1995’s album Illuminate was a return to form after the disappointment of Love Bus. I’d started a new job at the University of Wales, Bangor, and ordered the single, ‘Sixteen Years’, at the late lamented Cob Records; when I came to collect it, the guy at the counter gave me an advance white-label copy of the album. It’s got something in common with Cult of the Basement in its eclecticism, and in the way that short instrumental pieces (‘A Great Visitation of Elephants’, ‘Beetle George’) fill the gaps in the jigsaw. It’s got some silliness, but it’s also got sublime songs like ‘Blues for Dead Dean Read’, ‘Scarlett’, ‘When Eno Sings’, and ‘Land’; and the one with the best intro of any Jazz Butcher song. It feels a bit like Pat’s response to Gerard Langley’s ‘Pick a card, any card … wrong!’ on ‘Jacket Hangs’: ‘Cigarettes! Tickets! Beer! Money! What could possibly go wrong?’ Sadly there’s no YouTube bootleg of it, so you’ll just have to take my word.
Great not only for its introduction, ‘Lulu’s Nightmare’ is another of those touring songs that manage to break through into common experience: the indignities of long-distance travel (or even short distance if you commute to London) set against some shimmering oasis of relaxation and self-indulgence at the end of it.
The Blue Aeroplanes: Whatever Happened to our Golden Birds
A busy touring schedule and a fairly high turnover of band members have meant that the Jazz Butcher Conspiracy are fairly well networked with other bands from the 1980s and 1990s. Let’s not get into Rock Family Trees or any of that, but members of the band have also been in Bauhaus, Love and Rockets, The Woodentops, The Wolfhounds, Levitation, and Primal Scream. There’s been a particularly frequent shuttle service between The Blue Aeroplanes and the JBC: Alex Lee, Paul Mulreany, and Joe Allen have all played in both. Pat Fish was particularly heavily involved in the Rough Music album (1995), and ‘Whatever Happened to our Golden Birds’ is credited to Langley/Fish. (This video, by the way, wins no prizes for dynamism.)
The guitar melody that opens the song and runs throughout is instantly identifiable as Pat’s contribution: he’s always been fond of non-European scales and keys. This one feels like the sinister twin to the Basement Theme from Cult of the Basement. That said, Gerard’s unique delivery, and the contribution of the rest of the band means that it doesn’t sound like a Jazz Butcher song that strayed on to someone else’s album: it’s also a Blue Aeroplanes track.
Condition Blue had been the right album for me at the right time, even if that meant it encouraged me to wallow in morose sentiments in late 1991. By the time of its successor, Waiting for the Love Bus, in 1993, I was in need of music and lyrics that would make sense of the horrendous post-Thatcher years, and the album didn’t deliver. I think I wanted more of the loud and raucous sound of Condition Blue, but with an eye directed to the outer world; Love Bus sounded too clean. The Western Family live album had reassured me that Pete Crouch could play loud and dirty as well as clean and precise, but that aspect of the live performances didn’t come through in the studio. Although I wasn’t a grunge fan, guitars in the early 1990s had got a lot dirtier. Added to that, I’d been playing bass in a band through 1992, and we’d sounded increasingly distorted and dirty, partly through choice, partly though lack of a good amps.
Love Bus has some great songs on it. I like the groove of ‘Penguins’, and I like ‘Whaddya’, but the album doesn’t hold together. ‘Ben’ does address the cultural-political scene, but there the anger is restrained, musically. However, there’s one really standout track that everyone should hear: the first one, ‘Rosemary Davis World of Sound’:
Rosemary Davis (b.1926) was the BBC person who did field recordings for use in BBC radio drama, later released from 1969 onwards as a series of LPs, ‘Sound Effects.’ Here’s the cover of the first (RED 47M); The Jam later paid tribute with the cover art for their Sound Affects (1980)
The track listings don’t look like the most promising material for a songwriter:
But, with some selectivity and splicing together of different elements, it becomes an evocative collection of phrases. (You can do the Googling yourself, but it seems that Pat takes phrases from several of the Sound Effects LPs). There were hints of this method on ‘Harlan’ from Condition Blue, which incorporates the titles of several of Harlan Ellison’s stories, but here it’s done much more rigorously.
Stylistically, the music draws on the psychedelic drones and analogue echoes of the Spacemen 3: Pat had been a big supporter of the band from its early days, and Sonic Boom has contributed to several Jazz Butcher albums. One might take the implication to be that being lost in Rosemary Davis’s world of sound is some kind of trip, but Pat’s own account of the appeal of the field recordings is that today ‘these sounds, assiduously recorded in the early sixties, seem to come from another world.’*
Chris F., who introduced me to the Jazz Butcher’s music when I was at sixth-form college, also introduced another friend, Pete Crouch. Around this time Pete was primarily into Mark Knopfler and J. J. Cale, and Max Eider’s guitar work grabbed his attention very quickly. For a brief while he had a covers band, called with seeming arbitrariness Peter’s Walnut Whirls, and they did a set of cover versions that was half Dire Straits, half Jazz Butcher, with ‘Roadrunner’ thrown in. Pete went off to University somewhere to do American Studies, but continued to follow the Jazz Butcher around. This led to Pete doing some guitar and a guest solo on Pat’s 1991 album, Condition Blue, and becoming the main guitarist on the tour that followed (documented in soggy low-fidelity awfulness on the live album Western Family — something went wrong with the master tapes), and on the next studio album, Waiting for the Love Bus.
Condition Blue is one of the great Jazz Butcher albums,though it divides fans: those that like the more whimsical and gentler side of Pat’s writing aren’t so fond. It came out of the breakdown of Pat’s marriage and apparently some kind of breakdown. The lyrics are generally more abstract and oblique than usual; witty, but with less of an obvious point to make. The music is louder, and more exuberant, and several of the songs have extended play outs where it’s clear that every one is having a lot of fun. If I’d allowed myself more songs for this blog I’d certainly want to be writing about the tribute to Harlan Ellison (and crazy people who stand at junctions shouting at the traffic), ‘Harlan’; ‘Honey’, ‘Shirley Maclaine’, and ‘Racheland’. And the track ‘Vodka Girls’ belongs to this session.
‘Girls Say Yes’, along with ‘Still and All’, is one of the gentler tunes.
From the very beginning, the sound is rich and seductive: from the female ‘has’ (presumably courtesy of Sumishta Brahm), and in the rich chorus of vocals around ‘don’t try, don’t try’. Pete’s guitar solo bears the fruit of those years listening to Knopfler and Eider. There’s a pair of triplets somewhere in the middle of it that are straight out of Knopfler (at about 2:55), but the great thing about this solo is that it doesn’t sound like an alien imposition, or an imitation; it has its own identity, and it belongs perfectly to the song; it lifts the song in just the right way, and doesn’t feel like it’s in competition.
Whoever thought of this cue was probably anticipating songs that evoke magnificent scenerylike beaches at sunset, and they reckoned without my painfully literal imagination. (I once did a word-association test, as a preliminary to being a subject in some other psychological experiment. They said ‘Doctor’. An image of a doctor in a white lab coat flashed into my mind’s eye; I hesitated, and responded with ‘Doctor.’)
‘Daycare Nation’ makes mention of Royal Oak Station, in west central London. I can’t listen to it without thinking of Royal Oak Station, though beyond that, it also evokes the backs of houses that you see from the train as it slows down coming into Paddington. It’s another song from Cult of the Basement, but as there’s no YouTube version of the album recording, here’s Pat performing it at the 12-Bar in 2007:
On the album it fades in over the noise of underground trains; the bass line comes in with the mechanical simplicity of a musical box or a nursery rhyme, and the saxophone breathes gently and seductively. It’s a night-time song. We’re potentially in classic singer-songwriter territory (bedsits, eccentrics, and a patronising display of pity), but ‘Daycare Nation’ is impersonal and non-narrative, and that takes it somewhere different.
You’re living in your own home
You’re living in your own world
You’re living in a waking dream
You’re living in the best of all possible worlds
The smell of contagion
In the hall of your apartment
And a soft little scratching
On the wall of the room next to yours
The way the second stanza undercuts the first is brilliant; there’s nothing in the music to signal the difference. The ‘soft little scratching’ lands perfectly between being specific and leaving us to imagine what might be living next door, or in the wall cavity. The thousands of ‘Mr Odds’ cross references another song on the album, more upbeat and comical: when there was just one Mr Odd he might be a figure of fun (though also of pathos); when multiplied, the pathos comes to the fore.
They’re not real
They’re there by accident
They’re not real
It’s just an accident of birth
The closing lines are the most troubling: the song has made it quite clear that they are real, living in a specific place and time; these lines register either what the government would have you believe (this was the era of ‘care in the community’), or they register the appalled response of someone who can’t quite take in the magnitude of it. What’s great about this song is the way that it records direct acquaintance with dilapidated bedsit-land (smells, sounds) and at the same time the perspective from far off, the perspective of the intercity commuter coming into Paddington and wondering about all the lives going on behind all those windows.
By the time of recording the third Creation Records album, Cult of the Basement, in January 1990, the Jazz Butcher Conspiracy line-up had reached a degree of stability. The rhythm section of Paul Mulreany and Laurence O’Keefe had been in the band for two years, and although Kizzy O’Callaghan had retired from touring due to ill-health, I had the impression seeing the band, and even listening to the recordings, that they understood each other as musicians. Cult of the Basement is one of the great Jazz Butcher albums. It makes a virtue of its musical diversity with odd short tracks (The Basement, Fertiliser, After the Great Euphrates) and samples. Only one of the songs (‘My Zeppelin’) seems throwaway, its comedy country-and-western stylings a glance back at the Glass-era band.
Whether having a stable band is a prerequisite for creating a great groove only musicians can say; perhaps complete strangers could have done it.
It’s not really a reggae bass-line, but it has a reggae feel to it, and the song is reggae-like in that everything coheres around the bass. I especially like the way it starts with an unpromising stop-start drum beat, and then everything suddenly springs into life. The guitar lines are wonderful too, but they’re leaves and flowers on the branches; the lyrics are minimal and relatively obscure, but the delivery is delicate and fits around everything else.
‘Hysteria’ is the third track on Big Planet Scarey Planet, and after ‘New Invention’ and ‘Line of Death’ (about the USA bombing of Libya in 1986), it represents a brief change of tone and pace. It runs the risk of being a touring band’s song about life on the road, but the complaints about the hardships of touring are only part of it; it’s really a song about America from viewpoint of a European, and as such it fits well with the first two songs, the first being about an Americanized Britain, and the second being about American paranoid fantasies about Arab leaders.
There wasn’t a video on YouTube, so I’ve made one:
The Jazz Butcher website also has a live version from 1989, which goes at a much faster tempo than the studio version and loses some of the mood:
Musically, there are some unusual things going on here. The 3/4 waltz rhythm is part of it, and the vocal line has some unusually big leaps in it, especially when we get to ‘It’s alright for a while’. There’s a suggestion in this, and in the descending chords, of some Sixties folk-pop classic, but never specific enough to make it into a steal: is it the Beatles’ ‘Hide Your Love Away’, or Peter Sarstedt’s ‘Where Do You Go To, My Lovely?’ The organ line (funereal at the start, but warbling at the end) takes it out of straightforward folk-pop territory, but also has a sixties ambience about it. The spaciousness of the song also gives it a cinematic feel.
What stops the lyric being simply a touring song, or simply satire, is the way it’s caught between distrust and disdain on the one hand, and longing on the other; and even the longing isn’t resolved. At one point its a longing to join in the luxury and excess, if only as respite ‘We drove the bus through Heaven / There were people in their best suits in the bar. / We’re far from home, we’re far from well, / I wish I could have joined them for an hour’. Elsewhere it’s pity (‘But look at its children, too human and sad’), and elsewhere its a desire to change it. The song builds to a final list:
So what for did we come here?
Well, we came here to learn,
‘Coz somebody told us
You’ve got books here to burn.
And we came for your buildings.
And we came to see your fountains.
And we came for the restaurants.
And we came for your women.
And we came for the Pacific Ocean.
And we came for the drugs.
And we came for your souls.
Sounds stupid, but we came for your souls.
Those ‘fountains’ might be ‘mountains’ (see here), but it doesn’t matter too much. While some of these in isolation might read like straightforward decadent rock and roll (the women and the drugs), taken with interest in books, and architecture, and the fountains/mountains, it’s more complex, and the final touch is both to admit to some sort of reforming mission (‘we came for your souls’) and in the next breath to admit that such a project might have been utterly misguided.