What were you doing in 1997? Chances are you weren’t listening to Charles Douglas‘ album The Lives Of Charles Douglas (which was originally released that year) – because you probably didn’t even know it existed. Even Broken Horse, Douglas’ new record label, readily admit that they’d never heard of it. But now, thirteen years on, it’s being re-released – so will it have better luck second time around?
It would be almost impossible to properly review The Lives Of Charles Douglas without mentioning The Velvet Underground. Douglas makes no attempt to disguise his admiration for Lou Reed, while Maureen ‘Moe’ Tucker features heavily on the album too, behind both the drum kit and the mixing desk. So you might think that you’ve got a pretty good idea of what to expect from this record.
And, to be honest, you’d probably be at least half right. ‘Under The Command’ sees a hazy, drug-addled Douglas whispering breathily over the top of a track that could have been lifted straight from The Velvet Underground’s third album. A bit later on, ‘A Boy Like Me’ features more straightforward chiming guitars, as Douglas light-heartedly laments “I don’t have a real job and I’m not good at anything” in his Lou Reed-esque drawl, backed up by Tucker’s intentionally over-simplified drumming.
But Charles Douglas is more than just a one trick pony. Tracks such as ‘Summertime’ and ‘Earlybird School’ are more akin to The Ramones or The Modern Lovers than The Velvets. They ooze the coke-fuelled venom and effortless cool of every great New York rock ‘n’ roll band of the last fifty years, while ‘Baby Come On’ sees Douglas’ band at their most hedonistic and visceral. At the other end of the spectrum, ‘Ganapathee’ and ‘The Day You Went Away’ show a more accessible side to the album, and Douglas sounds more like Bowie than Lou Reed towards the end of the bleak ‘Slowly Wasted’ as he rather unconvincingly moans “I’m feeling fine”.
The majority of The Lives Of Charles Douglas was recorded live, and pretty hastily too (the whole recording process took a mere ten days), and this gives the whole album a scuzzy, unpolished charm. Strangely, the appeal of this record lies largely in its faults, in the occasional out-of-tune guitar or shoddy drum fill. Every subtle nuance (i.e. cock-up) serves as a reassuring reminder that Charles Douglas is in fact a human being, not an auto-tuned cyborg; and it’s this that gives each of the twelve songs here their unique personality. And it’s the personality of the album that makes it so timeless – even though it was originally released thirteen years ago, it doesn’t sound dated in the slightest. If that’s not a testament to Charles Douglas’ talent, I don’t know what is.