Friday, October 30, 2009

Shine On

The Only Ones (Rock)
LP: The Only Ones (1978)

When The Only Ones emerged in 1978 with one of the great debut LPs in British rock - and a name which showed they had cojones in spades - stardom seemed a foregone conclusion.

Great songs, superb musicianship, a brilliant live act uniformly adored by the music press. What could possibly go wrong?

But only three years later it was all over. Mired in drug addiction and with a lead singer bizarrely on the run from an attempted murder rap on their final US tour, The Only Ones imploded.

I was a rabid fan from the very start, buying every release and following their live act around the UK. One highlight was the legendary Leeds Futurama festival, where they shared a star-studded bill with Joy Division, The Fall, Public Image Ltd and other post-punk luminaries. The Only Ones were supposed to come on before Hawkwind that night, but they got held up on the way to the gig and ended up topping the bill.

Though they were lumped in with the new wave vanguard, the band were too musically literate - not to mention long in the tooth - to be punks. Rather they were sophisticated guitar rockers whose sound embraced all flavors of 50s ./ 60s / 70s rock.

In Peter Perrett they possessed a gifted, idiosyncratic songwriter who seemed destined to become a leading figure in British rock. An androgynous Dylan obsessive with a quasi-hippy fashion sense, Perrett sang in a narcotic drawl which perfectly matched his tales of tragic dissociation.

In John Perry they boasted one of the great unsung guitar heroes. A portly, cricket-loving axe genius who wore an expression of semi-stoned indifference, Perry was a guitarist's guitarist, effortlessly unleashing one awesome lick after another on his trademark white Stratocaster.

Drummer Mike Kellie and bassist Alan Mair were 60s renegades who had seen it all with progressive rockers Spooky Tooth (Kellie) and “The Scottish Beatles” The Beatstalkers (Mair). Kellie was a commanding and musical drummer, Mair a solid and inventive bassist. He was also, as it happened, no slouch behind a mixing desk.

So how could a band so obviously steeped in talent fail to attain the success which seemed their birthright?

It was partly because they signed with corporate monsters CBS, Perrett reportedly being keen to share a label with his idol Bob Dylan. But The Only Ones were far too wayward to accommodate the demands of a major. Their constant stylistic variation, anti-image, aloof stage persona and Perrett's unusually fey vocal style didn't exactly make them obvious chart toppers. Tragically they spurned the advances of Island Records, whose maverick style would have suited them better.

And then there was the dope.

Three-quarters of the band were unapologetic drug fiends whose interviews were loaded with references to smack and marijuana. Their eponymous debut stands as one of the great substance-driven albums in rock, packed with drug-inspired ballads of elegantly-wasted dissolution.

It kicks off with the aching love song The Whole of the Law. Taking its title from dark magus Aleister Crowley's thelemic dictum “Do what thou wilt, that shall be the whole of the law,” the opener sets the tone for the album's romantic fatalism. With superbly restrained guitar flourishes from Perry, it's a stunning beginning and a worthy curtain-raiser to...

"The hit single that never was.”
Perrett's stupendous Another Girl Another Planet - the band's most celebrated creation - seems to equate love with addiction until you realize the “girl” is actually heroin itself: “Space travel's in my blood/There ain't nothing I can do about it.” The parting line, “Another planet is holding you down” suggests escape is futile.

The greatness of Another Girl demanded nothing less than superlative musicianship, and as usual the band rise to the occasion, especially John Perry, whose legendary guitar solo is only one of his many impressive moments on this record.

If an obbligato should be part and parcel of a song, emerging organically from its spiritual center, Perry's effort is a case in point as he comments on the lyric's general sense of elevation and transcendence. Admirably tasteful and accomplished, it's a jaw-dropping effort.

Throughout The Only Ones, love is always on the verge of collapse, threatened by dissolution and departure. The protagonist of Breaking Down describes mental anguish and the hand of fate closing in: “People keep away from me/Guess there's something wrong with me/I can't do you no good/I always thought I could.”

The song's jazzy break illustrates how The Only Ones were musically miles ahead of their punky peers. Here as on every other song, Mike Kellie's drums are fluid and articulate, his tom-toms characteristically punctuating the stereo spectrum in effective style.

After that the carousing City of Fun celebrates city madness with “people drowning in a sea of life,” from which there's “only one way out.” And what do you think that might be? A haze of narcotic escapism? Perry's frantic guitar adds to the general sense of life on the edge.

Creature of Doom begins with a comparative feeling of optimism: “I know something that you don't know/It's our destiny /You and me could conquer the world.” But with its talk of epitaphs and final straws there's always the feeling that romantic debilitation is around the corner, redeemable only through some kind of unholy co-dependency.

So it is that It's the Truth describes the stunted communication between a pair of heroin-addicted lovers. “Something's been going wrong/I'm all fixed up and I don't know what's going on/I gotta talk to you...," but then “It's the last time I'm ever going to.” Again the romanticism of the decadent junkie aesthete: maybe I never appreciated you and we're both fucked-up, but this whole stupid thing means everything to me.

Language Problem contains some of Perrett's most twisted lines: “My parents told me that love don't exist just for pleasure/So I guess I'll throw in some pain for good measure.” If there's a moral lesson, it's that drugs lead to a debilitating codependency. Having said that, in typical Perret style there's always a healthy dose of black humor in evidence: “Taking drugs is one thing we got in common/It helps to overcome the language problem/And we really enjoy the damage.”

If I have a favorite track on The Only Ones it just might be No Peace for the Wicked. With its sense of weary isolation and its self-mocking lyric, after all these years it remains one of my personal theme songs.

I don't know how Perrett manages to fit lines like “Why do I go through these deep emotional traumas/Why can't I be like I always wanted to be, carefree?” into a pop song, but he does so in a way that would make Syd Barrett envious. The track features a heartbreaking guitar solo from Perry before Perrett confides: “I'm in love with extreme mental torture,” a declaration of lovelorn masochism which will appeal to beautiful losers the world over.

With its opening declaration: “I used to dream of this/I'd lay awake at night imagining this," the album's closing track, The Immortal Story deals with the scary prospect of finally possessing the object of one's affections: “When dreams become reality that's living death can't you see?“ In its recognition that the best laid plans sometimes go awry, the song unconsciously foreshadows the demise of The Only Ones' quest for fame and glory. Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

Scandalously ignored by the record-buying pubic - it only reached number 56 in the UK album charts - after 30 odd years this bona fide classic remains one of my all-time favorites. That's probably because I can still detect echoes of my past - my aspirations, friendships and romantic tragedies - in each exquisite moment. Moreover it takes me back to a time when each musical experience mattered and seemed loaded with meaning and discovery.

Fans and admirers have long lamented the fact that a band blessed with an abundance of musical and songwriting talent never achieved the success that seemed theirs for the taking. But it's clear now that the seeds of The Only Ones' demise were evident in their earliest recordings. The band's downfall serves as a cautionary reminder to those who would confuse druggy excess with artistic expression.

For one brief moment, The Only Ones' debut shone brightly and gave us 35 minutes of perfect, twisted pop. Describing the search for love and meaning in a nether world of narcotic romanticism, it's an album of intelligence, wit and emotional honesty which also happens to rock like a mutha.

And thirty years later it continues to shine on, a timeless jewel which only improves with age. Not to put too fine a point on it, it's a fucking masterpiece. And you know there's a million frustrated rockers who would give their right arm to leave behind a legacy like that, me included.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


Flaming Lips (Existential Pop)
LP: Embryonic (Warner Bros, 2009)

At this stage in their career Flaming Lips surely have little left to prove. Though not commercially successful, their off-the-wall psychedelic rock has justifiably earned them critical praise and The Soft Bulletin stands as perhaps the last truly great experimental pop record of the twentieth century.

It can't have been easy following that masterstroke. So after Bulletin we got the flawed genius of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002) and the meandering cul-de-sac of At War With the Mystics (2008).

The band have heralded their new double album Embryonic as their White Album.  Like that fab landmark it's a great single LP padded with self-indulgent – though not necessarily unlistenable - filler. Like  Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots it's a half-realized concept album stuffed with free-form prog-rock jams and wig-out fantasies.

It's also packed with empathy, love of life and a philosophy which is decidedly 21st century in its naturalistic world view. A psychedelic jam session for hippies, brights and eco-warriors, if you will.

Best of all, Embryonic is mostly a head-spinning return to form, which will come as a mighty relief to those of us who were beginning to fear that the steady decline of the band's recorded output since the astral heights of Bulletin and the better bits of Yoshimi was irreversible.

Like life itself, where chaos and uncertainty periodically give way to moments of clarity,
Embryonic's random sense impressions somehow organize themselves into a compelling philosophy. This feeling is reflected track-by-track throughout an unevenly brilliant album.

In opener Convinced of the Hex the band throw caution to the wind and dump anything and everything into the mix. Nothing seems too far out to make the final cut, yet Hex sets out the central thesis of the album in no uncertain terms: "That's the difference between us / I believe in nothing / And you're convinced of the hex."

Just as the best science fiction tackles the big questions,
The Sparrow Looks Up At The Machine grapples with the meaning of experience. A dead ringer for Yoshimi's sublime Are You a Hypnotist, the song presses home Wayne Coyne's obtuse secularism: "What does it mean/To dream what you dream / To believe what you've seen? / Why do we feel 
/ To try to find real / Underneath a machine?"

Then there's the eco-grunge of
See the Leaves, one of the record's key statements. Bereft of hope and love, the song's conflicted protagonist refuses to believe life has no end as she sees the natural world decomposing and re-emerging around her.

The title of
Embryonic reflects the infancy of humankind as tracks seem barely developed from their rudimentary beginnings. The magical faux-naivete of If - multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd invoking the ghost of Skip Spence – feels like an audio verite moment that went wonderfully right:

"People are evil, it's true
But on the other side, they can be gentle too

If they decide
But they don't always decide
We live on the impulses

Love is powerful
But not as powerful as evil."

On the other hand, inspired improvisation occasionally gives way to throwaway ditties like
Scorpio Sword, which sounds like Syd Barrett on a bad day. And half-realized jams like Powerless recall the Lips' origins as a spaced-out head band.

But this is the Flaming Lips, so hope is never far off. Post-Nietzschean popsters par excellence, the fearless freaks continue to ask the big questions, attempting to reconcile the unimaginable vastness of our inner and outer worlds with the miracle of existence.

Embryonic is filled with references to planets, nature, technology and philosophical riddles. Its theme will be familiar to Lips fans: the struggle of the modern human to negotiate the impasse between magic and math in order to overcome evil and approach a transcendent reality. Sagittarius Silver Announcement spookily exhumes the ghost of Ian Curtis to announce "We can be free / We can be like they are / We can be one with the silver machine."

In typical Wayne Coyne style, The Ego's Last Stand celebrates the mystery of a sunbeam, while Worm Mountain invokes the wonder of creation in its litany of frogs, bears and mountains.

Insisting that our cosmic solitude be seen as a source of wonder, Flaming Lips stand up to the challenge facing a post-religious world: to find meaning in a godless universe while avoiding the pitfalls of ennui and nihilism.

We can do this, they suggest, by immersing ourselves in a kind of serene eco-mysticism, good old-fashioned love and peace, and a healthy dose of shit-kicking rock 'n' roll. They're all part of the same thing, and if you've beheld the wonder of a flower, wept at a sunrise or heard a Flaming Lips record, I have a feeling you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.

Listen: See The Leaves

Watch: I Can Be a Frog

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Spanish Bum

Flamenco performers
El Arenal
Sevilla, Spain

I'm on a quest for flamenco in Sevilla, home of Spain's earthy, self-defining art form.

Settling into my seat with a bottle of rioja, I fear I might be letting myself in for a touristy version of the flamenco experience. But to my relief most of the crowd seem to be Spanish. Hopefully that's a good sign.

There are two guitarists, three singers and four dancers who over the next two hours offer up a concentrated exposition of flamencology. If it feels a tad diluted, it's an experience unlike any other.

As the musicians ignite a roaring cantando, we are plunged into the never-ending romantic struggle between man and woman, the human drama which elates, frustrates and gives meaning to our existence.

Though life contains suffering, this  music proclaims, it is indeed better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. The beauty and the ecstasy make it all worthwhile and enable us to bear anything.

A handsome and intimidating woman takes to the stage and proceeds to offer a dance filled with desperate passion. She brings the crowd to its feet. As she takes her bow, the perspiration oozing between her impressive breasts is one of the most erotic sights I've ever seen.

The following male dancer is sensational. Astonishingly, he is a dead ringer for footballer David Beckham, and I notice that the ladies in the audience can't take their eyes off his tight Spanish bum. As he stamps and flexes like a coiled spring, the passionate tension he communicates is almost too much for them.

Pleasantly Woozy

Cante Flamenco
El Cairo,
Sevilla, Spain

I'm propping up the bar at El Cairo, a Sevillan pub I've taken a liking to. It's frequented mainly by old Spaniards  and serves up delicious fish soup, tortillas sevillianas and a house rioja which goes down mighty easy. 

I'm starting to feel pleasantly woozy when a couple of Spanish geezers along the counter suddenly break into song.

You're never far away from music in Sevilla and its bar culture is the perfect environment for a bunch of old codgers to let fly. Their spontaneous crescendo of cante flamenco libre leaves the two viejas who have been tolerating my pidgin Spanish beaming with delight.

The barman seizes the moment to erupt into a Spanish rendition of Herb Alpert's This Guy's in Love with You, proving that cheese is universal and goes as well with rioja and tapas as it does with ale and pickled onions.

Uno tinto mas por favor!