So, as previously noted, I (re)signed up for a 3-month trial of Apple Music. I was thwarted in my reasons for doing this but kept the trial going because the kid is on a rockandroll roadtrip and probably making use of it. But!
It makes me sad.
I’ve also revisited Spotify, taking them up on a 30-day trial of the Pro level, mainly so I could spam a friend with playlists, but Spotify is even worse.
Let’s stipulate from the outset that I’m predisposed to hate all the algorithmic recommendations. Apple Music’s recs, far from being insanely great, are insanely insane. And Spotify’s are equally offensive. What really bugs me about Spotify though is how badly it works. If I’m building a playlist and want to (+) a song to it from, for example, an album listing, it keeps bouncing me away from the listing so that I have to tap the screen THREE FUCKING TIMES to get back to where I was.
…And other user-hostile behaviours, such as finishing a playlist and then immediately starting to play random shit without so much as a by-your-leave.
But that makes me angry rather than sad, and the source of the sadness is somewhere else.
Always sensitive to my own moods, I went through several stages of grief with this free trial. For the first week or so, I was adding stuff to sample, things I’d normally skank from YouTube or steer clear of. The new McCartney album, for example. I’d normally not muster much interest, but I gave it a listen. Quite good, I thought, for a Paul McCartney album. But as Greil Marcus (?) once said of Bob Dylan’s Empire Burlesque, it’s good in the way that, say, Elton John is good, and when you’re Paul McCartney/Bob Dylan, that’s simply not good enough. So you give it a listen, and you think, litotically, not bad. And then you think, but will I ever listen to any of it ever again? And you think, no. No I won’t.
So then I stopped adding things, because it made me sad and I was wasting my time, and I felt reluctant to play any of the stuff I had added, because it felt artificial somehow, like I’d been placed in a simulation of my life in which I had access to things I was only vaguely interested in but that all the things I really loved were behind some kind of glass wall, tantalisingly close but unavailable.
It was as if I was thinking, well I’ve got this trial, see, so I’m obligated to ignore you, all my hard-won musical friends, and hang around with these mere acquaintances, just because that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.
As if the music collection I’d painstakingly built up over 40+ years had less value than this free stuff that was streaming like diarrhoea from the arse of a corporation that presumed, using maths, to know better than me what I would like.
Because music should be famine, not feast. Having taste means filtering out all the mediocrity to find the good stuff, not sticking a hose in your mouth and turning on the tap.
So then I stopped playing most of what Apple Music was offering and went back to my own owned and downloaded music. Because the reality is that over the month or so I’ve been on the trial there have been precisely three songs that have appeared that I intend to download/buy when I cancel the trial.
This isn’t just my problem. This is everyone’s problem. I genuinely fear we’re doing something horrible to ourselves with this always-on, everything-available culture. We’re already closely resembling those infantilised fat people living on out in space in the Pixar movie Wall•E. The hosepipe is streaming into our gaping maw and we really should fumble for the tap and turn it off.
My reaction to the news of this book, back in 2013 when it was first published in hardback, was probably not uncommon: does the world really need another book about The Beatles? I had read so many, from the Hunter Davies authorised biography that was published before they even broke up to the lush hagiography of the Anthology doorstopper. And so I noted this and ignored it, thinking both that I knew it all and that my interest in the subject had been saturated long ago. Furthermore, I was convinced that of all the things about The Beatles, the stuff about them before they were famous was the least interesting. This book only takes us to the end of 1962, and I didn’t think I’d want to know any more about this period.
But Lewisohn’s forthcoming stage show about Abbey Road prompted me to look – and think – again. And now I don’t have to have yet another huge tome creaking on the already overloaded bookshelf, now I can just whack it on the Kindle, I decided to give it a read.
It will not come as a shock to anyone who has read this that I was wrong: the world definitely needed this book about The Beatles. When you read, in other biographies, They grew up in Liverpool; or, Ringo came from one of the rougher parts of town; or, Paul and John met at a church fete, John was impressed that Paul could play “Twenty Flight Rock” – when you read lines like that, you have no idea how much more you could know, not just in terms of trivia, but in terms of a deeper understanding and a greater appreciation of just what The Beatles achieved. As David Hepworth is fond of saying, The Beatles are underrated. And when you read this book, you understand just how profoundly true that is.
I mean, the old line that gets trotted out, that record companies turned them down, saying, “Guitar groups are over”: that’s just something we’ve accepted all these years. But ask yourself: what guitar groups? There were the Shadows, and, um? Look at the pop chart for the end of December 1961, the week before the Beatles’ recording test at Decca. Here is a list: Danny Williams; Frankie Vaughan; Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen; Sandy Nelson; Pat Boone; Acker Bilk; Russ Conway; Bobby Vee; Petula Clark; Neil Sedaka.
Sure, there were no guitar groups, but not because they were “over”: because they had never been. There were solo artists, instrumental groups, even vocal groups, but there were no bands. There were no artists who both played instruments and sang. With harmonies. Who wrote their own songs. Decca turning The Beatles down was akin to the robot in Westworld, programmed to say, “It doesn’t look like anything to me.” It was because The Beatles were so new, so different, perhaps, that the people at Decca couldn’t even see what they were. They were hors categorie.
And so this book. I’m 56, and I’ve been listening to the Beatles almost all my life. One of my earliest memories is of running home from primary school with the guitar riff from “I Feel Fine” running through my head: my first involuntary musical imagery, my first earworm. My favourite Beatles record is still Beatles for Sale,because that was the one that was already in the house when I was growing up. And the first record I ever bought with my own money was The Beatles 1967–1970. What I’m trying to say is, I peaked early with The Beatles. By the time I was 18, I’d listened to so much, from the dodgy Star Club December 1962 recordings onwards, that I was positively steeped in Beatle lore. My clothes stank of The Beatles, like a 40-a-day smoker. And then, just as I turned 18, Lennon was killed, and I dived deeper.
I know the story like you know the story of King Arthur or Robin Hood. It’s part of the founding mythos of these islands, as fundamental to us as Plymouth Rock is to the USA, only with fewer genocides. So it would be impossible for Mark Lewisohn to make me read this book as if I didn’t already know the story, to read it as if it really was touch and go, that they might not make it, that the peril was real.
But I did.
To read this is to be immersed in 1950s Liverpool, Hamburg in the early 60s, to feel the precarious weight of every single event. But Pete’s not a very good drummer: what are they going to do? George Martin really isn’t very impressed and doesn’t like “Love Me Do”: is that it, then? Have they missed their chance?
I can pay no greater compliment to this book than to say – as I read the climactic chapter, the account of the recording of their second single, in their third session (with Ringo) at Abbey Road (and as my daughter played Blonde on Blonde in the room behind me: a marvel that came along less than 4 years later) – as I got to the line I knew was coming, when George Martin flicked the switch on the talkback microphone and said,
‘Gentlemen, you’ve just made your first number 1 record.’
Lewisohn, Mark. The Beatles – All These Years: Volume One: Tune In (p. 808). Little, Brown Book Group. Kindle Edition.
that tears sprang spontaneously into my eyes.
So now I join the legions of George RR Martin fans in demanding the immediate publication of the next volume. Will it ever appear? Has he lost the plot? Will he die before it’s finished? What is he doing organising a stage show when he has a bloody book to write? Etc.
A year or so later, we decided to put out a single, which turned into an EP, which was simply a way of maximising bang-for buck (the budget was £500). You were allowed 6-minutes per side of a 45 rpm vinyl at the pressing plant we used, so we hired an 8-track Fostex machine (which used quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape) and re-recorded four of the songs from our first 14 – which had been put out separately as a cassette release called Mr Mystery/The Proper Stranger, mainly because I couldn’t settle on one title.
The EP was called Welcome to Weston-Super-Mare, mainly because there was a picture of a big lit-up sign saying just that on the cover (there was a reference to the town in one of the songs). The cover was printed by a small firm, but the printing plate had been created by my Dad. It featured the aforementioned picture, and on the back the track listing along with a prose poem written by me that began, This summer night of luscious wind and rain…
We tried to get some interest going in the single. The local newspaper came round and took a photo, and then printed a story full of factual errors. We took copies to the local radio station, which were promptly given away as crap competition prizes (winners complained, I heard). Somehow, a copy made its way to BBC Radio 1, and a DJ called Janice Long played the first track, ‘Is It Any Wonder?’. I learned about this afterwards, because obviously I never listened to Radio 1: someone who knew someone jumped out of their bathtub when they heard it. So that was my three minutes of fame, over.
I was always unhappy with the electronic drum machine on our early recordings, but ironically, twenty years later, as I reached the natural end of my third period of songwriting and recording, I’d come around to the idea, and you can hear similar machine sounds on my last few recordings. My main objection, as I said above, was that I really struggled to play at the machine-generated fixed tempo. I always felt it was a case of putting the cart before the horse. Analogue music has a natural, if slight, variation in tempo, which is totally lost with the rigid programming of beats-per-minute. This is not an original complaint, but while I did get better at playing in time over the years, I wish I’d played less: one chord per bar, or on the off beat only, something like that. As to playing live with a drummer, that was when I really discovered my limitations.
I hated performing, found it horribly nervewracking, and I was never confident playing with the others – had a bad case of imposter syndrome. I couldn’t even hear the drums through my nerves when we were playing live, and I couldn’t improvise when Pete and Curly decided to go off on one. Still, there were some good nights, though it was never destined to come to anything. We were 3/4 of a good band, and I always saw myself as the weakest link, which is a shame, because I don’t think I was that bad, and if I could have shaken off those feelings, we might have gone somewhere. Reading about the early days of the Beatles (without for one second comparing myself to them), it’s clear that Lennon, for example, was often vamping in the early days, and it was only really the 7 million hours on stage in Hamburg that honed their abilities. Even then, nerves might get the better of them, leading to fluffed solos and harmonies.
Then again, we didn’t have a manager, or someone to carry the burden of booking gigs and doing the marketing part. That might have helped, but who would want to manage us?
Our best gigs were probably in the Vaults bar in Stony Stratford, where we had two or three good nights, having worked up a couple of cover versions as well as my own songs. By this time, I was living in Milton Keynes with my then-girlfriend, a relationship that lasted about five years. But with both her and Jim gone from my life (long story), I made the decision to apply to University, to sell the house (lost money on it, bottom of the market) and move on. For the last few months, alone in the house we’d shared, I ended up with most of Pete’s recording equipment in my back bedroom. By then, there was an 8-track Fostex reel-to-reel recorder, a (16 channel?) mixing desk, and a variety of other things. Between us, Pete and I recorded a few more songs, but we never played them live. The band was quietly retired, and I (briefly) went solo, performing songs as well as short stories when I was asked to do readings.
I did most of the recordings on my own: had grown competent enough with the equipment that I could operate it without help. I didn’t understand most of what I was doing, and didn’t have an inkling for how the mixing desk really worked, but everything was connected up and I knew which buttons to push.
But when the house was sold, the equipment all had to go elsewhere, and when I started at University, I stopped doing music altogether. The catalyst was an open mic night that Roy and I went down to. Roy was a proper musician who had a proper band, and he wanted nothing to do with this open mic crowd, but I thought I’d show my face. I did a song, but decided then and there that I hated the scene and the people, and all the boys who thought they were Jesus with an acoustic guitar.
It goes back to my lack of affect as a singer. I didn’t fit in with all those intense people who took their music so seriously.
And I gave it up for years, till (for professional reasons) I had to learn all about computer recording technology and MIDI, and I rediscovered my love of recording. It started as a way of me getting to grips with the software and its requirements, so I could give the sales team enough knowledge to sell the stuff over the phone. And I eventually became pretty competent in using Pro Tools, and converted my garage to a home studio. It was a neat set up: a few really nice microphones, a small mixing desk, a computer interface, some expensive monitor speakers. And I must have written/recorded 100 or so songs – some cover versions – and they weren’t all bad.
My earliest attempts are incompetent: the drums (now MIDI programmed, triggering sounds from sample collections and virtual instruments) were awful to begin with, and the guitars were fairly crappy, and my arrangements lacked imagination. But over a few intense years I grew more confident and occasionally did something I thought was good. Once I relied less on strumming guitars and thought more about how everything worked together, I did some nice things. Nothing is perfect, and nothing really sounds professional quality, but as I said above, I was overcoming the handicap of having almost zero musical talent.
Occasionally, Pete would drop in to play some bass, just like the old days, but mostly I’d do that kind of stuff myself. A couple of people from work contributed sometimes, but the bits that make me smile the most are the tracks where I’ve overcome my own limitations and played some half-decent guitar, or through serendipity have managed a nice combination of sounds. Painstakingly picking out MIDI notes on a keyboard and creating what sounded like piano: that sort of thing. My favoured mix turns out to be a fairly quiet drum track with a brushed snare, some piano, some tremolo electric guitar, bass — and a slightly emotionless vocal.
Around 2006, I changed careers, and eventually ran out of ideas and time to do the music justice. Software stopped working, hardware got outdated. My freebies stopped being authorised because I was no longer working for a dealer, and my last few recordings really relied on a much limited set of options, which wasn’t a bad thing. But by then the song ideas had stopped coming. I’d exhausted my backlog of memory and emotion: a lot of those songs had been written about all of those days long gone. The system could have gone on working for longer if I’d not updated the software, but it only takes one moment of madness, and you can screw the whole thing.
There remain two more things to mention. The last time (I think) I saw Jim, I was commuting home to Buckingham from Nottingham, and I passed a petrol station on the A5. Standing by one of the pumps was a biker, in leathers, helmet off, blonde hair. There was a familiarity to his posture, a kind of curvature of the spine and the shoulders that made me certain it was Jim. It was a mere moment, I was passing by at 40, 50 miles per hour.
And it was before that, in the first flurry of social networking, that someone I’d been at school with passed Jim’s work email address to me. It turned out that – more than a decade after he’d returned from a post-divorce trip to Australia full of beans and full of plans to return, to emigrate, as soon as he possibly could – that Jim was still working in the same job he’d had since he left school. In the same period of time, I’d given up my first job, done three university degrees, a host of different temporary jobs, and started a whole new career in a different part of the country.
I think he was just back from the pub, or he’d surely never have entertained an exchange of emails. I was honestly surprised he was still working at the same place, sitting in the same office, getting on for 20 years after he’d started. But he hadn’t changed.
‘I’ve got to get a plan,’ he said, as if the trip back to Australia was still on his mind. I was actually embarrassed for him. It was no skin off my nose if he was still working in the same old job – all jobs are a shitty imposition on our free time, so who fucking cares? But to read him still talking about escaping in the same old way, using the same old words, was disconcerting. Anyway, I’m sure as soon as he sobered up he regretted the conversation, brief as it was.
I think his employer closed down in the end, and I believe (only because it was mentioned in the blurb of a television programme I never watched) he moved on to train as a firefighter at an airport: ever the hero in his own mind, I guess.
My fingers are soft now. I have a really nice Taylor acoustic guitar that my daughters play, but I haven’t picked it up for years. It’s sad, but my current job consumes all my creative energy: sometimes I feel as if I’ve been performing for five hours in a day (because I have). There’s no energy left for making music. Maybe when I retire.
I’ve been reading Mark Lewisohn’s book Tune In, the first in a planned trilogy about the Beatles, which takes the story up to 1962, the year I was born. I’ll have more to say on that later, but it surfaced a lot of memories for me, which were sharpened by this week’s Roderick on the Line podcast, in which John talks about his own experience of starting bands.
One of the things Roderick says is that boys who think playing a guitar will get them the girls are wrong. As Bruce Springsteen himself points out in his autobiography, it was the dance moves that counted for much much more than the guitars.
When I think back to my own teenage years, the picking up of the guitar, I don’t believe I was thinking at all about girls. I just wanted to be in a band. But unlike anyone who ever made a success of it, I clearly didn’t have the drive or ambition to make it happen, not properly. My first guitar was purchased on the front doorstep for £10. It was a made-in-Japan classical acoustic, which ought to have had nylon strings, but which arrived with steel strings fitted. Concerned these would warp the neck, I soon replaced them with nylons, but this “Woolies special” was never particularly easy to play. It had been advertised in the local paper, and a phonecall later, the owner – having run all the way down our road with it – was at the front door. A cursory inspection (what did I know?) and it was mine.
It wasn’t worth £10.
I had a learn-to-play book, which encouraged you to paint your fingernails with different coloured polish so as to get the positioning right. I never did succeed in playing any of the songs in the book, but after a short time started to write my own. I would say I probably mastered the open chord shapes but never did manage to play a bar chord without buzzing.
My best friend Jim and I had always dreamed of having a band, which was never quite as great as our vision for it. It was only when he came round one evening with a song he’d written that things kicked off. Jim would go through periods of coming round with regularity – on a Wednesday evening, say – and then after a while he’d stop for some reason, and I might not see him for months on end. Usually, to be fair, when he had a new girlfriend to entertain. In terms of the band, it was always important to me that he was the first to write a song, but I was disappointed ever-afterwards because he never wrote any more, and we weren’t able to collaborate together like the songwriting duo I wished we were.
Once he’d written one, and I realised what was possible, I quickly started writing my own. And one of the reasons I couldn’t collaborate was that I worked too quickly. By the following week, I’d written my first (‘In My Heart’), and a week after that, my second (‘Is It Any Wonder?’). I would present these to him on a Wednesday evening, desperate for his approval, never sure I’d created anything as good as his first song. This was around the turn of 1982 to 1983. I was in the full throes of my affair with Kim, on an emotional rollercoaster that moved so rapidly that I was going from ‘The Girl in White Tights’ to ‘The Remembering Song’, which is to say from the excitement of initial attraction to the despair of a break-up, in the space of a fortnight (and back and forth again, and again, for about a year).
Some writing sessions are such vivid flashbulb memories that I don’t think I’ll ever forget them. ‘The Remembering Song’ was written, more or less, in the time it took to play it through once. Sure, I paused to scribble down the lyrics in an illegible scrawl, but that took almost no time at all. I was sitting on the edge of my bed, pad of paper to my right, guitar across my knees, and the perfume-imbued scarf (referred to in the song) behind me.
In 1982, Springsteen released Nebraska, his home-recorded album of what might have been demos for a full studio record, and the existence of home 4-track recorders was known. It was known. And, after a while, it turned out that my future brother-in-law Pete had somehow got hold of one. Springsteen’s was a TEAC, I believe, and Pete had a Fostex. Already in a band, he had connections with a music shop and a lot of ‘demo’ kit passed through his hands. So he had an early drum machine as well as the 4-track cassette recorder, and a decent selection of microphones, including a Sennheiser MD 441, which was and is a pretty fucking good dynamic microphone with a unique appearance – a legend, in fact, considered by some to be the finest vocal and instrument dynamic mic ever made. It wasn’t a condenser microphone, not a Neumann, but it had a clarity and accuracy that made it really special, far superior to the Shure SM 58 which is the most commonly used dynamic vocal microphone.
I’ve had a fetish for microphones ever since.
The 4-track cassette recorder was a work of genius, using a technology that came and went in a period of 40 years, and has since been replaced with the smartphone/iPod generation of gadgets. Cassettes came in a variety of capacities, but the most useful was the 90-minute version. The 120-minute tapes were generally unreliable (was the tape physically thinner? It broke easily) and the 60 minute variety too short to fit an album on each side. The sweet spot, mixtape central, was 90 minutes: 45 minutes per side, good enough to fit two vinyl albums, or a lovingly composed compilation, painstakingly recorded from individual tracks on your vinyl collection. You would sit for hours with LP sleeves spread around you on the floor, composing song sequences that were more than mere playlists.
The 4-track recorder worked like this. Take a 90 minute tape: it plays 45 minutes of stereo per side, but what if you played both sides all at once, in one direction? Then you could record 4 tracks for 45 minutes. But tape was a hissy medium. The sound the tape made as it moved over the playhead couldn’t be entirely eliminated. The Dolby system (B or C) removed some of the hiss but not all of it, and if used too aggressively could remove some of the ‘brightness’ or ‘presence’ of the vocals and instruments. You could mitigate some of the noise/hiss problems by recording on the tape at double its normal speed: 15 inches per second instead of 7.5. This reduced the length you could record to 22.5 minutes, but that was still enough to record up to seven 3-minute pop songs, one track at a time, which you could then mix down onto a regular tape recorder, and duplicate. So you’d end up with a master cassette of 4-track recordings, plus a stereo mixdown, and then second generation duplicates that you could distribute at gigs or give to your friends.
So Pete had a range of useful kit, but what he didn’t have, really, was a songwriter who was available on a regular basis on weekday nights to do a little bit of recording. And so it started, in 1984, the first recording sessions of Go Dog Go!, our band named after a P D Eastman (Dr Seuss) book, but with the punctuation removed for convenience.
(There was, much later, an American band called Go Dog Go, just as there was an American band called Toad The Wet Sprocket – the name of Pete’s original, heavy metal band – but fuck ‘em all. We were first.)
Jim and I had been using a double cassette boom box up till that point, and had in fact recorded his song on it, which was already circulating among our friends. Our first performance was in fact of that song, as unofficial support for another band who were playing at a club in Luton. I keep calling it his song or that song because I can’t remember its title. I know it had three chords and it started, ‘When I first saw you, I knew this time it was gonna be love…’ Not the most sophisticated lyrics, but it had a good melody and it made a virtue of its simplicity. Even after I’d written 50 other songs, I didn’t think any of them were as good as that. I really looked up to him for it, but (to my knowledge at least) he wrote no more.
He and I started turning up at Pete’s house on a Wednesday evening for recording sessions. Jim didn’t want us to record his song, so we simply started with the most recent one I’d written, and over a few more weeks we recorded several others. My Woolies special wasn’t much cop for recording, so we borrowed a Fender acoustic for me to play, which eventually became mine by default. I think I paid a nominal fiver for it and I wish I still had it. I mean, it wasn’t brilliant, but it was better than anything else I had available. We’d recorded about five songs, including my earliest classic, ‘Like Natalie Wood’, when Jim just stopped turning up. The truth was, he wasn’t contributing much. As I was writing all the songs, I was playing the acoustic guitar, Pete supplied the bass and the drum programming, and all Jim had to do was sing with me. At first, I didn’t want to sing alone, and I guess neither did Jim. But when you hear our two voices blended together, you can’t tell us apart. When he stopped coming, I insisted for a while on being double-tracked, because I didn’t like the sound of my voice on its own. But after a while, I realised it sounded okay, and over many years I came to accept that my voice is perfectly pleasant.
I don’t have a lot of range, and I always felt I went off pitch if I tried too hard, didn’t have the control, so that’s one reason I didn’t put a lot of emotion in my singing. The other reason was contextual, so it bears explaining.
Where I did struggle was with playing my guitar in time with the backing track supplied by the drum machine. The arguments have been well rehearsed over thirty years: it ain’t natural to play at exactly, say, 120 beats per minute for the whole length of a song. There’s a natural swing, a natural variation in tempo, that the metronomic drum machine stifles. I struggled then, and I still struggle now, though I’ve learned what you have to do. I still cringe when I hear my rhythm guitar drift slightly out of time on a couple of the tracks. So the guitar was wobbly, but the vocals, well, they were all right.
I was a teenager during the punk era, and I never did warm to the exceedingly angry style of singing of most punk singers. So for a start, I was singing with a smile on my face, which I think you can hear in my voice. There’s a kind of knowing wink there: doesn’t matter how sad or upset the words are, let’s not be one of those angry young people.
I loved Jonathan Richman’s sunny outlook and matter-of-fact expression. He never screamed or sounded mean. He was probably my main musical influence: not the Beatles, not the Stones, the Who, not Dylan or Bruce. Jonathan Richman is where I’m coming from.
So my affectless tone was a mixture of knowing my limitations and wanting things to be that way. Singing with emotion is a little like speaking French with a proper accent: couldn’t take it seriously enough to do it.
Then there was the circumstances of the recording: usually in a room in a house where there were people downstairs, and so I felt properly inhibited and always self-conscious. Overall, I kind of wanted a neutral tone, so that the meaning of the song resided in the words themselves rather than in my performance. Which of course more or less goes against the whole history of popular music and I’m not pretending for a moment that I was onto something. It was an online review (written years after the fact of it) of our EP release, Welcome to Weston-Super-Mare, that described me as a ‘slightly emotionless singer’ – and that stings, it does, but I also own it. And even now whenever I listen to my old recordings, the bits I like the least are the moments when I allowed some emotion to enter my voice. That said, the tone is less neutral than, as I said above, knowing wink, and there was often a smile on my face as I recorded the vocal.
I wanted, really, for people to pay attention to the lyrics, which is hypocritical of me, as I rarely bother to do this nowadays myself. But I am proud of some of the songs I wrote, and some of the lines. I still hear them and think, that’s quite clever.
Though I probably peaked too early with, Operator, get me Weston-Super-Mare… Which was in one of the earliest songs I wrote.
So I continued to turn up on Wednesdays, and me and Pete continued to record, and he got his bandmate Curly (Mark Ridout) to come round to add some nice guitar on a couple of tracks (and Curly’s younger brother added piano to one), and after a few months, we started rehearsing together as a band, with a drummer (Olivier, who was half French, from Calais).
John Roderick, of severalpodcasts, has a term for subscriptions. These ongoing payments suck money out of your bank account on a regular basis in return for [services] and if you’re not careful, they’ll suck you dry. Roderick calls them eels. They’re attached to your major arteries and sucking blood. Picture yourself as an Ood from Doctor Who.
I currently subscribe to:
The BBC (£150 per year, £12.50 a month)
Amazon Prime (£7.99 a month)
Netflix* (£8.99 a month)
Apple Music† (£14.99 a month for a family plan)
NowTV‡ (£99 per year, £8.25 a month)
That’s a grand total of £52.72 a month, £633 a year, for entertainment and free one-day delivery. Which is before we get to the other eels: broadband, phone contract etc.
It’s a lot.
*I thought I’d be smart and do a 6-months-on, 6-months-off thing with Amazon and Netflix. The truth is, as I’ve said recently, that a lot of Netflix’s Original programming is utter shite (especially their films), and I don’t really want to be paying £8.99 a month all year round. So I recently cancelled the subscription and said to the family that we’d go back on when there was a list of 10 things worth watching.
Well, I lasted less than a month, because the Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder Revue documentary appeared, and there was no way I was going to wait 6 months to watch it. I considered it the equivalent of paying £8.99 for a one-off iTunes rental, or a cinema ticket, whatever. So I am currently back on Netflix, but not for long. I actually checked out the new Black Mirror and was confirmed in my view that most of what Netflix produces is mediocre at best, and, no, I don’t want to watch no Jennifer Aniston movies, thanks.
†Bob Dylan is also to blame for my temporary subscription to Apple Music. I have no intention of paying the £14.99, which is ridiculously steep for what is essentially an annoyance. I’ve written before about how I was immediately irritated and turned off by Apple Music. You spend ages telling it what you prefer, and then it does nothing but recommend shite. I mean, take a look at this screenshot:
It’s as if someone’s Uncle Jack died and you’re looking through all the CDs he bought from that advert at the back of his Saga magazine.
Now, I have a fair amount of modern country music in my Library, but Apple Music’s “For You” section is stuffed with this crap and I have no more interest in it than I have in, say, Cliff Richard, Max Bygraves, or Nana Miskouri. It’s all stuff you’d flick past while casually browsing at a car boot or a charity shop. Apart from it all being of no interest whatsoever, the list of recommendations is also overwhelmingly based around male vocalists, compounding the industry-wide marginalisation of women artists. Country radio already refuses to play contemporary country by women, but as far as Apple is concerned, it doesn’t even exist. The only thing that might tempt me to subscribe to Apple Music full time is if they had a recommendation engine that would throw up current artists, the likes of Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Lori McKenna, talented women who are producing incredible songs. In the absence of a robust music press, the world is crying out for a good music recommendation engine. But no, Music scrapes the barrel of music that was already in the remainder bin 40 years ago.
So, in reality, no, I’m not paying £14.99. I’m on a free trial, and that only because I wanted to hear (just once) the Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder Revue boxed set. Except, thwarted: they only offer a 10-track sampler on the streaming side, so bollocks to that.
‡Compared to all the others, NowTV is the best value. Who’d have thought I’d say that? Better value than the BBC, for me, because I watch almost nothing on BBC TV, and listen solely to radio stuff on the iPlayer Radio (definitely not on Sounds). I get both Entertainment and Movies from NowTV for £99. I got it once, for a year. And then when I went to cancel, they offered it to me again. I’ve almost zero interest in watching any movies, but it’s part of the deal. The Entertainment pass gives me stuff like GoT (not full-time, but long enough to watch it) and Westworld, Bob’s Burgers, and various other Sky Atlantic stuff. But it’s touch and go. GoT is definitely worth the money, but Westworld’s second season was shonky, and while I enjoy The Rookie, it’s not worth £8.25 a month. So come renewal time, I’ll have to seriously consider whether this eel will stay attached to my neck.
Which leaves Amazon and the BBC. I can tell you that Amazon’s days are numbered. I spend too much when I’m on Prime. Also, Prime Video has very little stuff I want to watch. When it comes to it, I can’t even be arsed to look at Season 2 of American Gods. I watched Good Omens, but persevered only because it was just 6 episodes. I love Bosch, which is very underrated by critics. And Patriot is good. But once I’m done with those, I mainly use it to watch Seinfeld, which I’ve seen multiple times and even own on DVD. So 6 months-on/off it will be.
I have no choice about the BBC. I’d gladly pay a bit for the (mostly archive!) radio I listen to, but I no longer value it as I once did. The Tories and the right wing press have done for it, and while I’m sad that happened, it happened. I obviously blame the voting public, who, like the proverbial turkeys, have allowed this government of corrupt incompetents to destroy our most valued cultural institution. BBC News is unwatchable, the Today programme is unlistenable, they allowed Simon Mayo and Eddie Mair to walk away, and the only current output I value consists of In Our Time and Fortunately with Garvey and Glover. You can point to odd gems like Killing Eve and Ghosts, and even bought-in stuff like What We Do in the Shadows, but in reality they’re doing no better than Netflix and Amazon when it comes to quality control.
I was about to joke that I’d happily pay £2.50 a month for an iPlayer Radio licence, but having done the actual maths, it turns out that the BBC does spend about 20% of its budget on all its radio services, including local radio etc., so £2.50 as a proportion of that £12.50 is exactly right.
Anyway, my plan is to cut down the eels to a mere £356 per year, and we’ll see how much Apple wants to charge for its forthcoming TV streaming service. As they’re currently gouging people for £14.99 just for music, I don’t hold out much hope in terms of value for money.
So we reach the end, but here’s a summary of the list so far
Don’t Change On Me – Alan Jackson That’s Life – Frank Sinatra Dancing In the Moonlight… – Thin Lizzy Not the Only – Sugarland The Ceiling – The Wild Feathers Rock Me on the Water – Keb’ Mo’ Jenny of the Roses – Hiss Golden Messenger It Makes No Difference – The Band No Next Time – Allison Moorer 24 Frames – Jason Isbell Your Bright Baby Blues – Sarah and Sean Watkins Six More Days of Rain – Tift Merritt Wish Me Away – Chely Wright The Weight (feat. The Staples) – The Band Weight of the Load – Ashley Monroe Wayward and Weary – Tift Merritt That’s Where It’s At – Sam Cooke Left My Woman – The Wild Feathers Sad City – Trick Pony On To Something Good – Ashley Monroe Jessica – The Allman Brothers Band Tell Me Fool – Vince Gill V’s of Birds – Dwight Yoakam Your Secret’s Safe With Me – Dan Colehour The Pretender – Jackson Browne
05. Watching the Wires – Hiss Golden Messenger. Forty years later, and this is the most recent song on this playlist, released just last month. But, to me, it is instantly recognisable and has the same pulse that has been singing in my veins since I discovered Radio Caroline. The pulse, the beat, the drums and the guitars. Give me one good reason, do it for the feeling. I know what you say, but I had to learn the hard way.
04. Stockholm – Jason Isbell. To see Mr Isbell sing this with Amanda Shires is such a joy. This is from his 2013 album Southeastern, and you can feel the optimism shining through from a man who has cleaned up his act, met the love of his life, and is looking forward. Stockholm syndrome: becoming a willing captive. Escaping from one kind of captivity (addiction) into another (love). I love the anthemic feel of this, the shuffling drum beat, the rapidly strummed acoustic guitar, the power chords on the electric guitar. It lifts me. Lock me up tight in these shackles I wear, tied up the keys in the folds of your hair. It’s hard to believe that something this good was ever on television.
03. Learning to Fly (Live) – Tom Petty. I do love the original record of this, but it has to be the live one. How does an artist perform the same songs over and over? It’s the communion with the audience that makes it new again, every time. And Stevie Nicks, honorary Heartbreaker, stands at the back, and lends her voice. How can we go on without Tom Petty?
02. I Won’t Dance (1962) – Frank Sinatra. There are a number of great things about this. First of all, the song, which seems on the surface to be one of those standards, but it’s a little mystery box. It’s like a Schrödinger’s cat of a song, existing in two completely different versions, with only the refrain in common. Written for a flop musical in 1934, it was then rewritten by different songwriters for a completely different musical the following year. Then Fred Astaire performed it in the film version of that musical (Roberta), with Ginger Rogers (who danced backwards in heels). Then there’s the mysterious (second) lyric with its, “For heaven help us, I’m not asbestos” — a reference to a dress the woman spoken to by the song is supposed to be wearing that is so hawt it would set you on fire. Except the rest of the song doesn’t mention any supposed hawt dress, so the line stands alone, like a palimpsest in a mediaeval manuscript.
Then the song turns up, chameleon-like, in two completely different films, apparently able to travel in time, because it’s used to evoke “the 1920s” despite being written in 1934/5. Which means, somehow, that even when it was new it was always-already an oldie, a standard. Instant standard. And then it appears on two separate Frank Sinatra records in two completely different musical arrangements, both marvellous. Because of course Sinatra wanted to be Fred Astaire. The version on the 1957 Nelson Riddle arranged A Swingin’ Affair is my favourite Frank Sinatra song—apartfrom the version on the 1962 Neil Hefti arranged Sinatra/Basie.
I came to my own accommodation and reconciliation with Sinatra. Although my mum had some good stuff, most of her Sinatra albums were his desperate attempts to remain relevant in the late 60s and early 70s, those pre- and post-“retirement” releases. So I bought my own collection, and added to it over the years, on cassette, vinyl, CD. And then my Dad died and it turned out he’d amassed a load of Sinatra albums on CD, which I inherited. Then, on impulse in Fnac, the French entertainment/technology superstore, I bought a boxed set of Sinatra CDs, more or less completing his Capitol years. And probably the most recent album I purchased (on digital, this time) was Sinatra/Basie, the 1962 “historic musical first”, which takes us back to the beginning again, because it was one of the ones that were in the house when I was growing up. And it was released in the year of my birth, so…
This arrangement by Neil Hefti is genius. And Sinatra’s vocal is also, in spite of its obvious flaws (at one point he comes in after an instrumental interlude a little on the flat side, a little pitchy), brilliant. Perfect because it was not perfect. Always-already both perfect and not perfect and somewhere there’s a cat in a box listening to it. Here’s Sinatra performing it with the Buddy Rich Orchestra in 1982, in his late 60s. Still had it.
01. Blue Sky – The Allman Brothers Band. Oh yes, here’s a song I caught just once, and not even all the way through, on Radio Caroline. A simple little song. Verse, verse, chorus, the best guitar solo Duane Allman ever played. Then the best guitar solo that Dickie Betts ever played. Another verse, another chorus. Five minutes of heaven. Duane Allman died, aged just 24, before this was even released. But what immortality this is, the musical equivalent of that line from Bull Durham about baseball being a simple game. “You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball.” Music is simple. You write a verse, you write a chorus, you play your instrument.
10. Jessica – The Allman Brothers Band. In a sense, this is where it all begins. Even association with Clarkson and Top Gear can’t sully this classic, which I first heard on Radio Caroline and have loved ever since. As a teenager, I more or less considered most of the tracks I heard on Caroline as “oldies”. I mean, I took note of the time they played “Sultans of Swing” because it felt like an incursion of some kind. Wot, modern music? I have a vivid memory of standing in the kitchen at home (a rare moment during the day when I managed to pick up a clear signal) when they once played a Mike Oldfield track called “Guilty”, (here’s a link) an instrumental track from 1979 which utilised some electronic gubbins. Wikipedia states, “It is notable for being Oldfield’s first obvious attempt to capitalise on a current musical trend, in this case disco/dance music.” And I remember the DJ saying something along the lines of, “That’s Mike Oldfield and Guilty. I should say so.” Which I thought was hilarious. So that would have been bang on its release, ’79. But listening to “Jessica” and suchlike, I just assumed they were really old. Brothers and Sisters, the album it came from, was released in 1973. LOL. So at most it was six years old when I first heard it. And now it’s 43 years old and still perfect. An instrumental, something unusual for me to like, but a perfect demonstration of how much you can do with the pentatonic scale. It’s still my jam. But it was quite a few years before I actually bought it. There was a moment I had to give myself permission to buy some of this uncool 70s guitar (dad) rock.
Don’t read the comments.
9. Tell Me Fool – Vince Gill. From his 2011 album Guitar Slinger, this track is now older than Jessica was when I first heard it. My head explodes with feeling old. It’s a lovely example of both Mr Gill’s soulful voice and his unparalleled ability to play lead guitar on a song which is both perfect for the song and which lifts the energy level of the track. There’s a clear before and after on this. Up to about 1:45, when the solo kicks in, it’s a lovely song. I love the groove of it, the rhythm track, and the way the musical arrangements have all the instruments somehow making space for each other in the mix. And then about 30 seconds later, the emotion in the song is heightened. And then comes a breakdown before it all whooshes in for the ending.
8. Vs of Birds – Dwight Yoakam. There are a couple of crucial musical moments in my life. One of them was definitely my discovering of Radio Caroline on 319m on the medium wave dial. The other was when a colleague at work made me a cassette with some mid-80s “New Country” on it. There was some Randy Travis, some Judds, and some Dwight Yoakam. I remember driving back to work that night and slipping the tape into the player in the car. At first, I was underwhelmed, but then came the whiskey night. My best friend, my girlfriend and I stayed up late one night drinking whiskey in the kitchen, and something encouraged us to put Steven’s tape on. That combination of the right kind of booze and the right kind of company was my Road to Damascus.
Dwight Yoakam’s first two albums brought a modern sensibility to California style country (the Bakersfield Sound), and he had a good run. My kids don’t like his yip yip voice, but I think it’s great, and every now and then he hits the spot. This song was written by Anthony Crawford whose own version of it is very good, a sweet high voice and a strummed acoustic guitar cutting against a pad of strings. But Yoakam brings the drums, brings the hard-strummed mandolin and electric guitar, brings the power of his voice, and makes it into a Dwight Yoakam song.
When I hear this I’m on another road, this one running from Auxelles Bas down towards Lachapelle-sous-Chaux, a village of no particular note. But it is downhill all the way, so it’s fun on a fast bike, and you do pass a place that sells firewood. It’s such a brilliant capture of a moment in time. Blue skies, sunshine, but birds flying south and ricks of wood at the side of the road. Winter is coming. Where have I heard that before?
7. Your Secret’s Safe With Me – Dan Colehour. Here’s another artist I heard over the radio one time, bought an album based on that one track. By now, I’ve distilled my consumption of that album down to this one song, which is not the one I first heard. But this: this has possibly my favourite guitar solo on it. It’s a Springsteen-like dance around the fretboard that makes my heart go thump. I’ve no idea who Dan Colehour is or what his deal is, but this is a moment of greatness. And this video has… 8 plays on YouTube. It’s quintessentially that song you hear on the radio that makes you jump out of your car seat or bounce around the kitchen.
6. The Pretender – Jackson Browne. Not a cover this time, but the real deal. Like his contemporary Bruce Springsteen, this man who has probably never had a proper job in his life somehow manages to capture the essence of existential suburban boredom, the imposter syndrome of being a salary man (or woman), of stepping out among your neighbours and being both within and without that peripheral lawn-mowing lifestyle, a denizen of the hedges and flower borders. And the children solemnly wait for the ice-cream van to come as the summer heat gives way to the cool of the evening. Needless to say, this is my theme song.
15. Wayward and Weary – Tift Merritt. This is one I keep coming back to. It’s already one of my Top 25 most played tracks in iTunes. It’s a 2008 single and is by now quite an obscure one in Tift Merritt’s back catalogue. I can picture her on the stage at a small venue in Buckingham, rocking back and forth at the grand piano and pumping on the foot pedal. The video I’ve posted before, of Ms Merritt playing the song alone in a studio, misses out on the heartbeat of the song, and the lead guitar playing in the spaces left by the vocal. So the video below is just the audio (4 views on YouTube!), but is the track as released.
Those gigs in Buckingham were special. The venue was a converted church, and the acoustics were so good that she came back several times and even recorded a live album there. We took the kids. They were very young, but it was such a great experience for them to see some proper live music. We sat on the balcony and looked down, and I remember the youngest peering through the balusters. Tift Merritt is tiny. Her voice is huge. She strums her guitar so aggressively that she wore a hole in it.
Another time, we tried to see her in Oxford – with an actual band. This was it! I was finally going to see her with a backing band. But, turns out, it was an age-restricted venue because you had to go through a bar to get to it. Or something. When I went back to the same venue a couple of years later, they’d moved the entrance so you didn’t have to go in via the pub. Fucksake. We stood outside in the early evening, debating what to do. Four tickets, wasted. For a moment, I was all for abandoning the kids in a coffee shop. But I wouldn’t really have done that, would I?
14. That’s Where It’s At – Sam Cooke. Another one from my most-played Top 25. This 1964 single only managed the upper reaches of the Hot 100, but it has grown in stature with the years, I think. I relate this in my mind to that final chorus on the Allison Moorer song (at number 22 on this list). It’s the way the vocal and backing vocal are slightly out of synch. I guess you’d call it swing. My daughter’s great insight about Sam Cooke is that he is all the evidence you need to understand that songs aren’t poems. Cooke’s smooth, mellifluous voice can do wonders with the most unpromising material. Listen to him sing “It’s All Right” or “We’re Having a Party” and you understand that the most pedestrian lyrics become poetry when performed by a master vocalist. My personal favourite is this: the almost conversational hesitations, stumbles, improvisations, snatching at the words at times, weaving in and out of the simplistic backing vocals and droning horns. The only problem with this is that it’s only 150 seconds long, which isn’t a problem at all.
Sixty-five people have “thumbs-downed” this record on YouTube. What the living fuck is wrong with people? I mean, just the existence of a thumbs down on YouTube is one of the worst things in the world, but then you give people that option and they click it. What? Who? Racists? Cretinous know-nothing racists who apparently like to suck joy out of the world. I don’t care if it’s not to your taste, whatever. But don’t click the fucking button. These are the kind of people who would keep administering an electric shock to an obviously suffering person on the other side of the glass in one of those psychological experiments. People without a shred of empathy.
13. Left My Woman – The Wild Feathers. Another one from the recently-discovered vocal harmony country rock group. I like the audience sing-a-long in this 2014 track. What’s not to like about a band who swaps between vocalists, you know, like The Band on The Weight? 21 people have disliked this video on YouTube.
12. Sad City – Trick Pony featuring Darius Rucker. It really is a little bit sad when you buy a record and then over the months and years distil your listening down to just one track. For whatever reason I didn’t ever warm to Trick Pony, although I remember radio’s Eddie Mair once saying how much he liked them. This song, however, this I love. It’s from their 2005 album R.I.D.E. and features a guest vocal from none other than Darius Rucker, the solo artist who used to be the lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish. In fact, he recorded this vocal three years before releasing his own debut country album, so I guess it’s a significant moment in his career. Nobody has disliked this one yet.
I miss Eddie Mair. Walked away from the BBC, another talent whose goodwill was burned through by dumb management decisions. I hope he still likes Trick Pony and still occasionally listens to this one.
11. On To Something Good – Ashley Monroe. Another one from Ms Monroe’s 2015 second album. This is a more uptempo number, the poppy debut single from The Blade. I love that country music is such a broad church. This is really just a very good pop record, but there’s no mistaking where her voice comes from, and that slide guitar is unmistakably country.
20. Your Bright Baby Blues – Sarah Watkins & Sean Watkins. First you take the Jackson Browne classic, then you add some… Nickel Creek? Sara Watkins and her brother Sean came from that parish. This song is from Jackson Browne’s 1976 album The Pretender, which came out when he was 28. Probably the worst time for an artist to put out a thoughtful collection of songs featuring decent musicianship. This artist, still under 30, was about to be swept away by the new wave, the iconoclastic burning down of all that was considered old and irrelevant. Jackson Browne would be sneered at by fans of “new music” for years to come. This cover version makes the song fragile and gentle, something that would be blown away by the turbulence of the trucks thundering past on that highway the song’s speaker is hitchhiking beside. (Jackson Browne appears to spend a lot of time sitting next to the road in his songs.) “You don’t see what you’ve got to gain but you don’t like to lose,” she sings. “You watch yourself from the sidelines, like your life is a game you don’t mind playing to keep yourself amused.” It’s brutal, the more so for being so conversational. So this is a song about being a bystander in life, a passenger, a semi-detached, uncommitted dabbler, someone who numbs themselves to avoid having to feel. It’s a song that encourages us to reach out and get involved, somehow, to make a human connection. You think of yourself as a bird, flying so far above your sorrow that it can’t reach you. And then you open your eyes and find yourself down on your knees.
19. Six More Days of Rain – Tift Merritt. Like many singer-songwriters, like Allison Moorer, Chely Wright, and more, Tift Merritt’s career began with a splash of commerciality and then washed up against the indifference of US radio formats and their flat refusal to give airtime to women. So she went from her highly produced Heartbreaker-featuring second record and an appearance on Austin City Limits, to touring Europe on her own with an acoustic guitar. I first heard her when I was tuned in to Radio 2 one evening on the way back from work.
This requires some explanation, as we’re only here because of my disdain for mainstream radio after all. But as I said, I love the radio, and I’d really rather listen to that than anything else in the car. As much as I love music and as much as music means to me, I’d still rather have a podcast on while I’m driving. But as we all know, there are aspects of Radio 4 that are unbearable and unlistenable. Your mileage may vary, but I simply won’t have Mark Lawson in the house. And I’d avoid Humphrys in the morning, back in the day, by tuning into Wogan on the way into work. In those far off days before the Second Wave of Podcasts, this is what you had to do.
I was driving into Nottingham one morning and listening to Wogan, when, exiting the motorway at Junction 25, I heard what sounded like an imam doing a call to prayer. There it was, like pirate radio encroaching on the official BBC channel. Weird, I thought, never encountered that before. That was September 11, 2001. I know it’s a true memory because it’s all mirror-imaged in my mind. I’m exiting the motorway on the right, as if I’m driving in France.
I have a vivid memory of hearing Tift Merritt for the first time, a couple of years after that. We’d moved to Buckingham in 2004, but I was still working in Nottingham, and commuting the 80 miles or so. It was a goddamn impossible way of life, but that’s where I was. So I would often, in desperation, punch away from Radio 4. And I was listening to Radio 2 when they played “Good Hearted Man” from her second album Tambourine, the one with Mike Campbell on guitar and Benmont on keys. Over the years, her sound evolved and stripped down along the way. I must have seen her play live five or six times, but never with a full band. This particular favourite track is typical of her late middle period, from her album See You on the Moon, which I remember playing about ten times in a row when I first got it. The weatherman is saying six more days of rain. An insistently pounding beat, a piano filling in the white space, and that oft-repeated question, the one we’ve all asked when something seems endless, whether it’s rain or the Brexit process: how does it keep on going? How do we?
18. Wish Me Away* – Chely Wright. Chely Wright was part of the Nashville machine: good looking woman, photographed in flattering and wholesome ways, but always, of course, having to work harder to get a hearing on Country radio. But this was 90s country, so it wasn’t actually impossible like it is now, and she has a top 40 hit in ’97 with “Shut Up and Drive” (good song), then hits pay dirt in ’99 with “Single White Female” (banger). But, but, but. First two albums don’t trouble the charts, and while her next few do get on the Country chart, they’re wandering the wilds of the mainstream top 200. And then, in 2007, she came out as gay, moved to New York, and released the definitively non-country (call it Americana) album Lifted off the Ground. And there’s a version of this song, Wish Me Away, on that album. But that’s not what this is. *This version is from the year before, 2006, and an obscure compilation album called The Other Side: Music From East Nashville. And it’s not the straightforward acoustic take she’d put out the following year, but a sad, regretful, farewell to the Country scene featuring a beautiful piece of pedal steel guitar, that fades off into the distance like a singer-songwriter turning her back on the town, and her old life, forever. I offer it here with the health warning that it might be taken down so the video link below might die.
17. The Weight (feat. The Staples) – The Band. What was going on with The Last Waltz? So perfect and yet… On the night, the actual night of the concert, The Band performed this, their most iconic track, but that version doesn’t get included in the film. Instead, there’s a rather odd and over-stylised soundstage performance featuring The Staples, with Pop and Mavis both taking a verse of the song. The same soundstage was used for Emmylou Harris. It’s a little bit like that thing when a journalist does a Top 10 albums listing and forgets to include any black artists. Whoops! Quick! Reach for the Marvin Gaye. While Muddy Waters was on stage for the actual concert, The Staples are invited in like an afterthought. It’s especially weird that the film cuts down a four-hour concert to two hours, but then adds in a couple of tracks recorded at some later date. But here’s the thing. Even with all that strangeness and the awkward setting, this version of The Weight is still the best. Famously, the gnomic lyrics of this song lend themselves to all kinds of interpretations. It’s a story song that doesn’t quite tell a story, it’s a menippean satire, and it seems to have gospel elements – all of which are enhanced by the presence of The Staples. The way Scorsese’s roaming camera discovers Mavis at the beginning of the second verse is wonderful. Add to this her handclaps in the final chorus and her muttered, “Beautiful” at the end, and you have everything you need.
16. Weight of the Load – Ashley Monroe. Speaking of weights, here’s another one. Ms. Monroe’s second album, produced with impeccable taste by Vince Gill and Justin Niebank and released in 2015, contains her best work. It’s blue-eyed country soul, sounds beautiful, and this is the second best song on it. I have a fond memory of driving with my youngest daughter from our place in France to Lure to visit a shop that sells art supplies, and we were listening to this album on the car stereo. So lovely, such a peaceful memory. The kids are getting to the age now, those kind of car journeys will become increasingly rare.
25. Rock Me On the Water – Keb’ Mo’. First you take the Jackson Browne classic, then add some Kevin Moore, and an almost horizontally relaxed vibe. Back in the Caroline days, I had a peripheral awareness of Jackson Browne. In 1979, I knew that he was involved in the same No Nukes campaign as Bruce Springsteen, and I may have seen some clips on Whistle Test. But while I kind of sort of knew I might like some of his stuff, I deliberately held him in reserve. In fact, I waited until I was in my 40s before buying his first album (aka Saturate Before Using), and heard Rock Me On the Water for the first time. I recommend doing this if you can. Hold off on something so that you can enjoy it later on, and hear it fresh. That first Jackson Browne album is a little like Born to Run in that, whatever you were thinking it might be like, it wasn’t. And what it was might have taken a little longer to grok, but eventually you get it. I’ve got a version of this recorded by Linda Ronstadt, but it’s this Keb’ Mo’ version I love. He takes the gospel innards of the song and lays them out, substituting his blues licks for the pounding piano of the original and making it sound new again. Jackson Browne was 23 when he wrote this.
24. Jenny of the Roses – Hiss Golden Messenger. More gospel, more recently discovered music. MC Taylor is the heart and soul of all this, and his gruff sincerity lends itself well to this rolling folk rock. There’s always something restful about this band, it’s exactly the sort of thing you want in the background when you just want to relax. Like Dylan, they trade in straightforward chord progressions which are pleasing to the ears, and the arrangements are based around piano, guitars, and drums, nothing fancy. That all said, this music has heart and soul, and this combination of straightforward elements has real beauty.
23. It Makes No Difference (Live) – The Band. This contains possibly the most sublime musical moment ever captured on film. This is a late-period number, from their 1975 album Northern Lights – Southern Cross. And it is one of the best tracks on that album, but this live version from The Last Waltz is supported by clever camera work and storyboarded lighting changes as the song reaches its emotional peak. Even without the supporting visuals, however, Garth Hudson gives me the chills every time I hear this. It’s a heartbreak song, fairly standard stuff, lifted by Rock Danko’s plaintive vocal, and performed here with a kind of desperate sincerity. Then, after the verses and the choruses, comes Robbie’s guitar solo. One of the great players, Robbie, like George Harrison, Mike Campbell and Vince Gill, always plays for the song. Here, his solo is spiky and awkward and slightly disjointed: this on an evening during which he has played incredibly throughout. But then, cutting in on the choppy guitar comes the sweetest sounding saxophone you’re ever going to hear. Garth Hudson was known as the proper muso in The Band, and here demonstrates that he wasn’t just a keyboardist. In the movie, you see him step up to the microphone just as Scorsese pulls focus, and the smooth melody cuts in to Robbie’s solo and settles it down. When it comes back, it’s less choppy, less awkward, and then back comes the saxophone to finish off. This is not just someone who can “have a go” on a saxophone, but someone who can really play. Trigger Warning: the film edits two minutes out of the track.
22. No Next Time – Allison Moorer. I’ve bought several Allison Moorer records over the years, but really it all condenses down to this one song from her 2000 album The Hardest Part. It’s a terrific heartbreak number, lifted by the co-vocal on the last chorus from someone billed pseudonymously as Lonesome Bob (think his real name is Bob Chaney). The genius of this moment is that, while he sings the apologetic chorus, she echoes him and also begins to anticipate him, because of course she’s heard it all before. The other special thing about this recording, which again no live version can do justice, is the string arrangement on the coda, which cuts against the guitar solo. You have to stay to the end to hear it. On the one hand, the sweetness of the (arranged) strings, on the other the just-breaking-to-distortion (improvised) guitar. It’s what love is.
21. 24 Frames – Jason Isbell. You thought God was an Octopus, is what I always sing when this is on. Not so much a misheard lyric as a helpful alternative. From his 2015 album Something More than Free, this is one of those songs that has a certain mystery about it. It’s a song about memory, and regret, and the past you can’t remember without pain. And how everything you love can be lost in a second. God is sitting in a black car ready to go and your life is about to go up in smoke.