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)