Tuesday, December 1st

VISUAL OF THE WEEK

Rivers
Johnny Rivers, LA Reggae. I had this record back in the seventies, bought for its sleeve concept, and his version of version of Huey “Piano” Smith’s “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu,”. I found it recently in the excellent Wood Street market in Walthamstow. The vinyl inside is still interesting, and as cover records go, still sounds good. The Wrecking Crew provide the backing, with Jimmy Webb on piano, and the guitars of Dean Parks and Larry Carlton are both to the fore, guitar fans. Rivers, originally from Louisiana, had an LA-based career playing mostly covers of r ’n’b and pop songs. Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, “Rivers is one of a small number of performers including Mariah Carey, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Pink Floyd (from 1975’s Wish You Were Here onward), Queen, Genesis (though under the members’ individual names and/or the pseudonym Gelring Limited) and Neil Diamond, who have their names as the copyright owner on their recordings (most records have the recording company as the named owner of the recording).” Anyway, back to the sleeve… as a graphic tool, the Kodachrome 35mm slide has been a long-time favourite of designers, and was totally suited to the age of the 12-inch record, and is beautifully done here – try doing that with a CD or download (I know, I know, please ignore me, all under 35s reading this).

THE FOURTH, THE FIFTH, THE MINOR FALL, THE MAJOR LIFT
“Glass Harmonica refers to any instrument played by rubbing glass or crystal goblets or bowls. When Benjamin Franklin (yes, that Benjamin Franklin) invented a mechanical version in 1761, he called it the armonica, based on the Italian word armonia, which means “harmony”. The unrelated free-reed wind instrument aeolina, today called the “harmonica”, was not invented until 1821, sixty years later.” So – watch this and weep. “Hallelujah” played on a glass harmonica. Amazing. And to top it all off – at one point, terrifyingly, he jogs the whole table to get a vibrato effect.

BE REASONABLE, EXPECT THE IMPOSSIBLE
I dropped in for one event at this celebration of Punk Rock at St Martin’s, to see Clinton Heylin and John Ingham talk about punk year zero, art schools and DIY with Keith Levene of PIL. What I took away from this was that no two people remember any thing or any event the same way, and this happened to fuel the most amusing bits of the chat, Levene being ever so slightly catty about Clinton’s misreading of the name of Joe Strummer’s first band, the 101ers (Clinton calling them theonehundredandone-ers). I don’t even trust my memories of the period, although my pal Mark has a much better recall of the time in 1976 when the Pistols played their third gig (was it the third? Maybe) at our art school refectory. I recall Johnny Rotten looking like a young Donald Sutherland, but Mark remembers much more pertinent details – the fact that some people got it, like our friend Jill Tipping, and some of us didn’t. As Mark said, if you didn’t get it, it was terrible – to feel too old at twenty one!

BOOK OF THE WEEK
Has to be this find, in a great store filled with football and music memorabilia, again in Walthamstow’s Wood Street Antiques City – Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia, one of the great music books. I was always a huge admirer of the pithy music and gig reviews in the New Yorker, brilliant at distilling musicians’ USP’s down to a few sentences. The Roxon book is like that, smart and snappy. It’s the first edition (it was later updated and partly re-written by other hands). As my research tool of choice, Wikepedia, says, “her articles about the burgeoning rock scene are now credited as being foundation stones of serious rock writing, and she has since been described by other leading critics as “the mother of rock”. She was friendly with many leading music stars but rarely became personally involved. Although she looked young enough to mix easily with the rock crowd, she was at least ten years older than most of the musicians she wrote about. Unusually for the time, she did not smoke or take drugs and only rarely drank alcohol. These factors, together with her renowned wit, combined to give her writing a degree of ironic detachment that influenced many younger rock writers.”

roxon

Anywhere you drop into the book is rewarded with gems, like this.
“Scott McKenzie/He emerged at just the right moment (summer 1967) with his song warning people that if they were coming to San Francisco they would have to be sure to wear a flower in their hair. A long-time friend of Papa John Phillips, he had almost become a Papa, but he didn’t, and the solo albums that followed San Francisco did not do very well. The trouble was he was so closely associated through the song with flower power that it hurt his other singles on other subjects. Besides, a lot of people did go to San Francisco wearing flowers in their hair and it didn’t do them a bit of good. They still haven’t forgiven Scott McKenzie”.

ALABAMA SHAKES, BRIXTON ACADEMY
Well. I really don’t know where to start. In the beginning, it was Laura Barton who tipped the world (my world, anyway) to the existence of a soulful and raw combo from Athens, Alabama (not Georgia). Their singer, Brittany Howard, a former fry cook and postal worker, had an astonishingly fearless vocal approach and the band avoided a revivalist tag by taking the sounds of the 60s by the scruff of the neck and beating them breathless on the banks of the Tennessee River. Anyway, you know all this. Jordi and I saw them a couple of years back when the hipster chatter attempted, but failed, to ruin the experience.

Having felt a little ho-hum about the new album, and having bought the tickets about nine months ago, I’m not sure how much I was looking forward to the show. Jordi and I decided to skip the support, and the Japanese restaurant we were in felt very warm and comfortable, but as soon as we darkened the doors of the Academy ambivalence disappeared. The one-woman revival show that is Howard enveloped the hall from the first note. Underpinned by her great rhythm playing, the band – added to by an extra keyboardist and three backup vocalists – followed in her slipstream. There are no passengers here, but they have to fight to keep up. Her guitar playing is all grown up and now she takes most of the leads, throttling the neck of her blue pearl three-pickup SG as if her life depended on it. It’s become as important to her as the piano is to Aretha, and the way she controls the ebb and the flow, the tension and release, and the whole quiet/loud/quiet thing is something to behold.

The spirits of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Otis hovered nearby, and this may well be the closest one can now come to seeing any of the great preaching singers who were born in gospel but jumped into r ’n’ b. The individual songs all became part of one hysterical (in a good way) continuum, and I couldn’t tell you what they played, but I could tell you how it felt.

It was the week after the Paris attacks, and the band seemed grateful that people had even turned up to see them. Maybe that added an extra looseness, or a release of relief, to their performance. Everything from the albums were definitively played, and the way the backing singers were worked into the show was clever – sometimes the male vocalist would be the only one on stage, duetting around Howard, other times he’d retreat and the two female voices would punch out the choruses. Towards the end they all surged together like a choir, creating a beautiful gauzy veil with Howard leading them in spirals to the rafters.

It was genuinely thrilling to watch someone push against the limits of both their instrument and the genre of music that they’re working in – Brittany Howard seems engaged in an experiment to find out where she can take that extraordinary voice, and how the music will sound when she gets there. We were just lucky to be along for the ride.

Wednesday, 25th March

Visual of the Week

Ken&Rose
The great Sister Rosetta documentary was shown again on BBC 4. Any chance to run these lovely Terry Cryer photos – taken in the Studio 51 Club on Great Newport Street in 1957, of Rosetta playing with my uncle’s band – cannot be turned down. A woman with an amazing voice, an electrifying style and great, great taste in guitars. Check out the wild solo two minutes into the film.

A fascinating snippet from Laura Barton’s Buena Vista piece in The Guardian:
[Nick] Gold and [Ry] Cooder felt a similar a sense of care and responsibility for the recordings they made. “Each morning, we played what we had recorded the day before,” Gold says. “We knew it was wonderful. When you listen to it, you’re right there.” This was partly due to the positioning of a pair of microphones high in the studio to capture the ambience of the room. “The studio [Egrem] has this one fantastic large room. It just has this lovely feel.” But when the pair took the recordings to California to be mixed, they immediately stumbled. “We weren’t hearing that special something,” says Gold. “There was a clarity missing.” They began a frantic search for a mixing desk that resembled the one used in Havana, eventually locating the same model in a Christian recording studio in Los Angeles. “And there it was – that sound back in all its clarity! Ry said, ‘It’s like someone’s wiped the windows clear.’”

Gary Katz in Conversation
An engaging Q&A with the bone-dry Brooklynite, in which his deep love of music and musicians shines across the orchestra pit at the Bloomsbury Theatre. It was organised by the London Song Company, and its founder Julian Marshall (who has worked with Mr Katz) led the questions. Lots to enjoy, but the heart of it was how much Katz loved working on these great songs with most of America’s greatest musicians a phone call away. It was interesting to note that Katz’s working relationship with Donald Fagen ended after Nightfly because of Fagen’s insistence on using Wendell, the prototype drum machine that engineer Roger Nicholls built by hand on Fagen’s command, instead of the mere humans (aka America’s finest drummers) who had done service on all the Steely Dan records up to Gaucho. One thing that resonated was how many of the great solos on Steely Dan tracks were done in one take, considering the Dan’s penchant for taking months fretting about the placing of one beat. Phil Woods on “Dr Wu”, Wayne Shorter on “Aja”, Jay Graydon on “Peg” – all one pass at the track, pack away the instrument, go home.

Perhaps the most astonishing of all was Steve Gadd’s drumming on “Aja”. Apparently, Becker and Fagen (and Katz) always talked about using him, but every time they came close, one of them would say, “I don’t really love his backbeat…” (laughter) and they wouldn’t call him. Having problems with the drum track (and extended solo) on “Aja”, Katz told us:
“Someone said, ‘Maybe this would be a good time to try Gadd’. [At this time] Steve had a distinct problem with drugs. When he came into the room he said, ‘Let me put the score up…’ It was a very long score, because of the eight minutes, so they set up a semi-circle of music stands. He said, ‘Can we just run it down so I can mark it?’ So Chuck Rainey, Victor Feldman, great musicians, ran it down, Gadd marks it. Said ‘Okay, I’m ready’. Walter and I were in the control room, Donald was outside with his back to us, doing the scratch vocal. He only played it once. The only time he played it, is what you hear (sounds of incredulity from audience). Walter says, ‘You know, we may have made a mistake about Gadd’. (laughter)

“So six months go by, as they usually do on our records, we went back to New York to mix, and we were just about finished mixing the song, and someone said, ‘You know Gadd’s down the hall working on a Michael Franks record’, and Don says, ‘Go get him, and let him hear this.’ So we go down, say we want to play him something – he was a mess… he sat in front of the console and we played it really loud, really good sound. The track is over, he goes ‘Wow… who’s playing drums?’ We just look at each other, ’cause he wasn’t kidding. I said, ‘You did, Steve’. He said, ‘I’m a motherfucker’ (audience collapses)”.

“We skipped the light fandango/Turned cartwheels ’cross the floor…”
Mick Gold comments on my mention of the King Curtis album “Live At The Fillmore West”. “I was watching Withnail & I for the 987th time late night on TV and was suddenly seized by curiosity. What was the opening piece of music which plays over shots of Paul McGann’s horrified face contemplating the squalor of their flat in Camden Town, 1969? A bit of a search revealed it was King Curtis performing “A Whiter Shade of Pale” from the album you mentioned. What does that honking full-bodied tenor sax solo over washes of organ fills have to do with the domestic chaos and anguish we’re seeing? It’s totally counter-intuitive yet it works…”

You are so right, Mick. Funnily enough I too had caught 15 minutes of W&I recently, and had to force myself not to watch it all (it’s one of those films that, no matter how many times you’ve seen it and wherever into the film you come in, it’s almost impossible not to continue to the end, or 2am, whichever comes first). So I re-bought it, as my copy is in storage. It’s such a great record. There’s something about the balance of the players. You can hear everything that everyone is doing – each one’s frequency seems to be perfectly sonically placed. Curtis is up high on sax, higher when he puts his soprano through a wah-wah pedal, Cornell Dupree is sliding delta just below him (his performance is a fantastic all-encompassing lesson in soul guitar by itself), the Memphis horns add glorious punctuation, Billy Preston is between them and the Rhythm Section, sometimes soaring up, sometimes grinding down, with Jerry Jemmott on the bass at the base, and Bernard Purdie is operating in some Purdie-world, all over everything without stepping on anyone’s toes. It’s such a fantastic recording. (Oh, and by the by, if you’ve never seen this short sample of Purdie doing a 16th note shuffle, it’s priceless: “Whoa! I like it very much!”)

This Week’s Homework
…consists of Courtney Barnett (courtesy of Oscar). Great so far – imagine if Patty Donahue of The Waitresses was born in Australia, grew up and married Reg Presley of The Troggs, with Aimee Mann as the maid of honour and Nirvana, fronted by Elvis Costello, as the wedding band. Great lyrics and titles, too, often ripped from regular life – “Don’t Apply Compression Gently”, “Pedestrian at Best”,“Avant Gardener” and “History Eraser” (for all you Photoshoppers out there). Great to hear an Aussie accent in song. Every Record Tells A Story thinks you should hear this album…

Kendrick Lamar To Pimp a Butterfly (courtesy of Richard). I’m just getting to grips with this and I’m already excited. It demands listening to, a complex sonic experience crammed with ideas, asides and seventies jazz samples. The refrain “I remember you was conflicted/mis-using your influence” runs through it like a river. Report next week.

Collins

And with a final word from Stephen Collins in his wonderful Guardian strip, I’m off to watch the Godmother of Rock ’n’ Roll again…


A Note
My oldest, dearest friend died last week. I’ve known Sam Charters since I was four, and he, along with his wife Ann, left a musical impression on my life that isn’t even quantifiable. I’m not sure that I can find what I want to say about him yet, so I’ll leave it for a while, but I couldn’t let the week go by with no mention of its importance to me. I’m happy that I got to Stockholm in January so that we could sit and talk and drink Martinis – and listen to James Cleveland and Willie Nelson, one more time.

Five Things: Wednesday 26th February

Of Time And The City
I caught twenty minutes of Terence Davies’ great half doc/half memoir, his love letter to Liverpool. From the Korean War footage, overlaid by the Hollies’ “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” – a mixture that shouldn’t work, but does – through Terry’s hilariously voiced-over Yeah Yeah Yeahs when the Beatles come on-screen, to the stunning slum clearance/building of the tower-blocks sequence set to Peggy Lee singing “The Folks Who Live On The Hill”, it never fails to move. If you’ve not seen it, you can watch that scene here.

Jason Wood: The film shows you a Liverpool beyond The Beatles and football, which is what people tend to think about when they think about the city. Your narration is very significant. It lends character because it is so impassioned.

Terence Davies: What was odd was that I was writing this commentary as I was doing it and recording it as a rough guide. We got someone to do part of the narration, but it just didn’t work and the producers said, No, you must do it. I was worried that when you hear your own voice, it can sound a bit like the Queen Mother after she died. All my films have strong Liverpool accents. It always makes me feel a bit embarrassed… At one point they asked me to put in how I lost my accent and I said, “You can’t be serious? You really can’t be serious? I’m not doing that.” I was worried and I was staying with my sister Maisie and I said, “When did I lose my accent?” and she said, “You never had one!”

I have no illusions about my work but I must add I have no illusions about anybody else’s either. I am very strict with myself and I think, “no, that could have been improved”. It was what I thought was right at the time – and you have to stand by that. And if it completely fails, you have got to say, “But that is what I meant at the time.” There’s a line by Vaughan Williams, I think it’s on his Sixth Symphony, when he says, “I don’t know whether I like it, but it is what I meant.” And that’s a wonderful thing to say upon your own work.

Tim Sends This Link
…to Postmodern Jukebox’s rather lovely twenties-styled version of “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, perhaps inspired by Bryan Ferry’s take on his back catalogue. “My goal with Postmodern Jukebox is to get my audience to think of songs not as rigid, ephemeral objects, but like malleable globs of silly putty. Songs can be twisted, shaped, and altered without losing their identities – just as we grow, age, and expire without losing ours – and it is through this exploration that the gap between “high” and “low” art can be bridged most readily.” – Scott Bradlee, founder. Well, OK, Scott! File alongside The Ukelele Orchestra Of Great Britain and Pink Martini. Oh, and the Sad-Faced-Clown version of “Royals” rocks, too. Are you listening, Michael B?

A Quote I Really Liked
Laura Barton talking to Willy Vlautin, singer/guitarist with Richmond Fontaine: We’re sitting in an empty London pub, where the clipped twang of Vlautin’s Nevada accent seems to lift the gloom. Though he now lives in Oregon, he grew up in Reno, his father leaving home when he was four. His mother was left alone to raise their two sons. Although Vlautin was “so shy that I could barely go to school”, he was a diligent student who never seemed to be paid back with good grades. He lived largely inside his own head. “I’ve used escapism as a crutch my whole life,” he says. “I hated being a kid, so I escaped. But I never thought of myself as a rich guy driving a Cadillac hanging with James Bond. I was pragmatic. My big dream was to have an uncle that owned a wrecking yard and then I could just work there, and he’d actually like me and he’d make me dinner. And I would live in that fantasy world. I’d wake up every morning and check in.” …he’d actually like me and he’d make me dinner… That’s a line that could make you cry.

Live Music Extra:
1. Dotter scolds me for not mentioning her ‘awesome’ wedding band

And it’s true. I was so tired after the wedding I could barely think what to say. The band was put together by Mike Pointon, who I collaborated with on Ken’s book, alongside Ray Smith. It was made up of musicians who had played with Ken Colyer (Mike, since he was nineteen) supported by sons of Ken’s peers on drums and bass. They really swung. One guest, bowled over, assumed they’d been together for years, and at the end asked Mike how long “The Lavender Hill Mob” (the venue was on said hill) had played as a unit, and Mike answered “About three hours.” The acoustics were great, the sound of the musicians tight and warm, and the repertoire wide-ranging. Even when they were playing softly during the meal, people were applauding the solos. I’ve never seen that happen at a wedding before.

2. Jaz Delorean at The Alleycat

Alleycat
At the Iko’s Record Shop night, it was Lee Dorsey time, the highlight of which was Dom Pipkin’s wonderful re-imagining of “Working In A Coalmine”, in which he left the rhythm section behind and proceeded to conjure up all sorts in a trance-like meditation. I heard Scott Walker, Stravinsky, Booker, and Dr John before he got back on the straight and narrow… The evenings are always fairly ramshackle, with misses and hits, but there’s usually something like this to treasure. Jaz Delorean delivered my favourite band performance with a terrific take on Louis Prima’s medley of “Just A Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody” on the crowded, tiny stage, featuring fabulously sleazy horns and a winning vocal from the guitarist (with the crowd on the chorus). Anyone trying to get to the women’s bathroom had to run the gauntlet of the four horn players (and an accordionist) who couldn’t actually fit on the stage.

3. Avant-improv at The Harrison
Mark and Tom describe their band, Throttling Tommy, as “the unlistenable in pursuit of the unplayable. A blues-rock power trio without the Marshall stacks and the bass player, who hasn’t turned up. And who have forgotten how to play blues. Or rock. Or anything else, for that matter. Allergic to songs”. A pretty succinct description, if you ask me, and their first gig doesn’t disappoint. I’m a sucker for funk drumming and trem-bar harmonics/histrionics, and they sound wonderful together in this blanket-covered de-mobbed bunkhouse, playing forty minutes without a safety net. Tom has a lovely line in, er, tom/cymbal interfacing, and it’s always fun listening to Mark trying to avoid anything as shocking as a melody. Video here.

Mark

Headliners Horseless Headmen were tight and fascinating. Stand up, G. Painting (guitar, effects king), Paul Taylor (trombone, fabulous tone), Nick Cash (drum kit and percussion, check out the upside-down water bottle) and Ivor Kallin (fretless bass guitar and chopsticks in beard). I love a gig that almost ends when an audience member shouts as an improvisation closes, “That was brilliant! You’ll never top that!” and the band actually have a discussion about whether playing another number (which there’s time for) is a hostage to fortune…

HH2

From our Woodstock Correspondent, John C
“Saw Prince a few times myself. Once in Denver he came out while Vanity 6 was setting up, sat down at a piano to the side of the stage and played for a half an hour. No mic, just for himself. The most mind-boggling stuff. We were up front and close enough to hear. If memory serves, I believe The Time came up after Vanity and before Prince. One of the funkiest nights of my life. I was levitating.”

Five Things I Saw & Heard This Week: Wednesday 2nd January

Pop Music Lives!
The Graham Norton Show. Girls Aloud. New Single. Love Machine. I roll my eyes at the title. But it’s great, a cracking pop single, with hints of Sweet’s Ballroom Blitz. And, as the chorus powers into view, at the back of my mind, a nagging What Else Does This Sound Like? It only takes a few demented minutes of humming. Step forward The Butterfield Blues Band…

Ok! Hep, Two, Three, Four…
Woodstock Soundtrack, original vinyl, Side Six. The Butterfield Blues Band. Featuring saxophonist “Brother” Gene Dinwiddie. “I got a little somethin’ I’d like to lay on y’all, if you’ll bear with me a minute… please. We’re gonna do a little March right along thru now… It’s a Love March. We don’t carry no guns and things in this army we got. Don’t nobody have to be worried about keepin’ in step, and we ain’t got no uniforms—we’re a poor army. In order to keep our heads above the water and whatnot, we sing to one another, and play to one another and we trying to make each other feel good. Ok! Hep, two, three, four…” On the back of a great Rod Hicks bassline and Phillip Wilson’s martial drumming, Dinwiddie gives his all to the uber-hippie lyrics. As feedback crackles around Buzzy Feiten’s guitar, the horn section (featuring David Sanborn) riff like the most soulful Marching Band ever. And it certainly could be the inspiration for the Girls’ songwriting team, although I doubt it.

John Barry: Licence To Thrill (BBC Four Doc With A Rotten Title…)
I’d totally forgotten his great score for The Ipcress File. It uses one of my favourite instruments, a cimbalom (a kind of hammered dulcimer). One night I was in Budapest at a conference and we were all taken to a Hungarian Folk Dance dinner. It was, hands down, the loudest thing I’ve ever witnessed. The stage floorboards were percussively assaulted by the dancers’ boots and our insides were assaulted by the unholy bass vibrations that this set off. There were two cymbalom players at either side of the stage, hitting seven shades out of their instruments. The pitch of the treble strings as they were struck by the hammers was enough to take the top of your head off. Instant Migraine. Brilliant. I bought the CD.

“Tis The Song, The Sigh Of The Weary, Hard Times, Hard Times, Come Again No More…”
Laura Barton’s wonderful Guardian column, Hail, Hail, Rock & Roll, was one of the inspirations for me to do this blog, so I was sad to read of her hard year in the round-up of favourite moments by Guardian music writers. Here, she talked honestly about the past twelve months, and a rare bright moment. “This was not the happiest of years for me; all through January, on into spring and the summer, I took a slow lesson in falling apart. I could no longer see the beauty in anything—days stood grey and flat, food was flavourless, even music seemed muffled and blunt. By the first Tuesday in March I was experiencing daily panic attacks, and often felt too fearful to leave the house. But that evening Future Islands were playing the Scala in London… They played my favourites of course, and it was one of the finest gigs of my life, but what really made it was the stage invasion—a sudden surge of excitement at the beginning of, I think, Heart Grows Old, and suddenly we were all up there, dancing among the cables and the synths. And I remember in that moment looking down from the edge of the stage, out at all the bright faces and euphoria and glee, and feeling my chest swell with a brief, sweet gulp of long-lost joy.”

R.I.P Fontella Bass
Rescue Me. The best Motown song that was never on Motown, the best Motown bassline that wasn’t a Motown bassline (played by Louis Satterfield). Fontella Bass was a powerful singer, who made some wonderful gospel albums. The one I could find this morning was From The Root To The Source. It has Phillip Wilson, co-writer  of Love March (see above) on drums. To further cement the Butterfield link, I found a YouTube clip of Fontella in the 80s, singing Rescue Me on Dave Sanborn & Jools Holland’s fabulous Sunday Night, with Sanborn on sax. In memory, we’ll play some Fontella Bass tonight.

Bass

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