Sarstedt 1969

 

It’s hard to catch up with the 60s generation.  For a while I’ve had it in mind to post on Peter Sarstedt but his death in January of this year has overtaken me.  So this review of his first two albums from 1969 becomes something of a tribute by default though not an uncritical one.

The two albums in question are Peter Sarstedt and As Though it Were a Movie both for United Artists and brought together on BGO’s 1995 CD re-issue [BGOCD274] – more on the CD release later.

Romantic outsider

A European flavour runs through both albums, at times recalling something of the romanticism of Nick Garrie-Hamilton’s The Nightmare of J.B. Stanislas.  It therefore comes as no surprise to learn that, like Nick, Peter travelled widely in Europe prior to his major success at the end of the 60s.  But Sarstedt’s romanticism, whilst never jaded, is far more equivocal, more observational than Nick Garrie-Hamilton’s misty-eyed musings.  Sarstedt is also some eight years older.  A certain worldliness is offset by a literary, artistic sensibility – witness the wistful epiphany of I Am a Cathedral, also the most Garrie-like track here.

Talking of I am a Cathedral, Peter acknowledges he was looking for ‘something obscure and enigmatic’ and that seems key to an understanding of these albums.  At once both wayward and mainstream in a way which only the late 60s can muster, we’re always aware of Sarstedt’s instincts to deliver a good, or at least reasonable, folkie melody but then he’ll throw something unsettling into the lyrical mix so that Sons of Cain are Abel begins by evoking days of wine and roses but its summery gaze is drug-fuelled and blank.

 

Both albums are produced by Ray Singer and arranged by Ian Green and share a similar sonic sensibility.  The latter, despite its top and tailing orchestral extravaganzas, is slightly drier, a little rootsier.  On the debut album especially, the producer might have been Mike Hurst around the time of Neil McArthur’s She’s Not There. 

The orchestration is by turns quasi-psychedelic, middle-of-the road, folkie, cinematic, clicky in an early Cat Stevens sort of way, featuring just an occasional brush with rock.  For me, the instrumentation mainly enhances the surprisingly diverse styles on offer – country, calyspso, gospel – but I say that as a fan of 60s arrangements.  I have only dipped into Peter Sarstedt’s later albums but singles like Beirut from 1978 and 1986’s Hemingway both suffer from unsympathetic backings.  Peter’s 2006 album On Song (which I have heard through) opts for a reduced palette of acoustic guitar and I suspect this may be true of his later offerings; how I miss those arrangements!

Gentle but sardonic

Sarstedt comes across as someone who partakes of life but remains essentially an outsider.  He as good as tells us this in Boulevard.  He comments on his experiences, painting portraits of people he meets along the way though at times it’s not clear how these encounters affect him.  He is like a traveller negotiating his way through the peace, love and drugs generation via the wheeler dealing of Blagged, the drug bust of No More Lollipops for You and the permissive apologia of I’m a Good Boy. 

Sarstedt’s voice may be gentle but his tone can be surprisingly sardonic.  He acknowledges Dylan’s influence.  Only on Many Coloured Semi-Precious Plastic Easter Egg does the debt become overly onerous.

I find the overtly satirical pieces pall after a few listens – My Daddy is a Millionaire (the clue is in the title) the sly Take Off Your Clothes, the insistent I’m a Good BoyMary Jane (portrait of a dominatrix) gets by thanks to some fabulously blaring toxic swinging London horns – it feels like you’re in a Jaguar swinging round Piccadilly Circus (or Pigalle) in 1968.  On the second album generally, Sarstedt seems more relaxed, less keen to impress: Letter to a Friend is welcome for its self-deprecatory honesty.

Follow that

 

It’s so hard to hear Where Do You Go to (My Lovely) just as ‘track 7’ when you know it was a massive international hit.  The song dominates Peter Sarstedt by nature of its length, repetitive structure and comprehensive narrative but I wouldn’t say it completely overshadows its peers.

Follow-up,  Frozen Orange Juice, although likeable enough in a jaunty kind of way, was a lost opportunity to showcase the best of Peter’s material, a view shared by its composer.  It’s just too different from its predecessor, an infinitely inferior song with an unevocative title.  Inevitably it made it to Number Ten.

At his best

As Though It Were a Movie is often cited as his best song and, on the basis of these two albums, I’d agree.

As Though It Were a Movie in full.

I’d also highlight Blagged with its clever, sometimes cynical power exchange, catchy melody and Day in the Life drums.

The double CD

It would have been nice had the double-CD included as bonus tracks Peter’s two pre-album singles:  In the Day of My Youth b/w My Monkey is a Junkie (Major-Minor 1967 as Peter Lincoln, the B-side is Bonzoesque and quite irritating) and I Must Go On (Island 1968, the B-side Mary Jane features on Peter Sarstedt).

More pertinent is the omission of Where Do You Go to (My Lovely) B-side Morning Mountain.  Having caught it on Youtube, it’s a minor piece but should have been included anyway.

Liner notes from Spencer Leigh of BBC Radio Merseyside provide just enough context together with reproductions of original album artwork and full lyrics for Peter Sarstedt.  

This is an adequate but by no means deluxe re-release.

‘Life … God how it slips away’  – ‘Time, Love, Hope, Life’.

Peter Sarstedt: 10th December 1941 – 8th January 2017.


Peter Sarstedt

1. I am a Cathedral – 2.49
2. Sons of Cain ae Abel – 3.46
3. No More Lollipops – 2.12
4. Stay Within Myself – 2.56
5. You are My Life – 3.13
6. Sayonara – 2.36
7. Where Do You Go To (My Lovely) – 5.23
8. Blagged – 3.12
9. My Daddy is a Millionaire – 2.18
10. Once Upon an Everyday – 2.33
11. Mary Jane – 2.19
12. Time Was Leading Us Home – 4.27
13. Many-Coloured Semi-Precious Plastic Easter Egg – 2.51
14. Time, Life, Hope, Life – 3.52

As Though It were a Movie

1. Overture – 3.08
2. As Though It Were a Movie – 3.54
3. Open a Tin – 2.54
4. Step into the Candlelight – 3.06
5. Take off your Clothes – 3.55
6. Letter to a Friend & Intermission – 3.05
7. Overture – 0.30
8. Boulevard – 2.44
9. The Sunshine is Expensive – 3.17
10. The Artist – 2.52
11. The Friendship Song (Hey Nena) – 4.23
12. Juan – 1.37
13. I’m a Good Boy – 3.52
14. National Anthem & Doors Clsoe at 10.45pm – 1.28

Extra tracks

15. Frozen Orange Juice – 3.10
16. Aretusa Loser – 3.43


Update June 2017: first two images substituted [original selections withdrawn by Gettyimages]

Apologies for absence

Hello lightspotters,

Sorry for there being nothing here in four weeks.

I’ve been in Japan (may work this into a future piece) and forgot to say so here.

Back now with the first of two posts on Peter Sarstedt

Peter Sarstedt: As Though It Were a Movie

As Though It Were a Movie is often cited as Peter Sarstedt’s best song and on the basis of his first two albums (which I’ll be reviewing shortly by way of a tribute), I’d agree.

Art life collision

Where Do You Go To (My Lovely) is perhaps more finely crafted but the art-life collision of As Though It Were a Movie has a gravitas touching on the disturbing: ‘What do you think your mother is and what is she for?’  Sarstedt demands against a thunderous crescendo.

For once, a tendency to satirise is abandoned and the result is significantly more powerful.  Itching to get under the skin of this mysterious nonentity he does so only to find a kind of celluloid, psychic void.

Lyrics are let down only by the nonsensical and overly portentous ‘And his name was Solitaire’!!

Cataclysmic fate

The song achieves great sense of momentum by being skewed towards its ending, creating the sense that we are heading inexorably towards some kind of cataclysmic fate.

This is achieved in three ways: (i) The first ninety seconds are basically a intro/chorus/chorus run through; when fresh material is eventually introduced, our anticipation maximises the impact of the clever ‘pennies from heaven’ imagery.  (ii) We expect the second bridge (‘Wander down a corridor’) to repeat the melody of the first but it is entirely different with a more urgent, expansive feel opening up a sense of new possibilities.  (iii) A huge Scott Walker/Alan Hawkshaw like arrangement – by turns queasy, melodramatic, introspective – gradually gathers force, powering and empowering this song more than any other.

I think I’d prefer the lyrics without the little asides – ‘yes they did!’, ‘yeah!’ ‘heh!’ – but that’s a minor irritation.  I can listen to this song numerous times without tiring of it.

One curiosity is that the title consistently occurs as ‘as though it was a movie’ in the lyrics.  Did no one notice the inconsistency?


He lived his life
As though it was a movie
Humphrey Bogart
Was his god

He’d become the book
That he was reading
Locked his mind in
Fantasy

He lived his life
As though it was a movie
Humphrey Bogart
Was his god

He’d become the book
That he was reading
Locked his mind in
Fantasy

But he never complained
When it started to rain
He just waited for the pennies from heaven

He would hold out his hand
In a gesture so grand
Everybody wondered what he’d been given
Yes they did

To live his life and dream
Was all he wanted
And his name was Solitaire, yeah!

He never felt one of the crowded nation
And if he’s insane
What am I

Wander down a corridor
Carpeted from wall to wall
Jump into a swimming pool
And watch your mind swim

Living is a tragedy
Though it doesn’t mean to be
What do you think your mother is
And what is she for? heh!

He lived his life
As though it was a movie
Humphrey Bogart
Was his god

He’d become every book
That he was reading
Locked his mind in
Fantasy, yes, yes

Trouble!
Trouble!
Trouble!
Trouble!
Trouble!

Sarstedt 1969 – his first two albums

Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You

By Barry, Robin & Maurice Gibb
Lead Vocal: Barry
Album Bee Gees’ 1st 


 

And so to the most overrrated Bee Gees‘ track of 1966-72…

I know I will make myself unpopular with pop-psych fans by finding fault with a song upheld by many as the pinnacle of Bee Gees’ psychedelia (sure enough it’s top of the list in this month’s Shindig  ‘Bee Gees Deep Cuts’ feature).

Criticising Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You goes against the grain of my general preference for psychedelic over romantic ballad Bee Gees.  And there’s no doubting this is one of their most outré pieces.  But being self-consciously experimental and ‘psychedelic’ in themselves aren’t enough to make a song any good.

Far out

This dreary (as against dreamy, as it might like to think it is) dirge sounds as if it was written to simply get as far out as the Bee Gees were able to get in early 1967.  Its melody is by far the dullest on Bee Gees 1st.  I can almost hear the needle getting stuck in the groove in the yawning depth of Maurice’s pitch bend.

Indeed Maurice does a terrific job in controlling the notorious mellotron.  And yes the lyrics are strange but does that mean they are stimulating or that they emotionally connect with the listener in any way?

Red Chair Fade Away has an OK, fairly fluffy kind of weirdness but at least it’s about something and makes me feel a response, not ‘when is this sub-Beatles moan going to end?’  No wonder we need Craise Finton Kirk as an antidote.

Out to impress

Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You sets out to impress and I’m amazed by the ease with which it does so.  But for me, it screams ‘let’s collect some counter cultural brownie points’, never mind writing a decent song.

That’s really that’s all there is to say apart from the oft-quoted ‘the brothers sound like Gregorian monks.’  But how much better do they put their chanting abilities on a well-crafted, properly atmospheric and genuinely ambitious composition such as Odessa?

So I’m afraid this is well outside my Top 50 and easily the most skipable track on 1st.

Bee Gees’ Home Page

Mythical Kings and Iguanas

The other day I turned on the kitchen radio and after a slight pause heard the opening notes of Mythical Kings and Iguanas, the title track to Dory Previn’s 1971 album.  It was as if I had just pressed play on my CD player:

I have flown to star-stained heights
On bend and battered wings
In search of mythical kings
Mythical kings

Sure that everything of worth
Is in the sky and not the earth
And I never learned to make my way
Down, down, down where the iguanas play

I’ve not heard Mythical Kings and Iguanas – the song nor the album – in perhaps twenty-five years though scraps have played in my head from time to time and I still have the vinyl LP.

I first heard it around 1987 or 1988 in my early 20s.  Last week it was as if it was playing to me for the first time:

Singing scraps of angel song
High is right and low is wrong
And I never taught myself to give
Down, down, down where the iguanas live

Stopped in my tracks, I put down my plate and my tea-towel, pulled up a chair to listen and for the first time found I understood.

Without any effort on my part, the words arose from the speakers and made utter sense as if they simply couldn’t help themselves.  I realised that, like it or not, I have lived enough to know what the song means instinctively.

 


Dory Previn

 

Lying with iguanas

Mythical Kings and Iguanas is about embracing the often despised ‘lower’ aspects of being and not losing oneself in fruitless flights of wishful fancy towards unobtainable heights.  Fundamentally it’s about gaining self-acceptance, becoming embodied.

In my 20s maybe I simply liked the sounds the words made, the overall sense of philosophical musing which, in a way, is what she is railing against:

Curse the mind that mounts the clouds
In search of mythical kings
And only mystical things
Mystical things

Buried treasure

In 1987 or 1988, without realising it, I laid a trail between then and now.  Rediscovery in 2017 meant connecting with my younger self and gaining awareness of a kind of unknowing, a certain confusion perhaps, which I couldn’t perceive at the time.

I think there’s real value in this kind of experience which goes way beyond nostalgia.  The feeling of connecting across time, is vivid and poignant, the sense of unlocking meaning without even trying, so powerful.

Had I heard the song for the first time last week, I would have ‘got’ it, been a little moved by it.  But there wouldn’t have been the discovery of buried treasure and finding it richer than I could ever have imagined.  And of feeling a kindness towards the moment of acquiring it so many years ago and someone I once was.

Cry for the soul that will not face
The body as an equal place
And I never learned to touch for real
Or feel the things, iguanas feel
Down, down, down

Where they play

The seeds that you once planted

This epiphany is a little akin to experiences of religion as a child and which organised religion possibly exploits for its own effectiveness.

The words of The Lord’s Prayer or of a particular hymn are planted in young minds at a time when they can be barely understood.  A seed of meaning is sewn with the potential to bear fruit many years later, when an old idea is revisited and subsequently accepted, modified or rejected.

At that point there may be the strong sense of time, growth, a journey, change and impermanence an awareness of being caught in life’s unstoppable flow.  And of a kind of learning which is natural, uncontrived, inevitable.

Could it even be wisdom?

Teach me, teach me
Teach me, reach me.

 

 

Melamine blue

A blue melamine cup…

What is it about that particular shade of baby blue – deeper than powder, softer than steel – which is so consoling, so pacifying, so utterly redolent of childhood?   And when rendered in melamine, perhaps the ultimate soft edged yet unbreakable material, the association is intensified again.

Baby blue featured very little in our 1970s’ household and yet the blue of that cup more strongly evokes early childhood than contemporaneous staples such as ubiquitous brown carpets or a sofa’s pukey orange.

Baby blue

It feels like that particular shade might have been born in the nurseries of the immediate post-war era.  Blue slows the metabolism, calms the nerves…  Like invalid cookery and Boots The Chemist, it provided a hygienic, protective wrap for atomic babies, consolation in an uncertain age.

 

I half-remember a flashback scene in an early Absolutely Fabulous where cot-bound baby Edina is comforted by a gently cooing mummy June Whitfield.  We see the new antispectic white-tiled world from Edina’s viewpoint but I’m sure there is also baby blue, perhaps in mother’s dress or a nurse’s tunic, for more than anything, this is the colour of the NHS, the diluted authority of a navy police force rendered oh-so comforting.

“I dare you!”

That melamine cup conjures one particular incident:  it’s summer 1969 and next door’s neighbour – a towering giant of an eight year-old – persuaded this five year old, for a dare, to pass through a low, concrete pipe carrying a shallow stream under a main road at the back of our house.   He would meet me the other side.

I don’t recall much of the darkened journey or the trepidation which accompanied it.  I do recall being found out by my mother and sent to bed at 5pm without any tea.  I lay accompanied by my constant bedtime companion, a giant panda called Peter, and on the table beside the bed, a blue melamine cup of tap water.

The words “You could have been killed!” still stung my ears and chilled my spine but all I could actually hear was the loud tick-tock of a (melamine) alarm clock, the swish of an occasional car and the distant chatter of my friends playing on the road.

Light filtered through daytime curtains in the way which only summer light can – unnatural, disturbing, the light of deprivation.  Normally a succour to nightmares, the water in the cup had become prison ration austerity, the ultimate in neutrality and antiseptic punishment.

Yet somehow through this, the soft-hard blue melamine maintained its unbreakable comfort as if it had been chosen to prevent a prisoner from coming to harm.  It was like my mother’s presence in the room, still nurturing even though I had been disobedient.

So there I lay awake for countless wide-eyed hours, gazing into the blue, listening intently to the racing tick-tock of the alarm clock, until day became night and sleep finally descended.

Blue comfort

I learned my lesson and never went down the concrete pipe ever again.

That shade of infinitely mid-mid-blue continued to crop-up though less frequently as time went by.  I think particularly of an Adidas skinny-rib T-shirt in 1978.  Now, baby blue is largely confined to NHS logos and sanitary ware products or the textured panel of an Oral B toothbrush.

The memory of that particular afternoon, so confining and nerve-shattering at the time, now raises a smile.

My cup overfloweth.

Edison

By Barry Robin & Maurice Gibb
Lead Vocals: Barry & Robin
Album Odessa 1969


“Edison’s here to stay”

In 1968, the Bee Gees recorded several songs at New York’s Atlantic studios following the cancellation of a US tour.  Known then as Barbara Came to Stay, this was the last of them.

The song was to change when the brothers returned to England with Barry’s rhythm guitar mixed out and an organ added.  Most importantly, the lyrics were entirely replaced resulting in a new title, Edison.

This was no mere cosmetic change.  Barbara Came to Stay (albeit with incomplete lyrics  on the Sketches for Odessa Rhino release) gives the appearance of an unremarkable love song but Edison brings forth a novelty piece, a kind of quirky, would be barbers’ shop ode to the founder of electricity.  The change fully integrates the song into the historical romanticism of the album whilst adding a slightly tongue-in-cheek charm.

The short instrumental passage’s weirdly modulating vibes sound as if they are playing on a precariously turning wax cylinder as if to capture the sonic essence of Edison’s – and Odessa’s – archaic, pre-electric sensibility.

Bee Gees’ Home Page