Monday 26 August 2013

Five AAA Outcast Characters Who Know More Than They Let On

Every so often some mystical being gets it together and finally works out the mysteries behind life, the universe and everything. Their trouble is, the secrets they discover are usually secrets that no one else really wants to hear. We’ve already spoken about one in this week’s review (‘The Boy With The Moon And Star On His Head’). Here, then, are five AAA outcasts who could have promised the world so much – but the world turned their back on them, discussing them as mad eccentrics.

The Byrds “Old John Robertson” (‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’ 1968)

Legend has it Old John Robertson was a real person that Byrds bassist Chris Hillman knew in his childhood, when he was part of a gang of teenage hoodlums who used to laugh at the doddery old man walking down the street dressed from a different age. His mind opened by psychedelia, this is the sound of Hillman at 25, realising that the people who are a little bit different should be revered not reviled and wishing he’d got to know his teenage victim a bit better and listened to his ‘magic words’. In other worlds, in 1967, it was better to love people than hate them: although that didn’t stop the Byrds from firing two members of the band during the making of this troubled album. No wonder, too, that Old John Robertson used to keep himself to himself and the secrets of life he gained from his unusual way of life In the Byrds’ words: ‘No one would take any time to find out what he was all about, he kept them out!” By the last verse, too, the crowds’ ignorance (and Hillman’s own in his youth) is put down to one thing: ‘fear’ kept them out, the people afraid of what old John might have to say and how small it would make them look, aimlessly trying to fill their empty lives with pointless busyness. Retro-rock with a curious rhythm as humped as the lump on Old John’s back, ‘Roberston’ is a neat song about childhood regret and angst that’s sadly a bit short even by Byrds standards, only one extra verse away from greatness.

The Small Faces “Mad John” (‘Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake’ 1968)

Similarly, The Small Faces’ mystic seer is also called John (perhaps named after Lennon, perhaps not) who is so shunned by the rest of the world that he lives by himself, a hermit thinking mystical thoughts while everyone around him goes through their small, petty lives. Or so it seemed to Steve Marriott in 1968, who clearly sees links between the 1967 flower power generation’s quest for love and the mystic seers of the past. Mad John is a ‘wise one’ who ‘loves all the haters’ – even those who’ve spurned him and turned him away – but he ‘loved them so much that their hate turned to fear’, the narrow minded inhabitants of this un-named village twitching behind their curtains and whispering to their loved ones that ‘he’s not quite right’. Mad John may be physically suffering, his bed may be ‘the cold and the damp’, but the ‘sun was his friend’ – not a band of artificial man-made lights and spiritually ‘he was free’, something a record contract-tied band is clearly longing for in this period (‘Ogden’s’ ends up being the last completed record the foursome will ever make). As with ‘Old John’ above, Marriott and co-writer Ronnie Lane clearly regret believing the stories that their parent’s told them (‘beware of Mad John!’) – heightened by drugs and hippie philosophy, they no longer fear things that are ‘new’ and ‘different’; instead they praise them. Ian Mclagan’s harpsichord and a few Elizabethans ‘I-diddly-I-dis’ are fooling no one; this is a very 1967 song, even if it wasn’t released till the year after. For my money ‘Mad John’ is one of the very best Small Faces songs and the highlight of their most famous album.

The Hollies “Mad Professor Blyth” (B-Side of single ‘I Can’t Tell The Bottom From The Top” 1969)

The Hollies’ eccentric misfit isn’t a philosopher, but an inventor. If Allan Clarke’s lyrics are to be believed, a very great inventor, who actually manages to ‘dematerialise himself into the fourth dimension’. In his eyes the professor is a genius working day and night to make the world a better place for mankind, but the more ‘earth-bound’ inhabitants of the planet clearly don’t agree: ‘Silly old bat’ ‘freaky four eyes’ are two of the nicer things they shout at him and even now, lost in the heart of time and space, he can still hear their chants taunting him. The Hollies’ take on the outsider is more of a comedy than the first two songs on our list (sample couplet: ‘Tried it on his cat one grey night when it was foggy, never got it back – what ever happened to his moggy?’ but they’re clearly on the mad professor’s side with their funeralic oohs and ahhs and a spectacular guitar solo from Tony Hicks that grows from casual I-don’t-care-gruffness to heightened panic as the insults get under the professor’s skin. By the end of the song, the professor himself has ‘disappeared’, turning the experiment non himself – most of the people he’s left behind don’t notice or don’t care, but if only they’d helped they might too have learned ‘the secrets of diffusion and illusion’. A much under-rated Hollies B-side, every bit as good as the more traditional A-side.

Jefferson Starship “St Charles” (‘Spitfire’ 1976)

Who exactly is ‘St Charles?’ He’s not a Christian saint or a pagan saint or even a Greek or Roman God! He clearly means something to chief writer Marty Balin, however, who sees the figure in a ‘dream’, a mystical outsider telling the narrator where he’s been going wrong in love all these years and what he ought to do to put things right. His true soulmate isn’t one of those traditional blonde bombshell figures the Western world reveres so much but a much more unusual, mystical creature ‘moving like a lady but looking like a dragon princess’. What St Charles knows – and what most humans don’t seem to know – is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that the narrator would be much happier following his heart and not his eyes. By the end bandmate Paul Kantner is happily dreaming of ‘another place, another time, another world of people, dancing in rhyme’, where people are more ‘in tune’ with their inner vibrations. The vision is interrupted by a storm, the sheer magnitude of the changes the narrator will have to make when he awakes, but he sounds up for the fight. We never do find out who St Charles is, but this anti-cupid clearly knows his stuff, choosing to keep his special bows and arrows of romance only for the chosen few pairs who are actually made for each other. Quite a twist on Balin’s usual romantic affairs, this breezy, blissful, prog rock masterpiece is their last great song during Marty’s shortlived time with the band.

10cc “Old Mister Time” (‘Bloody Tourists’ 1978)

Finally, 10cc – knowingly or not – re-write the words to The Hollies’ ‘Mad Professor Blyth’ but turn it into a melodrama. If The Hollies’ take on the subject if very 10cc (flippant and funny, with undertones of tragedy behind the mask) then this song is very Hollies (a poppy singalong song that actually cuts very deep and sad). This professor also perfects the secrets behind time travel and is also teased, called ‘the scarecrow’ for his unconventional clothes and even seems to own the same cat (‘the only one who replied when he talked to the walls’). Much more defensive than Prof Blyth, however, Old Mr Time rounds on his persecutors, telling them in a quickstepping outpouring of rage, ‘you’re never going to realise, when all you do is criticise...I’m telling you there’ll come a day, you’re going to blow yourselves away, it’s wrong that I should interfere but you just get in the way!” The narrator then reveals that this is all a flashback, that the professor’s machine worked but he took it with him, leaving the people who could have been part of something evolutional and fantastic ashamed that they couldn’t spot the possibilities (‘We were human then...the future was old Mr Time!’) Eric Stewart’s at his best when he’s got something deeply emotional to sing and ‘Old Mr Time’ is one of his most under-rated songs, from a period fans should rate better (shockingly the new ‘Tenology’ box set relegates everything post Godley and Creme to a paragraph, despite the fact it’s 10cc’s best work in my opinion).
So, be careful who you’re rude to – they might have just worked out the secrets of the universe and/or time travel (although in our eyes Coalition MPs and the Spice Girls are still fair game!) See you next week for more news, views and music!

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