Sagittarius

TrackAlbum
Song To The Magic FrogPresent Tense
GlassPresent Tense
My World Fell DownPresent Tense
Hotel IndiscreetPresent Tense
The Truth Is Not RealPresent Tense
In My RoomThe Blue Marble
I Sing My SongThe Blue Marble
I Still Can See Your FaceThe Blue Marble
I See In YouThe Blue Marble
Cloud TalkThe Blue Marble

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Contributor: Rob Morgan

By 1967 Gary Usher and Curt Boettcher were unhappy with their existence. Sure, they were both producers in LA, creating albums by The Byrds, The Association, Peanut Butter Conspiracy, Chad & Jeremy and more. But they wanted artistic freedom. They knew which way the musical wind was blowing. Usher had worked with Brian Wilson back in the early 60s – they wrote In My Room together – and they had both moved on a long way from surf music.

In late ’66 Usher recorded My World Fell Down (an already exceptional song by The Ivy League) with the cream of his LA studio buddies – Glen Campbell sang lead, Terry Melcher and Bruce Johnston are in the chorus vocal mix, the Wrecking Crew provided the backing – and presented it to his record company Columbia as a new group called Sagittarius. They loved it, issued the single, and in 1967 it reached the Hot Hundred without a group to promote it. Columbia were eager for an album, so Usher started to create one, enlisting Boettcher to help.

Boettcher had his own problems. He had guided the early albums by The Association, adding musique concrete noise to their harmony pop sound before falling out with them, or being sacked. There were also issues over songwriting – Boettcher claimed to have written their hit Along Comes Mary but was stung out of royalties by Tandyn Almer. There were scores to be settled, songs which had to be sung. Boettcher had created his own band, The Ballroom, who had recorded an entire LP for Warner Brothers which was never issued, and he was working towards creating a new seven piece band called The Millennium.

Usher’s request came at the right time – Boettcher agreed to work on Sagittarius, The Millennium signed to Columbia too and worked on the Sagittarius LP, before moving to their own LP while utilising some of The Ballroom recordings. Everybody was happy. Present Tense was issued in July 1968. Great success was expected – but sales were not that great. Usher left Columbia and recorded a second Sagittarius LP for his own label but that first album was lost; forgotten or treasured by the few who owned it.

By the mid to late 90s, however, there had been a resurgence of interest in so-called sunshine pop or soft pop and Mojo magazine featured Present Tense in their ‘Hidden Treasures’ page. Sundazed reissued it on CD with bonus tracks and I bought it from a record fair in Newport.

There’s a lot to enjoy on Present Tense with its emphasis on orchestration, harps and harpsichords and less reliance on guitars. Side one can slide past in a dreamy mid-tempo haze of pizzicato strings, phased organs and lush harmonies – I always thought the rising and falling string figure on Song To The Magic Frog was an homage to The Dangling Conversation but I could be wrong. These are mainly Boettcher’s songs and his sweet breathy singing style suits the material. Track 5, Glass (Marks/Sheldon), then comes as a shock – a mass of effects, Indian instruments, submerged vocals. Quite psychedelic.

Would You Like To Go? is apparently about the Monterey Pop Festival, but takes the piss: “Where prophets play electric guitars” indeed.

Side two is more varied. My World Fell Down is remixed into stereo and loses its sound effects (a request from Columbia president Clive Davis, it seems) while second single Hotel Indiscreet (co-written by James Griffin before he joined Bread) lost its section of Firesign Theatre noises.

I’m Not Living Here is Curt Boettcher settling scores, as is Musty Dusty – a mellotron heavy remembrance of childhood, apparently co-written with Almer but mysteriously not credited to him. Finally, Usher takes control of his project, writing and singing the final track, The Truth Is Not Real. This is perfect psychedelia, swirling organs, heavy bass and drums, lots of phasing and effects while Usher whispers of “rejecting truth because you’re out of phase”. A great closer.

Poptones was Alan McGee’s second record label after Creation (if you ignore Elevation, his doomed alliance with Warner Brothers in 1987) and during its first year issued a slew of records both old and new. He still had contacts at Sony and was licencing a lot of unreleased or rare soft pop from the late 60s, artists associated within the Curt Boettcher/Gary Usher circle, and one of these was The Blue Marble by Sagittarius. I can remember putting it on my CD Walkman on the bus to a hospital appointment and finishing the album on the journey to work afterwards.

The Blue Marble slipped between the cracks when it was originally issued in 1969. The label which issued the LP went under not long after release and it disappeared off the radar. It was a Gary Usher project like its predecessor but this time there was less collaborative work with Curt Boettcher. Boettcher had taken over Present Tense, using it as an outlet for his demos with The Ballroom and as a holding operation for The Millennium but the best songs on Present Tense were primarily Usher’s vision. The Blue Marble then is Usher at the controls. It’s a beautiful album to listen to, the textures and recording are perfect in a very late 60s way, before the move to 16 track recording made arrangements too cluttered.

The album opens with In My Room, the song Usher co-wrote with Brian Wilson years before and the first sign of Wilson’s introspection. Here the song is given a sparkling arrangement, lush harmonies and plenty of harpsichord and harp – it’s delicate and soothing.

From You Unto Us is less ornate and introduces one of the main instrumental colours of the album – big fat rude buzzing Moog synthesiser notes are liberally smeared over the song. The song itself hops along, throws in a tempo change into waltz time halfway through before returning to the galloping rhythm and is concluded within 120 seconds, ending on a huge descending buzz of Moog bass. Usher sings of being “chased by fears and sorrows, afraid of what tomorrow brings” – sentiments I could understand at the time.

Will You Ever See Me? is slower and mirrors a harp with a Moog, and equates everything with universal love – decidedly old fashioned by ’69!

Gladys features more delicate acoustic guitars, and turns into an slowly accelerating bolero for a chorus, single note trumpet fanfares and all. It’s totally un-rock and roll, and really odd.

I Sing My Song has a bed of lovely background harmonies, twinkling xylophones and more Moog. I always took the opening line “I sing my song but you won’t sing along” as a coded complaint at the lack of success of both Boettcher and Usher, and the song turns dark as the chorus turns into a minor key, and it feels slightly uneasy – “Our lives are filled with lies for silence holds the truth”. And yet the song is upbeat.

The Bue Marble title track itself is an ecology anthem with a view from space of the Earth, and more moving between major and minor keys increases the tension, but it’s all still placid on the surface. Lend Me A Smile has a more traditional Moog sound (someone’s found out how to patch an envelope into the filter and turned the resonance up, and it now sounds like Denim!). The song itself is good but the final three songs are special.

As soon as I heard I Still Can See Your Face I recognised it, and yet I have no idea of where from and still don’t. It’s a remarkable song, all the instrumental ideas on the album so far coalesce into something quite perfect – a harpsichord led waltz, Moogs buzzing (less obtrusively) and now pedal steel guitar. Lyrically it’s about being haunted by someone’s memory but in such a vague way… oh it’s lovely. What’s odd is how it still sounds futuristic, and yet rooted in the past. It also makes me think of the songs on side two of Eno’s Apollo album, Weightless and Deep Blue Day – and how the astronauts on the Apollo missions had country and western radio’d up to them (and Herb Alpert’s music too – as heard from the extract at the end of Shrift by Pacific. Just wanted to get that in, like …).

I See In You is more unease and I can’t really explain why. It just has curious chord changes, and feels strange. Cloud Talk is a happier closer, a love song of encouragement for someone to open their eyes. The whole album is consistently good, with strange undertones musically that make it equally enchanting and haunting. That album stayed in my walkman for a long time.

Both LPs are wonderful. Neither were praised at the time but are now regarded rightly as classics.

 

Gary Usher (1938–1990)

Curt Boettcher (1944 –1987)

 

The Blue Marble – full album on YouTube

Sagittarius biography (AllMusic)

This toppermost is edited from Rob’s original essays on Sagittarius that can be found on his website, A Goldfish Called Regret.

TopperPost #351

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