Whenever listening to Leonard Cohen’s “The Story of Isaac”—a song in which war is conceived of as the semi-ritual sacrifice of a younger generation by an older one a la the Biblical myth— I have always savored its mysterious last line.
“Have mercy on our uniform,
Man of peace or man of war, The peacock spreads his fan.”
In 1968, when Leonard Cohen came to record it for Songs from a Room, he had already seen an impressive amount of action for someone whose name remains a byword for tremulous introspection. Not only had Cohen made a point of visiting Cuba during the fall of Batista (purportedly as a kind of freelance revolutionary), but he had also made a beeline for Israel during the Six-Day War, where he hooked up with an “air force entertainment group” and performed for soldiers going into battle! Cohen’s experience on (or relatively near) the front line was apparently a very rewarding one:
“War is wonderful. They’ll never stamp it out. It’s one of the few times people can act their best. It’s so economical in terms of gesture and motion, every single gesture is precise, every effort is at its maximum. Nobody goofs off. Everybody is responsible for his brother.”
The kind of conflict alluded to in the “The Story of Isaac,” though, sounds closer in type to the Vietnam War, which pitched, to an arguably unique degree, the old—who waged it—against the young—who fought in and against it. In 1974, Cohen expanded on the concept behind the song:
“One of the reasons we do have wars periodically is so the older men can have the women. Also, to completely remove the competition in terms of their own institutional positions.”
It’s an especially dark idea, this, that behind the draft and the domino effect and the military industrial complex, lurked (and forever lurks) an aging establishment’s instinct to safeguard its tribal, reproductive privileges—shipping off the emergent generation to distant killing fields.
That Cohen was apparently thinking in the above quasi-Darwinian terms inclines me to think that (as I’ve long suspected) the song’s last line—“The peacock spreads its fan”—is intended to evoke or echo Darwin’s famous misgiving: “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!”
Darwin’s point is widely taken to refer to the egregious impracticality of a peacock’s fan, as being inhospitable to the notion of natural selection. The paradox of the peacock’s fan can be applied to the paradox of war—surely both should by now have condemned their native species to extinction. Or inevitably will,
You’ve definitely heard her play guitar and bass. Statistically, you’re likely to own albums she played on. Your parents almost certainly did. According to her, she is responsible for many of the famous Motown bass lines usually attributed to James Jamerson, including “Bernadette,” “Reach Out,” “I Can’t Help Myself” and “I Was Made to Love Her.” She influenced The Beatles’ musical direction from Revolver onward. And it’s quite probable that you’ve never even heard her name.
Carol Kaye was one of the most prolific session musicians in American music in the ‘60s and ‘70s. In the male-dominated world of Los Angeles session players (sneered at in The Kinks’ song “Session Man”), Kaye was a rarity and a powerhouse. She began playing music professionally at 14 in 1949, playing guitar in big bands and bebop jazz groups, playing in clubs and giving lessons around Los Angeles. Her first recording sessions, beginning in 1957, were on guitar for Sam Cooke, Richie Valens, and the Righteous Brothers. From 1964-1973 she primarily played bass and appeared on over 10,000 recordings of pop songs, jazz standards, television show themes, and movie scores. She was one of the few female members of “The Wrecking Crew,” the name given by drummer Hal Blaine to the mostly anonymous first-call L.A. session players in the ‘60s.
Some of the best known songs featuring Carol Kaye’s work are Richie Valens’ “La Bamba” (on guitar), Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair,” Lalo Shifrin’s themes to Mission: Impossible and Mannix, The Monkees’ “I’m A Believer,” Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High,” The Lettermen’s “Going Out of My Head/Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons,” Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On,” and The Beach Boys’ “California Girls,” “Sloop John B,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” and “Heroes and Villains.” She also played on Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out and Absolutely Free albums. All this while raising a family.
Carol Kaye was confident, reliable, and able to keep up a rough studio schedule that sometimes stretched into 12-hour days. She was also very opinionated and known for refusing to take any shit from her male colleagues. When session guitarist Tommy Tedesco once insulted her in the studio, she verbally ripped him a new orifice.
Note Carol Kaye in background during this mid-Sixties Beach Boys session
Even today, there are those who simply refuse to believe some of Carol’s assertions, such as her claim to have played on Motown songs credited to James Jamerson and on Beach Boys songs like “Good Vibrations,” where a different bassist’s work may have been used on the final version. Detractors claim that she is either a bitter, jealous liar or a senile old lady with a failing memory. Whether that is misogyny/sexism or a blinkered refusal to admit that the sun did not always shine out of Jamerson’s ass alone is an ongoing matter for debate.
“Smile was originally conceived as an extension of the experimentation of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, the album that Paul McCartney acknowledges as having transformed his approach to the bass, in addition to prodding The Beatles to employ the studio more adventurously. McCartney has repeatedly cited Wilson’s bass playing in the era of Pet Sounds and Smile as the inspiration for the lyrical, contrapuntal bass style that he developed around the time of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The problem is, the bass player on nearly all of both Pet Sounds and Smile was not Brian Wilson. It was a jazz musician and studio pro in Los Angeles named Carol Kaye.”
And so Paul McCartney once said of Carol Kaye’s bass technique (without, apparently, knowing that it was her talents he was admiring):
“It was Pet Sounds that blew me out of the water. I love the album so much. I’ve just bought my kids each a copy of it for their education in life ... I figure no one is educated musically ‘til they’ve heard that album ... I love the orchestra, the arrangements ... it may be going overboard to say it’s the classic of the century ... but to me, it certainly is a total, classic record that is unbeatable in many ways ... I’ve often played Pet Sounds and cried. I played it to John so much that it would be difficult for him to escape the influence ... it was the record of the time. The thing that really made me sit up and take notice was the bass lines ... and also, putting melodies in the bass line. That I think was probably the big influence that set me thinking when we recorded Pepper, it set me off on a period I had then for a couple of years of nearly always writing quite melodic bass lines. ‘God Only Knows’ is a big favorite of mine ... very emotional, always a bit of a choker for me, that one. On ‘You Still Believe in Me,’ I love that melody - that kills me ... that’s my favorite, I think ... it’s so beautiful right at the end ... comes surging back in these multi-colored harmonies ... sends shivers up my spine.”
Outside of her years in the studio Carol worked as a music teacher, including a seven-year stint as on-staff Bass and Jazz Educator at the Henry Mancini Institute at UCLA and teaching courses at other universities as well. She’s written over thirty bass education books (Sting told talk show host Arsenio Hall that he had learned how to play bass from one of her books), made instructional DVDs, wrote a column for Bassics magazine and given hundreds of bass seminars. Carol continues to teach and offers bass lessons via Skype.
Next week marks the first release on DVD and Blu-ray of Rockshow , the two-hour plus 35mm concert documention of Paul McCartney and Wings’ 1976 American tour.
It’s a corker.
The “Wings Over America” tour (or “Wing Over The World” if you saw them elsewhere) was the largest tour that McCartney had mounted to that point (there were two small scale UK college tours in 1972) and based on the evidence of Rockshow (filmed in front of 67,000 fans at the gigantic Kingdome in Seattle and at smaller shows at The Forum in Los Angeles and New York’s Madison Square Garden), it must’ve been the very, very best time to have seen him perform other than during his Beatles days. (In any case, it was the first time North American fans had a chance to see McCartney perform since the final Beatles show at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in 1966.)
The set list is a motherfucker (song for song, the same as on the Wings Over America album) incorporating Macca’s very best solo material (“Band on the Run,” “Live and Let Die,” “Venus and Mars/Rockshow,” “Jet,” a magnificent “Bluebird”), five well-chosen Beatles numbers (“Blackbird,” “Lady Madonna,” “The Long and Winding Road,” “Yesterday” and “I’ve Just Seen A Face”) along with an excellent cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Richard Cory.” (I kept waiting for Denny to sing “Wish that I could be… John Denver” but that never occurs in this version, sadly.)
The incarnation of Wings seen and heard in Rockshow are Paul and Linda McCartney, drummer Joe English, and guitarists Denny Laine and Jimmy McCulloch. Brass and woodwind players Howie Casey, Steve Howard, Thaddeus Richard and Tony Dorsey were also along for the tour and again, other than the Fab Four, this was the very best band McCartney ever worked with. Rockshow captures him at a time when he was on a creative, personal and commercial peak and he’s obviously having a grand fucking time, grinning from ear to ear. (Not to damn the great man with faint praise, but this WAS his post-Beatles career peak. The indifferent London Town came next and it was all quickly downhill from there…)
If you owned the triple LP Wings Over America set, you probably recall its distinctively murky, hissy sound quality. Here, the restored audio has been expertly realized and the super-clean 5.1 HD DTS surround mix can rattle the walls (I’ve been playing it a lot these past few days, I sure hope my neighbors like Paul McCartney!)
The camera work in Rockshow is solid enough (no allowances were made for the movie crew, so it’s often shot from the side or through mic-stands)) and since this was pre-MTV, the editing isn’t hyper-kinetic and you actually have a chance to see the musicians playing their instruments for at least several seconds at a time. Picture quality is kinda “eh” for 35mm on Blu-Ray (to my eye it appears to be 16mm blown up to 35mm and it’s more than a little grainy in the darker parts). Frankly, although I’d put this on and play it all the way through, it’s not like I’m ever going to sit there and watch it all anyway. Like most people, I just dip in and out of concert DVDs, so the picture quality (which isn’t bad, mind you, not in the least, it’s just not great either) doesn’t really bother me. It’s all about the audio quality in my book, and this sucker is the tits in the high fidelity department (I would never listen to Wings Over America again owning this one)
Occasionally there are continuity problems, as the group wasn’t all wearing the same clothes for each concert that was filmed, and at one point Denny Laine’s bass magically changes from a black Precision Bass into a blonde Telecaster. Something else that I found slightly amusing was during “Magneto and Titanium Man” when a huge Jack Kirby-drawn mural drops (after a little coaxing) then sits there, unmoving for the length of the song. Today that would be an animated 3-D CGI HD video spectacular, but I suppose that stadium rock was still in its infancy then. Another smile comes during “Live and Let Die” where it looks like the smoke bombs and pyrotechnics weren’t all that much fun for the band to experience from the stage.
For its minor faults, Rockshow is a delight, even the cutaways to the young audience members are charming. In his liner notes, BBC radio’s Paul Gambaccini describes them as “not baby boomers overcome by emotion as they recall the music of their childhood, these are young people hearing the music when it was still fresh”:
“When the camera focuses on individual faces during “Blackbird,” we see persons who are alive in the moment, completely engaged by the experience. They do not realize that, in 2013, they will be tearful with joy to have such beautiful memories.”
But don’t think this can only be enjoyed as a nostalgia trip, it rocks like a motherfucker.
Frankly, I get sent a lot of DVDs, but after I watch something once, I usually just toss it, give it to a friend or trade it in. Most DVDs are disposable to me, but I’m keeping this one. Rockshow is actually worth buying and making a part of your collection. Had a free review copy not arrived in the post last week, I’d have bought my own copy anyway. I’d rate Rockshow five stars out of five. If it sounds like something you think you might like, you probably will like it. A lot.
Rockshow came out on Betamax and laserdisc in the early 1980s, but it has not been available (legally) for over 30 years. EagleRock’s DVD and Blu-ray release makes the full concert available for the very first time ever. The excerpt below, from The McCartney Years DVD should whet your appetite for the full thing.
I have always thought William Burroughs was a terribly superstitious man. His life was tinged by the strange, the paranormal and the occult. Whether this was his interest in the number “23”; or his hours spent gazing into mirrors in search of visions; or his belief that he could negate curses by repeating his own (“Go back, go back…” etc); or that he could, somehow, divine the future from Brion Gysin’s “Cut-Up” techniques.
Of course, he couldn’t. But he was always smart enough to suggest he could (for what it’s worth), while at the same time creating distance through the wry aside, the knowing wink, to escape any suggestion he was deluded.
Put it this way, if some acquaintance buttonholed you at a party, with a relentless, monotone whine of how they closed down a Scientology office by repeatedly playing recorded tapes outside the premises, you would make your excuses and head for the canapes.
Burroughs claims as much here, in his explanation of Brion Gysin’s “Cut-Up Method.”
When you experiment with Cut-Ups over a period of time you find that some of the Cut-Ups in re-arranged texts seemed to refer to future events. I cut-up an article written by John-Paul Getty and got, “It’s a bad thing to sue your own father.” This was a re-arrangement and wasn’t in the original text, and a year later, one of his sons did sue him.
Then comes the knowing aside…
Purely extraneous information, it meant nothing to me. Nothing to gain on either side.
Before he goes on to confirm his acceptance of some mysterious powers of divination.
We had no explanation for this at the time, it just suggesting that when you cut into the Present the Future leaks out. Well, we certainly accepted it, and continued our experiments.
So on to part two, In which we look at more recent nu-disco acts, mostly spanning the last decade or so, and mostly centered around the disco hub known as New York City, with some excursions to London, New Jersey and Oslo.
Thanks for all the feedback on the last post guys, it’s appreciated, and apologies in advance for not being able to fit everything in. If you think there’s something I have missed out on, or if there’s or an act or a dj you think people should know about, leave a comment. Anyway, let’s get to it:
Horse Meat Disco
Disco music does not exist on some abstract plain, of course, it is primarily music for the dance floor, designed to make you move your ass first, feel second, think lastly (if at all). So I couldn’t do a run down of the roots of “nu-disco” without mentioning an actual club that plays both disco and nu-disco music, where you can actually see and hear disco being consumed as it was intended to be, in the here-and-now and not the way-back-when. That club is Horse Meat Disco, a weekly Sunday afternoon/evening/night party hosted in the Eagle, a seedy bar in the heart of South London’s gay Vauxhall district. Through this ongoing weekly residency and a very fine series of compilation albums on Strut, Horse Meat has done more than any other club to rehabilitate disco, and they’ve done it not by stripping it of its “embarrassing” connotations, the kind that quickly turn off the overly-serious house head, but by going all out. For too long “nu-disco” was missing the spark that made disco itself so enticing in the first place: a sense of mischief, sexiness and most importantly FUN. Horse Meat Disco has helped reclaim disco from the boring head nodders and returned it to its primarily audience: gays, women, people of color. If you think disco music is a dead scene, frozen in amber and cocaine, then think again, you haven’t lived till you’ve experienced it with a heaving dancefloor of sweaty homosexuals, its rightful home. Horse Meat Disco is by far the best party in London, and the four man resident dj-team manage to share a lot of that love when they play in other clubs all over the world, or remix/produce their own tracks.
Horse Meat Disco interview for Groove Fest:
Norway: Lindstrom, Prins Thomas, Todd Terje
You’d think it would come as a bit of a surprise that the country responsible for the best nu-disco outside of New York or London would be snowy old Norway, but then house-heads in the late 90s were well aware of the disco talent in that small, northern country, thanks to releases by Those Norwegians, Bjorn Torske, Rune Lindbaek and Telle Records. Royksopp brought the “Norse house” sound to the global stage, but it was a producer by the name of Lindstrom who turned disco upside down, round and round, with the release of “I Feel Space.” A real dancefloor smash whose rising melody lines can still slay to this day, “I Feel Space” feels more genuinely Moroder-esque than anything on Random Access Memories, and is a brilliant demonstration of how to capture that era and feeling without resorting to expensive studios packed full of original 70s gear. Lindstrom’s studio partner Prins Thomas has also been busy carving out a niche for himself as one of the best house djs in the world (he is, if you ever have the chance to see him spin, take it!) and has been releasing some excellent Norwegian nu-disco on his own Full Pupp label. And that’s not to mention their protege Todd Terje, a master of the re-edit who has branched out into his own original productions over the last few years, culminating in the critically lauded Inspector Norse release from last year, and this years brilliant single with Lindstrom, “Lanzarote”:
Lindstrom & Todd Terje “Lanzarote”
After the jump DFA, Glass Candy, Escort, Chromatics, Arthur’s Landing, Hecules & Love Affair and more…
And also this video, which inspired me to write this whole primer in the first place, in the hope of bringing more attention to acts I like and tracks I love, like this one. THIS is how you revive disco, robots please take note: