10 great reissues / archival releases 2020

Reissues these days tend to be very much focused on putting out what is already available on CD out on vinyl. Sorry, but that doesn’t do for me. I am more interested in unreleased tracks or new mixes or versions and new fact-filled liner notes than if it comes on a larger or smaller disc. That is probably also why I tend to gravitate towards releases from Grapefruit Records, headed by David Wells. All of his releases deliver something new, and they are always impeccably researched and compiled.

Luckily, there were some significant releases on other labels as well!

Be Bop Deluxe – Axe Victim (Esoteric Recordings)

‘Axe Victim’ from 1974 is one of my favourite debut albums of all time. Bill Nelson had already released a solo album a couple of years earlier, but this was something completely different. Steeped in the Roxy Music and David Bowie mannerisms of the era while remaining more epic, it existed in a glamprog bubble of its own. Nelson would reconfigure Bop Deluxe after this album’s release and return with one of the decade’s most stylish albums the year after, but the sheer audaciousness this debut still gets my neck hairs to stand on end.

The 3CD/DVD box set adds lots of interesting material, including a hitherto thought lost 1973 Peel session, and a great 5.1 surround mix. However, delivering that mix heavily compressed as plain old DTS on a DVD Video disc while claiming that it is a DVD Audio disc is ignorant at best. People who buy this expensive deluxe set are real fans, and they deserve a Blu-ray disc with full and uncompressed surround. 

Cardiacs – Vermin Mangle (Alphabet Business Concern)

Everything else here is an album or a 24 disc box set, and this is just one song available only for download or streaming. But in importance and stature it is just as important.

‘Vermin Mangle’ comes from the hitherto otherwise unreleased sessions for the Cardiacs album that Tim Smith was working on in 2008. But then he suddenly suffered a debilitating heart attack that rendered him unable to do more work and would ultimately lead to his untimely death on 21st July 2020, aged only 59. The song was released as an homage to the great man on the day of his funeral.

As a piece of music ‘Vermin Mangle’ is utterly captivating. Listening to it feels almost like entering Tim Smith’s mind. Circus crazy maybe, but also serious and grand.

Tim was one of the true geniuses of modern music, and this track serves as a worthy reminder.

The Divine Comedy – Venus, Cupid, Folly & Time (Divine Comedy Records)

I remember picking up ‘Promenade’ as a limited edition with an extra CD of live performances on a trip to London in 1994, and immediately being convinced it was the best album since Prefab Sprout’s ‘Swoon’ a decade earlier. And although I like a lot of the Divine Comedy albums, it is really that album and *Liberation’, the debut on Irish indie label Setanta from the previous year that are the true classics. And what makes this box set so special is that you get previously unreleased demos as well as single B-sides related to those two albums. And to all the other albums as well of course…

Sadly though, several important tracks are still missing from this huge box, most notably the Michael Nyman covers of ‘Miranda’, ‘Chasing Sheep Is Best Left To Shepherds’, ‘Time Lapse’ and ‘Knowing the Ropes’. I am sure there were some licensing issues, but it is a pity, since the Michael Nyman influence is such an important part of what became the unique Divine Comedy sound.

The Idle Race – The Birthday Party (Grapefruit Records)

Eveyone knows ‘Mr. Blue Sky’. the Beatlesque hit by E.L.O. from their 10 million copy selling ‘Out Of The Blue’ album. But very few seem to know or care that Jeff Lynne actually started his career by making a whole album full of ‘Mr. Blue Sky’ soundalikes that are just as Beatlesque and whimsical.

‘The Birthday Party’ has been so neglected that the only previous proper CD reissue is the 2007 Japanese paper sleeve edition; other than that it has always been reissued as a twofer together with the more uneven self-titled 1969 follow-up, or in some other compilation context. For this reason, it is great that David Wells has now assembled a definitive CD reissue for his ever-excellent Grapefruit label.

Neil Innes – How Sweet To Be An Idiot (Grapefruit Records)

Although Neil Innes is sadly gone, we now live in a world that needs him more than ever.

Just before his death, he was working with Grapefruit on the definitive and much needed reissue of his debut album, ‘How Sweet To Be An Idiot’. This album is shock full of Innes’ carefree charm and warm humour, and, if you have a bit of patience with the first few songs, it offers up some absolutely cracking Beatlesque pop songs.

The original B-side is particularly great, serving up one pop wonder after the other. Fittingly, the side begins with the title track, and what a masterful song it is; starting with the heartfelt lyric about the idiot, then changing tack and turning into something from Sgt Pepper. 

You need an idiot with a duck on his head and a piano. Maybe you just don’t know it.

Jason Crest – A Place In The Sun (Grapefruit Records)

Hailing from Kent, although not in any way related to what is called the Canterbury scene, Jason Crest debuted with the great single ‘Turquoise Tandem Cycle’ in 1968 and thus belonged to the psychedelic era, although they managed to miss its peak. Still, they would make their indelible stamp on pop history with their final single in late 1969: ‘A Place In The Sun’ was a wistful and beautiful period piece, and on the B-side was the hauntingly dark yet flippant ‘Black Mass’. An altogether amazing single. 

This reissue also contains a handful of equally great yet unpublished-at-the-time tracks as well as somewhat less interesting later radio sessions. Although all of it has been released on Grapefruit label manager David Well’s previous labels Wooden Hill and Tenth Planet, this is the first time everything has been gathered in one place. Essential.

Anthony Moore – Out (Drag City Records)

A solo album by Anthony Moore’s first was set to be released in 1976 on Virgin, but was dropped due to management changes at Virgin before release. It is a surprisingly catchy and well-produced art pop album that is at odds with his Slapp Happy / Henry Cow collaborations of the previous year. One might have expected a more underground-bound album from him at this stage, not least considering that his previous solo album from 1972 was a minimalist neo-classical affair, but in reality Moore was quite eager to shake off some of the restraints that the Henry Cow experience had put on him. Working with Peter Jenner as a producer, he came up with a set of odd yet hummable ditties that almost felt like something Kevin Ayers could have made at the time (and he indeed guests in bass guitar on the track ‘Please Go’, which, by the way, also happens to be arranged by David Bedford).

The album wast was eventually released on Voiceprint in 1997, as a low cost affair typical for that rather confounding label, with different cover art since the original was thought lost, and also with some of the tracks in wrong order. But a package containing the complete Hipgnosis artwork that had been send to CBS Japan back in the day has now resurfaced, and it is great to see the album finally issued in the way that was originally intended.

Brian Protheroe – The Albums 1974-76 (7T’s Records)

Generally, I would recommend against buying a whole box set just for one song. But in the case of Brian Protheroe, that is of course perfectly OK – especially since that song is a session out-take from his brilliant 1974 debut album ‘Pinball’. And if you don’t have ‘Brian’s Big Box’ from 1996 that compiled his three first albums on the Dutch label Basta, you get all of them here:  You don’t only get that debut album, but also the even better follow-up ‘Pick-Up’ from 1975 and the absolutely classic 1976 album ‘I/You’.

Unfortunately, though, the CD with unreleased material that was included on the Basta box is not here. Although that disc is not as good as the albums, and probably contains songs from later in the decade, it is nevertheless worth seeking out once you have become a proper fan.

In any case, if you like quirky and convoluted mid-70s pop from bands like 10cc, then Brian Protheroe is an absolute must. This compilation is currently the best point of entry.

Tea and Symphony – The English Baroque Sound 1968-1974 (Ace Records)

This is a great and must-have release, but also a very confusing one. The confusing thing is that it has almost exactly the same title as the he 2007 release ‘Tea and Symphony – The English Baroque Sound 1967–1974’. Spot the difference! The two releases even variations on the same artwork…

The original was released on Castle Music, a label that went down together with its parent Sanctuary and is now near impossible to find. Even more confusingly, only four tracks are overlapping between the two releases, making both of them absolutely essential stuff for those of us who think that Mike Batt’s 1968 single B-side ‘Fading Yellow’ is one of the best pop songs ever made. At least this new release includes that track as a first-ever official reissue…

Now don’t hesitate, go get this fantastic CD before it also becomes a highly sought after collectable!

Twenty-Five Views of Worthing – 25 (Wind Waker Records)

Some people say that there is no such thing as a Canterbury sound, as it is quite diverse and a lot of the key people involved in that scene weren’t even from Kent. But I would be happy to settle that dispute by defining that sound as anything that sounds like this record. Although Twenty-Five Views of Worthing did actually support Caravan at the Vanbrugh College in May 1972, they are from Watford, north-east of London. But as can be heard on these previously unreleased tracks recorded using downtime at Island’s Basing Street Studio in late -72 and early -73, they play complex music without taking themselves too seriously, and combine sweet melodies with a touch of absurd humour.

The LP ends with a self-released 1977 EP recorded by a quite different lineup of the band, which is equally good.

10 more great albums from 2020

Due to the pandemic, most if not all concerts were cancelled in 2020. With other types of stage related work opportunities also having dried up, it was a horrible year for musicians. Yet, paradoxically, it was a great year for music listeners. 

The past year was absolutely peppered with brilliant record releases. Since you haven’t been spending a lot of money on concert tickets, I therefore suggest you buy albums instead, on vinyl or CD – or as a high quality digital download. Here are 10 more great albums from 2020 that absolutely need to be in your collection!

cabane – grande est la maison

This is not a Sean O’Hagan album, but you could have fooled me. Still, he is the arranger and has co-written two tracks with Thomas Jean Henri Van Cottom who is the main man behind the cabane moniker. The quality of the songwriting is excellent throughout, and vocals are handled by no other than Bonnie Prince Billy and Kate Stables (from This Is The Kit).

If you can find it, get the CD-R version as it starts with a track not available elsewhere.

Spencer Cullum – Spencer Cullum’s Coin Collection

The initial quartet of songs on this album are totally amazing and have a suppressed intensity not unlike Nick Drake or Duncan Browne. Although some momentum is lost with slightly meandering instrumental, ‘Dietrich Buxtehude’, and I could live without an Incredible String band cover as final track given the strength of original songwriting on display here, this album from Nashville’s Music City Center sideman and steel guitar player Spencer Cullum, originally hailing from England, is quite a find.

The music is restrained and beautiful and vocals are correspondingly subdued. The mixing feels almost proto-stereo with Cullum’s voice in the right channel and the backing in the left, making it feel as if someone is whispering in your ear if you listen in headphones.

Stephen EvEns – Employee of the Month

Stephen Gilchrist is a man of many talents. He has playd drums with Graham Coxon and even the Cardiacs, and also runs the Brixton Hill Studios. But on dark nights, he sometimes transforms into Stephen EvEns and puts out searingly sarcastic punk-pop records. On this release, the razorblades are a bit front-loaded, which might unfortunately scare away some listeners from the more restrained tracks, starting with forth track ‘Freak Show’ featuirng beautiful piano playing by William D Drake. From there on in, there are some great tunes to discover!

Seamus Fogarty – A Bag of Eyes 

Fogarty’s new album has the kind of atmosphere that immediately makes me feel at home. An organic sound that is as much electronic as it is acoustic. Synthesizer meets banjo as if it were the most natural thing. It is also as much a folk pop album (think Meilyr Jones who also appears here) as an experimental excursion. Brian Eno sometimes comes to mind, although the dry humour on a track like ‘Nuns’ almost plays like a glitchy take on Kevin Ayers.

Green Seagull – Cloud Cover

Just like their debut, Green Seagull’s sophomore album is overflowing with late 60s psych tinged harmony pop of the highest order. Listening to this album is like stepping into a perfect time warp, everything is done with skill and precision, even the lyrics are in technicolor. While decidedly very retro, at the end of the day, an album is never better – or worse – than its songs. And the tunes here are absolutely cracking!

Oddfellow’s Casino – Burning! Burning!

Oddfellow’s Casino is a long running  project by author and radio presenter David Bramwell from Brighton, helped out by various friends. Given that Bramwell actually is a member of a druidic order, more specifically the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, and the album covers a large range of the supernatural – this time loosely connected to fire – it might be easy to but this in the hauntology category. But what makes this album different is that, just like most previous Oddfellow’s Casino albums, is very much song based. So if you want your pop laced with pyschic children, rituals, poltergeists and standing stones, this is the way to go!

Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus – Songs of Yearning

If there is one thing my dear departed father told me was how to be an atheist. But what he didn’t manage to teach me was to listen to religious music, which he loved. It wasn’t until I discovered the Revolutionary Army of The Infant Jesus that I understood how to do that. ‘Songs of Yearning’ is their most consistent and haunting album since their reformation in 2015, after having been in hibernation since 1987. With songs in multiple languages, the album has a gorgeous pan-European feel and proves the deep cultural connection between England and the rest of Europe, that hints at just how big a mistake Brexit really is.

Rustin Man – Clockdust

When Paul Webb reappeared after a 17 year absence from the record business with a great introspective record that didn’t feel rusty at all, few probably expected him to follow up just a year later with an even better record. Yet here he is, and just as last year there is a Robert Wyattesque shimmer of melancholia over the whole thing which makes it irresistible for me.

Oh, yes, you are supposed to mention that Webb used to be the bassist in Talk Talk in reviews like this as well. So there you go!

Snails – Hard Wired

I loved debut album ‘Safe In Silence’ and their sophomore release proves they are no one-time wonders. From Bristol and with one foot in the Sarah Records take on twee, their music is open and welcoming. Yet, the more you listen, the more you discover undertones in the lyrics as well as the strength of their songwriting. A wonderful album that manages to attract at first listen but keeps on growing the more you listen.

Richard Wileman – Arcana

Wileman has been making great music as Karda Estra since the very dawn of the 21st century, but only started performing as a solo artist a couple of years ago. With this release, inspired by the Tarot, it feels like he is combining his more song-based folk approach with his more arranged and progressive band work. And the combination works brilliantly, resulting in an at times hummable yet haunting collection with great musical depth and emotional impact. 

20 albums from 2020

I would like to apologise to those of you who have followed this blog in the past. Halfway through 2020, I simply ran out of steam.

My work stress was at an all-time high. The looming Brexit made me feel less enthusiastic about music, given that much of the stuff I care about likely would be behind an import tax wall come 2021. The pandemic and the climate crisis certainly didn’t make things better. Then my sister died in October.

The pain from my sister’s death is still very much there, but I have decided it is time to crawl up out of that dark hole I dug for myself. I will try to find some work-life balance in 2021. Boris gets his divorce but remains fuck buddies with the EU, meaning no import taxes. Vaccines are coming and the man who in himself is an affront to the colour of orange is going, so maybe the world will now act on the Paris Agreement at long last.

And, importantly for this blog, whatever 2020 was like for you, it has been full of great music. That is a cause for celebration – and here are my 20 favourite albums of the year. I can’t rank them as they are all incredibly good, so I present them in alphabetical order.

Aksak Maboul – Figures

With their feet firmly placed in the Canterbury origins of RIO and their heads in a cloud of Stereolab albums, Aksak Maboul have delivered quite a masterpiece. Whereas Marc Hollander and his wife Véronique Vincent pay tribute to Francophone 1960s pop, they simultaneously turn it upside down. The track ‘Dramuscule’ features a dialogue between a dominant man and a submissive woman while simultaneously exposing the absurd misogyny on display.

Véronique Vincent was not an original member of the band, but she certainly takes centre stage here, and the album is all the better for it.

Arch Garrison – The Bitter Lay

Laid back and mellow yet whimsical and playful. Arch Garrison is Craig Fortnam’s side project with James Larcombe when not busy with the North Sea Radion Orchestra. While suffused with an acoustic six-string folk feel, the music trickles forth like a calm brook, constantly branching out and forking in an unhurried and understated way. Almost inherently self-effacing, this music is easy to pass by but has that world-in-a-grain-of-sand quality if you just stop and listen for a change.

Compared to the previous album, Larcombe’s contributions are more understated – but remain a key part of what makes Arch Garrison such a unique experience.

Army of Moths – By Word of Moth

Army of Moths refer to the sound they make as a “racket” – and indeed it is. The influence of the Cardiacs is not only evident in the layered sound, the chord sequences and the falsetto voices, but also in the dedication of the album to Tim Smith who sadly no longer is with us. However, they add enough personality, witty twists, oddball ideas and strong songwriting to the mix to make the album stand fully on its own. 

Clocking in at a full hour, the listening experience can be almost disorientating, akin to being at a wonderfully crazy circus show. Don’t mothball this one!

Barringtone – Bonanza Plan

Twelve years on from the first Barringtone single and 15 years from his first album, back then with electro pop band Clor, Barry Dobbin is finally, finally back with a full album again. Not sure if that was the plan all along, but what a bonanza it is! Although this time the sound is as scaled down to the basics of guitar, drums and bass as the complexity is scaled up with math-rocky angularity and unexpected time signature changes, the catchy melodies remain intact. Singular in vision and execution and guaranteed to reward your efforts.

Betlehem Casuals – The Tragedy of Street Dog

Bethlehem Casuals feature seven members, and they certainly make a lot of noise on their second album. While definitely a pop album, it is eccentric, full of twists and turns, and with a sound that throws everything from the past 50 years into the sonic mixer.

But somehow, it all comes out in a quite tuneful way, and doesn’t sound contrived at all. Some tracks are progressive and funky, with a driving saxophone theme; others are smooth and melodic with restive violins and beautiful voices.

Saying that this is the future of pop is an overstatement, but the Betlehem Casuals certainly prove that pop has a future! 

Bingo Harry – Bingo Harry

Discovered by Martin Bramah of the Blue Orchids, who covered  their song ‘If They Ever Lay A Finger On Us’ on their album 2018 album ‘Righteous Harmony Fist’, this is as far as I understand not yet a proper Bingo Harry album. Instead it is a collection of demos done with Bramah for an aborted album. But while decidedly low-fi, there is nothing here that feels unfinished; instead the primitive approach feels just right for this set songs that more than anything remind me of Tyrannosaurus Rex before they went glam or even pop. Still, this stuff is more focused and less naive. Although the music sounds like it could have been made any time during the last half century, it has that unusual spark of originality that makes you perk your ears.

Peter Cat – The Saccharine Underground

If your idea of observational lyrics is ironic humor that first makes you laugh at the absurdity of what is said and then laugh again at the bitter truth of the same thing, then you need to check out Scottish musician Peter Cat’s debut LP.

Take the track ‘If you can’t live without me’ with the obvious question: ‘Then why aren’t you dead yet?’ Story-telling is definitely the name of the game and The Divine Comedy are definitely a reference here. But you need to go back to an album like ‘Promenade’ with tracks like ‘The Booklovers’ to find the same contrived-yet-natural humour. It has taken Pater Cat more than five years to assemble this album, but it was certainly worth the effort.

Joss Cope – Indefinite Particles

Although ‘Unrequited Lullabies’ from 2017 was a great surprise and made my top ten list of that year, I have to say that ‘Indefinite Particles’ is even better. Having grown up on music from the 60s and early 70s, and taken part in the punk and post punk scenes, Joss channels that into something timeless yet personal. The melodies are great and the lyrics are even better.  Although not necessarily straightforward, the texts touch on many burning issues, not least the climate crisis. But rather than whine, Cope makes you think constructively in these dystopic times, while managing to simultaneously being very Lewis Carrollesqe.

One for the ages. Unmissable!

Anna von Hausswolff – All Thoughts Fly

It is not often that I find myself with my hands in the air all the way up front by the stage next to a bunch of death metallers at concerts, but with her gothic angst Anna von Hausswolff draws a rather diverse crowd. 

Her new all instrumental album takes its inspiration from a park of statues in the Italian city of Bomarzo commissioned in the 16th century by Pier Francesco Orsini in mourning of his dead wife. The album is recorded using only the baroque organ in Örgryte New Church, and conjures up visions of disfigured monsters or the underworld in a way that both attracts and disgusts. Fascinating.

Kevin Godley – Muscle Memory

I was too young for the Beatles. Instead, my real-time musical epiphany was caused by Paul McCartney’s ‘Ram’ and 10cc’s ‘How Dare You’. I still count these two albums among my top ten.

After ‘How Dare You’, the 10cc broke up and it was immediately clear that among all the talent, Kevin Godley was the real genius. I remember editing down the massive ‘Consequences’ on to a cassette tape to get to the music on that sprawling thing, and by the release of ‘L’ I knew Godley was my true hero.

So, when Kevin released his first-ever solo album this year, it was a big event for me. And, ever the inventor, Kevin with this album somehow anticipates lockdown, by reaching out across the internet for musical ideas from anyone and everyone, on top of which he adds his unmistakable touch and great vocals. Magic!

Homunculus Res – Andiamo in Giro di Notte e ci Consumiamo nel Fuoco

Palermo art proggers Homunculus Res are back with another anarchistic, esoteric, apocalyptic, catchy and fun album. Combining the spiritual heritage of Picchio Dal Pozzo with the Canterbury quirk of Hatfield & the North, they are certainly one of the most interesting bands around today. 

The title translates into something like “We go around at night and consume ourselves in the fire” which in its original Latin from of “In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni” is a palindrome (try it out!) of unknown medieval origin that also happens to be the title of a 1978 film by Marxist philosopher and filmmaker Guy Debord. Compared to earlier records, the music is more dense but the rhythms are as jerky as ever, and once you find the melodies, you discover how sweet they are. Masterpiece!

July – The Wight Album

‘The Wight Album’ is as sprawling as it is ambitious, and does not shy away from comparisons with its homonymic twin. 

It is an album full of darkness, experimentation and attitude. It might in fact be the last great psychedelic album from the original era, as it stretches all the way back to 1968 when the original and by now classic July album was released, yet simultaneously is very much of the present. What connects it to the here and now is of course the changed perspective on life as experienced by Tom Newman and Pete Pete Cook who are now two old men getting close to 80.

Paul McCartney – McCartney III

I was too young for the Beatles. Instead, my real-time musical epiphany was caused by Paul McCartney’s ‘Ram’ and 10cc’s ‘How Dare You’. I still count these two albums among my top ten. 

Macca has had his ups and downs since then, but here he continues his latter day purple patch in grand style. Although allegedly a cleaning out of leftovers, the album actually showcases Paul at what he does best – fooling around and inventing ingenious bits and pieces that take on a life of their own. Nowhere is that more obvious than on the track ‘Deep Deep Feeling’, which is well over 8 minutes of repeating the refrain over and over without ever losing its vitality. Magic!

Micko & The Mellotronics – 1/2 dove – 1/2 pigeon

If you don’t think they make art rock like they used to, this is the album for you. Heavily riff based with observational lyrics, bitten-off vocals and poppy melodies that never fail to pack a punch. I could line up references to everything from Syd Barrett via Roxy Music to Magazine here, but what really clinches it for me is the wistful revengefulness of ‘You Killed My Father’ with piano and twisted string arrangements by none other than the late Neil Innes. One of those albums that I absolutely had to get on vinyl, this music demands being held in your hands. 

Rock’n’roll, man!

OTEME – Un Saluto alle Nuvole

Although I absolutely love their first two albums, OTEMEs 2018 release ‘Il Corpo nel Sogno’ for some reason slipped under my radar. That is something I will have to remedy, as their new album ‘Un Saluto alle Nuvole’ is absolutely gorgeous. It would be too easy to just slot OTEME into the Canterbury genre; instead, I think they are inspired by a similarly broad musical history as the original Canterbury bands were. 

Since I don’t speak Italian, I am afraid the impact of the words are lost on me, but they are first person accounts by those who who care for the terminally ill at the Hospice of San Cataldo in Lucca.

As always, a fairly large cast of musicians participate on the album, but I am nevertheless surprised to find Tuxedomoon’s Blaine L Reininger on violin.

Pea Green Boat – The Unforgettable Luncheon

If you have read the entries above, then you already know that I am a big fan of the Godley & Creme era of 10cc. And if you know that, then you know that I love this album too. Playful and all over the place, yet serious and focused when it comes to hooks and structure. An album that might be as challenging to the listener as to the musicians trying to nail all those twists and turns, but nevertheless a minor masterpiece. Without doubt one of the best albums of the year.

Keiron Phelan – Hobby Jingo

Keiron Phelan’s second album takes the classic pop tendencies from his first one all the way. When I recently plugged this album at the Prog Fest Online event in Tokyo, I said that this a Kevin Ayers for the 2020s, and that is all you should know to rush off and get yourself a copy right away. The sound here is incredibly warm and friendly, and the tunes are very proper, with traditional structure and hummable refrains. To say that Keiron’s vocals are smooth is almost an understatement. Think europop or maybe Bacharach. All of this could easily have drifted into schmalz, but it simply never does. 

Pulling this kind of a warm fantasy off in our current dystopic times almost comes across as radical. If you just manage to open your heart to what is on offer here, you might find that it’s just what the doctor ordered. Wonderful stuff!

Sanguine Hum – A Trace Of Memory

After the wonderfully zany and circular story of the Buttered Cat trilogy of albums, I was expecting to have to wait years for the concluding part, ‘A Suitable Heir’. But instead 2020 gave us both the Archive Vol. 1 album and an album that takes us down memory lane rather than go on a storytelling spree.

And what a wonderful album ‘A Trace Of Memory’ is. Mellower, and more loosely played, yet somehow even more coherent and intense than their previous offerings. To me, this album works like a hall of mirrors that I can get lost in for hours, and that I will continue exploring probably for the rest of this decade. Ignore the prog rock label that some stick on this, and allow yourself to experience something that really moves beyond genres.

Tugboat Captain – Rut

Ahh! This is what it’s all about. Putting on a record and feeling your heart swell with delight. Tugboat Captain’s debut album has it all: memorable hooks, swooning melodies, humour and despair. With orchestral – ramshackle or otherwise – backing to boot. Recorded at Abbey Road – secretly, using free studio time – “Rut” manages to not sound derivative while unashamedly cherry-picking from pop history.

Although the use of an 11-piece choir as well as 13 additional musicians on various instruments lends grandiosity to the sound in places, there is no suffocating perfectionism or cloying production sheen. The DIY approach remains intact and the festive feeling of friends being invited along to make some magical noise is captivating.

Zopp – Zopp

If you love Canterbury music like I do, then you will immediately warm to the self-titled Zopp debut album, which not only includes contributions from people like Theo Travis but also unashamedly states its Kentish intent from the get-go.

Did I say I am Swedish? Hope I won’t spoil it all by saying that the first track, ‘Swedish Love’, is a well-chosen opener. It is pretty smart to start with such a short and whimsical thing that lures me in – and then to pull my ears further in with the longer and more complex ‘Before The Light’.

Zopp’s debut ticks the right boxes in the right way. While sounding very familiar, it remains in control of its own destiny and stands tall with its own compositions.

The last July album on the last day of July

Today is the last day of July. Today is also the day the last a July album is released. And let me tell you that these guys are going out with a bang. “The Wight Album” is as sprawling as it is ambitious, and does not shy away from comparisons with its homonymic twin. 

It is an album full of darkness, experimentation and attitude. It might in fact be the last great psychedelic album from the original era, as it stretches all the way back to 1968, yet simultaneously is very much of the present.

What connects back and indeed makes it feel like a true psychedelic artefact is the approach to music making, rather than the sound on the surface. 

Obviously, the production is much better. Tom Newman who is one of the two remaining core members did after all go on to become one of the key Virgin Records figures, when he together with Richard Branson created the Manor Studio where Mike Oldfield’s unlikely smash hit album Tubular Bells was recorded with Tom’s able help; and he also produced several other key Virgin albums, as well as continued working with Mike Oldfield. Tom still knows his way around a studio, even at the age of 77.

But the music itself still comes across as quite ramshackle, even artless to a degree. Things do not happen in logical order, and conventions seem to be unrecognised rather than broken. Whereas many modern records that recreate analogue sounds from the 60s come across as lifeless and somewhat mechanical, here is a record that breathes and surprises at every step.

There is also at least one track on the album that actually belongs to the iconic 1968 July album era. After having finished what was originally intended to be the final version of “The Wight Album”, Tom one night had a dream in which he was singing one of Pete Cook’s original compositions called “The Game” that was never recorded back in the day. But this dream was unusually lucid in the sense that Tom could still sing the track when he woke up. He immediately called Pete – the main songwriter in July, although he was manoeuvred out of the group for the 1968 recordings – and sang it to him. Pete could not remember it but he found the title in his book of songs, confirming that he had indeed written it. Pete subsequently reconstructed the few parts that Tom had not been able to remember from his dream, and it was added to the album.

What connects “The Wight Album” to the here and now, on the other hand, is very much the perspective on life as experienced by two old men who are getting close to 80. Whereas their brilliant comeback album from 2013, “Resurrection”, aimed at stepping back into their teenage heads and write from there, the perspective this time round is much more grounded in the realities of old age.

Tom – who has been more productive as a songwriter this time than previously with 9 of the 23 songwriting credits – takes what you might call the typical old git stance and largely writes about what has gone wrong in the modern world. But he is also painfully aware of his lifespan nearing its end and offers up his regrets and goodbyes. One touching example that combines both elements is “Love’n’Love” where Tom examines the important relationships of his life and sees that he was not mature enough to keep them going, but instead always ran away.

Pete, on the other hand is bitter, and his anger is as intense as ever a teenager’s anger can be. But whereas Tom looks back on his youthful arrogance with affection, Pete concludes that it was all just hot air that led to nothing. He sees himself as an underachiever and a failure. He never managed to become a rockstar although that was all he ever wanted from life; he didn’t even manage to be on his group’s iconic album and didn’t even get credit for his songs that were on it.

His self-loathing is most visible on tracks like “Special Guy” but in fact underpins most of his writing; it can take ironic turns as on “Truth” where the main character realises that there is an afterlife after all and he is an even bigger failure than even he had imagined because his utter disrespect for such things in this life will doom him in the next.

The album title reflects the fact that it was recorded in Tom’s studio on the Isle of Wight, but is also an obvious homage to the Beatles. Just like their so-called “White Album”, it is a sprawling double set, and also contains a collage intended to play a similar role as “Revolution 9”. Although everything pales in that comparison, it does point to the level of ambition on display here, and the dream of creating something of lasting value at the end of their careers. 

Available both on double vinyl, and as part of a CD box set titled “The Complete Recordings” – I suppose to hammer home the point that July is seeing their last summer – I urge you to give it a chance. This is psychedelia from the original era, yet original, vital and new.

Homunculus Res fire on all consumption cylinders

When Homunculus Res release the best album of 2020 so far, “In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni”, I can only lament that I speak no Italian. Because as fascinating and utterly enjoyable as this album is on musical merits alone, I realise that I am missing out on half the fun as the lyrical content is as complex and full of allusions, illusions and humour as that of the music.

So forgive me – if you speak the language and understand better – for my misunderstandings and misconceptions in the following, but it seems that whereas the first trio of albums where dedicated to the elemental forces earth (as in dirt), water and air in that order, the basic components of the homunculus have now been covered and it can now rise and burn itself in consuming flames – or should that be the flames of consumption?

In any case, the title this time round translates into something like “We go around at night and consume ourselves in the fire” which in Italian is a palindrome (try it out!) of unknown medieval origin that also happens to be the title of a 1978 film by Marxist philosopher and filmmaker Guy Debord. Although I am sure there are many subtleties and nuances I will never grasp, suffer to say that the title points the finger to the inevitable self-destructiveness of our current consumerist way of life.

And forgive me also if I am equally naive in my interpretation of the musical wonders contained on this record, but I just received this CD in the post today from btf.it and I have listened to it constantly on repeat until it has induced a hallucinatory state from which I no longer know how to escape.

It is my impression that compared to earlier albums, previous comparisons to the crown jewel from the Canterbury scene, Hatfield & the North, are both less and more relevant .

Whereas the sweet pop melodies are as much to the fore as ever, they are no longer separated by airy interludes as much as embedded in a more compact format with the drums sometimes marking every beat in the meter. This in no way distracts from the characteristic playfulness but rather creates the basis of a denser and more original sound that is less indebted to the Hatfields while simultaneously keeping the same spirit of unabridged creative joy alive.

However, remaining as complex as ever, it is not an easy album for the listener to approach. Again, as a non-Italian speaker, you initially find little to navigate with, but at least there are a few pegs to hold on to, such as the High Llamas sounding ending section of Buco Nero, arranged and partly played by Petter Herbertsson (from Swedish art pop institutions Testbild! and Sternpost). 

You may also recognise Emanuele Sterbini (from the equally art pop oriented Italian band Sterbus) guesting on vocals on “La Spia.” But relief is only temporary as you realise he is not using English like he does on his own albums. 

Hence, you grasp after the final seconds of “La Luccicanza” that resolve into “Hey Jude” and let you know that this music is indeed part of what you refer to as popular, although it clearly no longer isn’t.

But from there on, you, like me, are lost among the dense and flaming sounds. Yet strangely, on a third, fourth, or possibly fifth listening, you feel the astonishing sensation of being buoyed along on the current rather than drowning in it. You start going with the flow, it no longer scares and disturbs. Minutes later your body begins moving to the jerky rhythms almost by itself as if it where a homunculus controlled by outside forces. And while still not understanding what is happening to your mind, if you are losing your humanity or in fact gaining it, you are realising that music is an elemental force in its own right; music is the very ether that surrounds you. 

The 10 best albums of Q2 2020

I am not sure why I put myself through this pain every quarter. Selecting favourite albums inevitably means taking away several albums that are really great. This quarter that includes releases by Sparks, the Magnetic Fields, Iris Viljanen, Tim Burgess, Bananagun, OHMME and Robert Sotelo just to mention a few.

Still, it forces me to pick the albums that really matter the most, although I am sure that you, dear reader, would make other choices. Music taste is personal!

Aksak Maboul – Figures

With their feet firmly placed in the Canterbury origins of RIO and their heads in a cloud of Stereolab albums, Aksak Maboul have delivered quite a masterpiece.

Although I initially struggled with the rhythmically monotonous parts and skipped to the more National Health sounding passages, repeated listenings have made me capitulate and reconsider. There can be variation also in repetition. That idea also works quite amazingly for the vocal parts of this album. Whereas Marc Hollander and his wife Véronique Vincent pay tribute to Francophone 1960s pop, they simultaneously turn it upside down. The track ‘Dramuscule’ features a dialogue between a dominant man and a submissive woman while simultaneously exposing the absurd misogyny on display.

Véronique Vincent was not an original member of the band, but she certainly takes centre stage here, and the album is all the better for it.

Betlehem Casuals – The Tragedy of Street Dog

Bethlehem Casuals feature seven members, and they certainly make a racket on their second album. While definitely a pop album, it is eccentric, full of twists and turns, and with a sound that throws everything from the past 50 years into the sonic mixer.

But somehow, it all comes out in a quite tuneful way, and doesn’t sound contrived at all. Some tracks are progressive and funky, with a driving saxophone theme; others are smooth and melodic with restive violins and beautiful voices.

Saying that this is the future of pop is an overstatement, but the Betlehem Casuals certainly prove that pop has a future! 

Doomshakalaka – Doomshakalaka

Don’t buy this thinking that you will finally get another Hot Club de Paris album. Now in his 30s, Paul Rafferty has moved on from the life affirming racket of his XTC math rock days and embraced a less quirky and somewhat more anthemic indie-rock world view.  

And rather than looking forward, he his now looking backward at his lost youth and revisiting important moments and memories.

This about-face is also reflected in the band name. The expression boomshakalaka is used in baseball for a slam dunk and more generally to express something powerful and joyous. But it probably originates from a nonsense word passage in the 1969 Sly and the Family Stone song ‘I Want to Take You Higher’. 

Since Rafferty is no longer on a joy trip, he simply switched the boom for a bit of doom.

As a result, this is an album that doesn’t reach out. But with repeated listens, the tunes grow on you and you start noticing all the devilishly nice details. Quite a lovely thing.

Massimo Giuntoli – Tender Buttons

Massimo Giuntoli often combines classical and popular music in a way that remains accessible while clearly being avant-garde. On his latest album, he has set poems from American Paris expatriate Gertrude Stein’s 1914 collection ‘Tender Buttons’ to music. Or maybe I should say: to piano. There is really not much else here than a rather harsh sounding piano (although there are a few other keyboard sounds) and Massimo’s voice, sometimes in splendid solitude; sometimes in dialogue with itself.

As I listen my head fills with modernistic images from silent movies. The melodies are quite varied and capture the strange juxtapositions in Stein’s words to great effect. 

I believe Massimo would prefer to be compared to Robert Wyatt, but as far as I am concerned this is more akin to what Peter Hammill might experiment with. 

Magic Bus – The Earth Years

Even the first few drum beats of the brilliant new Magic Bus album ‘The Earth Years’ capture the hard-to-define propulsive lightness of touch that so very much defines ‘In the Land of Grey and Pink’ era Caravan. Although that inspirational connection remains very much alive throughout the album, the music certainly isn’t just all Canterbury flavoured; another obvious spiritual companion from that era is Mighty Baby.

The songwriting quality is consistently high throughout, but the standout for me is nevertheless the fourth track; titled ‘The Road to La Mezquita’, it seemingly describes an imaginary journey to the great mosque-cathedral of Cordoba in Spain. The track resonates very much with our current state of isolation and inspires me to participate in my mind; a true head trip for the year 2020.

Once and Future Band – Deleted Scenes

The Once and Future Band are from Oakland and you can somehow hear that. Close to the West Coast but less frivolous and harder working. Their second album continues on the path that the first staked out, and we are still very much in a 1970s world where Paul McCartney sets the rules and Steely Dan pulls the punches.

Although the sound is rather maximalist, there is a genuine attention to detail that just puts a big smile on my face, although listening to the dramatic vocals almost can feel like a guilty pleasure at times. Thankfully, they have thrown in a few less enticing instrumentals so that I can catch my breath.

OTEME – Un Saluto alle Nuvole

Although I absolutely love their first two albums, OTEMEs 2018 release ‘Il Corpo nel Sogno’ for some reason slipped under my radar. That is something I will have to remedy, as their new album ‘Un Saluto alle Nuvole’ is absolutely gorgeous. It would be too easy to just slot OTEME into the Canterbury genre; instead, I think they are inspired by a similarly broad musical history as the original Canterbury bands were. 

Since I don’t speak Italian, I am afraid the impact of the words are lost on me, but they are first person accounts by those who care for the terminally ill at the Hospice of San Cataldo in Lucca.

As always a fairly large cast of musicians participate on the album, but I am nevertheless a bit surprised to find Tuxedomoon’s Blaine L Reininger on violin.

Revolutionary Army of The Infant Jesus – Songs Of Yearning

If there is one thing my dear departed father told me was how to be an atheist. But what he didn’t manage to teach me was to listen to religious music, which he loved. It wasn’t until I discovered the Revolutionary Army of The Infant Jesus that I understood how to do that. ‘Songs of Yearning’ certainly is their most consistent and haunting album since their reformation and release of ‘Beauty Will Save The World’ in 2015, after having been in hibernation since 1987.

The new album has a gorgeous pan-European feel despite being British. Songs are sung in multiple languages and there is a strong sense of centuries deep cultural grounding. Don’t miss the companion album ‘Nocturnes’ either!

Kavus Torabi – Hip To The Jag

Knifeworld and Gong band leader, member of a handful of other bands, record label owner and now also solo artist. Kavus certainly keeps busy. But luckily, it is all done with inspiration and attention to detail. If you, like me are a sucker for his signature songwriting style, you will get it in its purest form here.

And just like on the latest Gong album ‘The Universe Also Collapses’ Kavus is on a journey that is as spiritual as it is lysergic. On ‘Hip To The Jag’ the lyrics become more personal as he tries to reconcile life with death and searches for mystic revelation.

The album ends with an over 9 minutes long drone where the music seemingly aims for a universal resonance point, like an interstellar standing wave.

A strange and beautiful album.

Zopp – Zopp

If you love Canterbury music like I do, then you will immediately warm to the self-titled Zopp debut album, which not only includes contributions from people like Theo Travis but also unashamedly states its Kentish intent from the get-go.

Did I say I am Swedish? Hope I won’t spoil it all by saying that the first track, ‘Swedish Love’, is a well-chosen opener. It is pretty smart to start with such a short and whimsical thing that lures me in – and then to pull my ears further in with the longer and more complex ‘Before The Light’.

Zopp’s debut ticks the right boxes in the right way. While sounding very familiar, it remains in control of its own destiny and stands tall with its own compositions.

Best mini album of Q2 2020

Modern Nature – Annual

Almost a year after their brilliant debut LP, Modern Nature are back with a follow-up mini album. The silence has grown even further and reminds even more of ‘Laughing Stock’ era Talk Talk. However, the music here is less dramatic and more free-flowing, focused on capturing an atmosphere of annual recurrence.

The instruments include cello and saxophone; they are beautifully recorded and given space to breath in their analogue splendour. Jack Cooper’s voice is an ever present companion, whispering softly in your ear. On ‘Harvest’ Kayla Cohen of Itasca takes over lead vocals, but the softness remains the same.

Finally, on ‘Wynter’ we are back to the theme from the opening track, making the stillness and lack of motion complete. Breathtaking.

Best single of Q2 2020

Dullards – Unlucky 4 U / Grand Pier

Those (few) of you who are following my posts know that I have turned into quite a Roger Heathers fan. Well here he is back again in a new constellation as one half of the Dullards, an “experimental melodic glam rock power pop band” according to their Bandcamp page. 

‘Unlucky 4 U’ is a 50s pop pastiche mixed up with bits and pieces of power chords. Worthy of Roy Wood, it also features vocals that sound as if they have been recorded in a room on top of a helium factory.

‘Grand Pier’ on the other hand is a sweet ditty that hops and skips along on a summery melody while being contrasted by a panicky lyric.

Nothing dull with the Dullards!

Take a Magic Bus trip through The Earth Years

Earth-Years-final-TEXT-web

The new album by Magic Bus arrives with perfect timing. Not only does it have a summery shine to it; instead of wallowing in the gloom and doom around us, it is peaceful and positive. 

But it does that without being shallow or frivolous. Called ‘The Earth Years’ the album takes an earthly view on the human experience. The old “make love, not war” adage may be implied rather than explicit, but there is no mistaking the hippie lineage.

However, at least for us who have followed Magic Bus from their wonderful self-titled album back in 2010 to this, their fourth release, know that there is nothing contrived about them. Based in Devon, they practice the lifestyle that they preach, live in the moment and are not in a particular need to go anywhere.

As a result their music is simultaneously lazy and full of energy.

The album starts out with ‘Easy Om’. Om is said to be the first sound heard at the creation of the universe and might be interpreted as statement of intent for this album, given its title. 

Even the first few drum beats of the intro capture the hard-to-define propulsive lightness of touch that so very much defines ‘In the Land of Grey and Pink’ era Caravan. Although that inspirational connection remains very much alive throughout the album, the music certainly isn’t just all Canterbury flavoured; another obvious spiritual companion from that era is Mighty Baby.

The songwriting quality is consistently high throughout, but the standout for me is nevertheless the fourth track. Titled ‘The Road to La Mezquita’ it seems to  describe an imaginary journey to the great mosque-cathedral of Cordoba in Spain, seen from many perspectives, starting with that of a leaf:

I am the leaf

I drift

I float around

the empty city

We then get other points of view, from a mouse, a bird and even from a book. Humans are conspicuously absent from the journey, and as I listen I suddenly get a very strong image of the covid-19 pandemic lockdown situation we are in. People are holed up in their homes, and nature is reclaiming the outside world. 

All we can do is participate in our minds, hence the refrain:

Indoor travelling, indoor travelogue

Indoor travelling, dream around the world

I am most certainly letting my imagination run a bit too free here. But that is, I believe, exactly the purpose that Magic Bus have with this record: To set you mind free. Call it a head trip if you wish.

Another highlight is longest track ‘Squirrel’ which again takes the outside world view – here represented by a little squirrel that runs around with feet that hardly touch the ground – and contrasts that with the inner workings of our minds. Towards the middle, the track resolves into a mantric chant and then rises up in a sublimely Caravanesque instrumental outro. Classic stuff.

The album ends in peace and harmony, with ‘We are one’ and the refrain:

We are one, one beneath the sun 

We are one, together we are one

And indeed, there is no planet B. This is scientific fact and not just some druggy hippie sentiment. Either we act in unison, or we may well be about to put an end to the earth years for our species.

The Pretty Things 51st anniversary interview: Phil May R.I.P.

I am shocked and devastated today to receive news that Phil May has left us, at the age of 75. It seems he suffered complications after hip surgery due to having taken a fall with his bike.

His anti-authoritarian way of life is more relevant now than ever. In honour of his memory, I am posting an interview I did with him back in 2015. It was originally published in Japanese music magazine Strange Days #186, pages 55-62, May (of course!) 2015.

The English text is the originally submitted manuscript, and the images display the somewhat edited Japanese article.

Interview and article: Michael Bjorn


 

Strange Days 186 May 2015

The Pretty Things seem to always have been slightly out of step with everything: musical tastes, image fashions, audiences, and record companies. Their history is one of near misses and lost opportunities. Yet, with records like SF Sorrowand Parachutethey must be counted among the true greats. Now they are back with a massive box set with all albums, 45 hitherto unreleased rarities and a DVD with rare live performances and videos, which in true Pretty Things style misses their 50th anniversary and instead celebrates their 51st!

We talk to Phil May who is the only member who has been with the band for all those years to understand more.

 

It must be kind of shocking to see your whole lifetime in a box like this?

Phil: It is quite shocking. My young granddaughters saw one of the videos on it, and said: Grandpa, why are you behaving so crazily? Ha ha! There are things on the box that probably not even my kids are aware of – it will probably be quite a shock to them too!

 

People like Joey Ramone have credited you as the first garage band. Ending up with a big expensive box set like this is a bit of an irony, I suppose?

Phil: You are the first person thats drawn attention to that fact! I am also writing a book at the moment, and there is a lot of sleaze in there – you cant really wrap that up in cellophane!

Phil May 51st anniversary interview p55

People thought that the Beatles had long hair – but looking at some of the videos in the box, you were in a different league.

Phil: Yeah – and even the Rolling Stones got worried because we had taken their ground. Apparently Mick Jagger and Andrew Loog Oldham – as businessmen – could see the pitch they had made being undermined. Therefore they pulled rank and got us taken off Ready Steady Go.

 

As I understood it, they managed to get you thrown out of everything at BBC radio?

Phil: Obviously, they left no stone unturned. Vicky Wickham, the producer, Oldham and Jagger, they were all pals. Whether they had influence in other places, or if it was just the threat of not giving them first choice of playing a Stones single, I dont know. But there was a lot of blackmail and stuff going on in the record industry.

 

The “£.s.d.track that was on the Pretty Things on FilmEP and also as B-side to Come See Mewas banned of course.

Phil: Yes. The Pharmaceutical Society of Britain said we were promoting the use of a dangerous drug, and the BBC immediately banned it. We put the pounds, shillings and pence sign on it – but it was only tongue-in-cheek, we had no illusions that it would fool anybody. But I think it is like sex – it is more dangerous if you dont talk about it.

Drugs were beginning to be part of life. I was one of the people who was incredibly lucky and had fantastic trips; I have never had a bad one. You know, I really wrote SF Sorrow on it and for me it was a fantastic tool for my writing.

But for a lot of people it was devastating. We had a guy who did the light show, but some nights he couldnt even tell us apart from the other bands that were playing. Poor Mike the Light, I am sure he went through the rest of his life several sandwiches short of a picnic.

 

“£.s.d.was funnier than the Kinks – but ironically you were then forced to do a Kinks song.

Phil: Through Mick Avery or Ray or David, I had heard some really nice Kinks songs and doing a Kinks song was discussed between us. But then the record company took over. They got some of Rays demos from the publisher, and even though I said No, fuck it, these arent the songs I listened to they thought House in the Country was good.

The whole thing was bullshit to us. As you say, it was ironic! You get hoisted on your own petard!

Phil May 51st anniversary interview p56-57 

Recording SF Sorrowat Abbey Road at the same time as the Pink Floyd and the Beatles must have been quite an experience.

Phil: Because of the Beatles being in the building, we were trapped in for about 14 hours at a time by about 200 screaming school girls, who surrounded the building every day.

Abbey Road had this dreadful canteen, where you put half a crown in so you could open a little window, and it would be a sausage or a meal even. It was so disgusting that there were loads of food fights. It got to a kind of anarchy about the food situation.

But it wasnt all about the food: Lennon would always stick his head round the door every time he came in, and have a little listen. And, you know, we walked down the corridor and the door would open and it would be Bungalow Bill; or you would bump into Eric Clapton in the canteen who had this strange triad relationship with Patty and George.

 

Speaking of relationships, in the middle of recording SF Sorrow, your drummer Skip Alan went off to marry a French woman who had just been divorced.

Phil: Unbelievable, ha ha! She was very nice, Christine, a kind of femme fatale, more than twice his age probably. He had to try it – and I certainly wasnt going to stop him, even though we were in the middle of recording. At the time we didnt know it would be one of the most important musical statements we would make.

 

And this happened because you were not in the studio all the time.

Phil: We had no money. EMI had given us a £ 3.500 advance for the album, which was a joke. According to our manager Bryan Morrison, we owed more than that, so the advance disappeared. To feed ourselves and keep our families together, we had to go to work. We would do five days in the studio, and go off to Germany to do a couple of festivals. Then wed come back on so on.

 

After Dick Taylor had left, in the summer of -69, you recorded the Philippe DeBarge sessions.

Phil: Philippe came along somewhere to a gig and introduced himself, he was the son of a millionaire. And he said: I want to make a record. First, we didnt want to be bothered just for some rich persons ego. But, when we got to know him, we realised he wanted music really badly. He was a very nice guy and he had a kind of naivety about him and a sophistication, it was kind of an odd cocktail. He ended up becoming a very good friend and my daughters godfather, and therefore it was a pleasurable thing.

 

The sessions were recorded at Nova Studios in London. Did you ever go to France with DeBarge?

Phil: We went to his parents wonderful place in St. Tropez, before the sessions. We would hang out by the pool, getting stoned and talking about the album; Wally and I were starting to write things and get a feel for what Philippe was and what he could portray.

One evening, all the family would go in to St. Tropez for dinner. And this garage opens – theres a Rolls Royce 1837 with quilted seats; a Mercedes, a Ferrari, theres a Lamborghini. The old man, he was 65, went in black leather on this Harley Davidson; we went in the 1850 Genevieve or whatever it was, an extraordinary thing.

When we got to the quay in St. Tropez, there was no car parking, but we just got out of the car and left it. When we were halfway through our meal the police came – but they said Oh, monsieur DeBarge, no problem. Then the meal finishes, and we get up and walk out – nothing as disgusting as having a bill disturb the meal. It was just sent on later.

Quite funny – and when you are stoned, a lot of those things become even more humorous.

Phil May 51st anniversary interview p58-59

How did you record the songs?

Phil: We would do the track, and vocally I would sing it. Philippe, who was staying at the Hilton in London, would take a little cassette of my vocal, and the next day, he would come in and do it verbatim. We made the record like we were the Pretty Things. Serious stuff – it wasnt a playboys toy. There was a need to make another record, so I wouldnt say it was the finest bit of writing – but there are some really nice songs on it. And they were songs that in some ways had to suit Philippe.

 

A couple of the Philippe DeBarge tracks came from the Electric Banana records you had made.

Phil: Yeah, we had another source of income, which was very important to us, to keep us going. We made the dreadful Norman Wisdom film Whats Good For the Goose while we were writing SF Sorrow. While we were waiting to go on the film set, luckily, we used the time to write.

 

Some of the Electric Banana stuff is pretty good. How come it is not on the box set?

Phil: The Electric Banana discs were meant to be sent out to directors at TV companies who might be looking for source material for film. But some young kids started nicking them in De Wolfes stock room and sold them to record buyers. The recordings started to get a reputation, which was a bit worrying as we were signed up at the time and were working illegally. Thats why we had to use a pseudonym.

Then De Wolfe started putting it out as the Pretty Things, and we stopped them. They werent very nice people to deal with all the way along the line, and they paid us peanuts. Weve had a quite torrid legal time with them. I think its been sour grapes, really.

 

You then lived communally at Westbourne Terrace, where you recorded demos both before and after Parachutethat are included on the box.

Phil: Yeah, I was living with Gaia Mitchell who was a top model, she got me in there. Then a room became available and I got Wally in there because it was very useful when we were working on Parachute. Wed be writing and at around 1 oclock Id go and get into bed. But Wally stayed on and would be screaming at the top of his voice at 4 oclock in the morning – and the whole house would go What the fuck is going on!?! We were working with a Teac reel-to-reel tape machine and had headphones when we were doing the vocals, so others didnt hear the music. It was hilarious because you were only hearing these abruptly screamed vocals!

Phil May 51st anniversary interview p60-61

When you quit the Pretty Things in 1976, in the summer you went and stayed with your wife and Daughter on Philippe DeBarges houseboat on the Seine.

Phil: I was there for about 8 or 9 days, thats all. And then I was in constant contact with Jimmy Page and Peter Grant and Robert Plant, who said they wanted the band back together. I went to see the band and they said they preferred to carry on as Metropolis without me.

I think the wound was very deep and what also really contributed was the kind of drug abuse that was going on through those American years and the years with the launch of Swan Song. A lot of stuff was done that wasnt good for relationships at all. It is no surprise under all those pressures that the band broke up.

 

It seems you are picking up quite young audiences these days.

Phil: Yeah, we are, it is fantastic. God knows where they picked up on the music and how they got there. But its great because we have moved on, we are not like the Animals or even the Yardbirds who havent moved on.

 

Are you working on something now?

Phil: Weve got a new studio album being mastered as we speak and is coming out this spring. Ive done the artwork for the cover, and it is called The Sweet Pretty Things (Are In Bed Now, Of Course…) which is from Bob Dylans Tombstone Blues. We once spent a day together with Dylan and then forever after when he came to London, we were always away. So we kept getting these messages from him but we never saw him again.

Phil May 51st anniversary interview p62-63

Neil Innes – How Sweet To Be An Idiot

Innes - How Sweet To Be An Idiot

I have said this before, but now it is true more than ever: The world needs an idiot with a duck on his head and a piano

In a sad irony, the opening track of Neil Innes’ last solo album, ‘Nearly Really’ was called ‘Old Age Becomes Me’. Alas, that was not to be as he left us aged 75 on December 29th only a couple of months after that final album was released.

Before his untimely death, he was also working with Grapefruit Records on the definitive and much needed reissue of his debut album, ‘How Sweet To Be An Idiot’. This album is shock full of Innes’ carefree charm and warm humour, and, if you have a bit of patience with the first few songs, it offers up some absolutely cracking Beatlesque pop songs.

Squeezed in between higher profiled releases he was involved in from both Grimms and Monty Python, it seems the album got lost in the shuffle. 

In fact, it almost feels as if Innes himself didn’t really focus on it all that much; to me it seems that the LP almost plays out like a rehearsal session. It starts with a short and wonderful vignette, as if just to state what the album really will be about, but then all of the original A-side of the album is filled with what feels like warm-up material, a boogie, a blues number and so on. The band, however, are hot from the get go and Ollie Halsall in particular is a delight to the ear.

But then comes the original B-side, and here we have the actual album, one pop wonder after the other. Fittingly, the side begins with the title track, and what a masterful song it is; starting with the heartfelt lyric about the idiot, then changing tack and turning into something from Sgt Pepper. 

And frankly, every track on the B-side is brilliant. My favourite may even be the somewhat shuffling ‘This Love Of Ours’, sounding a bit like an outtake from the Wings album ‘Venus and Mars’ if that album only had been recorded two years earlier.

Unfortunately, as if Neil had somehow forgotten how short and LP is or how many sides it has, the whole thing then ends all too quickly, tellingly with ‘Singing A Song Is Easy’.

I say tellingly, because intentional disregard of quality control is almost a hallmark for Neil Innes; he was so talented and inspiration came to him seemingly so easy, that he took it all just as it came. That is also why he (allegedly) described the album sessions himself like this: “If a track didn’t happen after four or five run-throughs we dropped it and went on to another one.”

If someone had been there to exercise stricter control, things would most likely have been different. When Innes a few years later made the Rutles album, he had to mimic the Beatles’ quality standards, hence that album is great from start to finish. So great in fact, that in the end lawyers forced him to hand over the song writing credits to Lennon & McCartney, despite none of the songs actually copying a Beatles song in any technical sense. It sounds crazy but it is true.

But this reissue also has a quite worthwhile set of bonus tracks, consisting of singles from the 1973-75 period.

I for one am very glad to get to hear “Music From Rawlinson’s End”. Although it is an instrumental track, I am a bit of a sucker for anything and everything connected to Vivian Stanshall’s Rawlinson’s End project!

The disc also contains a couple of other single tracks that I didn’t have; and the greatest find among those has to be ‘What Noise Annoys A Noisy Oyster’, which shamelessly rhymes “oyster” with “moisture”. Pure genius!

You need an idiot with a duck on his head and a piano. Maybe you just don’t know it.

Chinofeldy make staying at home worthwhile

Joe Kane and Marco Rea have teamed up as Chinofeldy to make lockdown pop for these strange times together with self-isolating friends across the world. 

Their new single, ‘Stay Home’ has an incredibly Beatlesque hook of a melody that will melt your heart in less than three seconds. If it doesn’t, you have a serious issue, because it means that lump in your chest is really a stone.

This is the type of song that makes staying at home worthwhile: It is simple and catchy, yet impossible to tire of even if you put it on endless repeat. Pure genius.

So what if it is unashamedly retro? Now that we are all isolated in our homes, time has literally stopped. We might as well let a little sunshine in and smile like it is 1967 all over again: The Beatles reached out to the world via satellite to over 400 million people with ‘All You Need Is Love’. Now we have the Internet. And hand sanitizer.

I want to stay home 

With the rest of the world 

Hold invisible hands 

Hope you washed them as well

Chinofeldy is a bit of an underground supergroup by the way. If you haven’t heard their other projects, start with Marco’s amazing solo album ‘Wallpaper Music’ and Joe’s first Dr. Cosmo’s Tape Lab album. Then go on from there!

But before that, don’t miss out on the ‘Stay Home’ video, it’s every bit as warm and fun as the song!