Friday, October 22, 2021

Rock Hall Snubs: King Crimson


King Crimson
: The Court of the Crimson King
[purchase The Condenced 21st Century Guide to King Crimson 1969-2003

I think that it was in the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract that I read, years ago, something like the only definition of who belongs in the (baseball) Hall of Fame is who gets elected. In other words, even in a statistically driven sport such as baseball (which has become even more so due to the work of James and fellow sabermetricians), there’s no formula to decide who belongs. James, and others, have created various predictive formulas, but they are not an attempt to determine who deserves to be in the Hall, but rather to predict whether the player’s statistics are the type that would convince the voters to vote them in. 

This type of determination is even harder to do with the Rock Hall, because there are no stats, really, other than maybe sales, or streams, or concert attendance-but I think most people (at least most people who read this type of blog) are unwilling to equate popularity with quality. Although it is nice when it happens. For the Rock Hall, it sort of just comes to down to gut feelings, considering some objective, but mostly subjective factors—plus a fan vote. Of course to be fair, it is hard to take the Rock Hall all that seriously when it inducted Bon Jovi a few years ago. 

My pitch today is for King Crimson, which based on the number of times I’ve written about them, their music or their members (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and most recently, here), you might assume are my favorite band. They aren’t (don’t ask me what is, though). But when you look at the quality and variety of their work, the length of their career, even with all of the interruptions, and most notably, the influence of the band on so many genres of music, it is hard to justify their exclusion. There is one full member of King Crimson who is a Rock Hall inductee (and another performer who sang one song for Crimson who is in the Hall……the answer will be at the end of this piece). 

It is hard to argue that King Crimson did not influence, among other genres, progressive rock, hard rock, various forms of metal, jazz/rock fusion, punk, new wave, grunge, math rock, jam bands, noise rock, and even hip-hop. There’s a nice summary of some of this in Wikipedia, or just Google “King Crimson influence” and fall down the rabbit hole. 

Also, arguably, Robert Fripp belongs in the Hall individually for his solo guitar work/"Frippertronics" and collaborations with Brian Eno, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel and others. 

That’s it. Show me a band or artist that is more influential than King Crimson that hasn’t already been inducted. 

The answer to the question is that drummer Bill Bruford was inducted into the Rock Hall as a member of Yes, as was Jon Anderson, who sang “Prince Rupert Awakes” on Crimson’s third album, Lizard.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Rock Hall Snubs: Little Feat

 



purchase [ The Best of Little Feat ]

Do we need a little background on the HoF before we explore why a band/artist who "rightly" belongs in the list has never been voted? There's a  committee who decide on a yearly list of nominees, and then a cadre of experts votes. Musicians are eligible 25 years after their first recording has been released. As of 2021, 351 have been inducted in one of several categories, such as performer or early influence, non-performer and sideman. The number of inductees varies by year. Awards may be given posthumously; 7 such were given in 2020.

So ... is there bias? Well ... if your favorite band has been eligible for years and still hasn't made the list, you're likely to think there is bias. Does this constitute "snub"? Hard to say, but I've got one that belongs but isn't, and the band seems to tick all the necessary checkboxes, but ... and here is one possible catch ... they aren't particularly relevant to many people any longer. Back in the 70s they were; today - not so much. That said, Rolling Stone magazine readers voted them #2 deserving but snubbed a few years back and they still have not been voted in.

Except ...  their best music is timeless. And their lead guitarist and vocalist was the best of the best - until he died an early death. And while the band has more or less hung in there ever since, it's never been the same. And now, without Paul Barrere, who co-wrote this one below (and passed in 2019), joining the list may be a dream.



Saturday, October 16, 2021

What If: Andy Summers joins the Rolling Stones

 



purchase [ Under My Thumb ]


In our <Cops> theme, I must have Googled "police" and <rolling stones> while I was considering a take on "Heartbreaker" - you know, "..the police ...put a bullet through his heart..". Then I remembered that I had already written that story a while back. One of the links that that search brought up was "Andy Summers for the Rolling Stones".

No, really. It's not an article from Rolling Stone magazine. It's a genuine <What If> that is backed up with a modicum of fact. The article even asks the reader to consider what that alternative future might have brought.

From today's perspective the two don't seem like a natural match: to me, Summers croons a bit too much for the rocking stones. Not outrageous, but unlikely. The article I refer to is pretty short on detail: MickTaylor had decided to leave the Stones and they need a replacement. That much checks out. Another online article uses the term "mooted" to describe this relationship.

There is yet another story about the pairing, where the Stones were back stage and one of the stage crew burst in shouting "the police are here!". Apparently, in a rush, all the illegals were flushed down the toilet, upon which Summers and crew walked in. But there is nothing in this about performing together, and beyond that ... there are no youtube clips that I can find of the Police and the Stones at the same venue.

That leaves us with slim pickins - aside from our imagination. Could have been ... unreal. 

Now... I've been collecting mashups off and on and I have posted about Avicii here, but my collection of professionally produced mashups doesnt include any with both Summers and the Stones. Each, yes, but none together. I'm not sure I have a budding career here, but, for lack of better to cover my choice, here's my stab at it (Keep in mind, I have a 7-5 job plus nightly homework that limits the time I have for re-mixing)

listen here (hopefully works for you)


Wednesday, October 13, 2021

What If: Jason Isbell Never Left Drive-By Truckers


[purchase Live at the Shoals Theare

If you know me, or have read my blog posts (and frankly, there are too many to link to), you probably know that I’m a huge fan of both Jason Isbell and Drive-By Truckers. I first became aware of both of them when I received a copy of the Truckers’ album Decoration Day as a bonus from a record club. That serendipitous freebie helped to change my musical tastes, and led me to a number of bands and musicians that are now amongst my favorites. It’s a great album, and it was hard not to be impressed by the two songs written and sung by Jason Isbell, “Outfit” and “Decoration Day.” I later discovered that Isbell was new to the band, and was only in his mid-20s, younger than the other songwriters in the group, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. Although Isbell was only in the band for three albums, I think that many fans consider this to be one of their best periods, and possibly their best. 

It has been reported that Isbell had been asked to take a break from the band because his alcoholism and drug use had made him unreliable; when he refused, he was forced out of the band. Isbell began a solo career, sobered up, and eventually released Southeastern, a masterpiece, which, along with his subsequent albums, has solidified him as one of the best, if not the best, singer-songwriter in the Americana field, and he has the awards to justify that. 

After the departure of Isbell, the Truckers went through a period of lineup changes, and the release of a number of albums whose quality varied, but all of which were good, until the release of a run of fine, politically charged albums, the best of which, in my opinion, was 2016’s American Band. The Truckers, particularly Hood, were at the vanguard of a reassessment of southern identity, what Hood had called “the duality of the Southern thing,” in interviews and in articles in the press and online.

Isbell, too, hasn’t shied away from political statements on his albums, and on analyzing what being from the South means, and he recently became the poster child for artists insisting that venues require COVID testing for admission. 

So, what would have happened if Isbell had stayed a member of the Truckers? I’ll try to keep it simple, and when I post this in some fan groups on Facebook, I’m sure that people more knowledgeable about the people and situations involved will have their own ideas, but that’s sort of the point of alternative history, right? 

The darkest, saddest, timeline would have had Isbell clean up just enough to stay in the band, but never truly get clean and sober. While he continues to write great songs, and play great guitar, at some point, he gets in too deep with his addictions, never marries Amanda Shires, and like his close friend Justin Townes Earle, overdoses. 

I’d hope, though, for a better outcome—pressured by the members of the Truckers and other friends, Isbell cleans up and becomes an equal songwriting partner in the band, which goes on to greater success, as the 3-4 Isbell songs per album replace some of the weaker cuts, and albums such as American Band, which have little or no filler, become epic double CDs that receive both commercial and critical acclaim. Maybe, at some point, while the band is on a hiatus, Isbell releases a solo album or two, which highlight his individual talent. Maybe he eventually decides to leave the band to go solo, or maybe he’s happy in the band setting, with the occasional solo release or collaboration. 

Luckily, in the real world, Isbell and the Truckers reconciled. Back in 2013, right around the time that Southeastern came out, I went to the Clearwater Festival where both Isbell and Hood were scheduled for solo sets, and they sat in with each other for a song. In 2014, Hood, Cooley and Isbell performed at a benefit at the Shoals Theatre in Florence, Alabama, and there have been a few other instances of Hood and Isbell popping on stage during gigs. 

A couple of weeks ago, Isbell curated a two day festival, ShoalsFest, where both his band, the 400 Unit, and the Truckers, were scheduled to perform. So, if you want a sense of what it might have been like had Isbell had never left the Truckers, the video above is a performance of the song “Decoration Day,” featuring Hood and Cooley joining Isbell and the 400 Unit. But maybe an even better example is the video below, from the night after ShoalsFest, where Isbell joined the Truckers for a couple of songs. The sound isn’t great, but, damn. Just damn.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

WHAT IF: BIG DADDY

Woah, such a tough project, this one, trying to come up with a theme with teeth, thinking my way through what if electricity had yet to be invented, what if Elvis were a vegetarian or what if Lynyrd Skynyrd went everywhere by train, all these imponderables begging to be answered, with nothing to write in response. And then I remembered that there were already a whole group of projects out there, who had already done their own spin on the question. These would often thinly drawn plots about lost valleys, of remote communities, adrift from the modern world, catching a glimpse of the outside world, and applying their own template thereto, with whatsoever was to hand. So we get Hayseed Dixie, supposedly Appalachian farmhands, who, having chanced upon a car crashed in their home hamlet (of Deer Lick Holler), and which contained a stack AC/DC records, they scrupulously set to absorbing and replicating the music thereof, albeit with the only instrumentation to hand. But ahead of them came Big Daddy.

The back story is that the band, whilst touring U.S. army bases in 'Nam, were kidnapped by Laotian guerrillas and kept in captivity until their rescue, in 1983. Thus, bypassing all the trends and tropes of musical styles for the two decades before. So, by the time they were able to restart their career, as a covers band, they only had the chops to play in the styles of the 1950's through early 60's. In truth, this meant splicing more modern material into the distinctive manifestations of much older songs. A studio trick in the first instance, ultimately they became a performing act, with any number of members passing through their ranks, most gainfully otherwise employed as voiceover artists, and capable of any amount of mimicry. 

The Safety Dance/Big Daddy (Meanwhile, Back in the States)

To all intents and purposes their first album, in 1985, was the (well titled) 'Meanwhile, Back In The United States', with a stack of 80s songs, encompassing any number of genres, all put through a 50's filter and regurgitated with some skill and attention to detail. Sure, as a novelty act, maybe not something you would find yourself returning to time and time again, but a good album to have by, and to chuck the odd song from onto mixtapes and playlists. 'What Really Happened to the Band of 59', three years later, took the conceit a step further and ran a little more knowingly with some of the juxtapositioning. By 'Cutting Their Own Groove', another three years later, it was becoming a little shaky, with sometimes the original 1980s source material lost in action, as the grooves of some arcane 1958 rockabilly hit were faultlessly recreated. The way around this developing diminishment of return was a masterstroke, by applying their brilliantine and bobbysocks to a single album, namely 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. This really was their flash in the pan, arguably opening up the market for similar projects, which have since become accepted twists of the route to steering yourself a novelty hit album. The Easy Star All-Stars have taken this to heart, with their dub-reggae tributes, also to Sgt Pepper, but also to Dark Side of the Moon and Radiohead.

Hotel California/Big Daddy (What Really Happened to the Band of '59)

I Want Your Sex/Big Daddy (Cutting Their Own Groove)

Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds/Big Daddy (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band)

Whilst a version of Big Daddy nominally play on, the idea continues to attract attention. One could say the the UK a capella band, the Flying Pickets, operating at much the same time as Big Daddy, were hitting on the same sort of thing, if limited by the smaller mutability of doo-wop. Perhaps the most implicit acceptance of this as a valid art(?!) form came as Pat Boone, one of the archetypal 50's into 60's crooners, returned the favour, interpreting metal hits of the 70's and 80's for his 1997 album, 'In a Metal Mood: No More Mr Nice Guy', but in more his style. This idea, or similar, was replicated again by Paul Anka for his 'Rock Swings', in 2005. All of this proving, in a way, that you just can't keep a good song down. Or, indeed, many a bad one, either. If you dislike the style, or the genre, pick another and just do it again.

Go fer it!!

Afterword: Following the success of Big Daddy, the team behind the band attempted another slice of the pie, deciding on Gregorian Chant as being untapped for the covers market. What do you think?

Theme From the Monkees/The Benzedrine Monks of Santo Domonica (Chantmania)



Thursday, October 7, 2021

What If: Buddy Holly Lived?

Buddy Holly: Crying, Waiting, Hoping (Apartment Tapes version)
[purchase]

This may be the hardest theme we’ve tackled here, and I’ll take responsibility for it, for better or worse. As a history major in college, and general history buff, I’ve also been a fan of “alternative history,” where one historical fact changes, and you speculate on how things might have been different. One good recent example of this was the HBO series, The Plot Against America (and the 2004 Philip Roth novel that it was based on), which launches from the premise that Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 election. I’ve also read a ton of “what if the South won the Civil War” fiction, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows me or has read my writing

But, as I often have to remind myself, this is a music blog, so we are going think about what would have happened if Buddy Holly’s plane hadn’t crashed on that cold February morning in 1959 in Iowa. I’m no Holly expert (although I’ve done some reading about his career), so I’m under no impression that this might be a “definitive” discussion. And because I’m not writing a piece of speculative fiction, and have to therefore pick one path and follow it, we’ll look at a few possibilities, focused more on Holly’s potential career than his potential effect on music as a whole (or the effect of the deaths of the others who were on the plane that day). 

In "American Pie," Don McLean famously referred to the crash that killed Holly, Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson, Jr.), and pilot Roger Peterson, as the “day the music died,” but while that’s a great and memorable lyric, of course, it wasn’t. Most notably, two big Holly fans in Liverpool had recently formed a band named after an insect, in tribute to Holly’s band, the Crickets, and had Holly not died that day, I’m pretty confident that Beatlemania still would have swept through the world a few years later, changing the musical landscape forever, and pushing aside the type of “rock ‘n’ roll” music that Holly and his ilk had made popular (even as the Beatles covered Holly’s songs live and on record). In fact, I’d wager that had Holly lived, he would have been a fan of the Beatles, and even worked with them in some form—maybe writing songs with or for them or performing with them, or releasing his own Beatles covers (everyone else did). But probably not producing the Beatles, since they already had a pretty fair producer. (And don’t forget that the Rolling Stones covered “Not Fade Away” on their first album.) 

Another huge Holly fan was Bob Dylan, who actually saw Holly on the ill-fated Winter Dance Party tour in Duluth, MN, about 3 days before the crash, and referenced Holly as his first musical influence in his Nobel Prize lecture. So, again, Holly’s death wouldn’t have prevented Dylan’s rise and influence on music, and again, I’d bet that they might have collaborated—or at least, become acquainted—particularly after Dylan began to perform regularly in New York. You can easily imagine Holly, with Maria Elena, and maybe a friend like Phil Everly or Waylon Jennings, trying to watch the young Dylan incognito from the back of the club, and being impressed by his talents. 

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. 

One way of looking at this question is by starting by analyzing Holly’s life and music before he died. In late 1958, Holly and wife Maria Elena, moved to Greenwich Village, in part to get a new start, but also to get involved in the New York music scene of the time. Holly, who was not only a musical genius, but appeared to have a more sophisticated business sense than many of his contemporaries, wanted to start his own label and open his own studio. So, maybe, part of Holly’s future would have been as a music executive and producer of other acts. 

During this period, Holly explored his love for jazz, regularly frequenting jazz clubs in the Village and elsewhere in the city. And he would go down to Washington Square Park and play with the other musicians hanging out there. The last formal recording session that Holly participated in was in New York, in collaboration with the Dick Jacobs Orchestra, recording four songs with heavy string orchestration. So, by some analyses, at this point, Holly was moving away from the stripped down rock ‘n’ roll that made him famous to a more sophisticated, smooth pop sound. For example, one of these songs, Paul Anka’s “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” might have presaged a future career for Holly as another Anka-style pop singer. 

At the same time, though, Holly was recording himself in his living room—what have later become known as the “Apartment Tapes,” and from these, you can hear Holly working both on his songwriting and lyrical craft, but also experimenting with tempo and styles. (Many of these demos were later overdubbed and released posthumously.) Add to this the reports that Holly planned to record with black artists such as Ray Charles, Mahalia Jackson and other soul singers (he was, memorably, the first white act to play Harlem’s Apollo Theater), and the prospect of Holly as a pop crooner becomes less likely. Nor do I see him turning to Vegas, like his friend Elvis Presley.

Another way to look at it is to consider the careers of two other musicians who were on the Winter Dance Party tour, but declined to get on the plane—Waylon Jennings, who was Holly’s bass player on the tour and gave up his seat to the Big Bopper, who was sick, and Dion DiMucci, who didn’t want to spend the extra money. There are some who think that Holly’s future, had he survived, would have been to move more toward country music, like Jennings, considering his Texas roots and twang. But I don’t think that Holly would have wanted to be so limited, because his musical tastes were so broad. Dion, of course, had early success, but when that faded, changed his sound to a more mature folk/pop approach, before moving through a Christian music phase, and more recently, focusing on blues, and I suspect that Holly, too, would have kept trying different things. 

Ultimately, I don't think that Holly would have become an “oldies” act, performing versions of his hits to aging fans. Instead, I think that Holly would have gone on to a varied career—writing songs for himself and others, in various styles that would have reflected his curiosity, interests and the new sounds that were developing in the 1960s and 70s, producing and nurturing artists, and continuing to perform new music for years.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

COPS: OF THE WORLD

I thought there was another week in this theme, so ye'll be spared one of my monster posts of obtuse verbiage and arcane detail: this is, therefore a short piece of obtuse verbiage and arcane detail. The song featured above is not new and may be little known, but says as much as us today, nearly sixty years on, as it did then. 

Sadly, despite the suggestion it might, the lyrics are not actually spoonfed out to you in the video, and will need a listen. Thankfully, that is not so hard, given the clear singing diction of the singer, and writer, Phil Ochs. Can you guess what it's about? Who might be the Cops of the World he refers to? The flag, of course, is the giveaway, the term a derogatory phrase attached to Uncle Sam and his finest, dispatched at a moments notice to prop up democracy and the free world, whenever it looks as if trade may be hindered by the actions of nasty foreign types. To be fair, it has been a model that largely seemed to work arguably well, only of late running into the awkward detail that other nations have sussed how it works, and then play differently. Modern warfare just is what it wasn't, with armies and all that a little redundant, as the model morphs into different values and different strategies. That sort of emerged as Vietnam ended rather than was won, with Afghanistan altogether more embarrassing. At least Korea is still undecided, the astonishing fact that, officially, the war is still ongoing. Still, I'll shut up now about the politics. As a Brit, and a goddam pinko one at that, what do I know?

Phil Ochs, who wrote the song, was probably another goddam pinko, although he described himself more as a left social democrat, and was had aims to be a journalist ahead of becoming known as a singer; he later called himself a singing journalist. As the son of a war-scarred doctor, he had a peripatetic childhood, his father struggling to find permanent placements, as his mental health declined. As, initially, a prodigy on clarinet, Ochs developed an interest in politics, and gravitated toward the folk scene in the 1960s Greenwich Village. Guitar was a more appropriate weapon and he swiftly made a name for himself with his songs, laden with a sardonic wit that fitted well with that of his contemporaries, including the young Bob Dylan. Unfortunately, like his father, he suffered with his mental health, eventually taking his own life in 1976, his later years marred by alcoholism and bipolar disorder, itself undiagnosed for some time before, which explained his increasingly bizarre behaviour. Now he is little more than a name, a remnant of the past and of his Dylan associations, like a loopier Rambling Jack Elliott. But he has an interesting legacy: with around 200 songs to his name, many cast a shadow longer than his memory, with lyrics just as prescient as this featured song. Worth checking out, together with this biography.

Above is the version of the song that led me to Ochs and this piece, the song being covered by Michael Weston King, an all round good egg and, currently, one half, with his wife, Lou Dalgleish, the other half, of the retro country duet celebrants, My Darling Clementine. Once also of the coals to Newcastle (UK) americana outfit, the Good Sons, in 2010 he released a song of seven covers and five songs of his own, all protest songs in the best sense of the word, which included, also, songs by Tim Hardin, Bob Dylan and Bobby darin. It's called 'I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be a Soldier', the Ochs song a highlight.

Ochs

King



Cops: Fela Kuti - Sorrow Tears and Blood

 



purchase [ Sorrow Tears and Blood ]


Fela Ransome Kuti.  The name is enough to make you want to Google it. 

Fela Kuti (although he was using Ransome in his name when I first heard him, he stopped using it in the 80s, saying it smacked of slavery), appears to have been well aquainted with the police. His mother likely had visits from the authorities: she was an outspoken activist until she wasn't. Fela on more than one occasion had run-ins with the authorities: his Kalakuta Republic/studio was burned down and destroyed in a raid by the Nigerian authorities during which his mother was thrown from a window and died.

His music gained popularity shortly after a period of time spent in the US at the end of the 60s. Back in Africa, his admirers and collaborators included - among others - Ginger Baker, just out from a stint with Cream (hey ... isn't that part of the focus of my previous post here?)

As I said, I first heard Fela "Ransome" Kuti on vacation in 1979, courtesy of a fellow teacher who had worked in Africa, probably Peace Corps, the music mesmorised me - a genuine mix  with its own African style, The song above seems to me to be a perfect example. And the clip has the added benefit of numerous appearances of the cops in Nigeria in addition to the police themed lyrics.


Friday, September 24, 2021

COPS: POLICE AND THIEVES/JUNIOR MURVIN

I can't think of cops without robbers, the pairing being as intrinsic as salt and pepper, fish and chips and rock and roll. So, for me, the no brainer is this iconic song from the 1970s. Given, too, it is barely a month since the producer, one Lee 'Scratch' Perry, departed this earth, it seems as good a time as any to give it centre stage.

Police and Thieves/Junior Murvin (1976)

A supreme distillation of both reggae and dub, anyone unfamiliar with either couldn't fail to appreciate and understand the complex simplicities at work here. A beautiful melody, sung in a delightful falsetto without an an ounce of strain or grating, the sturdy skanking undercurrent, a perfect storm of controlled concern. But burbling in the middle distance is the stuff of genius, Perry fading aspects of the backing so subtly in and out, the barest hint of echo raising a presence intermittently. Sometimes dub is so full on and so frightening as to scare a first time rider: this is surely the song for sceptics to listen to. Of course, if you want and need a little more, there is the full on dub version: check in at about 4 minutes here, where all the studio shenanigans gets the full treatment, yet still leaves the majesty of Murvin's vocal intact. However, this is neither the time of the place to celebrate Perry, this is Murvin's gig. (Check back in to our yearly Obituary thread, at the end of the year, for that pleasure.)

Solomon/Junior Soul (1972)

Murvin, too, is no longer with us; he died, at the age of 67, in 2013. But 'Police and Thieves' was certainly not all he left behind him, even if most of his other hits were local only to the West Indies. Like so many on these islands, he was influenced by black American soul music, and, given the timbre of his voice, it is little surprise that it was Curtis Mayfield who most floated his boat. Trying, unsuccessfully, to get in with the bigger JA studios, he first found some recognition, as Junior Soul, with 'Solomon', above, in 1972. It was clear he had a stand out voice, even if the song is a little weak and generic. Four years later he again auditioned for greater attention, this time being picked up by Perry's Black Ark studio, and with whom he together wrote the set of songs released as the 'Police and Thieves' album. This was 1976, and it was released worldwide on Chris Blackwell's Island records. Hindsight places it as at the pinnacle of Perry's productions, with the ultimate backing musicianship of the Upsetters, the Black Ark houseband, with stalwarts such as Sly Dunbar, Boris Gardner and Ernest Ranglin contributing. Anyone unfamiliar and beginning to be intrigued by the dub reggae palette could do a lot worse than to invest in this LP. Should invest, rather. It actually took until 1980 for the titular song to become a major hit, based, in part, on soundtrack appearances. Murvin then continued to work with Perry, moving on to work with other producers and with other studios, if never quite repeating this earlier success. Here are a couple of later gems, tho', each with their respective dub workouts. Wise Man was his last recording, in 1998.

Cool Out Son/Junior Murvin (1979)

Wise Man/Junior Murvin (1998)

By now, I dare say some may be itching for their vague recollections of where else they know the featured song from, perhaps, in part, prompted by Jordan's recent post here. I refer, of course, to the Clash, seminal punks turned musical roots polymaths, who, on hearing the song in its original format in 1976, took it to heart and included it on their eponymous 1977 debut album. Eschewing the term white reggae, they categorised it as punk reggae. Murvin, apparently, loathed it: "they have destroyed Jah's work". Nevertheless, if intriguingly, it became the inspiration for Bob Marley to write his song, 'Punky Reggae Party'. Almost included by accident and an afterthought, 'Police and Thieves' became one of the band's most popular songs.

Police and Thieves/The Clash (1977)

And that wasn't the end of the song, there having been a plethora of subsequent covers, although the quality has been, let's say, variable. One of the more interesting was when the Orb, the UK psy-ambient electronica outfit, got together with Lee Perry. Their joint 'Orbserver in the Star House' project is, on occasion, an unwieldy and indulgent piece of work, but has a number of moments where their disparate worlds collide in alignment, and the revisioning of 'Police and Thieves' is certainly one of those moments.
(Well, it's different, but I always love this crazy shit.)

Police and Thieves/The Orb with Lee 'Scratch' Perry (2012)

The original and best. (Yup, get the whole album, you know you want to.......)





Thursday, September 23, 2021

Cops: The Clash Covered


The Clash
: Police & Thieves

The Clash
: I Fought The Law

The Clash: Police On My Back 

[purchase The Clash]
[purchase Sandinista!

When I thought about responding to this theme, I realized that the Clash covered three songs (that I could think of) about police, and was going to write about them. But then I saw that Seuras was working on a post about their cover of Junior Murvin’s “Police & Thieves,” so I won’t say anything more about that one, and direct you to Seuras’ piece, when it is posted. Although I will engage in some self-promotion by referring to my earlier article about the punk/reggae connection that the Clash was very much involved in, and which mentioned how “Police & Thieves” in part inspired Bob Marley’s “Punky Reggae Party.” 

Although the Clash’s self-titled first album was released in the UK (and elsewhere) in 1977, it didn’t get released in the USA until 1979. In 1978, while working on their second album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones went to San Francisco to do some overdubs at the Automatt studio, where they heard, for the first time, the Bobby Fuller Four song, “I Fought The Law.” Originally written by Sonny Curtis, the song was recorded in 1959 by Curtis and the Crickets, after Buddy Holly died, to little notice. The song was recorded by other musicians, including Bobby Fuller, with minimal success. But when Fuller re-recorded the song in 1965 with the Bobby Fuller Four, the song became a top-10 hit, and since then has been often covered. Only a few months after the song charted, Fuller was found dead from asphyxiation in his mother's car in a parking lot near his Los Angeles apartment. 

The Clash’s cover was added to the US release of The Clash and was instrumental in getting the band airplay in the US. It’s a great version of the song, to the point that I think that many people (not anyone reading this, of course) think it is an original. And that’s not to take anything away from the Bobby Fuller Four version, which is also great. Although it is interesting to think about the fact that the Clash’s version was released less than 15 years after the Bobby Fuller version, when I think about them as being from such completely different eras. If you'd like to read more about the song, from the Financial Times, of all places, go here.

London Calling is my favorite Clash album, and is actually one of my all-time favorites, and while it has a few cover songs on it, none are explicitly police related (I don’t think). Their next album, Sandinista! was a sprawling three-disc release, and some critics thought it was better than London Calling, while others, including me, thought that it had a little too much filler, and might have made a killer double album. But they do get points for ambition. There was a strong reggae and dub influence all over Sandinista!, and one of the covers on that album was “Police On My Back,” written by Eddy Grant (probably best known for his early-1980s hit, “Electric Avenue”) for his group the Equals in 1967. The Equals may well have been the first popular racially mixed band in the UK, and their version of the song, while sounding very consistent with British pop of the era, had a definite ska undertone. Interestingly, the Clash’s version is a straightforward rocker, with, to my ears, no real reggae or ska influences. And if you want to read a 29 page analysis, “Police On My Back and the Postcolonial Experience,” go here.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Woodwinds: Jack Bruce & Wheels of Fire Again

 


purchase [Fresh Cream]


I really, honestly had not planned it so that it would so coincidental, but  .. back to Wheels of Fire because Jack Bruce was so multi-intrumental that he also played woodwinds on the album.

As a kid, my first instrument was the recorder; we had a quintet or maybe even a setext of alto, soprano and even one tenor recorders in the fanily at one point (I still have posession of my father's tenor recorder - looks like a clarinet in size - definitely not your typical school recorder)

The instrument most commonly used in the classroom setting is the soprano. Available in plastic, of course. Yamaha notes that there are 6 sizes, from sopranino down to great bass, although perhaps "down" isn't quite appropriate: the great bass is approximately the size of a human.

Although I think I can identify its presence/sound, I'll take Ginger Baker's word for it when he identifies the song where Jack Bruce plays the recorder as <Pressed Rat and Warthog>. From gingerbaker.com:

On “Pressed Rat and Wart Hog” Jack plays two basses. The second bass comes in at the end and it’s a six string. Eric’s on three times. I’m on twice with trumpet and tonette. When I played tonette, Jack played recorder.

Here's a more contemporary rendition, but there's no recorder.




Sunday, September 12, 2021

WOODWINDS: FLUTE LOOPS

 Flutes tend to get a lot of stick these days, whether hewn from a stick or crafted in the finest bamboo, brass or even bone. They just aren't seen as cool anymore. Even in folk music, for long the mainstay of this edge blown aerophone(!), there is a danger it is being surreptitiously supplanted by the low whistle, that new usurper on the scene. (The low whistle, whilst based on the simple "penny" instrument, probably only became an entity when Finbar Furey, the Irish Uillean piper asked Brian Overton to fashion a "big" whistle from, legend has it, a piece of surplus plumbing. However, culture vultures, it likely existed before in the format of a fipple flute, an instrument that then later lost favour.)

But the flute isn't yet history and has life beyond ridicule, however hard Ron Burgundy has tried. Jazz flautists have a small yet important page in the history of that music, if often more an extra trick up the sleeve of saxophonists, than necessarily the main deal. Herbie Mann came closest to making the jazz flute cool, if also, by that dreadful album cover, near inventing the parody above. In the 1970s he had even enough crossover appeal to be seen as cool to have a copy of any other of his works under your arm. I especially liked Memphis Underground, from 1969. Other notable jazzers with a taste for tooting, sorry, fluting, as many many jazz musicians allegedly had a penchant for tooting, would include Eric Dolphy and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who could switch effortlessly between any number of saxes and flute. He could play more than one at a time, but am uncertain if that were ever possible between saxophone and flute. And, yes, that was nose flute at one stage in that clip, sparing having to mention it later.....

Rock flute had a very narrow window, beginning and near ending with Ian Anderson's manic persona in Jethro Tull. But, ahead of their folk-prog prime, they were a more straight ahead blues band, and the blues-rock scene was littered with flute solos. If were a band I was particularly fond of, with their vibe a mix and match of jazz, blues, rock and r'n'b. Both their reedmen, Dick Morrissey and Dave Quincy, were adept on the instrument. Of course, prog rock was awash with flute, much appreciated in whimsical and pastoral interludes in sidelong epics about dragons and princesses. Early Genesis were enthusiasts, as Peter Gabriel could play a bit, something he has kept distinctly quite about since going solo.


Folk flute has had two distinct rotes, in trad. inspired music and in fey singer-songwriter, of which the former has tended to date better. The list of Irish and Scottish bands able to whip out a flute, amongst all the all other panoply of pipes and fiddles are legion, with the name Michael McGoldrick perhaps standing out. Initially with Capercaillie, he has a successful solo career alongside working with and in Mark Knopfler's band, as well as in the house band for Transatlantic Sessions. His name, and that of Brian Finnegan, are two names that can act as a guarantee of classy playing, should you ever spot either on a CD  cover. Before Capercaillie, they actually played together, in the same band, Flook, along with a third flautist, Sarah Allen. Here's an old clip, followed by some early John Martyn, who was certainly anything other than fey, even if this example may be. The flute is by estimable jazz parper Harold McNair, often alongside Donovan in his early recordings also.


Country flute? Blues flute? Well, not a lot. I suppose Marshall Tucker Band might (just) about fulfil the first and Canned Heat, arguably, the latter, but that isn't all there is to this to this piece as I have to include a nod to more modern forms of music. A clip or two, even, from this century might help give some semblance of my not being some ancient dinosaur, even if I am. So, with a leap and a bound it is, oh, still only 1994, but the Prodigy, hey, kids, Granpa's gone all hepcat, daddio. Actually before they hit their chart topping prime, I remember hearing this and being absolutely astonished, and unable to get the ear worm flute melody out my head. I still can't.

Is 2010 near enough for you? Ever heard of Shpongle? I love 'em, that weird hinterland of dance and world musics, bundleed up into a somewhat lysergic trance like state, not that I have any experience of that particular trip, and placed into the somewhat niche genre of psybient: psychedelic ambient. Whilst it is true that one of the duo, flautist Raja Ram, actually kickstarted his career as far back as the late 60s, as a member of Ladbroke Grove raga-rock stoners, Quintessence, his, um, diet, has clearly done little harm, and he continues to ply his chosen path with no little wizardry. Whilst Ram is still upright, flute still has a place.

Too much here to pint you to all their product, so let's just go here, for something completely different. Keep them flutes a tooting!!




Thursday, September 9, 2021

Woodwinds: Sing, Sing, Sing

Benny Goodman: Sing, Sing, Sing
[purchase

My last couple of postings haven’t been all that popular with the readership. I’m not sure why an instrumental cello cover of a King Crimson song, or a difficult Velvet Underground song featuring a droning viola might not be all that attractive…..So to try to pander to the readers and rack up views, I’m going to write about a 12 minute jazz song that was performed in 1938. I suspect that it will blow up the Internet! 

When the great clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman considered playing a concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall in the late 1930s, jazz had never been performed there. Initially concerned that jazz would not go over well at the bastion of classical music propriety, it was only after his movie, Hollywood Hotel, was a hit, that Goodman decided to go for it, and canceled recording dates to rehearse inside the venerable venue. Goodman’s initial concerns about financial success proved unfounded, when the 2760 seats sold out weeks in advance—the best seats cost $2.75, but third balcony and standing room seats cost 85 cents (depending on the website, $2.75 then is worth somewhere between $30 and $55 today, which is not bad, considering that if you wanted to go to Carnegie Hall next February to see Jon Batiste, the tickets range from $46-$65—but if you wanted to see Michael Feinstein, it would set you back between $83-$100). 

Goodman’s orchestra was racially mixed, which was also groundbreaking for its time, and many writers have remarked that this concert was the point at which jazz became respectable (although some might consider that a bad thing, I guess). 

In addition to performances by Goodman’s small groups and big band, there was a jam session that included members of the Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras. But the finale was what Goodman considered a “killer-diller” designed to get the patrons up and dancing—the Louis Prima penned “Sing, Sing, Sing.” As a brief aside, my introduction to this great song was when my high school band director, Mr. Sitts, had us play a marching band arrangement of the song at halftime of a football game. What I most remember about that was that I was playing bass drum, and had to keep a steady beat with one hand, while playing another rhythm with my other hand, which to this day, I remember being difficult. But Clarkstown North had a pretty strong marching band back in those days, so we did what we had to do. 

The song begins with drumming from the great Gene Krupa, who had zero problems playing independent rhythms with both hands and feet, and eventually, pretty much everyone gets a solo, with Goodman’s appearing to ascend above the clarinet’s range. The song brought the audience to its feet, with some dancing in the aisles, not something that happened during the classical performances at Carnegie Hall. 

The concert was recorded onto acetates as well as on aluminum transcription discs, but were not released contemporaneously because Goodman was distracted by other projects, and because of the use of musicians from various bands, there were difficult contractual issues to resolve. The aluminum discs, which were of higher quality, were filed away by CBS and forgotten. In 1950, Goodman’s niece, who had taken over his apartment, found the degraded acetate, and through difficult work, much of it was restored, and similarly difficult legal work cleared the music for release in 1950, becoming one of the first 33 1/3 records to sell over a million copies. Phil Schaap, who passed away on Tuesday, found a second set of acetates and worked to improve the quality, and the album was re-released in 1985. In 1998, a CD version was released based on the aluminum masters, improving the sound quality again, and there have been various CD releases and remasters since.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

WOODWINDS: KATE ST.JOHN

Woodwinds seem often made of brass, which is confusing, but don't include horns, except the english horn, which seems to be a form of clarinet. And, even more extraordinarily, that includes bagpipes and accordions, but don't panic, I'm not going there, at least not this week. So, choices, choices and I think I'm going for oboe, as it looks so darn difficult, like trying to blow a hard-boiled egg down a curtain rod. And because the list of greatest oboe player in rock is a short and exclusive list. To be fair most people falter after Andy Mackay

I'd like to show you and explain how Kate St. John has a better claim to that title. And, as I write this down, I find myself suddenly panicking, realising she is probably playing cor anglais, or some such, in the songs I use to apply my thesis. Luckily, hardly any reader will be capable of telling the difference; it seems it is all to do with available pitch, the cor anglais (or english horn, see above, who knew) having access to the lower notes.

So, that exquisite sound on Julian Cope's 'World Shut Your Mouth' album is oboe/cor anglais and is played by Kate St John. Originally classically trained, well, you'd have to be, she will be familiar to older readers as being a core member of those fey purveyors of winsome pop, The Dream Academy, who, for some strange reason I confuse with the nothing like them at all Dream Syndicate, who never knowingly branded woodwinds at all, in love or warfare. (OK, I lied.....). I like the video below as it actually shows off Ms St. John on active service, the Smith's cover version being the one from the film, 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off'.


At this time she was married to Sid Griffin, the all americana leader of the Long Ryders, who actually were label mates of Dream Syndicate, adding to the confusion. The oboe never comes to mind often in country tinged music, but, hey, she gets there, not until his next band, the Coal Porters. (And it is cor anglais here, nitpickers!!) A Gram Parsons song, too, no less.


Later, in the 1990s, she worked with a lot withVan Morrison, often on saxophone but still managing to to get her chosen out for when Van needed to go his most transcendental. A lovely, evocative sound, it also transfers well into new age music. In the short lived band Channel Light Vessel, she hooked up with Roger, brother of Brian, Eno, Bill Nelson and Laraaji. I suspect I was one of the few who bought anything by them, with it being, it's true, seldom the record I need to hear too much of, but it has its moments.

 

Other contributions have included playing with the Waterboys on their 2011 'Appointment With Mr Yeats'; if she could do Donne with Van, she could certainly do Yeats with Scott!! Whether it all works is arguably up for grabs, but it has the song below is worth it for the burst of play that comes after Scott's doleful sing song recital.


In more art imitating life, she got also to tour with Morrissey, perhaps getting to play her oboe part for 'Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want' with one of the songwriters. Other folk who paid up for her live contributions have included Marianne Faithfull and Damon Albarn. And she has been credited to discs for those as varied as the Pet Shop Boys, XTC and Boyzone. However, by now married to Neil MacColl, son of Ewan and half-brother of Kirsty, she has found a niche as the musical director for a number of big production shows and projects. These have included Joe Boyd's Nick Drake tributes, some of the late Hal Willner works, like his Rogues Gallery Sea Chanteys project, and various collective performances of the Richard Thompson and extended family performances. Husband and wife have also worked together on a number of film and TV scores. Whilst this means she is now more often arranging and on keyboards, like the song below, it is too good not to include, her link with MacColl drawing her into folk networks and the songs of her late father-in-law, had he ever been alive to meet her.


Busy, busy woman, and, now you know, I dare say there is way more of her you have heard than earlier you ever knew. 

Take a chance?










Sunday, September 5, 2021

Bigger Strings: Jack Bruce

 



purchase [Wheels of Fire]


I confess that I have never given much attention to the bass player. Yeah, I know that the bass and drums are critical to the ryhthm, but the paucity of notes that the bass plays belies the importance of a song's underlying structure. 

A Quora post I read recently asked "why can't you ever hear the bass?" While the question strikes me as a bit "out of it", I fear that there is some truth to the question: the bass (player) rarely gets the spotlight. And I confess it wasn't until I started digging this week, that I paid much attention to Jack Bruce. 

Musically trained as a cello player and then moving to the standing bass, Bruce moved through various groups, including time with John McLaughlin and Ginger Baker in the Graham Bond Quartet, and with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton.

Although I owned a copy of Cream's double album Wheels of Fire as well as one of Fresh Cream, neither, particularly in comparison with Disraeli Gears did much for me. Although we generally think of Cream as a trio (Clapton, Bruce, Baker), a majority of Wheels of Fire is a quartet, with Felix Pappalardi as the fourth member (later to head off and help found Mountain with Leslie West - with whom Bruce later founded West, Bruce & Laing)

Jack Bruce, of course, is the bass player of the original trio, but he also did a lot of the lead vocals as well as writing  quite a few of the songs. He was a multi-intrumentalist and you can find videos of him playing the piano and more. On Wheels of Fire, we get Bruce and Pappalardi playing cellos, violas, bass ... but I bet you wouldn't know it unless you read the credits/liner notes. Pappalardi is playing the viola in "White Room" up top. Here, in "Passing the Time", Bruce is credited with playing the viola.



At one point in his early career, we find him playing with Charlie Watts, among others at the London Blues and Barrelhouse Club.



Tuesday, August 31, 2021

BIGGER STRINGS: DANNY THOMPSON

Well, strings don't  come much bigger than Victoria. Who she? Victoria is the stand-up bass guitar Danny Thompson bought for a fiver (£5) in around 1954, when he was fifteen. And who Danny Thompson? Shame on you for asking, but I guess not all tastes are as rarified as mine. Sir Danny of Thompson, as he has yet become officially recognised as, an MBE having to suffice, is the fella who has gone as far as most in making stand-up bass other than an old fogey associated item. If you are familiar with Pentangle, Nick Drake, John Martyn and Richard Thompson, the chances are that you are familiar with his work. If you have watched the Transatlantic Sessions, live or on TV, the chances are that you have seen him, an avuncular presence, holding all the virtuosi musicians also featured in check, more that likely with a beatific beam on his face, itself usually under a hat of some intrinsic coolness.

With Martin Simpson, 2014

I used to hate the double bass, it encompassing everything old and fuddy-duddy of the pre-rock era. All these bloody b&w jazzers, with the bass perpetually walking up and down in the background, whilst the usual focus of attention showed off in the foreground, besuited drummers tip-tapping away politely alongside. Sometimes they crossed over into my awareness, notably in the Seekers, my father's favourite band, courtesy the comely charms of Judith Durham. They could always be relied upon to turn up on BBC Saturday night variety shows, I finding the grinning buffoon on bass an offence to my pre-pubertal sensitivities. (Apologies thus due, now, to Athol Guy, the player in question, even if I have not the heart to go back and actually check out his playing.) This prejudice took forever, a bit like trumpet, to rid, but, boy, when I did....

With Richard Thompson, 2001

Thompson was the man from the start, even if I was slow to get up to speed. As an RT freak, it was when he first started appearing alongside Richard, his Thompson 'twin', that I got up to speed. You know how it is, when you sometimes 'get' something, the scales fall from your eyes like roof tiles in a hurricane. Suddenly I was hoovering up John Martyn and, even, if a bit later, Nick Drake. (His vocals still alienated for longer than I care admit.) Suddenly big ol' bass was cool, she even when one Gordon Sumner came on board, I was already, o yes, on message.

So, Daniel Henry Edward Thompson..... Like the recently deceased Charlie Watts, he too was an alumnus of Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated, taking over bass duties from Jack Bruce. Following that four year period, 1664-7, he became a member of Pentangle, that undersung folk-jazz hybrid, ploughing their idiosyncratic acoustic vibe at the same time as Fairport and Steeleye were inventing an electric folk tradition. He and Terry Cox, drums, both crossed the then gulf between traditions, joining nominal folkies Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, with the consummate purity of Jacqui McShee on vocals. 

With Pentangle, 1972

The John Martyn years, which followed, were as famous for their onstage "dynamic" as for the often mercurial music, both not averse to the occasional pre-, per- and post-stage snifter. Thompson was able to take a longer view, and withdrew. Martyn, sadly not, his death as much to do with the ravages of alcohol as anything else, if sober at the time of his death. 

With John Martyn, 1977

A solo career beckoned, or at least as bandleader, his band, 'Whatever' a sonic free for all, genre-wise, with some astonishing material. When this expanded to into an even wider ubiquity, as 'Songhai', featuring flamenco purists, Ketama, alongside Malian kora maestro, Toumani Diabaté, any sense of categorisation became redundant.

Songhai, 1988

Round about the same time he hooked up with kindred spirit, Richard Thompson: each had embraces Islam, possibly, in part, as an escape from the hedonism of the musical life. For several years he was the right hand man to his namesake, whether in a band format or as a duo. An interesting memento of that time comes with 1997's 'Industry', a joint production, encompassing both the songs of RT and the music of Whatever. It's a worthwhile listen.

Industry, 1997

A jovial presence, he was also getting work as an amiable onstage presence at Fairport Convention's Cropredy Festivals, as host and master of ceremonies. I remember my horror, I think in 1998, as it was announced from the stage that Thompson had sustained a stroke. The audience were invited to sing Danny Boy, so that, by phone, he could hear their well wishes. I thought that the end, but he made a decent recovery and was soon playing again, seemingly as well as ever. The couple of times I caught the Transatlantic Sessions tours, in the early 20 teens, he was terrific, the cheer for him, when introduced, as big as for any of the other performers. Grab a look at his website for a list of records he has appeared on, a ridiculously large roster, encompassing jazz, folk, blues, world, everything, including a number of surprises. Did you know he played on Cliff Richards' Eurovison winner, 'Congratulations'? Or with artists as diverse as T.Rex, Kate Bush and David Sylvian, let alone most of Donovan's recordings. Not bad for an old jazzer!

Transatlantic Sessions, 2016
Back with RT, 2019

Here's rather a good interview, from only a year or so ago.

Get this!

Monday, August 30, 2021

Bigger Strings: The Black Angel’s Death Song


Velvet Underground: The Black Angel’s Death Song
[purchase

John Cale is another musician whose work I’m aware of and have enjoyed, but never (until now) spent much time learning about his life and career. I knew he plays the viola, among other instruments, that he was one of the founders of the Velvet Underground, put out some solo albums, at least one of which I played back in my WPRB days, and did an album with Brian Eno a couple of decades ago (gasp!). This turns out to be, somewhat embarrassingly, a pretty pathetic summary. So, in brief (and admittedly, mostly gleaned from Wikipedia), Cale was born in Wales in 1942, adopted the viola as his primary instrument and studied music at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Cale once described the viola as the “saddest instrument of all and, no matter how adept you get at it or no matter how fast you play it, you can’t get away from the character of it.” 

Cale quickly became enamored by the more avant-garde and experimental classical music becoming popular in the 1960s, including organizing a Fluxus concert in 1964 and conducting the first U.K. performance of a John Cage piece. He obtained a scholarship to work with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood, but they “fell out,” and Cale then moved to New York where he participated in an 18 hour performance of an Erik Satie composition and joined La Monte Young’s Theater of Eternal Music. 

OK—enough with the classical music (I mean, really, two posts in a row writing about classical music which I know basically nothing about…. I’m really not trying to pull a Metal Machine Music and alienate you all). 

Cale also liked rock music, and joined up with Lou Reed to found what became the Velvet Underground in 1964. Cale’s taste for the experimental, particularly drones, when combined with Reed’s penchant for rock and poetry (and manager Andy Warhol’s Andy Warhol-ness) resulted in early albums that were kind of all over the place. 

One of the more experimental songs from the debut album, Velvet Underground & Nico is the cheerily named, “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” which, for the most part, features Cale’s droning and dissonant electric viola with Reed and Sterling Morrison each playing away on guitar, while Reed chant/sings wordy lyrics in a style that had to be influenced by Dylan. There’s also what sounds like feedback, but was actually Cale hissing into the mike. I know that description doesn’t make it sound all that appetizing, and the song got the band fired from their residency at Manhattan’s Café Bizarre. But while it isn’t something that I’d listen to regularly, there’s something intriguing about it that made me glad that I checked it out again for this piece. 

So, what’s the song about? It is hard to say. Reed himself has said that “The idea here was to string words together for the sheer fun of their sound, not any particular meaning.” But the imagery is so strong, I find that hard to believe. I’ve seen claims on the Internet that the song is about life’s choices, heroin, suicide, the Holocaust, and Communism. Check it out, and let me know what you think. 

Eventually, Reed and Cale fell out over the direction of the Velvets, and Cale was replaced by Doug Yule (I guess you had to have four letters in your name). Cale went on to a career as a producer (for, among others, the Stooges, Jennifer Warnes, Patti Smith, The Modern Lovers, Squeeze, and Alejandro Escovedo), collaborator (including with Reed on Songs for Drella in 1990), and solo and soundtrack artist.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Bigger Strings: I Could Have Used More Cello




I always remember the spring of 1989 as the season where I discovered thrash metal. Inspired by repeated viewings of MTV’s Saturday night all-metal show Headbangers Ball, I purchased a copy of Anthrax’s State of Euphoria. The biggest shock to my 11-year-old brain was not the album’s bone-crunching riffs nor the numerous f-bombs, it was the fact that the opening track “Be All, End All” started off with a cello riff. These days, it’s fairly common to associate classical stringed instruments and heavy metal. After all, Metallica has released two albums performed in conjunction with the San Francisco Francisco Symphony. But at the time I purchased the Euphoria album I found the inclusion of the cello to be almost a form of sacrilege. “How dare these headbangers defile their album with a classical instrument,” I thought. Okay, I didn’t quite put it in those terms, but you get the idea. Thirty-plus years later I’m happy to admit I was wrong. The short, stringed section of the track is actually one of the most memorable parts of the album. So much so that even today, I can easily hum it. “Ba-Da, Ba-Da-Da-Da, Da-Da.” It was the first song that popped into my head when I associated the words “cello” and “rock n’ roll.” Kind of like Blue Öyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” and “cowbell.” Surely, I’m not the only Anthrax fan who feels this way. There’s a clip of the band performing the track at one of the fabled Big Four concerts in 2010 (which featured Anthrax, Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth) where vocalist Joey Belladonna encouraged the crowd to sing the melody in unison. Such a precise performance by the audience was no doubt inspired by that wonderful cello.


Studio version:




Live 2010:





BIGGER STRINGS: CHOPPER

Should you ever wish to seduce me, let me give you a tip: whilst food would help, and I am really quite flexible in my tastes there and needs, likewise with the alcohol I would also expect to be plied with, when it comes to the music, one sure fire guarantee is the cello. I adore the warm mellifluous tones of a cello, sweeping emotion into my breast and out through my heart. No great fan of the classics as a whole, it all being a bit too clever for me, a Bach cello concerto can fully stir my loins. and, for a long time, that was the only place you could find this instrument, in orchestras and string quartets.


Things sort of got better in the whatever it was, as Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne revoked the Move and came up with the Electric Light Orchestra. I confess I loved much of the debut, ahead of Wood jumping ship. I then found the band all bit much, sawing away in abandon, substituting schmalz for the searing angst the instrument can evoke, all the songs sounding, ultimately, the same, orchestral gloop. Never mind, nice try, thought I, going back to guitar and keyboard based musics. Folk became my go to as the 1980s beckoned, and I became a subscriber to influential magazine, Folk Roots. (Later FROOTS, and sadly, as of a year or so ago, no longer.) They had a flexidisc on an early edition, a thin bendy 45rpm record, which included a bevy of artists from the nascent Cooking Vinyl record company, including Oysterband and Michelle Shocked. Each appealed enormously.


Moving ahead a little, as I have touched on this band a few times before, as it is but one part of their joyous clatter I wish to concentrate on here. And that is the part of one 'Chopper', or Ray Cooper, as his mother called him, not, by the way, the percussionist, had to play. Oysterband have always had an issue with their rhythm section. Initially drummerless, once they added drums, they have got through a number, the current incumbent being number, I think, five. Bassists have fared slightly better. Chopper was their second, in the band between 1989 and 2013.


Let's retread a little. Prior to joining the Oysters, Chopper had been part of the extraordinary faux-balkan world music collective, 3 Mustaphas 3. Predominately the brainchild of Ben Mandelson and Lu Edmonds, together with a changing cast of additional musicians, they played a bizarre blend of ethnic musical styles, often from the eastern Mediterranean and beyond, treating the concept as part parody, yet tackling the core of the music with all seriousness and with an obvious affection. Sort of if the Bonzo's came from Albania. Chopper, if then under the pseudonym Oussack Mustapha, was their cellist for a while, including on the song above. Perhaps an acquired taste, they were then only on the fringes of my awareness. (Edmonds, who had earlier been in th Damned, is now the extravagantly bearded guitarist in John Lydon's Public Image Ltd.)

So, no surprise, when he was drafted into his new band, he brought his cello with him. I must have seen them a dozen of times during his time with them, increasingly playing more and more cello, rather than the bass he had been employed to play. A wonderful sound, and, I believe, contributory to the increasingly common presence of a cello in rock, folk and, increasingly, even country music. Here, below, are a couple of songs that well display his mellow tones. Unsurprisingly, when he left the band, they, clearly, had to be able to replicate that part of their repertoire, and it actually took two musicians to fill his gap on stage and on records, one on bass and another on cello.



Was that the end of Chopper? Or Ray Cooper as he was increasingly again becoming known, and the answer is a definite no. A resident of Sweden, he has now released four records in his own name, all sturdy singer-songwriter fare of a recognisably rootsy origin, at times not dissimilar to his old band, but encompassing a wider range of influences, often those of his adoptive Scandinavia. Again, a couple of clips, the first to show off his stellar technique on a traditional air, the second a song, the title track, from his latest project. I had been due to see him a month ago, my first projected post lockdown concert. Sadly, it had to be postponed, given the still travelling embargo  between Sweden and the UK. Pity. I have a ticket, instead, for next year.