MARCO ROSSI thinks about road signs, new Swedish prog and ex-members of Sparks. Business as usual then.
Are HATFIELD AND THE NORTH the best band of all time to have been named after a road sign?
I shouldn’t have thought that the competition is particularly fierce, admittedly. One could argue the case for 23rd Turnoff, perhaps. And, er, Men At Work. Level Crossing 42. Ronnie Lane Restrictions. One-Way Twitty. Few people are aware that ‘My Humps’ by Black Eyed Peas was actually a song about traffic calming measures.
However, I digress. We were talking about Hatfield And The North were we not, waggish jazz-prog deities of ages past, who – with their Egg/Caravan/Matching Mole/Gong provenance – were very much my idea of a supergroup back in the day. I’m sure I even wrote as much on the back of my English jotter at school in the ’70s – shortly before being thrashed insensible with the selfsame jotter – when my fellow spot farms and I were doing the “assemble your dream group” thing.
Anyway, Esoteric’s recent reissue of their self-titled 1974 debut and its equally towering follow-up The Rotter’s Club proves beyond any reasonable doubt that it was well worth having a jotter rolled up and rammed for Hatfield And The North. Yes, the musicianship is casually, almost incidentally startling – particularly the fluently knotty contributions of keyboardist Dave Stewart and late drummer Pip Pyle – and yes, the compositions are as audaciously constructed as La Sagrada Familia; but it’s their life-affirming charm which resonates most strongly down the years. With the Graham Chapmanesque silliness of their song titles (personal favourite: ‘Going Up To People And Tinkling’) and bassist Richard Sinclair’s profoundly decent vocal delivery – truly the avuncular eccentric supply teacher of rock ‘n’ roll – they managed to slip music of fractal intricacy past ’70s audiences more attuned to whiffy and lumpen boogie. Check out ‘Son Of “There’s No Place Like Homerton”’ and ‘Mumps’ for seat-of-the-pants interplay while considering the fact that the skylark melody of ‘Calyx’, with an ethereal guest vocal from Robert Wyatt, is sufficiently beautiful to have had a Canterbury Sound website named in its honour. Is it too late to add that I’m still swooningly in love with backing singers the Northettes, incidentally? Ladies Who Prog don’t pass this way very often, alas.
Here, tell you what’s completely and utterly great: Detta Har Hänt (Transubstans), the new album by the seriously handy Swedish neo-prog gnosticians GÖSTA BERLINGS SAGA. I knew next to nothing about them at first, as I had no press release in front of me and the slow trudge in search of information began to take on the quasi-magical elements of a quest. “First you must answer these questions three…” Most everything I could find about them on the net was written in Swedish, a language whose wonderfully ploppy cadences I have been signally unable to master despite a deep devotion to Wallander. “How dare this band be written about in their own language,” I fumed. Eventually however, I found a few persuasively cryptic utterances including the band’s own description of Detta Har Hänt as “eight stories of industrialism and love”.
Can’t say fairer than that. The most immediately striking thing about them is the fact that while they are unmistakably a prog rock group – specialising in long-form instrumentals performed with a dexterity befitting Mandrake the Magician – they nevertheless remain coolly inscrutable and distinctly modern. They don’t really sound like anyone else either, give or take the merest hint of Red-era King Crimson, This Heat and Pere Ubu in the cold fire of ‘Kontrast’, and guitarist Einar Baldursson’s fuzzy barrage over the coda of ‘Bergslagen’ which is like being strafed by a swarm of Michael Karolis. Better still, and almost uniquely in the comfortably upholstered world of prog, there is nothing indulgent in what they do. Their strongly melodic motifs are tightly wrapped and deployed with economy and precision, leading to some vividly evocative music. If ‘Sorteragatan 3’ isn’t being used in a film by the year’s end I’ll eat my smorgasbord and withhold my next smorgasm. (Is “smorgasbord” Swedish for Gas Board?)
Sticking with lovely Sweden for the moment, the air-punching tidings are that a new album from long-time faves LA FLEUR FATALE has landed among the stray Twiglets, hairballs and illegibly encoded “notes to self” on my desk. Silent Revolution (Killer Cobra) finds them refining and perfecting their characteristic sense of yearning-in-orbit à la Notorious-era Byrds (‘Release The Colors In Me’, ‘Mellow My Mind’) while sitting on a potential hit single in the impeccable, glittering shape of ‘Astral Girl’.
We’re edging away from prog and delving into psych territory here; but I won’t tell if you won’t. The clues are everywhere: ‘Hotel Of Your Mind’ paraphrases ‘Slip Inside This House’ by The 13th Floor Elevators, although La Fleur Fatale favour “trip” instead of “slip”. Someone should do something about that lino in either case. Elsewhere, the gorgeously congested cello and Mellotron smog which enshrouds ‘Dare To Lick (Hunter’s Red Sleeve)’ conceals a knowing quote from the lyrics of ‘Heroin’ by the Velvets, not to mention a guitar riff which tugs a floppy fringe in the direction of ‘I Feel Fine’.
Almost entirely by chance, the next new album in today’s pile contains a striking version of that very song, daringly grafted on to a 7/8 time signature and slowed to a creepily insidious crawl not unlike XTC’s ‘Life Is Good In The Greenhouse’. Stand up MARTIN GORDON, you’re a credit to your legendary former bands Sparks, Jet and Radio Stars. Time Gentlemen Please (Radiant Future) is in effect an extended rumination on the “end days” – the compelling notion that humanity’s number is up as glaciers, economies and society itself collapse around us while we listlessly thumb through Heat magazine and over-populate The Jeremy Kyle Show. In the Scottish idiom, we’re about to get our arses felt.
However, Martin and his cracking crack band (vocalist Pelle Almgren, guitarist Ralf Leeman and drummer Stephen Budney) have taken the most bleakly unedifying subject matter and hosed it with mordant wit and ironic joie de vivre in a winning manner which my son Louis has taken to describing as “grimsical”. Again, we’re stretching the prog remit thinner than the skin of a bubble here as the cheeky-faced bumptiousness of Gordon’s songs is generally more Radio Stars than Radiohead: but in among the crunchy new wave snap and crackle there is copious and consistent evidence of real harmonic ingenuity and, always, the bracing intelligence of Gordon’s lyrics.
Now that I’ve pretty much abandoned all pretence of prog content and am just banging on about things I like in the dying moments of the column, I feel I must register my love of Plastic Guitar (Pink Hedgehog), the umptillionth album by acoustic guitar-toting Sacramento psych sage ANTON BARBEAU. Prolific as Barbara Cartland he may be, yet somehow his inbuilt quality control never so much as wavers. Plastic Guitar sees him flexing that limitless imagination to delightful effect (‘Quorn Fingers’, ‘Bending Like A Spoon’) and, in the beguiling triptych of ‘Dear Miss’, ‘I Used To Say Your Name’ and ‘Boat Called Home’, gifting us with his most affecting compositions yet.