Wednesday, 31 March 2021

THE KINKS - Rich Man Poor Man LP

Pop music has a terrible inbuilt weakness of destroying itself through over-familiarity. The constant and cynical repackaging of music served up as random compilations to recoup the investment of record companies, is a particular curse of the industry. Exposed to constant replay, individual songs lose meaning in their contextual association with inappropriate company. In short it loses it's power. Yet when done right, a collection of songs carefully sequenced to aid an overarching theme can occasionally rival good fiction or film. The medium is relentless and in a concentrated 40 minute sitting, there can be fewer more intense artistic experiences to achieve so much whilst demanding so little effort. At it's best it envelops us.

This stereo double album compilation by The Kinks, may or may not have been prepared for foreign territory release in the mid '70s. Either way the oil crisis and copyright problems with the sleeve design sidelined it until this copy with hebrew text on the label surfaced at the end of last year. Had it been widely distributed it would have joined a multitude of other such releases to seemingly milk the band's 60's heyday. Yet look again and you can see it is so much more.

Rich Man Poor Man appears to have had it's source in an original and previously lost all embracing theme that pre-figures the arc of concept albums The Kinks released from the late 60's onwards. The period was marked by relentless touring that took a physical and mental toll on the band. Poor management by upper class chancers with severe cash-flow problems exacerbated the pressure on the band to deliver hit after hit and Ray Davies found his visionary ambitions frustrated with each song either rush-released as a self-serving single, b-side or album filler. 

The songs reflect what he was witnessing close at hand. The class inequalities were bursting through the veneer of swinging London and we can clearly see why he would return again and again to the recurring theme of innocents abroad. The Kinks like many other bands were regarded as no more than walking pound signs created to keep a small army of users fed and clothed. As the years passed Davies would become more explict in calling this out, but in 1966-67 this anger was largely supressed behind a facade of elaborate metaphor and satire. I would argue that had this record been released at the time it would have greatly altered our perception of The Kinks and seen them ranked on an equal footing with the progressive long-play output of their Beatle and Beach Boy peers. As such it's a remarkable discovery. 

RECORD ONE (36 mins)- a sharp tongued pantomine set to music hall rhythms mocking the rise and fall of old money from school, office and discotheque. The fortunes of the protagonist collapsing through a conspiracy of govt. policy and poor English weather, leaving him adrift from both family and class.

The first side follows the fortunes of a single character, a certain David Watts"head-boy at the School, ...captain of the team" whose immense
superiority is recounted in detached third person by a narrator we imagine machine-gunning from the School roof in Lindsay Anderson's "If...". 
"He is so gay and fancy free.." he spits "... and I wish all his money, belonged to ME". But the old money stays with the old money, as made evident in the summer '65 song A Well Respected Man which acts as a touchstone for the whole concept. This was the first song released by The Kinks to reveal the inner sardonic mind of Davies who affects a sneering vocal to the following priceless couplet, "And he plays the stocks and shares and he goes to the Regatta, he adores the girl next door, cause he's dying to get at her". And on this record, as though it was always meant to be, the final strummed chord miraculously segues into the opening strummed chord of an alternate Dedicated Follower of Fashion, breathing new life into Davies great misappropriated anti-swinging London anthem (see my RAY DAVIES-Spring 1966 entry). 
Then amongst the subterranean-set, the drums poundng like an impending coronary, our narrator encounters the cast-off 
Little Miss Queen of Darkness, a waif like Jane Asher in "Alfie", burnt-out "cause the only boy she had, went and cooly stepped aside"  by... a now far too randy Dandy rampaging across the Mayfair nightlife. Here the underside of the swinging City is laid bare in all it's debauched futility. Our privileged toff dragged over the coals in the accusatory rave-up, House in the Country ,"Well he got his job when drunken Daddy tumbled down the stairs, from that very day this boy has more than had his share." It ends side one with a sense of hubris...for those whom the God's would destroy. And, "One of these days I'm gonna knock him off his throne"sings his old classmate. It's like a promise. 

The guitar reverses into Side Two like the beginning of the end because "He went and spent all the money that he had, because he had a heart and not a head”. The net result, his Most Exclusive Residence for Sale. An alternate version of Afternoon Tea follows the downward spiral, switching the narrative to first person. It's references to an absent tea-room tryst under starry skies, signalling a delusional descent in both ambition and libido. 

"The taxman's taken all my dough" sums it all up, Sunny Afternoon or not, with his property loss ill-compensated by forced inertia 'neath changeable sunny skies, the future is bleak. Lazy Old Sun is like that chilly moment as we watch the cloud cover the ground before us and we wait for it's inexorable shadow to roll over our spot. The song is a woozy nod to the downer brought on by too much excess whether material, chemical, sunshine or ...booze. An inspired shift back into Pop, the third person Mr Pleasant though arrives like an unwelcome guest. The chirpy upbeat mood clashes with the bleak truths like something out of Dickens. And even Mrs Pleasant has gone. "Wintertime is coming, all the sky is grey, summer birds aren't singing since you went away" closes the End of The Season curtain like an old show tune at the end of a rain-lashed pier. "I just can't mix in all the clubs I know” he moans, “Now Labour's in, I have no place to go"And so part one ends. The swinging snapshot of the Capital city now forced to look into itself. 

RECORD TWO (35 mins)- a parallel world on the other side of town under the same grey skies where the stakes are so much higher. Characters break free and fall under the City's wheels, before blissful redemption awakens them to the life-affirming realisation of the wonders they've always had. Even if it's not that much.

Side three opens with studio chat into a short instrumental run-through of Waterloo Sunset that drifts straight into the profound Autumn Almanac"This is my street and I'm never gonna leave it and I'm always gonna stay here.." sings a proud everyman until the mysterious inner workings of the mind are revealed like an actor's split-second expression, "because the people I meet seem to come from my street and I can't get away... the street is calling me. Come on home!. Hear it calling me, Come on home!"

And Billy Liar is left at the train station as Julie heads off for the streets of gold. The London bells introduce us to the Big Black Smoke and immediately we consider her fate, as told by a bristling stentorian voice, "Well she slept in caffs and coffee bars and bowling alleys and every penny she ha-a-a-d, was spent on purple hearts and cigarettes". The words bowling alleys spat like a blasphemous rebuke from the pulpit. Rosy Won't You Please Come Home follows the lament of her abandoned mother, whilst Too Much on My Mind may be the song of them all. A study in mental anguish where to these people, human choice and happiness are forever at the mercy of chance. But smile, smile, smile as long as you've a lucifer to light your Harry Rag eveything's ok. And at the beginning "Susie and Johnny were happy... earned enough to pay the rent" but these new characters are introduced to bring us back into the circling kitchen sink of it all. It's Davies most Marxist scenario. The Situation Vacant reading like a death notice for Johnny's broken dreams,“Susie’s separated living with her Ma" and "little Mama’s satisfied”. The fourth song on the side to contemplate the happiness or otherwise of a Mother.

Inevitably side Four finds us in Ken Loach territority on the aptly named Dead End Street. A trad jazz coda plays over the fade like a New Orleans funeral parade, before a thunder crash empties the streets with apocalyptic portent. “The reckoning was beckoning, they’re living to their doom, there is no hope, no reasoning, this Rainy Day in June. And “…everybody felt the rain”. Everybody, Johnny, Joe, Tom and Susie, like Rosy before her, free from Mama again but in the mire. Like a miracle Susannah’s Still Alive, but only because we see her breathing and its all too true that it “Doesn’t matter what she does, she knows that she can’t win”. The hapsichord waltz of the Two Sisters, which Davies wrote about himself and his brother, introduces two more characters to the mix, “Sybilla looked into the mirror, Priscilla looked into the washing machine” but through an unexpected moment of grace (in the maisonette), the mood is transformed, Priscilla saw her little children and then decided she was better off than the wayward lass that her sister had been”. And that's all it took to return to the beginning and this is my street and This is Where I Belong. It's a blissful mini anthem of hope and it seems to circle back to Record One and the "house upon a hill" character, now "with no place to go". And at the end of it all we are made to understand that the bright London lights shine with illusion and as they recede back into the darkness, a glorious Waterloo Sunset lights up Terry and our Julie, who we leave to their life of simple pleasures.

On reflection the whole thing is a synthesis of the 60's cinematic working class dream, re-channelled by a writer in the thick of it. It's tuneful, simplistic and at times quite moving. It also breathes new life into songs you thought you knew. Try and track down a copy (or make your own). It's a great enveloping listen.

Sunday, 7 March 2021

JOHN MARTYN - Run Honey Run

 (JS)

Well I wish I could think of some cliche to mouth

To make our parting seem less sad

But if I told you lies or promised you the moon

The truth would come trickling from my eyes

So run honey run, and hide in the wind

And never stop to look inside your mind

Well I wish I could wash all my weeping blues away

And watch them disappear on morning tide

Oh, but I seek after sword, after sounds of the sea

A charm forever round my mind

And I wish I could fly like a bat from a cave

Through the darkness of my ignorance to light

I'd forever live on the echoes of our love

And die like some star burning bright

Run Honey Run is the last track on side A of Martyn’s debut album, produced at island for an allegedly measly sum of 158 pounds. It’s folk in its conception, the songs are guitar driven and accompanied by Martyn’s thin voice. Musically the songs are simple. This song features a progression of C F D, but what made Martyn special was this ability to improvise and extemporise around a simple structure and breathe life into his conception. Its alarming in the context of the ravages drink and drugs would have on his reputation and future contributions to culture, that the song is about warning off his partner. That said this recording represents a pure moment when a new voice joined the choir of culture, and in joining, enriched the sound of the times. Exquisite guitar, exquisite vocal, just the right amount of both.

There is a modern problem with cultural revisionism in that as well as appreciated the art the artist produces, we also are bidden to seek approval of the person producing the art. Martyn presents an alarming problem for such sentimentalisation. He was an aggressive, wife beating, family abandoning, egotistical drug addict who was a guitar maverick. We can infantilise the historical record or attempt to excuse him, or try to contextualise his behaviour by describing his life in a culturally hermitically clinical way. In 1974 in an interview with ZIGZAG magazine Martyn’s describes his youth, the moments that his crystallises into the lyric and  structure of this song thus,

“Kick a few heads in or get looked upon as a pansy … You don’t have any choice up there, either you’re violent or you’re a weed. And I haven’t got the capacity for being trodden on. I’m a natural born coward just like everybody else, but I don’t like being taken advantage of. I’m probably still the same now. But at the time it was just either eat or be eaten … There were fights in school all the time and knives were bandied about.”

(Excerpt From: John Neil Munro. “Some People are Crazy”. Apple Books.) 

It should have ended better, but it didn’t

(PS)

“Island Was the Finest Record Label on the Planet From 1967 to 1974, Prove Me Wrong” is a sign I’m going to get painted to attach to a table, so I can sit outside US college buildings with a mug of tea and debate with differently-minded (i.e. wrong) people until they slink away with tails between legs and tattered opinions dragging behind them. Its remit wasn’t a particular style of music, or even anything commercially viable: acts just had to be new and interesting. That they took a punt on an unknown folkie in 1967 and basically recorded his live act in around 4 days is a testament to this.

John Martyn’s style sets him apart from many other singer/songwriters. His songs aren’t about having a catchy hook or even that many chord changes: it’s a vibe you settle into, the repetition of uncomplicated ideas with a percussive thumb being the metronome to make the song tick along. The nearest comparison I would draw from the same era would be that of Bert Jansch: one man and his guitar against the world, with attitude, style and technique to set him apart from the mainstream.

Run Honey Run is played in DADDAD open tuning which features on a number of Martyn’s earlier songs: it’s a stripped-down tonality which helps to keep the song structure itself very simple. The vocal melody feels like a pentatonic scale, which again keeps complexity to a minimum, almost harking back to early polyphonic music. There’s also a hint of the swinging style that Martyn himself said was a characteristic of his sound, albeit one that would become more pronounced in later recordings.

This is a case of ‘less is more’: a simple song with very slight ornamentation, played beautifully with one instrument and a voice, lasting under three minutes. The emotion in the voice isn’t overwrought, despite the charged lyrics depicting a harrowing breakup; it’s almost a matter-of-fact delivery, like this is familiar ground which he knows will be re-trod soon enough. Lovely stuff.

(CG)

In the early 1960s folk music had a prominent position in the contemporary music scene in the United Kingdom, being a mish mash of elements ranging from a rather fey model of the troubadour to a potentially subversive voice. This subversive voice often reflected the views of the marginalised, especially noticeable in Scottish and Irish contemporary folk where historical memory was drawn upon to challenge and question the centralised domination of the London Metropole as the seat of government (some things change not a jot). In the USA the widespread success of Bob Dylan, and earlier pioneers such as Arlo Guthrie, in the folk scene fuelled London record companies to produce a range of folk troubadours, most notably Donovan but also John Martyn, Nick Drake and others (along with groups such as the Humblebums who had Billy Connolly in their ranks and represented the more subversive edge of the marginalised). Dylan’s famous move to electric guitars and other instruments in 1965/6 heralded the subsidence of record company interest in the purist folk scene in the UK and an interest in crossover performers who followed the path of Bob Dylan. John Martyn was a prominent exponent of this mixture where often blues inspired arrangements were topped off with a mournful singing tone that nodded towards Dylan and especially Leonard Cohen.

Run Honey Run follows Dylan’s example of rejecting tightly composed and orchestrated lyrics executed within the three minute limit, or thereabouts, that were de rigour in the late fifties and early sixties pop music for a broader and more flexible creative canvas. However for the most part in the United Kingdom the epic canvases that Dylan and other American performers created was exchanged for a very English apolitical sensibility that chimed with class values of middle England. Further the radical changes in the pop landscape epitomised by the Beatles with their celebrated releases in the 1960s, culminating in the creative experimentation of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, was ignored as sullying the purity of this genre’s folk roots. Needless to say, this was quite the opposite of the creative mix happening in the states where to the horror of older generations of country and western aficionados musicians, such as Gram Parsons and The Byrds, were melding elements of rock with country and western.  For me, the difficulty with this song of John Martyn is inherent to this troubadour genre. The Run Honey Run lyric’s invigorating first line hook dissipates soon after, while the guitar work with its rather knowing blues influenced underpinnings sits uneasily with the sub-Leonard Cohen lyric and delivery. This is one for the John Martyn fans exclusively.

(CH)

I like folk music and often listen to The Folk Show with Mark Ratcliffe on BBC Radio 2. Overall, I quite enjoyed this song. It had a nice rhythmic and melodic feel to it, though I never did figure out why Honey needed to run.

(GV)

Run Honey Run instantly pulls me in with its strong alternating bassline and dancing, wistful melody. The style of the acoustic guitar very much reminds me of Bert Jansch's version of Nottamun Town, but the lyrics and Martyn's tone add a ladle full of melancholy, more in line with the Jean Ritchie version.

The echo and soft tone of the vocals gives a feeling of distance which contrasts the unvarnished intimacy of the guitar, probably an intentional representation of the bitter-sweet story of the song. The instruction for his lover to run and never think back is an expression of raw, loving selflessness, given with the full knowledge that his grief will last a near eternity - devastatingly sad, selfless and worldly, especially so when considering the age at which Martyn penned this incredible song.


(MS)

 

Run Honey Run is a fairly routine acoustic ballad in a folk-blues style detailing a familiar my-girl-done-gone-and-left-me type thing. It enters and exits the cranium in fairly swift order vaguely hinting at the promise of more substantial things to come. But a full listen to the accompanying album proves to be a rather underwhelming experience leaving us with little to focus on other than the chimneys on the sleeve-photo taken on the roof of Island Records boss Chris Blackwell’s flat on Cromwell Road. This “London Conversation” was the first departure for that label in terms of the blue-eyed folk-blues bandwagon, but this is less a conversation and more a few na├»ve tune-ups thrown like remarks into a furious debate then being conducted in the cellars at Benjies and Les Cousins. In the red corner Bert Jansch, in the blue corner Davey Graham.


To be fair John Martyn came to the party quite late, he was young when he recorded this. Back to Stay is quite pretty in a Girl From the North Country way and Rolling Home has some diverting if kitsch sitar work. But there’s a passe Dylan cover and things didn’t noticeably improve on the similarly bland second album that followed a year later. Produced by Paul Simon’s former flat-mate Al Stewart, the latter’s 1969 LP “Love Chronicles” would demonstrate what could be achieved when folkies managed to break free from slavishly diluted Dylanisms. And as we find time and time again, it’s the way the artists of this period responded to the progressive changes around them that make this such a fertile and interesting period.

 

After this the Island Records machine put their full weight behind John Martyn and they packed him off to Woodstock to make an album with new wife Beverley Kutner, famed producer Joe Boyd and members of The Band. This resulted in the excellent “Stormbringer” and a further LP “Road to Ruin”, where the supporting cast were also providing backing to Hampstead neighbour Nick Drake’s contemporaneous “Bryter Layter” opus. Both albums are good and due to Martyn’s later popularity (and infamy) more than a little overlooked.

 

Beverley had already released a few folk-pop solo singles and after “decorating” the product of her boyfriends, appearing on a Bert Jansch LP sleeve and delivering a spoken line on the Simon and Garfunkel “Bookends” LP, she secured a slot on the opening night at the Monterey Pop Festival. How they were pushed together as a collaborative couple on these LPs may be linked to some concern by Island over what to do with Martyn. The albums were unusual in that they seemed to downplay his guitar playing and shy away from explicit duets. He did a song, then she did a song and in many cases her stuff is the more memorable (check out Can’t Get the One I Want on the 1st and Auntie Aviator on the 2nd).

 

So in retrospect it’s no surprise that he should emerge a little later with a completely different style, with his voice buried in an incoherent mumble beneath kaleidoscopic guitar and bass duels. No need to hear the lyrics when an overarching mood of instrumental dexterity became the selling point from “Solid Air” onwards. Perhaps it’s me or perhaps it’s the fact he was of a younger generation, only finding his style as it expanded into the no man’s land of the mid- 70’s, but it’s music that I’ve never warmed to.  I’ve long suspected that his inadequacies were skilfully covered up in both production and a macho mystic attitude with a little stretched out a long way. In more recent years his connection to Nick Drake as both friend and rival have overshadowed his own work, building up a narrative which portrays Martyn as a malevolent presence around the fragile canonised Drake. That may be a bit too much too.

 

So the song here is a youthful sketch but no more than that. Check out those two LP’s he made with Beverley for his most interesting stuff. Continue after that with caution.