Well Spring has sprung and Easter approaches…while I have succumbed to hay-fever relatively late in life, I will happily take my anti-histamines every morning and reach for my shorts and flip-flops! It will also soon be time for the open-air Lido to reopen! Does it show that I am a warm-weather person?
So…what’s on my mind? Well… I shall start by saying that I really do like a challenge and an interesting one presented itself to me recently.
When I was a kid, during my exile from the family home (some called it boarding school but I digress) one of my main coping mechanisms was to clear off to John Scrace’s record shop in Dover (I have mentioned this in previous blogs) and this resulted in a podgy kid with an unfashionable haircut hanging around with various varieties of long-haired music lovers having my ears thrilled, challenged and educated. I will always think kindly of the folkies & hippies of John Scrace….(as well as the Saturday girl that I fell in love with, but that’s a sad tale of unrequited love). At this time there was a chap who, quite literally, lit up the stage with his stage persona and theatrical performance; Arthur Brown sang of Fire and the groovy grooved while parents tutted and declared that no good would come of such behavior. Arthur has endured.
Coming out from an era where ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds’ and Doris Day’s ‘Deadwood Stage’ were on Two-Way Family Favourites on the BBC Sunday lunchtime radio, it is clear why Arthur Brown was seen by the ‘old folks’ as scandalous but I am sure that many artists in all genres of popular music created a stage persona for their audiences. I have often wondered whether Lefty Frizzell needed a good deal persuading to put on those silk scarves and whether Johnny Cash ever felt like breaking out in a shirt that Jimmy Buffett would approve of but I have the feeling that the famous picture of George Jones in his green suit is all George!
As the 60’s and 70’s progressed there were various artists whose stage persona was dramatic, none more so that David Bowie and Peter Gabriel. The characters created by Bowie and Gabriel are well-known (and much loved); these characters were integral to their music – they were accepted and their reinventions were applauded. There were the bands in the 70’s (often under the wing of producers such as Mickie Most) that had the ‘glam’ image – Sweet, The Move, Slade, for example but, for me, they had more in common with Lefty’s silk scarf as part of the presentation of the artist rather than being a part of the music being performed.
This is not ignoring the incredible commercial success of the aforementioned ‘glam’ bands and maybe I am being snobbish in my opinion of them? I was not part of the target audience for these bands so maybe I should quietly applaud their colossal record sales, their undoubted success and the income generated for purveyors of shortened baggy jeans with bits of tartan sewn on and face paint. (I’m still being a bit snobbish, aren’t I? Sorry!)
Were David Bowie and Peter Gabriel continuing the theatricality started by the likes of Arthur Brown and Screaming Jay Hawkins or was there more to it? It is well know that David Bowie had a strong working relationship with choreographer Lindsay Kemp and the personae created by Peter Gabriel visualized the various Genesis projects as only Prog-Rock could. Is there that much difference between the face-paint of Roy Wood (of The Move and Wizzard) to that of David Bowie? Are they perceived differently because one is seen as a pop-star and the other revered as an icon of modern music?
Moving away from pop music, Punk brought a new level of ‘outrage’. Bill Grundy unnecessarily goading the Sex Pistols on live television brought about exactly what he wanted – Middle England frothed at the mouth - but this only added to the image of the Sex Pistols but, really, did anybody really care? Was anyone surprised? Did I enjoy Punk gigs – no; am I glad Punk happened, absolutely but, once again, I digress. As Punk roared, the New Romantics strode onto the stage like peacocks. The Punks and the New Romantics had their style but this felt more than just the make-up of the glam rockers; while I didn’t share their taste, this was a style that was being lived every day.
As I write this more examples spring to mind, most prominently are Slipknot; those fellas certainly knew how to put on a show though with very few opportunities to sing-a-long and certainly not my cup of tea but their stage personae were undoubtedly are large part of their appeal. Marilyn Manson is another artist who has been hugely successful with a presentation that has mortified many but, love him or hate him, Brian is a great showman. I really do have to digress once more because I really want to share a version of Marilyn Manson’s ‘Beautiful People’; this is not meant disrespectfully to Brian but hopefully it will raise an eyebrow….as the line in an old folk song goes ‘can’t you dance the Polka?’
At the start of this blog article, I mentioned a challenge; so what was that?
I received a new release and, on this artist’s own Facebook page, there is the statement ‘Psychedelic outlaw cowboy croons love and loss from the badlands of North America’ and, elsewhere, ‘Combining the lulling ambiance of shoegaze with the iconic melodies and vocal prowess of classic American country music, outlaw cowboy, [the artist] croons about love and loss from the badlands of North America’.
I confess that when I hear ‘outlaw’ and ‘Country’ in the same context I am immediately thinking about the likes of Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard; there are some contemporary artists who profess to playing ‘outlaw Country’ with (in my mind) varying degrees of success. Some, undoubtedly have that ‘outlaw’ spirit others make me think that they may be riding on Waylon’s coat-tails in an unconvincing manner. As for the second statement (‘Combining the lulling ambience of shoegaze….’); this is one of the reasons that I do not write reviews! It seems that reviewers exist in a world of excessively florid language and hyperbole. Quite what the lulling ambience of shoegaze is, I really can’t tell you! At first I wondering if this was akin to admiring my well-polished boots but that just seems too weird. I did an internet search for ‘shoegaze’ and didn’t find much at all but did discoverer that ‘Shoegazing is a subgenre of indie and alternative rock that emerged in the United Kingdom in the late 1980s. Its sound is characterised by an ethereal mixture of obscured vocals, guitar distortion and effects, feedback, and overwhelming volume’. No, I’m none the wiser.
I decided to jump onto ‘iconic melodies and vocal prowess of classic American country music, outlaw cowboy’…again, I was at a loss…this wasn’t going well. I started to listen and heard none of the ‘iconic melodies’ and that word ‘outlaw’ again. Frankly, I was mystified.
Perhaps, at this point, I should introduce the artist concerned: Orville Peck. It is at this point that the reason for my pre-amble about stage personae.
My first reaction was ‘Huh?’ – let me explain.
I listen to Bluegrass and there are some bands who are immaculately dressed with pristine Stetson hats and suits that wouldn’t look out of place next to George Jones’ suit earlier in this article but I just don’t ‘get it’. I would rather see someone comfortably dressed playing their heart out – fancy suits do not impress me. OK, I don’t think that I have seen Robert Fripp in anything other than a suit for several decades but he is an exception\exceptional.
As you might gather, my introduction to Orville Peck was probably not going according to the publicist’s plan. The written ‘blurb’ was inintelligible and unconvincing. The fringed mask did more to confuse than intrigue. So I hit the Play button. As I did so, I watched the featured video from Orville’s website; the first impression of the video for ‘Dead of Night’ was that this had the feel of Twin Peaks and David Lynch. Visually, it was stunning (perhaps I should state ‘Parental Advisory’ though there is nothing too overt); it was no surprise that the music did not bring ‘Outlaw’ to mind but then, if it had, it would have been totally out of place.
Let me say, this: my first impression was not encouraging but I stopped and thought about the various stage personae that I described previously. I wondered if I was pre-judging because what I was faced with was completely unexpected. I decided that I should sit down, not watch a Lynchian video, not look at the man-in-the-mask…I should listen to what Orville recorded. While Orville’s release ‘Pony’ is pitched as ‘paying homage to his country music roots’ I found a strange amalgamation of styles. The over-riding impressions was that this had more in common with early recording from New Order and The Teardrop Explodes than anything outlaw-ish. I do realise that Orville might take exception to these analogies but I also had Chris Isaak brought to mind, Jim Morrison and Elvis also wafted by and sprinkled some of their influence on proceedings. There are also echoes of Gospel and, yes, Country but would I describe Orville Peck’s ‘Pony’ as an Americana album? I’m not sure.
I am glad that I persisted. I think that Orville has produced a very interesting and challenging collection of songs. As I write these closing words ‘Roses Are Falling’ begins to play that brings early Elvis to mind – perhaps it was synchronicity to prove the point about why I would encourage you to take a listen to Orville Peck’s ‘Pony’. Suspend your first impressions, think a little David Lynch and go with the flow.
Catch you again soon…Be Good x
Hillbilly Boogie airs every Saturday at 1pm Eastern US/6pm UK Repeated on Wednesdays at 9am Eastern US/2pm UK. If you miss the Wednesday re-run, you can listen again via my Mixcloud page.