'70s super-punk and "New Dylan" considers his heritage.
After the deluge of resolutely positive press Elliott Murphy received for his 1973 debut Aquashow, it must have been difficult for this new rock star, or rock star in the making, to keep his feet on the ground. Paul Nelson in Rolling Stone raved about the album, calling Murphy “the best Dylan since 1968” and putting him in an elite category of new heroes, to include Bruce Springsteen and Lou Reed, “murderers and creators, but not imitators”. The New York Times called Murphy “another candidate for leader of a New York rock school” and the Village Voice claimed “Elliott Murphy is going to be a monster”. After switching major labels in the ‘70s (from Polydor to RCA to Colombia), he turned to independent labels to continue his career and moved to Paris, more comfortable in a city of poets, artists and bohemians. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise to the artist or his audience that someone who had initially been lumped into a group known as the “New Dylans” (with John Prine, Steve Forbert and Loudon Wainwright) could turn his hand to folk as well as rock, or even straddle the mutant dervish known as folk-rock, and ride it long and hard into a European sunset.
And of course it was the French who initially dreamt up theories of deconstruction which Murphy, “a Long Island super-punk with too many brains and too many heroes”, possibly had in mind when re-recording his debut for this 2015 release, Aquashow Deconstructed. The original Aquashow was named after Murphy’s father’s aquatic spectacular, which was based in 1950’s Queens, New York on the site of the historic World’s Fair, and featured an array of glamorous performers and attractions including Duke Ellington. The younger Murphy may have developed a taste for show business and performance from his father, but his debut seemed like an attempt to escape suburbia for a glorious rock and roll future; Aquashow is an album of spirited rebellion, a leather-jacket-brother to punk, concerned with disintegrating families and washed-up ways of living. It’s therefore a perfect piece to deconstruct when the initial aim of deconstructionism was to examine the contradictions and oppositions upon which a work is founded.
Since the ‘80s, Murphy has been relatively free to lead his musical life free of industry expectations of a big hit, but Aquashow must have always loomed large in the background. Several years ago, Uncut magazine called it a “lost classic” and it hasn’t been released on CD since 1990. It is well and truly physically deleted, but floats grandly like an insolent ghost on the ether of the internet (find it on iTunes). Because this has become a mythical record amongst music fans, deconstruction however is a precarious business; it could be savagely dissected like a rabbit in a science class of clumsy no-hopers, and in an exercise of taxidermy, stuffed and mounted as some kind of trophy. However, although Aquashow runs as fast as a bunny on Dexedrine trying to escape the headlights of an oncoming vehicle, it could be better considered as the aggressor itself, a ‘70s muscle car (maybe an Oldsmobile 442), only to be taken apart by someone who knows what they’re doing, to see how the engine runs, then put back together with added modernisation; juiced-up acceleration, a sleek paint job and some new chrome wheels.
To take deconstruction one step further, it’s possible that returning now, 42 years on, and re-recording the same songs from his most famous album but in a completely different way, is possibly not just the dismantling of an album, but also a demonstration that it has already been dismantled as a result of its’ own history; Murphy has performed many of the songs in concert over the years, and surely has nothing to prove to anyone other than himself. His debut was an electric and energetic blaze of anxious, acerbic wit and full of the vim and vigour of youth, proudly proclaiming (in the first song of the first album of his career) that he was “the last of the rock stars”. In itself this signalled the beginning of an end—that rock was dead or dying. First time around in ‘73 the track was upbeat and loud with a funky guitar riff, but deconstructed it is a stark and apocalyptical vision in the face of a swirling blizzard; older, Murphy can now sing these lines without any irony whatsoever, and the instrumentation howls as if an oncoming ice-cream headache is inevitable. To fans, this may be Murphy’s most controversial moment in a recording studio, as he wilfully subverts one of his best known and well-loved songs. This transgressive statement means, of course, that his listeners may either love it or hate it in equal measure.
“How’s The Family”, a downbeat song about being unfulfilled in family life, also has a new arrangement, backed by strings. The last verse is taken with more drama than on the original, and it seems likely that this type of delivery is a result of the confidence and experience attained through a long recording career. The purposefully louche “Hangin’ Out”, detailing the perils of rock and roll carousing, has been a recent concert favourite and the new recorded version is full of energy, with a great choral arrangement. In 1973 the nature of the song showed prescient maturity to foresee the superficiality of show business; this time around it’s approached with a lighter, more humorous touch.
The original Aquashow was decidedly electric and recorded at the Record Plant in New York at the same time that the New York Dolls were clattering about recording their second album in the downstairs studio. On the whole, Aquashow Deconstructed takes a more acoustic approach. It’s possibly more European as a result of Murphy’s years in Paris, and with depth in the instrumentation and production. “Hometown” starts as a quiet, almost-blues song until a synthesizer sweeps in about half-way to great effect, and it has a fantastic instrumental ending with strings and harmonica. The lyrics remain noteworthy for their ingenuity, as Murphy asks “hey what’s the news in the fashion world / Is it long or short / Straight or curled / Does it pull all my last years in a different world?”.
“Graveyard Scrapbook” remains a defiant stand-out, starting with the call-to-arms of a single repeated piano note and later, one extended harmonica wail over insistent guitar chords, emphasising the determinedness of the singer in being absent from the object’s future—“You can make time pass with a deck of cards / You can hold your own with alcoholic stars… / And I won’t be there as your habits grow / And I won’t be there like some dead fly caught in your lampshade.” “Poise ‘N Pen” begins with enhanced solo electric piano reminiscent of ‘70s Steely Dan, and then suddenly explodes into colour just as Andy Warhol makes an appearance with “giant soup cans that laugh at your life”. Murphy pushes it even further for the last verse, by leaping an octave, an impressive use of his voice.
Nelson’s comment as to Murphy having “too many heroes” was in fact a back-handed compliment, and in re-visiting the album the allusions to movie stars seem compactly written. “Marilyn” is the only song on the album to directly focus on one celebrity, but was probably the weakest song on the original album. Deconstructed, this has been addressed by making the arrangement more cinematic to suit the subject through spooky piano and a new up-tempo string interlude. The vocal this time around is preferable as well, precise like a clear spotlight, emphasising the singer’s awe for the starlet’s physical prowess. In contrast, the following track, “White Middle Class Blues”, is taken as a deep Chicago grunge shuffle, in the style of Murphy’s 2005 blues tribute album Murphy Gets Muddy; it’s mean and dirty and a perfect setting for a song about suburban angst – “from the day you’re born you know you’ll never kiss ass / White middle class blues.” The original headed towards light white pastiche, but the re-recording gains authority through Murphy’s deeper experience.
Generally on Aquashow, Murphy oscillated between dismissal of the ordinary and elevation of the finer things in life. “Like a Great Gatsby” is not necessarily about the great Fitzgerald novel. Although there’s reference to the book’s Doctor Ekelberg, the song is more about the illusion of cinema and the struggle we may have with our own identities, “then I look in the mirror and it’s only me.” The deconstructed version is more comfortable in its idiosyncrasy, and it turns out to be an improvement for this relatively short burst of lyricism.
If deconstruction is cracking nutshells to disturb tranquility, “Don’t Go Away” is an interesting close to Aquashow Deconstructed, with its noisy dogs barking an “old time love song”. Placed in a new beautiful string arrangement, this song gains in melancholy by being sung from an older man’s perspective because time is short; “minds are breaking and hearts are aching / And I’m just sitting anticipating / About all the good things we can do.” It becomes a postmodern love song, but almost fights against the ordinary meaning of deconstruction because looking back at history seems difficult or painful, and the future is more appealing (“too bad better think of something new”).
The photo art of the new album’s cover echoes the blurry circular frame of Aquashow‘s cover by Jack Mitchell (itself inspired by the artwork for Bringing It All Back Home—so that we are now several steps away from Dylan); it plays with perspective so that the viewer sees Murphy in an apartment, but also the modernist exterior—imposing skyscrapers and a menacing, bright white sky through the window behind him, an electrical cable and guitar in the interior background his only hope.
Aquashow Deconstructed is a much less angry and urgent work than Aquashow, with the raw sharpness reduced and distilled through the passage of Murphy’s experience, and this means it provides a more balanced view of the world. Ultimately we have the same words and music, but the artist has a different attitude now, grown a thicker skin. Murphy has re-made his “classic” album so that it’s “age appropriate”, not just to him (it would be a sad development if Murphy was pretending he was still in his early 20s), but also for a new century. It’s an obvious remark to say that it’s the work of a more mature man, but by deconstructing Aquashow, Murphy has possibly entered yet another phase of his career, one in which he can look back at his own history, à la recherche du temps perdu.