Friday, 23 March 2018

A Rainbow in Curved Air

There was a short but illuminating two-parter recently on BBC4 about minimalist music. The first part featured the enigmatic La Monte Young (whose famous pupil would play that haunting viola refrain on the Velvet Underground's 'Venus in Furs') and the reclusive Terry Riley, who now lives seemingly in a wooden cabin somewhere in the forests north of San Francisco. He's still making music and I'm still listening to A Rainbow in Curved Air. It would be another 20 years or so after buying my still pristine copy before I discovered the two composers featured in the second part, Philip Glass and Steve Reich.

These days, Riley sports a long white beard to match his thinning locks and looks like a shaman. Back then, on the cover of the LP, his prematurely balding hair frames a big smiling egg of a face that rises beaming like a human sun from the edge of a bucolic landscape. His benign words on the back speak of a time when 'The Pentagon was turned on its side and painted purple, yellow & green' and when 'The energy from dismantled nuclear weapons provided free heat and light/World health was restored/[And] an abundance of organic vegetables, fruits and grains was growing wild along the discarded highways'. If, as idyllic vision suggests, he is a vegan, he sure is an advert for the salubrious effects of renouncing meat and dairy.

Riley's Rainbow is a suitably bubbly, optimistic and vibrant piece that continues to surprise. I'd forgotten, for example, the passage half way through when the omnipresent electric organ sinks to a sonorous rumble and a tambourine mimics the sound of moths trapped in a paper bag. I guess that's why minimalist music has always (apparently) appealed to me. You immerse yourself in it like you would in a warm bath and all those subtle sudden key changes and harmonic twists keep you sufficiently alert to stop you sinking beneath the surface. It seems curious to suggest, but it is dramatic: like a film by Bergman or like the shadows cast on a landscape by scudding clouds.

And Riley does it all with an electric organ, an electric harpsichord, a rocksichord, a dumbec (whatever they are), a tambourine and endless tape loops. Almost 20 minutes of subtle variations on a very simple theme that leave you feeling curiously clean and energised. On the flip side, by contrast, 'Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band' is a darker repetitive drone created by the trusty organ and a soprano saxophone. Shades at times of John Coltrane and particularly the long introduction to Soft Machine's 'Out-Bloody-Rageous'. 

Being, as I was then, so immersed in prog-rock – as it would become known – I could probably hear Riley's influence in all kinds of places without even knowing it: especially on such organ-toting groups of the '70s as Yes, Soft Machine, Egg, Hatfield and the North. He must also have had an influence a little later on the likes of Vangelis and, emphatically, Mike Oldfield. And let's not forget that a group even called itself Curved Air. Yes, the genial Mr. Riley's to blame for all that pocket money I blew on a picture disc version of Air Conditioning that never played properly, presumably because of all the colour in the microgrooves. I couldn't listen to Curved Air now, but wish I'd kept that imperfect record. Must be worth a packet these days.

I'm surprised and rather proud to say that I bought Rainbow in 1971 as a mere 16-year old. Surprised because it seems so grown-up now in comparison to a lot of the stuff I was listening to. How did I come to minimalist music long before I even knew what it was? I was a subscriber to the Melody Maker and maybe they mentioned it in despatches. Or maybe I was influenced by my elders and betters at school. One Gavin McDowell in particular, an LP-carrying 'head' who was way ahead of the crowd. I suspect, though, that it was my love of Soft Machine's Third. I seem to have bought it in 1970, which suggests that I was looking for something on the same astral plane. I'd heard the imitators, so it was time to check out the source.

Despite my own love of the kind of jazz that inspired Riley, I never actually bought anything else by him – not even the legendary In C. Perhaps because Philip Glass and especially Steve Reich would later satisfy all my minimal needs. A Rainbow in Curved Air seems now just a little airy-fairy in comparison to something like Reich's magnificent Music for 18 Musicians with its bewildering interplay of yodelling voices, pulsing pianos, marimbas and oscillating clarinets.

The programme didn't really make clear the extent to which Riley influenced Philip Glass and Steve Reich. But of course he must have done. It's hard to believe that Glass could have written the soundtrack to Koyaanisqatsi without Riley's Rainbow. These days, the piece seems a little like music for old hippies, but then I'm just an old hippy at heart. A little older and a little hipper every play.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Hugh Masekela: Waiting for the Rain

Poor Hugh. He seemed such a decent man. He died recently of prostate cancer a year or so before his 80th birthday. BBC4, bless 'em, repeated a concert from somewhere like the Barbican to celebrate his 70th birthday and around half a century spent in the musical limelight. 

He was supported on this occasion by an orchestra and a huge community choir along with his own band and backing vocalists. One hell of a lot of people to assemble on one stage. The choir was full of rather earnest-looking mainly white and probably middle class choral types, who sang out with gusto but just under-whelmed me slightly because it seems such an incongruous thing to see so many cheery white faces from places like Stoke Newington singing Zulu refrains. Well, that's my issue – and probably something to do with the fact that I've not sung in a choir since primary school.

Had I been born a few years earlier, my introduction to African music might have come from something like 'The Click Song' of Masekela's ex-wife, Miriam Makeba, or 'Wimoweh' – which appears in the adapted form of 'The Lion Never Sleeps' as part of a medley called 'The Seven Riffs of Africa' on his first album for Jive Afrika in the '80s, Techno-Bush. The medley also includes a re-recording of 'Grazing in the Grass', which Masekela originally took to number 1 in the US charts, where it kept 'Jumping Jack Flash' out of the top spot for a couple of weeks.

No, my introduction to African music really came with Osibisa, the group of British-based Nigerian exiles whose 'Sunshine Day' and 'Music for Gong-Gong' still figure on my party compilations. I remember playing on my father's Ekco gramophone what I think was their first UK album, complete with Roger Dean's flying elephant cover, at an intimate party (by dint of my parents' proximity) in the back room of our second house in Belfast. That was the mortifying party where I had to turn away the whole familiar crowd of Malone Road party-seekers on the grounds that my mother's nerves wouldn't stand for that many strangers in her house. It wasn't cool of me. I don't think my 'rep' ever recovered from the slur.

However, Hugh Masekela came about next, admittedly a dozen or so years later. He was part of the early days of what would soon become labelled 'world music', along with such other African luminaries as Manu Dibango, King Sunny Adé and the Bhundu Boys – and a few years before I embraced Fela, Youssou N'dour, Baaba Maal and Salif Keita. During my brief interlude in central London, my Trinidadian friend and work colleague Pedro and I would go cruising for vinyl in Soho. I picked up both Techno-Bush and Waiting for the Rain in the insalubrious Cheapo Cheapo Records. And a few short years and one geographical move later, my good wife and I caught the great man live in Sheffield Polytechnic's Student Union (called, inevitably and appropriately, the Nelson Mandela Building). It was a memorable concert, with energy levels, unsurprisingly, rather higher than for his 70th birthday.

This would have been a couple of years or so after he took part in Paul Simon's Graceland world tour, circa 1987. Like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Hugh Masekela probably benefited more than most from the tour. Always a fervent critic of apartheid before and after leaving his native South Africa soon after the Sharpeville massacre, he didn't bleat about the finer parts of the cultural boycott but acknowledged that the diminutive minstrel 'brought the music of South Africa to ten million ears – that's never been managed before'.
It's significant that Masekela chose to open Waiting for the Rain with a version of Fela Kuti's 'Lady'. During his long self-imposed exile, he spent years in London, New York and West Africa. He socialised and played with Fela in Lagos, and he described playing with Africa 70 as like 'being on a big fat cloud. You couldn't fall off'. He was reputedly particularly taken with 'Lady'. Fela took him to Ghana, where Masekela fell in with Hedzoleh Sounds, who played a kind of stripped-down Afrobeat/highlife hybrid. They recorded a number of albums together and from what I've heard of Masekela, Introducing Hedzoleh Soundz, our Hugh never sounded better. 

By comparison, Waiting for the Rain is quite a polite affair. Recorded for Jive Afrika during his time in Botswana, frustratingly close to the mother country he couldn't go home to, it is coloured by the predominant synth-etic sounds of the era. 'Politician' follows 'Lady' and it encapsulates the different approaches to protest that Masekela and Fela Kuti took. Having fled his native country, the former could do little more than protest via his music. While the lyrics and the playing are just fine, it lacks the brooding menace of Fela's long, simmering rants and the excoriating ridicule that he aimed directly at Nigeria's military and body politic. Fela was brave and confrontational to the point of suicidal recklessness, but undoubtedly not such a nice guy as Hugh Masekela seemed to be. 

If the first side of Waiting for the Rain is less than memorable, Masekela makes up for it on the second. Sandwiched between the relentless opener, 'Run No More (A Vuo Mo)', and the suitably celebratory closer, 'Zulu Wedding', there's a fine 'Ritual Dancer' and a re-working of what might be remembered as his masterpiece. 'Coal Train (Stimela)' is the story told in his rich reverberating tones of the train 'from Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe... and the whole hinterland of South Africa' that brings the young men and the old men conscripted to work 'in the gold mines of Johannesburg and its surrounding metropoli'. Masekela's voice drops 'deep, deep down into the belly of the earth' where the conscripts are mining 'that mighty evasive stone'. It's chilling and thrilling, and when Masekela's beautiful burnished flugelhorn soars over the female backing vocals, it's guaranteed to send shivers down your spine. It does mine, anyway. Every time.

Before he left South Africa, way back in 1959, Masekela recorded with the great pianist, Dollar Brand (as Abdullah Ibrahim was then known) in the Jazz Epistles. They were the first black jazz group to record an album in the country and it's not for nothing that Masekela has been called 'the father of South African jazz'. He managed to assemble a pretty decent group in Botswana to record in the mobile studio and one of the highlights of the album is the interplay between Masekela's warm flugelhorn and Barney Rachabane's more strident alto sax (that reputedly 'blew away' the likes of Archie Shepp and Weather Report when he played in New York). Another is the presence of Bheki Mseleku, the self-taught multi-instrumentalist who died far too young at 53. Mon épouse et moi witnessed the incredible sight of him playing tenor sax and piano at the same time in a concert at the Brecon Jazz Festival in the early 1990s, around the time of his wonderful Celebration album. Roland Kirk managed three saxes at once, but never with a piano to boot.

Poor Bheki. Poor Hugh. At least the latter almost made it to 80: a goodly age for a jazz legend. And they managed to play together at least once. In Botswana. While no doubt waiting for the rain.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

M: New York London Paris Munich

While trawling charity shops on the English south coast (it might have been appropriately Help the Aged), I came across Robin Scott's Life Class. As a mint as a Polo and signed by the musician, a double CD for the princely price of £1.99. I guess that previous browsers weren't aware that Robin Scott once had a group – or an alter ego – called M. Or maybe they knew this and therefore gave it a wide berth.

Pop music is not everyone's cup of tea, but there's something so seductive, so warm and cosy about the best. And Robin Scott, or M, has often come up with some very good pop music. Which is why he should not be confused in any shape or size with Matthieu Chédid, a French singer who also calls himself M, but adds a dash either side to avoid too much confusion (as in -M-): a plagiaristic transgression for which the man should be soundly guillotined. Coincidentally, both have dabbled too with African projects. French -M- did something in Bamako's renowned Studio Bogolan, which does slightly cheapen an otherwise fairly flawless Bogolan Music boxed set. British M recorded with Shikisha, a trio of female vocalists from South Africa, on Jive Shikisha, an album from 1983 that is one of the most joyful, danceable and surprising EurAfrican collaborations you are ever likely to hear.

Life Class sent me scurrying back to 1979's New York London Paris Munich ('everybody's talkin' 'bout... pop muzik') – which I bought on the strength of 'Pop Muzik', one of the cleverest pop songs ever to hit number 2 in the UK and number 1 in the States. ('Dance in the super mart/Dig it in the fast lane/Listen to the countdown/They're playin' our song again...') In fact, Scott was probably too clever for his own good and there's an air of pastiche about his music that probably stalled his career and prevented him reaching the dizzy heights of fellow art school graduates like David Byrne, Brian Eno, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend and David Bowie. It's indicative that the back cover of the album is a quadrant of portraits of Albert Einstein with prominent tongue (not for once in cheek) as if screen-printed by Andy Warhol. 

Nor is it surely any accident that during the album's recording in a studio in Montreux, a temporary resident of the Swiss town, who was probably still recovering from his addled Thin White Duke period, came along to contribute some hand claps on a song I haven't yet identified. Yes it's all very knowing and very referential, in the way of Scott's fellow Croydon graduate, Malcolm MacLaren, but it's also very good. The album yielded two other (lesser) hits in the first two tracks of Side 2: 'Moonlight and Muzak', a delicious hummable tune awash with melodic synthesisers, and the irresistible 'That's the Way the Money Goes', which reprises the territory of 'Pop Muzik' at a jauntier tempo. 

Scott lived and worked in London and Paris at various times and it wouldn't surprise me if he also spent time in Munich and New York. He brings the ironic humour of the London scene and a sense of smart New York street-cool to the album's signature Euro-disco feel. There's an element of Kraftwerk in there, too, and he clearly likes the idea of himself as a kind of disciplinarian Teutonic master of ceremonies. On the fabulous 'Made in Munich', his girlfriend of the time does much of the singing, while Scott barks out the dance steps as if through a megaphone like some kind of dystopian square-bashing caller. 'Do not resist!' he commands in a cartoon Germanic accent – even though it's fairly impossible to do so anyway.

While there's no one significant lyrical theme on the album, Mr. Scott definitely had a penchant for spies, paranoia and the Cold War. On 'Moonlight and Muzak', he encounters 'a Cold War baby from behind the Iron Curtain' with whom he thinks they made contact but cannot be certain. And hidden away among my 7" singles is a copy of a later minor M hit, 'Official Secrets' ('fiction or fact?').

'Marching, marching to the music/Music, music made in Munich...' It's all good fun and it probably adds up to Robin Scott's finest hour. Well, it would be hard to top something like 'Pop Muzik'. It's little surprise that among the other clever-clogs that Scott would work with – including documentary film-maker, Julien Temple, and ex-Japan collaborator, Ryuichi Sakomoto – was one Thomas Dolby, whose 'She Blinded me with Science' seems cut from a similar arty-farty pop fabric. Jive Shikisha aside, much of Robin Scott's work is funny, frivolous and ultimately somewhat flimsy. I bought New York London Paris Munich over 40 years ago, but I still like it. I still listen to it without prejudice and bracket it with pop music like the Chiffons' 'He's So Fine' and the Shangri-Las' 'Leader of the Pack': if it is fluff, then it's rather glorious fluff. 'Shooby dooby do-wah, wah wah, pop pop shoo-wah...'

Sunday, 29 October 2017

The Best of The Stylistics

One evening recently, while the Good Wife was away helping her mother celebrate 89 years on Planet Rock, I took the opportunity to air a guilty pleasure. Michael McDonald's Motown. There, the cat's out of the bag. Not that I've anything really to be ashamed about: he sounds like a very decent, modest individual, who's tickled to death by younger generations' re-discovery of what has been dubbed 'yacht rock'. That is: something soft, slick and redolent of the '70s and '80s.

The voice is a slight bone of contention in this household. My wife thinks that there's something too knowingly crowd-pleasing about old McDonald's voice – in a kind of X-Factor way. In other words, she contends, he knows that he's got a great voice and milks it too self-consciously. She's got a point, so I don't foist it upon her. But a great voice is a gift that can't be helped. Besides, voices are a very personal thing, and personally his voice – knowing or not – still delivers a frisson. I've been listening to it since the early days of Steely Dan. Before he joined the Doobies, I thought the 'Brothers' were to be lumped with the ludicrous Lynyrd Skynyrd and other purveyors of greasy, long-haired, oily denim-ed American. Yes, one could argue that 'Minute By Minute' and all those songs that transformed the Doobies could be classified as music for the yachting fraternity, but let's not forget 'Ya Mo Be There' with James Ingram in the days when Quincy Jones was the producer of choice. Not to mention a ridiculously funky version of Stevie Wonder's 'Higher Ground'.

On Motown, moreover, he has the good taste to cover at least five Marvin Gaye numbers, possibly the greatest come-to-bed voice in anyone's lifetime. But it's his lovely version of 'Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)' that got me really excited – and homing in on my only (treasured) Stylistics' album. In fact, the song shouldn't be on Motown, since it's one of any number of brilliant melodies by the great song-writing team of Thom Bell and Linda Creed supplied to the likes of the Stylistics, the Delfonics and the Detroit Spinners. And none of them, if you ignore the Spinners' early days, were Motown artists.
I should at this point issue a government health warning. The Best Of album is not to be confused with Volume 2, by which time Thom Bell had taken off and the Stylistics became mere puppets of the Hugo & Luigi production team that happened to own the Avco label. Whereas this was the era of the album, all those black vocal groups – add to that previous bunch the Dells, the Detroit Emeralds, the Chi-Lites (and maybe a few more) – were primarily purveyors of singles. Which is probably my way of arguing for the occasional greatest hits collection in my vie en albums.

There was a time in my life, foolish youth, when I ridiculed the Stylistics each time they appeared on Top of the Pops. No doubt today's fans of gangsta rap and death metal would also sneer at the seersucker frock coats, the oversized bow ties, the ruffled shirt fronts, the cheesy dance routines and that dangerously high falsetto of Russell Thompkins jr. I was wrong.

By the time I was holding down a regular job – and after seeing the light cast by What's Going On? – I learnt to love the Stylistics (or maybe in truth the songs of Bell and Creed). I remember taking a train trip one day from Brighton to nearby Haywards Heath. In my capacity as training officer, I was to deliver startling news of some new rule or regulation about unemployment benefit to the manageress of the small office in that dormitory Sussex town. 

We sat in her backroom office, away from the gaze of 'The Great Unwashed' – as one troublesome member of staff used to refer to the unemployed – and we talked turkey. It wasn't very interesting and for some reason the conversation drifted onto the topic of the Stylistics. We discovered a shared passion (the holy grail of influencing skills) and pretty soon we were singing their greatest hits with gusto. God knows what the staff and their probably well-scrubbed clients thought on the other side of the door. So that's what civil servants do all day... taxpayers' money... pampered menials...

But who could blame us really? Benefits were boring, and what songs they are. Apart from their first hit, the rather ingenuous 'You're a Big Girl Now', and the slightly saccharine 'Let's Put It All Together', all of the other eight songs are Bell and Creed songs. And all bar the self-consciously jaunty 'Rockin' Roll Baby' (which does boast the gloriously daft couplet, 'Got a funky walk/In his little orthopaedic shoes') shimmer with the kind of sublime soaring melodies that Burt Bacharach used to write for Dionne Warwick. They kick off with 'You Make Me Feel Brand New', and that wonderful moment when Russell Thompkins nudges Airrion Love out of the lead-vocal spot ('Only you/Came when I needed a friend/Believed in me through thick and thin'), and they end with arguably the best of the lot – and certainly in terms of social commentaries almost the equal of Marvin Gaye's 'Inner City Blues' – the moody, magnificent 'People Make the World Go Round'.

In between, there's hit after hit: 'Betcha By Golly, Wow', 'Break Up to Make Up', 'I'm Stone in Love with You', 'Let's Put it All Together', 'You Are Everything' and 'Stop, Look, Listen...' I rest my case – and bring us back to Michael McDonald. He and Russell are about the same age. A little older than the Good Wife and me. When she gets back, I'll re-file  the former but give her a taste of the latter. We'll be up all night, singing love songs.