Friday, May 19, 2017

Gold: Fields of Gold

Sting: Fields of Gold


When I first heard Fields of Gold, I thought I was hearing a traditional English folk song that had somehow escaped my notice. I am no expert, but surely I would have heard someone’s version of a song this good before this? The song features the repetition of alternating lines “fields of barley” and fields of gold” in a way that can be found in many traditional English songs. But there was a reason I had not heard the song before. Fields of Gold is a Sting original, although it shows a strong knowledge of English folk music. This is a side of Sting he had not really shown before. We knew he loved rock and reggae from the sound of his band the Police. On his first solo album, Sting returned to his jazz roots. Since then, he has explored classical music and continued to make his own brand of what must be called pop for lack of a better term. Fields of Gold is the only original folk song of his that I have heard, but it really works. I could hear in my head a more “traditional” arrangement the first time I heard it.

Eva Cassidy: Fields of Gold


In searching for such a version, my first stop was Eva Cassidy’s version. Here we can ignite a whole argument about what is and is not “folk”. Cassidy didn’t care. While she is a revered figure among folk fans, her music is not purely folk. She drew songs from a rich array of genres and sources, and her arrangements were not always what one might consider folk. But if you consider the role that folk music served in society when the songs we are most familiar with were being written, you realize that songs like Froggy Went A’Courting were the pop music of their day. On that basis, any song is fair game, and it is the job of any modern folk artist to make their choice of songs their own. Eva Cassidy did that job brilliantly.

Richard Bennett: Fields of Gold


Still, I wanted to see if I could find an even folkier version without sacrificing either quality or authenticity. Bennett’s Fields of Gold still isn’t what I heard in my head. For that I would need an Irish singer, backed by just guitar and uillean pipes. But Bennett does the next best thing, giving me a small acoustic ensemble, and featuring the cello in the role I assigned to the piper. Bennett’s voice is perfect here. Like Cassidy, Bennett takes his material from a wide range of sources, and he too makes his songs his own.

Fields of Gold has become a standard since Sting wrote it. You can find multiple versions on Amazon by looking either for wedding music or lullabyes. There are also many covers of varying quality and in various genres. So the song may have started life as a Sting original, but I would argue that the place it has taken in our culture now qualifies it as a folk song.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Gold: Heart of Gold

purchase [Heart of Gold]

Sad disclosure to apologize for the quality of my research: Turkey continues to block Wikipedia - limiting my ability to access further steps related to my ideas. (It needs to be said)

Crosby, Stills and Nash came out with their first album at the end of the 60s. A veritable powerhouse/Supergroup that included some of the best from Bufallo Springfield, the Byrds ... the top of the charts. (And as JDavid just said, they had their personality problems.)

The album [link] they came out with in '69 includes a collection of rock classics: Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, Marrakesh Express, Guinevere,Wooden Ships, Helplessly Hoping, Long Time Gone. Heck .. they're all good.  The collaboration lead them to Woodstock. No small feat.

It appears that it was Ahmet Ertegun (back once again to Turkey!) who convinced CSN that another Atlantic artist by the name of Neil Young might fit in with the original 3. It wasn't exactly a smooth transition, but ... the result was historical: CSNY.

Neil Young brought in an element of edgy-ness, and probably some additional discord in the process: it's hard enough to get 3 musicians aligned. Adding one more only exacerbates the issues. But the roughness of Young's style took the group to a new level and arguably maintained, if not increased their appeal. Thankfully, they managed to hold it together for longer than most people predicted, and we ended up with Deja Vu and 4 Way Street as they helped lead the political voice of America into the 70's.

In '71, Neil Young came out with Harvest - another rock classic that includes Old Man, The Needle and the Damage Done and Heart of Gold. The album was panned by critics but the public was of another mind - one of his most successful works to this day.

Further disclosure: 2-3 years back our blogger Andy LaRayGun, some friends and I did a Neil Young cover at about this time of year in front of maybe 500 students. Andy on the left, me next to him (black guitar doing the vocals)

Gold: The Golden Palominos

Golden Palominos: Boy(Go)

The legendary supergroups like Cream or Blind Faith or CSN&Y were attempts to join musicians famous from other projects into a, well, super group, but they often foundered due to the conflicting egos of the members. The Golden Palominos, often referred to as an “indie-rock supergroup,” was different, gathering changing groups of generally less famous artists for each album.

Originally founded in the early 1980s by Anton Fier, a drummer who had been an early member of, among other bands, The Feelies, the first incarnation of the Golden Palominos was filled with avant-garde musicians like Fred Frith, Arto Lindsay and Bill Laswell, many of whom were influenced by the “No Wave” movement and often had as much jazz influence as indie-rock. Their self-titled debut was experimental, noisy and even featured turntable scratching, a rarity outside of hip-hop in that era.

My introduction to the band was from their very different second album, 1985’s Visions of Excess, which was significantly more accessible. The original attraction was “Boy (Go),” featuring lead vocals from R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, and guitar from Richard Thompson. The album also featured vocals from John Lydon (a/k/a Johnny Rotten) and supergroup veteran Jack Bruce, as well as the debut appearance of singer Syd Straw, who is on the list of people who should be way more famous. Despite the unusual roster of musicians, the album hangs together pretty well, and is never dull. Also, there’s a great cover of Moby Grape’s “Omaha,” also sung by Stipe.

The Golden Palominos put out albums every few years throughout the 1980s and 1990s, a few of which I own, with a constantly changing group of performers, including Matthew Sweet, T-Bone Burnett, Bernie Worrell, Bob Mould and Bootsy Collins, with Stipe, Thompson and Straw dropping by occasionally, joining core members Fier, bassist Laswell and guitarist Nicky Skopelitis for, not surprisingly, varied sounds and results. In 2012 Fier, and a different group of musicians joined Kevn Kinney of Drivin’ & Cryin’ for a new album, A Good Country Mile. That album includes a cover of a Jason Isbell written Drive-By Truckers song, “Never Gonna Change.” (Self-promoting side note—Drivin’ & Cryin’ was the band that Trucker Patterson Hood was opening for when he saw the incident that inspired the song “Opening Act,” which you can read more about here.)

Give Fier and his Golden Palominos sidekicks credit for pushing the envelope, trying new things and always making interesting music. They cannot be pigeonholed, and if that hindered them from gaining an identity and becoming a true “supergroup,” it never prevented them from following their muse wherever it took them. In a world filled with artists mining the same groove until it turns into a rut (thanks, Nick Lowe), it is refreshing, if not always easy, to listen to a project like the Golden Palominos that constantly challenges.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017


I already had been a fan of the Stranglers when this came out, but my appreciation went atmospheric on this release, sounding nothing like anything else around at the time, a wistful harpsichord led ballad in what seemed to be waltz time. It was also quite different to the music of the Stranglers output ahead of that, previous offerings being of a more aggressive mien, barely suppressed violence and misogyny lurking beneath the surface of not only the songs, but also their audience.

In 1981, when the song came out,  I was both married and gainfully employed in my first job as a junior hospital doctor. Hardly, then, typical punk demographic, yet the UK punk explosion of 1975/6 had earlier grabbed my imagination, shortening my hair and straightening my trousers. I felt, it's true, a little too square for the Pistols and the Clash, but the Stranglers were older, uglier and, a bonus, had a keyboard sound redolent of my beloved Doors. They were the first band in that idiom I caught in a live context, on a bill with U.S. band the Dictators in support, at fabled London venue, the Roundhouse, my first and only visit. November 1977, still a student. Of course I was scared, but it was terrific, taking the opportunity to catch them whenever I could, including the infamous open air concert at Battersea Park, with a newly solo Peter Gabriel amongst the support acts. (Infamous? Well, let's say that the headline act were faithfully nice'n'sleazy......... )

But respectability and commitment had to figure in my life, so it was a couple of years before I revisited the legacy of the band, hearing the eponymous song of this piece burst out of the radio one lunchtime. I was now too 'old' for the more dance-oriented Radio 1, the youth radio of the nation, moving to the young fogey-dom of Radio 2. Lo and behold, this staider and more conservative channel had made this song, by the 'Bring on the Nubiles' hitmakers their record of the week. And they were on Top of the Pops, miming valiantly, the impossible to hum melody imprinting in my brain. What strange things could the lanky Hugh Cornwell be singing about, his voice now a croon compared to the spat out venom of yore? Well the drummer, Jet Black, one part of the melodic inspiration behind the tune, along with keyboard man, Dave Greenfield, suggested it may have been Marmite, which I have mentioned before, a yeast based spread either loved or hated. Cornwell suggested possibly a woman, but his already well-known lifestyle and habits probably gave a better idea. This was a man, after all, who had spent time in London's Pentonville prison for possession of Class A drugs, as described here. Shock and horror, Radio 2 seen to be promoting a song about the joys of Heroin.

By now the Stranglers had almost totally morphed their earlier sound into a far more refined and delicate style, described by some commentators as 'Baroque Pop', a phrase I like, and I saw them a couple of more times. Eventually the steam ran out, or possibly the elephant in the room of 'musical differences', and after a couple of lack-lustre cover versions, Cornwell left the band. The remaining 3 members lurched on, and still do, with various replacements, never quite finding their feet or their glory days. Cornwell has embarked on a solo career of mixed provenance, still the highlights of his shows being when he plays some old. Now, if one day they could patch up their differences and play together as the original band, that would be worth seeing, but the chances of that fade by the year. Somehow the spectre of notoriously spiky black belt in Karate bassist, Jean Jacques Burnel, cosying back up with Cornwell seems unlikely, not least as Jet Black, already in his 40s in their 70s heyday, has had to retire from live shows. As I said, they were already older back in the day.

But the song remains a classic and one I return to often. Remarkably, it has been covered, albeit often in spoof or post-modern ironic style, never matching the original. The version below, actually featuring Cornwell, is, however quite fun!

As a final aside, and one that gives me great pleasure, is the knowledge that Cornwell, junkie post-graduate research chemist, was actually a contemporary of Richard Thompson, guitar hero and icon, ex of Fairport Convention. Indeed, as school mates together, Thompson had included Cornwell, on bass, in his first band, 'Emil and the Detectives'. Which led to a later and somewhat unlikely reunion onstage. As Thompson regularly says, or sings, 'It all Comes Around Again'.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Songs From Movies About Musicians/ Gold: Golden Slumbers/ The End

k d lang: Golden Slumbers/ The End


Are tap dancers musicians? Because, if they aren’t, making this a transition song from our Songs From Movies About Musicians theme is admittedly a stretch. The main character is a penguin from a group who are great singers, but he can not sing. Instead, his talent is tap dancing, and the movie is about him proving his value to a culture that initially rejects him. Themewise, it only makes matters worse when you know that the song Golden Slumbers/ The End was later used in a movie that definitely would fit both themes: last year’s Sing. There are two reasons why I didn’t want to use Jennifer Hudson’s version from that film: the movie and recording are too new; and k d lang’s version from Happy Feet is just so much better.

Golden Slumbers/ The End is a song that invites overblown bombastic treatments. It is all too tempting to give the song a big production, and have everything crescendo to a big finish. k d lang and producer T-Bone Burnette know better. They understand the power of subtlety here, and they know they have the singer to pull it off. So lang is backed here by piano and the percussion of Medeski, Martin, and Wood, plus very light orchestration and stand-up bass. Burnette trusts his singer to do the rest, and she does, beautifully.