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Bloody Hell: Gene Clark's No Other Revisited
David Bennun , November 4th, 2019 07:30

A commercial and critical failure on its release, Gene Clark's No Other is considered something of a classic now it's 45. David Bennun "remixes" an old essay on this cult LP to celebrate an upcoming 4AD reissue

In 1995, former Byrd Gene Clark’s breathtaking 1974 solo masterpiece, No Other, was a record lost not only to the world but also to collective memory. Deleted soon after its release, and unavailable ever since, it had gone unheard and unheard of among all but a tiny circle of Americana afficionados. That year David Bennun (who had been given a cassette recording of it three years previously by one of those afficionados, esteemed mature lensman Tom Sheehan) wrote an essay about it for Melody Maker's Unknown Pleasures: Great Lost Albums Rediscovered booklet. In retrospect this seems to have been the pebble that would eventually start a landslide. No Other slowly became recognised as one of the greatest albums ever made. As 4AD prepare to give No Other a suitably lavish box-set reissue this November, tQ in turn reprints David’s original article, in a “remastered” (i.e. slightly revised) version.

LONDON’S VICTORIA station is a gloomy enough place at the best of times. At half past three of a chilly weekday morning, waiting for the milk train to Brighton, it slumps into thoroughgoing desolation. Populated only by waifs and strays and nocturnal crews of expatriated Africans whose cleaning jobs must rank among the dreariest to be had north of Burkina Faso, the concourse is as unhomely as a combination of petty-mindedness and contempt can make it.

There are no seats. These have been removed lest homeless people find some respite on them and make the passengers uncomfortable. Passenger comfort, however, is not greatly aided by sitting on the ground. Only ticket-holders are permitted through the august gates at this hour – again, in case vagrants get in and annoy paying customers, which is a job best left to the police. Bobbies perambulate in tandem, as bored and disconsolate as everybody else in this sinkhole, quizzing travellers on their bona fides. Heaven forfend that the wrong kind of itinerant should sully the steps to the shopping plaza with their unprofitable presence.

At times like this, the Sony Walkman comes into its own. It is your truest and trustiest friend, especially if you have recently been given a Gene Clark tape and this is your first chance to listen to it.

You know that Gene Clark was in The Byrds, a band you admire rather than (as you later will) adore. Your older colleagues treat all Byrds-related matters with a reverence that borders on the devotional. This inclines you to be suspicious, particularly as you finally got hold of the Gram Parsons solo albums, only to discover they were not the one-way ticket to Elysium you had been promised. They were, well, OK. Excellent in some places, but a touch humdrum in others. Still, life is a series of disappointments, as you tell yourself, summoning all the shored-up wisdom of your 24 years on the planet. And with the sceptical apprehension of one who has lived, you understand, you slot the tape into place and hit the play button.

Bloody hell.

AT LEAST, that's what should happen at this point,; but the first side of the tape contains the Roadmaster album, which at this point (again, you will later come to cherish it) strikes you as a fine if straightforward country-rock record with some beautiful moments. You listen with pleasure, but “Bloody hell” it ain't. It's, well, OK. “Bloody hell” is 45 minutes away, by which time you are ensconced on a rattling draughty train that halts at every pissant hamlet between London and the south coast, and anywhere else it pleases. On the longer stretches, it progresses at the speed of a drowsy and somewhat footsore mule; otherwise, you are afforded plenty of opportunity to note what grass looks like in the dark – black – and to audition your newly acquired tape. You flip it over to No Other and, at last . . . bloody hell.

How could a record this good, this gorgeous, this inspired, exist for 18 years without you even having heard of it? You, who know so much about pop music that people are prepared to give you money to air your opinions. Derisory sums of money, it's true, but what the heck, you'd pay to do it if you had to. Not for the first nor last time, it occurs to you that maybe you're not as well-informed as you might have thought. Maybe you are, in truth, an ignorant slob. But you're an ignorant slob who knows out-and-out magnificence when he hears it. By the end of the journey, you're on your third play of No Other and (this is truly a first) you don't want the train ride to end. You are as close to being happy as you will ever be on your own at six o'clock in the morning.

You recognise the feeling; it's the same sensation you experienced when you first watched Wings Of Desire. Like all voluble cynics, you are a pathetic sentimentalist at heart. The idea of angels walking among humanity, invisible, unheard, is as touching a fiction as you have seen on screen in a long time. (You were, after all, the kind of child who sneered at the death scene in Bambi, craven little weasel that you were.) The screen seraphs provide succour to the lost, the confused, the dismayed, the downhearted. The consolation of angels comes as unexpected warmth, a curious lifting of spirits, the sudden and calming acceptance of fate. No Other has exactly this effect. The advantage being, it's real.

At first, you think it's another post-Byrds country-rock album, albeit the best one you've ever heard. The opening track, ‘Life's Greatest Fool’, is a catchy and amiable piece of homespun, an instantly addictive toe-tapper. “Do you believe, deep in your soul/ That too much loneliness makes you grow old?” This strikes you as profoundly philosophical, but then it is very late, you are very, very tired, and you've always been a sucker for steel guitars. You resolve not to be so bloody stupid – a bloody stupid resolution, because you realise, within minutes, that you are listening to a masterpiece.

You've heard tell of how the aforementioned Gram Parsons dreamt of creating a kind of Cosmic American Music, which would seamlessly incorporate the country songs he so adored with the sounds and styles that abounded from sea to shining sea. But Gene Clark actually went and did it. From start to finish, No Other consists of godlike pop songs assembled with the lyricism and poignancy of the very best country music, the evergreen freshness of late-Sixties/ early-Seventies soul, the untrammelled reach of the masters of beyond-MOR (Spector, Webb, Bacharach/David), the power and exuberance of gospel. You are hearing an album the scope and ambition of which dwarfs those of records such as Screamadelica (at that time one of your favourite LPs). In fact, you're hearing a record without which, you suspect, Screamadelica couldn't have been conceived. You wonder how many copies of No Other Bobby Gillespie has worn through in his lifetime. (Your own taped copy will be played to death within weeks, and you will spend months of fruitless Sundays at record fairs before you finally track the album down on vinyl – an original promotional copy, which figures, as almost nobody bought the thing – from a dealer who has no idea what it is.)

Gene Clark portrait by John Dietrich, from the collection of Whin Oppice

BY THE TIME you reach the end of song number two, you're cursing yourself for not going to see Gene Clark a few years back, the last time he toured Britain. Your local listings mag ran an item under the headline “Rare Solo Appearance by Ex-Byrdman” or somesuch, in which a writer clearly more clued-up than you recommended that you hear Clark live while you had the chance – a prescient piece of advice, as Clark was to die not long afterwards, in 1991. A longtime alcoholic, he perished, it would seem, of an attempt to reform. His body, having coped for so long with regular and unstinting abuse, couldn't cope without it.

Those who had interviewed Clark at various points in his career will tell you that it could be like trying to catch mist in a bucket. So bleary and nebulous had he become that it was hard to get him to talk at all, let alone come up with anything approximating sense. This will strike you as bizarre in the light of No Other, a work of such lucidity, stoicism and clarity that you had guessed its creator to be a man very much at peace with himself. Of course, if you drink long and hard enough, you will find yourself at peace with everything – very likely on a permanent basis. Perhaps when he made the album in 1974, the unfortunate Clark wasn't quite as stupefied as he would later become.

His lyrics are generally simple and sometimes err on the side of the simplistic, yet there is real poetry in them. The title track, for instance, muses on the nature of love – like 97 per cent of all the pop songs ever written – and does so in a fashion that could easily slip into hippified drivel; yet Clark rarely stumbles. Maybe that's because of his vocals, which he infuses with a limpid, emotive expressiveness. At a standstill somewhere outside Balcombe, the volume turned up to blot out the snoring of your fellow passengers, you can persuade yourself that there really is an angel at your shoulder. He seems to be singing for your benefit alone.

‘No Other’, the song, sounds crazily ambitious even now. It makes you think of Sly & The Family Stone, which is something only Sly Stone has done before. Heavy tub-thumping. A wah-wah grind to sharpen butcher's knives on. A bass riff to break them with. And they told you this guy was a country singer. No wonder he never sold any records. People must have heard his name and figured they were in for 40 minutes of dying dogs, absentee girlfriends and drowned sorrows. Who was to know the man's head was exploding with visionary pop ideals? You're thinking, show me the pop singer who could even begin to think of something halfway up the garden path to ‘Strength Of Strings’, which might read like duff verse in print but, on record, soars as a song with such a title rightfully should. You can't call a song that and then dish out anything less than sublime majesty. Clark knew this. You can tell.

Along comes a piece of poesy entitled ‘From A Silver Phial’, all pianos and big choruses. It sounds like a fairy tale. It sounds like a parable. It sounds incomprehensible. It is lovely. You simply cannot believe that this album is as good as it seems. You have heard brilliant records, and you have heard consistent records. But consistently brilliant records are too much to ask for (you assure yourself, with a nod of your venerable head.) It will have to slip up soon.

‘Some Misunderstanding’ begins to play. You feel like a man who, out of nowhere, has been presented with an armful of gilded lilies.

‘Some Misunderstanding’ dwarfs even the rest of No Other. For a start, it's huge. Eight minutes long and counting. You aren't to know that, within a couple of years, every British guitar band will consider it de rigueur to create tracks on a similarly epic scale. When this comes to pass, you wish for the opportunity to take most of them aside and play them 'Some Misunderstanding': “If you can't get your eight minutes to match this, fellows, then please don't bother.” You're sure the majority of them would see your point.

The song is a celebration, an affirmation that life, for all that it is bitter, bewildering and cause for use of any available anaesthesia, is still a wonderful thing. From now on, every time you hear it, you will take it for the consolation it is. You will also go into a gently nodding trance and smile like a man contented, which is not something you do a whole lot. You will return to it as you do to a faithful friend, and you will inevitably reckon that you might as well play the whole album while you're about it. You will recall, with every hearing, why you fell in love with pop music in the first place.

That's all in the future. You step from the train at this unholy hour, weary but tranquil, and fall over a mop on the platform.

Bloody hell.

Gene Clark's No Other is reissued by 4AD on November 8. To pre-order or learn more, click here

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