We were thirteeen, my mate Steve and I were making the most of his parents being out by playing our records on his dad's state-of-the-art stereo system. It was 42 years ago, possibly almost to the date, and I remember Steve's cousin Mick, who was five or so years older than us and the source of our musical education in all matters underground, coming over straight from work clutching a carrier bag from Ireson's Records. Striding over to the stereo, he removed whatever we were playing, pulled this humungous weighty album out of the bag, opened its triple gatefold brown cover adorned with strange otherworldy designs and pulled out one of the three records it contained at random.
You could tell Mick was excited, and we had worked out that this package was the much anticipated triple live album by his favourite band Yes, a band then unheard by me. Placing the hastily plucked record on the Garrard record deck, the stylus slowly descending to hit the run in groove, the low-key piano and guitar hoedown beginning of Yours Is No Disgrace is quickly pummeled into shape by what would become familiar to me over the following years; the highly distinctive percussive bass playing of Chris Squire.
Although the studio version from The Yes Album highlights Squire's playing to better effect, that Yessongs Side 6, Track 1 was my introduction to Yes, a band that would figure in my playlists from that day right up to the here and now, and a band that made not only the best prog rock album, but one of the best albums regardless of genre in Close To The Edge.
Larger than life both physically and musically, Chris Squire's unique bass sound, courtesy of his boundless energy channelled through his trusty Rickenbacker, his writing and arrangement skills and his way with a vocal harmony marked him out as a truly individual talent and one that will be sorely missed by anyone who has been touched by his music. A part of our youth has died...
Having a pop at major labels and their transparent remake-remodel stratagems in relation to their legacy artists, releasing mammoth box sets that will in all probability be played in their entirety no more than twice, a ruse aimed squarely at milking the wallets of those of us of a certain age is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel, as the saying goes.
Nope, for once - and it is once, I can't recall it happening before - I am giving praise where praise is due to one of the big players. A major label, in this case Universal, and they do not come any more major than that, has found a neat way to repackage the catalogues of artists from the golden age of rock'n'roll, this time aimed at those of us with more sense than money. This series of releases takes five or so albums from the discographies of artists who for the most part did not quite make the major league in terms of sales, and comes under the banner "Original Album Series". They make ideal replacements for worn out vinyl or as collection gap-fillers. I will now witter on about one of the more essential of these boxes...
As I write, for a mere £10.10 chucked in the direction of the corporate tax dodgers who shall remain nameless you can have the first five, and frankly the best solo albums of the reluctant pop star genius known as Kevin Ayers. The CDs are all the last remastered versions, and the package is a no-frills no-bonus tracks slimline box, and forms a perfect introduction to one of England's finest songwriters.
Joy Of A Toy
A worrisome trait throughout Kevin's career was his dodging, consciously or otherwise, of potential success every time it beckoned. The first instance of this came in 1968 when Kevin sold his bass guitar to Noel Redding and fled to Ibiza after the rigours of a seemingly endless Soft Machine tour of the States supporting Jimi Hendrix, who had given him an acoustic Gibson on the promise that he would not, as threatened, retire from the music biz completely. Obviously inspired by Hendrix's faith in him Kevin came up with the songs that would form his first solo album. Backed by his by now former Soft Machine colleagues, including Daevid Allen, and his mate David Bedford, a consummate arranger and musical polymath, Joy Of A Toy sets the scene for Kevin's highly individualistic and accessible songwriting style.
Hints of Kevin's darker side come through in some of the lyrics, but this is mostly a highly enjoyable collection of charmingly naive sun-kissed ditties and daft larking about, its playful nature no doubt in part a reaction to the more earnest direction his former band were headed in.
Highlights - Song For Insane Times, Eleanor's Cake (Which Ate Her), The Lady Rachel
Shooting At The Moon
By 1970's Shooting At The Moon, Kevin had assembled a proper working band around him, formed earlier in the year to tour Joy Of A Toy. Naming them The Whole World, our glorious leader retained David Bedford on various keyboards and occasional guitar, and he was joined by saxophonist Lol Coxhill, whom Kevin discovered busking in the street. Then there was drummer Mick Fincher, and an extremely young Mike Oldfield on bass. Mike's melodious style is evident from the off, taking a lead line in one of Kevin's timeless classics, the wistfully romantic May I?, which works even better in French as Puis Je?, sadly but understandably not available on this "no frills" box set.
Oldfield also gets to play his instantly recognisable lead guitar on Lunatics Lament, and with the benefit of youthful fire in his belly, contributes a full-on psych wigout halfway in. The song, with Kevin on bass and featuring his semi-buried treated vocal is structured like one of the Velvet Underground's rockier ventures as it lurches along in fine acidic fashion.
Contrasting his now trademark and seemingly effortless songs with a fast developing experimental side, Shooting At The Moon shows no little ambition and encapsulates the "anything goes" mantra of the era. In the mad professor's sound laboratory, strange effects and edits punctuate second track Rheinhardt & Geraldine/Colores Para Dolores, and Pisser Dans Un Violin, which luckily for the instrument in question has no violin in earshot. Pisser... features Lol Coxhill in characteristic avant-garde mood on electric sax. This eight minute ending to side one of the original album is an intriguing sound collage that the less adventurous would describe as filler. It isn't, but I will admit it is probably twice as long as it needed to be; semi-filler then, the sort that falls out of that hole in the wall after six months.
Highlights - May I?, Lunatics Lament, Red Green And You Blue
After the inevitable break up of The Whole World came the recording of Kevin's most commercially successful album. Whatevershebrinswesing was released in November 1971 and most of his old road band play on the record, along with cameos from Robert Wyatt and Didier Malherbe. This album saw the fusing of experimentation and straight songwriting that was pioneered on Shooting At The Moon work to its best effect.
This has always been my favourite album of Kevin's and it is a treat from start to finish. From David Bedford's orchestral introduction to the seven minute song suite There is Loving/Among Us/There is Loving to the closing babbling brook of Lullaby there is no surplus fat or throwaway nonsense on this record. Includes perhaps his most well-known tune, the rock'n'roll smoking song Stranger In Blue Suede Shoes, which features some dazzling piano work, again from David Bedford. There are some great contributions throughout from the other players, once more including Mike Oldfield on both bass and lead, and combined with Ayers' growing lyrical confidence, the record is a category-defying masterpiece, with everything from waltzes to dark experimentation at the bottom of a well.
Highlights - put it this way, there aren't any lowlights. If you only buy one Kevin Ayers album, buy this one!
May 1973 would see the release of Kevin's last album for Harvest Records for three years, and probably his most accessible to date for the iconic label. Another new band was assembled under the name Decadence, and there are guest appearances from Wyatt again, and Mike Ratledge. Also appearing is Steve Hillage, who was to be only a temporary member of the band, soon to return to France and Gong. Steve contributes some highly melodic runs to another of Ayers' more well-known tunes, Shouting In A Bucket Blues. That song and album opener, the faux-soul-shouter Don't Let It Get You Down hint at Kevin's battle with demons unspecified, but he was a glass half-full guy, as the lyric "I say to everyone who thinks there's no way out...Baby if you all shout, someone will hear you" attests.
The experimental and psychedelic edges are well represented by Interview and Decadence respectively, the latter with some highly acerbic lyrics aimed at Nico. The album also features Kevin's tribute to Syd Barrrett, with Oh! Wot A Dream being done "in the style of" through a Kevin Ayers filter, with some very touching lyrics.
Around this time Kevin somehow avoided having a hit with the very catchy and very kitsch-calypso single Caribbean Moon, a song that in any other hands would be cringeworthy, but Kevin turns it into a joyous muckabout - you may recall the supremely silly video! Not on this budget version of the album, unfortunately.
While Bananamour does not hit the dizzy heights of its predecessor, it is still a great listen.
Highlights - Shouting In A Bucket Blues, Oh! Wot A Dream, Hymn
The Confessions of Dr Dream and Other Stories
A year has passed, and Kevin has decamped to Island Records. May 1974 sees the world mostly ignore The Confessions of Dr Dream and Other Stories, the last CD in this rather scrumptious box but the first to feature guitarist Ollie Halsall. Kevin's reaction on first hearing him play was "love at first solo", quite understandably. Ollie, previously with the marvellously tight-but-loose jazzrockers Patto was a much underrated player who could turn his talented hands to any style required, and was easily as gifted as Clapton or Beck. Halsall and Ayers from this point on formed a long working relationship and friendship that lasted until the guitarist's untimely substance-aided demise in 1992.
This time round the idea of "a band plus guests" is abandoned for a long list of illustrious aiders and abetters, including Rupert Hine, Steve Nye, Mike Oldfield, Michael Giles, Nico (they must have kissed and made up!), Geoffrey Richardson, and Lol Coxhill, to name but a few.
It doesn't take Ollie long to introduce himself, and on Didn't Feel Lonely Till I Thought Of You he unleashes some furiously acidic runs that take the otherwise langrous groove off into space. Wonderful stuff! It Begins With A Blessing reprises Ayers' riff from the old Soft Machine song Why Are We Sleeping?,now reimagined as the theme of a smoky psychedelic blues song cycle.
The focal point of the album is the sprawling title track that occupied all bar the final one and half minutes of side two of the original vinyl release. A dark entry with a typical mantra-like vocal from a disembodied Nico warns of Irreversible Neural Damage from too many drugs, maaan, presaging Dr Dream's tuneful presrcriptions and a long surreal trip ending with the Dr Dream Theme, a relentless and slowly building funeral march, the stuff of nightmares. Kevin was never going to leave us dangling in the dark, and the last track Two Goes Into Four is as charmingly winsome as it gets.
This album is far more focused and densely packed than the earlier works and the title track takes a bit of getting into, but once you dig below the surface it is an absorbing piece of work.
Highlights - Didn't Feel Lonely Till I Thought Of You, Everybody's Sometime And Some People's All The Time Blues, It Begins With A Blessing/Once I Awakened/But It Ends With A Curse
When it came to the crunch, Kevin Ayers was always more comfortable in the company of a bottle of decent vino and a good woman than he ever was under the spotlight, and he never took himself or the music business too seriously. Kevin was a consummate story teller and bon viveur whose love of life shone through, despite the sense of melancholy that permeates a goodly part of his work, thus illuminating another side of his character. These quirky and infectious tunes will live long in the memory of those of us who love the old-fashioned English eccentric's take on life.
Had he had more ambition, who knows where he may have ended up, but wherever that might have been, the man at the end of that trip would not have been the Kevin Ayers we recognise. As it is Kevin has left us with a good number of timeless songs that do not require their creator to have had fame and success in order to justify their rightful place in rock's rich tapestry.
"Let’s drink some wine/And have a good time/But if you really want to come through/Let the good times have you…"
Kevin Ayers - 16/8/1944-18/2/2013 - RIP - ...and thank you very much...
I gave this album to a colleague at TPA a while back as I had too much on at the time. It was only on reading his review that I thought I had better give it a closer listen, and I am so glad I did.
If Beck were from the land of the long nights Morning Phase may well have sounded like this. Dreamy, psychedelic and dripping with the kind of melancholy that could only come from Scandinavia, Heartbreak In ((Stereo)) is a masterful work.
Fusing dreamily woozy folk-psych with indie, dream pop, and jazz stylings, all with a Nordic experimental edge, Norwegian troubadour Anders Bjermeland as Mollmaskin has made the ultimate "one man band" album. As his producer Rhys Marsh has it, "Last year, I had the great pleasure of recording of the debut Mollmaskin
album. I made coffee, positioned microphones, sat back and pressed the
record button as Anders spent two weeks flying around the studio,
playing everything in sight. He completely blew my mind. I'm so happy I got to witness that, let alone be a part of it. To me, the album is this generation's 'Innervisions'".
Well, I wouldn't go that far, but boy, this is rather good! Anders is the main man behind folk-psychers Flashback Caruso, and it brings a smile to my timeworn fizzog to see that he has continued the Faust connection with a wonky fogbound cover of that iconic German band's already off-kilter love song Jennifer, but the real meat around the bones of this record are Anders' own highly individualistic compositions, which constitute the rest of the album.
The Same Ash drips with swirly psychedelic guitar, while Never Able marches bold with brass to a wonky rhythm. Lyrically an impressionistic fatalism runs through the core of the "Left Side" songs, Anders musing that ultimately we are in an ever-repeating treadmill of war, life, love, and labour: "in a loop, in queue until last breath repeats the phrase, then silence" as Two Moods has it. Although the subjects differ, the songs retain a Nordic melancholy throughout, and the "Right Side", which seems more concerned with matters of the heart continues that air.
The Norwegian lyrics to Halvtom Sjel (half-empty soul) are rendered probably even more abstract by the vagaries of Google Translate, but seem concerned with a recently broken romance, and Dirty Linen is a simple tale of unrequited love. The album's longest track Nightmare City Suite is a gently swinging affair of regret and revenge that has the protagonists dancing a sinister waltz of "heartbreak in stereo, jogging on alcohol through you". The downbeat theme is complemented by the jazz-symphonic weariness of the tune, and is the kind of thing that would not sound out of place on a Tim Bowness album. A tragic but lovely and careworn melody for those introspective moments.
The romantic theme briefly over, we return to matters more abstract. A part of our soul dies when a hero passes on, and The Death Of Lennon is a winsome combination of electric piano, Beck-like harmonies and dream-pop moves that make for a sublime trip musing on the passage of time, and it may well turn out to be my favourite song of the year, containing as it does some of the best poetry on the record:
i'm spending my hours
reflecting my physics
seeing only heroes
die in front of me
not by my hand
but as a reflection of my being
The album signs off with the bitter taste of love gone sour as Anders sees the only way out as being to "find the common ground and go to war". One hopes his private life is not as bleak as this album paints it! The musical climax is built on atonal chords and melodic piano lines, and brings to an end an album that is both a musical and lyrical triumph.
If you appreciate great songwriting that arrives with a hardened heart after many miles travelling through life and the musical left-field, then you owe it to yourself to buy this fabulous record!
1. The Same Ash (3:25)
2. Never Able (4:45)
3. The Long Shadow (4:25)
4. How Many Ants (4:28)
5. Jennifer (6:07)
6. Two Moods (2:28)
1. Halvtom Sjel (4:44)
2. Dirty Linen (3:14)
3. Nightmare City Suite (8:07)
4. The Death Of Lennon (4:16)
5. Before We Go To War (4:54)
Total running time - 51:00
Anders Bjermeland - everything, apart from:
Magnus Nygard Muldal - accordion & Rhys Marsh - pedal steel guitar, both on Halvtom Sjel & Jennifer.
Right, let's get the band name out of the way...there's something quite cringeworthy about it...moving on...
Progoctopus are a new quartet from Birmingham, and Transcendence is their first venture into the world of recorded music. They have produced an infectious combination of upbeat rock moves mixed with unusual time signatures, all topped with Jane Gillard's distinctive vocals that serve to infuse the EP with an infectious joie de vivre at odds with the heavy subject
matter of her lyrics. These tell a tale through all four songs of breaking free
from societal and one's own mental shackles, finding one's way, the eventual passing of
life and ending by musing on the circular nature of existence in a manner free of pseudo-intellectual pretence.
Opening track Transcendence Pt 1, with Jane's confident but never strident tones to the fore puts me in mind of American band Moe Tar, which in my book is praise indeed. Beneath Jane the guitar of Alistair Bell twists and turns through its chord changes, evading 4/4 by sleight of hand and a knowing wink, the rhythm section of Tim Wilson and Samuel C. Roberts keeping the thing from jumping the points.
Transcendence Pt 2 ups the heaviosity factor and includes a rollicking instrumental section of thunderous rhythmic intent that fades away too soon. The band slow things right down on the jazzy ballad Like Stone, which shows that Jane can do the heartstring-tuggers with aplomb. Her story of stoicism in the face of the imminent loss of a loved one - easily the best lyric on the EP by the way - is backed by a sinuous tune, and is the highpoint of the EP for me. Love the bass guitar sound on this one.
We conclude with the nine-minute Carousel, which takes its time to wend a way through intricate guitar knots and clattering rhythmic counterpoints, while Jane's story finds redemption. Not as immediate as either of the parts of Transcendence, the track suffers slightly from a lack of light and shade, and is possibly a tad too long.
All in all a promising if flawed debut from a new band, and I can picture a sax or maybe a dedicated electric piano player adding more colour to the sound in future. A band to keep an eye on, for sure, and this EP is available for a "pay what you want" price at Bandcamp, so what have you got to lose?
Transcendence Pt 1 (6:34)
Transcendence Pt 2 (6:19)
Like Stone (3:56)
Total running time - 25:52
Jane Gillard - Lead Vocals
Alistair Bell - Guitar, piano and vocals
Samuel C. Roberts - Bass
Tim Wilson - Drums, pads and vocals