"50,000,000 Elvis fans can't be wrong, I guess they knew it all alongIf you want to be a star, go today - buy a suit of gold lamé."
In 1956, Elvis Presley burst upon the music scene. Within two years he had produced 14 consecutive million-selling records. In the course of doing so he had changed the course of popular music and culture forever. His spectacular success, popularity amongst music fans and notorious sex appeal remain unparalleled in American entertainment history. Elvis's $2,500 gold lame suit was created by Nudie's of Hollywood, tailor to the stars. First worn by Elvis on his 1957 tour performances, the gold suit is one of the most famous costumes in rock'n'roll history.
Alec Bathgate's musical career hasn't exactly led him to buy a suit from Nudie's, but 19 years after The Enemy burst onto the unsuspecting Dunedin music scene in 1977 (a spectacular and ground-breaking arrival in its own right, we might add) with young Alec on guitar, it is about bloody time that we had an album full of his songs and voice.
Right from the moment that Alec formed The Enemy with fellow art student Mick Dawson and talented misfit Chris Knox, he's been involved with Chris in one of this country's most enduring and original songwriting partnerships. Alec and Chris were the Enemy's songwriting core and after the group evolved into Toy Love in 1979, they were hammering out classic tunes for a band who were rapidly becoming the most highly-rated act in the land. Toy Love was over less than two years later, but Chris and Alec were straight into a new project, Tall Dwarfs.
After one EP on the Furtive label, the Tall Dwarfs hooked up with Flying Nun and ten records later they remain creative stalwarts of the label. The duo are now legends in the world of four-track home-recording — they were invited to headline the inaugural Fast Forward home-recording festival in Holland where they were joined by the likes of Sebadoh. Of course, since Chris bought an eight-track, they're practically a regular studio band now....
Most Tall Dwarfs recordings occur in Chris Knox's Auckland home, with Alec travelling up from Christchurch to work for a few days on songs which are built up from guitar riffs, vocal melodies or rhythm loops made from whatever is at hand and sounds interesting enough. Alec has brought that same attitude to the solo album that people have been bugging him to make for years.
The 16 songs that make up Gold Lamé were recorded onto a four-track over the space of a year by Alec alone in his garage. Away from Chris Knox, Alec still gives us many of the great stylistic touches at the core of the Tall Dwarfs on his own album, from crunching riffs over rhythm loop rumbles to fairground psychedelia. Gold Lamé is stacked with good moods and undeniably sweet sixties melodies right from the moment its first track, "Win Your Love", descends into something like a Beach Boys' Smile out-take. Later we get Alec picking up the voice of Velvets-era Lou Reed on "Ain't It Strange" and the Knox-Bathgate Beatles touchstone appears nicely-done on "Slow Parade". As with the best of Tall Dwarfs' output, Gold Lamé so often feels like a gem left out in the forest in 1969....
Alec's experienced recording hand is immediately evident in arrangements like "Carl's Arrows", where the four-track recording is not necessarily "lo-fi" and encompasses voice, guitars, toy xylophone and piano. There's extensive use of casio keyboard tones and rhythms on many songs including a cover of reggae classic, "Train To Skaville". Deft backwards sounds punctuate "Run" alongside a nice electric guitar melody. Elsewhere, songs make room for Alec's big guitaring — his fantastic strumming on acoustic at the heart of tunes like the title track and a burr of solid electrics on others like "Pet Hates".
The latter is one of two Gold Lamé songs released on a seven inch vinyl single late last year by Flying Nun. "Pet Hates" and "Happy Hound" drew an excellent critical response, no better than in Wellington's Salient, who said "This sweet slab sounds exactly like the Tall Dwarfs without Chris Knox. Surprisingly. And some would like that. His vox put him up as a chipper Bing Crosby to Knox's more croonful Frank Sinatra."
For those of us who've loved the handful of tunes Alec has managed to get his tonsils round in the Tall Dwarfs, Gold Lamé is an album full of White Christmases. We should add that it also cost less to make than Elvis's suit, which means that in recording craft and creativity value, Alec Bathgate is a home-recorded rock'n'roll king in our book. Gold Lamé is a long overdue item and all us Tall Dwarfs fans can't be wrong — Alec Bathgate is the star.