Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

Don Weller + Tony Marsh GroupFestival                                                               Courtesy of Proper Music

If Monty Modlyn had never existed, someone would have been hired to invent him. The name was too good to be true and the man himself – a scaled-down Alfred Hitchcock with the same dropped aitches, or a mostly sober version of Britain’s famously bibulous foreign secretary George Brown – was insistently larger than life. Only a Dickens or a Waugh would have done him justice. Modlyn was an East End Londoner, a Jewish tailor’s son who’d bunked school at 14 but got a job proof-reading on a daily paper and from there worked his way into the BBC as a roving reporter and presenter of the ultimate in populist broadcasting, a “down your way” style live show from Monty’s Pub. That it was a different pub each week suggested a man who’d crawled his way round and been thrown out of a few along the way. Towards the end of his tenure at the BBC, perhaps best remembered for his role opposite the suave but tough Jack De Manio on the morning news program, a senior grandee praised Modlyn for his “honest vulgarity.”

This was at a time when the BBC was known as the forcing-bed of class consciousness – dropped aitches were still very rare, strangled diphthongs still the norm – and not as an escort service for men with a taste for under-age sex. The corporation must think back nostalgically to the days when it was maligned for snobbery rather than pedophilia. In that former world, Modlyn was hardly a breath of fresh air – his breath invariably reeked of beer and smoked salmon bagels – but he was a bit different. How honest the vulgarity really was might be questioned, though there was nothing chi-chi or inauthentic about an East End Jewish boy eating lox. Modlyn knew his market and his own unique selling point and he played it to the hilt. He died in 1994, still a Thatcherite, alas.

It struck me rather forcibly this week that “honest vulgarity” is exactly what we need more of in jazz and improvised music. There’s an ongoing debate, in Britain at least, about what improvisation “needs:” more sex, more humor, more politics, more women, less volume, and quite possibly, more loud, sexy, funny, politically astute women, and I say right on to all that. But the occasion for my thought was the reissue, after long neglect, of a record, made in 1976, that made a virtue of its own lack of finesse and in the process left most of what else was around at the time seem positively effete. The band was Major Surgery, led by tenor saxophonist Don Weller, and one could somehow tell from the name, even if one knows nothing of Weller, that this group wasn’t going to sound like Oregon. Or AMM.

The great Stan Tracey was once asked his views on near-contemporaries such as Michael Garrick and Mike Westbrook. With a supreme effort to be diplomatic, Tracey let it be known that he wasn’t too moved by what these guys did, expressing himself much more comfortable with a “Don Weller type of person.” What type of person that is comes out rawly in the music on The First Cut, Major Surgery’s long-lost 1976 LP. The band had been around for some time by then and had perfected a sound that seemed the ideal accompaniment – as sommeliers and wine captains might put it – to booze and tobacco. There are even more pungent odors in the mix. As original producer Malcolm Mills recalls in his nostalgic liner note, Major Surgery was a fixture in The Dog and Bull (could there be a more appropriate venue?) in Croydon, a town attached to but culturally separate from London that was extensively redesigned by the Luftwaffe. It wasn’t strictly a music venue at all, but favored bands that turned up were directed to “the minuscule space next to the stinking Gents toilet.” Drummer Tony Marsh was the lucky one. He got to play by an open window. The others were guitarist Jimmy Roche and bass guitarist Bruce Collcutt. They looked less like a quartet of musicians than a squad of workman who’d just rolled up to fix your wiring or the roof. For me at the time, they raised the latter and completely rearranged the former.

I’d been listening to a range of modern jazz and improvisation, and at the same time to other current sounds. This mostly involved nodding quietly at very intricate compositions or very abstract free playing, or nodding through vast concept albums brought along by friends. I was that particularly noisome specious of hypocrites who would listen to The Yes Album or Tales from Topographic Oceans (and pompously point out that Jon Anderson had originally intended it to be “tobographic”) but not actually buy or be seen carrying a copy. The early to mid ‘70s were an interesting period in rock music, not least because the usual historical version is so wide of the mark. The consensus is that rock became steadily more portentous and overblown, its “progressive” credentials camouflage for lifestyles and performance philosophies that would have made Liberace blush. Then along came punk, and blew fresh air through the scene, with some spittle on the wind. My strong recollection is that there was always a “punk” scene, perhaps most obvious in Britain in the form of what the music papers dubbed “pub rock.” This was the Transit van end of the market, the bashed-amplifier, roll-up-and-play ethos of unsigned groups who’d never be booked for the Budokan or the Albert Hall, with full orchestra.

My sense is that the same model almost works for jazz at the same period, though it’s harder to find the “pub jazz” equivalents of Ducks Deluxe and Bees Make Honey because bands like Major Surgery, who were about as far from Nexus-style fusion as they were from Acker Bilk, rarely had even the modest recording contracts and journalistic underpinning of their rock equivalents.

Weller has worked slightly below critical radar for much of his career. His more recent appearances in a “Three Tenors” format with Art Themen and Mornington Lockett were much admired on the festival circuit and as much enjoyed for the cheerfully competitive ethos of the group as for the wildly contrasting styles of the three principals. Weller is a classic barrel-chested, leather-lunged tenor man with a full, well-supported tone. There’s not much Albert Ayler/Gato Barbieri altissimo stuff. He gruffs rather than screams. The group is solid, artisanal, and while Marsh always sounds like he’s been checking out Sunny Murray and possibly Milford Graves, he mostly plays for the group with a solid, balls-to-the-wall drive. It’s always a mistake to review music by reference to titles but “Jubileevit” (i.e. “do you believe it?”), “Dog and Bull Fight,”  “Foul Group Practices,” “Hoe Down Up” and “Shrimpboats” give a fair flavor of the contents. The last of these is a minor British classic. There was a fashion around this time for extra-long titles. Pete Brown and Piblokto put out the jazz-infused Things May Come And Things May Go But The Art School Dance Goes On Forever and there was a 1969 novel by David Forrest called And to my nephew Albert I leave the island what I won off Fatty Hagan in a poker game. Weller’s contribution to this peculiarly British genre was the full title of “Shrimpboats” which read “Don’t Wait For The Shrimpboat, Mother – Father’s Come Home With The Crabs.”

I’ve muttered before in these columns about how much British improvisation owes to music hall/vaudeville/variety. I’m not sure this applies in the same way to Weller, who incidentally shouldn’t be confused with Western artist Don Weller (he made the poster for the 1984 LA Olympics), though I think they might get along just fine. The British Weller was born in 1940 and so came of age in the austere but shaken-up 1950s. He played a bit of Dixieland before settling into modern jazz with Tracey, Bryan Spring, Dick Morrissey and others. He pops up as a player on a reasonable number of sessions for other leaders, but his own output has been fairly slow and spaced-out. Commit No Nuisance in 1980 was the first Weller LP I remember after the Major Surgery days and then there was a rather good thing with Hannibal Marvin Peterson called Poem Song, though my only copy is an illicit cassette. As we said of Don in the latest edition of the Penguin Guide to Jazz: “There are romantics who make records with titles like The Way You Look Tonight and then there’s the rough-diamond romanticism of Don Weller and The Way You’re Going To Look Tomorrow Morning, which came out ten years ago.” The important thing about that statement is that it quite patently doesn’t suggest he’s in any way anti-romantic or cynical. And if you’ve never heard Weller and Bobby Wellins on Nine Songs – or “Nun Sings” as Mr. Wellins, a Scotsman, preferred it – it’s a treat.

For the moment, though, attention’s fixed on The First Cut, the nicely punned title of that early Major Surgery album. It’s not subtle music, engineered rather than improvised, unperfumed except by engine oil and axle grease, and as honest as a pound note. With so much contemporary “experimentalism” a blatant example of emperor’s old clothes, this is like a blast from an age in which Britain still had some kind of large-scale manufacturing capability and politics still meaningfully divided into right and left, unlike the ambidextrous nonsense of today. Tony Marsh has gone and Weller himself has undergone a coronary bypass, so there’s no missing the passing of the years. But The First Cut brings it all back: the Rote Armee Fraktion in court, Polisario, not special status for “terrorist” prisoners, Harold Wilson bowing out as the shadows drew in, the American bicentennial and the ludicrous Face on Mars. “Get your face on a Mars Bar, more like,” would have been Don Weller’s response to that one. Vulgarity is still something of a taboo in British public life, though three quarters of its ritual and output is now impossibly and irredeemably vulgar. Honest vulgarity is much rarer as a result and ever more precious as the years tick by.

Brian Morton©2013

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