Wednesday, 6 June 2012

“Paul Murphy Is On Holiday”

May I say up front that I think you’ve got off lightly and don’t you forget it. It’s the time of year again when I find myself in the dilemmic (it's now a word) position of being both on holiday and feeling the need to provide you, gentle downloader, with something to read in my absence. To that end I was — was — going to present you with another fugitive from my by-now customary annual clearout of my literary lumber-room: a piece that I originally had no intention of posting online. Mind you, you're never really absent when you travel with a laptop and have Wi-Fi, are you? OK, let's call it laziness, then. In any event, I decided to shelve my half-baked and only semi-digested prose and cook up something a little fresher for you. So there you are and here it is. You know that crap you could be reading right now but aren’t? Yeah, I bet you do. What do you mean, you can’t comment on the crapness of something you’ve not read? Am I not merciful?
(It was crap, in any case, you can trust me on that)
Instead, for your reading pleasure, I offer you:
The condition of muzak: how pop nearly died in the Seventies — and how Punk nearly shot itself in the foot. 

There. A groovy Hawkind-y, Moorcock-ian literary pop culture ref, and two snappy, controversial assertions, all in one literally bold heading. Not a bad way to start, especially considering that I’m typing this from the seclusion of a caravan stationed on the Suffolk coastline, it’s a quarter to four in the morning and it’s lashing down outside. 
Recently I was involved in a lively email discussion with my friend Richard, an erstwhile writer for the now long-defunct Sounds magazine, which if you are not aware was, to keep it brief, certainly more cutting-edge and breaking fresher territory than its rival, the New Musical Express could claim to be doing in the Seventies and throughout the Eighties. Just a look at the Wikipedia article on the magazine should tell you everything you need to know about the high calibre of people penning passionate pop prose under the Sounds banner. Richard remains at the age of fifty a diehard — and enviably ageless — Punk of the absolute first water. His first out-and-out Punk gig was seeing X-Ray Spex at The Roundhouse and with typical relish and attention to detail, recounted to me the debate he had with his Rush T-shirt-wearing, gig-going chums afterwards over whether it was time to get their shoulder-length hair cut and throw in with the Punk lot wholeheartedly (he did, needless to say).  
So there it was that we were having a cheerful spot of e-banter about BBC4’s recent re-showing of old Top Of The Pops episodes (God Bless BBC4) — principally ones from 1976-78, those most watershedding years in Seventies pop — and arguably, of pop history itself. During this exchange, Richard popped a pertinent question. It was this: why did pop nearly DIE in the mid-1970s? I'm blaming Rod Stewart. Your own theories would be most welcome! 

At this point I should say that some praise of Rod Stewart — at least to a certain degree — is going to ensue, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. That said, I’m going to concur with Richard and assert that Rod Stewart’s career is as neat a thumbnail of how the Seventies nearly derailed, indeed. 
The sharply dressed and coiffed ex-Mod Rod Stewart had played in a number of promising, but strictly third division bands in the mid-Sixties. Go to 1969 and look, there he is — a promising, talented, charismatic, hungry young vocalist, still learning his chops but fast finding his balls (to mix my metaphors for a moment there) in amongst the Marshall amps onstage with the high-profile Jeff Beck Group. Having been bumped up to sing with the big boys, he found his stage fright obliged him to sing hidden between Beck’s immense speaker setups — at least to begin with. Ex-Yardbird Jeff Beck already had immense pedigree — witness his guitar-smashing star turn alongside a young Jimmy Page in the 1966 David Hemmings film Blow-Up. Elsewhere, his solo alone on ‘Shapes Of Things’ by his former band earns him the keys to the kingdom — and his talent as planksman, combined with decent enough moody looks, had him marked down by his management as perfect solo pop idol material. After reluctantly recording ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ — which almost demands him to hand the keys back again — Beck had made his point: a good-looking guitarist of modest singing ability needs to subsume himself into a band where his true calling can shine. Thus the band that bore his name was assembled from a crack unit of musicians so talented that Ronnie Wood was the bass player — and brilliantly so — on a bass he’d ‘liberated’ of necessity, from a music shop, so sudden was his appointment. The same crow-headed Wood whose guitar playing ability has been of sufficient skill to make him Keith Richards’ right-hand man in The Rolling Stones for over 35 years. 
Bespectacled drummer Mick Waller may have looked like a mild-mannered chap but he was a hard hitter and the Beck Group played loud. They did ‘heavy,’ as the burgeoning parlance of the late Sixties had it. Volume was paramount. The bands who did it best — Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin for example — learned to temper the overly simplistic noise level issue with a studied intensity and structure, and in doing so created a whole new genre of Rock music whose boundaries have still, in the Twenty-first Century, yet to be established.
By the time Rod left Jeff Beck’s group, he had taken Ronnie Wood with him and before long they had landed themselves prime jobs as lead vocalist and guitarist respectively, in The Small Faces. Mark them with pride: Ronnie Lane, ace Face of bass; Ian McLagen, fiery keyboards; Kenney Jones, snappy drummer. They had enjoyed a slew of hit singles and well-regarded albums as first a Mod band and then as a Mod-ish soul-chedelic pop group before suffering the loss of their brilliant, but increasingly wayward lead singer and guitarist, Mr Steve Marriott. Yes, it took two guys to fill the void Marriott created — but Stewart’s leathery blues rasp and Wood’s pleasingly mucky riffing did admirably — and effected a change in both the name and the direction of the ‘new’ band, shortening themselves down to ‘The Faces’ and shrugging off their lysergic late Sixties psych-pop trappings to retool themselves as a bluesy booze-fuelled rocking hot rod (pun only partly intended). I have nothing bad to say about The Faces and neither should you.
For Rod, it was only half the story. The former kid shuffling in the speaker-stack shadows had emerged, duded-up in a kind of more streetwise sartorial cousin of Marc Bolan’s fey satin and tat (another ex-Mod who really knew what good threads and hair could do for a chap) and sporting the feather-cut spiky-fronted mullet that said ‘business’ for many of the more hard-rock-minded Glamsters in the early Seventies — from David Bowie and his lieutenant Mick Ronson to Brian Connolly of The Sweet, who always insisted his outfit were tougher than all that. With Stewart’s easygoing, good-time guy stage persona and deft mic-stand-swinging swagger, it wasn’t long before the band increasingly became known as ‘Rod and The Faces’ — a solo career beckoned, but Rod didn’t intend to jump ship. No, Rod remembered who his friends were, it seemed. Between 1969 and 1974 Rod Stewart released four kick-ass solo albums for the Mercury label, concurrent to his Faces output. 1969’s An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down (with the definitive reading of ‘Handbags And Gladrags’), 1970’s Gasoline Alley, 1971’s classic Every Picture Tells A Story (standout track: ‘Maggie May’), 1972’s Never A Dull Moment (with ‘You Wear It Well’) and Smiler, from 1974. Consistent happy-go-lucky rock’n’roll rubbed pleasingly with folksy tales of lost love and soulfully salty stories (or a mixture of all three), told almost with an arm round your shoulder and more often than not backed in whole or in part by The Faces. Some of the songs were assimilated into the Faces’ live set, with minimal complaint from anyone. Micky Waller, his former Beck Group bandmate, played drums on most of the other songs and many of the session boys were consistent from album to album, tour to tour.
Again, I have nothing bad to say about these years in Rod’s career. The inevitable perks of the job — the booze, the big houses and the blondes (who seem to come in that most remarkable of plural form: ‘strings’) — may all have been questionable, but who are we to pass judgement on Rod’s taste? All joyfully acquired, earned and consumed on his own merit and quite frankly that’s his own lookout.
Skip to 1975 and the release of Rod’s Atlantic Crossing and, whoa, we’ve hit coke-fuelled Götterdämmerung! Everything about that album flags up the sea change (pun fully intended considering the mega-smash ‘Sailing’ is on it), the axis whereupon everything changed. Start with the title: word-playing on his move to LA and a lucrative deal with Atlantic Records, a bigger, more expensive label (usually the death knell for any lean and hungry artist, eh?) but also commenting on the album’s drift away from the British rock stylings of yore. Check out that naff, airbrushed cover of a shining neon Rod, bottle in hand, cockily bestriding the bright lights of New York (with the Houses of Parliament glinting, distant and forlornly, on the back cover, the Scottish (!!) flag blowing above the towers)   – a super–slick image, but doomed to date within months of release, a transient world apart from the more hangdog, grittily assembled earlier album covers. Rod’s image always suggested a booze-loving lifestyle, his music never really selling as the ideal toking material for those of you who like to roll a fat one on a gatefold record sleeve, but by here in 1975 we have forsaken the sauce to have ourselves an album cover you can chop lines of Charlie on. 

It should have been amazing, in theory: Atlantic’s legendary producer Tom Dowd backed Stewart with three-quarters of the mighty Booker T and The MGs (including the T man himself) plus The Memphis Horns and Lennon’s favourite axe-wielding sideman, Jesse Ed Davis — but the virtuosic playing couldn’t disguise that Stewart effectively did away with Messrs Jones, McLagen and the two Ronnies in a cutting volte-Face. No room for stalwart Stewart sticksman Micky Waller either. It’s a narcotic hit of an album, assembled by said seasoned session guns of thoroughbred quality, no question, but assembled to order, and most likely lacking the intuitively close camaraderie with Stewart that he had enjoyed with close mates of his own age and background performing in previous years. Result? Immense hits, instant impact and insane commercial success beyond the wildest dreams of Ronnies Wood and Lane! But nothing lasting, nothing with any real soul. Thus it was that Rod the Mod passed and became Rod the God — untouchable, aloof and away from the matey reality that endeared him to so many fans. He compounded the error over the following years by releasing trendspotting, unimaginative, unsubtle and tiresomely sexist songs such as ‘Hot Legs’ and ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?’ — the last of which he claimed to be ironic, but the general public, sadly, tended not to pick up on the subtleties. By the time Kenny Everett is lampooning you on TV, pouting, waving an arse the size of Ayers Rock at the camera, with leopardskin spandex stretched improbably across its expanse, it’s safe to say your cred has dropped significantly.
But let’s not be too down on Rod alone! Didn’t David Crosby say in passing that the Seventies were like the ‘better version of the Sixties’? Coming from a chap with Crosby’s, ahem, ‘intake’, I take that statement to mean a surfeit of sex and drugs – at the increasing expense of rock’n’roll. To be fair, I think the Seventies hit anyone who had been anyone in the Sixties still capable of sustaining some album sales. Dylan had arguably copped out a couple of years short of 1970 and only regained partial form by 1975. Marc Bolan had risen and fallen in the first half of the decade and tragically met his maker just as he was starting to gain ground after several years treading water, recycling his old glories. Stephen Stills went from solo songwriting genius in 1970 to the doldrums of dated disco flirtation in just over five short years. And speaking of five years, David Bowie, while managing to avoid any significant loss of quality in his music and songwriting during his own Atlantic crossing to LA in the mid-Seventies, prefers to forget this time in his life, written off as a period when his marriage, health and mental state were fraying. I wrote a blog on The Man Who Fell To Earth, which inevitably touches on this dark part of Bowie's life, if you're interested.
Remember also at this time that vinyl was a bit of a commodity and as any record collector over the age of 45 will tell you, one simply couldn’t afford to buy records willy-nilly. No, the act of purchasing a record was one of investment, buying something you knew — or suspected — would be your cup of tea. Record playing was a social activity in which friends could gather, hear the latest ELP, Van der Graaf Generator or Jethro Tull etc and swap records for a time, the better to dig each other’s scene. By the mid-Seventies, the big-hitting rock bands of your actual 1970 had mostly eschewed the single format to concentrate on the heavier trip of the album (and sometimes double album, with frequently frightening consequences) as their primary musical text. The Album had become an expensive and often daunting entity to casual record buyers – the heavy expanses and excesses of the early Seventies had seen to that. As it became more isolated, Rock’n’roll went wretched, and pop had long become pap — by the mid-Seventies the public sought easy, mindless solace in the likes of Baccara’s ‘Yes Sir, I Can Boogie’, novelty singles like ‘No Charge’ and everything by Kiki Dee or Tina Charles, safe in the knowledge (or blissfully unaware, take your pick) that there was no emotional, artistic, creative angst between the lines of those kind of singles.

So you see, I believe the real enemies Punk kicked against weren’t — or rather shouldn’t have been — the so-called ‘dinosaur’ rock bands like Pink Floyd or King Crimson (most of whom couldn't get on Top Of The Pops themselves by 1977), but in fact the steady accretion of dreadfully banal MOR and novelty crap that the British public seemed to buy in their complacent, lotus-eating droves and made Top Of The Pops precisely the kind of bland arse-drivel that any self-respecting Seventies kid would want to rail against — and this incidentally, ladies and gentlemen, is possibly the longest sentence I’ve ever written. It made for better copy and controversy if Johnny Rotten wore an “I HATE PINK FLOYD” T-Shirt rather than, say, Linda Lewis or The Jacksons or anyone else on that night’s episode of Top Of The Pops, because Floyd and their ilk were more substantial targets. Remember this is the same Mr Rotten who was subsequently ‘outed’ as a fan of Hawkwind, Peter Hammill and the French prog-jazz band Magma — but even ‘outed’ is too strong a word: I doubt if Johnny ever denied his love for these guys when confronted head-on with it back then. Slightly more recently, I remember Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes wearing (brandishing in fact) a “NEW KIDS SUCK” T-shirt on the cover of Q magazine in the early 1990s and thinking, ‘oh, come on, Chris! Choose a harder target’ — it'd be like picking on a 12-year-old, or wearing a T-shirt saying “I HATE TINA CHARLES” back in 1977.
I think it's a little sad that history has written the Rock music of the early Seventies as villain of the piece in the late Seventies Punk equation, when it's clearly not the main problem. No, in fact I’d like to think I could build, with minimal change of allegiance, something of a bridge between the worlds of early Seventies Rock and late Seventies Punk, showing them to have certain things in common not immediately apparent until a perniciously mediocre third faction makes enemies of them both! After all, I know Richard’s Rush and Deep Purple albums sit happily on his record shelf alongside X-Ray Spex, The Sex Pistols and The Clash in a joyous coalition where, as Ginger from The Wildhearts put it ‘the Beatles and the Stones get to hang out with Ramones.’ I know mine do too.

PM (thanks to Mr Richard Newson for his inspiration and assistance in compiling the narrative of this one)

Currently reading: 
The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie And The Seventies (Peter Doggett, 2011)
Currently listening:
Captain Swing Part 1 — a musical/spoken word collaboration between the writer Cathi Unsworth, Pete Woodhead, Michael Meekin and myself. Available HERE
Currently watching:
Pink Floyd: The Making Of Wish You Were Here (BBC, 2012)

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