Sunday, 31 January 2016

which side are you on?

All them cowboys are old men
Longing for a mission once again
Gambling everything, boys we were fearless
Well we had the right stuff then

A regular early Friday evening will find me in my local, the Fludyer Arms* with my friend John mulling over the state of the World. Usually we talk about music. A fairly lengthy and animated discussion last Friday evening was about double albums and were they actually necessary? In truth, no they weren't really and were mainly useful as live albums. Still, the discussion reminded me of something I've been thinking about quite a lot recently.

The other week when Bowie died I wrote about what his early 1970s albums meant to me. During the process of writing that piece it occurred to me that we have lost, in part, the art of sequencing the two sides of albums. The point came up again during our discussion last week. Now, don't get me wrong, I know that it's important to sequence modern albums too especially the opening track. A good example is the new Show of Hands album where the song Breme Fell At Hastings features Historian Michael Wood speaking in Saxon and quite a stunning opening to a (great) album.

Anyway, it is also important to have a great last track to leave your audience with some emotional attachment to the experience. But back in the days when cds appeared and the record company executives rubbed their hands with glee at the thought of selling our record collections back to us this art of sequencing began to break down to a certain extent. When those greedy bastards same chaps realised by adding extras such as demos and live versions - and tracks that shouldn't have been released - things changed. There was also a lot of crap filler on albums that now lasted 70 minutes - hence why the discussion with John brought me back to this point. Vinyl records were at their best at about 14 minutes a side, hence Lowell George going to great pains to ensure that Little Feat albums only lasted exactly that amount of time. I mean I love Richard Thompson dearly but Psycho Street? Not his finest hour.

The power of the experience of listening to David Bowie's Hunky Dory is certainly diminished a little now when instead of the record ending with the strange chanting and madness of The Bewlay Brothers, the previously unreleased Bombers (surely an inferior song not deemed worthy of releasing nearly twenty years) bursts in. There are then another three demos and "alternative versions".

Let's look at that particular album as an example. The album opens with Changes - not only a great song but a truly great opening statement after the heavy metal of The Man Who Sold The World. Side one ends with Quicksand. Back when I were a lad, you then had to get up and turn the album over to listen to side two. Now, Biff Rose's Fill Your Heart isn't the best track on the album but at the time DB was still happy to record covers (something he did to excess on the rather woeful Pin-Ups album). It also set the tone for the second side which was mostly playful: a homage to Lou Reed, a rant at Dylan and a tribute to Andy Warhol. Then came the sheer weirdness of the aforementioned Bewlay Brothers which explored Bowie's fears about the insanity that haunted his mother's side of the family. His insane half-brother Terry was an important mentor in the nascent star's development. The nightmare world created by that track would stay with you for ages after listening to the whole album.

The world moved on and cds begat mp3s and the total fragmentation of the listening process. Many a slightly stoned listener had to drag themselves up out of their stupor to turn Dark Side Of The Moon over halfway whilst hoping someone would invent cds. I remember coming home very tired after a day at the factory in the late seventies and putting the second side of John Martyn's One World on and leaving the arm on the record up so it played continually (great live version of the final track Small Hours here). A great soporific track that aided my rest and helped me drift about in my head happily before the pub opened. Anyway, this fragmentation has meant that many people never listen to whole albums any more or only buy the tracks that they like. As I've always said, wouldn't it be great if you could buy a copy of CSNY's Deja Vu without the execrably twee Our House on? Time has not dimmed my view but at least I can create a playlist of the album without it on!

Many albums from the sixties and seventies were so well sequenced that listening on shuffle seems to be a crime. Steely Dan's wonderful Can't Buy A Thrill is a perfect example. The album kicks off with Do It Again - so good Michael Jackson plagiarized it - and the first side ends with (my all time favourite SD song) the wonderful latin rhythm of Only A Fool Would Say That. And when you turned the album over Reelin' In The Years burst out and had you dancing around your room. The last track is the rhapsodic Turn That Heartbeat Over Again and in between these two sides of sheer class you also got Dirty Work amongst other glories. Even Mike Oldfield had to work out how to start and end two sides of Tubular Bells which was obviously an album waiting for cds to be invented. I'm sure we can all name favourite albums and probably with some classic even remember the running orders.

I've tended to steer away here from concept albums and prog in particular. Four sides of ying-tong song twaddle from Yes? No thank you. However, the whole point here was to remind ourselves of that fine art of deciding the running order of what was essentially 30 minutes of fun. I've just looked at a couple of recent albums and I'm sure there's a lot of thought gone in to their running orders but I'm wondering if they would work as two sides of vinyl. I'm guessing that if the current trend for vinyl continues then perhaps marketing types will have to think about it more seriously again.

The cd re-issues of some of Bruce's finest still retain their two-sided running order

* Named after Sir Samuel Fludyer, the Lord Mayor of London in 1760 evidently.


Brendini said...

Lots of albums you either sat down or lay down to listen to. Steely Dan's The Royal Scam was one that people at a party danced to! Especially Kid Charlemagne and The Fez.

Dave Leeke said...

Oh yes, definitely, "The Royal Scam" was one that had the full John-Martyn-laying-on-my-parents' yellow velour sofa with the record player arm up, crashed out listening (particularly) to "Haitian Divorce".

Well anyway, Brendan, get along now, "I think the people down the hall know who you are."

Brendini said...

Along I shall get, but don't make me do it without the fez on.

Martyn Cornell said...

Sequencing is one of those arts you don't appreciate until you find it done really badly. I have a cd by the under-rated British jazz guitarist Gary Potter that I had to copy onto my Mac and resequence onto a new cd to make it listenable.

Dave Leeke said...

Hi Martyn,

Yes, that's an interesting point. I mentioned the CSNY one to edit out a despised track but re-sequencing is a whole other area to explore. I wonder what other albums could be improved by the fans rather than the artist?