A Bit On The Artist Who Brought True Meaning of American Gothic in Modern Pop
David Ackles still wields influence on modern music artists
There are these seminal artists whose influence on modern music runs deep, but whose own success never matched that influence. That is probably the reason we tend to slip them back somewhere in our musical memory, until another artist, intentionally or unintentionally, brings that memory back, and reminds us of how great they actually were.
The recent, excellent Father John Misty album 'Chloë and The Next 20th Century’ brought back to the forefront of the personal music memory David Ackles, a man revered by so many other artists, but who had never achieved the success he really deserved.
Now, FJM might not have intentionally gone for that intricate, often vaudevillian style and mostly detailed arrangements Ackles was at ease with, but the impact of Ackles’ work, no matter how buried in memory it might be, immediately comes back.
Actually, that ease with vaudeville and theatrical for Ackles might come from the fact that he was working in vaudeville by age four, and that later on in his life he got a degree in film studies, though he was proficient in the theater, ballet, and choreography.
Yet, at some point in the sixties, Ackles began his recording career as a staff songwriter at Elektra Records. Still, at that time, none of his songs were used by other artists at the label.
To find a use for the songs, Elektra persuaded Ackles to record the eponymous David Ackles album in 1968. Commercially, the album went nowhere for Ackles. Yet, later on quite a few artists had hits With ‘The Road To Cairo,’ one of the more impressive songs on the album.
‘Subway to the Country’ that followed in 1969 was envisioned as a ‘stripped-back-country-rock style’ by Ackles and producer Al Kooper, but when classically trained composer Fred Myrow came in, the album got a completely another shape, and Ackles’ theatrical soul started coming to the forefront. Acclaim grew, wider success didn’t.
Then came ‘American Gothic’ in 1972. Ackles and Bernie Taupin, then Elton John’s lyricist, recorded and mixed the album in two weeks, but it turns out that Ackles worked on the album’s concept and complex arrangements for two years.
And it shows. The album stuck with the music press and other artists so much, that quite a few of them compared it to ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ something Ackles himself took as a jinx. Again, the album didn’t go very far, success-wise. In retrospect though, it fully confirmed its title, as Ackles, with it, brought the true meaning of that term to modern pop.
Disappointed, Ackles left the label and signed to CBS/Columbia, on the insistence of the label’s legendary chief executive Clive Davis. Ackles started recording a new album, but the lack of success brought in doubts, and he decided to record and produce ‘Five and Dime,’ the follow-up as a home recording.
As the album was to be released, Clive Davis was sacked, the album was not supported, and bombed. Crushed, Ackles left again and didn’t search for another record deal until his death from cancer in 1999.
Yet his impact, conscious or subconscious, on other artists remained. Some, like Elvis Costello, acknowledged his influence, particularly through songs like ‘Down River,’ or even more often, through his complete opus.
In these dim to dark times, his dark and desolate lyrics, usually delivered through the characters they depict, with their delicate, intricate arrangements and Ackles’ full emotional tilt confirm the importance Ackles actually has and deserves.