Get This!, Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find

Rimbaud 2: It’s A Pay Check, Jack

A dozen or so years ago, a concert celebrating the life and work of Robert Burns took place at Culzean Castle on the South West coast of Scotland, not far from where I’m typing. I’m quite into Burns, in an enthusiastic amateur kinda way. I get involved when it’s that time of year in the schools and organise the school Burns Supper. I’ll put together wee groups of kids who’ll eagerly sing Green Grow The Rashes (the Michael Marra arrangement) while I get to rock out gently with some well-rehearsed finger picking on my guitar. At home, we’ve done Burns Suppers celebrating the bawdier side o’ Rabbie that they don’t teach at school, helped along by the sort of food and drink you’d be hard-pushed to find in a school dinner hall. There are tons of Burns scholars out there who take it far more seriously and who could bore the breeks off most of us with their ability to recite his most obscure work which is why, when the concert was announced at Culzean  – with headliners Lou Reed and Patti Smith – I thought I’d give it a miss. “I don’t really fancy hearing Lou ‘n Patti pretend they know the inner workings of Burns’ songbook when they could be doing their own stuff instead,” I reasoned. Big mistake as it turned out, as Lou and Patti by and large did their own stuff, regardless or not of what the promoters had signed them up for. Patti even made the Scottish news on TV the next night for gobbing on the side of the stage, offending those stuffy, ancient scholars I’ve just mentioned. Old punks, eh. What’re they like?

Oor ain Eddi Reader, herself a mad Burns fanatic, was on the bill and in the encore she sang the famous ‘doot-di-doo’ backing vocals for Walk On The Wild Side alongside Patti Smith. I know people who’ll be reading this that have wide-eyed stage-side footage of the moment. Why did I not go? Why?

I’ve grown into Patti Smith in a big way. She was always there, a trailblazer for the strong, bloody-minded women from Chrissie Hynde to PJ Harvey who have a place in my record collection, but in recent years I’ve really come to acknowledge her as one of the greats. Morrissey, Michael Stipe and any Maconie-voiced BBC4 documentary will all tell you this of course, but unless you were lucky enough to be there at the time, I’m not sure her importance shines through for generations of mine and since.

Horses is her biggie, of course. A raucous brew of poetry set to music, it’s the sound of flared nostrils and itchy, twitchy jangling nerves riffing on French existentialists, Jesus and the futility of existence – the big stuff, in other words. Wrapped in monochrome with bird’s nest hair, it’s a challenging listen, certainly more difficult to get into than, say, Patti’s contemporaries The Ramones and Blondie who were street suss enough to add some pop to their schlock. The centrepiece of the album is, wonkily, mid way through side 2.

Patti SmithLand

Land is a free-flowing example of all that Patti does best, over 9 carefully metered minutes of what musicologists might call a triptyche, with 3 parts of music played under the one theme. Every word is enunciated precisely and clearly, given equal gravitas. She howls, she whispers, she duets with herself. She’ll rap on something deeply esoteric one moment and then she’ll be singing about the watusi and Bonie Moronie the next. The words come in floods; pretentious, populist and pure. I can’t pretend to know exactly what she’s on about and I’m not certain that the young Patti in 1975 could’ve told you either. It sounds fantastic though.

Patti has a crack band behind her, rising and falling, ebbing and flowing in time to her carefully-written prose, yet for the entire track they keep it simple. At any moment, Richard Sohl on keys could break into the most heart-stopping piano run, but he doesn’t. Lenny Kaye could easily let fly with an electric burst of pop/punk bloooze, but he doesn’t. There’s ample opportunity over 9 minutes for an Animal-esque freak out on the drums, yet Jay Dee Doherty reigns himself in. With Patti Smith, it’s all about the vocal. The words are everything.

Here’s Piss Factory, her early b-side documenting her time working a crappy job for crappier money.

Patti SmithPiss Factory

Just Kids, Patti’s autobiography about her life with Robert Mapplethorpe continues this theme. It’s a literary ride on the A Train, taking the reader right into the centre of a mid 70s New York that most of us can only imagine. Their story is played out against a backdrop of the Chelsea Hotel, Max’s Kansas City and Coney Island and features walk-on parts from Andy Warhol, Alan Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Art, music and fashion explode and fuse together and everything and anything is possible, doable and done. Mapplethorpe struggles with a sexual identity that would eventually tear the couple apart but (or perhaps because of this) it’s a beautiful read;  a love letter to and for Mapplethorpe and the city that brought them together. There they are up there, an androgynous Keef ‘n Mick for the Blank Generation. Even without the music, Patti’s words are powerful. Read it.

Footnote

It was a conversation with Johnny Marr a few years ago that made me go home and re-evaluate Patti Smith until her genius really sank in. I was charged with taking photos of Johnny and his fans after a gig. The waiting line snaked around long enough that half the folk in it ended up missing their last connection home. At the front of the line was a girl who might’ve been 13 and might’ve been 33. Small, disheveled and unkempt, she’d been first to queue outside the venue at lunchtime on the day of the show and as soon as the doors had opened she’d ran for the front of the stage where she stood holding onto the barrier and never letting go until it was time to meet Johnny at the end. Johnny recognised her straight away. “Hello again darlin’!” he greeted with a hug. “How are we today? Listen – hey, listen! – make sure you get a bed tonight, eh? No more sleeping in doorways, eh?

Once, I bunked off the school,” he told me afterwards, “and skipped the train to Liverpool to catch Patti Smith. Sneaked in the stage door! That night I slept in Liverpool Bus Station and it was the most terrifying night of my life. That girl at the front comes to all the shows. She comes alone, leaves alone and always turns up the next day. I kinda worry for her, y’know?

If artists have such a hold on folk that they’re prepared to forfeit a roof over their head for the night so that they can see them in concert, they’re worth listening to.

Cover Versions, Get This!, Gone but not forgotten

She And Him

In the early days of Plain Or Pan I penned under the nom de plume of Phil Spector. I suppose it was a combination of being embarrassed to put my real name to anything that might read like a 3 year old’s best efforts and the fact that I didn’t really want anyone to know I had a sideline in writing about old music that kept me from using my own actual name. Things came to the fore when my daft pseudonym cost me the chance of an interview with Nancy Sinatra. “Why on earth would I want Phil Spector to interview me?” she growled, not quite getting the fact that it wasn’t yer actual Phil Spector who’d been in touch. “He was a strange, strange, man and I want nothing to do with him.” At the time, Nancy had been working with a still-hip Morrissey, and I was hoping to base our interview around the recordings they’d been making. Alas, it never happened.

Shortly afterwards I was contacted by someone who wanted me to interview Sandie Shaw. By coincidence, another iconic singer with connections to Morrissey, this was too good an opportunity to pass up. There and then I dropped the pretence and proudly added my own name to the by-line in every article I’d written here. The subsequent interview and article with Sandie (where she name-dropped Morrissey, Debbie Harry and Siouxsie Sioux within the first 5 minutes) became the first piece of paid writing work I’d ever done.

Anyway, back to Nancy S. I’ve had her Greatest Hits rotating recently, a scratchy, crackly 11-track best of that I picked up for 50p (!) in a wee junk shop just off of Glasgow’s Byres Road. Much of it is kitsch nonsense, the sort of stuff that, had she not been the daughter of an icon, may well never had been afforded the attention it got.

The material she recorded with Lee Hazlewood though is fantastic, a heady combination of female/male, light/shade, sweet/sour on record. Sinatra’s voice is cutesy-cute, all light and airy melodies blown in from Hit Factory central. Hazlewood rumbles in like a gothic cowboy, with a voice deeper than a well and twice as dark. Together, they make the sound of milk chocolate and dark chocolate on vinyl.

Some Velvet Morning is the one for me.

Nancy Sinatra & Lee HazlewoodSome Velvet Morning

Druggy, fuggy and full of sexual innuendo, it’s a psychedelic pop masterpiece, miles away from the light and airy country pop that defines many of their duets.

Hazlewood takes the lead, gliding in on a bed of Barry-esque strings with a baritone that could rattle the lids on the coffins of the dead. He gives way to Nancy, fluttering in like a waltz-time muse. “Sing like a 14 year old who fucks truck drivers,” he instructed, with the blessing of ol’ blue eyes himself. Can you imagine anyone getting away with that nowadays?!?

The whole thing see-saws back and forth, a call-and-response danse macabre. Had it popped up soundtracking The Wickerman or a crucial scene in a Tarantino movie you wouldn’t have been surprised. Quentin T. may yet find a use for it in the future, I feel. Musically, the record is very rich. With instrumentation by the famed Wrecking Crew, it’s lush yet louche, wonky and weird and wonderful.

The other high point of their collaborations is Summer Wine, a track that has all the makings of a great lost Bond theme. There’s the innocent female vocal, parping brass and a not-so-subtle nod to all things Bond with the addition of John Barry’s ubiquitous 5 note signature theme midway through.

Nancy Sinatra & Lee HazlewoodSummer Wine

The Lee/Nancy thing was done to great effect by Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell a few years ago. A post in the near future for sure….

As a bonus for now, here’s Lee’s version of Nancy’s signature theme. It’s a cracker.

Lee HazlewoodThese Boots Are Made For Walking

And here’s Let Me Kiss You, Nancy’s take on the Morrissey track that led them to find one another, the song I never got to ask her about. Hey ho. Morrissey has quite rightly come in for a lot of stick in recent times, and whether he still holds a place in your heart or not, you can’t deny that his performance in the background of this record is vintage Stephen.

Nancy SinatraLet Me Kiss You

Get This!, Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find, Sampled

MCR NYC

If it’s scratchy, scuffed at the knees post-punk with a groove yer after, all roads lead to the twin metropoli of Manchester and New York.

A Certain Ratio are something of an enigma. They’ve been around long enough to have witnessed every important youth movement since punk and have steadfastly ploughed their own furrow, grooving somewhere between the hands-in-pockets introspection of Joy Division and the hands-in-the air exhibitionism of the Hacienda and the rave culture it gave birth to, while sometimes dressed like wonky extras in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. They’ve seen off grunge, grime and good old Britpop as well as the entire careers of The Smiths, New Order (the real New Order that is) and just about every influential band these isles have produced.

Revered by all manner of bands whose funk DNA pops up in the least likely of places, from Talking Heads and Happy Mondays to Red Hot Chili Peppers, ACR have the dubious fortune of being incredibly influential yet incredibly unheard of. It’s just the way they like it. They have the freedom to bypass trends, to surf across the wave of whatever zeitgeist is hip that week and get on with the job of making records for themselves.

Du The Du from 1979’s The Graveyard And The Ballroom album is the perfect jumping off/jumping in point.

ACRDu The Du

 

 

It fairly rattles along on a barbed wire bed of steam-powered, clattering industrial funk, with powerhouse drummer Donald Johnson somehow making his kit the lead instrument. Lo-fi guitars that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Josef K record do their chicken-scratch thang, an Asda-priced Nile Rodgers played by cosmopolitan Mancunians. The vocals, all pent-up anxiety could be Ian Curtis on Lemsip. There’s even an elastic band bassline midway through which threatens, but never quite gets to Level 42 on the muso-meter. I defy you not to wiggle at least a finger to it.

Du The Du also happens to be the track by which LCD Soundsytem’s James Murphy measures (measured?) his own funkiness. If the New York band’s latest track seems weak by comparison, it’s binned forever until something more in keeping with ACR’s wonky, jerky funk turns up. Du the right thing indeed.

Talking of New York…

Such a melting pot of cultures and styles is always going to be responsible for inspiring exciting new trends and movements. ESG was formed by the three Scroggins sisters from the Bronx. Given a variety of instruments by a mum keen to keep them on the right side of wrong, the group took equal inspiration from their Motown favourites and the nascent New York hip hop scene. The result, in a way, was neither. As with ACR, much of their stuff is sparse, cold and music for the feet rather than the head.

A show in Manhattan’s Hurrah club brought ESG to the attention of Factory’s Tony Wilson, himself no stranger to an ACR record (he’d go on to release 5 of their albums on Factory). Wilson brought ESG to Manchester where they recorded with Martin Hannett, fresh, believe it or not, from manning the desk as ACR recorded Du The Du. There’s serendipity right there for you. Or plain old musical incest. 

ESG wouldn’t go on to sell all that many records, but in the intervening years they’ve been a clear influence on bands such as Luscious Jackson and Warpaint. They’ve also found themselves heavily sampled by acts looking for something beyond the usual James Brown riff; Beastie Boys, Tricky, even TLC have found gold within their basslines and rippling drums, leading to a late-era ESG releasing the telling Sample Credits Don’t Pay Our Bills EP.

1982’s Dance To The Beat Of Moody from their EP of the same name is where you should start though:

ESGDance To The Beat Of Moody

 

 

As fresh as a hot pretzel on Avenue Of The Americas, it’s great, innit? You wouldn’t be in the least surprised if it were to pop up on BBC 6 Music next week, rotated heavily on the a-list as the hottest new thing. It’s only 36 years young. Original vinyl is almost impossible to track down though and, even of you’re lucky enough to uncover a 1983 press of Come Away With ESG, you’ll need a small bank loan to pay for it. Thankfully, the wonderful Soul Jazz do a good run in re-presses.

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Float On

How To Disappear Completely by Radiohead is a sensational track. It creeps up on you like a slow-crawling leak of treacle, oozing sticky melody, slowing down everything in its path. When it gets to you you’ll forget where you were driving to and what you’re going there for, forget what it was you were talking about before it came on. All your attention will be given over to the music; plaintif, shuffling acoustic guitars, a jarring, juddering string section, Barry Bond brass and a bass line that might’ve walked itself straight off the edges of an Astral Weeks session and onto the pages of Radiohead’s most accomplished track to date. That eerie wail that accompanies the end of every few bars makes it come across like a waltzing, minor key How Soon Is Now. It’s that long, that good, that important.

RadioheadHow To Disappear Completely

It must be said – it never hit me just as hard in the first place. Sequenced as the 4th track on 4th album Kid A, I first heard How To Disappear Completely on a play of the pre-release album from behind the counter of Our Price. Actually, I’m not entirely convinced that I heard it then at all. After the first couple of glitchy, twitchy, guitar-free tracks that heralded Radiohead’s brave new world of rhythm over melody, the album was ejected to great fanfare by our most vocal team member – “What the fuck is this shit?” etc etc –  and the CD found itself frisbeed to the back of the ‘Now Playing’ pile, never to be played again until I got to take it home on the day of release. From then on it was played, played and played again until the melodies, counter-melodies and subtleties had wormed their way into my head.

It’s a daring album, that’s for sure, Trout Mask Replica for Gen X even. The standout then, as now, was How To Disappear Completely. I suppose that’s because it sounds most like a song in the traditional sense – verse, chorus, refrains, etc – especially following the loud skronking free jazz that compromises most of the preceeding track, The National Anthem. Yet it’s far from traditional. I’d love to know how the song developed from genesis to finished article. I mean, how d’you go about writing a track as rich and complex as this?

That eerie repetitive sound mentioned earlier is played on an ondes Martenot, a primitive electronic instrument that pre-dates the theremin by a couple of decades. Johnny Greenwood turned to it after discovering French composer Olivier Messiaen. The string part was written after Johnny (again) had fallen in love with the music of “Poland’s greatest living composer” Krzysztof Penderecki. It’s a far cry from being influenced by Pixies and Radiohead, that’s for sure. In the hands of a lesser band, How To Disappear Completely would well have become an unlistenable, boring 6 minute dirge. It’s the unlikely influences in the sonic architecture that’s wrapped around the tune that allows the music to expand. It’s flotation tank-paced; mesmeric, woozy and other-worldly. And once Thom Yorke adds his vocals the whole thing soars.

“I’m not here….this isn’t happening….I float down the Liffey….in a little while I’ll be gone…”

You might well look on it as a metaphor for Radiohead’s status at the time of Kid A, with Yorke totally unimpressed by the trappings of stardom, the plethora of Radiohead-lite bands that followed in their wake and suffering from a mental breakdown as a result.

The album sessions were famous for inducing band paranoia. Captain Yorke instructed there’d be no drums on this track, no guitar parts on that one. He’d present completed tracks to the band for their approval where most of the group hadn’t played a note on them. Musicians’ egos are fragile at the best of times, but musicians who’ve just played on two of the defining albums of an era suddenly discovering they won’t feature much on their band’s new record must hurt a wee bit.

Where they did feature, they took their chances. Ed O Brien adds fantastic looped guitar riffs throughout How To Disappear Completely. And Phil Selway on drums makes the whole track sound cavernous. When the band emerge from the depths of that flotation tank, he’s there to carry it off and up into the mountains. Much must be made too of NIgel Godrich’s production. He allows the strings to swell in strange new ways before reigning them in. He gives the go ahead for the brass players to counter the strings in the final flourish. And it’s he who drops them all out at crucial points, giving the whole track the dynamic it deserves.

If you’ve never really listened to How To Disappear Completely, rectify that now. Listen. Really listen! It’ll amaze you.

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The Turner Prize

When Neil Armstrong and his pals landed on the Moon in the summer of ’69, their landing spot became known as the Tranquility Base. I’d assume this is because it was close to the Moon’s Sea Of Tranquility, although I’m happy to be corrected on that one. Anyway, being the first to experience an out-of-this-world environment of stilled calm and slo-mo movement, I’d imagine it was the very essence of tranquility.

 

Alex Turner and his Arctic Monkeys pals have just taken one giant leap forward with their new album, in part (I’m assuming again, and happy to be corrected) named after that landing spot on the moon. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino landed last week and it’s a real departure from previous Arctic Monkeys’ records. I’ve lived with it on the commute to work the past few days and it’s fairly wormed its way into my head.

I just wanted to be one of The Strokes,” laments Alex on opener Star Treatment.Now look at the mess you’ve made me make, hitch hiking with a monogramed suitcase, miles away from any half-useful imaginary highway.”

Arctic Monkeys Star Treatment

He half speaks, half croons in his Yorkshire accent, unaffected (in voice at least) by his current choice to live in California. The sunshine’s clearly doing good for his music. He’s eased the band into ridiculous new trousers – the mark of true popstars, of course, and the mid 70s with liberal sprinklings of Carol Kaye-ish stop/start basslines, Fleetwood Mac-esque falsetto backing vocals and coke-addled Station To Station era Bowie piano. It’s as far removed from I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor‘s rattlin’ knee tremble as possible and it’s great.

OK, you’re thinking. That’s the curveball out the way. The band’ll get down to their usual business from now on in, But no! There’s more of the same on the next track. And the next. And the one after that. Fragments of half-known lyrics pop up now and again; the title track mildly pilfers ‘Mother’s got her hair-do to be done‘, from Pet Shop Boys’ Suburbia. Start Treatment‘s drawled, laconic ‘Who you gonna call?‘ is begging for a fuggy ‘Ghostbusters!‘ in response. “Take it easy for a little while,” he suggests, on Four Out Of Five. It’s bugged me all week where he borrowed that particular line from, but it’ll come to me no doubt as soon as this piece is published. Despite the sticky fingered approach here and there, Turner’s lyrics are pretty great.

So when you gaze at planet Earth from outer space, does it wipe that stupid look off of your face?” he intones on American Sports.

Arctic MonkeysAmerican Sports

The entire album continues as it starts; mid paced, self assured and self indulgent. Turner’s voice is the real star throughout. He’s the Sheffield crooner, taking his cue from those excellent Last Shadow Puppets records and using it to grease the wheels of a band who’ve worked extremely hard to steer their ship from its expected course.

It’s the sort of collection of tracks that could really tick off the festival audiences in the summer. If Alex and co choose to ignore the terrifically urgent Fake Tales Of San Francisco or the long-haired desert rock outs of Crying Lightning and everything else that followed in its globe-straddling wake, the band are in danger of losing their audience. My teenage daughter is already getting twitchy about their potential choice of set at TRNSMT in a few weeks. Me? At the age of 48 and a half, I’m perilously close to buying my first Arctic Monkeys album. Get with it, kids.

 

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Jet Pilot

Here Come The Warm Jets by Brian Eno is a cracker. Released at the start of 1974, it plugs the gap between his own short stint as sonic controller in Roxy Music and his future role as Bowie’s sonic architect in Berlin. These days Eno is considered an audio boffin, the adopter of slightly strange and left-of-centre techniques that encourage/demand the musician to push the boundaries of what’s possible. Without Eno there’d be no Remain In Light or Achtung Baby or Shleep; albums that take pop music to new levels via unexpected twists and turns while retaining the undeniable sprinkling of Eno’s magic dust. This is nothing new though – it turns out that Eno has always been an enthusiastic practitioner of unusual production methods.

…Warm Jets continues where Eno left off with Roxy Music. As Ferry and the others pushed for a more chart-friendly, commercial sound, Eno departed to steer his own ship. Calling in a familiar cast of musicians – Robert Fripp, Chris Spedding, Roxy’s Phil Manzanera, John Wetton et al to help him realise the sounds in his head, Eno created an art rock masterpiece.

The musicians were deliberately picked as Eno knew they’d clash, both in personality and style, and it was this clash that would give the album it’s overall feel of unpredictability. Eno happily acknowledged his own musical limitations but found a place for his ‘snake guitar’, ‘simplistic piano’ and ‘electric laryncx’. When he couldn’t achieve the required sounds on his own, he called in the musicians and directed them through body movements and dance.

The song structures on …Warm Jets are still built upon the same nuts and bolts foundations that all guitar-based music is based on; a chord progression, a riff, a complementary bass part etc, but the musicians, Fripp’s guitar on certain tracks in particular, cook up an avant-garde storm. The Frippery on Baby’s On Fire is a few years away but not a million miles from the six string sounds he would coax out of his instrument on Bowie’s Scary Monsters album.

Brian EnoBaby’s On Fire

Eno once described album opener Needles In The Camel’s Eye as “an instrumental with singing on it.” It fairly glides along, a metallic groove that’s somewhere between the skewed pop of early Velvet Underground and The House Of Love’s Christine.

Brian EnoNeedles In the Camel’s Eye

The title track (and album closer) sounds exactly like My Bloody Valentine; woozy and fuzzy, a fug of drums being played in a room in some far-off corridor, a fade-in of singing that could be one voice or twenty five, it’s impossible to tell. The track also gave birth to the title of the album, with Eno enthusiastically informing the assembled masses, “Here come the warm jets!” ahead of his heavily-treated guitar solo’s appearance. It’s magic, of course.

Brian EnoHere Come The Warm Jets

Elsewhere, the skewed Phil Spector pop of On Some Faraway Beach rubs shoulders with the more out-there wonky Bo Diddley-isms of Blank Frank. On the timeline of pop, it’s quite extraordinary that songs and albums such as this were being realised and recorded.

To add some perspective, a quick glance at the January 1974 UK singles chart will reveal the big hitters of the day to be Sugar Baby Love by Rubettes, Hey Rock And Roll by Showaddywaddy, Abba’s Waterloo and Remember You’re A Womble. The album charts were no less mainstream, with Elton John, Yes and Perry Como all sharing the top spot in the first few months around Eno’s album release. Some sort of movement was taking shape, with Sparks’ This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us crashing the top ten singles chart, but the pop landscape of the day was generally not ready for Eno’s sonic assault on the senses. Given the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to spot how much of an influence Here Come The Warm Jets proved to be.

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Beach Bummer

I’ve kinda lost my way a wee bit with Neil Young. I bought Le Noise, 7? 8? years ago, played it once then filed it on the shelf alongside all the other inessential Neil albums of the time. Chrome Dreams II, for example. Or the live one that came out around 2001 and included a couple of tracks as yet unavailable elsewhere (I think). Without reaching for either of them, I doubt I could tell you a single track on them. Jeez – I can’t even tell you the name of one of them. You buy things out of blind loyalty to an artist and that’s what happens.


I’m also out of touch with where his Archive series is up to. Are we still just on Volume 1 of the sprawling, all-encompassing Blu-Ray only release? Like many here, I suspect, I’m quite happy to admit I liberated the best of that release via one of the many Torrent sites that clutter up the darker corners of the internet. Some of the stuff probably ended up featured in posts on Plain Or Pan too. And those first couple of live shows he released on his more budget-friendly Neil Young Archives Series – the Massey Hall and Filmore shows – are essential for any and all fans of raggedly-plucked acoustic rock and ragged and raucous sprawling rock music. A quick trip to Wiki tells me there are around a further half dozen such releases, no doubt all good, but I just don’t seem to have the time to invest in them. Sorry Neil, although I’ll probably get around to Hitchiker at some point soon. It does float my boat in all the best ways; vintage mid 70s material scrubbed up for these days? Sounds great.

                                  V Festival

Why though would you want to seek out a ropey live recording featuring Neil and his International Harvesters when you could be diving headfirst instead into his self-proclaimed ‘Doom Trilogy’? Neil, never one to conform to expectations was at an all-time career high with 1972’s Harvest album. Building on the themes and musical styles of its predecessor After The Goldrush, Harvest spawned an actual hit single, with the lilting cowboy balladry of Heart Of Gold seemingly assuring Young his place at the top table of FM-friendly pop alongside other chart-bothering acoustic balladeers such as Paul Simon and Don McLean. Instead, Young yanked hard on the steering wheel and, in his own words veered into the ditch.

“ ‘Heart Of Gold’ put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.”

Interesting right enough. Friends ravaged by drugs. Failed relationships. Death. Despair. The end of the 60s ideal. Recommending Reprise Records sign this hippyish new singer by the name of Charles Manson…..


Young took the path less travelled, wrote the songs he wasn’t expected to write and ended up with a trilogy of fantastic albums. Much of this music achieved mythical, cult status as the years grew, due in no small part to  Young willfully deleting the key albums and, in the advent of the CD era, refusing to have them released on the shiny new format. Citing the poor sonic quality of the format (according to Neil, compared with vinyl only about 5% of the recorded music makes it from the CD and out of your speakers. The other 95% is a flattened, compressed version of the real thing), Neil Young hates CD with a passion. He’s analogue all the way, which is why if you can track down original vinyl copies of On The Beach, Time Fades Away and Tonight’s The Night you should buy them forthwith and revel in the tunes in the grooves.


On The Beach is easily one of my favourite albums of all time. Hardly a ringing endorsment from a barometer of hip opinion such as myself, but it truly is a terrific LP. Years ago my sister went a trip to New York and when she asked if I’d like her to bring me anything back, I replied that I’d hate to think she’d find a copy of On The Beach and not buy it. She only went and did. A first issue, Reprise Records release, with the famous psychedelic printing on the reverse of the cover too. An astonishing present.

Hardly a rollicking good time, On the Beach is the sound of depression, paranoia and nervous breakdown. But if it’s self-indulgent, self-obsessed music you’re after, look no further. Charles Manson, the young hopeful he’d suggested to Reprise had by now commited his heinous murders. Young sings about it in the scratchy, jittering Revolution Blues, assisted by The Band’s Rick Danko and Levom Helm on bass and drums and David Crosby on rattly and erratic rhythm guitar.

Neil YoungRevolution Blues

It’s the sound of anti-commercialism in every way. Downbeat, downplayed and downtrodden, Vampire Blues is an eco anthem before such things were considered, Young bemoaning the way the oil industry bore into US soil with scant regard for people or place. “I’m a vampire, baby, sucking blood from the earth,” he sings, a million miles away from Heart Of Gold and the Hot 100.

Neil YoungVampire Blues

Side 2 is even bleaker. Opening with the album’s title track, it starts in slow motion and, as the side progresses, gets slower still. To call it moody and introspective would be too kind. Dylan is moody and introspective. The Smiths are moody and introspective. Even Eurythmics can be moody and introspective. ‘Here comes the rain again’ and all that jazz. But side 2 of ‘On The Beach‘? Listen to it late at night with the lights dimmed low and a fine malt in your hand and you may just never make it upstairs to bed.

Neil YoungOn The Beach

The title track is a gorgeous, chiming ode to despair. “I went to the radio interview….I ended up alone at the microphone.” sighs Neil. “I think I’ll get out of town.” This is the same optimist who, only a few months earlier, had been singing  “I want to live, I want to love, I’ll be  a miner for a heart of gold.” Not now daddy-o. By the time you reach ‘Ambulance Blues‘, the album closer, Neil’ll be informing you that we’re all just wasting our time, “pissing in the wind“. Apparently, side 2 was originally to be side 1 and only at the last minute was Neil convinced to switch it around, something he immedialtely regretted. It means though that the album opens with the jaunty Walk On, a curveball as it turns out, before the mood of the album takes hold. If the album had been released as Young had intended, how many folk would’ve made it all the way to side 2?

*Bonus tracks!

Here’s Mercury Rev’s faithful reworking of Vampire Blues. I remember reading at the time that the band had planned to record the entire On The Beach album and add a track at a time to the b-side of future singles. Did they ever complete this? Seemingly I’ve lost my way with Mercury Rev too.

Mercury RevVampire Blues

Here’s Nina Persson of The Cardigans in her A Camp guise doing a terrific version of On The Beach at the Hutsfred Festival a few years ago. I’m sure this has appeared on Plain Or Pan before, but if you missed it first time ’round…

A CampOn The Beach