Monday, February 11, 2008

Burgess Shale Blues: Parchment Shamblejam

When it became apparent that my move to another province was “taking root” my parents held an enormous yard sale. My record collection, of course, was among the items up for grabs. The bulk of it was shoehorned into an enormous box and marked for five dollars.

A neighbourhood kid saw the garish rock ‘n’ roll album covers, then the price, and asked, “Do I get the whole box for five bucks?” My father assured him this was indeed the deal. “Cool!” The fin exchanged hands, and the kid hefted the box and made for home. Two lurching steps off the driveway, the kid stopped in his tracks and turned around. “Uh, hold on a sec: are these all Christian?

My father tried not to smirk. “Oh, I don’t think they’re all Christian,” he said.

He was right. Queen’s The Game was in there, as was some early RUSH, Kenny Rogers’ Greatest Hits and an album by the Bronski Beat. The rest, however, were Christian in the extreme. The kid had just dropped five hard-won bucks on a box full of music where Kenny Rogers was one of the better acts.

My father did this with my blessing and best wishes. A quarter-century later, there are only a half-dozen albums I sometimes wish I’d kept. Of those six, only one qualifies as an unmitigated regret: Parchment Shamblejam.

My mother came home with the album, along with four others she’d bought for a buck apiece at a Christian bookstore clearance sale. Given the rudimentary cover design — three British hippie-types (Sue McClellan, John Pac, Keith Rycroft), gazing with droopy-lidded serenity back at the viewer — it was difficult to discern which of the two words was the band’s name, which was the album title, or if any such distinction should be made at all. “Shamblejam” captured perfectly the trio’s sense of musical play, and it became the only word we used for the group and the album.

In fact, the group’s name was Parchment, and Shamblejam (1975) was the only album to cross the Atlantic and surface on North American shores. It didn’t seem to fit any of the slots constructed by the burgeoning CCM industry; even today, after a quick Google, the people who talk about it refer to it as psychedelic-folk Jesus music, which is as close to pigeon-holing as this delightful album is going to receive. It opens with a mandolin-plucking, foot-stomping rendition of Washington Phillip’s "Denomination Blues," and moves on to fuzzy guitar blues licks and esoteric spiritual musings. One chorus ran, “Don’t let the morning come bringing the sun / I just want to live on in the night,” and it had a cheery delivery suggesting that somewhere between the queasy pleasure of indulgence and the knee-jerk impulse to repent was a larger truth that could set the (rather vaguely defined) situation aright.

Mark Allan Powell contends that Parchment’s occasional use of the sitar probably threw off the Christian bookstore set, who equated the “eastern” sound with the occult. If this was indeed the case, it also served to slip “The Speaker’s Corner” — opening track to Side 2 — completely under evangelical radar.

“Well, I walked along the river bend, deciding where to go / The city was too busy to be kind”

Singer Sue McClellan swings into the song with a light, airy vocal delivery that is at once innocent and unsettlingly sultry. A trombone slides into play, as does a tuba and a drummer fond of punctuating every alternate beat with a heavy bass drum or cymbal smash. Powell calls this “bluesy,” but he misses the mark by a wide country mile: this is old-fashioned bump-n-grind burlesque, complete with wolf-whistles and cat-calls.

I don’t have enough recall of the lyrics to comment on the content (what I seem to remember has a “’scuse me while I kiss this guy” quality, and for once the internet is unable to come to my rescue), but I love the aural juxtaposition of London's Speaker’s Corner, where hectoring and argument are wielded in an effort to sway public opinion, with the luscious enticement of a strip-tease. On that thematic level alone, this song works as the album’s centerpiece, seasoning its humor with a light ironic touch and an unabashed sensuality to win over the resistant listener (traits one doesn't often encounter in CCM).

The album closes with “Long As I Can See You,” a gentle Beatles-folky ballad, where the songwriter’s object of affection remains unnamed (for those unsure of the recipient, here’s a hint: it’s Jesus). The song fades with sounds of children at play, Big Ben tolling in the background and, finally, the sound of a crowd cheering at a football game. And for those who doubt sunshine can be heard, it's there, too. It’s a delightful pastiche, suggesting that the phenomena we love most in our all-too-brief lives are actually sacramental elements. It’s the perfect conclusion to an album that is wholly invitational and life-affirming, no matter what the listener’s persuasion might be.

Now where’s the CD?

Endnote: apparently Shamblejam in vinyl fetches upward of a hundred pounds, UK. £100!!! For an album my mother originally bought for a buck! Not, I gather, an unusual fate for early CCM rarities. I can only hope the poor sod who staggered away with my records is now a rich, rich man.

10 comments:

DarkoV said...

WP,
you are at your best when you wag your sharp wit at things pseudo-religious.
The first 5 paragraphs had my wife and I in stitches.

"The kid had just dropped five hard-won bucks on a box full of music where Kenny Rogers was one of the better acts.
". Indeed.

With this passage, "And for those who doubt sunshine can be heard, it's there, too. It’s a delightful pastiche, suggesting that the phenomena we love most in our all-too-brief lives are actually sacramental elements. It’s the perfect conclusion to an album that is wholly invitational and life-affirming, no matter what the listener’s persuasion might be.
", you've almost got me thiniking that I should add this "gem" to my collection.

Ah, you are the temptress!

Hope this meme continues to #10 and not stop at the suggested 3.

Whisky Prajer said...

I will not be held responsible for the damage your marriage is sure to sustain if you choose to spend £100 of the family purse on a 30-year-old long-playing record (even if said LP is psychedelic-folk Jesus music).

Scott said...

Okay, I gotta ask:

Bronski Beat???

:D

Whisky Prajer said...

I wondered if that mightn't smoke you out -- ha! Yes, indeed: once was a time when "Tell Me Why" could get me on the dance floor, to the mortification of my girlfriend.

Scott said...

Ah, you always were a progressive fellow with good taste --
"Why" is a GREAT dance song :)

Bill Mason said...

I have the LP Shamblejam and played with Pachment at Greenbelt and other gigs across the UK in the late 70's. Trivia: The pictures on the cover were from famed poet Stewart Henderson's London House.

Cheers!
Bill Mason
from Bill Mason Band

Whisky Prajer said...

Too cool! Man, if No Sham had been a CD back in the day, "Billy & The Rotas" would have been on constant repeat. Thanks for dropping by, Mr. M!

Dwacon® said...

Just listened to MP3 version of Shamblejam. Interesting bit of history. Nothing I would add to my playlist. However... nice to have.

Whisky Prajer said...

It's nice to hear from someone who has access to the music. I could have probably subtitled "Being Careful What I Wish For" in this and the other entries in this series.

Anonymous said...

Hey I love this album. I dont know where my Dad got it from but I loved to listen to it growing up in Jamaica. My sister and I were in a group and we covered "As Long as I can see you" and another song with the chorus "you picked me when I was down. You put feet both back on the ground....." It brings back a lot of good memories.
WP (in Toronto)