10.05.2013

The Pasadena Roof Orchestra

It is a curious thing that one of this writer's fondest mementos of the early seventies, a time when a forward-thinking young man's fashion sense might encompass eyeshadow and satin trousers and snakeskin stack-heeled shoes, is this collection of dance band tunes predating the Great Depression, recreated by then-contemporary musicians bedecked in vintage formal wear. Point of fact it is worth puzzling over, how a document of such pure-hearted intention and sincerity should have emerged from a period noteworthy for behavior resembling that of the Weimar Republic's demimonde

The Pasadena Roof Orchestra was signed to Transatlantic in the U.K., the label that released the band's initial forays in what would grow over time to become a voluminous catalog. But it was Chris Blackwell's Island imprint that proved adventurous enough to release the band's premier effort via Warner Brothers in the U.S. circa 1974. This would prove to be their only American release. (Today's lp was reissued briefly on CD a decade ago by a Japanese label, with copies of the disc now fetching outlandish prices online, invariably underscored by 'Not Currently Available' advisories.)

As to the band's relevance in that curious era, after the hippie years and before dreadful boogie bands achieved hegemony in the American market – to the latter, praise Jah for the eventual appearance of punk, a movement rooted in this time – it is worth noting that the PSO played at the launch of Biba's, the Art Deco-styled department store that aimed to supply the legal needs of the decadent set. (The band's cover portrait was shot in Biba's Rainbow Room.) The PSO played atop Biba's roof, commemorating the release of their debut album. This event represented an early high water mark in customer friendliness for the store. I suspect Biba's unofficial motto ran something along the lines of "Where the counter girls are otherwise occupied and the customer is...who did you say you were again?" I once waited in vain for a pair of said employees to acknowledge my presence as they perfected the edges of their black lipstick, prior to my giving up and moving along. Those were different times.

By way of defining the Pasadena Roof Orchestra's sound, I can do no better than to reproduce the sleeve notes. The UK historian, surrealist and saloon singer George Melly was tapped to author the liners, a stroke of singular appropriateness. Mr. Melly, during his lifetime a member in longstanding of the Chelsea Arts Club, author of the essential pop history volume Revolt Into Style (a quote from which - at the bottom of this page - has footnoted every NCIP entry) and a mischief-maker of unparalleled ingenuity, described exactly why the moment was nigh for the PRO to materialize:

In the swinging sixties 'yesterday' was a very dirty word and people became invisible on their thirtieth birthday. In that heady immediate decade they made it new each day and it didn't matter too much if you were a genius (which some were) or a hyped-up imposter because each week, each month, what you played or sang or designed was swept up and thrown into fashion's waste-disposal unit, and sometimes you with it. In the swinging sixties to be young was meant to be very heaven and sometimes was, and there was lots of bread for making revolutionary noises and no-one found it incongruous if afterwards you were driven off in your big limo to your hotel suite which you could mess up as much as you liked with your cheque book at the ready. The discos and boutiques opened and closed like flowers and there were pretty toys in all the shops and nobody who was anybody got up before 3pm. In the swinging sixties...

In the seventies though, as the newspapers and television promise escalating disaster and a tin of dog food costs last week what would have bought a tin of best stewing steak, the boutiques and discos wilt and die, like-minded young and old cling to each other, and the past no longer seems such a drag, more a haven of confident innocence. Things were bad then, too, but people managed, had a good time, survived on optimism, on a charming and naive silliness, danced away their cares, crawled out of the bleak streets of the depression into the warm picture palaces where dreams of better times flickered across the screens, rolled back the rugs in their lounges and danced to the wireless or the wind-up gramophone. In the seventies 'yesterday' has become a beautiful word because we are able to say it, and that means a chance of believing in tomorrow. In the seventies...

This LP by the Pasadena Roof Orchestra would have been unthinkable in the sixties. Thirteen gentlemen dressed in tailsuits and wing collars playing, note for note, the band parts of arrangements of the dance music of the twenties and thirties, not mockingly, in no way aiming at high camp, but with loving musicianly respect. Is it healthy, this yearning for old certainties? If it isn't, it's the times which are out of joint, the music which, temporarily at any rate,  sets young feet tapping and lips smiling. Nostalgia? For my generation certainly, but the young can scarcely feel nostalgic about what they never knew. How can the music of Jack Hylton, Whiteman, the Savoy Orpheans, mean anything to them? But it does. 'Teach us,' they cry to their sclerotic mums and dads, 'how to Charleston.'

The Pasadena Roof Orchestra was formed in advance of its time in 1969 by Mr. John Arthy. Most of its members had been involved in traditional jazz, a mode then entirely banished to the outer darkness. All had to be able to read and to possess a frock coat. A library of material was acquired and mastered. Playing at first for peanuts in pubs, the band soon acquired a reputation and now, at exactly the right moment, their first LP is ready to help lighten the gloom of the most unpromising Christmas since 1931.

GEORGE MELLY
October 1974



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