A B Normal: Frank Bangay and the Topsy Turvy Band

Frank continues to blend poetry and music – the latter getting more imaginative with each successive album. This is another excellent piece of collaboration within the Life and Living setup, recorded at Mick Hobbs’s Studio 9. Highly imaginative artwork for the cover: superb photography by Martin Harrison of twigs and foliage against a leaden sky; excellent graphic spiders by Andrea Massey and Martha Colburn.

Musicians are Frank (vocals; some slide guitar & harmonica);
Silvana Maimone (backing vocal);
Tunde Busari (guitar);
Mick Hobbs, Norman Holmes and Howard Jacques (bass, drums, melodica, keyboard, percussion and natural sound effects).

Apart from 'something gone wrong' by Kevin Coyne and Bob Ward, this collection consists of original material. The opener, 'a normal man' pokes fun at crass stereotypes of normality. The satire is strengthened by the sound of Frank’s mocking laughter, which is reiterated in some of the other tracks. Prejudicial tags are thrown back at their utterers: “How does it feel to be mental?”. Sensitive up-tempo reggae backing, with good sounds on acoustic guitar and melodica.
'something gone wrong' is another of Frank’s highly empathetic covers of Kevin Coyne. Frank, who had one of the last interviews with Coyne, has a close attunement with his work. The influence of Kevin’s backing tracks is very apparent in this selection.
'walking through a landscape' has a sense of spirituality – “gateway to a better world”. Very tasty background melody on the melodica; Frank’s slide guitar makes some interesting jagged counterpoints here.
'big frank and the little spyder' is the track I find most imaginative. It opens with a highly exploratory extended atonal instrumental – great new dimension to Frank’s recordings. I wonder if the theme had been inspired by The Who’s (Pete Townshend’s) Boris the Spider? Frank’s laughter is applied to great effect here. One wonders whether the spider is ultimately benign; the poet is ‘cursing when the flies return’.
'special friend' has an imaginative free-form jazz backing. Frank proclaims his sense of indentification with Rupert the Bear.
'secret garden' is an expression of Frank’s interest in Botany, and care for the environment. He values those areas of urban so-called ‘decay’ where the weeds can proclaim their resilience and validity – both ‘tame’ and ‘wild’ gardens are respected.
'waterloo at night' is a panoramic vision embracing the atmosphere of the station, the sound of the trains, and the plight of people sleeping rough. It moves at a fast 16/4 tempo in emulation of a fast train, and takes the listener on a guided tour of industrial waste lands and urban renovation, listing all the stations; the Isle of Sheppey' is ‘a treat for the urban mind’s soul’. Frank pictures his journey as a sort of pilgrimage, approaching a sort of Jerusalem.
'this beautiful nature' is a further extension of the theme introduced in secret garden. Much of it has been inspired by Frank’s long acquaintance with Homerton BR station. There is a panoramic journey through the seasons, relating time cycles to growth cycles. He celebrates buddleia sprouting through cracks in brickwork; buddleia entered the popular consciousness because it blossomed in the long-neglected ‘bomb-sites’ from World War 2. Next comes highly honoured ragwort: “volcanic masses of Peru/amidst the cinders.” Trees, including ‘good old London plane trees’ are beacons of hope, rising above the grime and pollution so prevalent at ground level. Plants and humans have a deep bond, as ‘fellow strugglers, fellow seekers’; humans will ‘burst into flower’. The musical backing is highly sensitive and varied, starting with a delicate, ambient backing of subdued organ and Silvana Maimone’s haunting voice. It goes into an insistent drum rhythm, evoking a slow train, then back to free form, and finally with a guitar rhythm. I found the fade-out instrumental at the end was far too long, and something of an anti-climax after the excellence which had preceded it. With these recent recordings, Frank is getting much more fluid and textured with his vocals.

There is one bonus track, not listed. It is about a broken-down wheelbarrow, which is rusting and almost museum-worthy. It is constantly filled with nettles and weeds, but ‘had a lucky break’ – was ‘restored to life’ by getting filled with compost. The poem draws an analogy with people who feel that they are on the scrap-heap and ‘a lucky break comes up’. Good blues backing with the accent on Tunde Busari’s guitar and Frank’s harmonica. This is another instance where I would have appreciated having the lyric texts in the inlay; nevertheless, the words come out bold and clear.

Dave Russell