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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Tuesday, August 22nd

There was much about sound this week, from the science behind the Doppler Effect to the whys and wherefores of producing a vocal sound that won’t permanently damage you. Also, the extraordinary website that is digitising 78s with a record deck that uses four different needles. Oh, and Tom Waits (in the music player on the right) does his own Doppler Effect of a car hurtling by on the blacktop…

ONE YOU GOT ME SINGING…
An excerpt from a fascinating article in The Guardian’s Long Read slot, by Bernhard Warner on the actualité of being a professional singer nowadays:
“Singing is a rough business. Every vocal performance involves hundreds of thousands of micro-collisions in the throat. The vocal cords – also known as vocal folds – are a pair of thin, reed-like, muscular strips located inside the larynx, or voice box, in the throat. They are shaped like a wishbone, and contain the densest concentration of nerve tissue in the body. When we are silent, the cords remain apart to facilitate breathing. When we sing or speak, air is pushed up from the lungs, and the edges of the cords come together in a rapid chopping motion. The air causes the cords to vibrate, creating sound. The greater the vibration, the higher the pitch. By the time a soprano hits those lush high notes, her vocal cords are thwacking together 1,000 times per second, transforming a burst of air from her lungs into music powerful enough to shatter glass.”

TWO TRAVELLING LIGHT (WELL, SOUND, REALLY)
Charles Hazlewood (on Radio 4) talked about the dissonance that makes him tingle. With the help of Brian May, he recreates an unusual experiment with a steam train and a brass band to prove the existence of the Doppler Effect (think police sirens flashing past, or the end of “Caroline, No” – it’s the way a note seems high in the distance and lower once it’s passed you by). The section on the Hammond Organ and its associated speaker, the Leslie, is especially interesting. In his studio in Somerset (an abandoned swimming pool) he discusses the Leslie with Sarah Angliss: “Donald Leslie wanted to get the sense of immersion that you got when you went to hear a mighty Wurlitzer at the cinema”. The twin horns in the Leslie spin at “quite a lick, so much of a lick that they create a Doppler Effect” alongside what organ players apparently call a “tremulant”, a sort of wah-wah volume shift. They also discuss the subtle use of a Leslie on both the guitar and vocal on “Little Wing”. Listen here.

THREE HEY, THAT’S NO WAY TO SAY GOODBYE
Tom Waits’ “Summertime/Burma Shave” medley, live, with an intro devoted to Elvis, best read very slowly in a Waitsian drawl…
“August, I remember it. It rained all day, the day that Elvis Presley died… and only a Legend can make it do that. Cause, you know, when my baby said we were through, that she was gonna walk out on me – it was Elvis Presley that talked her out of it…
He gave me my first leather jacket, taught me how to comb my hair just right in a filling station bathroom… It was Elvis that gave you a rubber on prom night, told you that you looked real sharp. I think he maybe just got a little tired of repairing all the broken hearts in the world… and now I think we’re behind the stand, where mechanics cars never start and where nightwatchmen are always sleeping on the job, where shoe-shine boys all have worn-out scuffed up shoes… But a legend never dies, just teaches you everything he knows, gives you the courage to ask her out. And I know there’s a small town where dreams are still alive, and there’s a hero on every corner – and they’re all on their way to a place called Burma Shave.” Listen on the music player to the right.

FOUR TOWER OF SONG
Go here for an extraordinary project, the digitization of shellac records by George Blood for the Internet Archive. “Through The Great 78 Project, the Internet Archive has begun to digitize 78rpm discs for preservation, research, and discovery. 78s were mostly made from shellac (beetle resin) and were the brittle predecessors to the LP era. On Twitter, go to @great78project for uploads as they happen.” FYI An unapologetic preservationist, Mr. Blood lives in Philadelphia where he and his wife Martha are renovating a 1768 house.

FIVE DRESS REHEARSAL RAG
Kevin Cheesman puts me on to this, Neil Finn’s project to rehearse and record an album in live-streaming sessions: “Every Friday in August at 7 pm NZT, I will be performing on a live stream from my studio in Auckland. It will be accessible via Facebook. During these Friday sessions, you will be witness to a series of musical happenings featuring friends, family, songwriters, and singers playing tunes both old and brand new. Follow the progress of new song arrangements as we build towards the last stream on August 25. This final performance will be the actual recording of my new solo album.” Neil invites you to watch and listen to him and his exotic ensemble record the whole album, live in one session. His new album entitled Out of Silence will then be mixed, mastered and released on the following Friday, September 1 (the previous streams are all on YouTube now).

EXTRA CLOSING TIME
Thrilled to see my piece on Daniel Kramer’s Bob Dylan: A Year and a Day in both English and Italian in the latest issue of Pulp. Libro di Bob!

dylanbook

PS I’M CLEARING OUT MAGAZINES…
Anyone interested in a whole bunch of MOJO magazines? I’ll happily give them to whoever will take them away. Email martinworkbench@gmail.com.

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Monday, 8th February

ONE. THIS. THIS IS AMAZING…

graph
Found at Polygraph. I’ll let them introduce themselves: “Polygraph is a publication that explores popular culture with data and visual storytelling. Sorta. This thing is in its infancy. We’re making it up as we go”. This here is a moving flow chart of what Hip Hop’s Billboard Top 10 sounded like from 1989-2015, blending tracks every time the No 1 record changes. If you want to track the Pop-isation of Hip Hop go from Kirko Bangz “Drank in My Cup” on May 28th, 2012 thru to Pitbull’s “Timber” on February 7th, 2014. And then weep a little.

TWO. RADIO 4 ON SONG
Interesting interview with Bonnie Raitt on Woman’s Hour, with a nice mention of Dobell’s, (where she found a Sippie Wallace album in the early Seventies) and a fascinating programme on the commercialization of Gospel music, The Gospel Truth, presented by the financial educator Alvin Hall. The whole show had a very powerful soundtrack (it starts with Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of one of those killed in a massacre in Charleston) and ended with “Everything’s Coming Up Jesus!” by contemporary gospellers Livre, which features a great bass part and a swooping chorus strong enough that I had to go and find it immediately.

THREE: THE BLACK SABBATH STORY
I have no idea how I had missed the story of Black Sabbath’s formation and Tony Iommi’s accident until now, but I had. It’s retold very nicely at Every Record Tells a Story here. And here’s a couple of excerpts:Tony Iommi had been a sheet metal worker but the machine had come down on his right hand and severed the tips of the middle and ring fingers. There’s never a good hand to lose a finger or two from, but as a left handed guitar player, the right hand is definitely the worst option. What’s more, the accident occurred on the day he was due to quit the job to take up music as a full time profession… A friend bought a profoundly depressed Iommi an album by Django Reinhardt. Django played gypsy jazz and used just two fingers to fret chords after burning his hand in a fire, and played the most intricate melodies. This inspired Iommi. He still couldn’t play with two fingers, but like when the A-Team were trapped by gangsters in a garage with just their van, a couple of conveniently discarded sheets of metal and a welder’s torch, he got busy on his escape. Iommi made a couple of thimbles from melted fairy liquid bottles, glued on leather to the sanded down tips and finally – and crucially – loosened the strings so he didn’t need to press so hard. Slowly and surely Iommi gained his confidence and technique with these Blue Peter-esque improvised finger tips. A deeper tone and slower sound began to emerge…”

“Black Sabbath was released on Friday 13th February 1970. The critics hated it, but it reached number eight in the UK charts and number 23 in the USA. Judas Priest, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Nirvana, Slayer, Mastodon and countless others all owe their careers to this album. An entire genre of music invented by a guitarist without a full set of fingers, a jazz drummer, a former abattoir worker and, best of all, a trainee accountant. And the most amazing part of this story? They recorded the whole album in just eight hours in a tiny studio at the back of what is now a guitar shop in Soho. Eight hours. It took them eight hours to invent heavy metal.”

FOUR: YET MORE INTERESTING LOOKING MUSIC FILMS
Two films are in production about the not-widely-known Danny Gatton, a guitarist of fearsome dexterity. For a flavour, try this.
As Damien Fanelli wrote in Guitar World last year: “The late Danny Gatton had a nickname: “The Humbler.” As in, “You think you’re so great? Let’s see you go head to head with Gatton. You will be humbled.” Gatton, who also was known as the Telemaster and the world’s greatest unknown guitarist (a nickname he shared with his friend Roy Buchanan) could play country, rockabilly, jazz and blues guitar with equal authority – and sometimes with a beer bottle! In this legendary clip from his 1991 Austin City Limits appearances, watch as Gatton plays slide guitar, overhand-style, using a full bottle of beer as a slide. Of course, since the bottle is full, some suds find their way onto his Fender Tele’s neck. So Gatton whips out a towel to wipe off the beer; only he keeps the towel on the neck – and simply keeps on playing. What’s most impressive about this sequence is just how fun and musical his playing is, despite the beer-bottle theatrics. Although there’s a good deal of showmanship involved, it’s by no means all about showmanship; as always, his playing is humbling.”

FIVE: FILLMORE EAST MEMORIES
Marc Myers’ always fascinating blog, JazzWax, leads me to this slightly hysterical (in a good way) piece about the Fillmore East, legendary NYC music venue, by resident historian of the Bowery Boogie, Allison B. Siegel [“as an urban historian, Allison can be found exploring and documenting buildings wherever she goes making it very hard to walk down the street with her”]. In March 7, 1968, Loew’s Commodore Theatre became the Fillmore East, renamed by the man behind the Fillmore West in SF, Bill Graham. It closed a few years later, and sadly “what was once the entrance to a whimsical place of drama and comedy, laughter and light shows, music and camaraderie, sex, drugs, disco and rock n roll is now… a bank.”

AND LASTLY…
This week I have mostly been swooning over the pace, attack and grace of both Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City and Billy Preston of Los Angeles. Dig Billy’s Wurlitzer playing on “Funny How Time Slips Away” from a CD I’d lost but now have found: Rhythm, Country and Blues, one of the best to be found in the Various Artists/Tributes to Something section of the record store. Produced by Don Was, the whole thing is highly recommended, from Patti Labelle and Travis Tritt’s “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” to “Rainy Night In Georgia” by Conway Twitty and Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave fame). And who knew that Lyle and Al would sound so good together? In one of those odd coincidences the CD arrived on the day I found this great sketch from my friend, illustrator John Cuneo…

johnc

 

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