sound so good because her songs are made-tomeasure. But Aliccia BB. What a waste. You see BB could be for Brill Building. Goffin and King. Pomus and Shuman. Mann and Weil. Barry and Greenwich. Leiber and Stoller. And so on. And beyond that. Jackie De Shannon, Margo Guryan, Randy Newman, Paul Williams. That sort of thing. Then you go on to consider the astonishing range of performers that have recorded songs by these people. Anyway on a recent fishing expedition I stumbled across Aliccia BB’s MySpace page, which highlights her own solo work. And yes the songs work. In a funny Margo Guryan demos way. Which reminds me. Did you hear 16 Words by Margo? A sound piece based on the 16 words Bush used to justify the war in Iraq. Exceptional. So if you thought the protest song was dead, well there are exceptions. Just as there are exceptions to everything.
Brittany’s sound has that abstract hip hop/soul and edgy electronica thing going on, which is what we’re crying out for just now. Maybe more earthy than anything else around but possibly all the better for that. We like a bit of grrrit in our adventuresomeness and experimentation. And Atlanta was the home of Gladys Knight ... I think Caetano Veloso (ah we’re back to Brazil … the Bosconnection!) used the word syncretism in relation to the musical climate he was involved in creating, whereby all sorts of elements were embraced. The roots, the future, the alien, the familiar. With that in mind I am particularly taken with the jazzy elements that permeate Spectrum. Classical strains mixed up with Funkadelic futurism or Sun Ra Space Is The Place type questing. And, boy, you can understand why anyone looking at the world today might be interested in other worlds.
“Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?” Well, it’s something you keep searching for ... So, believing, as you have to, how then do you find the exceptional? By people sharing enthusiasms and discoveries? Yes. Sure. But even then you need to locate the sharing. And you do that how? By chance? By chance I discovered Brittany Bosco’s exceptional EP, Spectrum. I stumbled across her name, and mentally made a connection with Joao Bosco, a name I have grown to love having chanced (oh yes!) upon a few LPs he made in the 1970s, and knowing some of the songs Elis Regina sang which Bosco had written with Aldir Blanc. These Bosco recordings are among the best Brazilian recordings I have heard, which is saying something. The early eponymous one, with arrangements by bossa visionary Luiz Eca and tropicalia magician Rogerio Duprat is as inventive, inimitable, and as invaluable as … well, Brittany Bosco’s Spectrum. Spectrum lives up to its name. It covers a lot of ground, and closes with a song (Black And White) that really can make me break down and cry. A beautiful stark torch ballad in the sassiest Sarah Vaughan vein (we’re both fans, Brittany and me …). But Brittany and her Georgia-n production collective can seemingly turn their hand to anything.
I keep my eyes and ears out for different things. Which is how I found Brittany’s music. It’s exactly the sort of forward thinking funk I’m seeking. I struck lucky. It’s the way things work now. Word of mouth. Whispers in the shadows. The Spectrum EP is out there waiting to be found. Available initially as a free download. Talk about giving away the crown jewels. But if it helps to spread the word, it’s got to be a good thing. Paradoxically the promotional releases and actual physical release of the EP comes with what looks like the most inviting and inventive packaging I’ve seen in a long while, and that’s courtesy of Alex Goose who is part of Brittany’s production collective. I like that. Attention to detail. Records looking as good as they sound. Times being what they are, Brittany is utilising the opportunities available to spread the word, and for example YouTube features a veritable treasure trove of performances. You really need to see any performance of the song 8-Trak if you are a connoisseur of the scratchy punk/funk guitar thing. Not to take anything away from Brittany’s singing and, yeah, presence … which is something else.
Having finally been able to tear myself away from the YouTube footage of Esther Ofarim singing Black Is The Colour of My True Love’s Hair, I was fishing around and found film of Phil Ochs singing his ballad of Joe Hill on Swedish TV (appropriately enough) which totally tore me apart. Funnily enough I’d been thinking about Phil Ochs a lot of late. I’d heard Joan Baez singing her version of Phil’s There But For Fortune, and got to wondering about other covers of Ochs songs. And I couldn’t come up with that many. Oh sure there’s Françoise Hardy sung There But For Fortune. In French. Quite beautifully. And Clydie King did a version of When In Rome in 1968 which was salvaged recently. Crispin St Peters covered Changes. Peter and Gordon did a fine Flower Lady. I recall reading that Henry Cow did No More Songs, though I’ve not heard that. Perhaps best of all was discovering a little while ago Bob and Carolanne Pegg (Mr Fox as was) doing an achingly beautiful rendition of The Scorpion Departs on their He Came From The Mountains set, which really needs to be tracked down. It was the Peggs’ performance of The Scorpion that revitalised my interest in Phil Ochs. 20 odd years ago I was obsessed with Phil. I thought everybody else should be and would be. I think my obsession was triggered by imports of Elektra reissues of the first two Ochs LPs, where he looked like a beautiful Eddie Cochran/James Dean romantic figure, and on the records were all these biting, questioning, challenging, and quite beautiful topical or protest songs. A handful of years ago those same recordings were issued in one CD set by Elektra with sympathetic liner notes by Peter Doggett, as perhaps a trailer for his book on the rise and fall of the ‘60s counterculture. Now I keep thinking of those songs, of Phil Ochs, and the need to stand up and speak out. Goodness only knows what he would have made of these times. He’d have enough material to sink several ships. I keep thinking of the songs he could be writing. I imagine one about tears shed for Norman Whitfield and all the people who said: “Oh yeah. Sad. Top man. Those songs. Telling it like it was. We’ll miss him. By the way did I tell you about Elbow at Glastonbury?” without any trace of irony, without even thinking about what would a young Norman
Whitfield be doing now, and who is doing just that … Quite. Somewhere along the way back there in a secondhand shop I found a copy of Phil Ochs’ Pleasures of the Harbour, and duly became obsessed with that. The supposed seismic shift towards stranger, less direct, more impressionistic songs, ambitious arrangements, which Ochs showed he could cope with splendidly, and for anyone who had a problem with that he simply said beauty is the ultimate protest. And boy was there an embarrassment of riches and beauty on that record. Partly due to Phil’s songwriting. Partly due to the arrangements of Larry Marks and the freedom allowed by A&M. What I liked was the increasing sense of cynicism and confusion, particularly on Flower Lady and Crucifixion, which I still maintain are as movingly magnificent as any ‘60s works.
So, Phil Ochs, 20 odd years ago. There were a lot of reasons to be obsessed with the man. That set of unreleased material. The one with Sean Penn penned sleevenotes, in which he referred to Ochs as his all-time favourite fighter. And then there was that Marc Eliot biography, which was as depressing as it was uplifting, like a pop star story invented by David Goodis. I was kindly sent a copy from America and knowing the me I was then I doubt I even bothered to say thank you properly but there was a world to change. Not that it was taking any notice of me. And there was the discovery of Phil Ochs’ Greatest Hits, too. The irony of the title was not lost on someone spending too much time championing Dexys’ Don’t Stand Me Down when no one was listening. I loved that Greatest Hits set. Not the Van Dyke Parks country rock thing. But a few of the songs. One, Jim Dean of Indiana. Because it makes me cry where Phil sings about being lost and dreaming, and a stranger in the shadows. Two, Chords of Fame, because of those lines about God helping the troubadour that tries to be a star and how they’ll rob you of your innocence and put you up for sale, and the more you find success the more that you will fail. Ah yes. Three, No More Songs. Just because. Well, it’s the saddest of farewells to arms. “Now the ashes of the dream can be found in the magazines, and it seems that there are no more songs …” Ah but have these times ever more needed someone who understands the significance of being Elvis and Che? A revolutionary socialist pop star for our times. Just when we’re about to be ruled again a privilegentsia that wilfully distorts something like Eton Rifles and London Calling for its own ends. But Phil Ochs wouldn’t stand a chance now would he? Not that he stood a chance back then did he? Peter Doggett’s There’s A Riot Going On provides useful context to what happened to Phil, and in particular why those other two (Larry Marks) records, Tape From California and Rehearsals for Retirement are so important and poignant. And it’s those two records I’m obsessed with now. Maybe you need to go through your own crises of faith, your own dramas of disillusionment and despair, betrayal and bewilderment, and be full of your own contradictions and conflicts. Maybe. Years and years ago I copied down some words Ed Baxter wrote in The Wire about Rehearsals for Retirement, which I still like a lot. They said: “A song cycle in which the political gives way to the
existential, its mixture of angry disillusion and impassioned optimism is entirely disarming. Scathingly satirical social comment and scarily lucid self-analysis combine to provide a sublime drivetime soundtrack to the collapse of western civilisation.” Amen. Forty years on from Rehearsals for Retirement. Headlines abound about unjustifiable wars, religious and racial intolerance, financiers’ follies, left wing firebrands flirting with celebrity culture, the erosion of civil liberties, cholera epidemics. And you think of Phil singing: “We’re fighting in a war we lost before it began”. Then you think hang on a minute you can’t even easily buy those records, Tape From California and Rehearsals for Retirement, with those songs that need to be heard. White Boots Marching In A Yellow Land, Joe Hill, The War Is Over, William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park, The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns, My Life, Another Age, and so on. So much for the age of information. In his final years Ochs travelled quite extensively. A doomed trip to Africa did at least lead to a single recorded in Kenya with the Pan-African Ngembo Rumba Band. I remember finding it as a single in the Oxford St Virgin Megastore in the early 1990s much to my delight and being utterly charmed in a Rock’n’Roll With The Modern Lovers way. Phil may have been on the street of no return by that time. But he was still the one who travelled to Chile to show solidarity with fellow folk singer Victor Jara in 1973, meeting up with him, joining him to sing songs for miners, like he had done back in Kentucky. This was shortly before the overthrow of the Allende Popular Unity government by Thatcher’s friend Pinochet and the shocking murder of Jara, a popular singer of songs that truly touched people’s lives. Just another of those terrible events that took their toll on Phil. And what was it Phil said?: “It’s all got to do with a process. They have the media syndrome where they control everybody’s mind by the use of fairly mindless distortions of the facts. So what can you do? I mean, here you are, a helpless soul, a helpless piece of flesh amidst all this cruel, cruel machinery, and terrible, heartless men. So all you can do is turn away from the filth, and hope. Hope to build something new someday.” I heard one of my other all-time favourite fighters on the radio the other day. Tony Benn. He said: “Optimism is the fuel of change”. I like that.
I like the fact that millions of people may
Ochs via Joan Baez singing one of his songs. You could say the same of songs by Fred Neil or Tim Hardin or Barbara Acklin. Interestingly after working with Frank
Holmes became a successful writer of advertising jingles, so millions would have
without being aware of it. Is this a lost art?
The days of David Dundas done
and dusted? Though he’s now a peer of the realm I notice. Hmmm. Nowadays most music used in commercials seems to have been so tastefully and artfully chosen. Obscure artefacts dusted down to sell goods and services. It’s an industry in itself. Sometimes it drives you mad. Sometimes it’s a boon. For example, millions may have heard the Jorge Ben penned Mas Que Nada as recorded by the Tamba Trio via a Nike ad broadcast constantly during the 1998 World Cup. I think it was 1998. Fantastic choice of music. A modernista staple. And one of many brazilian bossa nova related works we know unconsciously, almost by osmosis. The same pretty much true of chunks of the Jobim songbook. Anyway I’m not going to pretend that in 1998 I was very clued up on bossa. Though the ad did help to pique my interest. As did the solo Sam Prekop/Jim O’Rourke record of the time, and his namedropping of Caetano Veloso and Gal Costa’s Domingo. And a growing infatuation with Joyce and Marcos Valle reissues. And this was what 16 years on from being infatuated with the Pale Fountains and Weekend’s take on bossa? Oh well. It was five or six years on that the delayed delving into bossa brilliance was really made possible by successful salvage operations, a flood of reissues that were available at the click of a mouse. And as ever the more you delve the more you get diverted, and go off at tangents (hmmm …), cultivating private obsessions. My big ones were Quarteto Em Cy and the independent Elenco label. As with all the best things in life I stumbled upon the four sisters with angelic voices (Cyva, Cynara, Cybele, and Cylene, initially, though like the Ramones things changed with the years) by chance. I had a bit of a thing about Chico Buarque, and for next to nothing bought a CD of the Quarteto doing a set of Chico’s songs. Em Cy wise it was a little late in the day but I was totally taken with the exquisite close harmonies, and set about getting as many of their
recordings as possible. Os Afro Sambas with Baden Powell/Vinicius, No Zum Zum with Vinicius and Dori Caymmi, and anything bearing their name. The records were irresistible to a lover of the Free Design, American Spring, Hi-Los, Mamas and Papas, Paris Sisters, Swingle Singers … Somewhere along the way it registered that many of these recordings were for Aloysio de Oliveira’s Elenco label. As were others I picked up by Sylvia Telles, Maysa, Nara Leao, Nana Caymmi. And that the covers of these records, predominantly black and white, were uniformly brilliant. I learned later this was due to the artwork of Cesar Villela and the photography of Francisco Pereira, working on a budget of next-to-nothing. It was a shock to learn later that Elenco records sold next-to-nothing, thanks to distribution that would have done Rough Trade and The Cartel proud. Hmm I seem to have a Stockholm Monsters song on my mind. Thus it was I discovered the Tamba Trio backing up the Quarteto on the Som Definitivo recording from the mid-‘60s, which has now been salvaged by our comrades at él and co. The Tamba Trio. Luiz Eca on piano. Bebeto on flute and bass. Helcio Melito on percussion. The leading bossa jazz trio (and there was also Jongo Trio, Zimbo Trio, Trio Maraya, Bossa Tres, Som Tres, etc.) to emerge from that particular musical revolution. Luiz Eca had been part of the revolutionary inner circle, and a great evangelist for the new wave. So it was natural his trio should mix bossa, samba, jazz, pop, classical and experimental elements in such a devastatingly effective way. I love the records they made as a trio in the early/mid-‘60s and am a fool for the way they use alternatingly percussive and elegiac piano, inventively irregular rhythms, that flute soaring and soothing, and ensemble singing in a nice MPB-4 way (the Quarteto Em Cy’s male counterparts and equally as
wonderful if less easy on the eye … to me). Their Philips recordings have cheekily faux Elenco covers too. As a central force in bossa nova, Luiz Eca and Tamba Trio were involved in a number of other important collaborative bossa projects. Like Nara Leao’s O Canto Livre. Like the first Edu Lobo record on Elenco, which features Reza, another of those bossa standards you don’t realise you know. Like the first Milton Nascimento LP. And the more you delve the more you find. Like a wonderful record by Ana Margarida which needs to be sought out. As the bossa revolution spread so the Tamba Trio grew. Literally. Becoming the Tamba 4. Heading north to record for Creed Taylor’s CTI label, one of those immortal labels that still excite and elicit fanatical responses. If mainly known as a jazz/funk imprint, with Hubert Laws, Johnny Hammond Smith, Freddie Hubbard, etc, there was nevertheless a strong Brazilian flavour to the output, continuing Creed’s Verve associations, with Jobim, Deodato, Milton Nascimento, Luiz Bonfa, Walter Wanderley as well as the Tamba 4 all making fantastic records. CTI issued two great Tamba 4 LPs in 1968 in We And The Sea and Samba Blim. We And The Sea is the one you really need … being more formless, adventurous, impressionistic. Both these LPs were packaged quite beautifully in the trademark CTI way, with Pete Turner photography and the distinctive lettering. I am a massive fan of the way labels can create a readily identifiable style, cohesive, continuing, like CTI, Impulse!, Blue Note, Elenco, and more recently the Numero Group. This attention to detail is so important. And please don’t mention Factory because so many of their sleeves were rubbish, including Saville’s travailles. There was one further Tamba 4 LP recorded in
Brazil, though only Bebeto of the original line-up was involved. Good record, though. Tougher, more of a soul/beat type sound. I mention it because I’m intrigued by the number of records that Brazilian performers made in Mexico towards the end of the ‘60s. The Joao Gilberto in Mexico one particularly springs to mind, as it’s a thing of great beauty. I confess I am not very up on Mexican matters of that time. Yet. Via VampiSoul I know of Rabbits and Carrots’ Latino Soul and La Onda Nueva En Mexico, that Aldemaia Romero/Monna Bell mad mix of bossa, jazz, and traditional Mexican and Venezualan elements. I know the Tamba-free Luiz Eca also recorded there in 1970 for his La Neuva Onda Del Brazil project which celebrated new sounds, new directions in music, with a stellar cast including Joyce, Nelson Angelo, Wilson Simonal, Nana Vasconceles. This too has been salvaged by VampiSoul and is an absolute must. Luiz Eca seems to have been particularly busy around 1970. I’ve been having great fun fishing around finding this and that. His own Brazil ’70 recording, which is very much in that Gary McFarland experimental easy listening area. There was another Piano and Orchestra set, which is quite beautiful. And his fingerprints are on some of the best records of the time. Joao Bosco. Nara Leao’s Dez Anos Depois (the Tuca one, yes!). And Quarteto Em Cy’s comeback in 1972, which is just one of the best things ever. Worth getting the reissue for the cover alone. The sound had moved on, as life had. If anything it’s closest to the Clube De Esquina LPs of Milton Nascimento/Lo Borges. Indeed the highlight of the LP is Lo’s Tudo Que Voce Podiaser. A very funky, folky work. That flute. Those harmonies. Produced in part by Edu Lobo. Who was himself in unstoppable form. Cantigua De Longe. Missa Breve. Amazing records. Particularly Missa Breve. Possibly the saddest recorded work. As sad and beautiful as Something Like You by Michael Head.
I’ve been thinking a lot about record labels lately. The challenges of identity in a climate of changing consumer habits. Will people be aware of branding, the music’s hosts or patrons? Does it matter? Labels do matter to a lot of people though. Hence the ardent archaeology. The re-examining. The reevaluating. The websites that are meticulous museums for inventive imprints. Strata East, CTI, Flying Dutchman, and so on. Sometimes, too, you can be taken by surprise. I saw a site dedicated to a discography of the Cup of Tea label, and I thought really? Cup of Tea. Mid to late ‘90s Bristol. Moving in the shadows of the marvellous Mo’Wax and the Avon autocracy (Massive Attack, Tricky, Portishead). Hmm. Funnily enough there’s an old Paul Morley NME piece from December 1980 which is a vehicle for a new pop manifesto where he writes about the (decent enough) Bristol group Essential Bop and the interview part is all about the shadow of The Pop Group haunting the city’s cultural activity. Cruel journalism. Bad writing. Perhaps. But history repeats itself. And some instead of taking umbrage bloom in the shadows. As The Stranglers sang: “What’s that in the shadows?” Who cares who did what first? You don’t say I won’t listen to this Alice Clark LP because Maxine Brown made a soul record some years before. That way you’d do yourself out of listening to Clock DVA or Johnny Clarke. There are always antecedents. And where Massive Attack is concerned you could, if you wanted, argue the case for Renegade Soundwave, 23 Skidoo, Dennis Bovell, On-U Sound, the Compass Point sound, Ze and 99 Records, Boogie Down Productions’ Ghetto Music. I
love that record. Ghetto Music: That Easy Listening Sound. Ah, easy listening. I was at my taijiquan class the other evening. Now they ordinarily play some ambient chill out type sounds to help the movements flow. Anyway, this time the instructor said the CD would be a bit funky. And it was. Sort of downtempo dubby instrumental hip hop. I was finding it hard to refrain from indulging in some serious headnodding, slow skanking moves of my own. Noting my lapse in concentration the instructor asked if I was ok. Now I could hardly say I was wondering whether that was Purple Penguin. Not quite the done thing. But I kept thinking about how far this music had come in ten years. From out of left field and smoky clubs to being essentially elevator muzak, background noise used by people with no concept of or interest in where the sounds come from, and I quite like that … Cup of Tea. Now that I’ve rummaged through my own crates I realise it did put out some great records, which had the advantage or disadvantage of being made a great time for music when all sorts of things were getting mixed up. And Cup of Tea in the tradition of a local eccentric soul label tapped into the spirit of the age and a genuine burst of creative activity on Avon. If hardly household names its roster nevertheless demonstrates how much was going on. Its early series of LPs is particularly impressive. Statik Sound System’s Tempesta and Purple Penguin’s De-Tuned are closest to what is thought of as Bristol blues and roots. Cavernous hip hop beats, deeply dubby bass, moody atmospherics, the occasional occasionally plaintive vocal.
The sound of records by Spaceways and by Monk & Canatella is more mixed-up, with a wonky, woozy, jazzy, folky, flippant holy goof thing going on. A reminder that the Mark Stewart silhouette is not the only Pop Group shadow, and anyway guitarist Gareth Sager’s activities in Rip, Rig & Panic and Float Up CP had as much impact if not more. Certainly RR&P were instrumental in waking a new generation up to the possibilities of dancing to jazz, antagonism and Sun Ra. Ah. One of those Spaceways songs was a Requiem For Ra. And one of the Spaceways participants was a certain Davey Woodward, whom I assume was once of the Brilliant Corners. The Brilliant Corners being one of the better turned out underground pop outfits of the 1980s. Anyway the most significant release on Cup of Tea was the Thru’ The Haze set by Jaz Klash. The Klash being LA producer The Angel (whose 60 Channels recordings are well worth tracking down) with kindred spirits Rob Smith and Peter D from Avon avatars Smith & Mighty, whose rhythm ‘n’ bass maternal instincts are rightly revered in certain circles. Thru’ The Haze was perhaps the first and certainly the most successful project to mix drum ‘n’ bass with live jazz instrumentation. It still sounds great. Even if this was an area that would be th extensively mined in the final years of the 20 Century. And for some this sort of fusion sapped drum ‘n’ bass of its strength. I’m all for it, though. All for the likes of Omni Trio, Aquasky, E-Z Rollers, Arcon 2, Forces of Nature, Endemic Void, Guardians of Dalliance, and so on. There was a lot of good music there. And if it’s functional in an active background music for ads/films kinda way then it’s following in the tradition of the library/easy listening recordings of late ‘60s/early ‘70s which are so sought after. The sounds work in the same way. And while I realise jazz/funk or fusion is not for everyone, what is? That whole Fender Rhodes/ARP thing holds a certain fascination even if we wince at memories of soul boys in Ford Capris with Maze window stickers. The Cup of Teasers ventured further into ready fusion territory with Tammy Payne’s In Deeper Life, which is great in a full on Flora Purim/Patrice Rushen adventurous way. Tammy may be best known for her singing with Smith & Mighty or maybe her own earlier recordings for Talkin’ Loud, but she remains criminally underrated and under-recorded and is an intriguing figure (didn’t she do a Simon Topping and disappear to the US to study latin percussion and re-emerge playing drums for PJ Harvey or am I making that up?) remaining active
as part of Jukes making quite lovely and strangely Broadcast like sounds. Ironic in a way as Cup of Tea put out a pleasant hip hop seasoned Nick Drake/John Martyn inspired record by Bill Cargill whom I assume has a brother who is part of the Broadcast corporation. Anyway, listening again to Jaz Klash, and many of those other infusers of jazz and d’n’b, several of whom were active in Bristol ... While sometimes with a Stanley Clarke or Chick Corea record it may feel like ‘how long can you keep your hand in the flame’, I do love that period of music. And out of all the people from that (breakbeat) era I’d go for 4Hero in particular. What they were trying to do on their Talkin’ Loud releases, Two Pages and Creating Patterns, was absurdly ambitious in a future soul symphony or afro futurist breakbeat concerto way, and they deserve credit for that. And before you sneer you need to think what the Gary McFarlands, the Lalo Schifrins, the Charles Stepneys, the Herbie Hancocks, those people, what would they be doing if they were young at the end th of the 20 Century. It’s easy to get so involved with the inventiveness of the past and lose sight of how that translates into the here and now. And I’m as guilty of this as anyone, going on about bossa and old jazz vocalists. I like the fact 4Hero are still out there too. Still creating. The relatively recent Play With The Changes is something of an overlooked treasure trove too. Challengingly smooth, and as enchantingly and exasperatingly expansive as ever, but containing some real gems. The opener Morning Child is gloriously euphoric spiritual soul/jazz and could brighten up the darkest of days. And overall if the enduring 4Hero themes of universal love are tempered by doubts and despair at the way of the world is that surprising? It’s not all smooth sailing and positive vibes either. The collaborations with Ursula Rucker and Jody Watley are particularly confrontational. I like that. There is a sense of 4Hero disappearing back to a place where their Dollis Hill street blues is a long way from the mainstream. And I kind of like the irony that this is an underground sound, with the freedom that entails. And anyway the underground is a good place to be when almost randomly you’re hearing things like Floating Points, Ahu, Afta-1, and all over the world things are being taken apart and put together in a wholly different way. Things that could change the world. Or disappear without trace. Names not yet known. Sounds not yet heard. That’s part of the fun of it.
Rebuild/Construct/From the bottom up … One of the great things about the incredible music made in Brazil in the early-ish ‘70s, post-tropicalia, post-bossa, that excites me so much is that no one seems to have a catch-all label to cover what was happening, with Edu Lobo, Milton Nascimento, Jorge Ben, Joao Bosco and so on. The same is happening now with music that matters from the young disciples of Dilla and Alice Coltrane, who have looked at Lauryn and Erykah and know things can never be straight forward again. The ones defying lots of things, including categorisation. There are those that seek to treat music like the food standards authorities sticking endless labels on products. These genre-ation terrorists are harmful distractors. This endless, enervating genre generating might amuse academics but as an exercise in pointlessness it’s up there with farcical feuding factions of the political left at various times effectively alienating potential supporters. Instead of tedious tagging, in a climate where creators of new directions in music are juggling this and that, struggling to be heard with what has yet to be heard as in unprecedented, the focus should be on where we go next … So when someone like Muhsinah comes along and boldly declares that she’ll take music somewhere it’s not been before, then I for one will be all ears. Naturally actions speak louder than words, but from what I’ve heard of Muhsinah she has a point. That’s a point as in remember the first time you heard Pharaoh
Sanders and Leon Thomas doing The Creator Has A Masterplan, or Rotary Connection, or Georgia Anne Muldrow, or Nicolette singing No Government. When I was a teenager I seemed to consume so much of the music I listened to through unofficial channels. A careworn cassette of Subway Sect ‘demos’, a tape of them live in Paris, a couple of Peel sessions. Compilation tapes of old soul and reggae. And so on. Now pleasures are sought via MySpace pages, with links to mixes and podcasts, YouTube videos, blogs. And so on. So you’re hearing what is essentially fragmented music in a fragmented way. Thus I’ve caught a bit of Muhsinah here, a bit of Muhsinah there. A production credit on Stacy Epps’ The Awakening. Some vocals on Foreign Exchange’s Daykeeper. A series of amazing performances posted on her MySpace page. The same with her website. The Daybreak 2.0 release. The clues begin to add up. Something special is happening here. The eventual release of The Oscillations: Sine/Triangle is an event eagerly anticipated. What I like particularly about Muhsinah’s music is a sense of otherness in the swirl of sounds. It’s that same delightful discordance, the disorientation that you get first stumbling across the Turkish psychedelia of Selda, say, or the Bollywood soundtracks of RD Burman, or Annette Peacock’s I’m The One. But for all the experimentation the blues and roots are never lost. This is not arid, abstract noodling and doodling. There is magic to make you feel alive. There are still melodies and beats to make you dance, sing, or anything. The potential to be truly popular. I always liked that quote Robert Wyatt uses about Mingus never losing sight of the fact that this was dance music. There is, though, a tendency to forget that people dance to different things in different ways. Today I’m dancing to the glorious Too Experienced by the Bodysnatchers ... but that as they say is a different story …