November 15th, 2008


Unheard Vinyl 1: The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

The Momus loudspeaker saga had a happy ending: after naming a range of ultra-hifi speakers after a lofi artist, the Ukrainian company Sound Sound followed up with the gift of a NAD amp. I then added a Technics 1210 MKII turntable, which I'd been lusting after ever since seeing one in my friend Jan's flat (a record store was going out of business on my street and had a pair to sell).

The result is that I now have the best sound system I've had in my entire life. I've been bringing up boxes of vinyl from the cellar and ranging them in my pine Trissa LP boxes, and one thing that strikes me is that there are lots of records I've owned for years but have still never heard. This is mainly because I inherited the vast collection of a music fan I used to live with in London, a girl who had to hot-foot it back to New Zealand and left me pretty much her entire collection. Amongst these unheard LPs are some classics, and I thought it might be interesting to play them for the first time and give you a running commentary of my impressions.

We start with an album I've actually alluded to in one of my songs. "Mistaken Memories of Medieval Manhattan" contains the line "on Broadway a lamb is lying down", which refers, of course, to Genesis' first album. The line is in there because I was reading Paul Stump's book about prog rock, The Music's All That Matters, at the time, and playing around with prog song structures. But the history of my non-meeting with this Genesis album goes back further; I was sharing a taxi with Edwyn Collins after a party at Malcolm Ross' house in about 1986, and as we approached my flat on Draycott Place, Chelsea, Edwyn confided that he'd heard my new LP and thought it sounded like early Genesis. For some reason (possibly the sense that this was not meant as a compliment) I never investigated. But I will now.

Putting records on my new deck is a pleasure. It's so heavy and solid, there's no lid, you examine the card album sleeve, note the secondhand sticker (the Genesis album was bought for £4 from Snooper's Paradise in Brighton), note that it's a double LP (blimey!), note the conceptual art-like imagery (a man observes a three-part scene in which he pulls himself out of a waterfall into a Room 101-type place, and then his vacant silhouette stands in a long hallway populated by what look like baby cheetahs), note that the label on the vinyl resembles the arty labels 4AD used to use.

Time to switch on! I'm not going to read any online commentaries, or even the album's voluminous sleeve notes (I glimpse a single phrase: "I will not chase a black raven"). No titles, no info; I'm just going to play the record and record my raw impressions and associations.

It starts with arpeggios, and Gabriel's rather annoying strangulated whine. It sounds very old-fashioned. The arpeggios get a bit more virtuoso and random. Gabriel sings what sounds like "I'm full of shit, I don't care who I hurt, I don't care who I wrong". Things are building up. Oh! Something quite good happens, there's a little embedded marching song, then Gabriel sings falsetto, then it goes into another new section, with organs, sort of post-Day-in-the-Life psychedelia (all those little interlocking sections). Big bass synth! Something about porcupines, strange bleated singing. I don't like the "heavy" bits, but I like the weird little Prussian songlets that come in from time to time. It seems to be ending with a gentle coda. Now there's something pacific and synthetic, a bit like Mike Oldfield.

What year are we even in here? I have no idea. I'd guess 1974? Now there's something Paul McCartneyesque going on -- "erogenous zones I love you". Actually it sounds Californian too, like Randy Newman. I hate Gabriel's voice, and the way these poppy commercial songs edge through over-complex arrangements. It's just not my cup of tea at all. The endless key and tempo changes don't take me anywhere. But then a sort of silly kazoo solo makes it all worthwhile. You can see that this music picks up where late Beatles left off. They're trying to be as creative and whacky as that, and then some.

More arpeggios, references to the Golden Fleece. I suppose this quiet number might be what Edwyn thought my first album sounded like. "You've got to get in to get out" -- that sounds familiar, this is like reading Hamlet for the first time and recognizing the quotes. Actually I quite like this one, there are recorders in the background. "The carpet-crawlers heed their callers". What is he on about? "The liquid has congealed which has seeped out through the crack... (something something) stickleback". The chorus is great, though. It's all very knife-edge, I don't know if I like this album or hate it.

More symphonic proggery, with lots of synths. Why does Gabriel harmonize in thirds so much? It neutralizes his melodies. "But the juggler holds another pack" -- I hate this sub-Dylan gaming-circus imagery. And, you know, do jugglers hold packs of cards? Come on! Conservative sentiments about trusting country men over town men, and people who work with their hands over others. Oh no, there's a "priest and a magician... and even academics searching printed word". Enough tarot! And this strangled singing style, like a bleating prog sheep! Will I make it to the end of Side One, let alone Side Four?

Oh, thank Christ, it's ended! I don't think I'm going to flip it over, this has gone on long enough.

Update: Okay, I looked at the Wikipedia entry on Genesis and this was actually their sixth album. I was right about the date, though: 1974.

Update 2: I also seem to have been listening to Side 2 thinking it was Side 1. In my day, when you put all the song info on one label and a picture on the other, the picture side was Side 1.