Monday, 8 August 2011

That Difficult Third Side.

Sadly, it seems more than ever that Famine, War, Pestilence and Death gallop across our world without sparing their horses. Come to think of it, the demarcation of the Apocalypse itself is rather unfairly weighted, considering how Famine, War and Pestilence all must have their distinct and individual work given a swift once-over by Death on every occasion — who in signing off, cops all the glory. A terrible micromanager is the Grim Reaper. Those boys should have taken a tip from the Three Fates: Clotho spins the yarn of human life, Lachesis draws it out to length and Atropos cuts it off. Does it really take three Fates, I wonder? I can see that job done by two people — at most. That Lachesis must have really good Union connections. Talk about middle management. OK, let’s not.

The world is going crazy, but some of it is in a good way. We live in the most interesting times right now — don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. We genuflect in temples to Mammon, knee-deep in recession with rising debts. Nations wage war unto nation, cultures and convictions for good or ill. Random people increasingly go crazy and have neither the imagination nor the decency to keep it to themselves and not kill other people into the bargain. We watch daily as our governments, law enforcers and media moguls ascend in Logan’s Run style, careering crazily on a coruscating carousel of corruption like so many faeces flurrying up towards the cosmic fan. It’s all we can do to draw our heads in and not get hit by the shit-shrapnel — and yet the thing uppermost in my mind, the problem that dominates my waking hours and a majority of my sleeping ones…is completing that difficult Third Side of My Double Album. Really, it’s virtually all-consuming. I’m only writing these articles as a way of having some downtime from the blasted thing. No need to explain the irony here, believe me.

To be fair, I feel justified in allowing such feverish mental activity to take me over, as cresting the hill of Side Three means the home stretch is in sight — and if you consider that I am in the process of completing the kind of album I’ve dreamed of making since 1979 or thereabouts, when I first started composing, you may have an inkling of my excitement. Oh, I’ve recorded hours of music previously, and some of it I have deemed worthy enough to compile into several fixed collections of songs you could call albums — I certainly have — but this one I intend to sell online. Yes, for cash. It’s really good, if I say so myself — but never mind that just now. Those sensitive to the finer points of presentation in pop music culture of the past 50 years or so would have instantly detected this week’s theme, like a warning shot across the bows of my fervent scribble earlier. Yeah, you read me right first time: I said Double Album.

The list of double albums in pop music history is visibly finite, sufficiently short for someone to compile a neat little book on the better-known ones and elicit some heated discussion in the process. That’s the instant thing about double albums — they divide opinion. For some, many musical crimes have been perpetrated repeatedly across the vast vinyl wasteland that four whole sides can afford the prolific, but overweening, musician. For others, the double album has been the apogee of creative achievement, a monument to artistic fecundity and a desire to take the listener — forgive the cliché — on an epic musical journey.

The history of the beast itself is shrouded in some ambiguity, with numerous claimants for the distinction of first issue. That Benny Goodman’s Live At Carnegie Hall was released in 1950 as a double vinyl set makes perfect sense, being in effect a near-complete record of an entire live performance. In the studio, however, it’s another matter. It’s open to debate who exactly hit upon the idea first to conceive and produce a double album in of itself. The first studio-recorded double album ever released seems to be Bob Dylan’s impressive 1966 Blonde On Blonde, but its primacy of provenance is uncertain; an obscure composer called Frank Zappa had spent several concurrent months in the creation of The Mothers Of Invention’s debut album Freak Out! — which then emerged mere weeks after Dylan’s album and caused a considerable stir for more than just the number of sides. In any case, it’s obvious now that whatever else was wafting in the air in 1966 sought to expand your attention span, your patience threshold and your record collection as much as your mind.

Soon after these seminal recordings came what is arguably the double album archetype: The Beatles’ White Album (official title: The Beatles), released in 1968. I would certainly consider it to be the pop paradigm of the genre: it’s probably the most-discussed double album ever and presents to the listener the pleasures and pitfalls of such an undertaking as well as any. Producer George Martin has gone on record — on numerous occasions — stating that he would have preferred the Fab Four in this instance to hive their work down to one “really super little album” consisting of the strongest songs. McCartney’s opinion is that the chocolate-box diversity of the album is its greatest strength. Well, we all know who was given his head on the matter. Elsewhere, Lennon and Harrison voiced their enthusiasm for the variation of music available there, on their most epic release, although Starr has some reservations about having “a lot of information on a double album”. There is a certain visual irony about an album with the most minimalistic cover ever containing some of the most fascinating and all-encompassing music of the Sixties, let alone The Beatles. Apart from the number stamped on early copies, even the sole words on the cover (The BEATLES) are embossed, not printed. It’s as if only the play of light and shadow is permitted to sully the blank and expansive icy waste that contains and conceals music that is anything but Arctic. What is it Our Kid Paul says on The Beatles Anthology documentary? “It’s the bloody Beatles White Album — shut up!” I’m inclined to agree.

Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti of 1975 was something of a Chimera, being cooked up from a combination of earlier album outtakes and new material — and yet it works, not least because Zeppelin’s quality control in the studio was generally sure and sound; even the songs rejected from previous LPs had enough of the Zep magick to sit alongside their newly recorded brethren. It also contains some of the longest and strongest songs of Zeppelin’s ten year flight, making double the usual vinyl requirement seem like a logical, sensible expedient rather than tumescent decadence. It’s noteworthy that 1975 probably marked the high watershed — or the lowest point, depending on where you stand on the twinned subjects of groupies and drugs — for Messrs Page, Plant, Bonham and Jones on the road; how Physical Graffiti’s considerable taste and variety fail to reflect that excess is a small miracle.

Other bands have not enjoyed such unilateral approval within their ranks concerning their output. Rick Wakeman once said — only very slightly harshly — that Yes’ 1973 four-sider Tales From Topographic Oceans was “three sides too long. I used my copy as an ashtray…and I don’t even smoke.” Furthermore, the extended, keyboard-less longeurs within these sidelong pieces gave Wakeman precious little to do onstage during the subsequent tour. Legend has it that he even found enough time on his devilishly idle hands to phone for a curry during one interminable gig — and eat it with pointed disgruntlement behind his considerable bank of organs and synths. In any event, Rick Wakeman left the band not long after, felled by an album so ponderous, so pretentious that he, one of Progressive Rock’s most formidable proponents, capitulated under its weight. Weird, actually: as an absolute and entirely reflective product of its time it should have worked, it really should.

By 1977 Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s best days were behind them: those giddy, abundant days of the early Seventies, when the album held sway over the single as a more credible artefact of any hip rock group, when songs could take up a whole side of an album and lyrical subject matter took in everything from the Middle Ages to dystopian, far-flung futures, via the Wild West; anything, it seemed, except the present day. Prog Rock’s stock had dwindled by 1977, that most seismic and schismatic of years for popular music. ELP’s position in their chosen firmament had itself diminished; they had not released a studio album of new material for nearly four years. Then Works Volume 1 came out. The band name and album title were set in a sober font on a classy, minimal black sleeve with the band’s logo — designed back in wilder, exciting times by no less than HR Giger — embossed, White Album style, into the sombre darkness of the cover. Unfortunately, the sleeve deceives: inside, we get three sides, one by Emerson, Lake and Palmer each apiece, plus a side by ELP, the band. Superfluity disguised as diplomacy: the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse could learn a thing or two about demarcation from these chaps if nothing else.

Coming in a definite third, Greg Lake serves up what by now would have been his expected fare: sensitive, acoustic guitar-based ballads, similar to the ones that had contrasted with and leavened the older ELP LPs — although sadly not as good. Emerson went the whole hog and presented the world with his Piano Concerto No.1 (I love the ‘No.1’ in the title — like the Volume 1 suffix of the album, it carries a degree of ominous portent, the implied threat that there’s gonna be more coming) — which I am pleased to report is tuneful and concise, indulging Emerson’s obvious love for American, Copland-style string arrangements and Hollywood film scores. It’s more than competent and certainly entertaining — but I wonder how the average ELP fan of the time dug it — or would have done so had it been issued separately. Carl Palmer provides the surprise element of — whisper it quietly — fun, with a varied bunch of believably rocked-up classical interpretations and some genuinely delightful bits of big band instrumental funk. The final side of the album is the band: two epic songs that spread across the length in perfectly enjoyable — and entirely typical — fashion. The funny thing is, it’s not a bad album, musically speaking, taken on the individual merits of its subdivisions, but we’ve definitely moved from the pungent, rich, meandering madness of Yes and instead have descended further — it’s possible — to an even worse kind of double album: one whose length is determined by the need to satisfy each band members’ egos individually and collectively. It was a move screamingly symptomatic of a decaying working relationship. So it proved. ELP released a second Works Volume 2 later in ’77, as threatened, consisting of obvious barrel scraping B-sides and evidently substandard studio tinkering. That the egregious Love Beach album of 1978, their final studio effort for 15 years, should feature a cover that depicts our heroes dressed like the Bee Gees says all that you need to know about the parlous state of Progressive Rock by the late Seventies — and that one wasn’t even a double album.

Of course, even the best of these albums, by dint of their length, must contain some flab, a bit of sag in the middle or even an outstanding clunker or two. While I love Pink Floyd’s The Wall, I tend to side with Dave Gilmour when he said it could have done with less of that stuff about Roger Waters’ obsession with World War II, Vera Lynn and Bringing The Boys Back Home — and Dave bloody played on it. On All Things Must Pass, George Harrison went one better, managing to take a good double album and make it worse by adding an unnecessary third disc of alternate versions and jam sessions that must have been fun for the participants, possibly amusing for the listener once, but eventually not at all. The overlong jam sessions and funky Sixties space-age electronic freak-outs on Electric Ladyland serve to demonstrate what a stunning album it could have been had George Martin brought the editorial authority to The Jimi Hendrix Experience that he wished to bear on The Beatles. Don’t get me started on Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion — I have spent more time than is necessary working out a superior single disc version of those. Genesis’ 1974 double The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway succeeds because Peter Gabriel has finally learned to curb his desire to slather vocals on any spare bit of instrumental music he can find — just don’t spend too long reading the lyrics; they hurt after a while.

Herein lies the rub, the thing that has distracted me so much of late. It’s not just a question of making sure all the songs are good. After all, a Black Forest Gâteau all to oneself, as wondrous as it could be, swiftly becomes a bloated, immoderate and unnecessary thing. It’s not enough for the songs themselves to have variety and dynamic range — juxtaposition is paramount. In other words, one could create a procession of brilliant songs that would nevertheless demonstrate a reductive quality when listened to in one relentless whole — the wrong whole. So if you’re going to have a double album at all, could it possibly be — gulp — a good idea to have some substandard songs thrown in there, just to add to the flavour? Is that really how it works? Is ‘Vera’ really an integral brick in The Wall? Is your White Album experience incomplete without ‘Wild Honey Pie’?

Of course, all of this is magnificently irrelevant in a world where a CD can often carry as much information as four album sides, or where one can download individual tracks willy-nilly off epic albums, to enjoy in isolation from their parental home — but we can still find room for these disciplines of time and running order occasionally, surely? I rather like expressing things in vinyl terms; as a length goes, I think the 45 minutes or so of a single album, 23 mins a side here and there, is an elegant sufficiency. Whether the old technology has dictated this threshold for my attentiveness isn’t too relevant — I think it’s as good a place to start as any where quantity is concerned and no medium of more recent origin has supplanted this for me.

As for my own album, you may bridle all you like at my expansive folly. I make no apologies for a shameful, almost slavish adherence to the more excessive aspects of the Seventies rock music I so adore and you can sling all the rotten tomatoes you like in my direction. Such a shame that as a double album, it’s more than likely going to end up merely spread across two CDs or scattered about as so many MP3s. The world is going crazy, but some of it is not in a good way.


Currently listening:
I A Moon (North Sea Radio Orchestra, 2011)

Currently watching:
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles season two (20th Century Fox, 2009)
Blake’s 7: first series (BBC, 1978)

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