Monday, 31 October 2011

THE MILLENNIUM: transmitting general happiness

I think Begin by The Millennium is one of the greatest pop records ever made. It was notorious in its day for being the most expensive album Columbia had ever recorded, but - in the absence of a performing band to plug it - sales were low. The back cover promised it was 'TO BE CONTINUED', but the septet split soon after its August 1968 release, dooming it to retrospective cult worship. Here's everything I've found relating to it.

Firstly, this is the only contemporaneous interview with Curt Boettcher that I'm aware of. It appeared as part of a feature about the occult in the April 1968 issue of Cheetah magazine, and would have been conducted at the time that Begin was being recorded:

Here's a snippet from TeenSet of June 1968:

Begin was released in August, trailed by a 45 coupling It's You and I Just Want To Be Your Friend. Here's the picture sleeve a few copies came with:

A launch party for the album was held on July 19th. Here's the invitation (and yes, the brownies did follow the Alice B. Toklas recipe):

Here are the (strangely drab) cover and the insert that a few copies came with. Originally it folded over the back cover, showing a tear-off 'Mee Moo' logo strip, as below. It contains thanks from the band on one side and a bad poem by one Brian Longe on the other:

It was also issued on 8-track cartridge:

Various ads appeared in the contemporary press:

I haven't found many reviews, and the ones I have are mixed:

‘New group with a unique sound that should quickly establish them with the fans. With the flair and feel of The Mamas & The Papas and The Stone Poneys, they offer a diversified program that’s musically first-rate. ‘It’s You’ is a smooth rock ballad with singles potential, and ‘Anthem’ is outstanding’ – Billboard, 31/8/68

‘The vocal and instrumental arrangements and the harmonic textures this group achieves are surpassed only by the quality of the original material written by its members’ – Saturday Review, August 1968

‘Soft, full, light – sometimes overdone arrangements, but generally excellent songs and vocals’ – TeenSet, October 1968

‘Despite certain pretensions (extraneous sounds, etc) incorporated into the music, what The Millennium offers is faultlessly-surfaced teeny-bopper fare. There is no denying the septet’s smoothness and professionalism, but equally there’s no denying the essential vacuity of its material. Production is absolutely first-rate, as befits an album of this type. Not much for serious listeners, however’ – Down Beat, 15/5/69

This article appeared in TeenSet of December 1968, and shows that an inability to spell their name is nothing new:

In the February 20th 1970 issue of Fusion, Clive Davis - head of Columbia at the time - had the following to say. (Both the interviewers and Davis seem to be conflating Begin and Present Tense by Sagittarius, which was released simultaneously.)

What do producers do at Columbia these days?
I think we allow a great deal of freedom to our producers. We allow them to do work and build up a track record upon which we can judge their creative standards. In the past I think this has been abused by a number of producers - certainly not by all, but there have been producers both in and outside of Columbia who have not held the highest standards for themselves and have perhaps lowered their sights and signed artists who they feel are competent but yet who don't have the degree of charisma to really step out above competition.

Gary Usher and the Millenium, for example? We understand they became pretty expensive.
I think the truth about that is Gary never really knew how much money he was spending, and that responsibility was entrusted to him. The progress reports showed a much lower amount than was actually being spent. We knew that it was going to be more expensive than the average album. We did not know that it was becoming as heavy an expense as it did. Listening to the quality of the tapes. I was quite impressed. Millennium had an exciting sound. But there are very few recording entities that have ever made it without building up charisma and a following. Also to make records sell, you have to perform and of course they never did appear around. There are basic principles as to why records sell and, number one, this group did not perform and appear around to create an underground following. We sold a fairly respectable number of the Millennium album — not enough to re­coup the recording cost — but they certainly created quite a stir among a number of people.

Did the group exist?
In the recording studio. They never appeared in person. Another principle is that if a group doesn't appear in person, the only way you can break the album is to get a single from the album. We couldn't break a single with them.

Where'd they come from?
This was Gary Usher's project that he worked on with Curt Boettcher. The two of them put together the art­ists for Millennium. It was a studio group that they just formed. They signed the group. Mostly everyone I know liked the Millennium album. There were hardly any negative comments. I know my friend Jac Holzman at Elektra once said that if he had to bring three albums to an island to live with over a period of years, the Millennium album would be one of them.

The cult reputation of Begin was well underway by December 1971, when the following paragraph appeared in Phonograph Record Magazine, in an article about Millennium member Michael Fennelly's new band Crabby Appleton:

In the autumn of 1974 Fennelly gave this revealing interview to the ever-great ZigZag magazine:

I'm unaware of any interviews given by the Millennium in their lifetime, but a detailed conversation with Curt Boettcher appeared in the December 1974 and January 1975 issues of ZigZag, and can be read here and here

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Their Satanic Majesties & The Fab Four

Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released on June 1st 1967, in the most elaborate sleeve of any rock album up to that point. Though cut-outs of the Rolling Stones weren't included, an oblique tribute was paid by the inclusion of a Shirley Temple doll wearing a jumper that has 'THE WMPS GOOD GUYS WELCOME THE ROLLING STONES' knitted on it. Six months and many tribulations later, the Stones finally released their own psychedelic album, Their Satanic Majesties Request. Not to be outdone, they had an amazingly expensive lenticular sleeve produced, with art direction by their chum Michael Cooper. Buried in the blurry image are the moustachioed heads of the four Beatles, but they're nigh-on impossible to spot, so I thought I'd spoil the fun:

Thursday, 20 October 2011

RIC COLBECK: 'a player of exceptional power and complexity'

Frustratingly little is known of this enigmatic trumpeter. He was from Liverpool, where he joined future record producer Noel Walker's trad jazz band in the late 50s. "He played more in the style of Ken Colyer than anyone else, and had a good knowledge of the standard trad repertoire," Walker told me in March 2013. "In 1962 the band played a season at Butlins Filey, after which we broke up. Most of us returned to Liverpool, but Ric moved to London, and after a few months I joined him there. We roomed together at a flat in Kilburn, and then World's End. He knew all the musician's hangouts - the pubs and late night dives etc. - and we used to enjoy sitting in whenever we could. Quite often, coming home on the tube, we would get out our horns and play to an audience who were just as drunk / stoned as we were! It was clear that at this point he was becoming interested in freeform. The trouble was, neither of us was getting any work! Eventually I landed a job as a producer at Decca, but Ric spent his days and nights pottering around the West End, and his behaviour became so erratic that the landlord chucked him out."

Here are a couple of previously unseen snaps of Colbeck with the band, kindly supplied by Walker:

In the mid-60s Colbeck moved to New York, where he shared a Brooklyn loft with the saxophonist Marzette Watts, worked in the Record Center and Record Hunter stores, recorded a pair of albums with Noah Howard and hung out with John Coltrane, Sonny Sharrock, Jaki Byard and others at the cutting edge of jazz. In late 1969 he contributed trumpet, piano and harp to Dave Burrell's La Vie de Bohème album, a jazzy interpretation of Puccini's opera. At the end of the year he returned to the UK and formed a short-lived quartet with Mike Osborne (alto sax), Frenchman J.F. 'Jenny' Clark (bass) and South African Selwyn Lissack (drums). The great Richard Williams interviewed him for Melody Maker at this point; it may be the only interview he ever gave, and has never been republished. Here goes:

Melody Maker, January 17th 1970
On the day the interview appeared (Saturday 17th January), the quartet played a gig at the Crucible Club in Soho, which Williams rapturously covered a week later:

Melody Maker, January 24th 1970
At around this time Noel Walker encountered him again. "I'd spent the next few years immersed in the production of all kinds of music, and was really excited at the time because I was producing Duke Ellington, but Ric was totally unimpressed and accused me of selling out to commercialism! He told me he was doing some recording for Philips, we did a short round of our old haunts and parted, never to meet again." On January 19th-20th 1970 the quartet recorded an album in Chalk Farm Studios, produced by one of British jazz's greatest proponents, John Jack. The following Saturday they were back at the Crucible, this time supporting Bob Downes:

And a fortnight later they were playing with Michael Garrick and Norma Winstone at the Jazz Centre Society in Shaftesbury Avenue:

Their album, The Sun Is Coming Up, crept out on Fontana in August, in a striking sleeve by Marcus Keef. By then, however, Colbeck had long since returned to America, and no one bought it (a copy sold on eBay in March 2013 for $698).

'He's a harsh player with a spurting, asymmetrical quality to his phrasing, often building solos out of a string of seemingly disconnected notes, each quite separate,' wrote Melody Maker. 'On the ballads he can conjure up an almost childlike air of despair and loneliness. There are a lot of reasons why you should buy this one.' Gramophone was also impressed, stating that 'Clark and Osborne acquit themselves brilliantly throughout the LP, both as soloists and in creating a varied and exciting flurry in the background.'

Unfortunately, I'm unaware of any further recordings of Colbeck, who apparently drank himself to death in November 1981, but he has a loyal following. Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth is one notable admirer, and described The Sun Is Coming Up as an 'exceptional and complex masterpiece' in issue #2 of Grand Royal magazine. As Noel Walker concludes: "Ric was a very charismatic guy, capable of great charm, but often moody and depressive. I was very sad, but not surprised, to learn that he had died so young." 

Sunday, 9 October 2011

John Lennon: LP winner!

One of the joys of old music papers is chancing upon revealing interviews that have barely been seen since their first appearance. It's especially interesting to find a Beatles one, of course, and here's a corker. Written by the late Ray Coleman, it appeared in Melody Maker of April 10th 1965, and catches the great man during the filming of Help! (then labouring under the working title of Eight Arms To Hold You), as he began to shed his moptop image and project a more complex public persona. Indeed, it was in April 1965 that he first took LSD (in coffee spiked by his dentist). There are numerous intriguing insights in the piece, but I won't pontificate about them here. One point, though: there's a reference to Lennon carting 'huge box full after huge box full of LPs into the lounge'; I recently spoke to Barry Miles, who told me that Capitol sent all four Beatles every new single and album in the US top 200 every single week throughout the 1960s, without fail...

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

COB: the contemporary press (part 2)

Clive Palmer, Mick Bennett, John Bidwell and Genevieve Val Baker

Following the release of Spirit Of Love in November 1971, COB played a few gigs, but largely focused on getting a new set of songs together back in Cornwall. They added Genevieve Val Baker (whose sister Demelza had played with Palmer and Bidwell in the Temple Creatures) on drums and percussion, and by July 1971 they had a single ready for release. Produced by Ralph McTell, Blue Morning / Bones appeared on Polydor, following the dissolution of their manager Jo Lustig's arrangement with CBS. Lustig had apparently instructed them to come up with something deliberately commercial, and the result is a good-natured pop record that sounds little like the rest of their work. The A-side verges on reggae, and the flip is almost a novelty song. It's an anomaly in their catalogue, and seems to have baffled Rosalind Russell when she interviewed them for Disc on July 29th 1972:

The same issue carried a review of the 45, which repeated Russell's remarks:

Sales were minuscule, but it was also issued in Germany, with a picture sleeve:

In late July, they went back into the studio in London to record their second and final album, with some striking assistance by Danny Thompson on double bass. Thankfully, they'd got the lightweight pop out of their system, and created one of the great masterpieces of modern English music, Moyshe McStiff & The Tartan Lancers Of The Sacred Heart. Produced by McTell - whose skill in managing their sound deserves the highest praise - it was completed by August 6th, which is the date scribbled on the mastertape. Soon afterwards they performed at the Cambridge Folk Festival. Here's their entry in the programme:

With the release of Moyshe approaching, they gave a fascinating interview to Melody Maker on September 14th:

On Saturday 20th they played a gig with Gillian McPherson and Bridget St. John at the Basildon Arts Centre. Here's their page from the programme:

The album appeared as part of Polydor's short-lived 'Folk Mill' imprint in early October, and was trailed in a couple of papers:

Here's a promo photo Polydor issued at the time. Though Genny Val Baker is prominent in it, she only appears in an intermittent supporting role on the record, which was evidently made as a trio, and not the quartet Palmer had spoken of earlier in the year:

The striking artwork was by Paul Whitehead (who also designed covers for High Tide, Andrew Leigh, Genesis and others), and it came with another gatefold sleeve containing all the lyrics:

Incidentally, I spoke to Whitehead about the album, and this is what he said: "Boy! That's a blast from the past. If I remember correctly, that was an airbrushed piece involving a dragon and the band slaying it - right? I did a lot of covers in the 70s and they all seem to blur into each other in terms of the creative process involved. I usually insisted on hearing the music as it was written, or at least reading the lyrics. I remember meeting with one of the band. We talked about the concept and I showed him some pictures from a Victorian illustrated book about King Arthur as a possible way to go. Once everyone (band and record company) agreed that was a good direction, I just got to work. I don't have a copy of the cover and I imagine the original piece is in the possession of the record company - if they still exist."

The two reviews I have found were broadly complimentary, though Jerry Gilbert in Sounds mystifyingly criticised the trio's brilliant vocals, which apparently 'should have been stronger':

Sounds, October 14th 1972
Melody Maker, October 14th 1972
On October 14th another interesting article appeared in Melody Maker, written by Eric Winter:

As the article explains, to promote the album they went on a prestigious tour with Pentangle and Wizz Jones, which had been advertised in Melody Maker on September 23rd:

Here's the 'souvenir brochure' cover (billing them as 'Clive Palmer's COB') and their section:

The tour was well-received, if a little shambolic, reflecting the turbulence in Pentangle at the time (they split as soon as the tour ended). COB's performance in Croydon on November 5th got a lukewarm notice in the local paper on the 10th:

By then, however, long-term hardship had exacerbated their personal differences and the initial magic had gone. They persevered with a weekly residency in one of London's leading folk venues, the Half Moon in Putney, but split for good in March 1973, without making any further recordings. Their full story can be read in the notes to the Sunbeam reissue of Moyshe McStiff, and I recommend Grahame Hood's biography of Clive Palmer, Empty Pocket Blues, but I'll end here with a statement Ralph McTell made to me when I was working on the reissue: "COB was about three guys living in the middle of nowhere who somehow came up with this magical music. I feel we got the absolute best out of each other, and couldn't have improved the records in any way. In my opinion they stand head and shoulders above most of what passed for music at the time, and I'm very, very proud of what we achieved together."