Debut Albums #21 – #25

I’m writing about fifty debut albums which I like and you may like or may want to hear. They are in alphabetical order from A to Z and are in batches of five albums. These are albums twenty one to twenty five

“Begin” – The Millennium / “Present Tense” – Sagitarrius

By 1967 Gary Usher and Curt Boettcher were unhappy with their existence. Sure they were both producers in LA, creating albums by the Byrds, the Association, Peanut Butter Conspiracy, Chad and Jeremy and more. But they wanted artistic freedom. They knew which way the musical wind was blowing. Usher had worked with Brian Wilson back in the early 60s – they wrote “In my room” together – and they had both moved on a long way from surf music. In late 66 Usher recorded “My world fell down” (an already exceptional song by the Ivy League) with the cream of his LA studio buddies – Glen Campbell sang lead, Terry Melcher and Bruce Johnson are in the chorus vocal mix, the Wrecking Crew provided the backing – and presented it to his record company Columbia as a new group called Sagittarius. They loved it, issued the single and in 1967 it reached the Hot Hundred without a group to promote it. Columbia were eager for an album, so Usher started to create one, enlisting Boettcher to help.

Boettcher had his own problems. He had guided the early albums by the Association, adding musique concrete noise to their harmony pop sound before falling out with them, or being sacked. There were also issues over songwriting – Boettcher claimed to have written their hit “Along comes Mary” but was stung out of royalties by Tandyn Almer. There were scores to be settled, songs which had to be sung. Boettcher had created his own band the Ballroom who had recorded an entire LP for Warner Brothers which was never issued, and he was working towards creating a new seven piece band called the Millennium. Usher’s request came at the right time – Boettcher agreed to work on Sagittarius, the Millennium signed to Columbia too and worked on the Sagittarius LP, before moving to their own LP while utilising some of the Ballroom recordings. Everybody was happy. “Present Tense” was issued in July 1968, followed a few months later by “Begin”. Great success was expected – “Begin” was the most expensive album recorded by Columbia at the time – but both LPs sold less than 50,000 copies at the time. Usher left Columbia and recorded a second Sagittarius LP for his own label (which I wrote about last year), the Millennium split up after one more single leaving their talented members to solo careers and other groups like Crabby Appleton, and the two LPs were lost, forgotten or treasured by the few who owned them.

By the mid to late 90s there had been a resurgence in interest in so-called sunshine pop or soft pop, and Mojo magazine had featured both LPs in their “Hidden Treasures” page. Sundazed reissued “Present tense” on CD with bonus tracks, Creation’s Revola arm issued “Begin” and I bought both CDs within a few months of each other in 1998 – “Present Tense” from a record fair in Newport around March and “Begin” on a trip to London with my fiance towards the end of the year.

“Present Tense” is the lighter of the two albums, there’s more emphasis on orchestration, harps and harpsichords and less emphasis on guitars, but there’s a lot to enjoy on the album. Side one can slide past in a dreamy mid-tempo haze of pizzacato strings, phased organs and lush harmonies – I always thought the rising and falling string figure on “Song to the magic frog” was an homage to “The dangling conversation” but I could be wrong. These are many Boettcher’s songs and his sweet breathy singing style suits the material. “Glass” comes a shock then – a mass of effects, Indian instruments, submerged vocals. Quite psychedelic then. “Would you like to go?” is apparently about the Monterey Pop festival, but taking the piss – “Where prophets play electric guitars” indeed. Side two is more varied – “My world fell down” is remixed into stereo and loses its sound effects (a request from Clive Davis, it seems) while second single “Hotel Indiscreet” (co-written by James Griffin before he joined Bread) lost its section of Firesign Theatre noises. “I’m not living here” is Boettcher settling scores, as is “Musty dusty” – a mellotron heavy remembrance of childhood, apparently co-written with Albyn but mysteriously not credited to him. Finally Usher takes control of his project, writing and singing the closer “The truth is not real”. This is perfect psychedelia, swirling organs, heavy bass and drums, lots of phasing and effects while Usher whispers of “rejecting truth because you’re out of phase”. A great closer.

If “Present tense” is sunshine-orch-pop then “Begin” is sunshine-power-pop. Not surprising considering the Millennium contained five singer songwriter guitarists. Boettcher was one of the first people in America experimenting with 16 track recording on this album, running two 8 track tape recordings side by side and it sounds like every one of those 16 tracks was filled with sound, sometimes it works and sometimes it can be overwhelming. Side one opens with an instrumental “Prelude” where a sweet harpsichord figure is smashed to smithereens by a hugely compressed drum beat – inventing Big Beat in a flash – then segueing into “To Claudia on Thursday”, an evocation of a lazy summer’s day. Side one is consistent even if the sound quality is lacking sometimes – all those overdubs – and has some delightful late 60s pop songs on it. Side two however is far superior. “It’s you” is powerful guitar pop, a protest against authority and the older generation disguised as a love song. “Some sunny day” adds some pedal steel to the mix, while “It won’t always be the same” promises secrets being revealed. “The know it all” is an uptempo pounder with distorted guitars and Hugh Masakela’s frenzied trumpet blast, with lyrics about past lives. Are they trying to make a point? “Karmic Dream Sequence #1” is a huge song with a strange edgy yet serene atmosphere (which would be replicated on “Where the geese go” by Verve) – backwards screams, celestes, a wash of guitars and whoever is singing sounds distinctly like Robert Plant at his most gentle. (Of course Plant was a huge fan of Californian late 60s rock). After four minutes, it all gets strange – more backwards sounds, kotos, reverb and wind noises. All topped off with a brief snatch of the “Prelude” harpsichord at the end. And it gets better again. “There is nothing left to say” brings all the semi-religious aspects of the music into focus – “the time is gonna come when we’re gonna lead the way, you’ll be shown the way and shown the time, we’ll only need to go…” – while the music is a rich mix of Leslie-toned guitars, pianos and aeriated backing vocals. Quite stunning. “Anthem” is a bit of a laugh to close the album, tribal drumming, wild phasing, silly “CTA 102” voices and a chant of “Columbia Columbia… C…B…S” just to annoy the label.

Both LPs are wonderful, similar but different. Neither were praised at the time but are now regarded rightly as classics.

“No less the trees than the stars” – Purple Ivy Shadows

Back in the day I collected record labels. Sometimes I even wrote to them and ordered records directly from them. Sometimes their mail order was so crap that I never received anything in return (I’m looking at you Fluff Record of Loughborough, I presume that Hula Hoop LP got lost in the post then). In the early and mid 90s there were numerous indie labels I’d know and look out for – Sugarfrost, Heaven Records (run by the Fat Tulips), A Turntable Friend, the aforementioned Fluff (who issued Boyracer’s debut single alongside early records by Hood), Bus Stop Records from America, Summershine Records from Australia and Watercolour Records which were based in Ironbridge in the industrial Midlands. It was the latter which was most interesting as they didn’t have one set style of music, they were quite eclectic within the genre. Their main band was The Field Trip who were are strange mix of mod and space rock (pretty sure Sonic Boom produced some of their singles), but they issued some wonderful little seven inchers – the Lean-To’s “Soapscum” EP, an odd fanzine and flexi package by the Snowbirds, the Sweetest Ache’s Honeybus cover…

Some of these songs were compiled onto a CD called “Self Portrait” which would be Watercolour’s final release at the end of 1993 alongside a few new songs. There were two songs on the CD I hadn’t heard from a Watercolour single I didn’t buy until early 94, both by the American band Purple Ivy Shadows. “Cathedral Forests” and “At Eleven” both start quietly then gradually increasing in complexity with lots of delayed guitars coming to a crescendo around the five minute mark. This type of indie shoegazing was very much in fashion – a similar style was used by The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, and there were two wonderful singles by Fur on Che Records in this vein. But Fur disappeared as did EOST and I presumed Purple Ivy Shadows had as well. I was very surprised when I saw an advert in ’97 for a PIS LP issued on Slow River Records in the UK. I hunted it down and bought it alongside its sister EP “Under and OK” in a Manchester Music and Video Exchange shop later that year.

I was probably expecting more of the same – echoes, delays, oceans of reverb. I didn’t get it. Instead I was given crystal clear acoustic guitar strums, some nicely overdriven electric guitars, songs which took diversions when I least expected them, odd time changes and lyrics I would still be puzzling over for years to come. Did I care? Absolutely not. I adored it. “Pawtucket” is a fine opener and there’s some odd lyrical ideas – “What are you doing with the sun?” – and some interesting stop-start twists. “Feeble” tumbles around in 6/8 time, while “Rebuilding the ancestral statue” is an odd motorik jam – typewriters, clanging percussion, atonal horns, lots of guitars and strange words – “Plans are not politicals…” Then a strangled cry of “UUUU-niversal”. Very odd. The songs continue in this vein – falling off sideways when you least expect them, peculiar lyrical conceits – “You are a blue mountain” – references to books or films. “Roadwise blood” is the culmination of this, strange time signatures, guitars tumbling over themselves, three overlapping vocals not aiding understanding, leading to a raucous clangour of a chorus. End of side one.

I’d like to say side two is easier to understand but it isn’t. “Sustance” is a more straightforward opener which is almost logical, possibly about self-destruction – “You can be a good athlete and hurt yourself, you can be a good soldier and shoot yourself in the foot”. “She wouldn’t have it” is short but unsettling, especially when huge waves of distorted guitars and drums take over the song at the end. “Stairs” is so similar in tempo, rhythm pattern and key to “Carly Simon” by Insides that I often mix them up in my mind, I really should do a mash up of the two songs. (“No, please don’t!” I hear you cry). “Dancefloor shiny under junky” is another two chord jam and yes that is a very odd title. Then it all goes really good. “No health” has more chiming guitars and stop start rhythms but a sudden melodic sense only hinted at before, then rises to a chorus of “The second I feel great comes a week when I have no health anymore” – then some lovely George Harrison-esque guitar peals to close the song. Finally “A space is needed” returns to their shoegazing past, in a way. A simple three chord guitar riff is strummed through echo and reverb, organ and bass is added, tentatively, drums are hit occasionally, the whole band seem to be warming up, working around the riff, this goes on for ninety seconds, bursts of feedback, slide guitars… Then a drummer kicks in with a offbeat waltz, the whole band drop in and link together, the song moves upwards for about thirty seconds before falling apart again, everyone dropping out and returning to that one guitar riff and droning organ echoing into space.

I loved the album and played it to other people but nobody really liked it. Were the structures too odd? Wasn’t it melodic enough? Maybe it’s one of those records that gets made and then disappears. Purple Ivy Shadows made a few more LPs but none were issued in the UK, it became harder to find them as time passed but luckily they are all available on Bandcamp if you feel the need to investigate. Give them a listen, I’d love to think I’m not the only person out there who loves them.

“Radar Bros” – Radar Bros

This LP was mentioned amongst Melody Maker’s Top 50 LPs of 1996 which was odd because I’d not really noticed them writing about it. But there it was, looking strange in the list. When I saw it reduced in Diverse a few months later I bought it, played it once or twice at bed time – always the best time to absorb new music – and fell asleep to it. I kept trying to listen to it, I kept falling asleep. Over and over again. What was peculiar was that I would wake up to hear the closing track, think “That was good” then switch off the CD player and fall into a really deep sleep.

I knew I had to hear the album properly so put it onto tape and took it on my bus journeys. It didn’t do very well as the soundtrack for the journey to work, and whenever I played it on the journey home I would still fall asleep, often leading to me falling forward and banging my head on the seat in front of me (I’m not making this up, you know). Eventually I found it was the perfect soundtrack to the late night bus journeys from my girlfriend’s house back to mine. I managed to stay awake for the whole album and it finally made sense to me.

You see “Radar Bros” is slow-core. I’d not really come across the term or any of the music before. Reading the page on “slowcore” on Wiki “the music of slowcore artists is generally characterized by bleak lyrics, downbeat melodies, slower tempos and minimalist arrangements”. So far so good. But the Wiki page also mentions that nobody liked the term and nobody used the term which is odd. Antecedants – Galaxie 500 and American Music Club. Pioneers – Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon. Wiped out by the end of grunge. So Radar Bros didn’t really fit into a genre which didn’t really exist by the time they started. Hmm. Radar Bros are what Jim Putnam did next after leaving Medicine, if you ignore Maids Of Gravity (I know, it’s gonna be hard to ignore them but you’ll try, won’t you?) They were a trio of guitar, bass and drums and played slowly and quietly, with occasional keyboards and lots of space around the music. It could be said that there was nothing new in their sound – trios had been playing slow and spacey since Free – but Radar Bros established their style and they stuck to it.

So how does the debut album sound? Slow, quiet, miserable. The songs merge into each other on initial listens, only becoming distinct entities after about ten or more plays. The lyrics are generally downbeat and pessimistic when they are not riddles. Admittedly the first few tracks really do drag a lot and I’m not surprised I fell asleep by the fifth song. “Supermarket pharmacy” really is as soporific as any product from that pharmacy. Too many songs open with a roll on the tom toms, or a slow guitar chord.

God this record is depressing.

Thankfully it improves. “We’re over here” is positively spritely compared to what has come before it, and the song is actually really good, an interesting riff, lots of guitar interplay, they actually sound awake, but I still have no idea what the words mean. “Too wasted for community”? But it doesn’t drag and the added radio noises keep my interest. “Hey that can’t be all of me?” – if you say so. “Distant mine” builds up nicely to a loud conclusion. “This drive” seems to be about failing mid 90s technology – “Too much time behind the monitor today – my disc drive is dead” – and has quite sweet harmonies, and could pass for a sleepy Crazy Horse if you squint hard enough. And finally the closer is worth slogging through the rest of the album for. “Goddess” is five minutes of total wonder – a riff so easy you wonder why nobody else thought of it, a melody actually worth singing, a performance on the edge of drowsy and some lovely guitar solos. Not just a solo though – Jim sings it too. “Da dum…da da dum…” while he plays it, like Neil Young crossed with George Benson. Absolutely wonderful.

I’ve probably not inspired anyone to listen to this LP. It is hard work – very hard work to be honest – but it is worthwhile to get to “Goddess”. Or just find that song on the internet somewhere and listen to it instead.

“The Bridge” – Robert Rental and Thomas Leer

In 1984 I heard a strange single on the radio, it picked up a decent amount of airplay on the local radio station to ingrain itself into my mind. The song was “International” by Thomas Leer. It was an unusual sound – all synthesised but with a swing and an almost oriental bent melodically, and the lyrics sounded straightforward but had hidden depths – something about poppies being harvested? – all sung in a lovely Scottish burr of a voice. I bought it and loved it. A month or so later my favourite magazine Electronics And Music Maker had an interview with Leer (it also had an article on Cocteau Twins I think) where he talked about his career from his debut single “Private Plane” in 1978 through to his Cherry Red singles and album up to his major label debut LP “Scale of ten”. He also demonstrated his abilities on the Fairlight CMI which he kept in his flat.

A few months later I saw an album called “Business Unusual”, a compilation of singles issued by independent labels during 1978 to 1979, compiled and issued by Cherry Red Records. It had “Private Plane” on it, and “Paralysis” by Robert Rental which looked interesting. I wanted that LP, and eventually found a copy during the summer of ’86. “China’s Eternal” by the Tights turned out to be a lost classic of arty post punk. In the meantime I picked up “Paralysis” by Robert Rental from a record fair in Beaconsfield (don’t ask) and loved it, then at the start of ’86 I found “The Bridge”, the only album combining the talents of Leer and Rental together.

“The Bridge” is an album of two halves. Side one is pop songs, side two is more expansive. The album was recorded quickly “at home” during two weeks in the summer of ’79 on an eight track recorder with a hired mixing desk which had previously been used by Paul McCartney (according to the E&MM interview it was full of moss from his Scottish hideaway – making me wonder if it was involved in the creation of “McCartney II”. Hmm). Side one kicks off with “Attack Decay” – frantic primitive synth sequences, white noise bursts, barely audible vocals from both Leer and Rental Melodic but intense. “Monochrome Days” is a distant cousin to Rental’s “ACC” (b-side of “Paralysis”), halting guitar riffs over synthetic percussion and bass blasts. But it sounds like a pop song. “Day breaks night heals” is more synthetic, pulsing and beating against each other. Again it sounds like pop music. “Connotations” is moodier, and brings to mind the kind of music the Radiophonic Workshop would create for “The boy from space” or other “Words and pictures” type programmes for schools and colleges. “Fade away” is six minutes of synth blurts, noise and random shouting – “This video is broken!”.

Side two is something else. The majority of the music was built up in loops using the methodology shown on the reverse of Eno’s “Discreet Music” – a tape loop delay system. Or Frippertronics perhaps. The music is more ambient and experimental then. “Interferon” is the most obviously looped piece, building in intensity from an industrial start to something quite beautiful and startling. “Six AM” is aptly named, capturing that pre-dawn mood well – flickering street lamps, a sense of dread or paranoia. “The hard way in is the easy way out” features the voices of John Lydon and Joan Collins when they appeared together on a revival of “Juke Box Jury” (and yes I just had a look at it on Youtube) and is a bit unsettling while “Perpetual” is strange, synths bubbling, vocal tones stretched out, very haunting indeed.

What is odd is that the album sounds like a future that never quite happened. There’s a feeling in the music, within the timbres of the synths, a general greyness of tone, a lack of polish, a lack of high-end EQ even… It suited the time, it feels like 1979 to me. It sounded like ancient history amid the shiny digital mid 80s synth pop that was dominating the radio at the time. It is a beautiful time capsule of how futuristic synth pop could be made in a flat in London, and it is a great shame that neither Leer or Rental had much success – indeed Rental made one more single on Mute before disappearing. At least Leer had a career through his solo records and his collaboration with Claudia Brucken in Act and is still making music now. But “The Bridge” is a wonderful record, well worth your time.

Next time – Noise, heartbreak, skewed mid 80s pop and more of the same

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