Once upon a lifetime ago, I bought a record by a trio with the less than wallet extracting name Chunky, Novi & Ernie.
I suspect I was the only person in New Zealand who bought this record. I know that how? Well, WEA had declined to release the record and Direction Records had imported just the single copy. The guy behind the counter said it was weird.
I bought it sound unheard because of the name on the rear — John Cale (as in Produced By).
I took Chunky, Novi & Ernie home and, yes, it was weird. Gothic viola and keyboard driven jaunts through the underbelly of pop, with clear references to the Cale strands of the Velvets and his own early 70s solo work.
I struggled at first and then one day I fell in love with it.
I’ve loved it ever since.
Nobody else has ever heard of it.
Tonight, we went to a party in a pub. I rarely, if ever, got to parties in pubs, but we had the invite and it’s in the street we live in, so somewhat reluctantly both Brigid and I did the neighbourly thing and went down for the free Asahi, Tiger and Grey Goose (not quite getting to the latter, but you try) and found the only free table in the place — in front of the band which, in a pub, is rarely the place I’d put myself voluntarily.
However, this is Bangkok and the unexpected is to be expected. And the unexpected can, more often than not, astound.
So it was tonight. In New Zealand, in a suburban bar in a fairly middle class (not that the phrase means very much in the Thai capital where classes mash so, and so easily) ‘burb I’d expect a pretty awful band turning out clichéd feel-good covers in a workman-like way as they do all over first world suburbia.
This, though, is Bangkok and you simply don’t get that1.
Instead, I was pulled back to that wonderful Chunky, Novi & Ernie album by an unnamed duo playing six string acoustic guitar and cello, revisiting, often quite radically, modern and more aged classics in a manner that Cale, in his most baroque moments, would have proudly claimed as his own.
The set ranged from Bill Withers to Bowie (a deeply sombre take on The Man Who Sold The World which drew from the much darker original, not the lesser Cobain cover), to the most astoundingly radical rework/rebuild of Radiohead’s Creep which gave it an almost Gershwin-esque aura.
And then there was Careless Whisper — a song, if asked, I would say that I’d happily never hear again — a song that has been beaten mercilessly to near extinction by every two-bit lounge balladeer, easy listening program director and muzak hack over past thirty or so years.
They did Careless Whisper.
It took a few minutes for the melody to register completely as the cello tugged at and extended the opening bars into something more epic and then I found myself saying, without thinking, to Brigid, ‘I love this song’.
It slipped out. I said it. And I did. Just then.
George Michael’s most offensively three minutes of schlock had become an achingly beautiful melody that, at that very moment, seemed, as performed by the long-haired guitarist in the baseball cap, and the leather-jacketed punk with a cello, to have become a song worthy of Weil or Styne.
They finished and I gushed. I asked them what they were called.
‘We have no name’
Where do you play?
And that was it.
And perhaps it was just a moment, but I’m wishing that my Chunky, Novi & Ernie album wasn’t sitting in a concrete storeroom in Auckland right now.
Then, it is Bangkok.