Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Spooky Tooth and Pierre Henry-Ceremony (an electronic mass), 1968 ,LP

Pierre Henry: Synthesizer, electronics
Gary Wright: Vocals, organ, keyboards
Luther Grosvenor: Guitars
Mike Harrison: Vocals, keyboards
Mike Kellie: Drums and percussion
Andy Leigh: Bass, guitar

Subtitled 'An Electronic Mass' (and that definitely calls for a spelling error in the second word!). Featuring a bizarre twist in Spooky Tooth fate. Derided by fans and non-fans alike, treated as a joke/blasphemous insult/dated piece of bizarre crap, whatever you want. And besides that, featuring a really scary album cover. I swear, before I spotted that nail in the fellow's hand, I really thought that streak of a blood was coming from a vampire's tooth (add in the band's name, and you get the idea). And I hate vampires - my neck always gets itchy when I think of them. That's how sensitive I am.
Now of course this revelation goes nowhere. Just like this album. Apparently, it wasn't initially even suggested as a Spooky Tooth release. Avantgarde "musique concrete" composer Pierre Henry wanted to experiment with a pop album, so he selected Spooky Tooth (it could have been Badfinger for all I care!) and they were asked to write a set of conceptual songs for Monsieur Henry to vent it through his 'progressive' electronic treatment. Gary Wright liked the idea, so he penned a set of pseudo-religious tracks, the band recorded them almost overnight, and then the stuff was given to Henry. He recorded all these effects, and then bang! all of a sudden, the album was credited to Spooky Tooth. Fans of Spooky Two rushed to the stores, grabbed the new album from the guys that rewarded this world with 'Evil Woman', and... ugh, the very thought makes me sick.
Fact is, it ain't such a bad album. As far as music goes, at least, it's at least several steps above the similar, and far less listenable, Mass In F Minor project by the Electric Prunes. The big problem is that the music simply does not gel with all of Henry's stupid noises. It - Does - Not - Gel. ALL of the stuff that Monsieur Henry had overloaded over this poor bunch of songs just sucks. I have nothing against avantgarde when it's atmospheric, or when it's well constructed. But I can't help thinking about how randomly all the electronic effects on the album have been chosen. 'Confession' is almost entirely ruined by all these ear-destructive industrial noises, sounds of clinking hammers and tingling bells or something like that. 'Have Mercy' is equally ruined by idiotic effects that sound like some guy passionately chewing on a leg of beef while Mike Harrison is going out of his way singing 'Lord have mercy!'. Even worse, it is then followed by a series of clicks and clucks that now, in the CD age, probably make me jump out of my chair much more frequently then they would have in the age of LPs - these clucks sound exactly like my CDs sound when there's something wrong with them. The last straw, of course, was 'Credo', where right in the middle Pierre Henry catches on some dude feebly blabbering out 'ba ba ba b-ba b-ba' or something like that and loops it all over the world. After that I couldn't face playing the album in the presence of my family or they'd think I went completely gaga. So I had to put on my phones, and gaga I went twice as much.
Fortunately, I brought myself 'round to having a second listen, and a third one, and even a fourth one. The weirdness wore off, and I found... that some of the songs are actually well-written. I would now give everything in the world (except for my collection of Rod Stewart's Eighties albums, of course - how can a human being breathe, feed, and particularly copulate without a copy of Camouflage nearby?) for a Ceremony that'd be entirely Henry-devoid. I suspect there must be bootleg copies of it floating around... anyway, my imagination is strong enough to picture these songs without the electronic "treatment", and as such, they work on a certain level. There are some really really nifty hard-rockin' pieces floating around, actually, the best of these being 'Offering', a short three-and-a-half track where the electronic effects actually do work: the dark gothic riff merges perfectly with the paranoid vocals, and the panting noises and the murky diddly-diddling in the background actually add to the atmosphere, plus, it's kinda funny when they go 'Let us have salvation!'.
'Have Mercy' and 'Credo' are actually quite nice as well. 'Have Mercy' begins as a typically bluesy number that heavily abuses the bluesy cliche of the title but then proceeds to become another frantic hard rocker showcasing the professionalism of the guys - even if they knew they were doing a toss-off, they were still playing it with enough energy. As for 'Credo', its ending section is pretty moody as well, the most grim and ominous, could we even say desperately cruel, piece on the record, even if it is really undermined by the baaaaaaah-ing idiot. And 'Hosanna' has terrific guitar solos.
Anyway, one should understand that even without the stupid treatment, Ceremony would be no great shakes, but the hard rockers might be salvageable; it's the slower tracks like 'Confession' and 'Prayer' that really bog the record down and give it an air of unnecessary pretentiousness and gimmickry. Thus, it would probably be an overall 10 on my scale for the effort and essentially for being more or less able to convert the idea of a 'bizarre religious hard rock album' to reality (much more so than the Prunes, at least), but one point is deduced for the electronic crap. Well, what do you want? It didn't exactly lead to a big critical rave-up or commercial breakthrough back then, when this stuff was at least novel and 'innovative', so what would you expect now? In fact, Ceremony almost led to the band breaking up, with their reputation of solid British roots rockers destroyed and replaced by a reputation of pretentious pseudo-artsy weirdos. In the end, it led to Gary Wright quitting over this whole thing (he went to play with George Harrison, the nice boy that he was) and the band regrouping around Harrison (MIKE Harrison, that is. Say, do you think Mr Wright had a natural attraction to Harrisons?). Funny that the album is still available - if you see it, pick it up anyway, if only as a major historical curio. Bad as the effect is, it's still quite unique in its own way.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. It was and is a badly misjudged album and is a lot better than it's been given credit for in its day and now. When it was first issued a number of groups tried did their litergy type album..Electric Prunes(or what was supposed to be the group)..RCA had a band called "Mind Garage" on and on it went. This is the one to get.

schraff said...

Thanks a lot. Agree with anonymus.
Great cover!

Anonymous said...

Exellent!!! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Don't necessarily agree much of what mutantsounds has to say in his review but appreciate his post. I bought this in 1971, liked it then and still do.

Henry was experimenting with "Rock Electronique" around this time (The Green Queen) as well as other liturgical works (Messe de Liverpool, Messe pour le Temps Présent) but Ceremony was, unfortunately, completed without mutual artistic collaborations and hence the loose coordination of genres. Nevertheless, I do not hear the electronic sounds as "idiotic effects", although can understand how rock fans would vomit as guitar licks were smothered in concrete sounds. There are some fine moments in this work and for me is still my favourite Spooky Tooth work.

NME hated it at the time and that's just fine with me.

Thanks for the great blog!!

Anonymous said...

What a fantastic blog! I visit all the time, and there is always a wealth of fantastic stuff! However, I must say I do disagree with the review - I love this album. What I find odd, is that Mutantsounds would describe Pierre Henry's concrete touches as 'idiotic sounds'. I think it would hardly be fair to ever say that Mutantsounds is approaching this album from a rockist perspective - given the absolute wealth of electronic material on here. This in mind I found that particular aspect of the review puzzling, especially given as there are many albums posted on here that are much more difficult to listen to.

vdoandsound said...

anonymous-thats because some of Jim's earlier posts aren't written by him (or me, vdoandsound/Eric, either), but use cut and pasted text from elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

link dead

Anonymous said...

I have always liked this album. I considered it the first Christian Rock album.

Dj Olowanpi said...

I bought this album long time ago, and I had moments where I could dig it, to some extent. and others where I was highly annoyed and yes the song "Credo" and the voice loop is annoying as fuck and so out of any groove and time.

What I would love to have is the recording before Henry put his madness over it :)
because some of the songs are awesome and trippy as hell