“If ever there’s an obscene noise to be made on an instrument, it’s going to come out of a guitar… That’s why I like it… The disgusting stink of a too-loud electric guitar: now that’s my idea of good time.”
An Introduction to Baroque n Roll.
First things first, I hate Frank Zappa and I’ve only heard two of his records. Which was plenty. I don’t like his wacky schtick and I don’t like the noodling. The reason I picked that quotation out is because , while I like some loud guitar records, what I really like is something a bit more, well, ‘refined’ is probably the polite term for it.
Not being the world’s most masculine man and having no interest in going à rebours – at least in term of that, I don’t really get off on chest beating, head banging or shouting. A little bit, here and there maybe, but I’m too in tune with my my ponceyness to not just go with it. I was a big fan of 1960s bubblegum pop but then I accidentally created a Jonestownesque situation when I overexposed my (soon-to-be-ex-) girlfriend and myself to the same twenty minutes of the Kasanetz-Katz Singing Orchestral Circus for eight hours straight on a car stereo that wouldn’t turn off. I don’t know which of us was Jim Jones. Probably me.
Whilst looking for old bubblegum records (no internet, remember – pfff) I’d found some compilation albums that had a bit of bubblegum on them, Garage bands, and Psychedelia. One of them had a song by a group called ‘The Left Banke’ and it turned my head in the midst of my music-aimed-primarily-at-the-under-sevens phase, so I had somewhere to go. The song was ‘Walk Away Renée’ and it had a harpsichord, a string quartet and a flute solo.
The Left Bank: like an unethical American experiment designed to clone a whole group of Paul McCartneys: all on permanent standby to visit, charm and delight anyone’s mother at her house for tea.
I’d heard the song before on my ‘Four Tops’ Greatest Hits’ but that had Levis Strauss grunting like Sisyphus all the way through it – if ever there was a band that produced records to soundtrack a hypothetical Myth of Sisyphus film, it was The Four Tops. Listen to the Greatest Hits. They all sound like someone climbing up a mountain, grunting all the way. But if Levis’ version was crushing and wailing whilst attempting to retain some dignity in its heartbreak, The Left Banke’s was gossamer light and sensitively stoic because they were too gentle to have any other options.
The Left Banke was a standard beat combo, apart from Michael Brown on harpsichord and piano, who joined later and wrote ‘Walk Away Renée’ and ‘Pretty Ballerina’ when he met the lead singer’s girlfriend and instantly fell in (unrequited) love with her. Imagine that, being the singer and having to sing the harpsichord player’s songs about how sad the keyboard player is that he’s in love with your girlfriend, Renée’. Nothing fruity about that, is there?
It was a bit like The Zombies’ ‘She’s Not There’, which was similarly not overly masculine in traditional sense of the word and, it turned out, had influenced Michael Brown. I had the single of that and went looking for an album.
I found a copy of ‘Odyssey (sic) & Oracle’ from 1968 that had only ‘Time of The Season’ that’d I’d heard before and, bugger me if I hadn’t stumbled upon another album that instantly clicked and stuck with me.
The opening track is as good an example as any. A faltering piano soon turns jaunty and the singer, Colin Blunstone (Colin? I know) breathily sings what seems like a typical sort of ‘my girlfriend’s coming home’ song. A bit like ‘My Boyfriend’s Back’, but not so much about explicit warnings of violence to alternative suitors as a greater emphasis on domestic practicalities like getting rooms ready and saving up for the train fair to pick her up. Then, casually slipped in, the line, “…and then you can tell me about your prison stay,” twitches your head. It’s a brilliant record, like an English Beach Boys except with mellotron cellos (think ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’) instead of those fucking harmonicas that do their best to balls up parts of Pet Sounds. And the accordions. Don’t get me started on accordions.
The entire rest of the record is as good as that. Apart from ‘The Butcher’s Tale (Western Front:1914) which sticks out like Barbie’s arms sellotaped on Venus De Milo’s stumps would. It’s not got an accordion on it, I think it’s a harmonium, but harmoniums sound like accordions on mogadon anyway, so take your pick; which one’s worse? My belief, which I hold firmly despite having so evidence to support it at all is that Nico – who regularly played a harmonium live in the late 70s and 80s – only picked the harmonium because wearing an accordion would have made her look less like a needy, Germanic aunt with a heroin problem than a somewhat chirpy Swiss frauline whose closest exposure to white powder would be on coach excursions to the Matterhorn. It’s an enduring image, isn’t it? Nico Von Trapp.
Still, the difference between the American and the English take on Baroque is, oddly, that the American version is a bit more authentic, instrumentally. Bach often means harpsichords, and there was a lot of harpsichord around on American pop records at that time. The Zombies have exactly the same instrumental line up as The Animals (Bass, drums, guitar, vocals, Vox continental organ) – no concessions at all, instrumentally, to the baroque sound, but they’ve still got that Baroque feel. A lot of it is down to Colin’s breathy, utterly southern English accent, but it’s there in their bones too.
The Left Banke song is a straightforward, “I love her but she doesn’t love me” theme. The Zombies’ alludes to Paul McCartney’s songs between about 1966-68. The vignettes on ordinary lives that Lennon uncharitably referred to as, ‘Boring songs about boring people doing boring things.’ Especially ‘Penny Lane’* but also ‘Getting Better’, ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘Fixing A Hole’, the jaunty bit in ‘A Day In The Life’, ‘The Fool On The Hill’, ‘Martha My Dear’, and that kind of thing. Perky little things with harpsichords, jangling pianos, string quartets, woodwind and plodding but interesting bass lines. These kinds of songs are the primal strands of protein that would form the Baroque ‘n’ Roll genre.
Here’s what Baroques Around The Clock in my, immensely influential, house.
- ‘Martha My Dear’ – The Beatles.
You can see what Lennon meant when he called this sort of thing that McCartney did ‘Granny Music’. It’s a bit music hall and everybody knew that Macca’s Old English Sheepdog was called ‘Martha’, so a jaunty, music hall inspired song about a dog isn’t going to get wild young youths trading in their Velvet Underground albums for it, for starters.
Macca was into The Beach Boys and this, as far as I’m concerned, is his pocket symphony. I know ‘Back In The USSR’ on The White Album is his big, famous Beach Boys’ pastiche – but that’s The Beach Boys’ lyrics for California Girls with a Russian twist; the cars, girls and white picket fences Beach Boys. But there are a lot more interesting things about The Beach Boys than that, although we shouldn’t discount his songs about trite subjects, because they are pretty fucking great. This is Brian Wilson without the spectre of his father wrecking his brain for him in about 1966. Anyway, Back In The USSR‘s a Chuck Berry tune, more or less. A bit like ‘Surfin’ USA’ was.
It might be about Martha on a surface level – and it sort of is – but it’s really another Jane Asher song and, if not about her, about Macca’s muse, with Macca being the main focal point, as opposed to his muse, whoever it is. It’s a bit like ‘Let It Be’ on happy pills: ‘Keep at it, Macca’ , ‘Everything’ll be alright’, that good old Paul McCartney ‘pecker up, lad,’ thing that went so well in the ‘Let It Be’ film (n.b: sarcasm). The strings work in counterpoint to the piano and his vocal melody, suggesting and chivvying, making the whole thing briskly bubble along in perpetual motion, like a muse ought to. It’s complicated, too. I don’t have the vocabulary and background to explain why. You can look it up if that sort of thing means anything to you.
Really, it doesn’t matter if you’re not into the musical terminology – it means nothing to me – the main thing is the gentle, bucolic feel about it, with strings and parping, as opposed to strident, brass. It sounds a bit like a colliery band; a very good colliery band.
‘Martha My Dear’ sounds like it should be a throwaway, and it is thrown away on a lot of heathens’ ‘What if ‘The White Album’ Was A Single Album? (AKA: ‘How can I not have to listen to Revolution #9 again and not feel bad about it?’ That answer to which is, you can’t and even if you could, you shouldn’t. So shut up and listen to The White Album. All of it. Good Night’s a bit shit, I’m prepared to countenance dissent on that one. Even if you think you should, Martha My Dear’s only throwaway sounding because it’s ostensibly about a dog and, oddly enough, dog songs are always seen that way. It’s the instrumentation and the arrangement that, being so slick, tend to make it not jar your ear like a lot of Lennon songs of this period did (as always, they both had a go at each other’s style on The White Album: Lennon with Goodnight, Macca with Helter Skelter), which opens it up to accusations of being a bit naff. A bit Mantovani, which is a terrible thing to do because Martha My Dear is an extraordinary record.
Lyrically, the English version of Baroque ‘n’ Roll, which I’m mainly though not exclusively going to write about, tends to be about an individual or, failing that, like ‘Penny Lane’, an area comprising distinct groups of people. These people tend to be somewhat eccentric in their nature and often disassociated from their surroundings, implying that they are tripping their tits off. There was a resurgence in Edwardian influenced frippery; undue emphasis on tea in the garden. A lot of Alice in Wonderland imagery in terms of incongruous juxtapositions including time and space, but in quite a nice manner. A lot of these records might be thought of as children’s records – and that’s alright.
*’Penny Lane’, incidentally, is often seen as being not very psychedelic because, compared to ‘Strawberry Fields…’, it’s not. But it is. It’s a shame because it does exactly what ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ does, which is to say, to makes normal things seem ever so slightly out of kilter with everything else – a bit like being on acid, natch – but it does it subtly. ‘Penny Lane’ is the first hour of a trip: listen to the words, the timescale is all over the place; the weather doesn’t work. Not the sort of thing that conscientious grafter Macca would have done accidentally. ‘Strawberry Fields…’ is about five hours in, and does a great job of it. Penny Lane doesn’t get the plaudits because of its proximity to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, which is hard luck. On the other hand, I can’t really think of anything better than ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, full stop. So fair dos.
The reason I mention Penny Lane here, apart from it sounding quite Baroque, is because it’s its lysergic lyrics that are another pretty big part of what makes Baroque n Roll what it is.
2. Eddy Howell ‘Easy Street’ 1969
Full on pound shop Penny Lane-isms all in place, musically and lyrically. A bit too obvious in influence and nowhere near the attention to detail that McCartney insisted on. What carries it is the singing. I don’t know anything about Eddy Howell, but he sounds ever so friendly and his charm isn’t overbearing like Steve Marriott could occasionally be. If anything, everyone seems to be gouching out on smack, such are the references to yawning and a somnambulant swing that presides over proceedings, preventing anything too hectic taking place. So, acid’s not crucial to Baroque n Roll according to this record, but that’s quite unusual.
3. The Bee Gees – ‘Sir Geoffrey Saved The World’ 1967
The important thing to remember about The Bee Gees is that they were batshit. All of them. Totally off their collective tits. If George Harrison had been in the Bee Gees, he’d have been the normal one – that’s how crackers the brothers Gibb were.
When I was about 20, I went to this Hare Krishna ‘banquet’ and performance thing because I’d decided to be open minded after an extended period of not believing anything about anything.
The banquet consisted of a small bag of unsalted peanuts and raisins. There was then a performance, a sort of morality play about, as far as I could gather, the futility in everything except wearing a lot of orange clothes and chanting while ordinary people point and laugh at you. The play was pretty boring, but all the way through it, these faces would appear through gaps in the back curtains of the stage. Not to be unpleasant, but if you’ve seen ‘The Name Of The Rose’, you’ll get my drift. Anyway, these faces would periodically peer through gaps and grin at the audience, one eye swivelling independently of the other, until they were swiftly dragged away. Rinse and repeat.
The performers, apart from the overly-delighted-with-everyday-shit looks on their faces and their slightly dazed expressions, looked relatively normal. The swivel eyed loons were the people that they were hiding. That was the impression that I left with. Empty handed too. The real reason I went, apart from broadening my outlook, was to see if they knew where I could get a copy of ‘Chant & Be Happy‘ the George Harrison book. But nobody had one or knew how to get hold of one. Actually, one chap I asked made out he might be able to find one back at Hare Krishna HQ, if I’d give him a load of money and my address first, so I didn’t bother.
The reason I’m telling you about the Hare Krishnas is because they were all crackers, like the Bee Gees. And also I was thinking about George Harrison, probably. The main difference is that everybody thinks Hare Krishnas are crackers and people don’t tend to think that about the Bee Gees. People tend to think that the Bee Gees are boring breadheads who made disco records which couldn’t be further from the truth. And it’s not even as if this non-album single is particularly unusual in terms of their sixties records. ‘Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You’ off the first album – a gregorian chant backed by mellotron is a good example.
Diversion – The Madness of The Bee Gees.
‘Odessa’, off the double concept album of the same name – now this one really is opening the doors of Asylum and letting the public point at the loonies howling at the moon. I’ll condense the lyrics, because they tell a story and what a story it is…
It’s sung from the perspective of a shipwreck victim (possibly Captain Richardson) in 1899 who set sail from Hull (my hometown and no stranger to lunatics – Robinson Crusoe was also described as sailing from there, so maybe that’s where Robin Gibb – who wrote this song – got it from) who has scrambled to safety on an iceberg floating in the Baltic sea – at some points Robin sings about the Atlantic as well, which suggests that the Bee Gees’ recording budget mainly got spent on mellotrons at the expense of an atlas. Anyway, being sat on this iceberg is clearly giving the shipwrecked dude plenty of thinking time and what he thinks about is his girlfriend who, apparently loves the vicar more than words. Anyway, while he’s thinking about her he’s also, “filing the ‘berg in the shape of ship,” Yeah. The mad bastard has decided that a floating lump of ice isn’t good enough for him because it’s not ship shaped – maybe that’s what it means – and he’s sending vibes to her to get this vicar to pray that his iceberg doesn’t melt. It’s pretty maudlin and then, presumably because he’s started to enjoy wallowing in his misery, he tells his girlfriend – through the power of thought, presumably, that their neighbours don’t have their dog anymore.
This is quite a lot to take in, so let’s recap – Captain of ship leaves Hull, sinks in the Baltic, he climbs onto an iceberg that he carves into the shape of a ship, thinking about his girlfriend back home who’s in love with the vicar – who the shipwreck victim hopes will pray for the continuing structural integrity of the iceberg (which suggest that filing bits of it off might not have been such a great move) – then he tries to communicate some news that he apparently has – from the middle of what now turns out to be the Atlantic, not the Baltic – received from his and his girlfriends next door neighbours, that their dog’s dead. Even though he’s on a fucking iceberg and she probably sees the now dogless neighbours every day because she’s not the one sitting on a carved iceberg in one of two possible oceanic locations. Alright?
That’s not it, though. Oh, God no. Next up, Iceberg ship captaining, psychic dead dog message receiving Robin Gibb starts asking his girlfriend why she moved to Finland. Probably to fucking get away from you, you fruitcake. Depending on what sea he actually is on, as Finland is in the fucking Baltic, isn’t it?
Robert Stigwood, who later made the execrable ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ film with The Bee Gees was also no help whatsoever in terms of normalising the three brothers…
Diversion Diversion – Asylum Joke for illustrative purposes.
A man walks into a pub and asks the barman if there’s a room he can hire for a private function. The barman tells him that there certainly is.
The man says, “Well, the thing is, I work in a mental hospital and we’re trying to help reintegrate the, er, patients back into society, so I wondered if it’d be alright to start them off by bringing them to the pub. I thought if we started just with us lot in a private room, that’d be a good place. Doe that sound alright?”
And the barman says, “Yeah, no problem. When do you want to come?”
The man says, “Well, next Wednesday would be perfect.”
Barman says, “Easy, Wednesdays are dead quiet. I’ll book you in,”
“Great,” the man says, “But there is one other thing.”
“Well, we run a token economy at the hospital, so what they’ll do is ask you for a drink and when it comes to paying for it, they’ll give you milk bottle tops. But don’t worry, if you just keep a total of how much they spend, I’ll settle up with you the next day. Is that alright?”
“Yeah, no problem, mate,” the barman says, “I’ll see you Wednesday.”
Wednesday comes round and the man turns up in a minibus with about twenty or so people with various mental health issues. They go to the bar, ask for a pint of beer, the barman gives them it and says, “That’ll be two pound twenty, please.” and the hospital residents give him a couple of milk bottle tops and go and drink their booze.
At the end of the night, the man rounds all the pissed up patients into the bus and takes them back to the hospital.
Next day, he turns up at the pub and talks to the barman.
“It seemed to go pretty well last night,” the barman says to him. “Did everyone have a good time?”
“Oh, it was fantastic,” the man said. “They loved it. Anyway, did you keep a total of what they spent?”
“Yes,” the barman said, taking a piece of paper from the till, “I make it a total of two hundred and twenty six pound eighty five. Tell you what, call it two twenty, how’s that sound?”
“Oh, that’s fantastic,” said the man, “Have you got any change for a dustbin lid?”
End of Diversion Diversion.
And that’s what I mean about Robert Stigwood looking after the Bee Gees. Robin Gibb said this, “… I got a ring from Robert Stigwood to say it was the greatest pop classic he had ever experienced. He said it was stupendous, and I used to get calls from him at three and four and five and six in the morning telling me the same thing. I thought it was going to be the new single”
See? They’re all bananas. The lot of them.
It’s not all that Baroque, but it is off its tits. I don’t know what the fuck it is, but I’m glad it’s there. Here it is.
Anyway, back to “Sir Geoffrey Saved The World”, which is very Baroque.
Lyrically, it’s quite similar to ‘Easy Street’, in that it’s Saturday, it’s in a town and it’s about ordinary people bumbling about, doing normal things, but about three inches to the left. Which is lysergia in a nutshell.
“Ev’ry day’s Saturday, feeling in steadily
Laughing at people with stars in their eyes
Vicar Hays approaching town, preaching in the underground
Talking with the lambs who came out of the sky
You know how Sir Geoffrey saved the world…”
We never get to find out how Sir Geoffrey saved the world. No attempt is made to go into even the broadest of strokes to paint the listener a picture. But, let’s face it, even if they did, how much sense do you think you’d get out of them? ‘Lambs who came out of the sky’? I suppose it might be referring to Isiah 11:6, with the wolf lying down with the lion, but who knows? How does he feel about The Whore of Babylon? How does any of this relate to Sir Geoffrey? None of our business, apparently.
As was the law in terms of this sort of thing – Toytown Pop some people call it – Robin Gibb continues by singing about dinner time and gardens, but we don’t really approach anything like clarity. Which is how such acidic visions ought to be. It’s all in the implying.
The Bee Gees did quite a lot of Baroque n Roll records. I particularly used to enjoy ‘Cucumber Castle’ which Nicola particularly disliked.
“Bang a record on, eh, Middlerabbit,” she’d say.
“Cucumber Castle?” I’d reply.
“Providing you’re happy for me to rip off and throw your knackers out of the window, by all means.”
So I didn’t.
4. Scott Walker – Various, but especially ‘The Amorous Humphrey Plugg’.
I’ve already written about my introduction to Scott Walker, in terms of getting the reissued cds in 1992 and finding someone to tape them for me who said they sounded like ‘Love Boat’ music which first made me realise that the girl who’d taped them for me had a lot more depth and humour that I’d given her credit for.
A lot of Scott Walker’s records involved quite a lot of orchestration which, you might think, would make him a shoo in for a list of Baroque & Roll records, but it doesn’t. Dusty Springfield, who I love dearly, has a lot of orchestration on her 1960’s records but she’s not remotely Baroque n roll. So there’s more to it than sticking an oboe and a couple of cellos on your arrangement.
To be honest, a lot of Walker’s records aren’t at all Baroque, but The Amorous Humphrey Plugg is. And that’s because of the lyrics. Again.
Straightaway, it sounds swirly. Those violins are whirling around like plastic bags in a market square in October. Languid brass parps around them, with the typical, punchy bass guitar of the period, which was never illustrated more clearly than on Serge Gainsbourg records of the same period.
When Scott comes in, you’re not sure if he’s taking the piss out of old Humphrey, calling him a ‘big shot‘. Maybe he is, but I don’t know if that’s true because he soon slips into the first person when describing his day, which is – again – mundane: taking the kids to the park, slipping around on his polished floor. And then, all of a sudden, he’s a giant and there’re angels and poets, cellophane sighs and Corrina the candle begging him to stay. I don’t know where.
I think what’s happening is that Scott, playing the character of Humphrey, is talking to himself in the mirror, pitying his dull existence and living in a bit of a fantasy world, which I can get on board with.
In some ways, it’s quite like ‘Penny Lane’ in that Mr. Normal is commenting on a bunch of extraordinary stuff that just appears to have happened around him. I don’t think anybody’s mad. Even if they are, they’re not Bee Gees mad. Mind you, who is?
I like a lot of lines in this, especially some of the more banal ones because they’re sung in a way that gives them more resonance than if you were just reading them off the page. The one about “…got a new suit,” isn’t very exciting, but Scott makes it sound momentous.
It’s one of my favourite Scott Walker songs though, even if it’s quite unusual for him, in that most of his records are more lyrically straightforward than this one. I don’t think it’s all that lysergic, to be frank. I think it’s more about how adulthood is a lot more boring than being a kid is, what with the responsibility and all that, and how he misses it a bit. I can dig that.
“Oh to die of kisses, Ecstasies and charms, Pavements of poets will write that I died, In nine angel’s arms”
It’s wishful thinking, isn’t it? The banality of domesticism compared with what he dreams about.
A bit like Homer Simpson who, when Marge asks him if adult life is actually similar to how he expected it to be and he says, “Yeah, pretty much. Except I thought we’d be driving around in a van, solving mysteries.”
5. “Do I Still Figure In Your Life?” The Honeybus.
I could have picked almost any Honeybus record for this Baroque n Roll post. In fact, they had a record called, “Baroque n Roll Star’, but it’s not very Baroque n Roll, oddly. It’s more like the sort of honky tonk music played in Westerns’ bar rooms, so that’s no good here.
No Honeybus records are remotely trippy, lyrically or otherwise. They’re far more similar to The Left Banke, in that they tend to be about unrequited love. This one’s about the singer’s ex-wife and how the singer, obviously, wants her back. Which is quite a mature sort of theme for a pop record.
It’s about everything changing, except the singer, who wants everything to stay the way it used to be. You know, regret. And Baroque instrumentation is good for illustrating that sort of sentiment because it just yearns, doesn’t it?
I think it’s beautiful.
I’ve written – at length – about The Beatles in general and intend to waffle interminably at some point in the future about The White Album, at least. For the purposes of this particular post, I was always going to write about a Fabs record but I kept putting it off because I couldn’t decide which one I was going to write about.
The first thing that my brain kept churning out was In My Life.
Diversion – My cyclical brain.
My brain needs someone to keep an eye on it, which should have become rapidly apparent to anybody who’s read pretty much anything here. I’ll give you an example of the mundane sort of crap that it thinks is reasonable.
I’ve just said that when I was thinking about which Beatles record to write about in terms of Baroque n Roll, all it did was say, In My Life. Repeatedly, like a person in a large group who keeps making the same suggestion because they don’t realise that it’s a stupid suggestion and it’s getting ignored because it doesn’t need a response. My brain doesn’t even realise that, as my brain, it doesn’t have much competition inside my head, but it keeps being a dick about it.
The best example I can give you is when I can’t find something. Generally, I will have some vague idea about where it is I’ve put whatever it is – say a particular cupboard. So, I’ll be thinking, “Where’s that ….” and my brain says, “I’ve seen it in that cupboard,” So I go to the cupboard and look in it. The first thing is that I just gawp at the contents and don’t move anything because I’m a bit idle. Then I’ll go and look somewhere else for a bit before coming back to that cupboard. I’ll look in it again, again without moving anything until I decide that I’m going to have to make a bit more effort. Then I take thing out of it and examine them to make sure that each thing isn’t whatever it is I’m looking for until the cupboard’s bare. I’ll be huffing and puffing by this point, getting irritated.
When I finally accept that it’s not there, I’ll put everything back and go and look somewhere else. For about a minute. Then I’ll be back at the cupboard again, sighing like the dick I am, poking the odd bit a couple of millimetres left or right, all the while getting more stirred up.
And, until I tell my brain that it’s a nobhead and I’m going to ignore it, that’s what I do – just keep going back to the same old thing because my brain won’t have it that it doesn’t know what the hell it’s on about.
End of Diversion.
Then I remembered I’d already written about Martha My Dear and realised I didn’t have to. Sometimes I ought to listen to my brain, even though it’s a fucking idiot.
6. Toyland – The Alan Bown
Even though The Bee Gees’ sixties output is the sort of music that I probably wouldn’t play in front of my friends because I can’t see any of them going for any of it even slightly, this record makes Cucumber Castle sound like Led Zeppelin, who they’d probably much rather listen to because, well, fuck knows. Maybe they’re secretly into wizard pants or something.
I couldn’t tell you a single thing about Alan Bown, ‘The‘ or otherwise. Funny name for a band, isn’t it? I could look it up, but I’m afraid I don’t give enough of a shit. I also couldn’t tell you a single other record or song that they did which might be a bit daft of me because I like the instrumentation and whoever the singer is. Possibly Alan Bown, I don’t know. Or care.
Sometimes, baroque n’ roll is called Toytown Pop and this is the epitome of that, and not just because it’s called “Toytown”.
Diversion – Music as a method of pissing your parents off.
I know I said this would annoy my friends or, at best just make them do their usual sideways look at each other with raised eyebrows. The exact sort of look that grown up siblings give each other when their elderly parents are first showing signs of dementia.
Having said that, I realise that music is often a sort way of finding something that’s yours as opposed to your parents. My folks never really liked music all that much. My dad liked a bit of early Donovan and I tried to get him into Nick Drake because I thought that sort of wet, green bucolic thing he has going on might have been fairly similar, but he didn’t dig it. I’ll tell you what he did get into instead: fucking Katie Melua. Imagine that. The only other thing we enjoy together are sea shanties and my tolerance for those is similar to my tolerance for Neil Young, which is to say about twenty minutes.
I pissed my parents off with my music when I was younger, although not intentionally. What particularly annoyed my old man was I Know It’s Over by The Smiths, which isn’t baroque at all. When I got The Queen Is Dead, I hammered it, like I did with Hatful of Hollow.
Now, when I say, I hammered it, I did but the thing with The Queen Is Dead is that, even though it’s an album with a lot of great songs on it and they’re pretty much at their peak – whatever they say about Strangeways, Here We Come – the running order seems a bit odd to me. As if they were just sick of it and bunged them onto vinyl in any order they felt like without giving it a lot of thought.
It starts off nicely enough, with the title track and Frankly Mr Shankly is slight, but necessary after that opening barrage which is about as far from jingly-jangly indie wank as you can get. It’s after that that the problem occurs though and the problem is that the next nine and a half minutes are taken up by I Know It’s Over and Never Had No-one Ever. Which is laying on the rejection by humanity a bit thick. One after the other anyway. Cemetry (sic) Gates is great but you might have topped yourself by the time you get to that chirpy little bugger. Side two starts off with another two songs that are mildly similar – Bigmouth Strikes Again and The Boy With The Thorn In His Side then Vicar In A Tutu is their – by that point – obligatory comedy rockabilly pastiche. There Is A Light is great and – even though you’re supposed to hate the words – I like Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others.
So, for me, I’d be inclined to get shut of Vicar, replace it with Half A Person from the You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby single and swap The Boy… with Never Had No-one and also swap There Is A Light and Some Girls.
If I’d ever bought it on compact disc, I might have programmed it to see what it was like, but I haven’t. For some reason, I find I have four copies of it on vinyl. Two originals, one of which jumps on the title track, a 10″ reissue from some point in the 90s. Christ knows why I bought that. And a recent, remastered by Johnny Marr Reissue, which I don’t like as much as the original. Nice one Middlerabbit, you total dick.
Anyway, as is my wont, I’ve been known to play the same song repeatedly if I’m particularly into it, which was the case with I Know It’s Over. My old man used to holler up the stairs, “Are you playing that bloody dirge again?” And I’d deny it because he reckoned that all The Smiths’ records sounded the same anyway.
Finally, on I Know It’s Over, the first year girl from Morecambe with the humour and the Love Boat comments was into The Smiths – which I was enormously pleased by – and she wasn’t big on listening to that song either because of the lyric, “…see the knife wants to slit me…” It was the word ‘slit’ that upset her. Honestly, you could see her cringing a mile off.
End of Diversion.
So, yeah, I know you’re supposed to piss your parents off with your records, but mine were already generally relatively pissed off, so I don’t think it made a lot of difference. My mates, on the other hand, regard me with pity if I get my way with the stereo.
7. No Milk Today – Herman’s Hermits.
On the whole, I’m not arsed about Herman’s Hermits. I like this and I liked a television clip on Sounds Of The Sixties which had Peter Noone being wheeled through the audience on Top Of The Pops and one girl in the audience decided to link her arm through his and walk next to him through the studio, pissing all the other lasses right off. Then she wanders off and another limpet takes hold.
And here it is – you won’t see this on telly again as it has the worst man in the world, Jimmy Savile, introducing it. Forward past him and watch the girl cream herself at getting up close and personal with Peter, who looks a bit embarrassed.
Anyway, that’s a shit song, but No Milk Today isn’t. Written by Graham Goldman who was in 10cc, who I also don’t care about. I like some of his sixties songs though. The Hollies did a few and they’re all a bit kitchen sink which I’m into anyhow.
No Milk Today though. One hell of a grown up song for a teenybopper band to play. It’s not as if the meaning’s oblique because the first line makes it explicit: “No Milk Today, my love has gone away.” And the details don’t get filled in any more than that really. We don’t get to find out why she left or even why she consumed so many dairy products in comparison to the singer. “But all that’s left is a place dark and lonely. A terraced house in a main street back of town…just two up, two down,”
I looked the lyrics up on the interweb because I never know if I’ve just misheard and got the wrong end of the stick. On the web, the lyrics say, “…mean street, back of town,” which make sense, but I don’t think it’s that. Also, the transcriber evidently doesn’t know what ‘two up, two down‘ means and wrote that wrong, so I don’t think whoever it was was infallible.
The rest of the lyrics are talking about the good times – dancing faster and faster – and that perspective alternates with a fairly real but rarely expressed concern about being dumped by your girlfriend – how come such tiny little details break your heart and yet mean so little to everybody else? You know, there’s only him now, and when he looks at the doorstep and the note to the milkman, it’s a big deal that means naff all to everybody else. Maybe writing the three word note to the milkie was when it really hit him, what had happened.
Heartbreaking. The string section is busy and sounds like bustling commuters on their way to work, but that might just be my imagination. Nice clanging bells here and there. Death knells perhaps.
Nothing else they did was any good, but who gives a shit when they did this?
8. Homburg – Procol Harum
A Whiter Shade Of Pale is their big hit, obviously, and you don’t get a lot more Bach than that, but I don’t really have much to add to all the words that have been written about that Summer of Love classic. Anyway, I like Homburg better.
Part of the reason I like it so much is because it reminds me of my flat on Pearson Park which was great anyway, but what I really liked about that flat was that first thing in the morning, the mist would hang low over the park and I’d have my morning cup of tea with this on repeat, gawping at the mist and the assorted weirdos who hang around parks at stupid o’clock in the morning.
The baroque element of this is mainly the organ, which on A Whiter Shade of Pale was basically playing Air On A G String, which I knew from the Hamlet cigar adverts on telly when I was a kid. The Hamlet adverts all showed some bloke to whom something bad happened and then, when he was at rock bottom, lit his Hamlet cigar and still seemed to enjoy it – while a jazzy version of Air On A G String played. And then the voice over said, “Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet” which I thought was pretty good.
Here’s a compilation of some of those adverts.
But Homburg isn’t quite so influenced by Bach songs that were played on the cigar adverts of my youth. There’re similarities – the instruments are pretty much the same but that Hammond organ – which was probably the most instantly recognisable element of A Whiter Shade of Pale – is a lot less far forward in the mix. The piano, which was practically inaudible on A Whiter Shade… is louder. I put that down to Gary Brooker – the singer and piano player having his nose pushed out of joint because everybody loved the Hammond organ on that first, massive single. Years later the Hammond player – Matthew Fisher – sued Brooker for a writing credit on A Whiter Shade… because all anybody really gave a shit about was the Hammond organ on it. Well, it’s pretty good, isn’t it? I’ll tell you what no bugger has anything to say about on those first couple of singles though – the drums.
When I remember, which isn’t all that often, I try to listen out for the drumming on these two singles because it’s really good without being flashy, bombastic or over the top. It’s a bit draggy, which sounds bad, but by that I mean it’s ever so slightly behind the beat and well, draggy. It’s not a clean, crisp thwack of wood on taut calfskin, it’s more of a brrraaapppaahh, if that means anything to anybody. I daresay there’s a proper name for whatever it is but whatever it is, I don’t know what it’s called. But yeah, the drumming. Spot on.
Apart from the Bachy organ on these singles, the other thing that strikes the casual listener are the lyrics, especially on A Whiter Shade… which are pretty impressionistic and of the moment. That moment being the summer of 1967 and generally on the, er, trippy side. If A Whiter Shade Of Pale encapsulates the time of the trip and somebody’s efforts to, er, start a relationship with a lady, then Homburg is six months down the line, the honeymoon period now but a distant memory and things that once endeared them to each other have now become irritating and reason enough to call the whole thing off.
A Whiter Shade… might appear to be a bit melancholy on the surface – possibly due to being primed for it by the Hamlet adverts – I find that, lyrically at least, it’s quite optimistic, even if it’s the optimism of a person who is currently off their tits. Homburg though? Yeah. Melancholy as you like.
9. Say You Don’t Mind – Denny Laine.
That Denny Laine, yes. Him out of Wings with Paul and Linda McCartney. The one who looked like the only reason he was there was because Macca sometimes used to like the idea of being in a band with people who could actually play instruments and sing a bit.
The first I knew of Denny Laine was in the videos for Mull Of Kintyre and Wonderful Christmastime, both of which I quite like. I know everybody’s supposed to hate Mull Of Kintyre, especially, but I don’t. I mean, I used to, but I got over it when I found myself singing it on a regular basis to our daughter as a lullaby when she first came home from being born, which would have been in mid December when the Christmas songs are played everywhere. Personally, I like quite a lot of Christmas songs – pop songs and carols – although maybe I wouldn’t if I worked in a shop that played them constantly.
Anyway, I didn’t think much about Denny Laine as a kid watching those videos. On the telly series Sounds Of The Sixties, which I’ve already mentioned, I saw The Moody Blues doing Go Now and Denny Laine was singing it and not Justin Heyward, who I almost included on this list with Forever Autumn, but changed my mind. I daresay I’ll cover that in the future – but only the version that has Richard Burton interrupting him halfway through. Anyway, that’s for another time.
I wasn’t in love with it or anything – Go Now – I thought it was okay but I had no interest in looking into anything else that they did. I thought they were a prog rock band – which I suppose they were later – and I wasn’t into that either. So I didn’t really bother with The Moodies, as their fans allegedly call them.
Forward several years and I’d got into The Zombies (see above). The Zombies had two phases as far as I could gather: first they were sort of Rhythm and Blues (apart from She’s Not There) and Baroque ‘n’ Roll later on when they did Odessey (sic) & Oracle. I was into the later stuff mainly. However, they split up pretty much as soon as they finished recording that album so that was a bit of a dead end in terms of pursuing a trail of groovy music.
Then I came across a copy of One Year, the first solo album by Colin Blunstone in a second hand shop for about 50p. I knew I liked his voice anyway, so I bought it. I thought he’d gone off to work in an insurance office – seriously – but he must have got sick of that. Too much security, perhaps.
One Year is alright. It’s a bit nunty, which The Zombies sort of were a bit anyway, but this is tipping the balance into a level of nuntiness that’s a bit much even for the likes of me. I liked a couple of songs on it – Caroline Goodbye‘s quite lovely really; She Loves The Way They Love Her is okay, though it pushes the nunty envelope a bit far for my liking. Most of the rest of it’s a bit gossamer light for me – and I’m into Donovan, thanks – although Say You Don’t Mind was heads and shoulders above everything else on it. It was a hit single, apparently. If you hear Say You Don’t Mind on the radio, it’s usually the Colin Blunstone one that you hear. The credits told me it was written by Denny Laine and I kept my eye out to see if he’d actually recorded it or if he’d written it specially for groovy fucker Colin Blunstone.
Well, he had recorded it – in 1967 – and it didn’t even get in the top 100 which is a shame because it’s absolutely lovely.
In a lot of ways, the Colin Blunstone one is the more Baroque n Roll of the two – the music entirely provided by strings – cellos and violins, basically. It’s gentle and undulating – taking tea on the veranda music. Merchant Ivory’s idea of modernity.
Denny Laine’s has orchestral instruments on it too – it starts with – I don’t know what it is, actually – an oboe or something, and violins join in later. However, it’s a lolloping, twitchy groove, like a Heath Robinson bicycle made without recourse to any circular components, so it judders and flops, but beautifully so. The acoustic guitar twitches brightly and echoes the melody in-between vocal lines. The drums sound – as they often should – like someone throwing them down the stairs.
Denny Laine’s voice isn’t the rarified, precious and delicate instrument that mad bastard Colin Blunstone has, it’s got character though. He sounds a bit adenoidal, old Denny. It’s quite conversational which Colin’s isn’t, even though the lyrics are identical.
Speaking of which, it’s a bit like those songs that kids write when they’re in primary school. You know, the main thing from their perspective is that there ought to be as much rhyming going on as is humanly possible. Also, it falls into the category of unrequited love whining baroque songs, as opposed to psychedelia – although there’s some nice imagery in there too. Take the opening couplet, which I feel ambivalent about: “I realise that I’ve been in your eye some kind of fool / What I do, what I did, stupid fish I drank the pool,” I really like the second line, castigating himself for being stupid and greedy – sentiments I can get behind – but the first line almost wrecks the second before it’s even been sung. The part about, “…in your eye,” I know why that’s in the song – it fits the metre which is important, especially with the bizarre lollop groove that this is built around – you can’t piss about with that. But he should have come up with an alternative to “…in your eyes,” because it just makes him sound like he thinks he’s not done anything that bad, really. It’s just that she interprets it that way. You know, when someone’s been horrible to someone else and everybody knows they ought to just come out and say, “Look, I’m sorry. I said that and it was bad and I didn’t mean it, I was just in an arse. I hope you can forgive me,”, but what they actually say is, “I’m sorry if I upset you.” I can’t remember where I heard it, but it’s a great phrase and applicable here as much as anywhere: “If you’re going to have to eat shit, it’s better not to nibble at it.” If apologising is eating shit – and I think it often can be – just get on with it.
And that’s my problem with this record – if I think about it too much, I really start to dislike it.
I mean, in some ways, that first line is perfect because the title of the song’s “Say You Don’t Mind”, isn’t it? What else could that mean? You know, it’s not somebody saying, “I’ve been a dick and I’ve finally worked it out and from now on, I’m going to not be a dick. I hope you can forgive me,”, is it? It’s somebody saying, “You think I’ve been a dick – I think I’ve been alright, really. I’d like it if you’ll tell me not bothered if I act like a wanker so I can keep doing it and not get any hassle from you,” Which is a bit shitty, isn’t it?
Still, I like it a lot more when Denny Laine does it and that’s because of the lollop.
10. Winter Is Blue – Vashti Bunyan.
Vashti’s not what you’d call a household name, but she’s far more well known now than she was when I first heard this record.
At some point over the past ten years or so, there was an advert that had Just Another Diamond Day from her utterly charming solo folky album of the same name. She’s got ever such a delicate little voice.
I couldn’t tell you many Vashti facts, but of those I do know, my favourite is the story of how she wrote the songs for her “…Diamond Day” album – which was done a few years after this record.
She’d had enough of not really getting anywhere and London being suffocating so she decided she was going to sell up, buy a gyspy caravan and a horse to pull it and drive to Donovan’s hippy island that he’d bought in the Hebrides. It turns out travelling by gypsy caravan is slow at the best of times and even slower when the horse gets pregnant and you have to stop travelling at all until months after it’s given birth. By the time she got to the Hebrides, Donovan had got sick of being king of the hippies on the Hebrides, sold it and buggered off elsewhere. Poor Vashti.
Anyway, that’s to get ahead of ourselves. I quite like quite a lot of Just Another Diamond Day the album, but my favourite Vashti records are those she made in the mid 1960s with Andrew Oldham (ex-manager of The Rolling Stones and then boss of Immediate Records, whose biggest stars were The Small Faces).
The singles that Immediate put out sold knack all and there was no chance of my finding any of them. Even if there was, I’d never even heard of her until my first year at university, when, in search of psychedelic 60s music, I came across a cassette of the soundtrack for a film I’d never seen called, Tonite, Let’s All Make Love In London, named after the Allen Ginsberg poem. I hate Allen Ginsberg. I think he’s a right dick, and that poem, like all of his poems, is the usual load of shite that he vomited out onto the page – all ever-so risqué and full of nipples, pubes, cancer and spittle. Anyhow, the soundtrack was the first one I’d heard that had excerpts of the film’s dialogue in-between the songs. Some of the dialogue was great. I was always looking for groovy phrases to drop into my own conversations and this was ideal. My favourite quote was by David Hockney – who I really liked until he decided to move over to felt tipped pens and iPads – and he said, “What I do find is very sexy is the the new four-penny stamp of the footballers kicking their legs up.” Which is a bold statement to make in 1967, the year homosexuality was decriminalised in Britain. I liked loads of these little quips though. There was a girl who said that nowadays, men would be upset if they found out you were a virgin and they’d leave the room if they found out you were one; Julie Christie (sigh) says, “Everything’s happened to me and I haven’t happened to anything. Things have happened to me. I think I’d better start happening to something. And one thing after another has happened to me, I mean it’s quite incredible, actually. It’s the most extraordinary thing. I don’t know how it’s happened. I think it’s going to stop any minute.” Michael Caine talks about the loss of moral fibre that swinging London brought with it – and was still going on about it last year in a film he made about how the decadence of the sixties was a bad thing. Maybe it was, I don’t know, but he seems to have done alright out of it. Towards the end, you had Lee Marvin talking out of his arse about how minis (the cars) are bigger inside than cadillacs. He was pleased about girls wearing minis (the skirts). I don’t know how it’d go down now.
Well, I dug all these little snippets – and I’ve still never seen the film in case it doesn’t live up to the soundtrack, daft twat that I am – even though this song was faded out halfway through for Andrew Loog Oldham to waffle about something I can’t remember. On the plus side, at least they faded it back in again. I taped it so that it didn’t have Loog Oldham spoiling it, but never got it quite right.
Winter Is Blue is a lovely song for winter – funnily enough. Vashti records are only really any good when it’s cold. She also did a song called, “Coldest Night Of The Year“, which is similarly lovely. That’s not even it: Girl’s Song In Winter, If In Winter, Autumn Leaves She knew what she was doing alright. Or somebody did… Winter Is Blue is very simple and, I’ll be honest, when I started writing this entry, I’d not listened to it for a bit – it’s been hot – and I was under the impression that it had a bit of an orchestra on it. At least a string quartet. But it doesn’t. I think it’s got some instrument on it that might not even be a guitar. It could be. An acoustic guitar. The record’s so slight, it’s difficult to make out the instrumentation on it. There’re definitely a couple of acoustic guitars on it, very lightly brushed drums, or possibly just a shaker. Oh, actually, a couple of violins enter halfway through, but it’s mainly acoustic guitars and that plucked guitar thing which I don’t think is a cymbalon.
Lyrically, it’s not psychedelic again and neither is it mourning a lost love in particular. Well, it is a bit, but…
I wanted to write about at least one girl artist on this list because you can get something different from girl musicians – not always, sometimes it’s more or less the same perspective completely – and this record is a good example of it.
It’s the end of the affair territory alright, but rather than doing a Denny Laine and not really giving a shit about it, or doing a Left Banke and blubbering about it, she’s – well, she’s blubbering, but not about her ex-bloke – upset about love having died – like plants in winter. It’s not that her bloke that she misses so much as the absence of love in her life. Which might not be a lot better in some ways, but it makes a change.
Vashti’s what my old man would describe as, “…a classy bird.” She’s posh as hell. At least she sounds it. Dusty Springfield, for instance, sounded quite posh when she was talking, but she didn’t when she sang. Vashti sings like the epitome of poshness. I have a bit of a soft spot for girls with posh voices. Some of them anyway. I don’t know if you’ve seen Fleabag, a comedy series written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who describes herself as middle class but is nothing of the sort. She’s terribly upper class and looks a little bit insecty. I watched it with the current Mrs Middlerabbit without much in the way of expectation, but I fucking loved it. Ms. Waller-Bridge is obviously a bit of a bugger – or has it in her, metaphorically – and, unusually for me, I found myself identifying quite strongly with her character in Fleabag. Fleabag is a twat, basically. On the plus side, she’s very funny. On the downside, yeah, she’s a twat. And a mess. And that’s what I identified with. I don’t identify with Vashti, but I do enjoy a bit of digression… but yeah, Vashti is a very posh sounding girl and I’m not convinced that any of her records would sound any good sung by someone from the other side of the tracks, so to speak.
That’s it for part one. I’ll be Bach. Cheers.