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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Friday, February 19th

THERE’S ONLY ONE NANCY BANKS-SMITH…
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.”

BUT THERE WERE TWO EVENINGS WITH MARK KERMODE…

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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.

THEN THREE GIGS IN ONE WEEK…
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…

FOLLOWED BY “FOUR DAYS GONE”…
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.

AND FIVE OR SO CITIES (NOT FORGETTING THE MOTOR CITY!)
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.”

 

Five Things I Saw & Heard This Week: Wednesday 29th August

Let Me Take You By The Hand, And…
Simon left a CD on my desk, sent in by a publicist, of a Ralph McTell sampler, featuring—of course—Streets Of London, with a post-it note on, saying “You’ll probably like this.” I had to disabuse him of that, and then we had a great fifteen minutes watching the fantastic Streets Of London sketch from Big Train, where Kevin Eldon plays a singer-songwriter whose audience won’t allow him to play anything other than the eponymous tune. It not only painfully highlights the one song career but brilliantly skewers the tyranny of a change-resistant audience.

Mark Goes To Memphis, R2
In this compelling documentary [in the interest of full disclosure, it was made by my brother-in-law] where Mark Kermode and his Rockabilly/Skiffle band, The Dodge Brothers head to Memphis to record at the legendary Sun Studios, a really lovely interview with Matt Ross-Spang, the in-house engineer at Sun. “This room is like your garage—white tile, you’re five feet away from the other person, there’s no booths and you gotta play quiet so’s you can hear the singer, and I don’t let you use headphones and you just put a good tape echo on it and call it done. Sam Philips, to me… was on a mission… so touched by music. Took me a long time to figure out but I started limiting myself to what he had in the 50s, a few extra mikes or somethin’ and once I figured out how we can get that feeling, that 50s vibe… [The Dodge Brothers] came in and the first song they did was No. 9 by Tarheel Slim, which is an old Sun song. Nobody knows that record… and they start playing it and I’s like “Oh that’s Tarheel Slim, No. 9,” they’re goin’—“No-one has ever known who sang that!” Of course I’m a rockabilly freak, so I know, but it’s nice to be able to have that conversation with somebody. Cause you don’t get to talk about Tarheel Slim to your girlfriend or anything… or anybody, you know?”

Weird iPod Synchronicity Pt3: August 23rd, Victoria Station, London
Just got to Irvine Welsh’s pick of Five Films in the Metro newspaper where he chooses Double Indemnity and then Eraserhead when David Lynch’s Pinky’s Dream explodes into my headphones. The song is a noir-sounding updating of Jan & Dean’s Deadman’s Curve with Karen O sobbing/pleading… “Pinky, what do you see? Flying down the road… Pinky, tell me, are you laughing, or are you crying? Watch the road, please Pinky, watch the road…” as guitars judder and lurch like an out-of-control Dodge careering down Mulholland Drive. “People go on about David Lynch’s visuals but one of the things he does better than anybody is his work with sound…” says Welsh, spot on.
No. of Tracks on iPod: 1,057.
No. of tracks by D. Lynch: 1

And Now A Message From Our Sponsors
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Sarah’s Record Collection
Rescued from a flooded room, featuring a great Jaques Brel cover photo, and a set of albums I’d forgotten about, which involved a slightly-less-than-stellar-star recreating Hollywood Gold, so that you could put it on the turntable, read from the enclosed script and play costar. I definitely had this Arlene Dahl one, and also, I’m pretty sure, Cesar Romero (but I’m not sure what film you could re-enact with him…)

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