Monday, 19 September 2022

Out of the Darkness (Part Two)


In these new dark times my favourite therapeutic thing is a song called ‘Never Shun Dem’ from 1979 by Revelation, a London reggae outfit about whom I can tell you very little. But this track is phenomenal, with its awkward rhythmic patterns, a sort of twist on ‘Take Five’, and heavenly female choir. It really is glorious. Healing sounds, indeed.

The recording can be found on an LP by Revelation called Book of Revelation, which was released by the UK label Burning Sounds (and that always makes me think of the Rich Kids song) which I believe had connections to former Trojan personnel. It’s a great LP, with a pretty straight split between lovers rock and the more militant conscious themes. What makes that LP special is the selection of tracks that feature a female vocal trio, like ‘Never Shun Dem’ does.

The trio are credited as being Carol (Sleepy) Grey, Valerie Shakes and Iris (Menace) Cirwan. Valerie co-wrote a few of the tracks on Book of Revelation too, including ‘Never Shun Dem’. Seeing the names Valerie and Iris I can’t help thinking of Valerie Skeete and Vyris Edghill of Akabu, the female reggae group with long-standing On-U Sound links. It may be absurd to make such connections, and no amount of Googling, squinting at old Singers and Players photos, and close listening help the cause, but there you go. That’s the sort of thing that helps time pass by.

A new iteration of Burning Sounds has reissued the Revelation LP on a CD. It is great value as it comes with another CD, featuring the complementary dub set Variation on a Theme, which isn’t a strict dub set as it features additional instrumentation. The set was released, again in 1979, by Burning Vibration, a subsidiary of Burning Sounds. Both of these Revelation sets, incidentally, were brilliantly engineered and mixed by the great Mark Angelo Lusardi, who has a wealth of wonderful connections to keep us amused, from Subway Sect and PiL to Creation Rebel and Black Slate, from Killing Joke to Carroll Thompson, and many, many more.

The version of ‘Never Shun Dem’ shorn of the singing is eerie with the keyboards shimmering like Bill Evans has waltzed into the studio and is in deep concentration at the electric keyboard. The additional instrumentation on the dub set includes some brilliant performances by saxophonist Ray Carless, whose playing provides a sort of a ghost dance that tracks memories of the stripped-away vocal lines. Or, to put it another way, he continues the tradition of jazz musicians reinventing torch songs without the words. I assume there was an East London connection between Ray and the group, and that there was a fairly fluid relationship between the young jazz players and the reggae outfits in the area at that time.

The world lost Ray very recently, but his name you’ll know, from Incognito to Carroll Thompson, or The Redskins to the Jazz Warriors, and many more. He even had his own minor hit in 1981 with the gorgeous ‘Tarantula Walk’ which came out at the height of the jazz-funk thing and appears on the second of Beggars Banquet’s highly successful Brit Funk compilations. One blast of the track and you are back in the world of wedges, Flicks, Robbie Vincent, Greg Edwards, Chris Hill, and Ford Capris with Maze window stickers. Strange times, which you were well-aware of even if you were too busy listening to Dexys and The Sound of Young Scotland.

I like the meandering, the reflective, the sort of singing approach Ray has to playing the sax on the Revelation dub set. Coming from a starting point of an idea of jazz being a wild blast it is now far more appealing and healing to listen to the subtler, softer, silkier sounds. For example, among my very favourite things right now is a mid-1960s quartet of LPs the saxophonist Paul Desmond made for RCA Victor as part of a quartet featuring Jim Hall on guitar and Connie Kay on drums, and that is a beautiful combination.

There’s a great Gene Lees essay on Paul Desmond where Paul jokes about this series of LPs being “disastrous” as far as the record company was concerned. Presumably they thought he could replicate the success of his composition ‘Take Five’. I have no idea how well these LPs sold, but discovering them recently has been a timely revelation. They are unimpeachably beautiful, and perfect for getting lost inside. They also seem to hint at a better, more enlightened world, which probably never existed, but nevertheless they embody a cool elegance, sophistication, courteousness, and class that is at odds with so much around us. Neither Paul Desmond or Jim Hall at this time looked like I once imagined jazz musicians should look, but now it’s easy to see this was far more revolutionary and subversive, just like their meditative music. The interplay between the two is remarkable, and some of Connie’s sticks work sounds incredibly like it was paving the way for some of the great reggae drummers.

It is so serendipitous that, listening to that era’s Paul Desmond recordings so much, I find he gets a mention in one of John MacDonald’s excellent Travis McGee novels, Pale Grey for Guilt, where our hero moans about the dismal state of FM radio: “As I was about to give up I found some pleasant eccentric, or somebody who’d grabbed the wrong record, playing Brubeck doing Cole Porter, and I caught it just as he opened up ‘Love for Sale’ in a fine and gentle manner, and then handed it delicately over to Desmond, who set up a witty dialogue with Joe Morello.”

It's a good book for musical mentions, actually. Elsewhere in it his lady love browses his LPs and picks out George Van Eps’ On Guitar, and the Modern Jazz Quartet’s Blues at Carnegie Hall, while later he plays a tape of Julian Bream’s classical guitar recordings, which is nice. I like Travis McGee an awful lot. I’ve been reading one a month this year, partly because I wanted to see how far life would let me get in the series, starting at the beginning, and mostly because I am addicted. I read The Deep Blue Goodbye, the first one, at the start of the year, and I loved it. It was not at all what I expected. And I really did not want to endure any more hard-bitten, depressed, drunk detectives, which is kind of what I imagined. Travis McGee may be many things but a downbeat sleuth he certainly is not. In fact, I can’t think of anyone who was like Travis before John MacDonald invented him.

There are, I think, 21 books in the series, published over a period of 21 years, so 1964 to 1985. They seem to be forming a remarkable document of those times, from the death of JFK to Reagan, which surely must have been MacDonald’s intention. Okay, they are essentially fanciful pulp fiction, but they seem to say an awful lot about the world through which Travis moves. And, while I am sure there will be plenty for people to take offence at today, McGee seems a pretty cool cat and an enlightened and truly subversive soul. He has opted out, and is happy to be a beach bum. He occasionally takes on commissions to right wrongs and avenge evil actions. He is anti-materialistic, against corruption, and cares about the environment. He hates Hugh Hefner, and loathes racist and sexist attitudes. And he is very much the kind of guy you want on your side: tough as nails and good company to boot. He likes good music, good books, and the novels in which he lives are great entertainment.

One trait of the series is the McGee philosophical aside, which I love, and imagine being said aloud as a monologue, like one of those Rod McKuen records with Anita Kerr accompaniment. The people he seems to have it in for are ones who deserve it, and it’s easy to trace the origins of the age of Trump in these books. Generalising wildly the villains in the series seem to be big city corporate monsters and small-town lone dogs who are damaged and wired all wrong. In Pale Grey for Guilt there is a lovely passage where Travis and his girlfriend (Trav loves the ladies and the ladies seem to love him) laugh at a small-time solicitor who is “steeped in all that radical right wing hoke about conspiracies and a bankrupt America and Chinese bombs … standing up for right and purity.” That all sounds pretty familiar.

One thing I like about the Travis McGee books is that you get some great descriptions of clothes when needs must and he has to dress to impress. The impression is of a mature Ivy look. That maybe something to do with just having read how MacDonald thought Steve McQueen would have been a good choice to play Travis on-screen, and it may be a lot to do with having just read Ametora, by the wonderfully-named W. David Marx, which is the entertaining story of how “Japan saved American style”. Kindle kindly recommended this book and sold it to me nice and cheaply, which was very welcome.

The bulk of the book details Japan’s enduring obsession with the Ivy Look, and it would be worth buying just for an early 1961 photo of three pioneering young Japanese kids in their Ivy gear. They look fantastic, and would certainly have attracted admiring looks if they had turned up at The Scene Club in the same schmutter a couple of years later. Incidentally, as a book with American academic origins, mods hardly get a mention, which prompts me to ask: when did the term Ivy Look become widely used in the UK? I don’t remember hearing it much when I was young. Preppy, yeah, certainly in relation to early Talking Heads and Feelies, but Ivy League? Hmm. I don’t even remember it being used in relation to Dexys when Don’t Stand Me Down came out and there were some great photos in circulation of Kevin, Billy and Helen in what we now refer to as classic Ivy clothing. In fact, some of their looks from that time fit brilliantly with the beautiful Take Ivy photo book (the title being a pun on ‘Take Five’, so we’re back to Paul Desmond!) which became sacred to members of the Ivy cult in Japan.

I am aware of a recent Black Ivy book, and that makes me want very much a book that focuses on the style (I really mean knitwear) of Jamaican singers and players and British Rastas in the 1970s.  We tend to use Gabicci as shorthand for the cardigans and suede-trimmed tops the guys loved to wear, but were they all Gabicci? What about other brands, like Roberto Carlo, and so on? And, where were they bought? How did they stop the collars taking off? Did the DJs come over here specially to raid the men’s outfitters? Someone surely is even sadder than me and has put together a collection of photos of reggae performers and fans in their excellent knitwear. Could you sneak Vic Godard in? He liked his reggae, and I have some ace photos of him from 1978 in his Gabicci-style cardigan.

And then you could do a follow-up volume of the mod revival kids who got heavily into their Gabiccis and Roberto Carlo tops. The charity shops were full of those tops in the 1980s and I had a fantastic collection, right through to when the Duffer crew started to sell really expensive variations on a theme, which put us all off. Which reminds me, on the back of the Revelation LP Variation on a Theme there is a fantastic shot of the group performing live at the 100 Club, with the female vocal trio out front in their gowns and hair wraps, looking magnificent. And I bet there was some pretty fine knitwear in the crowd that night. Oh, to see the photos.


  1. Hiya Kevin. Great stuff as always and btw glad the world has caught up with your appreciation in recent days to Mr Stepney. Keep schooling and keep on keeping on!

  2. Ah, lovely to see there's life in yroldheart again. I look forward to setting off on new (and possibly costly, but oh well) voyages of discovery again. Never heard of Revelation, and looking at their LPs' cover art, I might easily have ignored them had I come across any. Label sounded familiar though - I have a really nice compilation on it called Funny Feeling, from 1978.