With the typical arrogance of youth I thought I knew it all, and I thought I knew better than anyone else. Reading back the diary of my first year in further education in Sheffield, I come across as a total music snob, looking disdainfully at anyone whose taste differed from mine. The grebos listening to Gaye Bikers On Acid? The metal heads buying tickets for Magnum at the City Hall? What did they know? My worst was saved for the indie kids, I really didn’t have a kind word for the C86 generation of bands – “I-wanna-be-a-Buzzcock” music I called it. Jingly jangly nonsense. I was above all that, I thought. So superior. Then, I returned to Penarth for a ‘reading week’ and…
(A quote from the diary now)
Tuesday 23rd February 1988
I go to Cardiff. Bought..
“Gale Force Wind” – Microdisney cassingle £1.99
“Dreaming” – OMD CD £3.99
“Illusions from the crackling void” compilation LP. £2.99. It’s brilliant. I love it
And with those five words, a small obsession started. I thought I knew about psychedelia – I knew Love and the Move and Pink Floyd and the Byrds. That was psychedelic music. I didn’t want to explore into Jefferson Airplane or Grateful Dead – that was hippie music. I liked my psych to be slightly warped, far out – not politically charged or boogie-ing into the cosmos. But “Illusions from the crackling void” opened up a door into another world. “Illusions…” was a 16 song sampler LP issued by the Bam Caruso label, based in St Albans and run by Phil Smee and Richard Norris. Bam Caruso specialised in digging up rarities from the 60s for reissue, and a few contemporary bands with a similar mindset. This was my first introduction to the scene and I was amazed. Sixteen songs and almost every one brilliant, and all a gateway to something new – for me anyway. A glance at the track listing in retrospect shows how ‘on the mark’ Bam Caruso was. During the mid to late 80s these songs and artists weren’t known at all, now three decades later bands like The Poets, Kaleidoscope and Timebox have been anthologized and reassessed. What was once forgotten has been remembered and revered.
But as I said for me this was an album of revelations. Side one had the louder brasher sound of freakbeat. The dark threat of “That’s the way it’s gotta be” by the Poets, the powerful “When the night falls” by The Eyes and “Come see me” by The Pretty Things, alongside the grandiose Nirvana and frankly twee Koobas. Side two was more psychedelic, kicking off with the superb trio of “A dream for Julie” by Kaleidoscope followed by “Guess I was dreaming” by The Fairytale and “Gone is the sad man” by Timebox, a Beatle-esque groover with lush harmonies, a harsh guitar solo and vibraphones. Yes even vibes could be psychedelic. Then the Americans came in, “Tinsel and ivy” by Montage was beautiful, as soft as lace and just as fragile. “Road to nowhere” by Hearts and Flowers was the best country rock I’d heard thus far in my life, “Marionette” by SRC was moody and constantly shifting while the closer “Pretty ballerina” by the Left Banke was the icing on the cake, just too gorgeous for words, such wistful melancholy.
I played little else for the next few weeks, the songs becoming engrained in my mind in that particular order, so much so that whenever I hear “Guess I was dreaming” I always expect “Gone is the sad man” next. But the album had whetted my appetite, I wanted more like this and luckily Bam Caruso had included a handy back catalogue insert which gave me clues of where to look next. A few weeks later I was back in Penarth for Easter and bought more BC albums – firstly “Nightmare in Wonderland”, volume three of the Rubbles series, and “And suddenly it’s…” by The Left Banke.
If I had been impressed by “Illusions…” I was stunned by “And suddenly it’s…” For a start, the sleeve was great. The sleeve notes were comprehensive, funny and wise, there was a full discography with digs at other record companies who had reissued music BC had dug up, and the sleeve was gorgeous. Somehow the sleeve made the band look totally contemporary – this was a trick BC would continue to do with their sleeves, making the 60s acts look cooler and showing the C86 generation how to do bowlcuts (is that Ok, Andy? ??) Look at the picture on the front of “And suddenly it’s…”, namely the band member second from the right… Does that look seem familiar? Floppy fringe? Big lips? Hell, it’s Mark Gardener from Ride! The original sleeve of Montage’s LP (a post Left Banke project by Michael Brown) is a horrible modernist mess. The Bam Caruso sleeve makes the band look like they are third on a Creation night bill behind The Weather Prophets and Biff Bang Pow!
And then there was the music of the Left Banke too. I only knew “Walk away Renee” from the Four Tops hit version, and “Pretty ballerina” from the “Illusions…” LP. Now here was mid to late sixties music aiming for baroque and hitting the target spot on. The album was beautifully sequenced, mixing material from all their career to make a more listenable whole, placing the slower more melancholy songs towards the end. There were harpsichords, block harmonies, string quartets, nothing too dramatic and overblown, this was subtle music. It drew on the innovations of the Beach Boys and Beatles and pushed forward on its own path. The quality of the songwriting was very high too, and the lyrics frequently dealt with melancholy – loneliness, loss of love, heartbreak, and where are all my friends today? Highlights were plentiful. The breezy pop of “Goodbye Holly”, “Let go of you girl” and “She may call you up tonight”, the single “Desiree” – as grand as any Spector production – and the sighing “Shadows breaking over my head”, whose middle eight was stunning, block harmonies around a vocal and chord sequence of such complexity, ending with a heartfelt “It’s through for her and me”, that last word held high like a last gasp of hope. The last few songs on side two were highlights – as long as you ignored the useless jam of “Foggy waterfall” which concluded the LP. “Barterers and their wives” was ridiculously catchy with only light drums and harpsichord and a lyric which sustains itself through a ton of internal rhymes. “Wifely cooking will keep them looking their best, as they smiling set out beguiling with jest”. Who else was writing lyrics like that in 1966? “Pedestal” was from their final single and is an aching ballad, a love hymn, which slowly builds through bridges and choruses to reach a communal sing-along in the style of “Hey Jude”. I always loved this song, it sounds like such a grand late sixties gesture and I still spot echoes of early Bowie in the bridges. Probably nobody else can.
So that was the Left Banke. Vol 3 of Rubbles had it’s fair share of wonders too. The over the top kitchen sink production on Mark Wirtz’s “He’s our dear old weatherman”, the multi-part heroic cry of “Revolution” by Tomorrow, the crunching guitars of “Model Village” by The Penny Peeps and the two Pretty Things songs “Mr Evasion” and “Talking about the good LP times”. Over Easter I played these records constantly and my brother became interested too.
What was odd about this period is that my brother and I were probably at our closest during our respective first years in further education – Andy in Hull Uni and me in Sheffield Poly. Maybe the distance made a difference, we weren’t always around annoying each other. Our musical tastes were converging too, certainly around psychedelia. Buying “The Byrds Collection” in Hull in January 88 had launched a joint obsession for both of us, exploring their output as much as we could – I bought Edsel’s reissue of “Younger than yesterday” and an original American LP of “Turn turn turn!” And he went in the other direction, from “Sweetheart of the rodeo” onwards. But we were listening to the same things, he taped my Love and Teardrop Explodes albums and started to buy some Bam Caruso LPs too, some Rubbles LPs and related things – BC’s “Strange Things Are Happening” magazine, “Out There” by Love, the Dukes of Stratosfear LP from the previous year… He’d send me compilation tapes of these things, alongside a tape of Frank Hennessy singing songs about Cardiff just to make me homesick. He visited Sheffield and stayed overnight in my student house, and I took him to FON Records and he bought tons of BC records, including “Evil Hoodoo” by The Seeds and about four Rubbles LPs. FON was an amazing shop, though my memories of it are vague. No matter how cool you were, the staff were cooler but willing to help you find something. They sold all kinds of weird stuff, records i wouldn’t recognise until years later were on display (I swear they had a display of early Sarah Records singles on their wall, even in 1988 when these records were brand new). But they also would order in anything you wanted and were the best independent record shop in the city. FON was great.
Another great shop which helped my burgeoning collection of psych at this time was Piccadilly Records in Manchester. In early May I went over there to get a ticket for my brother to see the Kinks and returned with a cassette of the See For Miles “Great British Psychedelic Trip” compilation, playing it back on my walkman on the long train journey home – made longer by catching the wrong train and ending up somewhere in Derbyshire. That compilation also made an impression on me, I ended up writing a track by track review in my diary – an honour reserved only for Durutti Column and Wire records. There were a few stinkers on there but they were far outweighed by the sheer brilliance of the majority of the songs. “Tales of Flossie Fillet” by Turquoise was “Autumn Almanac” with a spring in its step, and a role call of friend at the end (from members of the Kinks to Tom Keylock). “Shades of orange” by The End had frequently turned up on Stones bootlegs as a “Brian Jones single” and you could understand why, the hushed atmosphere and insistent tabla (from Charlie Watts) was pure Satanic Majesties. Even when the music wasn’t quite pure psych (if there is such a thing) it was still cute, toytown pop like “The muffin man” by World of Oz or “Baked jam roll in your eye” by Timebox. And when it was good, my God it was FANTASTIC.
Spring turned to summer and more records were bought. Bam Caruso issued another sampler called “It’s just a passing phase” which had more fabulous goodies on it – the Joe Meek produced noise overload of “I take it we’re through” by the Riot Squad, the freakbeat of “Its just a fear” by The Answers, the frantic desperation to communicate of “Anymore than I do” by The Attack… Between us, my brother and i bought more LPs too, “Dandelion seeds” by.July, the reissue of the Open Mind LP, “The magic rocking horse” (the latest Rubbles LP), more “British Psychedelic Trip” compilations, a double set of Blossom Toes albums, Kaleidoscope’s debut “Tangerine Dream”. “Deram Dayze” is worth a mention, not just for being 99p in HMV that August but also for introducing me to “Mythological Sunday” by Friends and “Some good advice” by Bill Fay (thanks to Marcello for mentioning the latter song the other day and reminding me that I’ve known it for years). These records all soundtracked that summer, played over and over again. The music world was producing great records in 1988, I read about them in the music papers, noise and oceanic rock, the birth of acid house and dance culture, how the House Of Love were the best thing since sliced bread – but I was listening to “House of love” by The Flies (on “The electric crayon set”, Rubbles vol 5).
There was a search for information as well. Who were these bands and how had they slipped through the net? Record Collector had written an article about the Rubbles series, again quite opinionated – they didn’t like Rubbles 4 but they were wrong! Paging through my back issues of Melody Maker, Simon Reynolds had written an article in 1987 about freakbeat and psychedelia with particular reference to Bam Caruso (pretty sure it included an interview with Richard Norris) while making connections to modern bands. But the best source of information was Bam Caruso themselves. Their sleeve notes were always informative, if aw slightly biased, with mini discographies and pictures of the bands. The Strange Things magazine continued the aesthetic – deeper articles about bands like Autosalvage, the Stooges and the Kinks (their double cd of singles and EPs on PRT was another essential listen at this time), plus like minded modern bands like Wire and the Dukes of Stratosfear. Plus authors old and new (it was Strange Things who introduced me to Barry Yourgrau’s incredible short stories).
So that was my summer of love. Not a tripped out day dream, but those months from Spring to Summer listening to this music felt like a magical time. Nobody else seemed to know or care about this music which made it feel more exclusive. It also made more sense a year later when I heard My Bloody Valentine (note how Simon Reynolds mentions the “Anglo freakbeat dementia” of The Eyes, The Creation and John’s Children in the section of “Blissed out” about MBV), and it gave me more context (and more ballast to throw at people) for the Stone Roses around the same time. My love of this music still flourishes, I’m always looking out for new releases of old psych, I’ve probably bought “10,000 words in a cardboard box” by The Aquarian Age five times on various compilations, and there’s always plenty more British psych, freakbeat and toytown pop to discover. To close this piece, I’ll draw up a dream Rubbles collection based on my favourite sixteen songs I heard at this time.
So turn off your mind, relax and float downstream and listen to “Darkness On The Edge Of Toytown”, a sixteen song fake Rubbles album of my favourite songs that I discovered during this time period.
“Magic Potion” – The Open Mind (available on “The Psychedelic Snarl”, Rubbles vol 1)
Kicking off with a distorted riff not unlike a Stooges or MC5 song, this song is noticeably later than most Bam Caruso songs – I think it was from 1969, certainly the fact that it is in stereo helps. But there’s still something primal here, the desire for something new, whether it be the potion opening eyes and blowing minds. And once the wah-wah starts around the two minute mark, it strikes me that this sounds like a more energetic Loop. A damn fine start, motoring along with great speed and lots of long sustained feedbacking guitar.
“Sueno” – The Truth (available on “The Magic Rocking Horse”, Rubbles vol 14)
Originally a song by the Young Rascals, and quite a basic laid back sound on that version – thanks Spotify – this bunch of Brits make the song rumble and tumble in a headless rush, there’s crazy piano in the background (sounding like Nicky Hopkins), a pummelling bridge of thunderous drums and bass, handclaps, high harmonies, and a lyric again about escape and living in dreams. As the thunder rises at the end a wailing guitar adds to the madness, bending and screaming before the whole song falls into a cavern of reverb. Wonderful stuff. “Nothing has ever mattered quite as much as it does now” – what a great sentiment to being here now.
“Woodstock” – Turquoise (available on “Adventures in the mist”, Rubbles vol 11)
Turquoise were a fabulous band who should have been huge. In their lifetime they only issued two singles but all four songs are tremendous. “Tales of Flossie Fillet” I’ve already mentioned, “53 Summer Street” is a bizarre ode to a place of escape which no longer exists (shades of “Itchycoo Park”), “Saynia” was a heartstopping ballad of lost love (“I will never have somebody else if I can’t have you”) but best of all was their second a-side “Woodstock”. Absolutely nothing to do with the festival in America or the residence of Dylan and the Band, this is a joyous romp about the town in Oxford, leaving real life behind, another return to innocence – “Would you like to go back to the things we used to say? Try to live the kind of life we lived in yesterday?” And there’s a hilarious bridge full of pumping Hammond organ and a Dylan-esque vocal, and it is so completely crammed full of melody and incident along the way it could almost explode at any point. They make Woodstock sound like the best place to be, and for heaven’s sake why wasn’t this a hit???
“Defecting Grey” – The Pretty Things (available on “Pop Sike Pipe Dreams”, Rubble vol 2)
I’ve mentioned the Pretty Things before on Goldfish, and have mentioned this particular song in passing a few times. Once the Pretty Things had moved to EMI in 1967, they dropped all pretence at being baroque or their original primal R&B and moved with the times. Their early EMI singles – “Defecting grey” b/w “Mr Evasion” and “Talking about the good times” b/w “Walking through my dreams” are all perfect in every way, but I’ve never managed to understand the love for “SF Sorrow”. Maybe I still need time with it. I bought a Pretty Things compilation tape in April 88 – “Cries from the midnight circus” I think it was – made up of their late sixties early seventies EMI material and was never that impressed, except with the utterly uncharacteristic “October 26” single which I think is beautiful, full of ennui and should be heard by as many people as possible. But “Defecting Grey” is far above that… I’d bought this Pretty Things “Singles As and Bs” compilation from the second hand record shop in Broadway in Cardiff around the same time and my brother and I were having a first listen to it while washing up. And we eventually had to stop washing up because neither of us could get over “Defecting Grey”, how it kept chopping and changing, moving from gentle waltz to brutal rock to bar-room rowdies to beat-group pop music and back again, even throwing in a two second brutal rock section for no apparent reason towards the end. We went back and played it over and over – how could one song contain so much information? And I still feel that way now. I also have a video made in my mind for this song, but hey doesn’t everyone do that? You don’t?
(PS yes I know there’s a longer acetate version of this song, but to me this single version is just right thank you very much)
“Magic Rocking Horse” by Pinkerton’s Colours (available on “The Magic Rocking Horse”, Rubbles Vol 14)
Another return to innocence and childhood, another song full of melody. There’s chiming twelve strings, autoharps playing, lots of harmonies… sometimes I feel like I’ll break the spell of this song by trying to write about it. A wonderful encapsulation of childhood – “Goes to show that life is always moving much too fast, when a simple tree becomes a warships mast, and the good times they just never seem to stay, but I know that I’ve had plenty in my day”. Oh yes indeed.
“Vacuum cleaner” by Tintern Abbey (available on “Staircase to nowhere”, Rubbles vol 12)
First heard by me on that lost train journey on the way back from Manchester via the middle of nowhere with “The great British Psychedelic Trip” tape. I was pretty stunned at the time. There’s such an atmosphere on this song, the way almost everything is washed in reverb and echo, the faint harmonies, the guitar solo bursting through the middle of the song drenched in feedback and sustain, the bizarre lyrics about housework… For a long time this band were totally mysterious, then reading in books about the time by Jonathan Green there were mentions of them as friends of Jonathan Meades! Which makes them even more mysterious somehow.
“Secret” by Virgin Sleep (available on “Staircase to nowhere”, Rubbles vol 12)
Also on that “Great British Psychedelic Trip” was Virgin Sleep’s first single “Love”, which is as wimpy as prime Donovan – let me have a listen again a second. Twinkling bells, sitar, sighing vocals, a swooning Eastern atmosphere. Hmm. So the brutal thump of “Secret” was quite a shock. A musical battle, an ascending guitar figure against a descending chord sequence, and some very odd lyrics about animals knowing about this secret which is never revealed, yet the singer knows what’s going on. And for God’s sake, this is a cracking tune. Nothing is revealed, the drums roll harder and harder, and the guitars crackle to life at the end, and oh boy I love this song so much. I have been known to scare the staff at my local McDonalds drive through by singing this at top volume, with additional finger pointing for all the “..But I DO!” parts. Virgin Sleep disappeared after this. Shame. They couldn’t have been bigger than the Beatles…
“Father’s name was Dad” – The Fire (available on “The Electric Crayon Set”, Rubbles Vol 5)
Crunching power pop in excelsis. What a riff! There’s a story about Paul McCartney hearing this song on the radio, demanding to remix it and make it better and I never believed it until I bought the “Nuggets II” boxed set and found an alternate mix on there which was slightly different – less harmonies, no doubled tracked vocals. Now I wonder whether the version I’ve known and loved all these years is the first or the second version. More innocence again. Do you spot a theme within British psychedelia? A return to childhood, to a younger life, a freedom which adults never have. “See the hollows of my eyes, make my career of empty skies – I laugh at it all”.
“Iceman” – Ice (available on “Adventures in the mist”, Rubbles vol 11)
Ice were another band who recorded two singles and four perfect songs. Very much in the manner of Procol Harum, the minor key Hammond organ work was all over their music – debut single “Anniversairy of love” was a little too close to Procol to be successful, though the b-side “So many times” (which was issued on “GBPT” by mistake instead of “Anniversairy…”) was better. “Iceman” is even better, that lovely descending opening guitar line, an allegorical lyric – I think, I’m not good at these things… Oh whatever, it’s just beautiful.
“The fox has gone to ground” – The Bamboo Shoot (available on “Nightmares in Wonderland”, Rubbles vol 3)
It all starts so normally, crunching guitar riffs, lumbering bass, a desperate voice at the edge, and a lyric of odd visions – “Airport quite deserted, wolves run through the distant woodland…” And then it stops and turns into a strange chant – “Do not accept life as it was or is or ever shall be”… Gongs crash… What the bloody hell is going on? Then back to the crunching riffs and empty bottles in bedsitters. Such a strange atmosphere on this song, not quite apocalyptic but on the edge of some unknown trouble… there must have been something in the water.
“Cheadle Heath Delusions” – The Felius Andromeda (Available on “Adventures in the mist”, Rubbles vol 11)
Talking of which… More strange atmospheres here, a curious string arrangement, a darkness in a minor key and more visions of wrongness – “Please tell me what is going on, everything is going wrong”. A seriously bad trip here – “Public houses with no beer? Is that peoples’ minds that I hear?” The song’s a-side “Meditations” isn’t a lot happier but this is just on a precipice of fear and loathing. (I believe my brother lives near Cheadle Heath now. I hope the public houses have got beer now)
“I am so blue” – The Poets (available on “The clouds have groovy faces”, Rubbles vol 6)
The Poets were the best band to come out of Scotland during the sixties, loved by Andrew Loog Oldham and allowed to make numerous singles over the years. Quite why they never achieved any success is bewildering. They could move from crunching (“That’s the way it’s got to be” and “Wooden Spoon”) to mellow (“I love her still” and “I’ll cry with the moon”) so easily. “I am so blue” is all late night melancholy, gentle sadness and regret, the band barely making much music – echoing woodblocks, chiming twelve strings, a halting arrangement. It sounds so perfect.
“Beeside” by Tintern Abbey (available on “Staircase to nowhere”, Rubbles vol 12)
What a jape, to call the a-side of a single “Beeside”. That should confuse people. Or alternatively make the most perfect British pop psych single of all time (in my humble opinion) then disappear. My review of this song in my diary at the time is full of superlatives – “Easily an entry into my Top 30 songs of all time” – and years later I still feel the same way. A piano fades in and then WOOOSH everything goes hazy, drums rolls, cymbals wash in reverb, guitars are woozy, the singer plays with the echo on his voice while singing a hymn to nature and bees while mellotrons hum and guitars are effected. Flowers, guitars, echo and reverb… then a gentle bridge with backwards reverb on the vocals (was anyone else doing this at the time?) before it all crashes back in again. A totally stunning song, then and now. A few years ago I realised the whole arrangement is copped from “Morning Dew” but even that doesn’t spoil my enjoyment of the song. Perfect in every way.
“Crying is for writers” by July (from “Dandelion Seeds” aka “July”)
My brother and I fought over July in Spillers Records, who would buy it? He ended up with it and I went off and bought “Forever breathes the lonely word” by Felt instead and who’s to say who won that particular battle. The next day he wasn’t sure about half of the album – there were twee moments on “Jolly Mary” and “Move on sweet flower” – but that didn’t stop me loving every moment of it, as long as I ignored “Hello, who’s there?” Now rightly regarded as a classic album, this was totally ignored at the time and the horrible sleeve didn’t help. For me, this song was a stand out, not least because the lyrics were totally spot on for me, agonising about writing and living… “Putting down his pen he turned and said ‘I want to live but I wish I was dead’” And the arrangement is crunching and rocking and wild but the despair is real as hell.
“World spinning sadly” by The Parking Lot (available on “Pop Sike Pipe Dreams”, Rubbles vol 2)
I was talking about this song a week or so ago on Twitter and called it ‘Melancholy Psych’, a genre which should exist, and decided to try and find some more – songs like “He” and “Bitter wind” by Moby Grape, a sense of sadness and dread. Then Andy Miller pointed me towards the Clientele for which I am grateful. But this song is very special… there’s a link to “Still I’m sad” era Yardbirds somewhere here, those wordless chanted vocals in the background, the air of despair, something ending, a world almost suspended in eternal dusk.. “we run through fields with our hands in the air, escaping time dancing dreams without care”. What the hell is going on? Something is seriously wrong in dreamland.
“Turquoise tandem cycle” by Jason Crest (available on “The great British Psychedelic Trip vol 3”)
And more again… More odd things happening, a house of papier mache, a ribbon hangs in the air, birth and death together… and meanwhile the music is slow and sad and the organ is going through a wah-wah pedal adding drama and something is still seriously wrong, by the second verse nothing is resolved, and the sadness prevails, the ribbon fades away, the baby is born, the old man dies and somehow the organ continues to drive away towards some kind of conclusion. What I love about so much of these songs is the atmosphere, if side one of this compilation is about a joyful escape then side two is about a fearful reality. That dichotomy sums up British psych perfectly.
This is my hundredth post on my blog which started two years ago today. I am amazed that anyone is still willing to read my ramblings (even when I’ve not written for months I was still getting twenty views a day) and will link through to me. As ever huge thanks to those who have shared my blog and posts and encouraged my writing and offered support – I am forever in your debt. I hope you enjoyed this ramble through freakbeat and maybe discover something new.
Next time – What Stephen and Stephen did next
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