Monday, 19 April 2010
Hidden Gem: Voodoo Party - James Last (1972)
James Last reminds me of my nan. We would visit her bungalow in the Forest of Dean and there was a formica sideboard with an old style record player on it. The small collection of vinyl LPs underneath were wholly unexciting – Mantiovani, Your 100 best Tunes and James Last. Born in 1929, Last has released over 190 albums in his career and has sold over 100 million albums so its no surprise that there are a few kicking around in the homes of pensioners up and down the country.
It caused me much bemusement therefore to discover that for some of the most committed vinyl diggers out there Last is a cause celebre. There are actually a number of Last tracks that feature funky breakbeats and, given the tendency of 70’s easy listening acts to do cover versions of the hits of the day there are a surprising number of Last tracks worthy of a second listen. Having said that, one needs to proceed with immense caution. I have been as guilty as many of randomly buying Last albums for up to £2 only to discover some of the most cloying dross ever committed to wax.
Amongst the recordings which are worth hearing are Beat In Sweet which features a number of counterculture hits of the day including Mr Tambourine Man, I got you Babe and a very passable Like a Rolling Stone. Another is his frankly superb version of Hawkwind’s Silver Machine – a version of which is provided on Youtube below.
There is little doubting the holy grail though. Voodoo Party was released on Polydor in 1972 and is a surprisingly coherent album. It features various covers including Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues and Sly Stone’s Sing a Simple song which lend it a certain funky respectability from the outset but as a whole the album is remarkably consistent and even the Last compositions add to an excellent listen.
The LP is loosely based on the concept of voodoo rhythms and as such features many bongos, congas and rattles which add to the grooviness and the whole thing sounds like it was recorded in an early 70’s drug haze (although I suspect it wasn’t). The references to ‘negros’ and the ‘coloured population’ in the sleeve notes betray the years that have passed since it was released but the tunes contained within sound amazingly similar to some of the more esoteric recordings of recent years.
Opening track Se a Cabo (a track imortalised on Carlos Santana’s classic Abraxas) sets the tone – driving funk underpinned with heavy bongo and guitar. It ends with a far out synth which mixes immediately into Sing a Simple Song which, like many of the covers on display, is celebratory in feel. Following track Jin-go-lo-ba meanwhile is typical of a number of latin tracks on the album (Heyah Masse Ga, U-Humbah) which use bongo rhythms to create a tribal feel but it is fourth track Mamy Blue where things get really interesting. This track takes the tempo right down to leave you with a gospelly track which wouldn’t be entirely out of place on a psych folk album! It really is a beautiful track and you would be staggered to know it is by James Last if you didn’t already know. Mr Giant Man, the track at the end of side 1 would also fit nicely on an early 70’s folk album – it is comical in style with an absurd lyric ‘Hi Ho, I’m the king of giant land, Ho ho, come along, we’ll have some fun’ – the ensemble vocal remind me of the Polyphonic Spree or perhaps the Flaming Lips. By the end of the first side you could be forgiven for feeling a little bewildered with the variety of styles on display and yet somehow it all hangs together – the bongo being used to join the tracks into one ongoing narrative.
Everybody’s Everything is a pretty straight psychedelic soul number at the beginning of side two. Following are two covers - Sly’s Everyday People and Marvin’s Inner City Blues, both of which feature ensemble vocals and heavy bongo percussion but stay faithful to the originals. Babalu is possibly the weakest track overall – the trumpet takes it slightly too far into easy cheesy territory but its not terribly bad. Final track Voodoo Lady’s Love rounds things off nicely though. Its anthemic in feel and features a crazy synth build halfway through.
The whole album is really good fun – its perfect for a mellow house party/dinner party where the guests want something familiar to hang on to but is weird enough to keep the musos happy. The good news is that it can be picked up fairly cheaply – expect to pay between £5 and £8 – although I must admit I’ve never seen it lurking in the charity shops as various web forums have picked up on this one some time ago.
James Last is unlikely to be regarded as one of the great musical innovators (nor should he) but Voodoo Party is proof that we all have one great album inside us...