Monday, 16 January 2012
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.
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.
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.
Posted by Bob Stanley at Monday, January 16, 2012
Sunday, 8 January 2012
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)
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)
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.
"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)
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)
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)
Posted by Bob Stanley at Sunday, January 08, 2012
Sunday, 1 January 2012
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.
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.
*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.
Posted by Bob Stanley at Sunday, January 01, 2012