Monthly Archives: March 2007

In the trail of Telstar

There’s a special place in the constellations for the brilliant British pop producer and innovator Joe Meek and his 1962 instrumental hit “Telstar.”

Britain’s musical eccentrics and studio experimentalists did not enjoy the same host of independent labels that America’s did in the 1950s and ‘60s. Joe Meek’s vision of pop sonics was so strong and so distinct – and his production techniques so eccentric – that he chose to, or rather had to, work outside the conservative studio system then dominating the British music scene. And so, after a few fairly constrained years as an engineer in London’s IBC studios, Meek set up shop in his own London flat, recording on his home-made equipment and recording very much on his own terms, leasing the masters he made to the big British labels. His maverick studio shop was a bold move, but the Joe Meek sound proved not only immediately identifiable but also quite successful. Many of his recordings were British hits, and some, like the Honeycombs’ “Have I the Right,” charted in America as well.

His sound ultimately fell out of favor with the advent of ‘60s psychedelia, but Joe Meek’s body of work has earned a fair amount of deserved attention in the past decade or so. It’s not really his prodigious recording or the bizarre, dramatic arc of his personal life that this week’s Office Naps is devoted to, however. Rather, it’s the one song which was far and away his biggest international hit, and the song for which Meek is best remembered: “Telstar.” (Listen to an excerpt of “Telstar” here.)

“Telstar,” performed by Meek’s house band the Tornados, topped the American pop charts for five weeks in 1962, and occasionally you’ll see it described as the first hit of the British Invasion. That’s a bit misleading, though, as “Telstar” is wholly dissimilar from the groups of the British Invasion – the song truly belongs to the preceding years of space age pop and guitar instrumentals. And though it’s pretty singular to that era as well, “Telstar” was typical of the Joe Meek sound: multi-tracked musical parts, echo, a shrill and “compressed” production, electronic gadgetry and home-made sound effects, an outer space aesthetic, and weird, exotic instruments (like the clavioline keyboard heard prominently).

The Space Race, that ominous amalgam of astrophysics and Cold War ideology, may have spooked some. Meek, though, saw the Space Race not for its undercurrent of nuclear annihilation but rather for what it really was: pure, exhilarating pageantry.

(I do not even begin to adequately describe the Joe Meek saga. John McCready’s excellent Mojo article is a good place to start for that.)

1. The Vulcanes, Twilight City (Capitol)
The Vulcanes were a studio-bound instrumental group in early ’60s Los Angeles; they released a few big-production instrumentals on Capitol Records with help from industry producers and players like H.B. Barnum and Joe Saraceno.

“Twilight City,” from 1964 (along with the excellent “Moon Probe,” its flipside) is the most interesting of the lot. It doesn’t copy the “Telstar” riff, exactly, but the anthemic thrust and the reverbed guitars are there, and so is the effect: the cold majesty of outer space. Of course, you could have named this track “Wave Rider” or “Surf Whip” and it would have made a great surfing paean, too. That’s what’s endearing about a lot of ‘60s guitar instrumentals: so much depends upon the title.

Sharp-eyed readers may have spotted the name David Axelrod for his producer credit. It’s not the sublime orchestrated funk for which he later earned the lasting support of DJs and funk collectors, but the echo and crystalline production style are quintessential Axelrod.

Thank to former Vulcanes saxophonist Don Roberts for the information on the Vulcanes.

2.
The Astronomers, Relay – Son of Telstar (Ember)
“Telstar” done in the style of definitive ‘60s guitar instrumental group the Shadows, Britain’s tasteful, glasses-wearing counterparts to the Ventures.

“Relay – Son of Telstar,” released on New York City’s Ember label around 1963, was recorded in Britain.  I suspect this is the Shadows themselves, actually, playing under an assumed name. Not only does “Relay” sound exactly like the Shadows’ handiwork, but the songwriters involved – Ray Adams, Elaine Murtagh, and Valerie Murtagh – also penned songs for the group.

On final note, “Relay”’s producer, Gerry Bron, is perhaps best known today for his legacy of producing and wrangling British hard rock dinosaurs Uriah Heep

3. The Double IV, Magic Star (Capitol)
Electronic flourishes, crushingly white vocals and trebly, glass-shattering production – “Magic Star” is exactly how you’d write the vocal vision of Meek’s big hit.

The Double IV were not a Joe Meek vehicle, though, just a impeccable simulation.  A Los Angeles studio group, the Double IV were assembled by Jimmie Haskell, who, in addition to a long, ongoing career in the Los Angeles studio world as a for-hire pop arranger, composer, and conductor, himself cut a fascinating album of knob-turning pop-electronica in 1957 entitled Count Down.

Haskell and company’s “Magic Star” was released around 1963.

Posted in Instrumentals/Surf | 10 Comments

Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue

Dusty Springfield, with her big voice, big bouffant, and hits like “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” “The Look of Love,” and “Son of a Preacher Man,” may have been the queen of ‘60s blue-eyed soul. She wasn’t the only ‘60s white soul girl, though.

To a certain extent, much of commercial pop music is black music retooled for white audiences. Such interests may have played into the record contracts and promotional support accorded to this week’s singers, but there’s far more to Evie, Chris, and Sharon than just financial bottom lines and marketability. They’re three supremely talented individuals at the end of all, with their own idiosyncratic ways of rendering heartbreak and delivering the emotional gravitas.

1. Evie Sands, I Can’t Let Go (Blue Cat)
Even during the 45 rpm record’s halcyon years as the medium for attaining pop success, you needed more than the blessing of innate ability, dark good looks and a stunning, husky voice. You needed more than top-notch production and the brilliant pop songwriting talents of Al Gorgoni and Chip Taylor. The music-obsessed, Brooklyn-raised Evie Sands, perched several times throughout her career on the brink of bigger success, was blessed with all of these qualities except, it seems, for that most slippery ingredient of broader pop fortune: luck.

Sands’ first single, “Take Me for a Little While” – also on songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s Blue Cat label – was characteristic of her mournful, soulful style.  While terrific, it was beaten to the charts by a competing version from Chicago singer Jackie Ross. If “Take Me for a Little While” was worthy, then “I Can’t Let Go” – which followed a few months later – was thumping 1965 girl-soul perfected, with one of the catchiest choruses in ‘60s pop. Sands was expert at conveying vulnerability with her voice – it verily coursed with the hormone surges of the young, lovelorn America.  But “I Can’t Let Go,” too, only grazed the charts. In 1969 Sands would enjoy her greatest success with “Any Way That You Want Me” and an excellent full-length album on A&M.  It would mostly be her songwriting talents that carried Evie Sands financially through the ‘70s, however. Sands retreated from the music business not long thereafter, her career perpetually remaining one of continued undervaluation – a fact which, if nothing else, guaranteed Sands an existence in the purgatory of diehard soul fans’ adoration.

Sands would eventually reunite with songwriter Chip Taylor in 1999 for her album Women in Prison.

Incidentally, England’s Hollies would cover this song in 1966. Their version is well worth seeking out, too.

2.
Chris Clark, Love’s Gone Bad (V.I.P.)
Like this week’s other artists, Chris Clark’s releases eventually found their way to a niche of soul fanatics, but broader musical fame eluded her. Which isn’t to say that Clark didn’t manage success – she did. That success came in the same place where she’d started: behind the scenes at Motown Records. Clark started work at Motown as a receptionist in 1963, eventually working her way up to a position as Vice-President of the label’s Television and Movies division in the ‘70s.

The irony, of course, is that Clark, who’d always wanted to be a singer, truly belonged out there in front of the scene the whole time.  Perhaps there was only room in the American mind for one statuesque blonde with a skyward bouffant, though, and we already had that in Dusty Springfield. Either way, Clark would release a few other fine soul 45s for V.I.P. (a subsidiary label of Motown Records) and album or two for Motown itself, but the self-penned “Love’s Gone Bad,” from 1966, would remain her biggest hit, which, sadly, isn’t saying too much.  “Love’s Gone Bad,” raw Detroit soul at its heart, may have confused a record-buying public – whether they were even aware that Clark was white – looking to Motown for its perfected formula of polished pop-soul.

There’s an excellent anthology of Clark’s work available here (and Clark is looking fabulous in her huge, round sunglasses). It’s worth every music fan’s while.

3. Sharon Tandy, Stay With Me (Atlantic)
A fascinating vocalist whose life story warrants some sort of Lifetime channel biopic, Sharon Tandy grew up singing in Johannesburg, South Africa. At the behest of the young music impresario and manager Frank Fenter, Tandy made her way to the England of the mid-‘60s – there, in the swirling pop art milieu of London, she was a sensation.

Though her time in the spotlight would be lamentably brief-lived, Tandy managed not only to cut some amazing pop, soul, and psychedelic records, but found herself featured as an opening act of the 1967 Stax-Volt European tour as well – an improbable slot which probably had something to do with the persevering promotion of Fenter – by then both Tandy’s husband and a rising star in the executive ranks of Atlantic Records. Throughout, though, there was Tandy’s spectacular voice. Her 1968 version of Lorraine Ellison’s “Stay With Me” is one of several releases she made with her backing band, the Fleur de Lys (English contemporaries of the Who), and, characteristically, it smoulders with sexuality and her formidable presence. This record must have sparked mod riots every time it was spun – there seems no other good explanation for why this 45 is so hard to find nowadays.

Tandy, grown increasingly disillusioned with the music business, eventually separated from Fenter, and returned to South Africa in 1970 to continue recording. Fenter would go on to co-found Atlantic’s subsidiary refuge of ‘70s southern rock, Capricorn Records; Tandy, though, would never find the international success that she deserved.

The flipside of “Stay With Me” is, incidentally, “Hold On,” a thundering slab of mod psychedelia that I hope to showcase on Office Naps at some future point. You can hear it on the meantime – along with all of Tandy’s recorded output (including unissued recordings made in Memphis for Stax records) on Ace Records’ justifiably lauded You Gotta Believe It’s… Sharon Tandy anthology.

Posted in Soul | 11 Comments

Office Naps Mix Spring 2007

The second installment of the Office Naps mix. More of my favorite ‘60s soft psychedelics and electronic pop.

Office Naps Mix Spring 2007

Millennium, Prelude (7”, Columbia)
Appletree Theatre, Hightower Square (7”, Verve Forecast)
Joyride, Childhood’s End (Friend Sound, RCA)
J.K. & Co., Fly (Suddenly One Summer, White Whale)
Bobby Christian, Mooganga (Vibe-brations, Ovation)
Critters, Awake in a Dream (Touch ‘n Go With the Critters, Project 3)
White Noise, Firebird (An Electric Storm, Island)
Beautiful Daze, City Jungle, pt. 1 (7”, RPR)
Network, The Boys and The Girls (7”, Spar)
Chapter V, The Sun is Green (7”, Verve Folkways)
Human Touch, I Can Imagine (7”, Warner Brothers)
Lee Mallory, Many Are the Times (7”, Valiant)
Shadow Casters, Going to the Moon (7”, J.R.P.)
Rouges, Secondary Man (7”, Thunderbird)
Ceyleib People, Changes (7”, Vault)
July, The Way (7”, Columbia)
World of Oz, Like a Tear (The World of Oz, Deram)
Ken Thorne, Sadie’s Theme (The Touchables, soundtrack, 20th Century Fox)
Chamaeleon Church, Camillia is Changing (Chamaeleon Church, MGM)
Don Robertson, Why? (Dawn, Verve)
Lewis & Clarke Expedition, Why Need They Pretend? (7”, Colgems)
Antonio Carlos Jobim, Children’s Games (Stone Flower, CTI)
Young Idea, Colours of Darkness (7”, Capitol)
David McCallum, House of Mirrors (Music: It’s Happening Now!, Capitol)
Beach-Niks, Last Night I Cried (7”, Sea-Mist)
Electric Prunes, I (Underground, Reprise)
Freeborne, Land of Diana (Peak Impressions, Monitor)
King Biscuit Entertainers, Pride (7”, Burdette)

Posted in Garage Bands, Miscellaneous Flotsam, Mixes, Now Sound, Psychedelic/Pop | 26 Comments

Fabu-Les

If the West has impulsively exoticized the rest of the world for centuries now, then the brilliant Los Angeles arranger and composer Les Baxter was the greatest twentieth century pop music proponent of this impulse. A staff arranger and conductor for the young Capitol Records in the late 1940s, Baxter distinguished himself early on with 1948’s Music Out of the Moon, a lunar-themed pop suite for chorus and theremin. A few years later, Baxter’s seminal “Quiet Village” (click for excerpt) was a commercial success as well, with the LP from which “Quiet Village” was taken, 1952’s Ritual of the Savage (subtitled Le Sacre du Sauvage, for added ethnographic impact), inaugurating and essentially defining the post-War American form of exotica.

Baxter went on to release dozens of exotica albums; they shifted with eerie, wordless choral arrangements, and swelled and pulsed with lush string sections and jazzy passages. There were the compositions with titles like “Jungle River Boat,” “Voodoo Dreams,” and “Oasis of Dakhla.”  There were the Asian instruments and Afro-Latin rhythms and chants that populated these compositions – all appropriated freely from indigenous tradition and Baxter’s imagination.

Baxter’s initial success may have tapped into some lingering South Pacific nostalgia from World War II. Ultimately, though, it was that same latent Western fantasy of the Exotic Other that sold millions of Les Baxter’s records in the ‘50s and ‘60s – the same fantasy which found its way into Middle America’s living rooms and onto its console turntables. Sure, Baxter invoked some of the old Heart of Darkness-style tropes of the forbidden and the taboo. His music sounded great, though. And, besides, Les Baxter’s vision was weirder and more imaginative than the ‘50s middle-class demographic it was marketed to.

It was actually bandleader Martin Denny’s 1959 version of “Quiet Village,” though, which permanently affixed the song in the American consciousness. Denny’s version, which reached number one on the pop charts, was the most popular, and, in some ways, even more influential. Any lounge combo could add the token exotic number to their live repertoire and perform in Denny’s laid-back style of cocktail jazz.

There are tons of those Martin Denny-style exotica records, and I love them all accordingly. It’s the rarer, orchestral lull of the Les Baxter school of exotica that we turn to this week on Office Naps, though.

(Ed. note: Thanks to the Randy’s Bamboo Room for the Ritual of the Savage cover scan.)

1. Jack Medell and His Orchestra, Umbe’ (United)
I’d love to know more of the background story to 1957’s “Umbe’,” an obscure and unusual recording on an independent Chicago record label otherwise known almost solely for its black R&B, gospel, jazz and blues releases.

Very little can be turned up on Jack Medell, for one.  And what, if anything, does “Umbe’” mean?  It seems to be a bit of an Afro-Cuban ritual chant, if anything; set against that dark, quintessentially Baxter-ian sweep of strings, it makes for a fairly ambitious bit of torchlit jungle theatrics.

Thanks to the amazing Red Saunders Research Foundation for the discographical information.

2. Bill Justis, The Dark Continent Contribution (Bell)
Bill Justis is usually remembered for one raucous, honking contribution to rock ‘n’ roll instrumental history: 1957’s “Raunchy,” a hit for Memphis’s Phillips label (a subsidiary of the legendary Sun Records).

Like others who found eventually, if only momentarily, dabbled in orchestral exotica, it was in the relative anonymity of the studio that Justis found his calling. After “Raunchy” and a few years as an arranger and A&R honcho at Sun Records, Justis settled into the comfortable life of a full-time Nashville staffer, penning arrangements for artists in the Mercury/Smash Records stable, putting out some albums of fairly generic instrumentals, and scoring the occasional movie, Smokey and the Bandit, among them.

To anyone only familiar with Justis through his stiff versions of Memphis hits like “Green Onions,” the jazzy, cinematic thrust “The Dark Continent Contribution” will be a surprise. The increasing carnage of the Vietnam War probably laid to rest most lingering notions about the quaintness of the jungle village, but Justis demonstrated that a current of longing for the exotic was still there in some form, though, even in the late ‘60s..

3. Stu Phillips & Orch., Tropical Summer (Colpix)
The Los Angeles music studio world was a world where its staff – its arrangers, composers, producers, and session musicians – were hired to be competant rather than creative, and by that criterion, Stu Phillips was one of the city’s finest. Phillips was an enduring presence behind the scenes; his productions and session arrangements graced a lot of popular, pretty forgettable teenage pop in the early ‘60s. Phillips continued his streak with innumerable albums from the Hollyridge Strings, their saccharine versions of Beatles, Beach Boys and Simon & Garfunkel hits a future staple of thrift stores everywhere. (To his credit Phillips made a lot of great music, too, like his wild sitar instrumentals for the late ‘60s biker soundtrack Angels From Hell.)

Phillips made a handsome living by helping to manufacture pop fare; on “Tropical Summer” he does his “Quiet Village” imitation, distilling The Other to a small, easily digestible wafer with vibraphone cream filling, a cheery, vacation-cruise version of Polynesia that is quintessential exotica.

Thanks to Space Age Pop Music for the facts on Stu Phillips.

Posted in Exotica/Space-Age | 11 Comments