Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Psychedelia Has A Right To Children: Keith West: " Excerpt From 'A Teenage Opera'"

Throughout the late summer a song has been steadily climbing up the charts, to rest at #2; it had the advantage of being played a lot (esp. on pirate radio) and being a narrative that could be understood by anyone - the sad passage of time, as experienced by not just one or two people, but a whole community. The sob stories that have just passed are merely personal - this is about a whole village losing its grocer.

How on earth could this have happened? Well, this is 1967 and we find ourselves at none other than Abbey Road with one Mark Wirtz, who had been hired by - remember him? - Norrie Paramor to work as an in-house producer for EMI. Wirtz was hip; he was responsible for Pink Floyd being signed by EMI and dug another underground group he saw playing at the same time - The In Crowd (soon to change its name to the even more underground Tomorrow), featuring guitarist Steve Howe and singer Keith West. He had had the musical idea of a teenage opera for some time and mentioned the Grocer Jack character to West, who promptly wrote the lyrics; the group recorded the song and it was a hit - (such a hit that for a while Keith West was a pin-up, much to his & Tomorrow's discomfort).

The song is as lush and orchestral and Beatles/Kinks inspired as you'd expect; West sings with compassion about an 82-year-old grocer who dies, the village's lack of food and the funeral, where the folks realize they should have been nicer to the old man. The most poignant and influential part of the song is the children's chorus - little girls who wonder where Grocer Jack is and want him back, even though their moms tell them he won't be back. I can't help it, their voices tug at me - the children are the voice of the village, missing Jack, helpless to change the way the whole village is going to have to operate. (The premise of the opera is that the songs are all sung to a young woman who must stay awake after a motorcycle accident; they are almost all songs about people in a village who are antiquated, about to disappear, if not gone already.)

That a song such as this did so well shows that the public maybe wasn't so scared of psychedelia as previously reported, if it's focused on an understandable narrative and has little kids singing on it. There was also the tantalizing idea of it being an 'excerpt' - that there was a lot to come and that a teenage opera was indeed possible. Wirtz found out, however, that the audience was maybe more fickle than expected (and he lost West's involvement, as he wanted to focus on Tomorrow), and while other singles appeared, none of them did that well and he soon stopped working on it in '68 to work on other things.

This is a pity, because had it been released (as it was in '96) it would have been the first real rock opera, complete with a whole cast of characters ("Auntie Mary's Dress Shop," "The Paranoiac Woodcutter," "[He's Our Dear Old] Weatherman," "Shy Boy*" to name a few). This year pretty much saw the flowering of the concept album - not to mention the album market in general, as the kids so happy to buy 45s in '63 had grown up and wanted something a bit more substantial. This - for all I know - would have done really well, but as Brian Wilson could have told Wirtz, doing something so concentrated and thematic is not easy. (The other lost album of 1967, The Beach Boys' SMiLE, surfaced first as bootlegs, then as a Brian Wilson album in 2004, and just now as an actual Beach Boys album.) A Teenage Opera was for some just as legendary - who knows what the talented Wirtz & Co. were getting up to at Abbey Road? (One Pete Townsend was certainly curious, and this in part inspired Tommy.)

What this song also cements is psychedelia's interest in and sympathy with children. This might seem a bit odd, but at heart it is the siding with the young instead of the old, the naive and hopeful as opposed to the tired and traditional. Children were to a point romanticized, but their spirit of adventurousness and tendency to blunt speech - then as now - meant they could at least be trusted, unlike the older generation who were - not to make a big point of it - square and didn't approve of anything the counterculture believed in, from pirate radio on down**.

There is also nostalgia; a whole world is disappearing and the spirit of the times is to reflect on this, to bring the old and new together in a mish-mash (think of the military-style jackets worn by The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix) that somehow liberates the culture from the past, even as it's being remembered (anti-vintagizing). The village is changing, old customs and ways are going, ones that may be going for good, for all anyone knows.

Rock 'n' roll has now split between pop and rock; avant-MOR as pioneered by Scott Walker is appearing, alongside a new station the BBC is putting together to play what the pirates did - sort of. Its name is Radio 1, and with it the chances of Wirtz' concept album took a dive, as its listeners weren't as adventurous as the pirate ones. What did they want? The answer is next.

*Done by Kippington Lodge, with the lead singer, one Nick Lowe, making his debut.

**A personal anecdote: When I was two-and-a-half I 'ran away' (the gate was open and I left to walk down the sidewalk). My mother predictably was concerned and called the cops, who found me not that far away being guarded as I walked by...some counterculture guy who was looking after me on my little escapade. No one famous, though this was in Hollywood, so you never know.

1 comment:

Robin Carmody said...

Nice write-up.

This song has always dug away right to my heart: something of the same melancholy as the late-period Look at Lifes (disappearing butterflies, amassing litter). Or the shot in a location I've known all my life, of a steam train on regular service next to a modern-style road sign. The "first jukebox" Dennis Potter saw in 1961 now - as a cypher, as a messenger - having conquered its entire space. The sense of escape felt by the younger residents of Akenfield (an oral history taken exactly as this song was charting).

There's a sense that this period marks the long tail of 1914 and its immediate aftermath (a sense shared, interestingly, by someone who had just burnt his Bible at his Cambridge boarding school, and now cannot let anyone forget his shame); the final chapter in a much older flight (I think of Henry Williamson, permanently damaged by that war and driven by it into terrible, destructive politics, responding somehow despite himself to Mike Heron's "subjective, wild, poetic songs" played to him by a young admirer: there are twin romanticisms here).

Part of the reason why Mark Wirtz could do such a thing was precisely his foreignness, his non-Britishness; he could, as has so often been the case, sense a romance and beauty in what British pop audiences were rushing to escape (few at this point could see anything but excitement and release in the concept of the supermarket: things which now cause deep anguish and fear were unequivocally celebrated by the 1960s' mass mainstream - and what did Ian MacDonald say about that mainstream being the real avant-garde of the period, a far deeper break from the past than the counterculture which spoke back to Williamson - Henry, not Robin or Harry - and Richard Jefferies?). But at the same time, that outsider's eye stops it being too mawkish, too Mailish.

A useful comparison, from your double use of the word "going", might be with Philip Larkin's soon-come poem 'Going Going', whose mean-spirited melancholy this song very cleverly avoids by putting its faith in the future, in the idea that whatever replaces this world will have its own merits, its own virtues. It may actually have been an influence (though not one I'd have acknowledged as such, in my callow youth) on my own *interpretation* of ruralism, in that respect - as much so as the stuff which came a couple of years later which consciously *tried* to do that, and didn't really do hit singles.