Tuesday, April 19, 2005


So a couple of months ago I was sent these three CDs from a new improvised music label called Treader; very nice they looked too, in complementary pastel sleeves with different animal engravings on each. And in particular the two CDs which involve Evan Parker and the gentlemen from Spring Heel Jack have, I think, compelled me to rethink my perspective on British improv yet again.

When in the early '70s Wayne Shorter left the Miles Davis group to form Weather Report, and Miles was scouting around for a suitable replacement, his then bassist Dave Holland enthusiastically recommended the name of Evan Parker as a candidate. To back this up he played Miles the then-recent SME album Karyobin - on which both Parker and Holland appear. Miles duly listened intently, and upon the album's conclusion raised a wry smile and told Holland, "Dave, that was some nice shit going on there - but it's not the sort of shit my band's gonna play."

What might have occurred had Davis hired Parker is something of which we get an indication on Trio With Interludes; and, as David Toop has already said in his Wire review, the record suggests a direction which British improv might have taken back in 1970 if the Electro camp had won the battle for attention over the Acoustics. Essentially TIW is an extended piece of alternating moods, between Parker (on tenor throughout) blowing with splendid directness over the crazy paving of John Coxon and Ashley Wales' assorted pianos, guitars, samplers and "riveted tambours," crucially abetted by the always relevant percussion work of Mark Sanders, and more covert, crepuscular, not-quite-ambient interludes by Coxon and Wales on piano interiors and noises offstage. One supposes the obvious stylistic comparison is with Lunge - one horn, double electronics and Mark Sanders - but the approach here is less discursive, perhaps less mischievous but certainly more linear. Here Sanders is a crucial presence; as with other lineally-minded drummers such as Paul Lovens and Louis Moholo, he inspires Parker to jog across a determined and decided rhythmic and harmonic path, and there's a muscularity to Parker's tenor which these drummers always seem to inspire. Indeed, the pace is generally breakneck - there is absolutely no room for coasting - with Parker immediately and beautifully slurring and howling raspberries on track one (none of the CDs boasts individual track titles) over distended, abruptly cut-off Hammond, piano and harpsichord figures. Comparisons have already been made with Sun Ra and Larry Young but there is definitely a touch of the Joe Gallivans about Coxon and Wales' pointillistic, rhythm-favouring attack.

This treatise of power more or less continues throughout the piece's 52 minutes, interspersed with the aforementioned interludes which begin as slightly irreverent takes on standard notions of Ambient - the bayou moon guitar, the post-Satie piano - but which systematically become darker and darker until we are left with skeletal piano interiors being caressed, interrupted by the sound of repeated slamming doors (trapdoors in reverse?). Meanwhile, the ensemble's rhythm nation continues to prosper. There is a staggering moment in the second half of track three where tenor sax interacts with rapid-fire synth, Cutmaster scratch clicks and Sanders' never-wavering floor tom-heavy "beat" and eventually one cannot decipher who's doing what; an improvised stroboscope flashing athwart your mind.

And the Weather Report comparisons aren't misplaced, either; there's a lovely moment at the beginning of track nine where we could practically be listening to an outtake from Mysterious Traveller; Parker's languid tenor coasting over warm Fender Rhodes ripples. But this soon ascends into more 900 bpm quickfire gunfire interplay, until eventually Parker and Coxon are exchanging beefy belches from the guts of their respective instruments.

So Trio With Interludes is a remarkable record in itself, but its power is swivelled into proper perspective when set beside its astonishing companion, Evan Parker With Birds. No, this is not the long-desired collaboration between Parker and Girls Aloud (though I'd sneakily love Coxon and Wales, who have worked with both, to arrange this), but judging by the reaction I've been getting from friends and associates when playing it, it could well turn out to be Parker's first hit record (if we discount his indispensable contributions to previous hit records by Scott Walker and Vic Reeves), and is certainly one of his most moving ones. This finds Parker improvising over, and with, field recordings (sometimes electronically modified, most of the time not) of English birdsong. It could easily have fallen into the trap of Jan Garbarek at Kew Gardens, but skilfully avoids doing so by avoiding easy options, and most of all because the record acts as a requiem - for Parker's friend, fellow saxophonist and sometime collaborator Steve Lacy, who died last year.

Certainly Parker introduces a new dimension to his playing here which is explicitly referential to Lacy, in many ways the polar opposite of the younger man in terms of approach - whereas Parker specialises in circuitous, constant whirlpools of motivic variants, speeded up to dervish speed such that he can frequently sound like a flock of birds on his own, Lacy was a slow, calm and patient player, acutely aware of the precious and specific value of every individual note that he played, caressing each note, or sequence of notes, as though reluctant to release them into the air.

On EPWB, Parker concentrates on slow motivic development, again with the apparent aim of becoming one with the birds with whom he is trying to communicate. The opening ten-minute section is very affecting, with Parker stating and building on a mournful Eastern theme on his soprano, as birds and countryside sounds gather and flutter around him - if he had appeared on Virginia Astley's From Gardens Where We Feel Secure, it might have sounded something like this. There is a staggering moment at the end of track one where the birds double into themselves and gradually merge into an electronic blur, as though awakening from a dream, as though none of this was reality (the same mowing blade blur, in fact, that we hear at the beginning and end of "I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)").

On track two the soprano dovetails into its more familiar eddying cycles, and again by the piece's end it is hard to determine which is Parker and which are the birds. Throughout this section there is a strange, irregular percussive obbligato which could come from either Parker slap-tonguing his saxophone or from the cricket smack of leather upon willow.

Parker seems to disappear from the brief interlude that is track three, where the atmosphere suddenly becomes nocturnal and rather threatening, with the noises of running hooves and madly flapping wings. But peace, of a hard-purchased kind, resumes in the shattering 15-minute closing track. This begins with Parker's doleful tenor blowing low notes at long strategic intervals - and thereby reminding us of Lacy's partial procedural debt to Jimmy Giuffre - over a continuo of nature at unquiet rest; indeed, this record may constitute some of Parker's most "conventional" saxophone playing since his tenor solo on Tony Oxley's recording of "Stone Garden" back in 1969 (the shock of the latter is that it doesn't shock) and some of his saddest too. After some four minutes, the tenor disappears to leave us with a heartbreaking landscape portrait of sunshine, church bells, creaking bicycle wheels - not in the crass John Major analogous sense, but with the sense that this is a paradise, a life, lost. Soon, day once again turns to night, and while we hear a sample of what must be a typical polyphonic flurry from Parker's tenor, the man himself returns, back on soprano, and with slow and profound deliberation plays a quite beautiful Coltrane modal lament over the soundtrack. As nature falls asleep, lies down (never to awaken again?), Parker is, as Surman was at the end of Westbrook's "View From The Drawbridge," as the lights of the world go out one by one, left on his own, leaving us a clear and poignant picture of Rosetti's "visible silence, as still as an hour-glass."

Monday, April 18, 2005


"Tomorrow, tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing."
(The Scottish Play, V.v.19-28)

Perhaps my closing question should have been: What else should we create? Because where I sensed a closure in Time Of The Last Persecution, I am now confronted with what sounds like a renewal. It's hard even in this unlimited space to articulate how completely I have been affected, emotionally and otherwise, by the third Bill Fay album which has recently been released, a quarter of a century after it was recorded. A record which would have sounded as out of step in 1978 or 1981 as it would have done in 1971 and may still do in 2005. No record company in any of those years would have known what to do with this kind of a vision. Listening to it I not only think of all those avant-MoR operatives whose careers were brutally curtailed by punk - John Howard, John Carter, Gilbert O'Sullivan - but also of things yet to be promised, of the late Elliott Smith and the later Mark Hollis. Perhaps the only way to view Tomorrow, Tomorrow And Tomorrow is in the same way as SMiLE - a singular masterpiece, relieved of any time zone, standing both outside and over much of the rest of popular music.

What is most immediately apparent about the third Bill Fay album - apart from the fact that it is not credited to Bill Fay the solo artist, but to the Bill Fay Group - is a sense of calm which is made all the more Olympian by its being so hard-earned. Although this record is capable of bewitching the listener on its own, it must be heard in tandem with his two Deram albums, which fortunately are imminently to be made available on CD again. The overwhelming spiritual aura of this record is made more poignant - made more Alice Coltrane rather than made more Cliff Richard - by the pungency of its predecessors, especially the violent and tumultuous Time Of The Last Persecution with its explicit references to "The Christ."

The "Group" aspect of the Bill Fay Group cannot be under-emphasised; whereas on Persecution Fay worked with Ray Russell's group, here he appears with improvising trio the ACME Quartet, featuring bassist Rauf Gulip, drummer Bill Stratton and the youthful Gary Smith, now one of the leading names in European improvised music, on guitar. In many ways Smith comes across as the natural successor to Russell; the anger remains present in his playing but is tempered by compassion and the overall need to, as Fay puts it in his brief sleevenote, give service to the music. As Fay goes on to state, the Group did not work towards the hope or expectation of receiving a recording contract; it was enough that the music be played and recorded, even if no one else got to listen to it. Thankfully, everyone can now get to listen to it - and it is stunning.

The opening track in particular, "Strange Stairway," is sufficiently poignant for me to want to pause from living, even if only for the three minutes of the song's duration. Smith's vulnerable tremelo picks a high-register motif against an indescribably moving chord sequence, while Fay's only slightly less vulnerable voice comes in, trying to clamber back into the world: "I feel, in myself, the river run, the ocean swell/And miles above me, a strange stairway/And one thing I know for sure/The only thing that'll get us up off the floor/Is the love inside we." Stratton's cymbals tick away in Robert Wyatt-esque quiet insistence throughout, but the symbolism which sets the tone for the rest of the record is already clear; an upward journey towards salvation and deliverance. The religiosity is accentuated in "Spiritual Mansions" ("Lifegiver/Blessed Redeemer") but is not unquestioning; Fay's quiet voice trembles: "There's a woman in labour/The Creation awaits you," before the music suddenly swells with his more urgent pleas: "To close/These bodies/These souls/In immortality," the last syllable of which is punctuated by an abrupt booming Moog synthesiser before receding just as rapidly. Stratton again soundtracks the nagging doubt with dub-like rimshots.

"Planet Earth Daytime" is the sort of song you wish could have been number one instead of "The Lady In Red"; the first 90 seconds have "hit" written all over them, with what begins as a small urban tableau ("She leaves her apartment/About midday/And the colour of the pavement/Is the colour of her face") before the music gathers in intensity for the chorus, where Fay indicates the hint of imminent apocalypse ("Planet Earth daytime/Maybe the last time/Who cares?").

Then the initial music dies away, or is supplemented by another melody coming in from the right channel, giving the piece some bitter bitonality as Fay tacitly howls "Our world" before embarking upon a not too decipherable monologue ("So many flags...Pray for the sergeant major who only had orders to give - nothing else") which in turn is briefly supplanted by a shocking flare-up of atonal improv noise (flashbacks of the Persecution hell?). This too quickly disappears as Fay launches into what sounds like a dry run for the soundtrack to Local Hero with its optimistic guitar lines shadowing (or shielding) words which are still to do with the apocalypse; Fay bargaining for a place on the Ark ("Dangerous sailing/In a ship that's going down"). Over the sunset major key ending he dimly intones what could either be: "Let's all aboard" or "Let's go home." It's up to us to decide.

"Goodnight Stan" revisits the disassociated war veteran theme of "Sing Us One Of Your Songs May," though there is now a touch of George Harrison about Fay's petitioning of Stan to "take a watering can to protect yourself," since "Soon they say/They'll be taking us away/To another place/Was it Mars/Or was it Jupiter?" The effect is plangent as well as poignant, and the song is terminated by an unearthly lament of a howl which turns out to be Fay's own voice. At this juncture there is nothing to add apart from the prayer which is the title track, a modified "May Each Day" (not to mention an updated "Some Good Advice") where Fay, alone over a simple piano and synthesiser line, advises his child (?) "May you have faith/May you have hope/May you have life/And a skipping rope/To turn with you/And see you through/Tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow." The faintest glow of hope in a torrent destined never to end.

And here is where the album "proper" disappears into the background, as we are now presented with an extraordinary collage of nine song fragments clearly taken from demos and home recordings - an album within an album, or the hidden fourth album, like a lo-fi take on side two of Abbey Road, which even on its own betrays more invention than can be found in...well, I'll leave it to your discretion to fill in the names of your choice. "Just A Moon" manages to invent Aztec Camera (listen to that "Round and ROUND you" line). Some fragments, for example "To Be A Part" and "Turning The Pages," exist only as barely audible minutiae, coming indistinctly from the right channel only ("Nothing lasts forever," the sleeve remarks ruefully, "Tape deteriorates in time"), like unanticipated ghosts. With "Sam" we are again in the world of Scott Walker's "Two Ragged Soldiers," as Fay tries to remind his aged colleague of who exactly he is - "When you walk down the street, does it feel like a dream?.../Hard to recall where you've been?/...It's an ill punch that knocks into no one no sense" - over a Wyatt-type keyboard figure as the progenitor tries to deny the possibility that both he and Sam are slowly but steadily disintegrating, both physically and mentally.

This segues swiftly into "Lamp Shining," or the ending of the song "Lamp Shining," a song as venomous as Lennon at his blackest: "In our stalls, there's nowhere for you to play!" yells Fay. "At our table, there's nothing we want you to say!" before ironically advising "Keep your lamp shining as you journey on your way" as the song is instantly engulfed in more spiky freeform chaos, a life already terminated. Then, via the curiously Bacharach-ish "Love Is The Tune," we reach the positively vituperative "After The Revolution" where Fay's protagonist has just shot the enemy ("With my guns still smoking"). The victim's dying words - again explicitly paralleled with the Passion of the Christ ("There is no peace unless you bleed!/Bleed for Christ!") - give the impression of Lennon's "Revolution" with its acid content quadrupled and set against a restless "Whiter Shade Of Pale" organ riff. "A voice that in its time vomited forth a thousand words in anger" reflects Fay as he realises the uselessness and waste of his gesture, and by extension that of "revolution" in inverted commas, as he is finally driven to overflow the barlines and launch into another bitter spoken monologue into which the music disappears, though one feels it could continue eternally. Finally "Jericho Road" sees Fay wry over the possibility of an ending to everything ("I may get the chop from Kung Fu fighters/...I pray if I do, the Samaritans will find me") before returning to the opening "Strange Stairway," here noticeably faster, sounding like a Wings outtake, but its humble message undiminished, completing the cycle.

Then we return to the "album" with Fay's spiritualism heightened and intensified to new levels of poignancy. "Life" finds him asking fundamental questions over a lugubrious organ and Smith's guitar, mimicking seagulls ("Who are we? Where do we stand? Who holds the key? Who holds the plan? When you hear no voice, no sign of land. Who are we to say we are?") before launching into a passionate chorus (echoes here of what the vastly and sadly underrated Ultrasound would go on to do years later with songs like "Best Wishes") wherein Fay acknowledges the facade but refuses to diminish his belief in its potential effects - "So let the world make believe/That life is risen/That life is conquered/So that the world might believe/And feel the power of the life and love we see!" This anguish is brilliantly articulated by Stratton's frequently freeform drumming (very reminiscent of Laurie Allan on Wyatt's version of "Song For Che") and Smith's squealing, raging and weeping guitar solo, perching on the verge of chaos but always stepping back when required.

"Man" is an indistinct echo of Nilsson's "One" where piano is again succeeded by distant guitar squalls ("Nobody knows when you are gone"), while "Hypocrite" will make you shake your tears in disbelief that a song with lyrics as elemental as "Love is like a rose" can make your soul collapse, particularly when the lament vanishes into a pronounced synthesised drone.

"Cosmic Boxer" sums up the tenor of Fay's message on this album; the ordinary human, venturing into the world every day, struggling to stay in the contest even if, as the song admits, they are only boxing their own shadow, but finally succumbing to the Beckettian leitmotif of I-can't-go-on-I-go-on ("It's true he viewed the cocoon with despair/Yet he boxed on"). At the end the song slows down into a regretful minor/major key seesaw as Fay pointedly states that the "boxer" will "always find a way through" but "not by your own merit." Note Stratton's solitary gong/cymbal crash towards the song's end - the world forever treading on our heads.

It's getting near the end, now, and so must Fay sing of passing from this world into another. "We Are Raised" starts out as a simple Dr Dykes hymn - so damned simple, the sentiments "We sit beside Him now" and "Thank you for the life you gave," so damnably poignant that I can't listen to it without dissolving into floods of mourning. And then, right at the end, the Sunday school piano segues into a 1978 synthesiser - and the latter sounds, chillingly, exactly like PiL's "Radio 4." Two different and distinct routes towards the same heart. See what he did there?

To end, and no other song could end this remarkable record, there is "Isles Of Sleep," no doubt deliberately placed at the end to speak to 2005 listeners as much, or more so, than any potential 1981 ears. Over a piano waltz which foretells of "Sleepy Song" by Tindersticks, Fay finally turns to address you: "After all these years/I emerge from the darkness."

(Dylan - not dead yet)

"I dwelt in the Isles of Sleep/Banished as a shadow/Where no light could reach/No teachers' arrows"

(remember that one of Bill Fay's day jobs was as a teacher)

"The purpose now is plain/To not have lost and not have strayed/Would have borne me far away/From my true nature"

But we all have to come back to the world, even if at the end.

"Bereft of spear/Naked...(the voice lowers to humility)...harmless."

Then a new piano motif begins, and if I tell you that it anticipates, by twenty or more years, the similar closing section of Pulp's "Sunrise," you might not believe me.


"Nothing has changed.

Only me.

The world's still the same.



But I'm not the same."

Nor could I ever be. I think that, just as another record did three-and-a-half years ago, this record has saved me from myself. Again.

"O my lord, when I was last at Messina, I looked upon her with a soldier's eye, that liked, but had no leisure for loving; but now, in this happy time of peace, thoughts of war have left their places vacant in my mind, and in their room come thronging soft and delicate thoughts, all prompting me how fair young Hero is, reminding me that I liked her before I went to the wars."
(Charles and Mary Lamb, Tales From Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing)

Thursday, March 24, 2005

1974: GAYNOR

Never Can Say Goodbye (7 Dec - 2)

This will be the last entry I'll have time to complete before I disappear for a fortnight to enjoy an extremely well-earned holiday, and it seems fitting to depart by ushering in, not only the first "G" entry - steady - but also a record which for many readers may represent Year Zero, Day One, the moment when the future started; the first crossover Hi-NRG hit. In 1974 there was also Donna Summer's "The Hostage" which hit big in Germany and the Low Countries if nowhere else. But three full years before Summer's Once Upon A Time brought forth the genesis of the sequenced disco concept album (compare "I Need You Now" with Leonard Cohen's "The Guests"), there was side one, tracks 1-3, of Gloria Gaynor's debut album Never Can Say Goodbye - three segued songs with identical beats unifying to create something of a symphony to transience (and typically, such transience has proved far more durable than most of the "durable" music of this period), mixed and overseen by one of the most important operatives in any sphere of '70s music, the late and great Tom Moulton.

Beginning with the still bizarre "Honey Bee," in which Gaynor implores her Other for s(con)sensual satisfaction in a series of unsubtle metaphors ("Come on and sting me!" "You're always buzzin' buzzin' buzzin'") over a deranged fuzz guitar which seems to have escaped from Sky Saxon's coal bunker (why was the garage punk-disco fusion chimera left so unexplored?), the music strides into "Never Can Say Goodbye" itself and finally reaches its climax with a dizzying rush through "Reach Out I'll Be There."

Certainly "Never Can Say Goodbye" sounded like a bewitching future in the winter of '74, with its frenetic string intro, like "Love's Theme" at 78 rpm and its unstoppable layers of percussion topped by a strangely Nashville-sounding guitar, describing/re-inscribing an old Jackson Five weepie as though reheard via amyl nitrate. The methodology of speeding up a ballad to 120 bpm and amazingly making it doubly more moving and affecting did of course subsequently become a staple of gay disco, which is why Donna Summer's 22-minute artifically adrenalised rush through "Macarthur Park" may well cut deeper than Richard Harris' ham theatrics - her inhuman cackle ("A-haaaa!") is arguably more disturbing than any element of the original - and why Neil Tennant's reluctant confession of "Maybe I...didn't love you" right at the fade of the Pet Shop Boys' "Always On My Mind" touches a place Presley didn't even know existed.

As with "Until You Come Back To Me," "Never Can Say Goodbye" is a song about the desperation necessary to hold on to something, or someone, that has drifted away. Whereas Michael Jackson's soprano sobbed on the original recording, and Isaac Hayes' baritone boomed on his quickfire (1971) cover, Gaynor appears out of control - and the speed rush of the music traps her in the same way Moroder traps Summer on "I Feel Love"; as Gaynor sings "There's a very strange vibration," it's as if she's being involuntarily transported to the Earth's core to make her passion burn ("It says TURN AROUND YOU FOOL!"). But every time the roundabout slows down to give her an opportunity to get off, Gaynor denies herself the option - "Don't wanna let you go!" Note the coy/euphoric "Hey" acting as a subtle nod to the early Supremes. But in her despair, Gaynor is paradoxically and cosily euphoric about her imminent annihilation ("I can't do with or without"), and so the speed continues not to relent.

Outwardly, everything about "Never Can Say Goodbye" points to a hitherto unseen and unimagined brightness. The 18 minutes of side one of its parent album act as a challenge to Northern Soul hangovers (and indeed those 18 minutes were highly popular at the Twisted Wheel and similar) - can you keep it up for all that time? When sufficient numbers were hopped up on dust or sherbet fountains, they found that they could; hence the imminent arrival of the 12-inch single, and hence in the long-term side one of The Lexicon Of Love - all five songs, though not segued or strictly sequenced, share the same BPM, and work towards a cathartic climax of despair in "Valentine's Day." Here is one of the many places where it started.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

1974: A.F.

Until You Come Back To Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do) (16 Feb - 26)

One can become too isolated. While listening to music in solitude certainly allows the listener to build for himself a particular version of the world (or a specific bunker in which to hide oneself from the world), if you do not listen to music communally, whether in an audience or at the home of friends, you are literally missing half the story. Sometimes I feel that's what I've done of late, having such scant opportunity to listen to music in congenial company. Thus you can yawn discreetly at the LCD Soundsystem album, only to have your notions overturned a few weeks later as you witness friends and colleagues enjoying it, having fun and dancing to it. That, you might well say, is the point. But where does the communal aspect start and the personal perspective stop?

In answer to the question frequently asked as to why I had not become a professional music writer in the early '80s when I had the opportunity, my stock response is to say that it was not necessary for me to convey my views and passions to an audience, for I already had the ideal audience. I felt that mutual one-to-one reactions to music were, frankly, our personal business and none of yours. Then three-and-a-half years ago that audience was suddenly no longer there, so I had to find a new one.

But with Funeral, the debut album by Montreal's The Arcade Fire, a record which has been in my house for some time but has only recently been played in the company of others, I am now starting to feel that maybe what I think about this record is "our" business, reluctant as I am to go into detail about friends visibly moved to tears, or to euphoria, sometimes simultaneously, as they were listening to Funeral. Let's be honest, there is no bigger kick than playing your record collection to someone else and find that they enjoy it, can relate to it. But then there is the very occasional record which can puncture a gathering of people at a deeper communal level and can directly speak to, and of, all of us (or at least all of us gathered in the front room). Funeral, I feel, is such a record - perhaps the first such record there has been since Music From Big Pink.

As with their Canadian forefathers The Band, The Arcade Fire offer us a direct line to simplicity of emotion, but expressed in music of deceptive complexity. I am loath even to use words such as "deceptive" in this context because The Arcade Fire do not set out to deceive anyone. Funeral is so called (and such a name for a debut album!) because it was made in the immediate wake of, and in direct emotional reaction to, the deaths of several elderly members of the bands' families over the preceeding year. Remarkably it manages to avoid sentimentality entirely; the emotions it expresses are almost brutal in their realness, but compassionate in their articulation. Much has been made of the main voice heard on the album, that of Win Butler, in terms of its being "weak." If anything, Butler's voice is extremely reminiscent of Ian McCulloch, and his sudden, confident octave leaps on songs such as "Power Out" and "Crown Of Love" do not betray technical inadequacy. Yet there is also a naked vulnerability in Butler's singing which also puts me very much in mind of The Band's Richard Manuel - listen to the latter's "Lonesome Suzie" off Big Pink and see what I mean - with a quiet (and occasionally not so quiet) determination to be proud of its "weakness," particularly as it is set, musically, against what could reliably be called "The Big Music" (pace the Waterboys). The opening track, "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" with its not-quite-translucent, distorted high strings and piano (it could almost be the renegade piano from the middle section of "Beach Baby"), sets us up for a year zero Joshua Tree - an epic done from scratch, shed of any prehistoric pomp. It cannot be an accident that the song's rhythm is identical to that of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," and there is a similar steady but unstoppable momentum through this song about trying to turn lead into gold ("Spread the ashes of the colors over this heart of mine!"), about trying to unite with each disconnected other, not by screaming about how you're going to knock on their door and tap on their windowpane through a loudhailer, but by building a tunnel - "And if my parents are crying then I'll dig a tunnel from my window to yours."

In this scenario, "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" is the album's equivalent to "Where The Streets Have No Name" but its jerky rhythms are far more urgent - as if Butler will die if the song stops - as over increasing strata of guitars and percussion the singer proclaims "Light a candle for the kids, Jesus Christ don't keep it hid!/...And the power's out in the heart of man, take it from your heart, put it in your hand." The effect is scarily uplifting, like being abducted to the top of the Telecom Tower. And in many ways, this could also pass as Talking Heads' "Road To Somewhere" - note the frenetic vocal on "Neighborhood #2 (Laika)" which could have come straight out of Fear Of Music ("Cities" specifically) with its "Alexander, our older brother, set out for a great adventure" intro and its bowel-lowering chord change halfway through.

"Crown Of Love" seems like a newly (and desperately) excavated doowop song - "Please Stay" for an impermanent new century - which again provokes a profoundly confused but emotionally inviolate vocal from Butler ("In my heart there's flowers growin' on the grave of our old love"). Again the music builds up stealthily until the sun breaks, the tempo doubles, and the strings scrape out a reincarnated ELO riff; exceptionally euphoric, as though he has managed to clamber out of the grave. "Wake Up" finds the newly reawakened Butler demanding that we allow all of our souls to be punctured in defiance of our own inevitable passing ("With my lightnin' bolts a-glowin' I can see where I am goin' to be when the reaper he reaches and touches my hand") over a mass choral singalong. And when it changes key, as you were dying for it to do, you realise that this is the genuinely skykissing record which Oasis might have made had they paid less attention to how the Beatles had done it. Even this is not the end, for at 3:51 the song breaks into a Northern Soul/Motown gallop ("You Can't Hurry Love" meets "Lust For Life"), gradually breaking down into its children's glockenspiel and plucked violin components.

And anyone - U2, the Bunnymen, Oasis, whoever - would be proud to have come up with "Rebellion (Lies)" which somehow succeeds in wedding Wire's skeletal pragmatism with a propulsion seeming to owe more to Acid House than to any notions of rock. The unstoppable rush of Butler's "Every time you close your eyes" mantra makes one weep for all the lost chances, all the dull compromises, which British "rock" has made in the last decade - it really does come across as Heaven Up Here - in many ways, the record about which I last felt this "passionate" - reborn.

And then it goes one divine step further.

You hear her voice jovially urging the lost brother of "Laika" ("Come on Alex, don't die or dry up!"). You hear her again, interacting warmly with Butler in bilingual bliss in "Une Annee Sans Lumiere" (the gorgeous balladry of the first half giving way to the raging rock of the second). Her drumming throughout is like the judge's gavel of Levon Helm ("We Can Talk About It Now") smashing the self-constructed coffin open and allowing breath to flow into her again. She is Regine Chassagne, and her two, seemingly unobtrusive tracks, take Funeral to a new emotional and temporal level. First there is "Haiti" with its police siren guitars and hushingly discordant keyboards and its bilingual lyric about fleeing "the soldiers angry yelling," delving deeper into the woods ("In the forest we are hiding, unmarked graves where flowers go"). Her scarcely-stopping-short-of-tearful voice stopped the heartbeats of everybody in that front room.

And she is also given the finale, "In The Backseat," which for the only time on the album expresses explicit grief. Her voice is perhaps similar, stylistically, to Bjork, but emotionally Regine far outstrips the Icelander. Over a chord sequence so gorgeous as to inspire the desire for death, Regine weeps openly ("The lightning bolt made enough heat" - i.e. the aftermath of "Wake Up" - "to melt the street beneath your feet.../The family tree's losing all its leaves/Crashing towards the driver's seat"), and, as though to take her in its arms and embrace her lovingly, the song (which hitherto has seemed like a broadcast from an unexpected afterlife) expands accordingly, opens up with a truly epic string flourish and leitmotif which continues to build as Regine wails "Alice died in the night," "I've been learning to drive all my life," and the final, cataclysmic scream of "Oh, Norah!" - as she watches all the familiar landmarks of her world fall away, as she watches herself getting older, realising that eventually she will be the only landmark left. At the song's climax an undertow of improvised, pointillistic string flurries enters beneath the proud ending, and soon enough everything dies away, leaving the violins to scuttle about - the dawn chorus of birds, reborn for a new and hopefully better world, saying a littler but deeper prayer.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005


Beach Baby (15 Jun – 13)

"Truly, though our element is time,
We are not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
They link us to our losses: worse,
They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently we could have kept it so."
(Philip Larkin, "Reference Back," 1955, stanza 3)

The intangible sound of static, just like the beginning of "Telstar." A fragment of a once-happy song emerges from this abstract mausoleum. A disc jockey who doesn’t quite sound American. "This is the summer sound of First Class and their record ‘Beach Baby," yeah man…" And then the strange nasal voice fades, giving way to a solemn organ chord, as though we had inadvertently blundered our way into a funeral service (it is the next chord after "Good Vibrations"), before that too is subsumed, or even drowned, in a sudden tsunami of drums, timpani, strings, brass and finally buoyant, boyish harmony voices bringing us back to…well, trying to bring something back to us. Trying to remember what it was like to live before the end of the metaphorical September which the record inhabits. The record is "Beach Baby" by First Class, and it was the culmination of the life’s work of its creator, one of the most extraordinary operatives in post-war British pop, John Carter.

Carter had spent the best part of a decade working towards this masterpiece, and had done so under a dizzying variety of pseudonyms, greater in number than those of Jonathan King, to whose UK label he was signed in the guise of First Class. As mainstay of the Ivy League in the mid-‘60s, he was responsible for the immaculate melancholy of rueful soft pop classics such as "Funny How Love Can Be" (but under the surface of softness, apprehend the polite sneer of "There she goes, with her nose in the air") and "Tossing And Turning."

It was with the final Ivy League single, 1966’s "My World Fell Down," that Carter ventured to cut the Merseybeat dummy loose. Suddenly the harmonies are dappled in minor oceans of echoing miasma; there are baroque strings and a quietly sobbing solo violin to end. Clearly he had been listening acutely to Pet Sounds, but he had not yet made the transition from artisan to visionary; it was down to America’s Gary Usher, under his studio guise of Sagittarius, to amplify the song’s otherness, with a careful lead vocal from Glen Campbell, Bruce Johnston taking the topline harmony of the chorus and an otherworldly "middle eight" of a seemingly random sound collage abruptly terminated by the slamming of a coffin lid (incidentally, the apocryphal story that said sound collage was an outtake from the "in the cantina" section of "Heroes And Villains" is not actually true – though heavily and naturally influenced by Brian Wilson, Usher came up with it
all by himself).

Nevertheless, in between innumerable session singing and production duties – including the uncredited lead vocal on "Winchester Cathedral" and writing "Semi-Detached Suburban Mr James" for Manfred Mann, as
well as several Herman’s Hermits hits and even that other Nuggets staple, "A Little Bit Of Soul" by the Music Explosion – Carter continued to refine his peculiarly but specifically British vision of post-Wilsonian pop; via 1966’s "I Couldn’t Stand Another Day Without You," where the Mersey template dissolves in petals of acid ("I can’t tell day from night"), details such as the quarrelsome guitar line on 1967’s "Time And Motion Man" and the gorgeous, if still derivative, "Am I Losing You," this phase of his art culminated in "Let’s Go To San Francisco," credited to the Flowerpot Men (his preferred soft-psych moniker between 1967-70) and widely derided at the time as a cynical flower power cash-in, but actually an intelligent, heartfelt and enterprising record, particularly when heard in its full six-minute length (complete with "Good Vibrations"-style breakdown halfway through and its ending of a whirlpool of piano feedback). Indeed the Flowerpot Men seemed to be the harbour under which Carter could express otherwise inexpressible emotions – consider the half-hidden "Say goodbye to mother" refrain in "A Walk In The Sky," and the sad wisdom of 1969’s "White Dove" (hear how oceanic Carter’s production had become by this stage, with its tolling bells and pre-Cocteau Twins guitars) and 1970’s moving "Say Goodbye To Yesterday." Or the Flowerpot Men records which ended up being released under other names – "Tahiti Farewell" (Haystack, 1969) is "Cool, Cool Water" with a didgeridoo added. The amazing "A Night To Be Remembered" (Dawn Chorus, 1969) takes a basic (but tremendous) Ivy League song and subjects it to a melee of primitive Moog bleeps, banjo picking and Bach organ chorales. And above all there is "Mythological Sunday," released in 1968 and credited to "Friends"; a stunningly beautiful and limpid technicolor dream with vocals which sound strangely like Robert Wyatt and an innate melancholy which places it somewhere between People’s "Glastonbury" and Traffic’s "No Face, No Name, No Number." But the clue is in the title; four-and-a-half minutes in, as the song appears to be coming to its natural end, its space is gradually invaded by synthesised gunfire and a mournful military march ("When Johnny Comes Marching Home" redone for the Vietnam era) proceeding from channel to channel. The dream is broken by blood; thus "Mythological Sunday" is also a forefather of "America No More" by the KLF. And this from someone who, virtually in the same breath, was writing cheery little McCartney-esque ditties like "Knock, Knock, Who’s There," Mary Hopkin’s 1970 Eurovision entry - a "Those Were The Days" variant, but kinder and gentler to itself.

As the ‘70s dawned Carter moved into a curious mixture of bubblegum and CSNY-type introspective folk-pop. As Stamford Bridge he was happy to indulge in unapologetic post-"Sugar Sugar" candy pop, though under this particular pseudonym he sneaked in some songs which were noticeably close to someone’s bone – perhaps his then principal co-writer and former schoolfriend Ken Lewis, about to quit the music business, beset by depression – such that songs such as "First Day Of Your Life" and "Move Out Of Town" take on an additional if inadvertent poignancy, as did 1971’s brilliantly panscopic "Hello Hello Hello" (released as Stormy Petrel – I hope that you are managing to keep up with all of these names) with its urge to you to come out of
your bunker. On the other fist there was the greatest Eurovision song we never had, Kincade’s "Dreams Are Ten A Penny," a huge hit everywhere in 1972 except in Britain. And, as First Class, he was able to make the well-worn template of "feel sorry for the lonely rich superstar" sound fresh and affecting in 1974’s "What Became Of Me," which, in between its Surf’s Up balladic structural peaks rapidly flicks through klezmer, heavy metal and Sousa marches as the protagonist regrets a wasted life ("What became of the girls I went for/And the same cheap scent I bought them all?").

But "Beach Baby" was the five-minute peak of Carter’s art. The lead vocal was not Carter himself, but his former Ivy League colleague Tony Burrows, he of Edison Lighthouse, White Plains (essentially a de-weirded Flowerpot Men) and the first incarnation of the Brotherhood of Man. Burrows’ faux-naif contralto (sounding exactly, and appropriately, like a British Mike Love) is ideal for a song which is about bewilderment, and also about imperfect perceptions of a reality which may never have existed.

"Or, better yet, Dumas does not exist; he is only a mythical being, a trade name invented by a syndicate of editors."
(J Lucas-Dubreton, La Vue d’Alexandre Dumas Pere, cited by Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project – section: "The Streets Of Paris")

"Do you remember back in old LA?" asks Burrows, wherein follows a series of disconnected signifiers - "Chevrolet," "the boy next door," "The suntanned, crewcut All-American Male," "the high school hop," "the soda pop" - which don't so much signify Roy Lichtenstein as Philip K Dick, as is evident in the couplet "I didn't recognise the Girl Next Door/With beat-up sneakers and a ponytail," with the emphasis on the "beat-up." Life has beaten her up. We are now in someone's autumn.

In a desperate attempt to resuscitate dead memories, all the record's voices unite, propelling the music
forward like a subaquatic JCB digger trying to pull the Titanic out of the seabed - "Beach baby! Beach baby! Give me your hand! Give me something that I can remember!" - but note how the chorus oscillates between major and minor, ending on the ambiguously augmented major of "Surfin' was fun! We'd be out in the sun every day."

Four drumbeats, like the spluttering of a pacemaker trying to emulate a heartbeat, and then Burrows' voice lowers with the orchestration: "Oooh, I never thought that it would end/Oooh, and I was everybody's friend." Then, heartbreakingly, a distant Leslie Cabinet-modified high-pithced piano tinkles in the background, a remnant of psychedelia (but also an accidental precursor of Ultravox's "Vienna") as Burrows in choirboy mode considers "Long hot days," "Blue sea haze" (which on the record sounds more like "boozy haze") and "jukebox plays," before his voice doubles up in suppressed agony: "But now it's fading AWAY!" And there's one last desperate flourish from the piano before the Fairchild compressors and natural echo of '60s pop are swept away by the harsh, Mazda bulb-lit, two-dimensional reality of London recording studios in the mid-'70s. For this is an English fantasy on a concept of "America" known only through second-hand observations. The voices make one final C major harmonic foray before a cross-channel, tripartite "Do do do" (the third one of which seems to be swept away into the sky) gives way to a rhythm section stomp compatible with the Bay City Rollers which reminds us that, sadly, this is indeed 1974, before the tympani and orchestra re-enter to underscore the song's tragic final verse - "We couldn't wait for graduation day/We took the car and drove to San Jose"

("Do you know the way to San Jose? I've been away so long, I may go wrong and lose my way" - Bacharach/David, via Dionne Warwick)

("Didn't time sound sweet yesterday? In a world full of friends, you lose your way" - Scott Walker, "Big Louise")

"That's where you told me that you'd wear my ring."

Without a break or emotional collapse:
"I guess you don't remember anything."

What exactly happened to the Girl Next Door to make her lose, or deny, her memory? Of someone she was going to marry - at least from his perspective?

Or is there a more sinister cause?

"Take a walk along the beach tonight? I'd love to. But don't try to touch me. Don't try to touch me. 'Cause that will never happen again. Shall we dance?"
(Shangri-Las, "Past, Present and Future")

Four ascending string chords seem to cry on the singer's behalf. And then the music stops, and a solitary French horn plays the climactic thematic motif from Sibelius' Symphony No 5 - written in 1915, and a deliberate attempt by the Finnish composer to reinstate unapologetic Romanticism as a protest against a world then, as now, being slowly eaten up by war (it is significant that "Beach Baby," though an English record through and through, was a far bigger hit in America than it was in Britain - it reached #4 in Billboard in the summer of '74, and in that context seemed to symbolise reassurance for, or subliminal protest against, an America being rapidly gobbled up by Watergate and the ashen remnants of Vietnam). The lead trumpets take up the motif while Carter's harmonies multiply in a manner more akin to 10cc than to the Beach Boys (those bass voices especially are far closer to Kevin Godley than they are to Dennis Wilson) before another triple "do-do-do" fanfare announces a repeat of the Bay City Rollers rhythm, but this time with orchestral accompaniment, before the closing mantra of "beach baby" is, if Carter can manage it, set to repeat for eternity, luscious in its foregone decay.

And the single most heartbreaking and poignant moment of the record comes at 4:50, when the song is nearly over, and the same French horn comes forward in the mix and starts to play the tune of "Let's Go To San
Francisco." So Carter's intent is made explicit; this is a eulogy for a funeral, the burial of a future never realised, the optimism and good nature of 1967 dying to be replaced by the three-day-week, grey, bleak 1974. It's a reproachful goodbye to psychedelia - from a man who almost simultaneously nearly appeared in this list again with "Please Yourself" by the Tots, an expanded version of a TV advert for Rowntree's Jelly Tots - now you are on your own, preparing for the purgatory which punk will make necessary. Rationalism might never have seemed colder, as blank and as ultimately dead as the waves of radio static, with now indistinguishable words and syllables, into which the song recedes forever.

"’Then, what is Life?’ I said…the cripple cast
His eye upon the car which had now rolled
Onward, as if that look must be the last,
"And answered….’Happy those for whom the fold
(Shelley, The Triumph of Life, 1822-4, unfinished, as the author was drowned as compensation for failing to reach Hell. ‘Tis in the nurturing waters that we are thus, and thus)

Sunday, February 27, 2005


"Once I could meet with them on every side;
But they have dwindled long by slow decay;
Yet still I persevere, and find them where I may."
(Wordsworth, "Resolution and Independence," 1807)

It begins with a scraping, atonal improvising solo violin. Momentarily you might think that you have put on one of the Clive Bell/Sylvia Hallett duet pieces from the new Freedom Of The City 2004: Small Groups CD in error – the opening couple of minutes of "A Skein" in particular are virtually identical, except in this instance the onomatopoeic function seems to be of someone struggling to climb out of their coffin. But soon a low-string drone and a cimbalom join the violin and a distinctly Eastern – almost Qaawali-like – minor key modality comes into being, now reminiscent of the opening section of Part III of Keith Tippett’s Frames (how close, the unanticipated links between Raga Bahar and John Dowland). And eventually a large-sounding yet essentially humble tenor voice proclaims the "Agnus Dei," the Christian mass for peace. The strings become larger in number, the violins’ commentary now becoming more urgent as if working towards a climax…

…until, at 4:10, the mole, the resurrected, emerges into the light and the orchestra shifts the perspective ever so slightly to reveal a major chord out of Vaughan Williams via Tallis. Now the voice flies, in the confidence that its plea of "Dona nobis pacem" will be heard and acknowledged, before the incantation bows its head and the prayer ends. Life has been restored.

"The sunshine struck hot on his fur, soft breezes caressed his heated brow, and after the seclusion of the cellarage he had lived in so long the carol of happy birds fell on his dulled hearing almost like a shout."
(Kenneth Grahame, The Wind In The Willows, chapter I: "The River Bank")

What I have just described is "Agnus Dei," the opening track of Want Two, the new album by Rufus Wainwright. To say that this record is a quantum leap from 2003’s Want One would be a gross understatement. Whereas Want One was very much Wainwright’s Pet Sounds – cautiously adventurous but lyrically and emotionally rooted in a delayed sense of familial betrayal ("Dinner At Eight") – Want Two is his SMiLE; still accessible but now openly challenging the listener to keep up, to tune into and align themselves with what Wainwright is expressing and how he is expressing it. In musical terms, think a cross between Escalator Over The Hill (an audacious gallimaufry of eclectic yet umbilically linked tropes) and The Queen Is Dead (a procession of profoundly felt yet caustically hilarious lyrics; both records end with their protagonists left in a nearly empty bed).

"The One You Love" is the closest reference point to Wainwright’s previous work; one of those angular guitar-chopping power pop descendents of a song which Elliott Smith or Elvis Costello might have sung, but taken into a different and more intriguing realm by the devil in the detail; that runaway train of a piano figure articulating Wainwright’s confusion ("I’m only the one you love/Am I only the one you love?") and the unexpectedly sharp backing vocals from sister Martha.

"Peach Trees" is the abandoned widower of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s "Miss My Love Today" transposed into the sunlit graveyard of Brian Wilson’s "In Blue Hawaii." Over a slowly and deliciously unfolding pool of opaque slide guitars and vibraphones, reminiscent of kd lang swimming in her most luscious lagoon of persuasion ("Wash Me Clean"), Wainwright is pining for his former Other and declares that no one will take their place – "Under the peach trees/There I will be…until you come and get me." The alternatives – "I’m so tired of waiting in restaurants/Reading the critics and comics/With a waiter with a face made for currency/Like a coin in ancient Rome" – are uninviting, and eventually he crawls towards the resting place of James Dean, and will, if necessary, die waiting for the miracle (and that sudden, amplified wave of pedal steel at 2:40 sounds more like a tsunami than anything else).

Thereafter Wainwright visits the world of the baroque. "Little Sister" is a Mozartian pastiche, its courtly strings cushioning the coded warnings about the world which Rufus gives (presumably to Martha). "The Art Teacher," recorded live in Montreal, is the record’s most immediately touching song. Over a cyclical Philip Glass piano line, Wainwright sings from an explicitly female point of view ("I was just a girl then") about a schoolgirl crush on a teacher who "told me he liked Turner/And never have I turned since then." Unfulfilled, the song’s protagonist goes on to marry "an executive company head" and is consequently now sufficiently well off to purchase a Turner painting – the CD booklet is illustrated with details from Turner’s "Luxembourg seen from the Fetschenhof," picturing an isolated, hermetic and seemingly unreachable citadel – but Wainwright’s choke of grief on the words "I own one" reveals this to be scant compensation for the loss of true love. There’s a nicely symmetrical balance between the opening verse’s "There I was in uniform" and the closing verse, mirroring her current status – "Here I am in this uniformish pantsuit sort of thing" – but hear the encased rage of Wainwright’s voice as it sings "any other man."

This Montreal live recording segues into "Hometown Waltz" in which Wainwright fantasises about torching his hometown, perhaps because of the "drummers and jugglers of Montreal" who "don’t even exist at all," more possibly due to the possibility of rediscovering his Other once more ("Maybe I’ll catch him on his way to the shop"), but most probably because of the intense frustration which he feels at never truly being able to break away from home – "Everything operates on the unattainables/Then you hear your mother laugh attached to the ‘phone." Behind him, his mother and aunt (the McGarrigles) are indeed in attendance, and the delicate accordion/violin-led Quebecois waltz ends slightly shambolically, as if to buffer Wainwright’s concluding question of "Will you ever ever ever go?/Ever ever ever find a way?"

"This Love Affair" is a tenderly wounding ballad – a farewell to everything approaching "life" – impaled between Schubert and Legrand. Walking away – to where? "I don’t know/Just away from this love affair." When Wainwright sings "Not that I don’t like cruising" he does so with a palpable, sopranino-pitched grief which could lead one to substitute "living" for "cruising" (or indeed for "waltzing" in the next stanza). Drowned in his grief, he can still fire off the jibe, "I don’t know why I’m watching all these white people dancing" – compare and contrast with his desperate, starving howl of desire in "The One You Love" of "Let’s fuck this awful art party/Want you to make love to me and only to me in the dark."

And then we come to the album’s highlight and doubtless the track likely to be its most controversial, the extraordinary "Gay Messiah." Over another gentle waltz, this time scored with a caressing Johnny Marr-esque acoustic guitar line, it might be facile to call "Gay Messiah" the song Morrissey has been too afraid to write, but the unprepared listener will be startled and tickled by the forthright Wainwright’s shameless and passionate wedding of the spiritual and the carnal. Indeed the opening quatrain of "He will then be reborn/From 1970s porn/Wearing tubesocks with style/And such an innocent smile" is a peak of which Morrissey remains occasionally able still to reach. "Rufus the B Baptist I be/No I won’t be the one/Baptised in cum" personifies this bold attack on stupid conservatism of all stripes which hopefully will get mainstream America – and by the current looks of things, mainstream Britain – self-righteously annoyed.

From the gleeful warning of "Better pray for your sins," the album then moves into its most emotionally moving song, the Jeff Buckley tribute "Memphis Skyline." With its carefully embracing strings and unhurried, out-of-tempo piano, as well as a vocal which trembles on the generous verge of complete collapse, here Wainwright approaches the seductively vulnerable genius of the Dennis Wilson of "Cuddle Up" and "Thoughts Of You." "Always hated him for the way he looked in the gaslight of the morning," Wainwright reminiscences before taking himself (a)back: "Then came Hallelujah sounding like mad Ophelia/For me in my room…living." The piano then twinkles with kisses of indecision before the full orchestra comes in to enable the sun to rise, Wainwright practically in tears as he blesses the departed drunk sweetheart – "So kiss me, my darling, stay with me ‘til morning/Turn back and you will stay/Under the Memphis skyline." Any listener not moved by this selflessly searing performance should make their way towards objects easier to deal with, such as Bloc Party, eager guitar-waving Alsatians who will lick their face and agree with everything they think.

For no sooner have the strings settled on "Memphis Skyline" than they divert into atonality as Wainwright ascends the roof of the world and surveys the dismal future awaiting all of us in "Waiting For A Dream." No doubt as a result of the production involvement throughout the album of Marius de Vries, this track enters Massive Attack territory as volcanic bass and desolately-ascending piano echo Wainwright’s treated (dehumanised? in outer space?) vocal. Moving from the internal frets of "You are not my lover, and you never will be/’Cause you’ve never done anything to hurt me" (and the entry of the bass at the first of these lines, coupled with Wainwright’s suddenly lowering voice, is a moment of punctum ominosity), Wainwright turns his gaze onto the incinerating planet – "There’s a fire in the priory/And an ogre in the Oval Office," and ruefully acknowledges the new onset of Aids: "Yesterday I heard the plague is coming/Once again, to find me." The song is a startling counterpart to Massive Attack’s "Antistar," and indeed the keeningly high entry of the strings at 3:20 provides a similar moment of global transcendence. Finally, never sounding more broken, Wainwright offers a more timorous prayer: "Now can I finally sleep again?"

"Thou knowest all; I sit and wait
With blinded eyes and hands that fail,
Till the last lifting of the veil
And the first opening of the gate."
(Oscar Wilde, "The True Knowledge")

On the cover of Want One, Wainwright was pictured in armoured knight garb, as St Sebastian; here, on the cover of Want Two, he is clad in the flowing locks and dresses of the Lady of Shallot. And in the song "Crumb By Crumb," with its jolly wheezing Dixieland gait, both sides of him finally meet, unite and determine to follow the Hansel and Gretel trail "crumb by crumb in this big black forest" until he can come to terms with and recognise "the future of my understanding of love." Rufus and Rufus stroll off, arm in uncertain arm, into a glowing sunset of a kind.

But that is not the end of it.

"The sentence now passed on him was to a man of his culture a form of death."
(Oscar Wilde, "Pen, Pencil and Poison," apropos the convicted Bank-forger Thomas Griffiths Wainewright)

It begins with a lightly picked acoustic guitar. Momentarily you might think that you have put on an old Bread album (how close, the unexpected links between the voices of Rufus Wainwright and David Gates), except in this instance the lyrical function seems to be of someone getting off in order to avoid getting out of his bed. "An Old Whore’s Diet/Gets me going in the morning." But soon an unexpectedly acerbic backing vocal (Martha my dear) and a distinctly oscillating major/minor key modality comes into being, now reminiscent of the priceless plastic shiny yellow two-step of Ze Records. And eventually a throbbing vibrator of a contralto voice – Antony, the frontman of Antony and the Johnsons, of which latter more anon – joins Wainwright in this prayer for self-relief. The two voices become larger in volume, the continuo commentary now becoming more urgent as if they are getting to the point of climax…

…but notice how the chords gradually shift to being played by a crepuscular string quartet until the rhythm eventually drops out, and a short Bartokian meditation by the strings is brutally evicted from Bluebeard’s castle by a demented Bavarian drinking waltz over which the lovers scream: "Hell! Either here or hell will do! Either here or Hell will employ you! SUICIDAL ASSISTANCE!!!!"

"Defenceless under the cobalt gun"
(BS Johnson, Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry)

Now the ghost of David Gates flies back into the safety of its self-constructed cage, in the confidence that its plea of "To say I love you/Gets me going where I want to" will never be heard and acknowledged, before the victim bows his head and the orgasm ends. Life has been abruptly shut off with a caustic acoustic guitar chord bearing the unmistakable onomatopoeic meme: "fuck it."

"I have dealt with the theme of the open space we appropriate for ourselves, and of our temptation to let strangers look on our nudity like at a shop window. In these instances, we actually wear our nudity like a garment, and displaying it relates to the same sort of excitement we feel when, conversely, we prepare our bodies, dress them and put on our make-up to seduce. I emphasise the word excitement, the rising tide of desire waiting for a response from the outside world. It surely cannot be excitement that we feel when we recoil into the closed world of pain or in the immediate satisfaction of elementary functions: when the body doesn’t have the strength to occupy any other space than the sunken outline carved into a mattress, when the spew of vomit splatters the feet, when a dribble of shit trickles between our thighs. If there is any pleasure in this, it is not that the body feels struck by something greater than itself, it is that it feels bottomless, as if by exteriorising the activities of our entrails we could accede to our entire surroundings."
(Catherine Millet, The Sexual Life Of Catherine M., chapter 3: "Confined space")

Thursday, February 24, 2005


Kung Fu Fighting (17 Aug - 1)
Dance The Kung Fu (30 Nov - 35)

Written literally in ten minutes by producer Biddu as a quickfire cash-in B-side to the projected single "I Want To Be Your Everything" and sung by a blameless Jamaican-born session singing pro and ex-engineer who in 1974 was already something of a veteran, recording amongst many other singles the Northern Soul classic (and one of Laura's favourite Northern Soul tracks) "Serving A Sentence On Life," "Kung Fu Fighting" is nonetheless one of the most disturbing number one singles there has been. I note the evident written-in-ten-minutes nature of the lyrics ("They were funky Chinamen!/From funky Chinatown!") and also the way in which the production and arrangement anticipate "Relax" by nearly a decade - those proto-"Poison Arrow" drum rolls and above all the rhythmic and frankly orgasmic grunting which runs like a Berwick Street spine down the side of the whole record.

And that's the problem. When Douglas gets to "Here comes the big boss/Let's get it on!" the analogy is clear - fighting equals fucking. Is "Kung Fu Fighting" the only explicitly pro-violence number one single there has ever been? Of course it's that purposive ambiguity which keeps us hooked and sent the thing to number one in the first place, but as a schoolboy I also recall very clearly the way in which some of my fellow pupils chanted out the song enthusiastically while punching and kicking the shit out of each other. It's a tough conundrum, and by the song's climax Douglas is positing the concept of fighting as a psychedelic liberator ("The sudden motion made me skip/Now we're into a brand new trip"). It seemed to fit in almost too closely with the dark and violent urban year which 1974 was for some of us.

For the soundalike follow-up, Douglas might himself have realised that he needed to pull back. On "Dance The Kung Fu," he pleas, "So when you feel like you wanna fight/People listen to me!/Ohhhh - don't get uptight!" And at the song's fadeout he adds another psychedelic talisman: "Peace and love, sweet as a flower/You can do this dance for hours and hours and hours!" In other words: wait! I didn't mean to say that you should beat each other up! It's a dance! It's just a bit of fun! But look at these chart positions. The forbidden sometimes wins out against the reassuring.