Thursday, December 28, 2017

Seasons: Seasons, By Chris Cornell

Purchase Chris Cornell's "Seasons"

It's hard to believe that with all that happened in 2017, Chris Cornell hasn't been gone for even a year.  Such is the nature of consequential events in the blast-off news cycle where nearly everything is of some kind of consequence - it's hard to remember all that happened.

So, what to make of senseless loss, or to say? It seems words are a pale annotation to the volume of grief Cornell's suicide created for the musical world.

Our heroes will always let us down in the end, I suppose, whether they mean to or not, whether our feelings about them make any difference. Coming to grips with mortality - and the fact that sometimes, the ones we worship are just as flawed as we are - is as much a disappointment as it is a tragedy.

It's been a heartbreaking year. So many voices have gone silent. I'd like to think artists never really die, not if we keep listening. I'm still pretending Chris Cornell--and so many others-- isn't gone, and I'm still listening.

Written as a bit of a "joke, the song "Seasons" was originally found on the soundtrack for the film Singles, Cameron Crowe's love letter to the city of Seattle and the still evolving grunge scene. Cornell wrote and recorded five songs and gave them to Crowe on cassette, under the moniker Poncier. The title is actually the last name of Single's protagonist, Cliff Poncier, played by Matt Dillon. Cornell was originally offered the part of Poncier, but opted instead to do a dialogue-less cameo during one of the movie's funnier scenes. Poncier's character is clueless, hapless, a spot on representation of hipster, poseur silliness. Eventually, his band (the equally-not-real-but-still-famous, Citizen Dick), implodes and Poncier perseveres  as a solo artist, despite any lack of talent. The cassette tape makes its appearance here, as his solo demo.

And, here's where we get a little meta: the cassette itself was real, even though it was meant to be a prop. The song titles and the artwork were created by Eddie Vedder, Jeff Amet and Stone Gossard (they played the members of Citizen Dick). But Cornell took it one step further, as a thank you to Crowe for putting him in the movie and actually recorded five real songs.

Here's the scene, cut from the original film, where the cassette makes its appearance:

That's quite a wink wink in-joke, given how great the songs are--timeless pieces of early 90s grunge, minor chords and static, crunching rhythms. You can hear them all on the rereleased and expanded Single's soundtrack, and in various versions on some of Cornell's later solo releases. Go on the hunt--it's a fun bit of grunge treasure hunting.

The standout is "Seasons", a funeral dirge that winds glorious and hymn-like. It's a mediation on loss and voicelessness, on the fleeting nature of both life and the (lack of) control we have over what happens, despite our best attempts. It's a beautiful song, a sad song, and a strangely accurate at pinning down and defining the feelings of those of us left behind when so many beautiful voices have gone silent, with so much still to say.

Seasons: Must Be Santa

 purchase [Christmas in the Heart]

For the last few themes, J David has been the brains, me: the brawn.
When I put up the Seasons theme, my imagination was that this would lead towards "seasonal music", but I intentionally left it fluid. Interesting to see that posts so far (looking back) have focused on the word <Season>.

I've spent the past week looking at un-conventional Xmas songs. I considered many. But then ... I finally came across one I couldn't pass up.

If you were to ask "Which musician best embodies "The Grinch", I bet you'd get a large number of votes in favor of my choice. Who, in their right mind, makes an issue [himself] of a Nobel Prize? Who appears to grump about every PR opportunity?

And who on earth would have thought that this musician would come up with a Christmas themed album!? The story has it that Columbia records and Dylan talked about the idea for some time before actually doing it. You can delve into Dylan's religious leanings, but ... the surprise isn't so much in his choice of "formal" religion as in his choice to make this an album theme: ever heard of  his 34th album called <Christmas in the Heart>? If you've bought it or even listened to it knowingly, you're one up on me.

Dylan is just about the last man I would expect to produce something along these lines. [then again .... maybe I'm wrong]

Heck ... he doesn't hardly even allow covers. The Grinch. At any rate ...
[ this link could go <poof> at any minute]

Tuesday, December 26, 2017


Well, he came, he emptied his sack and he's gone again. Shh, don't say his name but, if I am not mistaken, perhaps a first for SMM, this is the first time we have got this far with nary a mention of, you know. Is that good, is that bad? I don't know but certainly hope you had a good one, whatever that entailed. Today my aim is simple, a simple sonic blast of palate cleanser, to wash any lingering acid from your over-stimulated digestive tract. With Soft Machine...... Yes that Soft Machine, that impenetrable jazz-noodle-rock on your big brothers record shelf, beloved of mathematicians and men with moustaches. But dispel that bad memory. It is true, from whimsical and exasperating twiddly rock to complex geometric abstracts and jazzy atonals, the Softs are generally remembered in these two ways, yet, after sole original member, Mike Ratledge, left in 1976, they embarked upon a gentler last period. Although he appears on 2 tracks in the album from which this track appears, 'Softs', it is very much now the baby of Karl Jenkins, switching from saxophones to keyboards and writing most of the material. Guitar duties had been passed from Allan Holdsworth (R.I.P.) to John Etheridge, bass and drums accommodated efficiently by Roy Babbington and John Marshall respectively. On reeds, albeit only for a brief 6 month tenureship, was Alan, cousin of Rick, Wakeman.

It is no surprise that Jenkins, on the eventual demise of the band, moved into film and soundtrack work and is now one of UK's premier new classical composers, at least as far as the classical music "charts" would say. You may know him better, as they say on the Simpsons, as the author of this:

Adiemus. And that is Jenkins with the baton and extravagant 'tache.

At the time of writing Etheridge, Babbington and Marshall have revived the Soft Machine name and tour extensively, along with reeds and keys man Theo Travis.

It's boxing day and nothings loading. I'm sure you can source it should you so choose. And anyhow. But do.

Saturday, December 23, 2017


Donovan Leitch has the reputation for famously inventing everything in popular music, every genre, every tuning, every style. OK, I jest, that may be slight hyperbole but let us just say, suggest even, that modesty may not be his greatest card. It is, of course, entirely unfair as, for a window at the arse end of the 60s he was huge, hobnobbing with all the movers and shakers of the day, from Bob to the Beatles, leaving no Stones unturned. And, as the first famous pop musician of his day to be arrested for possession of cannabis, who can fault him for possibly hazy recall. Because he most definitely was there, showing John Lennon how to fingerpick, bringing together the later members of Led Zeppelin as he "trademarked" Celtic Rock and tailgating Dylan in Don't Look Now. Add that to a huge legacy of best selling singles and albums and you may feel history has been a little unkind.

'Season of the Witch' was a psychedelic rock song at a time, 1966, when few people had even heard the word. Co-written with Shawn Phillips, a contemporary of his, who never quite managed to get equal billing, despite a later acknowledgement that it was mainly his responsibility. It was never a single, at least by Donovan, appearing on his US breakthrough album, 'Sunshine Superman', which hit number 11 in the Billboard rankings. However, it's popularity ensured it was a song he has possibly performed live more than any other, perhaps buoyed by the legion of cover versions, more of which anon. It may come as a surprise that the electric guitarist is none other than a fresh faced young session-man, already famous on the sessions scene, one Jimmy Page, see above. What is the song about? Who can tell, being more a stoned sounding tone poem than any intelligible verse, (but no less far out for all that......Man.)

You got to pick up every stitch
You got to pick up every stitch, yeah
Beatniks are out to make it rich
Oh no, must be the season of the witch
Must be the season of the witch, yeah
Must be the season of the witch.

There have been, according to my bible of covers, the database Second Hand Songs , 40 released versions over the years, 10 of which I can find on my i-pod, which may mean I have a bit of crate-digging to do yet. The diversity of artists is extraordinary, encompassing Lou Rawls to Hole, the Vanilla Fudge to Luna and Joan Jett to the Dream Syndicate, lat alone many not available on youtube. The simplicity of the song is such it can be embraced in many styles, the lyric sufficiently vague as for any and every different resonance to not sound dissonant. Of course I have to show my favourites:

Richard Thompson

Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and the Trinity

Dr. John

So, are you going to be looking out your window?
You might look here.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Seasons: A Hazy Shade of Winter

Simon & Garfunkel: A Hazy Shade of Winter

I know we can write about any season, but it would seem strange to be writing about summer now, since it is cold, and we are in the middle of the winter holidays. Of course, south of the Equator, it is summer, but I don’t think we have any writers from that part of the world. Parenthetically, it is a little strange—and maybe one of the most obvious examples of how world culture is so dominated by the American/Northern European tradition—that even in those places where Christmas is celebrated in the warm weather, there seems to be no lack of pine trees (usually fake), snow (fake), stocking caps (unnecessary) and other wintery symbols in the iconography of the holiday.

So, winter it is, but not a holiday related song. Instead, we will discuss “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” a relatively early masterpiece written by Paul Simon, and performed by him with his erstwhile partner, Art Garfunkel, two nice Jewish boys from Queens.  It is hard to read Paul Simon lyrics without realizing how great they are. And he has been able to write music in so many styles, that it is sort of mind-boggling. Unlike many of his peers (and even those younger), he never rested on his laurels—famously experimenting with world music, before going all in on Graceland, and even collaborating with Brian Eno in his mid-60s (Eno is only a few years younger than Simon, but you have to admit that the pairing seemed a bit surprising—likely part of the reason that their album together is called Surprise).

“A Hazy Shade of Winter,” though, goes back to Simon’s days in England, in 1965, where he had gone to perform as a solo act when the first Simon & Garfunkel album flopped. But a remix of “Sounds of Silence” from that album, became a hit, and Simon returned to New York and Garfunkel, for their amazing run. “Hazy” was recorded for the Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme album in 1966, but failed to make the final cut.  It was released later that year as a successful single, and was included on 1968’s Bookends album.

By the standards of that period’s Simon & Garfunkel songs, it is almost Ramones-esque in its tempo and how it rocks, but the song's lyrics are really what stand out. You can almost see the young Paul Simon, who as a teenager had written and recorded hit songs, feeling exiled and failing in chilly mid-1960s London, writing a song about an unfulfilled artist—still in the “springtime of my life,” but drinking while thinking of his “manuscripts of unpublished rhyme.” Meanwhile, it is metaphorically, and maybe even actually, the time when autumn is turning to an uncertain winter:

Leaves are brown, now 
And the sky is a hazy shade of winter 

The narrator continues:

Hang on to your hopes, my friend 
That's an easy thing to say 
But if your hopes should pass away 
Simply pretend that you can build them again 

Oh, that is bleak, isn’t it? (Which makes me think of one of my favorite actual Christmas songs that would fit this theme, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” also mournful, but religiously so.)

Some of you slightly younger folks might know the song better from the excellent cover by The Bangles, which they had long performed live before recording it for the soundtrack to the pretty bleak 1987 movie Less Than Zero, scenes from which can be seen in this video:

Friday, December 15, 2017

The End: Surrender

Cheap Trick: Surrender (live)
[purchase the full concert—it’s cheaper than the original version!]

When you Surrender, it is The End, right?

I’m willing to bet that the first time that most of us heard the word “Budokan,” it was because of the release of Cheap Trick’s 1978 album, Cheap Trick at Budokan.” There was a slightly earlier release, Live at the Budokan by the Ian Gillan Band, so if you were a metal head or Deep Purple fan, you might have heard of that one first (John Gustafson, the bass player in the Ian Gillan Band, also played on Roxy Music’s “Both Ends Burning,” the subject of my last piece, which is a total coincidence.)

The Budokan is, according to Wikipedia, “an indoor arena located in Chiyoda, Tokyo, Japan.. . .originally built for the judo competition in the 1964 Summer Olympics, hence its name, which translates in English as Martial Arts Hall.” The Beatles were the first rock band to play there, in 1966. Also according to Wikipedia, a couple of dozen or so live albums have been recorded there, by artists including Bob Dylan, Dream Theater, Quincy Jones, Avril Lavigne, John Hiatt and Sheryl Crow.

But I think that Cheap Trick’s album is the most well-known, and it is the only one that made Rolling Stone’s list of the 50 greatest live albums of all time (#13). Like 1976’s Frampton Comes Alive (Rolling Stone’s #41), the live set helped to break an act that had not really clicked with the public into the big time.

“Surrender” is a great, anthemic song, that appears to be about teenagers discovering that their parents aren’t as “uncool” as they believe—and, in fact, may even be cooler than they are. It is sort of an illustration of that point in your life when you realize that your parents actually are people, with experiences, who might have some wisdom that is worth listening to. What you are supposed to be surrendering to is, I think, unclear, especially since the chorus is:

Surrender, Surrender, but don’t give yourself away.

Away to what?

It really doesn’t matter, does it?

"Surrender" is a song that you can listen to over and over and over, and the live version has that little edge of excitement that the best live performances add to a song.

I remember listening to this with my kids when they were young, and bouncing around and singing at the top of our lungs:

Mommy's all right 
Daddy's all right 
They just seem a little weird 

Are we, though?

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The End: Until the End of the World

U2 - Achtung Baby [purchase]

One blog post does not contrition make. I speak of my dereliction towards U2 over the years. I need to acknowledge and affirm their musical supremacy as part of my pre-New Years absolution (or is that resolution?)

Bono - of course, a major force for many things worldly: active, vocal, often right. U2 as a band: incredibly tight. I recall I "met" U2 at about the 1985 Live Aid event. I had heard of, but not listened much to them before. Then - off and on for 30 years- they've been on the edge of my radar. Bono - always in the news, so it's hard to ignore his [critical, in multiple senses] sound/voice. As for the band as a whole, various albums/outputs have caught my attention as being damn fine, but never enough to "convert" me to being a U2 <fan>.
Always excellent? Yes.
At the top of my list? Rarely.
Respected? Always.

There's an element of intelligence to U2's music [partly stemming from their  respect for the world at large] that over-rides most any faults in personalities or musical composition that touches on their brand/style.

The official video for U2s <Until the End of the World> is such a today-relevant parody. It's  the end of the end [well ... the end of 2017 AD at least]... And the lyrics come from years ago ... well before we were in the position we are in today. My words begin to  sound like the verbage coming out of the White House yesterday. I mean ... say what [junk]?

On another level, if you follow the MSM (need I spell it out: main stream media), you'd be right to think the <end of the world> is right around the corner: from the US > N. Korea; from the Middle East > Jerusalem; from Africa > Boko Haram or other unknowns; from the UK > Brexit. Seems like they are all "off their rockers" - but they won't be paying the price from deep inside their radiation-proof bunkers. The justified/mitigated cost is the 50-300,000 collateral victims  figured into their equations. Or so it seems.

But at least it's not the end of the world - some of us WILL survive. This is the message that U2 returns to time and again.

The end .. it's not over until ...

Sunday, December 10, 2017

THE END: The End Has No End

Purchase The Strokes, The End Has No End

The Strokes. In 2001, their debut, This Is It, was perhaps one of the greatest rock albums of the past 20 years. In retrospect, 15 plus years on, it's still an amazing album, but its greatness is measured against the disappointment of their subsequent albums. And I realize it is utterly subjective and a little unfair to hold The Strokes up to their freshman brilliance. The bar was set so high on This Is It that it would have been impossible for even the most steadfast band, with the deepest talent pool and the best of extracurricular habits, to repeat. And while the Strokes have had scattered and occasional genius on each release, it's been a game of a diminishing ratios.

So statistically, 2003's Room on Fire had more great songs on it than 2006's First Impressions of Earth, which is still a relatively cool album, but not nearly as luminous as the two before. 2011's Angles barley deserves a message--it sounds like bad disco, and you have to dig all the way to the end to get that good track ("Life is Simple in the Moonlight"). I don't even know what to say about 2013's Comedown Machine, except that perhaps The Strokes were just having is on, telling a little joke.

Which in the Strokes case, is at least interesting. As in, even bad, they are an interesting band.  They music they create is of its own genre, really. And when it doesn't work, its only disappointing in comparison to their stunning talent for making uncommon commotions. So, need I even say that I don't think anything will ever equal the stellar, stunning brilliance of This Is It? The stand out tracks are the ones that sound most like their first songs, and when the Strokes are good, my god, they're amazing. When they're not, they are oddly, still an interesting band. Just not a very good one.

One of the best songs from Room on Fire is "The End Has No End", a little bit of shaggy pop, with a brilliant sashaying rhythm guitar and a bubbling,  lead line that sounds like a computer from a 1970s cartoon--think Mr. Peabody feeding calculations into his machine. The drums are classic finger taps on thin glass until the whole thing winds out into a lit-up chorus and a dissonant back and forth between the guitars and Julian Casablanca's laconic snarling anger. It comes up, it goes down, it sounds like it comes from a space age that we read about in science fiction novels from the 60s. Like I said, when the Strokes are brilliant, they are nothing shy of first-class rocket ship pilots.

So, why aren't they always brilliant? I don't know, but its OK: we just don't understand.


Been thinking a bit about ends recently, as in end of times rather than the other ends of, well, anyone. That can be depressing thinking, either choice actually, but, let's face it, the world ain't actually being done any great favours by those that have earnt(?) the right to control it. So how best to lift the mood and bring a smile to proceedings? I find a rousing raggedy chorus of purpose to be an apt and welcome remedy. So who better than the never more ragged, vocally anyway, Jayhawks. Short of early 70s Lindisfarne, no-one does it better. Love it, especially when comes the awkward and never more effective collision of Mark Olson and Gary Louris is there, something that real life failed ever to make for a permanent connection. Their 1992 - 95 recordings, 'Hollywood Town Hall' and 'Tomorrow the Green Grass', albums 3 and 4 respectively, are perhaps the best examples of how to 'do' americana, and are certainly my favourite.

This song, however dates earlier than that, and one I first picked up on that green Rykodisc 20th anniversary sampler that you really ought to have. Rykodisc are one of those labels that just guarantee
satisfaction, always a reliable source of good music, in no small part due to the Joe Boyd connection, Ryko having bought his label, Hannibal, and thus granted much wider attention to his roster. A man who can do no wrong, his pedigree is impeccable. (Whaddya mean, you don't know who Joe Boyd is? Until I get round to a post wholly devoted, go here. Or better, read this.) Anyhow, I digress, the song, apart from that inclusion, that comes from the band's somewhat tentative second step, 'Blue Earth', in 1989. Their debut had been a low-key and local production and release, this being an attempt to woo the majors. Unfortunately circumstance allowed it to be little more than slightly enhanced demos, Louris having even left the band through an injury, wooed back to overdub his guitar and vocal parts onto the Olson penned songs. He stayed. Derided as primitive at the time, it is both template and masterclass for what would follow, with a little added rough polish.

The song is a treat, but I can't say I fully understand the lyrics, it may be best that way. But given the frequency with which live versions of it abound on the youtube, including the one I show, I can't help but feel it a metaphor for the on-off relationship between Louris and Olson. After Louris rejoined the band, Olson left in 1995, the band continuing without him. In a hiatus nearly a decade later, the pair hooked up as a duo, 'From the Jayhawks', and toured, ultimately appearing on each other's solo albums and, in 2009, a creditworthy acoustic duo effort, 'Ready for the Flood'. 2011 saw Jayhawks, the band,  reconvene, lasting 3 or so years before Olson again skipped camp, albeit after the excellent 'Mockingbird Time'. The band, helmed by Louris continues sporadically. I don't know (and I don't wish to check) whether the Olson-free band play 'Ain't No End' and hope they don't, as my vision of/for the song is that there ain't no end to the possibility of a Jayhawks band with both of 'em. Whimsy? Maybe. And probably deeply insulting to the exemplary other members, one also that fails to recognise the actual greater commercial success of the band between the Olson memberships. Such is life, I need both in my Jayhawks and it's my piece!

Here's the original.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The End: Both Ends Burning

Roxy Music: Both Ends Burning

Roxy Music is one of those bands that have a handful of songs that I like (basically, the band’s “greatest hits”), but I never really spent time with their deeper tracks. Strangely, I think that it is Bryan Ferry’s voice that has put me off, despite the fact that I recognize that it is a fine voice. There’s a certain smarminess that I’ve never really liked, and his lounge lizard persona never appealed to me. I’ve been a bigger fan of guitarist Phil Manzanera and original synthesizer/effects man Brian Eno (and even multi-instrumentalist Eddie Jobson, who was in the band for a few albums) than I ever was of Ferry or Roxy. Despite my reservations, I do recognize that the band was influential, straddling the worlds of prog, glam, dance and new wave music during their career.

“Both Ends Burning” is from Roxy’s fifth album, Siren, the blue one with Jerry Hall, one of many Ferry girlfriends to grace the band’s albums over the years, on the cover (see above). It’s the album that had “Love Is The Drug” on it, which I’m willing to bet was the first Roxy Music song that I ever heard. Siren is a transitional album, where the quirkier edges of their early work began to smooth out, and that is probably why it was popular, but also why some critics found it less compelling.  “Both Ends Burning” is a good example of this—it is a relatively straightforward, mid-tempo rock song about the rigors of living a hard life, including long stretches on the road, but it also has odd synth and guitar bits and textures that makes it memorable. And Ferry’s louche, world-weary delivery works perfectly for the song.

Over the next few years, Roxy Music became more of a Bryan Ferry vehicle (even as Ferry was releasing solo albums), and became slicker and slicker, culminating with Avalon, which was popular, lushly beautiful and to some degree, dull. And I say that, acknowledging that there are a couple of songs on it that I do really like. While the band performed live over the years, in various configurations, Avalon turned out to be Roxy Music’s last studio album, or, as we call it here, The End.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The End: End of the Innocence

purchase [End ]

I've seen cover after amazing cover of this song.
It's a pretty solid song: the lyrics can take you to all sorts of places:

it speaks to the future
it speaks to the end
it speaks to hope

At this time in history - because once it will be history - it's tough not not to get political. I got [too] political in my last post at considerable risk to being shut down (yes, that what happens in some parts of the world when you speak your voice)

What better chance to once again bring the issues to light:
In many ways, the days we are living through ARE in fact the end of our innocence.
Fake News - and worse - is all pushed aside to make room for ... less or worse ... Sudan's drought, N. Korea's nukes.. or things as mundane(!) as the UK's Brexit .. today's news ... WTF have we come to?!?!

How on Earth did Leno manage to bring this group together? It's like my dream team of music:
Jackson, Shawn, Bonnie, Bruce & David - The End Of The Innocence - TV Show

Saturday, December 2, 2017


Have Scritti Politti ever appeared in these pages? I don't believe so and that is a shame. They were, and indeed still are, a fine band, if sometimes unfairly lumped in with other flotsam and jetsam of the 80s, even if their sound is almost the epitome of all the studio tropes of that era, gated drums and stabbed synths. But, look below that exquisite candy coat of production sheen and there is a whole lot more going on. This song wasn't the first or only hit, there having been several more ahead of it, at least on my side of the pond, but it was the biggest in the US, a number 11 in 1985.

So who, or what, were Scritti Politti? Most people would agree that Green Gartside is Scritti Politti, the creator, influence and writer, sole standing presence throughout the history of the band. A lanky and somewhat serious young man, originally from Cardiff, at school, aged 14, he founded a branch of the Young Communist League, enthusiastically embracing Marxism, the ideology and imagery leaking through into his lyrics, even if the practicalities of living such a life later waned. The dawn of the punk era was manna to such thinking, all self-conscious espousal of the trappings of fame and a do-it-yourself ethos extinguishing the earlier expectations within the music scene; of polish, practice and perfection. So, in contrast with the counter-intuitive, even ironic polish of later work,  the first recordings were primitive and sparse, like this, P.A.s, from 1979. Watch the vid to see how every bit of the process was in-house and self-made, from the sleeves to the distribution. Hell, they even wrote a booklet on how. Unfortunately the struggling artist starving in a garret does not fame or fortune make, and the lifestyle prove disruptive to Gartside's health, a collapse on stage necessitating a tactical retreat to South Wales. During this time he gradually morphed his tastes from spiky guitars to the the soul and funk of Star and Motown, suddenly realising that pop didn't have to be pap. And, whilst he cast aside some of his political idealism, certain aspects remained. How many commercial breakthroughs stem from a diligent thesis on the theory, studiously researched and jotted down in student notebooks?

The lightbulb moment came with The Sweetest Girl, a digital remaster of the original demo which features above. Another (and still) devotee of the Marxist cause, one Robert Wyatt, is on piano. The familiar style is already present, chopped keyboard motifs and a slightly dubby rhythm, if here clearly programmed. But it was his voice, a clear and pure higher register croon, embalming the listener, that is the most striking feature. The boy can sing! Although distribution difficulties delayed the eventual release, Songs to Remember, the 1982 LP, was a substantive UK success, but Gartside was again disillusioned.

Again it was black music that was giving new motivations, this time the emergent rap and hip-hop scenes. No small coup was it then when he came to the ears of veteran producer Arif Mardin, who effectively relaunched the band as a slick and subtle dance act. I love the fact that the opening salvo, Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin), was produced by the producer of Aretha Franklin. Cupid and Psyche 85 is one of the consummate releases of the decade. I wholeheartedly love it, a listen of any of the tracks instantly spinning me back to times of mullets and shiny suits rolled up to the elbow. A minor dent in the US charts, as was the next single, The Word Girl, with its more overt reggae influence, it wasn't until Perfect Way broke that America really caught ear of Scritti Politti. Staying sure to this style, if expanding on all the the jazz-funk slants, 1988 brought Provision, another jewel of, now, Gartside's own production, along with now firmly cemented band member, Dave Gamson. Also featured on the record was, of all people, Miles Davis, who had himself separately covered Perfect Way, making for a second time round success. His appearance makes for one of the most exquisite brief appearance of a trumpet in popular music, as below.

So where now for SP/GG? True to pattern came another period of reflection and reconstitution in his homeland, effectively retiring for 7 years, ahead of 1999's Anomie and Bonhomie, hip-hop now dictating the main thrust. If honest, I here found myself losing my hitherto staunch patronage, although 2006's White Bread, Black Beer went some way to draw me back, being also a return to the more politicised statementing of his early career. There was now also a return to touring, after a 25 year hiatus, Gartside now sporting a beard and other trappings of conventionality, as befitting his elder statesman persona. But the voice is unchanged, remarkably, as this brief clip from this year can show.  I have yet to catch him/them but live in hope, the UK summer festival scene awash with the indian summers of seemingly every band ever.

A final aside are the extraordinary dual folkie side-projects that Gartside has embarked upon, appearing in many a Joe Boyd curated tribute show to the likes of Nick Drake and Sandy Denny. With little apparent influences showing previously, even Boyd himself was surprised by the knowledge and respect given by Gartside to this material. This is a guise within which I have witnessed him play, a shy quiet giant in a green corduroy suit and silver whiskers. Wonderful stuff to finish with. (This clip is 5 years earlier, but it looks the same suit!)

Here also is a wonderful short that gives a bit more of the backstory to this enigmatic man/band.

Find all these recordings and more here......

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Leftovers: Two Words: Empty Pages

purchase [John Barleycorn]

I was on the road when SMM did the Two Words theme back in late July, so I couldn't contribute. There aren't too many people these days who are able to take a few weeks off with no internet connection, but that's what I religiously do once or twice a year, often in July and August. Yes, I've got a smart phone that <can> connect, but when you're roaming in another country, you end up wanting to severely limit your connectivity due to the cost.

Take it from me, there's something cathartic about truly logging off. Forget connecting to the Internet, I don't even answer the phone. Overseas call? ... It just costs too much.

Cost it is, then. Penny-pinching, frugal, thrifty, parsimonious, miserly. Whatever.

This 2-word song <Empty Pages> didn't come to mind back in July - it is a leftover from Thanksgiving: John Barleycorn being one of my first thoughts about the Thanksgiving harvest. The album falls in the prime of Winwood's years. Yeah, Steve Winwood still does a very credible vocal and decent tickle of the 88 keys, but there hasn't been much composition since ... way back then.

Empty Pages, on the other hand, is a classic example of Winwood's sensibilities: the keyboard solo has a light touch and the melody is unforgettable. I think they call it ... classic. The right notes in the right place. Light notes. The song kinda trips along (if not the light fantastic, it's the rock alternative).

Following the  John Barleycorn album, the band headed off their own ways - each to his own. Winwood headed first to the short-lived Blind Faith and for some reason, like a moth, circles back around again and again to Clapton.

Heh! If they showed up again in my neighborhood, I wouldn't miss it - saw them together in Blind Faith in Seattle 1970 and then again in Istanbul in 2013?.  Me? Like a moth to the fame, it's worth every hassle each time. Whether they're alone or together.

Way back in 2010 SMM blogger bwrice (!?)  posted about this song under the Discoveries theme. The music for that link no linger resolves, so - although I repeat a previous SMM post, I am also bringing it up to date so that you can once again actually listen to the song.

And  a promo from the new album:

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Leftovers: Large Numbers—A Million Miles Away

The Plimsouls: A Million Miles Away

I’m kind of surprised that no one has ever written about this song on Star Maker Machine. Although someone did write about a different song with the same title.

This is one of those songs that you had to have heard, many times, if you listened to the kind of radio in the 1980s that I suspect most writers on this site, past and present, listened to. It is simply a great example of power pop, a genre that I love, and which I have written about often. (Strangely, while writing this, I’m listening to King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongue in Aspic, about as far away from power pop as you can get). It often appears on lists of best power pop songs, sometimes in the top position, and on other lists of great 80s songs.

The Plimsouls were essentially a one-hit wonder band led by Peter Case. Case had previously been in another short-lived band, The Nerves, with Jack Lee and Paul Collins, who are best known as the original performers of “Hanging On The Telephone,” before breaking up. Lee, who wrote “Telephone,” is mostly remembered as a songwriter. Collins went on to form The Beat, sometimes known as Paul Collins’ Beat, to distinguish them from the band known in America as the English Beat. And Case, after the Plimsouls, embarked on a solo career, mostly in the Americana area. Despite the generally lack of commercial success for these bands, they are considered to be influential in the new wave/power pop world.

“A Million Miles Away,” for all of its inherent quality, would probably have been ignored if it hadn’t been featured prominently in the iconic 80s movie, Valley Girl, in which the band appeared, playing the song, and another, in a bar.

Luckily, it wasn't.

Leftovers (Down): Down to the Waterline

Dire Straits: Down to the Waterline


Dire Straits burst on the scene in 1979 with a combination of literary lyrics and incendiary playing. Sultans of Swing seemed to introduce Mark Knopfler as the newest guitar god, so some listeners probably overlooked the fact that the song also invoked a powerful sense of place, and sketched memorable characters in just a few lines of lyric. Down to the Waterline was the followup single, and the guitar playing here is still pretty fiery. But the song is also a powerful reminder of Knopfler’s talent with words. This time, the song describes a series of passionate stolen moments with a strong sense of the here and now. But the last verse reveals that these were a series of memories, despite their immediacy. That shift in perspective is a feature that is often found in the short stories of the masters, and Knopfler does it with only as many words as are absolutely needed.

Over the years, Knopfler would show that he had no desire to be a guitar god. He is still widely admired by his fellow players, but the fireworks disappeared starting with the third Dire Straits album, Making Movies. The literary quality of his lyrics, however, was a constant, first with the rest of the Dire Straits albums, and then throughout Knopfler’s later career as a solo artist. Even a song like Money For Nothing, with its lowbrow narrator, is a powerful evocation of character. All of that talent as a writer was on display from the beginning, and Down to the Waterline is a fine example.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

All the Fixings: Gravy Waltz

Sarah Vaughan: Gravy Waltz


Joe Williams: Gravy Waltz


Let me start this post by talking about Steve Allen. Allen was the first host of what would eventually become known as The Tonight Show. Allen was a comedian, but he also was a piano player and song writer. Allen claimed to have written 8,500 songs, but there are different ways of counting. Take Gravy Waltz for example. The tune was written by Ray Brown, who was the bass player at the time for the Oscar Peterson Trio. Steve Allen had nothing to do with the writing of the music, but he did add the lyrics after the fact. Oddly, although a version of the song was used on Allen’s show, that one was an instrumental. The record of that version was credited to “Steve Allen with Don Trenner and His Orchestra”, and the songwriting credit on the label was for “R. Brown- S. Allen”. Although the piano is featured prominently on that recording, Allen was not the player. Still, Allen’s lyric is a good one, but one must look elsewhere to hear it. I looked to two of the best jazz singers active in 1963, when the song enjoyed a burst of popularity.

Sarah Vaughan is still a legendary figure today. Her Gravy Waltz is a celebration of the importance of family. Her voice had a soulfulness that instilled this song and so many others with a powerful emotional depth. By contrast, Joe Williams is perhaps lesser known today, but was at least as famous at the time. He was known as Big Joe Williams from his long stint with the Count Basie Orchestra, and he had also made a name for himself as a blues singer. His Gravy Waltz, despite his blues pedigree, was more of a light-hearted romp. So, dear readers, I offer you to different moods from Steve Allen’s lyric. Either way, our Thanksgiving feast here an Star Maker has some fine gravy.

Friday, November 24, 2017

All the Fixings: MFO

Purchase [MFO]

I've waffled back and forth for 10 days about this theme, but I am going to go with this one. Seems to me that I have likely been down a similar path before, being that I post to you from .... Turkey. 

No better time than the present to go for this: the holiday and the political climate being what they are. US-Turkish relations are at an all time nadir. The list of grievances is long. 

A summary look at both sides of the various crises: 2 months ago, the US consulate stopped issuing visas. Turkey responded in kind. Then there's the long running issue of the PKK affiliated YPG that the US has been supplying with arms in Syria (both sides agree that the PKK is a terrorist organization, but ...) And simmering in the background is the Turkish claim that a religious leader holed up in Penna. is behind the recent coup attempt, but evidence presented to the US hasn't convinced the American courts that there is enough to extradite the man. There's the recent NATO drill where the faces of the best of Turkish history were used as "the bad guys". Oh, and there is the court case of the Iranian-Turkish money laundering scheme in contradiction to the US embargo which may well involve some sensitive implications for powerful men. [It\s bad enough that this post would well get me blocked from further SMM contributions.]

All this said, what better time to celebrate what may be the best group that Turkey has ever come up with. Yes, there's Tarkan - a rare Turkish artist who has actually made it into the World charts more than once - and he brings a melange of East and West,something that Turkey singularly can lay claim to as the country that has land mass in both Europe and Asia. Istanbul is one cool city as a result. And there are many more Turkish music artists that I could recommend, many of whom make the best of East-West fusion. In addition to a healthy collection of other eclectic styles. It's a scene with checking out.

But it is Mahsar-Fuat-Ozkan who hold the top spot in many people's heart. They've been around for more than a generation. They're kind of a local CSNY: folk-rock. They're getting on in years but still at it with regular concerts even if their albums are getting fewer and farther between.But it's theire classic that have nailed for them a place in the local psyche. And maybe now in yours.

Turkish pop for your post-turkey day listening:

Monday, November 20, 2017

All The Fixings: Linger (The Cranberries)

The Cranberries: Linger

Continuing my sub-theme of Thanksgiving foods that I didn’t like as a child but do now, we turn to cranberry sauce. Growing up, my best recollection of this staple side dish was a thick cylinder of bright red jiggly jelly, lying on its side on a plate, still bearing the indentations of the can from which it had been extruded. There was never any sense that this was a food that could be prepared from natural ingredients; instead, it was almost like a prop, put on the table because it was supposed to be there, not because there was any sort of clamor for it.

Then, I had my wife’s homemade cranberry sauce (see picture above), created from a bag of actual cranberries, and treated as a (near) equal to the other dishes that graced our Thanksgiving table. Sure, it was still bright red, and sure, it was still sweet, but it looked like actual food that a person would want to eat, not some sort of alien goop in tube form. There was a freshness, a tartness, and even some texture to the dish. And therefore, it helped to set off the richness of the turkey, gravy, potatoes, stuffing and other items that fought for space on my too small plate. Mix up a piece of white meat turkey, with a forkful of cornbread sausage stuffing and crown it with a dollop of crimson cranberry sauce, and you have created something sublime.

Of course, the chosen song really has nothing to do with Thanksgiving at all—it is a lament about the feelings that remain after a love has betrayed you—but it is one of my two favorite songs by the Cranberries, an Irish band from the 90s, fronted by Dolores O’Riordan, who has a beautiful voice and a thick Irish accent. I remember when they came out, thinking that they pretty much sounded like the Sundays, an English band from the slightly earlier 90s, fronted by Harriet Wheeler, who has a beautiful voice and an English accent (although I think she may be of Irish heritage). A quick search of the Internet indicates that I’m not the only one who has made this comparison. Both bands also had some early success, then sort of faded from public consciousness.

I could have chosen to write about the other song I like by the band, the more rocking “Dreams,” but thought that there was a tenuous connection to the Thanksgiving dinner table, where we would all “Linger.” Unless there was a good football game on.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

ALL THE FIXINGS: Frogs, SPROUTS, Clogs & Krauts

I confess to always feeling and being a little bit lost when this yearly staple comes around, not even sure entirely for what the thanks are being given for. (Is it the right to be free from your colonialist oppressors and for free speech? Good luck with that!) And all the fixings is what you eat with your turkey, right? Over here we eat turkey a few weeks later, for Christmas, a meal so set into tradition that I, for one, am glad it comes but one a year. I don't know what you guys eat with it, but it is the sprouts that cause most concern to many of my compatriots. Brassica oleracea, the brussel sprout, that miniature cabbage that, when boiled to buggery, has all the taste and texture of a dirty dishcloth. Thankfully, unlike bread sauce, chestnut stuffing and roast potatoes, there are a host of songs about this most flatulent of vegetables. Well, one, and strictly, not even that, a mention. In not even a song, just in the name of a record.

The Rumour were a terrific band, a collection of already rock-hardened veterans from the UK pub-rock circuit, corralled together as the tightasthis backing band of Graham Parker, tight yet loose, somewhat similar in style to a british Little Feat. Just too early for punk, Parker swept his howling wind into the decaying inspirations of early '70s rock music, with a return to snappy, angry songs, morphing the styles dismissed by prog into an aggressive and raucous joy. Good as his songs are, great they became with the inspired backing of Brinsley Schwarz (of the eponymous band) and Martin Belmont (ex-Ducks Deluxe) on guitars, Bob Andrews (also in Brinsley Schwarz, the band) on keyboards, Andrew Bodnar on bass and Stephen Goulding on drums. Like the Band, the direct comparison, I think, deliberate, all could sing. And, as was de rigeur for the day, they got their own deal, producing 3 LPs in their own right.

Max was the first, sturdy meat'n'potatoes rock, very much in the vein of Parker, including a great cover of Duke Ellington's 'Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me', alongside some self-compositions and one from Nick Lowe, another alumnus of Brinsley Schwarz, the band.

But it was the 2nd record, 1979's 'Frogs, Sprouts, Clogs and Krauts', that really gave them a character of their own, albeit one that failed to set the charts alive. The title a play on their respective ancestries, within a mongrel UK, with french (frogs), belgian (sprouts), dutch (clogs) and german (krauts) blood represented in their veins. The theme was loosely around that of the new Europe, the sense of hope following, shall I call it, BRENTRY (sic), six years before, a pole apart from todays ill-considered BREXIT. On Stiff records, it required a certain quirkiness to be included within that roster, sounding nothing like their earlier release. I loved it, never finding anyone who has even heard (of) it, let alone liked it, to this day.

A 3rd album appeared in 1980, 'Purity of Essence', a bit of a backward step, stylistically, depending upon which version you heard, it being markedly different in the versions related in the US and the UK. But the writing was on the wall. Andrews left the band, as in the backing band, the same year, ahead of Parker dispensing with all of them, bar Schwarz, the year later.

An afterword is the more recent regrouping of the band, again behind Graham Parker, in 2010, as part of Judd Apatow's feature film, 'This is 40.' To my knowledge this led to no leaderless band material. Pity, but I can confirm they were as solid an outfit as ever, with GP, based upon a live performance I caught in 2015.

Spread the Rumour!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

All The Fixings: Pecan Pie

Golden Smog: Pecan Pie

Getting older mostly sucks. I’m sore, I take medication, I have to watch my diet, and on and on (actually, I just can’t remember everything about getting old that sucks). One good thing, though, is that I now enjoy foods that I never thought that I would like when I was younger. So, hello, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, nuts of all kinds, beets, spinach, squash, sweet potatoes, and yogurt. Sorry, broccoli and seafood, I’m still not there (notwithstanding the one oyster I gulped down at Husk in Nashville, a restaurant everyone should try to go to), and I don’t expect that to change.

Pecan pie always looked kind of gross to me. You had these huge nuts that looked like tiny brown brains entombed in some sort of sticky goo. Usually, it was easy to walk right past it to something with chocolate, lots of chocolate. Because chocolate is what desserts are supposed to be. I’m not sure when my opinion changed, but it turns out that pecan pie is not just good, it is amazing. Sweet, smoky and what turns out to be the perfect ratio of goo to crunch. And sometimes there’s bourbon in it. And sometimes there’s chocolate. And sometimes there are both bourbon and chocolate.

The song “Pecan Pie,” is by Golden Smog, the so-called alt-country supergroup that I have written about at length here, and there, so I won’t repeat myself. It was written by Jeff Tweedy, and was originally rejected from Wilco’s first album. Unlike some of the other songs on Golden Smog’s debut, Down By The Old Mainstream, which rock, “Pecan Pie” is more folky and stripped down, with acoustic guitars and mandolins. I’ve seen it described as being about dessert and longing, and that’s about as good a description as I can think of. At the end of this goofy performance at a high school benefit in 2013(!) you can hear Tweedy, a pretty fair songwriter, remark that it is the best song that he has ever written, although you can’t always take him seriously. Nevertheless, he has been known to play it at both Wilco and solo shows (sometimes with Golden Smog friends), so clearly, he enjoys it.

Thanksgiving is a great holiday, at least for me, who was lucky enough to grow up in a family that got along. (And were, and still are, all politically pretty close in our beliefs, mostly preventing fights at the table.) In fact, when I was a kid, I lived up the street from my aunt (my mother’s sister) and uncle, and my uncle’s brother’s family also lived in the neighborhood. There were 9 kids, and all of us considered (and still consider) ourselves cousins, even though that wasn’t completely true. We would have huge Thanksgivings, with the three families, plus grandparents, and I can’t remember ever having any real stress.

Of course, over time, Thanksgiving morphs. People move, grow up, marry, divorce and die, changing the dynamic. I remember having to alternate spending Thanksgiving with my parents or my wife’s family, which then merged into a single affair, now at our house. My son has started to alternate years with his fiancée’s family, and a divorce has forced a nephew and niece to only be available every other year. My daughter lives in Spain, and last year was the first Thanksgiving without my father. And this year, my in-laws are not coming, because my father-in-law finds the travel too difficult (so we are bringing them leftovers on Friday). So, it will be a small-ish group getting together next Thursday, for good food, drinks and conversation.

My wife will be making a chocolate pecan pie. All will be good with the world.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

All the Fixings: Let’s Turkey Trot

Little Eva: Let’s Turkey Trot


Ian & the Zodiacs: Let’s Turkey Trot


Back in the days when I moderated here, I would have defined our new theme as “All the Fixings: post songs about items on the table at Thanksgiving.” So we might get songs about cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie before we are done, but the meal centers around the turkey, so that must be our starting point as well. I will be looking for the ultimate version of Turkey in the Straw for this theme, unless someone else beats me to it, but let’s begin with a look at the state of the music industry in 1963.

It would prove to be a year of major upheaval. Four lads from Liverpool would come to the United States, and begin to change the sound of popular music forever. But the year began innocently enough. In February, Little Eva released her third single, Let’s Turkey Trot. Like The Locomotion, it was written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin. Little Eva got her start by babysitting for the couple, and they thanked her when they heard her voice by writing hits for her. Like The Locomotion, Let’s Turkey Trot was an attempt to launch a dance craze, but that part never happened. The Turkey Trot was a real dance, and, as Little Eva sings, it would have been danced by Little Eva’s grandparents, to ragtime music. The dance was briefly popular in the years leading up to and through World War I, but it was considered risqué. There was eventually a church led campaign to wipe it out, and the fox trot wound up being both more acceptable and more enduring. So I am not sure why Goffin and King thought the turkey trot should live again, but the British invasion halted that idea. Let’s Turkey Trot reached # 20 on the charts, but that was a disappointment after Little Eva’s earlier success.

The song was popular enough to inspire cover versions, however. Jan and Dean’s version was not one of their better moments. But the cover by Ian & the Zodiacs has something to tell us about pop music in 1963.The band was as talented as many of the merseybeat bands who followed in the wake of the Beatles, but they never caught on, except in Germany. One problem was that they were never able to get green cards to perform in the United States, which kept them from gaining traction here. They also may have been hurt by the fact that most of their material consisted of covers. Still, the Beatles did plenty of covers of American hits in the beginning, so I offer this version of Let’s Turkey Trot as a glimpse of what the song might have sounded like if the Beatles had covered it.

Finally, I wondered what the dance itself looked like. For the answer, I had to dig up this clip fromNCIS:

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Train: Silver Train

Purchase Silver Train: The Rolling Stones  or Johnny Winter

Goat's Head Soup, by the Rolling Stones, came out in 1973 and marks the next to last entry into what I believe is one of the great artistic and creative runs by any band, ever.

This string of greatness started in 1968 with Beggar's Banquet, wherein the band left behind the psychedelic niceties of the Flower Power era and emerged from that silliness as full fledged rock n roll roughnecks, carrying on switchblade sharp and full of  ballsy, cock-sure swagger on their next five albums. Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street. Goat's Head Soup gave way to the  glorious finale, It's Only Rock 'n Roll. The Stones cemented greatness with these albums; aspirations of pure genius, despite, or perhaps because of, the chaos in the world around them. Their reactions to the madness of the Viet Nam era, their own bad habits and the darkness they sought out through their own arcane desires and misguided investments into the under world of substance abuse--all of it comes out in these albums. And the legends, even if it's only that--legends--make the accomplishment of these albums even more astounding. Lesser mortals would have faded long before approaching anything quite as grand as the Stone's '68 to '74 run.

To have produced such greatness, so many amazing rock songs, sounds and words that were iconic almost as soon as they were pressed to vinyl and will remain so, for as long as rock 'n roll is rock 'n roll? It's amazing, akin to the New Testament of the Bible of Rock. Prophetic and significant, timely and vital still. Fresh blood still runs in the grooves of these albums and will continue to be an influence on music in perpetuity.

One of my favorite tracks off Goat's Head Soup is the 6th track, "Silver Train". It's almost an afterthought, after an opening set of five utterly iconic songs ("Dancing with Mr. D", "100 Years Ago", "Coming Down Again", "Heartbreaker", and "Angie").  It's a guitar boogie, with a harmonica/train whistle warning sounding throughout, as if telling you to get off the tracks. The guitars chug and slide, playing havoc off one another, but it's Ian Stewart's piano, building from a rhythm check into something that threatens to derail the whole song into a beautiful chaotic wreck that moves this track at such a fevered pace.

In researching the song, I didn't realize that the title was a reference to Johnny Winter, the albino guitar king, who, after hearing a demo of the Stone's version, recorded "Silver Train" himself and released it on Still Alive and Well. His version came out just a few months prior to the Stones', and it is pure jam, too.  Johnny Winter is best known for "Rock n Roll, Hoochie Koo", which is really kind of nuts, when you listen to what he did on the guitar and hear how hot he could light up a fret board. Too bad his genius is often relegated to getting lazy football fans our of their seats on game day...

I give you both versions today. I've had my acoustic in Open G for a few weeks now, working hard at learning "Tumblin' Dice" (off Exile), but I'm going to give "Silver Train" a go, as well. Nothing better than learning from the best...

Friday, November 10, 2017


I was slow to get on the techno train, electronica/dance a difficult ask of my guitar shaped ears. Half the battle was getting my head around the genres, so many and various seem the sub-stations, from techno to dubstep, deep house to psy-ambient, slimewilt to naughtystep, I just get bogged down in the detail. But it seems there isn't much ever explored on this site, perhaps a giveaway to our ages, or maybe the still lingering lip-service to not including anything too recent, as was the unwritten rule in the downloadable mp3 days of blogging. But the truth is that I love much of it and have taken it and all it's labels I don't understand to my heart, even if the only dancing I do is in the car, whilst driving.

This guy, Banco, or Toby Marks to give him his given, is one of my favourites, ploughing his furrow of world music sample-based soundscapes for some, gulp, near 30 years. His amalgam of afro and reggae, middle-eastern and pan-european folk musics, underpinned and over layered by dense percussion and dubby bass-lines, never fails to lift me. In a truth I find extraordinary, but maybe unsurprisingly, and like so many in electronic dance music, he started his musical odyssey in a heavy metal band, as the drummer. Then, following a move to Portugal: Banco de Gaia is portuguese for Gaia's bank, Gaia being the earth mother and personification of all life in greek mythology, he invested in a digital sampler, just as the rave culture was sweeping mainland europe, having been swept out of his homeland by police crackdown and legislature. The track I have featured here is from an early release, remaining his best known piece of music, subject to numerous remixes and revisions in the intervening years. The rhythm is unmistakably and intrinsically that of a train, carried along with a panoply of Tibetan sounds. Or Tibetan sounding sounds. It was a 1995 UK independent album chart topper and has found it's way onto innumerable compilations of both straight world music and dance music ever since.

Marks has continued to produce music, usually self-produced and released on his own label, a true cottage industry. He has also toured solidly, both as a DJ with decks and, more recently, as a live band. I was lucky enough to catch him in that former guise at Bearded Theory music festival last spring. And terrific it was, I still having no idea "how" he, or any other musician reliant on computers and decks does it, fitting it all together so seamlessly and seismically intricate. Detractors say it is cheating, all pre-recorded ersatz spontaneity, but it so isn't, lacking only an explanation of how I can know that. (If you are a detractor, go bite on your prejudice and experience it in a live setting. You may even become converted.)

Have some live, the same tune, by the band:


Train: Talking Vietnam


Our fearless leader made it clear when announcing this theme that we should consider all of the meanings of the word “train” when posting. I’m always game to try jumping the tracks, so I wanted to write about something other than a mode of transportation before this theme left the station. Now, I know that they say that people don’t want to know how the sausage gets made, but here are some behind the scenes secrets about how I (and I suspect most of the writers here) approach a theme. First, you hope that something jumps out at you immediately. Failing that, you pore over your music collection hoping for inspiration. Finally, there are sites that allow you to search for words in song lyrics. That’s how I decided to write about Phil Ochs’ “Talking Vietnam.”

I’ve been watching the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary The Vietnam War recently, and I’m still in the relatively early years of the conflict—at the point that the United States is poised to go all in, and send hundreds of thousands of soldiers to fight a war that most of the American leadership privately believed was unwinnable. So, writing about a song about the war made sense. I also wrote my senior thesis back in the Stone Age about television’s coverage of the war, so it is something that has interested me for years. I was almost 14 when Saigon fell, and was against the war, but was just a few years too young to really have remembered the details of the fighting or the protests. But by the time the US involvement ended, I was certainly aware of what was going on. Another thing about writing these posts is that I do research.

Turns out, Ochs’ “Talking Vietnam” is considered to be the very first protest song that specifically mentioned Vietnam. It was released in 1964—months before the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which was probably the first time that a significant number of Americans found out that our country had been involved in that obscure, far away country for years.  In fact, a slightly different set of lyrics to the song were published in Broadside's September 20, 1963 issue! So, it is pretty remarkable that Ochs was already so pissed off, and so well informed, that he could write such a powerful, detailed protest song.

The first stanza of the song is:

Sailing over to Vietnam, 
Southeast Asian Birmingham. 
Well training is the word we use, 
Nice word to have in case we lose. 
Training a million Vietnamese 
To fight for the wrong government and the American Way. 

Ochs recognized that while at that point, the American mission was officially “training,” in a war, trainers by necessity fight alongside their trainees. In 1964, Ochs also already recognized something that took our leadership years to understand—if they ever did—that the South Vietnamese government wasn’t at that time, or ever, one that in any way inspired its people. And while the failure of the war was, of course, caused by many different things, I think that there is a fair argument that the lack of a government in the south that had the loyalty of its people was the root cause that doomed anything that was tried.

Stanza three:

Well the sergeant said it's time to train 
So I climbed aboard my helicopter plane. 
We flew above the battle ground 
A sniper tried to shoot us down. 
He must have forgotten, we're only trainees. 
Them Commies never fight fair. 

Again, Ochs points out the disingenuousness of the position that the American soldiers were there (at that point) for training, not combat.

The final mention of training is in the next stanza:

Friends the very next day we trained some more 
We burned some villages down to the floor. 
Yes we burned out the jungles far and wide, 
Made sure those red apes had no place left to hide. 
Threw all the people in relocation camps, 
Under lock and key, made damn sure they're free.

Again, Ochs is somewhat prescient, referring to soldiers burning villages. Clearly, this was not unknown, but it wasn’t until 1965 that Morley Safer’s report on CBS showing this actually occurring became a sensation. Of course, American troops remained for another decade.

As a student of history, I believe that the world today is affected by the past. I’ve written here and elsewhere about how this country is still dealing with issues from the Civil War, and how the whole world is still affected by World War I. I also think that you can draw direct lines from the Vietnam War era to problems that we are facing today.  Remarkably, Phil Ochs seemed to see it coming before almost anyone else.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Train: Train in Vain

The Clash: Train in Vain
Back when the original wave of punk rock was hitting the US, I took to saying that punk would die off when the musicians learned to play their instruments. I was not completely right. Bands like the Sex Pistols literally died off when members succumbed to drugs. There were also those who stubbornly stayed with the style long after they were capable of more, and their music began to sound less and less authentic. But when I was right, we got vital and amazing music from people like Johnny Lydon, and we eventually got two tone ska. And we got the best of The Clash. The Clash never lost their rebelliousness, continuing to make the music they wanted to, and in complete disregard to market dictates. Their monster hit with Rock the Casbah was taken by some as a sell out, but I view it more as the marketplace catching up to them than the other way around. Before that happened, however, there was Train in Vain. The song comes from the album London Calling, which has many of the band’s best songs of political and social criticism. But Train in Vain has a classic theme for its subject: a relationship gone wrong. In the hands of The Clash, the song was propulsive rock, and very powerful. But there were other ways to hear it.

Annie Lennox: Train in Vain
Annie Lennox heard classic R&B. Her version became one of her biggest songs as a solo artist. It reveals a singer with legitimate chops as a soul shouter. She displays a grit here that was never a part of her vocal style with the Eurythmics, although their late rock experiments hint at it. This arrangement has a synth horn section that is little more than an idea, gone almost as soon as it appears. I would love to hear an old school R&B version that uses a live horn section all the way through the song.

Dwight Yoakam: Train in Vain
You could say that Dwight Yoakam brought a punk sensibility to country music when he debuted. He has always delivered high energy performances on his albums. Here, he blends his Bakersfield-inspired sound with bluegrass, to great effect. Now, Train in Vain has banjo and mandolin solos, and it all works beautifully.

Smocking Flamingo: Train in Vain
It was to be expected that there would be at least one Jamaican version of Train in Vain. The Clash, as they branched out from punk, were inspired by both ska and reggae, and their work in these genres was almost certainly a major inspiration for the two tone ska movement. Smocking Flamingo is a reggae and ska instrumental jam band, and the song suits them perfectly.