Saturday, 5 July 2014

THE SIXTIES UNDERGROUND IN THE UK

(A sort of sequel to an earlier post on Krautrock.)


“It's not just some sort of scruffy club you can join, you're in or you're out... it's like being a criminal.”

Okay, the Sex Pistols song gave the late Seventies a catchier title. But in the process it's baseless year-zero rhetoric burnt the bridges to an equally great era of music, for which Britain was an epicentre. Punk didn't happen as a reaction to this music, punk was more an attempt to get back to it.

Hawkwind


You couldn't overstate the importance of Hawkwind if you tried. They're a credible candidate for the most important band in the history of everything, ever. Not just through defining the Sixties underground sound but by heavily influencing punk, post-punk and dance music.

Like the Velvet Underground they had a huge visual element to their live performance. But, also like the Velvets, sadly very little from their classic era was filmed. This is a video they made of their token hit 'Silver Machine' as an alternative to having to appear on 'Top Of the Pops'. (You can tell it's made for TV because Stacia keeps her clothes on.) Lemmy took the lead vocals, according to him because he was the only one who could hit the high notes.

Though covering 'Silver Machine' with the re-united Pistols, when asked to present a Radio Two show more recently John Lydon demonstrated his hardcore fan status by choosing the far freakier 'You Shouldn't Do That' instead. As would I, if YouTube had yielded any actually visual videos for it. 'Silver Machine' bears about the same place in the heart of Hawkfans as 'She Loves You'does for Beatles buffs - you like it, sure, but you think of it as an entrée at best.


Black Sabbath


Accept the linear notion that the Sixties Underground was nothing but prog, and another bridge burnt is its role in the genesis of hard rock and metal. Black Sabbath were of course the instigator of Seventies hard rock (which like all influential bands led to results both good and ill), but in their early days were very much seen as part of the underground. This bio is surely right to state “they still are a heavy underground band.”

Having gone for the obvious with 'Silver Machine', I feel obliged to follow up with the scene's other great unexpected hit - 'Paranoid'.(Which the band always claimed they speed-wrote to fill an album deemed otherwise too short for release.)

Like Hawkwind they actually excelled in longer tracks. But unlike Hawkwind their schtick was not sensory overload so much as pulverizing force, down-tuned guitars providing riffs so ponderous and droney they almost stop time in its tracks. If Hawkwind sought to hurl you up into the heavens, like some shaman cosmonaut, Sabbath strived to bury you alive under layers of sound.

But 'Paranoid'... somehow it manages to be more representative than 'Silver Machine'. Teenage angst writ large then hammered home with a piledriving riff – isn't that what it's all about? And check out the video…


Pink Floyd


it's a bit like Blake's famous line “did he who make the lamb make thee?” Is this really the same band who subjected us to 'Division Bell'? 

Well technically yes, but actually not. 'Set The Controls For the Heart of the Sun' borrows its title from a Ray Bradbury short story, and bears about the same relationship to generic rock music as he did to standard SF. It simply does what it says on the lid. You can hear its influence on trance-out acts like Om to this day.



Soft Machine


History perhaps wasn't kind to Soft Machine. There was a period they were seen as the central band of the British underground, the lot that would not just headline the UFO club but almost define it. They were to London what the Velvets were to New York. Alas, the candle that blazes twice as bright burnt half as long. The key members left early and they fell into becoming a boring proggy jazz-rock outfit, the sort of thing music buffs listen to on expensive hi-fis.

But never mind that – let's talk about their heyday! If Faust were the Dadaists of the Sixties underground then Soft Machine were the Surrealists, less assaulting music than undermining by infecting it with strangeness and wry wit. Though of course their name came from the Burroughs novel it also suggests at the soft, morphing forms of Dalian paintings.

Above all, their music's funny, in and of itself - just as the Magic Band's output was. A humour amply conveyed by this track being named 'Eamonn Andrews', after the evening TV presenter. Or by Robert Wyatt's tale (told on the back of their third album) of the first time they played the Albert Hall. A diligent doorman resolutely refused the scruffy hippy admission. (“'I've got to play in there', I said. 'You must be kidding, son', he said, 'they only have proper music in there'. Not that night they didn't.”)


Caravan


As any fule kno, many Sixties underground bands were actually a huge influence on punk. But were they just exceptions to the rule? What for example of Caravan? With their softly spoken laid-back pastoralism, were they the very thing punk sought to destroy? After all, their subject matter tended to be sly-wink innuendo about getting stoned and shagging, neither of which seem terribly transgressive today.

But so what? We shouldn't let the battle lines of the past define where we can go now. And sometimes what you want to eat's a flaming chilli burger, at other's it's some soft-flavoured home cooking.

It's clear enough by now that the prog that has dated, that can just be sealed up and consigned to history, is the bombastic, technocratic, look-at-me indulgences of ELP and the like. Caravan, conversely, were made from English understatement, droll whimsical humour (they sing like they have the permanent hint of a smile), a love of indolence and (yes really) a fine gift for melody. Their music sailed rather than being driven by any kind of engine. And, fittingly for the band that most epitomised the Canterbury sound, what could be more English than their rolling numbers? A Caravan track always seem so redolent of the soft undulations of the South Downs I live among.

King Crimson


This was the beginning of the end, really. King Crimson were definitely the start of prog, if more genuinely strange and deranged than that term normally connotes. But history is never neat and '21st Schizoid Man' from 1969 (supporting the Stones in Hyde Park) couldn't be a more classic Sixties Underground track – heavy riffing, sticking it to the man – just delivered by those who were ending it in that very same moment.


And to play us out...

The Social Deviants 


...were also known as the Deviants, or the Pink Fairies whenever the band fell out with singer Mick Farren (he of the quote up top). They were essentially the British MC5, even down to the stick-it-to-the-man shock politics, the White Panther connection and (above all) the wild Afros.

Unlike the MC5, however, they may be best remembered historically rather than musically. This one's described by the band themselves as “fairly long... and loud.” Both are true. It's a fuzzy clip of a free concert in Hyde Park. (Yes, another one. How did they avoid double-booking them?) And such a thing probably does sum up the era best. For better or... you know, the other one. (Skip at the very least the first minute.)

However, while long and loud it is, those with enough powers of endurance to click through to the second part will be reassured to find the thing ends with the reassuring sight of a British bobby.

(NB While the 'revolutionary' rhetoric of the times can have a naïve charm today, it's a bit harder to smile indulgently at the suggestion that you “grab the tit of the chick next to you”. Not against that part of the power structure, then, Mick?)


Coming soon! More of this sort of thing...

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