Pink Floyd - 1968: Germin/ation (The Early Years 1965-1972, Volume 2)

7.5 - England - 1968/2017

For the last couple of decades (at least!), I've been kvetching about how Pink Floyd needed to release their BBC Sessions. Whereas the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Bowie and others had put out sets compiling various recordings they had made for radio, Pink Floyd's BBC Sessions -- they recorded several between 1967 and 1971 -- remained consigned to bootlegs of varying degrees of sound quality. A shame, as that period -- which followed the firing of the group's mainspring Syd Barrett and resulted in the remaining band members plotting out a new sound that culminated in the stadium-dominating prog-rock of the mid-seventies -- is arguably the most interesting part of the band's career. Moreover, the live sound of Pink Floyd at this time is heavier and more psychedelic than their later, more well-known material, and, outside of the four tracks presented on the "Live" half of the Ummagumma album, it has remained largely unheard since those scratchy BEEB transmissions made their way into the ether those many years ago.

And so it was with rather mixed emotions that last year I heard that Pink Floyd would be releasing a mammoth boxed-set documenting their "Early Years" from their Syd Barrett-led inception up to the period just preceding the world-conquering Dark Side Of The Moon. Over seven volumes, the set includes the group's early non-album singles, previously unreleased live and studio recordings (including all the BBC sessions) and a whole ton of video material. Fantastic! Well, except for a price tag of several hundred dollars, a price tag inflated by the inclusion of replica (that is, "fake") memorabilia and replica vinyl singles. Cool, but unnecessary. A two-disc distillation of highlights of the set might work for a more casual fan, but is really just a tease of the treasures available on the full set. Fortunately, in the spring of 2017, Pink Floyd released six of the set's volumes independently at somewhat more reasonable prices (the seventh volume in the boxed set, "1967-1972: Continu/ation", which apparently contains "lesser" material from throughout the period, remains exclusive to the big set), so that the less pecuniarily gifted collecter can obtain (most of) this fascinating music on an installment plan.

For now, I've skipped the first entry in the series, 1967: Cambridge St/ation (I find the "/ation" name formatting somewhat silly, but whatever), as I've never been all that interested in the Syd Barrett era, and jumped in with the second volume that picks up in the immediate aftermath of Barrett's departure as the group struggled to find its own sound. I'd argue that this period -- which I'd contend lasted up until 1970's Atom Heart Mother -- represents the Floyd at, if not their best, perhaps their most interesting. So while this second volume is one of the slimmest in the set -- one audio disc lasting just under an hour and then a video disc (somewhat pointlessly duplicated in both blu-ray and dvd formats as if to proved a questionable justification for the somewhat unnecessarily inflated price: the standard retail on these suckers runs about C$60, but copies can be found for around C$40) -- I was quite excited to finally hear some of these long-hidden gems in the best possible quality.

The audio portion of this set consists of two non-album singles, a couple of studio outtakes, and two full sessions recorded for the BBC. The two singles -- the Wright-penned "It Would Be So Nice" and the early Gilmour-Waters collaboration "Point Me At The Sky" -- are perhaps the most obscure recordings the band ever officially released. The early collection of (mostly) non-album tracks, Relics, put out in 1971 passed over these tunes in favour of their admittedly superior b-sides (also included here). The omission is perhaps understandable: "It Would Be So Nice" is quite bad. I've already stated a couple of times now that this was a transitional period, which presents a mixed a blessing: on the one hand, you get the Floyd at their most daring and adventurous -- think of the noisy psych freakout of "A Saucerful Of Secrets", the moody guitar attack of "Careful With That Axe, Eugene" and the experimentalism of the studio disc of Ummagumma -- but on the otherhand you also get some dreadful and sometimes pretentious misfires -- think of the failed attempts to recapture the childish psychedelic whimsy of Syd Barrett's material or the experimentalism of the studio disc of Ummagumma. "It Would Be So Nice" is definitely in the latter category; it's almost sounds like some Spinal Tap-ian parody of a subpar attempt at aping the Beatles. Worst of all, the group themselves clearly know that it is no good and that they're only putting out this dreck due to pressure from the record company to futiley try to make another "See Emily Play". With Barrett gone and Waters and Gilmour yet to take over, for this brief period, keyboardist Richard Wright seems to have taken on the mantle of being the frontman and main songwriter, but whereas A Saucerful Of Secrets' "Remember A Day" and the "Apples And Oranges" b-side "Paintbox" are both very good pop-psych tunes, this, his only a-side, is dire indeed (drummer Nick Mason described it as "fucking awful"). The Waters-penned b-side, "Julia Dream" is somewhat better: it's a mildly pleasant exercise in pastoral psychedelia salvaged by a neat chord sequence in the middle-eight wherein Wright's keyboard flute takes a solo.

The other non-album single from this period is a definite improvement. "Point Me At The Sky" is an early collaboration between Roger Waters and David Gilmour and, in this reviewer's consideration, constitutes somewhat of a "lost classic" in the Floyd canon. The science fiction lyrics detailing a crowded, dystopian future are a bit silly, but the transitions between the spacey verses and the rousing chorus (one of the few Floyd moments that could be described as a genuine "sing-a-long") are a neat highlight. In the end, the single's b-side, "Careful With That Axe, Eugene", ended up overshadowing this forgotten tune to become one of the group's early signature pieces. Here, in its studio incarnation, "Eugene" is a little less explosive, but still features some creepy ambience and a nice fuzz solo from Gilmour (but still a shadow of its apothoesis on the Ummagumma live disc).

Appended to these two singles are a couple of pieces recorded in America in August 1968. They're little more than half-finished (and rather half-assed) demos, imaginatively titled "Song 1" and "Song 2 (Roger's Boogie)". I can't help but suspect the parenthetical title is misplaced -- neither song could be described as a "Boogie", but if you had to pick one, it'd be the first. Anyway, from a historical standpoint, these two tracks anticipate some of the work to come from the Floyd in the next couple of years: "Song 1" sounds almost like a very early version of one of the themes in "Atom Heart Mother". "Song 2" is perhaps the better of two and is built around a stack of chorale harmonies (I can think of nothing like it in the Floyd canon) and some bizarre lyrics about the angel Gabriel. Objectively speaking, it's not all that great, but I would have very much liked to know where they were going with the tune!

More than half of the audio disc is made up of two sessions recorded for the BBC in 1968. The first set comprises of a kinda early version of "Careful With That Axe, Eugene" (under the title "Muderotic Woman") as well as an abbreviated version of "A Saucerful Of Secrets" (titled the "The Massed Gadgets Of Hercules" even though, according to our faintly amusing announcer, the actual album was already in release, so I'm not sure why the alternate, working title is used here). These two tracks -- along with pedestrian renditions of "Julia Dream" and "Let There Be More Light" -- are enjoyable, if not outstanding.

The second BBC set is more interesting. "Point Me At The Sky" is given a bit of an overhaul with a longer and much more psychedelic middle section and an extended outro featuring a pretty nifty organ solo from Wright. We also get an early -- dare I say "embryonic" -- version of the lost Floyd tune "Embryo". In this instance, it's similar to the acousticish studio demo of the song put out (against the group's wishes) on the Harvest Records sampler Picnic, A Breath Of Fresh Air, a version that made its way in the CD era onto the utterly bizarre compiliation Works (which seems to have been sequenced by just pulling random Floyd songs out of a hat). As later BBC sessions will show, "Embryo" ended up gestating into a lengthy, guitar-led centrepiece, but this version is still not without its charms. Finally, the last cut on the disc is a post-Barrett version of "Interstellar Overdrive". This version is more restrained and less frenetic than its original, and yet in some ways it's also more experimental as the band seems to have polished their avant-garde tendencies. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of mastering wiz Andy Jackson, the sound quality of this track is quite poor at best. Absolutely worth hearing nonetheless.

As good as the audio is, the visual component of the set, however, is where the real value lies. And, to continue beating that dead horse, its fascinating to see the group in this none-more-transitional state. The first tracks presented on the blu-ray consist of some lip-synched performances for Belgian television. At this stage, the group (still referred to as The Pink Floyd) are still trading on the Barrett era material, thus forcing Waters, Wright, and sometimes Gilmour to ventriloquize the absent Syd: Waters' ridiculous "performance" of "Apples And Oranges" is absolutely priceless. Also, Mason hilariously refuses to make any attempt at miming his drum parts with any semblance of accuracy. Still, these early promotional videos are quite charming and it's nice to see the boys (they are so young) having a bit of fun during what were probably difficult times (viz. Roger cracking up during an awkward lip-synched performance of "Remember A Day" on French television followed by Gilmour striking rock god poses with an acoustic guitar).

The actually "live" performances are better. We get an interesting excerpt of a performance of "Interstellar Overdrive" on Italian television (sidenote: it's also interesting that almost all this footage comes from European and not British sources). Perhaps the highlight, however, is a stellar live version of "Let There Be More Light" performed on some French TV show. A smattering of groovy Euro-hippies (and one inexplicable older dude) sway unconvincingly and haphazardly will the Floyd lay down some nice space rock. In this live version, Gilmour lays down an extended and slightly heavier solo compared to the studio version (I always felt this track never quite lived up to the promise of its awesome intro section). I should note here that as you watch through the whole disc you can literally see David Gilmour get more comfortable in the group. In the first promo clips, he appears awkward and unsure of himself, yet over the course of just a few months, he gradually becomes more at ease. Kinda neat.

In all, I'm just so glad that this material is finally out. Even though this particular installment might be a somewhat weak entry compared to the glories to come in the next few years, it's still fascinating and essential for any Floyd fan. As such, it was a bit tricky assigning a score for this record. Objectively speaking, the music itself probably rates a 7: historical interest can only go so far and while, outside of "It Would Be So Nice", there's nothing really "bad" here, there's also nothing particularly amazing. Also, while the video component is pretty cool, on this disc there's a lot of repetition ("Let There Be More Light" in particular) and much of it just lip-synchs to studio tracks which are already among some of the weakest material the group recorded). Still, I want to give this whole project a grade of 11.0 for simply existing (maybe docking down to 9.5-10.0 due to the unnecessarily high prices). So, um, 7.5 then?



Michael Head & The Strands - The Magical World Of The Strands

8.0 - England - 1997

As a younger lad, I saw this album mentioned in Select magazine back in the late 90s; I recall it was listed in their top albums of 1997 (a vintage year that saw excellent releases by Cornershop, Spiritualized, and some obscure Oxford combo called the Radio Heads). In those heady, pre-Napster days, obtaining records from England was a difficult affair for a teenager in Ottawa, Canada. Finding a Cornershop or Dodgy record was an occasion for joy, but to get a Super Furries record meant having to go to Toronto or, god forbid, navigating the choppy waters of pre-Amazon mail ordering. As for this somewhat obscurer slice of British folk rock, forget it. Head's follow-up, recorded under the band name Shack, was a bit easier to find, but this album never seemed to be readily available on this side of the Atlantic. A shame, as from what I'd read, The Magical World Of The Strands seemed right up the alley of late 90s me, just getting into the Velvet Underground, Love, and the expansive discography of Bob Dylan. 

Hearing it now (finally), it turns out I was right. Truly an underrated album, The Strands is a delightful British take on late 60s jangly folk rock. The songs have a timeless, almost mediaeval feel to them, like a much hipper, post-punk John Barleycorn. "Queen Matilda" starts things off wonderfully with some lilting finger-picking and echoey lead runs intertwined around a sailing tale (a most befitting subject matter for the Liverpool based Head, a theme to which he would return on Shack's H.M.S. Fable). Elsewhere, "It's Harvest Time" sounds like something that could have been sung in English villages for centuries. But it's not all "Scarborough Fair", throughout the gentle acoustic guitars, the ghost of 'lectricity periodically rears its snarling head (viz. the cool schizophrenia of "Glynys and Jaqui" and "And Luna" in which both songs suddenly lurch to life before settling back down into the hazy pastoralism that dominates the record). The influence of Love might be most notable on the album's second track, "Something Like You" in which the jangly guitars are augmented with a seductive string section and a most soulful vocal from Head. A terrific album, and one that should've been a classic. Wish I could've heard it all those years ago, but better late than never.


Miles Davis - Big Fun

9.5 - USA - 1974

-- Masterpiece --

Bitches Brew is the greatest album of all time. Of all time. And yet, in many respects, it was just the beginning. A new beginning for Miles Davis, who, well into his forties, had just hit upon an entirely new form of jazz that added godlike electricity and driving rock rhythms. Chord changes largely dispensed with, this new jazz - which could scarcely be called jazz -- relied heavily on rhythm and texture rather than melody and harmony. Thrilling stuff.

And yet he wasn't done there. In the wake of these "new directions", Davis spent the rest of the early seventies churning out scores of deep, dark funk. The immediate follow-ups to Bitches Brew (11.0) were 1971's Live-Evil (8.0), a double helping of a stripped-down live version of Davis' jazz fusion culled and reconstructed from a series of shows at Washington's Cellar Door club (with some studio stuff thrown in here and there) and the 1970 soundtrack A Tribute To Jack Johnson (10.0), an amazing record that offered a further stripped-down take on Bitches Brew new, rocky direction, one that out-rocked even the best moments of, say, Led Zeppelin and out-funked, say, Funkadelic at their spaciest (some incredible incendiary guitar work by John McLaughlin on that record). And then 1972 brought On The Corner (9.0), a highly divisive album that simultaneously rendered jazz obsolete while anticipating hip hop (to put it algebraically: On The Corner : Bitches Brew :: Bitches Brew : Kind Of Blue). By the time Get Up With It (8.5) was put out in 1974 and Miles began his reclusive retirement, it was but the glorious afterglow of an astonishing explosion of innovation and wonderment.

And yet there was more. As Sony Legacy's boxed set treatment of The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions reveals, the album proper was constructed from the first few sessions of Davis' electric experiments. Some of the later sessions would find their way onto wax throughout the seventies on such career-spanning compilations of strays like Directions and Circle In The Round. And easily the best of these records is 1974's Big Fun, largely because unlike the others it concentrates on the wonderful electric music produced in the wake of the epoch-shattering Bitches Brew.

The original double-lp -- cruelly overlooked in its time -- featured four side-long cuts. Side 2's "Ife" came from the same sessions that produced On The Corner; though very much cut from the same cloth, it wouldn't have fit thematically with the repetitive street-funk of the rest of that album. And so its loping bass-groove and ultra-funky double drums are best presented here. Side 3's "Go Ahead, John" comes from the Jack Johnson sessions, though the way it was (re-)mixed for Big Fun removes it from the stripped-down funk-rock of that soundtrack and puts it more in line with the more elaborate arrangements of the later Bitches Brew material. The first part of that track consists of a fantastic John McLaughlin fuzz solo that is processed such that, as the liners say, it "suggest[s] a hornet trapped uinder a glass that's repeatedly lifted and lowered". The track then mellows out as an echo-plexed Miles duets with both himself and Steve Grossman's soprano sax. 

The other two cuts -- Side 1's "Great Expectations" and Side 4's "Lonely Fire" -- come from the later Bitches Brew sessions. Here Miles (and the great producer Teo Macero) expanded on the pallette they had used to create such masterpieces as "Bitches Brew" and "Spanish Key". Whereas those tracks were built on an arrangement of McLaughlin's electric guitar, a series of stacked keyboards, and all manner of layered percussion, here the exotic textures of tabla and electric sitar are added to the mix to give a sense of smokey mystery. "Lonely Fire" in particular is a work of exquisite beauty, one that takes a while to build from a haze of textures and tentative gestures into a swirling maelstrom of dark, sensuous funk.

The 2000 reissue adds four more tracks drawn from these same sessions that immediately followed the sessions that produced Bitches Brew, and all of this points to an awesome follow-up to that album that, unfortunately, was never realized (I guess by this time, Miles was deep into the the sparser sounds that ended up being the Jack Johnson soundtrack). This never-produced (presumably double) LP is certainly not a disappointment on the order of the almost-but-not-quite-happened collaboration with Jimi Hendrix -- certainly, we are much better off for having a Big Fun that includes "Ife" and "Go Ahead, John" -- but it is still tantalizing to imagine a Big Fun that is more than just an under-appreciated collection of cast-offs from Davis' most exciting period.  Then again, given the transcendent mystical nature of this baffling music, perhaps it is a record that's best kept slightly under the radar, only truly appreciated by those in the know.


Bixio-Frizzi-Tempera - Vai Gorilla (Original Soundtrack)

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