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The Harvest label ‘crop’

The cultural theorist Bernard Gendron posits that by the late sixties “the idea of a permanent underground began to seep in - a rock avant-garde permanently sequestered on the sidelines, and permanently in revolt against the mainstream”. Harvest Records was a self-conscious attempt by the corporation that owned The Beatles to tap into this ‘market’. The hope was to make this ‘underground’ overground. The cynical reality was that the maxim ‘throw enough shit against the wall and some of it is bound to stick’ seems more likely to have been the overarching idea at work here.

Basically, it’s a melee of ‘progressive’ (this was well before the notion of ‘prog rock’, remember) and early heavy metal. The material is equal parts canonical (Pink Floyd, for example) and justifiably obscure (to anybody under sixty years of age),  Names that are still remembered today are, most with some fondness: Mike Chapman, Deep Purple, Kevin Ayers, Shirley Collins, Roy Harper, Syd Barrett, The Move, Barclay James Harvest, Electric Light Orchestra and Be Bop Deluxe. Names that have been swallowed up by history, but still remain un-regurgitated, include (and these are just a few from a long list); Panama Jug Band, Tea & Sympathy. Forest (briefly given CPR by the ‘free folk’ trend of a few years back), Quatermass, Bakerloo, Climax Chicago Blues Band, Babe Ruth, Strapps, Bombadil, Unicorn, Gryphon,

And then, on the final disc, you have a few 1976-7 oddities such as The Saints (including the fantastic ‘This Perfect Day’, one of the undoubted highlights of the whole shebang), The Banned (a one-hit wonder, with a nod to the mid-sixties ‘Nuggets’ punk era, ‘Little Girl’), The Shirts (sounding a bit like The Strokes, or should that be vice versa?) and good old Wire. Sadly, punk and new wave spelled the end of the Harvest adventure.

In a funny way, the revelation here, for me, is how well The Edgar Broughton Band stand up! People of a certain age will have indelible free festival memories associated with this scruffty trio, a kind of then-ubiquitous anarcho-hippy Oasis, which also contained two brothers. Tracks like ‘Out Demons Out’ (magick was a theme of the time, see also Black Sabbath and Black Widow) and ‘Apache Drop Out’ ( a neat melding of Hank Marvin and Captain Beefheart) have stood the test of time far better than any of  us would have then considered possible. Their sound is not that far away from ‘I Am the Fly’, to be honest, however unlikely that may sound.

The Harvest Label - the 70s ‘Underground’ in one box

My generous friend, who had previously lent me the Elektra box set, also provided me with another absolute monster, a five-CD collection of recordings from the Harvest label. This was an EMI subsidiary, formed to capitalise on the ‘progressive’ or ‘underground’ scene that had developed in the late sixties, and which lasted from 1969 to 1979, by which time punk and new wave had rendered it completely passe and out of step. But any Baby Boomer born between 1950 and 1964 should have some memory of the music released on Harvest, with its distinctive green and yellow logo. It lasted for a decade, one that was perhaps the most notable of all, in terms of experimentation within the form. A dip into this box releases the madeleine aroma of the times in my own memory banks, and of years sat in front to my dansette listening to ‘the sounds of the seventies’.

It’s impossible for someone of my age and background to be objective about this kind of stuff, and it is a fascinating process to sift through material that was considered to be cutting-edge in its time, but has since had fifty or so years to be assessed and reassessed. Some it has been found room, perhaps reluctantly, in the Hall of Fame/Infamy, others consigned to the Hall of Antiques & Curios. Some just belong in a freak show. It is still a joyous exercise to listen to, however, and the set is packaged in the usual sumptuous and Alexandrian manner by the EMI Art Department. The huge retrospectives always make Memory Lane a most pleasant byway to wander along, as compared to a ‘stream’ or a USB stick. Or even a cloud..

Scorsese’s ‘Rolling Thunder Revue’ - Part Two

The ‘Rolling Thunder Revue’ tour of 1975 was a prototype for the so-called ‘Never Ending Tour’ (NET), which is itemised in all of its extensive glory throughout  the closing credits, and made me think that I will never ever begrudge Bob Dylan his millions, as his work rate appears to be superhuman. It was, at the beginning, a tour of relatively small dates, which put me in mind of  Spinal Tap’s own downsized live venture (as did many aspects of this film, especially the scene with the chauffeur!!) Dylan himself was hoping for a “musical extension of the Italian commedia dell’ arte (which, c’mon, most of us haven’t really got a clue about, right?); playwright Sam Shepard described it, probably more accurately, as a “circus atmosphere… a dog and pony show”. Someone else come sup with “the court of Henry VIII’.

Some of the hangers-on were far from wasters, though - the film features Horses -era Patti Smith (looking archetypal), Joni Mitchell (performing the then-unreleased ‘Coyote’ from Hejira-, backed by Dylan himself and Roger McGuinn, a highlight) of the film), Shepard, Ronnie Hawkins (who is clearly a mensch), Rambling Jack Elliott, Joan Baez (seemingly always the bridesmaid, never the bride), Allen Ginsberg (ever the Holy Fool, clearly a vital figure, but whose appeal has always completely escaped me, especially his awful poetry) and even Mick Ronson (who claims that Dylan completely ignored him throughout the whole tour).

The live footage is excellent, especially of him playing “Ballad of Ira Hughes” at an Indian Reservation, circumventing the dining tables with his guitar held and strummed high, looking like a true troubadour. There are some deja vue moments from ‘Don’t Look Back’, in particular the backstage stuff with the various flotsam and jetsom getting out of their heads, and Dylan trying to keep his, By the end, Ginsberg and the Beat poet Peter Orlovsky have been demoted to mere tour gophers and crypto-roadies, which is a sad moment, whatever I feel about them as artists, The lunatics taking over the asylum, etc.

I could say much more about this interesting film, but didn’t find it as ultimately engrossing as ‘No Direction Home’ or as era-defining as ‘Don’t Look Back’. However, it did bring me to realise something that I haven’t really considered before - that of Dylan’s importance as a bandleader, This becomes evident throughout the various numbers (mostly culled from the contemporaneous Desire), where the viewer can see that he takes on a similar role to that of Miles Davis with his various groups; it is nearly imperceptible, but the musicians are taking, and always looking for, their cues from Dylan. This may seem obvious, but Dylan has never been a great instrumentalist, and he always uses highly skilled and adaptable players. But he is always at the epicentre of the music, and guides his team though what at times amount to'improvisations around a ‘well-known’  theme. The vicissitudes that he puts his famous songs through are notorious, and yet he often manages to get the bands to produce fantastic reinventions, even of songs as famous as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘Just Like a Woman’. And countless others over the years of the NET.

Often seen as principally as being the ur-solo singer/songwriter, we can easily forget that he is also a very skilled ‘leader of men and women’. And still the oldest survivor of the counter culture’s great originators - ‘Roll Over McCartney and Give Jagger the News’?

Scorsese’s ‘Rolling Thunder’, Part One

I consider myself a fairly normal bloke (or ‘bleeerk’, as the man himself would have it in ‘Don’t Look Back’), but I appear to have at least ten books on Bob Dylan, very many of his albums in various formats, and three DVDs about him, ‘Don’t Look Back’ itself, Martin Scorsese’s wonderful ‘No Direction Home’ from 2005, and  Murray Lemer’s account of the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, ‘The Other Side of the Mirror’. This is a lot of Dylan, but hardly excessive, given the adulation his fans how shown over the nearly six decades since his first CBS album of 1962.

So, onto Scorsese’s latest Dylan adventure, ‘Rolling Thunder Review: a Bob Dylan Story’, which I managed to catch up with last night, and feel obliged to comment on, given the attention that I have given his Bob-ness over the years. The first thing to mention/warn people about is that the title is a slight give-away to the fact that the film is not as cinema verite as the earlier films mentioned. As with other Dylan films, most notoriously his own ‘Renaldo and Clara’, there are fictional characters (’masks’), convincingly extrapolated figures from the bard’s past, who could quite possibly existed in different avatars, who appear regularly in the narrative. The live in concert Dylan is here seen performing in ‘white face’ paint, looking like he’s put on sun protective cream, but which is apparently either an influence from the American band Kiss (one of whose members was allegedly ‘going out at the time with’ Dylan’s violinist Scarlet Rivera) or from kibuki, the Japanese ritual dance-drama) The extremes of Gene Simmons and Noh Theatre seem to represent this film well, consisting as it does of extensive footage of the Rolling Thunder Revue American tour of 1975..

This film could be subtitled ‘Bi-Centennial Blues’ as the film seems to trying to make a point about the USA at the time of its two-hundredth birthday, but that would be inaccurate. It’s basically another film about the charisma of Bob Dylan, and everything else is secondary. Scorsese has proved to be enamoured of rock performance excess - see previous work like ‘The Last Waltz’ (possibly best remembered for its shot of a huge cocaine rock up Neil Young’s nostril) and the Rolling Stones own ‘revue-type’ shows from 2006, ‘Shine A Light’. The latter band were surely immortalised by the shots of Robert de Niro entering a night club to the strains of ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ in the director’s 1973 ‘Mean Streets’?

Here, he explores, or just sets up for examination, Dylan the Enigma, oblique and opaque as in 1975, just as he was in 65/66, but, by the time of the filming of 2018(?), the ‘manigma’ is much more forthcoming and literal, less guarded and defended by non-sequitors and loose associations and such like. It’s not hard to see why he was like this in the past, surrounded as he was by wall-to-wall sycophants  and hanger-on, in ‘Rolling Thunder’ just as he was in ‘Don;t Look Back’, with the Bobby Neuwirth of 1965 being replaced by the Larry ‘Ratso’ Sloman of exactly ten years later. Staying sane with some sort of realistic self-awareness must be next-to-impossible in those sort of circumstances.

More to come

Elektra Records - A Glaring Omission from the Story

In 2006, Elektra Records released a sumptuous 5 x CD box set retrospective, called (in honour of its greatest release) Forever Changing: the Golden Age of Elektra Records, 1963-1973. Now, I spent many of my teenage years listening to, or intensely chasing, many of the LPs that the label made over these years, so the release was of great interest to me. Unfortunately, the considerable pricing of the set, alongside its limited availability, made its purchase a no-brainer for me at the time, so I was pleased when a friend gave it to me a few days back, on extended loan.

It is without doubt an impressive monster of a package, reminding me somewhat of the obsessive detail and over-inclusiveness that characterised some of the late John Fahey’s Revanant Label reissues (the Charley Patten and Albert Ayler boxes, for example). It also got me re-thinking about the whole ‘Golden Age’ idea, one that continues to be contested, but has nevertheless informed my two books on British free improvisation. The sheer scale of the tracks included and their accompanying artists is initially overwhelming, even though I have heard probably half of the songs previously. Obviously, artists such as The Doors, Love, Judy Collins and Tim Buckley are fairly well-known, and now occupy secure seats in the Immortal Rock/Pop/Folk Songs List (or whatever canonical title one wishes to adapt). There are also plenty of artists involved who I either have never heard or barely know - for example, in no particular order, Judy Henske, Dick Rosmini, John Koener, Dave Ray, Oliver Smith and many, many, many, many more.

It’s easy to see why many of these failed to make much of an impression either at the time or on future history, to be frank. Some nuggets (the epochal Nuggets album itself came out on Elektra in 1972, and acted in many ways as the midwife to the whole ‘forgotten classics’ shtick) are best left unearthed.

Elektra began as a ‘folk’ label in essence, and provided a home for a whole array of singer/songwriters, given their impetus by the success of Bob Dylan in particular, but also Judy Collins and Joan Baez in the 1962/3 period. However, one of the criticism of the ‘Golden Age’ trope is the tyranny of choice, in terms of who gets to choose the occupants of the various lists that the nostalgia industry has given birth to, and what exactly they get to choose, Many lists are uncritically over-inclusive, to be sure, but some are notable by what they leave out. In the case of Forever Changing, there is a 1967 release on Elektra that is not only not featured in the box set, but one that doesn’t even warrant a mention in any of the ‘bumf’ that comes along with the compact discs (and there is a lot of it, just as there was with the Revenant sets!).

This glaring omission, not only in terms of historical completeness, but also because of its importance as a radical piece of then-contemporary music, is AMMUSIC (EUK-256), recorded in ‘66, but not delivered into the stock of baffled record shops until the following year, where it soon sank without trace. It doesn’t even get a mention in ‘White Bicycles’, the autobiography of Elektra UK’s head honcho Joe Boyd (coincidently published around the same time as the box set), which is odd given that it gave him a bum rap with his bosses back in New York HQ. Obviously, the record has been excised from popular accounts because of its perceived un-listenability, and its deviance from the label’s desired norms of sound and presentation, but it still really surprised me how the avant garde continues to be excluded (or, at the very least, marginalised) from even the most apparently conclusive/inclusive historicising processes. It’s a shame, as monuments like Forever Changing would benefit from ‘comfort zone’ extension, with a small, but important, part of the narrative restored to its proper place. AMMUSIC has certainly outlives a record like Diane Hildebrand’s Early Morning Blues & Greens, with no offence meant to Ms, Hildbrand. Or Crabby Appleton’s eponymous offering, or…

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