31 July 2010

Second Hand Record Dip Part 58 - The Poetry Society Patterns of Poetry Sampler

HMV Poetry Society letter

Poetry Society Poetry Sampler

Who: Various Ac-tors, and John Smith of the National Poetry Society
What: Patterns of Poetry Sampler
Label: HMV
When: 1965
Where: Music and Video Exchange, Camden High Street, London
Cost: One pound 

I've seen the cliche "Poetry can be fun!" more times in my life than I would honestly like now, and I've always felt it smacks of defeat.  As soon as anyone starts talking about how things "can" be fun with the use of exclamation marks, underlines and italics, my hackles rise - such desperate over-enthusiasm usually involves genuine unpleasantness, either of the cabbage or "Shakespeare History Play" varieties.  As soon as anyone's voice becomes hysterically happy, adopting the same gushing tones they reserve to distract the family dog before they stick a thermometer up its arse, you can't blame people for getting wary.  I mean, look at the dog's face in such situations.  Even he knows something's up.

The letter above is worryingly aggressive and evangelical in its tone.  Yes, of course - the only way to convince young people poetry is fun is to throttle them and scream: "Don't you understand!?  This is FUN!  What you're hearing and witnessing is called PLEASURE!  Get that into your thick skull you pathetic, snot-nosed, disinterested little philistine!"  That'll do it.  Their entire perception of the cultural world will change then.  One read of the above letter is enough to explain poetry's rapid descent into the cultural margins.  It wasn't taught well for many years and it wasn't promoted well.  A slow recovery is presently blooming, but I fear that the image poetry has with most members of the public is still akin to the promotional fluff surrounding this disc.

There again, there is some bizarre pleasure to be had from this record, introduced by John Smith (hear him desperately trying to suppress his pride as he introduces himself).  If the condescending tones of the promotional letter weren't enough to thrill you, there's the hammy phrasing of the hired actors who read the poetry on the record.  It's quite clear that many of them have little, if any, experience of reading poetry in public, and make each piece sound like a scripted monologue for a Radio Four play.  Instead of bouncing along with the rhythms or injecting emotion into the words, they delicately trip their lips over the work as cautiously as one would handle a fragile antique vase.  The end effect is often baffling, with the "unorthodox reading" John Smith refers to being one of the more pleasing efforts.  How far we've come.  And thank God for that.

Of course, the practice of getting actors to read out poems to promote the form still hasn't really gone away, and still doesn't make a great deal of sense.  Poets are usually used to reading their material aloud in public, and should instinctively know how it should or shouldn't be handled - they tend to "give of themselves" where actors would frequently rather hide behind theatrical devices and characters.  To my ears, the work on this little sampler is sometimes unintentionally comical, and very often drab and mediocre.  If people turned their backs and started listening to Bob Dylan albums instead, the National Poetry Society and HMV only had themselves to blame.

My copy of this came with a pristine order form for the full album - I mention that in case anyone wants to grab it off me, post it off to EMI, and send the admin staff there into a confused (or perhaps amused) fit.  Although if anyone filled in such a thing and the box set did indeed arrive, with an extortionate bill attached, the joke may very well be on them...

28 July 2010

One Hit Wonders #10 - Candlewick Green - Who Do You Think You Are?

Candlewick Green - Who Do You Think You Are?

Label: Decca
Year of Release: 1973

The way Simon Cowell waffles on, you'd think that the X Factor and its ilk were a revolution in television broadcasting, that the TV talent show slid straight out of his marvellous and unfathomable brain and on to the nearest beermat.  Why more people aren't prepared to challenge this fallacy is slightly beyond me - TV talent shows merely took a bit of a break in the nineties (ignoring Jonathan Ross's "Big Big Talent Show", which is probably a wise thing to do).  They weren't some new noughties phenomenon, although admittedly the methods and the presentation had changed by then.  "And what about the Eurovision Song Contest?" says a man at the back. "That never went away at all".  Indeed, my good chap.

One big advantage Cowell has had over his television genre's predecessors is that he has the necessary inside music industry knowledge to market the winners as stars.  That's something Hughie Green and his producer friends could never do with many of the musical acts on "Opportunity Knocks" - winning that particular show meant very little in particular apart from (perhaps) one minor hit and a career on the working man's club/ cabaret circuit in Britain.  Ask these lads.  After winning the show, their debut single "Who Do You Think You Are?" climbed to number 21 on the charts, and their tour van took them to all the social clubs in Albion where the best pie and peas could be had.  Follow-up hits were not forthcoming.  If the same fate had greeted Leona Lewis, rest assured her breakdown would be plastered all over the national newspapers.

Before we break open the knife drawer and give Candlewick Green an angry pricking, however, it's worth listening to this.  "Who Do You Think You Are?" is actually a ruddy good pop song, complete with gentle, washed-out hints of Northern Soul influences.  It may sound slightly suppressed in places, as if they're frightened to really let fly with the song, but they can't keep it entirely down - with the bouncy piano, parping brass, and brain-naggingly good chorus, it's actually a well crafted piece of work, and one which deserved to sell in far greater quantities.  The case for the prosecution would probably correctly cite the fact that the tune isn't their own - belonging to sometime sixties psych-poppers Jigsaw - and may have sat better with an artist with a more powerful, or at least more emotive, voice.  Still though, by the standards of most TV talent show winners, The Green come out of this extremely well.  Its self-conscious swagger actually suits the conflicting doubt and defiance expressed in the song very well, and it's a brooding but simultaneously slightly groovy piece of work.

Saint Etienne later covered the song in 1993, but finished two rungs lower in the charts with their effort.  As for Candlewick Green, they'd release several albums, including a surprisingly mellotron-heavy (though determinedly pop) eponymous effort in 1977.  The lyrics of this track otherwise tend to tempt me to mock their fate - "every day sees another star", indeed - but it's an old, old story now.  After nearly 37 years, it's time to drop the subject, ignore the ironies and enjoy the record, I'd say.

One last thing, though - can anyone please put me out of my misery and tell me what the Wikipedia listed "Pete The Plate Spinning Dog" act was like on "Opportunity Knocks"?  It sounds like a real crowd pleaser from this distance, but you never can tell.

This track is commercially available in all the usual places, and can be watched on YouTube too.  

24 July 2010

Penny Peeps - Little Man With A Stick/ Model Village

Penny Peeps - Little Man With A Stick

Label: Liberty
Year of Release: 1968

Sometimes, just sometimes, life could be difficult in the sixties if you were a hard-edged rock band.  The reality is that whilst The Kinks, The Rolling Stones and The Who had a vast number of snarling, R&B derived singles, the majority of their rivals just didn't sell records in convincing quantities.  They may have had cult live followings, but The Downliners Sect, The Eyes and The Primitives (to name but three examples) couldn't translate their live energy into enough units to please the record companies.

If a record label wanted to sign a full-throttle act, then, they were faced with a dilemma - either sweeten the sound a little in the studio, or else just buy them a cute song off the peg in Denmark Street and say to them "Here chaps, see how this fits on your amphetamine slimmed little bodies".  This is largely what happened to Simon Dupree and the Big Sound with "Kites", and it's what the Penny Peeps are doing here as well.  "Little Man With A Stick" is a gentle piece of carefully arranged pop which - like "Kites" - is commercial fare, but that doesn't stop it from being good.  The band have since stated that they despise it, but "LMWAS" is at turns absurd, charming, sweet and endearing, focussing on the mystery of a stick-wielding man lurking around in some Autumn mist.  "What are you doing there?" the band harmonise in a manner which would seem frankly disturbing in real life, only for him to reply with various unlikely scenarios.  He's conducting an orchestra.  He's a knight about to go into battle.  Except of course he's not really, you daft sillies.  You get the picture.

"Little Man With A Stick" hasn't been talked about much, probably as a result of the band's dismissal of it, which is a shame as this is, let's face it, prime toytown psych.  But a quick listen to the admittedly superior B-side should cause any casual listener to realise why the flip has become a dancefloor filler at certain sixties nights.  The lyrics are no less twee, focussing on somebody's fantastic model village - hey, Frank Sidebottom could have written that - but the track rocks like nobody's business, and you'd think the model village in question was a euphemism for something related to sex or drugs.  Or both.  It's a mini-explosion of celebration about nothing in particular apart from some scaled down rural architecture.  If only there had been more of this sort of thing, how different would rock's landscape be today?  Spinal Tap wouldn't have been mocked for their mini-Stonehenge for a start.

"Model Village" is available online through all the usual commercial outlets, and can be listened to on YouTube here.  Cheers Johan Ventus for the upload.  

21 July 2010

One Hit Wonders #9 - Freddie Starr - It's You

Freddie Starr - It's You

Label: Tiffany
Year of Release: 1974

Readers, do you ever despair?  I sometimes despair.  Life's hard, and then just when you're looking for some kind of hope on the horizon, a sign that all is essentially well with the human race, you find out that the Freddie Starr single you picked up for 50p and bought as a joke was actually a top ten hit.  As if Ken Dodd's musical career didn't already nearly send you into a deep, dark depression.

The strangely under-referenced (perhaps for good reasons) "It's You" is perhaps more expected than Kenny Everett's attempts at chart smashes, or even Jasper Carrott's.  Despite his successful career as an "anarchic" comedian, Freddie Starr without question harboured ambitions to be a credible rock star which I'm sure have never faded - unbelievably, he even managed two very minor hit albums, the tragically titled "After The Laughter" in 1989, and "The Wanderer" in 1990.  The latter has nothing to do with the Kevin Rowland album of the same name I'm sure we can safely assume.  He even worked with some respectable industry figures, his greatest privilege undoubtedly being recording with Joe Meek in the sixties, a meeting of unpredictable minds I'm actually quite glad I wasn't anywhere near at the time.  

Sadly, whoever he recorded with, Starr's contributions to the pop world are largely forgettable.  "It's You" may have managed the number 9 slot in 1974, but it's an unremarkable slow tempo ballad with lyrics even Doddy would have rejected as overly saccharine.  Starr's voice is quite thin and reedy and smacks of insincerity - it's impossible to take seriously, in fact, even though the jokes seem non-existent, leaving us in a strange limbo.  Neither naff enough for a cheap joke, nor good enough to be a decent single, this just sits on your turntable seemingly trying its hardest to go unnoticed.  Robbie Williams may look like the bastard son of Freddie Starr, but it's clear who the superior singer and performer is.

The only really surprising thing about this disc is that people bloody well bought it in large numbers, which is interesting as they'd never really warmed to any of the man's singular recordings before, and never really did again. "It's You" clearly had something which clicked with both his fans and the general public, but it's not obvious to my ears what.  To get some perspective on this situation, it's worth remembering that The Who's "I Can See For Miles" finished one place lower in the charts than this effort.  I spit on the British record buying public.

17 July 2010

The High Llamas - Gideon Gaye

High Llamas - Gideon Gaye

Label: Alpaca Park
Year of Release: 1995

So then, I think we've all established what happened to Cathal Coughlan after Microdisney split, but what of his songwriting partner, Sean O'Hagan?  Did he simply set off in a knackered old Ford Cortina and build himself a career in pensions administration?  No, obviously - The High Llamas became his equally oddly named pet project.

The High Llamas have probably gained more recognition for their music than the Fatima Mansions managed, certainly in terms of the weight of the press cuttings involved.  Whereas the weekly and monthly music press seemed to lose interest in the negative realities expressed by the Mansions almost as soon Britpop arrived with a chirpy backflip, The High Llamas were almost oddly relevant.  In a world where Gorky's Zygotic Mynci were harking back to sunny melodies, Stereolab were looping and messing with krautrock styles, and the likes of The Divine Comedy were re-introducing intricate arrangements, they almost managed to cross-over the lot.  Whilst nobody was ever going to make a million by seeming akin to the aforementioned bands, it did ensure a wave of publicity which held them in good stead for awhile.

But then again, "Gideon Gaye" is such a fantastic record that it probably would have generated interest all by itself.  It's impossible to talk about the album without mentioning its similarities to the work of Brian Wilson - and in fact, it seems impossible for any critic to talk about the album without talking about how impossible it is not to do that, so please pardon my cliche - but it indeed is the kind of thing he may have made at the peak of his powers with perhaps a greater degree of freedom.  With the exception of some questionable doodles like "Giddy Strings", the album is a delightful, thematically unified piece, tracks cross-referencing each other in the manner that The Beatles managed on side two of "Abbey Road", the sound never slipping away from a woozy, chiming, summery nirvana.

Lyrically though, the approach is actually as scattershot as Coughlan's, albeit not as savage.  When I interviewed O'Hagan in 1995, he stated that part of "The Dutchman" was about some arrogant businessmen he met at a hotel in New York, all of whom were determined to stroll the rougher streets in the city wearing designer suits.  Still though, his roving eye takes in other details - the hotel barstool with the Collie sat by its side, his dyslexia prior to his own personal wandering around the city ("I don't know my right from my left"), and the effect is a mix of the good, the bad, and the almost inconsequential - a detailed portrait of the situation at the time.

The rest of "Gideon Gaye" continues in as panoramic a manner as that, with some of the looping interlude tracks locking in beautifully.  When playing it for the first time in a while last week, I checked the internet and was stunned to see that it was no longer available - a darling of many a year-end critic's poll in 1995, it seems as if it should be a constant seller, the kind of thing ripe for constant remastering and reappraisal.  That we've come to this pass is a bit unacceptable, but hopefully when you hear the album for yourself, you'll be converted to the cause.

SORRY - this album is now commercially available again, and as such as has been removed from this blog. If you want to buy a copy, iTunes is now stocking it among a number of other online sources.

1. Giddy Strings
2. The Dutchman
3. Giddy and Gay
4. Easy Rod
5. Checking In, Checking Out
6. The Goat Strings
7. Up In The Hills
8. The Goat Looks On
9. Taog Skool No
10. Little Collie
11. Track Goes By
12. Let's Have Another Look
13. The Goat (Instrumental)

14 July 2010

Kenny Everett - Nice Time

Kenny Everett - Nice Time

Label: Deram
Year of Release: 1969

Kenny Everett's music back catalogue is rather slight to say the least.  His media career in radio and television comedy in Britain succeeded in a manner most people specialising in only one particular area would garrote their grannies for, but so far as the pop charts are concerned, only the rather dubious "Snot Rap" did well for cuddly Ken (number 9 in 1983, if you must know).  Well, he couldn't expect to have everything.

Yet it probably shouldn't surprise us to learn that Everett tried his hardest to have a bona-fide, non-novelty hit in the sixties as well.  Firstly, DJs from Tony Blackburn to Simon Dee were trying their hand at it too - with frequently distressing results - and also there always seemed to be an element of the frustrated pop star about him.  He took drugs with John Lennon, adored Harry Nilsson enough to cover two of his songs ("Without Her" and "It's Been So Long") and generally seemed like a potential pop star to some.

"Nice Time" is probably his last "serious" stab at a single, and also acted as a TV theme for an Everett series of the same name.  It's at least two years too late stylistically, but essentially this is toytown British psychedelia with a rich, chirpy arrangement and Beatles-esque lyrics (although by this point The Beatles themselves had gone back to basics).  The entire treatment sounds not unlike an Idle Race album track, of whom Everett was a huge fan - so perhaps that's no coincidence.  You'd have to be a miserable bastard not to at least be marginally cheered by the whole thing, even if the chorus isn't immediately apparent.

Much better, though, is the flip "And Now For A Little Train Number", probably one of the few pop songs in existence to glorify the life of the humble trainspotter.  Beckoned in by a brass band opening, then continuing into a particularly strident first verse, the delicate and matter-of-fact observations within are almost worthy of Ray Davies at his finest.  Whilst sitting in Birmingham station "watching British Rail pass painlessly through the heart of Britain", Everett muses about whether or not he should show somebody his collection of new train numbers when he gets home.  "On second thoughts I fear this kindly gesture may likely bore you" he shrugs sadly, adding "I won't come home".  What, ever?  You'll stay forever in the train sidings collecting numbers until somebody appreciates your efforts, Ken?  Why?  Presumably he means he won't come home immediately...

Whatever the meaning behind this track, it's an endearing piece of work which could and should appear on psychedelic compilations, but mostly hasn't, presumably because Everett's face just doesn't fit the party.  Oh, and probably partly due to the small matter of "Snot Rap" as well...

10 July 2010

Sons and Lovers - From Now The Sun Shines

Sons and Lovers - From Now The Sun Shines

Label: Beacon
Year of Release: 1968

This particular 45 has been a largely overlooked effort in the mad rush there's been to seemingly compile every sixties pop single with vague psychedelic leanings on to CD. Whilst some real filler has worked its way on to the digital format, "From Now The Sun Shines" has had to make do with some very obscure placings on limited run (possibly bootleg?) issues.

Whilst I wouldn't want to rush forward and try to make case for this being up there with "SF Sorrow is Born" or "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" in terms of quality, it's something you would hope somebody would have found a bit more space for. It has the high tempo, propelling, pounding quality of a Joe Meek production, whilst adding the kind of fairy dust and sunshine lyrics typical of the late sixties era, complete with fantastic vocal harmonies. It's nigh on impossible to sit still while it spins, and it's a thing of confidence and quaint old catchiness.

Almost unbelievably, Sons and Lovers are still very much active and have their own website. Book them for a wedding, bar mitzvah or birthday and you can boast that you had your very own Rubbles-styled band playing at your bash. Not quite, though - members Spike Cowlard and Phillip Wright went on much greater success with Paper Lace in the seventies, managing a very sizable hit single with "Billy Don't Be A Hero", and I'd imagine most of your guests would probably be demanding that stuff. The band issued a run of singles on the independent Beacon label in the late sixties, and excerpts from most of these can be heard on their site.

7 July 2010

The Dots - Helen In Your Headphones

The Dots - Helen In Your Headphones

Label: EMI
Year of Release: 1982

Well, alrighty! Were it not for the wonders of the Internet, it's highly probable that I'd never have bothered placing this record on my "to buy" list. For years, "Helen In Your Headphones" existed in my brain without a title or a band name to go with it - all I could remember was a video which had both confused and vaguely scared me as a small child. One day whilst surfing on YouTube in a distracted fashion, the video popped up in one of the sidebars, banging my memory chimes very roughly. And Cliff almighty, it still disorientates me to this day. How such a brilliant and slightly unreal clip can be consigned to the dustbin of television history is a mystery, although I wouldn't bet against this going viral at some point in the next few years (and with any luck, I'll start the ball rolling with this entry - I'm still bitter that I didn't discover that Trololo sensation first, which is the most Left and to the Back-centric viral hit I've ever come across).

"Helen In Your Headphones" is an acquired taste, but it's definitely a special piece of work, wobbling on the usually awkward boundaries of parody and pop where so many an act with good intentions has fallen before. It begins with a barrage of eighties radio-speak, continues into a bouyant take on eighties synth-pop, then promptly splats headlong into a chorus so preposterously New Wave that it sounds ahead of its time, sporting the kind of punk era-referencing chorus the likes of Bis and indeed Dex Dexter were penning in the late nineties. Lyrically, it deals with the topic of an obsessed female fan of a radio DJ - "Hi Hi It's Helen... I just wanna tell you that your voice makes me go oh-oh-oh-oh" she sings insistently, out-creeping the rather oily DJ in question.

Whilst there's no doubting the record's capacity to irritate some people, I personally think it's brilliant, having a rare combination of a superb pop hook, tightness and conciseness, and a sense of humour which is delightful as well as being astute. It might be controversial to compare this to the Bonzo's "Craig Torso Show", but it does parody a certain vain, slippery element of the eighties "biz" to surprisingly strong effect, in much the same way that the Bonzos picked up on the flippant, self absorbed nature of some pirate radio jocks.

Two things stood in the way of chart success for The Dots, however - one would be the record having its own DJ intro, which may have proved difficult for DJs to work around themselves (especially if they were preposterous enough and Wayne Carr-esque enough to sound very similar). Perhaps mindful of this possible pitfall, EMI's plugging division apparently starting giving Radio One DJs expensive headphones as gifts to promote the single. Somebody got wind of the fact, thought it constituted payola, and the song was subsequently banned from the BBC's airwaves as a result. Given this fact, it actually did fairly well to climb as high as number 96 in the charts, its final resting place.

The Dots were from Leicester, and this appears to have been their only single, meaning EMI's rather rash marketing decision may have deprived us of other follow-ups. The rather scratched B-side "Come And Get It" is presented here for your pleasure as well, but doesn't really give any decent clues about where the band would have gone next. Still, with this one-off effort they really spoiled us.

3 July 2010

Barry Mason - Over the Hills and Far Away

Barry Mason - Over the Hills and Far Away

Label: Deram
Year of Release: 1966

Yet another example of a psychedelic-styled single from an unlikely source, Barry Mason was (or, it could be argued, is) a legendary songwriter whose canon couldn't be less paisley-coloured if it tried. "Delilah" was arguably his most well-known hit globally, but then it would rather rude if we ignored "Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)" for Edison Lighthouse and "The Last Waltz" for Engelbert Humperdinck, both of which would give that slice of melodrama a run for its money.

This single was his attempt to break out alone as an artist in his own right, with a little help from The Yardbirds' Paul Samwell-Smith. Although this is an enormous collector's item, I have to say that I've never been too sure what to make of it - the simultaneously epic and droning nature of the beast puts me in mind of many a daring flop Eastern European Eurovision entry rather than any sort of "scene, man". Despite this, there's no question that it's a very strange record, and one which proved to be one of Mr Mason's misfires. It failed to chart, and he appeared to give up on the idea of becoming a star shortly afterwards, watching instead as other people sold millions of copies of his tunes. I'm sure the failure of this disc doesn't keep him awake at night.