Ryan Culwell – The Last American

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is anybody out there alive

can you hear me

can you hear me

out on the highway

on the dark side of the moon

I got my wheels spinnin’

can you hear me

bang real loud and get down low

make a little love on the radio

dial it in boys and let it ride

send a little call out to heaven tonight

can you hear me

can you hear me?

I’ve waited a bit to review this in hopes of gaining some perspective, but after three months the lead track still haunts my mind. It keeps unpacking itself, more like a movie than a song, and the album is something like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, a series of short films about broken and disappointed people. Culwell gives voice to a series of characters, in varying states of hurt, defiance and confusion in a world which is both timeless and timely. A documentary about both the America that is lost and the America that is.

The opening line of “Can You Hear Me” refers to the “wow” signal picked up by a radio telescope in 1977, a moment of clarity in the background noise of the universe, which came from the direction of Sagittarius. That’s how the song begins. It sounds like electronic noise, a falling note. Then you pick up what sounds like a Springsteen song you’ve never heard. “Bang real loud and get down low / Make a little love on the radio”. This places the song immediately in my wheelhouse, making me remember the many nights I spent shifting the dial of my AM radio under the bedclothes, listening to the drifting signals refracting off the ionosphere, the KGB signal jamming, Radio Moscow, Radio Luxembourg, Radio Caroline and the World Service.

Culwell writes a scene from an unfilmed 70s sequel to American Graffiti. Our narrator is on the road, speaking in CB Radio jargon, being followed by a motorcycle cop, but also thinking about the murder of Eric Garner, who kept saying “I can’t breathe” while being choked to death by cops:

“When Eric Garner was murdered I started pacing around the house repeating, ‘I can’t breathe,’ but the words had nowhere to land so I just kept repeating them for weeks. My wife probably thought I was losing my mind,” Culwell tells Rolling Stone. “It’s not the kind of song you write in a day. My only regret is that I run out of air after singing ‘I can’t breathe’ 10 times while Eric Garner found the strength to say it 11 times. You can’t love your neighbor as yourself if you’re not even listening to him.”

Like a drifting radio signal, the song shifts from being a Springsteen banger to a protest song, and drifts back again, finally fading away with the message, “I’m at threes and eights”, which (I believe) is CB code for best wishes, or indicating that a channel will now be clear.

So goes the album, a camera eye that dips into people’s lives and out again, sometimes coming through clear, sometimes drifting off into the static, or the “old, weird America” of the basement tapes. Culwell’s voice can sound like he’s a mad old bluesman or hillbilly screaming from the bottom of a well (on “Dig a Hole”, for example) or sitting at a piano in a church, or strumming on his back porch. In “Tie My Pillow to a Tree”, when he sings, “Make some room for me”, his voice breaks with polite uncertainty.

I smell like rosin

I taste like leaves

would you scoot on over

make some room for me

books I have read

lovers I have known

when they forget me

oh where will I go

I set sail on seven oceans

there ain’t no country with my name

I wrapped myself in pleasure

and I kissed myself with pain

And if you have this record on in the background, you hear some really pretty songs, that kind of folky, polite Americana. And then you check what song it is you’re listening to, and you realise, for example, that it’s called “Dog’s Ass”.

The title track comes over as an interview with a political pollster, as the subject proclaims, “I am the last American / On this earth / I’d like to quit this talkin’ / Get back to work”.

guess I’ll vote the ticket

like i always do

if I can figure out

who to stick it to

you can keep asking your questions

if you think it’s going to help

do I believe in God

mr you go straight to hell

I got my old man’s heart

and a broke down Chevrolet

The Last American is a powerful, uncomfortable record, not the kind of thing you can have on as background, but the kind of music that compels you to listen, to pay attention to the words. I can’t think of the last time I was driven to look up the lyrics of an album like this. I’d put it on the level of Darkness on the Edge of Town. It’s an immense achievement.

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Wonderboom

wonder - 1Concerned as I am about privacy and the abuse of that privacy by companies like Amazon and Google, I was never in the market for a smart speaker. I was of course more interested in the Apple HomePod, but it’s not a product that would fit my particular life.

For example, the idea that you would have a speaker, or a pair of speakers, plugged into the mains in a room that you would listen to music in, is not something that happens round here. If music (or a podcast or the BBC Radio player) is on, it’s because I’m up and about, moving between rooms. I don’t want my speaker to be tethered to a particular spot. I have this anyway: there’s a decent speaker box sitting under the TV I can use for music in the living room (almost never), and I’ve got a pair of great music speakers in the conservatory with a Bluetooth adapter plugged into the back (used more often, but still relatively rarely).

What I most often want is a speaker that can move with me, or can be paired up with another speaker and play simultaneously in two rooms. Multi-room audio is something you can have up at the higher end, but again, something plugged into the mains in one place is not a scenario that would work for me.

So I want my speaker to be portable, truly wireless, and fairly robust. Which is where the UE Wonderboom comes in. I was skeptical that something as small as this could sound good, but it really sounds pretty decent. Whatever artificial means they use to boost the bass works very well for the kind of music I listen to. It doesn’t sound weird or get on your nerves after a while. It’s good for voices, and it’s good for country music and 60s/70s rock and soul.

It sounds great and is loud enough that I’ve rarely had it above 50% volume, and the battery life is very good indeed. In terms of range, you can take your phone quite a considerable distance away without losing the connection. This is ideal for me, for example, at our place in France, where I am frequently preparing food in the kitchen, then walking around to tend the barbecue in the garden.

I got my first one a year or so ago, and it impressed me enough that I wanted to get a second so as to pair them up. Which I now have. Pairing is a simple matter of holding down the central logo button for three seconds, until you hear one of its noises, and then waiting for 10 seconds or so while the speakers pair. The volume is automatically equalised between the two speakers, and you can control it with either speaker or your connected device. And you don’t have to download a special app to achieve any of this. Smart.

Now you can have stereo, which is fine, but the real beauty is in having the “radio on in every room” effect, where I can have one in the kitchen, and one out in the conservatory or the garden. And because it’s Bluetooth and not Airplay, no wifi network is required, which is great in France, because we don’t have wifi there.

Amazon sell a pair of these for £123, but you can buy two separately for about £60 each, and if you monitor the price you can do even better.

This, for me, is the perfect combination of sound quality and convenient portability, and I couldn’t be happier really.

Sinatra Sings the Blues

2435472Sinatra was very open about his influences as a singer. It’s well-known that as a young man he idolised Bing Crosby, but he also spoke of the inspiration he drew from the singing style of Billie Holiday.

It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me.

Holiday and Sinatra were of an age, born in the same year, though she’d have been in the year above him at school, not that she spent much time in school. The year of their birth was before the release of the first “Jass” record and the first vocal blues record, but by the time the two of them started singing professionally, in the 1930s, jazz had become the first pop craze, and radio had spread the blues far and wide. As they were growing up, recording technology had progressed from singing into a horn as part of a mechanical recording system to an electrified system with microphones and loudspeakers. As you step forwards with technology, however, you sometimes lose something. The loud, raucous music of the 1920s had to be tamed and smoothed somewhat so that the new apparatus could cope with it.

Bing Crosby learned to sing into a ribbon microphone, one that would break if you sang to loudly into it. So his singing style was adapted accordingly, and became known as crooning.

Sinatra first saw Billie Holiday in the late 1930s, and at some point she offered him advice on how to sing the blues:

‘I told him certain notes at the end he could bend. … Bending those notes — that’s all I helped Frankie with.’

Holiday didn’t have much of a range, but her phrasing was a major influence on Sinatra whose voice was a more powerful and versatile instrument. I’m not a fan of how Sinatra sang in the 40s (still constrained, I think, by early microphones and still considered a mere adjunct to the real business of swing jazz, the orchestra and its leader); and I didn’t like what he started to do as his voice started to fade in his 60s, which was to (obviously) limit his dynamic range and lean into the gravel in his voice and to flatten his notes just a little too far.

But in his Capitol years, as previously discussed, and into his 50s with Reprise, his singing was spectacular. Of course, Holiday didn’t live into her 50s, a tragedy that hit Sinatra hard, but he was able to take full advantage of advances in recording technology: specifically, the Neumann U47 condenser microphone:

A major contributor to Frank Sinatra’s signature vocal sound when he moved from Columbia to Capitol was the U47 valve capacitor microphone that Neumann had begun manufacturing in 1949.

This mic was less fragile than the RCA 44 ribbon microphones that had been used up till then, which allowed for more attack from both brass sections and vocalists, and offered a brighter high end.

Anyway, this is all by way of an introduction to a short playlist of Sinatra singing the blues in the blues style. Of course, much of the Great American Songbook he drew from was based in the blues, and even a lot of the Broadway songs he chose had been influenced by the blues, but Sinatra’s torch songs and dance/swing numbers didn’t always sound terribly bluesy. I’ve selected a few, however, where you can hear the flattened blue notes that are characteristic of the blues. Sinatra did this often enough that it didn’t seem contrived but was a natural part of his style.

That’s Life (1966)

For me, this is the last great Sinatra track, before all the “My Way” and “New York, New York” nonsense that came after. While those latter two songs became show stoppers, they don’t appeal to me as they are both too on the nose to ring true. His kind of town, as any fule kno, is Chicago. Written by Dean Kay and Kelly Gordon in the early 60s, “That’s Life” is perhaps the Sinatra record that most sounds like it might come from 1966. That’s mainly because the band includes members of The Wrecking Crew, including Michel Rubini on Hammond, Glen Campbell on guitar, Hal Blaine on drums, and … it’s only fucking Darlene Love and the Blossoms on backing vocals.

I Got Plenty of Nuttin’ (1957)

This Gershwin number from Sinatra’s best Capitol Album A Swingin’ Affair comes from the controversial 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, which was first performed with an all African American cast, but having been written by white people was seen as a horrible kind of cultural ventriloquism. The song comes from Act 2, and is sung by the title character of Porgy. Taken out of its context, and in Sinatra’s hands, it loses its power to offend, and is simply a pop song based on the blues. Perhaps the most offensive thing about it is the spelling of ‘Nuttin’’ I absolutely love the instrumental interlude in this, as the band plays through the entire melody and really parps on that brass.

Stars Fell on Alabama (1957)

This 1934 song was composed by Frank Perkins and Mitchell Parish. The title phrase comes from a book and refers to the Leonid meteor shower’s appearance in 1833. The song has been covered by both Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby as well as the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Doris Day. It is certainly one of the songs that people mean when they refer to the Great American Songbook. Sinatra’s version (again, from A Swingin’ Affair) has bluesy overtones, with extended and slurred words, alternative readings of the line, “My heart beat (just) like a hammer” and (most mysteriously) substituted “fractured ‘Bama” for “fell on Alabama.” So the Leonid meteor shower is breaking Alabama, shattering and cracking it. These Sinatra improvisations were his gift to the song, and you should by now be starting to believe that A Swingin Affair is the album to buy.

One for My Baby (And One for the Road) (1958)

This is another one from a musical – The Sky’s the Limit, the film version of which starred Fred Astaire and Joan Leslie. The youthful Sinatra dreamed away in many an Astaire musical, and this song was written for Fred Astaire, whose performance of the song is inevitably accompanied by a dance number. The bartender character, Joe, appears in the sequence too. To watch this, complete with uptempo tap-dancing bit, and then listen to what Sinatra does with the song (as performed in another movie, Young at Heart, made in 1955 with Doris Day as the love interest) is to experience popular music whiplash. This song plays straight into Sinatra’s self-image as a depressed torch singer (on every other album, at least). The original studio recording is on Only The Lonely (with Sinatra made up as a Pierrot clown on the Commedia dell’arte themed cover!)

https://youtu.be/NpZp7awjSJ4

I Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good (1957)

This is a Duke Ellington number (lyrics by Paul Francis Webster) from 1941. You’ll find versions of it by Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, and so on. It’s a proper vocal blues, and Sinatra tackles it with a fabulous vocal, which you’ll find on what I’m going to call his bluest album, A Swingin’ Affair. But of course.

Nice Work if You Can Get It (1962)

This Gershwin tune is from 1937, and was again performed by Fred Astaire (with tap) in a movie: A Damsel in Distress, which also featured Joan Fontaine, who couldn’t dance. The film lost money. Sinatra recorded it at least twice, once on A Swingin’ Affair, and then again on Sinatra/Basie, an Historic Musical First, an album on which he radically reimagined several of his classic numbers, in new arrangements that explode the songs and make them new again. The Basie version is almost punky with its staccato rhythms and unusual phrasing which all but obliterates the original melody.

I Wanna Be Around (1964)

Another recording with the Basie orchestra, from the album It Might as Well be Swing.

This was written by Johnny Mercer in 1959, after receiving a message and a sample lyric from an Ohio woman who had been inspired by Sinatra’s two failed marriages to come up with the line, “I wanna be around to pick up the pieces when somebody breaks your heart.” The song is from the perspective of a spurned first wife who watches her partner leave her for another, just as Frank had divorced Nancy to marry Ava Gardner, only to be dumped in his own turn.

I Can’t Stop Loving You (1964)

This is a country song, by Don Gibson, written in 1957 and recorded by Sinatra with the Basie Orchestra in 1964. Ray Charles was the first to blues it up, in 1962, and Sinatra followed his lead in ’64. By the end of the 60s, Elvis also started performing it live, and artists as diverse as Dolly Parton and Van Morrison have covered it. Sinatra’s version is performed with many blue notes, and he sings with such relish that you can’t help but feel it a shame that he only recorded three albums with Basie.

Learnin’ the Blues (1962)

Sinatra first recorded this as a successful single in 1955, but then again with Basie on their first collaboration. It was written by former beauty queen Vicki Silvers, and dropped into Sinatra’s lap when a singer hoping to get signed took his recording of the song to Sinatra’s publishing company. The Hefti arrangement on the Basie album has more polish than the original recording, which many critics prefer. But you can’t knock Basie and Sinatra together, and I like the call-and-response brass arrangement and the more laid-back tempo. Sinatra puts a little less into the vocal, stepping back to make it seem casual, but he also makes it bluesier, so it works better here.

Sentimental Journey (1961)

This song was Doris Day’s first hit record, in 1945. Its release coincided with the end of the second world war, and became the “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” hit of that summer. It has since been recorded in over 150 versions (including one by Ringo), and translated into French, German, and Japanese. Sinatra’s version is on his second-last release for Capitol, Come Swing with Me, with orchestra conducted by Billy May, though May only arranged three of the songs. This was Sinatra’s last swing record for the label that relaunched his career, and he was already recording for Reprise. Because of this, I’ve always felt this record had Contractural Obligation written all over it, with some of the arrangements feeling rushed, as if speeded up simply to get it done quicker. Sinatra was recording four songs a day for Capitol, and then four more for his upcoming Reprise release. Then again, it’s an experimental record, with a doubled brass section playing in stereo, and Sinatra is still pretty damn good, even when he’s phoning it in.

Blues in the Night (1958)

Another Arlen/Mercer track, this was written for a film of the same name, a film noir (!) musical that starred almost nobody I’ve heard of. One scene required a blues song to be sung in jail, and this is it. I always find it interesting when an immortal song features in a forgettable movie. I’m even given to understand that the version in the movie “murders” the song, which turned out to be strong enough to survive such treatment. Sinatra’s cover, on Only the Lonely, isn’t even considered one of the important ones, but, well, he sings the blues.

The Lonesome Road (1957)

Finally, it comes to this, another track from A Swingin’ Affair, which is the most venerable song in this playlist. Written in 1927 by Nathaniel Shilkret and Gene Austin, it first appeared in the mostly lost mostly silent film Show Boat in 1929, which Wikipedia insists was not based on the musical Show Boat but instead on the book upon which the musical was also based. Huh. Apparently, it was originally a silent film based on the book, but then panic set in when the musical was a hit, so they added 30 minutes of songs with some cast members. Which explains, maybe, the inclusion of this song instead of “Ol’ Man River”, which is certainly the most famous song from the musical. “The Lonesome Road” isn’t even from the musical, but I guess is a gospel-style song in a similar vein. Sinatra’s version is beautifully arranged, properly bluesy, and opens the second side of the album. Another classic from a forgotten film.

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.

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.

Screen Shot 2017-07-12 at 16.20.22
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.