Monday, 31 October 2011

THE MILLENNIUM: transmitting general happiness

I think Begin by The Millennium is one of the greatest pop records ever made. It was notorious in its day for being the most expensive album Columbia had ever recorded, but - in the absence of a performing band to plug it - sales were low. The back cover promised it was 'TO BE CONTINUED', but the septet split soon after its August 1968 release, dooming it to retrospective cult worship. Here's everything I've found relating to it.

The first reference I've seen to them was in Record World of March 23rd 1968. It managed to misspell their name in two ways; many subsequent references limited themselves to omitting one of the Ns. Interesting to note that Curt Boettcher (pronounced 'Betcher', by the way) was already being called 'a true genius':

Here'ss the earliest contemporaneous interview with him that I'm aware of. It appeared as part of a feature about the occult in the April 1968 issue of the faux-hip and short-lived  Cheetah magazine, and would have been conducted at the time that Begin was being recorded:

Here's a snippet from TeenSet of June 1968:

Begin was released in July, trailed by a 45 coupling It's You and I Just Want To Be Your Friend. Here's the picture sleeve a few copies came with:

(Incidentally, a handful of copies of the picture sleeve show Joey Stec's middle finger extended, in the manner of Don Stevenson on the first Moby Grape sleeve; as with that LP, Columbia swiftly airbrushed it out.)

A launch party for the album was held on July 19th. Here's the invitation (and yes, the brownies did follow the Alice B. Toklas recipe):

Here are the (strangely drab) cover and the insert that a few copies came with. Originally it folded over the back cover, showing a tear-off 'Mee Moo' logo strip, as below. It contains thanks from the band on one side and a bad poem by one Brian Longe on the other:

It was also issued on 8-track cartridge:

Various ads appeared in the contemporary press:

To accompany its release, the band was interviewed by Bob Garcia for the July 26th edition of the weekly Los Angeles underground newspaper Open City:

On August 3rd, Cash Box reported that Columbia was 'sponsoring public hearings of the album' in various locations', and quoted Gary Usher claiming that the response was wildly enthusiastic: 

I haven't found many reviews, and the ones I have are mixed:

‘New group with a unique sound that should quickly establish them with the fans. With the flair and feel of The Mamas & The Papas and The Stone Poneys, they offer a diversified program that’s musically first-rate. ‘It’s You’ is a smooth rock ballad with singles potential, and ‘Anthem’ is outstanding’ – Billboard, 31/8/68

‘The vocal and instrumental arrangements and the harmonic textures this group achieves are surpassed only by the quality of the original material written by its members’ – Saturday Review, August 1968

'Soft-rock sounds are coming back into favor, although, of neccessity, they are now much more complex. Columhia’s new group, the Millennium, explores the intricacies of 'new rock' in a manner which could bring many new listeners into the fold. Strong points of this set are the vocal harmony (slight Association influence here) and the ultra-pretty songs. Exposure should move product' – Cash Box, 7/9/68

‘Soft, full, light – sometimes overdone arrangements, but generally excellent songs and vocals’ – TeenSet, October 1968

‘Despite certain pretensions (extraneous sounds, etc) incorporated into the music, what The Millennium offers is faultlessly-surfaced teeny-bopper fare. There is no denying the septet’s smoothness and professionalism, but equally there’s no denying the essential vacuity of its material. Production is absolutely first-rate, as befits an album of this type. Not much for serious listeners, however’ – Down Beat, 15/5/69

This article appeared in TeenSet of December 1968:

In the February 20th 1970 issue of Fusion, Clive Davis - head of Columbia at the time - had the following to say. (Both the interviewers and Davis seem to be conflating Begin and Present Tense by Sagittarius, which was released simultaneously.)

What do producers do at Columbia these days?
I think we allow a great deal of freedom to our producers. We allow them to do work and build up a track record upon which we can judge their creative standards. In the past I think this has been abused by a number of producers - certainly not by all, but there have been producers both in and outside of Columbia who have not held the highest standards for themselves and have perhaps lowered their sights and signed artists who they feel are competent but yet who don't have the degree of charisma to really step out above competition.

Gary Usher and the Millennium, for example? We understand they became pretty expensive.
I think the truth about that is Gary never really knew how much money he was spending, and that responsibility was entrusted to him. The progress reports showed a much lower amount than was actually being spent. We knew that it was going to be more expensive than the average album. We did not know that it was becoming as heavy an expense as it did. Listening to the quality of the tapes. I was quite impressed. Millennium had an exciting sound. But there are very few recording entities that have ever made it without building up charisma and a following. Also to make records sell, you have to perform and of course they never did appear around. There are basic principles as to why records sell and, number one, this group did not perform and appear around to create an underground following. We sold a fairly respectable number of the Millennium album — not enough to re­coup the recording cost — but they certainly created quite a stir among a number of people.

Did the group exist?
In the recording studio. They never appeared in person. Another principle is that if a group doesn't appear in person, the only way you can break the album is to get a single from the album. We couldn't break a single with them.

Where'd they come from?
This was Gary Usher's project that he worked on with Curt Boettcher. The two of them put together the art­ists for Millennium. It was a studio group that they just formed. They signed the group. Mostly everyone I know liked the Millennium album. There were hardly any negative comments. I know my friend Jac Holzman at Elektra once said that if he had to bring three albums to an island to live with over a period of years, the Millennium album would be one of them.

The cult reputation of Begin was well underway by December 1971, when the following paragraph appeared in Phonograph Record Magazine, in an article about Millennium member Michael Fennelly's new band Crabby Appleton:

In the autumn of 1974 Fennelly gave this revealing interview to the ever-great ZigZag magazine:

A detailed conversation with Curt Boettcher appeared in the December 1974 and January 1975 issues of ZigZag, but it's too long to reproduce here. Sorry! 

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Their Satanic Majesties & The Fab Four

Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released on June 1st 1967, in the most elaborate sleeve of any rock album up to that point. Though cut-outs of the Rolling Stones weren't included, an oblique tribute was paid by the inclusion of a Shirley Temple doll wearing a jumper that has 'THE WMPS GOOD GUYS WELCOME THE ROLLING STONES' knitted on it. Six months and many tribulations later, the Stones finally released their own psychedelic album, Their Satanic Majesties Request. Not to be outdone, they had an amazingly expensive lenticular sleeve produced, with art direction by their chum Michael Cooper. Buried in the blurry image are the moustachioed heads of the four Beatles, but they're nigh-on impossible to spot, so I thought I'd spoil the fun:

Thursday, 20 October 2011

RIC COLBECK: 'a player of exceptional power and complexity'

Frustratingly little is known of this enigmatic trumpeter. He was from Liverpool, where he joined future record producer Noel Walker's trad jazz band in the late 50s. "He played more in the style of Ken Colyer than anyone else, and had a good knowledge of the standard trad repertoire," Walker told me in March 2013. "In 1962 the band played a season at Butlins Filey, after which we broke up. Most of us returned to Liverpool, but Ric moved to London, and after a few months I joined him there. We roomed together at a flat in Kilburn, and then World's End. He knew all the musician's hangouts - the pubs and late night dives etc. - and we used to enjoy sitting in whenever we could. Quite often, coming home on the tube, we would get out our horns and play to an audience who were just as drunk / stoned as we were! It was clear that at this point he was becoming interested in freeform. The trouble was, neither of us was getting any work! Eventually I landed a job as a producer at Decca, but Ric spent his days and nights pottering around the West End, and his behaviour became so erratic that the landlord chucked him out."

Here are a couple of previously unseen snaps of Colbeck with the band, kindly supplied by Walker:

In the mid-60s Colbeck moved to New York, where he shared a Brooklyn loft with the saxophonist Marzette Watts, worked in the Record Center and Record Hunter stores, recorded a pair of albums with Noah Howard and hung out with John Coltrane, Sonny Sharrock, Jaki Byard and others at the cutting edge of jazz. In late 1969 he contributed trumpet, piano and harp to Dave Burrell's La Vie de Bohème album, a jazzy interpretation of Puccini's opera. At the end of the year he returned to the UK and formed a short-lived quartet with Mike Osborne (alto sax), Frenchman J.F. 'Jenny' Clark (bass) and South African Selwyn Lissack (drums). The great Richard Williams interviewed him for Melody Maker at this point; it may be the only interview he ever gave, and has never been republished. Here goes:

Melody Maker, January 17th 1970
On the day the interview appeared (Saturday 17th January), the quartet played a gig at the Crucible Club in Soho, which Williams rapturously covered a week later:

Melody Maker, January 24th 1970
At around this time Noel Walker encountered him again. "I'd spent the next few years immersed in the production of all kinds of music, and was really excited at the time because I was producing Duke Ellington, but Ric was totally unimpressed and accused me of selling out to commercialism! He told me he was doing some recording for Philips, we did a short round of our old haunts and parted, never to meet again." On January 19th-20th 1970 the quartet recorded an album in Chalk Farm Studios, produced by one of British jazz's greatest proponents, John Jack. The following Saturday they were back at the Crucible, this time supporting Bob Downes:

And a fortnight later they were playing with Michael Garrick and Norma Winstone at the Jazz Centre Society in Shaftesbury Avenue:

Their album, The Sun Is Coming Up, crept out on Fontana in August, in a striking sleeve by Marcus Keef. By then, however, Colbeck had long since returned to America, and no one bought it (a copy sold on eBay in March 2013 for $698).

'He's a harsh player with a spurting, asymmetrical quality to his phrasing, often building solos out of a string of seemingly disconnected notes, each quite separate,' wrote Melody Maker. 'On the ballads he can conjure up an almost childlike air of despair and loneliness. There are a lot of reasons why you should buy this one.' Gramophone was also impressed, stating that 'Clark and Osborne acquit themselves brilliantly throughout the LP, both as soloists and in creating a varied and exciting flurry in the background.'

Unfortunately, I'm unaware of any further recordings of Colbeck, who apparently drank himself to death in November 1981, but he has a loyal following. Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth is one notable admirer, and described The Sun Is Coming Up as an 'exceptional and complex masterpiece' in issue #2 of Grand Royal magazine. As Noel Walker concludes: "Ric was a very charismatic guy, capable of great charm, but often moody and depressive. I was very sad, but not surprised, to learn that he had died so young." 

Sunday, 9 October 2011

John Lennon: LP winner!

One of the joys of old music papers is chancing upon revealing interviews that have barely been seen since their first appearance. It's especially interesting to find a Beatles one, of course, and here's a corker. Written by the late Ray Coleman, it appeared in Melody Maker of April 10th 1965, and catches the great man during the filming of Help! (then labouring under the working title of Eight Arms To Hold You), as he began to shed his moptop image and project a more complex public persona. Indeed, it was in April 1965 that he first took LSD (in coffee spiked by his dentist). There are numerous intriguing insights in the piece, but I won't pontificate about them here. One point, though: there's a reference to Lennon carting 'huge box full after huge box full of LPs into the lounge'; I recently spoke to Barry Miles, who told me that Capitol sent all four Beatles every new single and album in the US top 200 every single week throughout the 1960s, without fail...