Friday, September 12, 2014

Nature Prance: David Thomas' Solo Albums 1981-87

Man's Best Friend

‘Man’s Best Friend’ is the last track on Sound of the Sand, and it picks up immediately from its predecessor on the album, ‘Sloop John B’ – how that may have happened, I can’t imagine, unless perhaps the musicians jammed a new song while they were still thinking about ‘Sloop John B’ (except: it’s a different band!). If ‘Sloop John B’ was, as has been suggested, a band playing a backing track to a pre-recorded vocal, there’s even more to marvel at in the group’s decision to adapt and extend the musical themes of the first in the second. The other possibility – I don’t know how to put this to the test – is that ‘Man’s Best Friend’ is an attempt at ‘Sloop John B’ – i.e., that the Pedestrians tried (and, in Thomas’ estimation, failed) to provide a backing track for ‘Sloop John B’; instead, he created The Eggs to record that song, and used this track as a new song.

It begins jauntily, and quickly disintegrates despite Eddie Thornton’s continued reference back to the simple, happy, irresistible tune he’s playing almost completely separately from the other musicians (though Moxham has kind of, sort of, got his back). 

This song has an explanatory note on the original vinyl release: ‘This song does not endorse Self reliance. It merely notes a temporary relief that can be found in the doing of simple things.’ Of course, it is not my place to suggest David Thomas is not telling the truth here or anywhere, but it is almost incomprehensible to me that this is a song about the ‘doing of simple things’, for ‘temporary relief’ or otherwise. It is also difficult to see how this song is about ‘man’s best friend’, which typically of course is assumed to be the dog (not mentioned here even by inference). Thomas tells us instead that his feet ‘are My Special Friends’ (capitalization as per the lyrics on the sleeve). He adds that his feet ‘push me home/They ask no questions’. I suppose we would have to take one’s feet, therefore, as the ‘best friend’ of the title, ignoring the inconsistencies of number. Yet, of the 29 lines of the song, only he last five are concerned with the friendly feet; the remainder is a gripe about the invasive qualities of Thomas’ ‘Fabulous Past’.

I am not sure what this is. It might have something to do with the reverence expressed by many, even in the early 1980s, for the mid-to-late 70s Pere Ubu of ‘Final Solution’, ’30 Seconds Over Tokyo’, and Dub Housing. This was the searing, scorching, disturbing Pere Ubu which many yearned for – rather than the ultra-weird Pere Ubu of Art of Walking (and they certainly weren’t hankering for the soft, contemplative, naïve Pere Ubu of Song of the Bailing Man, either).

It should also be noted that the Pere Ubu song ‘The Fabulous Sequel (Have Shoes, Will Walk)’ on New Picnic Time references both the concept of ‘fabulousness’ and walking/feet. Presumably in both cases the idea of the ‘fabulous’ is to be taken not in the common sense of ‘amazing, wonderful’ but in the sense of ‘pertaining to fable’.

I mentioned previously that Mayo Thompson plays on this song; he performs on the accordion, an instrument in which I suspect he was not necessarily well versed (the relatively recent Red Krayola album Introduction also features accordion prominently – not played by Thompson). While ‘Man’s Best Friend’ is not about a dog (and Thompson does not receive a writing credit on this song) Thompson’s main songwriting contribution to Song of the Bailing Man, ‘The Use of a Dog’, probably is. But this is a connection that undoubtedly does not need to be made, as it is surely irrelevant.

In sum then, The Sound of the Sand is a fascinating, but only partially successful album. It is, no doubt, an attempt to establish Thomas as a solo artist, with an emphasis placed much more heavily on his vocal and lyrical capacities than on the experimental interests of a band (most particularly, recording studio experiments, such as were increasingly the province of Pere Ubu by the time of The Art of Walking). Almost all of the songs on Sound of the Sand are hypothetically replicable by a live band (I assume Thomas did play some shows to promote this album, with a full rock band of some description. A browse through the Hearpen releases pages show a distinct lack of Thomas live material from the 1980s however. It does, though, reveal three tracks of unissued outtakes from Sound of the Sand which will have to be examined in a separate post -

Sound of the Sand is the difficult process of one individual breaking with the past (fabulous or otherwise) to carve a new future. As I have mentioned previously, it presents a number of facets and possibilities, and while it was the next Thomas studio album which was called Variations on a Theme this is actually a far more fractured and segmented series of ‘variations’ than that record.

I mentioned in my discussion of ‘The Birds are Good Ideas’ that Sound of the Sand is not a solo album, In fact in certain respects it’s a Rough Trade records supergroup, just like The Red Crayola’s Kangaroo album from the same year. Just as one might wonder what Thomas was planning to make of his career – as mentioned, he was still a young man and one with considerable credibility as an artist (a credibility which of course he retains to this day) – one might also wonder what his record label had planned, if anything, to make of the 1980s. The Smiths were just around the corner; they would alter the fortunes and focus of the label forever. Thomas’ drawing on the English alternative scene of the early 70s (Henry Cow) and the considerable talents of the journeyman guitarist Richard Thompson (Fairport Convention, etc) was, if not a backwards step, at least a declaration of intent. The future beckoned.  

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