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Spirit of ‘68, Part Two

Obscurantist alert!

I was somewhat taken aback on first hearing Song Cycle, to find that the sixth track, the final one of Side One of the vinyl edition, somewhat fancifully called ‘Van Dyke Parks’ (in actual fact it belonged in the ‘public domain’), was an almost exact replica of another track on another favourite album. 1971′s Sunfighter, a classic from the late period of San Franciscan psychedelic music’s golden period, by Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick and Paul Kantner, contains a track called ‘Titanic’, a brief, rather throwaway impressionistic piece depicting the doomed ship’s last moments, sinking to the music of the resident palm court orchestra. Having lived with Sunfigher since circa 1974, I always thought that it was an original, out-of-character experiment by SF’s finest, although credited to one Phill Sawyer. ‘Van Dyke Parks’ is clearly a lock, stock and barrel facsimile of ‘Titanic’, but precedes it by some three years, and is given absolutely no credit by Slick/Kantner. A minor observation, to be sure, but it somehow encapsulates how little real credit Van Dyke Parks has been given by pop/rock history, despite producing a record that could not, as a work in itself, be copied as easily as the lysergic duo did with the miniature Titanic piece.

Song Cycle is a rich mulch of American song forms, from Charles Ives to Tin Pan Alley. The record ushered in an era in which pop music came of age, whilst acknowledging without any heavy-handed irony or snarkiness, its ancestors and earlier influences. It’s heavy use of strings,brass sections, harp and oblique lyrics was very much ‘not of the moment’, however. The Jefferson Airplane and Grateful mode of po-faced ‘experimentation’and rambling improvisation was at its height in 1968 (Crown of Creation and Anthem of the Sun being, respectively, the prosecution’s evidence in this particular year’s case). Rather ironically, by the following year, what eventually became known as Americana emerged with The Band and the Dead’s change of direction signalled by Workingman’s Dead and, in 1970, the epochal American Beauty. Park’s vocals are an uncanny forerunner of the somewhat ethereal style of later Americana idols such as Mercury Rev and Animal Collective. Sadly, his influence across later American popular music remains mostly unacknowledged, partly, as earlier intimated, by a certain obdurateness in his works, a determination to follow his own muse that would be praised to the skies with artists like Bob Dylan, but remains un-celebrated in his particular case. Maybe his time will eventually come.

In 1970, at the age of fifteen, I couldn’t really afford to make ‘spot purchases’. One of the artists that interested me as I was familiarising myself with the contemporary musical landscape (she appeared on the inner sleeve of CBS records at the time, along with other ‘underground’ acts that the major label was trying to promote) was Laura Nyro. Her 1968 album, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession was one of these CBS contenders that were portrayed on the inner sleeves - great and enigmatic title, beautiful and enigmatic writer/performer, the album remained tantalisingly out of grasp until I could afford to finally buy it several years later. Thankfully, the hype proved not to be ‘hype’, although, sadly, Nyro seems to have disappeared into history to a similar degree as so many of the less worthy acts that appeared on the CBS ad department sleeves have done. In the late sixties, Nyro was one of the names to watch for fans of challenging, yet approachable song writing. Several other bands had hits with her songs, as had been the case with the early Bob Dylan. Perhaps I will blog about Nyro separately (as Richard Williams has done), but suffice to say that Carole King (with the omnivorous Tapestry) and Joni Mitchell (with her peerless ‘run’ of albums throughout 1971-76, one of the greatest in rock/pop music history) appear to have sidelined Nyro in the eye of posterity. Both Eli and the following New York Tendaberry are the equal of the best of her sister’s records (well, maybe not Court and Spark or Hissing of Summer Lawns, but, hey, how many records can really match these? Really?). 

The third of our 1968 triumvirate is, like Van Dyke Parks, deserving of some of the long-term kudos and recognition that Leonard Cohen managed to garner in his own life time.

Spirit of ‘68, Part One

Best known in counter-cultural lore as ‘The Year of Revolution’ and les evenements in less-than-gay Parie, 1968 was a year of increasing confidence in the nascent ‘rock’ music scene and in its recorded product. Long-playing ‘albums’ (even by that time an outmoded term that originally denoted a  compilation of 78 rpm ten-inchers) were beginning to outsell 45 rpm ‘singles’ for the first time, and the year saw the release of doubles by the three most important acts of the time - the inescapable Beatles put out The White Album, The Jimi Hendrix Experience introduced the term Electric Ladyland into everyday parlance, and the soon-gone Cream unleashed the live/studio mish-mash of Wheels of Fire. On the whole, history has been kind to these ambitious works that had been potentiated by 1967′s Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, whose shadow was to extend over the decade to come and beyond.

These three were maximalist in size, length and concept - The White Album had an embarrassing wealth of material (with another potential double album’s worth of material left in the cutting room, only to be eventually made public half a century later), Electric Ladyland took the electric guitar into uncharted waters that invited the attention of most creative composers and improvisers, including Miles Davis, and Wheels of Fire demonstrated that improvisation could inform rock music to a degree previously unimagined, as a companion to baroque pop songs that were spry and humorous even if very much ‘of their time’. The possibilities seemed endless at this point in time, and individual musicians and writers were caught up in the sense of adventurousness  and boundary-blurring that Pepper had pioneered in popular music By 1970, the term ‘singer/songwriter’  came into usage, represented by the immense popularity of James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Neil Young, to name but four. As a counter-balance to the sheer heft of our three double heavyweights, I’d like to offer three rather more modest works from 1968 which, if not ‘minimalist’, certainly offer an alternative to the ‘heaviosity’.of blues-based rock trios such as The Experience and Cream (which soon developed into ‘rock’, a form that is still with us today and soon proved to one of the greatest unit-shifters in recorded musical history).

Songs of Leonard Cohen will be familiar to many, many people.and can be seen as one of the essential progenitors of ‘bedsitter’ music (Dylan of course being its primum mobile).Some may describe it as ‘bedwetter’ music, in comparison to the macho posturing of so much rock. Cohen wanted his songs sparse and unadorned, but, thankfully, producer John Simon was allowed to add some basic added frills in the form of string and harpsichord accompaniments. These made them, along with the composer’s powerfully understated guitar work, memorably tuneful and accessible (compare to his 1970 Songs of Love and Hate, which was far more brutal and stark). The door that Dylan had unlocked was now kicked open, and a flood of solo artists of both sexes, usually with a travelling guitar in tow ,resulted. Some, however, wanted more than a guitar or piano, so the sub-genre of ‘orchestral pop’ or even ‘art pop’ emerged, with artists as diverse as, inter alia, Jim Webb, Scott Walker, Barry Ryan, David Ackles and (on Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter) Nick Drake,  producing ambitious ‘mini-symphonies’ of varying quality and interest, with perhaps Van Dyke Park’s Song Cycle as the most fascinating, even though he is very much one of the ‘awkward squad’ in terms of classification. Just coming out of co-writing the star-crossed Smile with Brian Wilson (the tracks Surfs Up and Cabinessence remain enduring classics of the form), Parks was at the top of his game and Song Cycle is sui generis. Critically showered with praise, the album, although it is only just over thirty minutes long (like Drake’s spartan Pink Moon, which is its precise opposite of in every other respect apart from poor sales), it suffered from a lack of ‘hooks’ or memorably ‘catchy’ melodies, and soon disappeared into obscurity, where it has largely remained ever since.

To be continued...

Book, Cover, Precipitate Judgement?

I, along with with so many people of my age, came across journalist David Hepworth in the early 80s when he, along with McCartney- lookalike Mark Ellen, co-presented The Old Grey Whistle Test, the first BBC ‘serious’ pop/rock omnibus, which was initially, as I remember, hosted by the very great Richard Williams. Hepworth re-entered my musico-cultural awareness when I found time to read his two (relatively recent) books, 1971- Never A Dull Moment (a title that unfortunately failed to resonate with my memories of that particular year), and Uncommon People - The Rise and Fall of the Pop Stars, a cut-and-paste job concerning the usual Mojo and Uncut magazines pantheon of rock stars and superheroes.

Late last year, and out comes yet another Hepworth Bantam Press release, in the now-standard black and orange cover, a triumph, as far as I was concerned, of form over content, although it is always a pleasure to read sturdy, well-made hardback books, products that are visceral in their provision of tactile pleasure for this particular reader. I determined, despite all this, not to buy the last in the notional Hepworth ‘trilogy’ (funnily enough, ‘notional; trilogies’ form the subject of one of the essays contained within this latest book), ostensibly because I found the title irritatingly clever-clever, i..e. Nothing Is Real - The Beatles Were Underrated and Other Sweeping Statements About Pop, being yet another one with a hyphen in it and being yet another one with its head up the bum of the 60s/70s nexus. In the end, however, this was precisely the reason why my wife bought me the thing, as part of my Santa sack - “it’ll give you something to complain about; I know how you like a good moan”, not exactly a thumbs-up reference for my contribution to domestic co-existence. But I will always at least attempt to read a book that someone has gone to the effort of providing for me, however arch and/or sarcastic their intentions might be, and so I read and finished Hepworth’s tome over the past couple of days.

And I was very pleasantly surprised, as it was one more hint that assumptions and judgements-by-cover are so not-clever.

 In this case, the elaborate cover is totally appropriate as clothing for the body of work contained within. It’s basically a ‘best of’ Hepworth’s journalism over the past fifteen years of so for ‘dad mags’, a sort of ‘dad lit’ if you like - fifty pound man’ as I believe that people of my age were typecast as, in the end days of the record shop (I know that the latter still exist, but they are essentially the equivalent of the survivors of a zombie apocalypse, wide-eyed and desperate). The book reads like a series of blogs, and it is interesting that the longest (20 pages) is also the oldest (2004) - it’s like the author has developed the quality of brevity, the 2004 essay on the Blues reading like a typical Mojo hagiography, while the later pieces take one idea and run with it for a short while, leaving plenty of questions in their wake. I don’t propose to go through them, but would say that Hepworth’s style is engaging, informal and quietly informed and modestly erudite.

If there is an obvious downside, it is that Hepworth’s glance is a backwards one, not surprising given that he must be nearing seventy years of age by now?. There is a great cover photo of the Fab Four, on what looks like the occasion of their last tour of America in 1966 (wearing very Paperback Writer and Revolver apparel), which initially served, as well as its cutesie title, to rather put me off the book.. Hepworth is not a first-generation rock writer, but his lightly-worn knowledge, and its un-bumptious presentation, makes this it an enjoyable and thought-provoking book. So my wife got a dash of gushing positivity rather than the expected male menopausal bile. This “goes to show you never can tell”, as a great rock miniaturist once said, a line that Hepworth quotes as being from “the best record ever made.. this is not a matter of opinion, it’s a matter of fact”.

Great Black Women From Ancient To The Future - The Sons Of Kemet Salute Them

In the wake of my decision to check out more up-to-the-minute music, I plumped for Wire’s Record of the Year, Your Queen Is A Reptile, by British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings-led collective, The Sons of Kemet, and was converted from the get-go. The great title is a reference to David Icke-type conspiracy theories that hold to the notion that our Royal Family are, not to put too fine a point on it, descended from lizards. As a counterpoint to this rather appealing idea, The Sons of Kemet (SoK) dedicate the tunes on their third record to’ Black Queens’ of the Present and of the Past, exemplars such as Doreen Lawrence, Angela Davis and Harriet Tubman, “our queens” as they are described in the liner notes. These are self-created women and self-empowered women, as opposed to this country’s rulers, on the throne “by right of blood, by way of lineage, by reason of tyranny, by the confidence of tradition”, as the sleeve notes would have it. You get the general idea, one that is a resonant one for the children of the Windrush Generation, and one that has been further explored by another of our great young saxophonists, Jason Yarde…  

The cover of the record features a depiction of Afro-Egyptian female royalty, conjuring up images of the Afro-Futurism that Graham Lock called Blutopia in his 1999 book of the same name about Sun Ra, Duke Ellington and Anthony Braxton. ‘Kemet’ is another word for Ancient Egypt, which immediately puts us in Sun Ra territory, but it is refreshing that this fine group are (largely) black British, as opposed to hailing from the Windy City, as so many Afro-Futurists have done in the past. Having said that, the opening track,’ My Queen Is Ada  Eastman’ is reminiscent of Chicagoan Henry Threadgill’s 80s Sextett,with its prominent percussive drive and use of the tuba. The album’s release being on the revived Impulse! label is another synchronous aspect of its presentational impact - the label that saw the release of so many fine Civil Rights-era recordings by modernist jazz masters such as Coltrane, Mingus and Shepp back in the day. The SoK use occasional vocals, informed by rap and ragga, but this largely instrumental work’s political heft mostly emerges through its passionate commitment to stylistic integration and continuity. Like Ben Lamar Gay, who I discussed a few blogs back,  an Equal Opportunities approach to musical genres ensure that Afrobeat, rap, reggae, grime, jazz and improv all get a fair crack of the whip. The ancestor worship that is in evidence throughout, as hinted earlier, stretches back to Ellington’s ‘jungle music’ through to Art Blakey and the AACM, onward to our own Jazz Warriors of the British 80s and 90s.

Shabaka Hutchings deserves, and will probably get, a blog of his own. Suffice to say that he seems to be a Courtney Pine for the twenty-teenies, without disrespect to either man intended - comparisons are often invidious and unhelpful, but Hutchings’ lineage is connected intimately to Tomorrow’s Warriors, the educational music organisation which was a legacy of The Jazz Warriors and, accordingly, Pine himself. There is thus a continuity of young black British players, unspooling from the early 80s up to today. Hutchings met Steve Beresford at The Guildhall School for Music and Drama in 2008, which led to an invite to join the London Improvisers Orchestra, and thus offering an entree into the London-based Free Improvisation scene. He plays a major role in the Just Not Cricket! box set and DVD of British Improvisers recorded and filmed in Berlin in 2011. An interview in the April edition of this year’s Wire offers a full overview of his range of influences and playing situations.

The SoK’s sound is overwhelmingly poly-rhythmic, and the album uses five percussionists in all. Four tracks feature three of ‘em, and there are two pairs on two other numbers, those of Tom Skinner/Seb Roachford and  Moses Boyd/Eddie Hick. Theon Cross on tuba obviates the need for a bass or basses (which Threadgill has used) and is the second lead voice after Shabaka. The latter uses a stuttering, staccato style on the faster numbers, and a riff-based approach to spark off his improvisations - the Wire piece by Phil Freeman suggested that he “works up a simple motif to the point where it can suddenly be flicked on like a switch, channeling massive bursts of energy”, which sounds to me like a description of Albert Ayler. Hutchings doesn’t quite reach that peak of intensity (who does?), but, having seen him live on several occasions over the past few years, I can quite definitely assert that he is getting there, or thereabouts. A great performer and a great band.

Re-Discover Van Dyke Parks

I’ve been re-investigating an old album that history has mostly forgotten, if it ever registered it at all. In the mid-70s, I got hold of copies of both 1972′s Discover America and 1975′s Clang of the Yankee Reaper by Van Dyke Parks, probably best known as a producer and soundtrack composer. He wrote the libretto for The Beach Boy’s Smile and the lyrics for the peerless and baffling Surfs Up, the album’s highlight and possibly Brian Wilson’s most beautiful piece of music. At around the same time, he released the solo Song Cycle, an ambitious and allusive early ‘singer/songwriter’ work that was most ignored in the wake of the contemporary songs of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon. Parks sung from his own hymn sheet, referencing singers and writers of the 1930s, show tunes, buegrass and ragtime styles, all of which were and terminally unfashionable thing in 1967, well before post-modernism and ironic retromania reared their ugly head. (Sergeant Peppers was about to change all that, however)

I got shot of Discover America in the wake of Punk Year Zero fever, but hung on to Clang of the Yankee Reaper., mainly because of its wonderfully unusual and uncategorisable title track (Wiki suggests ‘avant pop’, ‘orchestral pop’ and ‘art-rock’). A tribute to the old Mississippi steamers, it was a deliberately nostalgic view of the Old South  - “the sun never set on the empire…let’s find time to drink tea from China…the good old days are here…as you hark to the clang of the Yankee Reaper”. Absolutely gorgeous and unlike anything else that I’ve ever heard, it’s been accused of pomposity, but it stands with Gene Clark’s near-contemporary solo classic No Other, the highest praise that I can bestow on any pop-rock product, as ultimate cod-orchestral nectar. It also ends with a most bizarre version of Pachelbel’s Canon in D, just for good measure.Steel band music also forms the basic building blocks of Discover America, and works better for me, having given it a new listen after re- discovering it in Hornsey Library before Xmas.

Once again, Parks was a man out of time when he made the album in 1972, when prog rock was at its height and so-called hard rock was beginning its ascendancy. The music from the West Indies that Anglo/American hipsters wanted to listen to at the time eminated from Jamaica (Catch A Fire came out that same year, and lead to the rise in popularity of ’roots reggae over the next seven to eight years), not Trinidad. Songs dedicated to Jack Palance(the film star), Bing Crosby, Rudy Valee and the Mills Brothers didn’t help to attract the long hairs, either - Hip Easy Listening was a far-off distant idea, a mere twinkle in the late Joseph Lanza’s eye. Parks did have the nous to include Lowell George’s cocaine-tribute, Sailin’ Shoes, and a couple of numbers by the increasingly-fashionable Alan Toussaint (then associated with The Meters), whose songs had also been covered by George’s band Little Feat.

Remember that this was well before the idea of ‘world music’ had attained currency, and steel bands were largely considered a novelty (as they are largely still are?). It sounded fresh, original and somewhat boundary-defying at the time, and, mirabile dictu, these records both clock in at well under forty minutes for the entire two sides of vinyl. One of the many things that I like about two of my faves from 2018, the latest by Current 93 and Death Grips, is their relative brevity. When I hear about Autrechre’s latest ventures into thirteen hours of YouTube uploads (NTS Sessions 1-4), I do rather lose the will to listen, if not to live. Park’s albums are both sparse in both meanings of the word, and all the better for it. The quality, however, is anything but sparse.

And what about the cover of Discover America? It’s similarity to the iconic 1977 image of the twin coaches presented on The Sex Pistols’ Pretty Vacant? ‘Trinidad’ and ‘Hollywood’ replaced by ‘Boredom’ and ‘Nowhere’? Five years apart, these two images may well have been separated by five decades or more. Bing Crosby and Bing Selfish; The Mills Brothers and The Ramones.

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