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The Long Shadow of Punk -Spirit’s ‘Future Games’: Third Part of Three

And so, on to Spirit and Future Games: A Magical-’Kahauna Dream, it’s lysergic title being a bit of a spoiler as to the contents within this single disc. A few words on Spirit are probably relevant here, in terms of context - they were a West Coast group (from L.A.) who didn’t really fit in with their psychedelic contemporaries, being somewhat jazzy in their sound and without a particular ‘image’ or an ‘angle’ to sell themselves with (the closest they got to thistheir  was in the fact of having a bald, middle-aged drummer, Ed Cassidy, a jazz musician who was teenage guitarist Randy California’s stepfather). Their history is really divided into two very different configurations and periods: the 1967-1970 group was a democratic quintet, that of 1974-79 was basically a vehicle for California, still aided and abetted by Cassidy the former writing most of the songs and acting very much as the visual focus for the band. Spirit 1 produced a quartet of period classics, the last of which, Twelve Dreams of Doctor Sardonicus, is now acknowledged as one of the very best rock albums. It seems that California’s desire to be in charge (he still hadn’t yet even hit 20) led to the breakup of this incarnation of the band. A disasterous one-off reformation a few years later only reinforced their incompatability, and California’s control-freakery.

Spirit 2 also produced four albums of note, including the one under review, which was preceded by Spirit of ‘76, Son of Spirit and Further Along, all of which are mostly forgotten now. This is unfortunate, as they were all interesting, especially Spirit of ‘76, a double album which only reached No.147 in the American charts, despite receiving some FM radio airplay. It probably suffered from under-promotion, again perhaps related to problems with ‘image’ (or lack of), and to the fact that the second band bore very little relation to Spirit 1. In particular, Spirit 2 was clearly a psychedelic guitar band, with Califormia adapting a Hendrix ‘look’ and sound, at a time when this sort of music was becoming terminally unfashionable, before being put out of it’s misery for a couple of decades by punk attitudes and culture. Future Games was different, however, and reflected, probably unconsciously, a tighter, leaner approach to strong structure, while still keeping the hippie flag flying by it’s whacked-out conceptual adventurousness

For a start, the songs were very short and there were 22 of ‘em, eight more than there were on the first two Ramones albums! The longest is a version of Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower (famously covered, of course, ten years earlier, by Hendrix himself), which only clocks in a three minutes or so. This put them into the realm of later minimalist bands such as Guided By Voices and The Minutemen. What marked the album out at the time, however, was it’s arch conceptual nature, with it’s narrative being fractured and broken up by bursts of random noise, CB radio (anyone old enough to remember that?) and, in particular, fragments of the Star Trek TV (remember that 1977 was also the year that saw the release of the first, era-defining Star Wars movie). These segments tend to be eerie and surreal, with the voices of Kirk, Spock, Bones, etc, several featuring expressions of concern over Jim Kirk losing his mind after a visit to a dodgy planet. They are disorientating and somewhat disturbing (”your reality is slipping…as California sings on Buried in my Brain, and were very unusual production techniques for the time. Other inserts seem to be from selected from hammy old Hollywood horror movies from the 30s and 40s. It wouldn’t be too much to suggest that this album is an early example of ‘sampling’, using analogue technology of course. It certainly disconcerted the old hippies of my contemporary acquaintances

Paul Lester, in his Guardian re-review on 05/03/13 described Future Games as the “first collage pop album…released in early 1977, it was incredibly punk”. That’s certainly how it felt at the time - it was somewhat Janus-faced, looking forward to punk brevity and a fascination with popular cultural artefacts, and backwards to the glowing psychedelic haze of Hendix-influenced sci-fi lullabies (the Jimi of Bold As Love, 3rd, Stone From the Sun and 1983). It is one of my dearest musicological wishes to see both this and Good-Bye Pop receive their proper due, as “punk music by non-punks”.

An Advance Warning of Punk; Part Two. National Lampoon’s “Good bye Pop”

Good-bye Pop 1952 -1976 was recorded in 1975 and released in America in January 1976. The National Lampoon team, along with the now mostly-forgotten Firesign Theatre were two of the most well regarded early/mid 1970s counter-culture satirists of the American scene who used the recording medium. Personally, I found the Firesign Theatre to be about as tedious as Cheech and Chong even back then, but the Lampoon, especially Good-bye Pop, still sound largely as funny in 2019 (with a few obviously dated tropes that are eminently forgivable, somewhat like Monty Python?)  It is impossible to relate all the micro-references on this record (one apparently has over twenty musical pastiches), but so many are eerily prescient of subsequent developments in the rock/pop since the time that it was recorded. For our purposes here though, this forwards-thinking is in relation to the soon-come punk ‘revolution’, with it’s well-documented denigration of self-importance and grandiosity in all it’s many and varied forms. The album is more uncannily accurate and’ on the ball’ as to the next phase of the music than any other recording that I can think of from 1975 (some will argue for Horses, but that was essentially an art house album mainly concerned with it’s author’s inner world).

There should really be a dissertation or three on Good-bye Pop, given the amount of ‘asides’ and musical footnotes that there are on show here, about the parlous state of pop/rock music in 1975. It is tempting to discuss it track by track, but that would be inappropriate in such a format of this, but the best recommendation that I can make is that this record  is is the most obvious precursor to the classic ‘mockumentary’ This Is Spinal Tap. Yes, it’s that good, largely thanks to the overall input of Christopher Guest, who later landed his ultimate dream role, as Nigel Tufnel in Tap. He’d already had considerable parody experience, on The National Lampoon Radio, developing, among others, the Good-bye Pop characters of sleazy coke-head record rep Ron Fields, and the oleaginous English ethno-musicologist Roger de Swans. He then worked with Chevy Chase and John Belushi, well before Saturday Night Live, and before creating the immortally moronic Tufnel. He is accompanied on this record by the Bill Murray, who is magnificent in the part of the dozy, somewhat Bob-Harris-like, late night FM DJ Mel Brewer, and other Lampoon regulars such as Tony Scheuren, Gilda Radner and Paul Shaffer. This was still at a time when iconoclastic digs at the by then- established rock tropes was in its infancy. Nik Cohn’s Awopbopaloobopalopbamboom and Rock Dreams were among the first stirrings of the gradual puncturing of the Rolling Stone-type mythologising of the pantheon of “both rock and roll”.

A few of the many, many highlights of this record are: the foreseeing of the post-  Beatles obsession and historicisation of the Fab Four, by a quaaluded Flash Bazbo (played by Guest); the cruel- yet - fair, musically precise evisceration of Prog Rock (The Art Rock Suite, written by the Sid Vicious soundalike Sid Gormless and his band, The Dog’s Breakfast, a year before anyone had heard of that particular doomed junkie); the country rock spoof Clap (Is Just the B–Side of Love), which is as Zappa-like as America Drinks and Goes Home; the Neil Young parody Southern California Brings Me Down (which completely nails the grossly sexist side of the Young of Harvest and of hippie culture in general); Bob Dylan ‘going reggae’, much to Albert Grossman’s consternation. It all only strikes a slightly discordant note for the modern listener when Gilda Radner perform’s her painful I’m a Woman to the ridicule of  various studio hangers-on (this was some years before the late 70s disco divas laid down such immortals as Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive). Radner’s petulance and the studio hack’s patronising put downs (Bill Murray plays her emollient husband) probably won’t sit that well with modern progressive thinking, although it still remains essentially a criticism of eternal pomposity and self-importance (musically coordinated, as is much of the album, by the great Paul Shaffer)

There is so much more to say about this Cassandra of an album. Check it out on YouTube, which has it in its entirety (but without the lyric sheet, which I’m am still  in proud possession of. Never mind, the lyrics are eminently clear on the recording, and what lyrics they are, deserving of as much quoting as those that appear on This Is Spinal Tap.

An Advance Warning of Punk in 1975, and a Hippy Curiosity from 1977 itself. Probably a Three-Parter.

I was 22 years old in 1977, the year that Punk broke into the cultural mainstream and it’s media, and too old to be anything other than an interested, but passionately supportive, observer. Naturally, my love of challenging and questioning music led me into many of the records that punk produced, which mainly involvedfirst listening and seeing bands that benefited from the attitudes and ethos of punk, but were hardly ‘punk in excelsis’ - bands like Television, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, The Stranglers, Blondie. The only ‘punk’ band that I truly liked were the Pistols, with their epochal four singles (who I only saw once, on their final tour of England, in December 1977, by which time the whole thing was a complete circus/freak show), I could take or leave The Clash and The Damned: I was far too much of a post-hippie to fall for the legion of imitators of limited imagination and/or musicianship. For me, punk’s real flowering in rock music occurred in the ‘post-punk’/new wave period, and any readers will know that I prefer the 1978-81 period to almost any other in the music’s 65-year history. classically

So this sets the scene. In late 1976/early 1977, I was living in a classically student run-down communal house in the small West Midlands town of Kenilworth. Very little had been released at that time that could remotedly be called ‘punk music’ Patti Smith’s Horses (never a personal favourite, I’m afraid) and the first Ramones album represented the advance guard . The British contingent had to wait until February for Damned, Damned, Damned and the spring to see the release of The Clash and Rattus Norvegicus, After this came the deluge of the good, the bad and the terminally indifferent, the latter being by far the largest. But things were changing with the first TV appearance of the Pistols in September 1976 - a lot of us had been listening to what was later labelled ‘pub rock’, in particular the likes of Graham Parker & the Rumour, Dr. Feelgood and Eddie and the Hot Rods, who were all great live, a bit ragged but ‘honest’ in the eyes of folks who were fed up with the flaccid products of the major labels in 1974, 1975 and 1976. A sign of these changes sometimes came in odd and unexpected forms, and it is two of these that I want to talk about; firstly because they are wonderful records in themselves, and secondly because they were obscure at the time and have been pretty much forgotten now.. Look them up on YouTube for proof of this; they have a few admirers, but their paucity is their main feature. This pair haven’t even benefited from the cold comfort of being given ‘cult’ status, so here is my attempt to give them the credit that they deserve, even if it’s over 40 years too late. But they were a part of the punk story, even if they don’t feature Jon Savage’s classic tome on the subject.

The two albums are: National Lampoon’s Good-Bye Pop (1952-1976) and Future Games: A Magical Kahauna Dream by Spirit. The Lampoon came out (I think) in 1975, on Epic Records, and, as far as I know, was never available here except in ‘import’ form (import albums were very hip for the 1970s serious record buyer). My copy has the typically thick cardboard cover, but the vinyl inside was already by now post-’OPEC Crisis’ thin and ‘wobbly’. I first heard the Spirit as an import in early ‘77, but it gained a UK release on Mercury Records later that year (which also put out Pere Ubu’s The Modern Dance in the following year, in addition to being Graham Parker’s label, so deserves full credit from later generations of listeners of great music)

Richard Dawson - one of my few remaining ‘must-haves’?

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I had to get hold of a (hard) copy of Richard Dawson’s newie 2020, from the minute it came out. It struck me that there are now very few artists remaining whose new releases I feel that ‘must have’ (and the excitement that inevitably accompanies this urge). This is a reflection of my age, I’m sure. I’m not exactly ‘jaded’, but am at a stage that is very close to this.

There are a few artists that remain on my ‘essentials’ lists, for their new recordings:

 Alasdair Roberts (it was at a gig by him that I first encountered Dawson’s abrasive folk), 

Nick Cave (who also has an upcoming release that is being praised to the high heavens online) 

Burial and Autechre perhaps. 

There is a free-floating list of free improvisers that I always keep an eye on. 

Still Bob Dylan, certainly, probably the only remaining artist of his generation who can keep one on one’s toes. 

Tom Waits seems to have retired in all seriousness. 

Current 93 

P.J. Harvey

Boards of Canada seem to have retired at a young age. 

I’ll probably check out Kevin Martin’s new Zonal release, but that’s largely it.

But, to counteract this rather defeatist list of ‘must always check out’, we have 2020, more tremendous stuff from Newcastle’s finest. My wife, on first hearing it, said it sounded like Robert Wyatt. This hadn’t occurred to me, but I can see what she’s getting at. An ‘idiosyncratic’ (terrible word, I know!) song collection whose subject-matter is Englishness in all it’s dreadful, yet quasi-endearing manifestations of awfulness. For me, this is Richard’s most consistently focused release. No long-form marathons such as the two on Nothing Important, no guiding ‘concept’ such as the medieval shtick on Peasant, no guitar solo instrumentals such as on The Magic Bridge’. Now, I happen to be a HUGE fan of Dawson’s guitar, and urge him to consider albums that highlight this aspect of his genius, but 2020 consists of contemporary SONGS, all around four or so minutes in length, and all forming a portrait of England in 2019. And, as you can imagine, it’s largely a depressing one.

There is, in this album: a composition about a depressed ‘Civil Servant’, who hates what his job makes him do to the dispossessed. a family disastrously affected by flooding, a loving, yet over-controlling, ‘football dad’, an individual struggling with ‘anxiety’ and some ways of dealing with this, a message from a cuckolded man via the internet, a UFO nut, a zero-hours contract worker, a parent upset at seeing their daughter off to university, and, finally, a homeless man getting an back-alley kicking. AND SO MUCH MORE within all these fantastic songs. 

You have been told , as gospel, that Ray Davies, Billy Bragg and Damon Albarn are the great pop commentators on Englishness?  Now make way for the next one, an utterly contemporary voice. Richard Dawson makes me think back to Bragg’s mid-eighties ‘harmolodic’ guitar albums (i.e. the first two, Life’s a Riot… and Brewing Up With,,) to find an equivalent radical guitar/social conscience voice, all of 35 years ago. Richard Dawson is playing among y’all today - you really owe it to yourselves to listen to an artist who just might be an antidote to the ‘jadedness’ that I sometimes feel..

Oxymorons - what’s in a name?

A brief one this time.

I meant at append this to the piece on Eric Random, but ran out of time and space,

Whilst typing out the band name Manicured Noise, the notion of oxymoronic band names occurred to me. Full respect is in order for their New Wave-y single Faith b/w Freetime, their being a band that fitted well into the late-70s Manc scene of such contemporaries as The Passage, Spherical Objects and Steve Miro & the Eyes, associated with the Manchester Musicians Collective.

A few comparable antinomies might be the Noise’s contemporaries, Liverpudlian Jayne Casey’s Pink Military and then Pink Industry, Glasgow duo Strawberry Switchblade and, finally, Dublin’s My Bloody Valentine (is their track Strawberry Wine a backhanded tribute to SS?). It seemed that opposites did indeed attract in the 1980s, as, of course, did daft attention-seeking names of all kinds, The Cocteau Twins, anybody?

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