Friday, February 19th

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.”


! kermode

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.

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…

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.

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: Wednesday 27th March

If Rooney Mara was the lead singer of a band, it would be Minnesota’s Poliça. With her alt-Dusty Springfield arm gestures Channy Leaneagh seems – in the words of Daughter – to be the flamboyant conductor of this little orchestra that consists of a bassist and two drummers (the Independent’s critic thought the same). Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishman tour had two drummers, as did Steely Dan’s ’73 roadtrip and there’s something wonderful and thrilling about the thump and paradiddle of synchro’d drumsets, especially when they control the beat as much as Ben Ivascu and Drew Christopherson. Chris Bierdan’s bass half holds the bottom end, half dances around the ghostly, swooning melodies of Leaneagh’s auto-tuned, layered and reverb-ed vocals. Even though she seems out of sorts for the first half of the set, the sounds coming off the stage are monstrous. The third number’s juxtaposition of solo vocals and pulverising drum breaks is nothing short of astonishing. Their set is a perfect length – 60 minutes – and for an encore there’s a ghostly solo version of the old folk song ‘When I Was a Young Girl’ followed by a new rollercoaster thumper. Fabulous!

Davidoff’s Cigar Shop, Jermyn Street


Youth In Revolt. The last sentence is not made up.
“British rap star Professor Green refused to let sub-zero temperatures freeze his secret gig at a bus depot on Saturday night. “I have got a lot of powers, but unfortunately controlling the weather isn’t one of them,” the ‘Read All About It’ singer joked to fans at the Kings Cross garage in London. Instead the star raised the temperature by ordering fans to thrash around to his tracks in order to beat the big chill. Meanwhile Pro’s stunning girlfriend, Made In Chelsea star Millie Mackintosh, was also in attendance to see her beau on stage. Millie proved she’s just like the rest of us as she was also seen enjoying a greasy pizza and bottle of beer to help keep warm at the exclusive gig. Professor Green was performing in celebration of Barclaycard Contactless now being accepted on buses.”

Arthur Rothstein, dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936
Snowbound at my friend Kwok’s. We’re talking about Elliot Erwitt and his photos of Yukio Mishima, when he pulls this beautiful print out to show me.


I know it as the covDustbowler to Folkways’ Dust Bowl Ballads Sung By Woody Guthrie. Arthur had wanted Kwok to have it – he was given it by Eve Rothstein, Arthur’s daughter on November 11, 1985, the day that Arthur passed away.





Philip Larkin, Garrison Keillor and Bob Dylan go antiquing
I loved this drawing when John Cuneo did it in 2011, and this week it gets blown up and put over a whole wall at the Delaware Art Museum. Roll On, John!


Five Things I Saw & Heard This Week: Wednesday 11th July

Poliça/Dark Star
Reasons to Hate: Huge amounts of reverb. Achingly trendy/Hipster friendly. Arty Double tracked female vocal. Iconic Grateful Dead title. [Dangerous to pilfer Iconic Grateful Dead titles]. Reasons To Love: Wonderful live drumming with a huge open-room sound. Sometimes there’s nothing better than a pummeling four-on-the-floor (hey, even Take That’s Shine has a fabulous drum track, all Rak Studios, circa Mickie Most). Cracking tune. And the arty double-tracked vocal really works, weaving in and out of unison. It reminds me of Al Green singing around and off himself in How Can You Mend A Broken Heart? Add all this to some great twanging bass and slightly out-of-focus horns and it’s a winner. Granted, this could end up wearing thin over more than a few tracks, but Dark Star and Lay Your Cards Out (for another great melody and truly insane drumming) are absolutely terrific.

Seven Is The Magic Number
A review of a new version of Sophocles’ Antigone by Anne Carson (Antigonick) in the New Yorker printed this fine single-verse version of the siege of Thebes: “Seven gates/and in each gate a man/and in each man a death/at the seventh gate.” Seven is a very lyrical number— especially in country blues. There’s Muddy Waters, singing Willie Dixon’s Hoochie Coochie Man: “On the seventh hour/On the seventh day/On the seventh month/The seven doctors say/He was born for good luck/And that you’ll see/I got seven hundred dollars/Don’t you mess with me.” Or Dylan’s Ballad Of Hollis Brown: “There’s seven breezes a-blowin’/All around the cabin door/Seven shots sound out/Like the ocean’s pounding roar/There’s seven people dead/On a south Dakota farm/Somewhere in the distance/There’s seven new people born.”

Nora Ephron (and Susan Edmiston) interview Bob Dylan, Albert Grossman’s office, late summer, 1965
But negro rhythm and blues has been around underground for at least twelve years. What brought it out now?
The English did that. They brought it out. They hipped everybody. You read an interview asking who the Beatles’ favourite singer was and they say Chuck Berry. You never used to hear Chuck Berry records on the radio—hard blues. The English did that. England is great and beautiful, though in other ways kinda messy. Though not outside London…”
In what way messy?
There’s a snobbishness. What you see people doing to other people. It’s not only class. It’s not that simple. It’s a kind of Queen kind of thing. Some people are royalty and some are not.” Plus ça change…

Best Thing I Read About The Gracelands Controversy
Following Stuart Jeffries’ Guardian review of the 25th anniversary documentary, where he concluded that Paul Simon should have left the music alone:—“it gave the chance to hear unsullied the South African music that thrilled Simon 25 years ago. How lovely to hear, for instance, accordionist Forere Motloheloa laying down a groove without Paul Simon singing over it. If only it had remained the music Simon loved, rather than the music he, having loved, used.”*

Widlow, on the Guardian’s blog, answered with this: “Paul Simon clearly was a politically naive, contrary, slightly obsessive, perfectionist artist, who may have thought himself above such things as needing permission from the ANC. But what he produced was akin to Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics: a body of work that incarnated the exact opposite of the Apartheid philosophy, that sang out “Mixing cultures is good”, that proclaimed “These musicians are virtuosos and their culture is vibrant”, that put Black and White people into the same studio and had them eating and drinking together and using the same toilets and calling each other Brother…”

*This footage of the original 1985 sessions was extraordinary. There were children and babies sitting on the studio floor as the guitarists danced around the backing singers, vaulting their legs over their guitars (!) with the monumental bass and accordian lines of what became Boy In The Bubble booming out…

Leaving On A Jet Plane
Photo found in PA Photos: Britain in the 60s. British pop groups, bound for the USA on a tour which will yield half a million dollars. They are the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Eric Burdon and the Animals, The Alan Price Set and Eire Apparent. Eire Apparent?

%d bloggers like this: