Sunday, 28 June 2015

Secret Goldfish Syndrome

I have been listening to Jobriath and Creatures of the Street since I bought them over twenty years ago for £1. At that point I didn't really use the internet, which was anyway nothing like as vast as it is now. I first came across Jobriath's name via a dismissive mention in Charles Shaar Murray's GREAT 1977 article Glam Rock Remembered. At the time I was very interested in 70s glam, which I firstly got into through Bowie and Lou Reed and then Roxy Music and the New York Dolls. After that it was a case of wanting to explore the breadth and depth of it; there was a lot of great stuff out there and a lot of crap. It was an amazingly all-pervasive style, from the high street/kid-friendly pop fluff of Hello, Flintlock or (!)Gary Glitter(!), to the serious-band-but-fun-music of Slade and The Sweet to the arty/pretentious Bowie/Roxy and the glittery underbelly of Iggy and Wayne/Jayne County. There was glam for all occasions, as well as the post-glam/pre-punk Beatles-influenced pop of  the Bay City Rollers or Pilot (to this day one of the most underrated of Scottish bands).

But this is not about glam, it's about Secret Goldfish Syndrome. The point is that I loved the Jobriath albums (and still do) and part of that love came from the fact that not only didn't I know anyone else that liked Jobriath, I didn't know anyone else who had heard of him. And I was happy for it to be that way. Secret Goldfish Syndrome applies in all of the arts (and many other spheres too), but I will mainly focus on music because that is more fun to write about. At first glance it seems like the classic music critic attitude that you can't like anything once it's successful, but as we will see, it's more complex than that. In theory, if you like something and don't know anyone else that likes it you should want to evangelise; and sometimes you do. But sometimes you want to keep these things to yourself; like Jobriath. Since then, though, Jobriath has (thanks in part to Morrissey) had some of the respect he is due for those great albums. His work is available again; people write about him and make films about him. I'm glad and it's nice; especially since I can now replace my albums if they get scratched or broken. But it was nice being the only Jobriath fan I knew too.

Jobriath is not an isolated phenomenon; Searching for Sugar Man is a great documentary, and it's nice that, unlike Jobriath's success, it didn't come along too late to improve the life of the artist himself. But I bought Rodriguez's Cold Fact (as it turns out, the South African pressing with the slightly superior sleeve, where the background is black not white) in a charity shop on the strength of the cover and loved it, when the only other person I knew that had heard it was my brother. Cold Fact is just as great as it was then, but now that it isn't a secret goldfish it has taken its place in the pantheon of popular music and belongs to everyone.

Forever Changes by Love was always in the public domain; but I didn't know that when I first heard it in (I think) 1989. I was attracted to it by the psychedelic cover art, expecting something cheesy and hopefully drenched in 'grooviness' and wah-wah, but instead hearing  delicate, summery guitars and  'the snot has caked against my pants/it has turned into crystal'. Something far more strange and addictive and satisfying than mere kitsch; art in fact. Some years later Forever Changes started cropping up in the kind of 'best of the 60s' lists beloved of 90s NME and, like Jobriath a few years later, it became everybody's property.

When your secret goldfish band or artist becomes public property, the work gets a scrutiny that can be uncomfortable; when loving Jobriath's albums as something personal and private, his peculiar Mick Jagger-meets-Elton John vocal style, his extravagant old Hollywood flamboyance/musical arrangements and his assimilation of Bowie/Ziggy-isms in his aesthetic, lyrical and musical approach are all part of what makes him so loveable. In the wider world they can be criticised in an entirely valid way that has nothing to do with one's personal taste.

Anyway; thinking more about the whole phenomenon of secret goldfish it is possible to define various types (with the disclaimer that there is no accounting for taste; someone in the world will no doubt regard Dire Strait's Brothers in Arms as their own personal meaningful discovery; and that's alright).

The mainstream goldfish
The subjective nature of Secret Goldfish Syndrome means that, unlike sometimes-related phemomena such as 'outsider music', commercial success or mainstream recognition of the artist/band doesn't necessarily preclude them from secret goldfish status, although it does make it less likely. For example, probably all of The Beatles albums are probably just too well known, too readily available to be a true secret goldfish album (at a push Magical Mystery Tour maybe?) but some of their songs certainly can be; probably not 'Hey Bulldog' anymore, but certainly oddities like 'Goodnight' (a personal favourite) or 'Mister Moonlight'.

The  (relatively) unsuccessful mainstream goldfish
The key secret goldfish works by major artists are those that are considered lesser works by the critical orthodoxy or that for one reason or another are slightly less well known. It must be hard to feel that say, Thriller or Bad is yours, but possibly Forever, Michael (never heard it) could be.

This category used to include works which have subsequently become acknowledged as nasterpieces  (see Hey Bulldog above) like De La Soul's Buhloon Mindstate, Lou Reed's Berlin and The Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, but there are still albums by major artists that could (and possibly do) qualify: Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, The Cure's Japanese Whispers, The Rolling Stones' Goats Head Soup, Kiss' Music From The Elder would all be good examples, though the latter really does suck quite a bit. 
Also any album by a well-known band without a key member has secret goldfish potential: The Sensational Alex Harvey Band without Alex, Iron Maiden with Blaze Bayley, Motley Crue with John Corabi, Judas Priest with Tim Owens, Van Halen with Gary Cherone (maybe it's mainly a rock/metal thing?)

The outsider goldfish
So-called 'outsider music', perhaps because of the lack of distancing caused by professionalism/production values etc is a natural place to find music which has a powerful appeal on a personal level. Daniel Johnston is probably the most high profile example that I love, but also artists like Captain Beefheart, Wild Man Fischer, Withered Hand or Venusian Death Cell's David Vora.

The ironic goldfish
This would consist of things one knows are objectively beyond the pale, but which it is possible to love anyway;  I have written about these kinds of things several times; Spin a Magic Tune, Christian rock or metal, but also the kind of 'manufactured' music of the Monkees, 60s/70s bubblegum pop or even  (which I definitely don't love) the 80s Stock, Aiken & Waterman version of bubblegum pop or the present TV talent show related variation.

The possibly-uncool goldfish
It's probably true too that mainstream artists are more likely to be secret goldfish if it isn't the kind of music you usually listen to; the one disco or country album in the collection of a punk or metal fan perhaps, or music you like because your parents played it when you were little. In this sense the secret goldfish can be very close to the so-called 'guilty pleasure' and can include theoretically cool artists like Madonna or Michael Jackson as long as the listener her or himself wouldn't normally consider them cool.

Many secret goldfish will naturally remain secret; but here's a short list I don't mind sharing because I have written about elsewhere, because they are famous already or because they seem to be popularity-proof:

New England by New England (1978)

This is getting less obscure all the time, but I love it. NOT cool music, this is late 70s power pop/soft rock produced by Kiss' Paul Stanley; the songs are great

The Whole Enchilada by Trini Lopez (1969)

Trini was of course a huge mainstream/easy listening star in the 60s and is a great, underrated guitar player and a fantastic singer. This late 60s masterpiece was produced by Monkees alumni Boyce & Hart and consists mainly of covers of material by slightly cooler artists (Donovan, Cream, Marvin Gaye), given a soulful treatment. This has on it the only cover of Heard It Through The Grapevine I have ever heard that doesn't melt into insignificance compared with the original.

Not So Old-fashioned by Eartha Kitt (1970)

A similar idea to the Trini album, but with a less psychedelic feel, Eartha performs some great songs (many by Donovan) in her not-quite-imitable style. Highlights include a spooky reading of Wear Your Love Like Heaven and a genuinely lovely Catch the Wind

Loaded by the Velvet Underground
This is a very famous album; for many reasons though it is considered not to be a great VU album. The natural VU goldfish would be Loaded's predecessor, The Velvet Underground but although I love that I have been listening to Loaded without getting bored by it since about 1993 or thereabouts and I think it is absolutely the equal of The Velvet Underground and Nico or anything Lou Reed produced. I love everything about this album, even Doug Yule's voice. I had high hopes for the follow-up Squeeze, but when I finally tracked it down it was blah.

Hot Space by Queen
I am not a very big Queen fan, which is maybe why this (along with Jazz and A Day at the Races) is probably my favourite Queen album; I love the cheesy funkiness of Backchat and Cool Cat and Life is Real is a lyrically great and musically genuinely moving tribute to John Lennon. I love Freddie Mercury's Mister Bad Guy too.

Edge of the World  by Wolf (1984)
A late NWOBHM album, this isn't very heavy really, but is that very early 80s thing, a metal album with a lot of soul (not in the 'soul music' sense). Just a really nice album, if you can say that about a metal record.

On the Boulevard  by Bachelor of Hearts (1984???)
Post-punk glam(ish) rock by a band led by Bay City Roller Ian Mitchell and featuring porn legend Lindsay "Ben Dover" Honey on drums, this is an oddity by any standards. But I love it. Standouts include sleaze anthem Girls in Jeans plus the oddly melancholy Boulevard LA and the gloatingly mean I'm a Winner. Possibly an acquired taste. Oddly, the band seems to have been signed to RCA but all pressings of the LP are either expensive Japanese ones or weird, bendy Romanian ones like mine.

Honey Girl by Venusian Death Cell (2014)

I love all of the VDC albums I've heard (four so far I think), and I chose this one more or less at random. All consist of addictively plaintive, homemade, sincere-sounding, non-catchy, possibly improvised songs by David Vora. His guitar rarely sounds properly in tune but it doesn't really need to be.

In Vmbrarvm Imperii Gloria by Absentia Lunae (2006)

I've written endlessly about this great album and how I think it's one of the best black metal albums ever recorded, so I guess I must have some kind of affinity with it.

Let's end with a pairing of two albums that are different in everything except their theme:

In Your Face by Shout (1989) and The Marshallettes  Trio with Linda Bratton by The Marshallettes Trio (1968)

The Shout album is the second LP by US Christian metal band led by Ken Tamplin. The album is kind of (80s) Whitesnake-like glam-ish hard rock. Tamplin's virtuoso guitar playing and Coverdale-ish vocals would make this just another hair metal LP but for two factors:
1) good songs
2) Christianity. I am not, nor have I ever been a Christian, but the message here undoubtedly gives the record a heartfelt quality that makes it special. This isn't a Christian thing per se; I would say the same about Motley Crue's commitment to their lifestyle on Girls, Girls, Girls. You have to mean it sometimes.
The Marshallettes were three teenage Christians who made an album with their music teacher. It was supposed to be contemporary and girl group-ish, but they were five years too late and irremediably square. But it's kind of beautiful. And so far I've yet to meet anyone else who thinks so.

No comments:

Post a Comment