Saturday, 15 July 2017


The Incredible String Band "Wee Tam and the Big Huge"

Finally, a group of musicians produce a double album that is a masterpiece and that completely merits and deserves its extended length. Chock full of inventive, creative songs that are both playful and deeply serious. Mystery, hidden meanings, obtuse images and references to mythology, historical figures, language, religion and spirituality along with a grounded pleasure in nature and the simple things in life.

There is less variation in the instruments used than on the Incredible String Band's previous albums but much more assurety and confidence in the compositions. The group's songwriters are now prepared to develop a composition at length and to trust that a singular focus will hold the listener's interest. They are also happy to see references in one song reoccur in another as instances of stylistic and thematic unity rather than as repetition.

To this end, there are certain key words and phrases that can be seen as encapsulating some of the album's meaning:

            "we are all still here, no-one has gone away"

            "stranger than that, we're alive"

            "music is so much less than what you are"

            "what is it that we are part of and what is it that we are"

            "even the birds when they sing it's not everything to them"

            "one light, light that is one though the lamps be many"    

            "come let us build the ship of the future"

Characters like Jesus, Hitler, Noah, Groucho Marx, Lazarus, Richard the Lion Heart and Queen Cleopatra come and go. References to boats and ships abound. The crucifixion and the resurrection are constant sources. The language goes from Elizabethan love poetry to the Hebrew alphabet to American blues phrases. The elements, trees and friends are mentioned severally. The lion and the unicorn, centaurs, Atlantis and Troy.

Bob Dylan said this about traditional music:

            "Traditional music is based on hexagrams. It comes about from legends, Bibles,    plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death...All these songs about roses growing out of people's brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels"

I think that the Incredible String Band are the first pop musicians to take that exact approach of the original composers of traditional music and to use it to write songs in that exact tradition and that were strong and flexible enough to carry the weight of meanings they wanted to pin on them. "The Iron Stone", for instance, sounds like it was written in 1450 rather than 1968.

The group were metaphorically bursting with ideas and determined to include all of these ideas into song. "Douglas Traherne Harding" is one of the most extraordinary songs ever written. It begins "when I was born I had no head" and gets weirder from there. 50 years later the world has caught up with the Incredible String Band and it is the work of seconds to search for information about Douglas Harding and his philosophical ideas. How hard must it have been at the time to follow what was being done in this song and how many listeners must have assumed that it had no meaning when in fact it has a very specific, quite literal purpose. As a summation and illustration of abstract thought in a pop song it is without parallel.

The title "Wee Tam and the Big Huge" could be translated as "A Small Person Contemplates the Universe". The overriding theme of the album is pondering what is the individual's place in the chance and chaos of existence. This is a big philosophical concept to put forth and the group accomplish this without ever becoming ponderous or pseudy. For instance, "The Mountain of God" mashes up lines from hymns with Winnie the Pooh, bible extracts and the liturgy against a church organ background that suggests piety and devotion while pointing out that these words are just words and can be randomly uttered without a deeper understanding of the underlying concepts. They follow this piece with a song about a caterpillar. 

Similarly, "The Son of Noah's Brother" illustrates the danger of over examining points of subtlety. Is the song about Noah's brother's son or is it about Noah's son's brother? The lyrics of the song do not address this point and from the title alone there is no way of knowing. The meaning of this song is forever unknowable and deliberately created to be so.

The last lyrics of the album are

            "scattered we were when the long night was breaking
            but in the bright morning converse again"

Humanity divides and separates when tested, the ride is not always smooth. Yet more unites than divides and people will come together again when night is o'er. The album's opening lines echo this sentiment

            "we're all still here, no-one has gone away"

Humanity's oneness is stressed. What is that we are part of? We are part of humanity. The album has a quest but also a return to its starting point, a circularity. In my beginning is my end, the snake eats its tail (there is also a song about a snake on the album).

In between there are also straight forward love songs and songs that celebrate fellowship and the simplest pleasure of breathing. The breadth of the writers' talent and creativity and the depth of their ambition results in a multi-faceted portrayal of life and an acknowledgment and celebration of that fact of life. Much is unknowable and the greatest mystery of all is that we exist. And yet it is all so gloriously optimistic and celebratory.

            "stranger than that, we're alive"

The Beatles "The Beatles"

Speaking of absent thematic unity, the next double album of 1968 came from The Beatles themselves. The greatest, most ambitious group of all time might have been expected to produce something really special when given extra room to explore but instead delivered the opposite. The fact that much of the music was recorded by one or two Beatles separately from the others may account for the paucity of imagination and lack of bite to the music.

Much of the music is sluggish and the songs drag. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "Happiness is a Warm Gun" are leaden and seem to get slower as they go on. Other songs are childish such as "Bungalow Bill" and "Rocky Raccoon". "Helter Skelter" goes nowhere and takes too long to get there. Overall, the writing and the playing lacks conviction. Only "Back in the USSR" and the acoustic numbers are worth hearing again, and even then the gorgeous and clever "Blackbird" is ruined by that stupid metronome for no good reason.

Too often, the world's most innovative group seem intent on creating pastiches of other music such as Chuck Berry, doo wop, soul, blues, music hall, country music, ska (although "Ob-la-di ob-la-da" is more like a calypso in its narration of the story of Desmond and Molly Jones), heavy metal etc. A lot of the record sounds like dull American rock music.

The fact that a lot of the pieces were recorded singly and independently by each of the group means that none of the pieces have any sort of swing to them and are never fully realised as compositions, cf. the much more successful "Abbey Road" album.

Jimi Hendrix Experience "Electric Ladyland"

The first two double albums of 1968 suffer from a similar problem - they combine some strong material with other stuff that is less strong or just plain weak. Some of the writing on "Electric Ladyland" is tentative. The "song" "Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)" is forgettable even while you are listening to it. The melody has no focus. "Burning of the Midnight Lamp", while innovative, feels over-written, like it has too many bits to it. The long jam version of "Voodoo Chile" may have been amazing in the studio but it is not an interesting listen, and I could do without the groovy crowd sounds. I have no recollection of "Still Raining, Still Dreaming" and "House Burning Down" and I only listened to them again two days ago.

Additionally, I do not care much for the production. It is difficult to follow what is going on in "Crosstown Traffic" for instance (is Hendrix playing a kazoo?) and "All Along the Watchtower" comes and goes like a poorly tuned radio station. There are too many overdubs throughout the album and too many tricksy vocal effects (something that could also be said of "Axis: Bold as Love").

I do feel a bit small minded in offering my opinion of the towering brilliance that is Jimi Hendrix and his recorded works. Like looking at the Mona Lisa and saying "it's not very big, is it". But it is the case that I am not a huge fan of "Electric Ladyland" and I find it underwhelming each time I listen to it.

However, it is expansive and an example of how Hendrix enlarged the palette of rock music. Unlike previous pop double albums which just contained lots of songs, both "Wheels of Fire" and "Electric Ladyland" showed groups presenting extended instrumental interplay. Jazz musicians such as Miles Davis were surely listening and envious of the freedom pop groups were given to extemporise at length. "Electric Ladyland" also presents an array of musical styles from blues to soul to chamber pop to straight rock music. Hendrix demonstrated that albums could encompass a range of sounds and styles and did not have to have a thematic musical unity.

1968

Cream "Wheels of Fire"

Another first in what was to become a staple: one record made in the studio, the other 'recorded live', and the two records also released as two separate lps (which became a pointless habit when The Who's "Tommy" (a continuous story) was released as Part One and Part Two). Musicians now wanted to show off their proficiency in both the studio and playing in front of an audience. The former enabled them to be ambitious and experiment with recording techniques and additional instrumentation. The latter meant that they had to be able to play without the aid of studio gimcrackery. 

Cream were a group that prided themselves on being able to cut it live, having spent a number of years doing just that in small clubs playing jazz and blues. They also wanted to make some of the new music that was floating around London. Not psychedelic but not traditional either nor straightforward pop. A song like "Passing the Time" has a number of different sections and time shifts. A prog rock precursor in miniature. Same with "Pressed Rat and Warthog".

The original trio are augmented quite a bit on the studio side by Felix Pappalardi on several instruments such as viola and trumpet, along with Jack Bruce chucking in a liberal helping of cello all over the record. I like the extra guitars (at least three lead guitars all playing at once) that are poured over "Politician".

In another move that was soon to become a trope, "Wheels of Fire" sought to provide showcases for the individual talents of each member of the group. So, the studio record has separate compositions by Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker along with two blues numbers chosen by Eric Clapton, while the live record contains two songs that feature Clapton along with a Jack Bruce harmonica sortie and a Ginger Baker drum solo. It is almost as if groups forget that what gives them strength is collective creativity, and they imagine themselves to be solo talents which many of them are not.

Funnily enough, although Cream get credited as being one of the first album acts and as being a deep listening experience for serious rock fans, I prefer to think of them as being a singles band. All of their best material was released on singles in one form or another and the stuff that is left on the albums is actually rather mundane. I think one of the main reasons that "Disraeli Gears" and "Wheels of Fire" get rated as great lps is on account of their stunning Martin Sharp artwork. To add to the controversy, let me say that I also think the material that Bruce, Baker and Clapton recorded separately either immediately after or shortly after Cream broke up is more diverse, interesting and worthy than that of their parent group.

Why then do people rate Cream? I think it is because on songs like "White Room" and "Crossroads" they make a great noise. Few things are better than hearing Baker and Bruce have a musical argument, each trying to outdo the other, while Clapton stays out of it for the most part. "Crossroads" is, of course, Clapton's masterpiece. A simple song which is ridiculously hard to play the way he does. When they take off during the solos you feel they could play for ever and it is genuine group interplay rather than selfish showing off. Their version of "Spoonful" makes much the same point only at much greater length.  

Most critics complain that the fault with "Wheels of Fire" is that it does not contain enough good songs. That may be true but my complaint is that it does not contain enough excessive wankery. Almost every track is under 5 minutes long with only "Spoonful" and "Toad" exceeding 15 minutes. I quite like Cream when they go on and on and on and would have settled for more of this. I think their best lp is "Cream on Top" which lifts "Spoonful" and "Toad" from "Wheels of Fire" and puts them with a live version of "Politician" from one of the "Live Cream" lps plus the lovely little "Badge" with its dinky George Harrison riff in the middle. "Wheels of Fire" is too polite. It should consist of only four songs, one per side and 20 minutes long. That's what I want. It ultimately fails because this most excessive of rock groups does not get excessive enough.


Donovan "A Gift From a Flower to a Garden"
 

Following on from the first pop triple album, we have the first pop box set ("A Cid Symphony" originally came in a bag rather than a box). Two records in a box together with an envelope of 12 inserts containing song lyrics and illustrations. The two records were thematically separate, one being comprised of group accompaniment and the other being solo acoustic numbers. Additionally, the second record was presented as being comprised of compositions aimed at younger listeners. Later, the two records were released as separate lps entitled "Wear Your love Like Heaven" and "For Little Ones".

Apparently, this was an expensive package to put together with the slightly psychedelic cover art requiring a complex print process. It is another example of musicians using a double album to make a STATEMENT both in terms of length at which they expound and also in the presentation of the finished package.

The hippie ethos is well present in this artifact. First, the title of the package. It is presented as something given from one to the many. It implies hippie collectivism, in that Donovan is but one flower growing amongst a multitude. This is self-deceiving on many levels. It is not a gift but a product. Donovan is not giving away his music for free but presenting it for commercial consumption. This does not make him evil but does make him no different from all other recording artists of this time. Yet Donovan is trying to make himself appear separate from the other musicians and also part of a movement (cynics may also view this as a commercial decision) - look, I am different from these other peddlers of exploitation - I am one of you. Compare this approach with that of Dylan who has always been aware of his part in a commerce-based industry and has never indicated that he thought of his work as a gift to his audience.

Second, the sleeve notes, which are a call to youth both to abandon drugs (an admirable exhortation when taking drugs to establish one's hipness was at its zenith) and to turn on to something else. Peace and love, basically. He also signs himself of as "thy humble minstrel" - ye gods! You are a pop singer, for fucks sake, not a wandering minstrel. You do Top of the Pops and interviews with teen pop magazines. You do concerts that people pay to see. You do not wander from town to town with a guitar strung across your back and a piece of straw in your mouth. You make records with Mickie Most who also produces Herman's Hermits and Lulu. Twat.

This is all so much hippie twaddle. Incidentally, there is also an accompanying short form video to this album (which appears to have been filmed, at least in part, at the Minack open air theatre in Cornwall) which features some of the songs and Donovan and others larking about in dressing up clothes.

Donovan himself is, of course, musical marmite. From Dylan copyist to babbler of pseudo-psychological bullshit, to ashram/guru following layabout, to fey wandering minstrel. His lyrics sometimes literally comprise meaningless syllables and he affects deliberate mispronunciations of words as well as speech impediments that he does not have. He tries to sound coy and unassuming and shy and abashed when in fact he has a massive ego and is hugely ambitious. His songs deal with inconsequential nonsense. He, along with Richard Branson, is the ultimate example of someone wearing hippie style to effect a capitalist outcome. He is a prat of the first order.

But, as with marmite, there is another view. Donovan once was a wandering minstrel who took his acoustic guitar with him from Scotland to wander around the South coast of England and further afield. Unlike, say, Dylan he never had to lie about working carnivals and riding for free on the trains, nor indeed did he have to change his name. He is the genuine article. His early Dylan soundalikes could be seen as the youthful musical tributes of an artist looking for his own style and sound and one which he very quickly found.

In his autobiography, Donovan claimed to have invented psychedelia and other sounds of the sixties and he was much mocked for this. The problem is that the chronology shows that Donovan was often there first. He put out an anti-war record in August 1965, he released "Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness)" in October 1965 and having released this laidback groove wrote "Season of the Witch", a magnificent downer anthem. His first fully psychedelic lp was released in September 1966 (having been recorded in part as early as 1965) with full hippie accoutrements present and correct - from songs with girls names in the title to songs about mythical people and unusual instrumentation such as sitars and celestes being featured throughout as intrinsic to the sound rather than as ornamentation. He was one of the first to popularise setting songs specifically in London such as "Hampstead Incident", "Sunny Goodge Street" and "Sunny South Kensington" establishing London as a) sunny (??!!) and b) the epicentre of the soon come swinging world.

His influence is widespread. Many pop artists of the 60s copied his songwriting style. Marc Bolan took his childish, mystical schtick and turned into a career. Syd Barrett was influenced by Donovan's specificity. I think that The Incredible String Band arrived at their extraordinary music separate from and independent of Donovan but it is the case that Donovan got there first. Donovan's drawn-out, fey, specifically British enunciation was copied (along with Syd Barrett's) by first Ray Davies and then on into glam rock bands and then punk. All of British psychedelia's fascination with Alice in Wonderland and Aubrey Beardsley and William Morris etc. can be laid at Donovan's door along with that of The Beatles. He had an impact on the emerging American West Coast bands, specifically Jefferson Airplane with the whole "fly trans-love airways" thing, to the MC5's trans-love energies. There is a case that could be made that, other than The Beatles, Donovan was the single most influential artist of the late 60s (especially with Dylan effectively out of the picture).

"A Gift From a Flower to a Garden" was Donovan's fifth album in 3 years. That he had enough songs for a double album is tribute to his productivity and creativity during this time. He was also just 21 years of age. It feels like a classic case of an artist wanting to put out the material he had ready while it was still hot rather than wait for staggered release dates. Donovan had previous experience of this when his masterpiece lp ("Sunshine Superman") was finished in 1966 but not released in the UK until a year later, and then in corrupted form. It was the middle of the fastest moving decade for popular music. The Beatles had released "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and The Beach Boys had put out "Pet Sounds". Dylan and Zappa's double albums were over a year old. You can understand Donovan worrying that the Summer of Love was happening without him, and without him receiving the credit he felt he was due for creating its soundtrack two years earlier. He must have wanted to make a statement. So what sort of statement does he make?

The group lp focuses on a jazz influenced, swingy sound. The instrumentation is relatively sparse but made to sound full. Lots of organ work and double bass and drums played with brushes. The opening track, "Wear Your Love Like Heaven", well illustrates one of Donovan's key gifts to psychedelic music - it is a move away from the verse-chorus-verse of pop songwriting. Although both Lennon and McCartney and Brian Wilson brought new and innovative chord structures and juxtapositions into the mix, it was Donovan who seems the first to move into individual lines in songs leading to other lines without having to reach a chorus (a technique that Lennon was to perfect on pieces like "Tomorrow Never Knows" and "Strawberry Fields Forever"). The verse in "Wear Your Love Like Heaven" moves independently of the chorus and there is an unrelated musical segment that regularly appears in a different metre.

The songs on the first record are less ambitious in their scope and range than some of Donovan's earlier forays into psychedelia. There are references to rose carmethene and to alizarin crimson but also to Birmingham, Torquay and double eggs, chips and beans and the telly. Again, a bit of a Donovan trademark: linking the fanciful with the prosaic.

The second lp, although seemingly aimed at younger listeners, does not feature what might be termed childlike songs, certainly in comparison with his later kids lp "HMS Donovan". It sounds more like a straight folk lp featuring Donovan compositions rather than trad. arr. material, especially on the lovely "Isle of Islay". For the most part, the songs suit their unadorned settings. There are, now and then, some sound effects to make it sound like Donovan has recorded himself singing en plein air. Some slight additional instrumentation breaks out occasionally as on the calypso-flavoured "Lay of the Last Tinker" which contains the slightly strange lyrical invitation to "break cheese with me". Donovan sings all of the songs straight without any of his enunciation affectations, perhaps he sometimes over-emphasises his Scottish accent to try and sound more authentic but then again he is, like, Scottish. References to the natural world abound, from the naturalist's wife to the starry starfish and the herring shoals. Again, Donovan is master of that hippie trope that children and nature are good, ideal symbols of innocence and virtue compared with just about everything else.

Overall, it is not Donovan's best album but does maintain interest through its length and without there being any obvious inferior songs. It is an enjoyable listen.

1967

Ernie Fischbach and Charles Ewing "A Cid Symphony"

The first pop triple album, although it is pop only in the sense that it was recorded by young American musicians. This conglomeration grew out of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement aligning musicians, artists, poets and print makers. The input from the visual media is significant because overall the album is nicer to look at than it is to listen to. Each of the three records is pressed on different coloured vinyl with square labels and coloured inners in a brightly coloured bag or box with additional inserts. It is a nice memento of the early days of the Californian hippie dream of peace and love, making music and living in a tent.  

The music is played entirely on acoustic instruments such as dulcimer, guitar, harmonica, hand-held drums and bells. It is mostly instrumental with a small amount of spoken word material. Much of the album is taken up with modal improvisations on guitar and dulcimer accompanied by percussion. These are reminiscent of the version of "La Golondrina" as played in the movie "The Wild Bunch" only they never arrive at a fixed melody. There is a tonal centre to these improvisations and they never slip out of tune but the melodies never develop anywhere interesting but just circle around each other. This impression is not helped by none of the tracks having individualised names but are just numbered sequentially depending which side of the records they are on.

The album does feature an impressive recording of a printing press in full operation, so that is something.

The Mothers of Invention "Freak Out"

 
Released just a couple of months after "Blonde on Blonde" comes the second ever pop double album and by another great pop innovator. It is a bit of a puzzle why an established record company such as MGM would allow a relatively unknown group possessed of limited teen appeal to issue a two disc set as their debut release. Frank Zappa was to demonstrate throughout his career an exceptional ability to get things done, so presumably it was his persuasive powers that talked the company into it.

There is a sense that Zappa might have thought this was going to be his only chance to make a statement on a large label and there is an element of everything and the kitchen sink about the songs and arrangements (and also the inside cover which exists as an almost separate statement from the record). The album is a game of two halves, the first record consisting of shorter "pop" songs and the second of longer, more exploratory pieces. Frankly, the second record with its sound collages, musique concrète and general smart aleckness is all but unlistenable. It perhaps has value as a documentary record of what passed for cool in mid-60s LA, but comparison with the following year's "Lumpy Gravy" shows how quickly Zappa was to improve his organisational control over abstract and ambient material to produce a far more satisfying collage.

Unlike most debut lps, this album does not feel like a straight recording of the band's live set. A number of the songs feel like they were composed by Zappa specifically for inclusion on this record, such as "Who are the Brain Police" and "Hungry Freaks, Daddy". It is the doo-wop parody songs that feel most like numbers that have been performed live. These are also the songs that sound as if they feature the Mothers themselves playing rather than the team of session musicians that enhance many of the other songs' more outré arrangements.

I first heard this record after hearing many others sorts of music and did find it a record that is difficult to love. The arrangements are too complex, the production is unsympathetic, the vocals sound too high in the mix, its got kazoos on it, the singers sound old (compared to many groups they were old) and the songs of teen love sound creepy being sung by leery old men. The sleeve notes are supercilious and condescending and very off putting. This is a cardinal sin with Zappa. He never invites you in to his music and always wants to let you know that he is cleverer than you. This is invariably true but it is not nice to be told.

That said, "How Could I Be Such a Fool" is gorgeous and some parts of the shorter songs indicate that Zappa could have been another Brain Wilson had he wished to follow that path. "Wowee Zowee" is infectious and indicates that perhaps one should think of the Mothers' interpretations of the musical styles of the 1950s and early 60s in the same way one thinks of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band's interpretations of songs from the 1920s and 30s - as affectionate reinterpretations with associated jokes ("I don't care if your dad's the heat"). One way or another, between the songs themselves, the arrangements, the performances (particularly Roy Estrada's pachucoisms), and the sleeve notes there are more ideas (both musical and lyrical) on this album than almost any other, with the probable exception of Captain Beefheart's "Trout Mask Replica". Beefheart went to school with Zappa so perhaps that is where it started.

The best track on the album ("How Could I Be Such a Fool") was released as a single coupled with the worst track ("It Can't Happen Here"). The former is a commercially attractive, memorable melody expressing conventional pop sentiments. The latter is a spoken word piece of provocation. I have the UK edition of this single and in the UK the sides were reversed putting the spoken word provocation as the A side. This seems like commercial suicide for a major record company, particularly in the mid-60s, a guarantee of no air-play. It must have been a mistake but there it is, existing.

Anyway, great cover.