Tag Archives: Sagittarius

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

November Music #6

November 2001 – “The Blue Marble” by Sagittarius / “Seventeen Stars” by Montgolfier Brothers

(This is sort of a follow up to November Music #1 which brings the series to a nice easy conclusion.)

Where did the pain start? When did the symptoms begin? Well actually I know precisely where it started. I’d just climbed into the passenger seat of our car after signing up for guitar classes at Brynglas House – it was around 6pm on 11th November 2001. As soon as I’d sat down I said to my wife “Ooh that hurts, I think I’ve trapped a nerve in my back or something”. The pain was sharp and intense and radiated upwards from the base of my spine. We got home quickly and I was in agony. The pain was incredible, like nothing I’d known before. I could not get comfortable at all, I couldn’t sit down, I tried lying down but it was too sore to keep still, so I ended up lying on the stairs trying to contort myself into a shape that would ease the pain. I took some painkillers but they didn’t even touch it.

Then I started being sick. Not just a little bit, but endless sessions of head down the toilet vomiting. I was too scared to move far from the bathroom because every ten minutes or so I’d be back there puking my guts up. Now my wife and I were a bit worried, so we called the emergency doctor who told us to come straight away. I bundled myself back into the car with a bucket on my lap in case I was sick – I’d been sick twelve times in two hours by then. At the doctor’s I was examined – as I vomited again – and was diagnosed as having kidney stones and after a quick phone call I was admitted into the Royal Gwent Hospital do-not-pass-go see-you-there.

Once there my wife settled me into my ward as I was hauled onto a bed, given some anti vomiting drugs (the nausea was an unpleasant side effect, my body’s reaction to the pain) and had a pain killing suppository shoved up my backside and told to drink as much water as I could. Then started a long dark night. There were six of us in the ward and I was without doubt the youngest – everyone else was around 60 to 70 compared to my 32. I would find out that we all had urology kind of problems and regularly heard cries from the other patients throughout the night. I barely got any sleep, the pain was still there even with the pain killers, and I hated being separated from my wife. The next morning I was groggy and tired and in pain so more pain killers were shoved up my arse and I was taken for a scan. At last the cause was found – I had a kidney stone moving through my urethra, or something like that. I’m not good on technical terms. So a slot was found for me to have lithotripsy that afternoon. In the meantime, more pain, more restlessness and no fun. Across the ward was a very old and very confused gentleman who was urinating into a jug (in the bathroom I hasten to add) for the nurses to examine. His urine jug had been ‘refreshed’ about half an hour previously but had not been examined. The gentleman moaned “Oh I feel so thirsty, I’ll have some of this water” and grabbed his urine jug and poured some into his glass, just as I screamed “NO!” and jumped across my bed to his to stop him. I quickly called a nurse and told her to keep a closer eye on him.

That afternoon I had my first sighting of the lithotripsy machine, and my first meeting with Andrew the operator. We’d all meet on a regular basis from then to the present day (next appointment is January 2014) and I think I’ve now had lithotripsy about fifteen times. It’s always a good laugh, litho. I’ll be flat on my back, pumped full of morphine to “ease the pain” and generally grinning like a loon. Andrew is great, very knowledgeable on music (and cricket amongst other subjects) and I always make an exclusive mix CD for each litho session. As I didn’t know what to expect from my first ever litho session, my first mix was calm and laid back – “Albatross”, some Cocteau Twins, Eno, Satie. I didn’t realise the litho would include the sound of a rubber band being ‘ping-ed’ into my back twice a second – so after that the mixes were more upbeat. There are rules I set myself – always an instrumental to start, then a popular song followed by a not-so-popular song alternating to the 40 minute mark at which point the main litho is done, so I’ll add three more instrumentals while Andrew and I will discuss what’s happened and further treatments, then back to alternate popular – unpopular songs. The ultimate accolade is for Andrew to say “I enjoyed that one, can I take it home?”. Anyway, I had my first spot on the litho machine that day, was all ready to start when Andrew did a scan and said “It’s in your bladder, we can’t do anything”. So I was sent back to the ward and told to drink as much water as I could to flush it out. Oh and jumping around before urinating may shake it out.

That evening my wife came to visit me with some presents – the latest issue of Mojo and my CD walkman and “the first six CDs I could find”. Amongst the CDs was “Volume Contrast Brilliance”, the Monochrome Set compilation which I’d bought cheap from Virgin and had never got around to playing in full. It was a cool little collection, some of it I knew already but some of it was new to me and the one song that leapt out was “He’s Frank (Slight Return)”. It was a frantic dash of a song, with guitar parts meshing together like cogs and strange words and a crazed angular guitar solo. And even now years later I hear that song and I’m back in that hospital bed watching the sky darken out of the window.

Eventually after two days and nights on the ward the stone – which I nick-named Keef – popped out of its own accord. It was big, black, very jagged and sharp and there was a fair amount of blood involved on its way out, and once I presented it to the nurse on duty she said “Ooh that looks nasty, did it hurt?”. Er yes. After a check up, a scan and more painkillers to tide me over I was finally discharged. And then I returned to the real world, and the unhappy world of the ONS.

In November Music #1 I talked about how I was taking anti depressants before my eye operation in 2000. By November 2001 I was still on anti depressants, having tried three different tablets, none of which had been any help. All they did was make me worse. Most of 2001 was a doped up blur. I have a few sharp memories of the year – distinct views of certain situations – but the rest of the time is a total blank in my mind. It’s a little scary for me, having such vivid memories of so much in my past and effectively losing a year and a half of memories.

But there had been two major changes in my workplace during the three months I was away before and after my first eye operation. Firstly there was a new boss to my department, a lady who had a fearsome reputation. Whereas my previous boss had tolerated my quirks and depressions, this new boss didn’t feel that way and saw me as a hindrance to the workings of the department. I just rubbed her up the wrong way – metaphorically speaking. And yes it probably didn’t help that when she came into the office one day wearing a white suit that I suggested she complete the outfit with a pith helmet, then started singing “Hunting tigers out in India”. So yes I was a little off the wall at the time and my behaviour wasn’t exactly perfect…In fact far from it. If I was told I shouldn’t do something – like go on the internet or the Discussion Database or whatever – then I would try to find a way to do it, and I always got caught. So I was just providing the new boss with more evidence of my incompetence and stupidity. So that was one change… The other change was that the computer servers had been upgraded in my absence and without my knowledge and a new program I had been developing before my eye operation had not been transferred over, as nobody knew it was there. This would be the final nail in my coffin at the ONS even though I still maintain to this day that it did exist, even if there was little evidence of it at the time. Sigh.

So…November 2001. In late August of that year I had had the cataract removed from my ‘lazy’ eye, and had six weeks to recover, during which I watched 9/11 take place live – I was on a music forum that day when someone mentioned the first plane hitting the WTC and I just dashed to the TV to watch the horror unfold. I returned to work in mid-October – I knew work would be horrible when I went back and I was right. I wasn’t allowed near any computers as I was under investigation regarding this missing program, and spent all my time working in the mail room but getting paid double what the mail room staff were getting. The counsellor I saw in work was trying her best to help but I think I was beyond help by then. I hid in the sick bay swearing and crying and wishing I wasn’t there. My attendance became more random as I took days off just because I didn’t feel I was doing anything worthwhile – all more ammunition to throw at me. Nobody believed I’d been in hospital with kidney stones, everyone thought I’d just thrown a sickie, and I wasn’t surprised really. A day or so after I returned after my hospital episode I had an ‘interview’ with my boss and others which I vaguely remember being an exercise in lies and evasion – I was drugged up on Tramadol and the strongest anti-depressants I could get, I had no idea what I was talking about, they were trying to get me to admit I’d not written the program and somewhere along the line I probably said yes just to get it over with and to get out of that room. However all my memories from that period are so clouded that I could just be misremembering it all. That’s half the problem, I perceive my surroundings differently enough with my ASD – but ASD and drugged to the hilt? There could have been pink elephants floating around the room for all I know.

So happy days all round!

And what was I listening to at the time? Well there was the second album by The Kingsbury Manx, the wonderfully titled “Let you down” which was the total opposite of the title. It was a vast improvement on their debut, which had been half wonderful and half random scrabblings for styles. “Let you down” was all of a piece, they had found their style and they kept to it for 42 wonderful minutes. A perfect autumnal album with some of their finest songs – “Porchlight”, “Simplify”, “Arun”, “Baby you’re a dead man”… Classics. But there were two other albums which were deeply ingrained in my life at the time, and they were both issued by Poptones Records.

Poptones was Alan McGee’s second record label (if you ignore Elevation, his doomed alliance with Warner Brothers in 1987) and during its first year issued a slew of records both old and new. He still had contacts at Sony and was licencing a lot of unreleased or rare sofr pop from the late 60s, artists associated within the Curt Boettcher / Gary Usher circle. In 1999 I had started listening to that kind of music, thanks to raving articles in Mojo on “Present Tense” by Sagittarius and “Begin” by The Millenium. I bought both of those and loved them, then picked up other records by The Association, Spanky and Our Gang and other soft favourites. Poptones issued a number of records in this vein and the one I bought in November ’01 was “The Blue Marble” by Sagittarius. Indeed this is distinctly associated with the kidney stone incident as I bought it on the day I had a check up a week after the stone came out – I remember putting it on my cd walkman on the bus to the hospital and finishing the album on the journey to work afterwards.

“The Blue Marble” slipped between the cracks when it was originally issued in 1969. The label which issued the LP went under not long after release and it disappeared off the radar. It was a Gary Usher project like it’s predecessor but this time there was less collaborative work with Curt Boettcher. Boettcher had taken over “Present Tense”, using it as an outlet for his demos with The Ballroom and as a holding operation for The Millenium but the best songs on “Present Tense” were primarily Usher’s vision – the heavenly rearrangement of an Ivy League song “My world fell down” utilising as many of his session buddies as he could, and the album closer “The truth is not real”, the furthest out the album went and all the better for it. “The Blue Marble” then is Usher at the controls. It’s a beautiful album to listen to, the textures and recording is perfect in a very late 60s way, before the move to 16 track recording made arrangements too cluttered.

The album opens with “In my room” – the song Usher co-wrote with Brian Wilson years before and the first sign of Wilson’s introspection. Here the song is given a sparkling arrangement, lush harmonies and plenty of harpsichord and harp – it’s delicate and soothing. “From you unto us” is less ornate and introduces one of the main instrumental colours of the album – big fat rude buzzing Moog synthesiser notes are liberally smeared over the song. The song itself hops along, throws in a tempo change into waltz time halfway through before returning to the galloping rhythm and is concluded within 120 seconds, ending on a huge descending buzz of Moog bass. Usher sings of being “chased by fears and sorrows, afraid of what tomorrow brings” – sentiments I could understand at the time. “Will you ever see me?” is slower and mirrors a harp with a Moog, and equates everything with universal love – sentiments that were old fashioned by ’69. “Gladys” features more delicate acoustic guitars, and turns into an slowly accelerating bolero for a chorus, single note trumpet fanfares and all. It’s totally un-rock and roll, and really odd. “I sing my song” has a bed of lovely background harmonies, twinkling xylophones and more Moog. I always took the opening line “I sing my song but you won’t sing along” as a coded complaint at the lack of success of both Boettcher and Usher, and the song turns dark as the chorus turns into a minor key, and it feels slightly uneasy – “Our lives are filled with lies for silence holds the truth”. And yet the song is upbeat. “The blue marble” itself is an ecology anthem with a view from space of the Earth, and more moving between major and minor keys increases the tension, but it’s all still placid on the surface. “Lend me a smile” has a more traditional Moog sound (someone’s found out how to patch an envelope into the filter and turned the resonance up, and it now sounds like Denim!). The song itself is good but the final three songs are special.

As soon as I heard “I still can see your face” I recognised it, and yet I have no idea of where from and still don’t. It’s a remarkable song, all the instrumental ideas on the album so far coalesce into something quite perfect – a harpsichord led waltz, Moogs buzzing (less obtrusively now) and now pedal steel guitar. Lyrically it’s about being haunted by someone’s memory but in such a vague way…oh it’s lovely. What’s odd is how it still sounds futuristic, and yet rooted in the past. It also makes me think of the songs on side two of Eno’s “Apollo” album, “Weightless” and “Deep blue day” – and how the astronauts on the Apollo missions had country and western radio’d up to them (and Herb Alpert’s music too – as heard from the extract at the end of “Shrift” by Pacific. Just wanted to get that in, like…). “I see in you” is more unease and I can’t really explain why. It just has curious chord changes, and feels strange. “Cloud talk” is a happier closer, a love song of encouragement for someone to open their eyes. The whole album is consistently good, with strange undertones musically that make it equally enchanting and haunting. That album stayed in my walkman for a long time.

The other Poptones album that soundtracked November ’01 was one of the label’s first releases – “Seventeen Stars” by The Montgolfier Brothers. Well they weren’t brothers and they weren’t called Montgolfier but they made some wonderful music. It was a collaboration between Roger Quigley and Mark Tranmer, who had been making music on their own for a few years by the turn of the century. This was their initial album together, originally issued on Verspertine Records in 1999 and reissued by Poptones the following year. I just didn’t get around to buying it until the end of October ’01. As I’ve said before I’m a great believer in records arriving in your life just when you need them and I needed “Seventeen Stars” just at that point.

If you can imagine Vini Reilly messing around with a General MIDI keyboard and sequencer, then playing guitar over the top – that should give you an idea of what the music on “Seventeen Stars” sounds like. There’s a Gallic tone to some of the songs, I can’t quite put my finger on it not knowing too much French music, I won’t embarrass myself saying it’s like something when I don’t know what that something is. But there is an unconventionality to the music, it takes unexpected turns, it’s definitely not three chord ramalama. If the album has any antecedants (ooh, get me with the posh words) it would be “Mad dumb scared and gorgeous” by Because, an album made by Jim Irvin – former member of Furniture and future editor of Mojo. It has a similar set of sounds, a similar aesthetic lyrically too.

“Time spent passing” is a simple guitar instrumental with peculiar soundtrack sounds behind it, too far back to be distinct but intriguing. It could be a pastoral forerunner of Ghost Box. “Even if my mind can’t tell you” circles around peculiar chord changes while Quigley sings in a Mancunian speak-sing song voice (which makes me think of Guy Garvey at his most intimate) of troubled relationship and trying to start again. “Pro celebrity hanging around” was played on the radio when the LP was issued, a short vignette of love – worries waiting for someone all banished by their arrival. Quite lovely. “Four days” is as gorgeous and tranquil as any Durutti Column instrumental, all echoing guitar arpeggios and a delightful keyboard melody over it. “Seventeen Stars” is a sleepy description of a caravan holiday – and again I’m reminded of “Song”, the second and final album by It’s Immaterial, the words painting pictures of miniature lives over repetitive music. “Low tide” is ominous – a drone, keyboards playing locking parts, but jarring against each other. For some reason this piece is touching nerves, but there’s no words. I haven’t played this album for a long long time and memories and feelings are stirring. “In walks a ghost” is another vignette of a relationship, this time in peril it seems. It’s almost uncomfortable to listen to. And now I’m thinking of “Euphoria” by Insides, Kirsty Yates’ lyrics, too close to the bone. “Une chanson du crepescule” is a very apt title, and it almost lighthearted in the manner of the music and now I’m thinking of Momus’ “Timelord” album for some reason. Then “Between two points” begins.

Four chords circle slowly, guitars are gently stroked, and hushed drums tick along, and more instruments are added as the song slowly progresses. And the words… Jesus these words are raw. “Just let them walk all over you, laugh through the punches and the pain. Let the lifeblood drain away from you, they’re right – you’re wrong”. And it’s so calm in its progress, so resigned to its fate, so numbed by the slings and arrows, it bloody well hurts, it bloody well hurts. I sometimes wonder how the world keeps on turning. “Your guardian angel gives up the ghost”. Quite. “Fin” is a graceful guitar instrumental to close the album.

And as the album ends, so does November. The sky is dark with ominous clouds. The cheer and joy and peace and goodwill of Christmas is on its way, but that seems like a long time in the distance yet. And the kidney stones – well they’d be around for a long time to come, and are still there now. I’ve had two more periods of hospitalisation with passing stones, numerous scans and lithotripsy, and two hospital stays flushing out my kidneys (and a stent in my urethra which is now damaged from passing stones) just before Christmas two years ago. And there’s a stone so big in my left kidney that it’s almost impossible to remove – it’s stuck in a nasty position which is impossible for keyhole surgery – without cutting the kidney open. Nice. As I wrote on my Facebook page as I was about to have my second op in 2011 – “Here I sit so patiently waiting to find out what price you have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice.”

Or alternately, what I wrote on my FB page as I came round after the first op in 2011 – “OUCH!”

Next time – well there should be two more pieces before Christmas, one I promised before November and the other is more personal history – Christmas ’83 to February ’84. Then I’ll take a break for a little while. I hope you’ve enjoyed November as much as I have.

This entry is dedicated to the memory of George Harrison, who passed away on this day in 2001. I would like to say I remember it well but I don’t.