One-man/one-woman bands tend to be easy to pigeonhole; talented multi-instrumentalist + laptop x headful of ideas = nattily-produced, hastily-manufactured, self-financed album, a bit scuffed at the knees, perhaps, a bit frayed at the elbows maybe, the rough charm grudgingly accepted as part of the deal. ‘Hey! I’m on my own here! I don’t have a record company behind me, I can’t make money from gigging and I just want to get my songs out there.’ We’ve all heard these musicians, more than ever in the current climate, earnestly bashing out their cottage industry wares into an overcrowded ocean of flotsam and jetsam for whoever happens to pass along at the right time. It’s admirable to the point of lunacy.
I’m not alone in this. Every second post on here since the turn of the year is another chapter in my own ‘book seeks publisher‘ serialisation of an admittedly flawed young adult novel. The irony of my opening statement is not lost on me. Fail we may, sail we must, as a great philosopher once said.
Blowing the preconception of the one man band clean out of the overcrowded water is Andrew Wasylyk. The nom de plume of Andrew Mitchell, sometime Idlewild bass player and guitarist/vocalist in Dundonian four piece The Hazey Janes, Wasylyk is a supremely talented individual. The Hazey Janes’ neat way with a twisted melody and an Americana-tinged acoustic arrangement has found favour in all the right places, yet despite tours with artists as disparate and massive as Wilco and Deacon Blue, the group never quite made the leap to the next level that might have been expected of them, and by them. Not that Andrew seems to mind.
For the past few years, Wasylyk has quietly gone about working on a loose triptych of gorgeous, free-flowing instrumental albums that study the themes of architecture, the Scottish coastline and the light on the land. Unlike anything remotely connected to his two bands above, these albums meander between neo-classicism, library music, sophisto-jazz and the off-kilter filmic soundscapes of David Axelrod. The most recent release, 2020’s Fugitive Light and Themes of Consolation was 6 Music’s Gideon Coe’s album of the year and, had I discovered it at the time of release, would very likely have been one of mine too.
The album was promoted through the second track, Last Sunbeams Of Childhood, an evocative title that is reflected in the pastoral groove within.
Wobbly Fender Rhodes, staccato bass and rippling jazz guitar ease you in on top of a soundbed of far-off playground shouts. Wandering saxophone and honeyed, textured brass add the requiste colour before the breakdown and the low-in-the-mix, wordless, chanting female backing vocals that elevate from somewhere below the surface. Layer upon layer of non-rock upon non-roll, it’s lovely, somewhere between Colin Tully’s Gregory’s Girl soundtrack and the orchestral sections in Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly score.
Save string arrangements from long-term collaborator Pete Harvey, it appears that Andrew Wasylyk has performed everything on the album himself. I mean, wow! Surely not?! This would elevate him immediately to Stevie Wonder levels of prodigiousness. Oboe, harp, flugelhorn (?), drums and percussion swirl around his cascading guitar and multi-layered pianos, adding light and shade, melody and counter-melody to what is a modern day, stone cold classic in its field, with nary a scuffed knee nor frayed elbow in sight.
Really, it’s great. Such was Wasylyk’s and his label’s (Athens of the North) limited expectations, both vinyl and CD are currently out of print, but I’d imagine a repress is very much in the works. Keep your eyes and ears peeled. I know mine are.
Negativland, from Neu!’s first, self-titled album is a near ten-minute odyssey of prog-infused Krautrock.
Beginning with the sound of juddering road drills fighting for ear space with electronically-treated voices and crowd effects, it creeps up on you in a rush of linear feedback that gives way to its simple, steam-powered groove. Bringing to mind Bowie’s title track from Station To Station, it’s all repeating bass lines and simple drum patterns; long, straight and endless – proper head music for the cross-legged longhairs and wispy beard-strokers of the world.
Over the course of the track, the rhythm rarely changes. There’s a brief spell in the middle and again towards the end when the rhythm section hits downhill without the brakes on and moves into second and what might even be third gear, but just as things seem like they might be getting out of control, they reign it all in again and bring us back to the groove. It’s not repetition, as self-confessed Neu! fan Mark E Smith might’ve said, it’s discipline.
The melody on top, the colour, is provided by wind-tunnel effect guitars redolent of that whooshing Leckie-produced ambience that colours much of the Stone Roses’ debut album. There are no vocals. Vocals, clearly, are for wimps. Featuring just two members – Michael Rother on guitar and bass and Klaus Dinger on spartan drums – with heads down and minds locked, there was never going to be anything as conventional as a vocalist, at least, not until the closing track on the album, if indeed sporadic, whispered, strangulated mutterings are your idea of vocals. Rother and Dinger had left an early incarnation of Kraftwerk to form Neu! and where their former band would go on to pioneer the use of synths, so too would Neu! push the boundaries of what was possible with guitars.
As Julian Cope says of the band in his essential reference Krautrocksampler,
‘The sound that replaced the hectic stop/start of the Kraftwerk trio was an ambient bassless White-light Pop-rock mantra that steadied itself directly between the two extremes of Bubblegum music and the extreme German experimental music.
Neu! was the product of two young Master-magicians who had so grabbed hold of the creative ‘moment’ in the studio as to create a true jewel of an LP.’
It’s a record that’s not for everyone, Neu!’s debut, but if you get it, you really get it. Minimal, with clean lines and no clutter, from its day-go logo sleeve in it’s the very antithesis of the bloated, overblown, hobbits and goblins musical landscape of the era. You’ll hear its influence ring true in the records of the aforementioned Bowie as well as the ambient scrapings of PIL – check out Albatross – and the electro-fried stylings of Stereolab.
Negativland and the rest of Neu! (with a side order of Sister Ray) is clearly to art-rock what Black Sabbath (and a side order of Blue Cheer) were to metal – gate-opening, trailblazing and quite unique.
I’m not one for end of year lists. I used to be. I used to spend hours refining ‘Best of the Year’ compilation CDs for my pals, sticking them snugly inside Christmas cards, eagerly received by the men, sniggered at by the wives. I enjoyed getting theirs in return – the contents equally considered, the sequencing just as agonised over, the sleeve art spat from equally temperamental printers. They functioned as snapshots of the year just gone, a ragbag of coulda been and shoulda been hits, now forgotten album tracks and one-off singles by artists who, for the main, have dropped off the radar.
Until the great PC crash of 2016, I’d spend a good fortnight in the run up to the festive period refining the running order of my Best of the Year double CD. Since the crash – and my steady return to vinyl – and the fact that my PC no longer has a CD drive (what’s all that about?!?) – my list making has stopped. My spidey senses no longer tingle in Springtime when a belter pops up on rotation on 6 Music. “Must add that to the Best Of,” I no longer think to myself. I’ve stopped appropriating the same volume of new stuff from the darker corners of the web too. That’s half the reason the old PC ground to a crashing, spam-filled halt. After deliberation, I buy from Bandcamp or the label or eBay or even Amazon, whenever the Cheap Records notification on my phone highlights something worth owning. And those wee download cards? Half the records I buy don’t come with them anymore. The ones that do lie unused. So my purchasing and playing habits have gradually regressed to the days of my youth. It’s records and that’s about it.
Crucially too, I listen to old stuff, if not exclusively, then certainly for the majority of time. I’m not blessed with a Rough Trade East or a Monorail or even an HMV anywhere near me, certainly not in a year when crossing county lines might land you in the jail. The one record shop anywhere near where I live is owned by an old rocker who stocks Japanese imports of Iron Maiden albums and overpriced Fleetwood Mac reissues. Tequila Sunrise by The Eagles is always playing whenever I enter and I always check in hope that that Small Faces album on display on the wall has perhaps lost a zero on its price tag, but it never has. It’ll still be there come the next Middle Ages. You won’t ever be tempted in there by racks of Waxahatchee and Moses Sumney fighting for shelf space with Taylor Swift and Fleet Foxes. Occassionally, a dip through the crates under the racks will produce a cracker that he places little value in – Scott 2 for £3, an unplayed copy of Sylvester’s You Make Me Feel Mighty Real on 12″ (“Och, here, if you’re taking the XTC album (also £3), you can have the disco shit on me, you’d be doing me a favour etc etc). I’d much rather find something of value in there than splurge upwards of £25 on the latest Perfume Genius record.
With so much old stuff still to rediscover, there’s no time for the new. I read these lists on social media and, honestly, I don’t know half the acts. And the ones I’ve heard of – yer Fionas ‘n Phoebes ‘n Microphones ‘n whathaveyou, I just don’t have the time or money to invest in them. I’m sure – actually, I know – I’m missing out on a whole load of great music. But…but… it’s just that there’s still loads of stuff from the 1970s to uncover. Just as you find little time or inclination to make new friends the older you get, so too do you find less time to get into new music. It seems like a lot of effort to me. It’s not that music’s a young person’s game by any means, but the music that soundtracked the formative years is the music that makes you feel young when be-slippered middle age creeps up on you and slaps you across the top of that salt ‘n pepper hair-do. I don’t care about Porridge Radio, I’m still working my way through This Is Radio Clash and Sandinista, thank you very much.
Having said that, with apologies to the acts I’ll remember and shins I’ll kick as soon as I’ve pressed ‘publish‘, I’ve very much enjoyed releases this year from;
Blue Rose Code
Working Men’s Club
I suppose I could make that my Top 8 of 2020 – ‘in no particular order’ – and I’d fit right in.
Slow Weather – Clean Living
The Slow Weather track above is great, a gently spiralling and unfolding slow burner, a sulky Lee ‘n Nancy if picked up by one of those vending machine claws and plonked into the Scottish heartlands.
‘You’re an optimist,’ they sing in unison. ‘I’m a realist‘. Music box percussion tinkles and the track wanders its way to a treacle-slow coda somewhere between Super Furry Animals and somnambulism. If tectonic plates made, er, rock music, it might sound like this.
The truth of the matter though is that I’ve also very much enjoyed rediscovering Loaded by The Velvet Underground, De La Soul’s first half dozen singles on 12″, Elvis Costello’s Get Happy!!, The Specials’ debut, Underworld’s Dubnobasswithmyheadman, I’ve Seen Everything by the Trashcan Sinatras, Another Music In A Different Kitchen by Buzzcocks, Wire’s Pink Flag, The House Of Love’s gnarled and shimmering back catalogue and a million other things I’ll always return to – my real Best of the Year.
The polls would suggest 2020 has been something of a good year for music releases. I’ll probably be able to concur sometime around 2045 – ‘a vintage year‘ – I might even proclaim, should I still be shuffling my shoes to the groove. Not for nothing is the tagline above Outdated Music For Outdated People.
…when the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.
To be fair, Jimi Hendrix said that, and it was far too long to fit on a Frankie t-shirt in any case. It’s a neat quote though, one that easily applies to the rule makers and breakers who are hell bent on prioritising their own agendas over the good of a nation who (didn’t quite) elect them, a boys club bash, an ‘I’m all right Jack’ knees up, where the joke is very much on the ordinary people. What. A. Shower. Frankie Says Revolution!
The marketing machine that rumbled behind every Frankie Goes To Hollywood release (and t-shirt) saw to it that each of their first three singles made it to the top of the charts. Coming after The Beatles and Gerry and The Pacemakers, they were the third Merseyside act to achieve three number one singles in a row, but whereas their 60s counterparts got there via non-stop touring and ubiquitous hourly spins on Radios Luxembourg, Caroline and London, Frankie took a different route.
When sales looked like tailing off, they’d release another version; remixed and extended, strung-out and funked up across a variety of formats; 7″, 12″, picture discs, even cassette singles. The CD was just around the corner, otherwise those variations would’ve been spread across even more formats. With each subsequent new variation, the record would maintain its place at the top of the pile.
There are, believe it or not, over 30 pulsing, throbbing Hi NRG mixes of Relax! Arguably, the weekly mixes that were released to keep Relax at number 1 in 1984 weren’t actually required – as soon as it was banned by Radio 1, a goldrush of record buyers ensured it lorded over everyone for yet another week.
I should know – I was one of the millions who bought it after the ban. Frankie weren’t quite our Pistols, but they did generate similar headlines and debate.
Second single Two Tribes followed a similar path. It surfed the zeitgeist of Reagan/Gorbachev’s Cold War cat and mousing, a high octane cocktail of propaganda and paranoia – ‘the air attack warning sounds like…this is the sound.‘
A barrage of taut, tense guitars, juddering bass and superbly giddy vocals (“Hau hau hau!” went Holly) propelled it straight to number one and one and a half million sales, helped, no doubt by the provocative video showcased on The Tube where two lookalikes played the part of the two world leaders in the wrestling ring. You knew that already though.
The third single was the surprise package. From a band known for grimy S&M inspired disco and anti-war political baiting, The Power Of Love was a genuine, heartfelt love song. The machinations of the ZTT marketing team – ‘The Group Of The Year‘ – ensured it was released strategically, all eyes focused on capturing the lucrative Christmas Number One slot. The Power Of Love reached the top in its first week of release at the end of November, and continued to outsell all others until Band Aid gatecrashed the party. In the event, 1994’s Christmas top three finished with Band Aid way out in front, with Wham’s Last Christmas at number two and Frankie in third spot. There’s an era-defining top 3 right there.
The Power Of Love has slowly crept up to be one of my favourite Christmas tracks. It’s not overplayed. It’s not omnipresent. It’s not short, sharp nor sugary sentimental. There’s not a sleigh bell or thumping office party beat within earshot, no Phil Spectorisms in arrangement or delivery, no ca-ca-ca-catchy chorus hooks or even a lyric that mentions the ‘C’ word. Simply, the song was accompanied by a video showing the three wise men following the star, and its message of universal peace rings true at this time of year, so a Christmas song it is.
Naturally, it’s the full-length, 12″ picture disc version you need.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood – The Power Of Love (full length version)
It begins with the sound of a Radio Fab! Mike Read soundalike talking over a string-swept instrumental, speaking word for word the DJ’s outrage as he cued Frankie’s debut to be played as part of the chart rundown.
“And it at number 35….it’s Frankie Goes to Hollywood with Relax….waaay! I’ve just had a look at the cover…I think it’s obscene!…this record is absolutely obscene!…I’m not gonna play this y’know….no…thank you and goodbye!”
Then the nylon acoustic thrums its way in, the sound of the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon played by Love on mogadon. It’s all minors to majors, orchestral sweeps, gently thunderous timpanis and a skyscraping guitar line that sounds like Neil Young as produced by Trevor Horn. A great sea swell of orchestra carries us forward and the brass section – the horns of Gabriel himself – builds and climbs and climbs and builds then drops. And then, out of the blue, we have a half-witted Ronald Reagan, reading a version of the Lord’s prayer. Mad and inspired, whoever came up with that idea. And then…
…piano. That famous tinkle that starts the record you’ll know from the charts. Hooded Claws and vampires. Holly’s vocal, all reverb and echo, accompanied by Spanish guitars and understated piano. “I’m so in love with you, hurts the soul,” and the strings swell once more, carrying the song to its message. “Make love your goal.” Tension and release in just under 10 minutes, a slowly unravelling cinematic widescreen beauty.
a remarkable person or thing. “the band was a pop phenomenon just for their sales figures alone”
I’m annoyed at myself. I’ve somehow managed to miss the two Sault albums that were released at pivotal points this year. It’s only now, as the movers and shakers and barometers of hip opinion are revealing their favourite albums of 2020, that I’m discovering that a band I found quite by fortune a year ago via a succession of blogs and Bandcamp links (snapping up both albums LIKE THAT) has released another two albums – both doubles! – in 2020.
Sault, it would appear, are a proper phenomenon.
They arrived a year or so ago with no fanfare or front page spreads. They have next to no online presence. No press shots exist. There appears to be no record company at work. Their artwork is sparse, dense and free of information. They are, like the good old days of yore, a proper underground sensation.
That a band can slip under the radar in a world of streaming and playlists and metatags and analytics and appear at the top of the tree above your Bruces and Bobs and Idles and Swifts is both remarkable and admirable. Phenomenal even.
They are, we have worked out, a collective of anonymous musicians, possibly a group of megastars, possibly a collaborative of home studio boffins or a mixture of both, with their music fine-cooked into its heady soulful stew by the hands of ace producer Inflo, the man who steered Michael Kiwanuka’s most-recent album to Mercury success and healthy worldwide sales. Urban Gorillaz, you might say.
Their music is eclectic, taking in straight-ahead, knee-dropping soul, sample-heavy gospel funk and the sparse, skittering sound of New York’s post-punk No Wave scene, that on-the-one bass and chanting sound pioneered expertly by ESG and their sing-song nursery rhyme vocals. In short, it grooves. And, short ‘n sweet, the songs never outstay their welcome. The albums – those first two at least – beg to be played again immediately after the needle has hit the run-off groove on side two.
Sault – Don’t Waste My Time
Their first album – teasingly titled ‘5‘ (did this mean there were another 4 releases before it? I looked, believe me) is everything that’s great about the band; expert playing that treads a fine line between an ‘is it real or is it a sample‘ conundrum, interesting/weird synths and ambient noise, insanely catchy and street-sussed, super-confident vocals, sulky as hell one minute, smooth as velvet the next but always irresistible.
Sault – Why Why Why Why Why
Sault – No Bullshit
Their second, ‘7‘ (they’re messing with us now!) popped up a month or so later and continued in the same vein. No drop-off in quality, no less essential, no more clues as to who Sault actually is.
Sault – Smile And Go
To discover that they’ve released another two albums – four sides of guaranteed-to-be wonderful music – is both frustrating and exciting. I should have known about this! I didn’t, though, so there’ll be some good new music to look forward to and there’s nothing better than that, is there?
A quick search led me to an Alexis Petridis review in the Guardian. Even he has been caught slightly off-guard as the review is built around this year’s two releases, both untitled (yet both titled.) How very Sault.
Untitled (Black Is) came first, a record apparently put together in the hours and days that followed the George Floyd murder. The follow-up, Untitled (Rise) crept out just a few weeks ago. It is, for those in the know, the album of 2020.
Jeez. I gotta hear it.
But, look! Their Bandcamp page is sold out and the eBay scalpers are having a laugh. Yeah, you can play the soundfiles to your heart’s desire – and there’s a superb Kiwanuka-voiced Afrobeat belter amongst them, but we need physical product man! Surely a quick repress is on the cards? Everybody loves you, Sault! Everybody! (You knew that already though).
Years ago I was doing supply in a school where they dedicated a whole Friday afternoon to the learning of new skills; baking, woodworking, knitting, glass staining and so on. The kids loved these afternoons. The dinner ladies helped with the baking, the janny helped with the woodworking and experts from the local community came in to impart their considerable knowledge in the art of growing root vegetables and making stained glass. With each new term, the kids could pick a different skill so that over the course of the school year they got to partake in four activities.
Being the supply teacher, I was right at the bottom of the hierarchical pyramid and I watched, pained, as first the blogging and then the guitar groups were given to two teachers who couldn’t care less. Each subsequent activity was assigned to a nonplussed teacher until, finally the head teacher looked at me with a thin, watery smile and handed me a box of battered, rattling chess sets. “Chess Club!” she confirmed. “I doubt many will pick it, but it’s an option.” She never asked if I played chess, if I understood the rules, if I wanted to be in charge of the chess club. I just was.
I did know how to play chess, as it happened, but it was years since I’d done so. Anyway, I took the chess sets, fumbled together half a dozen complete sets out of the ten or so ancient boxes I’d been saddled with and set about turning my classroom into a (cough) Chess Club.
On the first Friday, seven kids – there’s always an odd number for these things – turned up to see what all the fuss was about. None of the kids I knew. Six of them were curious to see this new teacher in the school – a man! – and the seventh was sent to play chess because he’d already tried to stab someone’s hand with a gardening fork outside. Grrrrreat. First thing I did was draw the blinds to create an ambience that encouraged studied quietness.
After that I Googled an arty monochrome picture of Bobby Fischer eyeing up the board, typed ‘Chess Club‘ on top of it in an interesting font and displayed it on the smart board, a reminder to the players of where exactly they were. Then I rejigged the tables so that the players sat in a square around the sides of the classroom, allowing me to stand in the middle and explain the object of the game and so on, helping the kids as they took their first unsteady steps into the geek world of chess.
As they slowly began to understand the whys and wherefores of the board, I introduced music. Classical stuff sometimes, an Erik Satie piano piece or two, but mostly jazz, mainly John Coltrane or Oscar Peterson but always Miles Davis. Sometimes I’d branch out into the blues, helping some poor cornered soul get out of a chequered funk as John Lee Hooker boomed out at a genteel volume in the corner.
By week three, the ‘Chess Club‘ image of Fischer had been edited to say ‘Chess (and Jazz and Blues) Club‘. By the following week, this had been shortened, in loose homage to CBGBs to ‘Chess AJABs Club‘. No-one complained. None of the school management noticed. I was having fun and so were the kids.
I taught them the one fancy move I knew, learned from my dad when I was 10 or 11, about the same age as them, where you could put your opponent in checkmate in three moves. More fool me, as after that, they all wanted to play white. One time, the garden fork boy got so enraged at being put into checkmate before Miles Davis had parped his way out of his first solo that he tossed the board and all its pieces into the air and stormed off. “There was no need for that, Mr McAllister,” said his victorious opponent in a world-weary voice that suggested she’d seen all of it before.
Over the weeks, the chess kids progressed to a reasonable standard. They played one another, they challenged and beat me, they seemed to enjoy themselves. In fact, when the time came to renew activities at the end of term, half of the kids chose to stay at the chess. And on their return in January, a couple of them told me excitedly that they’d woken up on Christmas day to a new chess set under the tree. One of them even got a ‘Best Of Jazz’ CD too. As it turned out, Chess (and Jazz and Blues) Club was alright.
We’ve binged recently on The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix’s seven-parter that tells the story of a young girl’s rise to Grandmaster level. It’s ace.
Set against a backdrop of 50s and 60s Cold War America, it is, on every level, a triumph. Visually, it’s stunning. From the trippy, imagined chess pieces that emerge from the ceiling each night and play combinations of winning moves that the lead character Beth Harmon commits to memory, to the period-perfect set design, every episode has the appearance of being filmed through a particularly agreeable Instagram filter. The more poetic of us might even suggest that the muted tones and dull pastels of the actors’ clothes that contrast with the glossy shine of hardwood and chrome are metaphors for the opposing sides on the chessboard itself.
The cars – big, American gas guzzlers, all sleek fins and whitewalls, cruise across the background like gliding bishops picking off pawns. The houses, with their mod cons and perfect lawns, bordered by subtly territorial picket fences, are the very symbol of nuclear family success. ‘Stay out,’ they scream silently, ‘or I’ll take you out.’ It’s a world at odds with the lead character – supremely played by Anya Taylor-Joy – yet here she is.
Quincy Jones – Comin’ Home Baby
The hotels where the chess matches are played, especially as the series progresses and the competitions become more exclusive, are grand affairs. Jet-setting across the continents, Harmon and her mother enjoy nothing less than the good life. Expensively-wallpapered corridors and opulently furnished dining areas are accessed via long-winding and never-ending Art Deco staircases.
There’s a terrific scene set in Miami where the swingin’ Quincy Jones track above perfectly soundtracks Harmon movin’ on up to the competition floor, sashaying confidently to another crushing victory against an awkward and embarrassed male player, all the while looking like Jackie Onassis’ cool half-sister.
A horrendous childhood and a less-than-smooth passage into adulthood comes at a cost to our young prodigy. To cope with all that life has thrown at her, Harmon has developed a fondness for tranquilisers and booze. Her numerous breakdowns and spirals into addiction are soundtracked by period-era deep cuts. If she’s not kicking off a three-day bender by dancing like no-one is watching to Shocking Blue’s Venus, she’s discovering pot to the sound of Gabor Szabo.
Gabor Szabo – Somewhere I Belong
The throb and thrum, the slowly spidering guitar line, the creeping paranoia and electric dischord are just the thing to simulate an out of body experience, no?
Or how about Gillian Hills’ 1965 slice of fingersnappin’ French Yé-yé mod-pop?
Gillian Hills – Tut Tut Tut Tut
Druggable yet fruggable, Tut Tut Tut Tut features during another particularly memorable scene, bursting through the stately piano that is woven through the soundbed of each episode, as joyously unexpected as the ever-attacking Harmon choosing to play the Sicilian Defence.
To be perfectly honest, every scene with Taylor-Joy in it is memorable. Usually, a blink of her dark almond eyes is all it takes to hook you in. She plays perfectly the ever-spiralling Harmon with a magnetism that should win her whatever awards are going these days for Netflix dramas.
The Queen’s Gambit is a masterclass in stylish home cinema. As the year creeps to an undignified close, we may well have found the best thing about it. Watch it. Now!
The ghosting season is upon us, the one time of year I truly despise. I hated it as a child. I hated it as a parent when my kids were young enough to participate. I just hate it. The dressing up… the greediness… those creeping Americanisms of going trick or treating for candy around cobweb-frosted front doors and plastic gravestone-enhanced gardens can do one.
Amazingly, brilliantly – God bless ye, Covid – this year there’ll be no drip-nosed grubbers standing at my door in their various states of grotesqueness, reeling off the same combination of tired and/or risque jokes (Q. ‘What’s the difference between the tyres on my dad’s car and a blonde?‘ A. ‘A blonde will go down quicker than my dad’s tyres.’) in return for a handful of Haribo and a “have you told your mum that joke?” telling-off from me. The wee girl who first let slip that horrorshow of a party piece four or five years ago, and every year since, might finally stop telling it for good now.
Bob Marley‘s Mr Brown is one of his earliest recordings, dating back to 1970. It just so happens to be a ghost song, written in response to local legend that told of a duppy/ghost that could be seen hurtling across Jamaica late at night on a three-wheeled coffin. Perched atop the coffin alongside the ghost were three crows, one of which could talk. The talking crow would repeatedly ask for a Mr Brown. If you ever saw this hideous and creepy apparition, the story went, then RUN!, because you didn’t have long left on this earth.
Bob Marley & The (Wailing) Wailers – Mr Brown
The tune itself is a gently lilting three chord skank, played at relaxed pace and featuring some sweet falsetto backing vocals. Guitars and keys lock the rhythm and never deviate, allowing Marley to tell the story of the out of control ghost-driven coffin and the talking crow. Not yer average subject matter, and all the better for it.
Mr Brown was produced by the ubiquitous Lee Perry. Lee Perry is synonymous with reggae. The more dubified the music, the more prominent his involvement. His blunted, mercurial touch has been applied to literally thousands of records from Jamaica and beyond, fried at the edges and sprinkled with madness but beating with a heart of thunderclapping echoes and cavernous bass.
As I get older, I’ve begun to appreciate his more outré work in much the same way age has allowed me to appreciate a fine malt. Slightly unpalatable at first, you quickly develop a taste and ponder how you could go an evening without it.
Playing around with the Wailers’ track, Perry removed the vocals, credited the instrumental to The Upsetters and manouevered it onto the flip side of the Wailers’ single. In keeping with the original’s ghostly/horror theme, it was given the title of Dracula.
The Upsetters – Dracula
I don’t for a second think that Bob, Bunny and Peter sat around in rehearsal saying, y’know what….what this tune really needs is a funky, alien vibration every now and again. That ever-present deep electronic shimmer that sounds like the ancient central heating pipes in a school I used to teach in was clearly the madcap work of Lee Perry. Half a century later, it’s that sound that’s become the record’s signature.
Removing Marley’s vocals also allowed Perry the opportunity to incorporate the instrumental version into his soundsystem and toast across the top of it should he fancy doing so. Forever forward-thinking.
Eco-aware long before there was such a thing, Lee Perry not only grew his own herbs, he recycled tunes for his own benefit. In a burst of foresighted creativity, and long before many a future hip-hopper or soundscaper was out of short trousers, Perry actually sampled the vibe from another record entirely and enhanced the Wailers’ and, subsequently, his own tune.
Jackie Mittoo – Peenie Wallie
He’s lowered the pitch, from toe-tapping shuffling ska to head-nodding deep-fried reggae, but you can hear exactly where Perry welded the backing track onto the Wailers’ own easy skanking shuffle, enhancing and filling out what is a fairly straightforward run through by a band still finding their musical feet.
The track’s title – Peenie Wallie – intrigues me. Here in Scotland, if someone is unwell, pale faced, or indeed ghost-faced, we refer to them as peelie wallie. Not a million miles away from the Jackie Mittoo title. I’ve often thought the owner of Studio One might’ve been referring to such a person, albeit in slightly interpolated form. Which of course, would bring us back onto the subject of pale-faced make-up and ghouls and ghosts.
“And for our next track….!”
Bob Marley & The Wailers – Duppy Conqueror
Bob and the Wailers went on to record an ‘answer record’ to Mr Brown, the self-explanatory Duppy Conqueror. Proving that there’s great mileage in reggae, it too used a variation of the same backing track as Mr Brown.
Poke your nose in and you’ll discover that reggae is full of wonderful, recycled tunes. You knew that already though.
Marvin Gaye‘s I Want You is a supreme slice of mid 70s soul. Taking its feel from one of its creator’s finest moments, you could be forgiven for assuming that What’s Going On‘s Mercy Mercy Me had slinked its way off the grooves of its parent album three years earlier, floated patiently in the ether while Marvin busied himself with rustling up another masterpiece, then alighted on the wax, a groove with no peaks or troughs and no real verses or choruses, but a slow and steady earworm of a track.
It’s heavy on Blaxploitation-era vibes – congas, elongated sweeping strings, tingaling percussion, parping brass, stinging guitar – and home to one of the singer’s greatest-ever vocal performances. What’s Going On (the album and its title track) – and to a lesser extent the follow-up Let’s Get It On – take some beating, and I Want You (the album and its title track) have been unfairly marginalised on the sidelines as a result. Indeed, you could make a decent claim for I Want You being the perfect third in a luscious, exquisite trilogy of soul. But that’s for some other writer who’s better qualified than I.
Marvin Gaye – I Want You
Marvin’s vocal on I Want You‘s title track is terrific. Double, triple, quadruple-tracked in places, he sings to himself, with himself and above and beyond himself. It’s there in the way he pre-empts the string motif at the start, it’s there in the high falsettoed call and response sections throughout and it’s most certainly there in the suggestive come hither moan that is emitted from somewhere below his belt line. Listen to the track 3/4/5/half a dozen times and I guarantee you’ll spot something you missed the last time around. It’s an astonishing performance.
Carried by a melody gifted from the Gods of Song, Marvin recasts himself as Nat King Cole for the right-on generation, a caramel-smooth crooner with perfect pitch and enunciation, the voice floating above and between his crack band of Motown sessioneers. When you want some of that badass, sidewalk struttin’ guitar on your record, who you gonna call? Ray Parker Jnr, of course.
You’d have to assume that Marvin had no bother when it came to the ladies. (Exhibit A, above, m’lud). Let’s Get It On was his previous call to arms, I Want You the next. I want you, he says, more a statement of fact than as a yearning for a partner that’s unattainable. No-one was ever out of Marvin Gaye’s league, right?, so when the Big M states that he wants you, he’s letting you know – out of gentlemanly manners – that tonight, you’re the chosen one.
Madonna though. You’d have to assume that she has no bother in this department either. If she wants you, she’ll most likely get you, yet she tackles I Want You with all the uncertainty of a lovestruck teenager at the back of chemistry who wastes her day away drawing hearts around the name of the school stud that common consensus makes clear she has no chance with.
Madonna/Massive Attack – I Want You
Slow and steady, powered by signature dark beats and a static crackle of tension, Madonna’s six and a half minute take on I Want You is the best approximation of being painfully, agonisingly in love with someone you’ll never be with that you’re ever likely to hear. Its treacle-thick ambience – stop-the-world, wooly and insular – captures perfectly that feeling of being lost in a place that you and only you understands. It’s an engrossing listen, the vocal drawn-out almost to the point of desperation. Madonna. Desperate. Let that sink in. It might be a cover version, but as far as great Madonna tracks go, I Want You is fantastic.
Much of the reverence should be reserved for Massive Attack’s sophisto instrumentation and Nellee Hooper’s on-the-nose production. They get Madonna to do the Marvin thing of singing the string line before it comes in. They get her, like Marvin, to sing to herself, with herself and above and beyond herself; a whisper here, a straight ahead measured vocal there, an immersive performance throughout. They even go for the tingaling percussion, synthetic rather than pitched and last heard on their own Unfinished Sympathy, and the strings too have seemingly slid straight off of that particular cracker and kept up the good work on the Marvin cover.
Slo-mo and cinematic, the Madonna/Massive Attack take on I Want You is sublime.
The schools break up today, bereft, perhaps, of much of the frantic downhill-without-the-breaks-on rush to cross the ts and dot the is on the paperwork, but also lacking in the uncontained excitement of hundreds of young minds who’ve already switched off and are planning great adventures in the great beyond for the next few weeks. The sound of excitable kids in a playground on the last day of term is one of life’s greatest sounds – up there with John Lydon’s plegmy rrrrrrightttt now, hurrgh hurgh hurgh! snarl at the start of Anarchy In The UK and those honeyed Beatles Yeeeaaaah! harmonies right at the end of She Loves You.
Teachers in Scotland will return a week earlier than normal this year, and (to our dismay and disappointment) to full classes – our government’s way of bowing to public pressure and addressing the lack of traditional schooling in the previous few months. As a working parent I totally get the need for schools to be back operating as ‘normal’ – children getting only two days a week of teaching in an actual school isn’t nearly enough – and we need to allow the country to get back to work, but it all seems more than a bit rushed. For what it’s worth, I reckon schools – the grubbiest Petri dishes of all – are being squashed back way too early and I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if by perhaps October, a second wave of Covid has struck, forcing some (all?) schools to adopt the blended learning model that our profession has worked so hard to put in place. Who knows.
But back to the music. Sometimes you’ll hear a tune or even just part of a song that fits the current state of mind. Y’know, you’ll be driving home from work on an early summer’s evening, happy to be finished for the day, visor down and fake Ray-Bans shielding you from the rare Scottish sun, and Brass In Pocket comes on. As your left hand reaches out to turn up the volume, your right elbow automatically places itself on the window sill (Detroit leaning, dontcha know), just about one hand on the wheel, and you lean back and down into your seat just a touch more than you had been, your head bobbing in time to James Honeyman-Scott’s spacious, chiming riff. Serendipitous moments like this are few and far between, so when they occur you tend to remember them.
The better weather brings the cycling – lockdown’s greatest hit – and cycling up and down the west coast always sounds better when soundtracked by Underworld. The multi-layered rhythms encourage that extra 10% of effort that you never knew you had, the band’s propulsive thunk pushing you outwards and back in again. Occassionally in a quiter moment, the sound of a newly-oiled chain whirring through the sprockets will creep in to enhance the mix and again you think, this is alright!
It’s happening right now, as I type. I’m listening to Secretly, a softly looping instrumental by The Elevated Presence.
Secretly – The Elevated Presence
Part Albatross – listen for the whoosh of the gong and the gently thrumming bassline – and part Johnny Marrchestra guitar heaven, Secretly is a lovely textured wash of acoustic and electric guitars, ambient ephemera and pinging, unravelling melodies overlapping and looping into 4 minutes of music that could sit happily between your Durutti Column records and Mogwai’s less-heavier moments.
What you won’t hear as you listen though are the birds outside my window, high in the trees next to the Ayr-Glasgow railway line, warbling and twittering and chattering and whistling as the near-empty 11.05 to Largs rattles past. They say that mankind’s loss with Covid is very much nature’s gain, and with this much going on around me, it’s hard to disagree. All music sounds better with the added ambience of bled-in bird noise. Today it’s The Elevated Presence that’s benefitting.
The Elevated Presence is an on-going side project of sorts from Trashcan Sinatras’ guitarist Paul Livingston. The Trashcans are kinda mainstays around here, their world-weary uplifting melancholia and sparkling tunes never far away, so it’s always great to hear anything from the TCS camp, in any form that may take. The tunes that constitute the catalogue of The Elevated Presence are, I imagine, the ones that don’t quite fit with the Trashcans’ ethos. They’re interesting, introspective, self-indulgent in places….and certainly worth investigating as a result. Listen closely and you’ll hear chord structures, guitar tones and counter melodies that would colour and enhance any Trashcans’ record.
Sunchords – The Elevated Presence
The hazy Sunchords is the perfect example. All ringing arpeggios, slowly spiralling riffs and woozy, wonky whitewashed tremelo, it’s crying out for a heartstring-tugging vocal and tear-soaked crescendo. In its instrumental form it’s filmic, Lynchian even in its quiet assurance, and the most perfect sunbleached music for the songbirds outside my window to harmonise to.
If this is your kinda thing, you could do worse than nip over to The Elevated Presence page on Bandcamp and check out the 5 other tracks that are currently available for next to nothing. Flying Bike‘s Elliott Smith-ish picking that gives way to a frantic Flamenco breakdown, Toska‘s steadily unravelling melody, the atmospheric crackle of The Grasshopper Mouse Howls At The Moon…all contain the DNA that makes Trashcan Sinatras so essential. In their own way, these Elevated Presence tracks are just as required listening.
Grangemouth is a wee industrial town on the eastern side of Scotland, famous for the oil refinery and its belching chimneys and gas flares that rise strangely beautiful and plentiful into the skies above the Firth of Forth. You might spot its post-apocalyptic Mad Maxian skyline as you look for (and miss) the bypass turn-off that takes you to the Kelpies (just us?)
Even in these times of renewable energy and eco awareness, not to mention more accessible further and higher education, the refinery is still the town’s largest employer. The route for many of Grangemouth’s young people is seemingly mapped out from the day they are born: leave school, start work at the refinery, retire, die. If you do these things in that order, you’ve won at life.
It was against this backdrop that Cocteau Twins were born. With a desire to never set foot inside the refinery, their shared love of The Birthday Party, Kate Bush and Siouxsie Sioux saw them land a record deal with 4AD, find favour with John Peel and subsequently burrow deep into the ears of fans of leftfield music the length and breadth of Peel’s reach. You knew that already though.
Against the occasional industrial clatter of drum machines, it was the basslines (Will Heggie initially, Simon Raymonde not long after); bending, bulging, melodic and Hook-ish that carried the music forward.
This rhythm section gave freedom for Robin Guthrie to splash all manner of dazzling, sparkling guitar sounds across the top; crystalline and glass-shattering one minute, fuzzed-out then gossamer-thin the next. Echoing, chiming, phased and flanged, Guthrie took the sonic bravery of The Banshees’ (etc) John McGeoch and developed a style of his own that would help define the Cocteau Twins’ sound. Vocal-free, the tracks alone are very much music to lose yourself in – other-worldly, pretty and lilting, melancholic yet uplifting – the best sort of music.
The Cocteaus’ secret weapon was, undeinably, vocalist and focal point Elizabeth Fraser. When you add her vocals to the heady mix, the tracks take flight as high and far and wide as her vocal chords. She didn’t so much sing as soar, and she did so without the use of words that you might find easily in the pages of a Collin’s Dictionary. Fraser swirled and swooped largely nonsensical gobbledegook and it sounded fantastic.
Occasionally, recognisable words might jump out at you. That ‘burn this whole madhouse down‘ line on Iceblink Luck, for example, is so memorable precisely because it’s one of the few Cocteaus’ lines sung in plain English. Indeed, much of the song appears to be, unusually for them, in the mother tongue. It takes a fair bit of sonic squinting to work them out, right enough.
Cocteau Twins – Iceblink Luck
Most of the time, the vocals are heady and hippy, a mythical strangetalk language all of their own. Sung with an unparalleled style and phrasing, it’s Fraser’s vocals that are the true trademark of the Cocteau Twins.
Now and again, Fraser’s vocals will grace other records, Massive Attack’s Teardrop, for example, or more recently Sam Lee’s Old Wow album. When Felt recorded their Ignite The Seven Cannons album with Robin Guthrie in 1985, it was inevitable that the producer would call for his partner to add her celestial quavers at some point. The recording sessions were fraught with ego and anguish – Felt’s Lawrence, a stickler for detail and band aesthetics was encouraged to sign a contract that would forbid him from being present at the mixing.
Guthrie used the opportunity to Cocteau-fy much of the music with sea-deep reverb and an ambient swirl. He also finalised an 11-track album that the ‘Perfect 10’-loving Lawrence couldn’t cope with. “We’d have been better doing an EP with Guthrie instead,” he moaned to Uncut a few years ago. “A standalone 12″ like Joy Divison’s Atmosphere or Wild Swans’ Revolutionary Spirit.”
Felt – Primitive Painters
The lead single from the album proved be one of Felt’s most enduring tracks. Over time it’s become, like the reference points above (and no doubt to Lawrence’s delight), a classic 12″ single of the era. Featuring a freeform Fraser who’d been handed the lyrics minutes beforehand, Primitive Painters is a waltzing, loping, cyclical groove, chiming with 12 string intent and mooching ennui. It’s not a tune that particularly goes anywhere, until Fraser enters on the chorus. From then on in, the whole thing lifts off spectacularly for a good 6 minutes before crashing triumphantly to a long, slow fade-out.
Playing now, it evokes those days when the Chart Show would show you a run-down of the indie top 10, most of the records playing behind a picture of the record sleeve or a promo shot of the band in lieu of an actual video.
Fast forward a decade and the Cocteau Twins, not quite history, will limp on for one more LP. Fraser and Guthrie have separated and she is now in a relationship with Jeff Buckley, someone else who knows his way around the outer octaves of a vocal chord. Fiercely private people, their relationship proved fairly creative.
Jeff Buckley & Elizabeth Fraser – All Flowers In Time Bend Towards The Sun
It’s a slightly uneasy, voyeuristic listen, this song. Not because it’s difficult to listen to – it’s not – it’s fantastic – but because it’s evidently very personal. A metaphor for their developing relationship maybe, All Flowers In Time Bend Towards The Sun should be listened to through a filter of a conscience. Basically, you’re eavesdropping on a private moment between two people – Fraser’s unselfconscious giggle at the start makes that startlingly clear.
Since the track leaked, she’s said how disappointed she is that it’s out there, unfinished and raw. Yet out there it is, so listen we must. Their duet – a studio off-cut remember – stands up with the best of both artists’ work.
They’d have made beautiful babies, Buckley and Fraser, and this song is the sonic equivalent. Imagine how it might’ve sounded with Buckley’s shining, liquid mercury Telecaster singing across the top of it, Fraser’s vocals double-tracked and harmonising new melodies, a rhythm section with meandering bass, cymbal splashes and restrained bombast. We can only imagine.