Random Hold: Central Reservation
Genre labels can be an easy way to approach music. Describe a song as “punk” or “folk-rock” or “metal,” and you can immediately get some sense of what you are about to hear. And yet, you could argue that the most interesting artists don’t fit into convenient boxes. Sometimes, this ability to cross genres leads to wide popularity like, say, Wilco. The two artists that are the subject of this post represent more common career paths for the uneasily pigeonholed—public indifference and failure, as in the case of Random Hold, and critical acclaim and limited cult popularity, as in the case of Beth Orton.
Both of these artists wrote and recorded a song called “Central Reservation.” Our British readers probably know what that is, but here in the U.S., the term is meaningless. Random Hold’s synthesizer player David Ferguson explained “it's the grass verge on a motorway.” Or, as we more commonly say here in the States, the median. Yes, there are two songs about the grassy strip down the middle of the highway.
Random Hold is a band that has long been one of my favorite obscurities. Formed in the late 1970’s, they fell into an uneasy space between prog and punk, which at the time was akin to being a fan of both Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann. Time has proven that it is possible to meld the complexity and virtuosity of prog with the energy of punk, but at the time, this mixture made it hard for the band to gain a foothold. The band was formed by some school friends who were dissatisfied after seeing a show by Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera and his band 801. Ironically, the band’s first serious vocalist, Simon Ainley, sang on Manzanera’s solo album Listen Now, and 801’s bassist, Bill MacCormick joined (and bankrolled) the band. By the time that “Central Reservation” was recorded, though, Ainley had left (and found himself replaced as Manzanera’s vocalist when he showed up for a recording session with a cold), and pretty much disappeared.
Peter Gabriel had taken a liking to the band, and their dark, foreboding sound. Despite their lack of success, he asked the band to open for him first on a UK, and then a US, tour, where I saw them in Asbury Park (see the program, above). It was, if I recall, the first public appearance of the blue WPRB t-shirts, which were well received. I thought Random Hold were good, and Gabriel was incredible. However, after the tour, the band disintegrated. The guitarist, David Rhodes, joined Gabriel’s band, and a reformed version went nowhere. Even what appears to be the official website for the band admits that they were “the briefest of footnotes in the history of rock 'n' roll.” And yet, I still find some of their music interesting, including “Central Reservation.”
Ferguson explained that the song "was originally conceived as a song about driving cars down motorways and about certain emotional expectations of doing that at night - the excitement of not knowing what's in front of you. Over here [in America], some people have taken it to be about a love affair that had gone wrong."
Beth Orton’s song, “Central Reservation” is, in fact, about love, in this case a one night stand, and the singer finds herself “Running down a central reservation in last night's red dress.” Orton, who is still working—in fact, she is appearing on Friday in South Orange, New Jersey—has been assigned to the genre of “folktronica,” a mix of folk and electronica. Originally, she made her name in the electronic dance music world, singing with William Orbit and the Chemical Brothers, and therefore completely evaded my notice.
When I first heard her, I was struck by how her voice was so evocative of the great British folkies, like Sandy Denny, but with an updated sound. More recently, she has been including jazz influences in her music. However, it appears that her genre-bending has prevented her from being fully embraced by any particular audience, despite generally positive critical response.