It’s been a great year for retro soul (see below), but Kiwanuka transcends the genre and travels somewhere timeless. Cloaked by classic melodies, there’s a faultline of fractured rage and sadness hidden beneath that means however sure of where you are with it, you’re always finding new depths.
Richard Dawson – 2020
Dawson’s ability to meld the seemingly guileless with a complexity that never gets too clever is intoxicating. Outsider art with an insider’s skillset.
Yawny Yawn – Bill Ryder-Jones
An unadorned, just-piano-and-voice version of last year’s Yawn. A cavernously heart-rending record that sounds like he’s on the verge of, not falling asleep, but falling into restless dreams.
Aviary – Julia Holter
An avant-garde pop-opera that’s not quite the masterpiece Have You In My Wilderness was (but then, what is?), but still contains enough adventurousness (and bagpipes) to make you think Holter is the Joni Mitchell of her era.
It Rains Love – Lee Field & the Expressions
Retro-soul brilliance, part 2. Grit-in-the-oyster stuff here, backed by the Daptones with that Studer drum stomp and liquorice bass no one else can equal right now.
The Tales People Tell – Kelly Finnigan
Retro-soul brilliance, part 3. Occasionally shades into James Morrison territory, but the hokiness is kept in check by Stax-sized melodies and utter, sweaty conviction.
Thanks For The Dance – Leonard Cohen
The songs are ill-served by bland arrangements, but the lyrics hit home regardless. No one else writes like this – I’m not sure we’ve even got close to appreciating the loss yet.
Titanic Rising – Weyes Blood
Like Aviary, this doesn’t quite live up to past promise. It sounds sensational – a sustained reverie of Carole King chord changes and string-drenched yearning. But in the end, the melodies aren’t all there. Still, a record to submerge into, even if you come out cold.
Bort Bort Bort – Joel Alme
If you don’t know Alme, go straight to Waiting For the Bells, one of the greatest attempts at Dylan-does-Dusty I’ve ever heard (I’ve never heard another tbh). This isn’t up to that standard, but boy can this Swede write a melody.
James Blake – Assume Form
James Blake happy! Yes it’s kind of weird. No question he’s better when he’s miserable (sorry dude), but even loved-up his production reaches the parts others cannot quite reach.
And finally, looking forward to the best album of 2020…
The Goon Show was protest. The Goon Show was surrealist and therefore art, and the Goon Show was every National Serviceman’s defence mechanism, and was therefore pop.
Jeff Nuttall, Bomb Culture, 1968
Part of me would sooner have been a comedian, you know. I just don’t have the guts to stand up and do it but I’d love to be in Monty Python, you know, rather than the Beatles.
John Lennon, interview with Andy Peebles, 1980.
On the 5th September 1967, the Beatles entered Abbey Road Studio One for their first recording session since the accidental suicide of Brian Epstein, their manager, mentor, maker. Next door, the Zombies were adding final filigrees to Odessey & Oracle, while down the hall the Hollies were attempting to fashion their own modest freakout, Butterfly. It was the high noon of British psychedelia.
The group’s energies, having peaked with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band a few months before, were dissipating. Epstein was dead and John Lennon was thinking, “We’ve fuckin’ had it.” The technicolour dream was washing out. Lennon had been tripping almost non-stop most of the year, but this song of his that the Beatles began that day was the sound of reality seeping through the acid haze, as the Summer of Love drained, Dali-style, into a bitter autumn. It was called I Am The Walrus.
Lennon had conceived the song at his sprawling house in Weybridge, Kenwood, a mansion on the edge of St George’s Hill. It was on this very hill where some other English eccentrics, the Diggers, had launched their own bid for universal peace and love (and farming rights) some 400 years previously, trying to lay the foundations of a true working man’s revolution amidst the dying embers of the English Civil War. From one Honest John to another.
A geographical coincidence, but a pertinent one, because I Am The Walrus is a song suffused with an English energy that resonates way beyond its particular late-’60s moment. One can imagine the ground beneath Lennon’s feet vibrating with the murmurs of long-dead ranters, as he plotted his final visionary masterpiece of the Beatles’ imperial phase. If the London flower children, for whom the Beatles were figureheads, had anything in common with those 17th century radicals, it was a desire to get back to some ideal England of the past (and the mind). For the Diggers, a bucolic pre-Norman ur-nation of liberated men at one with the land they tilled; for the hippies, a place located somewhere between the romanticised vistas of childhood memory and a Belle Époque world of secret gardens and magic rabbit holes.
In the opening line of Walrus, Lennon can be found still trying to evoke that spirit of prelapsarian communality: “I am he as you are he as you are me / And we are all together.” But this idealism is immediately diverted somewhere sinister: “See how they run like pigs from a gun see how they fly / I’m crying.” It was always going to be hard, in little England, to stop petty reality from breaking through the wide-eyed surrealism. Too cramped, too modest, too class-bound. Outside of London – somewhere like Weybridge, say – your Aquarian philosophy immediately bumped up against the rigidly normal, with neither sensibility coming out of the meeting entirely intact. It’s no surprise that the most visible British analogue to the Merry Pranksters’ great acid-drenched bus voyage around America was the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour – a short coach jaunt where the freaks were outnumbered by resolutely un-hip pensioners and small-town day trippers.
The very conception of I Am The Walrus is emblematic of the way day-to-day concerns encroached on the fantasy. The song’s melody had delivered itself to Lennon via the two-note keen of a police siren, out there in the quiet suburban lanes beyond Kenwood’s sunroom where he sat at his piano. Nee naw, nee naw; “Mis-ter ci-ty police-man…” Immediately this was a song making connections between that bucolic Digger-esque dream and the intent by certain members of Scotland Yard – notably Detective Sgt ‘Nobby’ Pilcher, immortalised in the lyrics as “semolina pilchard” – to smash that dream to pieces. From around 100 convictions for cannabis per year during 1945-59, there was a sudden rise to almost 2,400 in 1967 alone. In response, the government established the Hallucinogens Sub-Committee of the Advisory Committee on Drug Dependence in April 1967, a wonderfully Python-esque name that reflects a typically English approach to any problem: get a group of people together to sit round a table and discuss the issue in-depth (then break for tea).
Lennon, like the many writers and comedians he drew influence from, revelled in that particular sort of English absurdism summed up by the Hallucinogens Sub-Committee. He’d seen it at work first-hand for years at Abbey Road, where bands like the Beatles and Pink Floyd explored the outer reaches of sonic experimentation in an environment often more suited to something like bank accountancy. Many EMI technicians wore lab coats, right up to 1969. There were strict rules. New bits of kit – amps, mixers, compressors – were stripped down to their constituent parts and then put back together, as if to ensure there would be no surprises when they were later used by these increasingly delinquent bands.
As with everything, the Beatles broke the rules at Abbey Road, but were always conscious of the fact that they might get a slap on the wrists for doing so. Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick recalled the session for Yellow Submarine in his memoir Here, There and Everywhere, where Lennon wanted to simulate the sound of the sub dipping below the surface of the sea. A milk bottle was filled with water, into which a microphone wrapped in a condom was submerged. At this point, Abbey Road’s officious studio manager Mr EH Fowler pops his head round the door – a man quite ready to fire you for the slightest deviation from EMI’s code of practice.
By the time he got close enough to see what we were actually doing, John had bolted from his chair, grabbed the offending milk bottle, and hid it behind his back. My heart started pounding as Fowler came closer.
‘Everything alright, lads?” he asked.
‘Yes, sir, Mr Studio Manager, sir, absolutely smashing, sir,’ Lennon replied somberly, standing stiffly to attention. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the others stifling their laughter – even George Martin.
By the time the Beatles were making I Am The Walrus, boundaries had been pushed considerably further, but the problem of staying in Mr EH Fowler’s good books remained. During the recording, Lennon informed Emerick that he wanted his voice to sound like it was coming from the moon. In response, Emerick overloaded the mic preamps to create the distinctive distorted vocal that defines the track – but notes that doing so was “in clear violation of EMI’s strict rules.”
This tension between the high chiefs of officialdom and those who enjoy pushing their buttons is a defining characteristic of British temperament, and I Am The Walrus is built on it: “Corporation t-shirt, stupid bloody Tuesday, man you been a naughty boy…” Lennon had always been the archetypal naughty boy, kicking against authority from his school years, through the heydey of Beatlemania (ready to tell the aristos at the 1963 Royal Variety Performance to “rattle your fuckin’ jewelry”, though he ditched the swear word on the day), right up to September ‘67, where he plays I Am The Walrus to the group and Martin for the first time, with its lines about a pornographic priestess and letting knickers down; Emerick recalls Martin whispering to him: “‘What did he just say?’”
Gibberish was more like a secret language for Lennon, a code as powerful as the one Spike Milligan, through the Goon Show, had attuned an entire nation to during the 1950s.He claimed that he wrote I Am The Walrus as a way of taking the piss out of all those intellectuals who were – like the Quarry Bank kids poring over Strawberry Fields Forever – reading too much into the surrealistic lyrics of Bob Dylan (“Dylan got away with murder,” he later said. “I thought, I can write this crap too.”) But Lennon was too imaginative, too immersed in the comic writers of the past, to simply turn out crap.
He may have conceived the song as something of a “fuck you” to the pseuds, but what it ended up being was more of a cry for – not help, exactly (he’d already written that one), but empathy. He’s saying: this is how my mind works, when it’s fully off the leash, and it’s not pretty, it doesn’t make much sense, it’s childish and vulgar at times – but do you get it? Do you get me? It was, as Ian McDonald puts it in Revolution In The Head, “a song of self-definition amounting to a manifesto” where Lennon confronts “his boyhood dilemma over whether he was mad or a genius.” As Lennon explained to Playboy magazine just before his murder in 1980: “Surrealism had a great effect on me, because then I realized that my imagery and my mind wasn’t insanity; that if it was insane, I belong in an exclusive club that sees the world in those terms. Surrealism to me is reality.”
If you didn’t get it, Lennon was perhaps in trouble (he is, after all, “waiting for the van to come” – to take him away?) And again, this goes to the heart of another particular archetype of the British eccentric mind, and the British comedic tradition: of using wit to disguise the reality of the fact that, actually, you’re going quietly nuts here in your small corner of this strange dull country. Suburban insanity is a condition of numerous Brit comic characters from Tony Hancock to Basil Fawlty, people we laugh at and with – even though, deep down, they’re desperate, they’re crying out like Lennon but disguising it with a wry smile or a flight of fancy.
Despite his misgivings, George Martin found the perfect sonic representation for this sense of barely repressed mania. The backing vocals on I Am The Walrus are performed by the Mike Sammes Singers, a troupe of jingle minstrels who between the late ‘50s and early ‘70s recorded a huge number of TV themes (Supercar, Stingray), film soundtracks, and some fairly bonkers radio ads for the likes of International Harvester Tractors (sample lyrics: “The new hydrostatic 454-574 / Biggest tractor news in years, no more need for changing gears”). Martin no doubt picked them for their slick professionalism, but must’ve been aware that the words he was asking them to sing (“Oompa Loompa, stick it up your jumper”) probably wouldn’t phase a group used to warbling complex tractor information over incongruously jaunty easy listening soundscapes.
On Walrus, they sound ecstatically unhinged, but they also act as a bridge between the post-Epstein Beatles – liberated, acid-touched priests of a burgeoning counterculture – and the besuited showbiz professionals of the Beatlemania years. The remarkable thing about the institutions of entertainment in Britain – be that the BBC or EMI – is the way in which they offer playgrounds within which eccentrics can blossom. The very strictures they impose – whether that’s BBC censorship (they banned Walrus for the “knickers” line) or EMI’s creaky technology (the US studios already had eight and sixteen track tape machines by 1966, while the Beatles were still limited to four tracks at the time of Sgt Pepper in ‘67) – force adventurous minds to innovate. This is why we produce so much imaginative art in this country: we break things, and then we have to justify the mess to the men with clipboards. In doing so, boundaries are pushed a little each time.
Like so many innovators, the Beatles were at their best when someone – whether that was Epstein, Martin or Mr EH Fowler – was hovering in the background ready to tell them, “You can’t do that.” Post-Pepper, once those limits were relaxed, and technology and the whole entertainment industry began to catch up with them, the Beatles found themselves with nothing left to prove, and no one to kick against – and their music was diminished as a result. Walrus unconsciously comments on this conundrum. The Sammes Singers are pitch-perfect, straight-out-of-Lionel-Bart sparky, the epitome of session musician polish; but what they’re articulating is something just short of a nervous breakdown.
And what happens when you have a nervous breakdown? For some, there’s a retreat to a childlike state, a place in the recesses of their mind where they can regress and feel safe. Another piece of seemingly random inspiration for Walrus was a schoolyard rhyme Lennon was reminded of by his friend Pete Shotton:
Yellow matter custard, green slop pie All mixed together with a dead dog’s eye. Slap it on a butty, ten foot thick, Then wash it all down with a cup of cold sick.
This becomes “Yellow matter custard / Dripping from a dead dog’s eye” in Walrus, the infantile grossness of the original turned sickly surreal. Lennon reaches back further to a childhood fascination with the work of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. Carroll’s Walrus is, as Lennon later realised, the “bad guy” of the poem, but what Lennon’s evoking through this glance back to Alice In Wonderland is more important than the lit-crit specifics. As with many other artists of the psychedelic era, the Alice story is used by Lennon most glibly as a reference point for the acid trip – the pill that changes your perceptions, makes you small, then makes you big, and so on. But more importantly, Wonderland is a place to escape to, a place Lennon was escaping to from age 11, when he first received a copy of the book. It was as vital to him as the kingdom of the Goons was to Spike Milligan.
By some spooky serendipity, the song ends with a snatch of a BBC Third Program performance of King Lear – a play in which the titular hero has a four-hour nervous breakdown – added in by Martin on Lennon’s instructions as a bit of pop art randomness. The Beatles had all recently bought Brenell tape machines, following McCartney’s lead, which they used to create sound collages, mixing their own compositions with radio snippets and looney backwards effects (these experiments would reach a ludicrous zenith with Lennon’s interminable Revolution #9 on the White Album in 1968). Martin, of course, was adept at flying in strange noises at a moment’s notice, thanks to his experience cutting records with Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, the Alberts and other comedians in the late ‘50 and early ‘60s. With the play broadcasting live as Martin oversaw the final mix of Walrus, the scene that made it onto the recording is of Oswald’s murder by Edgar (“O untimely death! Death!”); the least cheery ending one could imagine for a song that vibrates with such brilliant energy.
But a perfect ending, leading the listener back, beyond the Goons, beyond Lear, beyond the Diggers, back to Shakespeare: word-conjurer, trickster, defender of this sceptered isle, madman, poet, the start of it all, and the voice we must return to whenever we speak of England. “I am he as you are he as you are me / And we are all together.”
What we’re hearing, then, when we listen to I Am The Walrus, is the drawing together of many of the key strands of British comedic and literary culture: madness in suburbia, the use of wit to undermine authority, the return to the comforting nonsense of childhood, a revelling in absurdist wordplay, an evocation of a vanished wonderland, the telling of truth disguised as eccentricity.
The most obvious starting point to understand the cultural tradition of which Walrus is a culmination, is wordplay. Lennon’s “crabalocker fishwife” and “expert, texpert, choking smokers” reach back to the Goons, back to music hall, and further back to Lear and Carroll. In the midst of Beatlemania, when the songs he performed did nothing more interesting with the English language than rhyme “working like a dog” with “sleeping like a log”, Lennon found an outlet for his Goonish sensibility by publishing a book, In His Own Write. Essentially a compilation of updated scraps from the Daily Howl, the pieces within showed Lennon was as adept as Carroll and (yes, even) Joyce at mind-scrambling malapropisms and portmanteaus. “That Liverpool Irish-English subversion of the ruling-class language,” as Jon Savage puts it in his introduction to the 1997 reissue of Write and its follow-up, A Spaniard In The Works – and it’s a key point. Richard Alexander, in his book Aspects of Verbal Humour In English, references a theory by semiotician Michael Halliday that suggests this sort of textual play has its origin “in what he terms ‘anti-languages’; the language of the underworld had a broader social function, namely that of creating and maintaining one’s identity in the face of the pressure to conform with the values of the ‘overworld’.”
The “pressure to conform” was one felt keenly by both Spike Milligan and John Lennon, and their rejection of it was wholesale. Caught between the underworld and the overworld, they both created their own peculiar universes in which an “anti-language” of riotous wordplay was a verbal tool to keep out the people who didn’t “get it”. For Milligan, this vocabulary was concocted as a response to what he saw as the absurdism of National Service. Filtered through a slangy jazz sensibility and a tradition of Lear-derived silliness, Milligan’s word-mangling amounted to a shocking break with a British “overworld” mindset still lost in the fog of Empire-era pettiness and politeness.
This revolution in thought, springing almost entirely from the loopy brain of one man, made a significant impact on the whole of British culture in the 1950s and beyond. As George Melly puts it in Revolt Into Style, his history of British pop art, “[the Goons] have to some degree affected almost all contemporary Anglo-Saxon attitudes.”
They are our effective surrealists, our democratic Pere Ubus, our sacred monsters. Beyond the funny voices (lingua franca of several generations of civilian NCOs), they have proved to be the agents of a profound subversion. We were still thinking of ourselves as a nineteenth century power. It was past time to admit that we were nothing of the sort, to stand back and start afresh. Among other services rendered [the Goons] provided pop with the key to its style – inconsequential and fluid.
Most importantly, this attitudinal revolt was being broadcast by the BBC, the voice of the nation, at a time when the radio was the pre-eminent entertainment source for postwar Britons. It literally altered the perceptions of a generation of kids who would create the defining art of the coming decade. All the most influential British pop stars of the ‘60s absorbed the Goons as children: the Beatles, Ray Davies, Pete Townshend, Syd Barrett, and on and on. A young Keith Moon, listening to the show with his disapproving parents every Sunday evening, “realised that his own nascent eccentricity was a trait to be encouraged, not repressed” (writes Tony Fletcher in Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon).
It wasn’t, of course, a straight transference from the wireless to the wider culture. In his book on Brit pop art and postmodernism, Burning The Box Of Beautiful Things, Alex Seago writes that “the Goon Show’s influence was particularly potent in the London art schools from the mid-1950s onwards and it was from these institutions that a large part of the new ‘underground’ culture emerged.” The first embodiment of this clash between art school theorising and Goonish mucking about was the conceptual musical comedy of the Alberts. Founding member Bruce Lacey was an alumnus of the Royal College of Arts, where a host of the most important British pop artists of the ‘50s and ‘60s – Blake, Hockney, Caulfield – were trained. Seago writes, “Like fellow Goon collaborators Michael Bentine and Spike Milligan, Lacey’s crazed, subversive humour was also deadly serious. In common with the works of the original Dadaists, it was born out of hatred of war, cruelty, and bourgeois pomposity.”
At the end of the ‘50s, Lacey teamed up with cabaret eccentrics the Grey Brothers to form the Alberts, a “cod-Edwardian jazz and performance group featuring Lacey’s maniacal hominoid robots.” Counter-culture icon Jeff Nuttall describes a typical Alberts show:
When they performed at Colyer’s, ravers staggered back from the blinding explosives flashing from the bells of their instruments and the sight of Dougie [Grey]’s magnificent genitals hanging in splendour as he sat in kilt and tam-o’shanter with pheasant plume, blowing the guts out of Dollie Grey, while Professor Lacey accompanied on the amplified penny-farthing bicycle.
You can draw a line from the Alberts, to the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, and finish up with the Beatles’ very own Lacey-esque comedy “performance piece” You Know My Name (Look Up The Number) – all of it built on the fanciful foundations of the Goon Show. Seago describes the lineage: “Through personalities such as Screaming Lord Sutch, Dick Lester, the director of the Beatles’ films who worked with Bruce Lacey and Spike Milligan, the manic theatrical rock singer Arthur Brown, and Pete Townshend of The Who, a Goon Show-inspired London art school sensibility became mainstream by the mid-1960s.”
From there, this Goonish attitude was mixed with an Alberts-tinged predilection for Edwardiana, a regression to the nonsense narratives of Lear and Carroll, a bricolage style drawn from the pop art of Blake and Hamilton, and liberal doses of LSD, to create what we now call psychedelia. More so than even Sgt Pepper, the Pink Floyd’s Piper At The Gates Of Dawn is the preeminent exemplar of this Brit-psych sensibility. With its title drawn from Wind in the Willows, its sonic textures made up of a collage of found sounds, tape loops and special effects, its songs composed by the Goons-obsessed, darkly humorous acid jester Syd Barrett – Piper is eccentric pop at its most evocative, a direct inheritor of the tradition of English absurdism.
Piper was released a month before the Beatles entered Abbey Road to begin I Am The Walrus. In that short space of time, the mood had begun to sour, and psychedelia would soon shift into something new, as the key British pop groups started rejecting Summer of Love whimsy for a more combative attitude. A different kind of revolution was on its way.
The baton of absurdism was passed to a new gang, one still deeply bound to the Goons, to pop art, to the counterculture, to music and, of course, to English eccentricity. By 1969, the new Beatles had arrived, and they were called Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman look set to usher in a rock biopic cinematic universe (possibly masterminded by Spike from Press Gang). This trend has been gathering pace since Straight Outta Compton did wonders for Universal’s back catalogue division. It’s ready to explode. After Rhapsody, streams of Queen’s music tripled. Expect the same result for Elton John, since Rocketman seems to be going down well. It’s a potential goldmine for record companies stuck trying to extract pennies from Spotify and baffled at how to monetise TikTok and its ilk.
I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. Rock star stories have a natural three act structure (1. The dream! I’m done with working in a factory, I’m gonna be star. 2. Success! Mmm, drugs. Oh dear, I’ve destroyed everything / My manager has fleeced me, I’m broke / I’m broke and I did all the drugs. 3. Redemption! I’ve given up the drugs and am now happy and pretty boring / I died but became an icon.)
So who’s going to get the Rocketman treatment next? Boy George seems likely, which is great, although the TV version from a few years back will be hard to beat. There are numerous other contenders.
Dusty Springfield deserves the Cilla treatment (I once wrote the sleeve-notes to a Dusty boxed set so hello producers, I am happy to write this).
Marvin Gaye’s life has a narrative arc that would make for thrilling, emotional cinema. (And boy, is now the time for a new generation to be introduced to this.)
I also have a dream of writing a blank verse tragedy about the Bay City Rollers. Truly, there is a tale of hauntological woe.
Madonna, clearly, although the script that’s out there will seemingly never get made. I do worry about a version that’s given the official Madge stamp. Can’t be worse than this though, I suppose.
Also think the Jim Sullivan story would make a great Jarmusch-esque arthouse flick.
Of course, the really good story is the one about the people who made it all happen. Ahem.