Kicking the gong for you (phoria)

There’s a (banjo-toting) elephant in the room, I feel.

I think it’s time somebody, somewhere, said something about the Holy Modal Rounders – clearly someone’s got to tackle this thorny subject, and as nobody else seems to be covering the hippie bluegrass Greenwich Village scene these days, it may as well be this idiot.

Lucky Seven – the Holy Modal Rounders

In as much as anybody spares a thought for the Holy Modal Rounders these days, they’re generally thought of as Fabulous Furry Freak Brother types – daft, ridiculous and tiresome. If you know anything about the Rounders, it’s probably from hearing the novelty strains of “Bird Song” as Jack Nicholson falls in with Hopper and Fonda on the way to Mardi Gras – “Oh, I’ve got a helmet!” (Cue fond memories of seeing Easy Rider in an unlikely midnight showing at the old ABC cinema in Kings Square, Gloucester…)

 

That’s pretty much the Rounders post 1965 career, to be honest, a prolonged stoned, thumbing of the nose to The Man, making records that sound like they were a whole lot more fun to make than they are to actually listen to, the rest of the world playing the part of being the only straight guy at the Rounders’ own Acid Test. There’s quite a bunch of records like this that ran through the rest of the sixties and seventies and included a period working with the Fugs (imagine…).

But, and this is the point I’m getting to, thankfully there were a couple of releases before all this, which are substantially better. The first of these was recorded in the New Year snow as 1964 gingerly popped its little head out, at precisely the same time as, thousands of miles (and another world) away, yours truly was making his own even-less auspicious debut. Fifty four years on and The Holy Modal Rounders remains one of my very favourite records – it’s an infectious, intriguing, intransigent belter of a record, that charms and exasperates in equal measure.

In the early sixties, the Rounders were idiosyncratic Greenwich Village folkies Steve Weber and Peter Stampfel, brought together by a mutual girlfriend and a love of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. They hit it off straight away and started playing what Stampfel called “progressive old-timey” music based on their love of bluegrass, mountain music and psychedelics.

This first record is made up of lovingly produced trad arrs and “original” songs that “evolved in the usual way – hear song, forget song, try to remember song while adding your adding your own person wrinkles”. The “wrinkles” are of course what make the record so great. It’s a bunch of authentic voices from disappearing generations, passed through the fuzziest of lenses, all livelied up by a twinkling sense of mischief.

Each song is based around Weber’s country blues guitar picking and sparingly decorated with Stampfel’s banjo or fiddle playing. The vocals are pretty distinctive, gruff, harsh, often silly – an acquired taste for sure, but if you listen to the Harry Smith stuff, not so very different…

Men like Clarence Ashley and Uncle Dave Macon infused their songs with a sense of jeopardy, a chill even, which now gives them a certain supernatural life in a new century. The Rounders’ versions on the other hand, fooling around at a carefree distance of fifty years, are full of yippee-ish anarchy, fun (and fondness). Never too precious with the originals, Weber and Stampfel felt free to rewrite lines, add verses and “revolutionise” the content. Famously, in “Hesitation Blues” (a Charlie Poole song from the 20s) Stampfel worked in the first recorded use of the word “psychedelic” (alright, “pyscho-delic”).

I wouldn’t want to suggest that the Rounders treated their source stuff with derision, feeling at liberty to ridicule and spice it up, that’s really not the case – the songs are treated with the sort of teasing irreverence that you might reserve for a twinkly-eyed Nan. But some of the songs do manage to retain the haunting sound of the past to great effect – my favourite being, the poignant “Bound to Lose” (“Riverboat gambler’s born to lose…”). Beautiful, graceful music…

This being 1964, there’s no footage of Stampfel and Weber playing before the peyote broke all pretence of self-control, which is a real shame. So, I’ve done a Lucky Seven collection for you to judge for yourself, and if you do find yourself tempted to seek out a little more W&S quirkiness, tell ‘em I sent you:

Lucky Seven – The Holy Modal Rounders:

Bound to Lose; Euphoria; Hesitation Blues; Mr Spaceman; Low Down Dog; Uncle Joe (from the Live in 1965 record); The Cuckoo (+ Clarence Ashley’s original from the Harry Smith Anthology)

(Still sounds a load more “real” than Dylan to me…)

Buen camino!

I’m guessing this is not much good to you, but I do have a great set of recordings from the recent Field Music soiree that I attended in Bristol. And I did fully intend to get them up and dash off a few careless lines about the gig, but well, here we are again…

And now I’m gadding off to Cadiz for an Easter break. I’m guessing it’ll be pretty much like this…

 

 

(I cannot, of course, condone the use of firearms. Or wearing Kiss merchandise…)

I’ll see you on the other side…

Your gold dress is shaming the stars, a thousand melting Dali Guitars

From time to time, you’ve got to indulge yourself a little, no? We all work (quite) hard, we all need a bit of down time. We deserve this…

Of late, this righteous act of forbearance has been tending to take the form of a few snatched moments of tender loving XTC. Whether it’s enjoying the breathy burr of Skylarking or the breathless industry of English Settlement, there’s nothing quite like the genius of Andy Partridge.

While the local news salivates over a West Country Perfect Storm – “the Beast from the East meets Hurricane Emma” (I think I saw that one. Abbott & Costello were in it), there’s the welcome prospect of a duvet day in the offing. Now seems a good time to draw the curtains, pour myself something warming, chuck another stump on the fire and slide into something melting…

Chips from the Chocolate Fireball

Somebody gave me a copy of this a while back but I don’t think I really investigated it properly at the time, and I’ve only really began to appreciate it in the last couple of days. You’ll know all this, I’m sure, but just in case… Chips from the Chocolate Fireball is a compilation of two wonderfully batty psyche albums released in the late eighties by the Dukes of Stratosphear. “It’s sort of a nostalgia thing, because I just wasn’t old enough to be a hippie.” said Partridge (for it was he) “My parents wouldn’t let me grow my hair long. I really do love that kind of music.”

The initial release, a six-track EP (ask your dad, kids) called 25 O’clock, was intended as something of a playtime away from the troublesome sessions that were producing Skylarking, and Dave Gregory credits the fun and frolics of this wacky side-project as having a large part to play in the band’s survival through the period. And it certainly seemed to have been a lot of fun with an unofficial rulebook being adhered to for the sessions:

  • No more than 2 or 3 takes
  • Vintage equipment
  • and er… “Psychedelic” conventions

Each current member of XTC was involved and they took on the whole adventure with some enthusiasm and a healthy joie de vivre, taking psyche pseudonyms (Gregory’s brother Ian, joining on drums, was “E.I.E.I. Owen”); sporting kaftans and other exotica for the sessions.

But actually, pretty quickly the “joke” stopped being one, and Partridge (in particular) began to become comfortable with a real fondness for English psychedelia and bubblegum bands. And it really shows. As you go through each track, particularly the six 25 O’clock ones, you quickly find yourself ticking the references. Rubber Soul (“What in the World”); Tomorrow (“Bike Ride to the Moon”); Syd (“Have you Seen Jackie?”); the Prunes (“25 O’clock”); Midas in Reverse (“Vanishing Girl”) I am the Walrus (“The Mole from the Ministry”); but with every backwards riff, every farfisa chord, they still can’t help being XTC, all taut, clever song writing and wry observations. There are some real gems here, at least two of which (“Collideascope” and “Pale and Precious”) Dave Gregory ranked with anything the “real” XTC recorded.

It’s enormous fun for anyone with even most passing of acquaintances with sixties psychedelia. The songs are all pretty strong on their own, but like the band themselves are exotically garbed in the dippiest of sixties gear – guitars a-jangling, backwards loops, distorted Pinky & Perky voices, birdsong, Liverpool accents (“Bloody Nora!”), faux Lewis Carroll spoken pieces. The lyrics are also lovingly daft but coming from Partridge’s dazzling palate, avoid too much “whimsy” – subversive moles grapple with sexually frustrated (and confused) youths and menacingly magical women. Phew…

It’s all tremendous cool(aid) fun.

Pounds and pennies aren’t the only kind of capital!

 

Spring’s a-coming!

 

Friday week to be exact…

She speaks a word and it gently turns to a perfect metaphor

Yesterday’s rather pathetic little note aside (I was worrying that I wasn’t going to get anything said at all…), I’m still processing the huge news of Mark E Smith’s passing, mostly unsuccessfully. But instead, here’s something completely different that’s been germinating for a couple of weeks…

I’ve felt for a while that I should, you know, concentrate harder on stuff. I spend far too much time flitting drunkenly from one sticky treat to another, like some sort of doe-eyed lush, lazy, ill-disciplined, and unwilling to apply myself. But I’m better than that, I tell myself, I’m a gentleman of a certain age, after all, it can’t be beyond me…

So, 2018, here we go. Load up with some Laura Marling, have a crack at something different, I’m up.

Laura Marling

(Just reading those lines back, I’m making a bit of a meal of it, aren’t I? It’s hardly Throbbing Gristle or Stockhausen – it’s light, it’s gentle. it’s acoustic, nothing to fret over. The problem as such is that she’s not Latin or African; she doesn’t use a wah-wah; she sings in English (for God’s sake) and at a mere 27 she’s still very much alive. She’s white, popular, well-heeled and articulate. Where’s the fun?)

Semper Femina is actually Marling’s seventh album, I believe, (so, once again, we’re arriving at the party fashionably late), and has garnered armfuls of sought-after awards and nominations for her previous six. I’m not yet up to speed about any of these other ones, but that’s something I’ll need to sort.

She’s apparently pretty sparing with her interviews, so I’d definitely recommend a read of this one from The Line of Best Fit, either to catch up like me, or to puzzle your way through some of her taut, complex ideas…

When you listen to a new artist, you tend to look for easily-drawn lines and boxes to put people in (to get a handle, as much as anything) but the thing that struck me as I went through the initial listen, is how different the first three tracks sound to each other. The clunky, catchy rhythms of opener “Soothing” sound as if they could’ve come from a Tom Waits record. Ah-ha, I think, until the more conventionally singer-songwriter feel of “The Valley” flitters into view. OK…, thinks I, and then we’re into the vaguely soulful trembling chords of “Wild Fire”. All three songs are really strong but slightly disorientating for a newbie trying to bed in.

There’s a similar range throughout the record, which may well be a Marling “thing”, but leaves you feeling a bit heavy-footed as you venture in deeper. I’ve now listened to the record a good few times and can honestly say I don’t feel much closer to knowing what Laura Marling sounds like. It’s all a little unsettling.

I’m guessing this is not an accident. You go through some of the reviews, and the first thing they mention is that this is an exploration of femaleness and the artist’s identity – and if that’s not intimidating enough for a clumsy middle-aged bloke, the songs are all frighteningly accomplished. She plays with poise and with purpose, the arrangements are confident, and although I’m labouring a point about the different vocal styles, they’re never less than spot-on. I’m impressed, (and intimidated).

The title of the record, addresses the issue of femininity directly (if indirectly – it’s part of a quote from Virgil about the fickleness of women – as any fule know), which is another dimly flashing light for this old git. It’s like a lighthouse that seems to say “Don’t go near these rocks, you won’t understand”. And, lo and behold, I don’t. This is a set of lyrics that certainly don’t over-explain themselves, the songs are personal and feel like they’ve been pared down to the bone at times. There’s no context and little time wasted on filling you in. Keep up, they say. Try harder!

All of this would suggest that Semper Femina is not for me, that it’s a land of prickly, unfriendly metaphors that I’ll not be comfortable with, that I should actually go back to my safe place of goofy psychedelia and fuzzy garage, but actually I can’t leave the damn thing alone. Each knotty line sticks wilfully in my mind from one song to the next. It’s the best sort of ear-worm and bizarrely enough, I think I’ve played it more than the Fall Peel Sessions box set I armed myself with Thursday morning.

I’m particularly fond of this ungainly thing with its dual bass-lines…

 

There are a number of songs here that I’m still not really clear about but this is OK, and the enchanting prospect of getting to know them better is running through my mind as I write. I know it’s a mistake to think the most recent record is the one all the others have been leading up to, (although, there’s also the thing about the title having been tattooed on her thigh for the last ten years) but… I can’t help thinking that the recording of Semper Femina is something significant for Laura Marling.

I think I’m going to have another listen…

And the movement in your brain sends you out into the rain

I probably should be making a list right now (and presumably, checking it twice), although as tends to happen every year, suddenly I find there’s other things I want to write about. So, ground-breaking fresh music that surfs the cusp of the newest of new waves, or some old toot from days of yore…

Anyone who’s ever had even the most fleeting acquaintance with this Blog will probably have a fair idea which way this is going to go…

Nick Drake

Last Christmas, a friend gave me Patrick Humphries’ book about Nick Drake which it’s taken me almost a full year to pick up. Shame, it’s a pretty good read, and it gave me a much fuller picture of the man. We’re all well accustomed to the general picture of the shy, pained genius who gradually disappeared from view and eventually succumbed to his depression way back in the years of Rock History.

I wasn’t aware, though, of the recollections of his school friends who had clear pictures of Nick Drake playing rugby at Marlborough school and breaking sprint records; drinking and chatting in Cambridge pubs; careening drunkenly through France and Spain; driving obsessively around country lanes for the pleasure of time behind the wheel; his friendship with, love of and latter dependence on Joe Boyd.

The comments from family and friends are also pretty illuminating. Boyd and Island Records seem to have been pretty decent in their attempts to support him; John Martyn seems to the end to have been somewhat haunted by his own sporadic, fruitless attempts to draw Drake out of himself; Linda Thompson a wretched spectator at the gradual unwinding she witnessed; Danny Thompson an exasperated cajoler of the super sensitive songwriter (“and I thought all he needs is a bloody good bacon and chip butty, a kick up the arse and a couple of shags”); Drake’s own parents overwhelmingly generous, sympathetic but heart-breakingly powerless.

For me, I was first introduced to the gossamer-thin Drake catalogue by a girlfriend back in mid-eighties and I’ll confess to having listened to Five Leaves Left a lot in my teens but precious little since. And I’ve not really gone very deep into his other two records. Barely scratched the surface to be honest…

There’s of course nothing new to be added to the Drake story, least of all by this hapless blogger, but I’ve recently picked up Pink Moon again, and it’s still pretty powerful. Considering the circumstances it was recorded under – Drake was reportedly at his darkest, refusing to work unless behind a screen or facing the wall, and at times unable to play and sing at the same time – there’s some real drive behind it. The book makes a lot of the dynamic and innovative guitar stylings and obscure tunings. This mostly falls on deaf ears to klutz like myself but I actually was struck by the playing. There’s a punchy rhythm behind it which drives the songs along to a rapid, often hurried conclusion (it’s a very short album, almost treasonously so for 1974). The song that really stands out for me is “Things Behind the Sun”, which hurtles along lickety-spit, delivering its (not entirely) nihilistic burden with a deep determination in four minutes of dazzling, busy confusion which compel you to pick the needle up and take it back for another go (I’m using a pre-digital metaphor here, kids – ask your Dad).

There is literally no known footage of Drake playing and I think just one John Peel session, so precious little YouTube stuff to refer to, but these couple of clips are quite informative…

The first is from the Boyd-compiled tribute record Way to Blue – The Songs of Nick Drake which gives us a band I don’t know (and have no beef with, I should add) covering “Things Behind the Sun” (give it a minute or so, it’s OK, but a bit soulless)

 

And now listen to this, the furiously knotty original version from Pink Moon.

 

It’s not a comparison particularly flattering to Luluc, but it serves its purpose. You’ll have gathered I’m struggling to put into words what is essentially so rare and precious about the man (dancing about architecture, and all that). But if you give the two a listen, you’d have to have the fleeciest of cloth ears not to hear the difference between the commonplace and the exceptional – albeit flawed, battered and at times scarcely breathing.

Ça, c’est un théière volant, originale!

In truth, I’m feeling a bit under the weather at the moment – I feel like that cartoon of a stoned guy with his face melting – alas nothing as exotic as that, just a dose of man-flu and generally feeling a bit sorry for myself.

It’s half term, so I’ve not got any demands on my time for the moment – I can afford the luxury of moping around at home, watching Hammer films and generally loafing. Can’t complain…

Gong, Rockenstock, 1973

Disappearing down a YouTube wormhole is one of life’s pleasures, I reckon, and today I’ve just spent a happy hour and a half wandering through a series of hopelessly silly prog videos, inspired by a chance mention of the Matching Mole video that I’ve talked about before. That was a clip from a French TV program, called Rockenstock, presented by Pierre Lattès and released in January 1971. It’s great and worth another look, not only for the home-knitted gimp mask that Wyatt wears, without comment, but also for the great chunk that’s missing from the man’s high hat by the end of the show.

I’ve only this afternoon realised there’s a few other Rockenstock programs available, including this gem of a film made about Gong.

I’ve always had a lot of time for people who are utterly sure of themselves and are absolutely committed to do what they do regardless of whether the rest of the world thinks they’re a bit of a dick. And just as I have a huge regard for Wyatt’s psychedelic gimp mask, I can only grin foolishly and applaud Daevid Allen with his ridiculous knitted (again) pixie hat, third-eye headband and orange tunic.

The show is recorded in the band’s French house in the countryside outside Paris, where they all lived as a community. It’s terrifically barmy and features electric performances of “I never glid before” and “Witches Song / I am your pussy” (complete with ‘Whispering’ Gilli Smyth in all her feline splendour), all interspersed with chatty interviews in the band’s kitchen, surrounded by bowls of salad, teapots (flying of course) and an alarming number of bees.

There’s a delightful piece at the end when Lattès interviews a number of the older local people, including the Master of the local Hunt, who are all charmed by the hippies (“Everywhere they go they pay their bills”) and are disappointed at their decision to move back to England.

I originally watched this version which has no subtitles, picking up what I could from my schoolboy French, but just enjoying the whole thing, erm… pataphysically but if you don’t fancy that there is a longer video which adds various other Gong clips and crucially, does include subtitles.

Close the curtains, pour yourself a beer and settle in… Gong, in all their charming silliness:

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