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 eleven to fifteen
“The Fabulous Expedition Of Dillard and Clark” – Dillard and Clark
I love Saint Etienne. Not just for their music (which is enough reason as it is) but also for how inclusive they are. Like all proper music fans, they want everyone to come along and join in with the trip, to hear the old music they love and the great new discovery they’ve just found in some dusty charity shop. They are pop fans and there’s no snobbery in their veins. This is also why Bob Stanley’s book “Yeah Yeah Yeah” was such a good read – Bob loves pop and wants to hip you to his favourites along the way.
Why am I going on about Saint Etienne when I should be talking about Dillard and Clark? Because in the autumn of 2005 I bought a double mix CD called “The Trip: Created by Saint Etienne” which opened my eyes to a ton of great stuff. I’d bought the Tom Middleton “Trip” mix CD a month or so before and that was amazing, the first disc a cool mix of disco and new wave (and the theme from “Picture Box” as a hidden track!!), the second a more downtempo mix including a few 70s kiddies favourites alongside Harpers Bizarre, the Dudley Moore Trio, Dorothy Ashby and Vangelis. (A few years ago I heard this CD being piped into a sauna at a health club I was visiting – it fitted perfectly). Anyway I got the Saint Etienne disc and devoured it. The first disc was cool enough – some Northern Soul, disco, American theme tunes. But disc two was something else. Just look at the track listing – Scott Walker, Dusty Springfield, The Left Banke, Ice, Tim Hardin… soft pop and soft psych, melancholy and gorgeous. Just listening to it all now brings back memories of those days. Obviously records by Queen Anne’s Lace and Orpheus were going to be hard to find but the one song by Dillard and Clark led me to buying a CD with both their late 60s albums on it within a few days.
“The fabulous expedition of Dillard and Clark” was recorded and issued in late ’68. Doug Dillard had left his brothers in the Dillards to their own bluegrass country synthesis. Gene Clark had left the Byrds with his own melancholy heart and had left CBS after a failed solo LP. Dillard and Clark combined their immense talents, surrounded themselves with sympathetic players from the LA scene and made a quiet gem of an album for A&M – also home to the Flying Burrito Brothers, so someone there was on the country rock pulse.
It opens with “Out on the side”, like a gentle Dylan song – all Al Kooper organ fills, lots of guitars and gentle drums, but with Byrds style harmonies. And Gene Clark is singing like a sad angel. “She darked the sun” is more traditional country, all fiddle and mandolin, while “Don’t come rollin'” is Dillard’s show piece, fast and breezy but the words have a post-hippy sentiment… “We can have love and peace if we want, it’s a state of mind, no more”. So far so straightforward – country or rock. Then the two start merging. “Train leaves here this mornin'” is slower and is a list of mistakes – bad contracts, being in the wrong place, strange parties – but Clark and the other musicians sing and play with such warmth and love, it sounds like they are just sitting in a circle playing for themselves. (A song so great not even the Eagles can ruin it). “With care from someone” sounds like it’s lifting chunks from the verse of “A taste of honey” (that descending bass and ascending melody) but resolves into a joyous harmony chorus. “The radio song” adds an electric harpsichord to the instrumental mix and is full of heartache. “Git it on brother” is more traditional country but “In the plan” is questioning existence and deep thoughts while the closing “Something’s wrong” harks back to Clark’s childhood and innocence and compares it to his current existence which is found wanting, all the while the music matches these thoughts, lots of minor chords and sad melodies.
It’s difficult to listen to “The fabulous expedition of Dillard and Clark” without hearing how much other music sounds like it, from the Eagles onwards through other Californian country rock and alt.country. It must have been mindblowing hearing it in 1968 when such a country rock cross-over was far from the mainstream. (Indeed a worthwhile comparison point is “Roots” by the Everly Brothers.). It may have sold poorly at the time but by golly it was influential.
“The Return of the Durutti Column” – The Durutti Column / “The Graveyard and the Ballroom” – A Certain Ratio
It’s a few days after Christmas, 1985. My family are in Cardiff looking around the sales, hoping for bargains. I don’t find any, but I do find two cassettes instead – they may be full price but I don’t care, I’ve got Christmas money to spend. And the tapes look so interesting… Big cardboard boxes covered in fabric – one in blood red, the other in deep blue. Both have a simple font on the front with the band name, the album title in italics and the catalogue number. One is Fact 14c, the other is Fact 16c. I buy them both.
I’ve written about “The return of the Durutti Column” already (go on, you know you want to read my Toppermost again) so I don’t need to convince you of its greatness again. As I only knew “Without Mercy” and “Say what you mean…” It was quite a revelation, such simple beauty. And inside that red box was a piece of sandpaper with the credits printed onto it. Perfect. But “The graveyard and the ballroom” was something else.
For a start it was a reissue of ACR’s first album from early 1980 which was half studio and half live, and only available as a cassette in a pouch. I’d seen the name mentioned in Record Collector and loved the combination – graveyard and ballroom can only mean death disco. I didn’t realise it was referring to the Graveyard Studio and the Electric Ballroom. Inside was a card with the credits on one side and a picture of the original cassette on the other, inside an orange plastic pocket. It looked stylish, cool and very very clean.
As for the music… The studio side was amazing. I couldn’t understand how it had been recorded on a four track, there seemed to be lots of echoes and reverbs on different instruments. How the hell did Martin Hannett produce such sounds? The snare drum was tuned high but was loose too, a unique sound. The drums and bass carried the funk, while guitars were trebly and jangling and sharp, and Simon Topping’s words were very odd, flailing flesh, crippled children, being anonymous in death, not typical. There were odd noises too from some kind of primitive synth or effects box, alongside wah-wah guitar which was not “Shaft” at all. It all sounded like they were struggling to play but that added to the fun. I totally loved it. All the songs were great but “Flight” stood out. For a start it was so spare – single bass notes, guitars playing muted chords, so much space. And the words were great – implying so much with so little. The studio side ended with “Strain”, stopping and starting over and over again.
The live side repeated some of the songs from the studio side but that didn’t hurt. “All night party” had been their drumless debut single but now it had Donald Johnson’s funky drums giving it more propulsion. “Choir” and “Flight” were more expansive live, and there’s song they would never return to again. But more than anything there’s a humour that isn’t apparent elsewhere. As the drum intro to “The Fox” starts, Topping laughs “That sounds like Joy Division, doesn’t it?” Later he sings the opening line of “Disorder” at one point before giggling. It’s a side you don’t expect from a Factory band and makes it all the more human. Loud trebly sparse funk. Wonderful. I would cycle to school and back singing songs from it for months to come. What higher praise is needed?
“Crocodiles” – Echo and the Bunnymen
By the Autumn of 1985 I’d heard enough Teardrop Explodes – both albums and a load of b-sides – to know I loved them. Maybe I should give their arch enemies Echo and the Bunnymen a go? For some reason I actually did the decent thing and started listening to a band’s records in the order they were released. So in October ’85 I bought a cassette of “Crocodiles” from the record shop within Debenhams in Cardiff. It had two extra tracks on it, after all…
“Crocodiles” is a good mix of bright and dark. The music is trebly and sharp, Will Sargeant’s guitar could cut your hand off if you let it, Les Pattinson’s bass is steadfast – not as ‘in your face’ as Peter Hook’s bass lines, but harder tougher and the rock the music is built on. Pete De Freitas’ drums kick like angry mules. And Ian McCulloch sings like… Himself.
“Going up” fades in with odd noises, scratching guitars and sonar beeps before the whole band come in properly – propulsive and harsh, Mac already plotting his own greatness – “If we should pull the plugs out on all our history” – before the band rock into the distance. Normally at this point on the cassette would be “Do it clean” but a peculiarity meant my tape played “The puppet”, a failed single. It sure as hell wasn’t “Do it clean”. “Stars are stars” jangles along but always reminded me of something else I could never put my finger on. “Pride” is choppier and better, about family jealousy, though mentioning “Peter” and “Julie” could be digs at Mac’s former members of the Crucial Three (though Julie was the name of Mac’s sister, also the subject of “Passionate Friend”). “Monkeys” is chime and menace and the earliest Bunnymen song, and the most hemmed in of Pete De Freitas’ performances. “Crocodiles” is taken at breakneck speed and hurtles to its illogical conclusion. End of side one.
“Rescue” was the first song written with De Freitas in the line up and also the first song not produced by “The Chameleons” (Bill Drummond and Dave Balfe) – Ian Broudie is at the controls here. Whatever Drummond and Balfe may be or become, at this point they weren’t the greatest producers in the world and both “Crocodiles” and “Kilimanjaro” (recorded straight after “Crocodiles” at the same studio) are thin productions, lacking in what can only be called ‘balls’. “Rescue” is more muscular and shows some lingering doubts already – “If I said I’d lost my way…” – “Is this the blues I’m singing?” – which would develop by the time of the third Bunnymen album. But here the guitars actually chime and it sounds great. “Villiers Terrace” sounds like a cool place to be, everyone sounds out of it. Both the Bunnymen and the Teardrops recorded “Read it in books” twice and this version is by far the worst – the version on the b-side of the Zoo single of “Treason” is my preference. “Pictures on my wall” is great, leading into “All that jazz” which is mean and threatening – all those barricades and fist shaking. A very late 70s lyric. “Happy death man” is a good closer – atonal piano over the top, even if it does have the Teardrop horns. “Like to keep things dark” – yeah I still recognise that feeling. It grooves along, and fades out into “Going up” coming back in. A nice touch. A nice opener, but buying “Heaven up here” two weeks later showed their real potential. I think “Crocodiles” suffered from being issued amongst a wealth of great albums – “Closer” was issued around the same time and let’s face it, everything will suffer in comparison to that album. But at least “Crocodiles” still turns up on proper best debut lists.
“76:14” – Global Communication
I have been listening to this album for just over twenty years (I bought it on the day it was issued – June 1st 1994 – and it was in the card wraparound sleeve, the velcro’s a bit worn now…) and still I don’t know the ‘names’ of the songs. But is that surprising? After all the titles are just the length of each track. It’s not the kind of thing you’d talk about down the pub – “Oh that song ‘8:07’ is so great…”
Again I might be cheating calling it a debut album… The first I heard of Global Communication was when I bought “Blood Music”, the second and last album by Chapterhouse. It had a free CD with it – “Pentamerous Metamorphosis” – which was the Chapterhouse LP ‘reworked by Global Communication’. And not long after that I bought “A collection of short stories” by Reload from late ’93 which was Mark Pritchard and Tom Middleton who were Global Communication and Jedi Knights and E621 and oh it gets confusing. So was “76:14” a debut album? Well it’s my rules…
The album itself is all instrumental, mainly downtempo, synth washes, simple melodies building up layer by layer. There’s percussion sometimes, slightly harsh industrial synth hits, or a clock ticking, or sonar bleeps. It is an admirable late night listen on headphones, though more often than not I would find myself nodding off. I suppose that’s a compliment. “7:35” is more uptempo, leading into what can only be called a tribute to Tangerine Dream’s “Love on a real train” in “8:07” and “5:25” (or “Maiden voyage” as it was called when it was issued as a single) Then it all slows down again and the closing “12:10” takes choral voices into somewhere deeply chilled – like “1/2” from “Music for Airports” in an echo chamber. Very nicezzzzzzz. Oh sorry I just nodded off again.
The whole idea of no titles was to allow your mind to paint its own pictures and Global Communication encouraged people to write in with their thoughts and impressions. I remember reading at the time how a primary school teacher played it to her class and they wrote about it and sent it back to them. There’s even a very primitive website address on the sleeve – I wonder if it still works? I used the album myself as a functional piece of music – when my son was very young I would play the album to get him to sleep, the gentle tick tock of “14:31” would always ease him off gently into a snooze, but it was often difficult not following him.
It’s been odd watching how this album has become a classic over the years because at the time I never saw it happening. Yes it was great and a favourite album, but compared to the other fantastic music being issued around the time it was just one of many great albums. Maybe it was just a high water mark for this sort of music – from here chilled music would either head into trip-hop territory or towards more ambient and experimental areas. Twenty years on, this album feels as dated as any Orb album but I still return to it, still explore the textures and feelings, still fall asleep towards the end.
Maybe that’s not such a compliment after all.
Next time – Five more debut albums, including an album I would be surprised if any reader knows (or cares) about.