Chemikal Underground & the Delgados

There’s a 30-minute documentary on Chemikal Underground available on the BBC iPlayer right now.

Chemikal Underground, despite its name, was not an acid-house label. It’s an indie label, formed by the members of the Delgados in Glasgow in 1994. After putting out their own single, they released records by Bis, then signed Mogwai and Arab Strap. The programme is worth seeing to get the story of how you accomplished that with minimal funding in the mid-1990s. Frankly, the Delgados worked miracles to get uncommercial and pretty uncompromising music heard – and available – across the UK and worldwide.

However, with its abbreviated running time, the documentary showed very little of the Delgados’ own music, which for me was much the best to have been released by Chemikal Underground between the label’s formation and the time it dropped of my radar, around 2004-5.

Early single Monica Webster and the group’s first album, Domestiques, suggest a band in thrall to American indie, vocals submerged behind relatively rudimentary guitar thrashing. Peloton saw the group dialing down the distortion, revealing their vocal melodies and allowing Stewart Henderson’s bass to become the band’s crucial instrument. While they still got noisy on occasion (Repeat Failure’s wind-tunnel guitars are a pretty dead-on shoegaze recreation), the album’s key track was probably opener Everything Goes Around the Water, which employed a more widescreen soundworld of woodwinds and strings, and fused multiple sections, feels and tempos to create a sort of homespun avant-pop.

The band’s third album, The Great Eastern, saw them perfect that sound, albeit by ditching a little of what had made them endearing in their early years. The band brought in an outside producer for the first time in Dave Fridmann, who’d become a big cheese in indie music after his big three late-1990s successes: Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs, The Soft Bulletin by the Flaming Lips, and Mogwai’s Come On Die Young (the latter I see got some tepid reviews on release, but it seemed to me at the time to be enormous).

Fridmann did what Fridmann does (and I hate what Fridmann does sonically), but these were songs that were on the whole suited to the Fridmann aesthetic. The group’s songwriter/vocalists, Emma Pollock and Alun Woodward, had composed a set of long, multi-part songs geared towards a maximalist approach to arrangement, and while I’d question some of Fridmann’s mix choices, the arrangements he and the group created were magnificent, full of cellos and violas and elegiac brass. In an era where an orchestral arrangement on an indie record usually meant 200 violins straining to make the banal sound important, the Delgados’ approach (the gradual accumulation of small details to achieve a massive end result) was hugely refreshing.

With their next album, Hate, the Delgado’s arguably overreached themselves. At times, Fridmann’s sonics are unbelievably ugly (it’s an ear-scrapingly difficult listen on headphones, compressed and distorted beyond any reasonable endurance), but there are songs there every inch as good as those on The Great Eastern – opening duo The Light Before We Land and the title track may be the best things the band ever accomplished, and Pollock’s Coming In from the Cold has probably the album’s most appealing melodies, allied with a breezier, less claustrophobic mix. Undeniably difficult, Hate‘s insistence on avoiding lyrical cliche and embracing darkness make it worth hearing, even as its excesses make it a less satisfying record than its predecessor.

The Delgados called it quits after 2004’s Universal Audio, which stripped back the group’s Fridmann-era bombast and returned to their indie-pop roots. At that point, I stopped paying attention to Chemikal Underground, so I can’t speak to their releases in the last 15 years. But I do wish that someone involved in the making of the BBC documentary had spoken up in favour of the band’s own music, as for all the screen time given to Woodward, Pollock and the group’s yeoman drummmer/sound engineer Stewart Henderson, they were much too modest to speak up for themselves.

 

 

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Jules and Jim – Nada Surf

Eight albums into their career, Nada Surf are more quietly impressive than ever. Not quiet in a musical sense, as their music is often driven by saturated, beefy distorted guitars, but in a low-key, no-bullshit kind of way that’s best demonstrated by their live shows, in which they smash through one song after another with no extended jams and no self-indulgent between-song waffle.

The band formed in New York in 1992 as a collaboration between singer-guitarist Matthew Caws and bassist Daniel Lorca, who had gone to the same French-language school together (the families of both spent time in France and Belgium when they were kids). After a couple of false starts, they found drummer Ira Elliott and began recording low-budget EPs and playing shows. At one such show at the Knitting Factory, they ran into former Cars singer Ric Ocasek, who was by then an in-demand producer (his production discography includes the Bad Brains’ Rock for Light and Weezer’s Blue Album), and gave him one of their self-released cassettes. Ocasek later called the band to say he wanted to produce their first album, which no doubt helped to get them hooked up with Elektra.

Problem was, while their debut scored a hit, it did so in the form of Popular, a sub-Weezer novelty in which Caws recites advice from the 1964 guide for teenage girls on how to achieve popularity in an increasingly hysterical voice. Having not heard it at the time (it wasn’t really a thing in the UK), I’ve got to say, it’s as bad as it sounds. Worse, it pegged them for many as a derivative or even a novelty band; better not to have a mainstream hit at all than to have one that will follow you around like a bad smell for the next ten years. By the early noughties, the band members were back to working day jobs.

With admirable persistence, they set about rebuilding. After getting themselves a deal with solid indie Barsuk (John Vanderslice, Death Cab, Rilo Kiley), they released three super-solid power-pop albums in a row: Let Go, The Weight is a Gift and Lucky. Power pop is not a cool style of music, especially at the moment, but it’s one I’ve always had a huge soft spot for, and Nada Surf are great at it. Matthew Caws has a sweet and supple voice, his songs always have strong melodies and big choruses, and the rhythm section supply the “power” side of things admirably. As does the fact that Caws knows how to get a sweet guitar sound with his Les Paul Custom.

Jules and Jim is from 2012’s The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy, which took the band’s winning streak to four. The song is an Alex Chilton-ish minor classic, with one of their most glorious choruses. Although, really, it’s just one hook after another. The band are now a four-piece (when playing live, at least) with the addition of guitarist Doug Gillard, also of Guided by Voices, and when I saw at the Electric Ballroom a few years ago and Gillard and Caws struck up the song’s chiming harmonised intro, it was total Big Star-in-1972 jangle heaven.

I’ve Never Heard… Talking Book by Stevie Wonder

Or, truth to tell, any Stevie Wonder record. Not all the way through. I’ve heard large tracts of the one I’m most familiar with, Songs in the Key of Life (I have my mother’s old vinyl copy at home), but none of them in their entirety.

So I decided to pick one, and ended up with Talking Book, though it was almost Innervisions. But Talking Book has Superstition on it, so that was that.

Like the Eagles and Pink Floyd, the two bands I looked at last year for posts in this series, Stevie Wonder occupies such a huge place in the canon of English-language pop music that you (or, more specifically, I) can have heard none of his albums in their entirety yet still feel pretty au fait with the man’s oeuvre. I’ve known music by Stevie Wonder for almost literally as long as I can remember; I Just Called to Say I Love You came out when I was around three, and I remember hearing it in my parents’ house in Maldon, which we moved from when I was four and a half.

But as I got older, I began to find a lot about Wonder’s music that I didn’t like. The floridity of his vocal style was at odds with the much simpler approaches taken by my favourite singers. The maximalism of his sensibility was counter to my preference for more minimally arranged and produced music. I found myself irritated by his sometimes clumsy lyrics that messed with syntax or stress to force a rhyme. Too many of his songs, particularly those on Songs in the Key of Life, go on far too long.

So as I acquired many albums by his peers in 1970s soul and R&B – Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Al Green – I picked up none by Stevie. I’d essentially decided that he was never going to be my guy, even as I had a couple of dozen songs by him, and listened to them and enjoyed them, and would never have argued with anyone proclaiming his greatness. Or even his genius.

So that’s my background with the great man. Let’s dive in.

You Are the Sunshine of My Life, which opens Talking Book, is a classic. There’ll be no contrarian take from me on this one. His inversion of the natural stress of the word “rescue” is an example of the kind of bone I find myself constantly picking with Wonder the lyricist (the clumsiness takes me out of the song as surely as an out-of-time backbeat, a bad edit or an egregiously flat note would do), but still, there’s so much to love here, from the gorgeous Fender Rhodes sounds to the buoyant congas, and the lovely, inclusive touch of having backing singers Jim Gilstrap and Lani Groves sing the first two verses.

Maybe Your Baby is for me the weakest track on the album by a distance, so it’s a shame that it comes so early in the album. It’s not exactly bad – the verse groove is compelling enough, and the multitracked and varispeeded backing vocals are a creative arrangemental touch – but at nearly seven minutes, the track goes on far, far too long. Ray Parker’s soloing is a pretty major mark against for me, too. His tone, like an amplified bee buzzing around your head, is annoying, and without wishing to be cruel, he’s not the player you want pouring it out at this length. Wonder should have used Jeff Beck. But we’ll get back to him.

You and I moves back to ballad territory, with Wonder this time accompanying himself on piano, with a Theremin-like sound from TONTO (something else we’ll come back to). It’s a lovely performance, one of Wonder’s more restrained vocals, largely in the lower-middle of his wide range, where for me his voice sounds richest and most full. The use of delay on his voice gives it a slightly trippy, spacey touch that I think works brilliantly for the song.

Tuesday Heartbreak is a showcase for Wonder’s use of interweaving keyboards (Fender Rhodes and a prominent Clavinet), but something’s a bit off kilter about the vocal. It sounds nasal and pitchy, so much so that I wonder if something was awry with the tape speed when Wonder tracked his vocal. Whatever it is, something’s off, as I’ve never felt that Wonder was out of tune on any other other song. The backing vocals of Deniece Williams and Shirley Brewer could have been a touch higher in the mix, and I’m seldom well disposed towards David Sanborn’s alto (always so bright and hard-sounding), but the extended voicings Wonder plays are cool, and I love that change to Bb diminished in the verse.

Side one ends with You’ve Got It Bad Girl, one of the record’s most attractive pieces, and a song that illustrates the creative potency of Wonder’s partnership with engineers and co-producers Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff.

Cecil and Margouleff were the owners-operators of TONTO (The Original New Timbral Orchestra). TONTO was, and still is, the largest analogue synthesiser ever constructed – a room-sized behemoth of old-school analogue synthesis. Its many, many modules allowed its operators to construct new instrumental textures in real time, or produce credible simulations of real-world instruments.

tonto

On the jazzy You’ve Got It Bad Girl, Wonder, Cecil and Margouleff created a layer cake of keyboard timbres: Moog bass, Fender Rhodes chords and TONTO melody lines, several of which are instantly recognisable to anyone as “Stevie Wonder” synth sounds. Electronic it may be, but it’s also a wonderfully human and lyrical sound, so it beautifully complements the record’s acoustic elements: Wonder’s impressive drum performance (not “and-a-1, and-a-2” swing, looser and more impressionistic than that, but still clearly drawing on jazz), his gentle and intimate lead vocal, and the backing vocals of Gilstrap and Groves. A singular creation, but it works amazingly well.

Before the sessions for Talking Book began, Jeff Beck’s people at CBS told Wonder that Beck was a big fan, and would be keen to work with him in some capacity. Wonder did not need a vast pool of players to call on, as he was capable of playing almost everything himself, but he did tend to call in lead guitarists, so was open to playing with Beck. An agreement was made that Beck would play on Talking Book and in return Wonder would write him a song.

Superstition was the result of a jam session between Beck and Wonder that took place before the album sessions. Beck, apparently, came up with the opening drum pattern and Wonder improvised the Clavinet riff over the top. The two tracked a demo there and then, which Wonder took away to finish. In some versions of the story, Wonder loved it too much to give it to Beck without cutting his own version too; others say Motown told Wonder it was too good to give away and insisted that Stevie’s version came out first. Whichever is true, we’re lucky that Wonder did record it*, as the Beck, Bogert and Appice version is a sludgy mess with no verve or bounce, whereas Wonder’s version is the finest thing he ever recorded. Bar nothing.

A final word about the Superstition drum track. It’s a little sketchy in a couple of places, but Wonder’s drum performance on Superstition can stand alongside literally anything in the funk canon. Even if Jeff Beck came up with it.

Superstition crossfades into Big Brother. Wonder’s use of his Clavinet to create an acoustic guitar-like tone, coupled with the African-style percussion (djembe, I think), give this song a different feel to anything else on the record. It’s really cool, as is his harmonica playing. Lyrically, it’s probably the angriest song on the record (“I live in the ghetto/You just come to visit me ’round election time”; “You’ve killed all our leaders”), and a little blunter and sharper than I was expecting. On this song at least, anger sharpened Wonder’s lyrics into something cold and hard, with no syllable wasted.

Blame it on the Sun repeats the acoustic-guitar keyboard trick even more credibly (I guess from the sleevenotes, it’s the instrument referred to as a “harpsichord”, but Wonder plays it like lead acoustic guitar). It’s the arrangement’s most notable feature, but it’s hard not to be swept away by the song itself, which may be my favourite of the Talking Book tracks I didn’t already know. Those diminished chords in the choruses (under “the wind and the trees”) are heartbreaking, and the backing vocals by Gilstrap and Groves are sumptuous

Looking for Another Pure Love features the twin guitars of Jeff Beck and Howard “Buzz” Feiten. Over another of Wonder’s one-man-band arrangements of drums, Moog bass and Fender Rhodes, the pair play harmonised scalar lines, shadowing Wonder’s vocal melody. It’s a gentle and intimate production, with every nuance of Beck’s lead playing audible in the mix. Once again, the backing vocals – this time by Debra Wilson, Shirley Brewer and Loris Harvin – lift every chorus.

Final track I Believe (When I Fall in Love) is the third of the album’s masterpieces. Another of Wonder’s one-man sonic fantasias, its dreamy verses (carried by keyboards and a vaguely threatening Moog bass) are paid off by a slowly rising bridge and a chorus of cautious optimism that only gives way to anything close of celebration at the very end of the song.

As a recap of many of the moods explored by the album’s other songs, it’s a fitting end to a record that’s very good indeed, if not always quite at the level of its three most famous songs. After familiarising myself thoroughly with Talking Book over the last couple of weeks, I feel like it’s obviously the classic it’s always held to be. It has a couple of weaker moments, but Wonder’s sense of quality control was pretty tight on this one. And anyway, one or two lightweight songs or failed sonic experiments are understandable when you factor in that Wonder was making one record a year in the first half of the seventies. I’ve learned things, too, about the craft that went into these records: the creativity of Stevie’s arrangements and his work layering keyboard textures and harmonic parts, as well as his partnership with Cecil and Margouleff, which led to the creation of wonderful new timbres and atmospheres. While I do prefer the low end sound of the Stevie Wonder records that feature a bass guitarist, I’ve also got more of an appreciation for how he built rhythm tracks from Moog bass and his own drum performances.

Stevie Wonder’s records are probably never going to be among my very favourites – I’ve come around to more decorative singers in the last five or 10 years, but his sensibility is still a long way from that of the artists I tend to love most – but getting to know his albums was probably overdue for me. Having got to grips with Talking Book, I’ve already got Innervisions on my iPod**, and who knows, one day I may even get through the whole of Songs in the Key of Life without skipping the codas.

talking_book

*The incident strained the realtionship between the two considerably, and Beck remains convinced that his version would have been a huge hit had it come out first. It wouldn’t. It’s not even a tenth of the record that Stevie’s is.

**Yes, I still use an iPod Classic. 120gb. I work a lot on my music and Mel’s, and projects for folks like James McKean and Yo Zushi, so I don’t want to have to listen to them as MP3s.

 

 

The Kindergarten Teacher

Many, many spoilers follow. Trigger warnings also: this movie deals with a teacher’s emotionally abusive relationship with a very young student.

I’ve been thinking a lot about The Kindergarten Teacher since Mel and I went to see it on Wednesday evening.

There’s much that it does well. Maggie Gyllenhaal is excellent as Lisa, the eponymous teacher at a Staten Island kindergarten. There was never a second where I didn’t buy Lisa’s relationship with her family, or with Jimmy, the child she becomes obsessed with after hearing him recite seemingly improvised poetry one day after school. I was similarly convinced by her quiet disappointment in her own creative efforts, dismissed as derivative by the fellow students in her poetry class, and how this feeds into her unhealthy later behaviour.

The relationship between Lisa and Jimmy – her steps incrementally further over the line past mere teacherly interest in his gifts; his bafflement at the lessons she wants to teach him, and keeps pulling him out of class for – is similarly sharply drawn. It intends to be uncomfortable, and it succeeds. Two people walked out of the screening we attended, and about half of the audience kept laughing nervously as Lisa’s behaviour becomes increasingly hard to defend: taking Jimmy into the bathroom during the other children’s nap times to give him a private lesson on subjects like seeing the world from your own unique perspective; giving him her phone number so he can call her if he writes another poem.

My disappointment with the film, to the extent you could call it that when I do think it successful on the whole, lies in the second half of the movie, and particularly the last act.

Lisa having sex with her poetry teacher, Simon (played by Gael Garcia Bernal), who becomes attracted to her after she begins to pass off Jimmy’s poetry as her own, is an unnecessary plot point. His later disappointment in her after she takes Jimmy to a poetry recital and he sees that she’s been up to would have been no less acute if their relationship had stayed purely that of a teacher and student.

Throughout the movie, we are shown Lisa’s teaching assistant, Meghan (later revealed by Jimmy to have been the inspiration behind his poem “Anna”; you can see the strings inside Lisa break as he says this. It’s the most psychologically acute moment in the film), noticing what Lisa is doing and watching her. Yet, she never says anything to her or to anyone in authority at the school. After Lisa defies Jimmy’s father and takes Jimmy to the poetry recital at a Manhattan bar, he removes Jimmy from the kindergarten, but he doesn’t call the police or report her beahviour to anyone at Jimmy’s school. Her husband asks her where she’d been on the night of the poetry recital, but didn’t notice on the previous evening when she’d taken Jimmy to an art gallery to show him some, frankly disturbing, paintings.

It’s hard, ultimately, to believe that things could get to the point they reach in the final act without someone stepping in to save Jimmy from what had long since become abusive behaviour from his teacher. As striking as the scenes by the lake are, and as poignant as it is that no one is there to hear Jimmy’s poem at the end of the movie as he sits alone in a police car, the film is at least slightly undermined by Lisa having so little oversight at the school that she is able to carry on this way without anyone calling her to account.

That I began thinking in these terms while watching, and wasn’t entirely swept along by the story, is a testament to the reality writer/director Sara Collangelo (who adapted the story from an Israeli film of the same name by Nadav Lapid; I confess, I don’t know whether the teacher’s behaviour is challenged by anyone in his movie) creates in the first half of the movie. Collangelo creates a wholly believable world and set of motivations for Lisa, that remain consistent throughout the film and are revealed to us beautifully through Pepe Avila del Pino’s camerawork as much as through her dialogue. He uses of medium shots repeatedly showing us Gyllenhaal alone, or towering over the children in her class, reminding us constantly of her place in their lives as protector and educator, and the corruption of that in her relationship with Jimmy. The use of contrasting close-ups (showing us Gyllenhaal’s reactions to disappointment, or her increasingly discomforting physicality with Jimmy (touching his back, fondling his hair, whispering in his ear), are all the more claustrophobic and creepy. When the world and the relationships in it are this real-world credible, the more heightened elements of the plot necessarily stick out more.

Not a masterpiece, then, but thoughtful and provocative.

 

Never Any Clapton, Part 5 – The Electrician by the Walker Brothers

Big Jim Sullivan was a giant among British session musicians. A guitarist of impressively wide stylistic talents, Sullivan was a professional in his teens, when he’d only been playing for a couple of years. After playing with early Brit rockers like Vince Eager and Vince Taylor, he met Marty Wilde and joined his band, the Wildcats. During this time, Wilde gave him what’s thought to be the first Gibson Les Paul to be owned by a British player.

Sullivan soon found his way into session work, where his ability to play just about any style of music made him a godsend for producers, and a man constantly in demand. He played with Dusty Springfield, Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Frankie Vaughan, Billy Fury, Adam Faith, Frank Ifield and Cilla Black – so many pop and rock ‘n’ roll artists of the era, it’s easier to say who he didn’t play with. Visiting American artists sought him out, too: the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, Bobby Darin and Del Shannon.

In 1977, Sullivan got the nod to join a Walker Brothers session. The “brothers” (the entirely unrelated Scott Engel, Gary Leeds and John Maus) had already made two albums since reforming in 1975, and with their contract with GTO records running down and Scott in particular unhappy that the band’s first two reunion records had not been artistically fulfilling, Engel, Maus and Leeds felt it was time to take some risks. This meant writing their own material rather than relying on covers as they had mostly done in both phases of their career.

Scott truly rose to the challenge. His four songs represented the best efforts he’d made as a writer since the days of Scott 4 (Duchess, Boy Child, The Old Man’s Back Again, et al). The album’s finest moment was The Electrician.

It starts with a tolling-bell-style bass, nicked from Bowie’s Warszawa, overlaid with the dissonant string chords Walker had been using since It’s Raining Today on this first solo album. During the song’s middle section, the band comes in and Walker unveils the voice that he’d increasingly rely on for the rest of his career – straining half an octave above a comfortable range, its unsettling, hard edge replacing the romanticism of his baritone range.

The song is crowned by its exquisite string arrangement and Big Jim Sullivan’s short but masterful solo on classical guitar. A song about the CIA’s involvement in shady goings-on in South America in general and its use of torture in particular (the middle section is from the psychopathic point of view of the torturer himself), The Electrician is full of Latin signifiers – castanets, lushly romantic strings and, of course, classical guitar. Sullivan’s solo, then, beautiful as it is, is also the darkest of musical jokes – it’s the soundtrack to a torturer’s most sadistic fantasies.

Rare indeed is the solo that advances, and ironically comments upon, the narrative of the song itself. For this, and many other reasons, The Electrician is a central work of the Scott Walker canon, and its solo deserves to be remembered as much as Sullivan’s celebrated, poignant lead work on Gilbert O’Sullivan’s Alone Again (Naturally) – also played on classical guitar.

Scott Walker RIP

What Scott Walker meant to me is fearlessness, I think.

Several times in his career, Walker took the brave, adventurous road when he could have had an easier time sticking to what history had shown to work. First he ditched his “brothers” to make solo records that reflected his new and growing love of Jacques Brel. And then he stopped recording Brel to focus on his own material exclusively. Then, after a humbling period in the seventies when at his record company’s insistence he made throwaway light pop records (containing recordings of songs like If and Delta Dawn) and a reunion with Gary and John that had seen them score a big hit with a cover of Tom Rush’s No Regrets, he ripped up the rule book once again to make Nite Flights.

Yet, for all that Scott has been, and will continue to be lionised as an avant-garde talent, it’s worth remembering too just what a good singer he was. His wracked nobility on Make it Easy on Yourself, his bottom-of-the-ocean sorrow on The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, his distracted heartbreak on No Regrets, his provocative glee on Jackie, his simple tenderness on We’re All Alone* – Scott Walker would be one of the greats if we only knew him as an interpretive singer and he’d never written Montague Terrace (In Blue), Duchess or The Electrician.

Ah yes, The Electrician. Somehow it does all comes back to that one. His music got darker than that song. It got weirder. It got longer. But in no other song did Walker find a more perfect balance between his need to give voice to humanity’s darkest emotions and his ability to give those feelings beautiful expression. The Electrician, from its first tolling-bell bass note, casts its spell perfectly every time I hear it.

A fearless writer and a performer of technical and expressive virtuosity – Scott Walker was a true one-off.

*Yes, despite what you may have heard he did make good music between Scott 4 and Nite Flights. Just, not consistently.

 

 

 

Never Any Clapton, Part 4 – Starless by King Crimson

I’ve written about this one before, so please excuse me for returning to a favourite.

Once again, we must confront the Dark Lord of Skronk. Dare ye look upon his face a second time?

fripp

Oh yeah, Robert Fripp: the gentlemanly looking guitar torturer behind some of the finest uses and abuses of the instrument in rock music.

Every solo I’ve looked at over the years has had an emotional point. I’ve never been a fan of shows of virtuosity for their own sake. Robert Fripp’s playing on Starless radiates emotion, though the feelings being communicated are, to say the least, ambiguous.

The song begins in a minor key, with held Mellotron chords. Fripp plays a haunting melody over these chords, demonstrating his total control over tone and articulation. Every note has the right amount of sustain and vibrato. His choice of which string and fret to play the notes is equally precise and assured.

After three verses sung by Wetton (the main writer of this section of the song), the band drop out and Wetton plays a threatening-sounding 13/8 bass riff in C minor while Fripp plays a G note across two strings (he’s fretting the G string at the 12th fret and the B at the 8th, producing two Gs with slightly different tones and picking them alternately). Then as the riff switches to F, Fripp plays a discordant Gb, then back to G when the riff returns to C. This sequence repeats, and the tension starts to build via a long held G (major or minor? Neither Wetton nor Fripp is spelling that out yet).

How long can anyone play just two notes? If you’re Robert Fripp, quite a long time, long past the point where it begins to make the listener uncomfortable. Wetton and drummer Bill Bruford go through the sequence a second time, and it’s only towards the end of this repeat that Fripp starts climbing, semitone by agonising semitone, upwards in pitch. As he and Wetton begin to play with more volume and distortion, Bruford (the author of that bass riff) joins in. After another repeat of the full sequence, during which Bruford has kept things moderately quiet, playing games with backbeat placement and generally adding to the rising tension, the band finally abandon restraint and go at it hard.

Fripp plays oblique bends with a thicker, more distorted tone, Wetton’s bass is, likewise, now truly distorted, and Bruford switches to the ride, playing less abstractly and more like a conventional rock drummer (albeit one who can count odd-numbered beats in the bar), hitting hard and keeping things straighter. As Fripp goes higher and higher, the cumulative effect goes a long way beyond tense into hysterical, with Fripp’s guitar positively shrieking. Finally the tension breaks, and the band goes into a double-time section, with saxophonists Mel Collins and Ian MacDonald playing dueling solos.

What does it all mean, this eight minutes or so of profoundly uneasy music? In an earlier piece on this song, I commented that while the lyric was straightforwardly about a personal pain so deep that the singer becomes unable to experience any other emotion and is thus alienated from everyone around him, the music was working on a bigger canvas:

“Starless presents an apocalyptic, blasted-heath landscape, where something unimaginably terrible, possibly something world-ending, is about to happen.Such a vast song has to be about more than one man’s personal pain.”

I’d pretty much still go along with that. This music has an evocative power I’ve not heard anywhere else. I’m not sure whether any of what Fripp and co did here was improvised or whether it was all through-composed. I suspect the latter, but either way, it’s guitar playing of the highest order, so far ahead of what the band’s contemporaries were doing in 1974, it’s untrue. It seems scarcely believable that the day Starless was released, the number-single in the UK was Annie’s Song by John Denver, having taken over the day before from Carl Douglas’s Kung Fu Fighting.