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Off the Beaten Tracks: Nice Beaver

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APART from the long, greasy hair, bumfluff sideburns, RAF-surplus greatcoat and purulent complexion, there was one essential item of appearance for the teenager-about-town in early-Seventies Lancashire. At least one LP, carried under the arm yet with the title clearly visible through the plastic envelope necessary to fend off the incessant rain. And the more esoteric the album, the better.

In theory, this was to attract the envy of fellow youths and, more importantly, the admiration of females. I dreamed of the day some comely young thing would approach me and say: ‘I don’t believe it – you’re into Soft Machine. So am I. Let’s snog.’

Needless to say, it never worked that way. The only music to interest the fair maids of Nelson in those days was Tamla Motown, at discos, where they would dance around their handbags while the spotty youths watched from the bar with a pint of fizzy keg Whitbread Trophy.

Nobody ever remarked on my copy of Gandharva, by Beaver and Krause. But what the hell. I loved it anyway.

Paul Beaver (born 1925) and Bernie Krause (b 1938), met as keyboard session musicians in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s. Sorry, and I know it’s juvenile, but I can’t resist including this clip of Leslie Nielsen and Priscilla Presley from The Naked Gun. 

Beaver and Krause shared an interest in electronic music and bought one of the first synthesisers made by Dr Robert Moog. They set up a booth at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 where they demonstrated the possibilities of this weird new instrument the size of a small house, and were hired as Moog’s representatives on the West Coast. They sold his synthesisers to, among others, the Monkees, the Byrds, the Doors, Simon and Garfunkel, George Harrison and the Beatles’ producer George Martin.

Beaver and Krause contributed electronic soundtrack material for movies including 1967’s In Cold Blood, The Graduate, Point Blank and Cool Hand Luke; 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, Candy and I Love You, Alice B Toklas; the following year’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and, in 1970, Catch-22, Performance and Love Story.

They also found time to release the Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music in 1967 and another LP, Ragnarok for the Limelight label in 1968, then they signed for Warner Brothers.

In 1970 they released In a Wild Sanctuary, a groundbreaking album in that it combined studio performances with sounds from nature. The opening track, Another Part of Time, begins sounding very much like Terry Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air then combines Keith Emerson-style organ noodlings with Moog figures before halting abruptly and ending with the sound of dripping water which takes us into track two, the hymn-like And There Was Morning.

Track three, Spaced, is a strange one indeed. More dripping water, a distant keyboard playing, growing gradually nearer before a triumphant synthesiser climax.

A brief track, Aurora Hominis, is a take on Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, which had been used a couple of years earlier as the theme to the Stanley Kubrick movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. The longest track, the seven-minute Walking Green Algae Blues, starts with jazzy guitar and introduces animal calls, a clip of a nature programme about orangutans, traffic noise and various human voices before ending with the sound of the wind. All pretty inventive but now sounding very much of its era.

In contrast, the best parts of B and K’s next LP, 1971’s Gandharva, are utterly timeless. While the first five tracks, which formed side one, are fairly forgettable, side two is a revelation. It was recorded in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, chosen for its cavernous echo, and surprisingly contains very little electronic wizardry. Instead we have the soaring saxophones of Gerry Mulligan and Bud Shank, set against the cathedral’s magnificent pipe organ played by Beaver.

Mulligan’s composition By Your Grace is one of the most beautiful instrumentals I have ever heard, serene and spiritual, guaranteed to soothe the most savage breast. Closely rivalled by the next piece, Good Places. 

Short Film For David fails inevitably to sustain the quality of its predecessors but is still worth a listen, as is Bright Shadows which features flute, and two harps played simultaneously by the same woman. An amazingly atmospheric sequence.

For their next effort, All Good Men in 1972, the pair produced the sort of album at which the great Van Dyke Parks used to excel – their own effort at a portrait of America through the years. It begins with Scott Joplin’s A Real Slow Drag and continues with Legend Days Are Over, a native American’s recorded lament for the past. This is intended to have a hypnotic quality, in the manner of Gavin Bryars’s Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, but soon becomes annoying.

Several tracks feature guest crooners who sound as if they belong on the Andy Williams show. To be brutal, this is a clunker of an album, described by one reviewer as ‘milksop mediocrity’, and it rightly led Warner Brothers to hand the duo their P45s.

Beaver died of a brain aneurysm in 1975 but Krause is still with us, specialising in the recording of natural soundscapes. In 2014 he collaborated with Richard Blackford on The Great Animal Orchestra Symphony for Orchestra and Wild Soundscapes and if you can listen to that all the way through you win a free walk to Aberystwyth.

Going back to the LPs I used to carry around (the only arm candy I achieved in those days), another of my choices was the aforementioned A Rainbow in Curved Air. This 1969 work by Terry Riley (b 1935) is regarded as a milestone in 20th century music and it’s well worth a listen.

Side one was the 18-minute title track, which comes in three movements, the first fast, the second slow and the third rhythmic. Thanks to the miracle of overdubbing, Riley plays all the instruments including electric organ, two electric harpsichords, goblet drum and tambourine. Best heard on headphones, this is a cascade of sound which always surprises and disappoints me when it ends abruptly. Side two, the 21-minute Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band, is pleasant without setting the world alight.

A Rainbow inspired the organ parts on The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again and Baba O’Riley (a reference to Terry), plus Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. The Seventies proggers Curved Air named themselves after it.

As a babe magnet, however, it was about as much use to me as Gandharva.

PS: Last week reader Badger kindly suggested I should publish a collection of my columns in book form. I’m not sure how I could do this and include the instant links to songs. However if you go to our website and click on Off The Beaten Tracks in the categories list on the right, you will find all the columns in reverse chronological order. To locate a particular artist, there is the search facility (magnifying glass symbol top right). Thanks, Badger, and give my best to Mole and Ratty.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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