If you are going to buy one album this year on the strength of its sleeve notes (and why wouldn’t you? it was an art form in the 1960s after all), then may I suggest that you invest in the reissue of The Palace Of Light’s seminal eighties album Beginning Here & Travelling Outward. For accompanying the double disc set is the most gorgeous of memoirs from writer and clown, his words, Stewart Lee. Surpassing even the excellent story telling on the reissue of the same band’s Mabel Joy album from a few years back, which, coughs, I may have had something to do with, Stewart brilliantly invokes the sheer unknowable mysteriousness of the distant pop culture in the pre-internet age.
It was a time when as Stewart recalls, “that Arthur Lee’s name was a cryptic line from a Lloyd Cole song and Bert Jansch was ignored once a month in the back room of my local.”
As amusing and wistful as the sleeve notes are though, they are however eclipsed by the music on this wonderful set. For as Stewart explains happenstance was on his (and my) side as both of us stumbled across The Palace Of Light after picking up the slightly bizarre compilation of new psychedelic combos issued by the short-lived Psycho Records. In among the bendy mod pop of Mood Six and the proggy weirdness of The Magic Mushroom Band were three songs by The Palace Of Light a young band whose beautiful songs were redolent of both The Smiths and The Church at that time my favorite musical squeezes. Yet even on those tentative recordings The Palace Of Light had an epic quality about them maybe because of the incredible voice of lead singer Geoff Smith.
So it didn’t come as too much of surprise when a few months later I heard that they were recording an album for another key psychedelic label Bam Caruso Records from St Albans. The rumour is that they blew all the cash that label head honcho Phil Smee had built up via his wonderful Rubble reissue series in never ending recording sessions.
Nevertheless Beginning Here & Travelling Outward finally did emerge in 1987 to fanfare from some of the music papers, love from 60s obsessed hipsters like Stewart and I, but very little sales. Phil Smee was still a believer as he funded their later Mabel Joy album to even smaller return but that’s another story.
And here it is making its CD debut accompanied by a second disc which houses fourteen more Palace Of Light gems.
The original album shines just as brightly as it did the first time I heard it back in the 80s standing proud alongside other epic gems from the same decade like Echo & The Bunnymen’s Ocean Rain, The Church’s Heyday and The Triffids’ Born Sandy Devotional. The songs’ melodies are both complex and commercial, the arrangements subtle and alluring and hovering above it all is Geoff Smiths’ stunning baritone – Jarvis really could have done with him at the Albert Hall the other night. The album is part of a lineage from the likes of Scott Walker and Tim Hardin in the 60s through the 80s bands to Cousteau, The Tindersticks, Jack and even The Divine Comedy from the following decade.
Pretty much every song is a highlight too. The opener Safer is as grandiose and epic as indie rock came in that era, while Watch Rome Burns takes the energy levels up a notch or two before combusting in a glorious guitar solo. And then there’s the ballads. If She Should Blame Him really ought to be soundtracking the end of movie, especially the moment when the strings sweep in and waltz the tune to its climax. And not forgetting Bitter Seal, a lilting song that builds to climax with one of the band’s trademark choruses.
As great as the album is it is the second disc that has hogged my CD player for the last month or so. It is a compilation of slightly more stripped down songs that the band recorded at various intervals in the late 80s. There’s six songs from a projected album of covers that never quite managed to get a release and while re-inventing Tom Rush and Nick Drake songs is not that unusual these days, back in those far off days it was almost an act of defiance. Fortunately the band’s versions of No Regrets and Northern Sky, and especially the wonderful Bright Islands, more than hold their own with the originals.
The other songs – a mix of demos, singles and covers – are a revelation. The faster more instantaneous recording process also seemed to suit them. Weightless Crown, which zips along accompanied by a wonderful violin, should have been a single, while The Way Home has a cheerful wistfulness about it. The stand outs though are the two sides of issued a single under the band’s 90s moniker Mabel Joy. Books is a slow burning ballad with a huge chorus and a magnificent vocal, while Catherine recalls the brittle beauty of The Go-Betweens.
The Palace Of Light later returned as Mabel Joy, recorded an incredible album which includes IMO their two best songs in Ship Sets Its Sail and Sylvan Road, morphed into Farina and then split for good.
Well until 2016 when they recorded the album’s finale Theory Of Everything which, like the best of their work, sounds like a long lost 60s classic that somehow has escaped your attention. Maybe they will record again. Here’s hoping.
It is a wondrous thing though that music this joyous is getting a second shot at life and that 500 or so new fans (the limited run of the CD) will get to hear it. It may have taken a lot of the magic and mystery out of discovering new music, but maybe the internet isn’t so bad after all…
The CD is available from Hanky Panky records here.