Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Variations—
Nador


Released 1970 on Pathé/EMI
The Seth Man, July 2006ce
At its most realised, the 45rpm single is one beautiful invention and a crystallisation of Rock’n’Roll. With the A-side the Rock, the B side the Roll, put both sides together, spin it at 45 revolutions per minute and BAM -- on two short sides it sez its peace good and strong/quiet and reflective or just plain NAILS IT by translating its time constraints into strength, not limitation. And during the turn of decades between the sixties and seventies, the only game in town in France for up-and-coming bands was still the 45rpm single. Obviously, they were cheaper to produce and distribute than full-length albums as well as being an inconsiderable strain on the commitment end of skeptical record companies struggling to get a handle on the latest furor emanating from noisy longhairs within their own borders.

Someone at the French label Pathé/EMI was more than convinced that one group existed that looked like they weren’t just gonna go away any time soon and could also deliver the goods on both 45 as well as the long-playing beast with two backs. This group was Variations, who Pathé quickly signed on the strength of their live performance on the televised French pop extravaganza, ‘Surprise Partie’ in December of 1968. Two singles of excellent original material were released the following year, garnering critical attention and this was followed swiftly by session time scheduled at Olympic Studios in London for recording their first album. Investing a strength and economy as though every session had to hit the mark or everyone would be summarily executed afterwards, Variations wasted no time proving themselves all over their resulting debut, “Nador” (as well as most their first eight singles which they pumped out at an average rate of two per year. I only say ‘most’ because covering Dave Mason’s “Only You Know” as a stop gap single in 1972 was -- for Variations, at least -- completely wide of the mark.) And what a debut: for “Nador” would wind up being their best and most consistent album, ever.1

“Nador” maintains a high level of Rock’n’Roll, showing Variations were a unit in sync with their sound and themselves. Joe “O.J.” Leb has a ballistic set of pipes and he’s given to great stressing in verse and freaking out into caterwauling excess to drive the point home. Both un-operatic and hyperactive, he’s intently aware of all the musical flashpoints and underscores them all with great wail, warp and woof. Despite the fact Leb sings all but one track on “Nador” in English, the lyrics aren’t discernable 100% of the time but the constant use of bedrock’n’roll phrases that punctuate throughout communicate everything. Well, not everything, but everything that is...necessary. Like: “Hey!,” “Alright!,” “Yeah!”, “Bay-buh!,” “C’mon!” and especially: “OOOWWWWWW...!!!” which is howled out in almost every song and at the most strategic of moments.

Guitarist Marc Tobaly is a greatly skilled quarryman of hard rock and hooks up a mighty linking vessel via his roaring Gibson SG between Leb’s vocals and the engine room that is Jacques Grande on bass and Jacky Bitton’s powerhouse drumming. Tobaly wrote practically all of the material on “Nador,” so natch the arrangements allow for ample riffage to smash through consecutive windows of opportunity over and over and over again. Hefty rhythm/lead guitar overdubs sear continuously throughout, scored as they are with Tobaly’s stockpiled riffs and solos which all are recorded and produced to be nowhere but in the forefront at all times. The end result is high definition, robust rock’n’roll played by four Gauls with a whole lotta balls with a fire lit underneath their collective derrières at all times. OOOWWWWWW...!!!

With that said, “Nador” ain’t perfection all the way through. Marred slightly with only one misstep per side, it would be disingenuous to blame mysterious outsider Mick Fowley (not Kim, dammit but a misnamed Mike Fowler from the British group, Grapefruit) just because he penned one of ‘em and sang on both (but I will anyway) because this track (“Mississippi Woman”) and the other (“We Gonna Find The Way”) are at odds with the rest of the album’s hard rock persuasions or Moorish exotica: content to reside in a permanent zone of dated, good-time filler or clichéd pop. But as far as the remainder of “Nador” goes, it totally captures the band at the height of their power. Every hard Rock metaphor is present and accounted for in its attitude even if their English is worse than your French because it oozes out of every pore: Got Rock if you want it all night long, like it or not here we come barging in to kick your ass and blow your minds, lock up your girlfriends cuz we’re on the prowl, your girlfriend’s panting up our pant leg for more, you’ll weep if we’re your opening band, crazy-Mama-ooooh-my-head, OOOWWWWWW...!!! And so forth. Furthermore, like the desks of American high schools in the late seventies emblazoned with the teenage wasteland credo of ‘LED ZEP, WHO, STONES, DO BONGS,’ these selfsame influences permeate all the tracks herein. Add the energetic flash of The MC5 into the mix with one guitarist double-tracking rhythm and solo guitars as the primary foundation and you have a diamond-hard example of the hard Rock idiom done loud and proud and thoroughly OOOWWW!!!ed. Best of all, the majority of the tracks on “Nador” are densely packed, as though filtering down only the most essential elements into classic three-and-a-half minute lengths as if constructed as potential singles candidates into... A crystallisation of Rock’n’Roll.2

Throughout “Nador” are many familiar yet hard-to-pinpoint-them-all moments in Rock. But what’s weird is how accurately these moments predicted where Variations’ own Rock’n’Roll heroes would be the FOLLOWING year. It was as though they were so plugged into and had completely absorbed the entire gestalt of The Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who and MC5 that what they projected forward back in mid-1969 squared intuitively with what these primarily influences of theirs would be cutting loose in ‘71 on “Sticky Fingers,” “Who’s Next,” “ZOSO” and “High Time.” Weirder still is how none of the tracks echo any one particular influence for any length of time as they’re all massed together into a stew of spew of the Rock they obviously loved to death and rode into the ground stedda merely hitching a ride by copping a cheap feel for a season not a reason. And to beat all, Variations’ set-ending rock’n’roll medley during a 1971 performance for the French television music series “Pop 2” saw them about as proto-NY Dolls as anybody. And that included The Dolls themselves: who were still in an embryonic stage three thousand miles and a full year away from commencing mascara’d squalling duties. What was it that made The Rolling Stones more than kosher to North African Jewish musicians, anyway? Some kinda continental drift? Dunno, but when you consider The Stones trekked to Tangier to ‘change the backdrop’ after their 1967 drug bust to meet the Master Musicians of Joujouka as Anita Pallenberg traded Brian for Keith; Mick his old persona for Brian’s while Keith just hung out with kief this visitation/flashpoint seemed to strike a sympathetic chord with at least some of the younger native outsiders from those cultures. Three members of Variations certainly were, being descendants of the generations of Sephardic Jews who fled to North Africa from Spain during the Inquisition. And was it any coincidence that one Ronald Mizrahi (an Egyptian Jew who grew up in The Bronx where he transformed himself into Sylvain Sylvain) visited Paris in 1971, where records by Variations quite possibly crossed his fashion and Rock’n’Roll obsessed path? Or that an early, pre-Dolls version of “It’s Too Late” sounded too much like “Exile”-period Stones before even The Stones did? Meanwhile, I’m still thinkin’...but oy, gestalt!

“Nador” breaks open with “What A Mess Again.” What a great title, and what a way to jump start an album: by hitting the ground steaming. I wanna party just thinking of this song. A rock hard casual strutter that kicks ass from start to finish, “What A Mess Again” is over the top, all dressed up, nowhere to go and strictly out for kicks. They pull out all the stops just short of spontaneously combusting. Which they do, anyway, cuz they’re getting their oui-oui’s out and it’s an uncontrollable surging, rockin’ powerdrive they’re surfing/through a ten-part track that cascades in and out a variety of tempos. The guitar drops out altogether after umpteen guitar solos have crowded for so long, then caterwauling vocalising heads out wailing to the open road:

“OOOWWWWWW...!!!”

Oh, brother: this is a bombardment like Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” lashed to an imaginary “Live At Leeds” version of “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” being dropped on my head like the Fat Man and Little Boy tied together with pink tissue paper and ‘See you later, alligator’ scrawled across their respective death-bellies. And when the guitar cord crackles with loose grounding during the quiet guitar and vocal call and response ala the major verses of “I Can See For Miles” and a deft vamping of “The Hunter” on the outro ends it all, it’s a shock to realise that subsuming two such distinct influences into something that sounds this unique and fresh is just plain fucking weird because they should be slavishly adopting EVERY other ’69 Zep gee-gaw and archetype like covering “You Shook Me” instead. But being so into The Stones but NOT using harmonica and barring all blues covers? Or not getting a session guy to cut Entwistle’s French horn cameos, stuttering choruses ala “My Generation” or the drummer kicking over the kit as another guitar poised for demolition has seconds to live? Remarkably, it’s as though there was nothing in the hungry architecture of Variations’ approach to Rock’n’Roll that allowed for anything too obvious to be utilised as their own.

Stepping down a few notches in the tempo enters the reflective and edgy “Waiting For The Pope.” Beautiful chiming guitar rings like a two note doorbell in-between the spaces of a rough and gnawing amplified rhythm guitar. Turns out to be a Beckett-like proposition for once the line “he ain’t gonna help you now/He have no power, anyhow” is sung, everything sinks into a striking interlude of quiet awakening as Leslie speaker’d guitar ripples in a small pool at dusk while the doorbell tone keeps on ringing in pairs as if to remind you of some forgotten loss. A solo takes flight like water birds when suddenly, all turns to elevated tones with a run-on yowl of “OOOWWWWWW...LemmetellyaBAY-buh...!” Underpinned by singeing, two-ply guitar parts, a final, tremendously guttural “YeaaaauugghhhhhOOOWWWWWW!!!” ushers in the instrumental burn up and fade out.

Paying tribute to their Sweet Home Morocco, “Black Mountain Side” and possibly hinting at “The Battle Of Evermore” before the fact, their Arabio-Kelt acoustic instrumental “Nador” expands the dynamic range of the album into one of delicate shading. Taking its name from a Moroccan port city on the Mediterranean, “Nador” features Tobaly weaving a gentle Moorish mood piece to the accompaniment of low bass and the tight heads of darbouka rapped out with resounding hollowness by cohort Youssef Berrebi, in the Viram Jasani role, natch.

“Générations” then arrives to dive bomb the whole scene. The only track on the album with French lyrics, it’s an ice-breaker as well as a soul shaker and one rock-a-rolla hellraiser. “OWWW!!!” is the opening vocal, as well as the closing one and in-between is a riotous outpouring of everything loud, swaggering and Rock Action. The mid-section solo is like the one on “Heartbreaker,” only compressed into 10 seconds while everything else is proto-“Tumblin’ Dice” as played by The MC5 with Roger Daltrey on braying vocals. A downstroking Keef rhythm riff gets played heavy, hovering low to the ground as Grande’s bass lopes all around it. They carry on kicking up a storm until the lead out coda is rendered by tape slowdown into crushing silence to dramatically finish off the first side.

With a count-off in French, side two commences with the (relatively) sedate, mid-tempo paces of “Free Me.” The vocals have cooled for the moment, leaving Tobaly in the wild child role to take up the slack with at least three separate overdubbed guitars. And when there’s nothing left living on earth except grass, cockroaches and Keith Richards these riffs also will endure. Extra Pagey riffage is overlaid on top with Keef rhythm and the whole effect is comparable to an outtake left off the middle of side one of “Who’s Next” with Glimmer Twins camaraderie. You can just picture O.J. at the mike stand with one arm draped around Tobaly’s shoulder as they share the chorus.

At 5:40, “Completely Free” is the longest song of the album. Another tightly orchestrated multi-riff gallery, it also gets loosely greased out into a slow grind reminiscent of Bob Seger System’s “Black Eyed Girl” crossed with the (yet to be released) Stones/Detroit grooves of Fred “Sonic” Smith’s “Baby Won’t Ya” and “Sister Anne.” A barking loud and sinewy riff roars out, accompanied only by its ricochet off the studio walls, the sizzling cymbals of Jacky Bitton and low growls emitted from between the Jagger/Johansen lips of Leb. Bitton’s bass drumming hammers out an oppressive tempo curfew, but the super-restrained band rocks out regardless. A wah-wah interlude erupts after silence peeks in for a few seconds, passing into an interlocking segue with quick, quiet drumming and bass fill-ins that pick up steam then hurtles into a mid-section instrumental bridge where it alights until an almighty pressurised drop back into fourth gear and the last section of verse. The coup de grace arrives with a super-phased, dueling guitar and drum interplay that speeds up to the only conclusion Namely, by smashing itself against the nearest wall.

For the final sweaty finale, Jacky Bitton leads the pack with his rapid and tight drumming and sole songwriting contribution, “But It’s Alright.” Lead riff gallops with total flash, switching off to wah-wah as aggressive rhythm sawtooths its way to the heart of a wah-wah-ing centerpiece as a massive bass line hovers overhead. As it simmers down, it cuts off into a match cut of ancestral flashbacking with a darbouka-led percussion line and all members have forsaken their electric instruments for the final minutes of the album. It’s like the backing track to “Chasing Shadows” off Deep Purple’s self-titled album as cowbells, tambourine and handclaps generate rhythmic gyrations that dance like flames. They drive it on home until it dies down of its own accord, smoldering out on this ethnic note as the album’s closing noise.

“Nador” is a supremely confident debut album where Variations came, saw, then Rocked. And then Rocked some more. For “Nador” was where they let one go and it was slick, greasy, on fire and yeah: a crystallisation of Rock’n’Roll. OOOWWWWWW...!!!





FOOTNOTES:
  1. Three years would pass until Variations’ follow up “Take It Or Leave It” LP was released, at which point they had already set up base camp stateside in Ohio and became involved in the potentially artistic hazard of extraneous sidemen, glossy production and arrangements that yielded nothing more than a merely competent album. Unfortunately, this and two further albums comprised the sum total of their long players with noises far too eclectic, less coherent and wide of the high-energy rock’n’roll bull’s-eye that they hit so completely on “Nador.”
  2. And sure enough, four of them found themselves released as 45 sides. And “Nador” was flanked fore and aft with a clutch of solid Rock 45s. (See discography below.)

Variations Selective Discography (1969-1973)

(All tracks listed below are available on the 2-CD reissue of “Nador” and “Take It Or Leave It” on Magic Records, 2002. Asterisked items represent the band’s highest achievements in Rock.)


Nador* LP (Pathé) 1970

Come Along* / Promises* (Pathé) 1969
What’s Happening* / Magda* (Pathé) 1969
Free Me* / Générations* (on “Nador” LP) (Pathé) 1970
What A Mess Again * / Nador* (on “Nador” LP) (Pathé) 1970
Down the Road / Love Me* (Pathé) 1971
Only You Know / I Was Down (Pathé) 1972
Je Suis Juste Un Rock’n’Roller / The Jam Factory* (Pathé) 1973
Silver Girl* / Walk Right Down (Pathé) 1973
Come Along* (previously unreleased version) 1970