Tag Archives: 1970s

Toxic Post-Punk Syndrome: Elvis Costello’s Watching the Detectives

Having spent a little bit more times on the fringes of reggae (The Specials are my latest venture, getting into full-on ska territory at this point), the realization suddenly dawns on me that there’s a reggae song that I’ve been a fan of from way back, and it turns out that it’s even better now: Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives”. Stapled onto the back of the American version Costello’s debut album, My Aim Is True, it was his first UK hit and an excellent object-lesson in simple atmosphere-building (a technique he’d use later to absolutely devastating effect on “I Want You”). The rest of the album shows of Costello’s songwriting chops, with scathing lyrics and good tunes, but this one feels totally immersive and that you’re only getting a little piece of the much bigger picture.

A Steve Goudling drubbing of the drums pulls us into the story as the slinky bass makes its appearance known and asks you to follow it with morbid curiosity, courtesy of Andrew Bodnar. There’s a slightly sinister air as the bass is slightly too complex to sit on its laurels over the reggae beat, so you get the sneaking suspicion that it knows something that you don’t. Costello’s guitar tries to sidle in without being seen before the vocals come in. As his voice cracks under the pressure, he draws out the scene cinematically “long shot of that jumping sign/visible shivers runnin’ down my spine/cut the baby taking off her clothes/close-up of a sign that says ‘we never close'”. His voice oozes menace as he lingers on those last syllables as Goudling deftly skips along the hi-hat.

The off-beat organ in the chorus makes it sounds little cheesy at first, but by the time the climactic last chorus comes by, you’re no longer laughin’. The vocals get closer and closer together until they’re overlapping each other in paranoia “Now fear is here to stay/Love is here for a visit/…/Someone’s scratching at the window/I wonder, who is it?”. The tension builds and builds as the vocals hammer on the beat harder and harder and the rhythm section fills things out more and more until it all stops and Costello delivers the punishing line “It only took my little fingers to blow you away”. Even though it follows your standard verse/chorus/verse/chorus structure, there really ain’t no climax until that one little moment where it all comes together beautifully, as the rhythm stays pretty intact up until that point.

Each part under analysis doesn’t seems like it would fit together with everything going on in the song, and perhaps that’s the beauty of it. The song begins to coalesce more and more as it goes on until everyone’s firing on all cylinders when Costello calls “shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot!” during the chorus. The minor key and Costello’s straight delivery avoids the idea that Costello is trying to emulate a reggae song, but rather, is using the form as sort of a means to an end, the tension held together beautifully by the insistent rhythm of the whole thing, the organ in the chorus being the only place they really seems to hang a hat on it. By far one of my favourite songs of his entire oeuvre and one that I have a multitude of listens to give. Building up to that moment every time manages to remain a highlight, no matter how many repetitions. I’m still finding more in it!

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Toxic Prog Rock Syndrome: Gentle Giant’s Wreck

Gentle Giant is known as the prog band’s prog band. They’re doing stuff that gobsmacked the more well-known bands of the time with their polyphony, weird signatures, instruments and staggeringly intricate vocals.Not only drawing on classical music and jazz but also on renaissance and chamber music figures as well, they took their esotericity very seriously. They occupied a second tier of progressive rock that was arguably more experimental and extreme than their more popular cousins (Genesis, Yes, etc), but never quite reached the same fame due to their inaccessibility (the audience was never a chief concern in prog circles). Unsurprisingly, they didn’t handle prog’s transition to pop in the late 70s/early 80s that well – they called it quits after 1980’s Civilian and have not reunited since.

That’s not to say, however, that the band is completely unassailable. They still aspired to achieving the perfect fusion of mature and pop music, and their songs were always tightly written – seldom in Gentle Giant are there 10+ minute songs or wandering instrumental solos. Everything was packed into the main body of the song, it was just the structures themselves that were operating on a number of different levels.

My favourite track by the band has always been “Wreck”, as it’s actually kind of a catchy tune and represents the band in the position of just trying to craft a good old fashioned rocking stomp that will get people into the song. The problem was that, despite this, they were still Gentle Giant, so you get the impression of these guys writing a rock song but not really getting a grasp of the ‘less is more’ approach. The opening riff starts out well, but starts to wander almost immediately as it feels a couple bars too long and begins to wander around the notes, which actually creates much more expressive riff than you’d usually hear. This leads into the bulk of the song with a simplified version of the opening riff in 4/4 which the vocals overtop follow and end every line with a chorus chanting a very friendly “hey/ yeah-e-yeah/hold on”. This part rocks pretty well and you bob your head as you hear this tale  of an awful shipwreck and the sailors going down in it.

This is maintained for a bit as people get into the groove, until this part, in the middle of the song is interrupted by a violin and harpsichord interview and light vocal flitting around notes almost at random. They last like two minutes before they have to let loose with harmonically complex ditties with fancier instruments (at a later point they fade out the rock part of the song to bring you another interlude with a flute at the centre) in the middle. They knew they had to make it rock and make it complex but couldn’t decide on the synthesis and so just broke them up.

I’m not saying it doesn’t work, however. The main part of the song represents the rage of the sea that swallowed the ship, while the more serene part is a distinct reflection on the cruelty of the sea being where they made their living and is now the thing that leads to their destruction. Thematically, they made it work, but it is such a jarring juxtaposition and a good representation in the attitude of the time that the music they’re making should be utterly unlike anything that was out there at the time. The album “Wreck” is included on, 1971’s Acquiring the Taste, even bears this statement from the band:

“…It is our goal to expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music at the risk of being very unpopular. We have recorded each composition with the one thought – that it should be unique, adventurous and fascinating. It has taken every shred of our combined musical and technical knowledge to achieve this. From the outset we have abandoned all preconceived thoughts of blatant commercialism. Instead we hope to give you something far more substantial and fulfilling. All you need to do is sit back, and acquire the taste.”

Pretty pretentious stuff to be throwing around, but I think the statement was more for the band themselves than the listener – sort of their manifesto in that they did not want to rely on previous musical tropes to build their music off of. Nevertheless, this is a song I always go back to. It’s unlike anything I’ve heard, and I really appreciate that the complexity inherent in the song is woven into its own tapestry, rather than being saved for some extended section, but at the same time I still get to yell stuff like “HEY! Yeah-e-yeah, hold on!”

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Loud Crowds & Forgotten Lyrics: A Live Album Round-Up

I have been acquiring a lot of live albums lately!  I guess that once you’ve gotten well-acclimated to an artist or at least the portion of the artist’s discography you’re comfortable with, live albums offer an extra bit of material to hear from them – most of the tracks you will be familiar with, but a performance of a little-known B-side or a radically different take on an old classic might be all you need to invigorate your enthusiasm for that artist once again. Or, if you’re enjoying an artist’s current run, a live album allows you to sort of bask in the glow of current fantastic material. Live is a whole different ballgame, apart from studio tricks (for the most part) – it can often give a better idea of the state of the band.

Enjoying the heck of out Push the Sky Away, I had to keep the good times rolling with Nick Cave’s latest output, Live at KCRW. As it is promoting the recent album, 4 of the 10 tracks here are from Push the Sky Away, and the rest sort of even-handedly comb through the Cave discography, which produces interesting results. The Bad Seeds are a drastically different line-up than they have been for a majority of their album-making career, with Warren Ellis being Cave’s right-hand man after the (somewhat) recent departure of Blixa Bargeld. As such, a lot of the performances of older songs have taken a slower and more sombre tone  (with the exception of the rowdy rendition of “Jack the Ripper” at the close of the album), most notably the formerly raucous live favourite “The Mercy Seat”. Where the songs remain relatively unchanged are the instances where the original songs were already slow and mournful – the setlist has been carefully chosen (“Eventually you’ll say one of the songs on this very short list” quips Cave after a few seconds of people shouting requests at home). Everything feels a part, though, as the performances blend each of the songs into the style of the recent album – if you were a newcomer to the band, you wouldn’t bat an eye. It feels like a statement from Cave about how he wishes to proceed or at the very least his headspace during this time – rock has been more or less left in the dust and he’s now looking for that arrangement, that melody, that loop. Push the Sky Away made very much the same statement, but putting that stamp on prior tracks feels like a manifesto.

With slight trepidation, I picked up Before the Flood by Bob Dylan & The Band. My trepidation was thus: I remember hearing the 60s concerts Dylan did in England (of “Judas!” fame) where The Band hadn’t made a name for themselves and were just his backing band. I remember being absolutely gobsmacked by the performances and wanting to experience a little of that magic. How does that equal trepidation? I didn’t trust my mind, first of all. This was quite some time ago and I felt I might have been romanticizing the whole thing and would end up disappointed. Secondly, the performances I remember were circa 1966, whereas this album was from 1974, far beyond my reach of Dylan knowledge (for whatever reason, I’ve expanded little beyond Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. No, not even Blood on the Tracks, which I realize would have set me up much more nicely to experience this one). I did, however, have faith and I wanted to find a way to get into The Band, so I figured this was a good stopgap.

The setlist is culled from both acts, though leaning a little more on Dylan’s side. The first thing I noticed was that it took me awhile to recognize Dylan’s voice, which seems to have dropped or at least changed style quite a bit – his trademark sneer is toned down quite a bit, and the cadence and placing of his words seems very deliberately off-kilter from the well-familiar version (something I’ve heard from people who have gone to see him these days). The now-classic “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”* sounds relatively unchanged (having been released the year before), but others didn’t fare as well. Maybe the rambling style of his earlier songs was something he felt shouldn’t be duplicated – to hear an attempt to recreate something like “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”* sounds strange, as there’s so much to it and it just feels like a strangely intimate open letter society rather than a proper song/stadium rocker. The Band, for their part, sounded in fine form (and recognizable), adding a little energy to their classics I do know – “The Weight”, “Up on Cripple Creek”, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” – while impressing me with the ones I didn’t, which will be getting some re-listening as I try to figure out where I wanna drop in with The Band (probably the Brown Album, but still).

Pink Floyd rounds out the list with a live recording from before the release of even their first album, titled London 1966/1967. When I saw this, I immediately thought it would be an interesting artifact to hear – the band really developing their chops at this point, albeit with original bandleader Syd Barrett, rather than David Gilmour with whom they’d go on to much greater fame. The album consists of two ten-minute plus psychedelic jams ““Interstellar Overdrive”, which does appear on their debut album, though in much shortened form. Here it’s made clear that it’s their live freak-out showcase, with very little in the way of structure – apart from a bit of a descending riff to start out – as the band ebbs and flows and Syd with his trusty echo effects attempts to play parts of his guitar which were not necessarily intended to be played as an introduction to the more anarchic sections here. The other track is entitled “Nick’s Boogie”, based on a little ditty played by Nick Mason on his toms at the start of the track and the jam builds up from nothing, as the band members peek their heads in further and further, coming in only very intermittently with very strange noises weaving in and out. It’s great to see all the ingredients of a freak out, but what you are seeing is really the clay with would form to become the songs on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Not an experience I will turn to often, but if I’m lying on the floor in a daze, it might be the perfect thing.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

“Jack the Ripper”

“The Mercy Seat”

Bob Dylan & The Band

*Being unable to find the versions of these songs from the album, I will give you more or less the original versions so you get some idea of where I’m goin’

“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”

“It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”

Pink Floyd

“Interstellar Overdrive”

 

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Toxic Canterbury Syndrome: Caravan’s Golf Girl

We’re practically awash in all manners of summer here in Southern Ontario, and summertime is when I reach for Caravan. Caravan is a part of that early 70s British prog scene, albeit a specific subgenre of which originated from one little area of the country. It basically started with one band – The Wilde Flowers, who eventually split up and whose members formed Soft Machine and Caravan. These would again split off and create new bands (Gong, Egg, Matching Mole, Hatfield and the North), members would swap, and each new line-up needed a name – not to mention that other people heard what these guys were doing and wanted to imitate it as well. By that point, there were so many bands/projects/albums in that style that it was determined that it had to have a label, which ended up being the town of origin of the whole darn thing regardless of where the majority of the bands ended up coming from.

The actual Canterbury sound was not so interested in terror as King Crimson nor virtuoso performances like Emerson, Lake & Palmer. It very much started out rooted in jazz, but with an appreciation for the stronger melodic content of a pop song and a preoccupation with absurd, silly lyrics. Caravan itself took a pastoral and slightly gentle approach, with the melody being the key. No more is this more evident than in “Golf Girl”, a prog pop song if there ever was one.

The song tells the tale of its narrator going out for a game of golf “dressed in PVC” and falling in love with the girl at the golf course selling tea (which is a lovely service for a golf course to provide). The trombone intro gives the song a little flash in straying from the standard rock instruments, as does the piccolo than can be heard throughout, but it plays a goofy little melody that perfectly sets the tone for what I can find no better term for than a light-hearted romp. You can hear the grin in Richard Sinclair’s voice as he documents the charming story, his voice warm and his accent pronounced – he’s not belting by any means, but simply relating – over top of the rest of the band marking the rhythm with some piano and acoustic guitar strums. There’s a bit of an organ solo and a bit more of a piccolo solo, but there’s no feeling that the band is having to prove something here, unlike some of the other prog bands of the time. They’re just trying to write a fun pop song, but the combination of the musicianship and their love of marijuana ensure that it comes out with a few frills going off here and there – each instrument gets its chance to work its way into a silly little corner before coming back into the main tune.

The song doesn’t have any one unbelievable characteristic, it just always puts a smile on my face every time I hear it. The story combined with the surrounding instrumentation is oh-so-English and paints a wonderful little picture of the time. Early 1970s Britain, as the post-Beatles rock explosion began, is one of my absolute favourite periods/places in music, so getting even a small idea of what it might have been like excites me. “Golf Girl” is downright pleasant and feels like summer – when I listen to it, I can feel the sun on my face, and the atrocious pants on my legs.

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When the Beloved Bandmember Goes Solo

Lately, I’ve been re-listening to a lot of the Peter Hammill catalogue that I have, and the reason for this is two-fold. Firstly, the idea of being ‘really into’ a particular singer-songwriter with such a large body of work appeals to me greatly (as of 2014, Hammill has 35 solo albums to his name, and shows no signs of slowing down) – there’s quite a huge world to get lost in there, and enough to cover every mood and whim once I get a basic familiarity with it. The other reason, is that, quite, simply, I want more of the band that Hammill famously fronts, Van der Graaf Generator.

Van der Graaf has been my (co-)favourite band since I first heard them five or six years ago, and I have, quite simply, pretty much worn myself out on a large majority of their work. There is lots of stuff there for me to revisit whenever I feel the urge, but I’ve listened to it all many, many times. The particular albums I’ve been giving attention – Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night, The Silent Corner & The Empty Stage and In Camera – all stem from the 1972-1974 period where Van der Graaf was on hiatus, and so features a lot of actual collaboration with David Jackson (sax), Hugh Banton (organ) and Guy Evans (drums), each including one lengthy VDGG-style harrowing final track. Three new ten-minute tracks is a lot to gnaw on in terms of the band, so that itch has more or less been scratched. I do find myself, however, stricken by the same problem I had when entering Peter Gabriel’s solo oeuvre.

The Peter Gabriel era of Genesis is what got me into progressive rock in the first place, and I very much had the same pattern. I listened to the albums they put out during that time incessantly, but the point eventually came where I needed to find something else. Considering my main anchor for that stretch of albums was Gabriel’s voice, I decided the next place to turn was his solo stuff. If he’s the same guy, and he’s following on from this kind of pedigree, it must be similar, right? Wrong. Gabriel’s first album is a tour of styles, including the jangly “Solsbury Hill” and very much has Gabriel trying to write much more melodic and varied stuff, which baffled this dude hoping that the supply of ten-minute organ based epics was not ever going to run out.

Up and down the discography I went, always hitting the same block with “but this isn’t Genesis” rattling in my head. I would listen to it occasionally, but never quite got the same pleasure out of it that I would hope for. It wasn’t until coming back much later, having shaken the pure-prog yoke that I could approach this stuff with a new perspective and appreciation for what he was doing, rather than what he wasn’t. Even with that being said, I find Gabriel’s stuff takes a few listens to get into, but knowing that going in, it’s easier to reap the rich rewards for doing so (especially on the superb Us).

How then, do I get used to Hammill’s solo acoustic guitar songs, when he’s tearing the house down in a mad organ-drenched frenzy two songs later? It’s not that that composed a majority of his work either – he seems to relish the chance to use most instrumentals at his disposal with equal fervour – it’s just that hearing Hammill with only acoustic guitar as accompaniment still sounds oddly jarring to me, like it’s weirdly displaced after getting to know him as the eye of the storm of VDGG. I want to reach a place where I am not just trying to suck the Van der Graaf out of it, and am actually appreciating it for what it is, but that may take some time or just some listens. Such is the quandry of the solo artist post- or outside of the band they are more famous for. It’s a shadow that looms across the solo career of many (not necessarily for the negative, but often pigeonholing), but the jump fans make from band to artist can just as easily open their ears up given the one thing they are familiar with in a new context. Either way, it’s going to be a helluva ride. Despite some of the strangeness or strange-in-its-normality tunes that Hammill provides on his albums, I have yet to find one that’s been boring.

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