The whole point of music is to listen to it, right? (Please, no objections from the dance fans in the background, there). You listen, you like, you buy, or illegally download, an option that has only latterly come onto the table. You may buy the music sight, er, unheard as it were, but this is the case in respect of music that comes from a trusted source, music with a proven background. You don’t just go out, unless you are an eccentric more proven than I, and buy completely unknown music based solely on a single New Musical Express review.
In the case of this album however, that’s exactly what I did.
The credit goes to Max Bell, one of the many mid-Seventies rock journalists who came together in all their sprawling, arguing glory to make Nick Logan’s NME the impossibly wonderful weekly thrill it was in that most elegantly wasted of decades (pre-punk, naturally). He’s less well-known or remembered than the likes of Charles Shaar Murray, Mick Farren and Nick Kent, principally because his focus was more upon the less-bloated, more inventive American music of the decade: Steely Dan and Little Feat to quote two disparate examples.
Indeed, whilst everyone remembers Farren’s legendary ‘Titanic’ article about Seventies music, only those of us there at the time now recall that Max Bell wrote a rebuttal to Farren a couple of weeks later, championing those American based favourites, including Bell’s own, idiosyncratic, short-lived discovery, Pavlov’s Dog.
It began with a record review, sometime around the February/March of 1976, of an import copy of Pampered Menial, the Dog’s first album. Bell loved it, regarded it with a passion close to awe, and in some fashion managed to communicate that to me, leaving me with the conviction that here was an album I was sure to enjoy. If I ever heard it.
Now that’s rare. I’ve read forty years worth of raves about music I didn’t know, and there’s been no more than a dozen occasions when I’ve come out of them with the belief that I will like this when I hear it. And one of those other occasions was Bell’s review of the Dog’s follow-up, At the Sound of the Bell.
Not that I did anything about it. Import album, unknown band, not heard anywhere. I was in my last year at university, Final Exams dead ahead, six month Law College course if I were successful, all on a small grant that my widowed mother couldn’t afford to supplement beyond bed and board. Most of the music I bought was second hand: I wasn’t going to splash out on imports, even if I could have found them. We had a Virgin Records in Manchester, but it was a hole-in-the-wall, authentically underground shop, not the megastores we got used to in the Eighties.
And no-one was playing Pavlov’s Dog. In the whole of my life I think there has been exactly one occasion that I have heard the Dog being played other than when I’ve put it on (which was in that old and tatty Manchester Virgin Records, incidentally, but much later).
Let us move on to mid-November that same year. Bell had written an equally glowing review of At the Sound of the Bell, further cementing my belief that I was going to love this band when I finally got to hear it. I was now at Law College, an afternoon course based near Chester, driving over every day, courtesy of my ex-schoolmate Glyn, who fancied six months home comforts after three years at LSE getting his Law Degree. Forty-five minutes each way on the A556.
I’d just celebrated my 21st birthday and had birthday money to spare. One Friday, I took the bus into Stockport to wander round, before getting back to be collected by Glyn at 12.45. I ended up in a second hand record shop, long since gone, on Little Undergate, a strange place dedicated mainly to much older music than that which inspired me, but which did have a section for pop/rock LPs.
And which had a copy of Pampered Menial for £2, which was the exact amount of birthday money I had left.
So I bought it, caught the bus home and had just enough time to play it once before Glyn would arrive. Once, to find it a strange, curious album of a kind that I was not at all prepared form, despite Max Bell’s reviews. Time only to play it once: but all afternoon at Christleton little bits of the songs, odd phrases, little riffs, snaked through my head in a way that albums more in tune with my then tastes (favourite band at the time, 10cc) didn’t do. I looked forward to getting home and playing it again.
The band, for this album, consisted of David Surkamp (vocals, guitars and most songwriting), ex-Blue Oyster Cult Steve Scorfina (lead guitars), David Hamilton (not that one)(keyboards), Doug Rayburn (mellotron and flute), Sigfried Carver (violin), Rick Stockton (bass) and Mike Safron (drums).
I always loved playing this album to unsuspecting friends: it opens, in seemingly quiet, conventional manner, with Julia, whose quiet, solo piano introduction gives no warning of the moment when, the solo done, an acoustic guitar replacing it, and Surkamp opens his mouth to sing the title word in an unearthly voice like none you’ve heard before and like nothing your mind has associated with the music thus far. Wikipedia describes it as a “high-pitched and quickly wavering vibrato” and Max Bell as “a gopher dancing on a hot-plate”, and whilst the one may be the more practical and descriptive, the other puts an image in your head that forty years still hasn’t dimmed.
It stuns and distracts, but over the course of an album Surkamp either overpowers you with his flexibility and sheer power, or he repels you with his strangeness and difference, and in that deciding is your response to this album.
Julia is a love song, as are many more on this album, and in many ways it’s the straightest song of them all, but it’s a song that, beneath its conventional trappings, is about power in a relationship. And Surkamp is aware from the opening line, explaining that Julia has ‘set the standards for me’, that he ‘couldn’t do much better than you’, a thing that Julia has already ‘said so yourself’. He’s the supplicant, almost the victim, and he confesses, with an intensity rarely invested in words that are a romantic cliché, that ‘I can’t live without your love’.
And the band swells behind and around him, opening up for the first time on this album, as Surkamp’s heart goes into his words and the mellotron swells in that pompous sound that characterised its every use by every band, with Safron’s drums high and hard and Hamilton’s piano, until the chorus dissolves into Surkamp and Scorfina’s acoustic guitar, now supported by the rhythm section, lightly, in further confessions that further tip the balance from understanding this as a love story we’ve previously heard.
Julia is ‘driving me crazy/but I’m a part of your plans’, and this time the band follow, swelling again into force as Surkamp pleads with Julia to ‘see how much you mean to me’. The verse exhausted, the music cools, Rayburn contributing a soothing, complex flute solo that suspends the moment, but only until Surkamp’s passions break through and he’s once more pleading that he can’t live without her love, and rising into a scream, before returning to an endless cycle that we now know will never be broken for him, never be answered or resolved, even in the final surrender of ‘And I can’t live without you, Julia’.
Late November is more characteristic of the band’s sound on this album, developing from a cool sliding riff from co-writer Scorfina that underpins the forward motion of the song. Surkamp’s voice sings from inside the song as the band unleash a slick, swift power. It’s again a love song, but again the perspective is skewed. Surkamp sings about a woman he loves, a woman who baffles him, a woman who has come to him, who ‘wants it badly’, who’s ‘coll, yeah she’s coll/she’s just like lightning’, who ‘held me close/came down from night skies’.
But ultimately he’s only ever singing from outside, because he doesn’t understand her, what motivates her, what makes her leave so easily, doesn’t even know if she understands herself. ‘She just goes to show you never know/What’s in your heart, what’s in your soul’. In the end, is his love love or is it compassion? ‘Take her home, keep her warm/in Late November’?
Strange lovers and strange loves. Scorfina is again to the fore in Song Dance (written by drummer Mike Safron), a song that shifts from phase to phase without ever sounding disjointed as the band, hard and tight, give room to each other. From Scorfina’s beautiful opening solo, to a moments of silence in which the band deliberately builds tension before syncing into a blazing riff, from the crazed violin solo that is Carver’s first chance to show his chops, but mostly its an unstoppable power, a music of fire and energy, over which Surkamp sings paeans to music, to rhythm and rocking, getting ready for a Song Dance tonight: ‘It’s morning now/I want to show you how/
Got to keep on moving, running to the sounds’
He even has the confidence to cool everything down, to almost whisper a confession of love: ‘Teach me a song, I’ll dance for you/ I won’t mind what you’re playing for me’,but is the lover he petitions a woman or the rhythm of the Song Dance?
Fast Gun is lead in by Carver, shaping another powerful, mellotron supported intro into a brief tale about a Fast Gun, a gunslinger, trying to make Surkamp run, thinking he’ll shoot him down. But Surkamp knows he never will. It’s easy to pretend, to wear your guns down low, to dress in black and pull triggers, ‘because the fast gun’s got troubles of his own’ and the guns are a front for a massive insecurity about his relationship with his girl. ‘Would a half breed cowboy lose her/
You never know’.
But if the music of Fast Gun builds into a passion, it can’t yet match the last song on Side One, Natchez Trace, where the band lets loose with a vengeance and Surkamp’s voice soars into even greater realms of power. Just remember what you are listening to, a mid-Seventies progressive band, with all the ills that implies, a band that makes major use of a mellotron, that most stodgy instrument of the progressive era, a guarantee of pomposity instead of the drama besought.
Yet Natchez Trace soars quickly, hits a staggeringly sharp guitar/organ riff and cleaves to that hard and long, decorating its main theme with piano at one point, organ at another but never leaving that spinal theme. Surkamp sings frantically, caught a long way from home, in dangerous surroundings. Nature and ‘one bad woman’ threaten him, and she is ‘waiting by the Natchez Trace/with all her silver thread and coal black lace/and when she puts you in your resting place/would you take my gold or leave my soul unscathed’.
Surkamp sings in fear and fascination, viewing love for yet another of its skewed perspectives, as the band hit the trail for home and ride it, hell for leather. Is this really the progressive music we now recall being so overblown and clever for its own sake?
In the moments between transferring the needle from side 1 to side 2, let me pause to educate our younger readers as to the fabled mellotron. The mellotron – espoused most popularly by the likes of The Moody Blues and Barclay James Harvest – was a keyboard instrument, and a very slow and unreliable one at that. Depressing its keys did not strike or pluck strings, nor unleash the natural or electronic power of organ pipes. The mellotron played tapes: little two to two-and-a-half second long strips of recording tape, installed in the machine, by pressing playback heads down on the selected fragments of orchestral recordings.
The intention was to enable rockbands, at a time when experimental rock/classic fusions were on the rise, to incorporate orchestral sounds into their music without either the cost of hiring a symphony orchestra or the disgust of the orchestra at being called upon to play such simplistic stuff. Unfortunately, with the exception of one band, who managed to integrate the mellotron sound in a grandiose, as opposed to pompous manner – and guess which band I’m talking about? – the mellotron was disastrously stodgy, and cripplingly slow.
But in the hands of the Dog, it soared. It brought balletic heights to a powerful, well-muscled sound, that could raise and lower tension almost at will, a tight, hard sound that Surkamp’s voice surged over, with precision, delicacy and force.
Side 2 starts in fine style, with my favourite track from the album, Theme from Subway Sue, a title that’s puzzled me for more than three decades until I finally learned that it was an in-joke: eccentric violinist Sigfried Carver (who would go on to become a conservative newspaper commentator under his real name, Richard Nadler) kept mishearing the opening line of the chorus as ‘Subway Sue’, instead of ‘Someday soon’ and the gag took.
Once again, Surkamp is consumed with the thought of love. He’s in love, she’s in love, but the relationship is precarious. They’re a long way from elsewhere, watching the mountains, and soon it will be time to move, to ‘take off down the river’. But will he travel alone, ‘if the love that you have for me is going’?
He asks ‘the birds not to show which way I’m going/Tell the leaves to try and hide the way’ because he’s as unsure as she is, but the river beckons, the way forward calls, but what future is it to be? ‘And Someday soon/we’ll take off down the river/someday soon/we’ll find the way/but if the love that you had for me is going/then I’ll see nothing of you at all’.
It doesn’t matter: he sings soft, he sings strong, the band ebb and surge in echo to his feelings, Scorfina ripping out some fine riffs, but the uncertainty is all, in the end, that he possesses, and the fear grows until he lets rip with a scream that is all the more powerful for emerging from that high register and the band raise the rafters as he thrashes in his pain until everything drains out of him and it ends, without an answer.
For a moment, Episode offers tranquillity, a quiet, piano-based ripple, a miasma of quiet guitars, but this is only a false dawn. Surkamp watches his love, ‘walking on a rainy day/toss(ing) some petals into a pool’. She’s to bide her time, and wait for him, but with this declaration the song takes on a stranger turn, the band opening up again, and Surkamp’s lyrics descending into fantasy, until we start to wonder whether he’s lover seeking love or stalker pursuing obsession.
She’s to pretend she’s a dancer or a queen, archers shoot an arrow on past the sun, Surkamp is just her soldier, should she be the keeper of of his mind and heart, ‘or is it best to go unseen’? He projects his fantasies onto her but they are strange and unstable. At the end, when he sings ‘You think you got control, you don’t,/you’ll never know, you’ll never know’, just who is it that he’s speaking of?
A brief interlude follows, a chance to look away, trust only in our ears, as the band sweep through Carver’s brief instrumental, Preludin (the original, 10 minute version of this piece, played live in 1975, is a bonus track on the 2007 re-mastered reissue) and then it is time for the final track, the monumental Of Once and Future Kings.
The album ends in a manner closer to the stereotypical image of Seventies progressive rock, in fantasy and pomposity. Over Carver’s violin, Surkamp narrates a vision of an Arthurian scene: All the ladies of court gather round/Joined in heavenly fair/Gathering promises of future heroes/Young faith it is all as you go/Red light and green light and men in their armor/And fight for the queen if you dare/It’s a long way to go to test out your mettle/Long way to go to go down’
Just as the listener is lost in this dream, the scene and the music change: sudden, fast, skittery. A disaster has swept through, the archaic and timeless vision has had time occur, no quarter has been given because of their art, they are being killed in the wild, their wives and children taken, despite all pleas for forgiveness.
For a moment, the dream is restored, Surkamp paints his vision again in the exact same words, but this time it cannot hold. The dream cracks and breaks,the trip is over, mad necessity floods in a Surkamp screams in pain, expertly riding the furious edge of the band giving it all, a sonic overdose as Scorfina solos frenetically. You better do down, and with a final roll on the piano, the song does, the album does, the experience ends and the music leaves echoes that will never truly fade.
In America, Pampered Menial‘s prospects of success, Pavlov’s Dog being very big in and around their St Louis base, were hampered by it being released, then with drawn, on two different major labels, before finally settling on Columbia Records. In Britain, it was released on CBS. Very few people bought it, but I’m very glad I was one of them.