Artists On Albums: AOA#36 (Ghostwriter’s Mark Brend on American Gothic)

Ghostwriter’s Mark Brend on…

David Ackles’ American Gothic (Elektra, 1972)

David Ackles - American Gothic

David Ackles – American Gothic

I’ve been listening to David Ackles for 27 years now, and for most of that time his third album American Gothic, was one I admired more than liked. Recently that’s changed, but for years if I wanted to listen to Ackles, which I often did, I’d generally turn to his eponymous debut or its follow up, Subway To The Country. I don’t think I was alone in that. Back in the 1980s when I first came across Ackles you could pick up American Gothic in the bargain bins of Camden and Notting Hill record shops for about £2, whereas the other Ackles releases were already established collectors’ items. The truth is that even those first two albums are an acquired taste, but on them Ackles tempers the intense Brechtian characterisation with enough just-about-mainstream rock gestures to place him on the periphery of the singer-songwriter circle. That all changed with American Gothic.

Although its title suggests otherwise, American Gothic owes much of its peculiar character to England. In September 1971 Ackles moved from California to a cottage in Wargrave, Berkshire, to prepare the album, which he’d been planning for a year already. He said that he needed the distance to get a clear perspective, and in this small town on the Thames, which features in Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat, he pieced together American Gothic’s 11 songs and wrote the lavish orchestrations. Musicians from the London Symphony Orchestra and The Salvation Army Band & Choir, under the guiding hand of producer Bernie Taupin and conductor Robert Kirby, then joined Ackles to make the record at IBC studios in London.

If Ackles’ first two albums retained some tenuous connection with rock convention, by now he was fashioning a sort of baroque musical theatre style all his own. In a parallel Broadway, he’d have been leading man, composer and impresario rolled into one. You could call “Ballad Of The Ship Of State” – a mini-drama that appears to be about US soldiers abandoned in Vietnam – rock opera if the term didn’t come so loaded with associations. Then there’s strident Protestant hymnology (“Family Band”), introspective beer drinking balladering (“Another Friday Night”) and quotations from Aaron Copland. In the ten minute “Montana Song,” Ackles takes his central character on a journey through his family’s past that holds a mirror to the rapid urbanisation of Western culture in the 20th century. An epic theme that bears more ready comparison with writers like Faulkner or Steinbeck, perhaps, than early 70s popular song. With a scarcely a guitar in sight, and Ackles’ sometimes austere, gravelly enunciations over brass, woodwind and piano, it’s an unclassifiable record. With hindsight and close attention you can locate the album’s more accessible songs in remote, previously unexplored territory somewhere between Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, early Tom Waits and Scott Walker. The rest – about half the album – sounds like nothing recorded before or since.

Ackles’ label Elektra Records spent a lot of money on American Gothic and released it to some fanfare in 1972. There were plenty of rapturous reviews – The Sunday Times, Rolling Stone, Melody Maker – yet the album, like its two predecessors, didn’t sell. The world wasn’t ready for it, and it probably still isn’t. A couple of subsequent CD reissues have attracted the interest of a devoted but very select band on enthusiasts, before being swiftly deleted to become collector’s items themselves.

After a fourth and final album in 1973, the modest but still excellent Five And Dime, Ackles retreated from the music scene. He died in 1999 without ever making another record.

Notes On The Artist:

Mark Brend (not pictured)

Mark Brend (not pictured)

The camera-shy and Devon-based Mark Brend has been releasing material through his singular Ghostwriter guise since around 2009.  Ostensibly a solo project – featuring occasional contributions from the likes of erstwhile George, Arbol and Piano Magic chanteuse Suzy Mangion – Ghostwriter’s deeply eccentric yet liberating non-rock explorations of found sounds, analogue electronics, literary spoken-word recordings and unconventional instrumentation have most intensively been captured on 2010’s now-rare The Continuing Adventures Of The Strange Sound Association album for Second Language and more recently with this year’s Dimensions EP on Chaffinch Records.

Prior to Ghostwriter, Brend has ploughed his artistic furrows through other outlets.  In 2006 and 2007 he fleetingly released material with the Strange Sounds Orchestra (most notably with the Strange Sense Of Liberty 7” EP on the inimitable Static Caravan).  Between 1995 and around 2007, Brend was a key player in innovative avant-pop outfit Fariña, whose main releases appeared via much-overlooked Leicester micro-label Pickled Egg.  In the early-‘90s Brend was part of the short-lived Mabel Joy and for the latter-half of the ‘80s he was a member of The Palace Of Light.  Outside of his own audio operations, Brend also contributed to Darren Hayman’s 2007 album, Darren Hayman And The Secondary Modern.

Besides making music, Brend has also written extensively about it too.  This has manifested itself in three scholarly music history books – 2001’s American Troubadours, 2005’s Strange Sounds and the stillfresh 2012 tome The Sound Of Tomorrow – and through regular contributions to magazines such as Mojo, Record Collector and Uncut.

Not one to rest, Brend is already finishing-up another Ghostwiter EP for imminent release and is in the early stages of an album – in collaboration with Michael Paine – inspired by the writer Phyllis Paul.

You can keep following Mark Brend’s activities at his Minute Book website.

 

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