Considering I’m beuf en croute, to coin a terrible play on words, to what may well be the psych event of the year, I probably should have made more preparations (making sure there was enough gas in the meter to run a bath, jumping in it before the missus, et al) prior to setting off: the typically unpredictable Bank Holiday traffic (tailbacks of cars or empty roads with less buses, but either way, you’re fucked) doesn’t help either. Ultimately, all of the above combines into a recipe for surefire disaster that means I miss all but the final notes of July’t set, particularly galling from my perspective as my good friend Alasdair Mitchell of the Hidden Masters is now the bass player. Drat!!
Fortunately, he doesn’t throw a wobbler when I tell him, and several hours later we’re still on the best of terms at a small informal post-NUTS gathering at a friend’s house in N1: frontman and head honcho Tom Newman also tells me there’s a DVD I can watch for notes, but that’s scarcely the point. My first NUTsMag feature and I’ve already managed to cock it right up. Whoop-see daisy.
Still, never mind, onwards and upwards, there are too many good mates here for me to be in a bad mood, so the best thing I can do is order a drink and ensconce myself at a premium vantage point from which to watch the CRAZY WORLD OF ARTHUR BROWN let forth the first ever complete end-to-end performance of “their” (i.e. his) debut 1968 platter. And what a performance! I’ve seen Arthur live somewhere between nine and twelve times (even promoted him myself once), including both a stint as a member of Hawkwind and as provider of spoken word introductions betwixt the musical numbers of the Pretty Things’ SF Sorrow (which we will touch on later) but this is something quite different. For a start, there are no dodgy U2 covers involved, and secondly, while with Arthur you’re always guaranteed a certain degree of quality, tonight he and his Crazy World exuded sheer class above and beyond our wildest expectations.
Some of us know all the material, others perhaps less so, but I don’t think anybody expected it to be so mouth-wateringly tight yet loose at the same time in the way that the best psych should be, full of such vigour and fire (OK, we did expect ‘Fire’, but not that kind) and flow so seamlessly from tune to tune as to still retain the original album’s cyclical feel. But it did, and while I’d wager that over half the room were well acquainted with the Brown schtick, that didn’t stop jaws falling to the floor in sheer wonderment at what was being witnessed. Of course, Arthur has always been the quintessential Shaman showman, the man whose image, vocal style and theatrics laid the foundations not only for psych and prog as we know them but glam, shock-rock and even black metal, but very rarely does he get the chance to remind us just how great those early albums were.
Tonight at LBB, all that was put to rights, with frenzied renditions of ‘Come and Buy,’ ‘Time,’ ‘Child of My Kingdom’ and ‘Spontaneous Apple Creation’ – but all in the correct order – sounding as fresh as they had the first time round. Sadly no other original members remain from the glory days, but the current lineup, with the swooping, Rita Tushingham lookalike high priestess of lysergia Lucie Rejchrtova (formerly of Instant Flight) on keyboards, and Samuel Walker ably thrashing the traps where both Carl Palmer and Drachen Theaker once sat, are instinctively, intuitively tuned in to the true Crazy World sound, ably aided by Nina Gromniak’s scything guitar and the interpretative dance of Angel Fallon (also of Space Ritual). The venue may be a little more grandiose, but there’s still that touch of the old UFO club about this band: haircuts aside, this is about as close as 2012 gets to the real thing.
And Arthur himself is undoubtedly the real thing. Any man of almost 70 who can still sing, nay, shriek, at that volume, in tune, and still decorate it with those dollops of soul and blues that, again, launched a zillion careers, deserves some kind of knighthood – a dark one, obviously, but he deserves it all the same. “I Put a Spell on You” is now as much his song as it was ever Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ or Alan Price’: here, as much as in any number, Brown and his band demonstrate the whole combination of primal soul, R’n’B and even Olde English Music Hall roots which, when combined with jazz, neo-classical keyboard work and a healthy ingestion of “magic squares” created that which we now define as “UK psych-prog”, his band members such as Vincent Crane and Nicolas Greenwood soon also going on to record groundbreaking classics of their own.
In such music, the pop melodies and the soulful exhilarations are there, but rather than relying on the harmonies and choruses of the Beatles, Stones and other deities, the Crazy World album always was, and still remains, a symphony: music in varying and constantly shifting degrees of colour and mood. Yet, despite all that, every Mod about town (and a few Rockers too, judging by the front rows) can still “freak their stuff” to it without difficulty, and duly did so. My only complaint is that being, as it was, a performance of an album, there could be no surprises or time left for an encore, but on the other hand, maybe any attempt to follow what we’d just seen would have sullied its power.
Except, that is, if you’re a different band altogether, and you happen to be the headline act: a grand fanfare by Master of Ceremonies Caspar De La Mare, resplendent as ever in titfer, whistle and kipper, heralded the arrival of the Pretty Things (for ‘twas they) who achieved the unthinkable in managing to surpass their old mate Arthur for sheer power and create possibly an even more otherworldly atmosphere. This, you see, was not just any old Pretties gig, but the Electric Banana set: those who know the films from which these tunes came will understand therefore just how special tonight is. Some, like “Alexander” and “I See You” (the latter of which also appears on the band’s magnum opus SF Sorrow) have been aired before: others like “Danger Sign,” “Love, Dance and Sing,” “Eagle’s Son” and in particular “It’ll Never Be Me”, which graced the soundtracks of at least four classic Brit exploitation flicks, don’t get aired enough, and the chill down the spines of those lucky enough to witness it, myself included, is palpably visible.
You see, without the Pretties, aka the Banana, and their unique take on British R’n’B, which then flowered into freakbeat and psych, festered into prog, hard rock and metal, even veered off into reggae in the early 80s (as anyone who ever saw the Monster Club will attest) and provided the aural finish to so many of the films which go hand in hand with that music, I almost definitely wouldn’t be here writing this, and it’s probably fair to say that a lot of us wouldn’t be at LBB every few months grooving to it. All the requisite ingredients of what could be defined as ‘psych’ were here tonight from the music to the crowd to the raven haired dancing girls: the price of the beers (always hiked up slightly when we come in as opposed to the venue’s usual student clientele) was a harsh reminder that it definitely isn’t 1970, but if you closed your eyes for a moment it smelt and sounded like it was.
With regard to the PTs themselves as musicians, it never ceases to amaze me every time I see them how powerful they sound – if anything, with encroaching age, Dick Taylor gets heavier, fuzzier and dirtier as a guitarist, yet still manages to ring those bell-like signatures that form the core of the trademark Pretties sound from his instrument with a sublime sense of melody. Phil May’s voice may be deeper, more spoken in places than in days of yore (days of my what? Bad Puns Ed), but he remains note perfect, even when the rest of the band, including the ever-capable Frank Holland (rhythm guitar) and Mark St John (percussion and backing vocals) manage to forget how the final stanza of “Walking Through My Dreams” goes. Sod’s Law, if they had to nadger one song up, it would have to be my personal favourite, wouldn’t it? But one glitch in an otherwise perfect evening is easily forgiven.
R’n’B roots are returned to with ‘Midnight to Six Man,’ ‘Get the Picture’ and ‘Come See Me’ but there could have been no better end than the final throbbing crescendo of ‘£.S.D’ (yes, spelt that way – it meant money then), which, segued into ‘Old Man Going’ is possibly the best condensed demonstration of their durability. Their Kentish brethren the Strolling Bones may have the fame and the millions, but the Pretty Things retain the credibility worldwide that no stadium rock act ever has – and they’re still building on it. How something as sublime ever managed to crawl from the utter arsehole of Sarf East London that is Erith is still beyond me, but I guess half the best art has always been created out of a need to find something of beauty in an ugly environment…
Post-gig, LBB splits into various rooms covering a wide spectrum of underground vintage sounds with me heading into the Psych and Garage den for more hedonist fun till closing time. However the most remarkable aspect of Le Beat Bespoke its friendliness and warmth. Faces both old and new co-existed in the spirit of appreciation for above all the music (and not just the fashions, although some of the finest hairdos, dresses and three-piece suits known to man were still sported) there were many participants that looked more likely to be readers of Classic Rock or Prog magazine than Shindig or Record Collector, and even our venerable founder Rob Bailey, normally as stressed as any man responsible for organising a four day event could be, was sauntering round the room with a cheerful demeanour and wide grin, particularly whilst Arthur Brown did his thang.
Author: Darius Drewe Shimon
Photos by Horst A. Friedrichs & Ramees Farooqi
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