Thursday, April 29, 2021


Way the world's going, what we need and what we need now is some head's down, no nonsense, mindless boogie. (No, not that one.) After a disastrous start, UK has begun to vaccinate itself to a state of current easing, but large parts of the rest of the world are daily scuttling ever more perilously to the edge of wipe-out. How to, what to, why to? None of this I know any more, but, in the avoidance of the harsh and bleak, new variants willing, grant me a couple of minutes of escapism. 

Brinsley Schwarz were and are a staple of my listening pleasure. Actually the name of one of the guitarists, the name became that of the band, bastions of the burgeoning UK pub-rock scene, that pre-punk escape from the scourge of prog pomp posturing, embracing flavours of country, blues and soul into short punchy songs. Nick Lowe was the most lauded member, going on, via Rockpile, to build himself a healthy solo career that runs to this day. (Not all healthy: down on his luck in the early 90's, the chance pick up of one of his songs for Hollywood blockbuster, The Bodyguard, was said to have led a cheque, for a seven figure sum, dropping into his postbox. Which must have been nice.) Other members later found their way into Graham Parker's Rumour. BS, the band, were as famous, at the time, for a disastrous promo exercise, going disastrously wrong, whereby they were flown to the Fillmore East, NYC, for a showcase gig in front of a throng of top music biz journos. Late on arrival, unpractised and under-rehearsed, with pick-up kit, it was a fiasco, with them laughed out of town and pocket. Astonishingly, rather than throwing in the towel, they picked themselves up and built themselves a strong grassroots following, back from the bottom, producing a run of well received records. This is typical of their style, a bucolic mix of keyboards and choogling rhythm. But, never enough a concern to make their fortunes, and they folded their four year career in 1974. The song comes from their 1973 album, 'Please Don't Ever Change', and was written by Lowe.

Ironically, shortly before they split, one of their final gainfully was to back Welsh retro-rocker Dave Edmunds on tour. Edmunds and Lowe hit it off and the next step was the formation of Rockpile. Initially, again, Edmunds' group but they gradually became co-pilots, the band then backing each other on each of their then solo output recordings, and then a specific Rockpile as a band album release, 'Seconds of Pleasure'. The band, a four piece, with later 2nd generation Pretender Billy Bremner on additional guitar and vocals, and later Dire Straiter Terry Williams on drums. I really expected huge things for them, but the honeymoon bubble burst, and they split, their legacy hidden as much in those solo albums, and that of Lowe's then wife, Carlene Carter. (Yup, that one, Johnny Cash's step-daughter!) Their version of the featured song eschews some of the melodic swagger for an altogether more muscular take, guitars to the fore and no piano. But no less pleasurable. (And, special credit clearly must here go to the video, one of several made by Garren Lazar, all featuring the Peanuts Gang giving their best to a whole host of songs, culled from all genres and all decades.

But the song was not dead, and it took Nashville country-rockers BR549 to kick some yee-haw sawdust in the face of the song, adding some fiddle and altogether western swing flavours that give yet more zest than the versions before. From their 3rd 2001 album, 'This is BR549', this has them perched between a traditional country take and some of the more populist hat act territory of the time. This song bestrides that fence perfectly.

That's it, no message, no preaching. That is beyond, if and when in doubt, Play That Fast Thing One More Time!!

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Fast: Fast Car

Tracy Chapman: Fast Car

This is my third piece in a row focusing on a Black woman. I’m not sure why, but I realized the other day that my wife and I have, over the past few months, watched five movies/TV shows (it is hard to tell the difference these days) about legendary Black women singers—Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Aretha, The United States Against Billie Holliday, Tina, and Mahalia. (Plus One Night in Miami, in which one of the main characters is a Black male singer). How much of the fact that so many fine films featuring mostly Black casts is a result of the agitation about the whiteness of the Oscars? And how much did the fallout from the George Floyd killing, and the other killings of Black Americans over the past year, convince studios to release, and people like me to watch, films like this? 

So, once again, I’ve forced potential readers to wade through a paragraph that is, basically, unrelated to the song I’ve chosen to discuss. Maybe that’s why I write these things for fun and not money (not that anyone’s offering), because it allows me to go off on tangents. Like I just did there, again. 

But let’s get to the meat of the topic. Tracy Chapman’s 1988 song “Fast Car,” from her self-titled debut album is an amazing song on so many levels. It is so good, in fact, that one writer declared that it “essentially revived the singer-songwriter movement.” I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it didn’t hurt—and the fact that Chapman was Black, which was unusual in a genre that had become pretty white by that point, was another reason that the song was noticed. 

The song also has a great “discovery” story. Shortly after her debut album was released, Chapman was part of a megastar-studded bill for the Nelson Mandela Birthday Concert in 1988 at Wembley Stadium. She had completed a three-song set and cleverly stuck around. When Stevie Wonder went to perform, he discovered that the hard disk for his Synclavier was missing, and he walked off the stage in tears (he did, eventually, return using borrowed equipment). Chapman was asked to go again, and she agreed, doing two songs, including “Fast Car.” It went over big. 

But the real reason that the song became a hit (No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100), and got a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance (and another for Chapman as Best New Artist and the album for Best Contemporary Folk Album) and MTV Video Music Award nominations, is that it is an incredible piece of songwriting, delivered brilliantly by Chapman in her rich contralto voice. 

“Fast Car” is, however, a pretty depressing song. The first stanza describes the singer’s desperation: 

You got a fast car
I want a ticket to anywhere
Maybe we make a deal
Maybe together we can get somewhere
Any place is better
Starting from zero, got nothing to lose
Maybe we'll make something
Me, myself, I got nothing to prove 

We learn why she wants out in the next few stanzas—she’s working at a convenience store, had to drop out of school to care for her alcoholic father after her mother left him. But it’s not only the car—it’s the owner, who when they drove, made her feel like she belonged and could be someone. It’s a dream that dies all too quickly—she works, he stays out late, drinks and ignores their kids—and she sees no future. And in the last stanza, she lays it out: 

You got a fast car
Is it fast enough so you can fly away?
You gotta make a decision
Leave tonight or live and die this way 

Anybody want to wager on whether or not they left?