A few nice things arrived in the Uncut office today. One was a big compilation of Finnish psychedelic music from the late ’60s and early ’70s, which I can’t wait to investigate properly. The second was another lavish raid on the Elektra catalogue, this time a 2CD set called “There Is A River” which collects the first three albums (plus outtakes) of David Ackles.
Ackles was a solemn, theatrical and often brilliant singer-songwriter whose story involves Elton John, Bernie Taupin and a frankly heinous lack of success. I first came across him in the early ’90s, when the three Elektra albums were briefly reissued. I became obsessed with the first one, in particular, and wrote a piece about it for Uncut in 2004, which I’ve fairly lazily pasted below. Since I wrote this piece, I’ve finally got hold of his last album, “Five And Dime”, which is better than its sketchy reputation suggests. Anyway, here we go. . .
August 25, 1970 was an auspicious day – a grim one, some would say – in the history of singer-songwriters. At LA’s Troubadour Club, a gauche British pianist yet to release a record outside of his homeland made his US debut. Don Henley, Quincy Jones, Leon Russell and California’s music biz elite were present at this ceremonial unveiling of Elton John, an event which prompted LA Times critic Robert Hilburn to predict: “He’s going to be one of rock’s biggest and most important stars.”
Elton John fans, perhaps justifiably, see the gig as a rock landmark. For some of us, though, it has a pathos that undermines such grandstanding: on August 25, 1970, the music industry anointed the wrong man as king. John, it should be noted, was not alone on a bill to commemorate the Troubadour’s 20th birthday. Beside him stood David Ackles, a cerebral, emotionally resonant, doomy singer-songwriter from Rock Island, Illinois. Ackles had been a child actor, a teenage jailbird, a student of the West Saxon language at Edinburgh University and a private detective, and by 1970 he had also released two albums on the flourishing Elektra imprint. He would release only two more in the early ’70s, then disappear into a life of teaching, scriptwriting and low-key musical theatre before dying of cancer in 1999.
Elton John at least had the good grace to acknowledge the unfairness of it all. “Some people don’t get hyped enough,” he said in 1971, “people like David Ackles, who could well be hyped as much as I’ve been. But once you’re successful, they’re going to try to get as much hype going as possible.”
And once you’re unsuccessful, they’re not going to bother. Ackles, as it happens, found himself the subject of low-level hype in 1972, when his third album, “American Gothic” (overproduced by Elton John’s songwriting partner Bernie Taupin) caused a minor fluster among British rock critics. It remains Ackles’ best-known album, a song cycle which observed his homeland from exile in Buckinghamshire, and did so with a pomp and orchestral thickness that managed to recall both Bertolt Brecht and Aaron Copland.
By comparison, Ackles’ self-titled debut from 1968 is way off the radar, even allowing for the periodic waves of interest in his singer-songwriter contemporaries. It’s a studiously mournful record, but also one which presents a series of characters who try and contain their sense of desolation. On it, this thoughtful baritone bridges the gap between the two distinct songwriting postures of the time: to the left, the folk-oriented romantics like Tim Buckley, Leonard Cohen and, especially, Fred Neil; to the right, the more theatrical craftsmen represented by Scott Walker, Jimmy Webb, Randy Newman and, later, Harry Nilsson.
Ackles had initially come to Elektra as a non-performing songwriter, thanks to old college friend David Anderle (a record label “house hippie” and Smile-era confidante of Brian Wilson) hearing a tune of his called “Blue Ribbons”. According to a 1994 interview with Ackles, “Blue Ribbons” was originally written for Cher. But, as with the other material Ackles wrote, Elektra boss Jac Holzman failed to sell it to any of his other artists. Eventually, Ackles was allowed to record the songs himself, with Anderle and Russ Miller producing and a backing band of LA scenesters who’d later become Rhinoceros, including guitarist Doug Hastings (who’d briefly replaced Neil Young in Buffalo Springfield). On paper, it was an incongruous set-up: a bunch of acid rockers colluding with the solemn, literate, occasionally rather churchy Ackles.
But the tension only adds to the atmosphere of “David Ackles”. On the opening track, “The Road To Cairo” (covered by Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger as their follow-up to “This Wheel’s On Fire”), they’re given a little leeway, with Hastings (or possibly Danny Weis, the other guitarist at the sessions) punctuating the swirling organ blues with the odd flare and a brittle closing solo. Anderle remembers that the band didn’t actually play with Ackles on the album, overdubbing their parts once his vocals and piano lines were finished, which probably explains the space and respect given him, the thrilling illusion of an aesthete holding the berserkers at bay.
Ackles, meanwhile, assumes the role of a returning prodigal, all trepidation and regret. His tale of wild living and concomitant horror of hometown routine (there’s a Cairo in the state of Georgia, as well as in Egypt) must have resonated with many listeners in the late ’60s, but there’s no reason to see anything of Ackles in the character. Above all, he was a dramatist, a man who organised and deployed emotions in his songs like a skilled theatre director: the vagrant anthem of “Laissez-Faire” could pass as an excerpt from “The Threepenny Opera”. Interviewers habitually noted his easygoing charm and how it clashed with the stormcloud-courting melancholic he seemed to be in song.
On 1969’s “Subway To The Country”, his storytelling became more controversial: “Candy Man” tells of an embittered army veteran who disseminates porn among children. But on David Ackles, the most extreme portrait is “His Name Is Andrew”, a breathtakingly bleak tale of a depressive who works in a canning factory, loses his Christian faith and chooses “to wait alone for this life to end”. With Michael Fonfara’s sepulchral organ again prominent, and Ackles’ stern enunciation, it’s a fabulous precursor of John Cale‘s solo work.
Better still are a clutch of upsettingly stoic love songs, exemplified by “Down River”. Here, Ackles’ narrator meets his old girlfriend and gently chides her for not staying in touch, before heroically saying of her new man, “He’s a good man Rosie/You hold him tight as you can.” Phil Collins chose it as one of his Desert Island Discs, but don’t let that detract from it being one of the most heartbreaking songs in the canon. Just as his band always seem to be restrained, Ackles’ performance is predicated on the anguish he tries – almost, but not quite successfully – to bottle up.
David Ackles is full of manly grief, discreet suffering, remorseful vignettes, faintly existential loners who’ve been away too long for tantalisingly unspecified reasons. Even “Blue Ribbons”, mainly sung from a female perspective, has that same air of noble fatalism. “The world is full of lovers/ Loving hate and only loving others of their kind,” he opines, magnificently.
How this kind of romantic pessimism struggled to find an audience at the death of the ’60s, just as psychedelia was dissolving into a more pensive, solipsistic music scene, remains one of rock’s more frustrating mysteries. Ackles himself was never really sure. But, true to his enduring protagonists, he appeared to take failure pragmatically. “I’m not bitter about a thing that’s happened to me,” he told Ptolemaic Terrascope magazine in 1994. “I would hate for people to think I’m over here getting all twisted up about what happened 20 years ago. All that feels like another life, lived by someone else.”
A couple of footnotes. First, “Subway To The Country” sounds much better than I remember today. Second, Allan has just realised that he used to know Michael Fonfara, Ackle’s keyboardist, when he was Lou Reed‘s musical director. Strange that I compared “My Name Is Andrew” to Cale, while Fonfara went on to work/be harangued by Reed.