Friday, January 5th

A quick round up today. Too much time spent watching tv (how poor was McMafia? From its terrible title to its watery atmosphere, its lousy script to its underdeveloped characters… Everything that The Night Manager was, this isn’t. End of rant) and catching up with work to concentrate on 5 Things. I hope normal service will resume from next week. Happy New Year!

ONE MY FAVOURITE BOOK OF THE YEAR
Latest in the repurposed Ladybird People at Work series

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“This is a rock star. His name is Bob Dylan.
Bob is rehearsing with his band. It takes a long time.
First the band have to learn all of Bob’s famous songs.
Then Bob has to think of worse tunes he can sing over all of them.”

TWO R.I.P. RICK HALL, GIANT OF ALABAMA MUSIC
Although we recorded in Muscle Shoals, we were working at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, set up by Jimmy Johnson, David Hood, Roger Hawkins and Barry Beckett, who broke away from Hall’s Fame (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) studio. Among some fine obits, rocksbackpages reminded me of Mick Brown’s wonderful piece on Rick Hall and Muscle Shoals for the Daily Telegraph in 2013. It’s available to read this week here.

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From Mick’s piece: For a brief and exhilarating period Muscle Shoals rivalled New York, Los Angeles and London as one of the most important recording centres in popular music. You need only visit Muscle Shoals to realise quite how remarkable this was. The town is one of four – the others are Florence, Sheffield and Tuscumbia – that cluster along the Tennessee river in the north-western corner of Alabama, and are collectively known as the Shoals. The combined population is 69,000. It is a place of wood-framed houses, their porches entwined with bougainvillea; of handsome antebellum mansions – and of restaurants serving fried catfish and turnip greens. Thick forests flank the river, which rolls sluggishly in the summer heat. For an anonymous backwater, the Shoals has an improbably rich musical history. Florence was the birthplace of WC Handy, the father of the blues, and of Sam Phillips, who in 1953, convinced, as he put it, that “if I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars”, had the presence of mind to record an 18-year-old Elvis Presley singing the blues song “That’s Alright, Mama” – effectively creating rock’n’roll.

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THREE THE “AMERICAN PIE” CLASSIC ALBUMS PROGRAMME…
reminded my of Don McLean’s song, “Orphans of Wealth”, at this moment as apposite as it’ll ever be…
“And they’re African, Mexican, Caucasian, Indian / Hungry and hopeless Americans / The orphans of wealth and of adequate health / Disowned by this nation they live in.
And with weather-worn hands, on bread lines they stand / Yet but one more degradation… / And they’re treated like tramps while we sell them food stamps /
This thriving and prosperous nation…”

FOUR I TRIED TO WRITE ABOUT DYLAN’S GOSPEL YEARS…
but the issue that I’ve had since 1980 keeps rearing its head – I listen to the first bars of any song thinking, “This sounds great” and ninety seconds later I’ve zoned out. I don’t understand – the band is great, the arrangements are good, it’s performed with drive and commitment… But it’s the same problem I have with the whole of Tom Petty’s oeuvre. I can never stick around ’til the end.

FIVE FROM MAJOR TO MINOR
A fascinating piece about the current state of pop music at Popbitch. They’ve looked at one element in particular…
“Being popular gets you a good place on a Spotify playlist; getting a good place on a Spotify playlist gets you more plays. The more plays you get on Spotify, the better your chart position. The better your chart position, the better your placement on Spotify playlists. The more you get heard, the more popular you become. The more popular you become, the more you get heard. This is not a particularly groundbreaking observation. People have been talking about this quirk of the new chart calculations for years now. What is interesting about this run of long-standing number ones though is that something else significant seems to have changed since the days of “Everything I Do” and “Love Is All Around”. Specifically: the key that the songs are in.”

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Wednesday 18th February

OH GOD, NOT THEM AGAIN…
I forgot to mention this last week. Anyone see, for some unfathomable reason, Kasabian open the BAFTA’s? The BAFTA’s (a name I can’t now hear without Jennifer Saunders as Clarice Starling pronouncing it “Bafders” in the French & Saunders Silence Of The Lambs spoof years ago) keep looking endlessly, enviously, westwards as the years pass, as they position themselves as Oscar’s Mini-Me. And they’ve noticed that the Oscars kick off with a musical number, right? Except, on the Academy Awards night it’s a specially written “musical” number, that catalogues, critiques and generally cocks a snook at the nominated films. That’s not how BAFTA see it, obviously. This year… (drum roll)… please welcome (another drum roll)… British Rock Giants… (cheering and clapping, more drum rolls, possibly some eye rolling)… Kasabian! Dear God. I know that if I think of British Film, I’m always put in mind of the Poundshop Primal Scream that are Leicester’s famous sons. I mean, aren’t you? And shame on Stephen Fry for calling them “The Amazian Kasabian”, whilst undoubtedly thinking nothing of the sort. I hope.

A QUITE-LIKED QUOTE
Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu: What I’ve Learned, US Esquire: “I see only one requirement you have to have to be a director, or any kind of artist: rhythm. Rhythm, for me, is everything. Without rhythm, there’s no music. Without rhythm, there’s no cinema. Without rhythm, there’s no architecture. The cosmos is a system of rhythms that come in many ways: Images. Sounds. Colors. Vibrations… and if you don’t get that, if you don’t have that, it’s impossible to do something that vibrates. You can have the craft, the knowledge, the information, the tools, even the ideas – but if you don’t have rhythm, you are fucked.”

VISUAL OF THE WEEK
This Twen spread, shot by Robert Freeman, designed by Willy Fleckhaus, found on MagCulture.

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SOMETHING I LEARNED 1
As Don McLean prepares to sell, on April 7, the 16 pages of notes that became “American Pie” for somewhere just south of $1,000,000 according to a Christie’s estimate, I thought of the only piece I ever had in Mojo magazine. It was for a regular column called “What do you mean you’ve never heard of…?” and my chosen subject was the ghostly Paul Griffin. The man who saved “American Pie”, after various attempts to record it had failed. McLean: “And then this piano player named Paul Griffin, who had worked with Bob Dylan, started running “American Pie” down, and he played the ass off that song. It just started bouncing all over the place. He really pumped the thing and drove it. And with my guitar in his ear, and him jumping around on the piano, it came together. Once I put the vocal on, it became a very hot record.” Not forgetting Rob Stoner’s great bass playing, of course…

I wanted to find him as he’d played some of the greatest piano parts in rock, and I tried for weeks to get in touch with him, calling numbers given to me by, I think, Chris Welch at Music Sales. Various family members would answer, promising that if I called at 2pm he’d be there, but it didn’t happen. Anyway, I cobbled something together, and while looking for it yesterday, found a wonderful letter online, from Jonathan Singer to the New York Daily News in 1999, archived on the steely Dan website (Paul was the only musician ever given a co-credit by Becker & Fagen). He wanted them to write a piece to get Paul’s hospital treatment paid for. I make no apology for running so much from it. It’s just so fascinating. Here are some excerpts:

“Think of the organ intro to Chuck Jackson’s “Any Day Now”… the gospel piano behind Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”, and Don McLean’s “American Pie”… the tack piano on B.J.Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” and Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”… Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By”… Paul Simon’s “Tenderness” from There Goes Rhymin” Simon – these all feature Paul Griffin at the keyboard.

“But if any one producer monopolized Griffin, it was Burt Bacharach. From Dionne Warwick’s first records; “Don’t Make Me Over,” “Walk On By,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart” – if Bacharach/David wrote it, then Paul Griffin probably played the piano part. Wait a minute. Bacharach, no slouch as a pianist, gave Paul nearly all of his own piano parts to play? “Do you know why he did that?” Griffin asked. “Because Burt used to love to come into the studio and conduct. That’s why he gave me those parts to play.”

“Other musicians might have kept quiet about Bacharach’s idiosyncrasies and just let their own legend grow. Not Griffin. Try to compliment him on that little organ part for Chuck Jackson’s “Any Day Now” and he humbly smiles away the accolade. “A Bert Keyes arrangement,” he says, proud to give credit where credit is due.

“Griffin was so knocked-out by Aretha Franklin’s piano playing, that he refused to play on the session for “Think.” “They wanted me to play that [piano] intro she does. I said, “No way! That’s her !” Then again, Griffin was playing with Aretha three years before Atlantic signed her; when Clyde Otis cut her for Columbia.

“Paul Griffin’s most extraordinary – and often uncredited – work with Bob Dylan occurred on January 25, 1966. There has always been some confusion about the players on this first New York session for Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. Because the album was finished a few months later in Nashville, the album lists only the Nashville musicians. The two New York sessions, the first of which produced “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later),” are frequently credited to members of the Band. Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson might have played bass and guitar on one of the New York sessions. But just a single listening erases any doubt about who played piano. Al Kooper, who played organ at the session, remembers Paul well. “The piano playing on “One of Us Must Know” is quite magnificent,” Kooper told writer Andy Gill. “It influenced me enormously as a pianist. It’s probably Paul Griffin’s finest moment.”

“Griffin’s playing on “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” is reminiscent of what he would play five years later on “American Pie” – but even more brilliant in its intensity and improvisation. The song is an emotional confession of misconnects and apologies from the singer to some woman who has tragically slipped out of his life. Griffin gives the song its tragic depth – and height. He picks his way sensitively through the verses; but at other times, he prowls beneath the words with Judgement and an ominous gospel lick that he stokes until he has climbed to the verse’s peak. At the chorus, Griffin unleashes a symphony; hammering his way up and down the keyboard, half-Gershwin, half-gospel, all heart. The follow-up, a killer left hand figure that links the chorus to the verse, releases none of the song’s tension. Then, on the last chorus, not content to repeat the same brilliant part, Griffin’s playing is so breathtaking, and so completely embodies the lyric, that he enters into some other dimension. For several seconds, on one of Dylan’s best songs, Griffin makes Dylan seem almost earthbound. “It’s great, two-fisted, gospel piano playing,” Kooper says, “played with the utmost of taste.”

“Paul Griffin doesn’t remember it. He’s momentarily bewildered, almost apologetic for not recalling something others hold so dear. The part was probably something he’d heard in Paradise Baptist church at least a hundred times before. But do not mistake an isolated, fuzzy memory for a moment that he is unaware of. He is well aware of this music’s significance – in Paul Griffin’s life.

“The sound that you hear is the sound of gratitude,” he says simply. “If it wasn’t for music, I don’t know what would have become of me. I’d had a lot of jobs – I was a cutter in the garment district, I delivered groceries for a supermarket – but nothing with any kind of future. So, what you hear is the sound of being thankful… for being able to play… for being tapped to play on a session [Dylan’s] like that… thankful… as if I’d been saved from something horrible.”

“Several months after this conversation, Paul came down with pneumonia. Over the last year, he’s been in and out of the hospital. Then, a few weeks ago, doctors told him he needed a liver transplant. After a lifetime in music, “something horrible” yet threatens to overtake Paul Griffin, and he and his family wait. Would it not be fitting and wonderful if some of the artists, musicians and executives who so appreciated Paul while his smile lit up a session and his playing lit up their hearts, could now raise up as one and help him. Even the listening public – anyone who remembers all those Shirelles records, Chuck Jackson’s “Any Day Now,” “American Pie,” or the first exquisite twenty seconds of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” Anyone, in fact, who, like Don McLean, can still remember how that music used to make them smile…” – Jonathan Singer

SOMETHING I LEARNED 2
And, of course, looking for all this stuff, in the way of the web I run across something else… Chip Taylor’s Rock & Roll Joe site, dedicated to the unsung heroes of Rock ’n’ Roll. Where they know Paul Griffin’s name. Seriously – a place you could lose some time looking round.

ON THE PLAYLIST THIS WEEK
Say goodbye to Lesley Gore, singer of cracking songs in the Sixties. Just check out Ms Gore singing “You Don’t Own Me” in 1964, where the director has filtered the lens and shot in extreme close-up, for a brilliant modern-as-tomorrow look. Here’s a song I always liked from her last album, in 2005, recorded and written with Blake Morgan, where the quality of angels is called into question, as if she was Philip Marlowe, perhaps – “Oh I’m waiting for better angels/Oh I’m waiting, for any lead/Though my case looks fatal/I’m still hoping better angels come to me…”

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