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.”


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