Monday, April 18, 2005

BILL FAY GROUP: TOMORROW, TOMORROW AND TOMORROW

"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.

However:

"Nothing has changed.

Only me.

The world's still the same.

(pause)

(pause)

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)