I’m reading a good book about British pop music called “Black Vinyl, White Powder” by Simon Napier-Bell. In it he describes the court case where George Harrison was accused of stealing the melody and arrangement of “He’s So Fine” by The Chiffons when he recorded “My Sweet Lord”. After he lost, George Harrison is quoted as saying “I still don’t understand how the courts aren’t filled with similar cases – as 99% of the popular music that can be heard is reminiscent of something or other.
This set me thinking about how many truly original pieces of music are there? Obviously, every human is the sum total of their experiences and it would be impossible to deny that Van Morrison listening to Big Bill Broonzy didn’t contribute to the sound of “Astral Weeks”. However, the influence is not obvious to me and “Astral Weeks” strikes me as an example of a record that appeared from nowhere. When listening to The Modern Lovers first record, it’s clear that they were heavily influenced by The Velvet Underground. It’s not obvious who or what influenced Van Morrison in 1968.
What other records appeared from nowhere with no obvious influences? I’ve heard it said that “Music From Big Pink” by The Band “blew people’s minds” when they heard it. It made Eric Clapton split Cream up. It made George Harrison want to join Delaney and Bonnie. It’s not clear to me how recording “The Basement Tapes”, backing Bob Dylan on his 1966 world tour or backing Ronnie Hawkins caused them to record such beautiful, original music although I have a feeling that if I were more of a musicologist, I might be able to offer “an answer”.
I think that is the key point. A record arrives out of nowhere if the listener can’t connect it with anything else he or she has heard before. Here’s a list of records which, for me, seem to be strikingly original because I can’t connect the dots to a previous piece of music. “In The Court Of The Crimson King” by King Crimson. “Spirit Of Eden” by Talk Talk. “The Marble Index” by Nico. “Sweetheart Of The Rodeo” by The Byrds. “Miss America” by Mary Margaret O’Hara.
Normally, when I write about a record, I go to the Wikipedia page for background information on the artist and the record itself. Today, this is difficult. She has made only one full length album (although she subsequently released an EP and a soundtrack album). She released this record in 1988 (although she started recording it in 1984). She has only rarely sung in public although I was lucky enough to go to a concert that she gave in London to support this record.
A Canadian magazine called “Chart” rated this record as the 14th best Canadian record of all time which may not sound much until you consider that Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen are all Canadian. There is an unofficial website dedicated to her and I think they describe the music heard on this record rather perfectly.
“It is brilliant, like nothing else ever before heard, bending all the norms of arrangement and structure. With some of the best and most innovative musicians around participating, the record displayed O’Hara’s love for solid, steady rhythms, jazz basslines, innovative instrumentation, slow, sad waltzes, jazz grooves and contrasting jerky, improvisational abstractions. Completely unpredictable, the record was constantly shifting between dusty, country flavoured ballads (“Dear Darling”, “Body in Trouble”), sporadic, demented free-for-all over tight rhythms (“Year in Song”, “My Friends Have”), jazz shuffles resembling old standards (“Keeping You in Mind”) and folkish, melodic pop songs (“To Cry About”, “Anew Day”).
Let’s dig a bit deeper on “Body In Trouble”. It starts with an electric guitar reverberating slowly; drums kick in and then a bass before she sings “Oh, just want to push somebody/Your body won’t let you/Just want to move somebody/Body won’t let you/You want to feel somebody/Body won’t let you/Who, who, who do you talk to?/Who do you talk to?/Who do you talk to?” Her voice is rich, deep and emotional. The phrasing of her singing is moving and the way that she pauses between singing “You want to” and “feel” is great. Her voice rises an octave as she sings “feel” with passion. When she sings “Who, who, who” it sounds more like an “oooh” as if she’s just driven over a hump backed bridge at 40 mph. The crashing guitar continues to add a slight menace to the sound. Later when she repeats “A body’s in trouble” she sounds slightly desperate. A silky violin adds to the unease. The whole song is a masterpiece in vocal gymnastics. In fact I’m moved to tears now listening to it. The video at the bottom of this page is incredible.
And that’s just one song. There are 11 songs on the record. “Help Me Lift You Up” was later covered by This Mortal Coil on “Blood”. There is no reverberating electric guitar on this song, just a strumming acoustic guitar along with some beautiful synthesiser. Although this is not as instrumentally intense as “Body In Trouble”, vocally it is even stronger as she weaves her way in, out, above and below the melody instilling deep emotion into the performance. The wordless vocals towards the end of the song are as beautiful as anything you will hear.
One of the issues regarding this record is that a casual listener will find nothing to “hang their hat on”, by which I mean there really isn’t another record like this. This means that it can be hard to “get into” the songs because it’s all a bit unfamiliar. I am reminded of the second best record of all time which is “Starsailor” by Tim Buckley. This also came out of nowhere to some extent and was largely ignored. Both “Starsailor” and “Miss America” are original and unique and these characteristics can make them inaccessible to anyone but the determined listener. So let’s modify what Lilian Roxon wrote about Tim Buckley and say “Nothing in rock, folk-rock or anything else prepares you for “Miss America”, and it’s funny to hear her work described as blues, jazz and folk when, in fact, there is no name yet for the places she and her voice can go.”