Monday, 16 January 2012

Gene Clark: No Other

The Byrds, hailed in the beginning as the American Beatles, turned out to be as fractious and egotistical as their UK counterparts were tight, gang-like and grounded. Possibly for this reason, the Byrd deemed to be the heart, the driving force of their rich music, has shifted over the years: initially it was Roger McGuinn, architect of their jet-age jangle, and it stayed this way during the group's lifetime; the spotlight shifted to the smug hippydom of David Crosby in the Seventies afterburn; and then on to Gram Parsons, somehow deemed the most 'authentic' Byrd in the country rock-obsessed Eighties.

Sweet Gene Clark. How sad and typical of his ill luck that he died in 1991, just as the consensus swung his way.

He had been the most handsome Byrd and their finest and most prolific songwriter, but on stage he was sidelined as tambourine player, a proto-Davy Jones. Fear of flying meant he would leave and rejoin the group on several occasions - it also hindered the promotion of any subsequent Clark projects. For decades, ludicrously, he remained a well-kept muso/fanboy secret.

No Other, a dark, baroque album is central to Gene Clark's critical rebirth. The artwork is a giveaway, a collage of Twenties glories with Anita Loos and other sexy flapper chums at its heart. Hollywood Babylon revisited. On the back, rugged Gene appears in mascara and billowing drag. He looks quite terrifying. Drawing parallels between the decadence of the Twenties and the coke-addled extravagance of the mid-Seventies, Clark fashioned a suite of songs that was a pure, personalised Americana, a distillation of all he had seen and learnt from his childhood in Missouri and his adult years in LA. Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks had talked of their aborted Smile album being "a Gothic American trip"; likewise, Clark's fellow country rock traveller Gram Parsons once expressed a dream of creating Cosmic American Music. No Other was the real thing.

Aside from his mastery of melancholy, there had been few clues in Gene Clark's back pages that he would deliver something this wild and dark - his last fully realised album had been the beautiful but spartan White Light in 1971. The turning point was meeting the producer Thomas Jefferson Kaye, a Steely Dan acolyte and one-time colleague of the wunderkind producer Curt Boettcher. Their shared love of Zen Buddhism, booze and drugs took them to the Village Recorder studios in west LA in March 1974 with $100,000 from Asylum Records burning a hole in Kaye's pocket.

He had just massively overspent on a Bobby Neuwirth album and now saw No Other as "my Brian Wilson extravaganza". As for Clark, the record was "all about soul searching". Eight songs in six months suggest that there was plenty of that.

Life's Greatest Fool is a misleading opener, being an exercise in fine country rock with only the gospel harmonies and cautionary philosophy there to cause a stir. The gothic undertow of Silver Raven, all "darkened waters" and "troubled sky", veers into Johnny Cash territory. The title track is where things take a wholly different turn, a hypnotic almost funky piece which occupies the same niggling darkness as David Bowie's Golden Years. Apparently it took a week before the musicians got their first take and you can sense the numbness, the intoxication.

Strength of Strings is the album's centrepiece. The brief Clark set himself was to convey the subconscious way in which music is created, how it can be so magical, spiritual, overwhelming. No less. He pulls it off with a slow-burning intro of near-oriental harmonies, almost treading on Crosby, Stills and Nash's toes, while Kaye adds layers of ghostly church voices until the whole thing explodes with Clark's tearful tones - "In my life the piano sings, brings me words that are not the strength of strings." Side 2's opener, From a Silver Phial, is almost light relief, though its lyric - criss-crossing between the tale of a cocaine casualty and a sensual master-servant saga from the old South (or is it Hollywood?) - is as much the opaque heart of No Other's mystique as Strength Of Strings' grandeur.

The eight-minute Some Misunderstanding came to Clark in a dream which he dictated to his wife in the middle of the night. Its vagueness is its beauty, beginning as a meditation on how to take a relationship forward then ruminating on the recent death of Gram Parsons - "We all need a fix, but at times like this, doesn't it feel good to stay alive?" It soars and floats over pedal-steel and organ interplay (the cream of LA session players, anyone you care to name) and hangs eerily in the air, unresolved. Passing through The True One, another country-rock interlude, we reach the climactic Lady of the North, "like silver on the ocean shore". Clark sounds awed, lovestruck, and never sang better, reaching from rumbling baritone to near-falsetto (think of the middle eight of Elvis's Any Day Now and you're close). Dense and hypnotic, his voice weaves in and out of the piano, cello and electric violin - when the shimmering coda arrives it is pure release.

Over the years No Other has been lauded by some but frequently criticised for over-ambition (David Geffen at Asylum concurred and put no promo effort in - it consequently sold zip). This is conservatism on a par with Mike Love's criticism of Pet Sounds. Recorded in a stultifying era of newly-minted and consequently too-cosy singer-songwriters, the result of Gene Clark's search for America's dark heart seems all the more impressive. And it sounds deeper and stronger with each passing year. What a terrible pity he isn't around to receive his standing ovation.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Happy birthday Elvis

Elvis would have been 77 today. As he only lived to be 42 we were spared that 1986 album, produced by Bob Clearmountain and wrecked by gated reverb; also his ill-advised cover of With Or Without You; and of course his late 90s Rick Rubin album, with Elvis sounding lethargic, barely awake, as he is cattle-prodded through All Apologies. Sadly we also missed his recording of Feels Like I'm In Love (written for him by Mungo Jerry's Ray Dorset, and later a no.1 for Kelly Marie. Sound unlikely? Imagine it in the style of Burning Love).

We are reduced to imagining what might have happened as his real life story has been combed over incessantly for the last 35 years. Elvis has been treasured and traduced in equal measure - the ever-expanding library now stretches from Peter Guralnick's two exhaustive volumes, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love, to the film Schmelvis: In Search of the King's Jewish Roots and re-prints of his cookbook.

 Finding new material to celebrate rock's all-time golden boy is tough. A few years back the 1968 Comeback Special was given the triple DVD treatment - you want to see (or, at least, hear) Elvis split his pants doing a karate workout? You got it. Along with half a dozen takes of If I Can Dream (mesmerising) and Darlene Love shaking a tambourine for 20 minutes (less so). 

Astonishingly, however, it is still possible to find hidden nuggets in his back catalogue. Elvis's career of mighty peaks and dramatic troughs means a lot of fine recordings have been almost forgotten.

 Here are a bunch of songs which oldies stations tend to skip that capture his voice, humour, plentitude and pathos.

 Some of them you may well now, but if any of them aren't familiar you're in for a treat. Happy birthday Elvis.

Blue Moon (1954)
Recorded for Sun but unreleased for a couple of years, this is one of the eeriest recordings to ever reach the UK Top 10. A muted, clip-clop backing, rather like a Radiophonic Workshop evocation of sepia Americana, is a bed for echo-drenched Elvis to toy with Rodgers and Hart's classic. He sets the sad mood - "Blue moon, you saw me standing alone, without a dream in my heart, without a love of my own" - and then repeats the line, abandoning the happy denouement and replacing it with a ghostly wordless falsetto. Right at the start of his career, he already sounds like a spectre returning to haunt America's pop culture party.

Lonesome Cowboy (1957)
The first of several Elvis recordings with "lonesome" in the title. From the film Loving You, here was a real indicator of how far he was willing to deviate from straight R&R. Who is this channeling? Mario Lanza? Hank Williams? Frankie Laine? Revisiting the ghostly atmosphere of Blue Moon, this oddity was dwarfed by the other songs on the Loving You soundtrack (the title track, Mean Woman Blues, Teddy Bear) but deserves a moment in the high noon sun.

Doin' the Best I Can (1961)
A commercial monster after the so-so success of Elvis is Back!, GI Blues is sometimes seen as the beginning of the end. Yet there are some excellent songs on the soundtrack: Pocketful of Rainbows' unfettered joy, the driving rocker Shoppin' Around, and this Pomus/Shuman ballad of infinite sadness, the cuckolded Elvis singing "You know I was the kind who'd run anytime you called/ I guess I was the only one who didn't mind at all." The Japanese had the good taste to extract it from the score as a 45 - we got Wooden Heart instead.

That's Someone You Never Forget (1962)
A rare co-write for Elvis on this spooked love song that sounds a lot like a eulogy - possibly to his mother. It was included on the Pot Luck album which had artwork that looked like a thrown-together hack-job but included the considerable Suspicion, the wedding-bell weepie Something Blue, and the only song the King wrote on his own, a Begin the Beguine knock-off called You'll Be Gone.

Tender Feeling (1964)
"I'd like to make one good film before I leave. I know this town's laughing at me." - Elvis to co-star Marilyn Mason on the set of The Trouble With Girls

By now the films were getting sillier, more slapdash and more frequent (three in '64 alone), and the music sounded flatter as if there was some essence missing from the recording process - like soul. Most of his soundtrack albums featured one exception to the rule. Tender Feeling (from Kissin' Cousins, with Elvis in a bloody awful blonde wig) is picture postcard pretty, with a lovely celeste motif; singing high, Elvis wrings all he can from this early sixties rock-a-ballad. Part of his greatness was that he always had the ability to make a song seem better than it was.

It Hurts Me (1964)
A lyric dripping with unrequited love, scorn and indignation gave Elvis something to get his teeth into, and he turned in a towering, angry performance that presaged his late-Sixties rebirth. Unsurprisingly, then, he revived It Hurts Me for the 1968 TV special - apart from hardcore fans, most had missed it first time around as the B-side of the daffy title song from Kissin' Cousins.

Animal Instinct (1966) 
Flirtatious flute, a bottomless bass riff, and the session drummer Ken Buttrey's fancy fills make this a potential club hit (Martin Green has been known to give it a whirl). Elvis is a panther in Valentino garb in this highlight from the Harem Scarem score. He often walked out of the Hollywood sessions, disgusted at the material chosen on his behalf (I like Do Not Disturb more than he did, but it's hard to question his commitment given real dreck like Yoga is as Yoga Does or Old Macdonald). With a cheeky number like Animal Instinct, Elvis at least sounded energised - I'd like to think he was even having fun.

Please Don't Stop Loving Me (1966)
The closest he got to a deep soul record, originally on the Frankie and Johnny soundtrack, this has all the hallmarks: funereal pace, subtle Steve Cropper like guitar inflections, the feeling it could burst out of its skin with emotion at any given moment. Like 1962's Suspicion, this is sensuous and paranoiac, and the vocal is a faultless exercise in restraint.

Down in the Alley (1966)
While recording the How Great Thou Art album, Elvis cut loose with this secular screamer, first recorded by the Clovers in the 1950s. Starting with a nutso "changity changity" vocal hook, Down in the Alley features metallic guitar, shrill organ, honking sax and wailing harp. Lascivious is the word. It's loud and rude enough to have been a substantial hit, but RCA sat on it for two years before tacking it on to the Clambake soundtrack.

Tomorrow is a Long Time (1966)
Recorded at the same session, this Dylan cover met a similar sad fate when it could have single-handedly changed the public's perception of mid-Sixties Presley.

 Sparse and lonesome ("I can't remember the sound of my own name"), it features a beautiful fade with the fugitive Elvis humming to himself as he walks off into the sunset. Dylan rated it the best adaptation of any of his songs.

Edge of Reality (1969)
From Live a Little, Love a Little, a film that was also home to A Little Less Conversation, Edge of Reality's claim to fame is that it soundtracked a psychedelic dream sequence, not an everyday happening in Elvis movies. Dark and wordy, black and brooding, the brass bruises the singer as he hears "strange voices echo, laughing with mockery".

I'm Leavin' (1971)
The 1970s were clogged with self-pitying ballads - blame Elvis and Priscilla's separation. This forgotten single, a UK no.23 in a year in which he scored five Top 10 hits, is something else: intense and wholly despairing, Elvis is perfectly balanced with the subtle orchestration as he breaks into the chorus ("tried so hard, so hard, and I just can't take it"), ending it with the title sung in a fragile falsetto.

If I Get Home on Christmas Day (1971)
Elvis's second Christmas album is usually dismissed, apart from lip service paid to the endless blues chugger Merry Christmas Baby. Much more in keeping with the magic of Yuletide is this bittersweet song written by the British hit machine Tony Macaulay (Build Me Up Buttercup, Don't Give Up On Us, Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes). You can picture Elvis as the Wichita Lineman in deep December, presents in the back his truck as he ploughs home through snow storms. With the feeling he injects into it, and the choir of angels at the climax, you know he'll make it back by dawn.

Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues (1974)
"I'm not a kid at 33" - the retired playboy's admission of his own mortality. This wistful, country piece was as good as it got with late period Elvis, and it would have slotted neatly into Atlantic City, The Last Picture Show or Fat City; visions of a stumbling, lost America, mirrored by the pitiful decline of her greatest living icon. "Play around, you'll lose your wife," sings Elvis - on stage he'd grin and say, "I already did that." After the next line about losing your life, he'd add, "I almost did that already too."

Unchained Melody (1977)
His body was about to give out, and his between song patter on stage was rambling and sometimes embarrassing, but Elvis's voice rarely let him down. If he felt the song, he was as effective as ever. This is a man on the brink, fighting the odds (which include the song's ubiquity) - you will him on, pounding the piano, sweat rolling off him. And he wins. It's astonishing. A few weeks later, he was gone.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

An introduction to Brute Force

If anything symbolised the insanity of the Beatles' Apple set-up, and its dadaist approach to running a business, it was a 1968 single called King of Fuh by the New Jersey-born Brute Force. George Harrison thought Brute had "a lovely voice and a beautiful record", and radio programmers would surely have been bowled over by the London Symphony Orchestra's sumptuous backing, but there was a small problem with the chorus: "All hail the Fuh king."

Born Stephen Friedland in 1940, Brute Force became a member of the Tokens* in the early sixties, soon after they had scored a US #1hit with The Lion Sleeps Tonight. As part of the Tokens' Bright Tunes writing and production team, he used his unexplained nom de plume to write three minute psychodramas that few, Shadow Morton aside, could equal: Del Shannon's She Still Remembers Tony and the Bitter Sweets' What A Lonely Way To Start The Summertime were two of the best, both super-intense, end-of-romance wrist slashers.

And then there's the Chiffons' Nobody Knows What's Going On In My Mind But Me from 1965, an insight into a teenage girl's unhinged but meticulously controlled mind-state. It is at once garbled, triumphant, and - like the Bitter Sweets' single - on the verge of completely losing it. Nobody Knows... is one of the ultimate late-period Girl Group 45s and a rare (though fragile) show of female defiance in the genre. It eventually became a hit of sorts, on the dancefloor at Wigan Casino, via Tammy St John's clattery cover.

The full Force of what was going on in Friedland's mind was eventually revealed in 1966 on an album called Confections of Love. Recorded with Leonard Cohen in attendance, it featured song titles such as To Sit on a Sandwich and Tapeworm of Love. The Chiffons didn't record any of these songs, as far as I know.

Out of the Tokens and sore from the failure of Confections, Force made an attempt to swim the Bering Strait in 1968, from Alaska to Russia, to focus world attention on the closeness of East and West at the height of the Cold War. He made it halfway, to Little Diomede Island. The Inuits took pictures, Life magazine ran a feature - he may have an odd name, they thought, but the kid's all right. Then came King of Fuh.

A Brute Force show could open with him lying on his back, panting like a dog for four minutes - his Extemporaneous album, released in 1969, captured his whacked-out philosophical improv. Still performing, he remains ecologically concerned, politically involved and satisfyingly odd. When Extemporaneous was re-issued by Rev-Ola in 2004 he played a few shows in Britain with Brummie eccentrics Misty's Big Adventure: while he was over he played a one-off show for a horse, the thoroughbred mare Premier Bid (the horse's owners named a foal Special Bru in his honour). If you've seen the documentary The Battle For Brooklyn, you won't be surprised to hear that Brute, now 70, played a show at the re-opened Freddy's Bar, with its original prohibition-era fixtures and fittings re-located from the building that had made way for the barely legal Atlantic Yards development. Brute still picks his battles well.

Director Ben Steinbauer (Winnebago Man) is apparently working on a documentary. Brute's daughter - calling herself, with obvious pride, Daughter Of Force - has been playing shows in Brooklyn.  A little while back her dad's website announced the "same sex marriage of Stephen Friedland to his trademark, Brute Force. Both are male. In lieu of a gift, please send a contribution to your favourite charity."

*The Tokens' own BT Puppy label is, in its own way, as odd as Apple. Some of its releases were in such tiny numbers they are almost impossible to find, including the Tokens' own album Intercourse: if you ever want to hear a harmony pop album with songs of haiku length, humorous-stroke-suicidal lyrics,  and odd animal noises, then look no further.
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