The Use Of Ashes by Pearls Before Swine


There’s a great book called “Reasons To Stay Alive” by Matt Haig which is an autobiographical memoir about living with anxiety and coping with suicidal tendencies. It’s very moving. This morning, I was doomscrolling through Twitter and found a great tweet by him. “Yes, lockdown poses its own mental health challenges but can we please stop pretending our former world of long working hours, stressful commutes, hectic crowds, shopping centres, infinite choice, mass consumerism, air pollution and 24/7 everything was a mental health utopia.”

As I was walking Bruno this morning, I was listening to a podcast called “I Am The Eggpod” about “Rubber Soul” and someone called Rob Manuel, (who is the co-founder of a website called “B3ta”, described as a “puerile digital arts community” by The Guardian) was reminiscing about how he used to listen to his parents records because they were the only records in the house.

Both these experiences can be addressed by considering the benefits or drawbacks of “infinite choice”. Margaret Thatcher once said “We want a society in which we are free to make choices, to make mistakes, to be generous and compassionate. That is what we mean by a moral society – not a society in which the State is responsible for everything, and no one is responsible for the State.” Hmmmm. Do we want this sort of society?

Freedom is good. Choice is good. These would appear to be self-evident truths. However, would we be happier if we were not burdened by weighing up the consequences of the choices that we make every day? Now I am retired, at the end of each day I often wonder whether the day was spent usefully. Did I make the correct choices by writing this blog, reading a book by Simon Napier-Bell, listening to Laura Nyro etc or would it have been better to give the blog a miss, read a Jonathan Coe book or listen, once more, to “Wee Tam”. A year ago, these were not considerations. I would have spent a hard day at the chalkface, pouring knowledge of calculus into willing empty vessels owned by 18 year old students. There was no choice. It was okay. I never really thought about whether I had spent the day wisely or not.

Spotify is brilliant. For a measly monthly sum, I can listen to any music I want to. Hang on, I can’t listen to “Albion Doo Wah” by Cat Mother And The All Night Newsboys. That’s disgraceful! What if I want to listen to it? In 1974 when I bought “The Use Of Ashes”, it never occurred to me that I “should” be able to listen to any music I wanted to. My choices were limited by what I could afford and what was available. I’ve written before about the joy of going into Parrott Records in Harlow and finding a record by The Dream Syndicate or walking towards a record shop in London and seeing a Tim Buckley record I’d never heard of.

David Hepworth calls a vinyl record “A Fabulous Creation” and I think I agree with him. Not because of the quality of the sound (my vinyl copy of “Astral Weeks” always jumped during a crucial part of “Madame George”) but because it represented something special, when we didn’t really have many choices. Owning a record was something to be proud of. It was a valuable thing to have, something to be treasured. Many many years after being given a record as a present, I can remember the circumstances and the generous friends associated with it.

There’s also the issue of the size of a record and the sleeve. Take a look at the back of “The Use Of Ashes”:

The Use Of Ashes – back cover

This is marvellous. The lyrics to just 4 of the songs, the list of musicians and then the other credits. I used to devour all this information. Art direction by Ed Thrasher who also designed the covers for Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Are You Experienced?,” Joni Mitchell’s “Song to a Seagull,” the Grateful Dead’s “Anthem of the Sun,” Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey” etc etc. Kenneth Buttrey played drums; he also played with Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joan Baez, Donovan, Al Kooper, Kris Kristofferson and Gordon Lightfoot amongst many many others. Not to mention Charlie McCoy and David Briggs! (Bob Dylan, Neil Young etc etc etc) I know we can get this information from a CD insert (but not from a download, you snowflakes!) but the size of the vinyl sleeve made it a comforting exercise to sit and listen whilst cradling the sleeve and assimilating the information on the sleeve. What else does it say on the sleeve? Ah yes. For the track “God Save The Child”, Elisabeth helped. This, presumably, is the same Elisabeth who sung vocals. Who is she? What is her relationship to Tom Rapp? It’s also great to know that “This album is dedicated to the Netherlands where most of the songs were written”. Mysterious. If we want to know more, we will have to wait for “Rolling Stone”, “Melody Maker”, “New Musical Express”, “Zigzag” or “Sounds” to interview Tom Rapp.

Another wonderful aspect of the vinyl record is to actually watch the record being played rather than being hidden away inside a CD machine.

The Use Of Ashes Side One

This is a very good record. The founding member of Pearls Before Swine was Tom Rapp. They released 9 records between 1967 and 1973 and they are all quirky and inventive. Wikipedia describes the group as psychedelic folk. The opening song is “The Jeweler”. It’s a masterpiece (and was covered on the second record by This Mortal Coil). Tom Rapp has a distinctive voice with a constant tremelo which gives added emotional impact. Track 3 is “Rocket Man”, based on a short story by Ray Bradbury and uses the story of an astronaut and father burning up in space to explore his own relationship with his father. This song was an inspiration for Bernie Taupin when writing the lyrics for Elton John’s song of the same name. On “Song About A Rose” there are lyrics which are either pretentious nonsense or deeply thought provoking. “And even God can only guess why or where or when or if the answers all belong / And you and I we sing our song about a rose / Or perhaps the shadow of a rose”. I prefer the latter interpretation.

A friend of mine, who I was later rather dismissive of, bought this album on my behalf (it wasn’t a gift – I paid for it). He went to W. H. Smith’s in Staines and paid 75p for it. I can remember this information. This is a blog about vinyl. Or perhaps the shadow of vinyl.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

3 thoughts on “The Use Of Ashes by Pearls Before Swine

  1. The gatefold sleeve was one of the great joys of the 70s. For me it reached its zenith with the triple Roger Dean gatefold on for Tales From Topographic Oceans, followed closely by the foldout Rainbow Theatre for Focus Live at the Rainbow. In fact just thinking about them still gives me a thrill. Is there something wrong with me or have I just been stuck indoors for too long?

    Liked by 1 person

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