The Spinners, It’s A Shame (1970)

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Artist: The Spinners
Title: It’s A Shame
Description: single; track, 2nd Time Around
Label: V.I.P.
Release date: 1970
First heard: circa 1970s

It’s a sha-a-ay-ame

Five young, handsome African-American men, one with a polite moustache, all with a side parting product-assisted into regimentation, good teeth, wearing identical busboy jackets and standing in order of shortest to tallest, left to right. It could be any soul five-piece in America in the Eisenhower era. But it was the Spinners.

Call them the Detroit Spinners, or The Motown Spinners or, as per the title of their debut LP when it appeared in the UK, the Original Spinners, but they were, at the end of the day, the Spinners. It’s a shame that despite forming in the northern suburbs of Detroit in 1954, they didn’t call themselves the Spinners until 1961 when they made their first record (they’d begun life as the unpromising Domingoes). By this time their folkie Liverpool namesakes were already established as the Spinners, with their own folk club and everything. Interestingly, Liverpool’s Spinners started out as an American-influenced skiffle group and were advised to “go folk”, a genius move which separated them from the R&B-inclined Merseybeat herd, plugged them into sea shanties and made them a fortune in their Liverpool homes.

Back in Motor City, five fresh fellows Billy Henderson, Henry Fambrough, Pervis Jackson, C.P. Spencer (subsequently replaced by Edgar “Chico” Edwards) and lead singer James Edwards (replaced by Bobby Smith) were making some sweet vocal soul music in the projects. Signing to Tri-Phi and scoring a modest hit with their debut single That’s What Girls Are Made For in 1961 (listen out for Marvin Gaye on the drums), label boss Harvey Fuqua sold the boys as part of a job-lot (along with everything that wasn’t nailed down) to his new brother-in-law, whose name was Berry Gordy. So, the Spinners’ belated first album finally came out on Motown, a six-years-in-the-making patchwork of singles and other tracks, but didn’t chart, which was a shame. But perseverance paid off for all concerned when, in 1970, their first studio album 2nd Time Around was released on Motown’s V.I.P. imprint. Happily, it would make them very important players.

Mississippi-raised Vietnam vet George Curtis “G.C.” Cameron had swapped the ooh-ra of the Marines for the ooh-ooh-ooh of Motown and joined as lead vocalist (displacing “Chico” Edwards), and it’s his meaningful, salty, full-ranged voice that makes It’s A Shame. That and the songwriting nous of Stevie Wonder (who also played the drums) and collaborators Syreeta Wright, a future hitmaker in her own right, and Lee Garrett. There’s little questioning the in-sync glory of that week’s original Spinners – nor the clean brass, funkily fingered bass and nifty, tambourine-softened beat supplied by the Funk Brothers, produced by the increasingly accurately named Wonder – but it’s Cameron’s lead that takes it from run-of-the-mill to top-of-the-heap.

Oh, that resonantly pretty, pastoral two-guitar line, played thrice before a key change and a kick drum, then those doo-dup-doo-doos from the boys. Then the drama starts. As the brass announces itself, Cameron sings both parts, the low, and the high, and between himself and himself he cooks up quite the bellowing chamber piece. It’s hard to believe this is a man “sitting all alone, on the telephone,” not when, soaring and searing, he buries that deceptively friendly first act as he roars his hurt at the heavens. Everything cuts out except the drums and the guitar, then take cover. Just listen to the way our man builds up a head of steam about the woman whose actions have displeased him; this is not verse-chorus, it’s closer to opera. He testifies to this scarlet lady, “It’s a shame the way you’re messin’ round with your men” – the plural adding further intrigue and opprobrium from pop.

She messes the men around like “a child at play on a sunny day” (nice work, Stevie), and even as It’s A Shame is fading at three minutes, G.C. is rasping and fluting at the good Lord above. The background stays fetchingly upbeat, declamatory and harmonious. It’s like an M.C. Esher lithograph that spins round and round in fractal patterns. Slap it on repeat and the juncture from whirling climax to palate-cleansing intro acts as a breath.

It’s a shame that within two years, the Spinners were off to Atlantic in an Aretha-influenced flounce, but minus the mighty Mr Cameron, who’d fallen in love with Berry’s sister Gwen and decided to stay at Motown to play solo and see what occurred. The one-album Spinner, he went on to be a one-hit Motown artist. (He also recorded an LP with Syreeta in 1977.)

The Spinners carried on having hits throughout the 70s (Games People Play, The Rubberband Man, Cupid, and a medley cover of the Four Seasons’ Working My Way Back To You, which topped the UK charts at the end of 1979), and – hold the front page – still play the civic halls with one original member, the alive baritone Henry Fambrough (aged 80), along with four younger men who plug the gaps. G.C. became a Temptation.

Back in Liverpool, the other Spinners had the novel idea of retiring, which they did, after 30 years, in 1988.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Stone Roses, Fools Gold (1989)

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Artist: The Stone Roses
Title: Fools Good
Description: single
Label: Silvertone
Release date: 1989
First heard: 1989

I don’t need you to tell me what’s going down

You don’t choose when you are born. Entering my teens in 1978 I was historically too late for the healing fires of punk, and, though in time for New Wave and 2-Tone, I was still too young to get to gigs, and my burgeoning attachment was necessarily passive. It was this accident of birth that put me in the right place at the right time to pledge my troth to the post-punk bands of the early 80s, and even venture out into the world to see some of them play live: U2, The Cure, the Bunnymen, Joy Division/New Order and assorted Goth tub-thumpers. Once emigrated to London, my professional life at the music press similarly coincided with Grebo, t-shirt indie and Madchester, and it is with eternal cosmic gratitude that I am able to state that the stars aligned for me in February 1989.

The already guru-like Steve Lamacq, filling in for Helen Mead on the NME live desk, asked me if I’d like to travel to Manchester and review this new guitar band everyone was talking about at the most famous nightclub in Britain. I was still a relative novice at that time, having only stepped through the paper’s doors the previous summer and picked up a couple of days’ work a week in the layout room, and just over the threshold into my nascent reviewing career. The closest I’d been to Manchester was a family trip to Thornton-Cleveleys, just outside of Blackpool, when I was 14.

The Stone Roses played several high-profile gigs in support of their debut album (due out in May but circulating the music press on advance cassette), including one on February 27 at what was regarded as the centre of the associated Madchester and baggy scenes, Manchester’s The Haçienda nightclub. I know all of this to be the case, as it’s lifted from the band’s Wikipedia entry, as is this:

Andrew Collins wrote in NME: “Bollocks to Morrissey at Wolverhampton, to The Sundays at The Falcon, to PWEI at Brixton – I’m already drafting a letter to my grandchildren telling them that I saw The Stone Roses at the Haçienda.”

Some context. These other landmark gigs were pertinent to the era: Wolverhampton Civic Hall had been Morrissey’s first solo gig, with free entry to anyone in a Moz/Smiths t-shirt, in December 1988; pub venue The Falcon, in Camden, had given the world future indie darlings the Sundays in August 1988, debuting that night (and with kingmaker Lamacq in attendance); and Brixton Academy in London was where Pop Will Eat Itself almost joined the hip-hop orthodoxy when they supported Public Enemy and Run DMC, and been coined offstage, in October 1988. I was at that. And, dear grandchildren, I was at the Hacienda.

I have no grandchildren, but apart from that, if I may say so, I was bang on about the Stone Roses, which is why I still bang on about it. Geography met Art and Culture, and made History. My ardent, in-print response to a gig by four young men in a venue in a city needs no seasonal adjustment. It was the dawn of something, a compass reset, and those heady years, from 1988 (earlier if you were already baggy and caught Sally Cinnamon first time round) to 1990 (when the Roses entered a four-year legal tangle with Silvertone) were impeccable, and beyond the accepted criteria of technical virtuosity, cultural chance or audio perfection. The Roses’ eponymous debut – whose opener I Wanna be Adored also opened the gigs in earth-moving grandeur – is a modern classic, but it did not contain their finest hour. That came with their first Top 10 hit, in November 1989. Of the release’s two A-sides, What the World is Waiting For turned out not to be the one the world was waiting for.

I know the truth, and I know what you’re thinking

Fools Gold, missing apostrophe forgiven, and at just under ten minutes long less a single, more a way of life, cannot be withered by time. Fads that do not destroy it make it stronger. It starts not with an earthquake but a distant paradiddle that sounds like it’s been slapped on a thigh, and with a no-arguments kick-drum THUMP we’re in business. Most ten-minute mixes or extensions on a theme outstay their welcome, go over old ground or allow your mind to wander. Not this one. Produced by first-album talisman John Leckie, it is so luxuriously tooled and yet ultimately so unshowy; it locks down that beat (produced by a human man, Alan Wren, and based upon, but not sampled from, James Brown’s set text The Funky Drummer), lays in the bass (also humanoid: Gary Mounfield), lets John Squire’s guitar sort of wonder out loud, and the tape run. He’s soon into effects mode and Ian Brown joins in, his voice sufficiently treated to make it at the same time otherworldly and part of the woodwork.

The gold road’s sure a long road
Winds on through the hills for fifteen days
The pack on my back is aching
The straps seem to cut me like a knife

The four of them do not so much build up a head of steam, as lay out a body of work in heaven-sent precis. There’s nothing that made the Stone Roses legendary that isn’t in Fools Gold: the insouciance, the confidence, the ESP, the funk, the space, the glory. Brown’s lyric, which directly and indirectly references John Huston, the Marquis de Sade and Nancy Sinatra, is no singalong, but it doesn’t need to be; we’re singing along to the guitar, the bassline, even the drums. (It’s worth calling up the lyric, actually – Brown’s imagery is already knowing, poetic and political: “You’re weighing the gold/I’m watching you sinking.”)

There are passages where the bass rumbles like an earth tremor. Occasional bongos. John’s guitar sometimes sharks in, then switches pedal, live. At one dub-assisted juncture, I hear Daniel Ash from Bauhaus (although that might be just me). Brown disappears for bridges at a time. Squire fills the sky. Reni never stops. It’s a finished symphony. At about a minute-and-a-half from the end, you start to fret about it ending.

I witnessed Fools Gold for the first time in Widnes, swallowed by the estuary breeze. It was an unforgettable occasion, but a problematic concert. In truth, Spike Island rode the gap between ambition and reach, which sometimes swallowed the band. But in the pure, recorded form of Fools Gold, it is its own stairway to heaven.

The trousers haven’t worn as well.

The Sweet, Blockbuster! (1973)

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Artist: The Sweet
Title: Blockbuster!
Description: single
Label: RCA
Release date: 1973
First heard: 1973

W-w-w-wuh-we just haven’t got a c-c-c-aargh-huh!

I hate the sound of sirens. The ghostly wail is actually the sound of air being pumped through a rotor, but there’s no way of boxing it off as practical mechanics when it pierces the everyday order of things and injects a note, or two notes, of alarm. In the case of the intro of Block Buster – also written as Blockbuster!, and Block Buster! – it warns of one of the most exciting glam rock singles of the era. I was seven when it was released in January 1973. The band’s classic line-up – Brian Connolly (vocals), Andy Scott (guitar), Steve Priest (bass), Mick Tucker (drums) – had been stomping around the pub/club circuits of Greater London and North Wales individually and in various configurations since the early 60s, playing R&B and bubblegum pop longer than I had been alive. In August 1970, they coalesced. And I started Abington Vale Primary School.

Painlessly guided into Bacofoil jump suits and winched aboard heels to match the age and destined for greatness under the industrial songwriting aegis of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman and producer Phil Wainman, the lads were only heard vocally on the first Sweet records until their musicianship was recognised and they were allowed to take over from the session players and even write their own b-sides.

To call these androgynous, pouting, stack-heeled, spaniel-haired hod-carriers of legend a “singles band” is an understatement. Between late 1971 and early 1974 they had eight consecutive UK hits, six of which went Top 5, one of which was number one, and not one of these hits was on an album. The Sweet were a band who knew that if you couldn’t suck it in three minutes and 13 seconds, it wasn’t worth a fuck. (Most of their UK hits throughout this golden run also busted the block in Australia, Europe, North America, South Africa and Canada; in total, they had 15 smashes in the Top 40, their last post the spooky, self-penned Love is like Oxygen in 1978.)

What’s strange about The Sweet, and their sweet-smelling success, is that while glam-racket contemporaries Slade and Wizzard are still hailed as a national treasures, with Noddy Holder, Dave Hill and Roy Wood cast as bona fide Queen Mums, David Bowie is an immortal, and even Marc Bolan is an impish icon whose legend was sealed in arboreal tragedy, the Sweet seem to have slipped into a nostalgic vacuum where ridicule in snarky captions on Top of the Pops compilations is their legacy. This must be rectified.

As a child on the edge of my first breakthrough, I favoured the Sweet and Slade equally, and held Alice Cooper and Gary Glitter in the same pin-up regard, but it was Steve Priest who captured my heart one Thursday night when Nan Mabel was round to hit her mark and ask me if the pancaked bassist was a man or a woman. (In truth, I wasn’t 100% certain myself, but it’s amazing how liberal you can be at seven because I knew that he was smashing.) I must have seen Little Willy and Wig-Wam Bam performed on the Pops before Blockbuster! summitted and remained at the toppermost for five weeks in the first months of ’73, but neither is stamped on my memory. I won’t have been philosophically and politically nuanced enough at that age to appreciate the proto-punk provocation of Priest wearing a Nazi uniform from the BBC costume department for one of the Blockbuster! recordings, but it helped to nail them to the post of posterity.

Out of that siren comes the song: a percussive guitar signature into a trucker’s beat, with handclaps, a thumping bass, celestial harmonies (“Ah-ahhhhhh“), and a duality of rock’n’roll riffs, one acoustic, the other electric. Then, a warning.

You’d better beware, you’d better take care, you’d better watch out if you’ve got long, black hair

I never really took it this literally at the time, but the lyrical thrust is that an “evil” gentleman called Buster needs to caught, taught and most pertiently blocked from “stealing your woman out from under your nose.” We’re advised not to look into his eyes, as there’s something “going on behind his disguise,” and the police have been called (“they’re running about”). He sounds like a bad hombre. And although “nobody knows where Buster goes,” (no wonder Steve hasn’t got a clue what to do), the chorus is more optimistic:

There’s got to be a way
To Block Buster!

As if to confirm Chinn, Chapman and Wainman’s combined debt to Phil Spector, the bridge at two minutes is engorged by timpani. While there is a compartmental cleanliness to the arrangement of each element in this gold blend of perfect pop, it has definite dirt under its fingernails, the perfect blend of spotless and spotty for your blooming generation.

The Sweet story ends sourly, with the decline of singer Brian Connolly after being beaten up, a cancelled support at the Who’s Charlton gig in ’74, an internal power struggle just as the band took control of their own songs and production, and the inevitable split in ’79. Andy Scott and Steve Priest both lead the inevitable dual incarnations of the Sweet (prosaically, Andy Scott’s Sweet and Steve Priest’s Sweet), with Connolly and Tucker no longer with us. If they’d only recorded Blockbuster!, their place in pop’s Valhalla would be assured. They got too much, they got too high.

Blockbuster! was the first single I ever bought.

Robert Wyatt, Shipbuilding (1982)

Shipbuilding

Artist: Robert Wyatt
Title: Shipbuilding
Description: single
Label: Rough Trade
Release date: 1982; 1983
First heard: 1983

Is it worth it?
A new winter coat and shoes for the wife
And a bicycle on the boy’s birthday

I wish I had the guts just to type out those three lines and leave it there. What more needs to be said about this lyric, written by Elvis Costello, that’s as profound as Strange Fruit, A Nation Once Again or What’s Going On, and a tune, written by Clive Langer, as mournful and affecting as the best blues? Shipbuilding couldn’t have come at a better time. It was the worst of times, in fact: the cruel, galvanising pomp of the first Thatcher administration, in which re-election hopes were boosted by a long-distance war with a South American country that claimed sovereignty over two island off its own coast that had been declared a “royal colony” in 1841. Such dominions were usually seized by war, and for trade purposes in the age of Empire. Whether or not the Falkland islands should or should not be classed territorially as “British” rather rests upon your feelings as to whether or not the same ought still to be said in the late 20th century of Virginia, Singapore, Rhodesia, Malta, Kenya or indeed any other far outpost stamped with the royal seal at a time when Britannia ruled the waves.

Well I ask you

The story of this mild-mannered, velvet-gloved protest song is complicated. In short, Langer, formerly of Deaf School, by 1982 a producer of great note (usually with Alan Winstanley: Madness, Dexys, The Teardrop Explodes), wrote the song for Robert Wyatt, formerly drumming vocalist with Soft Machine, now solo and surely the West’s most famous paraplegic Communist. Langer asked Elvis Costello (whose landmark Punch The Clock album he and Winstanley would produce a year later) to write some better lyrics and he did. Boy, did he.

The boy said, “Dad they’re going to take me to task, but I’ll be back by Christmas”

The single recording, produced by Langer, Winstanley and Costello, with Mark Bedford of Madness on double bass, Steve Nieve of the Attractions on piano, Langer on keys and Martin Hughes a quiet whizz on the drums, was released on Rough Trade in August 1982, two months after the capture of Port Stanley and the Argentine surrender. Too soon. A reissue in April 1983 charted, a historic first for Rough Trade. 

Somebody said that someone got filled in
For saying that people get killed in
The result of this shipbuilding

A modest number 35 chart hit, then, but already hailed in corners as a modern classic and number 2 in the 1982 Festive Fifty behind New Order’s Temptation. (It was number 11 in the all-time Festive Fifty compiled in 2000.) Wyatt’s performance on the Old Grey Whistle Test remains a definitive document, and the beret and the beard worn in the little-shown video harken to his jazz roots. He had been paralysed from the waist down in 1973, but his appearance in a wheelchair – quite an arresting sight in those pre-diverse TV times (he’d had to argue his way onto Top Of The Pops when he had a bigger hit with I’m A Believer in 1974; the producer seriously tried to sit him in a chair so as not to frighten the faint-hearted) – seemed to amplify the power of the song. It does not shout. It does not scream. It does not call in expectation of a response. It cannot be sung at barricades. And yet its rage is intense. Wyatt’s high, plaintive vocal, tempered against overstatement by that hint of a lisp, could break your heart in two.

Within weeks they’ll be re-opening the shipyards
And notifying the next of kin

It has all the will in the world. It cuts deep with Costello’s observation that death in the South Atlantic will mean new shoes and a bike for working-class families on the Clyde. We should never forget that 255 British service personnel died in the pointless conflict and 649 Argentinians (including 16 civilian sailors), as well as three civilians on the Island. I was 17 at the time, and greatly affected. The Crass single How Does It Feel To Be The Mother Of 1000 Dead? is the only other that I remember to address this electioneering war. Sadly, it did not chart. Costello doesn’t write in slogans; rather, he pricks our conscience with passing, well-known idioms like “next of kin” and “back by Christmas”. In such short, simple phrases, he recalls other wars, other conflicts, other political campaigns and other political casualties. He even gets away with a pun (“take me to task”), proving that wit is permitted in all seriousness. The choice of “somebody” and “someone” before “people” is another sublime lyrical decision.

Sometimes, and it may only happen a couple of times per generation, a combination of voice, lyric, tune, instrumentation and timing says it all. Even, in this case, the choice of sleeve illustration: Stanley Spencer’s magnificent Shipbuilding On The Clyde series, painted between 1940-46 as a response to the Second World War, when a lot of rumours were spread around town. (The owner of the Glasgow shipyard where Spencer worked, Lithgow, did not approve of his interpretation, which is all you need to know about the art’s greatness.) You do wonder sometimes when you get to my age whether a constellation of talent as rich and influential as the one in the early 80s that gave British music 2-Tone, Stiff, Rough Trade, Costello, Langer and Winstanley could ever happen again.

Amid all the emotion and solidarity and protest, I remain in awe of Costello’s rhyming of “filled in,” “killed in,” “skilled in,” and “shipbuilding.” The Stanley Spencer of the Thatcher years.

Sly & The Family Stone, Family Affair (1971)

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Artist: Sly & The Family Stone
Title: Family Affair
Description: single; album track, There’s A Riot Goin’ On
Label: Epic
Release date: 1971
First heard: circa 1970s

How are you with hand-me-downs? Have you spent any considerable time in secondhand clothes? Were you an Oxfam hipster before the term “vintage” legitimised the wearing of a dead man’s shoes? Have you driven a used car that smelt of a sales rep’s nicotine habit? Would you eat off a dining companion’s plate? Did your chewing gum lose its flavour on the bedpost overnight? If your answer to any of these is yes, then you’re probably a fan of There’s A Riot Goin’ On, one of the down-and-dirtiest LPs ever made and all the more legendary and essential for that. Even the flag on the front is grubby.

The sixties are dead. It’s on America’s tortured brow that Mickey Mouse has grow up a cow. Sylvester Stone, the man who fused psychedelic rock to funk and soul, is behaving erratically. He’s in with the Black Panthers and gangsters. He’s been missing gigs. It’s two years since the Family Stone’s last hit, Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin). The violin case he carries with him? Full of coke and PCP, by all accounts. But Sly has a plan. He’s holed up, like a horny Brian Wilson, at The Plant in Sausolito, or at his home studio in Bel Air, and he’s recording like crazy while his pet monkey tries to fuck his pet dog, by all accounts. He’s making his own Exile On Main Street, whether consciously, unconsciously or otherwise.

Though hailed, and rightly so, as a pop classic, There’s A Riot Goin’ On (its title an answer to the question posed by Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On?) is pure filth. The Funk courses through its every capillary. The sound is muddied and muffled, like there’s fluff permanently on the needle. And yet it sings! It zings! it brings! It soars! It punches through the fog of punished magnetic tape! For an ideas-clogged meisterwerk, it even concealed two three-minute chart hits to soothe the record company’s savage breast – not to mention shipping half a million in its first year of release after summiting Billboard in its own, flag-draped right. The most decisive of the pair was Family Affair, tucked away on side one, track four. (The featherlight follow-up Runnin’ Away, a blueprint for all of De La Soul, is side two, track five.)

Amid all the gung-ho experimentation, jazz freewheeling, freakouts and yodeling, Family Affair feels as honed and polished as a diamond. There’s nothing here to frighten the horses: a clicky beatbox beat, a steady rubber-band bass, some Rhodes swirls from Billy Preston, Rose Stone’s repeated, magic-hour refrain (“It’s a family affair/It’s a family affa-ai-ai-air“), overlaid by Sly’s oak-smoked tones, riffing. The cumulative effect is akin to voodoo; though hooky, singalongable and populist in construct, it’s sodden with black history and as liable to crack as Sly’s voice. What went into the making of this record is right there in the grooves: the insomnia, the introspection, the self-medication, the peek over the lip of insanity, the whole superfly soap opera with that revolving door for fragrant female auditionees whose tryouts were committed to tape and then recorded over by the next candidate, by all accounts. This is why the grooves overfloweth.

Out of all the drug-taking, love-making and piss-taking arises a social conscience every bit as vivid as the one that beats beneath Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street or Marvin’s Inner City Blues, and achieved in fewer words.

One child grows up to be
Somebody that just loves to learn
And another child grows up to be
Somebody you’d just love to burn

Mom loves the both of them
You see it’s in the blood
Both kids are good to Mom
“Blood’s thicker than the mud”

Quite the chronicler. For a man whose vision must have been permanently clouded by what the actor Steven Toast would later rhyme with Children In Need, Sly’s perception was keen. And was there ever a more hopeful vignette than this?

Newlywed a year ago
But you’re still checking each other out, yeeeeeeaaaaaahhh!

For a song whose instrumentation actually sounds as if it’s in the process of tripping over right the way through, Family Affair is in full control of its faculties. It might not pass a breathalyser test, but you’d want it at your birthday party. Head in the clouds, brain in its pants, a fist raised to black power and the other hand up an available skirt – this is a sex, politics, social change and happy hour in one hit. Nobody wants to blow. Nobody wants to be left out.

The Beach Boys, Good Vibrations (1966)

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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.

 

 

Althea & Donna, Uptown Top Ranking (1977)

AltheaDonnaUptownTopRankingArtist: Althea & Donna
Title: Uptown Top Ranking
Description: single; album track, Uptown Top Ranking
Label: Lightning Records
Release date: 1977
First heard: 1977

There’s no point in being coy about it: I once sang Uptown Top Ranking, the number one one-hit of Jamaican teens Althea Forrest and Donna Reid, in the appropriate patois and ting, onstage at no less than London’s famous 100 Club as part of a particularly memorable Karaoke Circus night. It is fair to say that my interpretation, as heartfelt and affectionate as it was, lacked a certain amount of pop and style, and was no match for the carefree unselfconsciousness of the irresistible original.

Inaccurately billing the artists as “Althia” & Donna on the original sleeve and label, Lightning was a subsidiary of Warner Bros, although the post-colonial plunder of Jamaica’s rich seam of musical ore really did help to broadcast it around it around the world, and it’s accepted now that reggae fed into punk, leading to the UK ska revival of the early 80s. Uptown Top Ranking might have seemed like a pop novelty to some in 1977 when it bogled up to the toppermost of the poppermost – two slightly cocky teens boasting of being “hip and ting” and threatening to give lecherous men a heart attack with their ’alter back (the “halter back” being a vest held up by a single strap, if you’re not fashion-inclined) – but its jerky charm is not withered by age. It feels now like an authentic explosion of youthful attitude.

Typically, it was John Peel who championed the track, and the duo, just as he did a few years later with Musical Youth, whose Pass The Dutchie was also a knee-high number one smasheroo. Although his patronage of reggae is more readily emblemised by dope-cloud dub, it’s to the great man’s credit that he was also a reggae pop-picker. As mentioned elsewhere, I was the right age circa post-punk and 2-Tone – and in the right ie. wrong place, geographically ie. Northampton – to find the West Indian influence effortlessly alluring. I can’t to this day confidently translate every romantically coloquialised couplet in Uptown Top Ranking, but you get the picture.

See me ’pon the road I hear you call out to me
True you see mi inna pants and ting

The protagonists’ focus on couture is paramount to the song’s trajectory. To the clothes hanger bearing “pants” (the “hot” variety we might presume) and that cardiac-risky “‘alter back”, we may add a “khaki suit”.

Meanwhile, the addition of a “likkle bass”

make me wine up me waist

Which, as any student of patois will tell you, refers to a form of dancing normally done by women, which involves gyrating the mid-section of body. Nothing to do with a glass of pinot. There are site-specific coordinates, too, which work best if you don’t look them up.

Drivin’ through Constant Spring
Them check sey me come from cosmo spring

Constant Spring is a residential district of Kingston, Jamaica, and I know this because I looked it up and that’s all its Wikipedia entry reveals other than the fact that it’s mentioned in Uptown Top Ranking. Cosmo spring? No idea. All I know now, as someone who’s not only looked up the lyric but learned it, off by heart, and sung it to a clubful of people through amplification, is that when I first heard it, in 1977, I made no effort whatsoever to understand it. I was transported by the order of its syllables, and you could just about sing along to the title, and to the manifesto line, “No pop, no style, something something roots.” It was sufficient.

Since we know for historical fact that the 1970s were a troubled decade, sexually, not least in Television Centre, where the 17- and 18-year-old Forrest and Reid performed their hit for Top Of The Pops that February, it’s reassuring to find that the pair seem so strident; their musical youthfulness appears to have escaped without patronisation or worse. That appearance, backed by a turtlenecked Top Of The Pops Orchestra who I suspect were largely non-Caribbean, survives as an organic little gem. Nothing about the packaging of the girls or their records (they followed up with an LP and further singles for Virgin’s Front Line, but none charted) seems exploitative, even in retrospect.

Althea and Donna get a writing credit along with Errol Thompson, one half of The Mighty Two with producer Joe Gibbs (the peak of whose endless studio CV must surely be Two Sevens Clash), so we might assume the young women had some input into the lyric. Let’s hope so. (The b-side of the UK issue, Calico Suit, is credited only to The Mighty Two.) Although the TOTP rendition is robbed of its roots, the vocal keeps it real, but you must return to the original recording to savour the full effect, from lazy opening rimshot to that teasing fade. But until you’ve actually learned precisely when to go “Ow!” (as in: “Watch how we chuck it and ting” “Ow!”), you’re a reggae weekender.

Ow!