I don’t like cricket (I love it)

“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” asked C.L.R. James the Afro-Trinidadian historian/philosopher. Mr James, a true man of the 20th Century (1901-1989), always spoke with a calm, assured authority. He inspired a hope in myself that I could be comfortable in my own skin for a life well lived as I grew older. He took great pride in the achievements of the young West Indians who’s exploits on the cricket field made them champions of the sport for two decades. James knew that the ” answer involves ideas as well as facts”.  This sporting success  was a result of, and an influence on, post-colonial Caribbean culture. These wonderful batsmen and bowlers were a gateway for West Indian participation in a wider global context. Let Bunny Wailer elucidate (while he gets rid of an annoying dog) and I Roy celebrate.

Cricket, our Summer sport, has a fine literary tradition which football, a more working-class game, has yet to rival. A.G. Macdonell’s “England, Their England” has a village cricket match at it’s crux.Joseph O’Neill’s fine 2008 novel about memory “Netherland”  is about the game in New York. The journalism of Neville Cardus and others is of a quality which reaches readers  who could not care about the scores and who scored them. Of course the structure of the game easily serves as a template for wider English society. The cultured elegance of the aristocratic batsman, the broad-backed, stout-hearted fast bowler, the over-riding concept of fair play, are easy, and lazy stereotypes and Moby Dick was just a whale, man, just a whale.

However, fielding on the boundary in the late evening Summer sun with the long shadows of mature trees in full leaf stretching across the green field a reverie and reflection on the world, and an Englishman’s place in it, is unavoidable and understandable. The spell can be broken when a ball which should have been caught lands unnoticed just yards away. If. at your, much anticipated, turn to bat, the wicket is disturbed by the first ball you face from the opposition’s woman bowler then it just seems like a bloody silly way to spend your time. She was good, I was not her only victim. A couple of beers in the pub later and on to the next game.

Roy Harper’s song from 1975 “When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease” is worthy of entry into the pantheon of cricketing cultural contributions.

This is a valediction to two legends of English cricket, John Snow & Geoffrey Boycott (after whom a good friend, an otherwise rational member of society, named his second son). Harper pays a deserved tribute to the men and the game. The arrangement by David Bedford, a man with a long and interesting contribution to British popular and classical music, is evocative of times past. The Grimethorpe Colliery Band is a survivor from a time when English miners played brass instruments just as Welsh miners sang in choirs. Their playing is beautiful and suits the song so well.

“The fabled men and the noonday sun are much more than just yarns of their days” could, I suppose, be interpreted as referring to a loss of Empire, of an England that no longer exists. I think not. The song is about time passing, about change, but personal change. As Alan Ross, another fine cricket writer said …

“Heroes in fact die with one’s youth. They are pinned like butterflies to the setting board of early memories—the time when skies were always blue, the sun shone and the air was filled with the sounds and scents of grass being cut… I no longer worship heroes, beings for whom the ordinary scales of human values are inadequate. One learns that as one grows up, so do the gods grow down. It is in many ways a pity: for one had thought that heroes had no problems of their own. Now one knows different!”

We know different but we remember them…This song captures the unique beauty of an English Summer evening and the legacy of our childhood heroes. What a lovely thing that is. This song can move men of a certain age to tears (not just me…really) and it may be from remembering past times but it is not from sadness.

 

Irma Thomas (Soul Queen)

Irma Thomas was “The Soul Queen 0f  New Orleans” before we were talking about soul music. The songs she recorded in the early 1960s were pivotal in shaping the young sound of America which made African-American music a worldwide success later in the decade. The quality of young Irma’s work is so high that it’s tough to choose just one but I’m the king around here and this is the one for me.

“Ruler Of My Heart” was written and produced, like all Ms Thomas’s early 45s, by Allen Toussaint, the mastermind of so much thrilling music from New Orleans. Otis Redding pinched the tune for “Pain In My Heart”. Toussaint successfully sued the Stax label for compensation. It has a charm,a power and an almost stateliness that marked all her songs. “It’s Raining”, so effectively used in the Jim Jarmusch 1986 film “Down By Law”, and the later “Time Is On My Side”, covered by the Rolling Stones, have a similar effect. When I checked out the timeline for these records (I don’t just make this stuff up) I was surprised to find that none of these were major hit records. You have got to be joking me, these are classics.

Irma moved labels and did have more success with emotive ballads. Come 1965 , 1963 was so over and everything had to be new. She was signed to some big labels, Chess & Atlantic,  but the material and the times were against her.

In 1970 Irma began a record with writer/producer Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams Jr at the Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama. Mr Dogg was a prolific producer of “deep soul” music and when he got it right he was unrivalled. “In Between Tears” is the title track of the record which was eventually released in 1973 on the Fungus label (no, me neither). Irma is all grown up now, her voice huskier and stronger. Her confidence is reflected in the material, the arrangements showcase the voice and the LP is a masterpiece. At the time it made no real impression.

On “In Between Tears” there is a 12 minute track which I would not presume to include here. A monologue about, y’know, men and women, “”Comin’ From Behind” is similar to those that Millie Jackson sold bundles of just a few years later, only it is funnier and better. This segues into a remake of her biggest hit, “I Wish Someone Would Care”. The climax of the song is precisely that, orgasmic for the singer and the listener. Swamp Dogg has spoken of the sexuality in Irma’s voice and he captured it in this track. There is also evidence of the ability of the session guitarist Duane Allman and what a great loss to music his early death was at the age of 24. If you do have 12.34 to spare and you love soul music then seek this track out.

Irma made fewer records, opened a club in New Orleans and continued to perform and to be highly respected. It took the terrible events of 2005 and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to remind us what we had been missing for so long. Irma Thomas’s personality, her humour and strength, became a symbol of the resilience of New Orleans. To see her, as cameras capture the devastation to the city was an inspiration. This interpretation of Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues” is from a concert to honour and benefit New Orleans.

Her 2006 LP “After The Rain” won her a Grammy. Her current standing is higher than ever. Her early music is still being discovered by new listeners. All I can add is that she deserves it all.

What Is It Good For ?

Today is Remembrance Sunday in the UK. The second Sunday in November marks the end of hostilities in the First World War in 1918, a war in which 10 million soldiers and 7 million civilians lost their lives. As a young  pacifist I was horrified and saddened by the callous slaughter of a generation to protect the economic and territorial interests of  the ruling class of Europe. If they came for me to fight their wars, as they had throughout the centuries, I would refuse to join their cause and suffer any consequence.

Hopefully, with maturity comes insight. As a young British working class man, if I had been of age in 1914, I realise that I would have left my workplace and marched down to the recruiting office to enlist with my fellow workers. Mmm…I was so much older then, I’m younger then that now.

I respect the sacrifice made by those who have died in the name of their country. There is no family unaffected by the momentous events of the last century and my thoughts today are with those who have family they love involved in current conflict. There has never been a time when the world has been without war. However, I remain a firm opponent of any nation which chooses to pursue their self interest with an option that results in death, destruction and sadness.

This song, by Bob Dylan, is 50 years old now. It affected and influenced me as a young man and is still relevant as political commentary and an artistic masterpiece.

Peace.

The Everlasting Yeah

Last night (Friday) four-fifths of a favourite band of mine performed for the first time as The Everlasting Yeah. Derry’s (and Seattle’s) That Petrol Emotion were critically acclaimed and influential in the late 80s and early 90s. Their 5 studio LPs is a fine body of work from a guitar band who were listening to how the music was changing in these years. Now , Damian O’Neill, Brendan Kelly, Ciaran McLaughlin and my good friend Raymond Gorman are back with their new group. The debut was this good…

“A Little bit of  Uh-Uh….” sounds ready to record already. Such a good hook, I know it is going to make my weekend better. The Everlasting Yeah will be playing around the UK in the New Year. Catch them in your local rock club while you can. The timeline of great  music coming out of Derry, which started with the Undertones, keeps on keeping on and has a fine addition.

I could not be there last night. The wonder of the Internet is that we can get to hear these things so quickly. There are some great photos and other tracks on the Facebook page of That Petrol Emotion. Here’s another belter from the gig.

Election special

To mark the election of a US President here are three tunes about former presidents. I have my own views on American politics and an interest which survived three years of studying it at university. I do not, however, have a vote so my opinion don’t amount to a hill of beans. Let us hope that the American electorate do the right thing.

This is the fearsomely named Attila the Hun with his calypso to mark the 1936 visit of F.D.Roosevelt to the island of Trinidad. Attila was a pioneer of the spread of Calypso beyond it’s Trinidadian birthplace. This sophisticated tribute to FDR’s “charming and genial personality and his wonderful urbanity” is a fine example of a musical style which did seem a little quaint and dated when I was first exposed to it. In 1972 Ry Cooder and Van Dyke Parks collaborated on Cooder’s LP “Into The Purple Valley” . It included an excellent version of this song. In the same year Parks released his own take on Caribbean rhythms and his own interpretation of “FDR In Trinidad”. It is a vibrant song which deserved rediscovery and an early indicator of the wit and intelligence West Indian music could bring to the table. Yeah Man !

A history lesson from They Might Be Giants about James K Polk, “our 11th President”. Geeky fun, “catchy weirdos”, it’s all good on the early TMBG records. When you write as many songs as this prolific duo there are bound to be a few duds but when they combine snappy hooks and clever lyrics it’s a good noise. The CD collection of the best of their work is essential for long car journeys, a singalong guaranteed to raise the spirits. This song tells you all you need to know about the political situation in 1844 and throws in a musical saw solo, always entertaining.

They Might Be Giants now concentrate on producing music for children. If there are little people around your house then you could do a lot worse than introducing them to these songs.

On Saturday mornings I shuffle across my flat and before even finding the kettle, I insert the Ramones CD into the player, select this track and turn up the volume. After 30 seconds of this burst of angry energy I (and the neighbours) am in better shape to enjoy my weekend. For a song about Ronald Raygun I considered Gil Scot-Heron’s vitriolic “Re-Ron” but come on…when the determinedly apolitical Ramones are stirred to respond to a president and produce, in my opinion, the finest of their later work.

Reagan  in a former life a star of the movie “Bedtime For Bonzo”, in Germany for an economic summit visited a cemetary at Kolmeshohe, near Bitburg, as a gesture of German- American friendship. Turns out that no American soldiers were buried there but 49 members of the criminal Waffen SS were. Awful squirming damage control ensued. I guess that it’s events like this one which makes the selection of the Leader Of The Western World a matter of serious note.

If songs about American Presidents float your boat then there is a CD “Of Great and Mortal Men”, 43 songs for 43 Presidents. every one but Obama gets a tune. The man from Low and the wonderful Bill Callahan are among those involved…er…good luck with that.

On The Road (with Bam Bam and the Calling)

In the mid-80s I quit the 9 to 5, 50 weeks a year treadmill so that I could work when I wanted, travel when I wanted, stay up for 2 nights, stay in bed for 2 days. It was a good decision. I went on the construction sites, there was plenty of work in London. I could work for a few months, a job would finish & I could take some time before I started another. I lived in one of the great cities of the world. It was greater when you had the time to look up at the sky and you were holding the folding. Man, if they could, there are people in that city who would charge you to breathe . You needed money in your pocket to enjoy London properly. It was good to have that taken care of.

I took a summer break. There was a new woman in my life. Her family home was a 300 year old stone cottage in one of the most beautiful areas of England. The summer of 1987…it was bucolic, no less. When it was time to return to the daily grind I went back to a firm I had worked for before. It was just the thing. I knew the set-up, the guys knew me. They were not just workmates they were people I played out with, people who I had invited to to my house, who had invited me to theirs. I stepped back into it like I had never been away. There had been some change. The predominantly Irish crew I first met had a majority from Cork, in the south. Some of these lovely men (collectively, the Cork-suckers) had moved on or had moved back. The only guy from Derry in the North was the craziest of a crazy bunch. He had smuggled some of his fellow Derrymen on to the site. They were to become new friends.

Paul & Tommy were in a band. I met them as dust covered rag-arses but they had come to London to make their mark in music. I knew a lot of musicians who talked the talk but only played the odd pub gig or at friend’s parties. I did not realise that these young men, Bam Bam & the Calling, were this good…

I bonded with Paul, the singer, over a love of good music, particularly the work of early R.E.M. (when Stipe had hair). With the taciturn drummer ,Tommy, it was more over industrial sized vats of emulsion paint. Bam Bam & the Calling got some proper gigs from proper promoters. I first saw them play at the Mean Fiddler, a North London rock n roll club with a good rep. They were great. The set was well paced, the songs were strong. You could hear the influence of Echo & the Bunnymen, of Television, but there was a consistent sound throughout, the Bam Bam sound, I liked that. Paul dedicated a tune to me, a lovely touch, I was taking a leak and missed my name-check. That was OK, I would catch it the next time because damn straight there would be a next time.

http://www.myspace.com/bambamandthecalling/music/songs/scraping-off-the-shine-59566968#

This link puts you a couple of clicks away from Bam Bam and the Calling’s first single. It’s on Myspace so you may have to brush the dust away before you hear it. The record was produced by John O’Neill of the Undertones, a fellow Derryman, the writer of many fine punky pop songs & a successful big brother to the younger band. After three days of recording I saw the band play a gig at a London pub, the George Robey. They absolutely tore the place up that night. It was not just “Scraping Off The Shine” which benefited from this first experience of making some vinyl. There was a unity and a power in the whole performance. That night I met most of the Derry community in London and had a great night out. It was onwards and upwards for the band with their next single.

“Neck Tattoo”, ahead of it’s time or what ? Such body adornments were rare in 1988. In the 21st century, as they became more visible, it always was a fine trigger to good musical memories of my friends. I took the opportunity to see the band whenever I could. They had gigs around the country so we would gather at lunchtime, get in the van and set off on a rock and roll adventure. I was kind of useful because none of the boys had any idea where anywhere was if it was not on the London Tube map. I could, at least, point them in the right direction. We were joined on our expeditions by a man who could drive. Steven Clarke, from Cork, was a man of fine humour and disposition. We lived near each other in South London and we had some wild and memorable times together before he returned to his birthplace with his lovely wife-to-be Elaine.

I got to meet and know the other two members of Bam Bam too. Joe, the bassist, and John, guitar. For them it was a day when they got to play. For myself it was a fun way to spend the day. You never knew what was going to happen (I like it like that) . I enjoyed hanging with this band of brothers who were so together, supporting each other  after leaving their families and their hometown for their rock and roll dream. We bonded over a love of good music, my geographical knowledge, their talents and a shared interest in having a good time.

We did have adventures too. An impromptu stop at Stonehenge which we unexpectedly stumbled upon on a long cross-country trek. We set off for a college in Kent which I knew did not actually exist ! We found the university for the gig and the band had to straighten out some ignorance and stereotyping about the North of Ireland by some students. I knew a woman at that particular university. I found her and got her to bring some friends along. The guys were impressed. At a big Xmas gig in Wolverhampton there was a surprising amount of free alcohol. I barely remember encouraging some bad behaviour towards the foremost Beatles tribute act in the UK.

Good times with good people is good enough. At all the gigs the band never gave it less than their best. I never saw them met by the indifference some support bands can suffer. The music and their attitude always demanded and gained the attention of a crowd, whatever the size.

We lost touch over the years, Life gets in the way. Paul “P.J.” McCartney (really) made some music that I knew about because I was looking out for him. Now, in this electronic age, it’s all there. I found the boys on the F-book and got in touch because I had nothing but good memories of them. I was delighted when they replied with enthusiasm and I was so pleased to discover that the same four guys still make music together.

Older…yes…wiser ? Well you had better ask them. I just love that these people have played together for over 25 years now. I’m no musician but I do know that performing in front of an audience is the real deal for players. To be able to, to still want to do this with people you know so well, who you trust as musicians and as men must be a fine feeling. Hanging with that neo-pop punk guitar guerilla gang was a great time. It was the real side of rock and roll. I have met people who have sold a gazillion records and it ain’t that pretty at all. Today I communicate with Paul and Joe almost daily. We have a shared past, we still love the music, appreciate the finer things in life and still hate the fucking Tories. My life is enriched by having them around. Some face-to-face time would be as cool as anything. If there is a Bam Bam and the Calling gig included in any visit then that would be just the best thing.

Image may contain: 1 person

.

That Girl Could Sing (The Hippie Years)

Cher was the first hippie woman to appear in our UK TVs. Her and the oddly creepy Sonny Bono sang their smash hit-to-be “I Got You Babe” on the must-see “Ready Steady Go” in 1965. Even the Stones wore suits in those olden golden days. Sonny & Cher, with their furry waistcoats and stripy flared pants had an otherness about them which, together with the cutesy, syrupy declaration of love duet, made them appealing. My mum, an antedeluvian 32 years old, was shocked by the lack of effort shown by these American scruffs. Six weeks later, with the record a worldwide sensation, she went out and bought it !

My best friend and I had no such doubts about Cher. It may have been her Armenian, Irish, German, Cherokee forebears. It may have been that astounding combination of eyes and cheekbones. We were 12 years old and thought that she was something else. We were too young to know exactly what that something was. Sonny and Cher had other hits, “The Beat Goes On” is really the only one of comparable merit. The couple made a movie which bombed and they headed for the nightclub circuit. They returned with a hit TV show, re-invented as a musical comedy act. We never saw this in the UK. Examining the evidence around the Net, it looks like the worst thing ever.

Cher had a long successful career ahead of her after her divorce from Sonny. It’s not the so-so movies , (I love “Come Back To The Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean”), the terrible music, the “naked sex slave in chains” image she had, that prevents me giving this any serious consideration. It is more the progressive surgical adjustments to her beautiful face which left her with the expression of a surprised mannequin. I understand the pressure on a female in the public eye to maintain a youthful appearance but Cher had a head start on most of them. The efforts she has made to suspend any ageing process has made her, in my eyes, more than a little ridiculous.

That old man says it. The youngsters whose records we love. The Mamas and the Papas were established enough by 1967 to release their ripping yarn of a song about how the folkies became pop stars “Creeque Alley”. With the success of “California Dreaming” (surely a better hippie anthem than the dirge “San Francisco”) and “Monday Monday” the  quartet’s pure, natural and surprising harmonies had made them the biggest band in the USA.

It is the two beautiful women that draws the eye in this and any performance by the Mamas and Papas. Mama Cass was the powerful lead voice and can genuinely be described as charismatic. She was funny, a style paradigm for the wonderful earth mothers I knew in later years and she was loved. Her solo career was a strange mix of the rock and roll life and cabaret (shooting heroin before a disastrous Vegas debut). She died aged 32 during a sold out run of shows in London. Michelle Phillips was the most beautiful woman in America, possibly the first time in the 20th century that this title was not held by a movie star. She combined California cool with a sophistication found in the great French beauties of the day. After an 8 day marriage to Dennis Hopper (wow!) she did make films. It is for her contribution to this group she is remembered. I find it difficult to watch the others, she is luminous.

Of the men, Denny could sing and John Phillips (husband of Michelle) was the leader. John was the prime mover of the Monterey Pop Festival which brought the “love crowd”, as Otis Redding called them, to public attention.He also wrote the afore-mentioned hippie dirge “San Francisco”.  The band’s success was not maintained as drug and personal issues split the four members. Phillips made some notable solo music but is more remembered for addictions and allegations of what I will call “bad craziness” and leave at that. In 1971 a short lived reunion produced an LP which includes the wonderful track “Shooting Star”. check this out to hear how good they could have been had they endured.

Oh yes, “morning maniac music…it’s a new dawn”. I have not listened to the “Woodstock” soundtrack for a long time. This reminds me why I was not the biggest fan of Janis Joplin. From the first hit singles, “Somebody To Love” & “White Rabbit”, Jefferson Airplane had been our band and Grace Slick the poster girl of the San Francisco music explosion. The Airplane made a lot of music and, by 1969, were rock superstars. Grace’s powerful voice and presence were central to the sound. We did not see a lot of the band in the UK and it was the sound that was important. She did look good in the photos though. The 1969 LP “Volunteers” was our anarcho-hippie manifesto for a different way of living. Naive yes, but it was it was this naivete, imagination and a sense of possibility that made life so vibrant and colourful in those times.

In 1970, just 17 years old, I crept off to a rock festival, (I told my Mum…not my Dad). It was my first opportunity to see the music that had been the soundtrack of my youth. In quick succession Santana, The Mothers of Invention, Led Zeppelin played outstanding sets but it was Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane who I really wanted to see. It was the early hours of Monday morning before they appeared. The organization of these early festivals can be kindly described as “loose”. The crowd had thinned out, wrapped in a blanket against the chill I was able to walk right up to the stage. I was tired and dirty and this was what I had been waiting for. I only had eyes for Grace (and a spectacular liquid light show). The set was cut short by inclement weather, as we lurched back to search for our car “Volunteers”, which they had not played, drifted from the PA across the festival site. I did not mind missing out on the full set, Grace & I had had our moment.

I do not listen to Jefferson Airplane or Starship too often these days. In August of this year a friend from my university days unfortunately died. At his funeral  two of his beloved Starship tracks were played as part of the service. It was a fine memory of a man who loved their music and loved life. Graham, this version of “Somebody To Love” is for you.

She’s a darling (Lee Remick)

The Go-Betweens are one of the three best groups to come from Australia (none of the other two are the Bee Gees !). Their 1978 single is a punky prothalamium to, in my opinion, the finest American film actress of the 1960s.

“I make movies for grownups. When Hollywood starts making them again, I’ll start acting in them again.” (Lee Remick).

If your TV offers any movie involving Lee Remick then there are worse films to watch. An actress of great range and natural beauty who did not have to bother with the usual Hollywood fluff, her career spanned a time when adults went to the cinema and films were made for them. She was a woman of great taste too. She was married to an Englishman !

In “Anatomy of A Murder”(1959), Otto Preminger’s classic courtroom drama. Lee plays a rape victim who’s cop husband (Ben Gazzara) murders the perp and is defended by James Stewart. The music is by Duke Ellington. Classic and classy.

“Days of Wine and Roses” (1962) is a love triangle between a husband (Jack Lemmon), a wife (Remick) and alcohol. Both Oscar nominated the film is a ground-breaking, effective study in addiction. One for all the family.

Finally, on a slightly lighter note, “Never Give An Inch” (1971) is the film version of Ken Kesey’s other novel “Sometimes A Great Notion”. A sprawling tale of a family of Oregon lumberjacks Lee brings unlikely glamour to the back end of beyond as the wife of Paul Newman (equally glamourous) who also directed the movie. The film is not the triumph the book is but it more than has it’s moments and it has Lee Remick in it. Actually I damn it with faint praise here. “Never give An Inch” is a fine film.

Lee appeared in “The Omen” in 1976 but the movies were getting smaller. She was outstanding as Jennie, Lady Churchill, the mother of Winston in a TV mini-series. Unfortunately she died in 1991 at the terribly premature age of 55. The cult of celebrity has always been a factor in maintaining the reputation of Hollywood stars. We know little of Lee Remick except the quality of the work she left us. That, and as the Go-Betweens confirm, she’s a darling.