Wednesday, May 2nd

It was a week of strangeness, a week where Gibson went bankrupt, Bob Dylan turned distiller and Prince had a new song out…

ONE “I’M LIKE A BIRD WITHOUT A SONG”
With some synchronicity, there I was talking about Susan Rogers (see the music player on the right) and Eric Leeds, when she’s interviewed by The Guardian for the release of Prince’s version of “Nothing Compares 2 U”. “One day, he went into a room with a notebook and, within an hour, emerged with the lyrics to “Nothing Compares 2 U”. Rogers, who witnessed many such bursts of creativity, remembers, “The song came out like a sneeze.” As usual, she rolled the tapes as Prince laid down instrument after instrument, mixing and overdubbing in the same session (Eric Leeds overdubbed the sax part three days later).”

It starts for all the world like a Harry Nilsson song, a fairground calliope round punctuated by a percussive dah-dah! Then the vocal starts, a tune you know so well that any deviance from the version you’ve loved since 1990 pulls you up short. There’s an unexpected muscularity as the drums and swooping guitar fly in at the end of the first line. It has that loosey-goosey drumming style that Stevie Wonder had when he overdubbed on top of his own drum parts. (Eddie Hinton was another captain manyhands in this regard – try “Watch Dog”). It also has a couple of bluesy turns to the melody which really work, and listen to how Eric Leeds’ tenor picks up on that sour/sweetness beautifully. Susan thought the finished song was “exceptional, in his Top 10”. She was right – it’s a masterpiece. Really.

TWO “I BEEN A MOONSHINER…”
As I write this, son is in L.A. attempting to buy a bottle of Bob’s new signature hootch, Heaven’s Door. According to Clay Risen of The New York Times, “the palate opens with a soft cocoa and buttercream note, then sharpens toward black pepper and cigar tobacco. The finish is slightly bitter, with the sweet spiciness of an Atomic Fireball.” Sounds good, Clay. Let’s hope Gabe hits paydirt. It’s occasioned the release of more pictures of Bob in his ironworking studio, along with inspirational quotes…

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…but there’s a cute bit of the Heaven’s Door site that has a random selection of Bob’s original typescripts for songs. This one, for “Blind Willie McTell” – bootlegged whisky in his hand – has the fabulous (cut) couplet, “Just me and Betty Grable, trying to stay warm…”

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THREE “DON’T THINK TWICE, IT’S ALRIGHT”
While typing, I’m listening to Verona, the last show of the Dylan European Tour (it’s here) which features heavily re-arranged versions of the entire set-list. There’s an intimate and gentle loveliness to pretty much everything played, like the band are gathered around one mic in a triangle of light. Although it’s all very restrained, there are some neat angles to the melody lines (mainly in the form of unison lap steel/guitar features). The version of “Tangled up in Blue” is very odd, but the American Songbook stuff is gorgeous, “Honest with Me” is given a total Eddie Cochran makeover (quite a lot of the gig has a dawn of R&R feel) and “Pay in Blood” has now become a brilliant kind of Weimar Blues. Bob’s own piano playing is on-the-money, operating at the most eccentric end of his spectrum. The interludes in “Ballad of a Thin Man” – well it’s nothing like you’d expect. The whole band sound like they’re having the damnedest time. Good on Ol’ Whiskey Bob.

FOUR RY COODER TOURS AGAIN, AT SON’S INSISTENCE…
Well done, Joaquin! Of course, The Prodigal Son London date sold out instantly. A shame, as Cadogan Hall would be an excellent venue to hear him and his band of young guns play. I managed to get tickets for the gig at the National Stadium in Dublin, the world’s only purpose-built boxing stadium, built in 1939. Wish me luck. I mean, acoustically it could be fine, I just have my doubts… Oh, and someone put this excellent promo film on YouTube recently: Van Dyke Parks’ first music video production at Warner Brothers Records, in 1970. “I headed up a pioneering office that I titled ‘Audio Visual Services.’ Of those several ten-minute documentary musical shorts, I know of only one that survives – ‘Ry Cooder’”. Dig the pick-up truck and Airstream trailer.

FIVE MORTIFICATION CORNER
I’m at the dentist, around the corner from Selfridges. Across from me, looking at his phone is Toby Jones. Who doesn’t love Toby Jones as an actor? Brilliant in his breakthrough role as Truman Capote in Infamous, marvellous as Neil Baldwin in Marvellous (the story of Stoke City Football Club’s kit-man), and fantastic alongside Mackenzie Crook in Detectorists.

I have a guitar with me, which I never do. I hate carrying a guitar around town. I feel a charlatan. I have it because my sister-in-law, Hedda, has asked me to bring it to that evening’s Mark Kermode in 3D at the BFI, of which she is one of the producers. Not to play, you understand, but as a back-up, in case actor Johnny Flynn can’t bring his to the show. Johnny wrote and the theme song for Detectorists, so I’m amused by the coincidence. Dentist visit done with, I head to the South Bank, and to the Green Room. Tonight’s guests are Charlie Brooker of Black Mirror fame and Jessie Buckley and Johnny, who are there to talk about their new film, Beast.

I’m talking to Mark, who says that Johnny won’t be here for the start of the show, and we work out a bit of business where, as Johnny’s introduced, Mark will ask if anyone has a guitar. Guitar secreted under my seat, that’ll be my cue to hold my hand up and pass it to the front. Hilarity will ensue.

Mark asks if the guitar’s in tune, so I say yes but get it out to check. As I’m doing so, Mark then suggests a run through, and pulling out his harmonica, calls Jessie over, and expects me to play along, with Charlie Brooker and Hedda for an audience. The chords for, yes, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” fly from my head, and Jessie’s lovely voice is left to deal with my all-over-the-shop guitar.  Attempting to pull the chords up on the phone is tricky, as the BFI building seems to block 4G signals, but Mark somehow gets them. Not so they fit on a tiny phone screen, however. We go again, there’s much stopping and starting, but it gets the key worked out, warms Jessie’s voice up and allows Mark to sort out the right cross-key for his harmonica.

The show is, as usual, highly entertaining, and Charlie Brooker’s love for the terrifying Magic Roundabout film, Dougal and the Blue Cat, a sight to see. Then Johnny arrives on stage, and he and Jessie try to talk about a film that is almost impossible to without spoiling its taut roll-out of character and tension. Then Mark asks his guests to play a song, and if there’s a guitar in the house. There is. It’s Johnny’s, but no-one’s told Mark so he points me out, and expects me to hand it to him. But I’d been asked to leave mine in the Green Room in case Johnny wanted to familiarise himself with it. And no-one’s told Mark, but it only adds to the rather carnival-esque atmosphere of these shows… All is well, though, and they essay a sweet, skipping version of “Don’t Think Twice”.

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Afterwards, I talk to Johnny about his love of the fingerpicking style of Mississippi John Hurt (listen to the Detectorists theme to check that out), his upcoming live album (and great live albums of the past), Blake Mills’ production of his friend Laura Marling’s Semper Femina (I love how Mills pushed the structures of the music, but he’s not so sure) and his lovely 1934 wooden Resonator guitar (a National Trojan, I think). He’s a lovely guy, great at both things he does, as is the extremely talented Jessie. And, thankfully, I hadn’t seen the excellent Beast before I met them both. That’s all I’m saying.

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Wednesday, April 18th

This week’s missive has been written to a soundtrack of Bettye Lavette singing “Emotionally Yours” from her new record of Dylan covers, “Sometimes It Snows In April” from Me’Shell Ndegéocello’s Ventriloquism, her album of 80s covers, Melody Gardot’s fine Live in Europe, and The Kills’ new single (see below).

ONE RECOMMENDED FILMS 1
If you’re a lover of B-Movies then get to the cinema quickly for A Quiet Place, so you don’t read anything more about it [like this – Ed]. Director John Krasinski played composer Marco Beltrami Peter Gabriel’s version of Bowie and Eno’s “Heroes” as a direction for the minimal score, to be done on a minimal budget. “All I needed were strings and a piano. I de-tuned the piano’s black keys to make it a little askew.” It works beautifully, merging in with the almost silent film, where most of the sound comes from whispers, feet padding on sanded paths, and the tiny creaks of floorboards.

TWO RECOMMENDED FILMS 2
Also out now, the terrifying You Were Never Really Here, by Lynne Ramsay, with Joaquin (or as he’s now known in our house, WhackHim)
Phoenix. Wow. Dark, disturbing, oppressive, incredibly filmed and directed, it’s a nasty, bruitish tale that seems totally at home in the world today. I always think that films dealing with exploitation veer perilously close to the thing they’re moralising about, and this is in the tradition of Scorsese and Schrader’s Taxi Driver, and, especially, Paul Schrader’s Hardcore, the next film he wrote, about a father searching for his daughter amid the world of Snuff films. There is one of those sequences that critics call “bravura”, where Phoenix is seen dispatching various hoods via CCTV screens, as a distorted soundtrack plays Rosie and the Originals “Angel Baby”, a song that even in its original form is pretty distorted.

In an interview with Emily Yoshida for Vulture, Ramsay tells how this sequence came about: “So we started walking through the whole sequence, and the DP shot it, and I started thinking about how I was going to use the sound. And I started to think, you know, this [the grainy CCTV footage] feels right for that moment in the film. It’s a risky thing to do, but it was kind of a light-bulb moment when our backs were against the wall in many ways. And then for the sound stuff, with the skipping music, we tried a lot of different things; we tried using just room tone. But “Angel Baby” was the first track I tried, and I thought, maybe it’s just an interior track. And we were playing with it, and it kind of messes with your brain a little bit; it comes out of different speakers. And then the idea of the time slice, where you take little pieces of the song out, so the cuts “jump” even more. It sets up sort of a startling tone. So once we kind of hit on that, I was like, we’re kind of using the music in a different way — you don’t exactly know what or why, but it does something to you.” Startling is right – it’s a brilliant effect, and if the film is slightly unsatisfying it’s not for want of realism or talent.

THREE ANOTHER FILM RECOMMENDATION!

5-billfrisellThis time on DVD, this one Emma Franz’ intimate film about Bill Frisell, Bill Frisell: A Portrait, which illuminates the rather terrifying creative process that takes place in Bill’s mind. At one point he’s doing a concert with pianist Jason Moran, and sends him over a sheaf of song ideas, about forty, from a pile of hundreds that he’d written in a short period. My favourite section has Frisell trying to remember how a particular song goes, and failing, saying how he hopes it will come to him in the moment, and cutting to him playing it brilliantly that night. It also has the treasurable Joey Baron, as interviewee and collaborator, whose recollections are a total hoot. Help enable Emma to make more great films by buying a copy!

FOUR THINKING ABOUT RECORDING WITH…
Ndugu Chancler [see the music player on the right] made me look out this, Eric Leeds’ horn chart for Hot House’s “Means Too Much”
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He flew into L.A. from Minneapolis to work with our co-producer, Susan Rogers, who was also recording with Wendy & Lisa on her days off. We asked Susan if Eric would write a horn section for this song and, boy, did he ever. He came in and blazed his way through the five parts (alto, three tenors, baritone), not a note out of place. It was like magic.

FIVE EIGHT BY EIGHT BY…
I was interviewing legendary NYC Art Director Robert Priest by Skype this week about his extraordinary global football magazine, Eight by Eight, when he asked me what I was listening to. That question always blindsides me, but as I was seated at the computer, I was able to give him a couple of names. I reversed the question, and he said that the Priest & Grace office loved The Kills. Which was weird, as I was going to mention their new single in answer to his original question. It’s called “List of Demands (Reparations)” and is fantastic – a howling thump of in-your-face menace, placed right at the corner where The Ting Tings meet Queen’s “We Will Rock You”!

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Five Things: Wednesday 29th May

Wayne Miller died last week
Wayne Miller was one of the less famous names at the legendary photo agency Magnum. When we were looking for a cover for our album in 1986, to be called South, we were determined not to have ourselves in the frame. Our first single had used a Weegee photo of a burning building, and we liked the anti-80s feel of black and white photography. In the mid-80s every cover seemed to have sharp pinks and hard yellows and glossy, overlit faces shining out.
Wayne
We were looking for a photo that summed up the feel of a record recorded partly in the Alabama heat of Muscle Shoals, and found it in the book that accompanied Ed Steichen’s famous Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. The photo we fell in love with was of a couple in a clinch. It was part of a series taken in 1949 of migrant workers – cotton pickers – in California. We thought that the intensity and intimacy was something to behold. There’s another wonderful image in this series of the same couple, the man sitting disconsolately on the bed, with the woman lazily fiddling with her nails. I’m still not sure how we convinced anyone to go with this approach, but we did. Of course, the record company could probably point to the cover having something to do with the paltry sales of the album… The type is cut out of some posters that we had printed by Tribune Showprint, of Earl Park, Indiana. You can read about the rather great Mr. Miller here. If you’re curious, more on our failed career here.

The Clash interviewed, The Guardian
Paul Simenon on musicianship: I’d become musically more capable. I could take off the notes that were painted on the neck of my guitar. But then I did make a mistake in being really confident: I went for one of those jazz basses that didn’t have frets… and when it goes really dark, and you can’t quite hear what you’re playing, it suddenly sounds like you’re drunk. So I said: “You know what? I think I’ll have the frets put back on.” I got a bit carried away. I thought I was getting quite good, but I got a big slap in the face.

…and on presentation: A lot of the looks were down to financial problems. Everyone in those days wore flares and had long hair. So if you went into secondhand stores, there’d be so many straight-legged trousers because everyone wanted flares. That instantly set you apart from everybody else. And also there was another place called Laurence Corner… Mick Jones: Selling army surplus…

I work along the road from where Laurence Corner was, and still fondly remember the green Army Jacket I bought there. Now there’s a chemist in its place, but they’ve put a nice plaque in the window…

Laurence

That Difficult Second Album
Sexual Healing, Pamela Stephenson Connolly’s sex therapy column in The Guardian: “My boyfriend talks too much during sex. We’ve been together for a year and recently he’s started talking to me while we’re intimate. At first it was everyday stuff like what he wants for dinner but then essentially he began ranting. Do you know how hard it is to climax while listening to someone talk about how many bands have produced “disappointing second albums”? I don’t know if I can go on like this.”

Rolling Stone’s Bob Dylan Special
No professional manicures for Bob…

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Stephen Collins’ strip, Guardian Weekend
Still, his wonderful anti-Mumfords bandwagon rolls on…

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Not room this week for Sam Amidon at Bush Hall, intriguing, strange and moving in equal measure. More next week…

Five Things I Saw & Heard This Week: Wednesday 21st November

Cover Me
Around the time of the singer songwriter boom of the early 70’s, cover versions used to be odd one-offs, musicians showing respect for their elders & forbears, and subsidiary to the act’s own material. Then covers became cute—hipper bands would cover less hip pop songs, thus hipping them up. Then it all seemed to go wrong when people stared making tribute cover albums. Steve McL, who posts interesting and entertaining covers, usually themed, at the excellent coverfreak, puts it pithily in his manifesto:

“You should only cover a song if you have a reason for covering it. Financial considerations don’t count. Bring something new to the song. Make it your own. You’re a musician, interpret the music! It can be good or bad, just make it different from the original. Otherwise, what’s the point? My mission here is to spread Good Covers in the hope that they will overtake the bland and boring ones. If I post one that you enjoy, tell your friends and help me in my lonely battle…”

This is all a roundabout way of saying that Meshell Ndegeocello’s album of songs associated with the late, great Nina Simone—Pour une âme souveraine [“For a sovereign soul”]—is great. So far, her reworkings of Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, Feelin’ Good (I know, daunting to even attempt), Don’t Take All Night with Sinead, and Young Gifted & Black with Cody ChesnuTT are the ones I keep going back to, but the whole album is a triumph, and in a week where I heard the Mumfords wanly strum through The Boxer, a necessity.

The First Thirty Seconds Of “Jive Talking”
Go on, listen to them. Chunks of muted guitar. Then a kick drum and a nasty, grungy synth bass. Then some sweetness with a little Chic-like rhythm guitar before the snare and a double-tracked Barry come strutting in. Actually the whole song is pretty wonderful, especially the great drumming of Dennis Bryon.

Leonard Cohen Screensaver. Thanks, Antonio Zazueta Olmos

Southern Soul Odyssey One
An email with this attachment from my relative Brett, taking a break from touring and holidaying in Alabama: “Trip Down Memory Lane!”

I’m put in mind of time spent in the Shoals. I found this scan the other day of Jimmy Johnson’s pick, which later served time as the rocksbackpages logo…


Southern Soul Odyssey Two

Coincidentally, we were talking about artworks where someone instructs others to do the work, with the visiting Bob & Sam Gumpert. I was obsessed at one time with Letterpress printing and sourced an order form for a great Printshop in the 80s called Tribune Showprint, out of Earl Park, Indiana. They printed posters for the Chiltlin’ circuit and Soul Shows, often on hand screenprinted ‘rainbow’ cards. Mark and I immediately got them to do posters and covers for Hot House, our band. How great—typing out the wording and enclosing a glossy 10 x 8, posting the order off airmail, and three weeks later getting 50 cardboard posters back.


I’m pretty sure that it influenced this…

Boris Vian, Man Of Vision
From the IHT auction catalogue (see last week). “The Pianoctail is a strange instrument, imagined by Boris Vian in his novel L’Écume des Jours. The renowned writer, who died in 1959, conceived this cocktail-making piano which would make a drink according to the notes played. An Americano is made when a major chord is played, and when a triad or tonic chord is played, you get a gin-fizz. The instrument was displayed this morning in a Parisian cinema, where the film is being shown tonight. March 20, 1968.”

“For each note there’s a corresponding drink – either a wine, spirit, liqueur or fruit juice. The loud pedal puts in egg flip and the soft pedal adds ice. For soda you play a cadenza in F sharp. The quantities depend on how long a note is held – you get the sixteenth of a measure for a hemidemisemiquaver; a whole measure for a black note; and four measures for a semibreve. When you play a slow tune, then tone comes into control to prevent the amounts growing too large and the drink getting too big for a cocktail – but the alcoholic content remains unchanged. And, depending on the length of the tune, you can, if you like, vary the measures used, reducing them, say, to a hundredth in order to get a drink taking advantage of all the harmonics, by means of an adjustment on the side.”

Five Things I Saw & Heard This Week: Wednesday 31st October

Danny Baker, Shortlist Questionnaire
Who’s the most overrated band of your lifetime? “Queen. A dreadful group. They were neither Led Zeppelin nor Bowie and they played that middle ground in between. Punk rock didn’t come around because of prog rock or anything like that, it came around because of Queen. Abba, Queen and ELO—that was what people were trying to move away from. You can find everything Queen did better elsewhere.”

Bob Dylan & The Poetry Of The Blues
Michael Gray, my favourite writer on Bob Dylan, gives a talk in Canterbury, close enough to drive to. Mick Gold comes with me, supplying an excellent compilation CD and fascinating conversation for our tiny road trip. Michael’s presentation is terrific—funny and revelatory. Over a meal afterwards we talk about the fact that Freddy Koella is both Michael and my favourite Dylan guitarslinger. Mick reveals that the night before, Freddy had guested for two songs at Bob’s Santa Barbara gig—the first time since he was a member of the Never-Ending Tour Band in 2004.
Michael on Freddy: “Freddy was Dylan’s best-ever lead electric guitarist (and just might be the best electric guitarist altogether since the heyday of Hubert Sumlin). Robbie Robertson was near sublime—the next best, a very close second—but Freddy was better. And in The Band all the other musicians were crucial too, whereas in Dylan’s band Freddy had to carry the whole front line. Of course you could say Mike Bloomfield was right up there, but he was, though a virtuoso, essentially more limited (Dylan had to tell him, for Like A Rolling Stone, to play ‘none of that B.B. King shit’); and G.E. Smith was terrific, but safe. You never wondered excitedly what he might do next. Whereas Freddy played by living on the edge, like Bob, fusing Django Reinhardt and Carl Perkins and playing as if it were 1957 now. He was the electric lead guitarist Dylan himself would have been, had Dylan ever bothered to master the instrument.” That line is fantastic, and spot on—“Playing as if it were 1957 now…”

Papa Nez’s Blues
To the Queen Elizabeth Hall with my mum to see her old fave, Mike Nesmith (The First & Second National Band stuff, not The Monkees, just so’s you know). I seem to be making it a point lately to see only Senior Citizens Of Rock™ but it’s just coincidental. It’s instructive to compare and contrast the approaches, however.
Leonard “Ladies’ Man” Cohen, 78, 4 years into his latest group of tours, is in fantastic voice, playing three-and-a half-hour shows with some of the finest musicians on God’s earth and playing versions of his songs that make the original tracks seem pale shadows. It is, in all senses, not just another show. It’s a summation of a life’s work.
Ian “Mott To Trot” Hunter, 73, belts out his impressive and rockin’ back catalogue with ferocious intent, fronting a hell-for-leather combo, The Rant Band. On lead guitar, Mark Bosch is a passionate and note/feel-perfect Seventies/Eighties Noo Yawk (think Leslie West or Mike Rathke) player, matching Hunter every step of the way. His tribute to Mick Ronson, Michael Picasso, is really moving, and the sense of community between him and his fans something to feel.
Mike “Papa Nez” Nesmith, 70, hasn’t played London since 1975, and makes a rather terrible decision. Sold to the audience as cutting edge technology by Nesmith, the three musicians on stage play along with pre-recorded tracks (mostly triggered by the keyboardist), which a) makes the sound terrible, all clunky Casio drums and booming sound effects, and b) forces everyone into a rather tight and metronomic way of playing—an already fairly predictable bass player becomes almost immobile, and the music has no sway or grace. This seems a real shame, as Nesmith’s use of soundscapes on tracks like Nevada Fighter, Bonaparte’s Retreat or Beyond The Blue Horizon were really innovative, especially in a country rock context. There are some beautiful songs here, from Joanne to The Grand Ennui to Rio, and Nesmith has the fine idea of setting up each song with a short piece of fiction contextualising the events that have (supposedly) led up to the song. But the bad sound, the gloopy and excessive synth string playing, the hopeless beats and Nesmith’s out of practice and strained voice leaves us feeling underwhelmed.

www.bullettmedia.com/article/music-journalism-cliches-that-need-to-be-retired-today/
Well, this brilliant broadside by Luke O’Neil makes rock journalism just that bit more difficult (but—hey—upside… potentially better!)

Not So Lucky, Lucky, Lucky
“I love all the PWL stuff slowed down, it sounds great.” says Kylie talking about The Abbey Road Sessions, where she re-records her pop hits of the eighties. I remember when the band I was part of (who NME saw as the antithesis of Stock, Aitken and Waterman’s PWL stuff—Rick Astley, Kylie, Jason Donovan etc.) decided to record a slow version of Kylie’s I Should Be So Lucky for a radio session. Sounded great when Mark roughed it out on piano with Heather, but someone somewhere hit the Irony Alert! button and thought better of it…

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