Monday, October 31, 2011

Across The Bridge: The Kinks: "Waterloo Sunset"

As I have said before, part of the reason I started this blog was to understand where I live - the UK - better, through the, uh, unique if not oblique angle of its #2 chart hits. Very few of them are as acclaimed for their Britishness (not to mention their representation of London) as this song. Many believe it's the greatest song Ray Davies ever wrote; one critic called it "the most beautiful song in the English language."

For Londoners this may be their anthem, but what is going on? It's a very pretty song - with time it has become a bit vintagized* - wherein the narrator (who, as with "Penny Lane" may or may not be reliable) looks out his west-facing window to Waterloo station. He sees the sun set, from his chilly flat there in Lambeth, above the dirty ever-flowing river and the too-bright taxi lights; his only need is to see the sun set, to see the glowing sky. He 'gazes' at it (which kind of implies he has nothing better to do - he might be a senior citizen) and it is like a painting to him, maybe like this one. He is still; the sky changes and darkens slowly and (of course) naturally, just as the melody gently ebbs and flows... far, so good. Then he gives us another reason to gaze out the window, a clearer version. He sees two lovers meet at the station on Friday night (how does he know their names?); they are among the hordes who are like "flies" there, but he watches them meet and cross the bridge to another and better world, north of the river, and perhaps even out of the country altogether.** He's seen them meet up before enough to recognize them, but now they are going, and the word that crests this song - "paradise" - is not just his, but theirs. But it's theirs as long as they gaze with him, or alongside him. Once they are outside of London, they may or may not find life so wonderful.

Does the narrator know something we don't? Why is he so partial to this area when he says he's too "lazy" to go out? Why does he insist he's not "afraid" (afraid of what?) and that he needs no friends? Everyone needs friends, even Londoners. There is something quietly disturbing about this song that its fans (Paul Weller and Damon Albarn, hello) must admire and understand, but as someone who is still trying to understand London, I feel a bit baffled. The melody is melancholic, implying that the narrator isn't going to change because he sees no need - he is in "paradise", why would he? - and the couple he sees have each other and are (unwittingly?) there as well, but only just for now. The sunset itself seems to bestow something near magical on everyone who experiences it, but the song shows a sharp division between the narrator in the chilly evening flat and the lovers who have each other and who are crossing the bridge to another world altogether.

As you can see, this strikes me as an uncomfortable song - the narrator's satisfaction in just being able to see such a magnificent view is one thing, but the divide between the two ends up making me feel sorry for everyone, in a way. Terry and Julie are a bit like Adam and Eve, leaving paradise; the narrator is like God in a way, watching and judging but not actually doing anything. This is not my idea of an anthem, because it gets back to the notion that there is only one place that is any good, to the exclusion of everywhere else; it is an intense distillation of the "Little England" idea which fixes everything in its place, forever***. (Perhaps that is what I mean by vintagizing, though I also mean things like this, which are unthinkable in North American terms.)

I remain - and I think this is a good thing - an outsider to really 'getting' this song, I feel. I can appreciate why others would like it, why it would be their favorite, particularly as there is one thing the song does which puts us - unconsciously, unless you know your keys - in the literal center of the action. "Waterloo Sunset" is in C major, the middle of the keyboard, a cozy and indeterminate place. So maybe in hearing the song the listener is not supposed to side with the narrator or the couple, but floats between the two, light as a feather, resting on a beam of late sunshine. If that is the charm of the song, then I accept it; in effect it makes the listener almost like the sun itself, shining on everything indiscriminately, going, going, almost gone.

Next up: another narrator who is immobile. Hey, isn't this supposed to be the Summer of Love?

*By which I mean that it represents something that is typical of its time that is accessible now only to those who are interested in it; the word 'vintage' has a tendency to mean 'quaint' and the item is somewhat separated from what it actually sprang from at the time. The passage of time does this anyway, I know, but the separation isn't so strong. I have a sneaking hunch that some who love this song may not appreciate what's going on in it.

**Terry and Julie were names given by Davies to this couple who, in his mind's eye, were going to leave the UK for elsewhere.

***That the song was nearly called "Liverpool Sunset" and was inspired by Davies' love of Merseybeat is interesting but doesn't change the meaning of the song, for me anyway.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Waiting Game: The Mamas & The Papas: "Dedicated To The One I Love"

To be attached to someone and yet not be able to be with them is a difficult state; even while you know you will be together again, the time seems endless and empty and yes, slightly depressing. All you do is think of the Other, and if you are so moved, you can write for the Other and console yourself by recording the time in your own way. (My husband did just that and the result is, if I may say so, this very fine book.)

The Mamas & The Papas were a folk group who had aspirations to doing more than hanging out in Greenwich Village; they wanted in on pop, and brought to it a multi-voiced armoury that stood for (in retrospect) nothing less than the collective joys and sorrows of everyone who listened. Even in their happiest songs there is lurking sorrow, and vice versa; and so this song was utterly perfect for them, being one of alternating hope and sorrow, sunlight and darkness. By the time it was a hit, the band were having problems of the sort that foreshadowed those of Fleetwood Mac a decade later - an affair was found out, emotions were tangled up, the affair ended and unease and (on Denny Doherty's side, heavy drinking) began to take a toll on the group. As you might expect, a band so dependent on literal harmonizing must have harmony outside the studio as well, and at this time this was pretty much impossible; for one thing, John Phillips and the band's producer Lou Adler were helping to put together the Monterey International Pop Festival, along with a few others (including Paul McCartney).

So there is weight here, with Michelle Phillips singing lead, she who had been unfaithful and for a while was thrown out of the group; Monterey may have heralded the Summer of Love, but love is, alas, more than just a good good feeling that you can share with flowers and peace signs. Love is what kept most people going in the 60s (as ever) and love for many then as now meant waiting. Not just waiting to be with the Other, but waiting for a time when being with the Other would not cause so much waiting to begin with*. The Shirelles did their version in '61, but the song was written in the early 50s by Lowman Pauling (guitarist) and Ralph Bass (producer) of the still-underrated The "5" Royales. In them you can hear the longing and frustration even clearer, as the 60s (so to speak) hadn't happened yet, and the longing is for something even bigger and more important, in a way, than being with the Other. It is the darkest hour, the worst time; the stars are the only light visible...and no one is having an easy time of it. The singer might not reach the Other soon, Love might not be perfect but there is the promise, based on hope, that things will change. When? Who knows.

With The Mamas & The Papas version, it is a more straight-forward expression of lovesickness, hopes and fears balanced (the trickiest part being the bear-trap line "Love can never be exactly like we want it to be" which is sung as if tiptoeing past one, as if this is a fact, sure, but one that is going to be avoided, for now). The harmonies are strong and vibrant as ever, but as the song ends and the voices separate, there is a feeling that something indeterminate has once again ended, or perhaps been set free. Maybe this is the end of all that waiting; the end of all that dreadful insomnia and emptiness. Maybe now something is going to happen. This group were the collective voice of that longing, and began to unravel along with the decade; this song is their last big statement on how difficult love can be, how beautiful and sad at the same time.

That we had this on our wedding cd was an acknowledgement that we had been apart for too long, and an unwitting premonition that we would be apart once more for a lot longer. It was a terrible and stressful time, our time apart, but at least we could communicate with each other; this song rests on prayer alone, and is a prayer itself.

Next up: a song about looking down at a city instead of looking up to the stars.

*Lest we forget, many are separated by war at this point, and have been for years...

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What Is Too Silly To Be Said Must Be Sung: Harry Secombe: "This Is My Song"

What to make of a song that no one wanted to sing? "This Is My Song" was written by Charlie Chaplin to be included in his movie A Countess From Hong Kong, a throwback to the shipboard romance movies of the 30s. He wanted Al Jolson to sing it, but, convinced that Jolson was dead only by being shown his tombstone, he decided he wanted Petula Clark to sing it. She didn't want to sing it in English (she sang it in German, Italian and French first) but she recorded it off-handedly with The Wrecking Crew while in Los Angeles and it was a hit. (She didn't want to sing "My Love" either, for that matter.)

It is hard to know just why Harry Secombe did the song; perhaps because it suited his noble Welsh tenor. The fact that another version was released so soon is itself a throwback to the 50s, when two or three versions of a song would crowd the charts. (Chaplin's "Terry's Theme" from Limelight was #2 in 1953, as you'll recall.) Secombe had trouble keeping a straight face while recording the song (he found the lyrics to be "risible" just as Clark thought them quaint and not for her), breaking out laughing at the line "I care not what the world may say." (No wonder Petula sang it in other languages first; no wonder it went on to be a hit for various European singers.)

It is a measure of how much things had changed in popular culture that two people - not counterculture types but those totally part of the mainstream UK all-around-entertainment world - didn't want to record this song, as it was so hokey. The 60s were supposed to be where the UK public sprang from the sappiness of the 50s, after all - that sweet, cloying string section-with-backing-singers aura had been around long enough, and any vestige of it was...passe. But not to a large segment of the public, who obviously were perfectly happy with a stolid song of love, perhaps as a reminder of a past they cherished, or as an old-fashioned SONG that may be a bit kitschy but has a TUNE they can whistle, just like in the old days.

That Secombe was part of the transition from post-WWII culture - with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan - as part of The Goon Show makes this record more of a straight-faced song from that show than anything else. The show rose out of the group's experiences - awful and absurd - during WWII, helping to bridge that traumatic time so that a fresh start could be made in the 60s, free of any hang-ups or errant nostalgias*. Thus this is something of an oddity - a man of one generation determinedly bringing something back, and two singers of the next generation complying, out of respect if nothing else. The escape from the past that the 60s in part tried to be was beginning to fray, with almost the entire top ten being Light Programme-friendly tunes that challenged nothing and (some would say) were the real 60s - not the far-out experiments and friendly forbears we have seen so far. Have the 60s run out of steam? What on earth comes next?

(*If there is one historical event the UK psyche cannot seem to escape, it's WWII. In some ways it as if everything that has happened since is a mere footnote...and there seems to be a disconnect between the whole 'vintage' style that is popular now and what was happening when said style was not vintage, but current. But I digress.)

Flower Power: Vince Hill: "Edelweiss"

And so we wander from a back garden in Liverpool to...Austria? For a song about a...flower?

See, I told you this was a different kind of year.

The Sound of Music was by far the biggest phenomenon of the mid-60s moviewise; starting as a musical in 1959, it was made into a movie in 1965 and the soundtrack was the album of the time, taking the top spot for months and bobbing up now and again whenever it was a slow week. By early 1967, its songs were already common parlance...except in my house. As I wrote, I grew up in a household more interested in The Doors and Charles Mingus than musicals; unlike virtually everyone else in my generation, I didn't grow up with a copy of this in our record collection, nor did my parents watch it when it was on tv. I first encountered it live in Los Angeles at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion (so glamourous - it's where the Oscars were held!) with none other than Florence Henderson, a.k.a. Mrs. Brady, in the lead role. My aunt Debbie took me. I must have thought it was okay, but at eleven I was maybe a bit too young to get this song.

"Edelweiss" comes near the very end of the story; the Von Trapps know they have to flee before the Nazis capture them. You might think that a man about to take his family on a treacherous journey over hill and dale would have other things to sing about, but The Sound of Music is in part a paean to the natural world, a world that is free from man-made things like politics. In the movie it is sung twice - once by the Captain to his children (he has been distant from them, but due to his love for Maria, he has become warm and loving to them again) and then by the whole family at the Salzburg Festival, as an audience sing-a-long. Thus it is a uniting song, a song that exaults the national flower of Austria and a flower that represents family love. Though they had to flee, the Von Trapps sing what is in effect a song of defiance right in the Nazis' faces; what seems to be on the record a gentle tune has a tougher side (Vince Hill's butter-rich voice does it justice, I think; it is supposed to go down easy, in part to mask its defiance).

There is a sadness to this song of course; sadness in that they have to flee the land they love, symbolized by the flower, and then there's the sadness that this was the last song written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II; Hammerstein died less than a year after writing this, not long after the musical opened on Broadway. They wrote the song while the show was in rehearsals in Boston, feeling the Captain should have a song at the end, and so convincing was their composition that "Edelweiss" was taken by many to be a native folk song of Austria instead of another Broadway show tune. (Ronald Reagan thought it was the national anthem, and I'm sure he wasn't alone there.)

Now, I know that some - like Pauline Kael - would think the songs from this musical are "sickly, goody-goody*"; in which case I think it's only right to say that having attachments and feelings for a place is part of what makes people, for better or for worse, human. She may have objected to the sentimentality of the songs (even this one), but as the title reminds us, the show is about Music, and the ways music can uplift and transcend even the most horrible of situations, such as forced evacuation of not just your home but your home country.

The humble, small flower is happy and makes its beholder happy; and so a man sees his family, his nation. We know it and they will pull through, finding strength through this humility, this beauty, however square that might seem to some. As Light Programme as this is, there is a bite to it, a reminder that beauty has power, too.

*Presumably she never heard this; this is as close as I got to the musical growing up.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

You Are Free: The Beatles: "Strawberry Fields Forever"

"It was as though the usual gap between desire and necessity had been bridged during some freakish fit to absent-mindedness on the part of old Father Reality, temporarily indisposed with sunspots. His first sensation could not be anything but pleasure, for here were all his pumpkins turned into carriages with the gilt still fresh and the price tags in full view. But if one is not willing to believe in fairy godmothers, such pleasures burst at a finger's touch: they are not real.

What then, with any certainty, was?"

The Prisoner, Thomas M.Disch

"What thou lov'st well remains,
the rest is dross
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, mine or theirs
or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage,
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee."

Ezra Pound, Canto LXXXI

He floated there, into the nearby woods, to get out of the town, for some peace; to be with the birds and beasts, sure, but also to connect as best he could with the actual world again, away from others. One day he would return to his old turf, there in London; but not just yet. This was the other world he wanted so badly? It would take some getting used to...

...and out of the fuzzy brightness the bright colors dim slightly, and as the focus sharpens an object - a balloon? - seems to come down slowly and unsteadily, resting and being pushed aside by a very light breeze. The flip side of the solidity of "Penny Lane" begins, uncertain and yet beckoning, quiet and compelling. The singer is so isolated, so alone, that the effect is that he is singing to just one other person - you, perhaps, or his Other, who he is away from, at the moment.

A man gazes out into the garden of his house and is reminded of his childhood haunt, where he would go and play no matter what. That Lennon was away from the rest of The Beatles when he started this song in the fall of '66 (he was in Spain doing How I Won The War) is one thing; that he had just met Yoko Ono was another. Her effect on him was immediate; and where he stayed in Spain did indeed remind him of Strawberry Field, where he played as a kid. But this is as far from the jauntiness of "Penny Lane" as is possible.

There is nothing to hold on to here.

It's not enough to say that the narrator is unreliable (as in the previous song) as it is that there is barely a narration that happens. It is because he sees things so indecisively that you have to accept the invitation of the song - to guide him in a way, even though he is the one who is going, is taking you, and as the song intensifies and grows darker (as if you were now in the woods and the sunlight was blocked by the trees' density), "nothing is real" becomes a promise and a threat. His indifference - "it doesn't matter much to me" - is also ambivalent, as if the old polarities and labels no longer really count. If this song is a gift, it is one you have to figure out the value of; a kit, if you like, rather than the thing itself. And then he disappears, it seems...

...then returns, turning back on itself, goofing off, getting lost, seemingly saying that every way here is the right way, again it is your choice - he has brought you here, back to his childhood, to how it was for him; your empathy gives the song life, makes it into an experience...that he got to this experience himself through taking LSD is interesting but ultimately not the point. The swirling, changing and near-classical drama of the song is to make you remember your own Strawberry Field, your own place of creativity and imagination; maybe unhappiness pushed you there, or boredom, or just the desperate need to escape. And that place returns, things inevitably happen to remind you that that place exists, even if only in your head; that liberation and creativity - freedom - can be confusing things, but they are the essential things, too.

And that was the gift of 1967, which may be submerged or lost but always, inevitably, shows up when you least expect it. It is as if once it was released, it was impossible to think of anything before it as modern; just as once you take LSD or have a similar transformative experience, the world does not look or feel the same. There is more than one way to experience the world, and once seen you cannot go back; and there is no way of knowing what your experience will bring to you - there is no guarantee it will be wholly "good."

That was a relief to some, a deep threat to others, and effectively divided the pop music audience. It was one thing to copy The Beatles in '63/'64 - that effort launched a thousand garage bands - but this? Once again they had leapfrogged everyone, even Brian Wilson, who had to pull the car over and listen, dumbfounded, as he heard what he wanted to do with The Beach Boys had already been achieved. (The Smile sessions continued on, but the album was effectively running out of steam by this time; though I must point out the tremendous "Surf's Up*" as something Wilson should have regarded as being just as good.)

As you might expect, UK radio didn't play this too much - psychedelic music was not going to fit in well with the light programme. It got equal airplay in the more open US market, getting to #8 as a b-side - such was the power of the song, the popularity of The Beatles, and the readiness of a large segment of people for this kind of song. (Note that neither this nor their previous double A side were 'love' songs as such, unless you count "Yellow Submarine" as one, in a way.) But there was a percentage who would rather have those conventional love songs - happy or sad, glad or mopey - over anything as quietly disturbing as this song.

It would be facile to say it was all housewives and secretaries who loved Englebert and only hippies and counterculture types who loved The Beatles; my mom, for one, loves this and she was busy looking after me, at the time. My aunt was (and is!) a confirmed fan and she was 12 when she first heard this; for her it was a logical continuation from Revolver, the album Brian Wilson had been trying to beat at the time. Pop music had come a long way in a short time, though, and some were finding things hard to keep up with, found this song a little too strange to love.

The psychedelic box was now open for all who wanted it; but even those who just wanted the licence to make noises that were fuzzy or backwards or just...not...steady had freedom granted to them as well. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that shoegazing gets its emotional start here, as well as its sonic roots; and the space here is vital, the space to explore the inner world as well as the outer. The split starts here, floating and swimming on invisible currents.

...and so he floated; the shock of it was that it had made him free, but seemingly free from nothing. He could observe, see, but could not do, act. And it was tiring; he could travel but never rest, lest he be discovered. He could spy on others, but what could he do with the knowledge? No one could hear him. Only his music was audible now, when anyone bothered to listen to it. He stopped by a house and heard a song coming from the radio in the kitchen; he could not quite make out who it was first. Those boys, he thought, are so lucky. Do they appreciate life?

A cat hissed at him, and he ran, though he didn't need to. It wasn't even a black cat, but he was scared. And yet weren't ghosts supposed to scare others? Back to the town he floated, as night fell...

*This was going to be on the Smile album but then was shelved until '71, when they released an album of the same name.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Only Everything: The Beatles: "Penny Lane"

"I was thinking," he said (it was not an answer, but then what answers had he got this morning?) "that I've been here before."
"Lots of people get that feeling. Here."
"In front of the church?"
"In the Village, generally. It seems to do that. You know what I think it is?"
"I think it represents something." He stroked his small, square chin, savouring the plum of represents. "People come here from other places. Like you. And they see our Village, and they get the feeling that something has always been missing from their lives."

The Prisoner, Thomas M. Disch

Part I:

If there is any one reason the 60s - once they had passed - proved so hard to shake off, we have now reached it. If you have ever - for whatever reason - had to leave behind something you did not want to leave behind, some place or some person...well, imagine that place or person as a time. Not just days on a calendar or ticks from a clock but an actual, near tangible time when things in general held promise, dignity, style, substance, color and humor. Once experienced, this time will be missed; indeed I think many still miss it, as disorienting and Utopian as it could be, by turns.

That this period lasted for only about a year or so just adds to the mystique; it also adds, I know, to the annoyance of others. It is easy to say "What is so different/special about 1967?" and be right. It wasn't a perfect year (as well shall see) and a great divide opens up during it - in fact that divide starts right here, in early March. It is the divide, simply, between those who buy singles and those who don't.

Or between those who "got it" and those who didn't. (There are still those who don't.)


It was not really supposed to be like this.

The custom was common - release a single, then soon after an album with all-new songs on it. They had finished their last tour in the summer and thus had time off to think of what to do next; an album about their Liverpool childhood was agreed on and two songs had been written and recorded for the album...but the label, nervous that they hadn't had a single out since August, insisted they release another one...and so they reluctantly released what wasn't supposed to be a single as a single. They may not have expected it to do very well, all things considered. That it got to #2 did not seem to bother them at all.

Part II

The man was dead; dead, by his own hand. It was not a mystery, in the end. He died, nearly penniless and yet well-known, his paranoia and depression and anger spent in a moment, killing his landlady and then himself. He had no sense of community, in being part of something much bigger, including history itself. He did not want or need others and this was perhaps a death sentence as well. The other world that called to him, which he longed to explore, was always there, and he ran headlong for it, as he had worked so hard to achieve things while he was alive. If only he could have waited; so much would be his in just a few months, in the spring, in the summer. But he wasn't much for waiting.

He knew music was the one sustainer, that long after death the music was still there, a gateway to another world, an eerie gift that was there for the taking. Put the needle on the record and sit and listen; try and tape ghosts in a graveyard and then maybe the same thing will happen. To hunt is one thing, but to be captured while hunting is something else.

By now his ghost haunted the streets, the old ones he knew, the ones he had gotten away from. This is where I once lived?


The town is a still-life; the area itself is alive, with characters that seem cartoonish, though they are real enough. This is Peter and the Wolf gone to Liverpool, for all I know. The song shifts as it goes, sounding like a simple depiction of what happens of a morning...

...if only it was like that. As cheery and life-affirming as this sounds, there is something...wrong...lurking in it that makes it tougher than it might seem at first. The barber is friendly, sure, but just why does the fireman rush in? (Yes, it is raining...but then aren't the skies supposed to be blue, the air sunny?) The banker doesn't wear a 'mac' (raincoat) even in the this why the children laugh at him? How is it that it's summer and yet Remembrance Day poppies are being sold by the pretty nurse behind the bus shelter? This is the mystery, and one that is in the 'ears and eyes' of the singer, who is not in Penny Lane beyond his own mind. We seem to be in a place, but we aren't. The nurse feels as if she is in a play (ie acting something out in the 'real' world) and yet she is, anyway. So says the singer, but can we trust him?

And what is that burst towards the end, the thunder in the clear blue sky? It approaches in the song, halting the ineffable swing of the song, as it returns again and again to the increasingly strange world where everything seems fine, though the singer comments plainly that it's "very strange." No kidding, Paul.

But then: the end.

Let me digress and say that the one thing that annoys me more about radio in general is that DJs talk over the end of songs; indeed sometimes they play a minute or so and then start babbling and the whole point of playing the thing in the first place is lost. They forget that a song is a story, and the story is told not just with words but music, with sounds. Cut off the ending and something is definitely lost, and here it is vital; the song starts briskly enough, the lyrics just a note behind the music.

But the end!

The singer says the name of the place one more time, as if wrapping a bow; and then the scene fades, the piano and cymbal squeak into feedback, as if the place is suddenly full of light or dimming beyond focus. It evaporates. What once was is gone, is gone again, nothing is as it seemed. Is this a happy song? For all intents and purposes, yes. The sprightly beat and hints of brass bands; the smile in Paul's voice; the Motown roots and warmth; the way you can close your eyes and be there with the singer, maybe even remembering your own childhood neighborhood - all these are joys.

But there is something lurking - that burst and then unnerving feedback at the end - that make this more than just another happy McCartney song. It's not like the memories are being made fun of, or the people. It's that even as they existed, the scenes were surreal, unreal, "very strange." This all seems familiar, too familiar...and the solution? Turn the record over and see what is on the other side.

It was now as if he had never left. This was intolerable. He had to escape. But how?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Man Can't Stop Our Music: The Rolling Stones: "Let's Spend The Night Together"

"Nineteen sixty-seven was the watershed year, the year the seams gave way...There was a tension in the air. It's like negative and positive ions before a storm, you get that breathlessness that something's got to break."

Keith Richards, Life

Though technically we are now in mid-February '67, I want to go back a month, specifically to January 15th. On that night this song was performed live on the Ed Sullivan Show with an altered title - the more modest "Let's Spend Some Time Together" - with Mick rolling his eyes every time he had to sing the bowdlerized lyric. Afterwards the band then went backstage and changed into Nazi uniforms (not sure where those came from, the episode is not mentioned in Life) and Sullivan told them to change back into their regular stage clothes; the band refused and left and never appeared on the show again. For any other band this would have been a disaster, but for The Rolling Stones this more or less cemented their bad-boy status. The rest of the year for them included the "stitch-up" bust, trial, imprisonment, bail, a psychedelic album that was "flimflam" to Richards. But back to the song...

The song (an NME-only #2, by the way) is about as straightforward as the Stones ever get, both musically and lyrically; it's simply a demand/request from the hard-of-dancing Mick to his new love, Marianne Faithfull, who he had met not long ago. That she was a mom and wife didn't seem to matter to him (nor to her) and I wonder if Sullivan knew this was about more than just a mere lusty crush. It is shameless, in all senses of the word, and just changing the title barely disguises what is going on - "I'm going red and my tongue's getting tied/I'm off my head and my mouth's getting dry" - put that together with the pumping music and the way the words and music seem to be coupling themselves and there you have it.

However far-out music is getting, here are the Stones to kindly remind everyone what rock 'n' roll actually means and if Mick is a bit of a clown here, well, all for the better. That they get sidetracked by psychedelia just shows what purists they are, or perhaps how what they want to do (and do best) has very little to do with fashion, and more with an obsession over sounds, textures, moods. Here it's heart-pounding, nearly unbearable excitement, pure and simple. (It was banned when they went to China a few years back, but having matured as a band, they simply played other hits instead.)

The day after the Rolling Stones were banned from Ed Sullivan's show, I was born. It was also the day after the weekend of the Human Be-In in San Francisco, where some of the hipper people already had copies of The Doors' first album. The Rolling Stones, whether they knew it or not, were now a part of the counterculture, the ones who said 'no' to straight society and would thereafter have to deal with the outside world at increasingly desperate ways. When a lusty song is enough to rile the Establishment, you know they must be scared of something much bigger - namely, the breakdown of society altogether. The tensions Richards mentions are growing, this song is a (hapless) symbol of one generation's attempted censorship of another.

What comes next was not what anyone expected; it made the Stones look old-fashioned, practically Teds in context. The crossroads are going to become startlingly clear.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Baffled Dancers: Cat Stevens: "Matthew And Son"

The hijacking of pop music for other ends is commonly called New Pop, and New Pop has its forbears - those who came before it to act as examples and inspirations for those to come. Cat Stevens may be best known for his early 70s folk anthems, but here in '67, he's a friendly forbear.

This is a pop song - the horns and tinkling piano and sparkling melody all make sure of that - it's a commercial pop song and sounds like it comes from a musical (West Side Story was a big influence on Stevens). But as you can see here, the public - namely, the kids - who heard it were unsure what the heck to make of it. There is Stevens, a junior member of the swinging London scene, all velvet and lacy frills, singing about crushing capitalism as if he was Heaven 17 or something. The audience is baffled and confused, because this kind of not done. This, to borrow a phrase, is not a love song. Stevens dances about and smiles as if he knows exactly what he's doing, and the kids who are used to happy songs to dance to hear lyrics like "There's a five minute break and that's all you take/For a cup of cold coffee and a piece of cake" which is the precise opposite of 'groovy' or 'cool' or 'far out'. "They've been working all day, all day, all day!" he sings as if the workers were as happy as the seven dwarfs, when in reality they are wage slaves and take their work home, unable (due to their boss' orders?) to get it out of their heads.

That Stevens is doing this and having a hit with it comes from several things - he was a pin-up of the time (believe it or not); it's a darn catchy number; and the drudgery portrayed here is the very thing that the psychedelic scene is trying so hard to push against - the all-work no-play straight world that gives no importance or space to anything approaching enjoyment, adventure or even rest. In a way all of Stevens' other songs are a reproach to this one, and to see him a-swingin' away here is poignant. He, the artist, is able to escape what he is depicting, whereas how many in the audience actually work in such places? What is it like to have your life portrayed in a seemingly-cheery-sounding song while you're trying to dance to it? Art is supposed to be a mirror held up to nature, and here the mirror is being held up to them. This is Art, to be sure, and the audience look as if they are still trying to make up their minds about it*.

That the song is a mere depiction and not overtly a protest song is even more confusing - rock 'n' roll ("Summertime Blues" "Yakety Yak") is all about protest, always has been, always will be. But this is pop, isn't it? The crossroads are getting bigger all the time, with crumbs of cake leading trails to who knows where.

*I wonder if the '67 audience in general listened to lyrics and got them or just wanted something to whistle/dance to as they did in the 50s. Certainly the careers of the balladeers depended on lyrics, so I tend to think they were heard, if not always understood.

BOO!: The Move: "Night of Fear"

And appropriately, we have left the warm, hazy sunshine and stumbled into what seems to be its opposite - it's dark, it's windy, something - who knows what - is causing chills and hallucinations. What on earth has happened?

The Move came out of the tough Birmingham scene (whence previous MSBWT subject The Fortunes ["You've Got Your Troubles"] also came) and they wore their freak flags high. If you sense that these men - Roy Wood, Carl Wayne and later Jeff Lynne - were interested in bringing classical music into rock, you'd be absolutely right. In this case it's nothing less than Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, in specific the culminating part (best known to Americans as when the fireworks happen at Independence Day concerts). The Move had originally been a covers group (doing The Byrds, Motown, 50s rock 'n' roll - whatever appealed to them and their audience) and were already known for being outrageous onstage and off, with various things getting the literal axe, including a television, a Cadillac and a bust of Hitler. Their manager encouraged Roy Wood to write songs, and then they started to have hits, including this one.

What is happening here, clearly, is a bad trip. Paranoia is one of the natural side effects of mind-altering drugs, and with good reason. If you can't perceive what is going on around you accurately, then anything can become...anything, with possibly more than just scary consequences. Green and purple lights, cold blood and howling winds would make any ordinary night a night of fear, but there is nevertheless a jauntiness here that comes as a kind of security blanket, as if the band are saying that yes, some trips are going to be bad but you will survive them. How many heard the warning and understood it I am not sure; it could also serve as a general come-down song after the explosion of energies from '64-'66, that the past (represented by Tchaikovsky) can either be a hindrance or a comforting reminder, depending on how you hear it. Musicians are now listening to others and bringing their work in, and here we have a past master being dropped into the present, helping to jolly along a song about sheer terror.

Already the crossroads are present, confusing and misleading those who try to read the signs too quickly. Whimsy mixed with menace: the sinuous "Sunshine Superman" turns into the night when hobgoblins all too easily become apparent, Halloween happening way too soon. Psychedelia was starting to open up and reveal all kinds of things, good and bad. But could this fear be better than something else?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Back to the Future: Donovan: "Sunshine Superman"

The term "psychedelic" comes from two Greek words - "psyche" (the soul) and "deloun" (to manifest). With this song the psychedelic era comes to this blog, though in truth psychedelic music had existed for at least a year if not more (Pet Sounds is psychedelic in the sense that it is a soul-manifesting album, for instance). It was recorded a year earlier but due to record company problems was a hit in the UK long after it got to #1 in the US. (Trust a Scotsman to be ahead of the curve musically.)

The term psychedelic was coined in 1957* - ten years earlier - to describe what LSD actually (they hoped) would do. It was never meant to be used outside of psychotherapy, originally, and many doctors and scientists did experiments to see what effect it would have on patients and 'artistic'** types. By the mid-60s they had determined that it was a drug with a rather unpredictable effect on people, and was much tougher to obtain, which didn't stop those in the know from getting it and giving it to those who felt they needed to go on their own trip. Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary and other respected folks encouraged those who were disenchanted to take it and enlighten themselves - to see the world in a new way and thence evolve.

Suffice it to say this Utopian idea - tuning in, turning on and dropping out - appealed to many who felt that just about everything going on in the 60s was wrong - the war, racism, sexism, the boring straight world with its hierarchies and tragic lack of soul. Others took it to prove they were brave enough to do so - Ken Kesey's acid tests had turned many on the West Coast on in '66-'65 - though taking it was never supposed to be about posing or boasting. It is also true that musicians who took LSD had to have a strong constitution to survive doing so, and that many tried to get their experiences into their songs, via words and/or music. It naturally appealed to those who were bored, restless, experimental - John Lennon and George Harrison were the LSD heads in The Beatles, for instance, as opposed to McCartney (who by this time still hadn't tried it). In the UK it was an American import and was one of those scandalous drugs that led to drug busts, even though it was not a crime to possess it (other ones, such as pot or cocaine, yes).

If you are wondering why I am going on about a drug as opposed to a song, that is because this year is unlike any others. This is the crossroads; this is the tightrope moment when musicians - particularly UK ones - begin to break down barriers and experiment and really listen to each other. LSD has a way of breaking down barriers as well of course, of making what is there simply more intense or perceptible in a way close to a mystical experience. It's a Utopian time all right, but with drugs there is always the risk that something will go wrong, that the classic "good idea at the time" will evaporate and what seems to be glaringly obvious to the tripper will be fuzzy or incoherent to those straighter folk who are trying to understand what the heck is going on.

1967 is unlike any other years in that so many musicians did their best to express the inexpressible and give the world a chance to hear what they heard, see what they saw, with uniformly stunning results. Apart from the strobe lights, fluorescent posters and the like, the music is what really lasts from this period; that a huge generation experienced it and gave it its popularity in the first place means I have always known it, almost have over-heard it, if that's possible.

Donovan's proud boasting that he can outdo Superman and Green Lantern in his exploits in order to win his girl are one thing, but a video with no lip-syncing is another, not to mention those psychedelic hallmark: distorted pictures, kites and random wackiness (avec kitten). This is psychedelic courting, full of pearls and rainbows and a sly wink in the song that doesn't take away from its seriousness. I grew up in a house full of Donovan's records and so this is as familiar to me as The Beach Boys. That it could be heard as an invitation from the hip to the straights to succumb to the ennobling and beautiful world post-trip is also there, the appeal as warm and enriching as, well, sunshine itself. But as we all know, too much sunshine can be dangerous, and LSD was never meant to be taken for that long.

This is the sunny introduction to a year that will transform a great deal of what can be thought of as 'rock' (in just about every way possible). It brings Jimmy Page (electric guitar) into this saga as well, then just a session musician who was still (at the time of recording) to join The Yardbirds. A whole world is opening up, erratically but inevitably, as the counterculture/flower power movement moves in from the fringes and starts to get noticed; hippies spring up wildflower-like and the enchanting strangeness and startling humor - not to mention rebelliousness - give The Man plc a big headache. The laid-back mood of the year is set, with barely one or two club hits managing to make it to #2, and none make it to #1 (save "I'm a Believer"). The torrid excitements of '66 are fading, to be replaced by musicians who are starting to slow down so they can hear each other better, who are becoming - for now - a real community. Their souls, if you like, are staring to manifest.

*LSD itself was invented in 1943, though its psychedelic properties weren't discovered for a few years.

**My father was the subject of an experiment, along with another painter, in Los Angeles in 1959. Everything he saw was brighter than usual, so the painting he did was darker, just to give his eyes a break. He later saw Hollywood Boulevard and thought it was on fire. He didn't show any interest in LSD afterwards, though we had old Psychedelic Reviews around the house, so he must have been curious...