Thursday, 7 July 2011
VARIOUS ARTISTS: Pure Gold On EMI
(#126: 9 June 1973, 3 weeks)
Track listing: Solid Gold Easy Action (T. Rex)/Lookin' Through The Windows (Jackson Five)/Crazy (Mud)/Mad About You (Bruce Ruffin)/Doobedood'ndoobe, Doobedood'ndoobe, Doobedood'ndoo (Diana Ross)/Ball Park Incident (Wizzard)/Stay With Me (Blue Mink)/Living In Harmony (Cliff Richard)/Heaven Help Us All (Stevie Wonder)/All Because Of You (Geordie)/Power To All Our Friends (Cliff Richard)/Psychedelic Shack (Temptations)/Who Was It? (Hurricane Smith)/20th Century Boy (T. Rex)/Step Inside Love (Cilla Black)/Roll Over Beethoven (The Electric Light Orchestra)/Keeper Of The Castle (Four Tops)/Sister Jane (New World)/Strange Kind Of Woman (Deep Purple)/Heart Of Stone (Kenny)
"He, too, has been changed in his turn,
A terrible beauty is born."
(WB Yeats, "Easter 1916")
This might be the detritus of battlecries and champagne through which Aladdin Sane would have been obliged to trudge. Put bluntly, Pure Gold is a mess of a record, a jumble sale filled with faded names, never-weres, stars about to fall or in abeyance, and a few hardy survivors trying to fashion something new. There had been label-specific compilations of hits before, but none had made a significant impact on the chart; clearly a response to the K-Tel/Arcade/Ronco bandwagon - and also gingerly testing the way for the phenomenon of a decade hence which would effectively wipe these labels out - this ragtag of recent and somewhat less recent EMI hits was aggressively advertised on TV. Unlike some of the K-Tel compilations, there is no apparent shape or concept to Pure Gold; apart from beginning and ending side one with tracks which turn on different deployments of the chant "Hey, hey, hey!" and perhaps some humour in placing "Strange Kind Of Woman" directly after "Sister Jane," there is no discernible "story" to be told here, other than suggest that as a conglomerate of labels EMI was not in the best of health. If that's an odd thing to say about a company which at that time still had all four Beatles and Pink Floyd, amongst others, on its books, a listen to Pure Gold may suggest a certain detachment from, or loss of, pop which in the short term only Mickie Most's RAK subsidiary would really turn around.
Indeed, the album has to go all the way back to 1968 - then only five years, but already an eternity - for its sole Beatle content; McCartney wrote "Step Inside Love" as a theme tune for Cilla Black's BBC1 series, and for a peak-time television show it's a curiously low-key, somewhat vulnerable song and performance, despite George Martin's occasional orchestral sweeps. The track finishes on a repeated cycle of unresolved guitar chords - mostly, as with the rest of the song, derived from Jobim - and Black's "I want you to stay"s seem like a quietly desperate attempt to hold onto their decade, their moment. Could it even have been a requiem for Brian Epstein? The best version is the original demo, currently available on Black's The Abbey Road Years: 1963-73 triple-CD set and featuring McCartney on guitar; there are no crescendi - the song cycles quietly, pregnant with unspoken expectations, candlelit mournings.
EMI's major pop act of 1973 was T. Rex, but they were already on a gradual decline; after "Metal Guru" their singles peaked at two or three rather than one, but this seems to have momentarily sharpened Bolan's commitment. "Solid Gold Easy Action" and "20th Century Boy" both take the format to, and possibly beyond, its extremes; they are agitated, incoherent, in comparison with the easy, seductive roll of "Hot Love" or "Get It On." In "Solid Gold" Bolan compresses all his known elements - Flo and Eddie falsettos, Visconti strings - so furiously it's a wonder they don't explode; it would not have been out of place on the Pop:Aural label in 1981. "20th Century Boy" was his last great swagger, and, like Little Richard or Muddy Waters, there is absolutely no side to Bolan's boasts. Grinding guitar gurgles at us, Gloria Jones' backing vocals frequently overwhelm Bolan, and the track finally falls in on itself, Ian MacDonald's atonal, screeching alto, Bolan's impenetrable murmurs to the fade, as though already signing his death certificate.
In 1973 EMI also still had the rights to the Motown catalogue. So why, in the era of Talking Book, Lady Sings The Blues and Let's Get It On, is the label represented here by three three-year-old tracks, and a below par one from the end of 1972? In part this was to do with avoidance of overlapping with the Motown Chartbusters series, which in 1973 was just about still a going concern, but any casual listener to the Diana Ross and Jackson Five tracks in particular may wonder exactly what Gordy left behind when he left Detroit for L.A. For instance, writer/producer Deke Richards clearly had no idea what to do with Diana, if "Doobdood'ndoobe" is anything to go by; a clumsy mashing of various sixties Supremes tropes (including the baffling references to a "rock 'n' roll symphony"), episodic and discontinuous, full of angels wearing black - and is she really singing "I see bullets inside your eyes"? "Lookin' Through The Windows," written and produced by fellow Corporation member Hal Davis, flails similarly; there are lots of stabs at turning the Jacksons into the Junior Temptations - the use of echo, the staccato barks of harmony - but the net result is a collection of interesting bits without any real tune or purpose to hold them together. Only "Psychedelic Shack" prevails (complete with its full door-knocking intro, although here the track is faded early). Its effortless, mischievous inclusivity - and, presaging its eventual use as the cornerstone of Public Enemy's "Welcome To The Terrordome," its early deployment of intertextuality and sampling (once through the door and in the shack, the protagonist drops a needle on the record of "I Can't Get Next To You") - remains powerful, as do Whitfield's varied deployments of synthesisers, double drums and stereoscopic vocals. "Heaven Help Us All" has already been discussed here, but the Four Tops' "Keeper Of The Castle" acts as a sober successor; although now signed to Dunhill/ABC, Stubbs was still able to sing an edition of the News Of The World backwards and have us believe it. Sobriety and reflection are the keywords here; apart from some "Voodoo Chile"-referencing wah-wahs, moving swiftly through Blaxploitation into sensible balladry, the song appears to represent a deliberate step back from things like "Papa Was A Rollin' Stone" and "Superfly"; indeed, warns against them. Change society by all means, the song suggests, but don't forget that when you've brought everything down, you need to have something to put up in its place - remember your home, your family, the necessity to lay down roots, the ability to build. "Come on home," Stubbs keeps crying, and as a performance it's not that far from Charlie Rich's "Feel Like Goin' Home" (the version with just his vocal and piano, not the glutinous Billy Sherrill one). More refugees from an expired age.
It should be noted that both "Psychedelic Shack" and "Keeper Of The Castle" throw Cliff Richard's two efforts into monochrome. Now the raven in EMI's tower, and absent from this tale for fully a decade, Cliff was in the middle of his God-fearing Festival Of Light phase, and his hits were becoming progressively less big. 1972's "Living In Harmony" illustrates why. A bizarre country-gospel-pop jaunt, fiddles, banjo and pedal steel work hard as Cliff sings what sounds like a Partridge Family demo, all jollity and placid togetherness. Sometimes he is sinister - his guffawing "Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-har-mony" for a start, his "digging"s and his plaintive "I just want to give you life" (in every dream home, a heartache?) - but kazoo interludes and even a "Congratulations"-style pause and accelerando climax render it weirder and weirder until it climaxes with Greek bouzoukis. The song was co-written by Alan Tarney, who will subsequently play a major part in Cliff's major comeback later that decade, but Norrie Paramor's production is squarer than my old Technical Drawing class.
"Power To All Our Friends" was his second Eurovision attempt - don't call it a comeback, even if it did give him his biggest UK hit since "Congratulations" and his last top ten hit until "Devil Woman" - but in its attempt to paint a bucolic, noble Everyman picture (the vineyard proprietor, the girl on the beach in Monte Carlo) it ends up blurred and inchoate ("Power to the Sun" - but isn't the sun the biggest source of power we have?) with choppy rock guitars sitting uncomfortably alongside the stock bierkeller oompah-oompahs of the chorus. Producer and arranger David Mackay does his best to make the whole thing matter, and Cliff obviously sings as a believer in all of this, but the song ultimately doesn't connect emotionally beyond "Banner Man" level.
"Stay With Me," in contrast, shows that Blue Mink had long since surpassed the latter. A surprisingly touching and spacious ballad, its weightless harmonies and the careful single-note instrumental lines, as well as the use of echo, conjure up a kind of post-sixties pop psychedelia later to be spotted in such records as Liverpool Express' "You Are My Love." Clearly aiming for the Chicago/Chi-Lites sound, but instead gaining an unmistakably British tint, "Stay With Me" is a remarkable single.
There are a few other tracks here which make at least a token effort at learning from the past and moving forward. "Crazy," a song rejected by the Sweet but picked up by Mud (this would be a general Chinn/Chapman habit throughout 1973), sounds like the Tremeloes attempting "Hernando's Hideaway" on Temazepam with its tango rhythms, multiple background whoops, unfathomable cries of "Rearrange me!" and questionable lyrics about girls just out of school. If that weren't enough, the song's harmonic and rhythmic structures look forward unexpectedly to the Ozark Mountain Daredevils' "Jackie Blue." At least they were trying.
The twin distilled filters of the Move did more than try. "Ball Park Incident," Wizzard's debut single, remains a terrific, dense listen; surprisingly grungy in its production, Roy Wood snarling his tale of sitting on the porch, having found his girl shot in the schoolyard the previous night, possibly shot by his brother; his "It can't much matter to you"s growling their own bullets out. Much more like Springsteen than Spector, Wood was similarly inclined to create huge pictures into which he would attempt to cram the entire story of rock 'n' roll. Everything about this record is huge and menacing; the colonnades of honking saxophones, the drowning pianos, the tempo shifts and barline wrong-footings, the unanswerable power of the whole. It's still one of 1973's most overwhelming singles.
The Electric Light Orchestra, which at the time of "Roll Over Beethoven" still involved Wood in some degree (those giveaway sedulous saxophones, the atonal interlude of yellow-painted Chinese 'celli), were likewise still comparatively uncompromising, with its umbilical links to the British improv scene in its string section, and their reconstruction of both Ludwig and Chuck (although necessarily edited down for 45 use) remains compelling, with its alternating sections of Fifth and Johnny B. indicating divided passions. Its pub piano goes perfectly with the monolithic descending whole tones of strings and guitar; again there is that grunge oomph about the production, and both Beethoven and Berry end happily unified, as was always going to be the case.
This leaves the wild cards, and they were seldom wilder than "Mad About You"; a straightforward reggae ballad, recorded in Jamaica, then subjected to the barrage of Johnny Arthey's Willesden Sound. The result is as unnerving as anything Lee Perry was doing at that stage; the singer is nagged by a music-hall plunger trombone and eventually is faced with a wall of maniacal English laughter, so overpowering that you end up fearing for the poor bugger - it's as if he's surrounded by evildoers, a West Hampstead habitue having strayed a little too far into Brixton. And yet it made our top ten.
There is "Who Was It?," Hurricane Smith's third and last hit as a performer, and it's the same "Who Was It?" that we encountered on Gilbert O'Sullivan's Back To Front. Here the song is if anything more sinister, delivered in Smith's lecherous fiftysomething growl, decorated by Frankie Hardcastle's beefy tenor (Smith adds a lovely arranger's touch at the end, with a heaven-bound ghostly sax chorale). Given who is singing it, it's hard not to think that, in different circumstances, this is a song Syd Barrett might have written, or at least recognised. Lyrically, it's the Stockholm Syndrome - if the poor girl isn't careful.
Then there is the strange triptych at album's end. "Sister Jane" was early Chinn and Chapman, New World perform it like the earnest Australian folkies they were (and presumably still are), but the synth bass-based chorus introduces elements of disturbance; disturbing in that we are never told what Sister Jane has done, other than "fallen in love again" and "gone and changed your name," except there is now no way back, everyone will be pointing the finger, get out before they start pointing a gun. Did she get pregnant? Have an abortion? Marry a defaulter? Learn the tuba? No clues are to be gained from this unnerving (and largely unlistenable) tune, other than it sounds as though they have tied her to a chair in a shed to get her to talk, and that they are talking to her as though she were a two-year-old with Down's syndrome. Dogville or the Village's idea of pop? Who knows - just run away from it very quickly indeed. Is there even a "town" here, and how big is its population?
It is something of a relief then to proceed to "Strange Kind Of Woman" (Lena: "Thank goodness, rock 'n' roll!"), an extremely silly but very powerful record, Gillan totally earnest in his shaggy dog tale of lady of the night ("She loved everybody") whom he persuades to marry him "just before she died" - not that the latter throws him off any. Again, the track demonstrates just how comfortable Purple were at this stage (late 1971) with each other; the absurd 6/8 midsong interlude of psychedelic shadows fits in wonderfully (i.e. it doesn't fit in at all) and there is great purpose in Glover's bass and Blackmore's two controlled guitar solos (Lena: "So many dimensions into one song."). But then the record ends with the ludicrous "Heart Of Stone," perfomed in an even more ludicrous falsetto by Irish showband veteran/future cabaret star Tony Kenny over Martin and Coulter's patented proto-Rollers stomping. The falsetto alternates with Honey Monster growls ("I thought I was a-lone-UH!"), and so convinced was Kenny that he carried on for a couple more singles before opting out and leaving Martin and Coulter to recruit a reconstituted prog band under the "Kenny" brand name for cereal-filler hits like "The Bump" and "Baby I Love You OK." Left here to finish the record, it is akin to a trail of broken beer glasses that no one quite has the nerve to sweep up.
One track remains, and that is side one's closer, "All Because Of You," maybe the most extraordinary thing on the record. Some people here are seeking to push boundaries, others to retreat, yet others content to be incredibly strange beings, but Geordie seem to unify all of these. Its scary, speeding-up-vocal-to-become-Eno-raygun introduction is a brilliant touch, and the man who will one day become the voice of Back In Black - and Brian Johnson was still wearing his cap in 1973 - bursts in, midsong, as though someone has un-paused a cassette. The song and Johnson's performance demonstrate his roots in John Fogerty, but he is clearly aiming for something more; really the song only exists as such so that he can scream his way through it, but there are lots of remarkable little touches; the echoing "Hey, hey, hey"s (as opposed to the epileptic hiccuping of the "Hey, hey, hey"s on "Solid Gold") look back to the Dave Clark Five, and there's even a brief "Twist And Shout" sequence. Above all, however, burns the ray of renewed hope; this guy had nothing to say, no desire to live, even, until this girl came along, and he is duly renewed, and amazed by and ecstatic about it. Well, there's a rebirth worth celebrating.
Perhaps Pure Gold can be viewed, as well as a precursor to Now, as a gathering of evidence to support the argument for moving forward, with most of these songs showing elements of struggle - nearly all of the singers sound pushed to their limits - and a fervent desire to begin again. As chance would have it, EMI had just signed a group who would in time endeavour to sum up all of these elements and make a newness out of them. All would eventually change, unutterably.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 18:12