Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Colorama: 'Turnham Green'

“I could never live in London.” You hear that a lot from people who don’t live in London. I think I used to say it too. But then, shortly after I moved here, I realised that the London I didn’t want to live in was a conflation of Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Street and Trafalgar Square at rush hour. I imagined fumbling for my house keys while irate commuters yelled at me to get out of their way. No, I definitely couldn’t live there.
Then shortly after I moved here, I realised that it was no more tenable a position to hold than, say, never eating vegetables. London isn’t one place. It’s a hundred different places – all with their own character and concomitant character-types – lent a veneer of uniformity by... well, by what, exactly? A name? More than a name, I think the answer might lie in the London Underground map. If I close my eyes and imagine what the whole of London looks like, it’s Harry Beck’s iconic diagrammatic design that materialises before me
Over the years, I’ve emerged into daylight at enough stations – driven and cycled past many more – to be able to describe the places behind the names.  Southgate is a bustling post-war throwback, where mums flit from grocer to hardware store to post office, maybe stopping for a cup of tea at the Wimpy located opposite the art deco Tesla coil of Charles Holden’s circular ticket hall. Some, however, remain mysterious. After I misread it for the first time, Acton Town will always be Action Town to me. I never want to find out how much action really goes on there. I made that mistake with Hillingdon. Seduced by the shiny white steel construction of the tube station that sits on the side of the A40, I took the Metropolitan line westwards to see the English settlement tucked behind it. I wished I hadn’t bothered. It may have won the award for Underground Station Of The Year in 1994, but up close, the station was grotty and weatherbeaten. A bridge connecting it to the main town was unloved and unloveable – a functional satellite town with no clear sense of its own identity.
But as long as you don’t know London, you can imagine it. And the names of so many stations, exhort you to do just that. Burnt Oak. Chalfont & Latimer. Theydon Bois. Mudchute. Sitting on the interminable prong of Piccadilly Line that stretches out towards Heathrow, there’s not much else to do. That’s how I like to imagine Anglesey-raised  Carwyn Ellis writing Turnham Green – the b-side to Colorama's 2008 debut seven-inch Sound. Certainly, the name begs to be alchemised into a song. The question in this case, is what took someone so long to get around to it? How could the entire late 60s pass – an era which saw The Kinks, The Bee Gees, Syd Barrett, David BowieThe Zombies and, of course, The Beatles looking at their metropolitan surroundings with dilated pupils – without someone noticing the lysergic ambiguities of a name like that? Ellis wasn’t quite the first (there’s a dreary Turnham Green by some long-forgotten indie plodders called The Perishers) but when you’re compiling your hypothetical tube stop pop comp it’s hard to think of a more perfect opener than this one, with its slow, sonic establishing shot of cymbal-scrapes and unresolved sitar noise.
This is soft psychedelia for wet, windless mornings measured out in waltz-time. Pastel-toned shades of The High Llamas abound in Ellis’s languorous delivery. Unlike Sean O’Hagan though, Ellis forsakes any audible debt to The Beach Boys in favour of something closer to home. Subconsciously, Ellis may have been aiming for a feel more akin to Donovan’s Sunny Goodge St. That would explain the woodwind and the sleepy syncopated brush-strokes. In Donovan’s 1965 song though, you’re propelled to the heart of the midnight circus: the “violent hash-smoker [shaking] the chocolate machine... smashing into neon streets”; “doll house rooms with coloured lights swingin’.” You can’t listen to Sunny Goodge St without getting nostalgic for a swinging London you were never old enough to experience. 
Back in Zone 3, however, London’s swing is something more akin to the gentle sway of a suspended tyre in a deserted playground. “Any train is good for me,” sings Ellis in the manner of someone more preoccupied with getting warm than getting somewhere. Ultimately though, I suspect he didn’t dwell too long on the words. There’s nothing described by here that isn’t encapsulated by the leisurely flutter of flute and piano around an ascending chord sequence which apes the sensation of waiting for something, waiting for anything to happen. 
Finally, all music gives way to a rolling stock rattle which, in turn, fades into the distance. Once the commuters have finished commuting, Turnham Green’s work is done. Peak hours only. Quiet, isn’t it? This is the sound of the suburbs.   

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Abba: 'Cassandra'; 'You Owe Me One'

Even at the age of 13, I knew something was up with Abba as they embarked on promotional duties for their career-spanning hits compilation: The First Ten Years. Only three years had elapsed since Greatest Hits Vol II, but here they were on Saturday Superstore and Noel Edmonds’ Late Late Breakfast Show trying to suppress their boredom with a barrage of questions they had answered a million times before. In Abba The Movie, Agnetha fulfils the same role as Thom Yorke does in Radiohead movie Meeting People Is Easy. The more the madness intensifies around her, the more lost she looks. How ironic that the boys gave Super Trouper to Frida. Cocooned in premium patterned knitwear, she doesn’t remotely like she was sick and tired of everything when she calling you last night from Glasgow. Perhaps Agnetha couldn’t get through the first verse without bursting into tears. Or exploding with fury. Certainly, back on the Late Late Breakfast Show with Noel, it looked like it might go either way. Referring back to the time that the European press corps voted her the continent’s sexiest bottom, she icily intoned, “I’m more than a sexy bottom.” Asked to pick his favourite Abba song, Björn seemed equally enervated by the whole charade. “I’d like to pick The Winner Takes It All. Partly because I was told [beforehand] this was to be my choice.” 
In fact, the very existence of The First Ten Years was a testament to Abba’s slow deceleration into a state of limbo from which they never emerged. The previous two years, Abba had delivered a new studio album in time for Christmas. Throughout the early part of 1982, Abba worked on songs for the album that has come to be known by their fans as Opus 10. They appear to have completed six before calling time on the sessions. Two of those songs made it onto The First Ten Years. Under Attack holds the honour of being Abba’s final single – although the one that most people remember being Abba’s farewell is The Day Before You Came. Well, it isn’t hard to see why. The blood-curdling portent with which Agnetha delivered her vocal on that song seemed to harbour a pop mystery as enduring as the identity of the subject of Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain. So, what happened the day after this guy came? Whatever it is, it’s not good is it?
Interviewing Bjorn in 2010, I got the chance to ask him directly. “Ah, you’ve spotted it, haven’t you?” he said. “The music is hinting at it. You can tell in that song that we were straining towards musical theatre. We really got Agnetha to act the part of the person in that song. In retrospect, it might have been too much of a change for a lot of Abba fans. The energy had gone.”
His point was well made. In the 80s, Abba no longer knew what direction they were supposed to be going in. Their magpie-like adoption of whatever was happening around them – the Roy Wood-inspired glam-overload of Waterloo; the pristine Chic inflections of If It Wasn’t For The Nights; the post-Moroder arpeggiations of Lay All Your Love On Me – abandoned them. Like ELO, the digital age miniaturized their sound. Their music didn’t deteriorate, but in those final years, they struggled to sound like Abba. 
The search for new directions was embodied in the b-sides of those final two singles. Bjorn had moved to Henley Upon Thames with his new wife. He had befriended Tim Rice and, along with Benny, rather fancied a crack at writing a proper musical. Cassandra, on the flipside of The Day Before You Came, also sounds like the work of two songwriters “straining towards musical theatre”. Singing about the eponymous prophetess of the Trojan war in a challenging time-signature is Frida – though, having spent the previous five years gazing at Abba’s schedule with an increasing sense of dread, Agnetha might have been a better fit for the song. 

Save for Frida’s new punky hairdo, Abba’s biggest concession to changing times was Benny’s total jettisoning of piano for synths. Cassandra sounded like an old Abba song struggling to get comfortable in its high-waisted lady-slacks. On the b-side of Under Attack, You Owe Me One was much more fun. In his book, Abba – The Complete Recording Sessions, Abba’s chronicler-in-chief Carl Magnus Palm begs to differ. He refers to the song as the “least attractive” of these sessions. It might have seemed that way, but nearly three decades later, You Owe Me One stands apart from pretty much anything else in Abba’s canon. Like Palm, you suspect that having written it, Benny and Bjorn couldn’t quite work out what it was. The chorus is pure bubblegum. “Aha, um hum/Look what you’ve done/I’m missing all the fun/Baby you owe me one,” sings Frida, declaring to her lover that she has earned the right to flee an intolerably joyless relationship. Perhaps this was what being in Abba felt like in 1982. Perhaps, it was a relief to finally say it. Certainly, You Owe Me One is lightweight in the best possible way. If you could visualize what the tune does, you might imagine its odd sudden turns taking on a PacMan like quality. This is the catchiness you remember from old Atari games, accentuated in a vocal which is far more in keeping with the fluorescent colours of J-Pop than the long shadows of Abba’s final two albums.

Of course, another reason You Owe Me One sounds ahead of its time is that, over 20 years, a lot of pop was beginning to sound like this. The term “wonky pop” was coined by Popjustice’s Peter Robinson to describe the wave of mainstream pop boffins – Calvin Harris, Alphabeat, Frankmusic, Annie – who emerged in the slipstream of Girls Aloud. You Owe Me One could have easily emerged from the huge communal pop brain of Xenomania. Neither would it be any great stretch to imagine , say, Richard X retooling it for the needs of a pop audience who had yet to be born when it first appeared. For all of that, Benny seemed less sure when I asked him about the song. “It shouldn’t have even been a b-side,” he said, after pausing to remember how it went. “It’s a jingle, really.” He’s not wrong, but then again, inside every great pop moment, there lurks “just a jingle.”

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The Lilac Time: 'Street Corner'

When I was seven, the end of Elmdon Rd – around the corner from my parents’ chip shop – seemed like the end of the world. Beyond the very final houses, there was a clearing through which you would climb. And here, away from people, away from the gentle bustle of a Birmingham suburb – was the canal towpath where we would sometimes sit with cheap nets and old jam jars and catch sticklebacks which would invariably die after a couple of days in captivity. While my parents looked after the communal Acocks Green appetite, Elmdon Rd looked after me. When I wasn’t sitting by the canal, I would take a couple of Matchbox cars and Dinky toys and sit at the circular concrete planters that split the fresh new housing estate into four.

There I’d imagine all sorts of scenarios for my cars until, out of their windows, Peter Bradley or Robert Singleton would come out and join me. Soon a solitary pursuit would give way to something else. Hide and seek. British bulldog. Tig-off-the-ground. And because a day is proportionately a greater part of a child’s life than that of an adult, days would seem to last forever. Dusk alone, seemed an epic undertaking. Midlands dusks are the best dusks. In spring, smudged pinks pushed outwards into blue and caramel skies. Up above, everything seemed still and benign. Young eyes had no trouble charting the trajectory of a caser before you trapped it and thumped it against a nearby garage door. Night took forever to happen. Parents only worried if you failed to appear maybe an hour after the stars came out.

But it was from Birmingham – a Birmingham much like the one where I grew up – to the Malvern Hills that Stephen Duffy decamped when he decided to put some distance between the pop star persona that gave him a hit with Kiss Me and his new group. The Lilac Time got their name from a song in Nick Drake’s River Man. Nick Drake himself was more of a West Midlander than people seem to realise. But growing up in the bucolic Warwickshire enclave of Tanworth-In-Arden was different to growing up in suburban working-class Birmingham. What I love about The Lilac Time is that perfect sense of suspension between two different Midlands backdrops: sunsets over silhouetted industrial skylines; and the subsequent retreat to the hills of Malvern. Suddenly, the candyfloss clouds were within touching distance.

This is where the first The Lilac Time songs take place. Return To Yesterday was Duffy’s Adieu To Old England, where “the couturier weeps” for an age she knows will never return. You’ve Got To Love was the work of a Pied Piper trying to lead his people to the village green before the Daily Mail readers got there first. Now as it did then, Black Velvet sounds like a slow motion reconstruction of the epiphany that removed Duffy from the 1980s four years before the decade ended and into a more forgiving place. Street Corner wasn’t just the b-side to Black Velvet. You couldn’t get it on the seven-inch or the twelve-inch. It was the extra track that came with the CD single. As a result, prior to its eventual appearance on 2006’s Compendium anthology, there can’t have been more than a few hundred people who heard it. Duffy has a habit of demoting his best songs to b-sides – but Street Corner deserves special attention.

Street Corner is what it was like to grow up in the West Midlands in the 70s; and, actually, I think there’s enough here convey a sense of what most of our early years were like. The houses stay largely the same; the road signs rarely change from one decade to the next. Amid this scenery, lives coalesce. First drink. First cigarette. First love. “Old street lamps/Shine through seasons/Made us brighter/The world around seem darker” he sings. The subdued sepia beam of a harmonium sets the tone, but perhaps the real star is Duffy’s guitar playing. Here and – on other Lilac Time songs – A Dream That We All Share; Beauty In Your Body; Paper Boat – geography seems to form the shapes of the chords. One minute in, the electric guitar embarks on a parallel monologue to his “dreams of going somewhere”, deep into the waltz-time bridges which chronicle the song’s ultimately unrequited teenage tryst: “We never did more than kiss.”

Regret depends on the idea that things can be perfect. That relationship could have been the one. Instead it remains paused in the narrator’s memory. And that’s why Street Corner sounds as uplifting as it does melancholy. The final verse is actually a repeat of the first verse, but with all the band playing, regret morphs into resolution: Nostalgia isn’t what it purports to be. Hindsight is constantly remixing the past.

For all of that, I can see why Street Corner didn’t make it onto the album. It sounds like it’s the first time the band have played it all the way though. And that’s also part of its charm. The slightly overblown hammering of piano keys at the end suggests no-one thought this would be the final take. But this is where the alchemy happens. Amid “the old parklands, where our swans sang,” sky-wide ochres and pinks smoulder up above. Impossible to miss. Impossible to reach.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Long John Baldry: 'House Next Door'

I don’t know what I was expecting the first time I visited the Record Detective Agency. Perhaps ashop that wasn’t quite a shop. A functional stockroom with a man seated behind a desk, perhaps a pile of cardboard mailers to his left and a falling-apart copy of the Record Collector Price Guide. I figured I’d better memorise some of mywants list before I walked in. If I gave him nothing to set about “detecting”, then why on earth would I have made the journey just beyond the main drag of Palmers Green high street? Instead, I found Derek, squirreled behind the counter in what was essentially a grotto of old plastic. Every available surface was covered in records. Hanging from hooks just above him were vintage sleeves bearing the imprints of every major label operating in the 50s and 60s: Fontana, Decca, Brunswick, Parlophone, Polydor.

This was 1999 and Derek was probably in his late 50s. How did he rate the chances of procuring me Vashti’s two singles? How about Mellow Candle’s sole 60s single, Feeling Higher, on Simon Napier Bell’s SNB imprint? Had he ever seen one? Derek didn’t think he had ever seen either. He wrote both titles in a book, but – I hope I’m not doing Derek a disservice here – I’m not sure he looked at it too often. In the event, it didn’t really matter. Derek wasn’t really a detective – although he was briefly a policeman in the late 60s. Therecord shop was something he did after the stresses of working at Heathrow had become too much for him.

Not that I knew any of that at the time. “Do you want a cup of tea?” he asked me. He didn’t have a sink, but he had a Mr Muscle pump action dispenser that he filled with soapy water, that he then dried with a sheet of kitchen roll. Exceptional things had happened here. If The Record Detective Agency had never existed, the twelve year-old boy who came here with his dad wouldn’t have become obsessed with Martha Reeves and written the letter which prompted the real, actual Martha Reeves to invite him to see her soundcheck at her most recent Jazz Café. Last time Martha came to London, she even turned up to the boy’s family barbecue. For so long the holy grail of Joe Meek obsessives, Those Plucking Strings – the long-playing collaboration between Meek and 20 year-old bandleader Charles Blackwell – turned up here in the form of a test pressing. In a rare lapse, Derek sold it for a fraction of its value. Some dealers would be consumed with bitterness about that. Derek genuinely seems to find it funny.

The thing about Derek’s shop is this. If you discover records at a certain age, you quite simply want to have them around you. “When I was a kid growing up after the war, there was nothing electric in my house, other than this record player,” Derek told me. “Even the fridge ran on gas. It was so incredibly modern. The other day, one customer came in with his son. The boy picked up a Rolling Stones album, and said, ‘What are these?’ And the dad said, ‘Um, that’s, big software. Which, of course, it is. But at the same time, the reason I’m here is that it’s so much more than that.”

One day, I was working through a pile of likely 45s, when Derek nudged one record my way. “You might like this. Long John Baldry recorded some good sides for United Artists before he had his hit.” Two years before he aced the top spot with Let The Heartaches Begin, How Long Will It Last was Baldry’s third single. It’s slight, but none the worse for that. In Rudy Clark’s song, he’s looking for commitment in the wrong decade, and from the wrong person. “I wanna know, I wanna know/How long will it last,” beseech Baldry’s tarry, forlorn tones.

“But you keep on telling me/Hey sugar/Don’t get serious.”

A low trombone parp for every bar and a busy beat-pop arrangement with plenty of drum fills seems to side with the subject of the singer’s affections than the poor singer. The same year, Tom Jones finally found the song to launch his career with It’s Not Unusual – but it could just as easily have been this one.
How Long Will It Last chimed perfectly with the times – which, I imagine, is the reason it was chosen in preference to House Next Door. But, in a parallel universe a lot like this one, House Next Door could easily have been a standard, mauled by X-Factor applicants on a regular basis. And the arrangement which – like How Long Will It Last – was put together by our friend Charles Blackwell, suggests that everyone had high hopes for the song. You can hear it in the sure-footed, stop-what-you’re-doing vocal intro, “I got to find lo-o-ve/I got to find lo-o-ove!”

From thereon in, the protagonist’s plight proceeds at a heartbroken half-tempo. “The house next door is a worn hole/I just don’t see how it can hold a soul/But the people living there are so close together/that that old house can hold any kind of weather.” Blackwell’s strings ascend in sympathy. Baldry is gazing from a window of his own swish pile. Life has ostensibly been kind: “My house is like a mansion/Standing so brave and tall/But for all the love that’s in it/It might as well fall.”

And so the narrative pendulum swings back and forth. Their car is falling apart; his motor is top of the range – “but for all the joy it brings me/I might as well trade.” They’ve “got a half a dozen kids” and always seem “short of all they need/[but] even though they haven’t got a lot/they seem contented with what they got.” Meanwhile, “I’ve got all the money/A man can hope to save/But for all the love it buys me/I’d give it away.”

“It sounds like an American song to me,” said Blackwell when I sent him an MP3 – and he’s half-right at the very least. I don’t know anything about L. Carr, but the song’s co-writer H.B. Barnum was a former child star from Texas who went on to record with an early version of The Coasters, before scoring for Frank Sinatra and Aretha Franklin. In fact, House Next Door sounds like a specific American song. Garnett Mimms’ A Quiet Place came out the previous year, and it isn’t difficult to hear other elements of that song – notably the tempo, the soul-baring lyric, sense of taking stock, even an allusion to “a man next door” – in Blackwell’s arrangement for Baldry.

Both songs sound terrific, but I’m besotted with the way Baldry inhabits House Next Door. I love the transition from the self-pity of the verses to the mannered half-spoken bridge to the pay-off: “But for aw-ll…! the lo-ve…! it buys me…” At this stage in his career, if Robbie Williams wanted to record a decent album of other people’s songs, this would be an inspired place for him to start. After the years spent rattling around his L.A. mansion, chomping on painkillers to fill the emptiness, House Next Door would be a perfect fit. It’s not a bold experiment or a moment of genre-defying indulgence. It’s a big song written in an era when so many big songs were being written that a few were bound to fall by the wayside. Baldry tackled several more throughout his early years on United Artists. His performances of The Drifter, Let Him Go (And Let Me Love You) and Only A Fool Breaks His Own Heart (both featured on his second album Looking At Long John) are majestic cases in point. Lingering if little-heard testaments to the fact that no-one – at least, none of Long John Baldry's contemporaries – could deliver a loner's lament with this sort of honey-dripping charisma.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

David Bowie: 'The London Boys'

Before he was the Dame; before he made 'the Berlin album' an obligatory career milestone; before he was chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature; before all this, he was David Jones, ultimate suburbanite.

The Bromley boy's horizons were narrow enough as a teenager that he would describe something he found cheap and nasty, the height of uncool,  as "so fucking Croydon" - a diss of Bromley's ever-so-slightly more down at heel neighbouring borough.

He longed to escape to the smoke, just 25 minutes away from Bromley South and Beckenham Junction. David Jones, a sharp dresser but not yet remotely close to a space oddity or a thin white duke,  had the notion to take himself somewhere and catalogued his move from the suburbs to the city in a trio of songs - Can't Help Thinking About Me, I Dig Everything, and ultimately The London Boys. None were exactly England Swings: the first finds him on a cold station platform and hints at a "dishonour" that he has brought on his home town ("mother says she can't stand the neighbours talking"); the second places Bowie's rather sarcastic idiot joy at finally being a Londoner ("I've got more friends than I've had hot dinners") over a chirpy organ hook later sampled by Fatboy Slim. "His material was good" said producer Tony Hatch, "although I thought he wrote too much about London dustbins."

This concentrated dissection of the grittier side of sixties London teendom isn't something to be so lightly dismissed. It was unique. While the Kinks may have fired an equivalent number of  shots at Swinging London's ship - notably the double-sided single Dead End Street/Big Black Smoke in late '66 - they were born Londoners (Muswell Hill having been built as an Edwardian suburb, but very much a part of London's 'northern heights' by the sixties) and, besides, these songs were part of a much larger and varied catalogue than Bowie's handful of mid-sixties singles. Other mod acts like the Who (The Kids Are Alright) and the Small Faces (Sorry She's Mine) would occasionally write about the buttoned-up caste system of Mod, but even then it was in a conventional boy-girl scenario. Bowie's attempt at something similar was the self-flagellating Baby Loves That Way in which, not wanting to appear boorish or uncool, desperately wanting to fit in with the scene, he allows his girl to "fool around with other boys, she treats me like an unwanted toy."

The London Boys - released on the B-side of Rubber Band, Bowie's first single for Deram at the very end of 1966 - was his most theatrical performance to date and none the worse for it; it was also his most substantial. The single emerged on the cusp of a new era. The boy taken in by "bright lights, Soho, Wardour Street" was late to the mod ball and playing catch-up; most of the real action would now have been at UFO or the Roundhouse, the venues that fed the sound of '67.

It starts with muted brass, a funereal sound rising up from the basement of the 100 Club, and the mood is monochrome.  "Bow bell strikes, another night, your eyes are heavy and your limbs all ache." Tony Hatch's pea-souper arrangement includes oboes, which he had used to great effect earlier in the year on the Crossroads theme.

Bowie's vocal is his most individual to date, both in its odd phrases ("you feel a little queasy, decidedly ill" reminds me of Hunky Dory's Kooks) and its stagey delivery - he almost gags on the line "you're gonna be sick". If there's a touch of Anthony Newley about this (on this occasion, it really is just a touch), he sounds more like 1974 David Essex by the time he reaches the desperate, climactic "it's too late now..."And it is too late. The only comparable song is Donovan's Young Girl Blues, released a few weeks later and a distaff companion piece: the girl in Donovan's song is home alone on a Saturday night while "all the losers are grooving". Among this number, we suspect, is Bowie's subject who "takes the pills too much". Two kids in London with milky skin and not even enough money to feed the meter. You will them both to head back to the suburbs for six months and then, maybe, try London again; maybe second time around they'd even meet, and swap war stories. If the London Boy sticks around his fate will be found in Brian Protheroe's sequel of sorts, the bedsit drear of 1974's beer-soaked, tear-soaked single Pinball.

The London Boys isn't finger wagging. Instead Bowie is crumpled and sour voiced: "You've got what you wanted but you're on your own... now you've met the London boys". With a few flop singles and a string of abandoned backing groups already behind him, it is surely autobigraphical - something Bowie rarely was once he got the keys to the pop kingdom. 

Bowie's pre-fame melancholia affected the mood of a few of his best early songs: 1970's The Prettiest Star c/w Conversation Piece was a beautiful single, with an A-side in tribute to his contemporary, rival and friend Marc Bolan (who plays the gorgeous guitar hook with the same economy and feeling as he does the solo on Hot Love) and a flip of an almost embarrassingly personal nature.

Conversation Piece is comparable to The London Boys and Be My Wife in its desolation, only this time Bowie is a failed artist living in a flat above a grocery. It is a solitary existence save for his conversations in faltering English with the Austrian grocer.  "I'm a thinker not a talker" concludes Bowie. "I've no one to talk to, anyway". By the end of the song it's all spilling out, and the song tips into the self-pity and comical angst of a Max Beerbohm character ("My words stick inside my throat... no one will recall me"). The baroque, Anglo-country rock (with the return of The London Boys' oboes) production more than keeps it afloat, though, and Bowie's most affecting lines about lack of direction ("I can't see the bridge for the rain in my eyes") keep you on the sorry artist's side. The song was presumably written after his split with Hermione Farthingale, the actress who broke Bowie's heart when she left him in 1969. By the time The Prettiest Star and Conversation Piece were recorded at Trident studios in January 1970, though, Bowie had a new belle in Angie Barnett, and apparently played the A-side down the phone as he proposed to her. I prefer to think of it as his ambiguous tribute to the almost-famous Bolan (the no.2 hit Ride A White Swan was recorded two months after The Prettiest Star had been released, selling an estimated 800 copies). But there you go. I like myths and legends.

Bolan - who seemed to slip in and out of Bowie's shadow, as nemesis and friendly rival, both stylistically and on the level of fame, for a full decade - also wrote a song called The London Boys, a middling stomp which reached no.40 at the start of 1976. Closer to the spirit of Bowie's London Boys, though, was Over the Flats, written in 1972 about Bolan's forced teenage relocation from Hackney to Tooting. "The chicks I used to know would never see me grow, would never grip my hand" he complains and, worse yet for an East London face and an ego the size of Marc's, "here no one knows my name, people all look the same, I walk on lonely steps, they don't know my rep." The song was only ever recorded as an acoustic demo, for possible inclusion on The Slider, and is strong enough - and knowingly funny enough - for you to wish that Bolan had dug into his scufflin' days for inspiration more often.

Bolan's career arc was perfectly symmetrical, with Jeepster at the peak, and The Wizard and Celebrate Summer as flops at either extreme. With Bowie there was no such arc, just constant shape-shifting, and many of his most interesting records slip into the cracks between his major releases. Aside from The London Boys and Conversation Piece, there is an astonishing run of 45s between 70s farewell Scary Monsters and 80s hullo Let's Dance (Wild Is The Wind, Under Pressure, Baal's Hymn, Cat People, Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy) which I like to think of as his Wilderness Years. Certainly there was no real clue that the calculated and largely unadventurous Let's Dance would follow collaborations and expeditions with Kurt Weill, Freddie Mercury, Bing Crosby and Paul Schrader. Or maybe he knew that in 1983 it was time to cash in the Bowie bonds. The suburban outcast, the lonely pill-popping London Boy, the frustrated artist of Conversation Piece had by now achieved everything he ever set out to do.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Billie Davis: 'Nobody's Home To Go Home To'

An astonishing number of British girl singers emerged between the end of 1963 and mid 1964: Dusty, Sandie, Cilla, Lulu, Marianne, all - in their varied ways - totems of late 20th British social history. For every Dusty there were a dozen Glo Macaris and Lorraine Silvers, teenagers shunted into Pye studio B for two hours one morning in 1965. A couple of singles usually emerged, a bunch of promises, then came marriage, kids, and a chest in the attic with a few photos and some scratched discs with a bright pink label, curios from a misspent youth that was over before it began.

Billie Davis bucked the trend by scoring a middling hit with her first single - a cover of the Exciters' Tell Him in 1963 - and then convincing labels to keep releasing singles right up to the turn of the seventies. None were hits, but you could see how she wangled the deals. For a start she was button-cute, saucer-eyed and sexy. Secondly, her voice sounded like nobody else on the block; it could cut through medium wave fog with precision, hitting the same unlikely frequency as Diana Ross.

Ballads were where Billie ruled. Ian Chapman one described her as having a "broken doll" voice - not mopey, or simpering, but small and tough and hugely affecting, very real. Never did she sound more broken and beaten than on Nobody's Home To Go Home To. Decca thought so little of it they misspelt the title on the label, then put it on the b-side of the middling I Can Remember, but from the opening line - "watching some movie repeat and repeat" - you know you're catching something special. There's real bitterness ("Yesterday's coffee is losing its taste now that you've left me, sugar") below the surface of strings and swimming pool bass, and the lyric deals with the lack of direction at the end of an affair, the dulled senses, the useless anger: "The nights are a bore and the days such a waste."

Nobody's Home To Go Home To was written by Carole Bayer and Toni Wine. They had previously scored with a string of Mindbenders singles beginning with their biggest ever song, Groovy Kind Of Love in 1966. A no.2 hit in the US and UK it was sung by boys but clearly written by girls; lines like "can't control the quivering inside" were taking pop away from the sock hop and soda shop. It was as implicitly about female sexuality as Goffin and King's more celebrated Natural Woman two years later; Toni was just 17, still in high school, and Carole was a 22-year old teacher when they wrote Groovy Kind Of Love The original version - good but lacking the weird echoed backing vocals and martial rhythm that tips the Mindbenders' version into proto-psychedelic - was by Patti Labelle, who certainly knew a thing or two about the liberated woman.

The Mindbenders had been little more than Wayne Fontana's backing group before this. He had simply walked off stage midway through a gig in early '66, frustrated that a string of singles failed to score after Game Of Love had been a huge hit (US no.1, UK no.2) in '65. Guitarist Eric Stewart was sanguine: "All we lost was our tambourine player. Wayne had been threatening to leave the band for some time and (drummer) Ric Rothwell had reached the end of patience with his groaning an moaning. Ric was urging him to take his ego trip and piss off." He did, and Stewart became singer with the now three-piece. They can't have dreamed that without their front man, the only really recognisable band member, they would score an even bigger hit. Unsurprisingly, the Mindbenders kept Carole and Toni on board, and they wrote the A-sides of their next three singles.

Can't Live With You Can't Live Without You was the Wine/Bayer Mindbenders follow up and it's a very different state of affairs: "When you're closer to me you just seem to be not all there" is the flip of Groovy Kind Of Love's "When you're in my arms nothing seems to matter", a relationship hollowed out. Where's the respect? "Couldn't you try just a little bit harder to love me?" implores Eric Stewart, desperate, almost losing his calm restraint over a baroque deep-well mix of minor-key guitar chimes, doomed organ, and swirling upfront tambourine. "COULDN'T you try just a LITTLE bit harder?"

Nobody's Home To Go Home To is the sad pile of nothing left when the disrespectful lover disappears. Their two lives have been linked, it seems inextricably, and the crisis of identity that that comes as she sits alone is heard at the end of each chorus in a hanging note, suspended above nothing, until the key changes back and the bass and drums put a consoling around Billie and her cold cup of coffee: "Who will I be? I can't be me without you."

Things weren't always so blue for Billie Davis. If she wanted to use them, she had claws. She needed them after the media trashed her career in 1964. That was the year she was involved in a notorious car crash with Jet Harris, formerly the blonde bass hero of the Shadows. Harris was married, in theory anyway - his wife had been carrying on with Cliff Richard while Jet was still in the band, standing behind his wife's lover on stage every night, trying to keep his cool. Not surprisingly, it messed with his mind. Hell, they were still teenagers. Jet drank progressively, Bruce Welch demanded that he had to go.

Jet pulled through slowly, first by making records on his own (1962's Main Title Theme from The Man With The Golden Arm has one of the deepest, most powerful guitar sounds of the era) then a brace with another ex-Shadow, drummer Tony Meehan, (Diamonds was a no.1 in early '63, followed by Scarlett O'Hara which reached no.2), and then by hanging out with perky new star Billie Davis. In September 1963, a few days after the third Harris/Meehan single Applejack was released Jet and Billie were were in the back seat of a chauffeur driven limousine near returning home to London from one of her shows in Evesham, Worcestershire. They hit a Midland Red bus, which was written off after the crash. Billie suffered a broken jaw; Jet was unconscious after his forehead had smashed into an ashtray on the back of the driver's seat. He needed 34 stitches - Decca needed him on the road and on TV to promote Applejack. He was in no physical or mental state to do this. After one more solo single, Big Bad Bass in '64, he retired, unable to even pick up a guitar without getting the fear for years afterwards.

Billie's career meandered, though she continued to cut quality singles, several a year right up to 1970. After the car crash and the bad press, Decca dropped her like a hot potato, broken jaw or not. She signed to Columbia where she recorded the mod dancefloor favourite Whatcha Gonna Do, moved to Piccadilly in '65 and released the cat-scratching Hands Off and the lip-licking teaser No Other Baby, as well as the definitive version of Burt Bacharach's Last One To Be Loved. Decca signed her again in '67 and Billie must have thought she had a hit in the bag when she was first out of the blocks with Chip Taylor's Angel Of The Morning.

PP Arnold stole her thunder with a hurried cover in the UK and Merrilee Rush did likewise in the US; neither had the fragility and ambiguity that makes Billie's version so strong. But chart positions aren't everything, not quite. Jet and Billie are close friends again, forty-odd years after their careers and lives were shattered by a Midland Red bus. Toni Wine appeared at the 2005 launch for Rhino's Girl Group box set, One Kiss Leads To Another, and reduced everyone present to jelly with a solo piano performance of Groovy Kind Of Love. Eric Stewart did pretty well with 10CC, and Universal rescued Nobody's Home To Go Home To from obscurity when they re-issued it on their essential compilation, The Girl Scene. I love a happy ending.

The Teardrop Explodes: 'Window Shopping For A New Crown Of Thorns'

I could describe this blog as a tribute to a lost era. I could even describe it as a tribute to a lost art form. For most singers and pop groups, the b-side was a technological aberration, a minor annoyance; vinyl singles were two-sided, and you were only selling the A-side. For some, though, it was a chance to stretch away from commercial constraints and, if you felt warmly towards your fans rather than the casual buyer who may never even listen to it, you'd use the b-side for your most idiosyncratic and intriguing music.

Julian Cope was an early heavy hero of mine. One of the main reasons for this was his unfettered enthusiasm. I remember, in 1980, an interview with Spandau Ballet in which they said they had never really listened to rock or pop. I couldn't twig what they meant - was Mahler or Stravinsky the main influence on Chant No.1? No, they meant they were soul snobs; they didn't want to share. Julian Cope wanted to share. He'd talk about Arthur Lee, Tim Buckley, The Left Banke, none of whom I had heard of. I saved up for Forever Changes, Goodbye & Hello, and several more doors opened up. Cope did more than talk about Scott Walker, he issued a whole compilation of the man's work on Liverpool's Zoo label. This was unprecedented. Nobody - apart from the almost as effusive Marc Almond - rated Scott Walker in 1981, his solo records were buried deep. Cope's compilation was called Fire Escape In The Sky: The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker, a description few would argue with now, but back in 1981 it was considered a joke - dopy Copey was blowing his cool again. The record came in a beautiful plain grey sleeve with simple green text. It was an act of extraordinary generosity.

Cope has since claimed he never really liked Scott Walker that much, which seems like standard issue, double bluff, pop star cool. It's disappointing, as a raft of Teardrop Explodes recordings betray Scott's influence. One - the eggshell-fragile, haunted suburbia of Tiny Children - even became an A-side in the summer of 1982. The majority were released as flips on a brief but glorious run of singles from 1980 to '82. Window Shopping For A New Crown Of Thorns is the kind of song title Cope would have thought up, bug-eyed with enthusiasm, around Dave Balfe's freezing bedsit at 3am, then stitch a song onto it later. It's a very early eighties Liverpool title - Ian McCullough or Pete Wylie would probably have dreamt it up if Cope hadn't. Recorded during the sessions for second album Wilder, it became the b-side of Colours Fly Away.

Not surprisingly, the title is never sung. It opens with an asthmatic instrument playing minor chords - a harmonium, in tribute to Nico's Marble Index. Cope joins in with the melody, singing high, choirboy-like, very clean and pure, only the words are indistinct - you strain to hear them and make out "cross the bridge we sigh, watching clouds go by". Then a flash of muffled brass leads into the 'chorus', a jumble of spoken words reminiscent of the Velvet Underground's Murder Mystery over slightly more ominous harmonium chords and distant purple tympani, the hint of a storm. But before it breaks you're into the second verse, with a gorgeously sad counter-melody on muted vibes over an even vaguer lyric. The storm builds, the song grows more dream-like, ever more distant, harder to hold. It stops dead as verse and chorus merge over rumbling drums and piano, with Cope appearing to read extracts from his diary. He has since said that the song is built on "desperation, artistic doubt and loss". Poor sod. But it's our gain. Released in October 1981, Window Shopping For A New Crown Of Thorns is a beautiful exercise in northern English autumnal mysticism: what's beyond the stone door?

It wasn't by any means the only great Teardrop Explodes B-side. On Treason (Use Me), Passionate Friend (Christ vs Warhol), and When I Dream (Kilimanjaro) there were equally atmospheric adventures in hi-fi: each was a rich counterpoint to the radio-friendly top side.

When the Teardrop Explodes split, Julian Cope got more into puns (Jehovahkill, Peggy Suicide) and straight-ahead pop (World Shut Your Mouth), and switched from the soundscapes that populated his early singles: along the way he lost the knack of the perfect b-side. They went out with a bang, though, a five track EP containing all that existed of their third, abandoned album - effectively it was the staccato, buffed-brass, radio-friendly You Disappear From View and four underworldly b-sides. Unsurprisingly, it was very good indeed.

So the Teardrop Explodes were masters of the b-side, which is why they appear in pole position on this blog. That, and Pete Paphides gave me the idea to start it during a long Teardrops-and-red-wine evening a few weeks ago. Classic b-sides were a way of sneaking experimental pop into maybe tens of thousands of households. They were a hidden secret, waiting patiently to be discovered. Like tiny off-kilter sound bombs scattered across the country, across the world. Like Rain by The Beatles. There's the hint of something beyond, quite intangible, that would rarely find its way onto an A-side, nor would it do as Side 2, Track 3. Maybe it's melancholy. Sometimes it's masochism. Julian Cope, murmuring in the thickets of Window Shopping's chorus, gets close to the nub of it: "Show me more. In 4/4 time, show me more".