Friday, February 19th

For two weeks in the late 90s I sat across an office from Nancy Banks-Smith, one of my favourite newspaper writers, but I never plucked up the courage to actually speak to her – I found The Guardian too intimidating an operation to do something as forward as that. And as stand-in Art Director on the Guardian Weekend magazine for the estimable Mark Porter, I was much too concerned with hanging on by my fingernails, attempting to not screw up. I was reminded of those days by this excellent letter to The Guardian, from John Steele:
“To include PG Wodehouse, Terry Wogan and the Grateful Dead in one paragraph (Nancy Banks-Smith, 1 February) must be a first in British and probably world journalism – a truly amazing feat and somehow it seems to make sense.”
And here was Nancy’s para:“He started life, like PG Wodehouse, as a bank clerk, but the moment he picked up a mic he knew he could do it. “Never mind the music, it’s the talking that’s important,” he once said insouciantly, while treading all over the Grateful Dead.”


! kermode

I’d recently done some slides – blown up and half-toned stills – for a series of events with Mark Kermode at the BFI, where he shoots the filmic breeze with an audience. One of the highlights was in the Sound & Vision segment (I’d used a still from The Conversation with Gene Hackman and John Cazale in their surveillance van) where Mark showed a clip from Girlhood, where the girls dance to Rihanna’s “Diamonds”. It’s a burnished and beautiful scene with the camera following the girls’ rhythms as they dance and mime to the song.

A few days later we saw (and heard) Mark and his band with Mike Hammond, the Dodge Brothers, soundtrack some short silents at my brother-in-law’s extraordinary birthday show at the Cinema Museum in Kennington – a terrific place that should be better known. If you love the history and artifacts of film, go immediately.

1) was Natacha Atlas at Ronnie’s (thanks, Kevin!) with a stunningly creative band. She was playing her new album, Myriad Road, a collaboration with Lebanese/French trumpeter and producer Ibrahim Maalouf. atlas2This show took the album and ran with it. The trumpet of Hayden Powell and the violin of Samy Bishai worked together as a sinuous horn section and separately as expressive soloists, and there was wonderfully tough and detailed piano from Alcyona Mick as well as the fantastic foundation of Andy Hamill on bass and Asaf Sirkis on drums. There was literally not a dull moment – the whole thing felt like a souped-up and more muscular version of the album. For a few numbers they were joined by two percussionists, and the hand drum player led the audience in trance-inducing feature that raised the roof. Atlas sang beautifully, mostly in Arabic, and was a generous host – she really shared the spotlight – and the smiles that wreathed the player’s faces said it all.

2) was Beirut at the Roundhouse, where a band with two trumpets played, essentially, world/film music – but made it sound like the best kind of Pop. You know, a Balkan/Mariachi/Marc Almond/Scott Walker/Western Movies kind of Pop, which went down a storm with a wildly enthusiastic crowd. About the only thing not to like was the bass drum sound that gigs often feature – a cardboard-y thump. Zac Condon and his gang were supported by a laconic Aussie guitar player lumbered with the (as he himself admitted from the stage , “I’m stuck with it, regrettably…”) moniker of D. D Dumbo. A spiky Chinese/Malian/Blues-sound wrung from a 12-string Danelectro, with a snare and tom and a loop pedal, he made music located somewhere on the spectrum between Battles and Bon Iver. Marcel and I were suitably impressed.

Every couple of years I feel the need for a dose of 3) the bracing Poliça, and on this trip they were playing the Village Underground, an art space in Shoreditch. As Steve said, we could have been in Berlin, in a Wenders film. The building itself is an old industrial space that feels like, well, an old industrial space. Not gussied up at all. The sound of the band was overwhelming – you felt the bass in the pit of your stomach and the twin drummers in your chest. Most of the songs were new, but all tight and short, glacial pop melodies over a pummeling beat, with Channy Leaneagh in great voice. The next day, Steve emailed to say that they sound “prettier” on Spotify, and that he was missing the bass. I think we had enough bass that night to last at least the next two months…

This week I discovered a Steve Stills’ box set that had a solo demo, dating from the Springfield days, of one of my favourites among his songs. Stills had a good way with creeping paranoia and anti-authoritarianism – see “For What it’s Worth” or “America’s Children”, and played a great version of this on his ’74 solo tour (a performance with fabulous drumming from Russ Kunkel). This demo (on the music player to the right) boasts a beautifully plaintive, pining melody. I like piano played by guitarists (Dylan, Young and Keith Richards spring to mind) as they have an almost untutored approach and often find interesting phrases that the more adept keyboardist may never stumble upon.

Ivy Jo Hunter, songwriter, interviewed by Dave Simpson in The Guardian: “In those days, you could rob a bank easier than you could get into the record business. I wanted to be a singer, but they needed writers. I started putting “Dancing in the Street” together on a little piano upstairs that anyone could use. I couldn’t really play, but I had a bassline and found some chords to go with it. Afterwards, James Jamerson, the legendary Motown bassist, said he’d never had so much fun playing one note. I’d wanted to write a melancholy song, but when Marvin heard it, he said: “That’s not a sad song. That sounds more like dancing in the street.” That became the title and half an hour later the song was finished. All the “Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat?” lyrics just flowed out. Mickey and Marvin put in the mentions of “Philadelphia, PA, Baltimore and DC” – cities they’d visited on tours. I added: “And don’t forget the Motor City.” We got the drumbeat by hitting a tambourine with a stick and routing the echo through the bathroom. Soon the rest of the industry were losing their minds trying to get that sound, with all their expensive equipment, but they never could. I didn’t really like the finished record, but then I had no concept of what made a hit. When Mick Jagger and David Bowie covered it in 1985, I made more money in two years than I had made in the previous 20. I would have kissed their butts in the middle of Broadway.”


Monday, 8th February


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.

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.

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.”

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.”

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.”

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…



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