Sunday, November 22, 2009

Typer At The Gates Of Dawn

Xibalban Lords! My tempus is fugiting!

Rectifying this is a sure treat in this installment of Typer At The Gates Of Dawn. Today our guest Typer is a well-respected known quantity of the highest order, satisfaction guaranteed.

Lost in the mysts of tyme, to me, is how I came to know him and when I started writing/conversing with him, but-suffice it to say, I'm far better off for having done so. As a reviewer within the pages of the esteemed Shindig! I've come to trust his judgement like few others; also-for those who's psychedelia obsessions go back a ways, his contributions to Sweet Floral Albion are among my favorites from that period; (also noted in the debut-and sadly to this point, only issue of Laura's Garden. Finally, some of you may or may not know him as the erstwhile compiler of the brilliant Pop Cycles Series, now numbering 10!

I'm honored and doubly proud to post this edition by no other than my esteemed good friend, Paul Martin! So, what's he have in store for us? Read on Voyagers, read on!

GrumbleweedsIn A Teknikolor Dreem LP (Phillips 6308 091, 1972)

Producer and sleeve note writer Gil King

Arranged and conducted by Alan Hawkshaw

Additional (female) vocal backings by Sue & Sunny with Kay Garner

Unsurprisingly, one of the last bastions of British 1960s musical entertainment to avoid re-evaluation has been the comedy musical groups of the time. Given their mainstream and overtly cabaret nature, they were not then, and have not since, been seen as relevant to what was hip and happening. Troupes (as perhaps they might be more accurately termed) such as The Barron Knights made a lucrative living out of writing songs parodying contemporary music and setting satirical lyrics to them. Another of these troupes were The Grumbleweeds. Originating in Leeds in 1962, they ploughed a similar furrow to the Barron Knights and continue to do so to this day (although there are only two of them left now – What is relevant for you, dear reader however, is that although engaged largely in stand up slapstick comedy albeit musically, such groups made at least one stab at a serious album. The Barron Knights moment came in 1973 when they recorded their ‘One Man’s Meat’ LP for Penny Farthing. Period music encyclopaedia, Galactic Ramble notes that ‘much of the material is rather insipid’. (p.50) The single from which though, released the previous year ‘You’re All I Need’ (compiled on the Past & Present label’s Electric Asylum Volume 3 CD) is a hypnotic, drum centred slow burning proto glam track and well worth hearing. Our optic of interest however, is The Grumbleweeds 1972 Phillips LP In A Teknikolor Dreem. It has recently attracted attention because of the compilation of its title track which supposedly features Chris Spedding on guitar and is a solid and intense piece of studio psych. It’s sleeve is pure toy town and utterly irresistible! However, the rest of its contents are firmly in the studio pop style with nothing else as rampant as its title track. This is not to denigrate it, for all its quirky unevenness (on Side 1 anyway), which may well be a consequence of the group’s stylistic approach to their stage comedy. No indeed. Apart from three rather indifferent covers, there are nine largely wonderful self-penned pop numbers, which deserve to be heard. I concur with Richard Morton Jack who said of it in Galactic Ramble (p.208): ‘It’s no lost classic but will appeal to fans of well-crafted studio pop…’ This album does, in my opinion, deserve a reissue. Here’s what producer Gil King wrote in the LPs liner notes and which provides a flavour if the group’s context:

‘This album will probably come as a pleasant surprise to the many fans of The Grumbleweeds. Anyone who has seen them in Cabaret, will probably agree that they have one of the zaniest comedy acts in the business. Until recently the only time they sang in their act was when they did their wildly funny send-ups of Elvis, Mick Jagger or Roy Orbison, but now they are beginning to sing their own original material to acquaint their public with this added dimension to their considerable talents as entertainers.

Nine of the songs on the album are written by members of the group and they have a particular Northern flavour, which is accounted for by the fact that the boys are from Leeds.’

I am not sure where the ‘Northern flavour’ is especially. Perhaps it would have been more evident in 1972? Like The Barron Knights LP mentioned above, Teknikolor Dreem it is arranged and conducted by studio wiz, Alan Hawkshaw who is well known to instro hipsters for his work on numerous groovy studio projects of the late 1960s and 1970s. Being a studio and session musician dominated album, it is tightly played, measured and controlled. What it lacks in spontaneity as a result, it makes up for in its own arranged aesthetic. As it is relatively unknown, (I don’t think it was released outside of Britain, though I may be wrong) I shall discuss it track by track:

Grumbleweeds – In A Teknikolor Dreem LP, track by track
Side 1
‘Stranger In A Strange Land’. The album opens with a cover of this Billy Preston song. This is the only song with a lead vocal by band member Graham Walker, described on the back cover of the album as ‘fat, bald (almost) and very funny..’ Although the arrangement, playing and soulful femme backing vocals are fine, Walker’s voice grates across it like an elephant on skates through thin ice. Perhaps his gravely larynx was supposed to emulate Preston’s ‘blackness’? A different lead vocal approach would have made this far more digestible.

‘She’. Here, the lead vocal is taken (as are most of the songs) by Carl Sutcliffe, who is also the main song writer of the group. His, is a light tenor voice, perfect for the wispy pop arrangements on many of the songs. Think Robert Wyatt on ‘Shipbuilding’ for instance (ok, that’s an overstatement, but it’s in that sort of ball park). Here, Sutcliffe sings a tale of matrimonial reflection by a middle-aged wife on her now unattractive husband, Arthur, her children and the passing of time. Not unlike the plot of 1990s suburban hit movie Shirley Valentine, It resolves less favourably for the song’s wife in that rather than breaking free of domestic drudgery, she recognises that she was born to be where she is. Arranged with pathos, it fits like a prequill to the Shadows 1969 ‘Dear Old Mrs Bell’ or any number of reflective slice of life pop singles from the late 60s.

‘My Sweet Lord’ This is the album’s low point in my opinion. Brass and strings woodenly substitute for Harrison’s bendy slide guitar parts and the whole group sing lead in unison. You are just waiting for the Edwin Hawkins singers to burst in with a chorus of ‘Oh happy Day’, it sucketh mightily!

‘Up In The Sky’. More interestingly, the spiritual theme is continued with a much better and original tune. Possibly, the inclusion of ‘My Sweet Lord’ was a) because of it’s enormous popularity at the time and b). for the Grumbleweeds to set up their own homage to it through this number. Here, the lyrics are very ‘Spirit In The Sky’. There’s a man overhead who’s waiting for us all apparently! A jaunty rhythm and good arrangement make this infinitely better than it might otherwise have been.

‘Sad To Say’ is a piano led singer-songwriter type of number. Again, well arranged by Hawkshaw. Not unlike something Tony Hazzard would have written for Richard Barnes for instance in the same time frame. Pleasant enough but does not really go anywhere.

‘Dying To Live’. Sung by Carl’s brother, Albert, this Edgar Winter Group cover is again, a mid paced piano led number. It doesn’t do anything for me though it doesn’t offend either. Lyrically serious, perhaps it’s the harlequin clown revealing his inner sadness when everyone thinks he’s a clown. This is the closer on a very uneven first side.

Side 2
‘In A Teknikolor Dreem’ OK, this one’s as real as the deal gets. A lead vocal by member Robin Colvill utilises the same gravelly larynx approach as Graham Walker on the opener of Side 1, but here the setting is more appropriate. Supposedly it is Chris Spedding on guitar here and it works a treat. Lyrically, it’s all very 1967 with images of vivid colours, rainbows etc. and the musical intensity deepens towards the end. It is worth noting that in 1972, The Grumbleweeds were not alone in revisiting the 60s; First Impression / Good Earth’s - Swinging London LP on budget label Saga that same year married a couple of lame ass covers of Beatles standards with these two groups more interesting 60s sounding originals just at the time when the 1970s fascination with the 1950s was kicking in (American Grafitti etc.). We now associate the 1970s with a kitsch reinvention of the 1950s but its interest in reviving the 1960s is usually considered something post-punk (The Rocking Horse and Liverpool Echo projects notwithstanding). Hence, it seems natural to see Mud of Shawaddywaddy dressed as long-haired 50s Teds in the 1970s but odd to hear a pop group in the early 1970s emulating psychedelia which wasn’t supposed to have happened until Nick Nicely came along. For that alone, this is worth hearing.
Fiona McLoughlin. For me, this is perhaps The Grumbleweeds finest moment. For this is nothing less than the best First or Horizontal era song the Bee Gee’s never wrote. It has the bitter-sweetness of the melody that goes slightly off kilter and then returns. I think this was also one side of a Phillips 45 in 1972 as well. Hopelessly out of date by then as is the title track, but sublime in its execution, The Grumbleweeds prove they can write and perform the idioms they normally satirise with the same precision and class.
‘So Sweet Netta’. This is ok, but still the weakest song (the only weak song really) on Side 2. It’s about a three year-old girl and her cuteness and naughtyness. It has an annoying chorus refrain with one of those crypto-umpah rhythms a la ‘Yesterday Man’. I can live with it given the strength of the rest of Side 2 though.

‘Tiffany’ A beautiful and too short soft pop ballad which had it been American and an obscure 45 released in 1968 would be a highly desirable collector’s item today. Fading Yellow material if I ever heard it.

‘Never Before’This is the other harder edged number (along with the title track) on the album. It’s still controlled pop mind, but it has some nice fuzz tone touches in just the right places. It has more than one time signature and articulate vocal harmonies in parts. Compared to the rest I’d be quite within my pop rights to call this a ‘driving rhythm’. It is another example of how this group could have developed outside of comedy, they clearly knew their chops.

‘Lady’ Side Two’s closer brings us back stylistically to the Brothers Gibb, but this time much more in an Odessa bag. It’s a big, lugubrious well arranged ballad with great style and a perfect way to close the album. Side 2 is far more consistent in song quality, lacking as it does the clumsiness and obfuscation of any cover versions.


So, to conclude, given, the group’s essentially comedy based career, with this album, did they really mean it maaan? Quite honestly, I don’t think it really matters. Certainly, a comedy troupe, in common with all such troupes, needed to draw on varying sources for their material both for the sake of brevity and topicality; they needed to remain relevant and contemporary for their audiences and therefore drew upon what was in the news or popular musically. This seems to translate readily to the LP in terms of the group’s flexibility even if they are drawing on a time frame some four or five years past by then, which would have been infinitely more recognisable than the same distance reflected now. The album’s strengths lay in the quality of Carl Sutcliffe’s song writing and Alan Hawkshaw’s sympathetic arrangements in which they are lightly framed. Its psych credentials are it’s delicious cover art, the title track and the bendy popsike of ‘Fiona McLoughlin’ As a complete package though, it represents two under researched aesthetics; firstly, the extent to which the pre-punk rock 1970s were still in love with the 60s, I mean reflectively and sentimentally as opposed to drawing on them as a means of moving forward. Secondly, the too easy (though highly understandable) dismissal of straight, mass appeal family entertainers as The Grumbleweeds of being interested in or capable of producing anything more prosaic. I like to think of this as an object lesson in cultural humility and a further expansion of our ongoing contemporary reappraisal of the music of the 1960s and 1970s. As a post script, it is also worth checking out the Grumbleweeds 1974 glam rock 45 ‘(Hey Babe) Follow Me’ on Decca (and compiled on Electric Asylum Volume 3), again written by Carl Sutcliffe. A simple yet compelling tune defined by the fuzz tone guitar motif that drives it, it also failed to garner any attention at the time but now stands in respect by junk shop glam collectors and ‘late for the show’ freak beaters (think The Troggs 1972 ‘Looks Like A Woman’).

Paul Martin

(Editor's Note: Thank you, Paul!!!)


Cliff said...

Yikes, I saw The Grumbleweeds in print and shuddered as I recalled with no small amount of horror, The Grumbleweeds of my childhood, the woefully poor musical/comedy act that seemed to appear on each and every Saturday night programme on TV. To say they were dreadful simply doesn't do justice to the depths their brand of humour sank. Surely to goodness this couldn't be one and the same band!

To say I was stunned to discover that indeed it was THE Grumbleweeds of my youth is an understatement of incalcuable magnitude, I am however prepared to bow to Paul's superior psychedelic knowledge and find myself drawn toward needing to hear 'In A Teknikolor Dreem.' Paul has painted what seems to be an honest review of said album, though hell I never expected to see such a review in print!!!

For the record, I once saw The Baron Knights, I was forced to attend a performance of theirs when they performed at a works summer fete back in the late 80's. I still shudder when recollecting that day. Additionally, my father-in-law had a parody song written about him by the Baron Knights but we won't go there.

sr-71 said...

I love Paul's writing style. It's more of a light hearted autopsy than a review of the album. Cheers!

Chris said...

Had not heard of the GRUMBLEWEEDS before now and am intrigued to learn more about them. The comments posted earlier here are funny and wonder if I will feel the same. At any rate, I will continue to explore this group.
Thanks for posting Paul's review.