John Peel presents Tractor
Released 1972 on John Peel's Dandelion Records
Reviewed by Julian Cope
Note: The tragic death of John Peel, in Peru, a few days ago made me hastily
re-think this Album of the Month. So I chose this 1972 Tractor LP from his own
Dandelion Records label as a symbolic personal thank you to Peel for everything
he has brought to British culture these past 40 years. Without Peel, Punk woulda
most probably been a damp Londoncentric fashion squib, reggae woulda stayed
marginalised or become commercialised into the toilet, and there would most
surely have been no KRAUTROCKSAMPLER, because no other radio DJ woulda played
Can’s ‘Turtles Have Short Legs’, Faust’s ‘Why Don’t You Eat Carrots’, Amon Duul
2’s ‘Archangel’s Thunderbird’ or (most especially) Neu!’s mesmeric ‘Hallogallo’.
The LP I’ve chosen this month was released on Dandelion Records at the height of
my own teenage psychedelic period, and fitted right in there with the
aforementioned Krautrock bands and (most pertinently) with the Pink Floyd
compilation RELICS, whose mid-price release the previous spring (1971) had
introduced Syd Barrett to my own generation. The Dandelion label released
twenty-eight LPs between 1969-72, including one sampler LP. But the company’s
pinnacle of artistic success was undoubtedly this Tractor album. Listen to
TRACTOR with 21st century ears and see how deeply psychedelic the underground
still sounded in 1972 – I wish more English bands had been so far out, but this
Northern duo’s catchy songs recorded in an overtly unbalanced style still
represent the pre-punk ‘us’ magnificently; and the LP is still one of the most
extreme sonic experiences of its period. Dig.
Rochdale ’72 as refracted through the ears of a teenage Tamworth Krauthead
Throughout 1972, I spent most of my weekends on my back listening to newly-edited John Peel sessions in the caravan outside Martin Cottier’s parents’ house in Brown’s Lane, Tamworth. This was on the other side of town from my Glascote Heath home and Cott was a long hair eighteen months older than me, and a full two years ahead in terms of schooling. But we were united in our obsession with underground rock’n’roll and had a mutual friend in Herb Leake, whom I’d known since I was three and who lived six doors down from Cott. My parents were highly anti the rock, but trusted me whenever I was with Herb Leake, as his parents were old friends of theirs whom I referred to as Auntie Pam and Uncle Brian. Besides, Brian Leake was the town clerk of Tamworth and the ultimate pillar of respectability (the Leakes had the third telephone number in the Tamworth phone book Tam. 2003 after the police and fire brigade) and Uncle Brian’s name was printed after every officious public notice board warning the public not to do such-and-such ‘by order of H.B. Leake’. Cott’s parents were far looser, however, and gave over the use of their big static caravan for all the heads in the area, who congregated in the green-and-cream Carlight Cosmopolitan, eating Jaffa cakes and drinking tea, cough mixture and beer. Cott’s Revox reel-to-reel stereo tape recorder and mixer dominated most of the foldaway kitchenette table and saved us a fortune on records as he culled John Peel sessions and rare records from the radio for our endless parties. As my mother was a teacher with her own high expectations, weekdays at Cott’s were a no-no for me, instead being a time of total homework. So I would always have to rush to complete essays and other stuff every night before 10pm, whereupon the Peel show could begin and send me off temporarily into outer space until midnight.
Then, one night in mid 1972, John Peel played a track that was more mysterious than almost anything I had ever heard. It was the music I thereafter wanted played at my funeral and was most certainly the sound of a soul approaching the canopy of heaven as it left the earth for the last time. And yet the sound had been captured and retrieved for us all to hear by two young guys called Jim Milne and Steve Clayton from Rochdale (up north) who called themselves Tractor. This heavenly music was a piece called ‘Shubunkin’ and was a portal to the underworld that John Peel played on his show every night seemingly for weeks. I say ‘seemingly’ because every Tamworth head who lay skint in Cott’s caravan was listening to the reel-to-reel of Peel’s show. So maybe the heavy rotation was of our own doing, not Peel’s. Moreover, Peel made great play of the fact that this Tractor sound had been created not in your regular recording studio, but in a Rochdale attic by the band’s old school friend John Brierley, obviously the new Joe Meek with attitude enough to reach the Moon!
Anyway, Cott, Herb Leake and I decided that we needed our own copies of this LP and took the Midland Red 116 bus into Birmingham the following weekend. We whizzed down to The Diskery, near Digbeth bus station, where all the local DJs deposited their unwanted free LPs, and I sifted through the stacks of brand new-but-already-discarded vinyl until I located a prized white label of this new Tractor record ultra-cheap for £1.25. This was a superb result for rock’n’roll, as white labels were symbols of Total Underground Cool. But without the proper printed Dandelion label there to guide me, I left a blob of marker pen on the side that began with ‘Shubunkin’ and that became the ultimate beginning to any LP in my collection. The album was flawlessly cosmic except for the dodgy bluesy filler that ended the record, and even this – entitled ‘Ravenscroft’s 13-Bar Boogie’ – was somehow acceptable because it was clearly a thank you to John Peel’s patronage, Ravenscroft being Peel’s real surname. And while I was turning most of my classmates in 3-W at Wilnecote High School on to Tractor, my soul sister Nicola Farndon from neighbouring 3-O was basking in the reflected glory of seeing her cousin John Fiddler singing Dandelion Records’ sole hit single ‘Pictures in the Sky’ on Top Of The Pops with his hippy duo Medicine Head. It was the closest Wilnecote High School had come to experiencing rock’n’roll royalty since the previous autumn, when Martin Clempson of 4-W had announced that his brother Dave had just left Coliseum and joined Humble Pie. We wuz really cooking!
Except for one thing – in my rush to Total Tractor Understanding via my Peel Show-informed infatuation, I never once noticed that ‘Shubunkin’ was not the first track at all, but was the opening of side two! It was clear as day if you looked at the track titles on the back of the LP jacket, but the euphoria and white label conspired to create a mystery that has meant that, even now thirty years on, I always play this record ‘Shubunkin’-side first. Indeed, it would seriously damage my mental health to up-end the whole thing right now. So please accept my metaphor herein, as this John Peel-inspired Album of the Month would never have the same psychic power if I were to allow its true configuration to take precedence over my 32-year Personal Mythology with this particklier slab of vinyl.
Another major comment that should be made most forcefully regarding this LP is that the so-called duo status of Tractor should really be called in question for two reasons. Firstly, I remember the disappointment several months after our initial Tractor trip, when Cott finally acquired a copy of the Dandelion Records pre-Tractor LP THE WAY WE WERE from 1971. In places, despite featuring the same Milne/Clayton line-up, the record was virtually a folk LP and (lyrically especially) a fairly twee one at that. Elsewhere, it did hit some post-Cream moments but nothing at all spectacular, perhaps being closest in style to early ’68 ON THE THRESHOLD OF A DREAM-period Moody Blues playing The Human Beast (which is real charming in its own way but not what you’d consider in any way mind altering). Not only was none of the Amon Duul 2-ian guitar mayhem of the ’72 Tractor LP present within this earlier album’s grooves, but the fabulous resonance of the more delicate Tractor sound was, on THE WAY WE LIVE, reduced to a fairly perfunctory ‘well-recorded’ acceptability. The point to be made from the evidence on this earlier LP is that Tractor had subsequently given over a large part of their trip to studio engineer John Brierley and his so-called ‘home-made’ attic studio, which clearly played a huge part in achieving Tractor’s awesome and primal yawp. What was merely overground and detectable on THE WAY WE LIVE had, by the following year, become stomped so far into the ground that only bare Dionysian screams could be detected somewhere far below that frozen earth. Indeed, heft this Tractor disc on to the turntable right now and you’ll soon see that at least half of Tractor’s sound was achieved through the on-board tone generators and overdrive pedals that worked their magic at Brierley’s every opportunity.
‘Don’t let the man in the grey suit deceive you…’
Even at this late stage, ‘Shubunkin’ is still for me the ultimate neo-Telstar theme-from-the-heavens, beginning like something straight out of early Ash Ra Tempel ‘Amboss’-land, with cosmic drones and infinite hum setting us up for the launch of some imaginary spacecraft. Through the impenetrable soup of sound, a euphoric stellar slide guitar theme kicks in driven along by Steve Clayton’s splatter-clatter drums something like those dervish fills that Terry Ollis used to scatter wantonly around Hawkwind’s IN SEARCH OF SPACE. Like I said before, play this at my funeral and I’ll be beyond the canopy of the Earth in less than 60 seconds. The track then segues seamlessly into another entirely different piece of music, with Jim Milne’s vocals coming across like some late night C&W singer mixed way back (Bob Lind’s ‘Elusive Butterfly’ springs most immediately to mind here), before the whole track suddenly surges forwards in volume, and Milne’s charming northern accent calls from one speaker, whilst his answering dulcet tones choirboy us to death in the other. This part, known as ‘Hope in Favour’, soon disintegrates into some malevolent hoe-down redolent of Alice Cooper’s ‘Halo of Flies’, before rough cutting into the acoustic drive of ‘Everytime it Happens’. Here, the song is an amorphous impressionistic almost fey piece heavily bolstered up by extreme Brierley engineering and wafts of magnificently harmony-laden dervish guitars that wail and wail below the city walls. Again, it’s the unorthodox mixing and sheer unreachable mystery that nails us to the bed, before ‘Make the Journey’ begins a ragathon version (re-write) of Episode Six’s beautiful 1966 single ‘I Hear Trumpets Blow’. This renegade take, however, blows Ian Gillan’s pop period right out the water with a phenomenal guitar burn-up and more of those insanely over-the-top clattering Clayton drumfills and delightful harmony vocals, as a freight train rhythm straight out of one of those early 1960s Argo Records EPs fades out of some Isambard Kingdom Brunelian tunnel, and the whole of the previous 40 minutes flashes before our eyes in the form of cut ups and snatches from various songs.
And on to side two, which is really side one, oh, you know what I mean. Coming on (again) like Hawkwind’s ‘You Shouldn’t Do That’ with tone generators and bleeping underground noises, ‘All Ends Up’ crashes in with a massive Phil Spector-type buzzsaw guitar rhythm undercut by more splatter-clatter drumfills from Steve Clayton, before setting off on a super-paranoid tale of The Man and how to avoid him. Suggestions for not getting ripped off: don’t remotely engage The Man, don’t even step into the portals of his office, don’t believe his words whatever they are, and you’ll be safe. Ish. Funnily enough, I know from experience what they mean and they were right, though staying in Rochdale and doing an LP every few years throughout the coming 70s and 80s on a tiny independent label does seem like a pretty bleak alternative to me. Whatever, ‘All Ends Up’ has that insanely claustrophobic and hugely over-dubbed sound that (experience tells me) you can only get from working in studios with huge limitations. Excellent indeed, and really one of the best ways to achieve high rock’n’roll magnificence.
Although the epic eight minutes of ‘Little Girl in Yellow’ kicks off like the heads’ answer to Jake Thackaray (complete with a fey acoustic northern-accented tale of fairies and goblins) it’s soon blasting into a grim reaper scythe-wielding territory of 6/4 electric guitar rhythms and we could be in the middle of one of those epic Krautrock LPs by Kalakackra or their ilk. Is this the best piece of music on the entire record? Probably! Massive solo guitars undermine everything but the rhythm of the hi-hats and the sound gets more heavy rock than any heavy rock band on a major label ever could or ever did. Think of the ever-changing sound on Speed, Glue & Shinki LPs or even 1969’s somewhat similar Saint Stephen LP, wherein everything temporarily disappears down a shock corridor before emerging blinking and bleary-eyed in the cold light of day. This is a severely psychedelic mixing desk freakout in the best Dieter Dierks-stylee, and could only have increased in massiveness by lasting for the whole of the side.
Unfortunately, this otherwise monstrous and mind manifesting LP finishes disappointingly, without style or consideration of any kind, first with the acoustic drivel of ‘The Watcher’ (‘he knows that willingness in others is a blessing’? Even in 1972, oh puh-leaze!) followed swiftly by the cod electric blues of ‘Ravenscroft’s 13-Bar Boogie’. The first mentioned could have been on THE WAY WE LIVE and is trite shite indeed, whereas the final track at least has the charm of being acceptably generic boogie of The Yardbirds’ ‘Nazz is Blue’ variety. However, as this Album of the Month only achieves its place because of the sad death of Tractor’s mentor John Peel, let’s offer up a bit of compassion and state this – when six of the eight tracks are as good as those offered within these grooves, it would take someone more churlish than I to (in these circumstances) give the final two under-achieving tracks a merciless kicking. Instead, let’s just blank them out and pretend the whole LP is a riot from beginning to end, and hope that M’Lud John ‘Ravenscroft’ Peel is currently spinning his favourite vinyl for the angels and devils of both heaven and hell as we speak. Because we have kenned John Peel all these past years, and we have listened, learned and been changed forever. Hey John Peel, wherever you are, we salute ye! U-Know!