BLOSSOM TOES: WE ARE EVER SO CLEAN (1967)
1) Look At Me I'm You; 2) I'll Be Late For Tea; 3) Remarkable Saga Of The Frozen Dog; 4) Telegram Tuesday; 5) Love Is; 6) What's It For; 7) People Of The Royal Parks; 8) What On Earth; 9) Mrs. Murphy's Budgerigar; 10) I Will Bring You This And That; 11) Mister Watchmaker; 12) When The Alarm Clock Rings; 13) The Intrepid Balloonist's Handbook Vol. 1; 14) You; 15) Track For Speedy Freaks Or Instant LP Digest.
How many times have we heard the term «Sgt. Pepper rip-off» applied to album so-and-so, only to put it on and understand that «being influenced by Sgt. Pepper» or even «being recorded in the era of Sgt. Pepper» would be a more honorable definition? The truth is that real «rip-offs» of Sgt. Pepper, as a rule, have not survived — be it the Stones, the Hollies, the Moody Blues, the Bee Gees, Procol Harum, or any other band of any notoriety that we still remember as having produced LPs in 1967, each of them had their own voice, with Sgt. Pepper spurring them on to flash it rather than just serving as a role model that had to be imitated throughout.
From that point of view, I've always been interested in actually hearing a «genuine» Sgt. Pepper rip-off — just for curiosity's sake: were there really any bands who'd slobber so much at the sanctuary of the Beatles to try and mime to all of their production techniques and melodic language elements? If there were any such albums, they must have quickly sunk to the bottom of the ridicule pit, not least because originality and stylistic autonomy were far more valued in 1967 than they are today. Yet out of everything that I have heard so far, it is this quirky debut album by the Blossom Toes that arguably comes closest to winning first prize.
Indeed, the Blossom Toes came together in early 1967, just as the Beatles were putting the final touches on Sgt. Pepper, and were immediately assigned to Giorgio Gomelsky's appropriately titled «Marmalade Records» label. The LP that the band recorded was announced in Melody Maker as «Giorgio Gomelsky's Lonely Hearts Club Band» — and for once, the label was perfectly accurate: not because the album was as good as Sgt. Pepper, but because it basically used Sgt. Pepper (and a bit of Revolver) as its blueprint.
The two main songwriters in the band were Brian Godding and Jim Cregan, both of them singing and playing guitars, with some additional writing contributions from drummer Kevin Westlake and maestro Gomelsky himself (only bass player Brian Belshaw is left as the poor schmuck with no songwriting royalties whatsoever). To be fair, Godding and Cregan are not exactly gene-by-gene projections of Lennon and McCartney. Lyrically and atmospherically, they also take a lot of clues from the Kinks — in fact, We Are Ever So Clean, with its local imagery and whimsical ideas that are part-time redcoat marching music and part-time Mary Poppins, is such a quintessentially British album that its lack of popularity outside the UK is quite easy to explain (a similar story later happened to The Cheerful Insanity Of Giles, Giles & Fripp).
It is in their electic approach to things and in their «anything-goes» approach to arrangements that the Sgt. Pepper idolatry really shows up. Backward tapes? Eastern-tinged vocal harmonies? Piccolo trumpet solos? Echo, fuzz, overkill overdubbing? The general feel of a freaky circus show? It's all here, even including a frenetic one-minute «recapitulation», at the exact same time, of all of the album's themes at the end. Yes, the lads are clever enough so as not to steal anything outright (the only time I caught them redhanded was during the call-and-response psychedelic harmonies at the fade-out of ʽWhat On Earthʼ — that trick is lifted directly from ʽShe Said She Saidʼ), but on the whole, there is no mistake: We Are Ever So Clean is a self-conscious, amusingly arrogant attempt to outplay the Beatles at their own game by raising the stakes in such departments as «extravagance», «absurdity», «eccentricity», and «vaudeville».
The good news is that the music really sounds as unpredictable, crazy, and all over the place as that description suggests. The bad news is that the album has no real substance: it is daring and risky, but what exactly is being gained by these risks remains unclear. Song after song, the Blossom Toes are challenging our imagination, and I don't know about yours, but mine rather quickly gets stumped and disconcerted. Where the Beatles and the Kinks, even at their worst, were sort of goal-oriented and evocative, songs like ʽI'll Be Late For Teaʼ, even despite having the word tea in the title, are, instead, rather befuddling. "Look at me I'm you! Look at me I'm you!" goes the pounding chorus to the lead-in track, but it's not as if the decisiveness of that declaration were particularly convincing: not only am I perfectly sure that I am not any of the lead singers in the Blossom Toes, but I even have a hard time finding out what the Blossom Toes are as such.
Which is not to say that We Are Ever So Clean is not bizarrely fascinating in much the same way in which, say, the Animal Collective have re-defined «bizarre fascination» in the 21st century. If anything, there is simply so much going on here that, by probabilistic reasoning, the brain is bound to explode in a flash of white lightning sooner or later. Maybe it is not very likely to happen on catchy kiddie anthems like ʽRemarkable Saga Of The Frozen Dogʼ, but it just might come to pass on the weirdly orchestrated psychedelic love ballad ʽLove Isʼ, or on ʽPeople Of The Royal Parksʼ, which starts off like your average Kinks or Small Faces-style British march and then threatens to fall apart in a different manner every thirty seconds, or on the accordeon-led mini-saga of ʽIntrepid Balloonist's Handbookʼ, or anywhere else, in fact.
Unfortunately, neither Godding nor Cregan happened to have the true melodic genius of a Lennon, or a McCartney, or a Ray Davies, and ultimately, these songs may be «stunning», but they are not very memorable, except where the songwriters are relying on music hall clichés, usually the same ones that had already been exploited much better by said McCartney or said Ray Davies (or would be exploited — truth be told, I will take the simplistic melodic potential of a single ʽYour Mother Should Knowʼ over all the intricacies of We Are Ever So Clean). Or, if we wish to avoid mentioning the word «genius», it may simply be so that Godding and Cregan are only focused on being eccentric and whimsical, rather than trying to pack some deep, genuine emotion into the psychedelic box. Sgt. Pepper, after all, puts you, the listener, on a distant fantasy planet; the Blossom Toes hit much closer to their UK homeland, but reduce it to a rather clownish perspective. We Are Ever So Clean attempts to be a little bit of everything, but in the end, is neither too deep, nor too funny, nor too beautiful, nor too evocative.
A thumbs up all the same, because I heartily recommend getting acquainted with this quaint little artefact — first, you might see something in it that I do not, and second, the workmanship is admirable per se, whether it contains substance or does not. Just the very sound that they get going, all of those layers of instrumentation, it actually feels very «modern»: dozens of 21st century retro-oriented indie-pop bands continue to milk this baroque whimsy tit, except that these bands aren't actually living in the middle of it, whereas the Blossom Toes are «the real authentic thing» from one of the greatest years in the history of popular music. At the very least, it was enough to warrant a recent CD reissue with a heapload of bonus tracks (outtakes, B-sides, live and BBC performances etc.), even including a live rendition of Bob Dylan's ʽI'll Be Your Baby Tonightʼ from early 1968 or so — by which time, so it seems, the roots-rock revolution was already catching up with the band.