Third Eye by Monsoon

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You know an album is a cult item when you find yourself buying it for the fourth time. I’ve owned Third Eye in most of its previous incarnations—original vinyl, UK CD, US CD with bonus tracks—but this latest reissue from Cherry Red is the first to summarise the career of the group that recorded it. Monsoon were an Anglo-Indian pop ensemble who released just one album and a handful of singles in the early 1980s before disbanding:

Monsoon led by singer Sheila Chandra (best known for her role in the BBC’S Grange Hill) along with record producer Steve Coe and bass guitarist Martin Smith was a brave and pioneering pop trio that blended traditional music from the Indian sub-continent with 80s British pop. Additionally, they drew on the best musicians they could find from both East and West.

The band originated in 1980 when keyboard player and producer Steve Coe developed an interest in Indian music. Hoping to form a band to pursue this direction, he discovered Sheila via some demo tapes which she had recorded for Hansa Records when she was 14. Sheila joined Monsoon in March 1981, three months before she left school. Monsoon’s first EP Ever So Lonely/Sunset Over The Ganges/Mirror Of Your Mind/Shout Till You’re Heard had been distributed by Rough Trade. Their fresh Asian Fusion sound attracted the attention of label owner David Claridge, and Phonogram A&R man Dave Bates who signed the outfit to the Mobile Suit Corporation (Phonogram).

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In December 1981, the band re-arranged and re-recorded Ever So Lonely at Rockfield Studios with co-producer Hugh Jones, released by Mobile Suit Corporation (Phonogram) in 1982 and, though surrounded by synth-pop singles, and predating the term “World Music” by a full five years, was a smash hit around the world, reaching No.12 in the UK singles chart.

Two further singles followed; Shakti (The Meaning Of Within) and a cover of The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows along with the debut album Third Eye but due to differences with their label, Phonogram, Monsoon dissolved later in 1982.

John Peel apparently played Ever So Lonely on his late-night radio show but I missed it there, hearing it for the first time on the Radio 1 chart countdown one Sunday afternoon. Surrounded by synth-pop hits, the song was strikingly exceptional, while the album that followed still sounds out of time, an infectious blend of sitar, tabla, pop hooks, the occasional drum machine and Bill Nelson’s E-bow guitar. The group’s cover of Tomorrow Never Knows gestures towards the sitar’s entanglement with the psychedelic 60s although you can’t read too much into this when it was Phonogram executives who insisted on a Beatles song. If you’ve never heard this version you may suspect Monsoon of creating a novelty confection like those that fill Sitar Beat (1967), Big Jim Sullivan’s collection of Indian-flavoured psychedelic pop. Monsoon’s cover is much better than Sullivan’s instrumentals, an arrangement that sits so easily among the rest of the songs on Third Eye that it sounds like something they might have written themselves.

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One of several Indipop compilations.

Monsoon didn’t last long but this was only the beginning for Sheila Chandra and Steve Coe who combined forces by getting married and following new musical directions with Coe’s Indipop record label. Indipop developed Monsoon’s fusion sound in a variety of guises centred around Sheila Chandra’s solo releases and The Ganges Orchestra, a Steve Coe studio creation. The label also established links with artists pursuing similar ends, groups like Manchester’s Suns of Arqa, and West India Company, a Blancmange spin-off who brought Asha Bhosle’s voice to European dancefloors. Some of Sheila Chandra’s early albums are a little uneven compared to Third Eye but the best of them, especially Quiet! (1984) and Nada Brahma (1985) are highly recommended. The expanded CD release of Quiet! is another cult disc of mine, a near-beatless suite of raga-like vocalisations. Quiet! foreshadows the paring back of instrumentation that took place on Chandra’s subsequent albums for the Real World label, one of which, Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices (1992) featured an a cappella reprise of Ever So Lonely a decade after the song had reached the Top Twenty. Four years after this, the writers at The Wire magazine voted her third Real World release, ABoneCroneDrone, one of their albums of the year. An interview in the same magazine showed how far Sheila Chandra had travelled in her evolution as a singer and musical artist, from the Top of the Pops studio to this:

The initial recordings for ABoneCroneDrone were made in a deconsecrated church in Bristol: tamburas, harmoniums and vocal tracks were laquered on top of one another, and her voice was also played into the body of a piano via a speaker underneath, to get the strings resonating. Further devices were added to bring character to different tracks, such as didgeridoos, bagpipes, ocean swells and birdsong.

“There was a very fine line to draw between how loud the vocals should be, so that people who weren’t tuned into harmonics could actually hear the subtle things going on, and how far we were drowning out natural harmonics that occurred. And the other kind of balance to be reached was that when I hear a drone as it’s played, unmagnified, untreated, and I hear all these harmonic dances in it and then play it five minutes later, I’ll hear a different dance. I’ll hear South Indian carnatic violins, I’ll even hear rhythm. This performance is going on, and I’ll hear it clear as a bell, very quietly, and it’s in this drone. So, to freeze what I was hearing magnified was also a dilemma, because I didn’t want to make it a static, dead experience. So what we’ve done is layer so many things that you’ll only hear some on different systems and some at different volumes or in different acoustic spaces. There are some things you’ll only hear on the twelfth listen. And it’s like a living experience then.”

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Essential listening.

The only drones on Third Eye are the resonating strings of the Indian instruments, but this is a pop album, after all, not an avant-garde composition. The new reissue is a 34-track double-disc set that contains enough versions of Ever So Lonely to satisfy the most ardent fan, including the Hindi version and a dub mix. In addition to the original album you get all the other singles with their B-sides, a handful of later remixes and six previously unreleased songs, four of which are sessions recorded for Capital Radio in March 1982.

This would be pretty much definitive if it wasn’t for one of those inexplicable alterations that often bedevil reissues. The final track on the album, Watchers Of The Night, is missing ten seconds or so of the drum-machine intro that you hear on the earlier CD releases. I no longer have my vinyl copy but I’m fairly sure this was the same; Discogs gives the original vinyl duration as 3:47, whereas the new reissue runs for 3:38. Anomalies aside, the mastering is much better than before, something that really benefits the bass and the percussive details. The album has been unavailable in any form since 1995 so this attention is long overdue. Now that Cherry Red have found their way to Indipop’s neglected archives I’m hoping further reissues may follow.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Ravi Shankar’s metempsychosis
Tomorrow Never Knows

Weekend links 600

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My kind of window. From a collection of machine-learning images by Unlimited Dream Co. Via Bruce Sterling.

• “I will never call myself a queer. That word is one of the things that I detest that has happened, and it’s almost being forced now. For me, you cannot separate that word from the hatred and violence that once accompanied it. When I read it being used in The New York Times, I think, ‘It’s their word and they can fucking have it all they want.’ I will never use ‘queer.’ It’s an ugly word.” John Rechy, still active at the age of 90, talking to Jeff Weiss about hustling, social opprobrium, and his pioneering books.

• “At a time when we are being constantly told that humanity is destroying the planet, it is somehow comforting to see nature not merely outlasting, but triumphing over humanity’s constructions—as nature does in many of Piranesi’s Views of Rome.” Alasdair Palmer on Piranesi’s peerless renderings of Roman ruins.

• “The magical aspect of Get Back is its total refusal to adhere to the standard tropes of music documentaries. There are no talking heads commenting on the Beatles’ greatness, no continual barrage of quick edits and highlights.” Geeta Dayal on Peter Jackson’s resurrection of the Fab Four.

But men are not traditionally meant to be objects of art. “Men look at women,” John Berger wrote. “Women watch themselves being looked at.” When men look at men, however, they break rules. “I didn’t set out to be radical,” says Miller. “But I was at a fair and I had a huge nude on a stand by Michael Leonard. I’d only been open ten minutes and a woman started having a go and saying it’s filth. What I found fascinating is she’d walked past a whole span of female nudes. I think society is just immune to female nudity. People don’t see it. If you take this to the straight world of an art fair, it provokes reactions other dealers don’t get. There isn’t anyone else like me.”

Tony Wilkes talks to Henry Miller, owner of an art gallery devoted to the male form

• “I imagine men with starched collars, horrified by an animal with no hard edges to grab onto, no solidity to venerate. Something low, lateral, creeping.” Fiona Glen on “Devil Fish”, Cthulhu and cephalomania.

• I like glowing things so Brian Eno’s glowing record turntable has an immediate appeal. A shame it’s a very limited production which is almost certainly sold out by now.

• The next release on the Ghost Box label will be A Letter from TreeTops by Pneumatic Tubes.

• At Dangerous Minds: A Sight for Sore Eyes Vol. 1, a visual history of The Residents.

• At Wormwoodiana: Mark Valentine on the supernatural thrillers of Archie Roy.

• Mix of the week: A reflection on 2021 at A Strangely Isolated Place.

Swan River Press looks back over a year of book production.

• New music: Spherical Harmonics by Joseph Hyde.

Octopus’s Garden (1969) by The Beatles | The Kraken (2006) by Hans Zimmer | Kraken (2017) by Dave Clarkson

Return to Pepperland

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Another candidate for the small list of comics drawn in the groovy style (or a diluted version of the same), the first comic-book adaptation of Yellow Submarine was a single 64-page issue published by Gold Key in February 1969. Low-quality copies have been circulating for years on fan sites but there’s now a copy available here with the pages scanned at a higher resolution. Whatever the quality, the cheap paper doesn’t help the artwork, but for a cash-in this isn’t a bad adaptation. The background details don’t always keep up with Heinz Edelmann’s invention but artist José Delbo maintains the character style of the animation throughout, while the script by Paul S. Newman pads out the missing song sequences with additional japes and bad puns. I’ve seen claims that the story is based on an early draft of the film script but can’t say whether this is true or not. There are a few notable deviations from the film, however, such as additional seas—The Sea of Consumer Products, The Sea of Cinema—and an extra character, Rita the Meter Maid, who looks nothing like a British traffic warden of the 1960s.

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The last time I mentioned this comic I also referred to a more recent adaptation by Bill Morrison which had been commissioned, partly drawn then inexplicably cancelled. Morrison’s pages were superior to the Gold Key adaptation in their design and their fidelity to the animation style of the film so it’s good to see that the various licence-holders have allowed him to complete his work. The book was published by Titan for Yellow Submarine‘s 50th anniversary in 2018.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
The groovy look
The South Bank Show: The Making of Sgt Pepper
The Sea of Monsters
Tomorrow Never Knows
Yellow Submarine comic books
A splendid time is guaranteed for all
Heinz Edelmann
Please Mr. Postman
All you need is…

The art of John Alcorn, 1935–1992

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Ad art for Seventeen magazine, August 1970.

Another member of the Groovy Set, John Alcorn was a very prolific illustrator and designer whose career included a period at Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast’s Push Pin Studios. Alcorn’s art predates the groovy look, and also extends beyond it, but since I have a taste for this quasi-psychedelic style all the examples here are from the late 1960s/early 1970s. An overview of Alcorn’s career may be found in John Alcorn: Evolution by Design, a book edited by Stephen Alcorn and Marta Sironi which was featured at 50 Watts. And since I keep referring back to it, I’ve added some updates to the original groovy post.

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The Astrology Album, 1967.

From an astrological album to astrological covers for Sydney Omarr’s books, 12 of which were published by Signet in 1969.

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Continue reading “The art of John Alcorn, 1935–1992”

Switched-On… hits and misses

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The first pressing of Switched-On Bach with a cover showing a Bach-alike confounded/dismayed by the sounds issuing from the machine behind him. The cover was soon swapped for the one below.

After mentioning the proliferation of Switched-On… synthesizer albums in the previous post, curiosity impelled me to see how many of these things were out there. A lot more than I expected is the answer, almost enough to make this cul-de-sac of novelty exploitation into a sub-genre of its own. As mentioned earlier, it was the huge success of Switched-On Bach (1968) by Wendy Carlos that began the trend. The album had a rare crossover appeal so that it could be sold to classical listeners as well as to a younger audience interested in electronic sounds, those for whom the words “switched on” echoed the druggy/erotic intersection of “turned on”. Carlos had an advantage over other musicians thanks to a long association with Robert Moog which meant she had a head start in exploring the recording potential of the new Moog synthesizer and innovations like Moog’s touch-sensitive keyboard. In 1968 few people could afford a Moog system; those who could usually needed to hire technicians like Paul Beaver and Bernie Krause to help them operate the thing. For a brief while it was enough to simply use the instrument to make strange noises, hence Mick Jagger’s droning score for Kenneth Anger’s Invocation of my Demon Brother (1969), and George Harrison’s preposterous Electronic Sound (1969), 44 minutes of very amateurish Moog-doodling. Switched-On Bach sounds a little primitive today—it sounds primitive next to its follow-up albums, The Well-Tempered Synthesizer (1969) and Switched-On Bach II (1973)—but Carlos and collaborators Rachel Elkind and Benjamin Folkman spent much more time refining their recording techniques than the knob-twiddling horde who rushed to capitalise on their success.

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The rules of the Switched-On… idiom are as follows: a title that begins with the words “Switched-On”, obviously, although there’s a subset of the form in which an album may have a different title while a subtitle mentions something about “switched-on recordings”; the music must be cover versions of familiar songs or compositions, originality here is surplus to requirements; and it’s not essential but the cover art often alludes in some way to synthesizer technology and/or “the future”, with the latter represented by Space Age typefaces such as Amelia, Computer, Countdown or Data 70. I’ve not heard many of these albums, and I’m fairly certain that I don’t want to hear most of them, but I’ve heard enough Carlos cash-ins to know that the cover designs are often the best thing about them. The remastered CDs that Wendy Carlos released in the 1990s feature additional tracks that give some idea of the amount of work involved in the creation of each album. The early cash-ins, by contrast, tend to avoid time-consuming multi-track composition in favour of using a synthesizer as though it’s merely an expensive keyboard. The success of these albums musically may be gauged by the lack of reissues. They may be of interest to the so-bad-it’s-good “Incredibly Strange Music” crowd but I prefer to spend my time listening to other things. Beware.

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Switched-On Rock (1969) by The Moog Machine.

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Switched-On Bacharach (1969) by Christopher Scott.

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Switched-Off Bach (1969) by Various Artists.

CBS exploits the success of the electronic album by packaging a collection of earlier non-electronic recordings.

Continue reading “Switched-On… hits and misses”