‘I’m starting to think that all of the world’s major problems can be solved with either oyster sauce or backing vocals.’ That was Brian Eno writing in his diary one evening, after a long day’s thinking and maybe a glass or two of something agreeable. I am not entirely convinced by the bivalve mollusc argument, but the second half of his apophthegm makes perfect sense.
Last week I was listening to Tim Burgess’s 2012 album Oh No I Love You (OGenesis), a recent and possibly inspired purchase. Mr Burgess is perhaps better known as lead singer and increasingly large face of The Charlatans, the long-serving Midlands indie band who enjoyed a brief spell in the sun during the Britpop horror. Unlike many of their more august contemporaries, they have kept going, probably because they didn’t make enough money to have any choice in the matter. Every so often, nonetheless, Burgess releases a solo album, and this one was a collaboration with Kurt Wagner, leader of Lambchop, a band as studiedly quiet as The Charlatans are unstudiedly loud.
My favourite tracks here are very Lambchop — slow, brooding and sometimes barely audible — and my absolute favourite is the last track, ‘A Gain’, a lament for lost love that barely moves at all, until the last third of the song when a gospel choir comes into the mix. ‘I will not brave the dancefloor for you again,’ they sing, although obviously it’s Mr Burgess who won’t brave the dancefloor, not them. But it’s wonderful. Their vocals transform the song into something bold and beautiful and magnificent, and if you turn the volume up loud enough it does seem for a couple of minutes that all of the world’s major problems have indeed been solved. Perhaps we should deploy a gospel choir or two in Syria. They wouldn’t last long, but before they were mown down by enemy fire they would certainly cheer everybody up.
It is the sensible band who, when stuck for an idea in a recording studio, rings up Gospel Choirs R Us and avails itself of their services. Primal Scream’s ‘Movin’ On Up’ started life as a ballad with just piano and Bobby Gillespie’s vocals. Then they sped it up a little, gave it a Rolling Stones vibe, hauled in the gospel choir and the result is probably the most memorable song of the band’s career. But what of gospel music itself? I’ve had a go, but if I’m honest it doesn’t do a huge amount for me. I accept that this is not the correct response. In pop music we must always defer to authenticity. An old black bluesman with rheumy eyes and a nasty cough is intrinsically superior to some young white whippersnapper who takes the music and does something slightly different with it. But the brutal truth is that most people prefer the newer and mildly diluted version, the Rolling Stones rather than Muddy Waters, for instance. Most of us like music to be gospel-ish rather than to be gospel, to be bluesy rather than to be blues, to be jazzy rather than to be jazz.
This came home to me recently when The Manhattan Transfer’s Tim Hauser died at the age of 72. Never fashionable, and regularly given a good kicking by critics, ‘Man Tran’ thrived for 40 years under Hauser’s imaginative leadership. (He was the bald one with the pointy jazz beard.) Given their reputation for cheese, their albums were remarkably varied, from the showtune/kipper tie bias of the 1970s, through the pure pop phase of the 1980s, to altogether gnarlier and more daring experiments in the second half of their career. I have a very soft spot for Extensions (1979), the self-consciously ‘futuristic’ album that contained their vocalised version of Weather Report’s ‘Birdland’, but The Spirit of St Louis (2000), an album of Louis Armstrong reinterpretations, is gloriously peculiar, and swings like a bastard when it puts its mind to it. The real problem with The Manhattan Transfer was they were never quite jazz, however hard they tried. They were only ever jazzy. Fortunately they couldn’t have cared less, and did exactly what they wanted for decades. Backing vocals they knew all about, and if oyster sauce wasn’t intimately involved as well, I for one would be very surprised.