Monday, September 26, 2005

I hear a new world calling me

The entry for 1962 on the list is "Telstar" by the Tornados, a rousing and poignant tribute to a satellite, and it's the most successful and enduring song recorded by Joe Meek, the tragic oddball producer and songwriter. Strangely enough, Meek wasn't a musician and was actually tone deaf. Sometimes referred to as "the British Phil Spector" (which is only accurate in the fact that both had distinctive sounds that were immediately recognizable), Meek's production techniques were unusual in his day, as he used liberal amounts of reverb, compression, and delay effects and employed the fruits of his electronic tinkering.

In several ways, Merritt has a kinship with Meek, with their shared affinity for pop music and experimentation. Until recently, Merritt recorded his music in a home studio, and Meek used his home at 304 Holloway Road in London to record numerous acts. The Wikipedia entry for Joe Meek describes the recording of "Johnny Remember Me": "...he placed the violins on the stairs, the drummer almost in the bathroom, and the brass section on a different floor entirely."

Meek productions are often peppered with unusual sound effects, and Merritt himself has an arsenal of odd techniques for making sounds. In this interview for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Merritt describes one of his favorites:

Bay Guardian: Please explain the Slinky Guitar.
Merritt: It's an appropriation of two guitars. You connect them with a slinky and block, or let [the slinky] oscillate between them. You plug in both guitars and pan them left and right, and you get a sound from the spring. I usually use it for percussion.
Bay Guardian: Do you like Joe Meek?
Merritt: I obviously identify with Joe Meek.
Bay Guardian: Have you read his biography?
Merritt: I can't imagine someone who spent his life in the recording studio would have a very interesting biography. Except for the last five minutes, which would be pretty interesting.

Merritt is referring to the disturbing conclusion to Joe Meek's life, documented in this excellent article by John McCready. In 1967, the paranoid and mentally ill Meek murdered his landlady with a shotgun and then turned the gun on himself.

The first selection this week is from the proto-concept mini-album I Hear a New World from 1960, which Meek described as "An outer space stereo music fantasy" and involves chipmunk-voiced, blue-skinned inhabitants of the moon. "Telstar" was Meek's sole American hit and one of the biggest selling instrumentals of all time; it's simultaneously epic and cheesy, and by the way, that reedy keyboard you hear is a Clavioline. This page features an MP3 (track #10) of Joe Meek singing the "Telstar" melody over a different song (I wasn't kidding about him being tone deaf), along with a number of other Meek demos. The 4-CD boxed set Portrait of a Genius: The RGM Legacy was released a few months ago, but a more reasonably-priced introduction is the sterling 2-disc compilation Joe Meek: The Alchemist of Pop, which I recommend highly.

Rod Freeman and the Blue Men - "I Hear a New World"
The Tornados - "Telstar"

Monday, September 19, 2005

I like candy when it's wrapped in a sweater

According to ld beghtol, quoted on David Jennings's 69 Love Songs site, "I'm Sorry I Love You" was intended to be a tribute to the band Bow Wow Wow, but " didn't quite come out that way." Merritt elaborates on this in the 69LS booklet:

"It was originally supposed to be one of those Carter Family sort of songs, but we discovered in the studio that it worked well with a Bo Diddley beat."

One of Merritt's picks from the early 80s, Bow Wow Wow was assembled by Malcolm McLaren, taking Adam Ant's backing musicians and adding one Annabella Lwin, an adolescent Burmese girl who, as the story goes, was discovered by McLaren singing in a London dry cleaners. A typical BWW song has several distinct features, notably a tom-heavy Burundi beat and utterly enthusiastic vocals from Annabella. Though they're often relegated to "one-hit wonder" status for their cover of "I Want Candy," they have a number of tracks even better than that one. The 1996 compilation The Best of Bow Wow Wow probably has all you need, with the terribly catchy "C30, C60, C90, Go!", "Do You Wanna Hold Me?", and "Go Wild in the Country" being the highlights.

Tracing "I'm Sorry I Love You" back to Bo Diddley isn't a direct path. We can start with Bow Wow Wow's "I Want Candy" cover - it was written and recorded by the Strangeloves and released in June of 1965, but the rendition that McLaren used to reference the song was the one by Brian Poole and the Tremeloes (also known for their "Here Comes My Baby" cover) from July of 1965. The original version by the Strangeloves indeed uses Bo Diddley's trademark rhythm and borrows substantially from his song "Hey Bo Diddley."

Possibly the best place to get the original "I Want Candy" is on the generous Nuggets boxed set, which expands the original Nuggets double-album compilation from 1972 to a 4-CD set. The full title is Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968, and it's jam-packed with guitar-driven garage rock numbers ("Psychotic Reaction" by the Count Five, "You're Gonna Miss Me" by the 13th Floor Elevators) and psychedelic pop songs ("Incense and Peppermints" by the Strawberry Alarm Clock, "I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night)" by the Electric Prunes). The last track on the compilation, "Blues' Theme" by Davie Allan & the Arrows, is from the film The Wild Angels; this movie featured a character named Mike (played by Nancy Sinatra), referenced by Merritt in "Papa Was a Rodeo." Really, if you have any interest at all in 60s pop/rock, then don't hesitate to get this, and Nuggets II (which concentrates on non-American bands) is amazing, as well. And, tying it all together, Merritt named it as one of the best releases of 1998 in Time Out New York.

Bow Wow Wow - "I Want Candy"
The Strangeloves - "I Want Candy"

Monday, September 12, 2005

The captive, pushed and shoved, was given leather boxing-gloves

Handler: What other songs do you get in your head?
Merritt: There are two things that I always, for decades, have gotten stuck in my head while walking down the street. One of them is a beautiful song by the Red Krayola, "Plekhanov:" "Neither anticipation / nor fulfillment / is realistic / in dialectic / Who's learned the language of the Internationale? / Our conversation / for seventeen years / has volunteered / Plekhanov / a priori / Who's learned the language of the Internationale? / Who was ever disowned by his Granma?"

Handler: What's the other song?
Merritt: The jingle for Bumble Bee tuna: "Yum, yum Bumble Bee / Bumble Bee tuna / I love Bumble Bee / Bumble Bee tuna..."

Handler: I always get "Dude Looks Like A Lady" stuck in my head.
Merritt: I love that song.

Continuing on with another band on Rough Trade, we have the Red Crayola (later changed to "Krayola" due to obvious legal reasons), a ridiculously diverse and inventive outfit centered around the singer/songwriter/artist Mayo Thompson. The group started out in the late 60s playing freaky, noodly psychedelic rock, but later recordings, while still experimental and challenging, aren't as easy to place into a certain time period. Thompson also mined subjects such as art, political history, philosophy, and psychology for his pointedly non-rock, non-pop lyrics. His fascinating songs earned him a spot on Merritt's short list of "best contemporary lyricists in English" in Chickfactor #12.

In the 70s, Thompson began collaborating with Art & Language, a collective formed in Great Britain in the late 60s that focused on conceptual art. Together, they made three albums: Collected Slogans (1976), Kangaroo? (1981), and Black Snakes (1983). Kangaroo?, which was released on Rough Trade, featured an amazing line-up of post-punk musicians: Gina Birch from the Raincoats, Lora Logic and Ben Annesley from Essential Logic, Epic Soundtracks from Swell Maps, and Allen Ravenstine from Pere Ubu. It's an incredible album, one that is constantly shifting and sounds fresh upon repeated listens, and although the lyrics are plainly written out, the unifying themes (Communism, language, Gestalt theory, and others) make it somewhat of a puzzle. This week, two songs from Kangaroo? are featured: "Plekhanov," cited above, and the opening track, "Kangaroo?" which was played by Merritt on WFMU when he was a guest DJ on February 25, 2000 (RealAudio stream here - "Kangaroo?" starts at 22:16).

Thompson was busy as a producer during the late 70s and early 80s, and he even served as Rough Trade's label manager for a little while. Still, the Red Krayola continued making making music through the 80s, and in the early-to-mid 90s, the band teamed up with Drag City Records, facilitated by huge Krayola fan David Grubbs, which released new Red Krayola releases and also re-issued a considerable amount of their backcatalog. And to this day, they're playing live shows; this page shows details for performances in Chicago and California in the upcoming weeks.

And if you're wondering about the Bumble Bee tuna jingle, go here for a sound file and an unbearably cute TV commercial from the 70s.

The Red Crayola with Art & Language - "Kangaroo?"
The Red Crayola with Art & Language - "Plekhanov"

Monday, September 05, 2005

In love is so tough on my emotions

"They will not remind you of anything."

This statement was written in the N.M.E. in 1979 about the Raincoats, and indeed, they defy comparison. While first inspired by 70s icons like the Clash, the Sex Pistols, and Patti Smith, the four-woman band cast aside the constraints of punk music. Using guitars, a violin, and drums, they created music that is simultaneously energetic, unpredictable, and often affecting; though their music sounds odd, it's a natural weirdness that's never forced. Their self-titled debut album is one of Merritt's favorites from Rough Trade's early days. It was reissued in the 90s thanks to the advocacy of Kurt Cobain, but sadly, the album has again fallen out of print.

One of the striking things about the debut album is the unpolished, yet completely exhilarating drumming by Palmolive (real name: Paloma McLardy), who was an original member of the Slits. Palmolive was an inspiration for Claudia Gonson, who cites her as her favorite drummer, and in Chickfactor #10, Claudia names the Raincoats as her favorite band of all time. She even recounts a trip to England in order to track down the band in the mid-80s: "I was going to give them a tape of Buffalo Rome, which became the Magnetic Fields' Distant Plastic Trees."

The first track on the debut album, "No Side to Fall in," is a manic little number featuring frantic fiddling and what sounds like an aluminum can being beaten. (Note: the Geffen reissue of the album includes the track "Fairytale in the Supermarket" as a bonus song, but instead of being added at the end, it is used as the opener.) "In Love" is a disorienting song, apparently mirroring the dizziness of love with abused guitar and violin strings and repeated syllables. Though it too is out of print, I also give high marks to the second Raincoats album Odyshape, which is even stranger and more removed from its contemporaries than the debut.

The Raincoats - "No Side to Fall in"
The Raincoats - "In Love"