Sunday, 9 November 2014
Classic Albums No.15: The Hour Of Bewilderbeast
It was Summer 2000, and I was watching some sort of late night MTV “alternative” rock show. On came a video by somebody called Badly Drawn Boy, for a song called “Another Pearl”. It was strange. It started off with the camera snaking up a staircase as the song slowly faded in - the intro had a shuffling drum beat, and an almost sinister guitar and organ riff over the top, and as it ended, and the singer started to sing, the camera was poking into a room where a man with a tea cosy on his head was sat playing at a piano. The vocal seemed to be live, echoing around the empty room, and as the camera entered the room and headed in the direction of the singer, he gave it an almost dismissive stare as it came past his head. It was almost as if you were peeking into something secretive, and really, he didn‘t want you there. He just carried on playing as the camera then focused on the street outside. It was, quite simply, a surreal start to what sounded, to these ears, like a left field masterpiece.
As the video continued, a constant roll call of circus characters came into the room, and the song continued in it’s astonishingly catchy, but equally downright subversive manner. At one point, following the middle eight, the video changed from daytime to night-time, and at one point, the camera viewpoint was from a man outside on the street - the room was full of sparkling lights, and the music could be heard only as a muffled rumble. From an outsider's perspective, the viewpoint was that a major rave was taking place. But inside, it was just a man in a tea cosy, sat at a piano, surrounded by clowns, as this strange, un-rave-like piece of minor key genius rang out around the room. The overall effect was staggering. It felt like I was watching something from another planet, a genuinely odd video sound tracked by a piece of “indie rock” that almost defied convention. Even watching that video now, nearly 15 years on, it seems ground breaking, slightly psychedelic, and simply mind altering.
All of which sums up the career of Badly Drawn Boy, really. Briefly repositioned into the mainstream after sound tracking “About A Boy” several years later, he has never really fitted in at all. His music has always had an air of left field-ism about it, but often combined with a mainstream tint. Several later singles were so catchy, so “pop”, it remained a mystery as to how he never quite became a superstar, but perhaps that was because there was this undercurrent of “alternative music” always sitting beneath the surface. In some respects, he was the UK equivalent of his hero Bruce Springsteen - creator of often straight ahead, anthemic rock music, but from somebody who didn’t quite fit the mould, and whose back catalogue revealed gems that maybe the mainstream didn’t get. You had “Born In The USA”, but it had been preceded by “Nebraska”. And before “About A Boy”, Badly Drawn Boy had released “The Hour Of Bewilderbeast”.
BDB’s debut album, issued in the fall of 2000, is probably still his best. Later releases smoothed down the rougher edges, and although none of them ever lost the melodic brilliance that runs through his music, “The Hour Of Bewilderbeast” still sounds alarming even now. It darts from one genre to another, veers between beauty and awkwardness, often within a single song, and is almost impossible to pigeonhole. It is one of the finest debut albums ever released, but seems to only get talked about as such in the darkest recesses of the internet - like here - with the accepted common conception being that the first Arctic Monkeys album is the best, or The Stone Roses one, and nothing else gets a look in. But as good as those albums are, neither really come close to the sheer bloody mindedness that runs through the first BDB long player.
Born as Damon Gough, and relocating to Manchester in his youth, BDB met Andy Votel and helped to create the Twisted Nerve record label. The first BDB release on the label was the impossible to find 7” EP, titled “EP1”, in 1997. A second EP, the obviously titled “EP2” appeared the next year, which spawned a musical box release - yes, really - when an excerpt of lead tune “I Love You All” was issued by the label as a promo release on this archaic format. Just 400 of these boxes exist.
For the next BDB release, a deal was struck with XL Recordings, who would assist in the distribution of releases on the label, and this also coincided with the first release by Gough on CD, when “EP3” appeared on both 7” and CD later on in 98, albeit with different track listings on each. A single was taken from this EP, of a sort, when a live version of “Road Movie”, featuring Doves, was issued as a 7” backed with “My Friend Cubilas” from the CD version of the EP.
Next up was the “It Came From The Ground” release, dubbed by some as a mini album, but actually more of a standard single release, albeit with some lengthy track listings on certain formats. Two different 10” singles were released, with different track listings and in different sleeves, and like all of the early BDB releases, are not easy to track down.
It was at this point, mid 1999, that the pre-release promo for the album, in a round about way, started, with the release of the first single to later make it onto the LP, “Once Around The Block”. Complete with a catchy “wah wah” rhythm, and more shuffly drums, it was a glorious piece of left field pop, complete with semi comic video, in which Gough could be seen with a more regular piece of headgear - the tea cosy image came later. It gave him his biggest hit to date, just failing to dent the top 40, helped along somewhat by a bout of multi formatting by the label and minor MTV support. “Another Pearl” was then issued as the next single in June 2000, three weeks before the album was due for release. By now, the concept of issuing multiple formats, with a mix of B-sides and remixes, was par for the course and this helped this single chart higher than “Once Around The Block”, at number 41.
It is difficult to fully explain what “Bewilderbeast” sounds like. It’s the work of a singer songwriter, but seems to incorporate electronica, power pop, prog, baroque pop, piano pop and plenty more besides. It’s ambition is staggering, and although there is an argument that suggests Gough just threw everything in the mix and waited to see what worked, it’s impossible not to be charmed by the sheer originality that comes out of the speakers.
The opener, “The Shining”, which has become the most well known of the album tracks on the record, is a near perfect start. Opening with a beautiful, but utterly heartbreaking, string and brass section intro, it then shifts into a stunning Damon-plus-acoustic strum - but this is no dull “pared down” form of MTV Unplugged piece of acoustic work, but actually runs along at a fair old tempo, with some glorious key changes, with Damon’s vunerable vocals creating a piece of work that is tearful, mournful, but curiously uplifting at the same time. Why can’t everybody recording an ‘acoustic number’ create something as flawless and stunning as this?
Immediately, the sheer genius of this man kicks in on track 2, the brilliantly titled “Everybody’s Stalking”. Twangy guitars, crunching drum patterns, vocals that sound like they’ve been produced by a robot, it bears nothing in common at all with the opening track - a sure fire sign of a real talent, somebody who is happy to never record the same thing twice. And the key change into the chorus is another absolute killer. Two songs in, and already, the record sounds better than most things ever recorded.
The first of the album’s “mini” songs, “Bewilder”, follows next. 48 seconds of melodica, on any other album it might seem like a pointless throwaway. But here, it simply sets you up for the next piece of genre hopping, which is “Fall In A River” - as the echoing ending fades away, in comes another piece of weird sounding music. A drum machine that sounds like it has been taped on a faulty tape machine, with some clearer jingle jangle over the top, and Gough’s vocals again sounding slightly frazzled, as if they have been ripped straight from a 4 track demo and just glued on top. Then, just before it ends, a crash of water, and it sounds as though the final section has indeed been taped in an actual river. Total genius yet again.
“Camping Next To Water” is another stunner, a cross between Simon & Garfunkel and Kraftwerk, a beautiful acoustic strum with flashes of electric guitar, and a structured rhythmic strut, it builds and builds into something nearly Springsteen-esque in terms of it’s anthemic sound, whilst “Stone On The Water” is even better, a sort of flamenco style waltz, with some great guitar picking, glorious piano chords, and deft brushes on the drum kit. In the hands of somebody like James Morrison, this would be awful, but Gough’s talent elevates it to something of astonishing beauty.
Following the spaced out woozy vibe of “Another Pearl” is “Body Rap”. As the title suggests, it sounds like it has come straight from a Grandmaster Flash album. It struts, it grooves, and I simply cannot put into words how brilliant it is when it stops stone dead and the “wah wah” intro of “Once Around The Block” kicks in straight away. This is simply brilliant pop music of the highest order.
“This Song” is another tune subject to some odd “wobbly” vocal effects, with some lovely lyrics reminiscent of the George Harrison song of the same name and a really beautiful vibe - you want to just wrap your arms around it, and give it a big cuddle...”this song will heat you when you’re cold...blessed by this song and the gifts that it brings, beautiful song it has wings”. The words say it all.
“Bewilderbeast” is a “full band” reworking of the earlier “Bewilder”, and to my mind, just a bit prog, and thus always the sign of an album staking a claim for greatness. The choruses are great, a big booming roar of handclaps and guitar, this could have come straight off “The White Album”. “Magic In The Air” takes things down a peg, a pleasant thing of beauty, but the nearest the album comes to giving us a bit of throwaway piano pop. Still, being BDB, it‘s actually streets ahead of anyone else, and the harp solo near the end is really quite magical. It was originally the subject of a legal issue, where Gough was accused of “borrowing” a line or two from 1980s hit “Love Is Contagious”. Any copy of the album you buy now will not have those lyrics, but Gough continued to sing the offending lines in concert.
“Cause A Rockslide” takes us back to the world of wobbly and wonky indie rock, more strutting drums, psychotic guitar licks, and warped vocal effects. Imagine the Stones’ “Emotional Rescue” being covered by Pink Floyd circa 1971, and you’re halfway there. Then, halfway through, it veers off into a completely freaked out sound collage, a sort of bastard mini son of “Revolution 9” before restarting as a piece played on a Monty Python style church organ, before changing tack again to end on a simple acoustic strum. All within 6 minutes. Suffice to say, it’s nothing short of brilliant.
“Pissing In The Wind” takes us into the world of country rock, segued into from “Rockslide”, and thus forming a sort of bridge between the chaotic madness of the preceding number, and the Neil Young style simplicity of this future hit single. From the ridiculous to the sublime, you could say. It’s really quite charming, potentially underwhelming when compared to the rest of the album, but it’s simply so beautiful, and when the Dylan-esque harmonica kicks in, it’s hard not to be moved by the sheer sadness that this song seems to conjure up, helped in part by Gough almost choking his way through the lyrics “just give me something...I’ll take nothing” as it builds and builds into something which, if you like that sort of thing, could be considered a “lighters aloft” moment.
After another semi electronic/semi acoustic mini song, “Blistered Heart”, we dive into the glory that is “Disillusion”. It is the most pop thing here, but is thus also, possibly the album highlight. After all the ramshackle lo-fi madness that has peppered the album so far, hearing Gough deliver a piece of mainstream music that is this flawlessly melodic, a piece of perfect, catchy, and quite faultless pop, is simply exhilarating. It bounces along with an infectious energy, and sounds like John Lennon, The Cars and Tom Petty jamming together. If it doesn’t make you smile when you hear it, you must officially be dead.
The ending section, another spooky piano run, which for some reason always makes me think I am sat in a haunted house when it plays, takes us into the chugging “Say It Again”. More left field oddness, it trundles along at a slow pace, a sort of waltz like piece of pop, building and building until the horn section is back again as it finally approaches the final straight, where they sound not unlike the funeral march in the opening scene of “Live And Let Die”. It feels like it is setting us up for a big finale.
And that‘s exactly what we get. “Epitaph” is astonishing. Incredibly lo-fi, sounding more like a 2-track demo let alone a 4-track, it’s a (near) duet between Gough and girlfriend Clare Hewitt. There are birds whistling outside, the acoustic guitar crackles into life, and Gough, sounding like he’s about to break down into tears, opens with the remarkable line “please don’t leave me wanting more, I hope you never die”. There is a whistling solo that could bring you to tears, it’s that stunning. When Hewitt joins in, you kind of get the impression she is not a professional singer - and that makes it all the more affecting. It really just sounds like a couple in love singing along to some battered old tape, with an aura of love in the air between them - what it lacks in vocal perfection or in sound quality, it makes up for in sheer beautiful exuberance.
“Disillusion” was issued as the next single after the album was released, complete with the now classic “Taxi” video, and “Bewilderbeast” was nominated, and deservedly won, the Mercury Music prize in the fall. In keeping with the earlier singles, multi formatting was used again on "Disillusion", and this helped to give BDB his first top 40 single. This was then followed by a reissue of “Once Around The Block”, using more or less the same artwork as the original release, but with new flipsides and remixes, whilst the promo for the album was concluded in 2001 with the release of “Pissing In The Wind” as a single, with a re-recorded (and retitled) version made for radio in the form of “Spitting In The Wind”. As something of a sign as to how big a star Gough was now becoming, Joan Collins appeared in the video.
Of course, BDB was never one to compromise, and he managed to confuse and delight his audience as his star started to grow. I was there at the now famous Royal Albert Hall gig in 2001, where his support act was the St Anne’s Bellringers playing his hits on, yes, bells, and the gig went way past the curfew as he seemingly played everything on the album, every B-side, and probably a lot more besides. It was slightly ramshackle, and there was the feeling that it could collapse at any minute, especially as he walked through the audience and handed out family photos to be passed around the crowd, but I guess that was part of the charm. By now, the tea cosy was in situ whenever he was in public, complete with a “Born to Run” badge attached, and Hollywood would soon come running after this un-Hollywood-like brit indie rocker. The year ended with the release of another hard-to-find stand alone Christmas single, “Donna And Bltizen” - thankfully, CD promo copies are easier to hunt down - which you almost think was done deliberately to baffle and bemuse his ever increasing fan base.
When Gough played in Birmingham at the Town Hall in 2010, it wasn’t sold out. He commented “not a bad turn out for a Monday night”, an acknowledgement that even after “About A Boy”, he did not quite turn into a superstar. And maybe that’s because the music he makes is a lot more complex, and left field, than some might think. Perhaps Gough is simply TOO GOOD to be a festival headlining, unit shifting act. He is not Example. He is certainly not Calvin Harris. And over a decade after it’s release, “The Hour Of Bewilderbeast” kind of proves it. It’s a magnificent record, one that is not afraid to wander off all over the place. It reminds me, in parts, of “The White Album” - it has a scattergun, wildcard approach to each song, and isn’t afraid to act in such a manner. Despite being less than an hour long, there are 18 songs here, which simply screams “epic”, and it certainly does feel, by the time “Epitaph” comes to a close, that you have listened to something quite special, as though you have been on a real musical journey. This is not an album to listen to whilst you are making a cup of tea, this a record to immerse yourself in, and marvel at it’s sheer staggering genius. It recalls the “reach for the sky” style approach of classic rock acts, I guess it is his own “The River” - with added prog flourishes.
Gough was never able to make anything quite as varied as this ever again, instead offering a slightly more mainstream, but still magnificently clever, sound on the likes of “Have You Fed The Fish” and “Born In The UK”. But this album is where it all started. I simply can’t recommend this record enough - it has a glorious “devil may care” attitude throughout, it’s almost as if Gough decided to try and do, in one LP, what Bowie did for nine years between 71 and 80. And he doesn’t come far off from succeeding. The melodic pull of the record, the inventiveness on each and every song, and the sheer genre hopping insanity that runs through those 18 songs, are something to cherish. One of the finest albums ever made, and possibly the best debut LP by anybody, ever.
Listed below are the original UK pressings of the album, along with a selected fancy import that I own, which if you can find it, is my choice of format. Also listed are the singles, on each format, from 1997-2001. Many of these include exclusive tracks, but look closely, and you will see one or two “pointless” releases (such as the CD1 edition of “Spitting In The Wind“), simply included here for completeness. Later BDB releases will be covered in a future blog.
The Hour Of Bewilderbeast (LP, Twisted Nerve TNXLLP 133)
The Hour Of Bewilderbeast (Cassette, Twisted Nerve TNXLMC 133)
The Hour Of Bewilderbeast (CD, Twisted Nerve TNXLCD 133)
The Hour Of Bewilderbeast (French 2xCD, XL Recordings 7243 8504482 3, with free CD-Rom which plays the “Disillusion“ video and a TV documentary)
EP1: Riding With Gabriel Greenberg/Shake The Rollercoaster/No Point In Living/Sugarstealer/No Point In Living (Reprise) (7”, Twisted Nerve TN 001)
EP2: I Love You All/The Treeclimber/I Love You All (I Loop You All)/Thinking Of You (7”, Twisted Nerve TN 002)
EP3: Spooky Driver 2/I Need A Sign/Meet On The Horizon/Road Movie (7”, XL Recordings TNXL 001T)
EP3: My Friend Cubilas/I Need A Sign/Interlude/Meet On The Horizon/Road Movie/Kerplunk By Candlelight (CD, XL Recordings TNXL 001CD)
Road Movie (Live)/My Friend Cubilas (7”, XL Recordings TNXL 001R)
It Came From The Ground (Andy Votel Remix)/Whirlpool (10”, XL Recordings TNXL 002R)
It Came From The Ground/Walkman Demo 1/Outside Is A Light 1/Outside Is A Light 2/Walkman Demo 2 (10”, XL Recordings TNXL 002T)
It Came From The Ground/Walkman Demo 1/Outside Is A Light 1/Outside Is A Light 2/Walkman Demo 2/It Came From The Ground (Andy Votel Remix) (CD, XL Recordings TNXL 002CD)
Once Around The Block/Soul Attitude (7”, XL Recordings TNXL 003S)
Once Around The Block (Andy Votel Mix)/Another Pearl (2nd 7”, XL Recordings TNXL 003R, different p/s)
Once Around The Block/Soul Attitude/Once Around The Block (Radio Luxembourg Live Broadcast) (CD, XL Recordings TNXL 003CD)
Another Pearl (LP Mix)/(The Broadcast Remix)/Chaos Theory (10”, XL Recordings TNXL 004T)
Another Pearl/Distant Town/Chaos Theory (CD1, XL Recordings TNXL 004CD)
Another Pearl (LP Mix)/(The Broadcast Remix)/(The Fridge Remix) (CD2, XL Recordings TNXL 004CD2)
Disillusion (Single Mix)/Wrecking The Stage/Disillusion (Mr Scruff Remix) (10”, XL Recordings TNXL 005T)
Disillusion (Single Mix)/Bottle Of Tears/Wrecking The Stage (CD1, XL Recordings TNXL 005CD)
Disillusion (Single Mix)/(Blue States Remix)/(Black Lodge Remix) (CD2, XL Recordings TNXL 005CD2, unique p/s)
Once Around The Block/Tumbleweed/The Shining (The Avalanches “Good Word For The Weekend Remix") (7”, XL Recordings TNXL 009S)
Once Around The Block/The Shining (The Avalanches “Good Word For The Weekend Remix")/(Capitol K Remix) (CD1, XL Recordings TNXL 009CD, blue p/s)
Once Around The Block (LP Version)/(Andy Votel Remix)/(Nick Faber Remix) (CD2, XL Recordings TNXL 009CD2, “keyboard” p/s)
Pissing In The Wind (Lemon Jelly Remix)/The Shining (Minotaur Shock Remix)/Spitting In The Wind (10”, XL Recordings TNXL 010)
Spitting In The Wind/Pissing In The Wind/The Shining (Minotaur Shock Remix) (CD1, XL Recordings TNXL 010CD)
Spitting In The Wind/Magic In The Air (Live)/Everybody’s Stalking (Live) (CD2, XL Recordings TNXL 010CD2, unique p/s)
Donna And Blitzen (Promo CD, Twisted Nerve TNXL 011 CDP)