Sunday, 30 July 2017

Pink Floyd "Ummagumma"

Like Cream's "Wheels of Fire", "Ummagumma" is a one live lp, one studio lp double album.

The live lp has four songs from Pink Floyd's repertoire at the time. All are well recorded and feature powerful performances that are surprisingly muscular and represent the peak recordings of Pink Floyd's career as space rock voyagers. The group show a good sense of dynamics; building and dismantling and rebuilding pieces in performance. All of the songs played are considerably expanded from their original studio recordings and feature clever abstract sections that do not sink into the sort of free jamming that something like The Grateful Dead's abstract "Feedback" section did.

The studio lp is divided into four quarters with each quarter given to contributions from an individual group member. Richard Wright's front parlor piano style marks out his contribution before adopting a more strident, discordant tone. Crashes and bangs follow along with runs up and down the keyboard and attacks on the strings of the piano. Accompanied by percussion and vocal effects, Wright then assails what sounds like a prepared piano. Organ, bird song and running water come next with some slight slide guitar. Finally, a horrible organ chord with cymbals and timpani followed by more organ work, the slide guitar again and some sheets of sound before the return of the intimating theme of the piece. Overall, it feels slightly rushed. Almost a "will this do" approach and not much of a development from the band's own "A Saucerful of Secrets" number.

Roger Waters offers two separate recordings. The first, "Grantchester Meadows" is a bucolic acoustic number slightly reminiscent of "Suzanne" by Leonard Cohen and featuring bird songs and other sound effects including that of a fly being swatted. Waters' other offering, "Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict", comprises multi-layered vocal effects arranged to convey the scene portrayed in the title of the piece. It certainly illustrates Roger Waters' willingness to make a fool of himself but is also, in my view, the most listenable of all the tracks on the studio lp.

David Gilmour's "The Narrow Way" focuses, as one might expect, on his guitar playing. First, he finger picks and strums a rolling pattern that has only a very slight melody flavoured with some random slide parts. Some heavy metal riffing follows accompanied by George of the Jungle patterns on the tom toms and more slide guitar effects. Along with Richard Wright's high pitched organ settings, Gilmour's liberal use of the slide guitar is behind almost all of Pink Floyd's spacey sounding material from this period. Finally, Gilmour offers us a song based on descending chords marked out first by the piano and then an ascending chorus all accompanied again by a slide guitar before drums and bass join in. Some more guitars appear and the song plays to fade out but not before the group begins to run out of steam.

Nick Mason's "The Grand Vizier's Garden Party" features two iterations of a flute theme beginning and ending a percussion sequence augmented by some spacey sounds and tape effects. It is reminiscent of a demonstration disc for showing the quality of your stereo system (here is a sound in the left speaker, and here is another sound in the right speaker). He does manage to play a melody on what sounds like blowing across the tops of bottles filled with different levels of liquid, so that is something. A brief drum solo serves only to demonstrate that Mason is no Ginger Baker. In attempting to make music out of random sounds, the piece perhaps foreshadows the group's household objects experiment of a few years later.

Overall, "Ummagumma" is not a great album but is bold stuff for a group still finding their mature voice.

Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band "Trout Mask Replica"

Pop's great leap forward. Taking account of the innovations in songwriting made by The Beatles, particularly "Strawberry Fields Forever", and Frank Zappa's exploration of formal composition and juxtaposition, Captain Beefheart and his fellow musicians were the first to tackle the form of pop music, to take apart the building blocks of the music and put them together in a way different from anyone before.

This achievement was not recognised at the time. Critics and fans were confused by scarcity of traditional musical moves and assumed that the music was a melding of blues forms with free jazz. Subsequent study, and the release of earlier recordings, demonstrate that there is very little that is free about this music. Beefheart himself always referred to these pieces as compositions and they are composed, albeit not in a traditional style. Away from the myth (that the songs were composed in an 8 hour shift by Beefheart on a piano after he had stared at it for a while) and the trappings of Beefheart's own language (exploding note theory) is the even weirder story of how half a dozen, starving beat musicians locked themselves away in a house and over the course of 9 months invented the most startling pop music anyone had heard to that point.

There are a number of different styles reflected across the album. Some pieces are poetic narration, "China Pig" is a straight forward blues, some pieces are sung in the style of field chants, "Moonlight on Vermont" is an early statement of rock riffology. Far from unmelodic, the songs are chocked with melody. Snippets of music taken from Beefheart's childhood, TV adverts, other pop songs, and recognisable riffage all break out amidst the dissonance. Musical motifs and phrases reoccur, sometimes played in unison, sometimes separately. The music deploys serious musical concepts like counterpoint and polyrhythm in a playful fashion and this, together with some of the jokier moments on the recording made people think that the group were not serious. But this is deeply serious music - people do not devote 9 months of their life, every waking day, and forego all possible sources of earnings, for a series of jokes.

Each of the major compositions (major in terms of significance rather than length or portentousness) can be broken down into small chunks of repeated elements. These elements consist of a short musical phrase played by each of the two lead guitars and the bass. Each phrase is repeated, sometimes four times, sometimes more, and some phrases are repeated again later in the composition. The difficulty that many listeners have with this music is that each phrase played by each instrumentalist is usually separate from that played by the others, both in terms of tempo and key. The rules of musical harmony and rhythm are shattered. Each note has its own worth and contains within itself the possibility to be followed by any other note without concern for key or pitch (Beefheart's exploding note theory). What stops the music from collapsing into chaos is that each phrase is the same length for each instrumentalist. Thus they are able to start and stop at the same time and it is this which made the music reproducable by performers who were not conventional trained musicians able to sight read sheet music.

It is the job of the drummer to keep all this together, to play out the length of each phrase and to accompany and emphasise some elements of the musical parts and to contrast with others. The drummer sometimes plays a conventional rhythm and sometimes plays polyrhythms. It is the greatest drumming performance that I am aware of in pop music. Even more extraordinary is the fact that it was the drummer (whose name is John French) who transcribed the musical parts for the other musicians to play as well as transcribing his own drum parts to the extent that he would later record an lp consisting of just the drum parts for some of these songs (just the drums, no other instruments, and an amazing listen it is too).

Fittingly considering the musical accompaniment, the lyrics for the compositions on "Trout Mask Replica" are unlike anything else up to that point. The subject matter of some of the songs is sometimes the usual material of pop music - feeling happy, girls, but it is handled elliptically. Other subjects addressed include the holocaust, man's relationship with nature, a comparison between how men and ants fight amongst themselves over small things while bees are able to share, how societies establish themselves and develop. 

The language used and sentence constructs are closer to poetry than conventional pop lyrics. Phrases are repeated but there are no choruses, again fitting with the dislocated nature of the music. Unusual words like "hominy" (coarsely ground corn), "gingham", "faucet", "atomiser", "bobbin", "floozy", "speidel" (a brand of watch), "Merc Montclair" (a type of car) signify an older America. And these words are not accidental, several of them occurring more than once in different songs. Birds, ants, bees, worms, a fly, butterflies, fish, a jack rabbit, a horse, bears, wild geese, swans, mice, gophers, alligators, and a white elephant are all mentioned, sometimes recurring in different songs. This may be the most animalistic lp of all time. Characters such as hobbos, bums, old women, mothers, fathers, daughters, Lousey, Big Joan, Ella Guru, Mrs Wooten and Little Nitty, Ole Gray, and Bimbo Limbo Spam all appear. The ocean, the sea, the sky, the sun, and the moon are referenced repeatedly.

Did Frank Zappa ruin "Trout Mask Replica"? Frank Zappa produced the lp and left us with a fairly muddy sound. The drums in particular lack oomph. The vocals are pushed to the front of the sound, along with the horn parts, leaving the band relegated to the background for many pieces. Zappa interposes himself on some parts of the album with interjections and one song directed to himself ("it's the Blimp, Frank") which features a recording of his own group rather than The Magic Band. His other significant double album production of this time by an artist other than himself was his overseeing of "An Evening with Wild Man Fischer", a recording of a local eccentric/mentally damaged person. Along with his production of The GTOs (an album made by groupie hangers on), was Zappa cultivating a stable of freakish outsiders and harnessing them for cheap laughs and did he see Beefheart and his music as another example of this? It is a point worth considering.

However, it should be recognised that possibly only Zappa had the willingness and the means to produce a record by Beefheart at this point in Beefheart's career. Beefheart had fallen out with his record company over their post-production ruination (as he saw it) of his previous lp, the blues and psychedelia driven "Strictly Personal". Beefheart had also wanted to put out a double lp, "It Comes To You in a Plain Brown Wrapper", comprising these recordings and the longer pieces subsequently released as "Mirror Man". Beefheart always saw himself, rightly, as an Important Artist, and probably felt he should be allowed to make a major statement like The Beatles or Jimi Hendrix had done with their double albums. Zappa not only agreed to record and release a new Beefheart lp but also to make it a double album, thus satisfying Beefheart's ego. As with the Wild Man Fischer and GTOs lps, there can only have been a limited financial incentive for Zappa to do this. None of these were conventionally commercial propositions. Zappa also produced all these lps at a time of great creative endeavour for himself and his own output. It seems unikely that he would have diverted his efforts into these channels unless he thought there was something more meaningful that could be uncovered.

However, it is also the case that producing these three lps did not involve Zappa in too much work. Both Wild Man Fischer and Beefheart often perform unaccompanied necessitating little effort from any producer and their lps include non-studio recordings. "Trout Mask Replica" includes what are clear one-take errors (such as Beefheart being unable to get all of the words into "She's Too Much For My Mirror") which were not subsequently corrected. Beefheart's next lp, "Lick My Decals Off, Baby", has a much clearer production than "Trout Mask Replica" with a greater separation and differentiation of the various instruments. However, not all of this is Zappa's fault. He appears to have been taken aback by the Magic Band's ability to play their pieces straight through in one take. They were so well drilled and used to playing as a collective that they may not have been able to play their individual parts separately to facilitate separation of the instruments. John French played at least one of the songs on the album with cardboard covering his drums and cymbals, which cannot have helped with getting a good drum sound (nor with playing the instrument). Beefheart himself had not bothered rehearsing with the band so no-one (including him) knew where the vocal parts would fit with the music. It is alleged that he recorded his vocal and saxophone parts without headphones so he could not even hear much of the music. And doubtless Beefheart himself insisted that his performance should be to the fore.

The mixture of sources used for the lp does give "Trout Mask Replica" variation across the four sides but not always satisfactorily. "Moonlight on Vermont" and "Veteran's Day Poppy" are sensational recordings but jar with their surroundings. Some of the album was recorded at The Magic Band's house rather than in a studio ("a bush recording" as Beefheart has it) and being interupted by their new neighbours. "China Pig", a spontaneous recording, sounds like it was recorded on a cassette player with a former member of the group and his straight blues playing does not fit with the more advanced material elsewhere on the record. The vocals for "The Blimp" are dialled in, literally being recorded over the phone, and then played back over a recording of Zappa's Mothers of Invention. And then there are the occasional bants between Beefheart and the musicians. All of these are mere trappings. Entertaining in their own right, they can detract from the main meat of The Magic Band recordings at Whitney Studios in March 1969. The result is that sometimes "Trout Mask Replica" is dismissed as freaky outsider music that is cool because it is so far out. Rather than the album be recognised as a major art statement and art achievement of the later 20th century. Nobody knows what is going to happen in the future but few would be surprised, I think, to discover musicians in 22nd century conservatoires still trying to unpick exactly what is occurring in these recordings and to attempt to reproduce them. Good luck with that, everybody.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Tommy "The Who"

Apparently, confused by the album's artwork, some parties in America thought the album was called "The Who" by Tommy. This indicates the extent to which this lp elevated The Who into the major league of performers when before they had been just a quirky singles band with a limited profile. I do not want to get into the wider resonances of this piece and interpretation of its meaning as I want to focus on the actual sound and initial impression of the records. Suffice to say that The Who managed to, seemingly on the fly, draw together a number of themes and ideas contemporary to their times and parcel them up within a digestible story. Issues such as autism, hero worship, belief in gurus, sexual assault, drug abuse, the mind-body problem and, of course, pinball are given an airing. That the story has legs is shown by its later adaptations and interpretations into orchestral versions, celebrity concerts, a film and stage show.

"Tommy"'s longevity is in major part due to its successful focus on the story and the fact that this story has sufficient characters and incidents to remain interesting while retaining a clear narrative thrust focusing on a few relatively simple elements. Other narrative pieces from the same period such as "SF Sorrow" by The Pretty Things and "Arthur" by The Kinks, do not achieve this and have become footnotes in these bands' careers rather than a cornerstone of their escalation into the top ranks of performers.

A key element of the album "Tommy"'s success lies with its production and the restraint exhibited by The Who, whether intentional or forced on them. The production does not emphasise The Who's power as performers but does offer them the opportunity to demonstrate their prowess as instrumentalists. Acoustic guitars, piano, organ and horn parts litter the musical score delivering a soundscape miles away from the band's earlier feedback drenched electric sound. The main musical themes are delivered, at least initially, by Townshend on acoustic guitar and keyboards. It is a striking moment when the more electric-oriented "Amazing Journey" bursts forth. Pieces like "Christmas", "Pinball Wizard" and "I'm Free" have greater emphasis and impact in the context of the overall piece by their deployment of the electric Who sound. The chief victim of this gentler sound is Keith Moon's drum parts. The full whack and thud of his playing is lost and this is a shame because the album features some of his very best playing (these cannot have been easy songs to accompany). The live recordings from this period capture Moon's full impact and show what a bravura performance it was to accompany these songs.

The softer sound of "Tommy" allows the listener to focus on the lyrics which are crucial in carrying the story. They do this with enormous economy. All of the lyrics are put into the mouths of characters with the exception of "Sally Simpson" (probably the one song which sits least easily in the overall narrative). The song sheet accompanying the original record is very short for such a lengthy work. Because the lyrics consist of the thoughts and words of characters there is no text wasted on exposition. A lack of description also frees the listener to form relevant pictures in his or her own mind. The story is open to interpretation and the action is not necessarily determined. The order of the songs can be changed (as The Who did in live performance) while still making sense.

Musical themes recur throughout the piece, repeated and developed and tying the action together and making links with earlier experiences of the main character. This is Townshend's innovation as a pop composer and one he learnt from exposure to classical composers. Other narrative pieces from around this time present a sequential series of songs that are separate from each other and only linked through their subject matter. Townshend made much of his work indivisible from the other elements through the use of recurring themes and musical motifs. Best of all, the ending of the piece is open and optimistic but not fixed to any one meaning. The essay accompanying the boxed set version of "Tommy" reveals that the "listening to you" climax did not feature as part of Townshend's original plan and the accompanying demo versions of the album show that it was not part of the original "We're Not Gonna Take It" song. Rather it was always just another part of the "Go to the Mirror" song that Townshend at a late stage decided to make the finale of the piece.

As stated, there are recurrent musical themes within the compositions. The reprise of "Pinball Wizard " at the end of "I'm Free", the frequent deployment of the "See Me Feel Me" theme in songs like "Christmas", "Go to the Mirror" and at the end of "We're Not Gonna Take It", the way the end of "1921" prefigures one of the main themes of "Sparks". In fact, the piece "Sparks" pulls together many of these themes, to the extent that if you can "Sparks", you can play the whole of the album. The use of suspended chords is widespread to the point almost of parody but does generate momentum, delay and release to the music and hence the narrative. The fact that Townshend limits his musical endeavors to a few simple themes makes the music easy to grasp and the crescendos easy for the audience to anticipate and enjoy. This makes the album an easier listen and also explains how there was an instant appreciation and audience response to "Tommy" when played in concert to fans who may not have been familiar with the record.

Vocal performances on the album are shared amongst the group with Townshend in particular acting almost as a second lead vocalist. Daltrey often sings in a higher pitch than he normally would, offering restraint and melody to a even a triumphal song like "I'm Free" when he might have been expected to belt it out. This gives a sweeter vocal sound to the group previously responsible for pieces like "My Generation". There is a good balance and ratio between the uptempo numbers and the more sensitive, spiritual songs and Townshend more often than not successfully blends aggression with sensitivity in the midst of the same song.

Finally, unlike many of the double albums discussed already, Townshend exercised considerable discipline in limiting the pieces on the finished album. Other material was recorded but not used including elements that had been part of Townshend's initial conception of the piece. If a piece did not directly service the story then it was discarded. Even though the album was written and recorded under considerable pressure (The Who desperately needed a success to keep them in the public eye and to generate sufficient funds to keep them functioning) the group did not feel compelled to throw everything they had at the piece. Further, the group made an important decision that all instruments on the recorded had to be played by members of the group and that the piece had to be capable of being reproduced on stage by only the four performers. They thus avoided the issue experienced by many other groups of this period of creating a studio masterpiece that could not be played live. Rather, the album is the initial studio version of a live masterpiece.

The Mothers of Invention "Uncle Meat"

"Uncle Meat" lacks the satiric aspirations of "Freak Out" and the follow-up Mothers of Invention lps, enabling it to focus solely on the quality of the music and associated sounds and expanding on the route suggested by "Lumpy Gravy".

There is a much greater emphasis on rhythmic playing especially by percussion instruments such as marimba, vibraphone and xylophone as well as timpani, wood blocks, bells and chimes. It is a bit like music hour at school only with Frank Zappa's melodies over the top. Zappa certainly likes a fast tune, even when the accompaniment proceeds at a slower pace. A lot of the playing on this lp was evidently too slow for him as often the tape is sped up to produce flurries of notes and comic vocals.

In terms of production, this is a step up on "Freak Out". Despite featuring many overdubs, the instrumentation is nicely separated and distinct. The melodies are more fully exposed. Extensive use is made of tape manipulation and sharp editing producing an effect like a looney tunes cartoon soundtrack. The music is shifting, almost constantly changing. There are references to film scores, surf music, ethnological sounds, bird songs, fifties rock 'n' roll, hard bop, love songs of the 1920s and 30s. It is a broad palette.

Almost all of the pieces of music are relatively short with the exception of side four which comprises 6 different interpretations of a single song, "King Kong", edited together to form one piece. This brevity, and the number of changes within each song, keep the listener engaged, as does the fact that the whole album is edited together without gaps between each of the tracks. The edits are deliberately sudden, making juxtaposition a part of the creation. Overall, the album is a good example of how entertaining Zappa's music can be.


Bee Gees "Odessa"

In 1968 Bob Dylan's backing group, The Band, released an lp called "Music From Big Pink". Together with its follow up a year later, these records represent the single worst thing to happen to pop music in the 1960s and 70s. That is not to say these were bad records. They were not. They were stunning. But their influence was pernicious. Pop songwriters who produced light, sunny, melodic, memorable tunes took it upon themselves to produce supposedly authentic, roots material that drew on The Band's wellspring of Americana. A mix of country, blues, songs of the pioneers and an earlier, weirder America that supposedly tapped honest emotion and themes. The Band delivered that mix of searching for spirituality with a back to the earth rejection of the modern world that much of the hippie generation were searching for. The extraordinary photos of the group that adorned their lp covers showed people who were both hip and timeless, not so much sepia tinged as thoroughly dunked in the stuff. It led directly to The Beatles growing beards and recording atrocities like "Why Don't We Do It in the Road". You can spot these songs easily as they like to begin by pitching the listening straight into the story like "Marley Purt Drive"'s "Sunday morning, woke up yawning, filled the pool for a swim". The gold standard here is of course The Band's "The Weight": "I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling 'bout half past dead".

Here is a list of bad things in pop music that can be blamed on The Band:

  • beards
  • hats
  • 19th century clothing
  • Van Morrison's career after "Tupelo Honey"
  • The Band's career after 1970
  • Status Quo's ballads
  • The Eagles
  • Southern Rock
  • all songs in 4/4 time
  • acoustic guitars and pianos
  • accordions
  • singing drummers
Worst of all was what happened to The Bee Gees. (For the avoidance of doubt, let me point out that the preceding statement and list are meant to be light hearted and I like some of the things listed. But not beards.)

During their 18 months long UK recording career, The Bee Gees had made 3 albums of sublime, ambitious baroque pop music. They had extended the range of psychedelic pop to encompass narrative tales of unusual characters and places like Craise Finton Kirk Royal Academy of Arts, Sir Geoffrey, Harry Braff. Their influence was being felt by other artists who rushed to cover Bee Gees songs and write their own pale imitations. The group were heading the charts in the UK and making inroads into the US. Either off their own bat, or with the encouragement of their management, they decided their next record should reflect some sort of overall concept or narrative with the possibility of being turned into a musical. Perhaps they were influenced by the likes of "Sgt. Pepper's" and by the lps being released by the Moody Blues. Either way, this move was to prove disastrous.

While recording what would be released as the "Odessa" lp, Robin Gibb left the group taking with him a fantastic mother lode of material. He would record one fair to middling solo lp and one fantastic lp that would not be released until 2015. His brothers would follow "Odessa" with a poor lp called "Cucumber Castle" and a rubbish TV film that is one of the worst things I have seen. Maurice Gibb would record a solo lp that was also not released. The hits dried up and the group were reduced to performing in cabaret. But just around the corner was Robin rejoining, "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart", "Lonely Days" and a whole new career. Although not before they recorded yet another album that was not released.

The main problem with "Odessa" is the quality of the material. The songs are just not very good. The Bee Gees' gift for idiosyncratic melody and off the wall arrangements is sacrificed for plodding one-paced songs that do not develop. "Marley Purt Drive" is the chief crime on the "let's try and sound American" charge sheet. Although they do declare "Give Your Best" to be a square dance.

The primary instrumentation on the album is acoustic guitars, keyboards, some drums and lots of vocal overdubs and orchestration. This might be fine spread across one record but across two it is wearisome. All the performances are either slow or feel slow. An atmosphere of torpor hangs over the whole project. The production is muddy and the sound all blurs into one big sludge.

The other problem with the album is that the concept has no concept. The opening song, "Odessa (City By the Sea)" sounds like the start of an extended narrative but the other songs have nothing to do with it. The song does have some ambition and is for the most part successful as a man on an iceberg fears he may melt away while his sweetheart loves the vicar more than him. This is the sort of unusual situation that the early Bee Gees excelled in describing.

There is an instrumental climax reached during side three but the record then continues for another side. There are extended orchestral pieces which are very light classical. There are neither recurring characters nor recurring themes. The outside cover suggests a luxury edition book and the inside cover has a dramatic illustration of a child being thrown onto a lifeboat from a sinking ship. But it all adds up to a big fat nothing. I think that The Bee Gees had shown themselves to be so fecund that they were unable to limit themselves to a few simple ideas across one record and preferred to cram everything into three minute singles. However, they felt compelled to finish a magnum opus so kept on producing songs long after inspiration had left. It is what I imagine Paddy McAloon's unreleased albums are like - gifted writers completing a set of songs as a challenge to themselves because they can. Or like Elvis Costello writing an lp of songs for Wendy James over a weekend just to show off. Just because you can does not mean you should, basically.

The instrumental pieces are a bit startling in that they do fit in with the tone of the rest of the album and are a bit strident and extravagant, a bit like a Nick Drake album suddenly featuring "Pomp and Circumstance" from the Last Night of the Proms. They sound, in particular "Seven Seas Symphony", like a soundtrack, perhaps to the mooted stage musical version of this album. Some of the songs did find their way on to the soundtrack of the film "S.W.A.L.K." in 1971. The last track, "The British Opera" sounds like it comes from a Busby Berkeley musical. And this may be where part of the problem lies - there is always a risk with Bee Gees music that it can easily tip over into middle of the road blandness and it is only their essential strangeness that prevents it from doing so. A lot of that strangeness went when Robin left. Illustrative of what was lost, is a story in relation to the song "Never Say Never Again":

            "Robin recalled that he wanted to write a song with the line, 'I declared war on Spain'. According to Robin: "Instead, Barry wanted something so normal it was ridiculous. He said my words were so unromantic. But what could be more normal than a man in love wanting to declare war on anything that was to him unlovely?""
In recording "Odessa" The Bee Gees lost their strangeness and became, for a while, just another group singing drippy songs.

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.