Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby


Gene Clark - A  Brief Appreciation of a Brief Flight

My recent explorations of some of the superstar singer/songwriters who began to record in the mid- late sixties ( i.e. back into the era before the genre became codified), have led me to re-examine the likes of Leonard Cohen, Van Dyke Parks, Joni Mitchell, David Ackles and Laura Nyro. Over the past few days, I have finally arrived at one of Dylan’s most talented immediate successors, who is one of the least feted of this talented group, both during his pomp and after his very early death in 1991. This is a sad state of affairs - Clark’s catalogue is not a huge one, only four studio albums after he left The Byrds. It can be sampled in a very short space of time, but I have spent over forty years fully appreciate what a subtle and emotionally satisfying an artist this troubled man was.

I dug out an old tape of 1966′s With The Godsin Brothers, and what a fine period piece it remains, part early folk-rock a la Byrds (’Think I’m Going To Feel Better’, ‘Is Yours, Is Mine, ‘The Same One’’, ‘Couldn’t Believe Her’), part pre-No Other baroque, Beatles-influenced, pop rock-pop (the opening ‘Echoes’, ‘So You Say You Lost Your Baby’) part country-rock (’Keep On Pushin’, ‘Needing Someone’) and proto- freakbeat (’Elevator Operator’) all weighing in total at under thirty minutes of understatement and sheer potential, worthy of Guided By Voices or The Minutemen. Those familiar with Pete Frame’s Rock Tree which accompanied the original History of the Byrds double vinyl set and the eventual CD box set (one of the first such retrospective monster,in 1990,  I seem to remember), can get a sense of the huge influence that the wing span of this outfit has cast, reflected in Johnny Rogan’s equally expansive literary history of the band, ‘Timeless Flight’. Clark’s recordings remain my favouirite of the Byrds diaspora - I much prefer his music to that of the overrated self-publiciser Gram Parsons and the grossly under-achieving McGuinn, but have a lot of time for that West Coast ‘cult classic’ of band blowhard David Crosby, 1971′s If Only I Could Remember My Name (an amnesiac condition that Crosby seemed to see as an asset). The latter album and Clark’s No Other remain my favourite Byrds-related product, alongside Younger Than Yesterday and The Notorious Byrd Brothers. My relative dislike of Sweetheart of the Rodeo emanates from a pronounced  non-preference for country-rock as a genre, but Clark’s work remains an exception to this loosely-held tenet. His work with Doug Dillard and

For many years (from around my first hearing it 1976) I have named No Other as probably my favourite rock/pop album of all (along with Love’s perennial Forever Changes and the Manassas double album, just to let people know) I can’t do justice to No Other in one or even three blogs, so I’ll just leave it for listeners to discover for themselves. Clark’s voice is utterly distinctive and he remains one of rock’s great poets of love lost and the lovelorn. Chris Hillman is there from The Byrds and Parsons’s Flying Burrito Brothers, who, along with percussionist Joe Lala, forms a satisfying link to Manassas. The fact that Manassas also had a considerable country-rock feel rather puts paid to my notion of not really liking the form, however. Oh well, consistency be damned.

The Joy of Hindsight, Part Two

These two blogs were occasioned by my recent purchase of the sole album by The United States of America, an eponymous release produced in 1967 by Cage alumnus Joseph Byrd. It’s an interesting period piece, but slipped between too many stylistic stools to really establish itself in most people’s minds and affections, hence rapidly finding its way towards the back of most record piles that it joined. ‘Experimental’ works by rock/pop bands were many and various at the time, and for every Faust or Captain Beefheart classic, there seemed to be a United States of America. Another short-lived, but ultimately historically significant group were The Silver Apples, an oft-cited influence on Suicide and on electronic duos in general,  whose two albums (1968 and 1969) intrigued listeners at the time, but who proved to be a little bit too ‘ahead of their time’ to be kept in print - their spawn is now evident for all to see, and a list of those who could be said to constitute the Apples’s extended family would be both many and varied.

Another’ one-off’ to be found bringing up the rear of our notional adventurous 70s listener’s record collection was An Electric Storm by White Noise (1969). This record would be at the front of many claimant’s queue for the most important early electronic pop/rock progenitor (up there with The Silver Apples?). Whereas the Apples were very much a populist project who encouraged dancing and general ‘grooviness’, White Noise were serious musos and composers - the much-retrospectively-worshipped Delia Derbyshire ( of the BBC Electronic Workshop fame) and free improv giant, percussionist Paul Lytton (his first recording?) were contributors to this hardcore electronic work of 1969, which proved a bit of a curate’s egg for the pre-Kraftwerk generation. It has only been recently that this recording has become recognised as a significant influence on the man/machine narrative in popular music. Perhaps next to An Electric Storm in our Platonic record collection, one might find a copy of another electronic composers’ stab at the rock market - Terry Riley’s Rainbow in Curved Air - which unfortunately seemed to exhibit the law of diminishing returns for the average ‘head’ of the time: it sounded like one of the most approachably adventurous composition ever on first hearing, but became rapidly rather less exciting after about the third time, a bit like a more rarified Tubular Bells. It too soon headed to the back of the queue.

By the early/mid-70s, most self-respecting ‘underground music’ fan would have at least one or two albums by Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and The Velvet Underground. Trout Mask Replica and 200 Motels were obvious contenders for thanks-but-no-thanks awards for the would-be radical listener, as their straggling positions in most piles generally indicated, but the future ‘essentail-ness’ of White Light, White Heat would no doubt have come as a surprise to many - few at the time were brave enough to give Side Two more than one of two go’s, before consigning ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’ and ‘Sister Ray’ to the also-ran section, whatever they might  now say with the benefit of rock hagiographic hindsight. 

This is an endlessly fascinating game for the vinyl obsessive of a certain age, seeing how critical consensus changes - off the top of my head as another example, the way way Neil Young’s On the Beach has found its way into acceptance, despite being somewhat of a pariah at time of original release. Of course, opinions can and are allowed to change in the light of experience, context and exposure, but it is a reminder, for me, of just how influential record reviews and peer group pressure were in those far-off days (less so now?) and how the rock canon has gradually mutated into the seemingly Mount Rushmore-like entity it has become today. Things seem to have become fixed, as they have in the classical and jazz narratives. Forty-odd years ago, things were far less clear-cut, as the music was still in a state of becoming, or at least it seemed to be.

The Joy of Hindsight (absolute subjectivity guaranteed) Part One

Here’s a list-game for fifty-something music fans, involving the need for a former immersion in the world of vinyl. It wouldn’t work in the modern age of democratic algorithms and digital democracy.

Let’s situate this game between, say, 1970 and 1976, when the vinyl format was arguably at its height of popularity and influence. Many of my friends had reasonably large  collections of 33 rpm records, the so-called ‘album’. These tended to be ‘displayed’ not in cabinets or on shelves, but on the floor, propped up against a wall in columns of about two foot deep, enabling quick ‘browsing’ to occur when one was checking out someone’s collection. (this usually involved squatting down on one’s haunches, but, hey, we were all young then and this wasn’t as painful as it would be today, arthritis not being something to be factored in at that point). What always interested me was which records were to be found lurking at the back of these columns - new releases and purchases, obviously, and popular works could reliably be found towards the front, but the further back one flipped, sometimes the more interesting things could become. The thing was, however, that the ‘stragglers’, if you wanted to call them that,,were often fairly consistent. They were albums that had seemed a good idea at the time, but their fate was ultimately to provide a form of ballast to the ‘collection’, presumably never having been properly loved or appreciated, or had been desired objects at some point, but certainly no longer. Feeling somewhat sorry for an inanimate piece of vinyl was clearly a projective process that says a lot about my general state of mind.

Another thing to note, retrospectively, is that many of these records now have a modern-day cachet, ugly ducklings in their time, but eventually finding their way into a role in the flock. It’s an entertaining pastime for us vinyl obsessives (in and of the day) to recollect these albums that propped their fellows up at one point, and to reflect on how their status may have changed over the years.  In some cases, obviously, their status proved to be an appropriate allocation of worth in the long term. Here are a few of my ‘back of the collection’ faves; it’s always interesting to hear what records other people remember as forming the ‘backside’ of record collections that we all used to come across from day to day:

Firstly, there were the cheapies - these were albums that were sold as bargains, often at around fifty pence, from what I remember. I do not include compilations such as Bumpers or Fill Your Head With Rock here (retrospectively, very decent Island Records and CBS collections), popular and soon-cast-aside though they were. I’m thinking of The Faust Tapes (a guaranteed contemporary back-of-collection occupant, which most people immediately hated at the time, but is now considered an avant-rock essential), Pink Floyd’s Relics (back before Syd Barrett became a cult object for rock anoracks) and Gong’s Camembert Electrique (which soon got lumped into a ‘trilogy’ with Angels Egg and You to form a rather clunky and unlikely triumvirate). Cheap and cheerfully stoned, the ‘avant’ part of these disc’s  avant-rock pretensions soon paled for most purchasers, and they soon went to the back of the pack for a generation.

More to come in Part Two

Spirit of ‘68, Part Two

Obscurantist alert!

I was somewhat taken aback on first hearing Song Cycle, to find that the sixth track, the final one of Side One of the vinyl edition, somewhat fancifully called ‘Van Dyke Parks’ (in actual fact it belonged in the ‘public domain’), was an almost exact replica of another track on another favourite album. 1971′s Sunfighter, a classic from the late period of San Franciscan psychedelic music’s golden period, by Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick and Paul Kantner, contains a track called ‘Titanic’, a brief, rather throwaway impressionistic piece depicting the doomed ship’s last moments, sinking to the music of the resident palm court orchestra. Having lived with Sunfigher since circa 1974, I always thought that it was an original, out-of-character experiment by SF’s finest, although credited to one Phill Sawyer. ‘Van Dyke Parks’ is clearly a lock, stock and barrel facsimile of ‘Titanic’, but precedes it by some three years, and is given absolutely no credit by Slick/Kantner. A minor observation, to be sure, but it somehow encapsulates how little real credit Van Dyke Parks has been given by pop/rock history, despite producing a record that could not, as a work in itself, be copied as easily as the lysergic duo did with the miniature Titanic piece.

Song Cycle is a rich mulch of American song forms, from Charles Ives to Tin Pan Alley. The record ushered in an era in which pop music came of age, whilst acknowledging without any heavy-handed irony or snarkiness, its ancestors and earlier influences. It’s heavy use of strings,brass sections, harp and oblique lyrics was very much ‘not of the moment’, however. The Jefferson Airplane and Grateful mode of po-faced ‘experimentation’and rambling improvisation was at its height in 1968 (Crown of Creation and Anthem of the Sun being, respectively, the prosecution’s evidence in this particular year’s case). Rather ironically, by the following year, what eventually became known as Americana emerged with The Band and the Dead’s change of direction signalled by Workingman’s Dead and, in 1970, the epochal American Beauty. Park’s vocals are an uncanny forerunner of the somewhat ethereal style of later Americana idols such as Mercury Rev and Animal Collective. Sadly, his influence across later American popular music remains mostly unacknowledged, partly, as earlier intimated, by a certain obdurateness in his works, a determination to follow his own muse that would be praised to the skies with artists like Bob Dylan, but remains un-celebrated in his particular case. Maybe his time will eventually come.

In 1970, at the age of fifteen, I couldn’t really afford to make ‘spot purchases’. One of the artists that interested me as I was familiarising myself with the contemporary musical landscape (she appeared on the inner sleeve of CBS records at the time, along with other ‘underground’ acts that the major label was trying to promote) was Laura Nyro. Her 1968 album, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession was one of these CBS contenders that were portrayed on the inner sleeves - great and enigmatic title, beautiful and enigmatic writer/performer, the album remained tantalisingly out of grasp until I could afford to finally buy it several years later. Thankfully, the hype proved not to be ‘hype’, although, sadly, Nyro seems to have disappeared into history to a similar degree as so many of the less worthy acts that appeared on the CBS ad department sleeves have done. In the late sixties, Nyro was one of the names to watch for fans of challenging, yet approachable song writing. Several other bands had hits with her songs, as had been the case with the early Bob Dylan. Perhaps I will blog about Nyro separately (as Richard Williams has done), but suffice to say that Carole King (with the omnivorous Tapestry) and Joni Mitchell (with her peerless ‘run’ of albums throughout 1971-76, one of the greatest in rock/pop music history) appear to have sidelined Nyro in the eye of posterity. Both Eli and the following New York Tendaberry are the equal of the best of her sister’s records (well, maybe not Court and Spark or Hissing of Summer Lawns, but, hey, how many records can really match these? Really?). 

The third of our 1968 triumvirate is, like Van Dyke Parks, deserving of some of the long-term kudos and recognition that Leonard Cohen managed to garner in his own life time.

Spirit of ‘68, Part One

Best known in counter-cultural lore as ‘The Year of Revolution’ and les evenements in less-than-gay Parie, 1968 was a year of increasing confidence in the nascent ‘rock’ music scene and in its recorded product. Long-playing ‘albums’ (even by that time an outmoded term that originally denoted a  compilation of 78 rpm ten-inchers) were beginning to outsell 45 rpm ‘singles’ for the first time, and the year saw the release of doubles by the three most important acts of the time - the inescapable Beatles put out The White Album, The Jimi Hendrix Experience introduced the term Electric Ladyland into everyday parlance, and the soon-gone Cream unleashed the live/studio mish-mash of Wheels of Fire. On the whole, history has been kind to these ambitious works that had been potentiated by 1967′s Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, whose shadow was to extend over the decade to come and beyond.

These three were maximalist in size, length and concept - The White Album had an embarrassing wealth of material (with another potential double album’s worth of material left in the cutting room, only to be eventually made public half a century later), Electric Ladyland took the electric guitar into uncharted waters that invited the attention of most creative composers and improvisers, including Miles Davis, and Wheels of Fire demonstrated that improvisation could inform rock music to a degree previously unimagined, as a companion to baroque pop songs that were spry and humorous even if very much ‘of their time’. The possibilities seemed endless at this point in time, and individual musicians and writers were caught up in the sense of adventurousness  and boundary-blurring that Pepper had pioneered in popular music By 1970, the term ‘singer/songwriter’  came into usage, represented by the immense popularity of James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Neil Young, to name but four. As a counter-balance to the sheer heft of our three double heavyweights, I’d like to offer three rather more modest works from 1968 which, if not ‘minimalist’, certainly offer an alternative to the ‘heaviosity’.of blues-based rock trios such as The Experience and Cream (which soon developed into ‘rock’, a form that is still with us today and soon proved to one of the greatest unit-shifters in recorded musical history).

Songs of Leonard Cohen will be familiar to many, many people.and can be seen as one of the essential progenitors of ‘bedsitter’ music (Dylan of course being its primum mobile).Some may describe it as ‘bedwetter’ music, in comparison to the macho posturing of so much rock. Cohen wanted his songs sparse and unadorned, but, thankfully, producer John Simon was allowed to add some basic added frills in the form of string and harpsichord accompaniments. These made them, along with the composer’s powerfully understated guitar work, memorably tuneful and accessible (compare to his 1970 Songs of Love and Hate, which was far more brutal and stark). The door that Dylan had unlocked was now kicked open, and a flood of solo artists of both sexes, usually with a travelling guitar in tow ,resulted. Some, however, wanted more than a guitar or piano, so the sub-genre of ‘orchestral pop’ or even ‘art pop’ emerged, with artists as diverse as, inter alia, Jim Webb, Scott Walker, Barry Ryan, David Ackles and (on Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter) Nick Drake,  producing ambitious ‘mini-symphonies’ of varying quality and interest, with perhaps Van Dyke Park’s Song Cycle as the most fascinating, even though he is very much one of the ‘awkward squad’ in terms of classification. Just coming out of co-writing the star-crossed Smile with Brian Wilson (the tracks Surfs Up and Cabinessence remain enduring classics of the form), Parks was at the top of his game and Song Cycle is sui generis. Critically showered with praise, the album, although it is only just over thirty minutes long (like Drake’s spartan Pink Moon, which is its precise opposite of in every other respect apart from poor sales), it suffered from a lack of ‘hooks’ or memorably ‘catchy’ melodies, and soon disappeared into obscurity, where it has largely remained ever since.

To be continued...

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