The Belfast Gypsies.
A lot of times, I sit down to write the first sentence of one of these blog entries and find myself thinking, "Duh, Andrew, everyone who has read this blog before already KNOWS this!" But most of the time, I end up starting the entry the way I'd planned anyway, because, truth to tell, I have no confidence that anyone is actually reading these entries on an ongoing basis. And so, without further ado, I bring you tonight's "DUH!" moment: I love garage rock, in all of its forms. From its beginning as rawly-recorded pre-British Invasion rock n roll singles in the late 50s to its ultimate evolution into the early 70s proto-metal that I've been discussing in recent blog entries, I love it all. I tend to favor the stuff with psychedelic elements, but lately (in the wake of a serious proto-metal overdose), I've been delving heavily into an area of this whole continuum that I usually don't pay that much attention to: freakbeat. This early 60s post-Beatles offshoot tends not to be quite "freaky" enough for me--too chained to R&B conventions of the time, not nearly as raw or loose as the garage bands that came along a year or two later. However, it's lately come to my attention that I just haven't been listening to the right shit where this whole style is concerned. For example, I've recently discovered the first Pretty Things album, and it's raw as fuck. Some parts of it sound like John Lee Hooker with a fuzzbox, other parts remind me of Pussy Galore (no, seriously), and still others sound like contemporaneous Rolling Stones tracks if the Stones had been dragged out of gutters at 2 am with vomit and piss stains on their suits and forced to record them right there, in the alley where they were found. It's brilliant, seriously.
But that's not what I'm here to talk about. I'm here to talk about the Belfast Gypsies--a group I read about in an article by the redoubtable Richie Unterberger that ran in Ugly Things issue 23. And that's a whole thing, see, because I could just as easily call The Belfast Gypsies "The Other Them". Let me explain: other than their one constant member (no, not Van Morrison--bassist Alan Henderson. Why yes, this IS going to get confusing!), Them had a constant revolving-door lineup. Their first huge member shakeup occurred right after their first recording session, and to make a long story short (check out the Unterberger article for the convoluted details), two brothers by the names of Jackie and Pat McAuley joined Them, on organ and drums respectively. They stayed in the band long enough to play on "Here Comes The Night" and "Baby Please Don't Go", among several other tracks, but were out by summer 1965, less than a year after they'd joined. By fall of 1965, they'd formed their own band, with guitarist Ken McLeod and bassist Mark Scott. Jackie continued playing organ, but also filled the lead vocal spot. Formed at a time when Van Morrison's Them had once again fallen apart (certainly not for the last time), the members and their smooth-talking manager attempted to parlay the fact that their band contained two former members of the well-known rock group Them into claiming that they, in fact, WERE the new incarnation of Them. Morrison and co. were not amused, and sued the McAuleys, et al, winning their court case and forcing the band who eventually became the Belfast Gypsies to perform under the name "The Other Them". Which they did, at least when they performed live. However, the posthumous album that contained all of their recordings was released under the name The Belfast Gypsies (a moniker bestowed upon them by the one and only Kim Fowley--more about him later). The album in question, though, was entitled "Them Belfast Gypsies", and released with a cover that gave the impression that it was in fact an album by Them called "Belfast Gypsies." Confused yet? If so, you're not the only one--according to Unterberger, retailers have been filing the album under Them ever since it came out. Even the blogger who had posted the mp3s of the album on Rapidshare had it listed on his blog as an album called "Belfast Gypsies" by the band Them.
Yeah, about that--since you can pretty much find any out of print garage-rock album you'd ever have an impulse to download hidden on Rapidshare and linked from one of the thousands of garage-rock mp3 blogs that are out there (ironic sidenote: it's generally easier to locate free, downloadable mp3s of entire out-of-print albums by garage bands than it is to download brand new releases by currently active major label bands. So uh, take that, RIAA? I guess?), I figured I'd go ahead and locate a copy of their lone album online, download it, and burn it to CD in preparation for reading about them. Sure enough, after 5 seconds of Googling (and three hours of waiting for Rapidshare to let my IP address download the second part of a two-part archive), I had a burned copy of the Belfast Gypsies CD cued up on my stereo.
Unterberger says something else early on in his 20-plus page article: this would all just be a footnote to the story of Van Morrison's career if it weren't for the fact that the Belfast Gypsies album is as great as it is. And he's right, as I soon discovered. There are many references in the article to how similar Jackie McAuley's voice sounds to Van Morrison's. That's true to an extent, but what a statement like that misses is just how much more intense Jackie's singing is than Van's. I think it's appropriate at this juncture for me to mention that I've never had all that much use for most of Them's music. I guess that's somewhat made up for by the fact that I consider "Baby Please Don't Go" to be one of the best songs I've ever heard in my life, but still--most of their stuff just doesn't measure up to that song. It's too mannered, too calm. But no one could ever think of applying either of those adjectives to the music of The Belfast Gypsies. Oh good god no. Jackie McAuley's voice sounds like Van Morrison in the same way that "Psychotic Reaction" by the Count Five sounds like the Yardbirds--it's the essence of that sound, boiled down to its simplest form and then dirtied up beyond all belief. Jackie McAuley sounds like Van Morrison if you got him wasted and made him sing until his throat was raw. His nasal howling is more ferocious than that of The Troggs' Reg Presley, generally the gold standard of snotty English freakbeat singers, but still manages to maintain a firm command of the song's melody even when he's ripping through it at top volume (in this way, he sort of reminds me of Eric Burdon on the earliest Animals singles, only snarling when Burdon merely shouted). McAuley has the same vocal range and Belfast accent as Van Morrison, but the resemblance is merely superficial, and I can't understand how anyone was ever fooled for more than a second.
But that's OK, see, because I can't imagine, by the time anyone figured out what scam had been perpetrated, that they even cared. Why would anyone want their money back? This record is just too great. It starts with yet another piece of Them-sploitation, a track called "Gloria's Dream" that opens with a really familiar descending three-chord uptempo riff. That's OK, though, because any resemblance to a more popular Them track is outshined as soon as Jackie McAuley's inimitable voice comes in. His evil, cheap-sounding organ propels the band through two verses and choruses, the latter of which feature some great party-style backing vocals that are none too concerned with staying on beat. It's a fun garage rock tune, but it doesn't really approach greatness until the solo. A majority of the songs on this album are produced by Kim Fowley, including this one, and in Unterberger's article, guitarist Ken McLeod notes (with some distaste--whatever, Ken!) that Fowley had stopped him after his first attempt at overdubbing a solo and told him to "do it again, and just play noise." I guess the idea of noise that prevailed in that era was a lot different from mine, because it just sounds like McLeod played a really sloppy and distorted version of the song's main riff, but regardless, Fowley's instincts were dead on, and the solo is perfect. But what's even better is the third verse. After spending the first two verses telling us about a wild and out of control party (interestingly, the lyrics to "Gloria's Dream" never mention a dream or anyone named Gloria), Jackie begins the third verse by commanding everyone to shut all the windows and doors. After he sings the first line, the rest of the band starts making frantic shushing noises, and the guitar and organ both drop out as the rhythm section moves into a hushed vamp. The band quickly moves back into a full-volume chorus, but for the few seconds that the third verse is happening, a truly frightening aura creeps into the song. For those few seconds, I get the same charge from "Gloria's Dream" that I get from my favorite psychedelic garage classics.
This isn't the only place on the album where Belfast Gypsies deliver this sort of emotional charge. "Midnight Train", an extended blues jam that spotlights a wailing performance on harmonica by Jackie, has a constant air of foreboding that grows more intense as the song goes on, even though the band's rhythmic backing grows quieter rather than louder. It's followed immediately by "Aria Of The Fallen Angels", a quiet, moody instrumental adapted from Bach's "Aria In D". It's strange at first to hear a garage rock band playing a song like this, but it fits so well with the mood of the rest of the album that in the end, it's somehow apt. Later, they do a song called "Last Will And Testament", better known as "St. James Infirmary", which gets the proper blues-death-ballad treatment. It soon builds from a calm beginning into a pounding frenzy, much like "House Of The Rising Sun" by The Animals, only with a raw-nerve abandon that Eric Burdon never quite captured.
One of my favorite songs on here is the most obviously Kim Fowley-influenced track, "People, Let's Freak Out." It's a super-simple two chord Bo Diddley beat jam, and Jackie McAuley's voice is pushed to its limit, especially on the choruses. Despite the fact that the lyrics sound like total 60s-era cliches now, this song is still fun, and it definitely makes clear that The Belfast Gypsies were willing to get crazy and push the boundaries of the whole freakbeat thing.
This album isn't perfect, by any means--the tempo of the album drags on side two because of a poor sequencing decision that places two ballads in a row (locating their excellent version of John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom" after "Last Will And Testament" instead of before would have solved this problem nicely), and "Suicide Song" is not up to the quality standard of the rest of the album (the fact that it's obviously a joke is irrelevant, as it's the music that falls flat, not the lyrics). Worst of all, the five alternate mixes added to the CD as bonus tracks are, to my ears, identical to the album versions (supposedly the French EP mix of "Midnight Train" fixes a mastering flaw, but even if that's true--if so, I can't tell the difference--it could just as easily have replaced the album version), and the sixth bonus track is a filler instrumental that, according to the Unterberger article, wasn't even performed by The Belfast Gypsies. But these are minor quibbles--for the most part, this album is great. It definitely beats out any full-length work I've ever heard by the real Them, and that alone makes it worth seeking out. So hop to it, kids!The Belfast Gypsies - Gloria's Dream
The Belfast Gypsies - Last Will And Testament