Friday, January 5th

A quick round up today. Too much time spent watching tv (how poor was McMafia? From its terrible title to its watery atmosphere, its lousy script to its underdeveloped characters… Everything that The Night Manager was, this isn’t. End of rant) and catching up with work to concentrate on 5 Things. I hope normal service will resume from next week. Happy New Year!

ONE MY FAVOURITE BOOK OF THE YEAR
Latest in the repurposed Ladybird People at Work series

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“This is a rock star. His name is Bob Dylan.
Bob is rehearsing with his band. It takes a long time.
First the band have to learn all of Bob’s famous songs.
Then Bob has to think of worse tunes he can sing over all of them.”

TWO R.I.P. RICK HALL, GIANT OF ALABAMA MUSIC
Although we recorded in Muscle Shoals, we were working at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, set up by Jimmy Johnson, David Hood, Roger Hawkins and Barry Beckett, who broke away from Hall’s Fame (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) studio. Among some fine obits, rocksbackpages reminded me of Mick Brown’s wonderful piece on Rick Hall and Muscle Shoals for the Daily Telegraph in 2013. It’s available to read this week here.

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From Mick’s piece: For a brief and exhilarating period Muscle Shoals rivalled New York, Los Angeles and London as one of the most important recording centres in popular music. You need only visit Muscle Shoals to realise quite how remarkable this was. The town is one of four – the others are Florence, Sheffield and Tuscumbia – that cluster along the Tennessee river in the north-western corner of Alabama, and are collectively known as the Shoals. The combined population is 69,000. It is a place of wood-framed houses, their porches entwined with bougainvillea; of handsome antebellum mansions – and of restaurants serving fried catfish and turnip greens. Thick forests flank the river, which rolls sluggishly in the summer heat. For an anonymous backwater, the Shoals has an improbably rich musical history. Florence was the birthplace of WC Handy, the father of the blues, and of Sam Phillips, who in 1953, convinced, as he put it, that “if I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars”, had the presence of mind to record an 18-year-old Elvis Presley singing the blues song “That’s Alright, Mama” – effectively creating rock’n’roll.

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THREE THE “AMERICAN PIE” CLASSIC ALBUMS PROGRAMME…
reminded my of Don McLean’s song, “Orphans of Wealth”, at this moment as apposite as it’ll ever be…
“And they’re African, Mexican, Caucasian, Indian / Hungry and hopeless Americans / The orphans of wealth and of adequate health / Disowned by this nation they live in.
And with weather-worn hands, on bread lines they stand / Yet but one more degradation… / And they’re treated like tramps while we sell them food stamps /
This thriving and prosperous nation…”

FOUR I TRIED TO WRITE ABOUT DYLAN’S GOSPEL YEARS…
but the issue that I’ve had since 1980 keeps rearing its head – I listen to the first bars of any song thinking, “This sounds great” and ninety seconds later I’ve zoned out. I don’t understand – the band is great, the arrangements are good, it’s performed with drive and commitment… But it’s the same problem I have with the whole of Tom Petty’s oeuvre. I can never stick around ’til the end.

FIVE FROM MAJOR TO MINOR
A fascinating piece about the current state of pop music at Popbitch. They’ve looked at one element in particular…
“Being popular gets you a good place on a Spotify playlist; getting a good place on a Spotify playlist gets you more plays. The more plays you get on Spotify, the better your chart position. The better your chart position, the better your placement on Spotify playlists. The more you get heard, the more popular you become. The more popular you become, the more you get heard. This is not a particularly groundbreaking observation. People have been talking about this quirk of the new chart calculations for years now. What is interesting about this run of long-standing number ones though is that something else significant seems to have changed since the days of “Everything I Do” and “Love Is All Around”. Specifically: the key that the songs are in.”

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Five Things Extra: Welcome To Muscle Shoals, Hit Recording Capital Of The World

“David, little David, help me now, c’mon little David…”

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Excerpts from David Hood Q&A, Soho Hotel Cinema

Audience member: Do you have a theory about what the magic of Muscle Shoals was?
DH: I think it’s a group of young people who wanted to make good music, that was the driving force. We never thought we’d be famous, we never thought we’d be Beatles or anything like that… always my role has been a supporting role. I was always the guy by the drummer playing and trying to do whatever I could to make the artist sound good… we all had the same goal and that was to play great music and to hear it on the radio. And that was a thrill… it’s still a thrill.

I was interested in the fallout of Aretha’s appearance in the Shoals and her sudden departure after Rick Hall and her husband, Ted White, came to blows. Was there a difference in feel, working in New York, where the sessions relocated, compared to the Shoals?
DH: Well it was a lot more formal. There were union guys saying You can’t unplug that amplifier, we gotta have someone come in. We did the Letterman show three weeks ago in New York and we’re setting up and I wanted to move my amplifier, and… In Muscle Shoals, we were the guys, that’s the thing. [But in New York] once we got in there, got in our positions, playing the music, it was the same, then…

Our little studio, 3614 Jackson Ave., when Paul Simon came and recorded there, he came to record “Take Me To The Mardi Gras”, because he had heard “I’ll Take You There” and wanted those black Jamaican musicians to play, so he came and booked the studio time. He booked four days for that song and when he came in it was raining and the studio leaked… I don’t know if it’s polite to say this but the sound engineer [Jerry Masters] taped tampons across the back of the control room roof, because the water was dripping on the control board. We got “Take Me” on the second take, so we had three more days – Paul Simon’s not going to give up the studio time he’s paying for so we cut “Kodachrome” and those other things… [those other things included “Loves Me Like A Rock”, “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor” and the luminous and delicate “St. Judy’s Comet”, showing the deft touch that made them perfect collaborators. Just listen to Pete Carr’s guitar fills, Hood’s super-melodic bass and Barry Beckett’s cool vibes. The Rhythm Section also cut “Still Crazy After All These Years” and “My Little Town” with Simon].

So, very primitive facilities that we had… but it’s the sound of the musicians – it’s not the room, it’s the musicians. Many, many accidents happen in music. At the end of “Kodachrome” you hear Paul Simon go “OK” – that’s when he’s trying to get us to stop, to do it again, and we keep playin’ and it sort of becomes the record, so you never know on things like that.

My friend Alex: Often in the film Rick Hall comes across as an eccentric and sometimes brutal character – is that a fair depiction?
DH: That’s some true depiction – to this day. The session where you see [in the film] Candi Staton  recording ”I Ain’t Easy To Love”…

Alex: He’s all over it, isn’t he…
DH: He was so typical Rick Hall. He was still as awful as he ever was. “No man, that’s no good! That’s not what I want…”

Audience member: Is it a love/hate thing?
DH: Mostly love [audience laughs]. He gave me my start, I would be nowhere without him… I tell him that every time I see him. It’s a small town where we are. You either love each other or kill each other!

Other than the fact that I missed MSTthere being any mention of Eddie Hinton (add your own non-hitmaking Shoals denizen here), the film captures something of the time and place that those wonderful records came from. Read Mick Brown’s lovely piece on the Telegraph’s site, that tells you what you need to know.

I caught up with David after 25 or so years – the last time we talked was in his office at 1000 Alabama Avenue. I wore the T-Shirt the studio had given us, and Alex took a picture on his phone.

Quote at the top: Mavis Staples’ exhortation to David Hood in “I’ll Take You There”. Sign photograph taken by me in ’87.

Five Things: Wednesday 22nd April

One Thing I’ll Miss Later This Week: The “Muscle Shoals” Film
PickI’m really looking forward to this documentary, but am not around to see it at the Sundance Festival in London this week. I wrote a reminiscence of the time that our band, Hot!House went there to record (find it here). Incidentally, the Rock’s Back Pages logo is the legendary Jimmy Johnson’s guitar pick (he lent us his car as well…)

I liked this review on imdb titled, The only puzzling thing about “Muscle Shoals” is how this story went so long without being told.
prettycleverfilmgal writes: “Have you ever heard of Muscle Shoals, Alabama? Let me rephrase the question – have you heard an Aretha Franklin song? Have you ever grooved to Wicked Wilson Pickett’s “Land Of 1000 Dances?” Have you ever thought, “Yes, Percy Sledge, that is exactly what happens when a man loves a woman!” Have you ever driven way too fast while the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” blasted through your speakers? If you answered yes to any of those questions, then you have heard of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, or at least you’ve heard the Muscle Shoals sound, the subject of the documentary Muscle Shoals from director Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier. In the interest of full disclosure, these are my people ya’ll! I grew up just east of Muscle Shoals, also on the banks of the Tennessee River – “The Singing River” to the Native Americans who made their home there for millenia before Rick Hall founded FAME studios. Driven by a need to escape the crushing poverty and overwhelming tragedy that befalls him, Hall is the central figure in the story of the famed “Muscle Shoals Sound” – well, him and a group of homegrown, white-as-cotton studio musicians known as the “Swampers.” These men shaped what ultimately proved to be some of the finest rock, soul, and R&B America would ever produce.”

Thinking About Richie Havens
Introduced to him by Don Sollash, manager of Dobell’s Record shop (“I listened to jazz all day – the last thing I wanted to listen to at home was more jazz…”), I bought all of the late 60s-early 70s Havens’ LPs and loved them. I re-bought some of them last year on iTunes and gloried again to “I Started A Joke,” “This May Be The First Day,” “Handsome Johnny” and their like. Marcel called me up when they showed a Beatles At The BBC programme of cover versions, saying how great Richie’s awesomely strummed version of “Here Comes The Sun” was. His second guitarist and conga player have the damnedest time trying to keep up with him…  And this is lovely, from Richard Williams’ thebluemoment: “I interviewed Havens once, for the Melody Maker, and it gave me a good story to tell. It was at a hotel on Park Lane, in 1970 or 71. I went up to his room at the appointed time, knocked on the door, and was shown in. He greeted me with great warmth, and looked me straight in the eye. “Aquarius,” he declared. Er, sorry, I said, but no. Still that piercing look. “Sagittarius!” No, wrong again. “Capricorn!” Look, sorry about this, but… “Taurus!” You can guess the rest: he ran through the whole card before a process of elimination gave him the right answer. He didn’t appear at all embarrassed, and it certainly amused me. Then we got to talk. He seemed like one of the good guys.” I also like Havens’ story of walking on Hampstead Heath in 1974 and spotting Ray Charles from a distance, sitting on a park bench. “Suddenly I heard, “Hey, Richie. Get over here!” And it was Ray. He had extraordinary senses…”

Jackie DeShannon,“Put A Little Love In Your Heart” As Seen On TV (In A Cholesterol Spread Advert)
I heard this (probably DeShannon’s biggest hit, from 1969) on tv the night before her cover of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” pops up on my iPhone. Now most versions of this, even by good people, are dull and lugubrious. This one, in the hands of the estimable Jackie, is different. It starts straight, then an accordion enters and gets a Bacharach/Butch Cassidy feel going. It takes a left turn with the entrance of a pedal steel into a 5th Dimension/Bones Howe groove, and DeShannon pushes the vocal line away from the original, but in a good way. Oh, and it has an accordion. Did I mention that?

“I Bet Your Mama Was A Tent Show Queen”
Bob Gumpert sends a link to a fascinating piece by Carl Wilson (not the Beach Boy) on the Random House, Canada blog. It’s the strange story of, to quote the intro “a gay, cross-dressing, black singer named Jackie Shane, who scored a surprise radio hit in what was then staid and uptight Toronto.” His only surviving tv clip can be seen here, a compellingly diffident performance of Rufus Thomas’ “Walking The Dog”

Meshell Ndegeocello: Ronnie Scott’s, Tuesday Night
The drummer, Earl Harvin, sits on the left, his kit pointing across the stage. His mallets are at the ready. Chris Bruce, the guitarist, playing a modded Tele Custom from the 70s, crouches at his pedalboard. Meshell Ndegeocello, her angular bass worn high, counts the song down. And, like setting out a manifesto, they start playing “Tomorrow Never Knows”…
Turn off your mind relax and float down stream
It is not dying, it is not dying
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void,
It is shining, it is shining.
Yet you may see the meaning of within
It is being, it is being
Love is all and love is everyone
It is knowing, it is knowing
and underneath it all creep the contorted keys of Jebin Bruni, wrenching decayed and tweaked noises from his banks of vintage organs and synths and laptop screens.

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There is, in her music, enough of the familiar to feel comforted. Often the songs are known – tonight derives mostly from her album in tribute to Nina Simone – but the constituent parts are roughly handled. They keep you on the edge of your seat: how far will they push before it all collapses? Great holes appear, to be suddenly filled by the rolling thunder of the drums or a shard of guitar or a sliver of keyboard or the clanging slap of Ndegeocello’s bass. It’s as if all the comforting sureties of the songs have been stripped away — but it’s music of beauty. It’s just that it’s not afraid to be ugly, too, like it wants to encompass the whole experience of life. It’s really hard to do it justice: my hastily scribbled notes in the darkness have phrases like ghostly martial doo-wop liberally sprinkled. But I’m making it sound doomy and it wasn’t at all. There’s such joy in hearing these musicians play. The metal freak-out that ends “Feeling Good,” the girls at the bar providing the backing vocals for “See Line Woman,” the stunning bass solo that brings a double-time “Suzanne” to an end – this is all wonderful, wonderful stuff. A version of “Pink Moon” in honour of London, and the stark and short “Oysters” are the icing on the cake. If she plays your town, go.

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