Personal Top 30 – Final Part: the top 5

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—apart from 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.

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Personal Top 30 – part 5

Part One; part 2; part 3; part 4

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.

Personal Top 30 – part 4

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

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. 

And so, we approach the top 10.

Personal Top 30 – Part 3

Yes! Part 3! Part One is here and Part Two is here

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?

(I have to point out the irony that the poster of that video, using Tift Merritt’s music and sticking a © symbol on all his photos. Talk about your double standards.)

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.

Personal Top 30 – Part 2

Part one (and the explanation for the context) is here.

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.

The Personal Top 30 – Part One

Context

My formative music years were the 70s. Early on, I discovered in myself an aversion to mainstream music radio and the endless walls of shit you had to endure in between the more acceptable fare. But I loved the radio itself, and loved to explore the medium wave dial, listening at night for the distant sounds of Radio Moscow and other voices in the dark bouncing off the heavyside layer. And so it was that one night I came across Radio Caroline, broadcasting from somewhere in the North Sea from the rusting hulk the Mi Amigo.

Dunstable was a long way from the sea off Frinton, but if you kept your finger on the dial and were prepared to endure the drifting parasites and intruding voices, you could hear the good stuff.

This was not the Caroline of its 60s heyday. That Caroline was eviscerated by the 1967 Marine Broadcasting Offences act. This Caroline was based over in Spain (not part of the EU until 1986) and had a loosely hippy philosophy based on Loving Awareness (Caroline’s take on the Golden Rule) and a policy of only playing album tracks. Through this I was introduced to a broad spectrum of 60s and 70s rock. I didn’t love all of it, but it was all at least interesting, and helped me to understand my own tastes. The closest Caroline came to playing punk or new wave was to give an airing to “Sultans of Swing”, and this avoidance of the spiky new stuff was fine by me. You heard that everywhere else, after all.

My favourite shows, by far, were the weekend “Personal Top 30s”, which were given over to listener choices in a way that puts the occasional requested track on mainstream radio into perspective. A two hour show would be given over to one listener’s preferences. Sure, a lot of it ended up being pretty samey, but that was just the way you knew you were in the right place.

This all came to mind again because I was listening to a re-broadcast of David Hepworth’s Radio 3 talks about authenticity in music. He mentioned that in commercial radio these days the idea that the DJ would get to choose any of the music on the playlist was complete anathema. And then I thought, if I were to send my own personal Top 30, as of now, to the Radio Caroline of my dreams, what would be on it? Most of it would be fairly recent in terms of release dates, but not all. And some of it, it turns out, would have been on my list in 1979, too. 

Let’s start with the first five tracks.

30. Don’t Change on Me – Alan Jackson. This song, from his 2006 album Like Red on a Rose, is a perfect example of Mr Jackson’s musical philosophy. He just keeps singing this stuff, and it really doesn’t change much. I think this has a beautifully rich production, gospel-style backing vocals and hammond organ, and the kind of musical tastefulness that is his stock in trade. Of course, most of the Caroline listeners have switched off already, because this is a country song.

29. That’s Life – Frank Sinatra. Sinatra’s last great song, from 1966, with more great hammond organ and Darlene Love, among others, on backing vocals. It is perhaps his most modern-sounding recording. The clips you can find of him performing this live tend not to have the backing vocals. The song sounds hollowed out without them, but you still get the tour-de-force vocals, with the defiant string of plosives which might only be there to demonstrate his incredible microphone technique. Oh, and it’s the late Hal Blaine on drums, too.

28. Dancing in the Moonlight – Thin Lizzy. One of the first albums I bought was Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous. I remember being disappointed that it didn’t include “The Boys Are Back in Town” (should have checked the track listing more carefully), and also slightly unimpressed by most of the twin-guitar rock stuff. But this? A classic single, one of the great tracks driven by its baseline, and so much better than any other track which dares take this title in vain. Mentioning no names. I didn’t know back then about the excessive overdubbing that went on for that live album, but I probably wouldn’t have cared. Authenticity? What’s that? I do actually always get chocolate stains on my pants.

27. Not the Only – Sugarland. Pretty recent this, from their 2018 comeback album. I love Sugarland and could have chosen any number of their songs, but I realised when this came on the first time that I absolutely love hearing Christian Bush’s gravelly voice cutting against Jennifer Nettles’ power vocal, and on this he gets to sing on his own, too. It turns out, that while she’s the one with the huge voice, his is the one that creates the anthemic feel.

26. The Ceiling – The Wild Feathers. A recent discovery for me, but this track is from 2013, another anthemic country-rock song to give you a lift. You can trace a line back from this to the Radio Caroline 70s and the occasional Eagles or The Band track that would come on. Vocal harmonies and guitars, what’s not to like? 

Rewatching Let it Be

Someone uploaded Let it Be to YouTube and so I watched it again for the first time in at least 25 years. It’s a kind of 50th anniversary: it was this last 10 days or so in 1969 that The Beatles convened, miserable, at Twickenham film studios and desultorily banged at a few instruments, took heroin*, argued, and fell apart. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the film and album release, and maybe we’ll get a blu-ray? I mean, I expect we’ll get a 50th anniversary boxed set of Abbey Road this year, won’t we? Let it Be is problematic, and there has already been the …Naked version (which wasn’t very good, turns out), but however miserable it makes us, the film needs to be preserved, and a digital remaster and blu-ray/digital release would help that. 

But maybe it’s already too late. I’m still haunted by learning that The Who’s The Kids Are All Right documentary was in a very sad state of decay before the 2003 re-release, at which stage it was under 25 years old. The Kids… was restored from the master positive, as none of the release prints had survived. What state is Let it Be in, after 50 years? It was filmed on 16mm, too, which limits the options for a high definition version.

Then again, rumour has it that Scorsese is making a documentary of The Rolling Thunder Revue, and I bet will be using a lot of the footage Dylan filmed for Renaldo and Clara. So maybe Let it Be can be rescued by being repurposed.

I have to say, watching it this time around, it wasn’t as long and depressing as I remembered. The really awful bit at the beginning is over quite quickly, and then there’s a better atmosphere at Apple, bar one or two moments, and then the rooftop concert, which is a real joy to watch. A lot of people can’t watch this film because it’s so sad, but if you think of it as a Spinal Tap type mockumentary, it’s more bearable.

George was playing the part of Put Upon Guitarist, and eventually walked out, went to Liverpool, and refused to return until they agreed to knock Twickenham (and the Big Comeback Concert) on the head and do everything in the Apple offices. The awkward argument between him and Paul as Paul tries to get him to play something a particular way and George instead turns up his Passive Aggressive Hippy knob to 11 is still the worst moment in the film.

Ringo plays Bored Drummer to great effect, smoking and sitting at his kit, joining Paul on the piano, desperate for something, anything, to happen. Ringo must have spent so much of the late 60s sitting around waiting for the others to get their shit together. A candidate for the second worst moment in the film is the bit where John and George (and George Martin) are helping Ringo with “Octopus’ Garden”, and it all seems to be going lovely, and then Paul walks in and it all grinds to a halt. Awks. Maybe it was the editing made it look like it happened that way.

Paul Plays Musical Director, which was a role he’d been used to playing for a couple of years, since John Destroyed his Ego with LSD and generally took a back seat in terms of Hit Making. Without Paul’s contributions in 1968 and ’69, the last of the Beatles would have been a sorry thing indeed. Here is a list:

  • Lady Madonna
  • Hey Jude
  • Back in the USSR
  • Blackbird
  • Helter Skelter
  • The Long and Winding Road
  • Let it Be
  • Get Back
  • Two of Us
  • Side Two of Abbey Road

For sure, Lennon wrote some good ones too, often after realising that Paul was getting ahead of him, but he also phoned a lot in, riding the avant-garde repetitive lyrics train (Don’t Let Me Down, I Want You), glomming things together from fragments (Happiness is a Warm Gun) or ripping off Chuck Berry (Come Together).

*John plays Heroin Addict Rock Star with Heroin Addict Girlfriend and Extra Heroin, and a year ago yesterday gave an interview for Canadian TV which is notorious for the bit in the middle where he gets the Heroin Addict Rock Star Sweats and goes off to be sick. And he’s so, so boring. Up his own arse with self importance and Portentous Statements. A year later his “etchings” would be seized by police in a trumped up obscenity panic. There’s a bit in the film where Musical Director Paul is trying to be Persuasive about the Big Comeback Concert, and Lennon just sits and listens (or does he?) and says not a word.

After 10 days at Twickenham, they canned it and went back to Savile Row to finish up, abandoned the idea of a Big Comeback Concert, and went up onto the roof to finish up. The film finishes almost miraculously, with actual music which is Quite Good (almost all composed by Paul with Paul on lead vocal). There are a few songs performed in the studio (including “Let it Be” and “Two of Us”), and then they’re on the roof, in the cold, with people gathering down below to see what all the fuss. George huddles in his fur coat and green trousers and John plays the fucking lead guitar on “Get Back”. Which clearly confused the hell out of camera people and editor.

This is worth 21 minutes of anyone’s time, because it is brilliant, not just because of the music, but because of the vision of Britain you get on the streets below, as people stop and wonder. There are some nice cameos as people stop and give opinions (top tip: say something positive if you want to be in the film), and you see men in bowler hats mixing with the youngs. Dirty hippies are noticeably absent, but there are lots of young women who worked in offices, all out for an exciting lunchtime. They’re all in their late 60s and 70s now: think about that.

Of course, the narrative goes that the police were called, business was being disrupted and traffic was being stopped, but it’s not as if The Beatles had much more material. I half-suspect the phone call came from inside the Apple offices. Please stop us.

Anyway, it’s not that bad. And further proof that The Beatles falling apart were still better than most bands at their peak. There’s no album quite like Let it Be for giving me a certain feeling. “Two of Us” is such an evocative song, and my flashbulb memory of the first time I played the album will be with me forever.

Leopards break into the temple: re-enacting The Last Waltz

Leoparden brechen in den Tempel ein und saufen die Opferkrüge leer; das wiederholt sich immer wieder; schließlich kann man es vorausberechnen, und es wird ein Teil der Zeremonie.
Leopards break into the temple and drink all the sacrificial vessels dry; it keeps happening; in the end, it can be calculated in advance and is incorporated into the ritual.

Franz Kafka, The Zurau Aphorisms, translated by by Michael Hofmann

I mentioned before that I might have more thoughts on the regular re-enactments of The Band’s The Last Waltz. Here they are. I used Kafka’s aphorism (some term it a parable) as the epigraph to my PhD thesis, Events and Local Gods, which had its focus events and narrative in the works of Don DeLillo. My argument was that the eventhood of events persists, even after the cause/effect sequence has been re-narrated in the light of new knowledge. In other words, we cannot help but continue to be shocked by events, even if it turns out to have been inevitable. We just incorporate the leopards into our ritual.

I love The Last Waltz. I force it on friends, I watch it regularly, I’ve purchased and repurchased the film and soundtrack almost as many times as I have Bruce Springsteen’s The River. I even used to use it in the classroom, as part of my Film Studies course, as a wonderful demonstration of how nothing you see on screen in a feature film is there by accident. Teenagers always like to argue, re literature and film that the author/director didn’t really mean for us to interpret things. They think they’re being original when they say this. So I would put on a clip of Rick Danko singing “It Makes No Difference” in The Last Waltz, and then I’d pause and point out how the colour of the backdrop changes at the emotional peak of the song, and that Scorsese uses one camera and pulls focus between Rick and Robbie and then Garth as he comes in with his saxophone: because the concert had not just been rehearsed but more or less storyboarded. It was a concert film and a documentary, but it was also a film, and nothing you see in a film is there by chance.

As a farewell concert, then, it already had the quality of a ritual, as much of a retirement as Frank Sinatra’s was a few years earlier. And that’s before you take into account the idea that a “farewell” concert did not have the full and enthusiastic support of all Band members, and that a few short years later most of the group would reconvene to tour again, until the tragic death of Richard Manuel put a stop to that. Even then, the surviving members minus Robbie recorded three more studio albums in the 90s. Only Robbie stayed true to the original vision, and withheld his labour.

So the whole thing is played out as if it were a farewell concert, but only one person really wanted that to be the case.

So we end up with a double vision: from one perspective, The Band gave a magnificent farewell concert in 1976, with lots of special guests (inc. Canadian rock aristocracy and Bob Dylan) which was captured on film by director Martin Scorsese and cut down and released as a feature in 1978. End of story.

From another perspective, The Band participated in a special musical event to commemorate their years in the business, took a few years off the hard life of the road and then got back on it with a slightly adjusted line-up in 1983.

When they “retired” in 1976, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko were around 33 years old; Levon Helm was 36; Garth Hudson, the Bill Wyman of the group, was 39.

The very idea that this collective of incredible talent would step back and fade away in their mid-30s is nonsensical. But Robbie had other things to do: film soundtracks, production, solo work. So they went through the ritual ending, and then the leopards broke into the temple.

In one sense, of course, it was the end of something. It was the end of feeling good about The Band on stage, because the 80s touring was retrospectively tainted by Manuel’s suicide, and the 90s recordings, mostly cover versions, were tainted by two absences and Rick Danko’s death at 55 from the effects of alcoholism. And I can’t watch the later Levon Helm performing through the ravages of throat cancer without crying.

But you can, thanks to the magic of celluloid, watch Levon at his absolute peak, performing with exuberance and joy in a concert film that manages to capture something of the elusive alchemy of live music.

But, still, it’s only a film, with focus pulling and lighting changes. It’s there on a screen, and you can see and hear it but you can’t experience the direct, sweaty, barely controlled tumult of it, and you can only try not to think about how Richard Manuel doesn’t sing much.

And Robbie Robertson’s Stratocaster was dipped in bronze.

And fucking Neil Diamond was there, not because he belonged, nor even because he wrote “I’m a Believer”, but more prosaically because Robbie Robertson had just produced an album for him. And he doesn’t fit and he doesn’t go and some people skip over his chapter on the DVD, but he’s part of the ritual now, so someone has to be him, just like someone has to be Major General George McClellan when they do Civil War re-enactments.

And so the leopards keep breaking into the temple, and recreate the ritual, over and over, in annual re-enactments that pay tribute to the elusive emotions The Last Waltz evokes. It’s an affectionate tribute, and it’s an acknowledgement that, then, Thanksgiving 1976, was the Peak of Rock, and everything after that was remixing and rebooting and simulacra. It’s the last day of the Holy Roman Empire of Rock and the barbarians are at the gate. Quick! get everybody on stage (even you Ronnie Wood) and let’s sing “Forever Young”.  It’s stuck culture at its stickiest.

Most of all, it’s a chance, for those who go, to experience live music that is paradoxically somehow more spontaneous and exciting than a modern Rock Aristocracy live tour.

By the time the film is released, Dylan has found God and Ronnie Wood has found The Rolling Stones.

And the Fender Custom Shop borrowed Robertson’s preserved guitar and took it apart and measured it, and tested it, and copied it and reproduced it. So those are out there, more leopards, drinking to the dregs what’s in the pitchers, yours for $17,000, if you can find one.

I have thoughts: 1, 2, 3

A snippet of John Roderick playing Neil Diamond

1. For example, I have thoughts about Travelers, season 3 of which just landed on Netflix. This mid-budget Canadian science fiction show delivered on the promise of its first two seasons and is definitely worth your time. I reviewed Season 2 this time last year, and my dearest hope is that I’ll be reviewing Season 4 this time in 2020. That said, this third season might perhaps have rounded off its story and given it a decent ending, about which I cannot complain. It was a proper ending with proper emotional hits, and if it were to return for a fourth season, the show has the option to completely reinvent itself with an entirely new set of host bodies. Highly recommended.

2. I also have thoughts about Joe Abercrombie’s first trilogy in his First Law series (The Blade Itself; Before They Are Hanged; and The Last Argument of Kings). One of Abercrombie’s short stories pulled me back into reading fantasy which I’d kind of sworn off of after being a bit bored by A Song of Ice and Fire. But here we are: I ploughed through the 1800 pages (!) of this trilogy fairly quickly, and only started to lose interest about 1500 pages in. Which says something. In the end though, I’m not sure whether to recommend these. Not as boring as Tolkien, nor even as dry as GRRM, these are written in an easy, engaging style that keeps you turning the pages. But the vivid descriptions of bloody and brutal fighting do start to get repetitive and the few women characters are weak. And overall, and obviously on purpose, very few of the characters have any redeeming characteristics. 

The premise is fairly familiar. There is a mediaeval type world with kingdoms and wars and a little bit of magic, the last of which is draining out of the world. And there are consequences of using magic and supposedly rules about it, which some people are cavalier about breaking.

So there are invading armies and people going off on long quest-like road trips, but in the end you can’t pick a side because everybody is horrible.

3. Finally, I have thoughts, which may become longer thoughts on something I had only the vaguest awareness of, but which came into sharp focus this morning when I was listening to the most recent episode of Roderick on the Line. John Roderick mentioned as part of an anecdote that he regularly takes part in an annual re-enactment of The Last Waltz in San Francisco, playing the part of Neil Diamond singing “Dry Your Eyes.’

And, as I said, I kind of knew this went on, but it was only at this point that I realised that it’s a regular, recurring thing that happens all over the place (Indiana, Glasgow, San Francisco), with various collectives of musicians putting it together. It’s like The Rocky Horror Show, but for Dad Rock. Part of me loves this more than I can say. I genuinely think The Last Waltz is both a brilliant documentary of one of the greatest bands of all time and also manages to be greater than the sum of its parts, so that the presence of the likes of Neil Diamond and the various cocaine buddies and the fairly shoddy afterthought of the Staples Singers somehow still manage to be brilliant. And it’s this, isn’t it, that makes people want to re-enact it? Because it’s both perfect and not perfect: it works because it does not work, as my pal Michel Serres said.

On the other hand: zombie culture and sigh sigh sigh. So, more thoughts to come, when I’ve had them, as we enter my 17th year of blogging solitude.

The Best Music Downloads of 2018 – PART TWO: is anybody out there alive?

Part One is here.

7. Quittin’ Time – The Wild Feathers (Greetings from the Neon Frontier)

Let’s try not to think about the incongruity of singing a song featuring the line “A bottle of whiskey and it’s quittin’ time again” on breakfast television, and just enjoy this second terrific track from the Feathers’ 2018. This one showcases the three vocalists in the group – just like The Band and Eagles, as mentioned below.

6. Lean It On Back – Sugarland (Bigger)

A second track from Bigger in the top 14, and a great example of the Sugarland hit factory in action. Storing all the energy of the song in the verses (along with her breath), releasing it in the chorus.

5. Let Me Down Easy – Blackberry Smoke with Amanda Shires – (Find a Light)

Blackberry Smoke generally owe more to the Allman Brothers and Skynyrd than to their more harmonic brethren, but this number featuring the great Amanda Shires on harmony vocal caught me.

4. A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega – Ashley McBride (Girl Going Nowhere)

McBride achieved a breakthrough with her album Girl Going Nowhere, which is packed with great songs, and I defy anyone who ever had a heart not to be moved by her Opry performance of its title track (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9s830jmiqnw). This one is classic Top 40 country, just another great song turned out by another great songwriter. Which is what I came for.

3. Hippie Radio – Eric Church (Desperate Man)

“He couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket but he’d sing at the top of his lungs.” The genre of country song in which you sing about your Daddy’s car is fairly ubiquitous, but this a is a fine example of it, and another stripped back arrangement that enhances Eric Church’s voice.

2. Don’t Step Away – Kelly Willis (Back Being Blue)

A slice of country soul from Kelly Willis, another artist who sometimes has a long gap between albums. What I love about her music is the home studio vibe, which is what they’re clearly going for in this video, featuring a cameo appearance from husband Bruce Robison.

Can You Hear Me – Ryan Culwell (The Last American)

So here it is: the best track from the best record of the year, and a song that has haunted my dreams since I first heard it. Bang real loud and get down low. Read my full review of the album here.