Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby

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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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Banner and book cover photo credit: Jak Kilby