Axis

It’s time to introduce you to the best band you’ve never heard of. I know you’ve never heard of them for two reasons. Firstly, although they recorded three albums in the mid to late seventies they were never signed up by a record company and never promoted in any way. Secondly, they never played any live gigs. Unless you knew them personally there was simply no way you could have heard of them.

Axis of Evil - WMAP

Inexplicably Cool Axis

I’m talking about Axis. They grew out of a collaboration between a couple of guys my brother knew from school: Andy Honeybone (keyboards, guitars, sax, flute, vocals) and Paul Colbert (guitars, vocals). They used to write music together and record it in a bedroom using a domestic tape recorder. The duo compiled an album called Exclusive Or in 1975 and shortly afterwards advertised in Melody Maker for a third musician. John Bishop (keyboards) got the nod and it was this trio that took the name Axis.

I didn’t know Andy and Paul that well and I moved away from the south London suburbs where we all grew up before John joined the band. Somehow, though, I acquired tapes of Exclusive Or and the first two Axis albums: The Spectacle Snatcher of Thornton Heath (1976) and A Little Night Muesli (1977). I think Paul gave me the tapes but I don’t remember the occasion.

The music on those tapes was astonishingly good. I suppose you’d call it a brand of progressive rock and many of the tracks fit quite neatly into that pigeonhole – plenty of synthesisers, guitars and unusual time signatures. These are songs that Genesis might have played in their early days. But there are also excursions into jazz, classical, electronica and cabaret tunes. These guys really can’t be shoe-horned into a single genre.

I had to borrow my dad’s reel-to-reel tape recorder to play the Axis tapes. I could have listened to them for days but after a couple of runs through I had to pack them into my overnight bag and return to my digs in Reading, or Teeside, or wherever it was I was living at that time. Eventually those precious tapes found their way into a large cardboard box which sat among all the other items I had no room for but couldn’t bear to part with.

Wind on the clock 35 years…

Those tapes were still in that cardboard box in the ‘junk’ room which was now full to bursting with souvenirs, unwanted presents and documents that should have been shredded years ago. Mrs. Crotchety and I decided to have a clear out. The tapes I sent to Gary Ankin to be converted to audio CDs. They came back a couple of weeks later and, amazingly, there was the music, as fresh and exciting as ever.

By today’s standards the original analogue recordings were of a very poor quality. The instruments come across tolerably well but many of the words are indecipherable, which is a pity because the lyrics, when you can hear them, are an important part of the songs. I guess we have Paul’s experience as a journalist to thank for that. Certainly, the story of The Spectacle Snatcher of Thornton Heath is based on a series of bizarre incidents that Paul covered for the local paper and was subsequently picked up by the nationals.

The conversion to CD format faithfully reproduced the tape recordings, with all their imperfections. Nothing could be done to clean up the sound, adjust the balance or fix a fluffed note. But, while the tapes had been hibernating in my back room, the PC and the Internet had germinated, blossomed and invaded our homes like Japanese Knotweed. Now the Axis music could be shared with the rest of the world at the click of a mouse.
Axis - Hexagon

It was tempting to upload the files and tell every Tom, Dick and Harriet in my contacts list where to find them. But, actually, it wouldn’t have been as simple as that. If I was publishing photos I could have put them on flickr or added them to my blog but I didn’t know any music sharing sites and my free WordPress account doesn’t support MP3s. More importantly, it wasn’t my music to publish. I’d have to contact the band to get permission.

Unfortunately, I’d lost contact with Paul many years ago and although I was still sending Christmas cards to Andy I wasn’t getting any back. Perhaps he had lost my address. Or had he just quietly unfriended me? I didn’t have an email address for Andy but a quick search on Facebook turned up a likely electronic contact page and it wasn’t long before our stuttering friendship was renewed.

That was in May 2011 when Andy said he’d muse on the idea of disseminating the Axis material. He stopped musing at the beginning of December because John, the third member of the band, had published the three Axis albums on his website: the two I had plus The Nightly Parody. Of course, I was delighted. And I hope you will be, too.

All the tracks can be streamed and are free to download from the John W Bishop website. Their best songs are quite long but here are a few shorter pieces to whet your appetite:

Haddock’s Eyes

N Things To Do With A Dead Snail

Millenhall – A Portugese Rhapsody

The Three R’s

N Things and The Three R’s are songs by the whole band; Millenhall is a guitar solo; and Haddock’s Eyes is a fretless bass solo. Have a listen and see if you agree that they deserve my band of the year award for 1975.

P.S. There’s another, completely unrelated band on Spotify called Axis and several others come up in Google searches; don’t confuse them.

Somebody…

Gotye - Somebody That I Used to KnowBack in January 2012, looking forward to my 60th birthday later that month, I spent some time browsing Internet sites for music I might like and came across a blogger called Xandi. He (I’m guessing it’s a ‘he’) publishes links to music videos of a wide range of genres from all round the world and I enjoyed exploring this uncharted world of music. An artist with an unpronounceable name cropped up a couple times and one track in particular grabbed my attention. In fact, I bought a CD on the strength of what I’d seen and heard. I didn’t regret my purchase and felt as though I’d discovered a star of the future.

Reluctantly, I had to stop following the Xandi blog at the end of February because I couldn’t keep up with his postings (I was working full-time then). However, I Googled for the artist I’d stumbled upon a few weeks before and was astonished to discover that the track that prompted me to buy the album was number one in the UK singles chart that very week! So it seems I wasn’t the first to discover Gotye and his track, Somebody That I Used To Know, after all.

There’s a terrific video of this, my track of the week, on YouTube.

Regret

Everything Everything

Everything Everything

I’ve listened to a lot of contemporary music over the last 50 years or so. Inevitably, most of the tracks and albums I blog about were recorded and released a long time ago. But to prove I’m not stuck in the past my latest track of the week was only released at the end of April (this year) and is still getting plenty of plays on the radio.
Everything Everything - Regret
Regret
is a pick-me-up, get-me-going song by the Manchester-based indie band Everything Everything. Play this on your portable MP3 player and I guarantee you’ll be swaggering down the high street singing “Regret!, regret!” at passing strangers. You can’t help yourself. I may be an old, white middle class man, short and bald, but this song makes me feel like a gangly young black guy from an American film who greets his buddies with a wide grin and a hearty high five. “Yo, bro!”

I guess that sounds strange coming from this old fogey, embarrassing even, but I don’t mind. If we can’t enjoy a second childhood when we retire, when can we? And it’s music like Regret that keeps us young at heart. Sing it loud. But try not to startle too many people as you pass them in the street.

Stop This Train

I’m sure you remember a train journey like this…

It was bright and sunny when you boarded the train but dark clouds rolled in and now it has started to rain. All you can see in the window is a few orange streetlights outside and the reflection of the seats and the passengers inside the carriage. It feels as if you’re wrapped in a cocoon. You’ve read the paper, eaten your sandwich, finished your coffee. Those around you are hidden behind books or staring vacantly into space, each with their own private thoughts. Dull, drab people. It’s going to be a long and boring ride.

You settle back in your seat, close your eyes and listen to the rhythmic clattering of the wheels and the gentle hum from the air conditioning vents. Your thoughts turn to home: the walks in the park, the restaurants, the nights out with friends. We had some fun, didn’t we? Lost in reverie you could be going anywhere – another town, another time, another world – it doesn’t matter.

Kevin Ayers - stop this train

Nothing captures that sense of being carried along effortlessly in the belly of a big metal snake quite like Stop This Train (Again Doing It). It starts slowly with a low, pulsing unidentifiable sound. Gradually the thrumming speeds up and rises in pitch like a steam train huffing and puffing as it pulls out of the station. Soon there’s a steady, infectious beat: tum ti tum tum, tum TI tum tum, tum ti tum tum, tum ti tum tum … The train is rolling down the track … and it will go on for ever. Nothing can stop it now.

There’s hardly any tune, just an insistent bass, dead string guitar, a tambourine, a little bit of tinkly piano and the prominent rasp of an electronic organ all rocking along to the rhythm of metal wheel on metal track. A voice begins to describe the scene. We’re on a railway train to anywhere, watching the world go by, when a peculiar incident interrupts the monotony. The driver says he sees no stations and we’re riding aimlessly. This alarming comment stops the listener in his tracks.

While we wait to see how things develop the singer paints a picture of the scene in the carriage. Sleepy passengers going nowhere for the ride. Conversation aimed at anyone, bouncing questions off the wall. Two excited children burning caterpillars in the hall. Crikey! We seem to have a mad driver and some cruel, depraved children. This is scary!

The vocalist thinks so, too. “All at once I got quite frightened”, he sings. “Stop this train and let me out!” But the driver just smiles and shakes his head. The narrator is trapped on this ghost train with unconcerned, zombie passengers. The organ wails and warbles louder as the carriages thunder on through the gloom. Tum ti tum tum, tum TI tum tum …

A flat hand high on the organ keyboard creates two blasts of a badly tuned train whistle; piano and organ notes flutter and swirl around. The train rumbles rhythmically on.

Then things become utterly surreal.

Someone came and gave me sandwiches,
Saying that I looked unwell.
He took my pulse and he gave it back to me,
And then he hit me with his bell.

Then, finally, our terrified traveller is offered a way out. “Step outside and walk this way”, says the pulse-taking passenger, pushing open the door. Eager to escape the fearful madness inside the carriage the narrator goes to the door and looks out, but all he can see is a blinding white light. More organ notes skip and scurry along wildly, like a manic laugh rising in pitch as the tempo increases and slowly fading as the train rolls away down the track and disappears into the distance.

Kevin Ayers

Do you remember a journey like that? A time when you had fallen asleep on the train and when you opened your eyes you were looking straight into the sun? Do you remember the dream you had then? That sense of helplessness as you watched events that were beyond your control? The weirdness that can only occur in dreams? I’m sure you do. And when he wrote Stop This Train Kevin Ayers must have done, too, because he captures it perfectly.

Scarborough Fair

Scarborough Fair For my next track of the week I’m going to Scarborough Fair. It’s a journey of around 150 miles from where I live now to the seaside town of Scarborough on the north east coast of England. I’ll have to travel back in time, too, because the fair hasn’t been held since 1788, but that’s OK; time travel is easy in a blogger’s pages.

Winding back the time dials of my Tardis I can see that the reference to Scarborough dates from the nineteenth century but we have to go back to 1670 to find the first trace of the lyrics, in the Scottish ballad, The Elfin Knight. There are dozens of versions of Scarborough Fair now but, like the Elfin Knight, they all set impossible tasks for a would-be lover. As one version has it:

Love imposes impossible tasks

Though not more than any heart asks.

Simon and Garfunkel’s version of the song is unique in that another of Paul Simon’s compositions provides a counterpoint to the traditional words and music. Canticle is a reworked version of the anti-war song, The Side of a Hill, which adds another layer to the riddle of the strangely enigmatic words. crf-fairy-1140x550 The track starts with a quiet guitar motif, gentle singing and a distant tinkling of tubular bells. It’s a beginning fit for a lullaby, but it immediately poses a question: Are you going to Scarborough Fair? It may be bed time, but you must engage in a little conversation before you can go to sleep.

The minstrel doesn’t wait for the answer. Instead, he asks a small favour of you (remember me to one who lives there) and tells you why he makes this apparently simple request (she once was a true love of mine). There is heartfelt regret and deep sadness in his words.

In the second verse a harpsichord replaces the tinkling bells and a bass fills out the sound while the minstrel sings a challenge to his former lover: make me a shirt with neither seam nor needlework. The music is soothing, soft and gentle, but there is bitterness and anger in these lyrics. The singer knows the task is impossible and this is his chosen punishment for some unstated evil that his former lover has perpetrated.

The third and fourth verses issue more clear demands for the impossible. Each task grows up like a thorn bush encroaching on the path ahead, hindering our progress, and as they grow ever larger a second theme peeps through the thickening foliage like strangled sunlight. Its words are indistinct. Something about a mountain, a clarion call, soldiers, to kill. This is pain of a different kind.

Scarborough Fair is a riddle with no answers. What can the lady of the fair have done to warrant such bitter retribution? Can the lovers ever be reconciled? Why do we send young men to war, to fight and die? Is there no way to avoid the insanity of armed conflict? The song has no answers but it asks some important questions gently, thoughtfully and with a deep conviction. It is an essential piece of every music lover’s collection.