My Head's In '74
and other trans-cultural lifeline grabs - pt. one
December, Year Three: alright, so maybe I spoke too soon. The time that has passed since my last dispatch saw your reporter receive some seriously low blows in life, love and work, resulting in near total, babbling dissolution. Add such exquisite little inconveniences as insomnia, and finding oneself temporarily based next door to a local auto dealership - complete with blaring lot PA/tannoy, ensuring an early hour of awakening (provided one hasn't already been up for hours previous) - and it makes for one potential Prozac poster child.

Fortunately, the Universe is on occasion a mercurial and forgiving entity, and just as all seemed terminal, the shards of my life reconnected in a Mark E. Smith sort of style, leading me to conduct a serious rethink/recall (not a Roxy Music song title) of why I came to Fog City, what is important to me as a sentient, creative animal, the lengths to which I had debased myself as a 9-to-5'er and how far off the plot chasing money, no matter how much I needed it, had led me.

What am I saying? A day job is only a means to an end, not an altar on which to sacrifice what is really important to you. What's important to me? Art, music, friends, lovers, what all these things in their various combos can give to the world at large. Thinking of people and treating them like human beans instead of as obstacles to your path on the way to the bus to work, at work, to the corner shop, to see a show, etc. Stuff like that.

Of course, all the while I was listening to music. As my little mental tempest commenced, I gravitated towards a recent purchase, Bob Dylan's World Gone Wrong, luxuriating in its quiet acoustic grace - until I started picking up on what Bob was singing. Don't get me wrong, it's a brilliant record, one that it seemed he almost needed to make to regain his artistic bearings. But its traditional tales of broken romance, vengeful lovers and losers, death and deprivation, proved to be not the best thing to accompany a head-state overtaken by the possibility of a relationship gone South.

The two songs that I did find myself playing over and over, to get past recent events, were the Go-Betweens' ´Draining The Pool For You' - found on their 79-90 set, bought cheap at a local used-LP shop, inspired by a reread of this site's flotilla of essays on Forster, McLennan and co. - and the Mighty Diamonds' ´(Tired Of) Ghetto Living' - found on the highly enjoyable Joe Gibbs/Errol Thompson Mighty Two reggae compilation. Those of you who know these tunes may draw whatever conclusions you wish as to what put me in the mung I was mired in then. 'Nuff said.

One pleasant, unexpected cache of musical salvation came in the form of the first installments of what looks like an ongoing series from the folks at Cherry Red and subsidiary label RPM, devoted to certain unexplored musical threads of the early-mid 70's. Of these, what probably moves me the least is the Zigzag collection of singer-songwriter types that only the 70's could have produced. Not that it's without its charms - the opening track, Brian Protheroe's ´Pinball', wallows in a burrow of indolence that many a bedsitter can certainly relate to, me included. Tracks by Clifford T. Ward (´Wherewithal'), the Sarstedt Brothers (´Chinese Restaurant'), even a choice cut by Colin Blunstone during his brief, post-Zombies attempt at a solo career as ´Neil MacArthur', also work their mannered magic. Mostly though, it's chockfull of earnest strumming semi-detached troubadours, doing their part to make daytime radio safe for the Gerry Raffertys, Al Stewart and Chris De Burghs who would follow. (A further caveat: a local writer and internationally published historian of 60's psych- and folk-rock, who shall remain nameless and blameless, recently confided in me that this disc put him to sleep upon first airing.)

Much more to my taste is RPM's stupendous Velvet Tinmine set. When not wincing at the memory of such adolescent adversities as being laughed out of my local record shop for having the temerity to ask for the latest Slade and Sweet 45's, or being seemingly the only kid in school to openly admit liking both ´Waterloo' and the New York Dolls, there remains in me a lasting affection for the sounds of the Glitter/Glam era. Amazingly, though, it's remained one of the few relatively unexamined periods of pop music in the last few decades. Sure, there's been Hedwig, even the debatably successful film that inspired this collection's title. Still, with all the other subsets of rock that have been pored and parsed and dredged over in recent times - your NUGGETS and PEBBLES and BACK FROM THE GRAVES, the innumerable Northern Soul and 70's funk comps, the very welcome rash of 70's post-punk salvage - it begged the question: surely there's got to be more than all those Bell and RAK 45's, isn't there? With Velvet Tinmine, the mother lode has been well and truly tapped.

Apart from the overall high quality of most of the tunes on hand, it's surprising to note the varied forms Glam took in its short supernova existence, and they're all on display here. For instance, for those who associate Glam with hobnail-booted knuckle draggers like Slade or Mud, you couldn't hope for better knockoffs than the blustery opening track, Iron Virgin's ´Rebels Rule'- a classic chart-miss if ever was - or cuts like Sisters' ´Kick Your Boots Off' and Crunch's ´Lets Do It Again'. These come correct with foot-stompable tempos, and rousing vocals advocating teen mania every bit as convincingly as Noddy Holder did - hell, or Joe Strummer for that matter. (The similarity between Glam and Punk ´ideologies' is a point well raised - I remember an old issue of NME with a Sweet ´best of' review by Julie Burchill stating as much, and Bob Stanley's Tinmine liner notes provide a fresher reiteration.)

Speaking of which: for those who preferred their Glam on the more saccharine side (hah), there's appreciable amounts to enjoy here: tunes by the bands Warwick (´Lets Get The Party Going') and Shakane (´Love Machine' - dig the layered Ronsonesque guitar) , to name but a pair, offer much helium-harmonied, easily strummed mid-pace value. There's pre-pube bubblegum, in the fresh-faced form of Ricky Wilde (Kim's brother, and whither Ms. Water On Glass these days, anyway?). There's straightforward rawk - albeit sporting a few appliqued spangles and lame catsuits, perhaps: Bearded Lady's wishfully conceived ´Rock Star', ´Neo City' by Plod (fronted by future DIY pop genius Martin Newell). Sci-fi paranoia a la Ziggy is capably accounted for with the Washington Flyers' ´The Comets Are Coming'. Likewise the obligatory cash-in records, with Nick Lowe's decidedly Chipmunk-y tribute to the Bay City Rollers. There's also the outright misfit, tho perfect within its context, reduction of Gary Glitter for barrelhouse piano and curlicue synth that is Stavely Makepiece's ´Slippery Rock 70's'.

Velvet Tinmine even manages to serve up some pathos, with its inclusion of the fizzy, row-of-tents-minded bop of Brett Smiley's ´Va Va Va Voom'. A young, androgyne Detroit peacock groomed for stardom by Andrew Oldham, with his pick of session guys in three cities (some had even just come off working with John Lennon and Elton John) and an album's worth of assuredly first-class Glam originals and consonant covers, Smiley would come to fall victim to a turn of events nauseatingly common within the Music Business. The album was shelved, ´Va Va Va Voom' ending up but one side of a sole 45, all he would have to show for his efforts for three decades, when our heroes at RPM finally brought the album out for all the world to experience. And suffice to say that Breathlessly Brett, the disc in question, is indeed an experience, one no self-respecting Glam fan should deprive themselves of. Like right now.

Same thing goes for Velvet Tinmine as well, and apparently, happily, this is but the beginning. RPM already has a Volume 2 in the works, to be called Glitterbest (nice in-joke for Pistols historians, eh?), and I've just gotten word of another record co. putting something out called Glitter From The Litter Bin. Let the floodgates of retroactive musical flash open wide.

It also helped get your reporter back on track, fighting fit and ready to rawk to have participated in some events recently that speak to the best, most creative impulses of San Francisco - all of which will be elaborated upon in my next installment. Til then, excuse me while I go and give Velvet Tinmine another spin on the laser victrola. Yes, my heart organ is where it should be, Mark E., but right now my head's in '74.

© 2003Michael Layne Heath.