John Waters, Films for all the family.

When I sat down to watch this movie with a teenage niece I knew that I was taking a chance. I had always been the uncle who brought something different along (though I also saw my share of  “family” entertainment, finally drawing a line in the sand & refusing to see “Spiceworld”). This was a John Waters film, at any time there may be an image which could traumatise an adult never mind a young girl.

I did not have to be worried. British kids have seen the American suburban high school experience in films and on TV. “Cry Baby”‘s quirky take on the 50s teen movie may be crude and stereotypical but the originals were lame and stereotypical. Waters’ brand of trashy cartoon camp, singing and dancing , nostalgia and warmth charmed my niece. She loved the movie. Just months later Johnny Depp was a new teen heartthrob after the dark outsider fairy tale “Edward Scissorhands”. Jemma put her friends on to “Cry Baby”, she already knew about this new handsome boy.

I liked the movie too. It was funny and the cast was a  great one. I could not help thinking though “What just happened ?”.

For years the films of John Waters had been a staple of the midnight movie programmes at the best cinema in London, the Ritzy in Brixton. They were filthy, outrageous, cheap, nasty and ,despite all this lovable. “To me, bad taste is what entertainment is all about. If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation. But one must remember that there is such a thing as good bad taste and bad bad taste.” said Waters, but then he also said ” Sometimes I wish I was a woman, just so that I could get an abortion.” As we walked home through the empty South London streets it was not unusual for at least one of our company to bitch about the quality of our choice of entertainment. Let’s say he divided opinion and was an acquired taste in tastelessness.

I had two other nieces who were dance crazy. They danced in competitions at the weekend. They danced across a room and along the street. I loved hanging with Kelly and Charlene but they would make me watch “Dirty Dancing” and I would bloody hate it (movie snob…me ?). I have not only seen “Grease” too many times (once is too many), I have seen “Grease 2” more than once. Emboldened by the success of “Cry Baby”  and needing to not have to watch any of those 3 stinkers again I got a copy of the 1988 Waters movie “Hairspray”. A film about a young girl who danced her way through life, who wanted nothing more than to dance on the local teen pop TV show. The girls loved it from the cool opening song and credits. Tracy Turnblad (Rickie Lake) was a new screen heroine as she fought for integration on an early 60s Baltimore TV programme.

What the…? John Waters had become the go-to guy if I wanted to entertain my teenage nieces. I was not about to press “Pink Flamingoes” on them, let them make their own mistakes. I loved “Hairspray” too. There are few things better than watching and enjoying movies with children. Their sense of wonder is infectious. I got all the camp 60s references and Waters had retained, even over-emphasised, the sympathetic nature of his characters. The cast is B-movie stellar, Sonny Bono, Ruth Brown, Pia Zadora & more. The two mothers, Debbie Harry (after “Videodrome”) and Divine (not a dog turd in sight) act their way out of their ludicrous wigs.

“Hairspray” became a Broadway musical and a Hollywood movie. I have avoided the 2007 film because I don’t really want to see what they have done to the original. (see also “The Producers”). I have also yet to fully forgive Michelle Pfeiffer for “Grease 2”. Kelly and Charlene are now fantastic women, (I bet Charl is still a dancing fool), I’m sure they know a lot more about the re-make than I do. I hope that they prefer the original version though.

I watched “Pecker” with Jemma, now all grown. Less of a genre movie, still with the dysfunctional family and still with the satire, this time on the art world. It is also very, very funny. Pecker (Edward Furlong) obsessively takes pictures of his family and his life. He is discovered and becomes the flavour of the month in the New York art world, hilarity ensues. Actually the fun is to be found in Pecker’s wonderfully deranged (but are they ?) family. In a Hollywood where sacks of nothing like Josh Hartnett are made into film stars Furlong must have been offered a lot of money for a lot of old rope. He is a fine actor who has resisted the star-making machinery.

The supporting cast is very strong. Christina Ricci was born to be in a Waters movie. Martha Plimpton is outstanding. Lili Taylor (Addiction, Short Cuts, High Fidelity) is always watchable. Mary Kay Place does that crazy mum thing that she does better than anyone. If you enjoyed “Little Miss Sunshine” or “Ghost World” then “Pecker” is a companion piece. If you enjoyed “Juno” then stay the hell away from me !

The later John Waters films can be said to be Waters-lite. The director showed aspects of life not always seen in American cinema. He had a view of humanity which accepts a wider range of normality than many others. If the eccentricities of the characters in his later films are less extreme that’s OK. The repetition of shock treatment cinema lessens its value (see the horror/slasher porn descendants of “Hostel”). If losing some of the trash aesthetic means that his benign view of a mad world can be shared and enjoyed with the young female members of my family then this is in its favour.

Oh man I need TV when I got T Rex

It’s late & we are enjoying a trawl through the work of Ian Hunter the “Artful Dodger” of British rock. This is the title track of his LP released this month. I’ve just checked & Mr Hunter is 73 years old. This sounds like Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros made a pop record and is not being played every hour by our radio stations. It should be.

Hunter’s finest hour. David Bowie rescued Mott the Hoople from endless touring & no record sales by giving the band his song “All The Young Dudes”. Ian took his chance & made some fine 45s with Mott. When both of their bands broke up Hunter & Mick Ronson hooked up to tour and to record this funny, chunky slab of rock.

One of my best friends was Birmingham’s best (only) Mick Ronson look-a-like. He went to see Hunter- Ronson in the city & was chased by a bunch of teenage girl Bowie fans. They were a little pissed when they caught him & found it was just some guy with a haircut !

Finally, a brand new to Y-tube clip of the big hit. A great version live in Cleveland 1979 with both the lads on form. It’s the reason we are still up at 2 in the morning digging up some of that 70s British rock which still sounds so fresh…On to the Faces next !

Down there by the Soul Train (to Philly)

I enjoyed looking through those Y-tube clips of “Soul Train” so much this week. I am going to have wheel & come again because there really was so much great music made in those early 70s. I was never one for running about a baseball park in a “Disco Sucks” T-shirt (I’m still a big fan of Chic) but as the sweet soul I loved was replaced by some sacchariferous apology I could not help feeling that something was being lost from black American music. Here are three clips of the very sweet soul that came out of Philadelphia in the early 70s when a couple of production teams found a hit formula to rival the earlier success of Motown and Stax.

Well, hello Ms Jackie Brown. Quentin T pulled a real stroke when he ran the opening two tracks of the Delfonics “Greatest Hits” behind the scene when Pam Grier invites Robert Forster to her apartment. It was just so right. Man, the day Ms Grier comes around to my place (in my dreams) it is always the mellifluous Bell-Hart symphonic soul collection that I reach for. When I try to force this old soul onto the young folk I always use the “Look, if it’s good enough for me & Tarentino” line but they stick with their hippity-hoppity & laugh at my prehistoric taste.

Producer Thom Bell and singer William Hart got it right for a couple of years before Bell hooked up with Linda Creed & the Stylistics. The Delfonics had some good records after the break but none as great as these early hits. There is a clip of a live performance of this song where Hart really does bring his lovely falsetto. The band, however, do not really get to the smoothness of Bell’s production. For this clip the law around here is you got to wear your sunglasses. Not so that you can feel cool, gangster lean but to protect your eyes from the ridiculous jumpsuits the guys are wearing.

Oh boy ! If you are not on this then I am going to have to provide a very long exposition which will hardly aid your enjoyment of this classic.I will try and keep it short.

This is Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes with their 6th hit produced by the team of Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff. That is not Harold singing, Mr Melvin is sat with the other Blue Notes while Teddy Prendergrass does that thing he did so well & sings/sells a classy single. It was a similar deal to Kool & the Gang (which one’s Kool ? None of them) when the voice of James Taylor was so well known or the Commodores when it was the ballads of Lionel Richie getting them on the charts. Teddy was the lead on all the hits. He was the voice & the face of the group. When he asked Harold if there could be a re-branding to “Teddy Prendergrass & the Blue Notes” he was turned down. The group’s days were numbered.

When Teddy did break away he was bloody massive. Marvin was not making so many records. Al Green had gone back to his church. Barry White, “The Walrus of Love” made music for bedrooms lit only by scented candles but T.P. was the new sex symbol of soul. For one tour they did not let men attend for Jah’s sake. He was top banana until a serious car accident in 1982 injured his spine so badly he was paralyzed from the waist down.

Gamble and Huff were a proven production team when they started their own label Philadelphia International. The sound was string heavy & did prepare the world for disco but they were totally on a winning run in the early 70s. On the LPs of their hit-makers they stretched out a little more. The album version of “Wake Up Everybody” is over 7 minutes long and is pretty, pretty, pretty damn good.

“For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (1 Timothy 6:10). Can I get a “Hallelujah” !

Gamble, Huff and the O’Jays were irresistible. “Back Stabbers” & “Love Train” were worldwide, deservedly so. In 1973 a soul masterpiece, “Ship Ahoy” was released. The best selling R&B LP of 1974 is a mix of conscious lyrics and the funk. The title track, 10 minutes of ominous atmosphere, reflects the experience of Africans on a slave ship to the New World. “Don’t Call Me Brother” is a 9 minute lyrical study in hypocrisy and musical beauty.

“For The Love of Money” has the finest bass line in soul that is not played by James Jamerson. Anthony Jackson has played on over 500 albums and is a fine musician. It is his riff, still fresh after nearly 40 years, which drives the song and is unforgettable. The LP track is longer than the 45 but this clip shows Eddie Levert and his fellow band members in fine form. How cool must it have been to be in a successful vocal group & to have such an obviously powerful song to sing to people ?

I don’t know who reads these things I write. I just want to highlight some music that moves me. If others like something else, that’s OK. Really, if you have any interest in soul music, if you missed this the first time around, then get yourself over to the Y-tube &  find the O’Jays “Ship Ahoy”. Your ears will thank you for doing so.

Husker Du (Bob Mould part one)

In 1984 three of the best records of the year came out of Minneapolis. Prince hit the mainstream & started his purple reign (ouch !). The Replacements confirmed their rep in the UK, as the best band even your friends had not heard &  Husker Du released “Zen Arcade” a hardcore concept album.

I would be a liar if I said that I listened to “Zen Arcade” as much as those other two LPs. In 1984 the Smiths and R.E.M. carried the swing round our yard. We were spending our weekends at clubs which played dance music. “Slippery People” by the Staples Singers was our record of the year. We heard Mtume more than Husker Du that year. It was not until 1987’s “Warehouse: Songs & Stories” that I got the band properly. It was the songs of Bob Mould, an irresistable combo of power and melody which did the trick.I know the, possibly, more cryptic songs of Grant Hart have their champions but it was Mould’s tunes which put me on to the back catalogue. I was just in time.

“Warehouse..”  is a double album full of short, sharp blasts of adrenaline. This pop-punk power trio made the music I carried everywhere in 1987. It was a charge of energy for me. Let other people chill, Husker Du kept me on it. One memorable journey on an overnight ferry to Holland (anticipating an exciting week’s stay with our friends in Amsterdam) I race-paced the decks as the other passengers slept. The charge in the music matching and abetting my most excellent middle of the night mood. The personal stereo, the Walkman, was invented for times like these.

For the Summer Solstice that year we made our now annual pilgrimage to Glastonbury. One of my closest friends had turned up unexpectedly at our front door two days before the festival. I looked forward to sharing the weekend with him. By this time the music was becoming the centre of the festival. On the Saturday night the three closing acts were Richard Thompson, Los Lobos & Elvis Costello. It was that good. The music started on the Friday. Husker Du were on early, it was a good time to head down to the Pyramid and to get the party started.

Carl, my friend, had seen some good music played live in his time. We had seen the Stones, Captain Beefheart, Lou Reed & many others together. He had seen Bowie, the Pistols, Clash, Ramones & every other punk who got on a stage between 76 & 79. I left him to it as Husker Du went into a coruscating set, scorching through a set of songs mainly from the “Warehouse”. This was a  big deal for me to hear this band play live. I only acknowledged my friend to pass around the good stuff, let him make his own mind up. After around 30 minutes I asked him “Whaddya think ?”. He said “if they keep this up they are the best band I have ever seen”. High praise from a man with very good taste.

He could be right too. After years of playing together the three piece had such a full sound and an effortless energy. I ain’t no critic, it was great. 20 seconds ago I found this clip. The opening track of “Warehouse”, the opening track of the set, from a festival just 14 days before we saw them. I love the internet.

This was to be the band’s last tour. A clash of egos, drug problems, the suicide of their manager, it all went a bit wrong. Mould & Hart, the songwriters, were no longer working in tandem &  it was time to stop. Two years later Nirvana released “Bleach” and started the groundwork which led to grunge dominating the rock scene. A power trio with songs from the melodic side of punkiness…Mmmm. In my opinion if Bob Mould had not been a big, balding, gay bear of a guy but could have been marketed, like Cobain, as a young pop prince then rock history may have been different. It does not matter. Bob went on to make some brilliant music. I will be listening to it this weekend because I love his stuff & this music is worth a couple more of these things.

A Day In the Park (Stop the Nazis)

I was too old to be a punk. I was 23, married and had been too committed to being a hippie for the last 10 years. Through someone’s older brother there were four 16 year old boys who used our flat as a second home/crash pad. They were Bowie/Roxy boys just starting to go to clubs in 1976. It was there that they saw the Damned, the Clash and the Pistols. They loved bringing me this new music after using our record collection for so long.
I loved it as well. Talking Heads, Television and ,of course, The Ramones were all friends to our turntable. I bought “Horses” by Patti the day it came out. The next day my wife cut her hair and bought a leather jacket. My first non-flared jeans were not far behind. Through the punks we knew it was about more than fashion. All this history of the Punk Wars reflected through the media that didn’t get it is misguided. It was about doing music yourself, about cheap amphetamine, about no longer buying your big bro’s worn out hippie shit. A weekend in Amsterdam where the “punks” were an expensive fashion parade showed us how serious our friends were.


We saw Patti Smith twice. She was serious and joyous. She was Art with a heart. A scorching band with a real connection to us.
Throughout the 70s I was very politically involved, mostly through my trades union. I was being fast tracked on to national committees but, as I progressed, feeling separation from the people I wanted to help, my workmates. Punk brought a new force into politics. The National Front, a bunch of perverted neo-nazis , were becoming more prominent. As a reaction to this the Anti-Nazi league formed Rock against Racism. It succeeded instantly. Young punks knew what side they were on instinctively. This was my kind of politics. confront the Nazis with 3 chords and a dub reggae beat as the soundtrack. I was active in the ANL, organizing gigs and fighting on the street. Doing something important.
At one anti-Fascist rally, turning into a riot, we pulled a small boy from the floor. “Hello Miss” he said smiling to my teacher wife. “Go Home NOW” she sternly said to one of her class, as I fell about laughing.

                         
Rock against Racism decided to go national. A march in London followed by a gig in Hackney .X Ray Spex, Tom Robinson Band, Steel Pulse and THE CLASH .No-one was gonna miss this.
We came down from Birmingham for the weekend. The bunch of merry punks joined us on the Saturday. Boy did we party on that night. My friends in London knew the Birmingham boys and wanted to show them a good time in the big city.The next morning there was no chance of getting 15 people in the same place, in the same shape,never mind walking 10 or so miles to the gig. A decision was made. We would go to the gig in the van, picking up friends along the way.
It was a massive turn out. These were the biggest public rallies since 1840. People were streaming in from every direction. The atmosphere was celebratory. Today the city was ours. A couple of our posse fell under the nearest tree, refreshments had been taken again. We arranged a meeting place for later and went off to have fun.
Any crowd of 100,000 people inspires awe. When they are all there for the same reason, all in it together, it’s the greatest thing. the music started “2-4-6-8 Motorway”, “Glad To Be Gay”, crowd pleasers. I had worked and played football with Steel Pulse’s soundman, Horace. We went over to the sound desk to say hello. He was well pleased to see two old friends and “Bingo” we were sat by the sound desk to see the Pulse, a band we had known about from their start. Best view in the house over 50,000 heads.
It was the Clash everyone wanted to see and the crowd were gonna make it an event whatever. We said our goodbyes to Horace and re-joined our friends. It was time to POGO !
They didn’t let us down. They raged through “Janie Jones”, “London’s Burning”, “Garage Band”, the first album. The whole crowd just went nuts for the anthem of the whole day. All of us there will never forget “White Riot”. The park just went nuts. It was not a riot but the point was there could be if we were not heard. Unforgettable, the soundtrack to 30th April 1978.

For many it had been a long day travelling and marching. Some of our brave crew had never really shaken the morning’s hangover. Lucky we were driving against the traffic and were not far from our friends’ place in Greenwich. The British political world had shifted. All who were there went back to confront and isolate racism. The NF were broken. One – Nil to the good guys.

Those punky boys ? I am still in contact with 3 of the 4. Unfortunately one of them, the only black punk in Birmingham, had a breakdown in the 80s. Three of us shared a flat in London as the self styled “Last Gang In Town”. We were a rubbish gang. For 2 years (until 2002) I lived with the other in Birmingham helping to repair an old house. He was unhappy then but is now a very happy man He lost his children and now, through their choice, he has them back.
C  looks after his elderly folks who helped him break a 20 year heroin habit more than we did. M lives with the woman he always loved, just 20 years later than he should have. These two men are the best people I have ever met. I am proud to call them my friends and to have shared so much of their lives.

Thinking of my good friend

I have known my friend Jayne for over 37 years…from the olden days maybe, but we did our very best to live our life in colour. The 1970s in the UK are being remembered for us through a woebegone wash of grey tinted spectacles. These abject adducers were not just turned 20 with a bunch of interesting and good friends. They were not newly & happily married with a love of  books, art, music and new experience. We had an optimism about the life we wanted to lead & were taking the first steps in making those lives happen. The 1970s were, for us, a time of independence (jobs were easier to get), laughter & making sense of the world with people we loved & trusted. It is no surprise that we are still connected to those with whom we shared these good times.

My friend has problems that are occupying her at the moment. The music in this piece reminds me of her and is intended to raise her spirits at this difficult time.

In the early 80s we no longer lived in the same city & could have lost touch. It was a Saturday night at the Glastonbury Festival when we chanced upon each other again. Magical things happen at the festival & who cared what others thought as we rolled around shouting & laughing. The next year we met at the festival and she brought along a new friend. Jayne introduced her month old baby girl to me. I was helping on a friend’s stall. We had a big old tent and the new mum had her very own baby station in the rear. This not only saved her a lot of back & forth but meant the three of us got to hang out regularly over the weekend.

The festival was not only about the music in those times but all our crew assembled at the Pyramid to see Jackson Browne on the Sunday evening. We exchanged true & tall tales of Glastonbury excess then settled to hear music we all knew well. Jayne, who was behind me, said that if the baby kept her own counsel for the next hour then any of the bother of the weekend would be worth it. Browne played a fantastic set, all of those anthemic commentaries which finished his LPs . There were no hits but he did play his greatest. The gathering (unsteadily) rose for a standing ovation & some seconds in I realised that the music had not once been enjoyed with backing vocals from one month old Joanne. I turned around and saw my friend cross-legged on the floor, baby sleeping across her lap. She had the loveliest, happiest smile of anyone at the festival, believe me that is big time happy.

File under “Exquisite”. Those first two LPs by Kate & Anna McGarrigle enchanted us. They even impressed our younger, punkier friends. If you loved the sound made by human voices in combination, if you loved beauty, then you loved their music.

Through the 80s Jayne’s family grew. Her  husband was still there (still is). A son joined the growing girl (6 going on 26 as I remember). I went on holiday with them. I shared Xmas at their house.I fed her children forbidden sweets full of evil E-numbers & was the crazy “uncle” all kids need. I always felt I was lucky to do these things. I would stay for a week, left to entertain myself while the family were at work & school. On these days I would discover records by the McGarrigle sisters that I had not heard. Their music continues to confirm the simplicity of beauty. It also reminds me of a family house full of music, books, laughter, toys, badges (don’t ask) and full of life.

Jayne was a cool mum precisely because she did not think she was & did not particularly try to be one. That’s how it works. Anyone who has read this blog will know I love music & I do like to pass new music on to friends who can make of it what they please. It was Jayne who put me on to P J Harvey almost 20 years ago & wasn’t she right to do so. Polly Jean was a skinny young bad ass who hooked up to no fashion & made her own path. I could see why my friend would want to leave the kids with dad & go to see some real rock music.

I almost chose “50ft Queenie” because that tune still rocks out & sounds like today. I went for something from one of the best records of last year because I still trust my friend’s taste 35 years after we would listen to new records together. Her lovely children are now lovelier adults. The old uns still go to gigs, still listen to the good stuff. The last concert I went to was with three-quarters of the family. I had a great, I mean great, day. Good friends, good music…constants in a changing world.

My friend has some stuff to deal with right now. My thoughts, the thoughts of others, are with her.

It’s like being on soul train

Over here in the U.K. we never got to see “Soul Train” on our TVs. There would be an occasional clip on “Top of the Pops” if an act was not coming over to Europe but there has never even been any retrospective compilation of a show which seemed to get all the acts you needed in a very creative period for American black music. I know there was a lot of lip-synching going on & those dancers were all “look at me, look at me” but it looked to be a pretty cool show when we were afforded a glimpse.

The Five Stairsteps, out of Chicago, a family group who were originally arranged in descending order of size & had a kind of Platters deal which was already out-dated. The first single had a Curtis Mayfield written B-side which swung a little more. They tried out a more Motown sound (James Burke did a fair Smokey impression)  before hooking up with Curtis again at his label, Curtom. The next singles were R&B hits, produced by Curtis & often covers of Impressions songs. They would sit really well alongside Baby Huey, Sister Love & Major Lance on a Curtom mix which should exist if it already doesn’t.

“Ooh Child” is the Top 10, gold record moment for the Burke family & what a lovely, optimistic song it is. The boys had been down to the Superfly boutique to get some new threads for their TV appearance. Alohe went for the jumper & slacks combo. She looks and sounds as beautiful as her name. Clarence Jr & James do their bit but this is Alohe’s song…wonderful.

At this time the Stairsteps were handing over the title of “first family of soul” to the boys from Gary, Indiana, the Jackson 5. It was of no consequence because the true first family were these guys…

By 1972 the Isley Brothers, Ronald, Kelly & Rudy, had been making records for 15 years. “Shout” & “Twist and Shout” were known to everyone who listened to pop music even if they did not know the original versions. They joined Tamla Motown, made some records that were more popular in the UK than in the US. Man, I hear the intro to “This Old Heart Of Mine”, I am back in that scout-hut youth club & a dancing fool again. Wanting more freedom than Motown would allow they left to write and produce for their own label T-Neck. The first single “It’s Your Thing” cleaned up.

The new sound served them well & 10 more singles used this winning formula. However the brothers were not just listening to James Brown. Covers of songs by Buffalo Springfield, War & Dylan got them airplay outside of the R&B stations. There were some young Isleys around, brothers Ernie & Marvin, brother-in-law Chris Jasper, who were putting the old hands on to these rock tunes. “Pop That Thang” comes from the 1972 LP “Brother, Brother, Brother” the first the new boys played on.

This is a confident performance of the song. The Isleys had made the move from soul to funk and were more popular than ever. They had some new sounds coming & they were ready to shake some action. The next LP “3 + 3” was by the new sextet. It was distributed by Epic & had the weight of major label promotion behind it. The brothers had been around the block & were ready for this new success. In the next 5 years they were one of the biggest black music acts around. I have favourite Isley tracks from all their long career. “Pop That Thang” is da funk with no frills and Ronald’s unmistakable lead vocal…love it…bang, bang, bang !

Gladys Knight, and her Pips, came late to Motown after some success elsewhere. Ms Knight always thought she got the short end of the stick from the label, being given songs that bigger acts had turned down. Her producer, Norman Whitfield, did give her first shake at “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” but it was Marvin who had the worldwide hit 2 years later. Whitfield had, in 1969, taken over production of the Temptations. Looking for a piece of Sly Stone’s action he developed a “psychedelic soul” sound. If  “Friendship Train” was rejected by the Tempts then Gladys got lucky this time.

This clip is from episode 1 of the syndicated “Soul Train” . The Pips have hardly pimped their strides but despite the odd leisure wear are as swinging & as dancing as Don Cornelius promises. Gladys is just stunning. The song, obviously linked to “Cloud Nine” & “Papa Was…” benefits from only having the two lead voices & not being over-complicated. The early attempts by Motown at socially conscious lyrics (selling records came first) could be clumsy. By this time they were getting it right. If you want a less pop version of this song check for Whitfield’s extended edition by the Undisputed Truth…suitably nuts.

Gladys brought a country tinge to her music with, among others, a cover of Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It”. It proved commercial, when she left Motown for Buddah she mined a very successful seam & became the star Motown never made her.

You know, maybe “Soul Train” was not always all that. In the UK we had the late night “Old Grey Whistle Test”. There are some great highlights from that show but it could often be flat and worthy. You needed a cup of tea, a fat one & some decent music after too many of the episodes. “Soul Train” is not like that in my imagination & from the clips I love to watch.

In the 80s two friends and myself were having the sort of weekend that only the finest pharmaceutical amphetamine made possible. A Friday night/Saturday morning session, a visit to Upton Park to see the Hammers, topped off with a Nigerian christening party. The living room of the house was dark and was now a dance floor. The room was filled with beautiful African princesses dressed in those sparkling dresses you saw in the market and wondered who wore them. The room was moving as one to the fine, fine music. My bug-eyed friend bobbed towards me with a big smile. He leaned into me & shouted “This is like being on Soul Train !”. I laughed because it was as close as we were ever going to get to it.

Music To Drink And Dance To (Part One) Beau Jocque

There was a new girlfriend around. She lived in suburban London & I was in the centre of the city. We met in town after work on Friday evening, start with a drink by the river. I made an effort, went into “Gap”, for the first & only time, bought a new T-shirt.”We call this Air Force Blue sir”…who cares ? She had plans of her own too. She had a bag with her & was intending to stay the weekend. Good to have that sorted out early in the proceedings. I had better make sure we both enjoy ourselves.

There was always a lot of free music in the summer in the city. I had seen Dr John on a lazy Sunday afternoon, John Martyn & Gil Scott Heron for gratis was too good but was true. It did not always have to be top-liners like these. A couple of local bands playing at an estate get-together could be real fun. The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain, covering the Smiths & the Velvets, on a postage stamp Pimlico park had been as fine a prologue to a Saturday night as possible. There was an afternoon of Cajun & Zydeco music the next day. It was on the South Bank, a concrete cultural carbuncle but right by the river. We could start our day with a stroll along the Embankment to check out the sounds.

It was OK. The first two bands were European. They were a little precise, too respectful of the tradition. The people dancing seemed to be initiates in the Cajun cult. They too had the moves but we were not sure if they had the heart. It did not matter so much, the bar was adjacent, the sun was shining and the people were watchable. We were chilled and in no hurry to move on. Staying around was a good decision.

There were a couple of signs that the final band would be different. The drummer walked on stage to check his rig. He sat behind it, made a few small adjustments, then he rapped out a couple of sharp runs around the kit.These few seconds held more promise than the previous hour. A big, I mean big, serious man appeared at the side of the stage. He put on a leather apron, an individual choice of stage wear. He picked up his instrument, an accordion, & I knew the reason he needed an apron. This man intended to sweat and he was protecting his squeezebox. He was ready for business and this was a very good thing.

This was Beau Jocque and his Zydeco Hi Rollers…straight outta Louisiana. From the opening seconds the band was on it. A ripple of appreciative response ran through the audience. People, including ourselves, who had sat through the afternoon, got to their feet & started to shuffle. By the end of the first tune everyone was dancing & there was a cheer that must have been heard across the river. This was a traditional folk music but there was no hint of  preservation or reverence. This was modern music. Beau, 6ft 6ins & 270lbs, was as hypnotic as the music, the accordion looking small against his big frame. He was not a virtuoso but went with the groove laid down by the band, a great groove. There were traces of rock & roll, of funk, blues & boogie. It was, if you will forgive me, a musical gumbo. Beau’s growl brought Hooker to mind, his smile told us he was enjoying himself.

So were we. We had hoped for a good afternoon & now it was getting wild around the river bank. My girlfriend & I had slept together a couple of times but we had never danced together. A different kind of intimacy, a different kind of fun & more acceptable in a public place on a Saturday tea-time. Beau Jocque & men brought a touch of the Louisiana juke joint to London for an hour. That aluminium, chest-washboard thing (apparently a rub-board) drove the rhythm on and we loved it. We didn’t need to know the history, the tradition, this had all the elements of great dance music & that was enough.

I have struggled & failed to get a clip of the band perform “One Kiss”. My techno-knowledge is not there yet…one day. I will say that it must be the most exciting 5 minutes that Australian TV has ever come up with. Beau recorded soul hits, Dylan & blues. He, unfortunately, died when he was only 46. His music is still around. G-G-G-Git It Beau Jocque !

After the gig we walked along the river. There’s a proper pub with good beer. You could watch the river flow with an outstanding view of St Paul’s Cathedral on the opposite bank. A homeless guy stopped me and asked for 50p for a cup of tea. Not wanting to appear a tightwad in front of my friend I quickly put my hand in my pocket and gave him double. “Thank you sir”, he replied, “and may I compliment you on your choice in women”. Cheeky bugger ! I sent him on his way & let him know that I would be in touch if I needed any more of his opinions.

A Night To Remember

There have been concerts I attended when, as I have been leaving the venue, I have thought, “Well,that is some of the best music I have ever seen”. The Grateful Dead one enchanting night at Alexandra Palace, R.E.M.  on two consecutive nights of the “Green ” tour, Taj Mahal on more than one occasion. It’s a long list. The night I saw Joe South is the one that returns to my mind most regularly. It was not only Joe’s contribution that evening which made it so memorable. Writing about Joe has brought it fresh to my mind again.

The concert was billed as an “Southern Songwriter’s Circle”. These gigs , where the artists share the stage, are more commonplace today. This was the first of it’s kind in London and they hadn’t really got the format down. It kinda helped make the night unique. There were five artists on the bill which is too many. Now there are usually three. The deal was that a compere would ask questions of the participants who would share their secrets about song-writing. The M.C. was Charlie Gillett a respected label boss/D.J./facilitator on the British scene. Charlie was one of the good guys, his book about early rock & roll, “The Sound of the City” is one of the finest books on music I have read…I have read more than a few. This was not your night Charlie. The first time he tried to initiate a conversation he was shouted down by the audience. “Play the music !” was the rallying call. Gillett was not heard from again and we got the night we wanted…more music.

Well, there are few finer ways of opening a concert than hearing Guy Clark perform “Desperadoes Waiting For A Train”, the original “outlaw country” classic. Guy wrote some great songs but “Old No 1” released in 1975 is his finest LP. A good friend of mine, still performing and recording, included this in his set through the mid 70s. It was a song I loved and to hear it played by the writer was most satisfying. Whichever way the concert went this was one to savour. The clip is from a movie, “Heartworn Highways”, a documentary on the Austin, Texas music scene centred around Townes Van Zandt. It captures some fine music.

Guy Clark sat to the left of the stage. Next to him was the youngest of the performers, the least commercially successful of the five. Vic Chesnutt, out of Athens Georgia, had recorded three LPs by this time and was less well known to the audience. In a wheelchair and with limited use of his hands since a teenage car accident there is a natural simplicity and frailty about his work. He was sharing the stage with some heavyweights and he performed some of his lighter and more accessible songs with great charm. Two weeks later a friend and myself went to see Vic in his own show at a dark little club in North London. We were at the front and helped lift his wheelchair on to the small stage. He, with his band, melted and then broke our hardened hearts with his individual take on Southern Gothic. (I ended the night discussing Flannery O’Connor with a well known comic actor). In a bigger auditorium, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, by the river, Vic was happy to be the light relief.

Joe South was at centre stage. I have written about his career and his songs  before. His contribution maintained the high quality of the evening’s entertainment.

The two men to the right of the stage are two of the men I most admire in music .I am not going to attempt to do them full justice in this memoir, They merit, and will get, longer consideration.

Here was Dan Penn, part of the history of soul music through his time at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals and at American Recording in Memphis. Those young white men from the Southern states with a love for R&B, a talent for writing, playing and recording music which went around the world, had helped to shape a sound regarded as predominantly African-American. They must have led such fascinating lives as their songs were transformed into gold records during a time when some of their work colleagues could not eat in the same restaurants because of the colour of their skins.

Tonight Dan played his greatest hits. Dressed in his hillbilly denim dungarees he could be unassuming when he knew that there was not a member of the audience who had not been touched by one or all of these songs. “I’m Your Puppet” and “Do Right Woman were perfect but it was “Dark End of the Street” which absolutely rocked the place. It may have been James Carr, Aretha Franklin, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Ry Cooder or Richard and Linda Thompson who put you on to this song. Great voices were attracted to the song and never approached it lightly.

Dan Penn’s performance was conducted in an awed silence. This was how this song had been originally and we were privileged to hear it. When the song finished the audience rose in a standing ovation. It was not for a great performance it was for writing a song of such stature. I had been in the middle of similar appreciations at concerts but never one which contained such an element of gratitude. It was a fine moment.

Finally, on the right of the stage, sat by a piano, was a true legend of American music. I love the music of New Orleans. I find the way there is a complex though logical rhythm but sometimes only a hint of a structured song both fascinating and irresistable. I discovered this idiosyncratic sound through the 60s records of Lee Dorsey. I have moved forward with it and looked backwards to the musicians of the 40s and 50s. The fulcrum and link to all of this music is Allen Toussaint.

Toussaint is more visible these days. Peter  Buckley in “The Rough Guide to Rock” describes this appearance as a “return from exile”. You could not tell. A trim man, dapper in a suit, he must been confident that whatever he chose to play there would be big love for him. I’ve seen a tracklist of his songs from that night. I’m sure that “Fortune Teller”, the Benny Spellman tune was a medley spanning “Mother In Law” (Ernie K Doe) and “Working In A Coal Mine” (Lee Dorsey). I have a memory of a shouted request for “On Your Way Down”, recorded by Little Feat , a band held in high regard in the UK. I remember him playing at least a part of it. If he did not and I’m guilty of a wish-fulfilment  of one of my sweetest dreams then I apologise for misleading anyone.

Allen Toussaint provided my personal highlight of the evening. To see him play was good enough but there was one particular song I was hoping to hear. For many years his “Southern Nights” LP had been one of the most treasured in my collection. I have seen reviews which refer to psychedelia or use the adjective “trippy” but that just ain’t right. The use of the title track as a motif throughout the set is a reverie anchoring the journey through the varied styles and talents of the composer. “Southern Nights” had been my go-to late night feeling good record for a very long time. (Feeling bad ? “No Other” by Gene Clark).

When Allen’s turn came around again he told a story about his Creole grandparents. I knew this was a prelude to him playing “Southern Nights” and , I believe, the word is “frisson”. There were a few empty seats at the back of the hall. I left my place and went to sit by myself…this was a personal thing. I have had few musical experiences which can rival hearing this most beautiful of tunes played in front of me by the man responsible for it’s creation. Now I am older such experiences can be somewhat lachrymose. Back then this horny-handed construction worker was warmed by an inner glow of contentment. Man, it felt good !

We lived, at this time, in Westminster, just a spit away from the Thames. We left the gig and walked in the summer night along the Albert Embankment on the South Bank of the river. Feeling good, we were in no hurry. We sat on a bench, smelled the air and took in the illuminated view of the Houses of Parliament. We sat and smoked quietly, buzzing that London could be as great a place as it was being that night. If there had been a better concert on the planet that night then good luck to it. It was after midnight. The bench, the view, the river, the city, was ours. We knew it was not ours to keep, by the morning we had to share with 8 million others. That’s why the times you felt this way were to be honoured and then filed away to memory.

An appreciation of Joe South

The passing of Joe South last week brought to mind a concert I attended in 1994 when I was fortunate to see Joe perform. I had first become aware of Joe as the writer/producer of a number of American hits for Billy Joe Royal in 1965/66. These were not hits in the U.K.  but “Down In the Boondocks” and “Hush” registered as songs of interest and fine examples of US pop. These years were the florescence of the “pirate” radio stations (made illegal in 1967). Round the clock music radio meant that you got to hear everything released around this time. “Boondocks”, a story song about a poor boy’s love for a rich girl, had a touch of “Dark End of the Street” about it. Ry Cooder has always had an ear for a good story song . His version is smoothly produced, as well played and performed as expected from Cooder and his band. While researching this (Ha !) I encountered this version by Martin Gore from Depeche Mode. Never one of my favourite groups, this electro-Spector take on the tune shows it’s strength as a pop song pure and simple.

The next I heard of Joe South was on the sleeve notes of “Blonde On Blonde”. After lengthy but unfruitful recording in New York Bob Dylan had moved to Columbia  studios in Nashville. The best session musicians were hired and Joe was part of this exalted company. The classic album was finished in Nashville and Al Kooper, who played on all the sessions, has specifically praised Joe’s bass-line contribution on “Visions of Johanna”. Two years later, in 1968, Deep Purple, not yet the metal kings, covered one of the Billy Joe Royal songs “Hush”. It was a big hit in the USA. Joe South was turning up in unexpected places and that made him of interest and someone to keep an eye on.

So Joe’s worldwide hit of 1969, “Games People Play” did not come out of nowhere. From the sitar effect of the guitar, through the strong and simple structure reinforced with strings, to the rhyming of “Glory Hallelujah” with “Sock it to ya”, this is a hit record. A Grammy for “Song of the Year” recognised it’s success. He followed it with songs with a similar country feel and a touch of social commentary and humour. (In 1958 his first single had been the startlingly titled “The Purple People Eater Meets The Witch Doctor”).

It was these songs (and the Royal hits) which Joe South played when I saw him as part of an outstanding concert. Sitting centre stage with just his own acoustic guitar for backing, these were songs the audience may not have known as his but knew from the many cover versions. He played “Rose Garden”, a big country hit for Lynn Anderson. I knew the song but did not know it was written by Joe South. It was a great pleasure to see and hear Joe that night.

Joe’s songs always had a touch of country and soul about them. He worked in Nashville and in Muscle Shoals. I was listening to the great, late, producer/musician Jim Dickinson speak about recording with Aretha Franklin. He talked about the song “Chain Of Fools” which opens with a short tremolo guitar lick. I only learned then that this was played by South. Another surprise and a delightful one. The man got around on some great songs. I hope there are more to be found even though there will be no more music from Joe.

This last song is an example of the endurance of his songs and the appeal of his lyrics. “Walk A Mile In My Shoes” has been recorded by Elvis Presley, Bryan Ferry and, in this more modern update, by Coldcut. These versions, along with Joe South’s original are big favourites in our house. It’s a timeless sentiment…”before you abuse, criticize and accuse. Walk a mile in my shoes”. Well said Joe.