Monday, April 22, 2019

What?!: So What

Miles Davis: So What

I’m pretty sure that I’ve lamented here at some point that I’m not a musician, and don’t really have the knowledge or vocabulary to analyze music, which is why most of my writing about music is some combination of historical discussion, memories tied to the music and personal opinions about what I like and what I don’t like. For someone who purports to opine about music for an audience, it is a real flaw, but as you can see, from the nearly 100 pieces that I’ve written here, plus the ones elsewhere, I haven’t let this stop me.

So, when I read that Miles Davis’ album, 1959’s Kind of Blue was important because it showed Davis was moving from hard bop to a modal approach, I’m really not sure what that means. But, I know what I like, and the music on Kind of Blue is incredible, even if I can’t really explain why. The fact that it is, by many accounts, the greatest selling jazz album of all time, and to some, the greatest jazz album of all time, tells me that I’m not the only one who likes it. Plus, I’m willing to bet that most of the purchasers couldn’t explain the difference between hard bop and modal.

The first song on the album, “So What,” may well be Davis’ most well-known song (although there appears to be some thinking that Gil Evans wrote the introduction). The title reportedly came from actor Dennis Hopper’s response to Davis’ intellectual musings.

The playing by Davis and the other members of his sextet, a veritable Jazz Hall of Fame consisting of saxophonists John Coltrane and Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, pianist Bill Evans, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb, is amazing. But let me quote someone who knows what he is talking about, Richard Cook, author of It’s About That Time: Miles Davis On and Off Record and former editor of Jazz Review:

The mystery of the piece is its air of elusive, almost secretive possibility. One feels that the solos could go anywhere, could follow any path, could drift on without stopping, and not feel ‘wrong’. It is a definition piece of jazz, if one identifies that music as something played by intuition and living on its instincts. For once, there seems to be no contrast in the solos played by Davis, Coltrane and Adderley: they move seamlessly together, as if each man were playing his part in a predetermined plan. Evans’s accompaniments are handsomely shaded, although one has to strain to follow him: the ear is drawn irresistibly to the horns and what they are saying. On his own solo, which features some surprisingly dissonant voicings that he plays on the bridge, the horns riff behind him. In the end, the music drifts back towards Chambers and his ostinato melody, Jimmy Cobb ticking impassively at his ride cymbal, Evans playing the so-what tag, and the entire piece fading away into silence.

Interestingly, when they played the song live, they played it faster, which I think detracts from some of that mystery, but does show off the musicians’ chops.

By the time I saw Miles Davis, in 1985, he had long passed the point that his music had the kind of influence that it had back when Kind of Blue was released, and for some time after. But he was playing to large crowds, including at the Pier on Manhattan’s West Side where I saw him (with Stanley Jordan, just a few years out of college at that point, opening). What I remember most about that concert (other than being amazed that Stanley was opening for Miles Davis), was that Davis’ band was incredible, that he spent much of the show playing with his back to the audience, and that occasionally, his playing was pretty remarkable.

Saturday, April 20, 2019


And so I move, seamlessly, from one Soft Machine alumnus to another, from Robert Wyatt to Kevin Ayers, together the rhythm section in the original line-up. Kevin is no longer with us, my buddy J.David penning some words at the time of his demise, but he is a fella that gave me great teenaged pleasure, with his uber-cool image, his prog credentials, so important to me at that time, but mainly, through his gloriously quirky and quixotic songs, often exhilaratingly bonkers, as indeed is this. Duck call percussion?

I came to Ayers a little behind the loop, via the teenage prodigy he had earlier hired on bass for his band, The Whole Wide World, one Mike Oldfield. Soft Machine were too clever and a bit old for me, but Tubular Bells was a sensation for me, upon its 1973 release, introducing me to any number of connections, as I perused the back story and looked at the names of his address book, mustered together for the live performances. Whilst I don't think Ayers was involved in the latter, I was particularly taken with his peculiarly english style of singing, espousing the usual transatlantic twang, then and now still so prevalent. It reminded me of another very english vocalist, early Pink Floyd focal piece and front man, Syd Barrett, exemplarised in this later solo track.

What I didn't know was that 'O Wot a Dream' was actually about Barrett, and that, after Barrett's lysergic exit from Pink Floyd, the two actually performed together on the above clip, 'Singing a Song in the Morning (Religious Experience)', the compelling guitar calisthenic being performed by Barrett, I have to say somewhat against the myth around his having entirely lost it. Still, the record company still saw fit to cut the end coda from the original cut, it taking until a re-release for it to see light of day. In this brief interview, a looking seriously out of it Ayers mentions the relationship at the very end of the clip, about 5.25.

As arguably an ill-fitting tribute to both, here is a poor quality recording of a less than 100% Ayers performing 'O Wot a Dream' at a 2007 Syd Barrett memorial concert. I think I probably prefer the duck call on the studio version to the jaw's harp. Finally, in case any might wonder, why the spelling, wy the wot, if you will? Personally I think this just adds to the overall anglocentricism of the song, but, who knows, maybe it was to avoid any confusion with this.

Wy not?

Thursday, April 18, 2019

What?!: What Are Their Names

purchase [If Only I Could Remember My Name]

Wikipedia tells us that Crosby's 1971 first solo album <If Only I Could Remember My Name> was selected for the Vatican's top pop 10 albums of all time list. What? David Crosby? The Vatican?
Said Crosby: It baffles me as much as it baffles you, man.

If Only I Could Remember My Name came on the heels of Deja Vu and was Crosby's solo album that coincided with the solo albums from each of the rest of CSNY.

The album seems rather raw to me. Others have labeled it as experimental. That is certainly true of this piece: the lyrics don't even kick in until the song is more or less finished, and up until that point, we listen to what I would call a rather wandering guitar. Very much <a la Jerry Garcia/Grateful Dead>. No surprise then to learn that Garcia helped to arrange and produce the album.

A news article in a recent Guardian noted that 1 percent of Brits own virtually all the land in the country. Although Crosby was probably more focused on the US, this song rifs on that theme.
What are their names? What do they care about you? About the state of the world beyond their wealth?  What does their "charity" mean for the future of the planet (like rebuilding Notre Dame)?

The entire lyrics aren't long and the "choir" singing it includes most of the Airplane, the Dead, Joni Mitchell and CSNY

I wonder who they are
The men who really run this land
And I wonder why they run it
With such a thoughtless hand
What are their names
And on what streets do they live
I'd like to ride right over
This afternoon and give
Them a piece of my mind
About peace for mankind
Peace is not an awful lot to ask

What?!: Be Thankful For What You Got

William DeVaughn: Be Thankful For What You Got

Sometimes, when there’s a theme with almost limitless possibilities, the best course is to jump on the first song that jumps into your head. If that were the case here, I’d be writing about The Buzzcocks’ “I Don’t Know What To Do With My Life.” But I’m not (yet, at least). My second thought was “(What’s So Funny) ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding,” since I heard Nick Lowe sing that live the other day. But I have already written about that song in detail at Cover Me. (Did you know that Cover Me has a Patreon site? Check it out!)

Scrolling through the official J. David iTunes library (yes, I still have one. And an email address. Proves I’m an early adopter), I came across a bunch of possibilities, but stopped cold when I came to “Be Thankful For What You Got.” You know, that great, smooth, 1970s soul song, with the memorable line, “Diamond in the back / sunroof top / digging the scene with a gangster lean," sung by….by….Curtis Mayfield? Nope. The singer is William DeVaughn, who wrote the song, originally as “A Cadillac Don’t Come Easy,” while working full-time as a government draftsman.  Luckily, he changed the title, or I couldn’t be writing about it here.

DeVaughn took the song to Omega Sound in Philadelphia, maybe a step above a vanity studio, and paid $900 of his own hard-earned money to record it. Omega Sound, however, had connections with members of the MFSB group of studio musicians, who backed up many great acts, including Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, the O’Jays, the Stylistics, the Spinners, Wilson Pickett, and Billy Paul, and had hits on their own, notably “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia).” MFSB sax player John Davis liked the song, suggested a jazzy, smooth, soulful arrangement, booked Sigma Sound Studios and enlisted some of his fellow MFSB members to play on the track.

What they created was something truly special, a song that became a huge crossover hit, and which has been covered, referenced and sampled by artists as diverse as Parliament-Funkadelic, N.W.A., Rumer, Gabor Szabo, Arthur Lee and Love, Rihanna and Massive Attack.

DeVaughn, a Jehovah’s Witness, had a couple of minor hits after “Be Thankful,” but appears to have not fully committed to a music career. Which is a shame, because he has a great voice, and could really write a song.

Sunday, April 14, 2019


I absolutely loathe this song. Or at least in the iteration it is best known, the version that ruined weeks and weeks and weeks of my childhood, spoiling my Top of the Pops viewing by being number one forever, or seeming to be. Louis bloody Armstrong, gurning away to the camera, all grimaces and duff notes, perpetually mopping his brow. How could anyone sweat that much? And as for the "woahhhhh yeaaaaaah" at the end. Dreadful, and still able to bring me out in hives. Now, don't get me wrong, I was probably about 10 years old, how was I to know that this buffoon was one of the seminal voices of jazz, albeit via a trumpet than his frayed vocal cords? I know all that now and respect the dude but still cannot allow myself much to like him. (And don't get me started on 'Hello Dolly'........)

But you know, it isn't actually a bad song. Or at least is capable of being made into quite a good song. There have been very many covers, many of which are clearly tributes to the original and, broadly, unnecessary. Then there are the standard make-overs in the idiom of the day. And others that are just downright odd. As in, what were they thinking? (I think a look in the eyes of the performers might just answer that question.)

But here are trio that, I believe, pass muster.

You could say this is just another idiom of the day offering, but you will have to understand the amount of love I have for this venerable performer, the sadly late Rico Rodriguez. This pillar of reggae trombone delighted me for many of his decades of activity in music. I probably first came across him on, again, Top of the Pops, he always present, alongside sidekick Dick Cuthell, on flugelhorn, whenever the Specials had a song in the chart. I later understood he had been an original in the early days of ska and reggae, in Jamaica, associated with the Skatalites, ahead of becoming an occasional member of Georgie Fame's Blue Flames in the 60s. His latter days were spent as a focal member of Jools Holland's Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, his solo spots always getting fond applause, even if eventually did little other than hold his trombone and sing a little. (Come to think of it, were I to witness, as a 10 year old, these performances, him as a grey bearded ancient, I wonder too whether I would have a similar opinion as I do now of Satchmo?)

Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John is a serious fan of Armstrong and his legacy, producing a whole album in tribute to him. And it is a corker, start to finish, all tempered with the loose N'Awlins swing for which Rebennack is rightly lauded. This version also featured the Blind Boys of Alabama, vocal staples of a gospel and r'n'b sensibility since the cusp of the 40s. Having started off as a session man, a member of the fabled Wrecking Crew, Dr John invented himself as voodoo shaman, the Night Tripper, in 1968. However, he has perhaps become now more associated as a custodian and standard bearer for the musical pot-pourri that is his home city, often working with other vintage names from the heritage of New Orleans. His live shows remain a thing of wonder.

Finally I offer the majesty that is the vocal of Robert Wyatt. I apologise for each of my three choices having grey and grizzled beards; such now is the territory of musical iconography. Wyatt is another with a long lineage harking back into the 60s, initially as the drummer for proto-jazz-proggers Soft Machine and then his own band, Matching Mole. Following a terrible accident, in which he broke his back, he has become an elder statesman of a politically-hued brand of often unclassifiable blends of jazz, latin and all else available, both on his own and in any number of collaborations. And the odd hit single. This version of the song is the closing track on a wonderful 3 hander, alongside saxman, Gilad Atzmon and violinist Ros Stephen. This distils all the kitsch out of Armstrong's version, leaving a lighter sweetness that doesn't cloy on repeated. I love it.


Monday, April 8, 2019

Fake Bands: Ming Tea


I’m not exactly sure why KKafa took offense at my characterization that The Monkees were a fake band—in fact, as I wrote, some would argue that they turned into a real band. And argue he did. It isn’t a bad argument—although initially The Monkees didn’t, for the most part, write their own music or play their own instruments, as time went on, they did do more of both.

But I’m writing about a band that sort of evolved in the opposite way—starting out as sort of a real band, then gaining fame because they were in a movie. When Mike Myers left Saturday Night Live he formed a band with Matthew Sweet and ex-Bangle Susanna Hoffs to play 60s style music, which they called Ming Tea, after a fake company from the 1965 Ursula Andress movie, The 10th Victim. They decided to perform under pseudonyms: Sweet as Sid Belvedere, Hoffs as Jillian Shagwell and Myers as Austin Powers. I think you can see where this is going.

Myers’ wife at that time was Robin Ruzan (whose mother, Linda Richman, was the inspiration for Myers’ “Coffee TalkSNL sketches, suggested that Myers write a film based on this new “Austin Powers” character. And thus was born Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. Keeping things in the family, Myers asked Hoffs’ husband, Jay Roach (who had directed one movie at that point) to direct the film. This launched Roach’s career, as well as vaulting Myers’ into movie stardom.

Ming Tea appeared throughout the film, augmented by actor Stuart Johnson as Manny Stixman (on drums, of course) and songwriter Christopher Ward as Trevor Aigburth, the lead guitarist. And they played “BBC” over the closing credits. The band performed on some talk shows to promote the film, and in the second sequel, Austin Powers in Goldmember, they performed “Daddy Wasn’t There.”

There appears to be some evidence on the interwebs of some later gigs, but no video. Sweet and Hoffs went on to do a series of cover albums together, among other things, and there are rumors of another Austin Powers sequel, so we may get another serving of Ming Tea. And that would certainly be groovy.

Saturday, April 6, 2019


It is becoming clear to me that there is a Roxy Music connection to all fake bands. Or at least the ones I am choosing. See if you can guess what it is with this band, who despite being made of felt, foam and cloth, sustained a number of hits through the 1970s, and a brief comeback in the late 90's, from which time the above clip is from.

At the time, of course, I thought it all tawdry nonsense, coming latterly, only now, to a sort of grudging respect. OK, the lyric will never win a Nobel prize and the tune, well, the less said the better. To this day, the writer and musical arranger, Mike Batt, has had to live with the derision this work has brought him, despite a long and illustrious career with songs and artists you will know. And some that will surprise. Did you know, for instance, that he signed grizzled blues-rockers The Groundhogs, producing also their first LP?

With skills mainly in the arrangements, of brass and strings, added to embellish more simplistic fare, he became an in demand name by the shrewd move of writing the theme tune to the TV series based about the mythical litter cleaning Wombles, who lived underground at Wimbledon Common, based upon the childrens books of Elizabeth Beresford. Instead of a flat fee, he asked instead for the musical rights to the characters, with the subsequent ker-ching of 8 hit singles and four gold albums.

Producing venerable folk-rockers Steeleye Span came next, arguably making their name with his retexturing of their sound, a move which appalled their die-hard fans, yet gave a huge boost to their finances, with a top ten hit record. I still loathe it, the arrangement seemingly one and the same as used for the Wombles.

As I write I realise upon quite how shaky the ground my 'respect' for Batt might be, but a soft spot does remain for his next project, the Art Garfunkel sung 'Bright Eyes', from the original animated version of 'Watership Down'. Thank goodness this wasn't ruined by tacky ching-kaching guitar riffing, but I bet there is somewhere a version in the vaults.....

Space (hooray) forbids me a further blow by blow, of how he discovered Katie Melua, how he orchestrated Justin Hayward, how he wrote innumerable projects with and for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and so on. But it is to space I return, as, astonishingly, last year saw a most unexpected coupling, an album and tour with Hawkwind, as they orchestrated their back catalogue to celebrate 50 years of their being space-rock gypsies of the counter-culture.

So, were the Wombles his serial high point or his low water mark? Arguably both. Or neither. But, far more important, what's the Roxy link? Right then, scroll back up to the top clip, the Wombles,  wombling free on Top of the Pops. See the one, Wellington, that is, with the flying V guitar? That's Chris Spedding, guitar for hire and session man extraordinaire, a latter day guitarist with the 2001 reformed version of Roxy Music, staying on to be the current guitar foil for Bryan Ferry. And still with the same guitar.

Remember you're a Womble!

Friday, April 5, 2019

Fake Bands: The Monkees

purchase [I'm a Believer ]

Despite what J. David says about the Monkees (or maybe in spite of what he says), they appeared to me as a real band. I had at least one of their albums. Actually, I had to do some searching to recall which one it was that I spent my allowance on, and it appears to have been not just one, but the first two albums! Aw, come one now- one hit from each: <Last Train to Clarksville> and <I'm a Believer>. Great Pop. For those days.

It must have been PR/chart appearances that did it for me. At that time, my musical selection was "guided" by AM radio hits - and that they had. I didn't have no older brother to set me straight, and - I confess - it appealed to some part of my adolescent psyche. We are talking late-mid 60s here and I was all of about 12 year old. The ideal demographic for their output.

It wasn't until a few years later, when someone more informed than myself shared Crawdaddy magazine with me, and I began to get a sense of the music industry's perfidies. The Monkees were a joke. That made money off of pre-teen dupes like myself. And they weren't the only industry that followed this curve by any means.

That said, we need to expose the fake-ness:
The Monkees were very real to me in 1967:  hey ... top of the charts is real enough. Seems it wasn't as real underneath- what was presented to the public:
Time magazine said> The Monkees are about as real as a fake band can get.

Fact is, it blew up: they really wanted to be real.

Again, as Time says > it’s hard to tell where the actors ended and the real band began.