CMA: cannot mean anything

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Just look at them

It’s time for my annual ponder about the state of country music, based on the snapshot offered by the CMA Awards. This time around, I’ve been unable to catch the whole telecast, but I’m relying on the paltry 60 minute edit offered by BBC4. The problem with this cut-down format is that the broadcasters tend to select the top acts, major awards, household names (yeah, right, I know) rather than the up-and-coming and merely-nominated names. It used to be my main means of discovering new things, but I’m unlikely to find anything new this way. The Beeb did show us the winner of the “New Artist” award, but I had already downloaded Jon Pardi’s 2016 album California Sunrise from YouTube iTunes.

To tell the truth, I really miss the days of the CMA Awards being presented by Vince Gill, which ages me considerably, because I just found a news story about how he wouldn’t be hosting the 2004 awards after his 12-year stint. 🤭

Anyway, there was something off for me about most of the performances on the telecast, and I was left feeling that the show’s format was suffering from an excess of control and that what it was really missing was the sense that something could happen. I mean, it is literally only two years since Timberlake and Stapleton burned the room down, with a performance that you just could not bottle or rehearse into oblivion. This is the thing about music: you can destroy it when you try to bottle it, which is why Bob Dylan has spent his entire career trying to keep it live and spontaneous.

Anyway, something’s gone on. The performers, many of whom are wildly successful and seasoned live performers, seem to find this format intimidating and nerve-wracking. Maybe the show’s producers are to blame, or maybe it’s the record labels, piling on the pressure by pointing out how their Xmas album sales depend on this single performance.

The fact that this is one of the few music shows people actually watch means there’s been a tendency for the labels to sploodge a non-country artist into the mix in an attempt to cross promote. This year it was P!nk, performing solo; last year it was Beyoncé, performing with the Dixie Chicks in an attempt to capture some of that Stapleton/Timberlake magic. But here’s the thing. What worked with Justin Timberlake and his tight, talented band, is not necessarily going to work for artists who are more used to performing tightly timed and well rehearsed shows in a more programmed way.

Which is not to say I’m accusing P!nk (or Beyoncé) of miming (they call it lip synching now, but we always used to call it miming when we watched Top of the Pops and judged people for it). Which is exactly what fucking Garth Brooks was doing when he came on to perform his latest single (and later collect the Entertainer of the Year award). I mean, Garth, you’re in front of an audience of your peers and you do that off to the side of the mic move, and your voice miraculously doesn’t lose any bottom end when you go off-axis from an SM58?

Couple of things about Garth. Slick record production, back in the 90s, and the pick of the best songs, and some pretty spectacular live shows, with you know, fire and rain, and wire work. But he was never much of a singer, and – especially live – he couldn’t really project his voice. And he has never deigned to put his stuff – any of it – on iTunes, so he’s running his current tour on pure nostalgia and niche album sales through his own service, which who can be bothered with that? Worst of all, he’s dragged his more talented wife, Trisha Yearwood into this doomed enterprise, so she’s vanished from the public’s consciousness.

So there was him, but then the actual live performers all sounded tight and nervous and a little bit off-pitch. It was as if they were all singing with a gun pointing at them from the wings. Perhaps memories of the Las Vegas shooting? What happens when a bunch of country fans gather in one place?

So Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris, Kelsea Ballerini (with Reba) all sounded off key. And then Little Big Town, whose big selling point is their incredible harmony singing, did a lacklustre version of (shit song) ‘Wichita Lineman’ with Karen Fairchild wearing possibly the most ill-judged pair of boots in television history. I mean, just look at them.

Keith Urban’s performance was his new, Instant-Karma type single ‘Female’ was pretty decent, and Tim McGraw and Faith Hill put in a tight, on-key and touching performance of the title song of their new album The Rest of My Life. She’s another one who disappeared off the face of the earth, having last released an album in 2005. But at least this record is available on YouTube iTunes.

The Bros were less in evidence than recent years. Possibly because the BBC didn’t include them, but also because the shockwaves created by Chris Stapleton’s success have made record labels realise that songs about beer, trucks and blue jeans have a limited shelf life.

Apart from Stapleton’s turn with “Broken Halos”, probably the highlight of the broadcast was young Mr Alan Jackson being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and performing two oldies from his back catalogue. In the right key, and without miming. The love and respect for him in the room was clear, with almost every current male singer in the audience singing along with all the words. Apart from Garth Brooks, Jackson’s contemporary, who didn’t seem to know them.

Which sums it up really: stagnation. Chris Stapleton’s stripped back, back-to-basics music hasn’t filtered through too much, although he still scooped key awards. Tim McGraw can still bring it. Alan Jackson, at 59, still does the New Traditionalist thing better than anyone. Garth Brooks won Entertainer of the Year, just as he did in 1991, 1992, 1997, 1998, and 2016. And everyone else is too nervous to produce their best.

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Jason Isbell and Tift Merritt, Birmingham Symphony Hall, 31st October 2017

 

I booked the tickets for this gig in a moment of passion for music, but as the date came closer I was filled with reluctance because it would be a school/work night, and I knew I’d be tired. Of course, I’m glad I went, although the traffic in Birmingham at arrival time was a shitshow, and going home I was tired enough to cause a couple of Google reroutes.

It was the first time I’d seen Jason Isbell live, and the seventh time seeing Tift Merritt, who’s one of those artists I just buy the new record without even thinking about it. Above is my favourite track from her latest album Stitch of the World, which I was disappointed she did not play. Her 30 minutes on stage was fairly low key and subdued, as she picked songs from her repertoire that lent themselves to solo performance and the sound in the room. I also realised that she was being a good support act citizen, and not doing anything that might embarrass the headliner.

The Symphony Hall is a brilliant space for music. Once the Birmingham rush hour traffic and the city centre diversions had been negotiated, we walked into a venue that felt very unpressurised. It’s a 2000+ seater, and although I didn’t spot empty seats, it was pleasant to be inside and very easy to get away from, with none of the interminable waiting for crowds to disperse that you get at bigger venues like the O2. The acoustics in the hall are just fantastic, and the view you get of the stage, even from one of the upper circles at the back, is good. I previously saw Trisha Yearwood and Mary Chapin Carpenter there, but it had been a few years.

Tift Merritt was performing with guitar (both acoustic and an open tuned electric) and keyboard (borrowing the keys from the main act), and her wonderful voice filled the room. Third song in, she stood at the keys and played “Good Hearted Man” and my allergies started playing up.

(Yep, still works – this is from Austin City Limits, a few years ago)

For her final number, she stepped out from behind the mic, as she so often does. She recorded a live album a few years ago here in Buckingham, mainly because she loved the sound of the room. Apart from Jonathan Richman (who I’ve seen somewhere between 9 and 11 times), she’s the only artist I’ve ever seen do that. (When I see these fucking buskers on the high street with their amps and mics and noisy backing tracks, I want to slap them around a bit and force feed them Tift Merritt.)

 

Then came the interval, and we got to see Tift Merritt clearing up her own equipment, before Jason Isbell arrived promptly on stage at nine.

His set was mainly highlights from his last three albums, heavy on the (heavy) Nashville Sound, backed by his band The 400 Unit, who are very, very good. It was the classic line-up: two guitarists (both capable of playing lead), bass, drums, and keyboards. Isbell’s lead vocals were strong all night, and the rest of the band all contributed backing vocals. The only missing element was violinist Amanda Shires-Isbell, who stayed at home with their young daughter. Isbell was wearing a Wonder Woman t-shirt in honour of his daughter’s Hallowe’en costume.

The superb 90-minute set contained light and shade, from the hard rocking likes of “Anxiety” and “Molotov” to the shimmering “If We Were Vampires” (which is not anodyne, thanks, Mr Jeremy “Cunt” Hunt).

 

“Hope the High Road” was delivered with passion, and the powerful lyrics of “White Man’s World” couldn’t have been more apposite. Perhaps he should have played that one into Jeremy Hunt’s face on the Marr Show. But then, he is on the high road.

My favourite moments were when the sound opened out with one of the players taking an acoustic guitar and the other playing (usually slide) lead. Songs like “Stockholm” and “Last of My Kind” were brilliant, but perhaps my favourite of the night was “Codeine”, from his 2011 album Here We Rest:

If there’s one thing I can’t stand
It’s this bar and this cover band
Trying to fake their way through ‘Castles Made of Sand.’
That’s one thing I can’t stand

If there’s one thing I can’t take
It’s the sound that a woman makes
About five seconds after her heart begins to break
That’s one thing I can’t take

She should be home by now but she ain’t
I should’ve gone by now but I cain’t
One of my friends has taken her in and given her Codeine
One of my friends has taken her in and given her Codeine

The final encore of the night (so glad we stayed) was Tom Petty’s “Refugee”, which was delivered with every bit as much passion and commitment as the original. My kid, 17, sitting to my left, had tears in her eyes.

TP 🎸 💘 💔

I was always faintly embarrassed by the Flying V guitar in the logo of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I associated the Flying V with cheesy early 70s glam rock, which was never my thing, and it was difficult, in that heyday of punk rock and amateur cut-up graphic design, to deal with that elaborate logo. It’s not even a good design, for a guitar. Too much wood, too much weight, a back-ache on a strap.

But Tom Petty was a lifeline to me. I was 14 in 1977, the Year of Punk, and standing firm against peer pressure to betray my true love, which was 60s rock, especially the kind with melodies and literate lyrics. My schoolfriends were beginning to buy albums, and there was a certain amount of scrabbling to prove something or other about how hip and happening you were. One kid had gone from extolling the virtues of Queen and their boast of “no synthesisers” the year before to popping into Woolies on our school camping trip to the Wye Valley in order to buy The Damned’s first album. It wasn’t that the pressure was hard to resist; it was just that I was continually called upon to justify my retro tastes. You wanted an answer to the inevitable question, a quick and easy, no-arguments answer, but it was hard to come by, because Modern Music Was Rubbish.

In 1977, I was in the first flush of my Beatles obsession, and exploring the thin pickings of the singles and albums around the house. It’s amazing to think, now, but the Beatles had only been split for 7 years back then: there were still regular reunion rumours, and for the next few years there would be “sightings” of the reclusive Lennon as well as compelling documentaries like Tony Palmer’s All You Need is Love and Rutland Weekend Television’s All You Need is Cash. I didn’t like Queen, and I’d always preferred Slade to T-Rex, and I really didn’t like Bowie. Over those years I discovered music that I would love for the rest of my life: the Mick Taylor Stones (but not the Brian Jones); The Who; the 1969 Velvet Underground; Bruce Springsteen with Max on drums; Bob Dylan; Buddy Holly; 60s girl groups (various); ’53-66 Frank Sinatra. Tried and rejected: Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, The Doors, Roxy Music, and many more. But there was always a feeling, ridiculous in hindsight, that the music I was listening to was old and unfashionable and out of touch. The seven-years-gone Beatles seemed like they came from an era as distant as music hall. I didn’t much care, but I did have the feeling that I needed something I could point to and say, see, there is some of your modern music. 

But I didn’t like that stuff that sounded like one chord being slid up and down a fretboard, with frantic thrashing, with guitars held around your knees, with gobbing and moshing. A certain type of (sexually repressed?) bloke will manufacture excuses to be in close quarters and sweating with a bunch of other blokes: not my thing. I liked Jonathan Richman’s second attempt at recording ‘Roadrunner’, but not the first.

The difference between that thrashy punk stuff and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal seemed to simply come down to musicianship, and I didn’t like either. I still think that Never Mind the Bollocks sounds like an overproduced heavy metal album.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performed “Anything That’s Rock ’n’ Roll” on Top of the Pops in 1977. For me, Top of the Pops was a dire desert of disco and bubblegum, occasionally leavened by the presence of something half-decent. As thin as they sounded, with their re-recorded BBC version (because TotP was going through one of its periodic all-music-must-be-performed-live phases), they were still the most exciting thing I’d seen on there for years. And then, even better, I caught them performing  “American Girl” on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1978. And I finally had an answer to an —incredibly, at the time — frequently asked question: don’t you like any modern music?

Of course, Petty’s sound was rooted in 60s rock, jangly guitars and all, but his sensibility was pure, late 70s angst, and their look (at the time) at least nodded to current rock fashion. Their songs and albums were also fairly concise. None of the self-indulgent fat and bloat that would come to characterise the CD era. And, in 1979, they changed everything by releasing Damn the Torpedoes, which is at number one in my list of Best Albums of the 1970s. In those years, 1978-79, the old guard had responded to the new energy of punk new/wave with some good music. Lou Reed put out Street Hassle; the Stones put out Some Girls; The Who did Who Are You; Springsteen, who wasn’t really old guard, put out Darkness on the Edge of Town. But Damn the Torpedoes was one of those albums that you can honestly say has no filler, and still has an immediate, visceral, power to raise my heartrate. That drum sound!

The great thing about the Heartbreakers was that they almost always kept a sense of humour about what they were doing. They embraced the video age in the 80s, but their first compilation of these videos was full of sarcastic captions about Mike Campbell’s awkward guitar playing pose, and their Alice in Wonderland “Don’t Come Around Here No More” is a classic. And in the CD era, Petty would include such moments as the interval on Full Moon Fever, which advised the listener that this would have been the moment to get up and turn the record over.

I saw them play live as support act and then backing band for Bob Dylan, and it’s fairly telling that of the six times I saw Dylan live, that was the only one that didn’t leave me disappointed. And I took my whole family to see them play at the Royal Albert Hall in 2012. I don’t think any band, apart from The Who, has a better two-hour set. Talk about no filler. Springsteen would leave his audience disappointed if he played just two hours, but the Heartbreakers’ set was a fantastic and satisfying romp through the absolute highlights of thirty years, with road-hardened versions of all the best songs. Mike Campbell must have played that closing solo on the live version of “American Girl” thousands of times, but it was always a joyful surprise. Their Super Bowl half-time show, too, was exemplary, adapting to the special requirements of that occasion with sheer magic. And it was watching that Super Bowl show, with my skin prickling with anticipation, that I finally had to admit that I fucking love that Flying V guitar.

Uncommon People by David Hepworth (review)

coverI have David Hepworth to thank for my podcast habit. It was the flash of insight that went along with listening to an episode of The Word podcast several years ago: I realised that I could listen to people talking about The Beatles forever, and took a mere two-hour discussion in my stride. Whereas, I thought, mainstream radio might offer a 5-10 minute whiz-around of talking heads and that would be your lot. Not since John Lennon died had I been able to indulge myself in hours of nitpicking and train-spotting. Some podcasters apologise now and then for being a little too much inside baseball, but that, for me, is the whole point.

Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars 1955-1994 is Hepworth’s follow-up to 1971: Never a Dull Moment, which I reviewed a while ago. I ended up being underwhelmed by that book because I had little interest in the music being discussed (turns out that 1971 didn’t see much that I like released). I’m underwhelmed by Uncommon People for different reasons.

I just watched one of my favourite movies, Pleasantville, with one of my classes, and when it finished I told my students that I thought it was almost perfect bar two things. The first thing was that it had too many endings. The second was that, for a movie that uses colour as a metaphor for change and prejudice, it neglected to include any actual people of colour.

So here’s what’s wrong with Uncommon People. On the one hand, Hepworth has a tendency to labour the point. He was always the shouty one on the Word podcast, and it could start to get on your nerves. As an editor, I’m sure, he would be able to look at such writing and strike out the third-to-tenth ways in which he expresses the same idea. As an author, one suspects that each chapter needed to be a certain length, and he just couldn’t stop himself from adding just one more pithy way of explaining what he meant. This is the Too Many Endings problem.

When the material is familiar, this starts to grate. I’m sure there won’t be many people reading this who don’t know at least 50% of the lore herein. Which is a problem. Because what can Hepworth say about Bob Dylan, or the Beatles, or Elvis, that hasn’t been said many times before? And while we might enjoy sinking into the warm comfort of this history, it still reads a bit like Shouty Dave trying to bludgeon you with his point.

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This is a bit about Elvis that starts to labour the point

On the other hand, Uncommon People is a victim of rock’s historical sexism and tendency to think colour doesn’t matter. There are chapters on Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt (who I’d never describe as a rock star) and Madonna (likewise), and it opens of course with Little Richard and features Jimi Hendrix. But give or take Michael Jackson (not a rock star) and Bob Marley (*sucks teeth*), the subjects of each chapter are overwhelmingly white and male.

As to the idea that the breed died out after 1994 and Curt Cobain, I’m afraid I lost interest at least a decade before that. He argues that tech and Hip Hop took over from Rock after 1994, which may well be the case. The fact was, nobody was measuring sales properly before the 1990s, and it’s almost certainly the case that Country was bigger than Rock all along. I made the mistake of commenting to this effect on the Guardian review of this book and got shouted down. I didn’t feel like explaining that US charts are based on airplay not sales, and that the absence of Country in mainstream playlists doesn’t mean it’s not outselling other genres. Still, with this book, the idea of a rock star is the point. Sales don’t matter, popularity doesn’t really matter. What counts is the image and the attitude.

The conceit of the book is that he takes a single date for each year and tells a story about a particular star in that era. This allows him to cover Bob Dylan twice, for example, but his choices seem perverse and arbitrary all the same. Bob Dylan in 1961 was not a rock star (though I take the point that his reinvention of himself sets the template). Bob Dylan in 1986 is a rock star, but not really at his peak. Of Dylan the original rock star of 1965-66, or 1975-6, there’s nothing. The sheer charisma of Dylan in white face on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour is stunning.

As to the inclusion of obvious pop stars like Duran Duran, Jackson and Madonna, one wonders why they get in while others don’t. Obviously, everyone will have their own lists/ideas, but Tom Petty (an inspirational figure to many musicians who is name-checked and referenced in tons of songs) is mentioned only in passing. More, um, damningly, Damn the Torpedoes, which is objectively the best album of the 1970s isn’t even included in the end-of-chapter playlist for 1979. What’s up with that? It’s like doing a list for 1967 and ignoring Sgt. Pepper.

Anyway, this is a bit of a grind. Grinding your teeth through the over-egged pudding of some chapters, and grinding your way through chapters about insignificant nobodies later on. I borrowed from the library, so I’m not too disappointed.

Pepper @ 50

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Listening to John Roderick and Merlin Mann talk briefly about The Beatles (with more promised to come), I was prompted to write down my own thoughts. It’s fair to say that I started to listen to podcasts when I had the realisation that I could listen to two hours of people* talking about The Beatles forever, whereas the mainstream media would almost always consider a 10-minute segment in a 40-minute programme sufficient. My epiphany was that there is no such thing as too much of something to the true obsessive. That said, probably the most interesting thing I’ve heard related to the Sgt. Pepper anniversary this week was the World Service documentary, How Sgt Pepper Changed the World, of which more below.

Knowing that Roderick on the Line was going to actually discuss the 50th anniversary release of Sgt Pepper, I went out and bought the new “stereo remix”, which is a hyped up way of selling you a package and no doubt renewing some mechanical copyright. How many times have I bought it now? Three times, at least, which is not as many times as I’ve bought The River, but close. As to hearing a difference, well. I’ve got nothing to play it on, really. I can play it in the car, or through the TV speaker board via the blu-ray player, or I can rip it into iTunes and listen on headphones via my phone — but I’m not going to hear any significant differences. Low end? What? My ears can’t reach down there.

I bought my first copy about 12 years after it was originally released. Prior to that, I’d only heard those tracks from it that were included on the Blue 1967-1970 album, which was the first record I ever bought. In an intense period between the ages of 14 and 16, I bought the whole (then available) Beatles catalogue, which included some dodgy Hamburg recordings, the Hollywood Bowl live LP and a boxed set of their singles. I then became known as The Beatles Guy at school, and a number of people borrowed the albums from me to tape them. Jennifer Hargreaves returned at least one of them with chocolate in the grooves.

There was a certain amount of surprise and delight in opening the Sgt Pepper package. The eye-poppingly colourful gatefold portrait, the glossy finish, the cardboard cutouts. This was matched by the colour 8×10 portraits and the lyric poster that came with The Beatles (white album), and counterbalanced by the disappointment of both Abbey Road and Let it Be, which came with nowt. You get about 1/10th of that surprise and delight in a CD-sized package.

Merlin said, upfront, that he did not consider Sgt Pepper their best work (though his recent tweets indicate something of a reassessment). But it is by now a common enough thing for a fan to say. My own firm favourite has always been Beatles for Sale, and if you made me pick a Late Period record, I would plump for The Beatles or Abbey Road, depending on my mood. A lot of fans prefer Revolver, and I can see why. Lennon is stronger on that one than he is on Pepper, but while I can appreciate “Tomorrow Never Knows” on an intellectual level, I fucking hate listening to it, and I think quite a lot of the album is insubstantial and half-baked in a way that the stuff on Pepper wasn’t. And “Taxman” is such a Tory song. Sure, the top rate of tax in 1966 was 98%, but Britain was a better country for it, producing stuff like, oh, Sgt. Pepper, for example. Bless him, but George could come across as overly concerned with material goods, and he did a lot of moaning in his songs.

Like The Beatles themselves, Sgt. Pepper is greater than the sum of its parts. A handful of the tracks stand out, but the album’s cohesion (notwithstanding Lennon’s dismissal of it) is what makes it exceptional. There’s talk that George Martin regretted the convention that didn’t allow them to include “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”, but I think they’d have tipped the balance. It may have been wishful thinking, fairy dust, smoke and mirrors, but Sgt. Pepper is its own thing. It works.

It mostly works as a conversation between generations, with The Beatles acting as media. Which is to say, Sgt Pepper is a message from the Baby Boomers to the Greatest Generation, via four War Babies in the guise of a fictional band which itself straddles the period covered by recorded popular music.

It’s the in betweenness of Sgt Pepper that makes it great. The Beatles could always do this: they could do end of the pier, they could do variety and music hall, and they could do sweaty rock ’n’ roll. Sgt Pepper rolls it all together, and that’s its genius. I hate “When I’m Sixty-Four” as a song, but on the album it’s perfect. It’s the turn of phrase, mostly from McCartney (but Lennon to an extent), who manages to perfectly reproduce the vernacular in song. “She’s Leaving Home” captures the voice of the quintessential Daily Mail reader, whose bewildered, passive-aggressive response to their daughter leaving home is met with the apparently impenetrable blandness of “she is having fun”, a four word phrase which contains a generation gap so wide that the Daily Mail still hasn’t managed to cross it.

Meanwhile, Lennon perfectly captures the Andy Capp voice of The Mirror, with “Nothing to say but what a day, how’s your boy been?” And you keep hearing such lines throughout, turns of phrase that transport you back to black-and-white, shillings-and-pence, garden-fence Britain, when there were still people living in WW2 prefabs, and you could smoke on the top deck of the bus, and people saved up for things instead of just buying them on credit.

And the Beatles are in between the prefabs and Carnaby Street, between Andy Capp and Oz, between Morecambe and Wise and Art Happenings. Musically, they’re between John Philip Sousa’s marches and hard rock. They’re the static in the wires, the parasite on the message, talking about ‘taking tea’ with a knowing wink, or drifting off into a dream after smoking something, offering parody and sincerity in the same breath. They’d do it again with their Boxing Day film of that same year, Magical Mystery Tour, with fish and chips all round and tank tops muddled in with the walruses and fools on the hill. That same mix of end of the pier fish and chips mixed with hard rock would show up again in Tommy the following year.

It’s fair to say that Lennon was struggling on this album, as he himself admitted. The chip on his shoulder, and his paranoia about whose fucking band it was, and his general demeanour of being a bit of a dick caused him to piss all over the legacy of The Beatles in his 1970 Rolling Stone interview. And even later on, when he was slightly more mature, he still didn’t really like it because it was “mostly Paul”, and he felt under pressure, scrabbling to keep up with McCartney’s prodigious creativity. I think he looked back on that period and remembered the flop sweats and not the actual music. And it’s so infuriating that he died before he could finally grow up properly and escape from his ego trap. Sure, he was taking too much acid, but his dismissive recollection of Pepper as ‘A Day in the Life and that’s it’ was way off beam. As to his contribution to the album, it’s still significant, even if his own memory was faulty. The dour refrain on ‘She’s Leaving Home’, as well as his own songs.

As to the year he had, between the end of 1966 and 1967, and in spite of his flop sweats, he contributed ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, ‘A Day in the Life’, ‘All You Need is Love’ and ‘I Am the Walrus’. Not bad for a struggler.

The only song on Pepper I still can’t really listen to is ‘Within You Without You’, not because of the Indian sounds, but because of George’s dreary voice singing that endlessly dreary melody. And if there’s anything that doesn’t fit with the music hall vibe or the snapshot of mid-60s British culture, it’s that one track, which screams out to be skipped.

One thing Merlin pointed out was that The Beatles were working in an atmosphere of being constantly dismissed by the hipsters of their time, and written off by the British Press, who had been asking the question, Are The Beatles finally over? since 1963, and would go on asking it until 1971, when they switched to, Will The Beatles ever get back together? Even now, if Macca and Ringo are set to appear on the same stage, The Guardian rolls out a Surviving Beatles to Reunite headline.

Every single, every album, was reviewed by the music press as a certain flop. People had been waiting for them to fail in much the same way that the tech press are (now) waiting for Apple Inc. to fail. Meanwhile, ‘serious music fans’ were getting into Hendrix and the Floyd, or spray painting Clapton is God in underpasses. The Beatles were a pop band, and nobody had heard a note they’d played live since 1962. Sgt Pepper was similarly dismissed, but it was too important and too powerful and too good to be damaged by bad press. That the Daily Mail have always been negative about The Beatles is proof of their brilliance.

Most of all, the album raised consciousness, creating the conditions that allowed others — in many fields, and all around the world — to experiment and succeed or fail on their own merits. I still think it’s incredible that these four individuals, this alchemical combination of introverts and extroverts, were able to produce music of such artistry and genius as a group, when later on, as solo artists, they only sporadically managed to produce a similar spark. Whatever John said later, about not really liking The Beatles, the answer should always have been, ‘But John, your solo stuff is rubbish in comparison. You know that, right?’

Never before, never since. Nothing like them. 1960s Britain. 98% tax.

* Usually Middle aged blokes (sadly).

Charles “Chuckles” Berry, 1926–2017

To paraphrase Mark Ellen (who was talking about Van Morrison), I would guess there are two kinds of people when it comes to Chuck Berry: those who like his music; and those who have met him. As a black artist whose work had been appropriated, stolen, lifted, plagiarised etc. several times by white artists, Chuck Berry had every right to be a miserable old git. But while Lennon was a very naughty boy when he stole “Here come old flat top”, I’ve always considered it more of a reference/quote/homage than an outright steal, and I don’t think the Beatles thought they were pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes. They weren’t trying to pull a Led Zep.

After all, The Beats had already covered both “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Rock and Roll Music”, and if Chuck Berry had a beef it was with the organised criminals who owned his publishing, notorious as they were for not paying out royalties. Lennon recorded “You Can’t Catch Me” in 1975 for Rock ‘n’ Roll, so Berry was paid back in spades.

Anyway, Berry’s own “Maybelline,” one of the first rock ‘n’ roll records, was heavily based on the song “Ida Red”, which was recorded by Bob Wills in 1938. And “Ida Red” itself included lyrics from F.W. Root’s song “Sunday Night”, written in 1878. In other words, it’s disingenuous of anyone to sue anyone else over copyright, which is really designed to protect artists from exploitation by greedy and unethical corporations and shouldn’t involve artists getting pissed at each other for doing what creative people do.

Great artists steal. (And even that quote is problematic, having been borrowed/stolen, reframed and so on, through multiple iterations. In its current form, it probably owes more to Steve Jobs than Picasso.)

So where does that leave us with Chuck Berry? Watching Springsteen work up and perform “You Never Can Tell” is one of the pleasures of my life; but watching Springsteen stand awkwardly to one side while Berry performs “Johnny B Goode” at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, treating Bruce and the E Street Band like just another one of his cheapskate pickup bands, is simply embarrassing.

Berry was an originator, one of the first to make this thing called rock music, and the first to write literate, intelligent lyrics that stand the test of time.

But he was a miserable old git and impossible to like. Which is before you get to the video cameras he allegedly hid in toilets at various properties he owned; or the 20 months he served for transporting a 14 year old girl across state lines for “immoral purposes”. Now you can point to the latter incident and consider the all-white juries and the different times, as they say on the Simon Mayo programme (it was 1959), but filming women with hidden cameras in the toilet is just nasty.

All of which is before you get to the armed robbery rap.

Monstrous ego, shoddy live performances with badly rehearsed pickup bands, sexual offences, armed robbery… Add to this the crime of “My Ding-a-Ling” and I’m afraid Chuckles is just not my kind of guy.

When your heart grows cold and old

I was listening to a (back catalogue episode of) Roderick on the Line today, and he said an interesting thing about music and nostalgia.

We, he said, meaning people in their 40s and 50s, are the first generation who can listen to the music of our parents’ generation as easily as we can listen to our own. Can this be true? I’ll explain.

My parents were born in the 1930s, and the music collection they had when I was growing up came mostly from the 1950s and on. In other words, came from the era that they’d have been in their later teens and twenties. A collection of brittle 78s, a mostly-disappointing collection of vinyl LPs (with the notable exception of Sinatra), and some other stuff from the early 1960s that I’ve always assumed belonged in some sense to my older siblings.

But my father’s father, who was dead long before I was aware of anything: what was his music? No records survived. Even if he was in his 20s in the 1930s, that era of economic hard times, would he have even owned a record player? Or had the luxury of even being into music, in the modern sense? No records survive.

Similarly, I don’t recall ever seeing or hearing any music at my maternal grandmother’s house. My grandad had an old broken reel-to-reel tape recorder, but who knows what it was ever for?

Just now, I could hear my kid upstairs playing Buddy Holly, which is something I passed onto her. It’s interesting to hear her playing (over several days), Jonathan Richman, then the Velvet Underground, then Buddy Holly or the Everly Brothers. You can trace the line, you can hear the musical DNA. I listened to Buddy Holly myself because I wanted to know where the Beatles had come from, and because “Words of Love” was on Beatles for Sale, which was the Beatles album in our house.

When I listen to Sinatra, it’s also because there were a load of albums in the house when I was growing up (but, really, only two or three of them were of the right vintage, the rest were from the Reprise era, not the kind of thing I still listen to). So the Sinatra DNA was passed on, but I had to do my own work to obtain/discover the best material. My mother had Songs for Swingin’ Lovers and Come Fly With Me, but I never heard the superior A Swingin’ Affair until much later on.

So the kid upstairs, you might say, represents a third generation, who can listen both to the music of her parents, but also her grandparents. Does she have Sinatra on her iPhone? I think she does. How weird is that?

 

Some of me Music

The Proper Stranger. My future brother-in-law got a 4-track cassette recorder, so we started meeting up on Wednesday evenings and recording songs that I’d written. The more we recorded, the more I wrote. It was me and my then best-friend at first, but after a while he gave up on it, probably feeling he was contributing nothing. He was the first one to even write a song, which started me off. Once you realise you can do it yourself: oh. But then he didn’t write any more at all, and I was coming up with a new one (or more) every week. It turned out that, on tape, we sounded very similar anyway.

There’s a drum machine, Curly (Mark Ridout) on backing vocals and guitar, and Pete Austin on on bass. I think I’m just singing on this one. We didn’t have access to Curly very often. We put his amp in the bath for the rhythm part.

Is It Any Wonder? My first song, which was recorded for the 1984 cassette release Mr Mystery/The Proper Stranger, and then for our 1985 EP, Welcome to Weston-Super-Mare. This was recorded onto an 8-track, then pressed onto 500 vinyl 45 rpms. We had to speed up the tempo so we could fit all the songs we wanted on. Thinking back, my major influence at the time was probably Jonathan Richman. The idea was a kind of cool detached, pastiche/homage to old rock ’n’ roll, singing with a smile on my face. That cool detachment is the central characteristic. No real emotion, except that which might be evoked by the lyrics, if you cared. I hated the drum machine sound, and when we played live we had a real drummer (Olivier, who was half French), but we didn’t have the facilities to record a real drum kit. That’s Curly on lead guitar and Pete on bass again.

Sway. About five years after we started the recording project, I ended up with a lot of Pete’s equipment in my back bedroom. By this time it was an 8-track reel-to-reel and a mixing desk. I wrote this one about a girl I was seeing, Sarah, and recorded it just on acoustic guitar in that back room. A few years later, when I was experimenting with computer recording for work purposes (which is how I ended up getting back into it), I got hold of an Adrenalinn, a kind of drum machine, with guitar delay effects. You plugged your guitar in, and it created textures and rhythms based on the drum pattern. So I played “Sway” through it, and then my work friend Simon played some whale sounds on his guitar.

Latest News. I’d started teaching Media Studies, and I wrote this song, which wasn’t based on anything real, just all the different media I was thinking about. It takes you through from news and the BBC and the internet through radio and magazine articles, and then a film. And I recorded it with a selection of the instruments I’d begun to accumulate, and Roy played some guitar on it. His is the laid back rhythm in the left channel. At the time I had a Variax, which had the banjo sound on it, and I had an Ovation mandolin which was pretty cool.

You Don’t Belong. When I was in my early 20s, songs were like diary entries. I would take real emotional stuff that was happening and turn it into simple little songs that didn’t sound like anything much (emotional detachment being my watchword). When I went back to writing songs in my 30s and 40s, I had to dig down deep into memories. This was written about my ex-best friend, and his habit of creating legends about his life, the kind of bullshit I eventually tired of. I saw him from my car once, filling up his motorbike at a petrol station on the A5. It was about 15 years after he’d bored my tits off with his fantasies about emigrating to Australia. And there he was in Northampton, with his characteristic sloped shoulders and his motorbike. Went home and wrote this. Some of the recordings are so vivid I can remember recording every instrument.

The Conversation. In the 80s, I wrote a short story, and then I turned it into a kind of epic poem, which I turned into a song. I used to perform it at poetry readings. It was long and full of detail, quite funny. And then about 15 years later, the original long forgotten, I wrote a 3-minute version of it, what I could remember of it. I still like the guitar on this, and the flow of the lyrics. And every time he repeats. “the one I’d always loved” the meaning changes, until you know he’s singing about how he always picks on unavailable women. Story of my life.

And Then You Fall. This and “You Don’t Belong” were my first experiments with piano sounds. I’d got some kind of amazing plug-in software piano that sounded great. So I started programming one chord at a time into the software and then building on them. I’m also pleased with this because what sounds like some kind of mandolin solo is actually a guitar solo recorded at half-speed and then played back at normal speed. Pete plays bass on this. And then there’s an actual mandolin on there somewhere. I’d edit this to make it shorter if I did it again.

Outside My Window. In my teens, I was kind of in love with my then best-friend’s girlfriend, Linda. I was eaten up with jealousy, which I would never admit to myself of course. I was horrible to her and ended up deliberately cutting her out of my life, hoping all the time that she would say something and we could have it out. But before I did that, we were very close. When I left home and lived in Kent for a while, she wrote to me at least once a week. And she came down to stay one weekend, and we spent a couple of precious days together without him around. I wrote this song about that weekend, and the rest of it. I piled too many instruments into the mix, but it kind of fits because of all the emotions I piled into that relationship. I would get snippets of news about her from him, when I could casually ask without making it seem obvious that I really wanted to know. But he lost touch with her himself in the end, so I lost that lifeline. I regret this almost as much as not being able to whistle with my fingers.

Saturday Night. This has a lazy tempo, but I like it, especially the line, “All those eight o’clock girls, trying to straighten their curls…” Another song aimed at my introverted younger self, for whom Saturday nights in the Saracen’s Head in Dunstable were a form of torture. Fake it for fuck’s sake.

Walking Shoes. I was just playing with song arrangements on this, copying that of a record I liked. This is another “digging deep” one, written about a girl I liked when we worked together in Bejam in Dunstable. She really did used to frighten old men, Juliet. This is a phase when I was capable of some decent guitar because I’d been playing so much.

Everything. You can tell all the ones recorded about the same time: had my Orange guitar amp, and was just recording the sound straight from it. Play with some chords, make up some words. Whoever this was about? Lost in the mists.

Without You. I think I aimed this at my younger self, and the stupid games I used to play when trying to get women interested (qv “Outside My Window”, above). One of the last times I recorded with the mandolin, which I was too rubbish to play properly.

Yours Faithfully. One of the last things I ever did was February Album Writing Month (FAWM), in 2009, maybe? You write 14 songs in 28 days. Easy! Except I never did much justice to the recordings, focusing too much on working quickly. Also, most of my good software wasn’t working anymore, so I had a much more limited set of sounds. But this one I liked, because of the bits about, “There is no ex in loneliness, etc.” It’s about being dumped by text, which people were doing by then, it says here. I used pitch-changing software to add the backing vocal.

Tell Me a Movie. This is another one kind of based on a short story I wrote. This was a FAWM song. Again, I didn’t do the recording justice, and the vocal is not the best. I’m embarrassed by it really, but I still like the idea behind the song. Always thought there were too many verses but couldn’t bear to cut one.

Little Red Riding Hood. As best I can remember, this was the last one I wrote and recorded. Just messing around with different sounds by this stage. One of a series written about my younger, hopeless self. Sold the amp after this, and the electric guitar, which about two years later the kids were really annoyed about.

Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run (book)

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Elodie got this for Christmas, but she also got Johnny Marr’s book, so I nabbed this to read quickly. I confess, I’d been looking forward to Elodie receiving it.

Springsteen writes very well – you can hear his voice behind the long sentences, full of detail, full of lists and parataxis. And the story he tells is a fascinating one, full of honesty about his early life, his career, and his battles with depression, which seem to have got harder as he’s got older. He doesn’t mention the incident, but what you read herein puts the 30th birthday cake-into-the-crowd hurling into a new perspective.

The best section is probably the one covering his early life, his extended family which had fallen on hard times, and lived in a crumbling house with just one heater. Springsteen’s often described as ‘blue collar’, but that doesn’t really do justice to the crushing poverty and hardship he experienced. He’s very articulate about his father – the figure who lurks in the background of so many of his songs – whose own mental health battles are so much a part of Springsteen’s formation.

He considers himself lucky to have been born when he was, able to experience rock’s first and second waves directly (Elvis and the Beatles, in shorthand), and then to be part of a vibrant local music scene that was driven and inspired by those waves. And when he finds himself, years later, on stage between Mick Jagger and George Harrison, he reflects on how extraordinary it is that he, just one of thousands of young kids to be inspired to pick up a guitar by the Stones and the Beatles, should end up on that stage.

The early life, the early musical experiences, these are the more interesting parts of this book. He spares us, however, the details of his life on the road, or even too much about the months spent in the studio. He mentions key events, key dates, the well-known difficulties he’s had with capturing the right sound (“stiiiiiiick!”), but he doesn’t dwell too much. He does mention that the hardships of his early life with a road band (cruddy motels etc.) were nothing compared to the cruddy environment he grew up in – it was a step up.

I was looking forward to reading about the times he abandoned (and then re-formed) the E Street Band, though he only hints at the reasons why. It seems clear he grew tired of the ‘Daddy’ role that being The Boss entailed, and it’s even clearer that it was the two members of the band who died young that were the source of greatest pain. The chaotic lives of Danny Federici and ‘C’ (Clarence Clemons) seem to have been ongoing issues. Of the two albums he released on the same day in 1992, the ones that preceded his first non-E-Street tour, he says nothing.

I lost interest a little towards the end. Maybe because I was reading too fast, but I suspect because of the way this book was written. The chapters are short, full of pleasurable passages, but also saltatorial, jumping from point to point, and sometimes repetitive. He says at the end that he originally wrote it out in longhand, over seven years, and it bears the hallmarks of something that has been written as a series of chunks. From about halfway through, there’s less of a narrative, and it becomes more like a memoir than an autobiography. Here’s the time I met Frank Sinatra. Here’s the time I was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Here’s the time there was an earthquake. And so on.

But that’s a quibble for someone who likes to read for the plot, and should not detract from the many interesting chapters and sections that the book contains. It’s a great read for the Bruce fan, or for someone interested in the music business, and maybe even for those with an interest in mental health. In his introduction, he hints that the idea of the book is to explain not just how he can get up on stage and play 3+ hour shows every night, but why. And, of course, the why is the more interesting question.

Music Downloads of 2016 – part 3

Part 2 is here… and Part 1 is here.

The Weight of these Wings – Miranda Lambert

This is too new and, because it’s a double album, too extensive for me to have anything more than a vague impression so far, but this is Miranda Lambert, so of course it’s on the list. With 24 songs, coming in at an hour and a half plus, this is a monster. A lot of column inches have been expended on the very public breakup of her marriage to Blake Shelton, but I’ve never been interested in all that. Nevertheless, a double album is a statement of some kind. Her previous album, Platinum, had a feeling about it that indicated a loss of patience with an industry – especially radio – that wasn’t willing to give women a fair hearing. Her career has seen an uptick since then, but she’s still the woman who walked out of her first recording session, dissatisfied with the material she was being offered, and she’s now very much in control – and probably the pre-eminent female artist in the industry. Not bad for a third place finisher in the Nashville Star talent show. This set feels edgy and raw, as well as effortlessly confident. Lead single “Vice” sets the tone, while tracks like “Tin Man”, “Six Degrees of Separation” and “Keeper of the Flame” show the breadth and depth of the heartbreak.

Down to My Last Bad Habit – Vince Gill

Still one of the greatest soul singers in Nashville, as well as one of the best guitar players, Vince Gill’s latest set is a welcome collection of emotional songs and tasteful playing. There are a number of collaborations (I think Gill is the collaboratingest artist on the scene) with the likes of Little Big Town (Take Me Down), Cam (I’ll Be Waiting for You) and Chris Botti (One More Mistake I Made), but really he doesn’t need anyone else. Download the title track, plus “Reasons for the Tears I Cry”, “Me and My Girl” and “When It’s Love” and feel the power of that voice.

This is Where I live – William Bell

Best known for a couple of hits back in the day, and for songs like “Born Under a Bad Sign”, which were covered by others, William Bell’s career stretches back to that period between Elvis going into the Army and the Beatles’ first LP. “You Don’t Miss Your Water (Till The Well Runs Dry)” came out in 1961, and his career was then interrupted by military service. So it wasn’t till the later 60s that he finally released his debut album, Soul of a Bell. Another near-decade later, he had a hit with “Tryin’ to Love Two”. He was always a man out of synch, his timeless country soul musical style not dependent on passing fads. His new album, This Is Where I Live, is his first in a decade, and it’s a fine collection of classic sounding soul music which could have been released at any time in the past 50 years. It includes a version of his own “Born Under a Bad Sign”, but I also recommend the track above, “The Three of Me”, the title song, and “All The Things You Can’t Remember”.