The Kinks, Autumn Almanac (1967)

autumn_almanac_cover

Artist: The Kinks
Title: Autumn Almanac
Description: single
Label: Pye
Release date: 1967
First heard: 1985

Yes, yes, yes!

On a recent, feature-length Sky Arts documentary about the pivotal Kinks 1968 album The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, more concisely entitled Echoes of a World, XTC’s Andy Partridge was among a phalanx of high-quality fans to hymn its attributes, filials and legacy. (Others included Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller and Suggs.) In precis, the non-accidental Partridge said that he’d spent his entire career trying to write something as good as Autumn Almanac. (I would argue that he succeeded, but that’s another entry.)

In any case, it feels fitting to crown an English song, by an English band of English men (Ray and Dave Davies from London, Devonian bassist Pete Quaife and drummer Mick Avory from Surrey), addressing the subject of this foreign field that will be forever England, at a moment in early 21st century history when the Union seems precarious, the Jack has been hijacked and Englishness is – to quote a later British rock band indebted to the Kinks – “for the Englishman again.” Like many islanders, The Kinks stood on the white cliffs and peered out at the rest of the world, seeking fame and fortune in the United States and stopping to conquer. Like all decent bands worth their blue sachet of salt in the post-rationing 60s, they arrived at the recently renamed JFK singing in the borrowed vernacular of the blues and the barrel-house.

But once the Kinks started making cents, they were sent packing by Uncle Sam for reasons fabled to be union-related and in Kinks mythology precipitated by a punch-up over the only partly true notion that these four limeys had gone over there and stolen the Yanks’ rock and roll jobs. So when Ray Dave, Mick and Pete touched back down at Heathrow – having sampled the Indian subcontinent on the way – they regrouped around an Anglocentricity they’d hitherto never thought to run up the flagpole. The nation saluted.

Thus, having dabbled in the conceptual on fourth album Face to Face in 1966, and foreshadowed Orwell’s warm beer and old maids in the stand-alone track Village Green (recorded for Something Else in 1967 and kept back), they asked in earnest, who did they think they were? Autumn Almanac, recorded at Pye and produced by Ray, with Mr Pleasant on the UK flip, was an orphan; a non-album single. But it fended for itself.

I’m always reading about how fond guitarists are of the dirt that forms around a lovingly manhandled instrument – ancient, filthy strings seem to hold a particular allure – and despite the coming of springtime, there are few guitar sounds muckier than the one that heralds Autumn Almanac. That chop-chop-chop gives the impression of something primitive and earthen, and yet, from out of the sonic fug trill angelic Kink harmonies, with Ray in nature-documentary mode: “From the dew-soaked hedge creeps a crawly caterpillar …”

The harmonic scene is set when the dawn “begins to crack” and a breeze blows leaves of “a musty-coloured yellow” before being swept up in Ray’s sack – that’s his autumn almanac. The spirit of The Lion and the Unicorn lengthens like the shadows over a Friday evening where “people get together, hiding from the weather.” If you can’t taste the grill-blackened dried fruit and the sliding butter on Ray’s currant buns, you’re not listening. It is no coincidence that jam is another name for preserve. But this immaculate demonstration of what people in 1967 didn’t casually refer to as “world-building” results in no Prelapsarian idyll. There’s a “lack of sun, because the summer’s all gone” and our narrator’s “poor rheumatic back.” Ray Davies doesn’t deal in absolutes, he’s in the nooks and the faults, the cracks and the veins. Nature is confirmed as red in tooth and claw, but what of human nature? (Ponder this: which other of God’s creatures would compile an almanac?)

As I type, Brexit threatens to spread pestilence across the land. It’s why I have turned to the Kinks and village green preservation, a project steeped in hope and glory, not today’s pessimism and division. Britain was five years off voting to join the Common Market in 1968; to stop the world because it wanted to get on. Nobody dreamed of leaving. In this European future, would there still be “football on a Saturday, roast beef on a Sunday”? Blackpool? Holidays? Yes, yes, yes.

Ray gets all belligerent as the song woofs and flutters to its conclusion.

This is my street, and I’m never gonna to leave it
And I’m always gonna to stay here

He’s playing a part, as all good storytellers are able: the ultimate Brexiteer, purple-faced, aged ninety-nine with no right to tell the kids, or the Kinks, what to do. You sort of hate to tell him that all the people he meets who “seem to come from my street” will soon be gone. Whatever it is that’s calling to Ray’s surrogate in song it’s unsustainable. “Come on home“? He’s already home.

I first heard this song when it was played to me by fellow art student Rob in a study bedroom in Battersea at the opposite end of London to where Ray and Dave grew up in Fortis Green between Colney Hatch and Muswell Hill and other places that sound fictional but which aren’t. It slotted in somewhere between the more contemporary jangle of Aztec Camera and the new rockabilly of Thee Milkshakes and other Peel-time reprobates.

I didn’t know what an almanac was (it’s a calendar that notes high and low tides, eclipses, sport and prizes, that sort of thing – Whitaker’s is in its 150th edition as I type), but by sheer coincidence I had just learned about the drink called Armagnac, a play on words Ray had already nabbed. I discovered the Kinks piecemeal from compilations Rob lent me and I came of age with little idea of what song came from which parent LP. Autumn Almanac was, however, a keeper. It was also a flash-forward to the band’s greatest long-playing achievement. Ask Noel Gallagher, who regards Village Green as one of the three LPs you have to own.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes

Elvis Presley, Suspicious Minds (1969)

ElvisSuspiciousMinds

Artist: Elvis Presley
Title: Suspicious Minds
Description: single
Label: RCA
Release date: 1969
First heard: circa mid-1970s

Jordan: The Comeback is the fifth studio album by musically and lyrically eloquent northeasterners Prefab Sprout. A nominal concept album (Rolling Stone summed it up as a pop symphony about “God, love and Elvis”), its standout passage, for me, has always been its four-minute title track, in which the King laments from some rhinestone-studded version of heaven.

And all those books about me
Well there wasn’t much love in ’em boys
I’m tellin’ ya, if I’d taken all that medication
Man, I’d a rattled like one of my little girl’s toys
Now they call me a recluse
Been in the desert so long
Layin’ on my back, bidin’ my time
I’m just waitin’ for the right song

Then I’m comin’ back!

Only Paddy McAloon would have the chutzpah and chops to imagine Elvis considering a move back to Memphis from the top of a stairway to heaven. But Elvis is so big, so all-powerful, so iconic in the Mount Rushmore sense of the exhausted adjective, how else do you draw him out of the desert of pagan idolatry? Certainly, how do you pick one of the countless prêt-à-chanter tunes delivered to him over his quarter-century of pelvis-swiveling, gallery-playing and myth-salesmanship?

As with the Beatles and the Stones, the Beach Boys and the Pet Shop Boys, Madness, Squeeze and other statutory genii of the 45, you’re looking at a long list of choice cuts. There are 30 number ones to trace a finger down from Elvis’s foreshortened lifetime, never mind all of those contenders that only squeaked to number two (Hound Dog, Can’t Help Falling in Love, Burning Love), or number three (Crying in the Chapel, Devil In Disguise, In the Ghetto in the US; Teddy Bear in the UK). Suspicious Minds, first recorded in 1968 by its writer Mark James (who would go on to pen Moody Blue and Always on my Mind), became a hit on Elvis’s hips a year later, and his final living US chart-topper. (He enjoyed three further number ones in the UK: doo-wop serenade The Wonder of You, the down and dirty Burning Love and the deep and meaningful Way Down.)

The 1969 LP From Elvis in Memphis, recorded there to exploit the free pass bestowed by the fabulously restorative NBC special from Burbank, Singer Presents … Elvis (colloquially known as the ’68 Comeback Special, whose soundtrack went Top 10), marked the true return of the King, having been in the desert for at least seven years, making movies with diminishing artistic returns, and not playing live. The books state that Elvis laid down Suspicious Minds between 4am and 7am in a night-shift pre-breakfast rush on 23 January, ’69, in eight takes. It was overdubbed in the not-insignificant town of Las Vegas that August and released as a single forthwith.

I’m always cheered by how low-key the intro is. It’s almost a little bit country, with Reggie Young’s caressed electric guitar and Gene Chrisman’s sticks tap-dancing on the hi-hat. Then Elvis sends out a distress signal: “We’re caught in a trap!” We quickly learn that he can’t walk out, because he loves somebody too much, baby. The last line is coloured in by the most buoyant, promenade-suite strings, which take up the cause from here. As translated into Elvish from Mark James’ text, the lyric is torrid kitchen-sink stuff. The protagonist and his ill-suited squeeze are caught in a trap of their own making. Why can’t she see what she’s doing to him? She’s probably thinking the same thing, after all, she doesn’t believe a word he says. It’s evident that they can’t go on together with suspicious minds. It’s killing them, and here they go again …

Eleven backing singers whip this problem-page teaser into a full-on melodrama, while trumpets and trombones, arranged by Glenn Spreen, pump up the volume. It’s an epic. Chrisman stick-shifts from rat-tat-tat-tat to more skittish hi-hat, and back again. He’s on  a roll. But this is expected from first-rate sessioneers.

There are two audacious, infrastructural gambits in Suspicious Minds. One comes at 1.45, when, after Elvis croons “suspicious mah-a-ha-aands“, the whole show slows down to ballad-speed crawl. The break allows him to entreaty, “let’s don’t let a good thing die”, adding an “mmmm-mmmm-mmmmm” that luxuriates in the pause for thought. Then, at 2.12, it cranks back up and starts windmilling its way to the finish. Though Chrisman holds this quick-march beat thereafter, all the heartache, harmony (“yeah, yeah“) and tumult makes it feels like it gathers further speed as it builds to the all-in climax – the eleven sound like twelve; the brass goes off the hook and proclaims heavenly timeshare; a snare fill pops in all the excitement – and then, just as it hits its exultant final bars, at 3.35 it begins to fade …

Nothing out of the ordinary there, it’s what old 45s did, for reasons practical and commercial. But don’t go away, that’s not all, folks. After 15 seconds, as the houselights are turned back on … it fades back in! Such a tease. Is it intended to conjure the band leaving the stage and coming back on for an encore? It’s certainly pure showbiz, albeit effected by a lever on the desk. It’s a sabotage decision made by producer Felton Jarvis that oughtn’t even work but, like Lou Reed struggling to scan “all the coloured girls sang” in Walk on the Wild Side and Joni Mitchell squealing with tickled delight in Big Yellow Taxi, it just does.

Now that’s what I call a comeback.

 

The Byrds, Eight Miles High (1966)

byrds-eight-miles-high-cbs

Artist: The Byrds
Title: Eight Miles High
Description: single; album track, Fifth Dimension
Label: Columbia
Release date: 1966
First heard: circa 1980s

At the time of writing, I own six – count ’em – individual compilation CDs whose multi-disc track-listings are recruited from the strict gene pool known as “the 60s”. Unsurprisingly, along with the Beach Boys, The Mamas and the Papas, The Turtles, Ohio Express and Scott Mackenzie, all six of these essential roundups are nuanced by the Byrds. The group’s signature tune Mr Tambourine Man, hijacked from under Bob Dylan’s nose, is on all six fulsome compilations; in addition, one of them (100 Hits: Peace and Love; close-up of some daisies) includes Turn! Turn! Turn!, and another (The 60s Summer Album; side-on camper van) risks breaking up the barbecue with Eight Miles High, which is the tune (Tune! Tune!) that abides with me – and the historic single that heralded their prescriptively psychedelic third album, Fifth Dimension, in the summer of ’66.

What I think I love the most about Eight Miles High is its general demeanour: frantic. A proposed chart-topper, it contains strong experimentation from the start, possibly a result of the effects of plant extract, or something with a chemical symbol. Chris Hillman’s western-TV-theme bass intro, the woodpecker attack on the ride cymbal by Michael Clarke, and “Roger” “Jim” McGuinn’s impatiently garbled twelve-string overture of entanglement – something of a unexpected musical item in the bagging area – combine to create the world’s least-likely-to intro to a pop hit in an epoch.

When you come fly with these men, it’s always a jingle-jangle morning. Not the biggest guitar group of the 60s, but arguably the one with the furthest reach into the future (the longest tail, if you like), the Byrds are in one unique sense contemporaries of Les Dawson: so adept at playing their instruments they can kick all of that knowledge into the long grass and make it sound like they’re only just discovering how to get sounds out of them for the very first time. It feels like there’s Mingus in the jumble-sale thrown by McGuinn, Clark, Hillman, Crosby and Clarke in the middle of what remains, on paper, a sweet-natured pop tune about being high and looking down on creation. (Actually, the statute books tell us that Crosby had turned the others onto Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane on the tour bus.)

Regardless of what went in at the other end, or how much sway producer Allen Stanton had over proceedings, there’s a massive attack in the way these musicians cook the hooks – even in the way they shake a tambourine, man – and it’s what sets Eight Miles High eight miles apart from the more house-trained likes of All I Really Want To Do and So You Want to Be a Rock & Roll Star, which are designed to make you feel a whole lot better.

Hadn’t they read the songwriting manual? Did they not want to be rock & roll stars? (They look every inch like they do, in their shades, and their suedes, and their tassels, and their Paisley, and the occasional cape, all lined up, a straight-legged groove machine.) It was not yet officially the age of Aquarius, and songs began with an intro, followed by a verse, a chorus, then another verse, a bridge, then back for a final chorus and fade. Albums were where the noodling went on – the navel-gazing and the barrier-pushing – not singles. And certainly not lead-off singles (Eight Miles High was released in March 1966; the LP followed after the second single, 5D, in July).

Eight Miles High is three-and-a-half minutes long, which is a minute longer than most radio DJs prescribed. It feels longer, like a drawn-out trip, and when you touch down, you find that it’s “stranger than known”. You may accept that the song’s about a chartered flight, legendarily to London (the “rain gray town, known for its sound,” where “small faces” – or Small Faces? – “abound”). If so, then it’s a short hop, and, be honest, something of a bad trip. The natives, some of them “shapeless forms”, are “huddled in storms”, and I don’t like the sound of those black limousines (The Man!) pushing through “sidewalk scenes”. If TripAdvisor had been around in 1966, this one would’ve averaged at two-and-a-half green circles. The guarantee with drug songs (and it is a drug song, despite thin denials after the initial US radio ban, although Clark and Crosby subsequently admitted to what the cool cats already knew), is that what goes up must come down, although not usually in such short, concertina-ed order.

It’s subversive, it’s on the edge, it’s of its time and yet beyond its years. It captures a five-piece band at a crossroads, just as they downsize to a four-piece, playing a song co-written by the cuckoo who flew over the rest and was missing from Fifth Dimension’s Arabian carpet.

Whether they were on drugs, or rugs, the Byrds staked out an important swatch of territory in the era during which they thrived. They’d invented folk rock and date-stamped “jangly”. The 90s would have been a lot quieter had they not done so, when punk rock electric guitar ran out of filth and fury, and fell obsolete, and the jingle-janglers had their season in the sun.

Thank heavens it had nothing to do with drugs.

 

The Beach Boys, Good Vibrations (1966)

Good_Vibrations_single

Artist: The Beach Boys
Title: Good Vibrations
Description: single; album track, Smiley Smile
Label: Capitol
Release date: 1966; 1967
First heard: circa 1970

Ooh, bop, bop

I cannot tell a lie. I saw the split-level Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy and it inspired me to reinvest. In the film, directed by Bill Polhad, Wilson is deftly and affectionately dramatised in studio-tanned situ amid all the oneupmanship, invention, pretention, fastidiousness, excitation, pep and beauty of the making of Pet Sounds, on which this stellar “pocket symphony” isn’t found. Good Vibrations is, in that respect, like the subsequent Strawberry Fields by that other band: a standalone single that exists in permanent danger of eclipsing the standalone LP constructed around it, but upon which it does not appear. It’s so good, you always forget and assume it’s on Pet Sounds. But it isn’t. (Where would it go?) It came out as a single six months after the album, and wasn’t rehomed until September the following year, on Smiley Smile. It’s essentially a stray.

It’s tempting to attempt to describe the way this piece unfolds. (To call it a “song” seems impertinent.) But there’s too much going on at so many levels – including molecular – it would be a fruitless exercise without a degree in musicology. Indeed, musicologists seem to lay down their textbooks and gawp in non-academic awe at Good Vibrations, vouchsafing that the usual rules don’t apply. But it’s fine, I think, to pick out its greatest bits. The luminescent Hammond line that bounces the song into life. Those spare, almost counterintuitive slaps on the snare, delivered by Hal Blaine of the Wrecking Crew, a platoon of “first call” sessioneers every bit as legendary as the Funk Brothers or the MGs to my ears. The spooky theremin, which jellies in during the chorus, over the boot-deep tones of Mike Love, subsequently pedestalled by Carl and Brian Wilson’s harmonies. These ascending Filo layers turn even the first chorus into a crescendo and we haven’t hit the minute mark yet.

The verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge structure is a decoy. It genuflects to R&B convention with its repetitions and toe-tapping potential, but then, at approximately 01.42, the clanky pub piano signals a twist. Biographer Jon Stebbins wrote that the section which follows the second chorus “might be called a bridge under normal circumstances, but the song’s structure takes such an abstract route that traditional labels don’t really apply.”

I don’t know where but she sends me there ...

Suspicions from the squares at Capital that Good Vibrations might in some way nod to psychedelic drug use are clearly unfounded. These elations and sensations are self-evidently rooted in good, clean, honest fun. “She goes with me to a blossom world”? It’s a walk in the park. (Brian said he’d written it on dope and not acid anyway, so not to worry.)

You can read elsewhere about how “radical disjunctions in key, texture, instrumentation and mood” make the track what it is. But let us not forget the way it makes you want to sing along and nod your head and, in my case, attempt to air-drum along with Blaine. (Good luck with that.) This is feelgood music with enough content to launch a thousand essays. You can think along with it. The sleigh bells ought to have been a kitchen sink too many (less sleigh bell!), especially for a song recorded between February and September 1966 in the Golden State, but if Brian Wilson wants to borrow Christmas, he can. And everybody loves the bit where it almost runs silent, just the harmonica and hi-hat, then:

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

And we’re back in the room. With locomotive cello this time, perhaps the song’s greatest contribution to popular music, rewarded with a key role in the fadeout.

I’m not the world’s most qualified Beach Boys professor – I didn’t even own Pet Sounds until the early 90s – but subsequent immersions tells me that when they were good, they were very, very good, and there’s little to touch the period between Brian’s panic attack in December 1964 and when Dennis met Manson in spring 1968. Although on certain wistful occasions I prefer the instrumental Let’s Go Away For A While or the harpsichord-assisted autobiography I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, in a pointless throwdown between Good Vibrations and God Only Knows, the former edges it for sheer operational bravado.

 

 

Glen Campbell, Wichita Lineman (1968)

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Artist: Glen Campbell
Title: Wichita Lineman
Description: single; album track, Wichita Lineman
Label: Capitol
Release date: 1968
First heard: 1990s

I am a lineman for the county …

My musical education continues. I hope it always will. But if you drew up a graph, with Musical Knowledge Gleaned on one axis, and Time on the other, it would start twitching upwards in a meaningful way at around 1969-70, when, aged four going on five, I really started to take notice of songs on the radio: Mungo Jerry’s In The Summertime, Gimme Dat Ding by the Pipkins, Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes by Edison Lighthouse, My Sweet Lord, Wandrin’ Star, Sugar Sugar by the Archies, Hugo Montenegro’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. I have even earlier memories of Mary Hopkin’s Those Were The Days from 1968. What you think I’m going to say next is that Wichita Lineman got into my system around this time.

It didn’t. At least, I wasn’t aware of it doing so, even though it was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, the one that had Wichita in it, and the other one. Wichita Lineman didn’t enter my internal playlist until the mid-90s, when I was working at Q magazine. Indeed, if you really did map that graph of my musical education, the years 1993-97 would see a sharp rise, as the experience behind the desk as features editor and then editor broadened my mind and my sense of history like no other office I’ve worked in, and I remain grateful. Staff who were ahead of me included the likes of Bill Prince, John Bauldie, Adrian Deevoy, Paul Du Noyer and John Aizlewood – if not older in age, wiser in miles on the clock – and I used these clever, seasoned gentlemen as my yardsticks, and gladly took steers from any of them.

Although my arrival at Q coincided with a changing of the cultural guard and the Britpop explosion  – which I think explained part of my indie-shorted usefulness to the august rock monthly – it was still a safe house for classic rock and pop, and wore its anti-ageism as a badge of honour. As such, I threw myself backwards into history and topped up my degree. I remember Bill Prince interviewing Jimmy Webb – I’m guessing it was around the time of his Ten Easy Pieces LP – and even the act of sub-editing the copy, and providing a sidebar, blurb and headline matured my understanding of a man whom I only really knew for writing Up, Up And Away (another hit that must have seeped into my consciousness in my first few years of sentience).

Result: hello, Wichita Lineman! It wasn’t exactly like hearing a song that was almost as old as me for the first time. It is, after all, a certified classic, and will have been playing somewhere in the background for most of my life. But in that instant of seeking it out and making sense of its creation, everything fell into place. (I’d been in a postgraduate comedy production in the late 80s where I played a simple farmboy from Wichita, but the connection eluded me even then.) Webb was driving down a long, straight road in his native Oklahoma and saw a lineman up a telegraph pole and was struck by the loneliness of the job. The lyric flowed from there. It seems such an original observation and setting, perhaps it’s little wonder the song reverberates still.

It’s a song that feels like a story and yet, broken down, the lyric is quite spare. (Unlike this ramblin’ essay.) But what imagery it fixes in your mind’s eye. There he is, the lineman “for the county” (not even terminology we use in this country, or county, thus already romantic), and he “drives the main road, searchin’ in the sun for another overload.” This is overall-wearing detail about a work detail. But how soon its high-viz practicality is punctured by sentiment: “I hear you singin’ in the wire.” Is it as creepy as it first seems? Surely he’s the flower-power prototype for Mark E Smith’s Stasi-like “telephone thing, listenin’ in.” And yet, the Wichita Lineman who’s “still on the line” and “can hear you through the whine” is clearly lovestruck. And it’s lonely up that pole.

The weather’s looking rotten, too. It may not look like rain, but if it snows “that stretch down South won’t ever stand the strain.” But the strain isn’t in a length of telegraph wire, no more than the “overload” is about his job description. It’s the lineman himself who’s close to collapse.

And I need you more than want you
And I want you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

But it’s not a poem, and Webb’s not just a wordsmith. He’s not the singer either. Glen Campbell, whom I associated in childhood with True Grit, which I’d seen on the television, brings the song to heartbroken life and a country authenticity to the sound pictures. The ex-session man – a member of LA’s amorphous Wrecking Crew – and touring Beach Boy was more than just a hick from Arkansas with a guitar on his back. He wrote, and he joined bands, and he appeared on the TV, and he had his first big hit with a pacifist anthem by Buffy Saint-Marie even though he thought draft-dodgers should be hung, possibly from a telegraph wire. His vocal is coffee-smooth – perhaps sipped from a flask – and conveys the plaintive in our lineman’s lament for lost love in such a sincere and moving way you could never see him as a telegraphic stalker. He means it, man. And the held note at the end of “still on the liiiiiiiiine” seems to echo around the wide open plains, as if the shot is panning back, wider and wider, until he’s a speck on a stick.

The string arrangement, by Campbell talisman and fellow Wrecking Crewer Al De Lory, does some daring wire work, too. After a descending guitar twang and patted intro beat, there they swirl, filling the Kansas sky with sun, while violins and a keyboard (played by Webb?) get to work on the pre-digital approximation of a telegraph’s bleeps and whines. Invention permeates.

It’s a downhome, nice-and-simple, over-easy slice of life which finds symbolism in the horny hands of the working man and creates something almost space-age out of its allotted instruments. And it’s sung by Campbell like it matters. I read on Wikipedia that my friend Stuart Maconie called it the “greatest pop song ever composed” in one of his books, which I don’t have to hand, and I think his tribute is contained in the word “composed”. Wichita Lineman doesn’t feel written, or knocked out to order, it’s a novella that’s been inspired by real life and if it’s a little bit country, it feels more local than that.

It’s county music.

America, A Horse With No Name (1971)

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Artist: America
Title: A Horse With No Name
Description: single; album track, America
Label: Warner Brothers
Release date: 1971; 1972
First heard: 1970s

There’s a strong imperative to enshrine this classic afternoon delight right now, because it’s been purloined and pillaged for use in a TV commercial for a make of car. It’s not a refusenik pose to say that I have no idea which make of car it’s advertising. Partly, I usually fast-forward through the ads; mostly, I don’t much care about makes of car. In any case, it’s something to do with a driver singing along to A Horse With No Name by America in his car, which is stuck in traffic, but he doesn’t care. I think we are supposed to divine that he doesn’t care because he’s in this particular vehicle. But surely it’s because he’s listening to A Horse With No Name, a song that can only soothe the savage breast.

My appreciation of the song is sincere, although I sense that some people consider it a bit of a joke. Written by Harrogate-born Dewey Bunnell, I’ve discovered that the other two members of the band – which famously comprised the sons of American fathers and British mothers united by the USAF base at Ruislip – didn’t much like it either, which is presumably why it was initially left off their debut LP. I have certainly made quips about Bunnell’s lyric, to whit: if I’d been through the desert on a horse with no name, one thing I’d definitely have done is name it. On paper, a line like, “There were plants and birds and rocks and things,” is lazy in the extreme – no matter what Bunnell was or wasn’t smoking – but perhaps it accurately reflects the frazzled state of the horse rider’s mind. Suitably fried in the desert sun, you might well complain that “the heat was hot.” it’s not the meaning but the rhythm of the line “there ain’t no-one for to give you no pain” that makes it so memorable. It’s a song, for singing in traffic, not a university lecture.

In any case, the lyric evokes. I didn’t even think to examine it after those first, osmotic hearings. I was right there with him, on that unchristened nag, traversing the hot sand. And I was bereft when he had to let his steed go after nine days, thus facing almost certain death by dehydration and heat stroke, unless he could land him a bird with one of those rocks or things. Its innocence is what’s beautiful about this song, which sold a million, pushed the album to the Billboard heights, landed them a best new artist Grammy, and made America massive in the land of their fathers, with hit albums throughout the 70s over there and over here, even enjoying a commercial renaissance as a duo in the 80s. And then, in 2010, A Horse With No Name was used in a Season Three episode of Breaking Bad, providing its title, Caballo sin nombre.

It was already cool to me.

Sometimes, literal is just the ticket. That this song about a horse should be made motile by a clip-clopping beat is perfect. (Ray Cooper provides the on-the-nose percussion to augment session man Kim Haworth’s drums.) The texture is acoustic guitar and plenty of it, unhindered in Cliff-linked staff producer Ian Hamwell’s production by kitchen sink. I believe the first guitar we hear is the 12-string of Gerry Beckley.

It’s Crosby, Stills & Nash. It’s Neil Young. It’s Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. (Many apparently thought they were listening to a new Young track at the time.) It’s what the 60s sounded like when the 70s came calling. This verdant period, with the compass set to point West and Laurel Canyon a sort of Mecca, is often dismissed as the limp, malleable epicentre of “soft rock”, but rock – and things – can’t always be hard. The sound of three young men harmonising can be as lilting and elevating as birdsong. (All songbirds can sing; but not all young men can – it deserves a round of applause.)

Bunnell sings the lead although he resists being described as the lead singer, and as if to prove why, when fellow Americans Beckley and bassist Dan Peet (sadly no longer with us, as of 2011) throw their vocal weight behind him for the first course of la-la-las, and then the second chorus, the lift is palpable. It’s a sad song, whether taken literally – in which case, a man loses his horse, gets sunburnt and finds himself in the sea – or cosmically – whereby man is clearly adrift from nature and royally screwing up the planet, running its rivers dry and self-servingly wearing out God’s creatures and this ride is a retreat back to Eden. And the melancholy tone of metaphysical ennui is exquisitely described by these uncorrupted voices. And the somersaulting strings in the bridge are actually like rain. Clever, that.

America always felt they ground their own unique blend out of the West Coast harmonies of C, S, N & Y and the British Invasion nod/wink of the Beatles – having a pretty good biodiverse claim on the Transatlantic middle – but I grew up thinking they were simply Americans, from America, writing and recording in America (the album America was, of course, recorded in London and part-written in Puddletown, Dorset), and it was always fine by me. There’s nothing British about Ventura Highway with its sunshine and chewed grass and “alligator lizards”.

Sometimes, as in Hollywood movies, America wins.

Nancy Sinatra, These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ (1966)

Nancy_Sinatra_single_cover_These_Boots_Are_Made_for_Walkin

Artist: Nancy Sinatra
Title: These Boots Are Made For Walkin’
Description: single; album track, Boots
Label: Reprise
Release date: 1966
First heard: circa 1970s

In his fourth volume of memoir The North Face Of Soho, Clive James makes this astute observation about legendary lyricist Johnny Mercer and in particular his words for One For My Baby, written with Harold Arlen, “which today still sets my standards for the way a colloquial phrase can be multiplied in its energy by how it sits on a row of musical notes.”

Though originally sung by Fred Astaire in the musical The Sky’s The Limit, it was popularised by Frank Sinatra, who was a man who really knew how to sit a phrase on a row of notes. In fact, it ran in the family.

Sometime in the mid-90s when I was working at Q, Albums Editor John Aizlewood gifted me four of Nancy Sinatra’s seven solo Reprise albums, released we must assume for the first time on the new-fangled Compact Disc. My familiarity with Ms Sinatra’s catalogue was limited to three songs* so I eagerly immersed myself in Boots, How Does That Grab You? (on whose sleeve she is dressed in boots, a nice jumper and – whoops – no trousers), Nancy In London (where of course she is perched at the back of a London double decker) and Sugar (a thumb hooked suggestively in the waistband of a pink bikini in some pampas grass), all four of which came out within two years.

*The three songs, by the way, were John Barry’s theme song for You Only Live Twice, Somethin’ Stupid with her dad, and These Boots Are Made For Walkin’, which I owned by way of the Full Metal Jacket soundtrack. Kubrick’s film had cemented the song and the Vietnam war in my mind, although I hadn’t known then that Boots had actually been adopted by US soldiers on the ground. In my ignorance, I thought the cruel fade at two minutes 26 seconds – when the song gets going, the song gets going – was imposed upon it by the compilers of the soundtrack. Wrong. It fades at that very moment in the original single edit. It was designed to do that. Planned. Choreographed. Just as Nancy asks her boots if they’re ready and instructs them to “start walkin'”, the tempo changes, the horns blast, the world does the twist and the volume reduces. It may be the cruelest ten seconds in pop.

It’s like there’s a party starting  but you’re not invited. It’s happening behind this door that’s just about to close in your face. Maybe this adds to the intrigue? It certainly speaks of a commanding level of self-confidence – that this record has already done quite enough. The coda is just a coda. Get over it. Singles in the 60s faded out before they outstayed their welcome.

These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ is the very height of musical expertise, of knowing what goes where and how. Ex-serviceman Lee Hazelwood had given tips to Phil Spector before Reprise lassoed his studio acumen and tasked him with rebooting the career of Nancy, who was about to get dropped from her Daddy’s label after five years of nada in the US charts. A Svengali of pop Hazelwood may have been – he lowered her voice and instructed her to think lewd thoughts while singing, all of which matched her new short-skirted, bottle-blonde, Carnaby Street image – but like the man in the James Brown song, it wouldn’t mean nothing, nothing, without a woman or a girl. Boots is all about her interpretation of that swaggering lyric. Some of the higher female pop voices of the time, many of them more admired than Nancy’s, lack her screw-you attitude. Maybe five years of failure on your father’s tab gives you that.

“You keep saying you’ve got something for me,” she snarls, impatiently. “Something you call love, but confess.” This is not a woman torridly imploring a man to take her back, this is a woman grinding her heel into his chest. He’s been messin’ where he shouldn’t have been a messin’, after all, not to mention lyin’ when he oughtta have been “truthin'” (touché, Mr Hazelwood, a “colloquial phrase” for the statute books). Her boots are going to carry her out of this unsatisfactory situation, but not without an over-the-shoulder threat as she leaves: “One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.” (She might well take one for her baby, too.)

It’s dark material indeed when she dissuades this ungrateful cad of the notion that he’ll “never get burnt.” Ha! She’s found a brand new box of matches that says otherwise. If you want to hear a singer go “Ha!” with all the contempt of someone taken for a ride, take a seat. As gleefully repeated in all his obituaries in 2007, Hazelwood instructed Nancy to sing “like a 16-year old girl who fucks truck drivers.” Like Frank eventually, she proved a good actor.

Billy Strange needs saluting, the arranger of this dirty, defiant warning shot across the patriarchy’s bows, which credits five guitarists (including Strange himself). Between him and Hazelwood, rows of musical notes were slotted together with sparkling orginality, not least the descending scale played by double-bassist Chuck Berghofer that puts us all in the mood at the start. While Nancy does her thing, you’re mainly hearing gossamer strummed guitars and a brushed beat, with a brass section politely underpinning in the background, barely noticed. Sultry doesn’t quite cover it.

After this, it was hits, hits, hits all the way for the rest of the 60s. How does that grab you?

Ha!