Friday, September 24, 2004

ANNETTE PEACOCK - I'M THE ONE

(Article originally published in July 2004)

The sleeve was made of foil, coloured in a diffuse explosion of lilac and lime; the avant-garde of glam that never came to pass. Bowie's management, Mainman, wanted to sign fellow RCA recording artist Annette Peacock to their roster and market her as a "female Bowie," but she demurred. That wasn't quite what she and her music were about. I'm The One was one of my dad's favourite albums as well as one of mine. He certainly knew of her history, but few others outside the well-protected gates of the post-Ornette improv world did; she was married to bassist Gary Peacock, and then to pianist Paul Bley, with whom she formed the Bley-Peacock Synthesiser Show; their one extraordinary album is generally recognised as the first album in any musical sphere to deploy the Moog synthesiser - indeed, their synthesiser was given to them by Robert Moog himself - and now sounds like a further-out take on the far-enough-out-as-it-is pop of I'm The One, to the extent that the latter's title tune appears in prototype and extremely rough form.

With what could I'm The One have been compared in 1972? Some mention was made of Mr Bley's previous wife, Carla, who in 1971 was doing alternating shifts with Annette in RCA's Studio B, finishing off Escalator Over The Hill - though clarinetist Perry Robinson is the only musician to appear on both records. Further mention was made of the likes of Joe Byrd's United States of America, David Vorhaus' White Noise and the Silver Apples, operatives who had all experimented blending pop and avant-electronica in different ways. But you couldn't really set Annette next to any of these.

No, from the explosive first second of I'm The One's opening title track, this music comes from the same what-the-FUCK universe as Buckley's Starsailor and Nico's Marble Index. Although its musical and aesthetic models are somewhat earthier than either, the song "I'm The One" immediately ejects us into a parallel, vaguely familiar but strangely unreachable musical universe. Beginning with a freeform pile-up piloted by Glen Moore's bass and Laurence Cook's electronic cymbals, the song then detours splendidly into about 895 different directions over its very 1972-rock backdrop (Tom Cosgrave on guitar, Mike Garson vaguely Carla Bley-ish on organ). Annette tries to tell the listener how she's the one you've been waiting for, tries to sell herself to the listener, but landmines of electronic bangs and sirens detonate in front of, behind and all around her until eventually you realise that it's her voice, electronically processed, warped and modified, making the Vocoder sound like Gracie Fields in comparison. Unlike Buckley, Annette does not indulge in long, tremulous abstract vocalese. She has a slightly-but-crucially-rough edge to her contralto, can soar when she wishes but can growl like the widest of all come-ons. If "I'm The One" is a torch ballad, it's a torch lit by a petrol bomb. It's like New York Tendaberry as produced by the Eno of Warm Jets, or Tapestry as seduced by the Rundgren of No World Order.

"7 Days" shows Annette's twilit side; a sorely-felt but determinedly unsentimental plea to the Other who has abandoned her to "please come home," soundtracked only by her own ghostly piano and distant neurons of radioactive electronic whirrs and squeals.

"Pony," in contrast, is one of the subtlest and sexiest of all songs; a slow-burning funk workout over which Annette deliciously caresses with her lips every possible double and SEXtuple meaning from the words "pony" and "ride" (hear her gleeful chuckle about halfway through - "I'm so domesticated!"). This is a tremendously and scrupulously constructed performance; note how Rick Marotta's drums and Stu Woods' bass interact almost verbally with Annette's teasing, coaxing words - here, the synthesised "voices" are decidedly orgasmic in their intent. Think of it as the halfway house between Buckley's "Sweet Surrender" and Infinite Livez' "Pononee Girl".

Note, however, that side one concludes with one of the bitterest of lost-that-lovin'-feelin' songs, "Been And Gone." Over a slow, methodical piano motif, Annette looks over at her Other, asleep next to her in bed, and realises with a chill that she just does not love him (the "any more" ending to that sentence is optional). As her realisation dawns, squadrons of squealing electronic voices and guitars suddenly ramraid the song, and it's all Annette can do to prevent herself from screaming.

The big setpiece on side two is "One Way" in which Annette inadvertently (or not) invents Beth Gibbons as she tortures her own stream of semi-consciousness over the rock group deniming behind her. Again, this track has superbly pertinent commentary from Cosgrave's guitar and Garson's piano and organ (the latter subtly setting the scene for Aladdin Sane), as well as a well-populated auxiliary percussion section (including Airto Moreira, Dom Um Romao and Barry Altschul) but is eventually overrun, gloriously, by squelching high-register horns (Robinson's clarinet here sounding particularly ejaculatory in nature).

Otherwise, though, side two plays as if Eno had gone straight from side one of Warm Jets to side two of Before And After Science. Semi-abstract impressionistic improvisations like "Blood" and "Gesture Without Plot" - both featuring Paul Bley on synths and crepuscular piano accompanying Annette's wrecked murmurs (with Annette herself chiming tolls of doom on "electric vibes") - are disturbing pieces indeed; George Crumb's darker moments crossed with Neubauten circa Haus de Luege.

The glue which holds side two together, however, is Annette's half-murmured, half-remembered take on "Love Me Tender" where her reluctant pledges are finally swamped by unfathomable electronic slivers of what once might have been voices; doing pretty much to the song what Presley did to "Blue Moon"; transforming it by the quietest and yet most radical of gestures. The closing fragment "Did You Hear Me, Mommy?" might be the most disturbing thing on the whole record; elementary chords are practised on a piano, which turns out to have been played by their child, Apache Bley, who repeatedly cries out the title, as Annette (in the kitchen?) repeatedly confirms that she has. Meanwhile, Mr Bley potters around in the study. A family at rest; or a family on the verge of dissolution (Leila Arab would subsequently develop this scenario and adapt it to devastatingly poignant effect in the "Young Ones" piece which closes her Courtesy Of Choice album)?

Is it because Annette wouldn't play Bowie ball that RCA/BMG have thus far declined to reissue I'm The One on CD (they did briefly reissue it on vinyl and cassette in 1986, but that too soon disappeared)? Foil sleeve or no foil sleeve, in a world where the likes of Alison Goldfrapp and Rachel Stevens are lauded as avant-garde electro-glam pioneers, it's time that the world is reminded of who did it first and best - because, 32 years later, we still haven't caught up with it.