Five Things I Saw & Heard This Week. Tuesday, May 5th

Well, John the Baptist, after torturing a thief
Looks up at his hero, the commander-in-chief
Saying, “Tell me, great hero, but please make it brief
Is there a hole for me to get sick in?”
The commander-in-chief answers him while chasing a fly
Saying, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry”
And dropping a barbell, he points to the sky
Saying, “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken.”
— “Tombstone Blues”, Bob Dylan

{WELCOME}

I’m sitting here thinking. Has anyone done a cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting in Limbo” yet? “Sitting here in limbo / Waiting for the dice to roll… / Sitting here in limbo / Got some time to search my soul…”
Or the great Willie Brown’s “Future Blues”? “The minutes seems like hours, and hours seems like days / The minutes seems like hours, hours seems like days…” [Recorded in 1931, it was once among the rarest blues 78s, and is worth around $25,000 if you can find a copy. Here it is on YouTube, with a photo his friend Son House’s signature on the label. Brown is famously mentioned in Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads”.]

Anyhow, with a distinct New Orleans / Muscle Shoals flavour, here’s Five Things. We start with a few recommendations. First, if you feel like “getting lost in that hopeless little screen” as Len put it, some of our tv highlights.

{ONE} VISIONS 

SUNNY DAYS I spent some time last week sitting in the garden, lazily learning “Sunny”, Bobby Hebb’s perfect soul-pop classic. I’d been inspired by the wonderful Billie Eilish’s performance of it on the One World at Home concert, accompanied by her brother, Finneas, on an honest-to-god actual Wurlitzer electric piano*. Next to all the try-hard over-soulers, and especially after Elton John’s bizarre performance – in Tony Olmos’s words: “WTF! Why is Elton John murdering his own song?!” – Billie was a relaxed breath of fresh air.

My favourite version is still Bobby’s original, one take at the end of a session, but I also love this live performance on US TV in 1972, with Ron Carter on electric bass. Every verse pitches it up a half step and increases the tempo, until all hell breaks loose. Dig the Bond Theme intro (in the original, a vibraphone hints at that melody, but it’s made explicit in the guitar part here). As Richard Williams’ fine obit for The Guardian tells it: “In 1961 he moved to New York, where he found a more congenial artistic climate. “Sunny” would be written there, partly as a reaction to the death of his brother, who was murdered outside a Nashville nightclub in November 1963, the day after John F Kennedy’s assassination. “I needed to pick myself up,” Hebb said. The song came to him one morning when he had just returned to his home in Harlem from an all-night music session and a bout of heavy drinking, the sight of a purple dawn being its immediate inspiration.”

NOVELISATION The first episode of Novels that Shaped our World on BBC4 was an object lesson in making a literary documentary — informed people interviewed well, a clarity in the narration, and modern dramatisations of key works done with a light touch and a sense of fun. So introduce yourself to Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and other early masterworks. Take a bow, director Sarah Barclay.

UN-NETFLIX Unorthodox, about a woman who goes to Berlin to free herself from a from a strict Hassidic sect in Brooklyn. Better in Brooklyn than Berlin dramatically, but fascinating, with some fantastic performances. Loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 autobiography Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, it’s the first Netflix series to be primarily in Yiddish. Music is an important part of the plot, and the reveal at the end is very moving. Also Uncorked, a Memphis-set story of a father who wants to hand over his Barbeque restaurant to his son, who is more interested in becoming a Sommelier. It’s a post-Moonlight film, funny and thoughtful, with a smart script and an interesting soundtrack of Memphis hip-hop (except for the scenes in France which, of course, have French rap).

{TWO} SOUNDS

CELLO WEEP FOR ME Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s stunning cello piece – “Melody” – ended the Today Programme one day last week. Muscular and emotional, it sounds like the past and the future at once, which was why it seemed so perfect for the present. From powerful bass tones to almost-imperceptible flute-like grace notes, it’s compelling and concise. It’s the first piece of music on this page of his website.

UNDER THE WALL Tunnel 29, a fantastic serial by Helena Merriman which “tells the extraordinary true story of a man who dug a tunnel right under the feet of Berlin Wall border guards to help friends, family and strangers escape…” Interviews with the tunnelers who survived and the presence of some real-life coverage of the attempts (extraordinarily, an NBC film crew were making a documentary of these student diggers) make it an edge-of-the-seat thriller, beautifully rendered in sound. You can also read a web version alongside, which has photos of the locale, the wall and its guards and all the participants.

CORONA IN THE CRESCENT CITY Harry Shearer on New Orleans, From Katrina to Corona on the always-interesting From Our Own Correspondent on Radio 4. “Fifteen years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is facing another lethal storm. The city on Louisiana’s coast has become one of the worst-hit areas in the US. Some have blamed the high death toll on the decision to allow the annual Mardi Gras parade to go ahead. But musician and actor Harry Shearer, famous, among other things for voicing characters in The Simpsons, says don’t victim blame and don’t reproach the revellers.” Beautifully done. Oh, and Sue McGregor’s excellent The Reunion, also on Radio 4, the episode on four Girl Singers of the 60s – Helen Shapiro, Petula Clark, Sandie Shaw and Jackie Trent.

{THREE} *THE MIGHTY [FINE] WURLITZER

When we recorded in Muscle Shoals we asked why the studio was full of Wurlies. Apparently, schools bought them in bulk for music classes as they had a built-in speaker. Unfortunately, they were a devil to keep in tune, so they offloaded them, and they ended up in recording studios, accidentally becoming a valued component of the “Southern Soul” sound. Here’s Mark P. at the Wurlitzer and Robbie Taylor (our great keyboard player) at the Fender Rhodes. 70s music heaven!


{FOUR} A SLOW BLUES FOR A LOCKDOWN MIDNIGHT

Sometimes there’s nothing like a slow blues, and here’s a cracker, featuring the wonderful Arnett Cobb on tenor sax and Ellis Marsalis on piano, with Chris Severin on bass and Johnny Vidacovich on drums, taped on the evening of January 30, 1982, in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Ellis Marsalis sadly died last month.

Drummer Vidacovich was interviewed by my friend Sam Charters for his book A Trumpet around the CornerThe story of New Orleans Jazz, and I love this quote from it… “Musically, what’s going to happen around here – it’s about maintaining the past. But that isn’t a good word, because if I say maintain the “past”, what I really think about is that it’s something that’s growing. It’s a kind of machine. That’s the way music was around here, constantly growing, and it has the past in it. So if we can maintain that, then we’ll do what we’ve always been doing maintaining a music that has a past, [but] that’s very much alive today. That’s what we have to work for.

To me, that’s the way I see the living body of music in New Orleans. It’s very old, but it’s still growing. It’s like a tree that has a big, big trunk and old roots, but if you look up at the top, you can see it’s still sprouting little leaves. It’s still coming out, waving in the breeze. That’s what we have to do, make sure the tree don’t get sick.”

{FIVE} THANK YOU, CHRIS

A lovely 90th birthday tribute to the extraordinary career of Chris Barber on thebluemoment reminds me of the last time I saw Chris play, at the Camberley Cricket Club, alongside the always brilliant clarinet of Sammy Rimington. Sammy’s in the glass to the left, Chris on trombone to the right. Chris was a wide listener, always adding musicians and instruments that weren’t part of his starting point of New Orleans Jazz. For a period he had a great electic guitarist called John Slaughter, a fine horn section and a bevy of excellent guest vocalists. I always loved the fact that Chris also continued to be interested in later music from the Crescent City – his long association with Mac Rebennack was proof of his open ears. When he turned 81, he released a double CD called “Memories of My Trip”, an overview of his career, with fine performances by Chris with Van Morrison, Keith Emerson, Mark Knopfler, Rory Gallagher and Muddy Waters among others.

{ENDNOTES} 

¶ On one of BBC4s interminable So-and-So at the BBC, – you know, Singer-Songwriters, Country Songs, Cilla Black – I catch Carl Douglas doing “Kung Fu Fighting” on the One Hit Wonders show. I’d never realised what a nice-sounding voice he had, and such lovely phrasing. If he could be this good singing nonsense with conviction, I want to know what’s in Carl’s back catalogue, so I’m off to explore…

¶ You shouldn’t miss this, a short performance by “flatfoot” dancer D.Ray White. I aspire to this brilliant style of dance, and will attempt a demonstration at the first post-lockdown party. Be there or be square.

This is one of the best things I’ve read about music, improvised jazz in particular, recently. And these sentences felt relevant to “lockdown time”… “The process described in that paragraph may have taken five minutes, or it may have taken fifteen. No one was keeping score, and one of the special properties of improvisation – and not just jazz improvisation – is that it can take hold of chronological time and distort it: speeding it up, slowing it down, bending it, stopping it altogether. Now Konitz briefly ruled time, making it obey his commands as he lingered over the revealed contours of his design, sprinting forwards and pulling back until he judged the moment right to unveil the unmistakable shape of a standard.


Front Cover

The book of Five Things is available from Amazon here.

“He writes with the insight of someone who has inhabited the world of the professional musician but also with the infectious enthusiasm of someone who is a fan like anyone of us. He also comes at the subject from an entirely personal, slightly sideways perspective, with no agenda and no product to sell. It’s entertaining and inspiring in equal measure.”
from an Amazon review by Zuma

“A terrific book, stuffed to the gills with snippets of news items and observations all with a musical theme, pulled together by the watchful eye of Martin Colyer… lovingly compiled, rammed with colour photos and interesting stories. He has a good ear for a tune, an eye for the out-of-ordinary and can write a bit too.”
Steve Carr, everyrecordtellsastory.com

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Extra! Billy Bragg Comes to Tea…

In the late summer of last year, I received an email out of the blue from Billy Bragg.

“Hi Martin”, Billy wrote, “For the past couple of years I’ve been writing a book that seeks to put skiffle into its proper context in British cultural history. My starting point is your dad’s record collection and it ends with Ken playing at the 100 Club the night after the first punk festival held there in September 1976.” [These pictures show the posters on the back wall of the club].

club

He went on to say that Goin’ Home: The Uncompromising Life and Music of Ken Colyer – a collaboration between Mike Pointon, Ray Smith and myself that presented Ken’s story as an oral biography – had been a great help, “not only giving me some insight into the British trad scene, but also helping me to understand the importance of New Orleans to both jazz and skiffle.”

Billy wanted to find some pictures that helped to highlight that this was the moment when guitars came to the fore, and the music shifted, setting the stage for the British Pop and R ’n’ B boom of the early sixties. Some were in the Ken book, but there were others left over, so I looked them out and Billy, who was in the East End for family reasons, came to tea. It was great to meet someone so passionate about the story of that time, as well as being what you hoped he’d be – a genuinely nice fellow. So we talked about the romance and inspiration of American roots music of all stripes, and sorted out the most relevant images.

A few days later Billy sent me a few of the chapters, and I was thrilled by the amount of love and devotion that had gone into the book. It needed someone who was willing to put the time and effort into researching and reading widely, and in finding those who had lived through those times and still had stories to be told. I know how pleased my dad would have been to see a light shone on this period – to see the story so well recounted, placed in the context of Britain’s post-war years and the American and British music that preceded and followed. From America’s prison farms to New Orleans at the turn of the century, and forward to the birth of rock, it’s not only a remarkable musical journey but also a terrific piece of social history.

It’s a bonus that Billy comes at it from the viewpoint of a working musician, and a political one at that. Following in the footsteps of Pete Frame’s excellent The Restless Generation, Billy puts flesh on the bones of the story – he shows the wild effect that Skiffle, through Lonnie Donegan, had on the youth of Britain and America, a DIY genre that gave a whole generation the means to make their own music, while shoving aside the bland and tired-out variety shows of their parents.

Roots, Radicals & Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World is released on June 1st. I really recommend it. There is a lengthy excerpt [on the music player to the right] of Billy in conversation with Bob Harris at a preview of the book, which took place at Cecil Sharp House. Here’s a short extract:

lonnie

“Lonnie Donegan takes centre stage in a photograph from the period, playing guitar and singing into the mic. To his right, Alexis Korner plays mandolin and Ken Colyer strums the guitar slung across his knee. To his left, Bill Colyer sits playing a washboard, while Chris Barber plucks a stand-up bass. This picture embodies a revolutionary moment in British popular music, when the guitar, for so long stuck at the back of the bandstand, an often inaudible part of the rhythm section, comes to the front and takes control. A young Pete Townshend was there to witness this paradigm shift.

The future powerhouse guitar player of the Who was just a schoolboy when he saw Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen at Acton Town Hall, west London. At the time, his father was a professional musician, playing with the Squadronaires big band. Used to the smooth, sophisticated swing played by his father, Townshend was shocked by the primitive nature of the Jazzmen and their crowd. “I was used to the tidy music of my dad’s era. It was messy. He (Colyer) was messy. The band were messy. The audience were messy.” In scenes of seeming chaos that would not have been out of place at a punk gig twenty-five years later, Townshend described how the men were drunk, wore cheap rough duffel coats, some had wet themselves and instead of wearing wrist watches, some had alarm clocks hanging around their necks.

Disorienting though these scenes must have been to the young Townshend, what made a lasting impression on him was the sight of guitarist taking control of the gig by bringing his instrument to the front of the stage. In that moment, he grasped the enormity of what was happening. “This instrument was going to change the world. For me, this was absolutely massive because my father was a saxophone player. I could see the end of my father’s world – I was going to get this guitar and it was going to be bye-bye old timer and that’s exactly what happened.”

Five Things: Wednesday 19th March

Sammy Rimington, Martin Wheatley, Cuff Billett, Vic Pitt, Chris Barber, Kenny Milne, Camberley Cricket Club

Sammy&Chris

An unprepossessing room, but a great evening, with music ranging from New Orleans to St Louis and New York, via Hawaii (for Martin Wheatley’s cracking solo performance of “Laughing Rag”). Hadn’t seen Chris play for years, but nice to get a chance to thank him for his contributions to British & American music. And lovely to make the acquaintance of Martin, too modest to tell me that he was part of the Bryan Ferry Orchestra, but keen to share a love of Hawaiian guitarists in general and Roy Smeck, the “Wizard of the Strings”, in particular.

The Whistle Test 70s California Special
Two highlights (apart from the obvious ones, Little Feat’s “Rock ’n’ Roll Doctor” and James Taylor’s pellucid, almost weightless, guitar playing): JD Souther doing “Doolin-Dalton” with the accompaniment of a bass player who switched to piano for the bridge and coda, playing beautifully… just a shame that JD wasn’t handsome enough to join the Eagles. And Ry Cooder’s fantastic take on Sleepy John Estes “Goin’ To Brownsville” with quite the most violent mandolin playing ever committed to video.

Avicii, DJ, creator of the biggest hits on the planet, by Simon Mills, ES Magazine
“Bergling is on his computer. An Apple laptop screen illuminates the tired-looking but puckishly pretty-boy face (which Ralph Lauren chose to front its Denim & Supply jeans ads). His concentration is trance-like as his fingers move across the keyboard at the warp speed of a jonesing IT man. ‘Sorry. If you can wait a minute… I just have this tune in my head and I need to get it down before I forget.’ Avicii, who has worked with Madonna and Lenny Kravitz, the geeky Swede whom not even One Direction could knock off the number one spot last summer, is writing his next hit song. Right in front of me.

The melody coming from the mini speakers sounds plinky-plonky, almost puerile, but Bergling keeps trimming and honing, adding notes and beat-matching, turning the laptop to show me the Tetris visuals of the FL Studio programme. After five minutes, something approaching the top line of a hit emerges.
It’s impressive but somehow all too easy, too convenient to be what the old fart in me would call ‘real music’. ‘Listen,’ he says. ‘I don’t consider myself “a musician”. Yes, I can play guitar, I can play piano; in fact, I play almost every instrument. I was never good enough to perform with a band… but I always knew about melody. I could vision for how I wanted things to sound. And I don’t think you can say that what I do, what DJ producers do, is not “real music”… it’s electronic music. You are drawing the melodies, drawing the chord progressions. You are making music. Mozart wrote everything down on a piece of paper. DJs write on computers. I really don’t see any difference.’

There’s a pause. ‘I’m not comparing myself to Mozart, by the way…’

You just did.”

My New Favourite Blog: My Husband’s Stupid Record Collection
“Alex and I have lived together for 9 years. In those 9 years we have packed up, moved and unpacked his record collection 5 times. It’s about 15 boxes, about 1500 hundred records, “that includes the singles and stuff, which you’re also going to have to review.” Is what Alex just said to me from the other room.

This project was my idea, inspired by maybe one too many glasses of wine last weekend, when I was in charge of changing the music. So here we are. Alex’s taste in music could probably be best described as eclectic on the snobbier side. My taste in music has changed from the early beginnings of Disney musicals to Dave Matthews Band, to discovering the Pixies in college. I’ve never been ahead of the curve with music, but my taste could probably also be described as eclectic on the snobbier side too – just in a much more clueless way. Alex said reading a reaction from a person like me, rather than a person who knows about the history of what I might be listening to, who has been listening to the same stuff for decades and has the vocabulary to talk about it, will be funny, sincere and maybe even thought-provoking. Maybe? I don’t know, I guess we’ll see. Here are the rules I’ve set for my self. Start with the A’s. Listen to the entire thing even if I really hate it. And make sure to comment on the cover art. Are you with me? Let’s see how far I can go.”

Two excerpts: “There is an article by Ralph J. Gleason on the back cover of this album called Perspectives: The Death of Albert Ayler which is very good and making me wish I liked this music more. Maybe it’s an acquired taste. While I already knew that this type of jazz existed, this is probably my first time listening to an entire album of it all the way through and intentionally.”

“I really love these liner notes.  For the song “We all Love Peanut Butter” by the One Way Streets (which is also very good) it says: “One hot summer day in 1966, two mom-driven station wagons pulled up outside Sunrise Studios in Hamilton, Ohio and out piled 4 insane teens. While their moms set up a table on the lawn outside and played bridge and drank lemonade, the One Way Streets were inside the studio shredding their way through 2 songs they felt would create a major disturbance. As a finishing touch to their wild afternoon, they ripped off an eighty dollar mike on their way out the door and haven’t been heard of since.” Every single detail about that anecdote makes me very, very happy.”

Hate Is A Strong Word, Tim Chipping, Holy Moly, Thursday 13th March
“Just when you thought New Zealand singing teenager Lorde could do no wrong, she goes and upsets reggae fans. Lorde somewhat confusingly wrote on her blog: “I hate Reggae, Reggae makes me feel like am late for something.” She’s not welcome at the offices of newspaper The Jamaica Star. Their resident gossip columnist has put the “Royals” singer firmly in her place, roots-style. Writing in the paper’s Roun’ Up section, columnist Keisha says: “International artiste Lorde say she hate reggae music. Everybody nuh haffi like everything but HATE is a very strong word. Lorde, you always look like smeagol from Lord of the Rings. You always look like you a have seizure when you deh pon stage a try move you crawny body. If you need fi HATE anything, you need fi HATE you age paper. A nuh our fault say you a 17 and look like 3 million. A nuh our fault say you caan sing live. Gwaan from ya, Miss One Hit Wonder.”

Would anyone mind if we spent the rest of the day saying gwaan from ya?”

Five Things Photo Extra

Bob&Manny

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