Saturday, 25 September 2010

Gnome Thoughts ... 11 (Well At Least Its British)

And so to the the holy grail of this series about David Bowie's influences: Well At Least Its British, Alan Klein's 1964 solo album. (Find details of the CD release with extra tracks on the RPM website here.)

That may overstate the case - I don't know whether Bowie has ever actually credited him as an inspiration - but as mentioned earlier Klein had the same manager (Ken Pitt), and Damon Albarn has said of him: "I can’t believe that David Bowie didn’t know him inside out, and the same with Ray Davies." 

So he's worth consideration, at least - and as there isn't much about the album already out there, this post could even be something of a public service.

But the big question is: now that I've had a chance to hear it, does Well At Least Its British provide the key to unlocking those early Bowie songs?  Or failing that, is it at all Kink-y?

I've had quite a few listens already and I don't think the answer is straightforward in either case. But it's certainly hugely enjoyable, and well worth further exploration. So pack a packhorse up ...

First of all, whether it's the Pitt connection or coincidence, the one thing At Least Its British undoubtedly has in common with Bowie's Deram album is that "consistency of tone" is not the first phrase which springs to mind upon listening.

 Although the cover (top) - the artist amid a pile of rubbish - might lead you to expect exclusively comical or satirical songs, or at the very least a pointedly English accent throughout, numbers range from the broadly comic to the more-or-less straight, and most points between: Klein's wikipedia page, here, even indicates that some of the songs were considered sober enough to be covered later by the likes of much-loved balladeer Donald Peers, who had his first hit in the forties. (He had an unexpected revival of fortunes in 1969 - not, alas, with a Klein song.)

As for the voice, although there are some music hall-style Cockney numbers, such as I Want to Be a Beatnik Like Me Brother (resurrected from the original 1962 stage version of What a Crazy World, where it was sung by an extremely young Tony Robinson) and The Birds and the Bees (which sounds like it might have been), most of the time Klein chooses to sing with what I'd call an American tinge, at least: not quite those glutinous mid-Atlantic tones beloved of some British easy listening artists of the period, but not quite English either.

But I hesitate to point the finger, because you can't always be certain when Klein is sending himself up. He certainly has a keen ear for cliche - that, if anything, is what provides some kind of unity to the album - but his ridicule alternates between the gentle, with some songs only nudged ever so slightly off conventional lines, and the extreme.

A good example of the latter is Will You Ever Come Back Again? It's borne out of a remarkably simple - and effective - idea: take a standard, tired phrase as your opening and let everything else follow logically on. I don't know about Bowie and the Kinks, but it's not difficult to imagine a ditty such as this planting deep roots in Vivian Stanshall's cranium:
My poor heart is breaking
My kidneys are aching
My appendix is feeling the strain
And since you said goodbye
I've got a stye in each eye
So will you ever come back again?
Could Canyons of Your Mind owe rather more to this composition, in fact, than the Bob Lind hit which provided Stanshall with its title? The song's spoken section provides what seems to me like near-damning evidence:
Since our last meeting
I just keep repeating [burps]
Your name. Your sweet name.

And that's not all, M'Lud. Mr Stanshall's musical combo the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band were invited to become the New Vaudeville Band (Geoff Stephens' twenties pastiche Winchester Cathedral had been recorded by session men and a group was needed to tour).

The Bonzos turned the offer down but were later mightily miffed to find those individuals who did assume the mantle (including sole defector Bob Kerr) ripping off their stage act, as seems to be confirmed by the 1966 clip in post 2, here, and a detail from a publicity card which shows the New Vaudevillers doing the Bonzos' holding-up-word-balloons schtick.

If you have read the earlier post you will know that as Tristram, Seventh Earl of Cricklewood, Alan Klein (the addressee above) fronted that band for several years; could Canyons of Your Mind have been a bit of a smack at Klein?

Leaving aside the question of the belted earl (ooh, clever) there was a positive outcome for the Bonzos. Perhaps as a direct result of that New Vaudevillian provocation they had an epiphany: why restrict musical massacre to twenties novelty songs when a proliferation of current styles alos cried out for assault? That extension of the field of battle ultimately led to Canyons of Your Mind - an undoubted comic masterpiece whether mired in spite or intended as homage. Or maybe it was all just a coincidence.

And it has to be pointed out that if Stanshall took his lead from that earlier song, his composition is of its time, an attack on the convoluted, pseudo-poetic imagery of such post-Mr Tambourine Man  lyrics as Lind's Elusive Butterfly (1966):
You might have heard my footsteps
Echo softly in the distance through the canyons of your mind
I might have even called your name
As I ran searching after something to believe in
You might have seen me runnin'
Through the long-abandoned ruins of the dreams you left behind ...
(And so on. And on.)

Regardless of  what one may owe the other, it's instructive to compare approaches in the Klein and Bonzos recordings.

Everything about Canyons of Your Mind is deliriously over the top, from the would-be dramatics of the leaden saxophone riffing to Viv's Elvis (or Orbison?) vocal, the deliberately atrocious guitar solo and the reverb-drenched belching, complete with disgusting hint of some unspecified follow-through (above).

Every eructation, every aspect of the accompaniment helps hammer home the absurdity of the lyric (prompting the thought: never mind about Alan Klein - how did poor Bob Lind take it?).

For Klein's Will You Ever Come Back Again?, however, as with most of the songs on Well At Least Its British, the surprises are kept for the lyrics: the arrangement is pretty much your standard lush, countryish pop ballad, quite pleasant, and the vocal doesn't advertise too obviously that the thing is a sendup. You could even say that Klein is having his cake and eating it: provided you weren't paying attention to the lyrics, the song could float by in a pleasant haze ... well, possibly.

But that song is an extreme example. In other numbers Klein tends to subvert cliches by stealth. Big Talk From A Little Man, for example, scales down the extravagant promises of conventional love songs to a more - well, human level. Which rather makes you wonder: does that count as mocking the genre or is it one man doing his bit to unclog a few decades' worth of transatlantic lyrical buildup?
If I offer you the earth
And promise you the moon
Darlin', don't pay too much worth
For you will find out soon

That it's just big talk from a little man
Who's full of big ideas and schemes
Big talk from a little man
Who ain't quite as big as his dreams
This is one of the numbers sung in vaguely American tones, which may provide a clue about Klein's intentions in this case.

Romantic cliche was not, of course, the exclusive province of American songwriters in the sixties (or any other time). But if, like Jake Thackray, Klein resented America's dominance of popular music in the twentieth century (remember that What a Crazy World harked back to music hall), could the scaled-down feel of pieces like these be best understood as an attempt to reclaim a sense of Britishness - the lover as self-confessed loser rather than all-conquering hero - for the popular song?

There is a similar diffidence in As Long As You Love Me a Little, where the hopeful swain  seems to content himself with only the vaguest of possibilities that his love might someday be returned:
But until then I'll keep on dreamin'
You're here by my side
Life won't have much meanin'
But I'll be satisfied  
For just as long as you love me a little
Just as long as you let me see
That you think of me sometimes
Well, that's enough for me
And I'm a Dreamer, as the title suggests, is similarly - well, whatever the opposite of proactive is.
People can laugh at me, I don't care
They don't bother me
I'm far away in a place somewhere
Where there's no grief or misery
Cause I'm a dreamer
Dreamin' my life away
Yes, I'm a dreamer
And a dreamer I'll always stay
Almost all the songs on the album are well served by the arrangements but this recording has a particularly beautiful backing, which seems styled on the distinctive guitar and harmonies of Australian (not American) group the Seekers, who had considerable success in Britain in the sixties with their brand of pop-folk.

On this occasion, Klein doesn't appear to be having a sideswipe at the artists, just utilising a setting which fits the lyric: again, it's that "British" sensibility which seems to be the USP.

And if you're not clear what I mean, the English comic actor Alfred Marks once put it succinctly: the reason, he opined, that a US audience never really took to Tony Hancock was because Americans love the whipper - like Groucho Marx - and the English love the whippee. When he's not being a chirpy Cockney, I think you could safely say that Klein's persona in most of these songs tends to the latter.

In another song he sets about his deconstruction work rather less cheerily. Love's Just a Word in a Song may have a beautiful melody matched by an ethereal, folky arrangement with haunting strings, but the lyrics don't provide anything in the way of let-up:

I know that sometimes it seems
Like winter's turned to spring
But life's made up of daydreams
And they don't mean a thing

So go on ahead and be foolish
And when words get angry and strong
You'll understand there's no wonderland
Love's just a word in a song
I'll See You Around is done in a sort of louche cabaret style, with tinkling piano and female chorus; here Klein's voice is a sort of drawl (reminding me of Nick Lowe's modern way with a ballad). Hard to tell whether this is a parody - there may have been a more obvious target at the time - or perhaps, again, the twist is about the superimposing of a British sensibility on an essentially American form.

The title, in other writer's hands, might perhaps have suggested a tale of swagger or wistful-but-manly regret;  the tale Klein's speaker has to tell is all humiliation and pain, with a distinct lack of support from others - and he even blubs:
We had fun together
Really painted the town
So how I cried when I heard you say
I'll see you around

I boasted to all my friends
A new love I'd found
But how they laughed
to know that you'd said
I'll see you around

I'll see you around
Were your last words to me
And now all I know
Are night of loneliness and misery

Never thought you'd leave me
But you let me down
And how I cry when I hear those words
I'll see you around
Note, however, that it is very neatly assembled - might Ray Davies or Bowie have taken notice of that? The above is the complete lyric, barring a bit of repetition.

I'm now beginning to wonder whether it might be a bit reductive to classify songs such as those above as parodies. Even if he might be sending up a certain kind of song and a certain kind of singer what's inside the wrapping can still have a serious side.

Which could equally apply to First Taste of the Blues, another scaled-down, "British"-feeling take on an American theme. It's an account of someone who hasn't actually had his heart broken, just hurt a bit, although what he now feels serves as a warning:
She went away without a word, it really hurt my heart
And though I didn't love her I'm sorry we're apart
Oh, but that's just how it had to be, no other way to choose
Had my first taste of the blues

And now I wonder just how am I gonna feel
If true love comes my way someday and I know that it's real
What am I gonna do if she ever says goodbye?
I guess that I'll just lay me down and die
Although he gives that last line a mocking, nasal twang, the song as a whole feels serious enough. Could that momentary lapse even suggest the speaker laughing off, in a characteristically British way, whatever difficulties lie ahead? The backing, complete with some tasty Scotty Moore-style guitar licks, doesn't seem particularly chuckleworthy.

I haven't yet mentioned the more directly comic songs, including Twentieth Century Englishman (apparently Damon Albarn's favourite track).

 I have to say, however, that if you are acquainted with Benny Hill's early sixties comedy songs (above, as I first discovered them), this may not be altogether unfamiliar territory:
One day he saw a fellow who was drowning in the river
Shouting out "Help, help, I can't swim!"
He just walked on by and called out "Neither can I,
But I don't boast about it, Jim."
But where Hill is often slapdash, stuffing in any old jokes (even cannibalising his own work) whatever the notional theme of a song, Klein sets up the gags more carefully in a framework with this opening verse, sung in a manner which anticipates his Tristram persona:
We have heard so many stories of our great country's past
And the noblemen who made it that way.
They were chivalrous and fearless, stiff upper lip to the last
But what about the chaps of today?
Then come the Hill-level jokes, but all firmly linked, in Klein's case, to his central theme: the myriad faults of the modern Englishman, lacking in civic duty (as above),  dishonest, selfish, unchivalrous - and cowardly:
He was working as a clerk behind the counter in a bank
When a gang of robbers called one day
Quick as a flash he handed them all the cash
Then hid until they'd gone away
Cause he's a redblooded, honest-to-goodness
Twentieth Century English Man
Even though Klein might be a more conscientious craftsman than Hill, I do think it's quite possible he was influenced by the TV star's early recordings. Paddy Roberts, discussed in an earlier entry in the series, here, may also be worth considering. 

And of course there were comic songs such as lyricist Myles Rudge's Right Said Fred and Hole in the Ground, both recorded in a sort of polite Cockney by Bernard Cribbins in 1962; Klein's not dissimilar Three Coins in the Sewer was recorded the same year.

But both Roberts and Cribbins are backed by fairly polite small groups, suggestive of cabaret turns or the little revues which became old-fashioned overnight when Beyond the Fringe came on the scene. Only Hill's records have the same full pop production values as Klein's album: Benny Hill - and I never thought these words would leave my keyboard when I sat down to this post - is more, well, rock'n'roll.

Odd and unsettling as it may be to think of Ray Davies or David Bowie so close to the famously vulgar funnyman, perhaps we should look more closely at Hill's work. (Above is the cheapest way of acquiring his early songs plus Ernie on CD.) A website, the Benny Hill Songbook, here, has lyrics and chords for many of his early songs (his later hit Ernie, if you're wondering, is atypical in that it follows a story carefully and the jokes are not shoehorned in).

It may also be worth mentioning in passing that the younger Benny Hill (ie in his BBC TV days) was regarded as something of a comedy innovator, but perhaps because of his defection to commercial television not many programmes have been preserved as evidence.

I am partial to his songs but I'm keenly aware of their limitations. A good example of a sort-of wasted opportunity by Hill is What a World: he may manage a Dylanesque whine but the first verse recalls the corniest of music hall recitations:
Now it was Christmas Day in the jailhouse,
The old man sat in his cell,
"Put out your pudding, for treacle,"
He heard the warden yell,
"If you want treacle on your pudding,
Put it out without delay."
The old man put out his pudding,
And the warden took it away.
He does manage one mildly satirical segment:
Now the folksinger came from America
To sing at the Albert Hall,
He sang his songs of protest
And fairer shares for all.
He sang how the poor were ]much too poor
And the rich too rich by far,
Then he drove back to his penthouse
In his brand new Rolls Royce car.
But generally speaking Hill isn't interested in shaking up or even mildly discomfiting his audience. For all the care taken over the musical arrangements of his songs (I believe Tony Hatch was involved), they serve primarily as a backdrop to distract you from the age of the jokes. The great journal writer himself might have groaned at this couplet in Pepys' Diary, despite the beguiling harpsichord:
Through woodland glade and through meadows green I did walk with this fair lass,
But she slipped on a cowslip and she fell down on the grass.
Similarly, a parody of Sonny and Cher's I Got You Babe is musically spot-on, but we're stuck in a seaside postcard world:
Last week I caught you with the butcher, you were kissin' and cuddlin' and such,
Oh how could you kiss the butcher when we owe the milkman so much.
One response to the above is that Hill knows his target audience aren't interested in the artists he's parodying - they may have an enforced familiarity with the music via their children's transistor radios and record players, but that's as far as it goes.

Which may well be true. But for someone who wasn't particularly interested in spending money (uncashed cheques would apparently pile up in his flat) I can't help thinking it's a pity Hill didn't nudge his audience a little more. Ah well.

Klein's own Dylan - well, Dylan-copyist - parody, a veritable McGuire sister entitled Age of Corruption (a 1965 single included on the CD) is, by contrast, precise in its ridicule - and no mistaking the contempt in this case:

We'll de-nounce all wars as just senseless killins
Purify your minds for the price of six shillins
Now let's all bow down and pray to Bob Dylan

And let's jump on the bandwagon my friends
Can't you see this is the age of corruption

Somewhere along the line we gotta bring in segregation
Well I ain't sure what that means, cause I ain't had no education
Been too busy gettin' high, makin' abstract observations
Doin' one night stands and tourin' TV stations
Fightin' for your freedom and attendin' demonstrations
And all the time my weekly show is climbin' up the ratins
So let's jump on the bandwagon my friends
Can't you see this is the age of corruption
(Pussycat Willum, a name which escaped me too, was David Milliband to Ollie Beak's Ed - but then again, if you don't know who Ollie Beak is ...)

There is very little of Alan Klein's work on youtube apart from a cover of his It Ain't Worth The Lonely Road Back by the Pozo-Seco Singers. His own version (a 1965 single also included on the CD) is slightly more robust but the two versions are similar - and both seem played straight. In fact, this is a good example of Klein's skill as a straight songwriter - as with Ray Davies and all good pop (in the widest sense) writers he knows that a memorable chorus does a great deal of the work - even if the opening lines hint we may be straying into Bob Lind country:
Baby don't tempt me to pass along pathways of pleasure
Baby don't lure me to linger in lanes of desire
Don't try to fire my thoughts with caresses and kisses
I ain't leavin' the track cause it ain't worth the lonely road back

After completing most of this piece, I came across the information that in the fifties Klein had been one half of a country and western duo - his partner was George Bellamy, one of the original Tornadoes (above). This would help to explain the American-tinged vocals and countryish feel on some tracks - but it lessens the likelihood that the singing on Klein's album is primarily driven by contempt.

In case you're wondering why the notion of contempt is so firmly planted in my head, my assumptions about the album in earlier posts were based on the only reasonably detailed review I could locate online, namely Stephen Thomas Erlewine's All Music Guide review, readable in full here.

According to Erlewine, "Klein had nothing but contempt for rock & roll," a phrase which I seized on as it fitted in with my idea that What a Crazy World (ie the whole musical) was primarily music hall - if you remember that earlier post, here, I noted with some satisfaction that the song most like straight rock and roll on the CD soundtrack had been given to the kid brother, not the lead, as though implying the form was essentially puerile: in short, I thought I had Klein's number.

 But perhaps now is the time to consider that rather convenient All Music Guide summary more closely. Erlewine gives the background to the album's significance for Britpop but seems fairly dismissive of the songs themselves:
Albarn discovered Well at Least It's British after Blur fell out of fashion following their 1991 debut, Leisure, and Klein's defiant celebration of England was as inspirational to Damon as was his love of Ray Davies. While true, this story gives the impression that Well at Least It's British is some kind of lost British pop classic, perhaps even that it has something to do with early British rock & roll, when nothing could be further from the truth. Klein had nothing but contempt for rock & roll, particularly blues-based rock, which he sends up twice here ("Going to Bluesville," "First Taste of the Blues"), and that hostility is jarring next to the frivolous, frilly pop, derived partially from music hall traditions but mainly from the light mainstream pop that persisted in placing on the British charts long into the heyday of Beatlemania; think the twee-est moments that Joe Meek produced, the ones that had little of his sonic ingenuity, and you'll be in the ballpark.
As you've probably deduced, I now think this is unfair: some of the numbers may pass as mainstream pop but there is usually something fresh in Klein's lyrical approach - though I will admit that I have avoided discussing Going to Bluesville because it doesn't seem pointed enough for satire nor different enough in any other way to justify its inclusion on the album (hey, maybe he just wanted to forget his heritage and, y'know, rock out).

Erlewine does concede, however, that
in its sensibility, Well at Least It's British is quite modernistic, from how Klein follows through on his concept to how he overloads his songs with mocking wit and how he sings in an exaggerated British accent.
and he can understand how the album's theatricality might have appealed to Albarn. But his conclusion is that
it's a conceptual album that's of note for its concept, not its execution, as for all of its dramatic flair it lacks enduring melodies.
Again, I'd disagree. He gives the impression that the "exaggerated British accent" (presumably meaning the Cockney songs) is deployed throughout; as a Brit (a Scot, even), it sounds to me like Klein owes just as much to American-derived singing styles: at any rate, there are only three album tracks which are specifically Cockney.

And I don't see that every song is "overloaded" with "mocking wit." As must be clear by now, for me there seems no unifying concept more specific than Klein's desire to steer clear of the lyrically predictable, which encompasses a range of styles from satire to straightish pop with a twist.

And although, as I've suggested, the sensibility throughout could be understood as "British" in that the lyrics are often about diffidence and resignation, on much of the album he's not exactly keeping his distance from American-derived music in order to swaddle those sentiments.

 So where does that leave Messrs Davies and Jones in relation to all this?

Don't know, Sir.

Not good enough.


Alright, well, here goes.  

(Clears throat.)

"From satire to straightish pop with a twist" could equally apply as a summation of Bowie's first album. And if what appealed to Bowie about Anthony Newley was the novelty of someone singing a sort-of rock'n'roll with an English accent, then there's no reason why his ears might not have pricked likewise at the sound of Klein's Cockney singing on this album (not to mention his What a Crazy World musical, which Bowie might well have seen on stage or screen).

It's not impossible that the specifics of I Wanna Be a Beatnik Like Me Brother - a song which is literally, as well as metaphorically, British - could  have provided some distant inspiration for Bowie's own Join the Gang, or at least given encouragement to the aspiring writer that aspects of the local scene could be as fit a subject for a song as anything faraway and American:

I wanna say goodbye to all convention
And live me life exactly 'ow I please
Spend some nights in old bombed 'ouses,
Wear a pair of velvet trousers
With a big thick jumper way down past me knees


I wanna be a beatnik like me brother
I wanna feel footloose and fancy free
Read me poems neath the arches,
Go on Ban the H Bomb marches
And pretend I've studied Greek philosophy
But about all that can be safely assumed is that as a fellow client of Ken Pitt's it's probable Bowie would have heard Klein's music at some point: what he made of it, and its importance in relation to everything else he was absorbing musically at the time, must remain a matter of speculation ... unless someone out there knows different and cares to get in touch.

Less difficult, perhaps, to imagine a song such as the above appealing to the Ray Davies who wrote Dedicated Follower of Fashion.  Not to mention this earlier (1962) Joe Meek-produced single:

I've got a striped purple shirt and a pair of yellow braces
A chequered coat cut in the latest style
And with me winklepicker shoes on, yes I'm really going places -
I aim to make this life of mine worthwile

I've got me luminous two-tone socks on and me hair's all long and greasy,
Twelve inch bottoms on me corduroy jeans
With me striped purple shirt and me pair of yellow braces
I'm the smartest layabout you've ever seen
This modern dandy gets beaten up after chatting up someone else's "darlin'" at a dance but proves indomitable:
Well, me mum and me dad come down the 'ospital to see me,
Asked me if I needed anything,
I said I'd like the local papers so's I can read all about me capers
And two other items I want you to bring:

I want me striped purple shirt and me pair of yellow braces -
There's a nurse in 'ere who's just my cup of tea -
And in me striped purple shirt and me pair of yellow braces
She'll find out that there's no stopping me
As with Bowie, one can only speculate, but if Davies was indeed inspired by Alan Klein, as Damon Albarn believes, then I suspect it's heard occasionally in Davies' vocal playfulness, his shifts of tone in a song such as Big Black Smoke and the sending up of Englishness in his vocal delivery in quite a few songs (End of the Season, Cricket, She's Got a Hat Like Princess Marina etc).

Maybe the neatness and craft of Klein's songs also had an effect. And, as with Bowie, the example of someone writing about London in a rock idiom. I also wonder whether songs like Twentieth Century Englishman may helped encourage Ray Davies to step outside himself to offer the barbed social commentaries in numbers such as Dedicated Follower and A Well Respected Man.

But - and this is all assuming Albarn is correct in the first place - maybe the most important lesson David Bowie, Ray Davies or anyone else might have learnt from Alan Klein comes from that elusive sense of "Britishness": you can borrow from American models but you don't have to run along their predestined grooves; take what you need from the form but imbue it with yourself.

You don't, in other words, have to pretend to be American in order to create effective British pop or rock.

To close, one of the few Klein-related youtube clips: a 1966 cover by American folk group the Pozo-Seco Singers of Klein's 1965 single It Ain't Worth the Lonely Road Back. And if anyone knows of Alan Klein's fortunes after 1970 (the period after which wikipedia is blank) I'd be delighted if you could get in touch.

Related posts:
More on What a Crazy World in posts 2 here and 4 here.
Damon Albarn on Alan Klein in post 12 here.
2008 Spencer Leigh interview with Alan Klein in post 13 here.
Possibly the last word - or possibly not - in post 14 here.

1 comment:

  1. Alan Klein is my grandad but have only ever met him once!