Monday, 23 November 2009

1968 in twelve steps

MARGO GURYAN, 'Think of Rain'

Divine, heavenly; for me her finest song and seemingly much covered according to YouTube at least. One trembles to think what the likes of Scott Walker, Brian Wilson or Basil Kirchin could have done with this sublime song. Though perhaps a lot of its deathless charm is how unassuming it is; she clearly didn't want to be a star or Margo's version is not on YT, hence this version from the same year by Claudine Longet. It's not up there with the original but sticks sensitively to its contours, suggesting a bountiful fusion of Paris and New York:


Name of the following year's superlative album from initial Soft Machine member Ayers - present on this debut record. This starts off with aqueous guitars paddlingly languidly, moored by echoing, slightly dub-anticipating percussion, which gradually builds pace and the guitar starts to sear. It all comes to a precisely lurching close, to lead to a Wyatt-voiced piece not heard here.

CARAVAN - Love Song with Flute

Tell me the flute doesn't work in music, then listen to this! Or indeed Ambrose Campbell's 'Yolanda' from the same year. Doleful, plangent chords back a Wyatt-like voice, then gloriously uplifting organ enters; then, careful movement between the celebratory and the rueful. Lovely move into bossa nova from 1:38*, and then back to more Soft Machine territory, then the entrance of the flute finally at 2:45, beautifully withheld, and never more yearning than here, other than perhaps in certain 70s TV themes and Alessi's 'Oh Lori'.

* This list is shamefully lacking any Brazillian dimension.


I could equally go for 'Wailing of the Willow' - with more incisive use of bossa nova to join the above record - but that isn't on YouTube. This is pared-down cousin in its electric-piano jabbing melancholy, making points ne'er truer. Whilst he is searching for a foothold, trying all sorts of hats out on some of his 1967-9 work, on several tracks Nilsson is fully, even exquisitely formed: 'Sleep Late, My Lady Friend', 'Without Her', [the obvious one], 'Don't Leave Me', 'I Will Take You There', 'Open Your Window', 'Maybe', plus the two aforementioned.

I was once (c.2003/4) going to write a piece on Nilsson for Stylus, a discerning, now-defunct online music site, of the Freaky Trigger / Pitchfork variety. It never happened, was clearly never meant to be (despite the extensive close-listening I did at the time - notes from which I retain); it might just surface on here at some stage. I hold his music as dearly as subtly kindred spirits Scott Walker and Todd Rundgren, and that is saying something.

SCOTT WALKER - Plastic Palace People

That obviously has to lead to this, a cathedral of a record; chandeliers in tower blocks and all that. Intoxicating indeed, as a YouTube commentator puts it; an epic immersion in pure music that would be venerated as 'Hey Jude' if we were a truly European country. Intensely eerie yet beautiful, surreal yet bedsit-sink, this brings on thoughts of the best of 1968's cinema, where Europe, Britain and America did not seem so far apart: The Flat (Jan Svankmajer, CZE), Petulia (Richard Lester, USA), Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski, USA), If... (Lindsay Anderson, UK), Charlie Bubbles (Albert Finney, UK), Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, UK), Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, USA), Rocky Road to Dublin (Peter Lennon, IRE/FRA).

THE PRETTY THINGS - Defecting Grey

'And all the flowers ain't for picking
They're just for standing in line'

And another of the grand gestures of this year of stalled revolution. The title might just suggest The Prisoner, or, even more elliptically, Episode Six's 'Gentlemen of the Park', as discussed a few months back. Of course, this record does not target a grey conformity but rather obliterates it. Visceral, whimsical, fearless, this pioneering, decimating record must simply be listened to to be appreciated. It is a truly ramshackle, stupendous imagining - its only real analogue being Pink Floyd's 'Apples and Oranges / Paintbox' single (1967). Note the brutalist morse code usage of the sitar and truly apocalyptic twisting of the 1968 'rock' organ:


'Mes Enfants D'Autre Part' is perhaps my favourite from this Frenchman's utter curio of a 1968 record, appositely named Phantastic, closest to Polnareff's in its blissfully schizoid spirit, but this is a cracking opener, disorientating and confounding. Another fresh interpretation of psychedelia, with a unapologetically Gallic helmsman; striking application of delay to the vocals.


I simply must include some Mark Wirtz, but assume (perhaps wrongly) that everyone knows 'Excerpt from a Teenage Opera' (aka. 'Grocer Jack'), and cannot find. This is technically a 1967 christmas single, but well, I think it fits rather better into its following year. A summation of English eccentricity, clearly born of that Harold Wilson-era London of Fletcher, Cohen and Nairn; the city and its inhabitants caught between an old world refusing quite to succumb and a new one being rather grudgingly born. It is an Old England record ambivalent at best about the future, almost uncannily prophetic of 'a last run' before the sort of homogenising forces identified by Paul Kingsnorth in Real England.

BASIL KIRCHIN - Theme from 'The Strange Affair'

Remarkably evocative footage from the opening of David Greene's film, perfectly in keeping with the strains of Kirchin's astonishing music - like the opening of The Mutations (1974), a ghastly film overall but with this time-lapse photography opening sequence that, backed with Kirchin's music, defines the 60s/70s public realm (experimentation in the most commonplace, the interface between technology and nature, science and the Weird) almost as much as the opening sequences of The Clangers or Bagpuss. This here footage captures the British city (presumably London) in the state of decay and renewal documented in The London Nobody Knows, eerie vestiges of Victoriana clinging on. As in the aforementioned Norman Cohen film, this ends with images of the gleaming New, represented by modernist housing. The music is ethereal, overpoweringly autumnal; typically searching, restive chords that frankly I haven't heard anyone else tap into like this man can:


The new moon, the oldest. This seems to me of the 1968 moment, though it emerges from a left-traditionalism I would sense not entirely compatible with the urban / university-based New Left that was coalescing. Such enveloping visions, such possibilities. I could have selected any really from their LP of this year, but this seems to demand its place at the moment.

13TH FLOOR ELEVATORS - May the Circle Remain Unbroken

An epitaph in two parts, the dream faded. Back to the aqueous feel of the Soft Machine's 'Joy of a Toy', an unassuming withdrawal from the dizzying activity of previous entries in this litany. There's something of the spirit of Delia Derbyshire and Raymond Scott in this, in the pre-synthesizer synthetics, the manipulation of tape and sounds that is infinitely weirder and more uncanny. The assassinations of King, Robert Kennedy and the pivotal result of the 1968 US Presidential election come to mind... George Wallace and the vengeful Deep South seemingly resurgent, Nixon just getting in... bleakness setting in. The realisation that, whilst LBJ was badly wrong on Vietnam, he made strides domestically that simply have not been matched since in American politics... It might be pertinent to note that the Elevators' home state was the same as LBJ - Texas, now so synonymous with the worst of America...

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA - Love Song for the Dead Che

'At the dawn of an ordinary Sunday
I remember the taste of you, sweet in my mouth,
Late in the year.
And in the stillness of the Oriente rainfall
I remember the warmth of you, still in my arms,
Late, late in the year.

I will bring to you flowers in the night
Soft as trembling fingers touch you--love,
I can offer you wine and candlelight
Late in the year.
Late in the year.'

This was of course written in the aftermath of another death - Guevara's in October, 1967 - but can be used to apply more broadly to the ideals of the 1960s. Such beauty, poignancy and understanding of what could not quite come to pass. It is quite a corrective to the unthinking adoption of Guevara as consumerist 'icon' for today; this is not just about what Che meant then, but sums up the potential inherent in a new generation that was about to be forced back into line by the forces of reaction.

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