A Freakier Fog And An Avant-Garde Ali

6music tape

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Huge thanks to host Stuart Maconie and producer Rebecca Gaskell for allowing me to come on and play some of my favourite tape music on last week’s Freakier Zone on BBC 6 Music. The full programme can be found here (for the next 25 days at the time of writing) and includes a brand new Howlround track that will hopefully surface officially later on in the summer. It seems the show was very well received and the positive feedback has been most gratifying. Though really there’s little to argue about with a tracklisting of the calibre of Pierre Henry, Miles Davis, Sculpture and Tom White, is there?

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This week’s Near Mint show shouldn’t give anyone much reason to complain either, as I’m paying tribute to the recently departed, late-great Muhammad Ali in fine style by dusting off my copy of his 1976 dental hygiene classic Ali and His Gang vs Mr. Tooth Decay. While listening, please do take a moment to savour the above shots taken from the album’s cover, in which Ali and the kids hang out in a surrealist nightmare painting that appears to be a more up-beat version of Picasso’s Guernica. Set in some sort of organic tooth-garden – perhaps we could call it ‘A scene from ‘Dente’s Inferno’? – such images set the listener up nicely for the audio delights to be found within, with the lurid cut-and-paste cover artwork perfectly echoing the lackadaisical production handiwork of whichever pioneering genius was charged with putting the recordings together. Thanks to that person’s efforts (or lack of – it’s hard to say), the result is a beautiful and confusing train-wreck of an LP that appears to have been mixed and edited using an entire bag of hammers and goes far beyond the contemporaneous cut-up works favoured by the likes of William Burroughs et al and far into the realms of the dangerously avant-garde. Plus it has a happier ending – Ali beats the crap out of this guy while the kids all cheer:

Personalised Cassock: Mr. Tooth Decay

Personalised Cassock: Mr. Tooth Decay

Without giving too much more away, the record tells the story of Ali and the Gang’s battles against Mr. Tooth Decay, a truly wicked character instantly recognisable by his sallow greenish skin, evil frosty glare and the sporting of a personalised cassock. In contrast, the titular gang consists of a confusingly large number of children, none of whom seem to possess any kind of distinguishing features or personality traits at all, which makes it really quite tricky to keep track of what’s going on or who’s doing what; particularly as listening closely to the decidedly haphazard mix suggests less a room full of corporeal beings and rather more a parallel dimension populated by disembodied voices floating around one another in mid air, only to vanish without trace a moment later. I’m no Beckettian scholar, but I don’t think even he was considering exploring this kind of territory back then. Furthermore, the kids appear to be operating as a sort of collective consciousness or hive-mind, which manifests itself in their frequent and chilling tendency to speak complex sentences in absolute unison. I’m reminded of that classic 1960 movie Village Of The Damned, in which another band of spooky children terrify a rural British community, with no sporting legends available to assist. I was even going to suggest creating a remake entitled  Village of the Dental Damned at this point, but then I remembered what a dental dam is actually used for and decided against it – not sure Ali ever got round to making a record that dispensed that kind of wisdom.

A more wholesome kind of nightmare

You’ll be seeing this in your dreams tonight

There is so much to treasure on this LP and some surprisingly groovy music underneath it all too. Some of my favourite moments include the sudden and brief ‘Ali in Dub’ section with liberal use of tape echo, the extended ‘bragging and gasping’ interlude in which a single sound-effect is used over and over until it has dramatically out-stayed its welcome; the scene where several of the children appear to turn into chickens, Ali’s attempts to pick up another chicken that he thinks is trying to thumb a lift, the moment where the story is temporarily paused while another child collapses into near hysterics at Frank Sinatra’s inability to grasp why it is that a heavyweight boxer and a large number of children are standing in his shop and refusing to buy ice cream… I could go on. But I think perhaps the best is saved to last, when the album closes with well-known sports commentator Howard Cosell incanting a poem in the grimly-competent style of a man whose knows his appearance fee requires him to read out loud whatever has just been put into his hand. There’s an amusing moment where he pronounces the word ‘put’ as ‘poot’ and they just leave it in. Plus if you can sit through him pronouncing the word ‘Lally-parp’ without giggling you’re a finer fellow than I.

One bard mutha: Howard Cosell

One bard mutha: Howard Cosell

It’s certainly a novel approach to personify health and hygiene problems as Bogeymen figures to be vanquished by being placed into a boxing ring and pounded into submission by whichever passing heavyweight champion of the world is available. But if I may offer one morsel of criticism, Mr. Tooth Decay is really a rather dreary name for such a heinous fiend. Surely they could have come up with something more evocative – The Cavity Kid? Count Plaqula? Dr. N’Dentulous*? It seems we’re gradually losing the knack as a society for this sort of thing –  having celebrities do battle with social ills on our behalf. And so, as an attempt to address this situation, I’ve come up with a few ideas for modern-day follow-up albums aimed at tackling some of the very different problems the ageing members of the original gang might find themselves facing in the 21st century. So far I’ve come up with Chris Eubank and his Gang vs. Captain Stood-Up-Too-QuicklyTyson Fury Battles Madame Bunions, George Foreman Meets The Lumbago Kid and Rocky Marciano vs.  Mr. What-Did-I-Come-In-Here-For-Again? No doubt they’ll be plenty more where those came from. Any potential investors are warmly advised to send a cash-stuffed envelope to the usual address.

Ali Nightmare Garden2

*This made me laugh for almost ten minutes.

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