The Continuing (R)evolution of “Kanga Roo”
We (Alex Chilton and the Kossacks) were playing a show somewhere in the wilds of New Jersey, on a bill with the Dwight Twilley band, who were riding high on the wings of (I think) “I’m On Fire.” We’d played many of the songs from the Sister Lovers during regular sets at CBGB’s and Max’s–I remember “Nighttime,” “Holocaust,” and “Thank You, Friends,” among them. Waiting backstage for our soundcheck, Alex started playing through “Kanga Roo” (probably my fave track from the record, a fact he knew). We were a basic quartet–A.C. on a white, glittery Stratocaster, me on a black Silvertone bass, Fran Kowalski on Farfisa combo organ and Rhodes, Lloyd Fonoroff on drums (make unknown)–and by contrast “Kanga Roo” on the record was a “many-splendored thing,” layers of feedback, pitchbent Mellotron strings, percussion, the famous cowbell part, not something I’d ever dreamed we’d play. But Alex was playing it in a clear guitar arrangement that revealed the obscured infrastructure of the tune in an instantly familiar way. Even stripped of producer Jim Dickinson’s detailing, it took our breath away as Alex sang the G above the IV minor that then switched back to a IV Maj. 7. We huddled around it, then played it onstage that night, a thrill. I don’t think we continued to perform it very often (although I’m told there is a bootleg version of it from a show at Philly’s Hot Club that includes it).
When I’d first started begun working with Alex that year (1977), I’d peppered him with questions about the Third record (then unreleased), all of which he generously entertained. He told me that “Kanga Roo” was the song that got Jim Dickinson on board as producer. As I recall the tale, at some point Jim had offered his services. Alex went in late one night (perhaps with Lesa?) and recorded “Kanga Roo,” singing and playing guitar together on one mic, on one track, in one unedited take–so there was no way for anyone to remix or alter one element apart from the other. (In the normal course of things, the vocal might be done after the guitar, or at least with separate mics for each.) He then handed the tape to Dickinson as a trial by fire, saying (or so he said to me), “You want to produce me? Well, produce this, [expletive]!” Dickinson rose to the challenge of this blindfold test and lept into action, adding the whammy-bar feedback guitars and the Mellotron figures and (piano-lid?) thumps. At first, Alex said, he just watched, but then he joined in the fray (the higher guitar figures are mostly his I think). As Alex described it, it was a window into a whole new, fascinating approach to record-making, a way of letting chance and chaos into the equation, and it set the tone for much of the tracking that followed.
And Jim was hired!
So there were now, for me, two “Kanga Roos”: the Sister Lovers dreamscape version with its Jackson Pollock-like colors, and the crystalline, 5-D Byrds-ish electric-guitar version that we played during Alex’s NYC sojourn.
Fast-forward through the decades: When we were working from the partial multitracks, trying to re-create the strings and winds orchestrations for the concert version of the record, I was able to solo and hear again Alex’s original, unadorned guitar arrangement of “Kanga Roo,” which was very much the core of the club version. And I decided to take the original-template guitar motifs as the basis for the expanded version we are trying out for the Cat’s Cradle concerts, with an elongated middle drone section, as well (as per what I recall from our live 1977 versions).
(And, in the same way as Alex would quote from other melodies in his free-form soloing, I’ve taken the liberty [at least for these shows] of using the “raga” section to overlap some of Andy Hummel’s “India Song,” a nod to the late great Big Star bassist.)