Monday, 8th February

ONE. THIS. THIS IS AMAZING…

graph
Found at Polygraph. I’ll let them introduce themselves: “Polygraph is a publication that explores popular culture with data and visual storytelling. Sorta. This thing is in its infancy. We’re making it up as we go”. This here is a moving flow chart of what Hip Hop’s Billboard Top 10 sounded like from 1989-2015, blending tracks every time the No 1 record changes. If you want to track the Pop-isation of Hip Hop go from Kirko Bangz “Drank in My Cup” on May 28th, 2012 thru to Pitbull’s “Timber” on February 7th, 2014. And then weep a little.

TWO. RADIO 4 ON SONG
Interesting interview with Bonnie Raitt on Woman’s Hour, with a nice mention of Dobell’s, (where she found a Sippie Wallace album in the early Seventies) and a fascinating programme on the commercialization of Gospel music, The Gospel Truth, presented by the financial educator Alvin Hall. The whole show had a very powerful soundtrack (it starts with Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of one of those killed in a massacre in Charleston) and ended with “Everything’s Coming Up Jesus!” by contemporary gospellers Livre, which features a great bass part and a swooping chorus strong enough that I had to go and find it immediately.

THREE: THE BLACK SABBATH STORY
I have no idea how I had missed the story of Black Sabbath’s formation and Tony Iommi’s accident until now, but I had. It’s retold very nicely at Every Record Tells a Story here. And here’s a couple of excerpts:Tony Iommi had been a sheet metal worker but the machine had come down on his right hand and severed the tips of the middle and ring fingers. There’s never a good hand to lose a finger or two from, but as a left handed guitar player, the right hand is definitely the worst option. What’s more, the accident occurred on the day he was due to quit the job to take up music as a full time profession… A friend bought a profoundly depressed Iommi an album by Django Reinhardt. Django played gypsy jazz and used just two fingers to fret chords after burning his hand in a fire, and played the most intricate melodies. This inspired Iommi. He still couldn’t play with two fingers, but like when the A-Team were trapped by gangsters in a garage with just their van, a couple of conveniently discarded sheets of metal and a welder’s torch, he got busy on his escape. Iommi made a couple of thimbles from melted fairy liquid bottles, glued on leather to the sanded down tips and finally – and crucially – loosened the strings so he didn’t need to press so hard. Slowly and surely Iommi gained his confidence and technique with these Blue Peter-esque improvised finger tips. A deeper tone and slower sound began to emerge…”

“Black Sabbath was released on Friday 13th February 1970. The critics hated it, but it reached number eight in the UK charts and number 23 in the USA. Judas Priest, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Nirvana, Slayer, Mastodon and countless others all owe their careers to this album. An entire genre of music invented by a guitarist without a full set of fingers, a jazz drummer, a former abattoir worker and, best of all, a trainee accountant. And the most amazing part of this story? They recorded the whole album in just eight hours in a tiny studio at the back of what is now a guitar shop in Soho. Eight hours. It took them eight hours to invent heavy metal.”

FOUR: YET MORE INTERESTING LOOKING MUSIC FILMS
Two films are in production about the not-widely-known Danny Gatton, a guitarist of fearsome dexterity. For a flavour, try this.
As Damien Fanelli wrote in Guitar World last year: “The late Danny Gatton had a nickname: “The Humbler.” As in, “You think you’re so great? Let’s see you go head to head with Gatton. You will be humbled.” Gatton, who also was known as the Telemaster and the world’s greatest unknown guitarist (a nickname he shared with his friend Roy Buchanan) could play country, rockabilly, jazz and blues guitar with equal authority – and sometimes with a beer bottle! In this legendary clip from his 1991 Austin City Limits appearances, watch as Gatton plays slide guitar, overhand-style, using a full bottle of beer as a slide. Of course, since the bottle is full, some suds find their way onto his Fender Tele’s neck. So Gatton whips out a towel to wipe off the beer; only he keeps the towel on the neck – and simply keeps on playing. What’s most impressive about this sequence is just how fun and musical his playing is, despite the beer-bottle theatrics. Although there’s a good deal of showmanship involved, it’s by no means all about showmanship; as always, his playing is humbling.”

FIVE: FILLMORE EAST MEMORIES
Marc Myers’ always fascinating blog, JazzWax, leads me to this slightly hysterical (in a good way) piece about the Fillmore East, legendary NYC music venue, by resident historian of the Bowery Boogie, Allison B. Siegel [“as an urban historian, Allison can be found exploring and documenting buildings wherever she goes making it very hard to walk down the street with her”]. In March 7, 1968, Loew’s Commodore Theatre became the Fillmore East, renamed by the man behind the Fillmore West in SF, Bill Graham. It closed a few years later, and sadly “what was once the entrance to a whimsical place of drama and comedy, laughter and light shows, music and camaraderie, sex, drugs, disco and rock n roll is now… a bank.”

AND LASTLY…
This week I have mostly been swooning over the pace, attack and grace of both Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City and Billy Preston of Los Angeles. Dig Billy’s Wurlitzer playing on “Funny How Time Slips Away” from a CD I’d lost but now have found: Rhythm, Country and Blues, one of the best to be found in the Various Artists/Tributes to Something section of the record store. Produced by Don Was, the whole thing is highly recommended, from Patti Labelle and Travis Tritt’s “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” to “Rainy Night In Georgia” by Conway Twitty and Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave fame). And who knew that Lyle and Al would sound so good together? In one of those odd coincidences the CD arrived on the day I found this great sketch from my friend, illustrator John Cuneo…

johnc

 

Monday, January 25th

IMAGE OF THE WEEK
Best thing we bought in Paris last weekend: from the Vanves flea market – it’s hard to resist Monks playing music, I find. Best thing we saw but didn’t buy: this Philips’ Rosita music centre.

Paris

ONE. ENOUGH SINGER-SONGWRITERS, ALREADY
Ian Gittings wrote about the plague in The Guardian: “Jamie Lawson, a Devon-born singer-songwriter had put out three albums over a decade-long career to almost blanket indifference… Ed Sheeran released the fourth last year [on his new record label], expressing hope that it would pick up play at “my dad’s dinner parties”. This should have been the kiss of death but was instead inexplicably regarded as a recommendation: on the verge of his 40th birthday, Lawson saw the record go to No 1. This precipitous rise from obscurity is baffling, as Lawson is such an unremarkable, journeyman talent. In the currently cluttered field of showily sensitive male singer-songwriters, he possesses no discernible selling point. He is Sheeran without the endearing glimpses of wit and humanity; Damien Rice minus the depths and the dark side [actually I think Gittings is letting him off lightly here, it’s even worse than that – Ed].”

Fronting a functional band with an ingratiating grin apparently welded to his face, Lawson primarily suggests some ghastly amalgam of James Blunt and Ben Haenow. His excruciatingly sentimental lyrics could be the handiwork of a moonlighting Clintons cards copywriter: the jaw-droppingly platitudinous “Someone for Everyone” (“Don’t worry/If you can’t find love in a hurry”) could very easily be retitled There are More Fish in the Sea, or At Least You’ve Got Your Health.”

And one of those “showily sensitive male singer-songwriters” is Jack Savoretti. I saw him do a couple of songs as a short support act to Paulo Conte, his record company playing up his Italian heritage in hopes that Conte fans would flock to follow Jack too.

Last week he played the Graham Norton Show, and while he seems a nice enough fellow, his performance was a patchwork of all the current crop’s failings. There was a sub-Coldplay chord sequence powering music that exists on some glassy plane entirely separate from the voice, with no interaction and no give and take. Far from it being a social activity, this is music that doesn’t move about the room, talk amongst itself or tell an interesting story. It just sits there like an Ikea sideboard, neat and bland, with a flimsy and hollow core. So even though the band can play, and he can sing, it’s all for nothing. His vocal was at 10 on the emotional richter scale by the end of the first chorus, and there’s no way here for the listener to invest in a narrative arc. And it’s all topped off with a ridiculous lyric, blathering on about the fall of Empires and such like, topped off with the awful title phrase “If I could catapult my heart/to where you are”. Just imagine that line in your head. Go on. Whoa! Enough negativity! Here’s something I liked…

TWO. INSTRUMENT CORNER
Bob G sent me this link to Behold, an interesting Photo blog, where Ed Stilley makes an Outsider Artform of guitars. “God Instructed Him in a Dream to Make Guitars and Give Them Away to Kids, So He Did”. Can’t beat that for a headline. And the solution to limited access to parts results in a truly unique 12-string guitar.

THREE. A NICE PIECE IN THE NEW YORKER
Elon Green on Mavis Staples’ new album, which will release in mid-Feb followed by a new documentary, Mavis!: “The new record, Mavis thought, presented an opportunity to do something different. Radically so; her inspiration came, in part, from Pharrell Williams’s galactically popular “Happy.” She’d sung it to herself each morning, and it had, more or less, lodged itself in her brain. “When the world was just so upside down, [Williams] brought a lot of people up with that song,” Mavis said recently. “I’ve been making people cry for so many years, and I just want to sing something joyful.” And at the end, this: “As for Mavis, she has only one regret about the record, set for release on February 19th. “I wish I could have gotten old Dylan to write a song for me,” she said. A lifetime ago, Mavis and Bob Dylan were in love. “We may have smooched,” she says in the documentary. Dylan, in fact, went to so far as to ask Pops for Mavis’s hand in marriage. He was denied.”

FOUR. THIS YEAR WE’RE LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS FILM…
The Jaco Pastorious documentary, co-directed by Stephen Kijak who did such a great job with Scott Walker in 30 Century Man. One YouTube comment from StevieDebe kind of sums up the end of the story: “When I met him on the street, 6th Avenue and 3rd St, I said Are you Pastorius? He said, That’s right, Jaco Pastorius, best bass player in the world… can I borrow $16? To which I said gladly yes! It has a nice trailer, with an imperious Joni Mitchell – “I like originals… pause, drags on her cigarette… Jaco was an original”. It could be time for me to drag out my old chestnut, “The Night I Met Joni (and Jaco)”, except that I won’t. You can find it here if you’re so minded.

FIVE. A FASCINATING PIECE IN VANITY FAIR…
by Michael Lewis, where he takes on the mantle of William Goldman to illuminate the strange route movies take to get made. This is apropos of The Big Short: “ Having said all that, the movies that have been made from my books have, in my view, been pretty great. It’s no use trying to shift gears here and claim credit for this. There’s no obvious correlation between the quality of a movie and the quality of the book it springs from: good movies have been made from bad books, just as bad movies have been made from good books.

Each of the three times I have sat in the darkened room and watched for the first time a movie of my book I have felt simple delighted surprise. With each movie the surprise has been greater. The Blind Side wasn’t that hard to imagine as a movie – at the heart of the book was a bizarre and moving family drama. Moneyball was hard to imagine as a movie, but at least it was about baseball and thus organically linked to popular culture. Wall Street, even in the aftermath of a financial crisis that has cost so many so much, is not. The behavior of our money people is still treated as a subject for specialists. This is a huge cultural mistake. High finance touches –ruins – the lives of ordinary people in a way that, say, baseball does not, unless you are a Cubs fan. And yet, ordinary people, even those who have been most violated, are never left with a clear sense of how they’ve been touched or by whom. Wall Street, like a clever pervert, is often suspected but seldom understood and never convicted.”

 

Thursday, January 14th. Five Things that I Didn’t Write About in 2015, Part Two.

BREAKING BLING
In a distinguished lineage that includes Peter Sellers doing “A Hard Day’s Night” in the style of Richard III, and Burt Lancaster fronting The Highwaymen, intoning “The Birdman of Alcatraz”, we have Actors meeting Song, in this case, Drake’s “Hotline Bling” narrated by Bryan Cranston (amongst others). Enjoy.

FAVOURITE SONG I HEARD AND THEN SET OUT TO TRACE…
A hot summer’s day and I’ve just parked the car in a side street in Walthamstow, about to pick up some pegboard that was being made up for me. Bleeding out of a car with closed windows is this great tune, with the repeated refrain – “I’ve got a girl on the other side of town, she’s waiting for me to come around…” There are those moments when a piece of music just seems so right for that time and that place. I motion to the guy inside and politely enquire if he knows who’s singing and what it’s called ­– but he doesn’t, although he agrees that it is a top tune. I find out a while later – Barry Boom singing Lou Ragland’s “Making Love”. It seems that it’s one of the best Lovers Rock tunes out there. It’s here, if you’re interested.

JAMIE XX – I KNOW THERE’S GONNA BE (GOOD TIMES)
It’s always nice to hear a sample of The Persuasions. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot about the rest of Jamie’s song that’s very interesting. I saw The Persuasions once at Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues in a ridiculously hot basement where the audience was on the stage with the group. Two feet from acapella doo-wop is a great place to be. Here’s their lovely version of Dylan’s “The Man in Me”.

And if you like that, this is my absolute favourite, a doo-wop classic, “Looking for an Echo”. What a cracking title – a phrase that sums up a lot of what life’s about. Written by a folkie [Kenny Vance] who acted – guest star on Kojak and The A Team, no less – its yearning and touching lyric hitting dead centre on that large nostalgia target…

And if we went to a party / and they wouldn’t let us sing
We’d lock ourselves in the bathroom / so nobody could get in
’Cause we were looking for an echo / an answer to our sound
A place to be in harmony / a place we almost found…

BEST ONE-STOP SHOP FOR CLASSIC JAZZ COVERS…
…was this post by London Jazz Collector. Virtually every major design style from the Fifties until now is captured in these stunning albums. As the man says… “These are my personal choices, you can see where I’m coming from. Portraiture cements the relationship between the musician and the instrument. Record = hearing, Cover = seeing, Great music, great covers, brings it all together.”

top-covers-late-entries2

ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER PLACE
I love a story that dates time like this: “I started working for Selmers around the Truvoice/Grey crocodile era, and left around the grey/silver speaker-cloth era.” Just brilliant. This memoir by Patrick Kirby was found when I was looking for stuff on Selmer amps, whose store used to be at 114-116 Charing Cross Road. After talking about Teisco guitars (see earlier posts), Mark had mentioned that Selmer amps were really sought after as they were so amazing, and that he had once been the proud owner of one. Brett (Best Coast) had mentioned them too, so I realised that was why they now go for thousands instead of hundreds…

“My colleague in the Organ Salon was an unlikely chap called Ted Woodman, who was totally sold on Art Tatum. When I first saw Ted playing Jazz on organ I feared he was having an epileptic fit, or was on drugs… his eyes rolling as he writhed his arms over the keyboards, twisting and turning his legs across the massive 32 note pedalboard, swinging his head around dangerously. Soon after, having seen Alan Haven on TV with the Beatles, doing exactly the same thing, I quickly picked up the art and with the encouragement of a guy called John Bell, who ran the drum department (and was rather nifty with the skins himself), we were out playing jazz gigs in dodgy Soho clip-joints most nights, earning on average 10 shillings each a session (then fondly known as half-a-knicker).

“John and I used to beg and borrow keyboards from the store for gigs, but eventually saved up and bought a second-hand Lowrey Heritage organ from Selmers. I discovered some of the words to a Sergeant Pepper song written on the polished wooden top, and thought this was sacrilege until I found out from John that this was the organ that Selmers used to hire to EMI, Abbey Road! For Bob Dylan and The Band, appearing at the legendary Isle of Wight Music Festival, Selmer engineers took weeks customising a Lowrey H25 console organ. The result was the most amazing set of sounds you’ve ever heard.”

THE NOTE OF A ROOM
From a terrific interview with Richard Flanagan on Bookclub, R4. They were discussing his 2014 Man Booker Prize winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which is set among prisoners of war who were forced by the Japanese to work on the notorious Thai-Burma railway. He reads an excerpt where a widow is talking to her visitor about love:
“I have a friend in Ferntree who teaches piano, very musical she is. I’m tone deaf myself, but one day she was telling me how every room has a note – you just have to find it. She started warbling away, up and down, and suddenly, one note came back to us, just bounced back off the walls and rose from the floor and filled the place with this perfect hum, this beautiful sound, like you’ve thrown a plum and an orchard comes back at you. You wouldn’t believe it Mr Evans… these two completely different things, a note and a room, finding each other. It sounded right. Am I being ridiculous – do you think that’s what we mean by love, Mr Evans?”

Flanagan stops reading, and a member of the audience joins in: “Yes, I really noticed that passage in the book, ’cause I’m sort of a failed musician and I know exactly that feeling you get in a room when it just works right to play music in, and I thought it was a lovely metaphor for love, that I’ve never seen used elsewhere before, and I just wondered how you came to think about it…”

Flanagan: “I was drinking with some musicians one night and we ended in a wine cellar in Hobart, in a vineyard in Tasmania and they told me that every room has a note – and I’d never heard this before. Then they started ‘pitching’ their throats, going up and down the scales ’til they found the note of that room and then suddenly it all came back, and as a musician you know this, but I didn’t know it, and I cannot tell you what an extraordinary sound it is when you find the exact pitch of a room, and you hear it coming to you. The whole room thrums with it. It is the most beautiful resonance with the world…”

Extra!

[INSERT DAVID BOWIE SONG-OR-LYRIC-BASED HEADLINE HERE]*
It’s a wet Wednesday night in Soho in 1971-ish London. A group of school friends who meet to rehearse and play Creedence Clearwater, Marc Bolan and Atomic Rooster songs have decided that they should find a pub to play in (if any will take them). They have tried busking on Waterloo Bridge until their portable amp has died, and they haven’t even made enough in four freezing hours to replace the battery.

They walk into The Sun and 13 Cantons, on the corner of Great Pulteney and Beak streets. In the corner are two men with guitars working their way through recent pop smashes – Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, Dave Edmunds’ version of Smiley Lewis’s “I Hear You Knocking”, Terry Jacks “Seasons in the Sun”, Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”

The boys buy halves of lager and lime, that early version of an alcopop, and study everything. Guitars, amps, the acoustics of the room – mostly things that they have little or no knowledge about – are assessed, discussed. When the men finish they move closer to ask questions: How much do you get paid? Is the audience always this small? Do you need it to be bigger to actually get paid? Do they pay you in money or drink? What songs go down well?

The men are Scottish and seem old to the boys, but they’re probably in their forties. Their answers start out gruffly, but they show patience at this naked attempt to suck up their hard-won knowledge, to go away and practice, all in the hope of coming back and stealing their Wednesday night gig off them.

And as the boys have exhausted their lines of questioning and start to leave, the older of the two men calls to them at the door in a deep Scottish accent, “Oh, and lads, whatever you do… whatever you do – Don’t. Play. No. Bowie…”

*Actually, there are just no more left now…

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: DAVID BOWIE, US ESQUIRE, MARCH 2004 ISSUE
A couple of excerpts:
You’re never who you think you are. Sometime in the Eighties, an old lady approached me and asked, “Mr Elton, may I have your autograph?” I told her that I wasn’t Elton but David Bowie. She replied, “Oh, thank goodness. I couldn’t stand his red hair and all that makeup.”

They’re never who you think they are. When I first came to the US, around 1971, my New York guide told me one day that The Velvet Underground were to play later that night at the Electric Circus, which was about to close. I got to the gig early and positioned myself at the front by the lip of the stage. The performance was great, and I made sure that Lou Reed could see that I was a true fan by singing along to all the songs. After the show, I moved to the side of the stage to where the door of the dressing room was located. I knocked, and one of the band members answered. After a few gushing compliments, I asked if I could have a few words with Lou. He looked bemused but told me to wait a second. After only moments, Lou came out, and we sat and talked about songwriting for 10 minutes or so. I left the club floating on cloud nine – a teenage ambition achieved. The next day, I told my guide what a blast it had been to see The Velvets live and meet Lou Reed. He looked at me quizzically for a second, then burst into laughter. “Lou left the band some time ago,” he said. “You were talking to his replacement, Doug Yule.”

Extra! Carlton’s guitar and a Winter ballad…

Guitar

A couple of weeks ago I wrote: My neighbour Carlton asked me to restring and cleanup this guitar that he’d been given. He’d seen my rather odd collection of guitars and figured I was the man for the job. The jury’s still out on that one, but I’m promising (or threatening) to record a Christmas Carol on it next week. At one time, Ry Cooder would have given his eye teeth to get his hands on this little treasure. I made some rather lame and fruitless attempts to track it down, but didn’t come up with much.

Well, Mark came over and proceeded to put it through its paces, rather fantastically, channeling both Hound Dog Taylor (who played a similar model) and Derek Bailey. That’s Mark for you. Taking to Google, he promptly identified it. And, as the man in the video says, This is a guitar…

Now, I’d totally failed to ID it as a baritone guitar, and had strung it as a conventional six string [non-guitarists look away now, this will get boring]. It still sounds great, but as you’ll see from the video, it sounds even better with that lower B string on. So it’s a Lindell VN-2, made by Teisco, who were the manufactures of the cheap guitars so beloved by Ry Cooder in the late 70’s. Here’s a terrific interview with Ry, posted by Ramon Goose on his guitar channel, that really gets into the story of how the “Coodercaster™” came to be, although this concentrates on ripping out pickups from lap steel guitars and sticking them on a Strat. The story of being hired by Bob Krasnow to help out with the first recording by Captain Beefheart is very funny – “I was just out of High School, about seventeen, I guess – I had a car and a Martin guitar, and he said We need you to help the guys get ready to record, and we’re gonna get the guys some equipment – whadda ya need, and I said, well I guess I could use an electric guitar, I don’t have one, so they sent us down to the Fender factory, which was in Fullerton at the time… I was aware that there was such a thing as a Fender guitar, a Gibson guitar, but I was a folk musician…”

So, suitably inspired, I decided to record a Christmas song using it, which, as is the way of these things, did not come out at all as expected. Hear for yourself in the music player on the right how it ballooned into 7:54 minute long soundscape, taking in flapping flagpole cords taped in Iceland, loon calls, whistling and rather random guitaring. Play it loud.

And I’ve not forgotten Part Two of things I didn’t write about in 2015, that’ll come next week.

Monday, December 21st

Sorry, I forgot the link to Henry “Red” Allen’s red-hot performance. It is now added…

VISUAL OF THE WEEK
This video, shot by Eric Feigenbaum, for Charles Bradley singing “Changes”.

bradley

EVEN THE SILENCES SOUND EXPENSIVE…
I was trying to put my finger on why Adele’s “Hello” doesn’t convince, and then Clive James in The Guardian did it for me: “It could be said that Adele is Mama Cass born again, but she needs a song to match her voice. I have listened several times to her smash hit, “Hello”. I was hoping that the shapely beauty of her opening phrase would hook me for what remains of my forever. But the opening phrase never really arrives. The whole number is one of those big ballads in which the singer whispers her way through a verse section that hasn’t got a melody and then goes soaring and bellowing into a chorus section that hasn’t got a melody either. The virtuosity leaves you yawning with admiration. Whitney Houston drove herself bonkers yelling stuff like that, and Celine Dion at full volume puts up such a barrage that she might be part of Canada’s anti-missile defence system. But Adele still has time for better things.”

BOBCAT BIRTHDAY!
Through the generosity and efforts of my loved ones I was totally surprised this week by the arrival of The Holy Grail. Nothing to do with Dan Brown – it was the 18-CD Collectors Edition of Vol 12 of The Bootleg Series. It’s an extraordinary object, with facsimile 7-inch vinyl, books of essays and ephemera, original filmstrip of a release print of Don’t Look Back, and more Dylan than you can shake a stick at.

I’ve barely started on the box set itself, as Columbia decided that – if you’d bought it – they’d give you the Christmas gift of all Dylan’s live shows from February to December 1965. So positive tsunami of songbytes streamed down to my mac. Of note so far: 1) the erroneous iTunes info that the Royal Albert Hall is in Manchester (!). 2) the chance to play “Compare the Drummer!” as Forest Hills and the Hollywood Bowl have Levon Helm (with Harvey Brooks on bass), the Berkeley Community Theatre has Bobby Gregg, and the previously issued 1966 UK tour has Mickey Jones. Me, I love the sledgehammer that was Mickey, pushing and goading both band and singer onto ever more fantastic heights. 3) the chance to hear “Positively 4th Street” played live in fairly decent audio at Berkeley Community Theatre with Bobby Gregg on drums. 4) as far as I know, the only acoustic version that exists of “Tombstone Blues” – feeling like a cousin to “It’s Alright, Ma” – recorded live at the Contemporary Songs Workshop at the ’65 Newport Folk Festival. The audience are so hip that they actually laugh in all the right places.

I WISH I HAD MORE RIVER…
River was the most intriguing detfic of the year, as visually striking as London Spy, only way, way better (coherent, grounded, not in love with itself, didn’t filtch an ending from Thelma & Louise). River’s epicentre was a powerful Zapruder-like sequence of the shooting that triggers the story – endlessly replayed in an attempt to discern any clues hidden within it. Its co-star, the excellent Nicola Walker, was asked by The Guardian’s Stuart Heritage if she has a clause in her contracts that she has to sing in all her shows (she sings in both River and Unforgotten, the other policier that she was the lead in, most memorably Tina Charles’ “You Make Me Feel Like Dancin’”):
“Yeah, that’s just what I do now. I turn up and I say: It’s very important that I sing 1970s disco hits. Wasn’t that weird? Things like that, you don’t really think about when you’re doing the job, and then they both come out together. I’m not a singer, but I enjoyed it because Stellan (Skarsgård)– even though he was in Mamma Mia – makes a great deal of the fact that he’s not a singer. He’s very good at making you feel like you can do anything.”

RED ROCKS!
One of the things I most enjoy about writing Five Things is the chance discoveries made when I’m checking spellings or dates. You always learn something new, or find some compelling performance. I was sent a scan of a Christmas card that trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen sent years ago, by Tony Standish, an Australian book seller and old friend of the family. And, as is the way of these things, came across this amazing performance from a 1964 Jazz625 with Alex Welsh’s band. Henry starts by listing great New Orleans musicians over a comping piano and walking bass – “I was there with ’em, I couldn’t miss ’em, my father had the band, Henry Allen Snr, New Orleans!” before launching into a blistering “St James Infirmary”, the song Dylan leaned on when he wrote “Blind Willie McTell”. Check the stance, legs tensed as he takes a short break, and the section where he just hollers St James! three times. Actually, the whole vocal is terrific, as is his long solo – avoiding most of the usual clichés – and when the song comes to an end, he just shouts and starts it up again. Then after a shared round of solos it ends again, only to have Henry conduct the band to vamp as he tops it off with a terrific bit of long-note showmanship.

x-red

2 [Brief] Things, Friday, December 11th

I LOVED THIS ADVERT

ibmbob

The last time Bob asked someone to write a song with him, I seem to remember it was Michael Bolton or Diane Warren, but I could be wrong…

I LOVE THIS GUITAR

Guitar

My neighbour Carlton asked me to restring and cleanup this guitar that he’d been given. He’d seen my rather odd collection of guitars and figured I was the man for the job. The jury’s still out on that one, but I’m promising (or threatening) to record a Christmas Carol on it next week. At one time, Ry Cooder would have given his eye teeth to get his hands on this little treasure.

A proper Five Things next week, along with an End of Year roundup.

Tuesday, December 1st

VISUAL OF THE WEEK

Rivers
Johnny Rivers, LA Reggae. I had this record back in the seventies, bought for its sleeve concept, and his version of version of Huey “Piano” Smith’s “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu,”. I found it recently in the excellent Wood Street market in Walthamstow. The vinyl inside is still interesting, and as cover records go, still sounds good. The Wrecking Crew provide the backing, with Jimmy Webb on piano, and the guitars of Dean Parks and Larry Carlton are both to the fore, guitar fans. Rivers, originally from Louisiana, had an LA-based career playing mostly covers of r ’n’b and pop songs. Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, “Rivers is one of a small number of performers including Mariah Carey, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Pink Floyd (from 1975’s Wish You Were Here onward), Queen, Genesis (though under the members’ individual names and/or the pseudonym Gelring Limited) and Neil Diamond, who have their names as the copyright owner on their recordings (most records have the recording company as the named owner of the recording).” Anyway, back to the sleeve… as a graphic tool, the Kodachrome 35mm slide has been a long-time favourite of designers, and was totally suited to the age of the 12-inch record, and is beautifully done here – try doing that with a CD or download (I know, I know, please ignore me, all under 35s reading this).

THE FOURTH, THE FIFTH, THE MINOR FALL, THE MAJOR LIFT
“Glass Harmonica refers to any instrument played by rubbing glass or crystal goblets or bowls. When Benjamin Franklin (yes, that Benjamin Franklin) invented a mechanical version in 1761, he called it the armonica, based on the Italian word armonia, which means “harmony”. The unrelated free-reed wind instrument aeolina, today called the “harmonica”, was not invented until 1821, sixty years later.” So – watch this and weep. “Hallelujah” played on a glass harmonica. Amazing. And to top it all off – at one point, terrifyingly, he jogs the whole table to get a vibrato effect.

BE REASONABLE, EXPECT THE IMPOSSIBLE
I dropped in for one event at this celebration of Punk Rock at St Martin’s, to see Clinton Heylin and John Ingham talk about punk year zero, art schools and DIY with Keith Levene of PIL. What I took away from this was that no two people remember any thing or any event the same way, and this happened to fuel the most amusing bits of the chat, Levene being ever so slightly catty about Clinton’s misreading of the name of Joe Strummer’s first band, the 101ers (Clinton calling them theonehundredandone-ers). I don’t even trust my memories of the period, although my pal Mark has a much better recall of the time in 1976 when the Pistols played their third gig (was it the third? Maybe) at our art school refectory. I recall Johnny Rotten looking like a young Donald Sutherland, but Mark remembers much more pertinent details – the fact that some people got it, like our friend Jill Tipping, and some of us didn’t. As Mark said, if you didn’t get it, it was terrible – to feel too old at twenty one!

BOOK OF THE WEEK
Has to be this find, in a great store filled with football and music memorabilia, again in Walthamstow’s Wood Street Antiques City – Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia, one of the great music books. I was always a huge admirer of the pithy music and gig reviews in the New Yorker, brilliant at distilling musicians’ USP’s down to a few sentences. The Roxon book is like that, smart and snappy. It’s the first edition (it was later updated and partly re-written by other hands). As my research tool of choice, Wikepedia, says, “her articles about the burgeoning rock scene are now credited as being foundation stones of serious rock writing, and she has since been described by other leading critics as “the mother of rock”. She was friendly with many leading music stars but rarely became personally involved. Although she looked young enough to mix easily with the rock crowd, she was at least ten years older than most of the musicians she wrote about. Unusually for the time, she did not smoke or take drugs and only rarely drank alcohol. These factors, together with her renowned wit, combined to give her writing a degree of ironic detachment that influenced many younger rock writers.”

roxon

Anywhere you drop into the book is rewarded with gems, like this.
“Scott McKenzie/He emerged at just the right moment (summer 1967) with his song warning people that if they were coming to San Francisco they would have to be sure to wear a flower in their hair. A long-time friend of Papa John Phillips, he had almost become a Papa, but he didn’t, and the solo albums that followed San Francisco did not do very well. The trouble was he was so closely associated through the song with flower power that it hurt his other singles on other subjects. Besides, a lot of people did go to San Francisco wearing flowers in their hair and it didn’t do them a bit of good. They still haven’t forgiven Scott McKenzie”.

ALABAMA SHAKES, BRIXTON ACADEMY
Well. I really don’t know where to start. In the beginning, it was Laura Barton who tipped the world (my world, anyway) to the existence of a soulful and raw combo from Athens, Alabama (not Georgia). Their singer, Brittany Howard, a former fry cook and postal worker, had an astonishingly fearless vocal approach and the band avoided a revivalist tag by taking the sounds of the 60s by the scruff of the neck and beating them breathless on the banks of the Tennessee River. Anyway, you know all this. Jordi and I saw them a couple of years back when the hipster chatter attempted, but failed, to ruin the experience.

Having felt a little ho-hum about the new album, and having bought the tickets about nine months ago, I’m not sure how much I was looking forward to the show. Jordi and I decided to skip the support, and the Japanese restaurant we were in felt very warm and comfortable, but as soon as we darkened the doors of the Academy ambivalence disappeared. The one-woman revival show that is Howard enveloped the hall from the first note. Underpinned by her great rhythm playing, the band – added to by an extra keyboardist and three backup vocalists – followed in her slipstream. There are no passengers here, but they have to fight to keep up. Her guitar playing is all grown up and now she takes most of the leads, throttling the neck of her blue pearl three-pickup SG as if her life depended on it. It’s become as important to her as the piano is to Aretha, and the way she controls the ebb and the flow, the tension and release, and the whole quiet/loud/quiet thing is something to behold.

The spirits of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Otis hovered nearby, and this may well be the closest one can now come to seeing any of the great preaching singers who were born in gospel but jumped into r ’n’ b. The individual songs all became part of one hysterical (in a good way) continuum, and I couldn’t tell you what they played, but I could tell you how it felt.

It was the week after the Paris attacks, and the band seemed grateful that people had even turned up to see them. Maybe that added an extra looseness, or a release of relief, to their performance. Everything from the albums were definitively played, and the way the backing singers were worked into the show was clever – sometimes the male vocalist would be the only one on stage, duetting around Howard, other times he’d retreat and the two female voices would punch out the choruses. Towards the end they all surged together like a choir, creating a beautiful gauzy veil with Howard leading them in spirals to the rafters.

It was genuinely thrilling to watch someone push against the limits of both their instrument and the genre of music that they’re working in – Brittany Howard seems engaged in an experiment to find out where she can take that extraordinary voice, and how the music will sound when she gets there. We were just lucky to be along for the ride.

Wednesday, 25th November

IMAGE OF THE WEEKjanis.jpgPolice mugshot of Janis Joplin. The Smoking Gun: “Janis Joplin was arrested in November 1969 in Florida and charged with disorderly conduct after yelling obscenities at police officers during a Tampa concert. Charges were later dropped after it was ruled that the singer’s actions were an exercise of free speech.

I KNOW YOU DON’T WANT IT, BUT A CHRISTMAS RECOMMENDATION
Who wants another Christmas album, eh? You’re right – no-one. And just walking around in any shop subjects you to the unwelcome “All I Want for Christmas” (and occasionally, on good days something as wonderful as The Waitresses “Christmas Wrapping” – which has just been covered by Kylie, I hear). However, there’s a cracker from Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, called “It’s a Holiday Soul Party”. Standouts are a great instrumental “God Rest Ye Merry Gents” – if you liked their side project The Menahan Street Band, you’ll dig this – and my favourite, “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects”. “When I was a child I used to wonder/How Santa put my toys under the tree/I said, “Momma can you tell me how this can be?/When there ain’t no chimneys in the projects”.

THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO, AGAIN!
News in from BigO: Jarvis Cocker, British conductor Charles Hazlewood, Adrian Utley from Portishead and Will Gregory from Goldfrapp will take part in full, orchestral interpretations of the themes from Thunderbirds and Gerry Anderson’s other shows. The concert will take place on December 1, 2015 at the Colston Hall, Bristol. The collective will be accompanied by the British Paraorchestra, the world’s only professional ensemble of disabled musicians. Hazlewood, conductor and Artistic Director of the Paraorchestra and All Star Collective said: “We will be bringing back to life all the iconic hits of composer Barry Gray, in the 50th anniversary year of the launch of Thunderbirds. Expect high octane, big band-fuelled live renditions from this hit TV series, alongside timeless classics from shows including Stingray and Captain Scarlett. We even have Gray’s original Ondes Martinot, the old-school futuristic electronic instrument, which is the sound of the Mysterons”. From Wikepedia: “The instrument’s eerie wavering notes are produced by varying the frequency of oscillation in vacuum tubes. The production of the instrument stopped in 1988, but several conservatories in France still offer tuition to students of the instrument”. I want one.

likeahammerinthesink, ON THE SUBJECT OF DUST/SILENCE/TIME
From an elegant post: “I am beginning to wonder if collecting recorded silences is a bit of an affliction but I remembered that I also own an album called The Sounds of Silence… a kind of Now That’s what I Call Quiet Volume 1. On this record there is a piece by Andy Warhol, made for the East Village Other magazine in 1966. It is called “Silence (Copyright 1932)”, and purports to have been created by Andy Warhol aged 4. But this silence, unlike the dust induced silence of Robbe-Grillet or the dust that slows and extends the passing of time moving towards silence in Stalker, has no duration. This is not just time stopped but time negated. Although he raged against the noise of the city, I wondered if Thomas Carlyle also wanted to deny time in his soundproofed rooms at the top of his house in Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. He had a room built within another room to exclude street noises and the sound of the piano from the adjacent house. But, though apparently sealed from the outdoor world, the wind whistled across the skylight and the sound of the next-door neighbour’s macaw still found its way into his space. Maybe in order to create silence sealing a room is not enough (as Cage noted in his visit to the anechoic chamber). And, as Warhol’s solution is impractical if not impossible – is easier said than done – it is necessary to impose the active ingredient of time in the form of dust.”

ORION, THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING
Shown on BBC 4, soon after its cinema release – catch it if you can. Jeanie Finlay does a splendid job with one of rock’s crazier stories. Jimmy Ellis was born in Orrville, Alabama, with the voice of Elvis Presley – a huge problem when Elvis was alive, as the public already had the ‘real’ thing, but when Elvis died on August 16, 1977, and Shelby Singleton had an idea of how to fill the void, involving spangly suits, a bizarre made up name (Orion Eckley Darnell) and a mask – well, you can imagine… The film ends with Orion’s version of the great Charlie Rich song “Feel Like Goin’ Home” (written in response to Peter Guralnick’s book of the same name, one of the finest music books ever published) segueing into “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” which is strangely moving.

CHARLES AZNAVOUR, RAH
Charles used the the J word at the Albert Hall a little while ago, a couple of weeks after Bob was there. Ninety-one, and strutting around the stage like a fit seventy-year-old, he told us stories from his career, rescued “She” from the cawing clutches of Elvis Costello’s Notting Hill cover, and gave a hundred-minute show to an adoring bunch of fans. “You know, if you come to be famous, popular, doesn’t matter if you are a singer, actor or politician or anything else, but known – you know what I mean – a money-maker, you’ll find yourself surrounded by an extraordinary entourage of people trying to be helpful in any way – for example, if they found you in bed with their own wives they would pull the cover over you in case you catch cold… [they are] a parasite, until your success begins to decline. So after you have been squeezed like a lemon, the time will come for them to sell you, betray you, to crucify you. I call this song My Friend, My Judas.” What followed was a staggering cross between Barry White and John Barry, with a side order of Bacharach’s Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid soundtrack.

 

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