Sunday, 26 August 2012

Cult Album: Vanilla Fudge on CD



‘VOICES IN TIME…’:
VANILLA FUDGE

Album Review of:
‘VANILLA FUDGE’
‘THE BEAT GOES ON’
by VANILLA FUDGE
(UK 1967, Atlantic 587-086, 2008
Edsel EDSD 2019)

‘400-cycles per second, recorded
at ultrasonic operating level…’

Album sleeves are important. Sometimes they are vitally important. Big old twelve-inch vinyl LP’s offered the designer scope and opportunity to create some arresting images that adhere to the mind. I’m thinking of ‘Forever Changes’, the third album by Love. The moment first glimpsed framed in the record-shop window – yes, there were local record-shops which had displays back then, I knew I had to own it. The composite painting made up of different elements of the group’s faces fused into one carried all the weird-art implications any pretentious kid could desire. The first Spirit album, with its jigsaw of photo-segments assembling a face – with the bald cranium-section, to a lesser degree, carried a quite disconcerting sleeve-design that also snagged at the attention. But ‘Vanilla Fudge’ was special (August 1967, US Atco 33-224). That, too, carried overtones reaching out to connect. A yellow-orange rayographed image of a distorted reclining female figure. Art, but tomorrow’s art. A glimpse of esoteric futures. Above the image, to the left, the group name ‘Vanilla Fudge’ in rounded cartoon font, and the box to the top right, a blue rayographed head speaking the voice-balloon containing that lettering. When most album sleeves of the time consist of a simple studio-photo of the artist. A solo singer smiling a sultry posed smile into the lens. Or a group in wacky pose. The Byrds ‘Younger Than Yesterday’ was startling. But we know the Byrds. They’re a known, if respected quantity. ‘Their Satanic Majesties’… obviously, but the Stones were in the elevated position of being able to lavish oodles of promo-cash on the most ornate 3D-tech. No, Love… and Vanilla Fudge, use only invention to reach out from the display and connect with the impressionable frontal lobes. That’s all it needs.

So I bought the LP on the strength of the cover-image, what it implied, and what it promised. So what happens when the stylus hits the vinyl? Vanilla Fudge are… different. Different in a way that other different groups are not. That much is obvious from the first run-down of the titles. There’s not a single group-composition on the entire album. Neither are they obscure well-researched Blues or Folk rarities. They are straight and largely familiar chart hits. Side one opens with “Ticket To Ride”, the Beatles no.1 from the ‘Help’ soundtrack. You can’t get much more obvious than that. After its climax-histrionics and primal screams the calm play-in to the Impressions’ “People Get Ready” offers a contrastingly sensitive interpretation, its churchy organ-tone and gospel-flavoured harmonies spiritual enough to touch even this heathen soul. Curtis Mayfield was still pretty-much a Mod cult-name with little mainstream recognition factor. But we know the Impressions. And “She’s Not There”, the Zombies UK Top Ten hit which was even bigger in the States. At the time, almost a one-off. They’d had a couple of lower-charting follow-ups with “Leave Me Be” and “Tell Her No”, but for the moment this was their one biggie. And finally “Bang Bang” written by Sonny Bono for Cher, with the Fudge trading vocals, and the narrative interspersed by musical quotes from ‘Ring-a-ring-a-Roses’ and ‘March Of The Siamese Children’ from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘The King And I’.

Why should such an eclectic mix of familiar titles carry any great creative charge? Vanilla Fudge were not about songwriting. They were about construction, light and shade, arrangement, dynamic power shifts and dramatic energy. Each familiar title was taken apart, and reassembled. Slowed down, recreated into soundscapes of pinnacles and precipices of volume plummeting into single extended notes, before building again, torturously. Each track extended from its original incarnation, to 5:40-minutes, 6:30, 4:55 and 5:20-minutes. But not improvisationally extended – like jazz, it was structured and premeditated for maximum effect. It persuades your ear, then whiplashes your brain. It was, quite simply, a revelation. There are no liner-notes. The reverse of the album-sleeve is made up of a formation of black-and-white photos. A group shot centre. Then top left, short-haired bassist Tim ‘Timmy’ Bogert (born 1944), in loose floral shirt and heavy spectacles. He also plays sax, clarinet and piano. Beneath him is guitarist Vince ‘Vinnie’ Martell (born 11 November 1945), hair in a dark quiff. In later TV shots, taking lead vocals, he’ll be bearded, with longer hair. Six-foot tall Carmine Appice is bottom right (born 15 December 1946), in tie and high-buttoned jacket. Voted ‘most musically inclined’ student in High School, his formidable Ludwig drum technique can be awe-inspiring, placing beats with a ruthless determination studied from Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. Above him is an intense Mark Stein (born 1947), whose grandiose Hammond organ replaces the more-usual guitar-fronting. Child star of TV’s ‘Startime’, Mark cut his first single aged just twelve. Although he takes predominant Fudge vocals, they all add their voices. The album bears a dedication to ‘Mrs Lucy Monaco’. Don’t ask!

It was a potent combination stirred into overdrive by producer George ‘Shadow’ Morton. He knew a thing or three about recording sound. Born in 1940 he’d become staff producer at Red Bird records for whom he more-or-less created the Shangri-Las. Listen to the construction of “Leader Of Pack”, the entire Bad-Boy teen-Romeo & Juliet Love-Story-In-Pictures, taken from first Rebel Without A Cause meeting through parental disapproval to high-speed motorcycle death – with clattering sound-effects, all delivered via girly gum-chewing pre-school dialogue. A perfect miniature, what Zappa called a mind-movie complete in each stage through less than three minutes. Following the collapse of Red Bird – Shadow Morton first charted the teenage Janis Ian for Verve, before bringing the full weight of his expertise and vision to bear on the Fudge.

Contemporaries of the Vagrants (later Mountain), Iron Butterfly and the Blues Magoos, Stein and Bogert had started out as part of Rick Martin And The Showmen, until they copped a listen to Brooklyn’s Young Rascals, and it spun them around. Hooking up with Martell and recruiting drummer Joey Brennan they became the (sometime Electric) Pigeons. Much later, in 1970, Wand records would release an album of their sessions as ‘While The World Was Eating Vanilla Fudge’ (WDS-687), made up of eight Blue-Eyed Soul demos done as Mark Stein And The Pigeons, recorded before replacing Brennan with Appice in December 1966. Which is round-about the time they name-changed to Vanilla Fudge. And it’s not even a clever name. It’s a chewy flavour of candy. A tasty trifle. A bubblegum-Pop name, not one custom-designed for a white heavyweight Long Island Rock band. But there’s some mythology and maybe hype involved with what happened next. Tales of Mob-sponsorship enabling them into New York clubs, and dates opened by a fledging awe-struck Led Zeppelin. Whatever, in 1967 they signed to Atlantic (Atco), a very respected heavyweight label with an enviable R&B roster but not much of a track record when it comes to white Rock. Journalist Wesley Laine of ‘Record Mirror’ interviewed the Fudge at London’s ‘Speakeasy Club’ soon after they’d pulled out of a UK tour with Traffic (due of Mark’s illness). Tim told him ‘when we met up we were starving and we had nothing to lose by doing exactly what we wanted to…’ So that’s exactly what they did for Atco.

Flip the debut album to side two and things get stranger. There are only three proper titles, broken up by short twenty-second fillers titled “Illusions Of My Childhood” Parts 1, 2 and 3. Pretentious – Moi? This is a device that ties the tracks together into a suite, or a concept – even though the links consist basically of nursery-rhymes – ‘A-tisket-a-tasket’ and ‘Three Blind Mice’… childhood? illusions? through to maturity. In cold critical light, expressed this way, it barely hangs together. Taken in total it still manages to exert a considerable gravity. First is the album’s strongest title. Supposedly it was a demo of this track that first brought them to Morton’s attention. The stabbing morse-blips intro to Holland-Dozier-Holland’s “You Keep Me Hanging On” had announced Motown’s earliest forays into psychedelic-soul by placing the Supremes firmly at no.1 for the eighth time. It’s since been frequently revived, but never with the force and precision of the girl’s original. The Fudge don’t attempt to replicate it. They dismantle, and then rebuild it into a masterwork of deconstruction and reinvention.

Two months prior to the album’s initial release it was edited down from its full 7:20-minutes to a more radio-acceptable singles length, in which form it would eventually become the group’s only proper chart hit. But it’s a complex tale. That early American single edition dated June 1967 (with ‘B’-side “Take Me For A Little While”, ATCA-6495), bubbled for months, but failed to achieve breakthrough. It was even followed by a second failed single – “Where Is My Mind?” c/w “The Look Of Love” (January 1968, ATCA-6554). But oddly, and for no obvious reason – other than strong ‘Radio Caroline’ playlisting, “You Keep Me Hanging On” started to chart in Britain first. The Supremes had already taken the song to a UK no.5 as recently as December 1966. Now the Fudge’s frozen slow-motion disguise began climbing to no.16, 9th September 1967. Then, nudged by its UK success, it was reactivated by a fortuitous TV appearance on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ – the 14 January 1968 clip is now viewable on YouTube. In truth, they’re not ideally telegenic – chunky, and ill-at-ease in their trendy-hip beards and neck-scarf attire, but the power and energy of the performance ensured it was belatedly happening in America a full year late (reissued with new ‘B’-side “Come By Day, Come By Night’, June 1968, ATCA-6590). It climbed to no.6 in August 1968.

On side two of the album it’s followed by a lesser-known “Take Me For A Little While” – by jobbing producer/songwriter Trade Martin. A song which had nevertheless been bandied around among labels and artists, including a fine version by Dusty Springfield. “Take Me For A Little While” also received singles-editing treatment (with new ‘B’-side “Thoughts”, September 1968, ATCA-6616) and followed “You Keep Me Hanging On” up to a US no.38 in October. But the full-length 78rpm-played-at-33rpm version, with its strong bass and Motownish backing vocals, remains a staggering sonic achievement. Until the album closes by returning to the Beatles, with “Eleanor Rigby” from ‘Revolver’. Maybe something of an anti-climax, maybe just a little too familiar, and after all – by now, heading for the play-out groove, we know exactly what the Fudge do – don’t we?, and can anticipate the kind of treatment they intend inflicting on Paul McCartney’s odd poetry of lonely people – don’t we? Yet its immaculate instrumental precision and accelerating drum figures are still stunning. There’s a brief cadenza, a closing reference back to the ‘Illusions Of My Childhood’, and a trippy ‘nothing is real’ fade, before the stormy passion-laden emotional storm disappears into stunned silence.

‘The following is a series
of high-frequency tones…’

According to New York critic Lillian Roxon, what Fudgerama do was to make song-interpretation interesting again. By extending contemporary songs in meandering takes that seem destined to go on forever, ‘it sounded as if the tempo had been slowed down by as much as four times – or if not the tempo, then you (and if not you before you heard it, then certainly you after you heard it)’ she gloats (in her ‘Rock Encyclopedia’). To Roxon “Eleanor Rigby” ‘seemed to have been put on a rack and stretched out and tortured to a point where the tension was no longer bearable’. A dumbfounded ‘Record Mirror’ reviewer complains ‘this is so involved’, suggesting it as ‘an extensive dig into inventiveness, with weirdo sounds’ and – despite giving it a ‘Top Fifty Tip’ status, its completely different treatment means ‘it might even miss out altogether’. Yet the Beatles themselves were early adapters, despite the deluge of covers of their songs, George Harrison was playing the Fudge’s “Eleanor Rigby” through the summer of 1967.




Listening to it now, as part of a 2CD edition which adds their second album – ‘The Beat Goes On’ (from February 1968), it still stands as a work of considerable impact. With the CD adorned with a sadly-diminished miniature of the original explosive Pop-Art sleeve cover photo – by Richard Stevens, matched to Marvin Israel’s mystic mandala-like sleeve design for the second album. So where could Fudge go next? They had a top ten single and a high-charting album to their credit. Where to take the Fudge from here? Already the blueprint was familiar. It had worked across the seven titles of the debut album, but without original group-compositions, it wasn’t enough just to replicate what had gone before. This is where the contention sets in. Again, a Sonny Bono title was plundered and put in place, this time his “The Beat Goes On” was set up to be the second album’s theme, both as recurring motif, and as the lyrical ignition-point. Sonny & Cher’s original hit version tracks through the flux of twentieth-century fashion, dance crazes and clothes. This lyric-device was expanded to album-length. The two vinyl sides are subdivided into ‘Phases’ – one and two on the first side (preceded by an introductory ‘Sketch’), then three and four, punctuated by bursts of ‘The Beat Goes On’ on side two.

“Sketch” is ponderous Bach-like organ, fading into resonant piano. Where this semi-classical piece is going is anyone’s guess. It’s vaguely unlike anything else in the Pop-Rock canon. Then there’s a voice-snippet of Thomas Alva Edison, the inventor of sound-recording, with a scratchy ‘little piece of practical poetry’. He’s reciting ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ from his August 1927 re-enactment of the first words of human speech ever to be recorded on 12 August 1877. Now preserved on the ‘internet audio archive’, this is the very root of the recording industry, the primal ‘Big Bang’ moment from which everything began. This leads into ‘Variations On A Theme By Mozart’, entwined with gospel spiritual “Old Black Joe” recalling dark slavery days, Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In” contrasting it with the founding of the American myth of open frontiers, the ghostly Rag-time of “Twelfth Street Rag”, Glenn Miller’s 1940 Fox-trot “In The Mood”, then a Chuck Berry riff leading into “Hound Dog”, and a playfully irreverent Beatles medley.

Phase Two repeats the ‘drums keep pounding rhythm to the brain’ Sonny Bono motif, before expanding scope from contemporary Pop, by drifting back as far as a creative re-imagining of Ludwig Van’s – “Für Elise” and “Moonlight Sonata”. Classics had been rocked-up before. But B Bumble & The Stingers this is not! Is it profound? Self-indulgent? A grand folly? All, or none of the above? It’s already more the kind of impressionistic audio-mosaic essay assembled like a BBC radio sound-documentary than it is a Rock album. This is – understandably, where the contention comes in. Vanilla Fudge were a hit band. Yet Shadow Morton was taking over the follow-up album as his own personal project. He was in the studio assembling these sound collages without the band’s input or even their involvement. And it was a meticulous process.

Phase Three even more so. This time, there are only sampled ‘Voices In Time’. Franklin D Roosevelt’s ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on the 30th September 1938 at Munich promising ‘never to go to war with one another again’, his hopeful proclamation drowned out by ‘Sieg Heil’ chanting. And the Pearl Harbour broadcast. Churchill. Roosevelt’s death and funeral. Hiroshima ushering in the Nuclear Cold War era. John F Kennedy’s ‘ask not what your country can do for you…’, while looping back to Edison and Chamberlain. It’s nothing less than a trawl through the sound-bite history of the twentieth-century. Although what could be done today with a fairly basic sampler and sequencer was then done with miles of brown recording tape, cut with a blade at precisely the correct point, and spliced together physically with adhesive, so that it spools around the recording heads in long joined-up uncoiling strands of fixed-up tape-surgery.

George Martin had cut-up tape for “Being The Benefit Of Mr Kite”, but the segments had been randomly reassembled to achieve dislocation. This was different. This was a deliberate collage, obsessionally pieced together as an art-project to illustrate the evolution of sound-recording itself. Almost as an afterthought, as a sop to the group itself on its own album, there are spoken-word snippets from each group-member. Against sitar-drones Vinnie recites lines about ‘the beat of life goes on, ever-changing, the mind goes on’ in a kind of stoned trippy poem, incidentally articulating the motives behind the album with the semi-profound ‘we hold only the tools through which to express time through music’. Tim’s insert takes the form of an interview, with him responding to words an interrogator fires at him. Sex – ‘a very beautiful thing’. Black Power. President Johnson. And Trips ‘ ‘for fifteen-cents you can take one on the subway’. Carmine ducks out with ‘I’m not a talker, listen to my drums’. While Mark rambles on about ‘Moses in the Land of Moab’, a biblical text which rather undermines the intellectual strivings of the surrounding project. Before the album closes down with a final reiteration of ‘The Beat Goes On’. In total, a grandly ambitious folly with dubious commercial potential. There’s a line between innovation and pretension that’s hard to find at moments such as this. You can’t dance to it. There’s no editable hit single. And its reception was predictably confused. Even in a time of confusion. Brian Wilson’s epic ‘Smile’ stalled and was abandoned when his technical grasp exceeded the reach of his fragile mental state. John Lennon was inflicting deliberately obscure conceptual-art albums with Yoko Ono. The Mothers Of Invention and the Fugs were out there doing strange things. But the Vanilla Fudge had their own unique corner of difference.

In the interview sequence, when Tim is asked ‘what do you see in the future for Vanilla Fudge?’ he says ‘another album’. And, although there would never be anything quite as bizarre or off-trails as the first two, there were other albums. With ‘Renaissance’ (Atco 33-244, June 1968), the group fought back control of Vanilla Fudge with their first batch of original compositions, while wriggling free of Shadow Morton’s arch-manipulation tendencies. While periodically falling back on their founding blueprint with a powerful take on “Season Of The Witch”, replacing Donovan’s ‘Beatnik’ lyric with ‘them Hippies out to make it rich’. Spun-off and spread over both sides of a November 1968 single (Atco-6616), there are whispered passages, and heavier guitars. In their power, attack and looming density some critics see the Fudge as precursors to Heavy Metal. Personally, I don’t see that. But if there’s a vague suspicion that Deep Purple started their career with a Fudge-influenced deconstruction of Joe South’s “Hush”, reinforced by Jon Lord’s Hammond organ, the theory is nudged further by the sleeve-art of a scaffolding-team of mini-men carving immense Mount Rushmore heads of the Fudge personnel – apparently on the moon, giving a glimpse ahead to the cover of ‘Deep Purple In Rock’.

The Fudge’s first album with no trace of Shadow Morton, the self-produced ‘Near The Beginning’ (Atco 33-278, February 1969), continued with interesting takes on a Jnr Walker’s dance-friendly “Shotgun” c/w “Good Good Lovin’” (February 1969, Atco-6655), reviewed in ‘New Musical Express’ as ‘a veritable wall of sound, so insidious and all-enveloping that you think your head’s about to burst. Twangs, oscillations, distortions and a pulverising beat’. And – with an arrangement powerfully arcing back to the debut album, “Some Velvet Morning” c/w “People” (April 1969, Atco-6679), although it’s hard to out-weird Nancy and Lee Hazlewood’s original. The lost ‘B’-sides and scattered tracks were later collected onto ‘Psychedelic Sundae: The Best Of The Vanilla Fudge’ (1993, Rhino Records) with a densely layered “Where Is My Mind?” – its vocal intensity recalling the Young Rascals via Phil Spector, “Come By Day, Come By Night” and “Thoughts”. But by the time of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ (September 1969, Atco 33-303), with Liverpool-born Adrian Barber taking producer credits – kicking off by the group composition “Need Love”, its heavyosity moving more into conventional Heavy Metal, and adding “Windmills Of Your Mind” and “If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody”, it was pretty much over.

‘Fudge went through a lot of trips and reached a peak’ Carmine told ‘Melody Maker’, ‘then it fell apart’ in the final months of 1969, following two sell-out shows at Soho’s ‘Marquee’. Bogert and Appice formed Cactus with ex-Mitch Ryder Jim McCarty. They played a well-received set at the Isle of Wight Festival, before the duo joined Jeff Beck in BB&A, while Stein formed the short-lived Boomerang. Carmine Appice later achieved even greater visibility drumming with Rod Stewart. While there was – inevitably, a Vanilla Fudge reunion as the nostalgia phase kicked in. Shadow Morton went on to produce for the New York Dolls, linking them back to his earlier protégés – the Shangi-Las, by getting vocalist David Johansen to insert a quote from “Give Him A Great Big Kiss”.

As to the legacy, sometime ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ presenter Richard Williams recalls ‘the conception behind the first album was stunningly effective’, one that stands as ‘one of Pop music’s great monuments’ (in ‘Melody Maker’), but ‘after that, they branched out and inevitably deteriorated… the group’s decline and fall was inevitable, for once they stepped outside their original framework, they became ordinary and comparatively meaningless’. Other critics were less kind. Phil Hardy & Dave Laing complained about ‘tedious, overambitious’ Vanilla Fudge albums that ‘wallowed in pretentiousness’ (‘The Encyclopedia Of Rock Vol.2’). Yet other bands were sharp enough to take elements from the Fudge template – Rotary Connection copied what they’d done when they did their own version of the Rolling Stones “Lady Jane”, stretching it to breaking-point. John Bonham took elements of Carmine’s drum-technique into Led Zeppelin. Carmine’s drummer-brother Vinnie went on to play with Black Sabbath, and mega-metallers Dio. And for the Fudge, on record their intense styling worked – more often than not, if in live performance it sometimes proved difficult to take. The mix of ponderously overwhelming Rascals organ and amped-up Hendrix psychedelic guitar, the slow build-ups and compelling crescendos, the lulls and combustible storms of what they termed ‘psychedelic symphonic Rock’, was as laden with melody as they were with decibels. But they’d carved their space. Unlike anyone else around then, or now, the Fudge operated in a separate continuum.

And oddly, they still do.

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