Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Elephants Memory
Songs From Midnight Cowboy

Released 1970 on Buddah
Reviewed by Dog 3000, 22/01/2003ce

If you've seen the great film "Midnight Cowboy" I'm sure you remember the supremely trippy scene where Joe Buck and Ratso go to a Greenwich Village loft party and hang with a bunch of Andy Warhol freeks. The groovy music that accompanies that scene is "Old Man Willow" by Elephants Memory (no apostrophe).

The film won a bunch of Oscars including best picture, so natch Buddah records rushed out this album to capitalize on its success. The cover features a montage of a Joe Buck-type wandering Times Square and notes that it includes not only "songs from Midnight Cowboy" but also EM's alleged "hit singles" (which I'm sure you've never heard of before.)

Side one is the Midnight Cowboy material -- it includes "Old Man Willow" as well as the other EM song that actually appears in the movie, "Jungle Gym At The Zoo" plus a couple tunes from the movie that EM re-recorded specifically for this release: "Everybody's Talkin'" which Nilsson sang in the movie and "The Midnight Cowboy Theme" which is that supremely sad harmonica instrumental that is repeated throughout the film.

EM's "Everybody's Talkin'" sounds a lot like late period Byrds minus the 12-string, and with a female singer. The word "competent" comes to mind, it simply can't touch the Nilsson version. Their "MC Theme" replaces the harmonica with trumpet & sax and adds some lysergic keyboards -- result is the underlying tune is almost unrecognizable, and again it can't hold a candle to the original version (not sure who did the original, but it sounds like Toots Theileman, the tune composed by John Barry.)

"Old Man Willow" at seven minutes in length is the monster classic, one of my favorite psych jams of all time. The main figure is a Phillip Glassian arpeggio played on acid organ, there are slowly swooshing cymbals and heavily tremeloed guitars, melancholy female vocals, slow to fast to outer space tempo changes and occasional free jazz sax breaks. Supremely groovy, I'm sure this track is the only reason most folks ever paid any attention to this band. The other track that was actually in the movie ("Jungle Gym") is by-the-numbers late 60's rock with corny jungle/zoo/monkey lyrics. Very forgettable.

Side two consists of the "hit singles" plus some other tracks which were apparently released on another EM album prior to "Midnight Cowboy". A mixed bag, but with a couple fun goof tunes on it.

The highpoint is "Super Heep" which begins with some late-period Coltranesque sax before the hea-vy one-note riff kicks in (played on organ plus what sounds like a baritone sax through some sort of effect.) The song is about the singer's quest to reach the top of "Super Heep" and everything he ignores to get there (typical hippie "Plastic Jim" sarcasm.) But there are also some great lyrics, such as: "And now as the final potato is peeled for the stew of my mind / I watch as the vinyl papaya is slowly brought back into line." In high 60's style, the track ends with a moog jam followed by what sounds like a naval martial melody which segues into some New Orleans faux-jazz which speeds up cartoonishly before reprising the Trane-inspired wailing that began the song.

Also kinda fun is "The Yogurt Song" with the singer jive motormouthing through such lines as "well I been eatin that yogurt since the sun come up / nothin but yogurt in my lovin cup / the girls all freak when they see me walk by / cuz they know I'm high on that yogurt pie" accompanied by banjo strummin' and clarinet noodlin' in the best 60's-retro-for-the-20's tradition.

The remaining tunes are bandwagonesque insincere genre exercises and show why Elephants Memory is ultimately a pretty lame band. "Crossroads of the Stepping Stones" (one of the alleged "hit singles") has a Cowsills mellow-groovy vibe; "Don't Put Me On Trial No More" (the other "alleged hit") has the male & female singers trading sassy lyrics over a sub-Blood, Sweat & Tears "big band rock" groove; "Band of Love" is pure corn with Salvation Army Band music and gawdawful lyrics such as: "here we come, take my hand / we'll lead you to the promised land / it's the BAND OF LOVE!"; there's a less-than-2-minute-long instrumental called "R.I.P." which perhaps references the fact that it is simply a RIPoff of "Maiden Voyage"-era Herbie Hancock; and finally "Takin' A Walk" which is studio-hack "NYC streetfunk jazzfusion" with congas and more sassy back and forth from the guy & girl singers, though this one does get some bonus points for a bizarro spoken word bridge and a slowed down voice that (for no apparent reason) keeps repeating "SUUUU-PERRRRR FREEEEEAK" over the song's coda.

I have two other EM records in my collection, both to be avoided: their self-titled c. 1972 release which was probably their biggest seller since it came out on Apple records, and the words "PRODUCED BY JOHN & YOKO" are printed in big letters on the back cover. The Lennonos do appear on several tracks on the LP, but it's basically left-politics-meets-studio-musician-hackwork that makes Lennon's "Somewhere In New York City" album sound like "Electric Ladyland". OK, so big John was messed up on heroin in '72, he was new in NYC, fighting not to get deported, basically he just wasn't very focused at the time. I'm sure he regretted it later.

I've also got their 1974 LP "Angels Forever", which I've never been able to listen to all the way through even once, though it does have some promising song titles like "Rock 'n' Roll Streaker" and "Hoochie Coochie Rockin' Information Man" (also note: all three of these EM records are on different labels -- it's no mystery why they kept getting dumped, the real mystery is why new labels kept signing them up!)

Bottom line: "Old Man Willow" is definitely worth having in your collection. Don't get me wrong from the overall tone of this review -- THIS IS A GREAT SONG. "Songs From Midnight Cowboy" has it plus a couple other fun tracks like "Super Heep". Or you can just get the original movie soundtrack album, which has "Willow" plus Nilsson's hit and some pretty good John Barry instrumentals.

But stay away from the rest of the EM catalog! Cuz they're basically a bunch of talented studio musician hacks with absolutely no creativity or taste whatsoever. I had to buy three of their records (plus the "Cowboy" soundtrack) before I learned this lesson -- don't you make the same mistake!

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