Friday, December 10, 2004


Top 50 Reissues and Compilations: THE TOP TEN

I must resist the urge not to start on a "rockist-baiting" rant (if only Pete Wylie had been on royalties, eh?) about how minisculely the hopeful likes of TV On The Radio, Interpol, Radio 4 and 95% of all DFA produce measure when set against the righteous Mr Lindsay (one of two Mr Lindsays to appear in my top ten) and his damn-all trio of chicken wire guitar (the purest "rhythm" guitar ever, as Arto plays nothing but rhythm?) and epileptically jejeunal drums and bass (they have a sideways role to play in helping make d&b happen; trace the routes via the Pop Group, Nellee Hooper and Goldie, if you must) whose entire oeuvre is splendidly reproduced in this blasphemous blast of a compilation album. Tim Wright and Ikue Mori were truly the Harry Miller and Louis Moholo of No Wave.

9. THE MEKONS Heaven And Hell: The Best Of The Mekons
Never mind U2; aren't the Mekons the true unbloodied survivors of post-punk? This 2cD package is one of those compilations which appears exactly when they're needed. Listening to the astonishing opening blast of "Hard To Be Human," which in its merciless attack and effortless insolence manages to make the entire career of the Pogues redundant, if not the Clash, quickly succeeded by another of the ten greatest singles of the '80s, "Ghosts Of American Astronauts" - imagine a young Gillian Welch watching the Gulf War erupting over her head while stuck halfway down the M62, uniting "When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease" and "It's Grim Up North" - I can convince myself that this is the greatest rock group who ever lived.

8. JOHN HOWARD Kid In A Big World
The record which the Scissor Sisters should have made, except it was made before any of them existed; despite "bisexual" Bowie (Elton not coming out for another decade), openly gay pop was still frowned upon in 1975, and it's probable that the suits at CBS just didn't know what to do with this red-suited Northern fop John Howard. It was our loss, as this utterly fantastic album, produced by recidivist ex-Shadow Tony Meehan, proves. "Gone Away" in its scope, emotional openness and vocal passion, is certainly up there with, and in some cases above, the best of Elton, while the ode to a transient suicide "Goodbye Suzie" ("This town will soon forget you") should have been battling it out with "Lonely This Christmas" for the 1974 Xmas number one spot. Meanwhile, in "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" and "Pearl Parade (For Fred And Ginger)," he invents the Divine Comedy.

7. THE PEOPLE BAND The People Band: 1968
A world in which Charlie Watts was eager to stump up the cash and produce the most extreme of all improv ensembles for a day in the studio. A world in which half the musicians involved ended up in Kilburn and the Highroads (Ian Dury did not participate but was in attendance in the control room) while the trumpeter became a Hollywood film director. Although there are nods to Coltrane here and there, particularly when George Khan picks up his saxophone, and there are perhaps some parallels to what the AACM were doing in Chicago at the same time, this is perhaps the first recorded session of improvised music which divorced itself from jazz. It exists without roots, purely in and of and for itself ("Therefore, the People Band"), is abstract for the sake of building a community. Perhaps you did have to see them (or be them) onstage (or off the stage) to appreciate how subtly titanic their achievement was (Crass, amongst other things, starts here also). Can we have that world back please?

6. BRITNEY SPEARS Greatest Hits - My Prerogative
You don't quite realise what a staggering body of pop this is until you hear it all together, one avant-smash after another. Out of chronological order, but in (im)perfect structural/emotional working order, it's easy to forget the Bush-loving Mousketeer who lurks in the Stargate belly. But none of this would have worked with Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow. One hopes that Britney's Diane Warren era is not imminently forthcoming; marvel at how she takes on and surpasses Madonna pantingly on "Me Against The Music," forcing Madge to speed herself up and sound very old indeed.

Look at those liner photos of Lindsey with the rest of the Mac in '79; one androgynous post-punk glam god set against four scowling hippies who still think it's '69. And initially the Mac were as virulently reluctant to record Tusk as Mike Love was to participate in SMiLE. Lindsey, however, being made of stronger stuff than poor Brian, stood his ground, recorded most of his nine songs in his home studio, using Kleenex boxes for drums, singing while lying on the bathroom floor, absorbed Pere Ubu, the Germs and Swell Maps without telling anyone, demanded that it come out anyway, watched as it sold a fraction of Rumours, stood the told-you-sos from the rest of the Mac, but rolled up his sleeves and pitched in for 1982's back-to-normal-function Mirage. But balanced against Lindsey's nine songs were five from Christine and four from Stevie, and with equal fervour he pitched in to help make these sound as transcendent as possible. The result: the missing link between SMiLE and Metal Box, via A Wizard/A True Star, only amplified by this new 2CD reissue with, finally (as opposed to my promo review copy, so thank Lindsey I got sent a full finished copy), the full-length "Sara" as well as a nine-minute version on the second CDs of demos and outtakes. See my lengthy review in April 2004's Uncut for further hagiography.

4. THE MIKE OSBORNE TRIO AND QUINTET Border Crossing/Marcel's Muse
To the great pleasure of Hazel Miller, my Naked Maja piece on Ogun Records prompted a rush of sudden interest in that label's distinguished catalogue such that all second-hand copies available in London were rapidly snapped up within a week of the article appearing. If only I could win the Lottery and subsidise a full-scale CD reissue programme. This reissue was planned long before I wrote the piece, but seeing it reappear in the racks two days after I published it was an example of synchronicity to beat all. In any case, the Border Crossing live trio session with the incomparable Miller/Moholo rhythm axis in particular is perhaps the finest sustained record of alto saxophone playing in all of British jazz; they rush ecstatically from one tune to another, are in absolute synchronisation, even when playing free, and the final emotional effect is overwhelming, if not cathartic (one wonders whether the track "Ist" did indeed pre-empt Zorn's Masada by a couple of decades with its fusion of Ornette and klezmer). Sadly, as we all know, it ended up overwhelming Ossie irretrievably. I can but hope that some of this goodwill manages to reach him, there in Herefordshire.

3. KENNY WHEELER Song For Someone
A masterpiece I thought we'd never see again; originally issued on Incus 10, and Melody Maker's Jazz Album of the Year for 1974, this astonishing fusion of old-school post-war Kenton/Russo big band stratagems and post-everything Bailey/Parker/Oxley improv, with Norma Winstone's voice acting as the stylistic and emotional bridge between the two, still sounds like a future never taken up.

2=. ARTHUR RUSSELL World Of Echo/The World Of Arthur Russell
Yes I know, it's cheating, and I'm stuffing the late Arthur into one slot where I gave Eno two, but it's my list and I'll shift the goalposts if I want to. Not that I have much left to say about either of these two earth-moving records - my thoughts on the Soul Jazz compilation were subtly intercut into my Naked Maja deconstruction of 1985, and World Of Echo was commented upon here very recently. Suffice to say that between them they construct a new template for dance music, microhouse, avant-dub and nu-folk, and we're still waiting for other passengers to get on that platform in the centre of this particular ocean. The third Arthur Russell release this year, comprising as it does music previously unreleased, will be dealt with in my other list.

1. ALBERT AYLER Holy Ghost
It struck me that the Ayler box set mostly contains music which has been made available for the first time, and thus could easily qualify for the "new Top 50" list. But it is, finally (and with such finality), a historical document and as such richly deserves its predominant position in this list of 50 excerpts from history. The document, the box moreover, which Ayler's muse so rightly merits, which his art politely, if loudly, demands. Is this the greatest box set ever? Nine CDs (plus an extra tenth CD of Albert rehearsing with his Army Band in the late '50s), a giddily comprehensive 200-page hardback book which in itself might defy the need to say or write anything further about its subject, copies of various magazines, essays and leaflets from Ayler's '60s, even a flower rescued from the gun barrel. And this is not even The Definitive Albert Ayler, for it has to be heard in conjunction with the best of his ESP, Freedom, Impulse, hat Art and Shandar work. But it contains so much music that I'd dreamed of hearing for over 30 years, which I thought would never be retrieved; the session with Cecil Taylor's trio in late '62, a jam with Pharaoh Sanders on "Venus" and "Upper and Lower Egypt" in '68, a demonic 1969 session with brother Don Ayler's ensemble which may yet usurp the closing minutes of Westbrook's Marching Song as the most violent music ever to emerge from jazz (from here you can see exactly where and how and why Sonic Youth took up the lead a decade and a half later), and, most poignantly of all, the triptych medley of "Truth Is Marching In/Love Cry/Our Prayer" performed at Coltrane's funeral in '67. Then there is Ayler's first recording session with a Finnish pick-up band in '62, sounding very Rollins-like on "Summertime" but starting to cut loose on "Green Dolphin Street"; the second half of the Peacock/Murray trio gig recorded by Paul Haines whose first half was documented on ESP's Prophecy (with a Cafe Wha? audience of about three, one of whom is audibly and unmistakably Carla Bley) as well as plenty of busier (if not necessarily more intense) stuff from the various larger ensembles of the mid-'60s (including in some cases a youthful Ronald Shannon Jackson). Alas, the misguided rock/gospel fusions of 1968-70 remain as confused in their sound and intent as ever - Mary Maria Parks with her falsetto cooing and perky tambourine may still count as the Mike Love of free jazz - but there are also two CDs of interviews, wherein Ayler reveals himself as an articulate, eager and directed musician. In summary, Revenant Records have finally afforded Ayler the respect sufficient to recognise his stature as a titan of 20th-century American music, easily equatable with Robert Johnson and James Brown, have in many ways offered new ears an easier path towards understanding his music, still the most wilfully misunderstood in all jazz history, and the career which, more than any other musician living or dead, currently requires to be understood as a matter of urgency.