Reviews: Octopus Syng, Kilburns, Big Grunt, Blue Lily Commission
, Silverhead, I’m a Freak, Gong

1Octopus Syng

Hollow Ghost-Rochelle Salt

(Mega Dodo)

In beautiful blue vinyl, the follow-up to the Octopus’s Reverberating Garden #7 is finally here – and, as with so many more of the last few years’ best albums, and most of their visionary performers, there are two ways of looking at it.

The first is to say it all sounds like Pink Floyd, and then narrow each successive track down to different frames of the Syd Barrett psyche, because we simply cannot get enough of those funky Piper vibes man.  And the second is to flick a vague glance in the direction of a template that the band grew out of long ago, and then move on.  Like they did.

Stick with the script!  Hollow Ghost… is the Parachute to its predecessor’s SF Sorrow, With Woman in Mind to A Groovy Kind of Love, Then Play On to Mr WonderfulKesämaa to Magneettimiehen Kuolema. If the late sixties hadn’t existed, Octopus Syng would have invented them!

Except they did and they didn’t, and Hollow Ghost is an album that marches less to the roar of the recycling machine than to the melodic chaos of an avant-garde medieval orchestra, suddenly finding its traditional instrumentation has been subverted by electric guitars, and the viola and flute sing the vocal lines.

There is a baroque ghost or two here, dancing with the acoustic rhythms, and a vocal disconnection that takes a moment to resolve itself into beauty.  But the mysterious “Lady Florette” teases around its refusal to follow the lines you expect it to, and “Echoes from the Past Centuries” moves on motifs that would be gothic if they didn’t feel so vivacious.

Later, “Melancholy of Delight” chases a deliberate absence of tune through a slowly building soundscape that captivates without your ears even knowing they’ve been caught, only to be dragged onto the dance floor by “Belle and Ville,” a slippery slice of sinister waltz on the edge of a military tattoo.  It’s the most disconcerting track on the album, but that’s a relative compliment, because straight away you’re into “Unknown Actress,” which tells its story over a near cacophony, through which a lonely organ pipes mournfully alone.

With a more friendly production, it could be a lost Kinks song; with a less brittle sound, it could be late Jam.   But similes mean nothing because Octopus Syng have as much do with classic rock as countrymen Wigwam had to do with classic prog… which is not a gratuitous reference to the only other Finnish band that the majority of Anglo-Americans have heard of (let’s leave Hanoi Rocks out of this), but a reminder that, even in a modern world awash with the most western musical influences, background and culture are still powerful deceivers.

The Finnish Hall of Rock’n’Roll fame is a very different place to that we have over here, because the country’s cultural reference points are different.  They didn’t grow up around Wolfman Jack and Soul TrainTop of the Pops and John Peel – and even if they had, it was in tandem with a musical and creative world of their own making. And that is the key to this album – not to dwell on all the things that you’ve been told it sounds like, but to focus on all the things that it doesn’t, because there’s a lot of them. and they are far more exciting.  Octopus Syng found their voice on Reverberating Garden #7.  Now they are using it.  Listen.

 

2Kilburn and the High Roads

Handsome – Expanded Edition (2CD)

(Cherry Red CDBRED 693)

There are few words to encapsulate the true brilliance of Ian Dury.  At his best, which was fairly often, he rated among the most gifted British lyricists of the last century and more – a span that would be mere hyperbole if applied to the majority of peers, but fits Dury like a glove.  And even at his worst, he was still bloody good fun.

From Victorian musical hall and Edwardian novelty songs, through risqué Max Miller to smirking George Formby, Dury did not simply channel that peculiar brand of English musical humor that rock’n’roll did so much to supplant (or, at least, disgrace).  He replanted it firmly into the 1970s and beyond.  Maybe Marie Lloyd could not have sung “Plaistow Patricia,” but she would have instantly recognized “My Old Man,” as readily as Max Wall covered “England’s Glory,” and Blur could have handled “Reasons to be Cheerful.”

New Boots and Panties, from 1977, marked Dury’s commercial breakthrough, but for a few years before that, he led Kilburn and the High Roads, a band that was everything that the Blockheads became, with added rough edges and swagger.  Catch them across the second half of this magnificent album, live in the Capital Radio studios in April 1974, and you come close (but no cigar) to the glory of the Kilburns in concert, distorted sound and dodgy mikes included.

Around half of their still gestating debut album is already on display, including a brace of songs that would live on into his solo years, via Wreckless Eric’s take on “Rough Kids” and Elvis Costello’s live “Roadette Song,” and one more – the faintly filthy “You’re More Than Fair” – which would surface as a solo b-side.  And the rest of the show is just as good.

Handsome itself was the band’s solo album, the lonely legacy of a career’s worth of managerial and record label missteps that are neatly detailed in the accompanying booklet – indeed, by the time it appeared, the band had already broken up, and there was nothing else to be said.  It sank without trace, unmourned until the reissues began a few years later, and unheard except by the dwindling faithful who’d watched the Kilburns’ fall from grace.

And, at the time, it disappointed; the studio was not the Kilburns’ friend, not like it became for the solo Dury, and there’s a definite demo-ish air to even Handsome’s most accomplished moments.  It was only later that we learned the band had not even played on great swathes of it, as their label decided to rein in costs and throw a bunch of sessionmen into the mix.  Dury himself later disowned the album, but time has treated it kindly.

“Roadette Song,” “Upminster Kid,” the Bonzos-esque “Thank You Mum” and, best of all, “Pam’s Moods” all howl as vividly as any of the later hits; a remake of the band’s debut “Rough Kids” single honks and honky-tonks with rare insouciance, and if “The Call Up” catches the ghost of the Benny Hill theme, “Billy Bentley” (a non-LP b-side, also included here) does a neat job of evoking that other TV classic, Steptoe and Son.

In fact, the whole thing feels timeless, an album of songs that could have been written, again, at any point across the past century, and performed by any of those eras’s greatest turns.  Maybe we never did see Snakehips Johnson dance to “The Badger and the Rabbit,” or Al Bowlly croon through the flamenco mysteries of “Back to Blighty.”  But the very fact we might want to speaks to the beauty of this album.

 

3biG GRunt

At the BBC (12-inch single)

(Mega Dodo)

Four tracks familiar from sundry bootlegs, but captured here in best ever sound quality, this is the post-Bonzos Viv Stanshall and his newly convened biG GRunt running through a mouthful of what was surely a very tasty repertoire.  Beginning with an almost countryfied take on“Blind Date,” a song originally written (unbelievably) for crooner Matt Monro, before a more conventional take became the band’s first and only release.

All the Stanshall hallmarks are here, in this moving epic of ape meets pygmy, but it’s a mere appetizer for the rest of the show.  An edgily psychedelic “Eleven Moustachiod Daughters” is reprised from the Bonzos’ catalog; and “The Strain” is a classic Stanshall take on a new dance craze involving lavatories.  It would later resurface on the Bonzos’ reunion album, but again, in very different form.  And finally, the spacey weirdness of “Cyborg Signal” was the best TV sci fi theme that nobody ever made a show around, with Stanshall’s euphonium sounding like every conventional space rock band put together, and then condensed into a single soaring sigh.

So much promise, so little time.  Broadcast in March 1970, around the same time as biG GRunt launched into a series of gigs and even a TV appearance (for Marty Feldman), the band faded without a word some time before Stanshall unveiled the Gargantuan Chums, whose version of Elvis Presley’s “Suspicion” would back “Blind Date” on a 1971 single.

One day, someone will compile a box set of all the Stanshallian odds and ends that litter the corridors not only of the BBC archive, but also of sundry record labels, record shops, and unmarked boxes in unknown places.  Until that time, we continue gathering scraps in May, and this gleaming yellow slice of life beams like the sun across his post-Bonzos landscape.

 

4Blue Lily Commission

The Undrugged Orchestra

(Ambientlive)

According to Bandcamp, this is album number fourteen for Mooch frontman Steve Palmer’s solo ambient project, which works out as at least one a year since the turn of the century.  According to other calculations, however, there’s something like twenty more out there as well, which is a helluva lot of ambience to get through in just a decade-and-a-half.  But listening to the opening fanfares that are the sound of the undrugged orchestra, that’s not really the operative term here.

Instrumental and drifting, to be sure, but littered with little bits that snap you to attention, be they unexpected clatters of percussion, esoteric sounds of distant lands, ghosts of melodies that may or may not be familiar, desert landscapes peopled with the unexpected, and titles that may or may not give your mind at least a clue as to what might be happening… “Snow,” “Debris Trio,” “Orchestral Stones,” Gorgoneion”….

It’s an album to drift to when you don’t want to drift, to relax to while you’re drinking espressos, to play when you’re feeling playful. And then play it again some more.

 

5Silverhead

Silverhead

16 and Savaged

Live at the Rainbow, London

(Cherry Red/Purple Records 001,002,003)

Heralding what promises to be a most instructive trawl through the old Purple Records catalog (sans its namesakes, but we’ve heard all that before), three albums by what was, and probably always will be, the only truly successful attempt to wed glam rock to heavy metal that the world has ever seen.  Well, apart from early Hanoi Rocks, but that’s another story.

All yer Hair Hetal bands of the eighties?  All yer Ratts and Wingers and Whitesnakes and what-have-yous that came pouring out in a sea of spangles on a great white codpiece… sit back and watch them all fall in crushed obeisance before the mighty beast that was Silverhead, a band that too many trendy know-it-alls know only for the phenomenons that its members went on to helm – Michael Des Barres with Power Station et al, Nigel Harrison, the bass behind Blondie, Robbie Blunt alongside Robert Plant and so and so forth and so what?

Between 1972-1974, Silverhead looked around at a glam scene that hadn’t even really got going at the time, took off their tops, threw on some platforms, and made the most gloriously ferocious, gorgeously lascivious and beautifully wanna-be-wasted noise of the age.  Silverhead made Slade sound like an earplugs factory, the Sweet dress like the Diet of Worms and Bolan and Bowie look like Sonny and Cher.  Their second album was called 16 and Savaged, not because that’s what it sounded like (well not only because…), but because that’s how you felt when you heard it.  Or wanted to feel, anyway.  You see that knob on the amp that goes all the way to eleven?  Turn it up now.

“Silverhead grew out of the whole world of London velvet dandies,” singer Michael DesBarres explains.  “Rimbaud-affected Oscar Wilde mannerisms, while trying to grapple with slide guitars.”

It was a world in which he was already immersed, and his bandmates had no hesitation over joining him there.  “Nobody told them what to wear,” explains DesBarres.  “But there’s me sitting in an antique vintage dress over jeans with a brown hat with a feather in it, you’re not going to show up in a boiler suit, are you?”

Silverhead’s love was the circus.

DesBarres: “Early on, when we were first starting out, we had white face, and we used circus motifs.  I’d have that teardrop… it was very circusy.  I’ve always found that imagery to be very scary with the clowns, but athletic as well, with the trapeze.  It’s very dada, a real world of painted faces.”

They hit the same live circuit as David Bowie and his emergent Spiders from Mars were now playing, the smaller clubs and universities up and down the country, and often running into the same kind of audiences, dazzling all comers with the visuals, while pummeling them with sound.  And reactions, as Bowie was finding, were polar.  “The usual – the girls wanted to fuck us, the guys wanted to kill us.  But the great thing is, we caught on very quickly in London, there was very quick acceptance by like-minded deviants, and there were a few break-out places like St Albans as well.”

Here appended with half a dozen bonus tracks culled from period singles and a live show, the band’s Silverhead demo occupies an odd position somewhere between Deep Purple and some of the late Sixties Stones’ sluttier-sounding moments – imagine Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed fed through the kind of mushrooms that Turner would dine out on, and then raiding their sisters’ wardrobes for stage wear.  Music for a blood-soaked cabaret catwalk, then, and it doesn’t really matter whether or not you like music.  The package was perfect.  Particularly in Japan, which the band toured early, and which became their happiest hunting ground.

“It was the white face thing,” reasons DesBarres.  “The Japanese, with kabuki and their sense of ritual and glamour, accepted it very easily.  It’s the tried and true joke ‘big in Japan,’ and we were.  So we experienced that very quickly, and that drove us on to be even more eccentric.

“But the great wake up came when we got to Cleveland and there were nine people in the club.”

An American tour followed the Japanese outing, Silverhead stuffed onto any bill that would carry them, and the group swiftly learned just how unprepared America was for five skinny Brits dressed up like Christmas Trees.

DesBarres: “Silverhead collectively weighed 160 lbs, and when we played down south I used to milk it, I’d come out in Mobile, Alabama, and I’d say ‘oh I got such a red neck at the pool today,’ and people would go crazy, wanting to kill us. Which was great until you got into the parking lot at 3am.”

The band’s rise continued regardless, but with one major caveat.  “Nobody took to Silverhead on a mass level,” admits DesBarres.  “We were very unappreciated by the majority, and the reasons for that are up for grabs.  Ahead of our time perhaps; not promoted perhaps – in America, the label crashed within two weeks of us being on tour.  There were a thousand reasons why we didn’t become the next Rolling Stones, and none of them interest me whatsoever.”

Besides, the band continue to work hard.  Touring to promote 16 and Savaged,  Silverhead rolled up at the London Rainbow for a show that – recorded for a Japan-only live album, here bolstered by a period BBC In Concert broadcast and a brace more live strays – truly captured the essence of the act.  But it was all over too soon.  Adored in the east, abhorred in the west, Silverhead would break up the following spring, but not before playing out a few final dramas…

Such as, touring the United States with the so-called bogus Fleetwood Mac, a line-up put together without any of the group’s actual members, by a disgruntled manager whom the real Mac were trying to rid themselves of.  Legal action ultimately ended the dispute, but Silverhead made their own contribution to the situation once they realized what was going on.  They started playing Fleetwood Mac songs in their own live set.

The band also commenced work on a third album to be titled Brutiful, “and it was fucking amazing,” recalls DesBarres.  “There’s a few songs floating around that we cut that got out, we were obsessed with Americana, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, and I wrote songs for both of them.  (“James Dean” and “Marilyn” both appear among 16 and Savaged’s bonus bounty.)  It was Kerouac with three chords, it was amazing, but I was too fucked up to continue, and as the guy in the middle and the front, that did not help.  Drugs became more important, the tangents that one took were governed and determined by narcotics, and the music and the enjoyment of that became second to that.”

That was then, this is now.  In truth, the first album does creak a little around the ages, but the live set is everything that you want Silverhead to be, and the sophomore set, quite frankly and frighteningly, rates among the greatest albums of the age. Don’t play favorites with any of them, though.  You need to own them all.

 

6various artists

I’m a Freak, Baby…: A Journey through the British Heavy Psych and Hard Rock Underground Scene 1968-1972 (3 CD box set)

(Grapefruit CRSEGBOX 032)

A companion, both chronologically and, in an odd way, stylistically, to the Dust on the Nettles box of recent renown, I’m a Freak, Baby returns us to the off-the-radar corners of the British post-psych underground via forty-eight more of the bands that kept the freak flags flying for a few years more.

The big names are the expected ones – the Edgar Broughton Band, caught with the corrosive “Love in the Rain,” the Pink Fairies’ festival anthem to end them all, “Do It,” the Deviants’s gregariously grinding “I’m Coming Home,” the Move’s dinosauric “Brontosaurus,” Third World War’s earth-scorching “Ascension Day”….  Connoisseurs of the age could probably argue for days over whether those are necessarily the key tracks by those bands (there’s no “Out Demons Out” for a start), but within the context of the box, and the individual tracks’ neighbors, they work perfectly.

A glimpse into the early days of Hawkwind gives us “Sweet Mistress of Pain” in place of anything that might feel more obvious, and if the presence of Deep Purple and Uriah Heep does move things a little more mainstream, “Fireball” and “Gypsy,” respectively, keep the mood firmly in place.  This is hard rock at the sticky end of the stick, dark and oft-times malevolent – is it even vaguely possible to hear Fleetwood Mac’s “Green Manalishi” without feeling at least a quick shiver up the spine?  Or Gun’s “Race With The Devil” without taking for the hills?

But of course, it’s not the stuff we know that’s the focus here, it’s the stuff we ought to know, such lesser starred names like Hellmet and Wicked Lady (who donate the box’s title track), Stonehouse and the Moochie, Egor and the Kult, Bare Soul and Samuel Waddy.   And a host of other glories, some of which have never previously seen the light of day… Iron Klaw’s “Skullcrusher,” for example, taken from an acetate that allegedly sounded so much like Black Sabbath that the latter band’s management threatened to sue.  Or the Velvet Frogs’ “Jehovah,” self-styled “delinquency set to music.”  The fuzzed out frenzy of Bare Soul, Barnabus’s “Apocalypse”….

Other bands are known from just a single or, if they were really lucky, a solitary album.  Some still scratch for recognition on the specialists’ circuit; others change hands for zillions among collectors who know them only by repute.  But all of them luxuriate in that same miasmic, pagan darkness that was the single most powerful undercurrent of the age, and that’s where this and its aforementioned folky cousin link hands.

In the end, this entire scene just faded away; the bands that made it made it big, and the rest were lost, or lost their taste.  But imagine if that hadn’t happened.  Imagine if the Fairies had become regulars on Top of the Pops, and suburban teenyboppers hit the streets clad in Sweet Slag T-shirts.  If the Open Mind sold out Madison Square, and the Writing on the Wall read “all tickets sold.”  If the Deviants had not deviated.

This box makes it feel like all of that happened.

 

7Gong

Rejoice! I’m Dead!

(Madfish)

This isn’t the first time that Gong has existed without Daevid Allen at the helm, but of course it will be the last.  And it isn’t the first time they’ve swerved into different pastures as a consequence, although that’s only a relative observation.  Within the wide world of Gong as a going concern, there has never been a single sound that every album and offshoot has stuck to, and sometimes (those generally ghastly Pierre Moerlin-led discs, for example) not even an all-pervasive mood.

But even at its extremes, Rejoice! I’m Dead! is dipped deep in the spirit that you’d hope might still linger, and with Allen himself bequeathed the continuing mantel to the last bandmates he ever had, it would have been more disturbing if they’d not carried on.

There are some supremely Gong-like moments here.  Halfway through just the second track, “Rejoice,” we’re back first into Camembert Electrique territory, and then Steve Hillage’s L, and it’s magnificent thoughout.  The promotional grapevine insists that Allen, Hillage and Didier Malherbe can all be heard as the album passes by… utterly unhelpfully, the promotional CD adds no further info to that tantalizing snippet.  But you can probably guess where they are as it plays through, and even if you can’t (or don’t care to look in the first place), still the album rockets along like any of a couple of dozen past additions to the discography.

At ten minutes plus, “Rejoice” is the first of three unimpeachable epics; later in the set, “The Unspeakable Sounds Revealed” might have been cast on a period crystal machine, and beeps and boosts through its intro sequence for a good three minutes before it turns into something else; and finally, “Insert Your Own Prophecy” is crunchy space rock par excellence.

And in between times, Gong glitter and glisten across half a dozen further tracks, all of them captivating, each of them casting its own little spell across your consciousness.  A couple may be a little samey, but that’s scarcely unique in the world of Gong; a couple may seem a little basic (ditto).  But anyone who feared that Daevid Allen’s death was finally going to wipe the teapots from the sky can rest assured that it won’t.  In fact, he’s probably up there with them, wondering what all the fuss was about.

Rejoice!  Not only am I dead, but there’s a new Gong album as well.

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