Each week, we take a look at some obscure or overlooked entries in the catalogs of music’s big names. MAGNET’s Bryan Bierman focuses on an album that, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks in favor of its more popular siblings. Whether it’s new to you or just needs a revisit, we’ll highlight the Hidden Gems that reveal the bigger picture of our favorite artists.
Supergroups are one of rock music’s most frustrating entities. On paper, gathering up several big stars to collaborate might look good, but the results are rarely spectacular; for every Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young or Derek And The Dominos, there’s at least a dozen SuperHeavys. When a supergroup forms, there are definitely high, oftentimes impossible, expectations from the fan base, not to mention the tremendous amount of ego of its participants, which can easily soil the work. There’s sometimes a sense of quasi-perverseness in the eyes of the band members, whether it’s “everything we do is gold” or “we could try harder, but people will buy this no matter what.” (Although the results turned out to be pretty solid, Them Crooked Vultures—consisting of Queens Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme, Nirvana/Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl and Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones—were selling T-shirts and concert tickets hand over fist before they even premiered a full song.)
One supergroup dealt with these tropes and did the opposite (at least somewhat). Instead of several giant superstars, the June 1, 1974 band featured a handful of cult musicians in a sold out concert at London’s Rainbow Theatre. Heading the group was Kevin Ayers, a founding member of Canterbury avant-psych rockers Soft Machine, who had by then gone solo. The show’s quote, unquote “leader” was Brian Eno, the former keyboardist for Roxy Music, just off the release of his first solo album (and masterpiece) Here Come The Warm Jets. The other two names were John Cale and Nico, two brilliant artists who were both ex-members of the Velvet Underground, a band whose legend and influence was finally being crystalized in 1974, even though they were finished. The backing musicians featured even more cult heroes, including Mike Oldfield (of Tubular Bells fame), John “Rabbit” Bundrick (rock journeyman and future keyboardist for the Who) and Robert Wyatt (the now solo, ex-drummer for Soft Machine, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a fall exactly one year earlier.)
The idea for the performance was spearheaded by Richard Williams, A&R man for Island Records, who had helped sign several of the artists. Island was originally a strictly reggae label based in Jamaica, but starting in the late ‘60s, had started to release all kinds of music, especially artists of a more experimental nature. Though the critics lauded Island’s output, much of it didn’t sell very well, so while the concert was, in part, a unique artistic endeavor, there was a business element, too. As Cale explained in a 1974 press release for his upcoming solo album, “They had all these cult people on the label. The idea was that if you put them all together you might sell enough to justify their presence.”
The rehearsals were a dream come true for Eno. The Velvet Underground was a giant influence on him, and in return, branded the band with the legacy-defining sentiments that even though the Velvets didn’t sell many records, everyone who did buy them formed a band. (The exact quote changes depending on who’s telling it, as does who actually said it; it’s likely it wasn’t Eno after all.) Now he was collaborating with two of the band’s members, though he didn’t treat them any differently when it came to the music. He explained in a 1975 interview with Hit Parader, “Working with them was of course interesting; both of them are very demanding people in a way—and so am I in another way. It was a very volatile situation and those are the ones that interest me in music. We weren’t sitting around patting each other on the back saying ‘groovy,’ ‘let’s blow together’—it was quite intense.” As a sort of logistical adviser for the concert, he was careful not to make the mistakes that bog down most supergroups: “what happens usually is that you get the lowest common denominator of every person. You don’t bring out the best points in them, you bring out the points where they all agree.”
As Ayers and backing band the Soporifics were the main attraction, the bulk of the set list was focused on him. Unsurprisingly, he was incredibly relaxed during the short rehearsals, as Ayers seems to glide through things effortlessly, which represents itself in his music. Cale, however, was incredibly nervous about the show, as he had never really played live as a solo artist. Though he had made numerous records and produced a ton of groups, he hadn’t taken it to the stage since his Velvet Underground days. There was one thing, however, Ayers and Cale did have in common: the latter’s wife, Cindy Wells. A famous groupie in the late ‘60s, “Miss Cynderella” was later a member of groupie-band the GTO’s. Wells and Cale had married in 1971, though it was a shaky partnership, at best. The night before the Rainbow Theatre concert, as Cale was stressing himself out, he learned that Ayers and Wells were having sex behind his back. Cale confronted Ayers, who admitted it, but his wife repeatedly denied it. None of this helped Cale’s situation. In fact, the album’s cover photo, taken the night of the show, shows Ayers and Cale in a very awkward stare-down; Ayers is smirking, while Cale looks like he could kill the man. (The next year, Cale documented the incident on Slow Dazzle’s “Guts”: “The bugger in the short sleeves fucked my wife, did it quick and split.” His marriage with Wells ended soon after.)
Rather poetically, Cale’s single solo contribution to the album, though he played several songs that night, is a gnarled cover of Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel.” Taking all the sexiness out of the original and substituting pure rage, the version is almost unnerving at times. In front of pounding drums, Cale’s screams punctuate the choruses, as do the three female backup singers who wail along with Eno’s siren-like synthesizer, echoing through. Cale would record “Heartbreak Hotel” on Slow Dazzle, but this is perhaps the best recorded version. (The song would become a live staple for him, later soundtracking his chicken beheading, as documented in an earlier Hidden Gems.)
Like Cale, Nico also only has one song featured on June 1, 1974, though like the former, it’s a showstopper. Her contribution is a haunting cover of “The End” by the Doors using just a harmonium and Eno’s synthesizer in a nine-minute long float of tension. Nico had a very intense relationship with Jim Morrison for a period in ’67 that was famously filled with fights, drugs and blood rituals in the desert. It ended after a short time, but the two free-spirits remained friends for the next few years. In July 1971, Nico made a phone call to Morrison’s Parisian residence, though he didn’t pick up; when she later found out the reason was because of his death, she was devastated. During May and June 1974, Nico was in the midst of recording her next solo album with Cale, which featured a more filled version of “The End” as the title track. (Also included on the record was “You Forgot To Answer,” a depressing ode to her last phone call to Morrison.) Even without knowing the dramatic subtext, the version here is still ghastly. Nico had one of the most unique voices in music, with her thick German accent and unbound sadness, and her brooding version stays true to the original on a scary, emotional level.
The much more upbeat side two is all Ayers, functioning as a great summation of his solo career up until that point. Opening with “May I?” from 1970’s Shooting At The Moon, Ayers’ charmingly laid-back nature accentuates the mellow grooves, even singing the last verse in French. “Shouting In A Bucket Blues” is almost a perfect representation of Ayers’ style: a melancholic tune about loneliness that sounds less than a self-pitying wallow, and more of a man trying to be happy, even if it’s not going so well. “So I sing for everyone who feels there’s no way out,” Ayers announces in his unique baritone, “but maybe if you all shout, someone will hear you.” The heroes of Ayers’ set are the guitar work of Oldfield and, particularly, Ollie Halsall. The latter’s mercurial runs up and down the neck provides an exquisite counterpoint to the casual atmosphere of the songs, especially the pseudo-rockabilly “Stranger In Blue Suede Shoes.”
June 1, 1974 was remarkably released the same month, as several more performances from the group followed. The album, although superb, merely acts as a sampler of the music that night; various bootlegs capture the entirety of the show, featuring more songs from each of the members, including a mini-reunion performance of a few Soft Machine songs and a version of Ayers’ “I’ve Got A Hard-On For You, Baby” that ironically, given the back story, features Cale on vocals. The participants of the concert would continue to work together over the years—even Cale and Ayers, who later made up. The record went on to become a cult classic, a fusion of some of rock’s most innovative minds. Although the show was a joy for him, the ever-sensible Eno realistically explained, “Of course we really couldn’t take it on the road, because we’d fight after a few gigs.”