What’s more important to you? The moment of music’s creation or the moment of its release into the world?
This is a question that curating a large mp3 collection has raised in my mind lately. I’m very particular about having accurate tags with as much information as possible, and I run into situations all the time where I’m not sure what year to put on something. Sometimes it’s a simple problem, say, a single that came out in 1968 and was later featured on an album released in 1969. If it’s the same version of the song, tag the song with ‘68 and the rest of the album with ‘69. Easy, and it doesn’t make a significant difference.
But what if it’s a song recorded in 1965 but never released or even bootlegged until 2008? What, then, is the correct date? Do you privilege the moment of creation? Or do you treat the audience as an integral part of the art and mark it down for 2008, the year we first got to hear it?
The answer I’ve settled on is that I pretty much always opt for the moment of creation. I decided on that course mostly because I think the moment of creation says more about the context in which the art was created, and I also don’t believe that art necessarily needs an audience to be art.
I bring this up now because it occurred to me a few minutes ago that I’ve already heard enough music from 2011 to put together a not-bad top ten albums list. For a year that hasn’t even begun yet. I’ve finished off my year-end lists for 2010 and I’m preparing a series of post-mortem posts for the year that was, and already 2011 is invading.
We have this discussion every year at Pitchfork about what to include, particularly on our tracks list. Because a track leaked early from an album due the following year might have its real impact in the year of the leak, closer to the moment of creation. Its actual release becomes less relevant because it has its audience before that official date. And I’m in favor of honoring a song when it has its real impact, even though that goes against what I’ve been doing with my mp3 collection.
Maybe it’s simply an experiential matter? I wasn’t alive in the 60s, so I don’t know squat about year of impact vs. year of release, but I am alive now, and because of that it makes a difference to me. I think I can be internally inconsistent on that without my carefully ordered world falling apart too much.
Anyway, 2010 is almost over, so I’ll be doing obligatory year-end things around here for the next couple weeks. You can compare your year-end things to my year-end things and vice versa, and a good time can be had by all shaking our heads at each other for forgetting this and that. Should be fun.
I’m going to start my year-end stuff by linking to something I wrote about Seven That Spells a few months ago, because the track I wrote about then is in my top ten of the year now. Read about it and hear it here. I’ll be back with more soon. Bate your breath.
Like what seems like the entire rest of the (read: my) world, I’ve been listening to Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy today. I already knew a lot of it, or an approximation of a lot of it because of GOOD Fridays, but it was still fun to listen to the whole thing as a whole. It’s a lot to take it, and one of the tracks that was entirely new to me was “Lost In The World.” I listened to it a few times because something was nagging me about it. That groove seemed so familiar…
Yeah, turns out it’s built off of (programmed over, really) Lyn Collins’ “Think (About It),” which is one of the best things to come out of James Brown’s universe in the 1970s. And when you think about all the things Brown released under his own name in the 70s, that’s no small thing.
Collins gives a preaching intro that mirrors Brown’s “Hot Pants” lyric “she got to use what she got to get what she wants,” and then the song is yet another entry in a long line of versions and variations of “Think” that litter Brown’s discography and set lists going all the way back the late 50s. Collins really takes control of it, though, and if I’d been Brown and heard the groove the band was laying down, I might have thought about keeping it for myself. He didn’t, and Collins’ song became one of the biggest non-Brown hits on the Godfather’s People Records
Collins joined Brown’s revue in late 1971 after pursuing a low-profile career of her own for a few years. She was a relative of Phelps and William Collins, better known as Catfish and Bootsy, who provided the rhythmic anchor of the JB’s for much of 1970 and 1971, though she didn’t join the revue until after they’d left to start their own band and ultimately join George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic organization in 1972.
This song has already been sampled many, many times, most notably for Rob Base and DJ EZ-Rock’s 1988 classic “It Takes Two,” but I think Kanye managed to successfully twist and turn it into a shape that suits him uniquely.
Sam Cooke’s Night Beat is paired in my mind with another album that came out in 1963: Ray Price’s Night Life. From the titles alone, it should be obvious why—both albums excel at capturing the dark hours between days, when there’s too much time to think, too much time to drink and too much time to get yourself in trouble.
I like Cooke’s album more—it hits a certain spot for me in a way no other record does, and his voice just slays me—but Price’s is also excellent. The album cover, showing a woman whispering into a man’s ear at a table while Price strums his guitar in the background, neatly reflects the album’s content, which essentially reads like Price telling the stories of select members of his audience. And just as Cooke’s album defines the transition from r&b to soul, Night Life marks a tipping point of its own, where honky tonk country spilled over into the mainstream as the album topped the country charts.
One of the things I love most about this song is how spectral the backing band sounds. Price is right out there, singing Willie Nelson’s lyrics in his fullest voice, but the Cherokee Cowboys are laying low, blurring the line between country and jazz. There’s a bit where he sings “Well listen to the blues they’re playin’,” and the steel guitarist (it’s either Buddy Emmons or Jimmy Day) gets in this wild little solo that makes me perk up every time. I love a good steel guitar solo—the instrument has a naturally cosmic sound, and the phrasing of the solos here adds a whole extra layer to the song, which is already great.
That Andrew Bird song I posted a couple days ago ("Gotholympians") got me thinking about Sam Cooke’s amazing version of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen, which opens his 1963 masterpiece Night Beat. Which in turn got me thinking about “Trouble Blues,” which is one of my favorite Cooke songs. It’s relegated to the middle of the album’s second side, but it stood out to me immediately the first time I ever heard it. The haunting, worldess intro is a hell of a hook, but the rest of the song also fully embodied everything implied in the phrase Night Beat.
Night Beat is a special, essential record in part because it gives us a Sam Cooke we rarely got to hear: Sam with a small band. The record allows you to really focus on his amazing voice without all the vocal groups and string sections that are slathered all over his pop records in the name of achieving crossover hits. That strategy for crossing over obviously worked—try to listen to an oldies station for a day without hearing “Cupid” or “Chain Gang”—but it also meant that his incredible talent was often obscured on his singles.
The simple organ (played by a 16-year-old Billy Preston), piano, bass and drum backing he gets here gives him all the space he needs to deliver a performance that in my opinion ranks among the best vocals ever. Most of the record rises to the same level, even as it retains the casual feel of an informal late-night session. I think it’s the best thing Cooke did aside from “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
This song came up on the shuffle while I was driving today and I thought it’d be good to put up today. It’s a song Bird never finalized and put on an album. The only place it’s ever been released was on the first volume of his Fingerlings tour-only rarities compilations, which mix together unreleased studio tracks and live recordings.
These are fascinating compilations, because they help Bird’s fans track the development of certain songs. You can hear the sketches of things that were later on his albums or lines he saved from songs he junked, or Bird simply having fun messing around with the way a song is performed. I’ve been a gigantic fan of the guy since the late 90s, and I really do think he’s a genius, at least musically (he seems pretty darn smart in general, too)—I think his genius works within his music in a few ways.
First, there’s the simple brilliance of the playing and the arranging. He has for all intents invented his own genre in which no one else is playing, though a few have attempted to. But beyond that, and you can really see this when you see him live, is the fact that he never plays a song the same way twice. I think he gets bored with even his best songs, and changing them up is his way of entertaining himself as he entertains his audience.
This one may never have made the cut on an album, but it’s still special to me, in part because it reminds me of a very specific aspect of my teenage years. I don’t know what high school was (or is) like for you, but for me it had nothing to with the jocks/geeks, popular/unpopular binaries you get in movies, though some people I knew desperately wanted it to. I as part of the school literary magazine all four years, and in the arty little group of people this activity brought together there was a dynamic that went mostly unnoticed by the people in the group.
For a long time, I referred to it as Misery Wars, but I think Bird’s characterization of this phenomenon as goth olympics is more clever (I have a friend now who likes to pour people imaginary glasses of “white whine” when she catches them complaining about things that aren’t so bad). I think I started to see and understand this dynamic in my junior year, and in my senior year it finally caused me to quit the magazine because it was wearing me down.
I actually even wrote a (probably not very good) songs about it called “My Life’s Worse Than Yours/” Do you know this dynamic? It’s a type of bad news one-upmanship played amongst people whose problems are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. I definitely engaged in it (and probably still do when I forget to guard against it). I’m not saying my friends in high school had no real problems. They did have problems, some of them very real. What I am saying is that the way we coped with them, and the much smaller problems that accompanied them, was often ridiculous and needlessly competitive.
Bird captures its essence here:
"When it comes to misery no one competes with me."
I think this phenomenon manifests itself in groups of privileged people specifically because they’d had so little major suffering in their lives. Evolution has equipped us with a robust set of coping mechanisms for dealing with horrendous occurrences. And in the absence of abuse or a war that destroys our hometowns, I think these mechanisms still need an outlet, so we find that outlet in more petty concerns, like our complexion or being late because of traffic or not getting exactly what we want when we want it.
But anyway, “My rain really pours/at least more than yours,” could have been our literary magazine’s tagline, so props to Bird for so deftly putting his finger on a very specific type of complaint.
Seely: “Sister Total Emptiness” (Winter Birds, 2000)
More American cosmic rock with Seely. I picked Winter Birds up from a $2 shelf at Nuggets in Boston, (which is still in business! Yay!), and I thought they were British for the longest time, because they sound kinda British on this album. And I don’t just mean affected-accent British. I mean, this sounds like music that was more likely to come from across the ocean than from Atlanta, which is where they’re actually from. They remind me a bit of Pram or late-period Hood, actually.
The whole album is pretty good, but “Sister Total Emptiness” is the song that wormed its way into my permanent greatest hits file. It’s a captivating song. I love that rolling electric piano, and I think the drumming is fantastic, which can be an easy thing to overlook in a rock song, but the open recording and quick snare work are essential to keeping this song so light on its feet.
Seely broke up right after releasing Winter Birds, which was their fourth album. This happened just as they were gaining a bit of traction from the album’s positive reception, but hey, sometimes bands just need to break up for the mental health of the members, and that appears to be what happened with them. Seely co-founders Lori Scacco and Steven Satterfield both continued to make music, she on her own and he with a band called Silver Lakes.
7% Solution: “The Air Bends Sunlight” (All About Satellites And Spaceships, 1996)
Man, this song takes me back. I suspect I may be rather alone in this, as 7% Solution is not a band that reached many people, either when they were still around or since. Nevertheless, this band was huge for me in 1998, the year I graduated high school.
At the time, my cousin Jason played in a band with the program director for WECS, the radio station of Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic. I grew up in Tolland, CT, and spent a lot of time in Willimantic as a kid, visiting my great grandmother and my aunt. I remember my aunt’s house was quite nice—a restored Victorian—but my great grandmother lived on the top floor of a house that had been made into two apartments, and it was a strange, kind of haunting place for me and my brother.
The only toys we had to play with there were a couple of little antique metal cars that we’d dump out of their little box in front of the stove that heated the place, and when we got bored of that, we could go into the galley kitchen and look out the window at all the clotheslines strung between the houses. I have a lot of memories of the place, though none are tied to a specific event—I recall the color of the little metal cars (metallic blue and metallic purple), the basic layout, the rug in the living room, the low couch, the formica table, the fact that it was always dark, my great-grandmother’s brother sitting in the dark in one of the bedrooms, looking out the window toward the street.
About all that has to do with WECS, though, is the town—I’d built up associations with Willimantic, which was a mill town that had lost its mills, and I couldn’t help thinking about them every time my friend and I drove down for the Saturday show the program director gave us. Our time slot was ten to noon, but we usually went to two o’clock, because the people scheduled after us often failed to show up. The friend I did the show with is my wife now.
We’d always go down with a playlist for about an hour-and-a-half’s worth of air time, and then for the rest of the time, however long it was, we’d pick things off the shelves. I heard a lot of things for the first time this way, and one of those things was 7% Solution, whose debut album, All About Satellites And Spaceships, was still in medium rotation two years after its release. The program director, who I still talk to now and then, was a cool guy, and sort of resented the CMJ charts, so he’d put old music in the rotation fairly often, or keep thigns there for ages if he really liked them. Once, he submitted a chart to CMJ that consisted of nothing but out-of-print Frank Sinatra albums.
I grabbed the 7% album during one of our very first shows, the week after we graduated high school. I picked “The Air Bends Sunlight” because it had the best title, and it did not disappoint. Shoegaze or whatever you want to call it never really crossed the Atlantic in a big way, and the US was mostly left out as a result, but if you dug underground a bit, you could find some really nice examples of American cosmic rock. This, in my opinion is the very best. I played tracks from the album all summer, and when Pitchfork put together a 90s albums list back in 2003, I had Satellites at #10.
Later in 1998, I moved to Boston for college, and when I found a copy of the album, I bought it immediately. It was a cool release—the first pressing, which sold slowly enough that it was still in a store two years after the fact, was done in a limited, hand-assembled run with each copy uniquely stamped. I have copy #405. And that wasn’t all. It came with a second copy of the album, stuck in a pocket with the instructions “please give this copy to a friend.” I’ve never seen another band do that, and I followed the instruction.
As for the band, they were from Austin, TX, and released a second album called Gabriel’s Waltz in 1999. I know very little about them otherwise, though I know they were named for the concentration of cocaine favored by Sherlock Holmes in the books of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Did you know Holmes did coke? It wasn’t illegal in Doyle’s day, of course, but it’s a bit of the story that usually gets left out when people talk about the character today. American writer Nicholas Meyer had some fun with it in 1974 with his novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, in which Holmes attempts to kick the habit (with the help of Sigmund Freud!).
The Bluetones: “4-Day Weekend” (Return To The Last Chance Saloon, 1998)
If Blur responded to the death of Britpop by trying to bash its way out of a box and veering toward the avant garde in the process, other bands didn’t take such an extreme path. The Bluetones, for instance, simply went out and made the best album of their career, without really changing their style much. They’d had two pretty big hits during the height of Britpop: “Slight Return" and "Bluetonic,” both of which are fondly remembered as among the best that British guitar bands had to offer in the mid-90s. they album the songs were taken from, Expecting To Fly, hit #1 in the UK.
And they were great songs. But Return To The Last Chance Saloon, the band’s ill-timed second album, was stuffed with songs that were just as good. The first two singles, “Solomon Bites the Worm" and "If…" were modestly successful, the former scraping the top ten (I should note that my home country, the United States, ignored everything the band did—the album was never released here), but by the time the fourth single was released, the band had adjusted to the new realities of the UK music scene and made it a mail-order single for the fans.
Rather a shame, really. “4-Day Weekend” is one of the band’s best songs, and really showcases what a great band they could be. The rhythm track is muscular and aggressive, and Adam Devlin’s guitar is full of fireworks. Mark Morriss is a generally underrated vocalist, and he sounds great here as usual, but what I really love is the left-field decision to back him with a second version of himself singing through a Vocoder on the second verse. It’s a cool, thoughtful flourish in what’s otherwise a pretty basic rock song (that happens to have an above-average sense of dynamics).
The Bluetones are still around—they released an album earlier this year, in fact, and have turned themselves into something like the ultimate Britpop survivors. Their profile is low these days, but it’s cool that they’ve stuck with it and managed to remain a working band long after their brightest moment in the sun.
The band seems to have a penchant for parodying protest signs in its videos. There’s “Slight Return” above, and they also do it in the clip for “Keep the Home Fires Burning.”
As part of my neverending campaign of music library organisation and maintenance,1 I periodically sift through my library and attempt to purge it of music I don’t actually like.
This is difficult.
I like having cover versions of songs I like, even if the covers are terrible. I like keeping songs around because they might fit a theme for a mix CD or playlist, or because they seem somehow canonical and maybe one day I’ll finally get into them. I like keeping the music that friends have shared with me, pressed on me, evangelised; discarding it feels uncomfortably like discarding memories, and sometimes keeping it feels like keeping a small, intact piece of a relationship that has otherwise dissolved.
This whole post is quite worth reading, but the intro here is a pretty perfect distillation of why it’s so bloody difficult to get rid of things you may never have paid for in the first place and that you can’t even touch. My iTunes library contains (I hope you’re sitting down) about 130,000 tracks. Promos and stuff for Pitchfork account for a significant portion of that, but when I let my acquisitive phase get out of control, it really got out of control. I’ll be whittling at it for years.
Peter Thomas Sound Orchestra: “Bolero On The Moon Rocks” (Raumpatrouille OST, 1966)
I want to stay in the Space Age for just another couple minutes. I mean, I’m supposed to be living there anyway, aren’t I? It’s hard to tell, though. The shuttle program is winding down without a replacement and the world hardly even notices, and in the post-Cold War, post-boom world we inhabit, people seem to have lost their exploratory zeal for space. One of my favorite websites tells me there are six people in space right now, but it doesn’t feel like it, you know?
I think the Space Age truly ended at the point when a majority of people stopped being fascinated by it. Shuttle launches stopped being televised, the American political climate slowly turned its back on science, and when Bush tried to get us all psyched up for another moon shot, people didn’t get excited—most of them just wondered whether we could afford it. We’re still messing around up there, but the sense of collective adventure has been lost.
Really, think about the contraptions the first people to leave Earth’s atmosphere traveled in. They were crude, pressurized boxes with electronics that were less sophisticated than your iPod. And the frontiers kept pushing outward—when we launched the Voyagers in the 70s, we were making a big plunge into the unknown, sending out these lonely little objects that we made to crack the edge of our solar system. After that, it became more about analyzing faraway light and radiation and making space missions routine, which has been great but also allowed the whole idea of getting off the planet to recede in the public imagination.
It’s not hard to imagine why people really thought in the 60s that we’d have operating moon colonies by now. Or why shows like Star Trek and Raumpatrouille captured people. If you don’t know Raumpatrouille, that’s understandable—it was a seven-episode serial on German TV in 1966. The title just means Space Patrol, and that’s what it was about—a patrol ship cruising the galaxy and doing battle with aliens called The Frogs.
If you’re a Pulp fan, though, you know at least a bit of the music from Raumpatrouille; the opening of “Bolero on the Moon Rocks” was sampled for their monumental “This Is Hardcore.” The guy behind the track was Peter Thomas, a German composer whose inventive scores in the 60s and 70s helped to greatly expand the soundtrack vocabulary. For one thing, his main title theme for Raumpatrouille featured the first recorded musical use of the Vocoder (in the countdown: it’s Thomas’ voice mixed with a cello), which was originally developed for telecommunications. Jan Hammer was also a member of his band.
"Bolero on the Moon Rocks" is a great piece of music, a haunting melody played over an eerie, staggering rhythm track. It’s quite progressive, really—I love the way he uses the horns to drive the beat and lets drummer Keith Forsey play more of an accent role. Here’s a shot of the Orion, the flying saucer the Earthling heroes of Raumpatrouille piloted through space:
The Blue Men, led by Rod Freeman: “I Hear A New World” (1960, unreleased at the time)
Yesterday, I posted Joe Meek’s greatest triumph, the Tornados’ “Telstar.” Today, perhaps his most quixotic recording.
In early 1960, Meek was on his own after leaving Landsdowne Studio in the wake of a reputedly spectacular dust-up. He’d already been sneaking a skiffle band called the West Five into Landsdowne to record some of his more outre ideas, and once he was independent, he decided to use them to make a real splash in the UK music world. He changed their name to Rodd, Ken & the Cavaliers, and then again to the Blue Men. His original idea included having the band appear onstage in space suits with their faces painted blue (this was a couple years before the Swedish surf band the Spotnicks did something similar).
The band refused to go along with that, but they did (reluctantly) set to work translating a bunch of Meek’s demos, which were full of tuneless singing and available-object percussion into more fleshed-out music. Meek’s vision was a concept album about life on the Moon. The Space Race was just beginning, and people still engaged in feverish speculation as to what the Moon might actually be like—Meek’s twin fascinations were outer space and the occult, and his portrait of life on the Moon was decidedly fantastical.
In fact, it was billed as a fantasy. Meek’s album never came to fruition—it was recorded, but all that got released was a four-song EP called “I Hear A New World part 1: an Outer Space Music Fantasy by Joe Meek.” The credited artist was the Blue Men, led by Rod Freeman. Part 2 was scheduled but canceled, and the album, which Meek intended to be his shot across the bow of the UK music business died in turn, and Meek moved on to other things.
In 2001, the RPM label put together a compilation that assembled Meek’s intended 12-track album in order. It’s full of bizarre, otherworldly sounds, including the clavioline proto-synth, which at the time was a new toy for Meek. From a technical standpoint, it was an achievement for its era—it has a very developed stereo picture, and some of it (especially the abstract, ambient “Globb Waterfall”) is quite challenging for Meek’s intended pop audience. There are ways in which it sounds quite futuristic.
There are also ways in which it’s ridiculous, though, and you can hear a bit of that on the title track, which saw its first official release on that RPM disc. The original EP introduced the Globbots and the Sarooes, the two races of the Moon, and ascribed them their cultural personalities. The Globbots were described in Meek’s liners as “happy, jolly little beings” with “cheeky blue-coloured faces,” while the Sarooes didn’t fare as well: “it is a hard struggle for them to live and they have a form of rationing which is a strain and they always seem to be sad.”
I think Meek identified with the Sarooes (the RPM album changes the spelling to Saroos). The most beautiful piece of music on the album is the elegiac “Valley of the Sarooes,” which isn’t slathered with goofy, pitch-shifted voices and has an arrangement that relies on the fact that the piano is out of tune. The title track up at the top of this post has a little of all of this. Freeman’s melancholy lead vocal is echoed by the band, who themselves are then echoed by a chorus of pitch-shifted, sped-up Moon people. And Meek tempers his longing to join this new world with the line “how can I tell her what’s in store for me?”, a sentiment that implies he’ll have to give up the life he has to pursue the one that’s calling to him.
Ultimately, the whole thing is too out-there to have made much of a broad impact in its time had it been released, but it is nonetheless quite innovative. And the whole thing was recorded in his flat! If you’re at all interested in the long history of experimentation in pop music, the whole RPM disc is worth hearing.
While Gary Numan’s “Are Friends Electric” is generally considered to be the first synth-pop song to hit #1 in the UK, it occurred to me after I posted “Cars” yesterday that Numan may have been beaten to the punch by nearly 20 years.
"Telstar" is one of those rare creations that is at once completely of its time and completely out of time. It was released a month and a week after the launch of the Telstar 1 communications satellite, the first satellite ever to relay television, phone calls and faxes. Compared to modern telecommunications satellites, the thing was a piece of space junk—it didn’t have a geosynchronous orbit, so its signal wasn’t available to the ground stations in the US and UK all the time—but it still managed to relay the very first live transatlantic TV feed and captured people’s imaginations at a time when people really believed you and I, in 2010, would most likely be accustomed to space travel as a routine activity.
So in that sense, “Telstar” the song is all about the zeitgeist of its era—the Space Race was on, and Joe Meek wasn’t about to be left behind. The song was credited to and played by the Tornados, but it was really a creation of Meek, an oddball UK record producer who’d already had his head in the stars for a few years: he produced the weird and wonderful “I Hear A New World” EP series in 1959 (more on that tomorrow).
The thing about “Telstar” that makes it sound so out of time to me is the actual sound of it, which is nothing like anything else that was going on in 1962. That sweeping verse melody is played on a clavioline, a forerunner of the analog synthesizer that had been used on only a few pop songs to that point, most notably Del Shannon’s 1961 hit “Runaway,” which used a modified version dubbed the Musitron. Its tone is weird and wonderful and makes it sound quite modern—it’s maybe the best example of the paleo-future in music. And the melody Meek wrote for it is an ecstatic, soaring thing. It celebrates the triumph of space travel very literally—the sound effects in the intro give you the launch, the clavioline gives you the arc of the escape, and the guitar chorus is the weightless drift around the home planet.
Fittingly, it was the first single by a UK band to hit #1 in the US (fourth UK single overall), which means that a song celebrating the first satellite to relay a transatlantic TV feed also became a transatlantic smash, topping both charts at the same time. Meek, always reaching for the cutting edge, had a Scopitone video produced for the song. The original Scopitone video for “Telstar” doesn’t seem to have survived, though this charmingly corny video for “Robot” has.
Oh, and about those Tornados: they’re never talked about much on their own terms because Meek was so responsible for their output, but they were a good band, backing most of Meek’s acts in the studio and at one point challenging the Shadows for Britain’s best instrumental act. Their lineup on “Telstar” was George Bellamy* on rhythm guitar, Clem Cattini on drums, Heinz Burt on bass, Alan Caddy on lead guitar, Roger LaVern on keyboards, and non-Tornado Geoff Goddard playing clavioline and adding those worldess vocals that double the clavioline in the last verse.
This band began to fragment in 1963, and the Tornados became a name for whatever band Meek had together at the moment. The last single ever credited to the Tornados was 1966’s “Is That A Ship I Hear?” It’s not musically notable, but its b-side, an otherwise forgettable lounge instrumental, is interesting for being perhaps the first released British popular song to feature gay subject matter. “Do You Come Here Often?” features a brief conversation between two men that probably sounded banal enough to the average censor but would have been recognized for what it was by a gay man of the time.
Meek himself was gay, and it was no easy thing to be homosexual in 1960s Britain. The country’s retrograde sexuality laws made homosexual acts between two men in private illegal until 1967’s Sexual Offences Act, which itself only partially rectified the problem and maintained some inequalities. As one can imagine (and there are many who don’t have to imagine, even today), a law that makes your sexual preference illegal places you under enormous pressures. By all accounts, Meek was already a pretty tightly wound guy, and it seems certain that his inability to live openly weighed very heavily on him. This, combined with his financial losses as his success waned in the mid-60s, sent him into the depression that ultimately led him to murder his landlady, Violet Shenton, and take his own life in 1967. He was 37.
Meek’s violent end leaves an unfortunate cloud around his life, but he left behind some really stunning and inventive music that still sounds strange today. Not bad for a guy who was completely tone deaf.
*Fun fact: George Bellamy is the father of Matthew Bellamy, the lead singer and guitarist of Muse.
Also: don’t confuse this band with the Tornadoes, who were an American surf band.
Not long ago, I mentioned Alchemists of Sound, a great BBC4 documentary about the Radiophonic Workshop. I saw it in a stretch during which I watched a bunch of BBC 4 music docs, including Prog Rock Britannia, their Krautrock documentary (which really only touches on the very tip of the iceberg), and Synth Britannia. This last one sent me off on a synth-pop jag that hasn’t stopped yet (I was coming off a long prog rock kick when I watched all that).
I’ve loved late 70s/early 80s synthpop (and some of its descendants) for ages, but I never made a concerted effort to sort it all out or figure out all the touchstones until very recently. This is part of the problem with being a broad-ranging musical omnivore: there is always something you’ve been meaning to look into for ages, but you haven’t gotten to it because there were 20 other things in the way. For me, this leads to quick bursts where, for one example, I’ll get all of the classic-era Deep Purple albums and jam them for two straight weeks because some little thing I saw somewhere got Deep Purple on my mind. And then I see something else and it’s off to that.
Which is a lengthy way of saying that I hadn’t really bothered with Gary Numan much until the last few weeks. I’d heard “Cars” but not enough to remember it well, and I had an mp3 of “Are Friends Electric?” thanks to working on the Pitchfork 500, but I hadn’t even actively listened to him. To be fair, I had tried once, in 1998. I picked up his 1997 album Exile, and though I can’t remember it at all now, I know I disliked it then. It could be that an initial bad experience (for all I know, I’d enjoy that album now) kept me away until now. Who knows?
Anyway, I got the Pleasure Principle recently and wish I’d heard it sooner. It was the second album he released in 1979, and it was the first under his own name, without the Tubeway Army moniker. And “Cars” was his second UK #1 that year, following hot on the heels of “Are Friends Electric?” Not many artists get a single #1 in a whole career, so for this odd, stiff man who lived with his parents and made all-synth music that was deeply, deeply unfashionable with the rock press of the day to hit is twice in a year was extraordinary.
According to Synth Britannia, it also left some of the electronic acts who’d been at it for longer wondering why he was the one that broke through. Well, I think it’s obvious: “Are Friends Electric?” was a great song, and the follow-up was even better. “Cars” is an easy transition to synth-pop for rock fans because it’s structured exactly like a rock song: gigantic riff, good lead line, sharp vocal hook. I imagine it wasn’t all that difficult to latch onto in 1979, and the sounds were just exotic enough to make it stand out.
So consider me converted, at least to Numan’s classic output. Not sure I’ll ever make it back to Exile, but you never know.
I missed a post yesterday trying to sort out what was wrong with a sick cat—he seems better today, though he did not enjoy his trip to the vet. Anyway, to pick up where I left off, I had been talking about the United States of America (the band, not the country), and promised to post something by a band that’s a direct descendant of that 60s group.
And if USA has a direct descendant, it is Broadcast. They’re pretty open about USA’s influence, actually, and they use a lot of the same oscillating and ring modulation effects as their influence in their music. Though they were once a five-piece band, Broadcast these days is functionally more of a duo of Trish Keenan and James Cargill with a supporting cast.
Keenan’s deadpan, calm vocals are quite reminiscent of USA’s Dorothy Moskowitz, but I think the tension between voice and music is even greater in Broadcast. She is a central stabilizing force in this wobbly, ping-ponging bed of music, and aside from maybe Stereolab, no band going today really makes music this close to the character of all those early electronic experiments. The sounds in the mix aren’t quantized and tuned to perfection—there’s tonal ambiguity in there, and a little bit of sourness in some of the noises they cook up is a welcome shaping element.
That’s one of the reasons I love it. If there’s one thing I broadly lament about the direction pop music is heading in, it’s the trend toward perfection. I don’t mean creative perfection (no such thing); I mean sonic perfection, where a note can’t be a little sharp or flat, and a drum beat can’t be a little off the mark. A lot of modern production techniques make records that sound functionally flawless and aesthetically airless. Don’t mistake me, though: I’m sure if people had access to all the same software we have today back in the 60s, they would have used it too.
But they didn’t. I think the 60s were fascinating musically for a thousand different reasons, but the sense that everyone was still figuring out the technology and the fact that things could be off even on major recordings are two of the biggest. I like it when everything’s not perfect. I guess to me, autotuning someone (when it’s not being used as a deliberate effect, which is different) to kill all the little pitch mistakes in their singing is a bit like airbrushing seven inches off an actress’ waist on a magazine cover—I don’t mind that it’s “dishonest” or whatever, but I hate that it fears the humanity of its subject.
Broadcast are kind of the opposite of that. They invite mistakes in and understand when they make the music better. I’m not saying it’s a superior way of making music—it’s merely a different way, and it agrees with me, and I hope people keep finding new ways to make hi-fi music that embraces a little imperfection.
Based on your last music posts (especially Coming Down - The United States of America) I must ask if you have downloaded the mixtape "Chasing the Dragon" by Diplo? He mashes that song on the mixtape. As a whole it's really worth checking out especially for fans of psychedelic 60's rock.
Here's the link: http://www.maddecent.com/blog/mdwwr-62-diplo-chasing-the-dragon-mixtape
I hadn’t downloaded it until your message, but I’ve downloaded it now. It is full of great stuff. Worth a listen for psych and soul fans, especially those who don’t mind being tantalized by the occasional song they don’t know.
The United States of America: “Coming Down” (The United States of America, 1968)
While Silver Apples were putting together their unique electronic rock sound in New York, across the country in L.A., Joseph Byrd was trying to do the same thing, but coming at it from a completely different angle. Where Silver Apples started out in clubs and came upon their sound as a gigging band and Simeon never learned to play a conventional instrument, The United States of America was populated with classically trained players, and leader Byrd had a background in experimental composition.
He also had an academic background, and was in the middle of a doctoral program at UCLA when the idea for the band hit him. He’d spent time in New York City’s avant garde circles and studied with John Cage, and it was during an event he organized that he conceived USA. The final concert in a series featured an oddball performance piece by Lamont Young in which a weather balloon was filled with a vacuum cleaner. It took half an hour, and Byrd worried about losing the student audience. So he hired a blues band to play while the balloon filled.
It was then that he realized his ideas would have a better chance of reaching people if he packaged them in a rock band and abandoned the tape manipulation pieces he’d been working on. The group he assembled featured a former girlfriend, Dorothy Moskowitz, as lead singer, drummer Craig Woodson, bass player Rand Forbes (who played an early fretless electric bass), and Gordon Marron, who played electric violin and operated a ring modulator. Byrd himself handled oscillators, calliope, keyboards and a primitive synth called the Durrett Electronic Music Syntehsizer, about which I can find little specific information.
The funny thing is that Byrd, coming from his experimental background, managed to make an album that sounds a lot more conventional than anything Silver Apples did. There was no guitar in the band, but on “Coming Down,” the fuzz bass basically stands in for one. I’ve always felt this was their best song, purely on its musical merits. It’s not as out there as album opener “The American Metaphysical Circus,” which features Moskowitz drowning in ring modulator distortion, but it has punch, and all the electronic doodles feed into the energy of the groove.
Forbes is the underappreciated star of the show on this track—his fuzz lines are the song’s biggest hook, and when he switches over to a clear tone, his work on the fretless bass gives the song a really fluid groove. The electric violin squirms along in the mix—its tone blends neatly with the electronics, which are really on the periphery of the song. It’s perhaps telling that the best was at its best when it downplayed the elements it was formed to showcase.
USA didn’t last long after the album’s release, touring a bit with new keyboardist Ed Bogas on board) before Byrd’s need for complete control led to a rough break up.
Tomorrow, we’ll jump to the more recent past with a band that almost certainly wouldn’t exist were it not for the influence of USA. I’ll bet a few of you can already guess who it is.
The last two things I posted, from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, are great little ambient tracks, but if there’s one thing the Workshop didn’t really do much of, it was applying all the musique concrete and tape editing techniques they’d mastered to pop songs.
Over in New York City in 1968, Silver Apples set out to do just that. the band actually sprang from boredom: Simeon Coxe III was the singer for the band in 1967, and when the band’s three guitarists went off on their lengthy psychedelic excursions, he didn’t have anything to do. At one show, he plugged in a borrowed oscillator and made a little noise of his own during a guitar break.
The guitarists hated the oscillator, to the point where as Simeon used it more and more, they each left in turn, leaving only the singer and drummer Danny Taylor. They decided to build their new sound around Simeon’s growing collection of electronics. He built them into a giant, unwieldy device called The Simeon comprised of five bass oscillators, three rhythm oscillators, a lead oscillator, a couple of tone controls, an echo-plex, a wah-wah pedal, three amps, a microphone, a radio and a bunch of switches. He operated the bass oscillators with his feet and everything else with his arms.
You can see a good shot of this contraption here (it’s a big image and reducing it so it would fit in the Tumblr feed wouldn’t do it justice). Taylor, meanwhile, maintained a massive drum kit referred to by the band as the Taylor Drums.
"Oscillations" was the only single taken off the band’s 1968 self-titled album, and it’s their best known song. I actually thought of putting a different song ("Seagreen Serenades" was the lead contender) just to be contrarian, but hell, it is really hard to think of another cutting-edge experimental song that is as instantly memorable and appealing as this one. The lyrics are by poet Stanley Warren, and they clearly dovetail pretty nicely with the band’s instrumentation.
Both original Silver Apples albums (they reunited in the 90s, and their third album went unreleased when it was made in 1970) are excellent. I remember buying them on a two-fer in the late 90s, not long after MCA reissued them on a single disc. The booklet had diagrams of The Simeon and The Taylor Drums (two cowbells!), and even in ‘98 or ‘99, it sounded pretty wild and forward-thinking. I think the sounds on these records, from the loosely recorded drums to the buzzes and throbs of The Simeon have aged quite admirably—they don’t date the way a lot of synthesizer sounds have over the years.
I also think it’s great that they really did try to sound as “normal” as possible even with their unique sound. They seem to have realized that avant garde music needn’t be alienating, and as such, I think they’re a good entry point for people who are curious about old electronic music, whereas something like Stockhausen takes more acclimatization (I still haven’t quite gotten the hang of listening to that guy, after years of trying).
At any rate, it’s a brilliant track, and one of my all-time favorites.
Dick Mills: “Adagio” (The Radiophonic Workshop, 1975)
More furious madness from the massed gadgets* of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
Dick Mills was an original member of the Workshop staff, taking his place in Room 13 in 1958 and staying for decades. He was mostly a sound effects guy, working on Quatermass and the Pit, and ultimately taking over sound direction for Dr. Who from Brian Hodgson in 1972. Every once in a while, though, he worked on a full piece of music, and his “Adagio,” written and assembled for a 1975 LP of music from the Workshop, is my favorite piece of Workshop music outside of the Dr. Who theme.
"Adagio" isn’t much of a composition, really—no melody or real rhythm—but it is beautiful and strange, and the type of tonally ambiguous electronic texture that really was only achievable with the archaic technology Mills had at his disposal.
Though the 1975 The Radiophonic Workshop LP was mostly new music, it did include an old classic from Mills: his nine-second 1959 sound effect for the Goon Show, “Major Bloodnok’s Stomach.” The Goon Show was a boundary-pushing BBC radio show that ran from the early 50s to 1960. It featured Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, and it was a direct influence on Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the Beatles (you can really hear its influence on their Christmas records). “Major Bloodnok’s Stomach” was a humorous sound effect that was supposed to indicate the epic scale of the Major’s indigestion, and it includes sampled, pitch-shifted burps and glasses of water being struck while moving to create a warbling effect. I wish I could find a sample of it somewhere. You can get it in this mix, though.
Dick Mills is still around. He’s written a number of books on aquariums and tropical fish.
*Gold star for you if you got that Pink Floyd reference.
Delia Derbyshire: “Planetarium” (Standard Music LibraryESL104, 1969)
You may know Delia Derbyshire as the woman who sent you running behind the couch when you were a kid by assembling/arranging the theme from Dr. Who, the eerie, throbbing masterpiece that’s still the best television show theme ever. Dr. Who played on PBS when I was a kid, and I remember the show as uncommonly terrifying, though I don’t really remember the actual content. I’m fairly certain some of the episodes I saw in the early 80s originally ran in the UK in the early 70s, because Jon Pertwee, the Third Doctor, looks very familiar to me, and I know I saw some of the Tom Baker episodes as well.
The show had a characteristic combination of low budget effects and weird, synthetic sound that Derbyshire helped establish with her work for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. She left the Workshop in 1973 and wouldn’t have contributed to the Baker episodes, but the show retained its odd sound world for some years after her departure.
What’s often overlooked in Derbyshire career is the fact that she did some amazing work outside her job with the BBC. She was an original part of the innovative electronic band White Noise with Brian Hodgson, David Vorhaus and Paul Lytton, contributing to their classic 1968 album An Electric Storm. She also made library albums under the pseudonym Li De La Russe—“Planetarium” is taken from a 1969 Standard Music Library LP, and it’s among my favorite things she did in spite of its brevity (it’s less than two minutes long).
I’m not sure precisely what sounds she was manipulating here, but she did some very cool things with them. I like the way she’s taken the attack out of every sound—they rise up in smears and sink back down into the weird texture of the piece. The harmony is somewhere between normal Western chord concepts and tone cluster experimentation, which gives it a spooky, hollow quality not too unlike the Ligeti piece we heard yesterday.
Delia Derbyshire died in 2002, just before she began to receive due credit for her enormous contributions to electronic music. She’d actually left her self-imposed retirement for the first time since 1973 and was working on new music, though I’m not sure it will see the light of day. She gave her unreleased tapes to colleague Mark Ayres, and he has undertaken digitization work that should help preserve her work for the future. It’s even possible that at some point in that future, her work will no longer sound ahead of the curve.
If you want to learn more about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, I recommend BBC4’s documentary Alchemists of Sound, which can be watched here. If anybody can explain the weird guy standing in the background of all the interviews, I’d like to hear it.