Friday, 22 May 2009
Don't go out into the forest
In the good old days when vinyl ruled the world, everybody used to record an LP and the quicker you achieved a thimble full of public recognition, the quicker you got asked. Most celebrity LP’s are forgettable, many are unforgivable, but a select few stand up to be counted in musical terms, not just as ephemeral artefacts of the fleeting nature of fame.
Unlike many celebrity recording artists, actor David Hemmings at least had a track record in music having been a boy soprano in his youth (most notably playing creepy Miles in his mentor Benjamin Britten’s opera of Henry James ‘The Turn of the Screw’) and knew how to hold a tune, even if the actual holding of it sometimes eluded him. In 1967, fairly famous after his turn in Antonioni’s extremely trendy (but pretty boring) ‘Blow Up’, Hemmings was in Hollywood for an appearance in big budget musical ‘Camelot’ when it was suggested to him that he might want to record an LP. Hemmings liked the idea and, within days, found himself in an MGM studio in downtown L.A with Byrds Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman and a few hours recording time to bash out a few songs that could be packaged to cash in on his current profile and hip counter-cultural image.
Recorded in a rush, the magnificently titled 'David Hemmings Happens' (Hemmings’ favourite saying was ‘if nothing is happening, make something happen’) is a carefree and careless record, part-improvised, part-karaoke, part jumble sale, all fascinating. Several of the tracks were more or less made up on the spot, with Hemmings speaking / singing / rapping improvised stream of consciousness lyrics, and he also turns in a decent if occasionally wayward version of ‘Reason to Believe’.
Byrds and psychedelic pomp pop enthusiasts will probably say that stately Gene Clark era Byrds leftover ‘Back Street Mirror’ is the best song, but the best performance is on ‘Anathea’, an apparently ancient folk song that had been recently revived by Julie Felix. The track has an amazing energy, a mix of droning sitars and cosmic Roger McGuinn guitar, all topped off with a dramatic and eloquent vocal from Hemmings as he recounts the timeless, tragic and deeply odd story of a girl, her brother and the evil judge who destroys them both. Marvellously doomy stuff, and a marvellous lyric which deserves printing in full (see comments).
Sadly, after a promising start Hemmings never recorded again as a solo artist, although he did later narrate Rick Wakeman’s ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’. Remember him this way.