Now here’s a curiosity; a live recording from London’s Rainbow Theatre of two ex-members of The Velvet Underground (John Cale, Nico), a founding member of Roxy Music (Brian Eno) and a former member of The Soft Machine (Kevin Ayers). The Bill of Fare is a kind of harbinger of the explosion of punk, then little more than 2 years away.
What linked these four musicians was that at the time, all four of them were making records for Island. I have written earlier (26 September, 2009) about the impact Island had on my formative years, so maybe it’s time to look at the next phase, in which Eno & Cale at least were centrally involved.
In a way, Island became the architects of their own downfall when they signed Roxy Music in 1972. The enclave of long-haired folkies and prog-rockers Island had nurtured was suddenly under threat from a band who seemed – stylistically at least – to look more to the 1950’s than to the 1960’s. It wasn’t that Roxy represented the ‘Barbarians at the Gates’ in the same way that the Sex Pistols did at EMI/A&M later in the decade, but the fact that Roxy were an immediate success and sold both singles & albums meant that no matter how fond Chris Blackwell was of bands like If and The Amazing Blondel, the writing was always going to be on the wall for these folks unless they were able to sell more records; Island had grown and taken on big overheads in order to assemble its roster – now it was time for some of the ‘fringe’ acts to start repaying Blackwell’s faith.
Ultimately, Roxy were never able to crack the USA – there was a degree of irony about their early image and irony has never been something to which Americans traditionally respond particularly well. Their success in the UK, however, was almost instant, with ‘Virginia Plain’ climbing the singles charts and the extraordinarily-packaged first album selling like hotcakes. For all this, Roxy Music were only nominally ‘an Island band’; both they and King Crimson were part of a distribution deal that Island had done with their management, E.G..
Far from being the one big happy family suggested by the cover of the ‘You can all join in’ sampler album, Island in the early to mid-70’s became a home for a lot of devolved projects, for bands like ELP, who got their own label (Manticore) and for new Island associates like ex-BBC presenter and ‘Melody Maker’ journalist, Richard Williams who joined the A&R Department in 1973 and was instrumental in signing the likes of John Cale to the label. A brief look at Island’s roster at this time reveals a label perhaps straining in too many directions at once. Long-term Island artists like Steve Winwood, John Martyn and Richard Thompson were still around, new stars like Roxy Music and ELP were doing well, the label were trying to break new genres to a rock audience by promoting The Wailers as a rock band and also trying a similar tactic with Latin music (Fania All-Stars) and New Orleans Funk (The Meters). It seemed almost as though artists were being signed up with no clear idea of how they were going to be promoted – Jade Warrior and Nico would come under this heading – and at one point during this era, Island even had a jazz album on their books by the Booker Little Quintet which did not feature in their catalogue or promotional literature, but if you knew the ILPS catalogue number, could be ordered via their distributors, EMI. In truth, Chris Blackwell was probably struggling to keep all these balls in the air simultaneously and the label was losing its direction
The luminaries assembled at The Rainbow on 1/6/74 were all beneficiaries of one such ‘trend’ within Island, perhaps sponsored by Richard Williams – a desire to promote music with an ‘artier’ edge to it – Eno was to produce three remarkable solo albums during EG’s tenure with Island, John Cale produced one classic (‘Fear‘) and two other solid albums during his stay with the label, whilst Ayers’ career continued to drift and Nico…well, she just went on being Nico.
The cover features all four performers, apparently assembled in the lobby of The Rainbow shortly before the show started. Eno looks like he’s warming up for a future Adam & the Ants video shoot. Nico looks simply blonde, European and troubled in that order and Cale is scrutinising a sheepishly-grinning Ayers with apparent bemusement. The story – perhaps apocryphal – is that Ayers had slept with Cale’s wife the previous night. Cale’s response was allegedly to compose the song ‘Guts‘ which was the title of a subsequent Island album.
Cale (front right) and Ayers (front left) – if looks could kill….
Musically, June 1, 1974 is the proverbial game of two halves. For a number of reasons, the first half of the show (and Side 1 of the original release), with Eno, Cale and Nico, just doesn’t work. Eno’s singing style of that era, always a little contrived, just sounds squawky and bizarre here. Cale sounds under-rehearsed (like a singer who has perhaps spent much of the day arguing with his wife) and Nico….well, a 9-minute version of the Doors’ potboiler, ‘The End’, accompanying herself on the harmonium really does her no favours – is this really the same woman who made the marvellous ‘Chelsea Girl’ album?
Whether it was Island’s original intention to promote Kevin Ayers to the top of this bill is dubious, but he ends up there and gets the whole second half of the record to himself quite simply because – on the available evidence – he out-performs everybody else. And, frankly, it’s not that he does anything too remarkable; just rolls up in that slightly louche manner of his and launches into his best song (well, I think so, anyway), ‘May I?’ from the ‘Shooting at the moon’ album. The best thing about is that he doesn’t rush into it, allowing the band to settle into the chilled Parisian ‘feel’ of the song before he starts to sing. In the absence of the accordion and Lol Coxhill’s soprano sax (or was it clarinet?) that embellished the original, we are instead treated to a marvellously fluid and inventive guitar solo from the late Ollie Halsall. Just to show that this is no fluke, Halsall reapeats the trick on the ensuing ‘Shouting in a Bucket Blues’, which is nearly as good. Ayers’ third song ‘Stranger in blue suede shoes’ is also pretty effective, but after that, things deteriorate, almost as though he’d had a heavy night of illicit pleasure the night before and was running out of energy. Former sideman Mike Oldfield is wheeled out to no great effect on guitar for ‘Everybody’s Sometime And Some People’s All The Times Blues’ which really doesn’t deserve such a lengthy and complex title and affairs come to a halting conclusion with ‘Two Goes Into Four’, which is so forgettable that I’ve already done so.
Although all of this lot apart from Ayers were subsequently hailed as progenitors of punk, none of them really prospered at Island. EG had concluded their deal with Island by the time that Eno launched us into an ambient future and showed that his skills lay chiefly behind the mixing console with a series of landmark collaborations with U2 and Talking Heads. Cale, after the magnificence of ‘Fear‘, produced 2 more so-so albums before slipping away. Nico and Island were to have numerous disputes before she was dropped from the roster the following year.
Kevin Ayers, meanwhile left Island in 1976, having conspicuously failed to set the world on fire. He returned to his former label, Harvest and seemed for a while to be close to achieving a wider commercial success, but as with many other 70’s artists, the outbreak of punk ensured that Ayers’ career would never really scale any great heights.
‘June 1, 1974’ remains a curio; a souvenir of what was perhaps a vanity project for someone in the Island hierarchy and an album whose reputation over the years has probably exceeded its true worth. In the greater scheme of things, it could perhaps even be seen as indicative of the way in which Island, for so long the principal arbiters of style and taste in English rock music, had started to spread themselves too thinly and were by 1974 trying to cover too many bases at once.
In the end, the person who perhaps prospered most from the June 1, 1974 project was Richard Williams, who is now Senior Sports Editor at ‘The Guardian’ newspaper.