Sly & The Family Stone, Family Affair (1971)

Sly-family-affair

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 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)

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.

 

 

Kevin Coyne, Dynamite Daze (1978)

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Artist: Kevin Coyne
Title: Dynamite Daze
Description: album track, Dynamite Daze
Label: Virgin
Release date: 1978
First heard: 1988

Revolution!

I don’t expect people to have heard of Kevin Coyne. I know I hadn’t when a friend with more left-field taste than mine introduced me to his work in the late 80s. By then, the square-peg troubadour had put out about 20 albums, including live ones and a double LP he recorded in 1980 at the time of his nervous breakdown, backed on Disc 1 by Robert Wyatt and Disc 2 by the Ruts, a bizarre cocktail that might help place the prolific, self-propelled and often uncategorisable ex-psychiatric nurse from Derby. Like Wyatt, he forged his own towpath and sang the blues; but he also embraced the punk spirit, having a dig at the record industry and his label boss Richard Branson in Having A Party, and dedicating the title track of Dynamite Daze to Sid Vicious.

Dynamite Daze, one of Coyne’s raucous, rattlebag English-psychedelic “band” albums before a marked left turn into sparser, less populated recorded material, was the first of Coyne’s albums I heard in full, and although I’ve dug deep into his bottomless back catalogue since then – and thoroughly enjoyed his 21st century work, from the sweet Sugar Candy Taxi to his unintendedly posthumous swansong One Day In Chicago with Jon Langford (he died in 2004 after two years of living with lung fibrosis) – it remains a beacon. Its highlight is always a two-horse race for me, with the opening title track neck and neck with Amsterdam, an equally lively rock-out that heralds what we used to call Side Two and hymns the aromatic delights of the Dutch capital (“Down in the Melkweg, the heat is on, it’s smoking and knocking them out”).

The reason Dynamite Daze pips it is because it so brilliantly, breathlessly captures the sound of a musician enjoying his work. Coyne had a curious voice, squeaky, rasping, definitely melancholy in the blues tradition, but prone to outbursts of joy, too. I could recommend any number of Coyne’s quieter, more intimate ballads – on this album alone there’s the mournful, lovesick I Only Want To See You Smile, accompanied by yes-him Tim Rice at the piano, and the lilting Are We Dreaming with Paul Wickens on accordion – but Dynamite Daze is an unabashed stomp, counted in by a couple of guitars, one electric, one acoustic, and a whump.

That punk spirit I mentioned? “You see me and I stand outside the Palais de Dance, I’m rattling my bones, I’m pogoing.” (That’s the Hammersmith Palais by its more historic name.) He goes on to state for the record that he’s “in a rage, in a rage, waiting for the dynamite days … You little punks, come out to play.” However, a hairy man in his mid-30s, he’s under no illusions about being part of Generation X, and with typical world-weariness, he crows, “Revolution! Seen it all, seen it all before!”

The beat gallops, time is kept, guitars are thrashed, and through it all, Coyne’s almost comedic gurgle; impossible to tear your ears away from, it hiccups and free-forms, rising to a crazy, yodelling falsetto with total abandon, and then he cackles into the second verse, chuckling away like the “luna-luna-luna-luna-luna-luna-luna-tic” he evokes elsewhere (this is a man who will title a later album Sanity Stomp without irony). His voice is a unique instrument, his delivery unhampered by selfconsciousness or any foolhardy desire to sound authentic. Coyne’s kind of authenticity is not earned, it is innate. In his best East Midlands drawl, he ends Dynamite Daze with a throaty “Git ard of it!” which – despite the geographical remove – reminds me of one of my Northamptonian elders.

Coyne should be as cherished as any other in the canon of English musical eccentrics: Barrett, Stanshall, Moon, Brown, Davies, Harper, Lydon, Sensible, Albarn, Haines. In my world, he is.