Vinyl Fetishes…

In the last year or so I’ve had the chance to do some interesting little side projects for the BBC (Time Travellers for Radio 3) and for a magazine or two – one of which was writing a few small things for Record Collector magazine, a monthly which appeals to me because, well, y’know, I collect records. A couple of the ‘Vinyl Fetish’ pieces – 300 word shorts on favourite albums that need more love – didn’t get in before lockdown (and the attendant curtailment of contributions) so here they are. With a couple of my favourites that did get in !

JOHN LE MESURIER

WHAT IS GOING TO BECOME OF US ALL?

(REPRISE  K54080/RS5360  UK  1976)

‘Do you think that’s wise, Sir?’. So said Sgt Arthur Wilson, as he bore witness to another ill-advised decision by Captain George Mainwaring (pronounced Mannering) in Dad’s Army. Wilson was played with consummate ease by John Le Mesurier who, like many of the cast, enjoyed a late bloom in his already lengthy career via the show. Dad’s Army proved so popular that a stage version arrived in 1975, playing the West End and touring the UK. Le Mesurier’s solo ‘musical’ contribution was a recitation of  Manning Sherwin and Eric Maschwitz’s ‘A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square’. Derek Taylor – yes, that one – was involved in the recording of the show’s cast album (originally for Taylor’s employer Warners, last in print via Rhino), loved his performance, and the pair began a lifelong friendship via a shared enthusiasm for American humourist Stephen Leacock.

This led to Taylor suggesting Le Mesurier record a whole album; et voilà, What Is Going To Become Of Us All? (1976). It’s a shared endeavour with vocalist Annie Ross and pianist Alan Clare, both doyens of the British jazz scene, of which the actor was enamoured. Taylor wrote a charming sleevenote. Le Mesurier takes nine of the thirteen tracks reciting Leacock, Laurie Lee, and (naturellement) Noel Coward and Cole Porter. That Nightingale reappears too. I was crestfallen to discover that the cover of Paul Simon’s ‘So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright’ was taken by Ross and Clare – imagine John’s voice on that! – but it’s all part of a very definite civilised mood. Gently stroked late-afternoon piano, subtle orchestrations; one can almost hear the fine china tea-cups softly rattle. Add John’s laconic tones and it’s all perfectly, perfectly lovely – and probably the oddest (and certainly the most English) record ever to emerge on Reprise. Turns out it was rather wise, Sir.

COWBOYS INTERNATIONAL

THE ORIGINAL SIN

VIRGIN V 2136

Sometimes you see a band and think, they’ll make it. That’s what I thought when I saw Dire Straits and Simple Minds at our local music pub in the late 70’s; it was obvious. I was equally sure Cowboys International, who I saw several times in 1979/80, would make the breakthrough.

Signed by Virgin in the busy post-punk era, they were effectively Newcastle-born Ken Lockie and a constantly changing line-up behind him. Illustrious names passed through the ranks, such as ex-Clash drummer Terry Chimes and future Ant Marco Pirroni while PiL guitar hero Keith Levene guested. Their first single ‘Aftermath’ caused a splash and not only because of its orange vinyl; its post-punk edge and vigour crossed with an unforgettable pop melody and distinctive vocal saw them rocket out of the blocks. Virgin put plenty of their Pistolian filthy lucre into the band and The Original Sin debuted in October 1979. It was well-received, placing at number 11 in the Melody Maker end-of-year-list.

In the creative-design spirit of the age, it was issued not with a conventional jacket but in a Lucozade-orange clear plastic cover, album details visible on the inner sleeve. Every song was a winner, brilliantly blending tradition and innovation: electropop vanguard meeting flat-out great pop songwriting. Dig ‘Pointy Shoes’, ‘Wish’ and a fabulous re-record of ‘Aftermath’, which you can hear below. ‘Thrash’ became a single, and was recently – somewhat unexpectedly – lauded in print by Moby, who included it in a list of his five favourite records.

Back in late ’79, radio responded with plenty of plays, and a slot on the rejuvenated Whistle Test was secured – again, as you can see (in black and white!) below. Stardom surely beckoned. Yet it didn’t happen. Bad luck?  Right place, wrong time? If I knew the answer to such questions, I’d be living in a huge house by the sea in New South Wales, right now. Regardless, Cowboys International left this album and several 45’s  for us to enjoy. Ken Lockie made a solo album, The Impossible (1981) then seemed to just…disappear. Low-key reissues and a comeback album in 2004 (The Backwards Life Of Romeo) were welcome but I’d have loved to hear more of Mr. Lockie’s uncommon musical stylings.

VIRGINIA ASTLEY

From Gardens Where We Feel Secure

(Happy Valley/Rough Trade 1983)

I first encountered  Virginia Astley as one third of The Ravishing Beauties at The Teardrop Explodes’ ‘Club Zoo’ in Liverpool, Autumn 1981 – three girls in smocks playing instruments I’d rarely seen since the school orchestra and songs like I’d never heard. I was smitten by the smocks, but also the sound, poised between pastorale and pop.  After the group split (fellow Beauties Kate St John going on to hit records with The Dream Academy and a stellar career as writer, player and arranger, Nicky Holland to Tears For Fears and Hollywood scores) I spied Virginia Astley’s name again in 1985, browsing through albums about to be discarded by a Liverpool radio station: ‘it’s just a promo, you can have it.’  So that’s how I acquired my copy of From Gardens Where We Feel Secure, two years late, virtually unplayed, complete with 10×8 of Virginia in a chunky knit jumper and photocopied bio.

Daughter of 60’s TV theme-meister Edwin Astley, sister of producer Jon, her credentials were impeccable, but her tender, bucolic music had little in common with anything they’d created. Recorded just after the demise of The Ravishing Beauties, the album takes its title from a line in a W.H.Auden poem; it shares a conceit with XTC’s later Skylarking, tracks marking the passing hours of a summer’s day, but presents an unmistakably English classical shape, being a kind of tone poem with nine piano-led pieces of slowly sensual chamber-folk, voices heard la-la-ing on one track only. Yet it also feels pioneering in its use of ambient sound – looped analogue field recordings of creaking garden gates, birdsong, braying donkeys – linking forward to Teardrops boss Bill Drummond’s Chill Out  with The KLF. For music so relaxing , it was wide awake: very delicate but very free, unafraid of the world. Nowadays she writes poetry and takes photographs in the same spirit.

So – Vaughan Williams or The KLF?  Hard to say. This is probably a good thing, for in its quietly reflective way it defies genre altogether. What I can promise is that listening to this record will make your life better.

GARY SHEARSTON

Dingo   

(Charisma CAS 1091   LP  UK 1974)

In the Autumn of 1974 a  song called  ‘I Get A Kick Out Of You’ reached the UK Top 10. I liked the ‘My Sweet Lord’ strum, folksy fiddle and steady pop beat but most of all the voice singing the song. “Aui git  noew  keeck  frorm  sham-paiiyne”.  What sort of accent was that? Turned out the voice belonged to Gary Shearston, an Australian who, via a recommendation from John Peel, had signed to the genially freaky Charisma label. While new to the UK, Shearston was already well into his career, dubbed the ‘Aussie Dylan’ in the mid 60’s; it was ironic  that his only international hit was a cover as he wrote hundreds of songs, including those on his two Charisma albums, Dingo (1974 , home of  ‘Kick’) and The Greatest Stone On Earth (1975).

Dingo, with its startling Hipgnosis-designed sleeve featuring  Shearston staring straight back atcha, is a treasure; literate lyrics , country-rock-folk-prog  (is that a thing?) melodies, head-spinning arrangements. Check the title tune: Aussie country-rock, pedal steel tracking the heels of the wild dogs and what we’d now call a sample of the high, lonesome cry of the dingo (they can’t bark) folded in to the mix. Add the warm Outback twang of  Shearston’s voice to his sleeve note that “this album rolls along something akin to the time of the ancient bushrangers” and it’s clear that this is fearlessly Australian music.

While the supporting cast has serious pedigree –  Hugh ‘Baker Street’ Murphy produces, Jim Parker (John Betjeman, Midsomer Murders theme) arranges – it’s Shearston’s show as his strong melodic sense meets equally potent lyricism. As a kid I was amazed to hear such words in a song – wasn’t it all ‘Shang-a-Lang’?  Rather wonderfully I became a pen pal of Gary Shearston in his later years, after he helped me with my book about Van Morrison, Hymns To The Silence. We would discuss music at length via email and he modestly fielded my enthusiasm for the album thus: ‘I’m glad the old Dingo still howls on for you’. It might howl for you too; try it.

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