After the headrush

Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-1984

Simon Reynolds, Faber & Faber, 2019, 608 pages

MARK GULLICK savours an appreciation of an excitingly original music scene

Punk rock in both its British and American incarnations is probably as thoroughly documented as any musical genre. Punk seen as a transition, stage or catalyst, however, and the loose, disparate and inspired genre it gave rise to, is relatively uncharted territory, which makes Simon Reynolds’ Rip it Up and Start Again necessary reading for those interested in some of the most innovative rock music to emerge from the Western world in the last century or this.

Post-punk had something which punk had only in larval form – variety. Punk simply could not pluck cards randomly from its deck and come up with a hand as musically diverse as Joy Division, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, XTC, Throbbing Gristle and Devo. The sheer range of styles is breath-taking when it is presented in the accurate and mannered style of Reynolds’s book, and this is a thrilling account of a time of invention and music as genuine art, one which I bemoaned the lack of until a music journalist friend alerted me to Rip It Up.

Punk did not simply stop, of course, allowing post-punk to clock in for its shift, although Reynolds does follow convention by marking the territorial division in the traditional way.  Thus, punk ends with the final Sex Pistols gig in America, and the post-punk period commences with John Lydon’s formation of Public Image Ltd. But, as Reynolds shows, there is another dividing line, not temporal but conceptual. Where punk was mostly visceral, post-punk was in large part cerebral.

Although the title of Reynolds’s book – the name of a song by Scottish band Orange Juice – suggests a year-zero reset for alternative music in Britain, there was of course a shading of one ‘movement’ into its successor. Punk had liberated rock music in two main ways, financial and formal. Pre-punk, you needed record company backing or well-off parents to buy equipment (undoubtedly one reason so many British rock bands of the 1960s and 1970s were so posh). APE (after the punk era), you could emulate The Cure’s Robert Smith, who recorded the band’s first albums with a £17 electric guitar from Woolworth. I saw the guitar played on several occasions, having known The Cure when they were starting out, and it always sounded good to me, becoming a trademark sound for Smith.

Robert Smith, with his Woolworth’s guitar

The formal liberation is less obvious, but punk stripped down the concept of the song to its bare components, and this demystification of music carried on into all the major post-punk bands. The Gang of Four’s Damaged Goods is about as far from Yes as it is possible to get. But this was not the denial of rock history, far from it. Among post-punk bands there was also an awareness of what went before them that had evolved from the semi-nihilist ramalama of punk rock into a type of working manifesto.

Gang of Four – not like Yes

Punk bands had their lineage in 60s garage rock, rockabilly, The Stooges, MC5 and more, and some were more rock-literate and aware of the provenance of their sound than others. But where punks had a vague inkling of what birthed them, post-punks knew to antiquarian detail which bands were their progenitors. And they were not just aware of musical artistic tradition. You were more likely to hear Sheffield industrial-synth duo Cabaret Voltaire (as their name would suggest) talking about Dada as The Damned.

Put simply, the musicians who followed the punks were several leagues more intelligent. Magazine’s Howard Devoto, all of Wire, XTC, even The Fall’s Mark E. Smith – given bouts of incoherence – were all thinkers. There is a delightful snippet in which Reynolds tells of The Ramones’ dumb amazement, while touring with Talking Heads, that David Byrne et al read books in their down time instead of raising hell. Rather sadly, the abiding iconic figure from punk ended up being Sid Vicious, as inarticulate and destructive a clod as you could find. Compare and contrast with Gareth Sager of visionary post-punk band The Pop Group;

In an NME feature, Gareth Sager argued that Western civilisations, being “based on cities”, were sick because they were cut off from “natural cycles”, unlike African tribes where repression simply didn’t exist

Whereas with punk there was a riot going on, post-punk sometimes felt like there was a seminar going on.

My own favourites from the period – Joy Division, Wire, The Fall, The Slits, Magazine and Killing Joke – receive the treatment you would expect as post-punk luminaries. I have a particular affection for Joy Division and Killing Joke, which stems from a wonderful 45-minute conversation about music with Joy Division’s tragic singer Ian Curtis a year before his suicide, and a drunken evening with Geordie Walker, Killing Joke’s phenomenal guitarist. He wouldn’t let me pay for any drinks, claiming that we were drinking the royalties from Love Like Blood, the band’s biggest hit.

Killing Joke

Reynolds is not Britcentric, however, but rather transatlantically exhaustive. He ranges across the herring pond with the ease of a practiced music journalist, showing an appreciation of sub-genre as well as genre.

Musically, punk is familiar territory. The Ramones, 1234, rolling eighths on the bass, total 4/4 drumming and what was habitually described in the music press of the time as ‘buzz-saw guitar’ (the go-to adjective for post-punk guitar sounds being ‘angular’). Post-punk was both more experimental and far more knowledgeable and expansive concerning its ancestry than punk. Its effects were also not limited to the music. Graphic design also benefitted from post-punk, and Rip It Up has occasional sleeve art which shows a much more advanced visual and graphic awareness about packaging – perfected by Scritti Politti’s use of famous branding to adorn their sleeves – doubtless a result of the link between post-punk and art college.

Much of the post-punk conversation tends back towards art and art rock, and various players have their say on the subject. Deciding what is art and what is not, of course, is akin to playing rock-scissors-paper in that the winner has not displayed any particular skill in the subject. But at the same time even the culturally tone-deaf can tell that there is a difference between Wire and Magazine on the one hand, and The Damned and Slaughter and the Dogs on the other. That said, the more trying aspects of the art-school approach are highlighted by a Wire gig at which, onstage,

…someone attacked a gas stove, while Zegk Hoop featured twelve people with newspaper head-dresses on playing percussion

Art, quite possibly, for art’s sake.

Any review of a cultural movement is now habitually viewed through the prism of the present, given the interesting times in which we live. To use the contemporary vernacular, Reynolds is pleasingly non-woke. It is a simple fact that, while punk took inspiration from black music, post-punk was almost entirely a white phenomenon. Then, of course, this might draw the occasional disinterested observation. Given that the one Reynolds includes, bemoaning the whiteness of the post-punk scene, comes from Lester Bangs, we would do well to remember that Bangs was a drunken drug addict best known for being Lou Reed’s court jester.

If post-punk had happened now, the whole movement, if such it was, would be under the Klieg lights of woke. Music is strictly patrolled by the commissars now, as is the whole entertainment industry. Post-punk took a studied view of politics rather than a coerced one. Reynolds makes an astute observation about post-punk bands and their rather more guarded approach than their forebears, not to race but to anti-racism, which feels very familiar today;

[W]hile most British post-punk groups participated in the Rock Against Racism tours and festivals of the era, they were wary of both RAR itself and its sister organisation, the Anti-Nazi League, suspecting them of being thinly disguised fronts for the militant, left-wing Socialist Workers Party (who valued music purely as a tool for radicalising and mobilising youth).

Today it is of course mandatory for musicians to keep their CV up to date concerning race. It is difficult to imagine XTC’s debut album, White Music, having a problem-free release just at the moment.

XTC

If you already enjoy the music of any of the bands covered by Reynolds, Rip It Up is a schoolroom of apocrypha. Personally, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures remains very close to my heart and not least because of sound effects on two tracks, Insight and I Remember Nothing. They sounded, respectively, as though someone had recorded an old lift for the first song, and smashed bottles in the second. I had never heard music like it. How did they do that? The answer, of course, was hidden in plain sight, like Edgar Allan Poe’s purloined letter. The producer of Unknown Pleasures, Martin Hannett;

…loved the occasional extreme effect: On the debut Unknown Pleasures, he miked up the clanking of an antique lift for Insight and incorporated smashing glass on I Remember Nothing.

Reynolds achieves two pleasing results for a rock music writer in that he does not assume the role of central arbiter who decides what is good and what is not (he limits himself discreetly to assessing cultural value) while simultaneously being unable to disguise his favourite artists (he has an obvious soft spot for PiL and Scritti Politti). So it is as the enchanting hybrid of fan and researcher that he traces the many tributaries of the post-punk river, and the many cultural effects, not least in the media.

Punk did post-punk a great service by creating a highly significant, high-circulation, rock-literate music press. Reynolds estimates that, including the ‘knock-on’ rate of readership, where copies are read and passed on, the combined readership of the four big titles was around two million a week, figures the MSM would kill or die for now. And so post-punk was not left floundering around wasting its sweetness on the desert air because of mass media’s lack of interest. They had a dedicated press from the start.

They also had a figure who is sainted in any music biography covering the period he was alive, and rightly so: John Peel. Having championed punk and taken enthusiastically to its descendants (before an attack of musical malaise in the mid-1980s led him to claim that “I don’t even like the records I like”), Peel was as crucial as he had been and was to be in the promotion of what Reynolds calls “dissident music”, music produced outside the establishment industry channels:

Peel’s support of the marginal and maverick was all the more crucial because Radio One, before deregulation of the airwaves, enjoyed a near monopoly over pop music in the UK.

The production side of the music industry also underwent change due to post-punk. It is a common perception that while punk was about DIY records and musical autonomy, its demise represented the end of independence and the return of the big record companies and promoters. In fact – and Reynolds devotes a painstakingly researched chapter to this – the punk bands couldn’t wait to get famous and get on a major label, while the period covered in Rip It Up was notable for the fierce autonomy of some of the bands and labels. Of course, as The Clash’s Joe Strummer (somewhat hypocritically) had noted, record labels were always going to be “turning rebellion into money” and, as Mark E. Smith wryly noted, “all the English groups act like peasants with free milk, on a route to the loot”, but the post-punk era saw more determination about retaining creative and financial control.

But any movement is only what its defenders say it is. Post-punk, as Reynolds makes beautifully and caringly clear, was very far from monolithic. Ska, Goth, New Pop, synthpop, Industrial, post-punk’s territory is expansive and divulgent. Some was complete news to me, and I was what Mark E. Smith called a “printhead” at the time when it came to the New Musical Express and Melody Maker. I had never heard of (with the exception of The Residents) the subject bands of the chapter ‘Freak Scene: Cabaret Noir and Theatre of Cruelty in Post-punk San Francisco’. Reynolds is encyclopaedic.

He is also a good music writer. Elvis Costello once quipped that “writing about music is like dancing about writing”, which contains a point but does not tell the full tale. Many rock writers use the experience as a rite of passage to the ‘proper papers’, whereas with Reynolds, his love of his subject matter keeps the prose buoyant and the descriptions of the music – which can unseat music writers prone to exuberance – are concise and evocative. It feels as though, had you not heard one note produced by one band in Rip It Up, you would still find it an enjoyable read.

Rip it Up and Start Again is a wonderful book about an exciting and artistically fresh few years. Reynolds counts himself fortunate – after having been a slow starter with punk – to have been involved in the wonderful flat-pack Renaissance that was post-punk:

Young people have a biological right to be excited about the times in which they’re living. If you are very lucky, that hormonal urgency is matched by the insurgency of the era – your innate adolescent need for amazement and belief coincides with a period of objective abundance. The prime years of post punk… were like that: a fortune.

His good fortune is also ours.

50 years of Sticky Fingers

CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD recalls the shambolic genesis of the Stones’ masterpiece

At about eleven on the Monday morning of 9 March 1970, a somewhat distressed-looking olive green, midsized BMC lorry of the kind typically used to haul heavy goods around the country, crunched up the gravel driveway of a sprawling manor house located just outside the village of East Woodhay on the Hampshire-Berkshire border. The driver of the truck was a burly 31-year-old with the uncompromisingly Scots name of Ian Stewart, and he was there not to deliver industrial equipment but to help record a rock and roll album.

For the next several hours Stewart and two assistants threaded dozens of multicoloured cables through the home’s heavily studded front doors and into the entrance hall, in due course installing drum kits and guitar amplifiers, knocking together crudely fashioned isolation booths like the old sensory-deprivation chambers in TV’s Double Your Money, and plugging in a forest of microphones against a backdrop of musty chandeliers and ancestral portraits that stared down in silent reproach at the cast of shaggy-haired residents gradually emerging from all corners of the home, whose doll-like smallness gave them the air of elves curiously inspecting a room in an advancing state of preparation for a party.

Stargroves

The somewhat implausible name of the house was Stargroves, and at that time it was owned by Mick Jagger. Jagger and his band the Rolling Stones – for it was they – had elected to record in this manner in order to relieve themselves of the tedious 9-5 restrictions of a traditional commercial studio. By doing it their way the five band members and their auxiliary musicians could plug in whenever the mood took them, and the 8-track console installed in the back of the truck parked outside would capture the results.

It was a good idea, and it almost worked. Jagger himself, along with his colleagues Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts and Mick Taylor duly spent much of the next six weeks cutting the basic tracks for what became the group’s ninth British LP, and the first to be released on the band’s own label, and which, after toying with the likes of Sour Grapes and – for some compelling reason – The Vagina Album, they named Sticky Fingers. For his part, the Stones’s narcotically-inclined guitarist and on his day leading creative force Keith Richards sometimes made it to the recordings, and sometimes didn’t. If a session was called for, say, ten o’clock at night, Keith might stroll in around three in the morning accompanied by his entourage of spliff-wielding Rastafarians, waif-like young women and sundry other advisers and assistants notable for their heavy use of mascara and the leather satchels clutched in their arms.

Before long, certain other challenges inherent to the concept of a group of young rock musicians working without external supervision also asserted themselves. As the weeks wore on, there were frequent arguments and absences throughout the band. The rhythm section of Wyman and Watts were both married men with children, and more than once they expressed their distaste for working through the night in a colleague’s remote country estate located some 80 miles from their own suburban-London homes. Several witnesses later noted that even the consummately professional Jagger would periodically down tools, if the phrase weren’t so inappropriate, whenever one of his specially favoured female companions appeared at Stargroves. “Suddenly”, Ian Stewart once told me, “there were days when Mick disappeared upstairs”.

Perhaps all rock and roll albums should be made with comparatively primitive technology installed in the back of a truck parked outside the door, with creative differences being not so much aired as shouted out, because the result of the Rolling Stones’s labours, as buffed up by the band’s wunderkind producer Jimmy Miller at various locations over the course of the next twelve months, and formally released on 23 April 1971, remains arguably the masterpiece of their long career.

It would require a life of more than mere detachment from the whims of popular culture, and devoted instead to the most austere monastic seclusion, for the reader not to be on terms of at least passing familiarity with the album’s opening number ‘Brown Sugar’. A – or the – classic frothy Stones raveup, it had curious origins. In the summer of 1969, hard on the heels of events such as the firing and almost immediate death of the Stones’s founding genius Brian Jones, and the band’s perhaps ill-advised free concert in front of 300,000 fans in Hyde Park just two days later, Mick Jagger had flown to Australia with his girlfriend Marianne Faithfull to take the lead role in Tony Richardson’s film Ned Kelly – the idea presumably being that one rebel, no matter how slight his screen-acting experience, should play another. The production got off to a bad start when Jagger was forced to walk a gauntlet of protesters on arrival at Sydney airport, indignant that their nation’s 19th-century outlaw hero should be portrayed by, as one of the signs had it, a “pommy faggot”. Following that there was the near-fatal overdose of Jagger’s costar and travelling companion, which again saw the words ‘Stones’ and ‘drugs’ deployed in close proximity to one another in the world’s tabloid headlines. Tony Richardson promptly dropped Faithfull from the cast of Ned Kelly, which would go on to grace all the ‘Worst Movies in History’ lists following its limited release in June 1970. Adding injury to insult, Jagger was badly hurt when, once out on location, a prop pistol exploded in his hand. The unit nurse stitched him up and told him to keep his right arm immobile. Preferring to doctor himself, Mick instead picked up a guitar one afternoon and idly strummed a two-bar phrase around the C, G and F chords, then threw in some hurriedly improvised bondage-fantasy lyrics. This happy collision between boredom and physical therapy would be the best thing to come out of Ned Kelly. Once back in London, Jagger and Richards swiftly worked up the riff into ‘Brown Sugar’.

Next up on Sticky Fingers was a hidden gem called ‘Sway’, a solid if largely unremarkable reminder of the band’s blues roots until Mick Taylor suddenly swooped in with a bottleneck slide guitar during the bridge, and a dramatic, virtuoso outro solo that may represent the finest 30 seconds of his five-and-a-half year tenure as a Rolling Stone. Another swift gear change ushered in ‘Wild Horses’, a lovely ballad in its way even if Ian Stewart, doubling as the band’s primary roadie and occasional pianist, had pronounced himself unwilling to perform on any ‘Chinese shit’, as he termed music with minor chords, when called upon to accompany the track. Essentially a love song from Keith Richards to his partner Anita Pallenberg, Jagger rewrote the lyrics as a plea to Marianne Faithfull to rejoin him after she’d stepped out with one of Anita’s exs (all very fraternal were the Stones in those days), the painter Mario Schifano. It perhaps wouldn’t be hard to locate the names of certain rock and roll bands who over the years have embarrassed both their audiences and themselves by their misguided attempts at the romantic air – somehow I’m always reminded on these occasions of the baroque strains of Spinal Tap’s immortal ‘Lick My Love Pump’ – but what’s extraordinary here is that the Stones are at their most convincing when they aim at the sublime.

Next up: the gloriously eccentric ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’, a rock-guitar groove that swerved halfway through into a mariachi jam session. It was pronounced No. 25 on one of Rolling Stone magazine’s incessant lists of The 100 Greatest Rock Songs of All Time, but even without that particular bauble it would be hard for any normally sensate listener to remain wholly unmoved by Keith Richards’s shattering opening guitar bolt and the collective locomotion of his four colleagues and their sidemen – Bobby Keys on tenor sax to the fore – that followed. Side One, as such things were then designated, ended with the Stones’s somewhat frazzled take on Mississippi Fred McDowell’s classic spiritual ‘You Gotta Move’, which they’d initially cut in embryonic form at around three one morning in December 1969 while crouched around a microphone positioned in a toilet bowl (for that ‘shitty sound’, as Keith approvingly put it) at Muscle Shoals studio in rural Alabama.

Flip the disc over, and you had the horn-drenched blowout of ‘Bitch’, after which things calmed down with three songs – ‘I Got the Blues’, ‘Sister Morphine’ and ‘Dead Flowers’ – with seemingly little in common but their border-jumping from the world of roots rock and roll into those of country and soul, and back again, not to mention their assorted drug references and the basic premise of ‘Morphine’ itself, with its gory allusion to Marianne Faithfull’s recent miscarriage.

The whole thing wound down with the soporific ‘Moonlight Mile’, a weirdly insinuating slab of orchestral blues with lyrics one earnest American reviewer described as a “rare case of Mick Jagger letting go of his public persona, offering a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the weariness that accompanies the pressures of keeping up appearances as a sex-drugs-and-rock and roll star”, and another perhaps overextended himself by comparing to W.B. Yeats. The song had a curious and on the whole less exalted genesis. Keith Richards had first strummed the moody chords to ‘The Japanese Thing’, as the track was then known, while sitting on the kitchen floor, a bowl of cereal in his lap, late one night at Stargroves. Initially there had been something of a skeleton crew present at the moment of creation, with just Charlie Watts on drums and the trumpet player Jim Price improvising on piano. Mick Jagger was upstairs in his boudoir, Bill Wyman had also retired, and nobody knew exactly where Mick Taylor was after his co-guitarist had informed him, “Don’t bother to play on this – you’re too bloody loud”. Six months later, Keith was too stoned to make it to the final session for ‘Moonlight Mile’, which the two Micks put together in his absence. Taylor later expressed a certain surprise to see his name omitted from the song’s all-important writing credit, an early milestone down the road to his decision to defect from the band in December 1974.

Kali – unlikely inspiration for the Stones’ slavering lips and tongue logo

Even without the bulging Andy Warhol-designed crotch on the front cover, and the particularly lubricious advertising campaign that met its release, Sticky Fingers could be said to definitively capture the debauched essence of the Rolling Stones in all their strung-out 1970s glory. It was also the first product to feature the band’s iconic trademark, inspired, apparently, by the Thug goddess Kali, and actually drawn by a young Royal College of Art student named John Pasche. Pasche was paid his standard design fee, fifty guineas. That tongue and lips logo, slavering in a cunnilingual leer, would soon be recognisable to millions of people around the world who never bought a rock record or attended a concert: it remains today the ultimate pop-culture accessory.

The last sight that many Britons thought they would ever have of the Rolling Stones was of the band camping its way through ‘Brown Sugar’ on Top of the Pops. Mick Jagger vamped it up in a pink satin suit, Keith Richards’s chugging guitar drove the teenaged audience into a synchronised boogie, and the rest of the band mimed frantically away as best they could. By the time the clip aired on the evening of 15 April 1971, the Stones themselves were already safely ensconced in their new South of France domiciles, either victims of a merciless Establishment backlash, or, more prosaically, of the Inland Revenue’s attentions to their back earnings, depending on which version of events you prefer. Either way, the sessions for their next album moved from Mick Jagger’s relatively sedate Home Counties estate to the more ramshackle charms of Keith Richards’s digs on the Riviera, and the last of the band’s indisputably great albums would duly emerge under the title Exile on Main Street. But that’s another story.

Canadian rock revisited

Derek Turner interviews Canadian rock titan EDGAR BREAU

Q. Canada’s musical heritage is as varied as its landscape – from the Celtic-and French-infused “music of the maritimes”, via Portia White, Oscar Peterson, Paul Anka, Neil Young, Steppenwolf, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, to M.O.R. mega-acts like Rush, Bryan Adams, Céline Dion, Michael Bublé, and Justin Bieber. But your musical roots draw from less familiar soil. Critics have detected influences ranging from English folk to psychedelia and “Krautrock”, and Soft Machine to Stockhausen and Velvet Underground. I assume you don’t ever apply labels to yourself! But do you have a kind of philosophy of music? What attracts you to a song? Does it have to be ‘meaningful’ as well as melodic and rhythmic? How would you describe your writing process?

A. I started out playing Gordon Lightfoot cover songs from his record Back Here on Earth. Well-constructed songs of place, person, and lived experience by one of the best. Next came Scottish songsmith Donovan Leitch, with his bluesy Celtic mix – a very subtle writer, lovely melodies and rich lyrical content. Bob Dylan’s symbolist lyrical experiments were also a big influence on me in my youth. Those two poles pretty well sum up what I look for in a song. When I first recorded in 1974 my songs sounded nothing like the above-mentioned songwriters. Only later would the early folk influences return.

My writing process now – I take various open tuning approaches, finger style. I sometimes will start off with a catchy, promising song title. “That was the Week that Was”, the satirical BBC program furnished me with one such. It suggested word play to me, and the story line developed gradually into a romantic week that was brief and seemingly of little consequence – “the drinks got to me” – but upon reflection something more powerful occurred and reflection fills the mind of the protagonist with poignant memories. I throw out reams of material on the way to something solid that I can work on and develop into a good song. Trial and error and a lot of revision.

A 1757 map of French Canada

Q. What music did you hear around you when you were growing up? Were your parents musical? What is your family background? What was 1970s Hamilton like to grow up in? To an outsider, it looks like a city both busy, and with some commitment to culture.

A. There was always music in the home. My father, who was an east coast Acadian from Chatham New Brunswick, played the mouth organ and sang old French songs he learned in his youth. His musical tastes ranged from accordionist Harry Hibbs, a traditional Newfoundlander, country singer Hank Snow, balladeer Jim Reeves, Strauss waltzes and some Italian opera. I have three older sisters who played and danced to Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Jerry Lewis, Ivory Joe Hunter 78s. Later on, the youngest of them, Maureen began buying girl-group 45s by the Chiffons, Supremes, Ronettes, Martha and the Vandellas, and many others. I watched American Bandstand with her. She brought the Rolling Stones’ records into the house as well. My mom loved all our records. My father was mostly contemptuous of it, except for Gordon Lightfoot.

My father came from a French/Catholic Acadian background which reached far back in our country’s history. Our most distant relative, Vincent Breau (Breaux, Brault) arrived in Canada from France in 1661 and became the ‘Adam’ of the entire line of descendants bearing his name. It could be said that the ‘Breaus’ were one of ten or twelve founding families of Acadia, a former French colony established in 1604 in the territory that now includes Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island in Canada. My grandfather worked in a saw mill, and built and played violins despite the missing digit caused by an accident at the mill. My great grandmother was said to be Mi’kmaq who are a First Nations people of the Northeastern Woodlands, indigenous to the Atlantic Provinces. I learned this later in life from a relative and have no reason to doubt it. My grandmother was also French Acadian. Dad was a decorated soldier  in the Carlton York regiment and saw action in the Italian campaign after a stay in the U.K. training and – if his stories can be believed – rabble rousing, carousing and having the time of his life. He was shot through the wrist in Italy, ending his active duty as a sniper. On return home he left ‘down east’ as he always called it looking for work in the Toronto/Hamilton area of Ontario. Many others came here from the Atlantic coast. Dad worked at the Westinghouse factory but when layoffs loomed relocated to Guelph Ontario to work in the penitentiary as a guard. His qualifications: he had singlehandedly guarded hundreds of Italian POWs with a machine gun. Certainly he didn’t have much of an education, working in lumberjack camps at age 16.

Ever the soldier, he found it hard to understand his eldest son’s nonchalance towards jobs and education. I considered myself rather as a poet, and a musician destined for great things. We clashed at times, to put it mildly and understandably.

My mother came from Welsh/Irish stock, strict Catholic. Some were clerics, nuns, missionaries, one in Darjeeling, India. Our home was literally full of people. At the height of it, as I entered adolescence there were 15, consisting of myself, six siblings, an aunt (actually my cousin, family secret), two foster children and four cousins. We ate in three shifts. I grew up listening to prison stories, the raw violence that occurred there – stories of prisoners in the ‘hole’ being hosed down after they did unspeakable things with their own excrement, razors in toothbrushes, brawls my dad was involved in, challenges the soldier would never back down from. I believe Blood Sweat and Tears vocalist, David Clayton Thomas, was incarcerated as a young man when my dad worked there. He references a certain guard, ‘the silent tough one’, in his memoirs and I wonder if it’s Mr. Breau. My brother, Michael took after dad but his way was an outlaw, wild and lawless road that ended up behind the bars my father looked at from the other side. Michael was as tough as nails, a legend in the east end of Hamilton, a beloved lone wolf who carved out his own way, and eventually made good in the renovation business.

Things were chaotic at times and I was beginning to come off the rails. In the summer of 1972 after reading Kerouac’s On The Road, I found a hitchhiking buddy, my own Neal Cassady, and thumbed across the country, having many adventures on the road. Like Kerouac, I was a mix of Catholic and bohemian, a conservative in some ways intellectually, but living and moving in more liberal and for a time decadent and – I dare say it – dabbling in the occult and avant-garde circles. He was French Quebeçois, I was part French Acadian. Both of us were anti communist.

My father was a socialist, in early days pro-communist, but later on he became a social conservative. He rejected the labour movement’s drift away from working-class economic issues into social issues and, eventually, identity politics.

Hamilton was a tough steel town when I was growing up there in the east end of the city where the steel mills were located. I hesitate to name the gangs, even today, that divided up the turf. Warfare it was. One learned to be wary and forever looking over your shoulder on the streets for potential menacing action. Later on, I would take karate lessons from two wonderful streetwise African-Canadian black belts originally from Detroit, who taught me respect and honour while honing my fighting skills. Shortly after attaining my brown belt I decided to leave the dojo, worried about breaking a hand or a finger, intent now to be a musician and absorbed in romantic interests. A loss of discipline no doubt…

Hamilton today

Q. How did you meet your bandmates? What was it about Pink Floyd’s Saucerful of Secrets that inspired Simply Saucer’s name? After all, your favourite Floyd member, Syd Barrett, had much less to do with that album than its predecessor. Was listening to prog rock and psychedelia a way to imaginatively remove yourself from an unpleasing reality?

A. I met my bandmate Paul Colilli at high school. He was fascinated by Sixties bands as they emerged and buying all the records he could get his hands on. Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Byrds, the Nazz, Canada’s Kensington Market. We became close friends and talked incessantly about music, literature and film. Paul was taking instructions in classical piano and eventually I began rehearsing with him at his parents’ home. We collaborated in naming the band and began looking for other musical adventurers.

He was of Italian-Canadian background with strict parents and they eventually steered him into post-secondary school education away from the rough bohemian influences. Late in 1973, my best friend left the band to pursue a degree and career as an academic and eventually became a modern renaissance man, the Dean of Italian Studies at Laurentia University. He was a world-renowned scholar known for his writings on Italian literature, culture and philosophy. He released a couple of albums later in life, describing his music as metaphysical ghost music. Sadly, Paul passed away in 2018 but not before recording new music with his old friends in Simply Saucer. A release is due in 2021 under the name Saucer73. See the link for more on Paul Colilli – https://aati.uark.edu/in-memoriam-paul-colilli-1952-2018/

I men another bandmate, David Byers, at a record store. His relatives in Holland had been sending him Dutch underground bands like Savage Rose, Wally Tax and the Outsiders, Supersister, and Group 1840. Dave had caught the Velvet Underground at a Toronto outdoor festival and immediately became a fan. I felt the same way about them and began patterning my vocals and guitar-playing after Lou Reed.

All of us were collecting records voraciously and would vie for bragging rights when we found obscure offerings, most of which would later become part of the rock canon, groups like The Seeds, The Stooges, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, The Thirteenth Floor Elevator, The Can, Faust. We held drunken rituals called Record Spinoffs where we would rate our latest ‘finds’ by criteria of “originality”, “obscurity” and there would be a winner at the end of the drinking bout crowned and celebrated.

Musically we began to jell, mainly playing improvisational pieces – long jams, psychedelic, erratic, angular – using electric guitars, audio generators, mini moogs, electrified flutes and saxophones. We had picked up a drummer by then, an eccentric fellow by the name of Neil de Merchant who had pop-jazz leanings. My foster brother, John, played synth under the moniker, “Ping”, and a high school friend Kevin Christoff rounded out the band.

At the time a coterie of us were engrossed in imaginative, fantasy fiction. The Lord of the Rings I had read in my high school days but now it was Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, Arthur Edward Waite’s occultist biography of Louis Claude de St. Martin and his novel, The Quest of the Golden Stairs, as well the Rider Tarot deck he designed. There was E.R. Eddison’s Fish Dinner in Memison, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land and, most frightening of all, the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

Incidentally I hadn’t read Lovecraft since those halcyon days but recently picked up a copy of Michel Houellebecq’s H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life – a penetrating disturbing essay, reassessing his works and was induced again to read The Call of Cthulhu and The Whisperer in Darkness, both stories absolutely terrifying. Houllebecq writes

The twentieth century may come to be recognized as the golden age of epic and fantasy literature, once the morbid mists of feeble avant-gardes dissipate. It has already witnessed the emergence of Howard, Lovecraft and Tolkien – three radically different universes. Three pillars of dream literature, as despised by critics as they are loved by the public.

The fantasy writers filled my young man’s head with dreams of forbidden planets, arcane occult rituals, monster races of humanoids spawned in the mists of times, places sublime ‘at the back of the north wind’. Arthur Machem, Lord Dunsany, Poe, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, with a Catholic mystic or two thrown in for good measure. I lived in a strange enchanting world mentally and it began to spill over into the music of Simply Saucer.

Q. But then you reinvented yourselves as rawer rockers, with ‘She’s A Dog’ – a steel-town sounding, stripped-down song which seems strangely unrepresentative of your earlier, later, and even contemporary careers. Other songs from that period were much more ambitious, with synthesizers and theremins. Why did you choose that song? Was it a simple bid for commercial success? Wasn’t the Hamilton audience ‘ready’ for the other things you’d been doing? Julian Cope implies this, when he says you

conjured up a whole raft of imaginary Canuck ne’er-do-wells to travel with [you on your] extremely idiosyncratic musical travelogue

A. The responses to our live show in the early days of performing could be rather dramatic. We emptied out an arena in Carlton Place, Ontario; they just weren’t ready for our heavy metalloid music. Two fans braved it out to the end, showering us with praise. In Oakville, Ontario we were thrown off the stage, the drummer, literally thrown out of the club. Projectiles were hurled at us in St. Catherines. Professor Colilli, years later, declared that we were ‘deconstructing music’. Either that or just self-destructing!

Eventually we ended up in the studio where we recorded the studio side of Cyborgs Revisited (1974) at the home studio of Daniel and Bob Lanois in Ancaster, Ontario. Daniel would become, later on, just about the most famous record producer in the world. His client list is very impressive – U2, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Willy Nelson, Neil Young, Peter Gabriel, the Neville Brothers – the list is long. Back then, I remember him sitting cross legged on the studio floor with his hands over his ears bravely enduring our “heavy metalloid music”. The six songs we recorded would not see the light of day for another 15 years, all the major Canadian record labels rejecting our demo. The day would come, though, when critics would outdo themselves in superlatives trying to describe the sounds on Cyborgs Revisited – our posthumous slab of vinyl, mysterious gift of outsider music to the world.

All of the songs were composed in a dreary narrow storefront, with walls painted black. I lived and slept and ate there for a year, amplifiers, guitars and chords on the floor where I slept on a thin piece of sponge, the sounds of the street echoing in the background, hoods pulverizing their latest victim perhaps with a pool cue, knife, or once when the local gang ‘ladies’ stopped by brandishing a plank with nails in at aimed at the head of our cheeky new drummer. It was claustrophobic in there, and so what better to do than compose my songs of dystopic technology running rampage over the fields of fairy?

Such considerations as a job to provide food and clothing, I blithely ignored. My concerned mother sent care packages over to the hovel, concerned that I would starve. The local thieves took advantage of my naivete, stowing stolen Harley Davidsons at the back of the rehearsal space on one occasion… ”Would you mind keeping these here for us for a couple of days? Thanks man…” I had no idea.  

The gangs penetrated the inner sanctum now and again, threatening me with tyre irons, stealing guitars (alas), and demanding the band ‘play some Led Zeppelin’. One of them years later led a phalanx of motorcycle bad boy riders, some Hells Angels included, out of respect for their compatriot, brother Mike, to the graveyard where they hastily constituted an honour guard for my deceased father, the tough old prison guard whom they well respected. Later on in the church hall, George, we’ll call him, who had bitten off a rival’s ear and wore it around his neck as a talisman remarked that he remembered dropping acid outside our rehearsal space and then inspired by our music went out and “busted some heads”. I was flattered …

So yes, She’s A Dog was written for commercial success, and in fact England’s New Musical Express declared it “the pick hit single of the week” – a mix of the Kinks, Who and Velvet Underground, which suited me very well.

Q. Now, of course, Cyborgs Revisited is viewed as one of the great Canadian rock albums. But the songs on it were quite old by the time it was issued in 1989, and you had long ago reinvented yourself as a balladeer. You must have had mixed feelings at hearing those songs again, not to mention being expected to perform them.

A. Yes, absolutely it was difficult. I had abandoned the electric guitar by 1979 and invested in an acoustic guitar made by a soon-to-be internationally celebrated luthier by the name of Grit Laskin. I was enthralled by the American primitive guitar stylings of John Fahey and had crafted new songs with a more mature lyrical content. I was in the studio at the time Cyborgs Revisited was released, recording my first solo album. The critical reaction to Cyborgs Revisited right from the beginning was extremely positive and in some cases ecstatic. I felt very divided. The reviews poured in, and folks were calling Cyborgs Revisited one of the greatest Canadian rock albums ever made. There was shock that this music had come out of Canada. The record collectors salivated over it, stunned that the music had been hidden from the world since 1974.

Meanwhile, back at home my wife was very pregnant with our third child, fearful of my return to playing music, hysterical at the late hours I was keeping and my increasingly outside the mainstream political beliefs and their inclusion in my songs. “Think of your kids”, she would say. “We could be subject to an arson attack. What’s happening to you?” The centerpiece of my album, New Sacred Cow Blues, was rather reactionary in a revolutionary kind of way. The intent was to write a new kind of protest song, one not coming from a liberal progressive outlook but au contraire from a radical traditionalist perspective. The cannon was now on a swivel and pointing directly back at the smug and complacent ‘former’ counter culture that had become ossified, mainstream and as intolerant as the straight culture it had denigrated in the Sixties. My new anthem began with the words  “I’m serving notice, on a wooden door…” casting me as a modern Luther intent on dismantling the smug countercultural ‘verities’ that had gone unchallenged for so long, a reaffirmation of the medieval call to order and hierarchy. In short, it was a clarion call of battle for the soul of the West.

Under the strain of my own grandiose obsessions and my wife’s nervous projections of paranoia (which would eventually lead to a nervous breakdown), with inner divisions running wild in my psyche, I cracked, walked away from the studio and the music world and hunkered down for the next ten years, homeschooling my children and subscribing to radical traditionalist publications like Small Farmer’s Journal, Modern Age, University Bookman, the Chesterton Review, the Dawson Newsletter, Issues and Views (African American conservative entrepreneurs who introduced me to the economist Thomas Sowell’s libertarianism).

Inspired by Chesterton’s and Belloc’s politics of distributism and championing of a new Agrarianism, I made plans to move into the north country and live self-sufficiently, growing my own food, making cheese (I had already made a start on this), homeschooling my children, farming in the three-cows-and-an-acre tradition. I made inquiries about a century-old farmhouse in Tara, Ontario, but on the homefront things were starting to fall apart, and money was running out. I took a woodworking job and left my wife to school the kids. Soon after she completely broke down mentally and ended up at the psyche ward at the local hospital. The plan was put on hold and soon faded into the distance as crisis mounted year after year.

Q. The folk influences you and others have cited seem much more obvious in your modern work – in songs like ‘Patches of Blue’, ‘Martha’s Back’ or ‘Mount Idaho’. Articles about and interviews with you throw up English folk names, like Steeleye Span. But what about other folk traditions? Were you conscious of an Acadian, or more precisely Franco-Ontarian, inheritance, and did you listen to that vein of traditional music?

The Acadian flag

A. My father stressed the nobility of our French heritage, taught us French phrases, extolled the unparalleled military virtues of General de Gaulle (who remains a favourite). The Acadian side of the family were fun loving, uninhibited, opinionated, argumentative.

My father played his music, yes, but it wasn’t until his retirement that he delved deeply into the history of his family and learned in depth the tragedy of the Acadians – their dispersal and deportation from Acadia in 1755 when they refused to sign an oath of allegiance to the English crown. He immersed himself in their history and genealogies, nursing a grudge against the predatory English, drawing Acadian flags, writing poems of his lost homeland and inculcating in his children fervour for our lost heritage.

Q. Folk music is frequently associated with radical or at least liberal politics – probably inevitable given its emphasis on giving voice to the unheard and unlucky. But this is not today’s cultural kind of radicalism, with its abortion, BLM and transgender activism – but more about economic fairness. I ask because of your foray into politics in the late 1990s, when you stood for the Family Coalition Party in the Ontario provincial elections, on a socially conservative and even fiscally conservative platform. What brought that about?

A. I became interested in apologetics in the 1990s. John Henry Newman’s “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine” and his “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” were influential as were the high Anglican popular works by C.S. Lewis and Dorothy L. Sayers. George Bernanos, Charles Peguy, Russell Kirk all influenced my thinking – the list is long.. After the band broke up in 1981, I began reading Solzhenityn’s three volume Gulag Archipelago. I’d sit in the corrugated iron shack on the coke oven battery, while my fellow workers got stoned and played cards, absorbed in the tortures, interrogations, the bone-numbing fear and the ever present bureaucracy heartlessly processing the prisoners. My father’s socialist and rosy view of the Soviet Union crumbled. Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ I began to see as symptomatic of our own culture’s dreamy abstractional drift towards totalitarianism. The woke social justice warriors, critical race theory, cancel culture are all modern manifestations of it in our own time.

I gave a talk on apologetics at church one evening, and a couple of the founders of the Family Coalition Party happened to be there. They approached me afterwards urging me to run in the upcoming provincial election. They must have been mightily impressed with my talk! The party was socially conservative, and much of their approach was based on the Catholic principle of subsidiarity – defined as an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Health savings accounts, diverse educational models like charter schools, home schooling were extolled by the party. I was already home schooling at that time. Government encouragement of small family farms and stewardship of the environment were a part of the platform.

My politics are localist, communitarian, distributist, ecology-mindful, freedom-oriented, based on the principle of subsidiarity. They are agrarian-centred, with an emphasis on the common good, the nation state over individual assertions of an atomistic, narrow, idiosyncratic, often times delusional, ‘identity’. I believe a society works best when there is a tension between liberals and conservatives. We need them both – iconoclasts who can smash up the dead ideas and debris of our imperfect past and the conservers of tradition, our lovely countryside, family farms, faith and yes our history.

Q. Why didn’t you carry your politics further? You lost that election, but most politicians lose their first elections. What do you make of Doug Ford and his Progressive Conservatives – and Canadian politics more generally?

A. I was asked to run again but declined. The shellacking I took in the polls had been rather bracing but that alone doesn’t account for my reluctance to run again as I’m by nature a strong-willed contrarian accustomed to living outside the mainstream, unbowed by a lack of popular support for my convictions. I ran a respectable campaign and learned much about the intricacies of our democratic process. There were tensions at home by that time that sidelined my nascent political career. Things were beginning to fall apart in my marriage.

Premier Doug Ford has shut down numerous small businesses due to the pandemic while allowing bigger franchises, such as Costco and Walmart, to continue to thrive. He’s promised to give the taxpayer the scientific data in support of his closures but has consistently failed to deliver on that promise. He sold out and betrayed the social conservatives he needed to win the nomination in the first place and since then has demonstrated his incompetence convincingly.

I supported Leslyn Lewis in the recent federal Conservative leadership race; although she lost a close contest, I believe she’s the future of the party. A Jamaican immigrant, she earned degrees from the University of Toronto, York University and Osgoode Hall Law school, and practiced law for 20 years starting her own firm. She specialized in corporate, real estate, immigration and energy law. She has a Masters degree in environmental studies, and would push back against political correctness. She agrees with Jordan Peterson that ‘gender expression’ and ‘gender identity’ should not be grounds for discrimination protection in the Criminal Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act because she believes it would threaten people for using ‘incorrect speech’. A more ecological version of Maggie Thatcher, perhaps?

Right now the federal government under the ‘leadership’ of Justin Trudeau is spending the country into oblivion and pushing every politically correct woke dogma imaginable down the throats of the populace. A kind of soft totalitarianism begins to pervade our institutions, and cancel culture abounds. Our state broadcaster the CBC feels like a mere adjunct of the Liberal Party, while universities demonize views which just a decade ago were perfectly acceptable. Illiberal mover and shaker elites, buttressed by critical race theory, racialize every aspect of life, including mathematics. As identity becomes paramount in divvying out social justice, the poor remain on the sidelines; economic hardship takes a back seat to the latest favored “identity victim’. Trudeau’s election promise to bring safe water to every indigenous reserve has fallen by the wayside, his carbon reduction plans are an empty promise. He cowers before Communist China, failing to speak directly to them about the Canadian hostages they keep. Justin Trudeau is a mere shadow of his father and former Prime Minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau.

I applaud James Lindsay, the mathematician/philosopher, whose website, Public Discourses, systematically critiques Critical Race Theory and demonstrates that is not at all about social justice but about Marxist political power and dominance through the destruction of the liberal norms of political discourse. Indeed, it is at heart anti-democratic and totalitarian.

Q. What do you think of the contemporary Canadian musical scene – acts like Arcade Fire, July Talk, Deadmau5, and Drake? Which, if any of these, do you enjoy? If none of them, then who do you listen to mostly?

A. I know little of any of them other than Arcade Fire named one of their albums, Neon Bible, after the novel of the same name by the great Louisiana writer John Kennedy Toole who wrote the masterpiece, A Confederacy of Dunces. (I identify deeply with Ignatius Reilly sans the disgusting bodily functions.)

I find my music in out-of-the-way thrift storesand junk shops, and friends give them to me as gifts. Recent finds – a six record (vinyl) set by celebrated Polish harpsichordist, Wanda Landowska on RCA Victor 1958, called The Well Tempered Clavier by J.S. Bach. All of this for Canadian $3.50. Another is Sing Round the Year, 18 carols selected and composed by Welsh born composer, musician, singer and entertainer, Donald Swann – sung by him and the girls of Mayfield School, Putney and the boys of Westminster School. A real find that, for a total of 0.25 cents! One more – a record by the legendary Memphis-born blues singer, Alberta Hunter, an original soundtrack recording from the film Remember My Name. She recorded it at the age of 83 and it is smoking hot great. Picked it up used, for a mere pittance. You get the picture. I collect as always really finding whatever happens to show up. Books the same way. I’m not systematic or organized at all really. Whatever catches my fancy, and currently I’m reading Michel Houllebecq. Bed time reading are the Essays of Graham Greene.

Finally, Simply Saucer continues to thrive. We were a headlining act at the 2019 Goner Fest in Memphis Tennessee and have played NYC, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit, Austin and many other American cities, and much of Canada. We were slated to tour California and much of the American west coast in 2020 but Covid had other plans. We are returning to the studio to record once again. I have wonderful bandmates of spectacular talent including original member Kevin Christoff on bass, Mike Trebilcock, formerly of the popular powerpop band the Killjoys on guitar, Colina Phillips, who as a session singer worked with Bruce Cockburn, Bryan Adams, Alice Cooper and many others, on backing vocals and synth and a youthful drum phenom, Brad Bridges. And finally, I’m an avid member of the Churchill Community Garden Association, a rank amateur amazed each year by the fecundity of my plot at harvest time.

Moby Grape – the greatest rock-and-roll combo you’ve never heard of

CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD recalls a brilliant, betrayed band

All rock musicians carry a strong potential for disaster. On top of their youth and volatility, already a toxic combination, they swim in the notoriously shark-infested waters of showbusiness. Add the proximity of mind-warping drugs, uncomplicated sex and other inducements, and, notwithstanding the example of a few carefully preserved vintage hotrods like the Rolling Stones, it’s possible to see how the spectacular rock-music flameout is the rule, and truly sustained creative or personal fulfillment the exception.

When coming to consider the list of such artists to have been undermined by their own management, the writer finds himself somewhat spoilt for choice. There was the particularly poignant case of Badfinger, for example. Despite being the first signing to the Beatles’ Apple label in 1968 and going on to enjoy four consecutive worldwide hit singles, the Anglo-Welsh combo spent much of their lives locked in a bitter and ultimately unwinnable feud with their New York-based manager Stan Polley, a man apparently only dimly familiar with the concept of paying his clients. Two of the four band members eventually committed suicide.

Badfinger’s contemporaries the Zombies were another case in point. In short order, the group from the north London suburbs scored three hit singles and released an LP, Odessey and Oracle (so spelt) now ranked in Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Albums of All Time, but who found their audiences understandably perplexed by the fact that two other bands, one hailing from Texas, the other from Michigan, had both appropriated the name ‘Zombies’ (the real band had never trademarked it) and were blithely touring the world playing the group’s original hits.

Or there was Tommy James, who along with his band the Shondells had no fewer than 14 Top 40 smashes between 1964-69, enjoying a vast mainstream success that extended – surely a first in these matters – to having the Vice President of the United States volunteer to write the liner notes to one of his albums. Perhaps the one flaw in James’s otherwise glittering success story was to have signed away his rights to one Morris Levy, a man AllMusic describes as “a notorious crook who swindled artists out of their owed royalties”, and who died in 1990, aged 62, shortly before he was due to report to prison after being convicted of extortion.

The above list is far from exhaustive, and readers may well have their own candidate or candidates in mind for inclusion. Somehow I’m always reminded on these occasions of Carlos Santana’s onetime colleague Marcus “The Magnificent” Malone, who ended up living under a bridge in suburban San Francisco, where, alerted by a local news station, Santana himself once came by to say hello. The reunion seems not to have done much for Malone’s fortunes, because not long afterwards he was critically injured by an unsecured tyre that flew off a car passing by his makeshift home, and today remains on life support in hospital.

But perhaps no group of musicians suffered the slings and arrows of misfortune, and more specifically of mismanagement, quite as grievously as the Bay Area-based quintet Moby Grape. Named after the punch-line of the absurdist joke about what’s purple and floats in the sea, the band covered the waterfront from folk, blues, country, jazz and pop, with an underlying sense that the five musicians might conceivably have been on terms of some familiarity with the world of hallucinatory drugs. Their 1967 single ‘Omaha’ is surely one of the great psychedelic rock songs of all time. To those both in and out of the music business enlightened by LSD, it seemed all human problems and divisions were issues, not of substance, but of perception. With acid, the theory went, humanity could “transcend its primitive state of neurotic irresponsibility”, to quote Terry Southern’s script for the 1968 cult sci-fi romp Barbarella, and, realising the oneness of all creation, proceed directly to utopia. Nowhere was this touching belief more ingrained than in the San Francisco of the mid- to late-1960s.

That there was indeed something unusual in the air can still be heard from many of the records of the period: Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, It’s A Beautiful Day’s eponymous first LP, and the Grateful Dead’s Anthem of the Sun, to name but three that in their different ways managed to be both joyful and serious, characterised by their tactical deployment of switched-on lyrics, a propulsive rhythm, and a general spirit of adventurous improvisation epitomised by the ‘cross-talk’ guitar work that led the way to the sort of extended instrumental exchange that stadium audiences still boogie to, echoing out among the plastic cups and soggy programmes, of a ‘Hotel California’ or ‘Layla’.

Even in this illustrious company, Moby Grape’s self-titled first album, released in June 1967, stands supreme as a Summer of Love artefact that manages to be distinctly of its time and yet still with the power to move us today. Far from being self-indulgently diffuse or free-form, the band members brought to their work a tight, if idiosyncratic, sense of structure and a well developed ear for melodic economy. In stark contrast to those of many of their peers, almost all of the band’s songs came in at less than three minutes. All five musicians – Jerry Miller, Skip Spence, Peter Lewis, Bob Mosley and Don Stevenson – sang, and no fewer than three of them played variations of lead guitar. The venerable music critic Geoffrey Parr described the ensuing confection as follows:

No rock and roll group has been able to use a front-line guitar trio as effectively as Moby Grape did on Moby Grape. Spence played a distinctive rhythm that really sticks out through the album. Lewis, meanwhile, was a very good player overall, and was excellent at finger-picking … And then there was Miller

equally adept at playing the string-shredding solo as he was an unobtrusive, bluesy rhythm, and still today regularly voted one of the great all-round masters of his craft; ask Eric Clapton what he thinks about the subject.

Parr concludes,

The way Moby Grape handled their parts and played together on the first album is like nothing else I’ve ever heard in my life … The guitars are like a collage of sound that makes perfect sense

What most strikes the modern listener to Moby Grape’s freshman LP is the sheer variety of the band’s wares. Nowadays we expect our commercially successful pop acts to tick one of the approved stylistic boxes and stick to it. The Grape, by contrast, always shunned the lure of the pigeonhole. As originally released, the band’s first record comprises 13 songs lasting a total of just 31 minutes. There are fast numbers like ‘Hey Grandma’ and ‘Omaha’ that come out of the gate sounding like a revved-up fusion of Hendrix and the Sex Pistols, with added Beach Boys harmonies, if you can imagine such a thing, and slow ones like the plaintive ‘8:05’ and the refined ‘Sitting by the Window’ that bear comparison to some of the all-time great busted-heart country ballads. Like a Swiss Army knife, Moby Grape provides different tools for different needs: there are times when headbanging mayhem comes in handy, and others when a certain introspection does the trick. It’s the evocation of these disparate moods, always executed with the greatest technical skill, and a refreshing absence of self-indulgent noodling – the band members give the clear impression that they were keenly aware at all times of where a song was heading – that gives the whole record its bite. You could do much worse than to buy a copy of it today.

Unfortunately, Moby Grape’s musical acumen was matched only by their truly tragicomic litany of personal misadventures. Their problems began even before the release of their first album, when their manager presented the young musicians with a contract that gave him, not them, ownership of the group’s name. In time this led to the expedient of the band releasing their records under an alias, among various other Spinal Tap-like indignities. For its part, the group’s record company seemed to go from zero to 80, as it were, without levelling out at 40 in between, in its marketing hype. Their decision to release no fewer than five of the band’s songs as singles on the same day was widely thought counterproductive. In due course, the members of Moby Grape became aware that the suits owned the rights to their songs, as well as to their name, and 30 years of intermittent legal wrangling ensued.

Meanwhile, a combination of bad advice, bad breaks and bad behaviour served to further undermine a band that we might otherwise think of today in broadly the same terms as a more musically adept version of the Eagles or Led Zeppelin. One regrettable episode saw Skip Spence forcibly removed from his New York hotel and transported to the criminal ward of a nearby psychiatric hospital. In the 1960s, the available treatment for such issues had barely progressed beyond that afforded the most pitiful inmates of a Victorian lunatic asylum. The prodigiously talented Spence lived most of the rest of his life in a series of mental institutions and died in 1999, aged 52.

Moby Grape’s bassist Bob Mosley also displayed emotional problems. In 1969 he quit the band and, in a notable career move, joined the US Marines. Discharged for medical reasons, he spent several years living on the streets. Peter Lewis (son of the Oscar-winning actress Loretta Young) developed an interest in metaphysics, moved to the upscale wine country of California’s Santa Ynez valley – familiar to viewers of the 2004 film Sideways – and still occasionally plays the guitar. Don Stevenson managed to continue in music while becoming national sales director of a Canadian luxury timeshare concern. Jerry Miller, for his part, returned to his native Pacific Northwest, and – I speak from at least brief personal acquaintance – remains the most natural, modest and unaffected of men, let alone of psychedelic-rock guitar gods, anywhere in the world. Collectively, the band is one of those cautionary tales in rock and roll about exceptional talent being squandered on poor choices (other people’s as much as their own, it should be noted) of which the biographer Jeff Tamarkin writes:

The Grape’s saga is one of lost potential, absurdly misguided decisions, bad breaks, blunders and excruciating heartbreak, all set to the tune of some of the greatest rock and roll ever … They could have had it all, but they ended up with nothing, or less

Except, of course, that’s not quite the end of the story. Despite seeming to have been on one long death march from the moment they released their incendiary first album, Moby Grape never truly disbanded in the formal sense of the word. A reunited version of the classic lineup performed for 40,000 fans in their spiritual home of San Francisco as recently as 2007, and the four surviving originals continue to play in various combinations, solo or collective, today.

Moby Grape may still mainly be thought of as precociously talented but commercially underperforming victims of callous management, satirically inept record company marketing and mutual poor judgement, but that’s at best only half the story. There is lasting greatness in several of their albums, but the first one is almost consistently great, and progressively so, an overall experience as thrilling as any that their particular brand of music can provide. I can’t imagine that anyone would listen to it now without at least reflecting on how great rock music’s promise was back in 1967, and how far it’s fallen.

FURTHER INFORMATION
Moby Grape’s self-titled first album is still widely available from all the usual outlets. For further information on the band’s guitarist Jerry Miller and his music, contact either Jo Johnson or Arne Nordwall at jerrysattic@turtlesociety.com

Un-easy listening

DEREK TURNER tries translating Lingua Ignota

Radio 6 is one of the rare good things about the BBC, championing alternative, independent or overlooked pop and rock from the 1950s up to the present. On any evening of any week, you can hear anything from film scores to 1960s psychedelia, prog rock to trip-hop, industrial to African traditional, post-punk to ambient, English folk to early electronica. 

Some featured acts are household names, although R6 tends to play their less well-known repertoire. Other bands once launched to critical acclaim, but decades ago broke up for unviability, their personnel compelled to give up their guitars for jobs in insurance offices. New bands first heard here sometimes graduate (or deteriorate) to Radio 2 and mainstream success, but most will not, a single R6 airing perhaps their only hearing beyond Youtube channels, family downloads, or odd appearances in the fields of small and soon-forgotten festivals.

Melancholia surrounds some of this music – a sense of talents wasted, and energies expended uselessly ages ago – but much of it is likeable for its lack of self-pity, its performers clearly never caring what the mainstream might think, focusing solely on making sounds that satisfy them, or say something about the way they view(ed) the world. Much of this music is ergo striking, although much is not good. But every so often, a song comes on that is more than soundtrack to some activity – that makes you stop whatever you are doing, and just listen.

This happened for me last year, when I heard this. I stood in the middle of the kitchen with dishwater dripping from my hands, as Do You Doubt Me Traitor raised hairs on my nape. Even on a station which prides itself on un-easy listening, lines like “Every vein of every leaf of every tree is slaked with poison” and “I smell you bleeding” command attention – especially when delivered with a combination of soaring artistry and a voice vibrating with barely-controlled violence. In a world of singers showing their sores, this was clearly someone with something really to say, or shout about – and shout about with surpassing skill. “Your flag flies above every door” that voice went on vehemently, and ever since Lingua Ignota’s flag has flapped over mine.

Hildegard of Bingen’s secret alphabet

Lingua Ignota (“unknown language” – a term derived from the 12th century mystic Hildegard of Bingen, who devised her own secret alphabet) is Kristin Hayter, born 1986 in California. She is a classically-trained pianist and singer with three studio albums to her name – Let the Evil of His Own Lips Cover Him, All Bitches Die and Caligula – and an album of cover versions expected (she has previously covered, perhaps unexpectedly, Dolly Parton’s Jolene). She is involved with a kind of alt-supergroup, Sightless Pit, which released its first album Grave of a Dog in February, with such crepuscular song titles as Kingscorpse, Miles of Chain, and Whom the Devil Long Sought to Strangle.

Hayter’s music is uncompromising and unclassifiable – drawn up from choral and classical aquifers, updated with extreme metal, grunge, indie and noise, darkened by dreams and memories of lost faith and sexual violations. She writes, she says, “survivor anthems”, where The Well-Tempered Clavier meets Me Too, angst encounters anger, and a new revengeful genre struggles into guilty life.

Butcher of the World begins with Purcell’s plangent Funeral Music for Queen Mary, then suddenly late 17th century pain becomes early 21st century agony, as that already harrowing tune is lost and then found again amidst what can only be described as a wild howling. Albeit often wordless, the vocal line is the SOS of someone who is unusually articulate (she has degrees in fine art), but also feels more deeply than most. An epic self-pity that could be tiresome in less capable hands is transfigured into an epochal plaint – a plaint against bullies, betrayers, and ugliness, this West that’s gone wrong, this world without certainties.

An unknown language of a kind indeed, uttering unpalatable truths – feminist anthems (although she claims her songs are not feminist) and First World neuroses, but also wider existential longings, rising above sex into spirituality. She says Spite Alone Holds Me Aloft, but it seems more likely to be disappointed devoutness. Anger is essentially a short-lived emotion, requiring too much energy, and fundamentally unsatisfying.

Song titles resonate with Biblical notes, intended to be critical of Catholicism and certainly interpreted that way by fans, although perhaps they are less critical than they (or she) think – Faithful Servant Friend of Christ, Fragrant is My Many Flower’d Crown, O Ruthless Great Divine Dictator (which “embodies the hypocrite and the false prophet”), Holy is the Name (Of My Ruthless Axe) and I Am the Beast  (“Come claim me” she begs in this last, her vibrato especially desolating, like some song of desert sunrise). Is it patronising to feel a degree of pity for her – to hope one day she discovers peace (even at peril of stilling the startling music)?

There is a mystic of a very medieval kind (cf. Hildegard) beneath her thoroughly modern moroseness – an instinctive ecstatic inside the self-Hayter. When she stands on stages and hits herself to the titillated groans of the audience, she is a sort of stylite, lost in 2020’s equivalent of epidemic chorea or even, as she has said, an “exorcism”, during which she is a “conduit” of something infinitely bigger than herself. Some musicians are cynics, who stop gyrating as soon as they are out of sight of their audiences, but she seems wholly heartfelt, as if captured by complexes. When she comes off stage, does she, I wonder, feel curiously cleansed – as if she has just come out of one of childhood’s confession booths?

Kristin Hayter is by any standards a ‘difficult’ musician, alternative even in relation to other alternative artists. She will never get rich from her music, and her lingua is likely to remain ignota to many. But for others, what she sings with such skill and soul sinks in, and seems likely to stay.

Gimme shelter – the fall and rise of the 60s

Rites of Dionysus, by Tim Shaw

MARK GULLICK says the hyperbolised decade turned naivety into nastiness

“They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man. We’re at the end of the greatest decade in the history of mankind, and as Presumin’ Ed has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black.” Withnail and I

“At first sight, the whole period, the whole state of the world, seems to offer no more secure footing to an historical adventurer than the chaos of Milton – to be in a state of irreclaimable disorder…” Editorial introduction to Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

If you can remember the Sixties, runs the rusted old adage, you weren’t there. For today’s political Left, most of whom weren’t there, it was the blessed decade, a time of liberation, sticking it to The Man, and sex and drugs and rock and roll. For those few Conservatives who remain, it was the fons et origo of the chaotic times in which we find ourselves.

The world-historical events of the 1960s centred around America. JFK’s assassination, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Civil Rights Act and King’s killing, Vietnam, the Apollo moon landing – all these shook, rattled and rolled the country where, as de Tocqueville had claimed in 1835, the world’s first great experiment in democracy had begun. And if the Sixties were remade as a movie, for good or ill, then it would feature an Anglo-American soundtrack – rock music.

Defining musical genres is a mug’s game. With rock music, it defines itself on listening. As with the famous American judicial case requiring a judge’s clerk to define hard-core pornography, with rock music you will know it when you see it. And, in this case, hear it. The first band I saw, at the age of 14 in 1975 and for £2.50, was Led Zeppelin, themselves a product of the Sixties and its bequest of rock music. The man I was watching transfixedly, Jimmy Page, was inspired to pick up the guitar after hearing Presley’s Come On Baby, Let’s Play House. Zeppelin were shatteringly loud. This was a while before The Who forced legislation to reduce the volume at concerts following their 1977 gig at Charlton Football Stadium in south London. The band could be heard in Brighton. I couldn’t really hear anything, not with any clarity, for two days after Led Zeppelin. Quite simply, in Nietzschean terms, here was Dionysus.

But rock music grew not out of its father’s thigh, as did the mythical Dionysus, but out of electric pop and R&B. The details are unimportant, but The Stones began the Sixties as a Chuck Berry tribute band and ended it as Their Satanic Majesties. The Sixties – something happened out there. A number of tributaries flowed into one river, and the counter-culture got the music it required.

I’ll return to the schism which eventually separated rock music from rock and roll, R&B and pop music, but a mixture of youth rebellion, drugs hard and soft, and economic affluence produced a coat of arms for a culture-changing musical crusade which began at El Paso, the Marty Robbins single which was the first January Billboard number one of the Sixties, and ended at Altamont Speedway Stadium in December 1969.

Rock music itself took a broad base of blues, R&B and rock and roll and used it to weave the bands’ own designs, all amplified beyond old-school levels. Rock music is primal and it is Dionysiac. The Sixties’ alchemical mixture which became rock music was bubbling away before synthesisers, sequencers and computers (some experiments aside), and so was visceral, sweat-soaked and animalistic.

Certainly the electric guitar was the weapon of choice for the cultural skirmishes ahead, the staff adorned with pine-cones held aloft by the followers of Dionysus. Coming from the back row of the swing bands of the 40s and 50s, the electric version of the instrument became more prominent when people like Louis Jordan began cutting band numbers to save money on the road. It was Charlie Christian who first made the electric guitar talk through amplification (his famous original guitar was bought by Steve Howe of Yes), and the thread would wind through the guitarists of the Sixties – Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, and Pete Townshend – the last included as possibly the greatest rhythm guitarist of a crew best known for their solos.

It was the way in which the instrument was played rather than innovation in guitars themselves, with vintage guitars being prized as the age of mass-production began. The riff was born in the Sixties. When Townshend got back from an American tour in 1964 and turned on the radio, he heard the famous staccato barre chords of You Really Got Me by The Kinks. It certainly got Townshend. He sat down and wrote the equally famous chopped riff for I Can’t Explain.

John Entwistle of The Who

The Sixties also saw the rebirth of the often-forgotten bass guitar in rock music. As a bass player myself, I can say that the decade energised and freed the instrument. McCartney’s melodic scales on his iconic Hofner Violin bass, Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones’s rhythmic work in tandem with the mighty John Bonham, the blues scales of Free’s Andy Frazer, The Faces’ Ronnie Lane and Cream’s Jack Bruce set the instrument free, away from the straight rock ‘n’ roll runs and country plod of the Fifties, and no one more so that The Who’s legendary John “Thunderfingers” Entwistle, who brought the bass to forefront of the band’s tumultuous sound.

Rock music was banned in Yugoslavia in the Sixties as subversive, which was precisely its appeal to bored and affluent Western youth who were experiencing a relaxation of authority and discipline after the strait-laced Fifties. Todd Gitlin called rock music incoherent and primitively regressive, while Gerard Howard dubbed it the “Pied Piper’s tune of the new freedoms”. The children led by the Piper in the fairy-tale, of course, were free right up until they were slaughtered in the wood.

Jimi Hendrix

Hendrix nut-shelled the Sixties in one performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. He played the electric guitar in a way no one had ever seen or heard. Then he set light to it and smashed it to pieces. This was a sign, a pointer to where the American dream was heading. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud famously writes that dreams are “the royal road to the unconscious”. The dream-work becomes a text to be read off, and the signifiers relate to a signified which is never fully present (Derrida had much to say about this). What type of unconscious can be read off from, and thus lurks beneath, the American dream? In terms of rock music, the dream was interrupted.

Just as the first British invasion of the 18th century led to the Declaration of Independence, American pragmatism built on British conceptual guidelines (Locke and so on), so too it could be argued that the British invasion of the 1960s led to rock music as a progression of electric pop and rock and roll. Arguably, The Beatles began the metamorphosis, moving from covering R&B and Motown songs to writing their own, influenced by both but with something British layered on top. The list of British bands desperate to ‘crack America’ grew quickly. The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Kinks, The Dave Clark Five, The Who, Herman’s Hermits… When The Stones recorded at blues HQ Chess Records, significant ground had been ceded by American forces.

There were, of course, two main offensives from Blighty, two very different bands who were attracted to America under different pretences. And, just as Coleridge claimed every man was born a Platonist or an Aristotelean, so too the Sixties had an ontological choice of its own: The Beatles or The Stones?

The Beatles had the shop-store mannequin look A&R men had been looking for, while The Stones always looked to be up to no good in publicity photos. After the amphetamine-crazed early Hamburg scene, The Beatles settled into a life, viewed in terms of narcotics, of marijuana and LSD, mostly. The Fab Four were not known for their live work, which were mostly exercises in young girls screaming themselves hoarse at a slightly animated version of Kraftwerk. The Stones were becoming notorious for their live transformation. Jagger had stopped hopping about like a small variety of garden bird and was now part-turkeycock, part infernal drag queen. Richards was becoming the troubadour. It has to be The Stones, for me, but debate is welcomed. In the end, The Stones couldn’t write Blackbird, but The Beatles certainly couldn’t have performed Midnight Rambler.

In the end, the British took coals to Newcastle (home of The Animals). American rhythm and blues made it to the record shops of the home counties, bands began emulating them, realised that with minor alterations they could cut the suit to fit them, and sold the result back to a willing American public. Perhaps America could have come up with rock music unaided, but then maybe it was too affluent, too shiftless, too relaxed in its hedonistic consumerism. It wasn’t getting over the effects of the worst war the world had even seen, it wasn’t rationed, it wasn’t austere and economically fragile. The British invasion added urban grit to rock music in its infancy, some gin in the baby’s bottle. For this tonic, we have the institution of the British Art College to thank, partly, for bringing Townshend and Clapton and others out from their artistic shells.

America tried to replicate the success of The Beatles with the manufactured Monkees, who actually went on to be a halfway-decent pop band. It is regrettable that the urban myth informing us that Charles Manson auditioned for the band proves to be untrue. Manson was in Rikers at the time, but how would the band have developed? Manson did actually write music; Guns ‘n’ Roses covered his Look at Your Game, Girl.

The rock music whose source lies in the Sixties would be a raging river in the 1970s, and one of its effects would be punk at the end of the decade. Psychedelic rock made its appearance in the 60s and was not confined to freakish one-offs like The Chocolate Watch band. The Beatles, Stones, Kinks, The Who all had their flirtation with psychedelia, as did – more tellingly – the early Pink Floyd, waiting for the Seventies for ultimate fame.

One of the tributaries from the 1960s was garage rock. Determinedly lo-fi, garage was cheaply recorded electric pop music, a dress rehearsal for punk, and a genre only really defined after it was gone. But it must have stirred the sediment of the rock mix. The FBI investigated Link Wray’s 1958 classic Rumble. What were they looking for? Seditious lyrics? (Rumble was famously an instrumental.) (1)

Link Wray

The most obvious and influential off-shoot of garage rock was The Velvet Underground. In the context of the 1960s, Andy Warhol’s ethos of combining consumerism with multimedia with business was visionary. It is said of the first Velvet Underground LP that not many bought it, but everyone who did formed a band. The band combined raw garage rattle and roll with a Euro-gothic, dilettante style. Rock would always have more than a trace element of poison, which is where Velvet Underground came in, to attempt to puncture the homely sureties of, say, Crosby, Still, Nash and Young.

CSN&Y were a sort of anti-Velvet Underground, rural in feel as opposed to urban, harmonic not dissonant, lyrically upbeat, not dabblers in despair. But both of these elements would combine in the best rock music. America had two sides of its rock ball mask, the Apollonian and the Dionysiac, perhaps, and they may as well be thought of as rural and urban. Rock music was far from being one monolithic creature as the Sixties ended. In the last two years of the Sixties, The Band released their debut studio album, Music From Big Pink,and Iggy and the Stooges released their eponymous debut album, featuring Now I Wanna be Your Dog.

CSN&Y also shared with The Velvet Underground a microcosmic tendency of America: internal rifts and splits, acrimony, self-induced problems, civil war. Rock music may have been formed by the coming together of many influences, both musical and cultural, but it was going to be its father’s son, part brilliance, part destructive self-hatred.

Warhol epitomised a big part of the Sixties’ cultural ethos: business. Further to this, rock music as business. This was the days of album and single sales and gigs, and that’s it. No brand association, no commercials in your videos, no many-headed hydra of internet hits and downloads. Now, everything is a hit record just like every book is a best-seller. You just tell people it is. Everyone’s a winner. Warhol famously said that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. But he went on to write in his autobiography From A to B and Back Again, “…in 15 minutes, everyone will be famous”.

The two sides to rock music in the 1960s shows the same rift, the same oscillation between genius (or vast success) and madness (or a vast amount of drugs) as existed throughout America, with a metaphorical shift or two. Rock music, like its Anglo-American parents, would be born schizophrenic, presenting both the Apollonian spectacle of live rock music and its ornamental imagery, and the Dionysiac back beat, a music which could be exhilarating for a time, then change into something mad, bad and dangerous to know.

In the end, rock music might be the consolation for what the 1960s did to us. This Janus-faced god has returned to the woodland, true, and there is no real rock music to be found today. Entertainment has become wholly Apollonian and rock was always the herald of the Dionysiac, even when the harbinger was a fairly witless stoner like Jim Morrison.

“There is no real rock music to be found today…”

Rock music in the Sixties wore the reversible mask of tragedy and comedy, or at least light-heartedness. It aimed at Woodstock but it ended up with Altamont. And so did we.

Woodstock was the very model of how capitalism works in that it set up a huge venture, lost money partly due to the concert being half attended by people who had no tickets, then made its money back selling the film rights. The performances were legendary, and the counter-culture had a focal point, a quasi-religious event.

But what could counter the counter-culture? The other face of the mask, perhaps, the one shown at Altamont, a few months after Woodstock and an attempt to cash in on the idea. Students of popular culture will be familiar with received opinion. Promoters were beginning to realise in post-Woodstock 1969 that there was an awful lot of money to be made from the potent combination of rock music and the kids who wanted to hear it live. Altamont Speedway in Indiana was duly selected for a gig headlined by The Stones.

Their Satanic Majesties hired Hell’s Angels to see to security, and provided them with $500 dollars’ worth of beer. As things became increasingly fractious in front of the stage, and while the band were playing Under my Thumb, not the diabolic anthem Sympathy for the Devil as legend would prefer, a young black man named Meredith Hunter was fatally stabbed by one of the bikers. It was December, 1969.

The Sixties strove for Woodstock but it ended up as Altamont. Remind you of anything? The contemporary Western world, for example, forever telling us we are on the road to Woodstock, only to find we had the Altamont tickets. Front row. And the Sixties was not only music. Rock and roll was also an attitude. Hunter S. Thompson, Warhol, Lennie Bruce, the Beat – all of these acts were riffing on the same centre of gravity.

Rock music was the answer to a lot of questions, musical, social, political, aesthetic, and it had the broadest sweep both of influences and by what it went on to create. In the UK, among other genres, glam rock and punk were both waiting to see what the seeds of the Sixties would grow in a darker part of the garden.

One of Baudelaire’s collection of poems, Les fleurs du mal, is entitled Music, and contains lines Dionysian enough to serve as an epitaph, if it is that time, for rock music:

I feel the tremblings of all passions known 
To ships before the breeze; 
Cradled by gentle winds, or tempest-blown 
I pass the abysmal seas 
That are, when calm, the mirror level and fairy-tale 
Of my despair!

Editor’s Note

  1. Link Wray is No. 45 in Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest guitarists, credited with inventing the much-copied distorted “power chord”. A live version of Rumble may be found here

A truly progressive rocker

Genesis in 1973 (Steve Hackett second from right)

A Genesis in my Bed, Steve Hackett, Wymer Publishing, 208 pages, £13.99

CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD enjoys the modest memoirs of a guitarist who has little to be modest about

While the likes of the capital’s O2 Arena brace themselves for the invasion of the Phil Collins version of Genesis next spring, or whenever it is we’re finally released from our collective house arrest, the band’s former guitarist Steve Hackett offers something that’s mercifully not as sugary. Residual 1960s peace and love might be at the core of Hackett’s long-awaited memoir A Genesis in my Bed – the title is taken from an excited American groupie’s exclamation on finding herself closeted with the author one night in his Midwestern hotel room – but there’s also a becoming modesty and a refreshing calm to this account of the unprepossessing kid with the goggly NHS specs who graduated from the bombed-out austerity of postwar London, where joy was in as short supply as fresh food, to flying the Atlantic on Concorde and packing them in at Madison Square Garden.

Odd as it might seem to the rest of us, Hackett makes it all sound like a perfectly logical progression in life, and it’s part of his book’s considerable charm that he treats the lows and highs (and more lows) with the same stoic good cheer, keeping a lid on any unseemly emotion. Steady on, you can almost hear Hackett say in these pages, we’re British – and you remember that the author grew up at a time when the country was more drilled and regimented than in any other era of its history, where ubiquitous gravy made everything taste alike and kids like young Hackett sat belted and shivering at night in their identical, redbrick houses furnished just like their granny’s. “Who has not felt,” wrote the social historian James Morris in 1962,

…the deadweight of that worn-out, disillusioned, smug, astigmatic, half-educated generation, weighing lumpishly upon the nation’s shoulders?

It was against this England that the Beatles and the Stones, with the likes of Genesis a half-step behind them, were in glamorous revolt. The latter made an only tentative start. Their debut single, a Bee Gees pastiche called “The Silent Sun”, conspicuously avoided any sales, and after recording their first album – entitled From Genesis to Revelation, and marketed in the ‘Religious’ section of most British record shops – the young band members all drifted off to university, convinced that their career was over.

They later gave it a second shot, and things finally took off when lead singer Peter Gabriel wandered on the stage of a boxing stadium in Dublin one night in 1972 while attired in his wife’s red cocktail dress and a fox’s head. Fleet Street ran a front-page photo of the event and the band’s fee doubled overnight as a result. Soon Genesis went on to cut their masterpiece Selling England by the Pound, and John Lennon was calling them one of his favourite bands, which was about as close to a papal blessing as you could get in their line of work.

Meanwhile, the 20-year-old Hackett had joined the lineup after placing an advertisement in the “For Hire” columns of Melody Maker, instantly bringing an astutely varied guitar sound – covering the waterfront from heavy-rock riffing to an exhilarating but plangent touch of acoustic – to the mix. His solo piece Horizons on the Foxtrot LP had a lightness of melody with which Bach might not have been disappointed. Genesis were fabulously lucky to have him, and between about 1970-75 the band invented a look and a sound that was plainly modern, eclectic, virtuosic, emotionally thoughtful and lyrically witty, with a larding of dystopianism and a refreshing aversion to the demands of playlist-pleasing, box-ticking blandness. It was their fusion of rock-band swagger with some of the technical prowess of a string quintet that informed dozens of lesser groups coming up behind them.  Whether Mars Volta and the rest recognise it or not, an awful lot of what they do is streaming Genesis.

Of course that isn’t to say it was all plain sailing at the time. Hackett’s tenure in Genesis from 1970-77 may have marked the band’s creative peak, but it was matched by a relentless, budget-conscious tour schedule and at best only break-even material rewards. Beyoncé might live in a house made of Cartier jewellery and swim in a pool filled with Cristal champagne and pink ice cubes, but down at the other end of the scale, for working performers life can be tough. Not the least of this book’s charms is the author’s enjoyably deadpan account of some of the Spinal Tap-like indignities of keeping the show on the road. At one early gig at Cheltenham Ladies College, he recalls, the well-heeled young audience members sat staring open-mouthed at the shaggy musicians playing before them, as though they had just crash-landed from Mars. At least they bothered to turn up on that occasion.

On other nights the five-piece band was almost larger than the paying crowd. Hackett writes of one show at a football stadium in Italy,

where the few stragglers who showed up were completely outnumbered by the heavily sedated inmates of a psychiatric hospital bordering the pitch. Trapped behind a high metal fence, the poor souls just stared glassy-eyed at our show. We felt about as welcome as a condom at the Vatican

Even after going on to play to 15,000 ecstatic fans at the Empire Pool, Wembley, Hackett simply packed up his guitar and got a lift back to his parents’ small flat in Pimlico where he was still living. That same general air of modesty pervades the book as a whole. Hackett is too honourable to really spill the beans either on his fellow band members or any of the various perks of life as a working musician. Unlike, say, the Motley Crue story, the book doesn’t aspire to a joyful cascade of indiscretions, although at one point the author admits:

I had some pretty strange encounters [with women], from the burlesque dancer and the female wrestling champion to the girl whose fantasy was a brutal night with Vincent Price

Hackett left Genesis essentially to pursue his own career, and true to his word he’s gone on to release an astonishing 25 or so solo albums as well as collaborating with everyone from the American folk singer Richie Havens to the Hungarian jazz-rock group Djabe. There are musicians whose last record is very like their first. Having learned their trade, mastered it for once and all, they practice it with little variation to the very end. Steve Hackett is very different. He will be remembered for being fearless in his single-minded pursuit of what he thought his evolving craft required. This is a quiet, wry, unvarnished, always compellingly fluent account of 50 years of assorted ups and downs in the entertainment world, with the supremely satisfying ending of a happily married man at the peak of his creative game. You should treat yourself to a copy immediately.