Saturday, September 6, 2014

Royal: Ace, King, Queen, Jack

Herman's Hermits : Ace, King, Queen, Jack 

  Let's admit we've all written off Herman's Hermits. At least those of us in the US who only know "Mrs Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter" (#1/1965) and the beer hall singalong "I'm Henry the Eighth, I Am " ( #1/ 1965), which knocked the Rolling Stones's "Satisfaction" from the top of the US charts. Their appearances in forgettable MGM movies earned them the moniker "The British Monkees".

    But when you're big enough to rival the Beatles, you get your pick from the best songwriters and by 1967, the Hermits were recording hits written by Graham Gouldman ( the ultra-catchy ear bug "No Milk Today", "Upstairs Downstairs"), Ray Davies ( "Dandy") and Donovan ( "Museum").

  Both "Museum" and "Upstairs Downstairs" come from Blaze. The cover suggests yet another embarrassing beat band's attempts to respond to The Beatles's Sgt Pepper but, with the exception of "Museum" and the "Taxman" bass lines of "Moonshine Man" it's mostly British invasion-styled pop tunes.

   With Mickie Most producing (and providing the Donovan connection), The Hermits recorded their best set yet. "Ace, King, Queen, Jack", written by Peter Noone and new Hermit Peter Cowap, is just one of the highlights. Though critically acclaimed, Blaze was shockingly never released in the UK and the Hermits failed to turn the corner into the psychedelic era. Blaze is out of print but collectors can find it.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Royal: Duke Ellington and Count Basie

Duke Ellington and Count Basie : Battle Royal

In a way, I kind of wish that I had been able to do the transition post from “Offensive” to “Royal” because I find the concept of royalty to be offensive. As the great political thinker Dennis the Peasant pointed out, “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.” On the other hand, YouTube explainer CGP Grey makes a good case that the British monarchy, at least, is a net benefit to Britain (although not everyone agrees).

But I have to say that the fawning over the British royals and their stupid hats is annoying. Even a constitutional monarch like (former) King Juan Carlos of Spain, who did much to help the country recover from the Franco dictatorship, abdicated a few months ago, after a corruption scandal relating to his daughter and son-in-law’s business dealings, and the reports that the King had been on a lavish elephant hunting safari during the country’s fiscal crisis.

So, as far as I’m concerned, the less attention paid to these generally undeserving winners of the genetic lottery, the better. As I see it, my country was built on a categorical rejection of hereditary nobility, yet maybe we have "highness envy," because so many people seem irrationally fascinated by them. (I make an exception, though, for former King Zog of Albania, because he sounds like a character from Star Trek).

But Royal it is, and I knew that I wasn’t going to write about someone who received their status because “some watery tart threw a sword” at one of their ancestors, or something similar. Instead, I thought of two men who received their exalted status by virtue of their musical genius, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, and William James “Count” Basie.

Now, I don’t know a hell of a lot about jazz, although I like to listen to it. I learned about rock music sort of organically, by buying records, listening to the radio and reading about it. Jazz, though, is something I really only started to dip a toe into during college and after, and never got the bug to learn much of the details. Because there are just too many details. But, of course, I knew about Duke Ellington and Count Basie. And, when I decided to write about them for this theme, I wondered whether they ever played together. Google is a beautiful thing, and when I put their names in to a search, I discovered in 0.46 seconds that, in fact, they actually did one album together, First Time! The Count Meets The Duke, and (a few minutes later) that it was a pretty well received album.

Apparently it took some serious planning to get Ellington, Basie and their entire orchestras together for a session, but it happened on July 6-7, 1961, at the 30th Street Studio in New York. As one article noted, the sessions included “requisite breaks for recreational liberties,” which is a phrase so delightful it is worth stealing. Under the English tradition, Dukes outrank Earls (the equivalent of Counts), and Ellington was one of Basie’s idols, but the album is nevertheless democratically split down the middle—an equal number of each band’s classics, Duke’s orchestra is in the right channel and Basie’s is on the left, and in most cases the leaders each took piano solos (although Basie refused to play on Ellington's signature song, “Take the A Train,” so instead the composer, Billy Strayhorn, was the second pianist). Where that leaves the “Duke of Earl,” is unresolved here.

Our featured song, “Battle Royal,” opens the album. It was originally written by Ellington for the movie Paris Blues, which featured Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll, who could be considered acting royalty. In the film, the song represents a “Battle Royal,” when the band led by Newman and Poitier is challenged by a band led by Louis Armstrong, uncrowned jazz nobility himself, playing a character named Wild Man Moore. The Ellington/Basie version featured above starts off somewhat more restrained than the exuberant film version, but rapidly turns into a battle between the two orchestras and their soloists that is both intense and thrilling.

Thursday, September 4, 2014


Much as I loathe Queen, sorry if that shocks, by the same token I 'king loved this lot, shortlived as their flame flickered. Early mid 80's British music was a variety of genres seeking a focus: punk (or should that be post-punk) rubbing shoulders with new-wave, the 2-tone ska boom, various waves of British heavy metal, the ever-present and evanescent dinosaurs re-emerging with hair-cuts, o, allsorts, with no clearly identifiable focus. For a moment I really thought the cockatoo haircuts and spray-painted docs may have cut that mustard. And for a while they did.

Coventry, UK, is/was the home of the Midlands car industry, long dormant now, a multi-racial enclave crammed into ugly post-war housing, most of anything older having been blitzed to smithereeens in the war. With little to trumpet beyond it's cathedral, it had been the hotbed of the above mentioned 2 Tone movement, that had brought together the disaffected afro-caribbean population with their white counterparts, in marked contrast to the "skinheads" of 2 decades earlier, which had plied the latter against the former, and that was similarly strong in cities like Coventry. For a moment Coventry was famous for the Specials, the Selecter and many more. (Here's a history lesson ) Paul King was a member of one such band, the Reluctant Stereotypes, their name a nod to an earlier song by the Specials. They were not particularly successful, but garnished a couple of hits.

That all changed with a new line-up and a couple of name changes, in no small part thanks to their colourful image and energetic dynamic. Paul King, and hence the name, was spectacularly photogenic and the combination of MTV and the adulation of teenage girls propelled them swiftly into the charts. Here's their 1984 break through moment, which I fondly recall, being shown on, of course, Top of the Pops. Now, not a teenage girl myself, either then or now, I found this poly-rhythmic melange sufficiently exciting to jump their bandwagon. (Funnily enough, in the intervening years, much as I still love the song, I can't understand how the video youth dance routine didn't put me off, being gallingly gauche.)

12 inches! Buy it! 2nd hand vinyl import only!

The 1st LP produced several singles, all with extended 12 inch  mixes to add to the overall sales, the ploy of many to enhance their exposures. Some of the other songs were, frustratingly, a little clumsy and clunky, so hopes were probably not high for their sophomore, following a year later, in 1985. I have to say I found this an infinitely preferable piece with way more melody, as demonstrated by this TV clip of my favourite song, still a staple on mixtape CDs I make. (And doesn't he, dontcha think, have a look of Boy George, wondering if George O'Dowd was too a fan?)

And that was that. One solo record and the music was over. A career as "veejay" beckoned, age taking a toll on his appearance between the earlier songs, here and here . Never mind, feet of clay etc etc. Wonder what he's up to now?

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Royal: Prince

Prince et al: While My Guitar ...

I lived in a place where MTV did not shine for many of its early years. Of course, you can undoubtedly get it now even in Shabaab/Somalia. But,  as a result, we used to videotape hours’ worth on slow speed VHS and watch it over and over. We had the full Purple Rain film, and of course 1999. At about that time Prince seemed to me to be musical royalty personified.

Like many of you, I kind of lost track of Prince  over the years – probably about the time he changed his name to a symbol/the artist formerly known as Prince. I do guess I last bought Emancipation. And he appeared to be trying to defy the major labels by marketing his music online. For a while.

I still have a lot of respect for the man. While I wonder about his direction (not so sure about whether I really like this Charlotte live stuff, even if the stage show aint bad at all), I gotta admit that his rather flamboyant performance in the clip I am featuring re-establishes his credit in my books. You’ll have to wait till about minute 3.30 to see him do his thing, but you can look out for the man with the red fedora a bit earlier. If you ever wanted proof of his royalty, this has got to be it.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Royal: Court of the Crimson King


King Crimson: Court of the Crimson King

I am not going pretend that I was ever overboard about King Crimson just because the name fits our theme. Sure, I listened (heavily) to the “Court of the Crimson King” album back when it came out. Who didn’t? Geez: the cover itself was almost reason enough to give it a few listens.

Besides, the music genre was quite in line with many of the other popular styles of the day: Yes, (the original sound of) Genesis …, so, sure, I followed their psychedelic influenced music for a while.

I’ve noted before: one of the perks of blogging here is that more often than not it leads to further learning. I wonder if you would also be as astonished as I was to hear that King Crimson is still making music? All along – since the 1960s, Robert Fripp has kept the band alive – with various hiatuses. even announces that Fripp and other previous KC band members are due to/were due to perform this week (Sept 1, 2014) in the 8th incarnation of the band. Who would have believed they were still around?

And as to this choice of song: there is more to my selection than just the name (enough in itself perhaps): Like much of the other works I cite as related (Yes, Genesis), there is – IMHO – a rather regal air to the song. Is it the American perception of the British accent as being somehow “superior”? Is it the references to historical issues that the shortened timeline of US history cannot match?