When conversation in the pub or restaurant wanes, it is always good to have a stock question up your sleeve which will revive the convivial banter. One that almost never fails is what was the first single or album or book – you get the drift – that you ever bought. The answers are often amusing, embarrassing and revealing and often the person that you thought had the coolest and most impeccable musical taste turns out to have started off with a real turkey.
My first album was a Monkees album. There is nothing much that can be said in self-defence other than I was young and impressionable. In those days the Light and Home Services from the Beeb ruled the airwaves and what popular music was played was heavily controlled. The more adventurous of us tried to tune in the cat’s whiskers to find Radio Luxembourg and pirate radio stations. The signal was by no means crystal clear, waxing and waning with monotonous regularity, but was good enough to engender a frisson of excitement and rebelliousness. Doubtless the Monkees were plugged mercilessly on these stations and I fell hook and sinker for them.
But an early record I am proud of is Airconditioning by Curved Air which was released in late 1970. Curved Air are pretty much forgotten these days but this album was ahead of its time and a pretty astonishing debut, coming almost from nowhere. The key components of the group were the guitar of Francis Monkman and the violin of Darryl Way. Sonja Kristina provided the vocals and the improbably named Florian Pilkington-Miksa played the drums.
It was with some trepidation that I took the album which is firmly in the prog-rock camp and put it on the turntable to give it its first listen in over thirty years. And, I’m pleased to say, it stood the test of time. What I was astonished by was the quality of Monkman’s guitar work. Whenever I had thought of Curved Air it was always the violin and the quality of Kristina’s voice that came to mind but on my first re-listen it was the guitar work I was intrigued by with its continual weaving in and out of the other instrument lines. The solo on Hide and Seek is astonishing and Monkman was clearly one of the unsung guitar heroes of the time.
For me the most pleasing track was Stretch where the violins take centre stage, providing a solid soundscape against which to appreciate the almost manic guitar work of Monkman. A truly astonishing track. And then there is Vivaldi which represents the pomposity that we now associate with prog-rock, a bravura piece with manic violin work building up to a crescendo with cannons (natch) which then settles down into a calmer section which explores some of the ideas at more leisure before finishing with a frenetic climax.
I have amalgamated TOWT’s collection with my own and there are surprisingly few doubles but we both had Curved Air’s second album, imaginatively called Second Album, with its pale yellow sleeve with top left quadrant showing the purple, light blue, light green and pink pages of the inner sleeve as if they were a rainbow. In comparison with their debut album this is disappointing, being more of a mainstream rock affair. The first side features compositions by Way and the second by Monkman, perhaps a portent that the band’s days were numbered and that the main creative forces were going to go their separate ways. Better, though, to create one masterpiece than none at all.
Perhaps I will forget the Monkees and claim Curved Air as my first album. No one will know any different, will they?!