Freewheeling through time and space, our renegade columnist ventures out on his further adventures in audio. This month, 1969…
It gives me great pleasure to announce my next book, ‘Just A Shot Away: 1969 Revisited’, is finally in production and may see publication by the end of the month (or at least Volume 1 will as it’s so huge). It started in February 2018 from an idea by my late partner, Helen, to come up with first-hand memories of the time as a change to the plague of cut-and-paste tomes and features that would inevitably greet that seismic year’s 50th anniversary. A vivid eye-witness account beat endless biased, hazy memories of someone trying to stamp themselves into an era, reasoned Helen. I was there too; a wide-eyed 15-year-old seeing their life changed every day and set on his future track.
Obviously, I wondered how I could blatantly plug my book in this column. So what were 1969’s relevant electronic landmarks, if any? With Robert Moog’s new invention still the property of rich rock stars, and a return-to-basics trend going on with The Beatles and The Stones, surely there weren’t that many… or so I thought.
Silver Apples released their second album, ‘Contact’, in February 1969, its wigged-out and deliciously DIY oscillator-drum-vocal fusillades already well-documented in these pages. George Harrison, facing the disintegration of The Beatles, unleashed the album that named this mag, ‘Electronic Sound’, on the short-lived Zapple label in May. Legendary Elektra engineer Bruce Botnick recalls an afternoon showing Harrison how to work Sunset Sound studio’s new Moog around this time, although acknowledged pioneer Bernie Krause had reason to be pissed off when his demonstration of the new gadget showed up on George’s album during ‘No Time Or Space’, while ‘Under The Mersey Wall’ catches George at his Surrey home producing synthesised flatulence, like a robo-flowerpot man in the bath.
In June, John Peel played tracks from ‘An Electric Storm’ by White Noise, but I figured the only way to fully appreciate this audacious milestone was by buying it (after experiencing the already-infamous side two in a record shop listening booth). With its groundbreaking electronic sounds and scary-sleazy female vocals, ‘An Electric Storm’ initially hit like a UK answer to 1968’s The United States Of America self-titled offering, but eschewed the socio-political comment in favour of sex, ghosts and black magic rituals.
Later we discovered White Noise were Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson, two BBC Radiophonic Workshop technicians who’d created the ‘Doctor Who’ theme and the voice of our beloved Daleks. Joined by US boffin David Vorhaus, at Island boss Chris Blackwell’s behest, the pair took a year to construct the album at their Kaleidophon Studio in a Camden flat, working after hours to painstakingly construct side one’s complex pop blasts and the flip’s epic tapestries from primitive machines and laborious editing. ‘Love Without Sound’, ‘My Game Of Loving’ and ‘Your Hidden Dreams’ shimmered evocatively, draped or spiked with sexually-charged attitude and playful defiance in the shape of Annie Bird and Val Shaw’s vocals.
The intricately-conceived mischief of ‘Here Come The Fleas’ was a hoot, but it was the 11-minute ghost story, ‘The Visitation’, that shivered me to my teenage timbers. The sobbing spirit-girl lost in post-car crash limbo, represented by great swathes of electronic whooshes, still sends delirious tremors, before nightmare horror-soundscape ‘The Black Mass: An Electric Storm In Hell’, knocked up in a day after Island demanded the album, whips up a Bosch-meets-Hammer horror barrage that oddly presages Suicide’s ‘Frankie Teardrop’ with its blood-curdling screams. Maybe oddly, we were convinced the resounding clang following one agonised howl was a demon todger dropping off. Of all my new book’s albums, the then-overlooked one-off miracle of ‘White Noise’ comes closest to evoking all the beautiful, forbidden newness of the time.
The year’s other major electronic milestone remains obscure half a century later. Again only played on Peel, Buffy Sainte-Marie’s astonishing ‘Illuminations’ came as a rare statement from a strong female in what was still a man’s world. To my teenager self, not yet steeped in the ways of the world, singers such as Buffy and Nina Simone commanded special awe; exotic, powerful and coming from mutual life-long oppression from pig-ignorant people stereotyping, marginalising or abusing them.
I had Buffy down as a country singer after 1968’s ‘I’m Gonna Be A Country Girl Again’, but ‘Illuminations’ changed all that. Peel loved her ghostly electronic translation of Leonard Cohen’s words from ‘Beautiful Losers’ in ‘God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot’, which riveted me to my bedsheet when it shimmered out of the transistor radio during his BBC ‘Night Ride’ show. Disembodied and spectral, it sounded nothing like her previous folk-based style. There are further such delights to be found on ‘Illuminations’, her sixth album – which was so fearlessly pioneering it was doomed to flop.
Rarely for that time, Buffy was a proud First Nation woman standing up for those whose cultures, traditions and lives were under threat, opposing the oppression, bigotry and racism with a fire that still burns fiercely today. Born on a Canadian Cree reservation and growing up adopted in Massachusetts, Buffy landed in Greenwich Village when it was all going off. A friendly Bob Dylan sent her to see Sam Hood, the manager at the famous Gaslight Cafe, where she was an instant hit.
With its use of synths on her voice and as another musical colour, ‘Illuminations’ was one of the first all-electronic albums. It still sounds out of its time, mixing luminescent baroque ballads like ‘The Angel’ with gothic spookiness on ‘The Vampire’.
Buffy often did away with traditional backings in favour of synths, to stunning effect on ‘With You, Honey’ and ‘The Dream Tree’. Venturing into waters soon swam by Annette Peacock, her voice on ‘Better To Find Out Yourself’ is put through a Buchla synth.
Too much for its time, the album inevitably flopped, destined to be acclaimed decades later as weird Americana or even a goth-pioneering landmark. But Buffy wrote great love songs and carried a soft-spoken charismatic beauty that won increasingly more admirers and eventually got her message to a wider audience with the theme to eye-opening ‘Soldier Blue’.
1969: it was a very good year.
‘Just A Shot Away: 1969 Revisited Volume One’ is published soon by New Haven Books