Friday, 31 August 2018


(Beautiful South, no.14 November 1994, 
Go Discs GODCD 122) 

adrift on Cathedral precinct
the corner by the Polish Deli
a tousle-haired busker
in battered leather jacket,
I spare a half-glance
and a spin of coin
into his big acoustic case,
no-one to meet,
nowhere to go,
but hurrying anyway
until, as some triggered
juke-box track
blue-toothed to my soul
his pulse of words
tangle up my head
in one last love song
to share my desolation,
spines that riff my mind
snag into those memories
rip out my heart
in such sweet torture,
I know this song, know its
weary country melancholy,
its heartbreak bitterness
rinsed in hard liquor
yet still that beautiful ache
of separation and loss,
Neil Young, Phil Ochs,
Waylon Jennings?
can’t place it, but it replays
in my head on endless repeat,
I miss you now you’ve gone,
the cheap lyrics of forgotten hits
fold those moments in glistening chords,
drifting back through Cathedral precinct
on the corner by the Polish Deli,
and he’s gone
his work done, the ghost of
his song… echoes…

Thursday, 30 August 2018



at ‘The Odeon’, Leeds 
(Thursday, 8:30, 10 November 1966) 

I saw Lulu live at the Leeds Odeon late 1966 supporting the Beach Boys. She drops an ear-ring in mid-“Shout”, turns her back on the audience and stoops to retrieve it, gifting the first four rows a revealing flash of her knickers – a memory I carry with me today as she’s doing “Shout” yet again on ‘TOTP2’. The tour billed as the ‘Pop Music Event Of The Year’ had opened with the Golden Brass, introduced by jovial host Jerry Stevens. Sounds Incorporated play an energetic set, before David & Jonathan take it to the intermission. The songwriter duo had broken through with a cover of “Michelle” from ‘Rubber Soul’ (December 1965), but took it even higher with their own “Lovers Of The World Unite”. Then it’s Lulu… and the headlining Beach Boys.

The Beach Boys are so tight and exciting, despite the short-sleeve vertical-striped shirts and white slacks. Newly-bearded Mike Love does the stage links, and clumsily acts out the lyrics – the ‘got into a fight’ in “Sloop John B”. Brian Wilson has been replaced by Bruce Johnston (‘I Guess He Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’), which is disappointing, but it still works, even down to performing a note-perfect stage replication of the labyrinthine “Good Vibrations”. So good that I stay on, miss the last train home and spend hours walking the city centre, the harmonies echoing inside my head. I wind up crashing overnight with an Irish immigrant worker with a mangy kitten that craps all over the carpet at 02:17am while the shimmering chimes of “Good Vibrations” are still ringing like the lure of endless tomorrows in my head… 

Chances are you know all the songs on their DVD ‘Made In The USA’ (2007 – 103 minutes – Liberation Entertainment LIB6046) – “Be True To Your School”, “Help Me Rhonda”, “California Girls” (as done on a US TV-show sketch, interrupted by surfer comedy from Bob Hope and George Burns), the later “Rock & Roll Music”, and more. For each new Beach Boys ‘Greatest Hits’ album is a re-shuffle of your own personal history. These are some of mine. I tried losing my cherry to the blissful harmonies of ‘Pet Sounds’ (“God Only Knows”, “Caroline No”) which I judged the perfect seduction atmospherics, she later confessed she’d quite enjoyed the fumbled sex but found the music ‘distracting’. There used to be a covers-band called Tony Rivers & The Castaways who’s set consisted entirely of xerox Beach Boys, they did a pretty tidy “Sloop John B” the night me and a friend got off with some convent girls and managed to kiss them off at the gates while Nuns hover in the background like predatory penguins.

I first heard “Don’t Worry Baby” on a big chrome Rockolla juke-box in an Expresso bar on a rain-stopped-play Blackpool coach-trip… The first motorbike I ever owned – a Honda 205cc, was a choice directly influenced by the Beach Boys track “Little Honda”, a piece of catchy product-placement that earned the group a set of freebie mini-mokes from a grateful Honda Corps… There’s a story about Jan & Dean snarled up on the ninety-seventh abysmal take of an aborted next single, and ‘taking five’ Dean Torrence strolls into the adjoining studio where his old friends are cutting their ‘Beach Boys Party’ (November 1965) album, he grabs co-vocals on a raggedy one-take jam around the Regents’ “Barbara Ann”, then goes back for more attempts at their own record. “Barbara Ann” goes no.1 worldwide – and later even turns up as a chocolate-biscuit TV-ad. But whatever happened to that Jan & Dean 45rpm…?

The interviews on the DVD tactfully skirt around the psychological damage inflicted on the young Wilson brothers by father Murray, and falls short of the later tragedies that inflicted the group. The Beach Boys weren’t the first surf band, but they did lift surf-music out of cultdom and take its appeal to landlocked teens in the mid-west, in New York, and even as far away as Hull. And although they mature their themes into other areas, the beach continuity stays there through to “Do It Again”, “Surf’s Up” or “Don’t Go Near The Water”. Influences? Brian suggests Chuck Berry, and the Four Freshmen. Diametrically opposed artists who nevertheless demonstrably fuel what followed. “Surfin’ USA” lifts its tune intact from Chuck’s “Sweet Little Sixteen”, and “Fun Fun Fun” opens with a perfectly Berry-esque guitar-run. While “Please Let Me Wonder” and “In My Room” tie it all in with immaculate Freshmen-pure harmonies. In fact the voices weave so beautifully you almost miss the lyric-point of “In My Room” which is as introspective-dark as anything the Smiths ever did.

But memories, and ‘Endless Summer Greatest Hits’ albums tell lies. Relatively late, “I Get Around” was the first UK Beach Boys single to become a hit. It peaked at no.7, 27 August 1964. Above it was (no.1) “Have I The Right” by the Honeycombs, (no.2) “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” by Manfred Mann, (no.3) “I Won’t Forget You” by Jim Reeves, (no.4) “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks, (no.5) “A Hard Day’s Night” by the Beatles, and (no.6) “Tobacco Road” by the Nashville Teens. In other words, all those records sold more copies than “I Get Around” at the week of the peak of its sales. “Surfin’ USA” had only crawled as high as no.34 a year earlier (15 August 1963). But all of the American hits between the two had totally failed to register. Even the mighty “Fun Fun Fun” gets zero chart action. Unfortunate timing maybe, UK Pop was obsessed with UK beat groups. US Pop was temporarily out of the loop.

Yet “I Get Around” is such immaculately concocted Pop. The harmony arrangement deceives the ear. For the lyric is masterfully minimal. Each verse consists of a single statement, plus a qualifying statement. Sharp precise lines, but how rifted image-heavy with meaning! ‘I’m getting’ bugged driving up and down this same old strip’ is amplified by ‘I gotta finda new place where the kids are hip.’ Tightly sketched slang-poetry, but the most exact phrasing. Bored, with the itch to go. Rooted in California, but with a restless need for movement that’s Teen-global. Then ‘my buddies and me are getting real well known’ is qualified by ‘the bad guys know us and they leave us alone.’ They’re the good guys, but as tough as the bad guys. They’re a gang, a group so hip and so cool they’re even respected by the ‘bad guys’, and isn’t that what adolescent status has always been about? From doo-wop groups hanging out around the stoops, to Mods on formation Lambretta’s, to Punks swaggering through the precinct, to Hip-Hop on the block. It touches the right nerve. It says it all. Speed. Movement. Adventure. No syllable wasted. I was snared. I was sold on it.

Yet the hits that follow didn’t do too much better, “When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)” no.27, “Dance Dance Dance” no.24, “Help Me Rhonda” no.27, and “California Girls” no.26. Before “Barbara Ann” finally elevates them into the Top Three. In 1965 the Beach Boys turn in a sloppy performance of “Dance Dance Dance” on a monochrome ‘Ready Steady Go’ show (now available as part of a Dave Clark owned DVD series), with its irresistible punch-line – ‘after six hours of school, I’ve had enough for today, I hit the radio dial and turn it up ALL THE WAY’ – which still has the contagious power to ignite the drabness with its undiluted adolescent energy-charge…

By 1966, when I see the Beach Boys in Europe for their “Good Vibrations” tour promoted by Arthur Howes, they were at their most fashionable. Derek Taylor – former Beatles PR, calls them ‘Maverick Millionaires’ when he writes the programme. The balding Beach Boy caricatures who play the first ‘Live Aid’, complete with their Ronald Reagan Presidential-endorsement as a star-spangled ‘All-American Band’, does such flashbacks a disservice, even though their then-current single of John Philips’ exquisite “California Dreamin’” (embroidered by Roger McGuin’s spacily fragmented Byrds twelve-string) is still capable of raising the hairs along the back neckline of your T-shirt…

“Good Vibrations” later became a single for Psychic TV, and the Leeds Odeon is now a Primark… There’s a wealth of rare promo-TV clips on the DVD too, salvaged interviews, and even previously-unseen studio footage – including Brian singing “Surf’s Up” alone with just his piano... I pay £100 for tickets to see Brian’s ‘Smile’ solo-tour in Manchester – some forty years after that original Leeds Odeon memory, and instead – on the evening, wound up in A&E for peritonitis and a gall-bladder extraction. I still have the unused tickets… But above and beyond it all, the music remains superb. All you have to do is add your own memories…



Album Review of: 
(1998, Giant/ Warner 2-24703-AB) 

Take the boy from the beach, you can’t take the beach away from the Beach-Boy. For Brian Wilson, since the last truly epic material, it’s been an Endless sandbox Summer of chemical weirdness, lawyers, psychiatrists, and all those oh-so-near re-unions and partial come-backs. But ‘Imagination’ is proof positive that the Mozart of harmony is still (largely) intact and capable of delivering genius. He now deliberately allows a self-conscious haunting of earlier glories to echo in ‘I take a trip through the past/ when summer’s way out of reach...’ But he’s less concerned with the close-editing smart-aleky trickery of the great lost ‘Smile’ sessions, and more into the lush life-enhancing sweep of ‘Pet Sounds’. There’s that familiar Spectoresque textural depth of chimes, muted woodwind, descending bass and horns on the album’s first single, “Your Imagination”, then an all-you-can-eat feast of sinuous harmonies lubricated by delectable ripples of falsetto on “She Says That She Needs Me”. Into the immaculate orchestration of the 4:56-minute “Cry”, and the confidently good-timey “South America” (‘out of this world/ without travelling in space’) which seems like a nudging answer to the Beach-Boys post-Brian American no.1 “Kokomo”. If so, it’s a triumph too.

But autobiographical glimpses are slight. There are brief allusions to ‘emotional rescue’ from pain that ‘not even my wife’ could reach in the deceptive darknesses of “Happy Days”, an otherwise upbeat made-it-through-the-storm album finale. Instead, Brian seems reconciled to ‘let the paparazzi flash/ let the tabloids scream,/ I’ve been around too long/ to care what anyone says’. But that lack of confessionals is largely down to him working through lyric collaborators, calling in Van Dyke Parks for the perceptive ‘sunny down snuffs’ of old, and now the likes of Carol (“Groovy Kind Of Love”) Bayer-Sager. It’s Brian’s role to shape direction and impose tensions. St Charles Illinois, where these eleven tracks were meticulously crafted, is a long way from Californian Sun ‘n’ Surf. But every vocal sound is Brian’s – up to ninety-six multi-layered tracks, exactly the way he constructed that wealth of Beach-Boys hits. While for litmus comparison he includes new takes on two old songs, “Keep An Eye On Summer”, and the don’t-go-with-him, go-with-me teen-romance of “Let Him Run Wild” (B-side of “California Girls”) which, if they’re not exactly radical re-workings, and if his voice is not quite as pristine pure as it was, still show he’s capable of doing it. And they slot seamlessly into the newer material. If forced to choose without prior knowledge, you’d never pick ‘em out. He sings ‘another bucket of sand/ another wave at the pier...’ And suddenly, Surf’s Up, uh-huh.

 Published in:
‘GIG CENTRAL Vol.6 No.1: July/August’
(UK – August 1998)

Tuesday, 28 August 2018



 Review of: 
 With James Ellison, Frances Dee and Tom Conway. 
 Producer: Val Lewton. Director: Jacques Tourneur. 
Original Release: ‘RKO Radio Pictures’, March 1943 
DVD, included in ‘The Val Lewton Horror Collection’, 
 Warner Home Video, 2008 

 ‘I walked with a Zombie. It does seem an odd thing to say. 
 Had anyone said that to me a year ago I’m not at all sure 
 I would have known what a Zombie was. I might have 
 some notion that it was strange, and frightening. 
 Even a little funny…’ 
                                      (introduction voice-over)

Yes – Zombies, but not as we know them. These are not decomposing flesh-eating ‘Walking Dead’ Zombies. Or brain-munching George A Romero ‘Day Of The Dead’, ‘Dawn Of The Dead’, ‘Land Of The Dead’ Zombies. Or even Will Smith ‘I Am Legend’ Zombies. These are slower, more poetic zombies-as-metaphor. Zombies in the original Voodoo sense of the rich undead mythology. An elegant slow-paced meditation on the state of un-death. After all, they made Horror films differently back in 1943. Today, this might not even qualify for the genre at all. Horror? Where’s the horror…? But it’s there. Even if it works in subtler more insinuating ways.

Frances Dee is a ‘nice level-headed’ girl. Cool and attractive in the way that 1940s movie stars were cool and attractive, prone to wistful longing gazes from liquid eyes. Popular, if never quite part of the Silver Screen’s pantheon of Matinee greats. She first came to attention opposite Maurice Chevalier in the musical ‘Playboy Of Paris’ (1930), then played alongside Bette Davis in W Somerset Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’ (1934), and the western ‘Wells Fargo’ (1937). But there’s no real other horror on her extensive cv.

Her dialogue scenes with Tom Conway are formal and stilted, with the kind of theatrically precise elocution that’s not been heard on screen since, punctuated by lush creakily romantic orchestration. They’re on a ferry from Antigua to Saint Sebastian beneath a cloudy sky. ‘Everything seems beautiful because you don’t understand’ he chastises her. ‘There’s no beauty here, only death and decay… everything good dies here, even the stars.’ With immaculate timing she gazes up at an abruptly clear sky to see a shooting star falling to its death. With his pencil-thin moustache reinforcing the ‘cruelty and hardness’ in his voice, Conway is ‘strong, silent, and very sad.’ As an MGM contract player he’d just commenced a run of ten movies as the suave gentleman-detective ‘The Falcon’, and would later replace Basil Rathbone as radio’s ‘Sherlock Holmes’. But first, this was his third Horror outing for Val Lewton, following the much-respected ‘Cat People’ (1942) and ‘The Seventh Victim’ (1943). It was also the second of three Lewton collaborations with director Jacques Tourneur – along with ‘Cat People’ and ‘The Leopard Man’ (1943). Lewton would go on to make a series of low-budget RKO horror movies, while – among Tourneur’s diverse output, he created the classic ‘Night Of The Demon’ (1957).

Onscreen here, Tom Conway is ‘Paul Holland’, troubled owner of a West Indies sugar plantation. Frances Dee is ‘Betsy Connell’, recruited in Ottawa for the $200-a-month position as nurse for Holland’s wife, Jessica. Unthrown by the interview question ‘do you believe in witchcraft?’, Betsy notes the Canadian snowstorm outside the window, and takes the job. She arrives at the ‘strangely dreamlike’ Fort Holland house with its figurehead of the saint after which the island is named – pierced by martyr’s arrows as in the Derek Jarman ‘Sebastiane’ (1976) film. Taken from the slave-ship that ‘brought the coloured folks to the island’ the figurehead has been placed in the garden, as a reminder of the sad legacy of that history, what Holland terms ‘the glitter of putrescence’ threading the story.

If the overwrought literary voice-over recalls Hitchcock’s gothic ‘Rebecca’ (1940), the plot consciously steals from Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Jane Eyre’ (1847), in which the brooding tragic Rochester has a mad wife locked in the attic. Although charming half-brother Wesley (James Ellison) befriends her, Betsy is strongly attracted to Conway’s English-educated Paul – ‘quite the Byronic character’, who is abrupt and taunting. Words are his weapon, as other men use their fists. But she senses his inner hurt. During her first night on the island Betsy hears sobbing, and glimpses through the blinds a figure in white moving through the night garden, and follows her through dark shadows. In a shock-horror confrontation, she learns this is Paul’s wife, Jessica (Christine Gordon), a woman without will-power, a sleepwalker who can never be wakened. ‘She makes a beautiful zombie’ quips the Doctor.

An overheard calypso tells the back-story as she and Wesley sit at a café table. How Jessica was ‘burned in the fever flame’ (it’s interesting that the song, written and performed in the film by Sir Lancelot, was adapted into “Shame And Scandal In The Family” – a no.37 hit for comedian Lance Percival in October 1965!). But herein lies the film’s central ambiguity. Is Jessica ‘a mental case’ who should be shipped off to the asylum? Can she be cured by shock-treatment? Wesley even says she’d be better if Betsy administered a mercy-killing. Or – ‘there are other doctors’ suggests black maid Alma (Theresa Harris), implying that Jessica is the victim of Voodoo, of the overheard ‘mysterious eerie’ jungle-drums. Betsy is sufficiently persuaded to follow Alma’s directions and secretly takes Jessica out to seek the Houngan, the Voodoo priest.

Voodoo is the origin of the zombie myth, although that connection has long since lost its currency. Although it absorbed elements of imposed Christianity, Voodoo was the slave-religion of the Afro-American diaspora, a defiant subversion through which the displaced black population of the Caribbean maintained their connection to surviving strands of their African tribal origins. From Haiti to New Orleans it developed different, but related, strands through periods of suppression and demonization. Yet its presence remains as a belief-system with a powerful psychological undertow, its rituals even portrayed outside the Horror genre in James Bond’s ‘Live And Let Die’ (1973).

Hugh Lamb, writing in ‘The Penguin Encyclopedia Of Horror And The Supernatural’ (1986, edited by Jack Sullivan), points out that unlike Dracula, Frankenstein and the rest of the grisly crew, Zombies have no real origins in literature. Zombie conventions were instead picked up and developed largely through films – first by director Victor Hugo Halperin in ‘White Zombie’ (1932) in which Bela Lugosi revives corpses to work on his plantation. The film established many of the blank-eyed stares and Voodoo drums conventions that defined the undead for its follow-up ‘Revolt Of The Zombies’ (1936). Turned to comic effect by Bob Hope in ‘The Ghost Breakers’ (1940), the lumbering Zombie menacing him and the lovely Paulette Goddard nevertheless replicates this pattern. Until what Lamb calls ‘one of the most atmospheric of all zombie films… one of the best and the only film to date to portray a zombie we actually care about.’ In ‘I Walked With A Zombie’ ‘the lurching monster theme was eschewed in favour of a creepy tale of possession.’

And yes, the film works largely through suggestion, with ‘the glitter of putrescence’ in the guilty legacy of the island’s brutal history. There’s haunting wind sighing through tall cane vegetation on the spooky way to the crossroads, an animal skull, a stripped animal corpse suspended from a tree, a human skull in a circle of stones, and the scary bug-eyed Carre-Four (Darby Jones), all set to the intensifying throb of tribal drums. The two women are drawn into the ritual, which takes the form of energetically frenzied chant-driven dancing. But behind the mandala door Betsy finds – Mrs Rand (Edith Barrett), mother of the two feuding half-brothers! Further muddling the message, she admits to utilising the mythic autosuggestion power of Voodoo to benefit the superstitious locals.

More revelations follow. She reveals the truth behind Sir Lancelot’s calypso, that when Jessica and Wesley had an affair that threatened to destroy the family, she’d called upon the Houngan’s help. So that when tropical fever left Jessica ‘dead, living and dead’, Mrs Rand felt guiltily responsible for her zombie-like trance state. The ambiguity is left open. Supernatural powers, or merely belief in supernatural powers? Back at the house there’s a shuffling figure in the night. An owl. Then a visit from the tranced-out Carre-Four. While the ritual continues. As the dancers draw a voodoo-doll, Jessica responds. Wesley opens the gate so she can wander off into the night. With fatalistic resignation he extracts an arrow from the garden figurehead, and follows her down to the beach. As the voodoo doll is pierced, he stabs her with the arrow and carries her body down into the surf, where Carre-Four waits.

Finally, torch-carrying spear-fishers find their floating bodies.

They made Horror films differently back in 1943. No decomposing flesh-eating brain-munching zombies. All of that had to wait until Hammer revived and reimagined the genre with John Gilling’s ‘Plague Of The Zombies’ (1966) with monsters more grotesquely recognizable to modern audiences. Jacques Tourneur is more subtle, more insinuating. Balancing the clinical against the psychological. But ironically, while it was Wesley Rand cast as the half-brother with the drink problem, it was Tom Conway who was destined to die of alcohol-induced cirrhosis of the liver, aged sixty-two in 1967.


‘I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE’ (‘RKO Radio Pictures’, March 1943) Producer: Val Lewton. Director: Jacques Tourneur. Screenplay: Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray based on a work by Inez Wallace. With James Ellison (as Wesley Rand), Frances Dee (as Betsy Connell, and narration), Tom Conway (as Paul Holland), Edith Barrett (as Mrs Rand), James Bell (as Dr Maxwll), Christine Gordon (as Jessica Holland), Theresa Harris (as Alma, the maid), Sir Lancelot (as Calypso Singer), Darby Jones (as Carre-Four), Jeni LeGon (as Voodoo Dancer). Music by Roy Webb. 69-minutes. DVD, included in ‘The Val Lewton Horror Collection’, Warner Home Video, 2008

 Review originally featured on website:
‘VIDEOVISTA’ Retro (August 2015)
Reposted as that link no longer survives

Monday, 30 July 2018



as of now, we are
following the phosphorescent
trails of snails, jazz-frantic
through psychopathic weed.
You splashed lurid in spray-paint, & me
sprouting a forest of aerials and mirrors.
Looking at you, I know
you can freeze gravity
without the sensory assistance
of touch, with just your pout

we chase the same poems, you & I,
they just wear different words
and get scrambled through different
dogs-eye views of TV screen images

as of now, you are,
admit it, Nefertiti, and tonight I’m
eyesore from epileptic cello bop
& Department Store Decadents.
Leeds could pass for the city of the dead,
as we roll down streets made faceless
by the metal-fatigued flatness
of shop-shutters. Chain-whipped
by a confusion of voices,
& street-lamps that throw
pools of light at nothing

you’re now
the Mad Scientist’s beautiful daughter, &
I cut through the skeletons of buildings,
the victim of the night, and,
as of now,
we follow the phosphorescent
trails of snails through the
ogre’s of Miró’s childhood,
bare feet crunching
on broken glass

Published in:
‘GYPSY no.1’ (Germany – September 1984)
Featured online at:
‘GYPSY ART SHOW’ (24 July 2018)

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Poetry CDs: 'Motormouth' NICK TOCZEK


 Album Review of: 
‘MOTORMOUTH Volumes 1, 2 & 3’ 

On the Bradford alt-lit scene Nick Toczek is a sole illuminating continuity – well, apart for Joolz Denby… and maybe there’s a case to be made for the late Steve ‘Seething’ Wells too, but yes, ‘R‘N’R: Rock ‘n’ Reel’-regular and original ‘Wool City Rocker’ Nick has been around long enough to be a familiar fixture on multiple scenes. You know “Responsibilities” on volume one – it’s the infernally contagious voice-over for 2002’s Prudential TV-ad, the one that goes ‘our kids, who’ve grown and flown the nest…’ A self-confessed bald bloke in a Bob Marley T-shirt, he uses catchy rhyme, and makes it work, fuelling jagged bits of Punk-Ranting energy through “Hey! Wow! Zap-Pow!” dropping spiky grit into the word machine.

Unlike his YouTube clips this is just voice, unplugged. A virtual reading, complete with intro’s. Face-to-facing himself. He motormouths accessible narratives about smokers outside pubs and overnight snow in found language, about thingummy who loves whatsisname. Bits of tourism from Qatar, Athens, Spain, Istanbul, and the Cairo ‘tooting car-men’, but mostly Bratfud where ‘this city eats itself’. Words cleverly collide in rhyme, riffing, quipping, in zigzag ricochets, piled-up crumpled and impacted, smashed, shape-changed, punchlined, reinvented, spat, shat and bled out. Yet, although it’s never less than sharp, and he tunes his street-cred appropriately with a junkie friend and ‘girls as pretty as petrol bombs’, for a supposed Brit-anarchist there’s little that’s dangerous or confrontational. At least, not here. While the notoriously anti-biz Sound Shack label don’t mess with new-fangled website mail-order, you must order these CD’s in actual shops, or trundle along to a live gig, but at £2 a pop, or just £5 for all 56-tracks it’s a deal worth hunting out (or get them from Nick’s own Blog).

Published in:
‘R2: ROCK ‘N’ REEL’ 
Volume.2 No.38 (Mar/April) (UK –March 2013)

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Prog-Rock Interview: PYE HASTINGS of CARAVAN


 An interview with Pye Hastings to coincide with 
the release of the 3-CD Deluxe Edition of: 
(Deram 5333161, May 2011)

I have to ask it. I just can’t resist it. Pye Hastings – prime motivating force behind Caravan, that 1970’s caravanserai of strange and esoteric musics, Pye, ‘If You Had To Do It All Over Again…’, would you, or would you do it differently? “No matter how much you try, you can never recreate something exactly after a number of years have passed” he replies. It was, in part, a spoof throwaway question. But he answers it in serious measured tones. “Particularly nowadays with technology moving as fast as it does. The intention might be the same but the sound would be different. Your voice lowers as you get older, your playing – hopefully, would have matured, and the change from analogue to digital recording has improved so much that the possibilities are now endless.” In response to a part-spoof throwaway question, he’s opening up answers with endless possibilities. What else would you expect? Wasn’t that the entire strategy pursued by Caravan itself, through a series of wonderfully strange songs, oddly enticing albums, and cunning stunts?

Of course, there’s an entire Celebrity-Culture today of ‘X-Factor’ and ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ where the focus is exclusively on achieving Fame at any cost. It always seemed that something as shallow and superficial as fame was never the mindset of Caravan, or of the environment it moved in. “Of course Caravan wanted to be successful, still do” he argues back, “but the pressure nowadays is quite different. We never set out to be better than anyone else. We wanted to achieve success by writing good songs, playing our instruments as well as we could and hoping that people would buy into that. I like good healthy competition…”, then, unexpectedly, he goes off into an analysis of the pressures on ‘X-Factor’ contestants, “when your whole career can depend on whether you have a good performance on the day, then I think it can be destructive. Suppose somebody fucked-up during the show? – which believe me is entirely probable, then you would be out of the contest knowing full well that you can do it better. That can and, I imagine, has caused bands to break up. The other problem is that the judges on those shows only seem to define what constitutes a ‘Hit’ by comparison with what has gone before, a tried and tested formula or should that be ‘a tired and tested’ formula.”

By contrast, Caravan seem never to have deliberately conformed to formulaic Pop in order to get a Hit Single, although, if a track of theirs had accidentally achieved chart status – as, say, Pye’s chirpy catchy Pop-structured 3:04-minute track “Love To Love You (And Tonight Pigs Will Fly)” may well have done, I don’t imagine he’d have been dismayed? “I would have loved to have written good Pop songs” he concedes. “But we were contracted to produce an album at a time for the record companies, and from whatever we gave them they would select the most suitable track to get whatever airplay was appropriate. If we had written singles I think we would undoubtedly have reached a larger audience.” A shrug.

--- 0 --- 

Checking through a voluminous file of previous Caravan features and interviews, most of them conform to the same album-by-album talk-through history formula. If you want that, it’s already there, richly documented. Check out Wikipedia. This interview will not be like that. The list of questions I’ve scribbled down – while hopefully informed and relevant, will prove a little more stimulating, and not just retread the usual tedious path!

Caravan grew into one of the most enduring of British underground bands, emerging just as late-sixties Rock was evolving into its newly mature phase. They rose from out of the protean ashes of much-mythologised Wilde Flowers, the Canterbury entity that also fed Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt and Hugh Hopper into the original Soft Machine. As minds were busy blowing, horizons expanding, and possibilities becoming infinite, the Softs scored a contract with Polydor and hit the ground running with the single “Love Makes Sweet Music” in the February of 1967. A month later Pink Floyd stole their lead with “Arnold Layne”, an altogether more chart-friendly take on Pop-psych, so the Softs reconfigured their music, reset their controls for something infinitely more improvisational. While Caravan were hatching their own oblique course in a parallel, but related continuum. Or, as drummer Richard Coughlan recalls, ‘sitting about in the sunshine making up bits of music’ (in the BBC4 documentary ‘Prog-Rock Britannia: An Observation In Three Movements’). Pye tells how he was motivated to diversify into his own brand by watching Pink Floyd and Soft Machine, from the audience at the ‘IT: International Times’ gig at the ‘Roundhouse’.

Julian Gordon ‘Pye’ Hastings was born in Banffshire, Scotland, but he’d lived in Canterbury since he was twelve. Richard Coughlan was a former trainee dentist. With them in the first Caravan line-up were cousins David Sinclair (Hammond A100 organ, and Mellotron) and Richard Sinclair (Fender Jazz bass, vocals). According to ‘Record Collector: 100 Greatest Psychedelic Records’ (Diamond Publ, 2005) this embryonic formation undertook labouring jobs on the Sevenoaks bypass to finance sharing a bohemian group-house in Whitstable enabling them to bond and rehearse as a collective. A ‘getting-it-together’ in the country scheme. When cash ran out they simply shifted into tents in Graveny village, supported by the sympathetic local vicar. Such intensive preparation paid off.

They played the counter-culture ‘Middle Earth’ venue in June 1968, signed to MGM’s Verve Forecast subsidiary, and recorded an ‘astonishingly assured’ debut album (‘Caravan’, October 1968). Their upward trajectory only skewed by the label’s abrupt collapse. Resigning to Decca’s progressive Deram label, ‘If I Could Do It All Over Again, I’d Do It All Over You’ followed in September 1970, involving wistful, eccentric songs and gentle avant garde playing. And the extended side-two medley “For Richard” with its jazzily laser-sharp keyboard moments played in magnetic fields that criss-cross and reconnect over twitchily chopping rhythms. Humour too, from the title track’s strangely disconnected lyrics about ‘lovin’ the stuff, the things that slows me down’, over the chanted ‘who do you think you are...’ as Coughlan adds congas, bongos, maracas and finger-cymbals to his drum-patterns. Some say the title was derived from Bob Dylan’s basement tapes, although I’ve been unable to track it back, others claim Spike Milligan said it, maybe neither, but just possibly elements of the surreal absurdity of both are at play.

Then ‘In The Land Of Grey And Pink’ arrived in May 1971, frequently quoted as their finest moment, with Richard’s carefree nonsense-tale of Pat the “Golf Girl” who talks in morse, and when it rains golf-balls they politely drink tea. It flaunts a quirky Ray Davies Englishness, with piccolo interlude from Pye’s brother Jimmy Hastings. And “Winter Wine” – also by Richard, a complex instrumental interchange ‘conjuring up midnight dreams of ancient castles dark’, wandering minstrels, heroic voyages, and Knights in armour slaying dragons, saving maidens. ‘Life’s too short to be sad’ it advises, using dreams to ‘pay the Sandman’. From the start Caravan were minting such gently engaging oddness, a durable whimsicality that established them as a classic and very English underground band, with their burgeoning Prog-Rock instincts allied to an underlying Pop sensibility. Classy fusions and Folk-Psych. Free-music, but tightly disciplined too. What Ian Carr termed ‘Elastic Rock’ given full rein, yet never less than tuneful.

That same November (1971) David Sinclair quit to join Robert Wyatt’s Matching Mole (a group-name derived from the French translation of Soft Machine!), to be replaced by Steve Miller from Delivery. The rich densely-musicianly textures and complex cut-up changes of the fourth album, ‘Waterloo Lily’ (May 1972) was equally well-received. Hints of vague perversity lurk in the title-track’s flexible ensemble playing too, ‘if you knew the kind of glue, she gums her eyelids with, realise, on those eyes, that’s a gum you’d rather not use’. What can it mean? Nothing related to the hair-gel Cameron Diaz uses in ‘Something About Mary’, surely? Yet again, there’s the quaintly English reference to drinking ‘a cup of char’. After its release there were swirling constellations of shifting personnel innovations, with Richard Sinclair also leaving to form Hatfield And The North – taking Miller with him, and bringing in Geoff Richardson (electric viola). Various replacements were tried, but it was only when Richard Sinclair rejoined Hastings, Coughlan, Geoff Richardson and American-born John Perry (Gibson EB3 bass, vocals) that Caravan’s music began to reach out to new audiences.

For the teasingly-titled ‘For Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night’ (1973) there’s Pye’s Lovecraftian “C’thlu Thlu”, an atmospheric weirdly-shaped tempo-change piece in 14/4-time, with effects produced by recording a bass drum backwards, hitting a cymbal, then re-recording the results through a phase box while speeding up and slowing down the master-tape. Unexpectedly, they even score an American success in 1975 where their seventh album, the malapropically-named ‘Cunning Stunts’, became a minor hit. And all the while the steady flow of new, inventive and stylistically distinctive albums continues, selling to a steady bedrock of fellow-travellers devoted to every aspect of the trip. Through until… pretty much now.

But – back-tracking a little down what they term ‘Memory Lain’, the internal power-structure of each band is different. Some have a single dominant creative figure (Ray Davies), others operate around a duo-ology (Jagger-Richard). For some bands each member is a powerful force in their own right (the Who). Others attempt a kind of democracy. What was the prevailing power-structure within Caravan? “When we started out we shared everything” he explains. “We thought that if, for instance, one person doesn’t write songs then it’s only fair that all the proceeds are shared out equally anyway. Because it’s for sure that that person would be contributing to the arrangements in some way and therefore deserves a cut. This is all very well when you are young and don’t need much, but as you get older and have to find more and more money to feed, clothe and school a family then the need to generate more prevails. It really is just a natural progression.”

Yet Pye is the single continuity throughout the long Caravan career-arc, did the successive line-up changes alter that internal power-structure? “Not in my mind. I’m sure it did in others though. I have always known what I wanted to achieve with the band. I haven’t always managed it, hence the personnel changes. My approach to the band has always been quite democratic but I suspect that some people quit because they were fed up with my trying to push them in a certain direction. Likewise I could get equally as fed up by being led. Changing band members can however be very rewarding in that new people bring new enthusiasm.”

The first high-level defections from the original Caravan line-up were David and Richard Sinclair, did their leaving cause a re-evaluation of the band’s priorities? “Dave was the first to leave and left a hole that was almost impossible to fill” he admits. “He was replaced, on Richard Sinclair’s suggestion, by Steve Miller who played a very different style to Dave. This necessitated a change. It became more jazzy, a direction which Richard was steering towards. It didn’t work well with the existing fans. I wanted to continue with a more rocky approach so a ‘head-on’ was inevitable. So Richard and Steve left.”

Caravan were part of the very first slew of Radio 1 ‘John Peel Show’ guest-bands (their 1968 Peel sessions preserved on the ‘Green Bottles For Marjorie’ album, 2002). What does Pye remember of them? Were they good? Did they allow time and sympathy to obtain the correct sound? Was the venerable Peel himself actually directly involved (I’ve heard differing reports from different ‘guest’ bands)? “The John Peel Sessions were great, although not without their problems. He was a truly genuine guy and is sadly missed. But the BBC engineers were reluctant to break from their institutional approach to recording. They had their way of doing things and often could not be pushed into changing the sound in the mix. This caused some frustration and inevitably a compromise would be reached. They really didn’t like musicians telling them how it should sound. My brother overheard a conversation between a couple of engineers saying ‘If we didn’t have to put up with those bloody artists and musicians then it would be a really good job’. John Peel was not directly involved in the recording although he did occasionally pop in to visit us and see how we were getting on.”

Although it has a dedicated clique of fans, and enjoys periodic revivals of interest, so-called Prog-Rock is a genre not always held in high critical esteem. As though its innovations moved too far from the essential heartbeat of Rock, and became overly intellectual. How does he respond to such attitudes? He’s not phased by my suggestion. “Every genre of music has a rightful place” he points out. “Prog rock certainly didn’t get ‘Overly Intellectual’, but some of it just got plain over-indulgent and deadly boring, and we have to live with that. What is an intellectual? I defy anyone to come up with a definitive explanation that anyone can understand.”

One of the distinguishing characteristics of the genre is instrumental fluidity evolving towards Jazz. Extending the vocabulary of Rock into playful conversations between instruments. In fact Pye himself – answering a muso’s query in ‘Melody Maker’ suggested ‘get sheet music of as many of the old jazz standards as you know and like, and learn these. If you can, watch John McLaughlin playing and when you feel like giving up, go home and try again!’ So which other jazz artists were they listening to at the time? Was Miles Davis’ innovatory ‘Bitches Brew’ period influential on the group’s ideas? “Yes we all listened to Miles Davis and the ‘instrumental fluidity’ as you put it came directly from jazz. Robert Wyatt put it quite succinctly when he said that when the Soft Machine were running out of material they started extending their solos as it was a way of lengthening the set just like the guys who were playing jazz. It is always hard to resist a good idea so we all followed suit.”

So did Caravan have clearly defined and articulated musical objectives, was it something discussed and argued out prior to recording, or was there a more intuitive approach to the music? “No we just went wherever our influences took us.”

Unlike most mainstream Pop, for Prog-Rock, as for Jazz, the ‘contract’ – if you like, between group and audience is that the musicians are allowed to be self-indulgent and pursue their musical ideas towards their own personal visions, while the audience is informed and intelligent enough to enjoy the trip. In that respect, Caravan have always been gifted with a loyal and perceptive audience following. Does that sound like a reasonable analysis? “It is in the nature of the beast that the artist must always lead the audience. Once you start the opposite, you will find yourself in trouble. A good set must be a balance between old and new material and a cross-section of what the band can do. The strength of an audience can be seen in whether they are willing to tolerate being the guinea pigs for new material. Our audience have always given us that leeway and they are to be applauded for it.”

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Into the era of transition from analogue to digital, the original Caravan albums are now enjoying renewed visibility and new audiences via CD reissues, downloads, and a high hit-rate on ‘YouTube’, but does Pye believe the analogue sound of the original vinyl albums is ‘warmer’ than the digital CD reissues? “Yes I do, but vinyl wears out after x number of plays whereas digital doesn’t, so you make your choice.” My choice definitely goes out to the current 3-CD Deluxe Edition of ‘In The Land Of Grey And Pink’, a beautiful artefact in itself. Recorded in Decca’s West Hampstead studio, and completed at AIR in Oxford Street, it originally came embellished within Anne-Marie Anderson’s Tolkien-informed gatefold sleeve. The complete re-mastered vinyl album forms CD Disc one, from the intriguing stoned-pastoral title-track with its little keyboard ripples and Edward Lear lyrical strangeness about ‘those nasty grumbly-grimbles climbing down your chimney’. Its enviable prowess extends into a sweetly narcotic voyage to ‘the land of warm and green’ where we can ‘take our fill of punk-weed’ and ‘smoke it till we bleed’, fraying into burbling mouth-music and squealing treated guitar. Then the formidable 22:43-minute eight-part suite “Nine Feet Underground” which formed the whole of the vinyl side two. Although it’s this kind of ambitiously extended project that drew the ire of the anti-Prog Punk backlash, its interweaving contours never lapse into the self-indulgence of the other genre-offenders they were once unfairly bundled with, and suffered by comparison with.

Among a wealth of bonuses, Disc two adds Richard’s “Frozen Rose” from the AIR sessions but never previously issued, alongside three songs from BBC’s ‘Sounds Of The Seventies’ and two done live from John Peel’s ‘Sunday Concert’ including their take on Soft Machine’s “Feelin’, Reelin’, Squealin’”. While the third disc adds alternate versions of “Golf Girl” and “Winter Wine” from a June 1971 edition of German TV’s ‘Beat Club’. The album can now be judged, as it always should have been, without preconceptions, as a product of its own unique creativity. As an example to those raised on the ‘tired and tested’ formula of reality TV-shows, that music can be infinitely more than the ‘X-Factor’. That it can be playfully improvisational and absorbing, where, on a spontaneous lyrical whim ‘Golf Girl’ can mutate into ‘Group Girl’, and sheltering from the golf-balls can become sheltering from the H-Bombs. All in all, it’s a cornucopia of delights, a comprehensive Caravan-collector’s joy.

Personally – for me, when I look back over things I’ve written there’s a constant temptation to revise, rewrite and amend the texts. As a musician, does Pye get the same feelings listening back to these reissues, that it would be nice to re-do that solo, or alter that lyric? Indeed, the re-mix aspect of the process offers the opportunity to maybe do that? “Yes I do. There hasn’t been a recording that I have done that I didn’t feel I couldn’t improve upon. This is certainly so with my lyrics. I get very frustrated about not being able to write lyrics easily. More often than not I have had to write the lyrics to a song after the backing tracks are done and just before the vocal has to be recorded. Very confusing for the other members of the band, but I am getting better at it.”

Now, decades after the event, a lot of the music happening during the period Caravan was at its most active seems incredibly distant, the attitudes (‘won’t need any money, just fingers and your toes…’), social ambitions, political consensus, artistic orientations… and even the music itself seems to have little points of contact with what you hear on the Radio every day. Does he see positive things happening in today’s music, is he optimistic about what’s going on within music? “The musical points of contact are surely a reflection of what the writer is listening to at any given moment, whether it is political or not…” he reasons. “I think one is naturally influenced by what is going on around you and I don’t think it’s any different from when we were at our most active to today. The styles may have changed, but the essence of the music remains. Anyway, don’t you feel that musical tastes are cyclical, in that ‘what goes around comes around’? I love changes in music and am quite magpie-like in that I will take something from everything I listen to. So the more changes there are the more I like it.”

The internet and downloading is attacking the traditional dominance of the big labels, but is creating new portals of access for bands like Caravan, through dedicated websites and fan-groups. What are his attitudes to these changes? “I must say I am confused by the whole situation. It used to be quite simple in that you recorded an album for a record company, who then actively promoted the band. The buyer got something he or she could hold and treasure, and at the end of the day you got your royalty. Now I don’t know who owns what and how you can translate digital sales into income. It seems that everyone wants to download everything for free.”

I had to ask it. I just couldn’t resist it. Pye ‘If You Had To Do It All Over Again…’, would you, or would you do it differently? This deluxe re-issue with it’s set of remixes, is probably the closest an artist will ever get to recreating an original idea, for a new decade. Hell, for a new century. And it’s good to see Steven Wilson – of Prog-renaissance band Porcupine Tree, involved in the re-mixing process. I remember debating various aspects of 1970’s music culture with him backstage at the Leeds ‘Cockpit’ club! Is Pye happy for other people to get involved with the Caravan legacy, and is he pleased with the results? “Yes, Steve is a good bloke and I am very pleased with the results. I’ve only met him once, at a Porcupine Tree gig that I went to. And it’s always good to hear other people’s take on your music”. A calculated pause, then “…the original, however, still remains the original…”

An in-part spoof throwaway question, opening up answers with endless possibilities. What else would you expect?


October 1968 ‘CARAVAN’ (MGM Verve 8829522) with ‘effusive’ sleeve-notes by underground activist Miles, and issued just prior to the debut Soft Machine album (the Softs get a lyrical reference in “Magic Man”) this album includes “Love Song With Flute” with Jimmy Hastings playing flute, “Policeman”, the ‘mesmerising immaculately stoned’ “Cecil Rons”, and it includes both sides of the single “Place Of My Own” c/w the eastern-tinged “Ride”, and Hugh Hopper helps write the ‘glorious extended finale’ “Where But For Caravan Would I?”. A 2002 CD reissue adds single “Hello Hello”

September 1970 ‘IF I COULD DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN, I’D DO IT ALL OVER YOU’ (Decca SKL 5052) Produced by Terry King, and includes the full 14:21-minute version of the “For Richard” medley, later re-done on the ‘New Symphonia’ album, plus “And I Wish I Was Stoned, Don’t Worry”, “Warlock”, “With An Ear To The Ground”, “Can’t Be Long Now”, “Astoteri”, “Martinian”, “Francoise”, “I Can Make It”, “Limits”, “As I Feel I Die”, “Only Cox”, plus both sides of the single “If I Could Do It All Over Again, I’d Do It All Over You” c/w “Hello Hello” (Decca F 13063)

May 1971 ‘IN THE LAND OF GREY AND PINK’ (Decca Deram SDL1, reissue Deram 5333161, 3-CD Deluxe Edition, May 2011) The first of many Caravan albums produced by David Hitchcock, with “Winter Wine”, “In The Land Of Grey And Pink”, “Nine Feet Underground: Nigel Blows A Tune”, “Love Is A Friend”, “Made It In ‘76”, “Dance Of The Seven Paper Hankies”, “Hold Granddad By The Nose”, “Honest I Did It!”, “Disassociation”, “100% Proof” plus both sides of the single “Love To Love You (And Tonight Pigs Will Fly” c/w “Golf Girl” (Decca F 23125)

May 1972 ‘WATERLOO LILY’ (Deram SDL8) the only Caravan album featuring Stephen Miller (keyboards), also includes guest jazzers Lol Coxhill (Soprano sax), Jimmy Hastings (flute) and Mike Cotton (trumpet) with “Love In Your Eyes”, “Waterloo Lily”, “To Catch Me A Brother”, “Nothing At All”, “It’s Coming Soon”, “Subsultus”, “Aristocracy”, “The World Is Yours”, “Debouchment”, “Song And Signs”, “Tilbury Kacks”. After his stint with Caravan Steve Miller later appeared as a duo with Lol Coxhill, and worked with Delivery and Hatfield And The North

October 1973 ‘FOR GIRLS WHO GROW PLUMP IN THE NIGHT’ (Deram SDLR R12) David Sinclair rejoined Caravan in March, for this LP, augmented with brass and orchestral arrangements. All tracks are credited to Pye Hastings, including “C’thluthlu”, but John G Perry and Mike Ratledge are co-credited for side-two medley “L’Auberge Du Sanglier”. Guest musicians include Frank Ricotti (congas), Henry Lowther (trumpet), and Paul Buckmaster (electric cello) with “A Hunting We Shall Go”, “Hoedown”, “Be All Right”, “Memory Lain, Hugh”, “The Dog, The Dog, He’s At It Again”, “Chance Of A Lifetime”, “Backwards”, “Surprise, Surprise”, “Rengola”, “Headloss”, “A Hunting We Shall Go (reprise)”. Meanwhile, John Perry plays guest bass on Curved Air’s ‘Midnight Wire’ (1975) LP, and later joins Quantum Jump

April 1974 ‘CARAVAN AND THE NEW SYMPHONIA’ (C SMLR 1110) recorded live at London’s Drury Lane Theatre Royal with the 43-piece New Symphonia Orchestra conducted by Martyn Ford. Consists of five tracks – “Introduction”, Pye’s “Mirror For The Day” and “Virgin On The Ridiculous”, and group compositions “The Love In Your Eye” and “For Richard”. Lindsey Boyd in ‘NME’ wrote ‘Caravan are one of my all-time favourites and in terms of audience response the concert could not have been better’, while Paul Wier in ‘Sounds’ wrote ‘a few bands have dabbled with orchestras, but few can match Caravan in the field. Caravan deserve an orchestra. It was a rare treat for those who managed to see the show’

August 1975 ‘CUNNING STUNTS’ (Decca SKL 5210, re-issued as Request RR003) The album-title is a malapropism! Line-up for this album is Pye Hastings, Richard Coughlan, David Sinclair, Mike Wedgwood (ex-Curved Air, bass), Geoffrey Richardson (viola). With “Sneaking Out The Bears Where”, “The Dabsong Concerto”, “The Show Of Our Lives”, “No Back-Stage Pass”, “Pros And Cons”, “The Mad Dabsong”, “Ben Karrat Rides Again”, “Wrecks And Ladders”, “Welcome The Day”, “Tollington Park Rag”, “All Sorts Of Unmentionable Things”, “The Fear And Loathing In”, plus both sides of the single “Stuck In A Hole” c/w “Lover”

May 1976 ‘BLIND DOG AT ST DUNSTAN’S’ (Repetoire 4501, BTM BTM 1007) again, Pye is credited on 8 of the 9 tracks. Produced by David Hitchcock – responsible for their previous 6 albums, as well as Camel’s ‘Snow Goose’. For this album Caravan is Pye, Coughlan, Richardson, Wedgwood, and incomer Jan Schelhass (ex National Head Band and Gary Moore’s band, keyboards). With “Here I Am”, “Bobbing Wide”, “A Very Smelly Grubby Little Oak”, “Come On Back”, “Can You Hear Me”, “Jack And Jill”, “A Very Smelly Grubby Little Oak (reprise)”, plus both sides of the single “All The Way (edit)” c/w “Chiefs And Indians” (written by Wedgwood)

November 1976 ‘THE CANTERBURY TALES: THE BEST OF CARAVAN’ (Decca DK-R 8/2) compilation. Reissued in 1994 as CD (Decca Chronicles 515522-2)

June 1977 ‘BETTER BY FAR’ (Arista 4134, SPARTY 1008), produced by Toni Visconti. Followed by a group gap-year during which David and Richard Sinclair join Camel. The line-up now includes Pye with Geoff Richardon, Dek Messecar (ex Darryl Way’s Wolf, replacing Mike Wedgwood), Richard Coughlan, and Jan Schelhaas. Six songs by Pye, two by Richardson and one by Schelhaas, “Man In The Car”, “The Last Unicorn”, “Feelin’ Alright”, “Behind You”, “Nightmare”, “Give Me More”, “Let It Shine”, plus both sides of the single “Better By Far” c/w “Silver Strings”

November 1980 ‘THE ALBUM’ (Kingdom CDKVL 9003) released on their manager – Terry King’s, own label, with David Sinclair back in the line-up (from Camel, replacing Dek Messecar). With “Corner Of My Eyes”, “Watcha Gonna Tell Me”, “Bright Shiny Day”, “Piano Player”, Keepin’ Up De Fences”, “Golden Mile”, “Clear Blue Sky” plus single “Heartbreaker” (but not its ‘B’-side “It’s Never Too Late”)

July 1981 ‘THE SHOW OF OUR LIVES: CARAVAN AT THE BBC 1968-1975’ (Kingdom, reissued in 2007 on Universal / Decca)

June 1982 ‘BACK TO FRONT’ (Kingdom 5011) The four original members together for the first time in eleven years – Pye Hastings, Coughlan, David and Richard Sinclair, plus saxophonist Mel Collins (ex King Crimson). With “Back To Herne Bay Front”, “Sally Don’t Change It”, “All Aboard”, “Bet You Wanna Tell It All”, “Videos Of Hollywood”, “Hold On, Hold On AA Man”, “Takin’ My Breath Away”. “Proper Job”, “Back To Front”

April 1985 ‘AND I WISH I WERE STONED, DON’T WORRY’ (See For Miles) re-issued in August 1990 as ‘THE BEST OF CARAVAN’ (C-Five C5CD 505) with “And I Wish I Were Stoned, Don’t Worry”, “Can’t Be Long Now-Francoise-For Richard-Warlock”, “No Backstage Pass”, “The Dog, The Dog, He’s At It Again”, “The Love In Your Eye-To Catch Me A Brother-Subsultus-Debouchement-Tilbury Kecks”, “In The Land Of Grey And Pink”, “Memory Lain, Hugh”

May 1991 ‘SONGS AND SIGNS’ (Elite) compilation

October 1991 ‘CARAVAN: BBC RADIO 1 LIVE IN CONCERT’ (Windsong Int WINCD 003) with “Love In Your Eyes”, “For Richard”, “The Dab Concerto Song”, “Hoedown”

July 1992 ‘CARAVAN OF DREAMS’ (HTD) issued as by ‘RICHARD SINCLAIR’S CARAVAN OF DREAMS’ during temporary group disassociation, with David Sinclair, Jimmy Hastings, with Andy Ward (ex Camel)

1995 ‘BATTLE OF HASTINGS’ (Castle CD41) with the line-up of Pye and Jimmy Hastings, Richard Coughlan, Geoffrey Richardson, David Sinclair and Jim Leverton

1995 ‘COOL WATER’ (HTD Records HTDCD18, Pony Canyon PCCY-00613) originally recorded in 1977 for Arista, but not previously issued. With “Cool Water”, “Just The Way You Are”, “Tuesday Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Nite”, “The Crack Of The Willow”, “Ansaphone”, “Cold Fright”, “Side By Side”, “You Won’t Get Me Up In One Of Those”, “The Land Of My Fathers”, “Poor Molly”, “Send Reinforcements”

Spring 1998 ‘LIVE: CANTERBURY COMES TO LONDON’ (HTD Records) recorded at the London Astoria September 1997. With “Headless”, “Cold As Ice”, “Nine Feet Underground”, “For Richard”

June 2000 ‘ALL OVER YOU TOO’ (Castle 609 / Transatlantic 325) 9-track compilation with “Hoedown”, “Stuck In A Hole”, “Bobbing Wide Hastings (+ reprise)”, “Ride” etc

2002 ‘GREEN BOTTLES FOR MARJORIE: THE LOST BBC SESSIONS’ (Caravan) eight tracks including two versions of “Feeling, Reeling And Squealing” from 1968 John Peel Show, and Radio 1 In Concert 1971, plus “Love In Your Eye” from John Peel 1972

2002 ‘CARAVAN LIVE AT THE FAIRFIELD HALLS, 1974’ (Decca) originally issued in France in 1980 as ‘The Best Of Caravan Live’, line-up includes David Sinclair (keyboards), Geoffrey Richardson (viola), Pye Hastings (guitar, vocals), Richard Coughlan (drums) plus Mike Wedgwood’s debut on bass

December 2004 ‘THE UNAUTHORISED BREAKFAST ITEM’ (Eclectic Discs) 2-CD set, with second disc live in Japan and “For Richard” live in Quebec. With “Smoking Gun (Right For Me)”, “The Unauthorised Breakfast Item”, “Revenge” and “Tell Me Why” on both discs, plus studio “It’s Getting A Whole Lot Better”, “Head Above The Clouds”, “Straight Through The Heart”, “Wild West Street”, “Nowhere To Hide”, “Linders Field”. Line-up is Pye Hastings, Richard Coughlan, Jan Schelhaas (keyboards, backing vocals), Doug Boyle (lead guitar), Geoffrey Richardson (viola, banjo, ukelele, acoustic guitar), Jim Leverton (bass) plus guests Jimmy Hastings (tenor and soprano sax), David Sinclair (keyboards on ‘Nowhere To Run’), Simon Bentall (percussion), Ralph Cross (percussion on title track)

Featured on website:
(UK – June 2011)

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Album Review: Wishbone Ash 'Elegant Stealth'


Album Review of: 
(2012, ZYX Music GCR20066-2) 

Wishbone Ash. The very name prompts brain-storm flashbacks of squatting mud-slick in 1970’s Festival mosh-pits blitzed by hyperactive decibel-overload. They were massive round about back then. But you were spoilt for choice. Riffing metal bands were everywhere. Budgie. Saxon. Judas Priest. Paladin. Uriah Heap. The Ash’s crowd-pleasing twin-lead guitar-attack, as showcased on mega-selling albums ‘Argus’ (1972) and ‘There’s The Rub’ (1974), gave them an edge. And forty years later, they’re still here? If you’re a musician and you’re serious about what you do, that’s what you do. You play. Every so often you issue an album, a diary of your mind-set. A bunch of your latest material. Some verse-chorus-verses strung around intense soloing. A process that builds into a back-catalogue.

For Wishbone Ash there’s been a cycle of personnel changes. But a continuity too. ‘Elegant Stealth’ is their twenty-third studio album. With founder Andy Powell still there on guitar and lead vocals, alongside a stable three-year line-up of Muddy Manninen (guitar, vocals), Bob Skeat (bass, vocals), and James Crabtree (drums and percussion). Opener “Reason To Believe” is not the Tim Hardin classic, but an essay in dexterously-crafted dueling guitars gliding together and playing off against each other in seemingly effortless cryptic codes across leaden drums. There’s a remix version of the same song by Al Carson included as a hidden bonus track. But – fear not, there’s a little stuttering echoplexing, a clattering fade-in fade-out techno-beat, but nothing too radical to scare the lumpen fan-base.

And nothing quite as experimental elsewhere, although Deep Purple’s Don Airey is on hand to add Hammond B3 organ textural depth to Muddy Manninen’s “Mud-Slick”, an instrumental showcase with echoes of Purple’s ‘Strange Kind Of Woman’ in its rhythm-grid. And Pat McManus from Irish band Mamas Boys scribbles fiddle all over his own stand-out composition “Can’t Go it Alone” which flirts with reels but swiftly devours it all in heavy intense soloing around a relentless Marc Bolan ‘Children Of The Revolution’ spinal riff, then breaking into scat-vocals ghosting the ascending guitar figure. Further in, there’s Andy Powell’s sweet jog-along solo composition “Give It Up”, with all other songs created collectively by the group, its historic legacy ensuring awesome levels of technical proficiency, from the stalking bass of “Warm Tears” to the acoustic breaks on “Man With No Name”. 

Powell’s voice is efficient rather than outstanding, but it’s enforced by haunted paranoid guitar-effects on “Heavy Weather” where he’s predicting all manner of carnage to come beyond the event-horizon, elevated by what sounds to be punching horns. And there are upgrade shots at lyrical relevancy with “Big Issues” voicing street-sleeper grievances over slap-bass and thumping drums, in which he’s threatening arson at lying politicians (is there any other kind?). And a sympathetically well-intentioned “Migrant Worker”, with wah-wah guitar. “Searching For Satellites” is better, its vaguely autobiographical lyric addressed to the ‘fellow travellers’ ‘faithful followers’ and ‘friends from my youth’ who saw the band’s ‘star rise’ and were part of their story ‘in our time under the skies’ – and what conclusions emerge from the rippling guitars and reflective mood-changes? There’s only one answer, and the answer is ‘Love’. Closing track “Invisible Thread” opens with a slow insistent build leading into scintillating conversational interplay of elegant rhyming guitar figures and practiced eighties smooth-harmonies over its ponderous back-beat. In other words, mainstream AOR. Long decades, but a logical evolutionary development from those mega-selling 1970s albums. But fashion’s a strange thing, it needed no more than a fortunate TV-slot to resurrect the long-lapsed career of Journey. And for the Ash, chances are, if you liked them back then, you’ll like this now.

Originally featured on website:
(UK – January 2012)

Monday, 23 July 2018

SF Book Review: Mike Ashley's 'MOONRISE'


Book Review of: 
edited by MIKE ASHLEY 
(British Library Science Fiction Classics, 
 April 2018, ISBN 978-0-7123-5275-8, 352pp)

Neil Armstrong’s small step for all mankind proved just as much an extinction event for the first-man-on-the-moon sub-genre of Science Fiction, as Yuri Gagarin had earlier killed off the first-man-in-space equivalent. Both thresholds had been fictionally crossed countless times before, although very few of the imaginings came anywhere close to the reality. And afterwards, there could be no more.

The Moon is not a balloon, neither is it composed of cheese, as in Wallace & Gromit’s ‘A Grand Day Out’ (1989). And there are no Clangers there. Mercury and Venus have no moons, although Leigh Brackett wrote a beautiful story about Venus, “The Moon That Vanished” (in ‘Thrilling Wonder Stories’, October 1948). Mars has two small moons, probably captured asteroids, which hasn’t hindered their fictional use across the decades, witness the Mike Ashley-edited companion volume ‘Lost Mars: The Golden Age Of The Red Planet’ (April 2018). But Earth’s Moon is so obviously and inescapably THERE that’s it’s probably been the subject of fantasies for as long as there have been fantasists.

As Mike Ashley’s notes point out, Arthur C Clarke was a member of the preposterously self-titled ‘British Interplanetary Society’ when human aeronautics was barely in its infancy, and he wrote “We Can Rocket To The Moon – Now!” for ‘Tales Of Wonder’ (no.7, Summer 1939). The BIS saw Science Fiction as the Promotional Public Relations department for the advocacy of Space Travel. Perhaps their enthusiasms set expectations too high? John Wyndham’s “Idiot’s Delight” (aka “The Moon AD2044)” is a rather tedious procedural excerpt from his ‘The Outward Urge’ (1959), the future history of the Troon family tree. But he was prescient enough to recognise the Space Race as less the quest for knowledge, and more the spin-off from superpower confrontation. The reason the US brought the Apollo Programme to a close was because the USSR had prematurely pulled out first. Once the ticker-tape parades and gosh-wow wall-posters and TV-coverage had run its course, there was no incentive for more. So there was no more. The moonscape was left to its desolate splendour. If, as Wyndham’s tale postulates, the Cold War persisted long enough for the Soviets to establish a lunar base – on the flawed perception that whoever has warheads on the Moon can target Earth with impunity, the Americans would have been compelled to respond with a base of their own. The addition of a British base is more dubious, in light of our grudging participation in the European Space Agency, and our face-saving celebration of Brit-astronauts hitch-hiking to the International Space Station from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Yet there’s truth in the quote from Clarke’s ‘The View From Serendip’ (1977) which Mike Ashley repeats, that ‘I’m sure we would not have had men on the moon if it had not been for Wells and Verne and the people who write about this and made people think about it.’ And that’s where the anthology begins. The startlingly good “A Visit To The Moon” – extracted from George Griffith’s ‘A Honeymoon In Space’ (1901), precedes HG Wells’ ‘First Men In The Moon’ (1901), and anticipates some of its ideas. Griffith’s Lord Redgrave and his young wife Zaidie use an airship powered by antigravity to reach the Moon, just as Cavor does. The Moon is an ancient dying world… and it would remain so in much subsequent fictions. Griffith’s ‘Astronef’ airship discovers a dead city of white-bleached bones and skulls on the Tycho plain, then descends deep into the Newton crater to where air and water remain sufficient for devolved life-forms to survive. It’s a scenario elaborated by Wells into his complex Selenite culture, described here in the lengthy closing chapters. Unwisely, Cavor’s honesty ensures that he tells the Grand Lunar the full human history of atrocity, warfare, pogrom and genocide, earning Earthlings their instant enmity. Much later the ‘First Men In The Moon’ movie uses a cunning continuity loop, in which the United Nations launches a 1964 multinational spacecraft, believing themselves to be the first lunar explorers, only to discover a Union Jack flag already there, planted by Cavor (Lionel Jeffries) and Bedford (Edward Judd), leading into Nigel Kneale’s screenplay reiteration of Wells’ original story.

William F Temple’s “Lunar Lilliput” from Walter Gilling’s ‘Tales Of Wonder’ (no.2, Spring 1938), despite its occasional silliness, features Larn – the last Lunarian of the Gend race, his demise brought about by the arrival of Temple’s gender-mixed Interplanetarian crew into this Moon ‘Alice In Wonderland gone crazy’. While even Arthur C Clarke persists in the idea – no longer acknowledged anywhere, that the Moon once had oceans. Begging the question, when was it last possible to write about, even primitive life-forms on the Moon? Captain WE Johns’ crew of the vertical take-off ‘Spacemaster’ find lunar life in ‘Kings Of Space’ as late as 1954.

But this anthology celebrates ‘The Golden Age Of Lunar Adventure’. The cover-art is by Chesley Bonestell. The frontpiece by Camille Flammarion. There is fiction by Judith Merril humanising the first lunarnauts. There is lost astronomical infotainment from John Munro (“Sunrise On The Moon”), a ‘Cold Equation’ variant about a stowaway on the first moon-bound rocketship, in Charles Cloukey’s “Sub-Satellite” (rescued from ‘Amazing Stories’, March 1928), and two by giants of the pulp era. In “Nothing Happens On The Moon” by Paul Ernst (‘Astounding SF’, February 1939), Emergency Moon Station RC3 is attacked by a monstrous creature hatched from an asteroidal space-egg. And in “After A Judgement Day” by Edmond Hamilton (‘Fantastic Stories Of Imagination’, December 1963), the Lunar Station plans for human culture to survive as the Earth is decimated by extinction-level plague. Plus Gordon R Dickson and the Arthur C Clarke story which kicked off the entire ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ mythology.

 All anthologies are grab-bags restricted by availability and pagination, it’s impossible to include everything the editor might wish to collect. This is a wonderful head-spinning compilation. But there’s a wealth more of lunar fiction in the archives of forgotten old pulp magazines. Among my suggestions would be the beautiful strangeness of Jack Williamson’s “The Moon Era” from ‘Wonder Stories’ (February 1932), which uses the ‘Conway Effect’ gravity-reversal space-time machine to reach the ancient living moon where the alien Mother flees from a machine-race called the Eternal Ones. And EC Tubb’s “Window On The Moon”, a power-espionage thriller serialised in three parts in ‘New Worlds’ (April, May and June 1963). Here, there are American, Russian and Chinese bases, all armed Cold War strongholds spying on each other employing assassination and sabotage, while a British base is unique in having huge panoramic windows facing the globe of Earth, but is also developing ABIC, an insane organic computer. There’s a character called Seldon – a conscious echo back to Isaac Asimov, a spaceship name ‘Enterprise’, and the visible image of Earth ‘to remind us of our humanity… in case we should ever be tempted to forget.’

All of which proves that there’s still life, of sorts, on the Moon, long after Neil Armstrong’s small step for all mankind.