Skip Bifferty (1967)

“feeling strange vibrations in my spine…”

100218-aUsually words come more readily while listening, but I had a feeling that this was going to be a slippery one. It’s a record that miraculously just works for being as idiosyncratic as it is. After 20 years of listening, there remains something oddly unpredictable about it, making the elusive song structures seem stranger than they probably are. The best movies to me too, have a certain alchemistic quality, where the most affecting moments are somehow more than their calculated components. The more I tried to dismantle it and see what made this record tick, the further I was lulled by its spell…

True to the classic UK psych period, Skip Bifferty were predictably clad in loud shirts and an album sleeve replete with fairy tale imagery, but apart from the more direct non-LP singles, their songs are unlike anything else I’ve heard. Not timeless exactly, with some production gimmicks that kinda give the era away, but they were far more singular than the countless bands playing drippy folk, baroque pop or fuzz rock. The only lineage I might try to peg on them is that I suspect the lads in XTC probably heard ‘em. The usual track-by-track linear approach wasn’t happening for me, but some impressions after recent listening…

There is no dominant instrumentation, with a piano-led song here, and the rare searing guitar there—oh and a harpsichord solo I never really took note of before.  There are some good often gentle harmonies, so difficult to tell if lead vocalist Graham Bell can be credited with everything we hear from fragile falsetto to bellowing wail. An odd flourish I’d never heard from another band: “Jeremy Carabine” has a guitar phrase near the end of the song that is played again ten seconds later as the opening piano riff of “When She Comes To Say.” It’s the kind of move you might expect in a rock opera, and while their ambitions aren’t that deliberate, its an album full of such curveballs. “Time Track” is the most rockin’ and consequently the one that found itself onto countless mixtapes of mine. Sure, it’s got handclaps but something about their brand of pop hooks are too weird for radio (I can’t say they were pulling a bait-and-switch on unsuspecting teenagers though, as they played some of the weird ones too in their BBC  sessions). “Yours For At Least 24” has a shuffle that might have got the kids moving until a moody middle section woulda stopped them in their tracks. “Inside Secret” is so hush-hush that Bell can only be coyly withholding about “the man who came to stay.” “Orange Lace” is about a man just as mysterious, and a bored garden snake is no help when asked if he’s seen him. Probably best not to scrutinize the lyrics too closely (“See the yellow turn to purple and it sometimes turns to green, see them swimming in the big pond with the orange chimpanzee”). Some of it is flower power nonsense, but they seem to relish just as much in “spreading evil all around” in “Planting Bad Seeds.” Whatever flights of fancy these are, the record is bookended by tales of strictly existential dread—from “Money Man” lamenting the drag it is trying to save those pound notes, and Mr. Carabine’s son with a future as good as sealed (anticipating “Making Plans For Nigel”), to the anxiety-inducing white lines of traffic in “Clearway 51″—the palpable sense of infinite propulsion powered by cascading pianos.

I managed to generate some words, but I’m not sure I began to crack what makes this record infinitely surprising and compelling, like how haunting dissonance and sweeping anthemic choruses convincingly occupy the same sound space. I guess its all part of the experiment in trying to engage with these sounds, and I need to respect the secrets Skip Bifferty somehow manages to keep.

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