Yorkshire Folk (Kate Rusby)

One of the disadvantages of getting older, in my case at least, is an increased tendency to become lachrymose at times of heightened emotion. Not a good thing for a man from Northern England where men do not only not speak about their feelings but are reluctant to admit they have any in the first place. It’s not as if I reach for a handkerchief when Jennifer Aniston, or a similar botoxed muppet, realises that she loves the man she has just spent a whole movie not loving. Thankfully the self-loathing I feel for having watched such drivel still wins out. But when it comes to genuine achievement and beauty I’m the guy coughing & pretending to have something in his eye. This year’s Olympics was a tough watch for me. This is Kate Rusby and she just kills me every time.

Kate is from South Yorkshire just like our nation’s sweetheart Jessica Ennis, the Olympic Heptathlon champion. Despite the single-mindedness necessary to succeed in an individual sporting event and the plaudits which have come her way, Ennis retains a perspective about herself that is an admirable product of her family and the community in which she grew up. Similarly Kate Rusby, a nightingale from Barnsley, a recording artist for 20 years, raised in a musical family, seems to combine this same awareness with a remarkable talent. When Kate Rusby sings I become receptive to a belief in the existence of angels. “The Mocking Bird” is a self-written track from her 2010 LP “Make The Light”.

Traditional British folk music is not really my thing. Never shy of a stereotype, it’s the beards, the cable knit sweaters,the wild rovers and the jolly ploughboys that put me off. (I know…easy target. I am that shallow, sorry). One strand of folk I do enjoy is the line of women singers this country has produced. Anne Briggs, Norma Waterson, June Tabor, Maddy Prior have all introduced me to songs that I really should know. Sandy Denny and Linda Thompson are both extraordinary talents who have been involved in music of enduring quality. Kate’s transition between the traditional and the modern is seamless. As she has matured there have been more of her own songs on her records. I have to include a tune from the folk canon and this, a favourite song  as she grew up , is “The Blind Harper” from the same 2011 performance at the Cambridge Folk Festival.

It’s the Northern accent isn’t it. This is music that comes from where we come from, sung in our voice. It is pure and it is beautiful and it is representative of the best of the culture of which I am part. When Kate Rusby sings there is emotional honesty without sentimentality and part of her appeal is that I feel a pride that such a singular talent is one of ours. There must have been suggestions that an attenuated song selection could widen her audience but she has continued to do what she does and more power to her. She is up there with the likes of Gillian Welch and Patti Griffin at the pinnacle of female singer-songwwriters. It was “Underneath The Stars”, the title track of her 2003 LP that first did it for me. When that brass part hits…Oh man.

Kate has a new LP “20” which features re-recordings of her songs with an array of collaborators. There are big names (Paul Weller, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Richard Thompson) and there are her folk heroes from way back (Nic Jones, Dick Gaughan, Dave Burland). I have not heard this yet but I am sure that the quality in all her work has been maintained. If you give these selections a listen I am sure you will agree that by letting a bit of Kate Rusby into your life you know that there are good things in the world.


Shut Up and Shoot (Chester Himes)

I was so ready for the books of Chester Himes when I first read them. Anyone becoming aware of the world in the 1960s could not ignore the developing consciousness of black people in the USA. From the noble and symbolic protest in 1955 by Rosa Parks, “tired of giving in” to segregation on public transport in Alabama, to the black nationalism of the Black Panthers in the late 60s was a short time and a long journey. I got my information from the music. First it was Bob Dylan’s “Oxford Town” concerning the struggle of James Meredith to exert his rights as a citizen and enroll at the University of Mississippi. Sam Cooke, James Brown and others passed on the news. Later Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield dealt with the progress made and the problems ahead. The speeches and writings of Dr King and Malcolm X were, of course, vital signposts. It was the odyssey undertaken by Cassius Clay/Muhammed Ali, the struggle by the greatest sportsman of the 20th century to assert his individuality and the vituperation this provoked, which acted as the biggest influence upon and the most clear explanation for my young self.

I had read the books of Richard Wright and James Baldwin, the two pre-eminent African-American literary figures of the 40s and 50s. “Soul On Ice” (Eldridge Cleaver), “Soledad Brother” (George Jackson) and “If They Come In The Morning” (Angela Davis) were staples on student bookshelves in the early 1970s. The detective novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett were masterly works in a genre which had become marginalised as “hard-boiled” or “pulp”. The Harlem Detective novels of Chester Himes hit me upside the cerebrum on so many satisfactory levels. Himes’ work is the link between the black literary tradition and the assertiveness of the late 1960s. Ralph Ellison had named the negro the “Invisible Man” in his novel but Harlem was New York City, brash, busy and brutal. The characters in Himes’ novels are loud and proud and with an eye for the main chance. I had never read about this hermetic black culture of the 50s and 60s which, despite institutionalised racism, hustled and bustled and crackled with. often misdirected, energy. As detective/crime fiction the books are violent, sexy, as funny as hell. Nowadays people think that Quentin Tarantino invented this shit.

Chester Himes described a social milieu which functioned in parallel to the rest of NYC. All human life was to be found within, politicians, preachers, hookers, hustlers and those trying to live with as little intrusion from these people as possible. There was black pride before “Black Pride”, an urban confidence, an elan which survived despite the acknowledgement that in any contact with white society there would only be one winner. Obviously it was my own naivete which contributed to my delight to enter this world through the books. Himes’ skill as a writer, his flair for character and story-telling combined with a moral outrage at the choices Harlemites are forced to make to get by, made the books great.

His detectives are Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones, a fearsome dynamic duo attempting to discern and interpret a lot of senseless stuff. Their beat is Harlem, these two black men live in Long Island. They have made their deal with The Man by becoming cops, while at work they are “the mens”. Distrusted by both their employer and by the community they police, the bond between the two men has to be a strong one. They are capable of turning a blind eye to some things and also of  brutality, psychological torture and intimidation to those, of either sex, who try to thwart them. Coffin Ed has an acid-scarred face which he uses to frighten and intimidate and often causes comment. I did not read the 8 Harlem novels in order. In the first one, “For the Love Of Imabelle” (1957), Himes writes an account of the acid-throwing incident. Coffin Ed had done some bad things in a bad world but I was moved, even shocked, to read of how his disfigurement had happened. In American crime fiction there are no finer creations than Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones.

Hollywood has made 3 attempts to capture the pair on film. The first 2 were in the early 1970s, part of the wave of “blaxploitation” movies. “Cotton Comes To Harlem” & “Come Back Charleston Blue” de-clawed Himes’  Harlem pandemonium and went for a comedy angle. In 1991 Bill Duke filmed “Imabelle” as “A Rage In Harlem” and our heroes were relegated to bit parts. “Cotton”, as a period piece, and “Rage”, for the designer violence & Robin Givens in some super-tight dresses, are worth a look but all swerve the fatalism at the heart of Chester Himes’  books. So, no trailer then…here’s the great Bill Withers with his take on Harlem.

Chester Himes had an interesting and individual take on the world and lived a unique life. Born in 1909 as a young boy he witnessed the distress of his family when his brother was blinded in a school science demonstration and was refused treatment at a white hospital. ” A white man was refusing; my father was pleading. Dejectedly my father turned away; he was crying like a baby. My mother was fumbling in her handbag for a handkerchief; I hoped it was for a pistol.” He attended college in Ohio but was soon expelled over a “prank”. Just 19, he was sentenced to 20 to 25 years hard labour for armed robbery. While in prison he began to write and be published.

Released on parole after 7 years Himes spent time in Los Angeles writing novels and for the screen. The racism he encountered there convinced him that America was no place to be black. “I was entire, complete, functional; my mind was sharp, my reflexes were good, and I was not bitter. But under the mental corrosion of race prejudice in Los Angeles I became bitter and saturated with hate”. He left for France, where he had a literary reputation, to join a small group of emigres that included Wright and Baldwin. It was in France that his bitterness and hate were poured into the Harlem Detective novels published between 1957 and 1969.

There was more than negativity in the books. For sure the world was screwed but his characters still had hope however unrealistic. The final book, “Blind Man With a Pistol” does, though, descend into nihilism with its final description of that very man firing sightlessly at anyone and anything on a New York subway train. It is a great and powerful image. When you put the book down you just have to sit quietly for some time before summoning the motivation to do…well, something. You have read Philip K Dick’s “A Scanner Darkly”…it’s like that.

Reading these books put me on to so many other things. I learned about the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, the work of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. I sought out the books of Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines, two writers dealing with fictional low-life America. The Allison & Busby editions of Himes’ books had very striking covers (see the top of this post). These were by the English artist Edward Burra, a Surrealist painter who was enchanted by the vibrancy he found on the Harlem streets in the 1930s and 40s. His art warranted further investigation and I discovered a man who was, in my opinion, the greatest British painter of the 20th century.

Now maybe people like Zora Neale and Lightning Rod and Walter Mosley without going anywhere near Chester Himes. In my own experience I have found his great books to be pivotal to an understanding of African-American art and culture of my lifetime. When I had read all 8 of the Harlem novels I moved on to the two volumes of autobiography but was a little ticked off that there would be no new tales of Coffin Ed and Gravedigger. If I made New Year’s resolutions then maybe it’s time to go back to these books.

Gee, I Think You’re Swell (The Turtles)

Friends would indulge my penchant for 60s American pop bands but only so far. The Lovin’ Spoonful, that’s fine…the Mamas and the Papas, sweet…but Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, Tommy James and the Shondells, the Box Tops , they just were not having it. So, that double LP, “The Turtles Greatest Hits”, they thought it both comical and unlikely that the group who sang “Happy Together” would have such a thing. These Britcentric musos, who could name the hits of the Kinks and the Who in chronological order, would not want to hear the the Box Tops collection was a double too.

The Turtles first hit by way of 1965’s easiest route into the charts, a folk-rock cover of a Bob Dylan song. “It Ain’t Me Babe” was no “Mr Tambourine Man” but got a young band noticed. A rushed debut LP had 3 more Dylan songs & just one more minor hit. The band, though were an amiable bunch and stuck with that sunny, folky sound that the young crowd were digging.

The Turtles had two singers in the band. Lead, Howard Kaylan, looked and dressed older than the teenager he was. Harmony, Mark Volman, was a big-boned guy who played the clown. The pair were hardly pop heart-throbs, the music bright but not ground-breaking but the group were memorable and seemed to be a fixture on the US pop TV shows. They had a sharp producer in Bones Howe, a specialist in “sunshine pop” (The Association, Fifth Dimension”) who chose songs from the best young writers in California. “You Baby” is co-written by P.F. Sloan who deserved better than the “poor man’s Bob Dylan” tag he was given. Another single “Outside Chance” is an early composition by the great Warren Zevon.

In 1967, with a new producer, Joe Wissert, and new members (rhythm guitar, Jim Tucker, a Beatles fan left the music business when he was insulted by John Lennon while in England) the Turtles struck a new consistency and had a string of hits after “Happy Together” hit  #1. The songs of Garry Bonner and Alan Gordon helped a lot. The band always had an eye on whatever sounds were happening and  able to incorporate these into their commercial music.

“You Know What I Mean” is a short and sweet slab of harmony pop. Here the band gets to run around with a bunch of corn-fed Californian surfer girls…nice. As the Beach Boys headed for the sandbox and the Mamas & the Papas to the Summer of Love it was left to the Turtles and the Association to continue this strand of American music. The Turtles were by no means setting trends but they were able to make hit records when other bands had a couple of hits and were gone. It is fitting that bass player and arranger Chip Douglas was head-hunted by the Monkees. That manufactured band were similar pop butterflies eager to add polish and imagination to their records.

Of course the times were a’changing and the Turtles went with the flow. 1968’s LP had a clumsy concept and a lengthy title. “The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands” , a range of styles each by a different, fictitious band (Chief Kamanawalea and the Royal Macadamia Nuts…please !). It is, of course, a mess but produced a couple of hits including the wonderful “Elenore” which contained the lines “I really think you’re groovy. Let’s go out to a movie” possibly my favourite pop lyric ever. The band were able to nod and wink at the new psychedelic music but their public (and their label) wanted catchy, happy songs from them, not recipes for hash brownies on songs called “Food”.

The “experimental” “Can You Hear The Cows” is not on Y-tube so I’ll go with another fine 45 “She’s My Girl”. Howie resembles Gomez from “The Addams Family” and Mark is still hamming it up. In 1969 the band played a party at the White House for the President’s daughter, Tricia Nixon. For all the stories of a drunk Volman hitting on LBJ’s daughter or smoking pot in the Lincoln Bedroom the fact is that they were the favourite group of a President’s kid and they played the gig. Any self-respectng hippy would have either refused the offer or have, at least, behaved memorably badly.

With pressure from label White Whale for hits and lawsuits when the band did not play ball the Turtles ran out of steam. Drummer, Johnny Barbata, joined CSN & Y and then Jefferson Airplane. Volman & Kaylan morphed into Flo (The Flourescent Leech) & Eddie a couple of tie-dyed backing singer/clowns. They worked with a lot of people and their contribution to the Mothers Of Invention’s live “Fillmore East” record is the best they did. I saw that band in 1970, the pair were really good. I make no claims for greatness for the Turtles but they made plenty of entertaining even classy singles which add up to a double “best of” which still sounds crisp and fresh…I like crisp and fresh !

Just About To Flip My Mind (The Move)

I’ve posted clips of the Birmingham pop-psychedelicists the Move before. (https://loosehandlebars.wordpress.com/2012/07/21/my-heads-attracted-to-a-magnetic-wave-of-sound/). This live performance clip from a 1968 German TV programme “Beat, Beat, Beat” is of such high quality (less than 300 views, you have got to be kidding me !) that I want it on here and I will try not to repeat myself.

The band were the hand-picked young guns from various bands playing the Midlands circuit. In 1966 they dressed as gangsters, had an attitude, an energy and an appetite for destruction which drew comparison with the Who. Joe Boyd, in his fine memoir “White Bicycles”, writes of seeing the band at the Marquee Club in London and having meetings with them about replacing Pink Floyd as the new residents at the hippy U.F.O. club. The group were managed by a young hustler, Tony Secunda, who was eager to play with the big boys in the music industry. He chose to head for the overground and a record contract was very publicly signed…on the back of a topless female model !

The Move signed with young producer, Denny Cordell, a man who proved that he knew how to make a hit record many times. The guitarist Roy Wood was encouraged to write songs and the first single “Night Of Fear” went to #2 in the UK charts. “Night Of Fear” nicked a Tchaikovsky riff and was a pre-Summer of Love warning of a bad trip. There were contemporary bands presenting their own British take on pop-psych, the Smoke, Tomorrow, Les Fleur de Lys .The Move were the most commercially successful because they were the best at it.

Here the band play live, look smart and put on a great show. They play the first two singles (“I Can Hear The Grass Grow” was another Top 10 hit, another song about tripping ) and “Walk Upon The Water”, a track from the first LP. I had forgotten what a terrific song tune this is…lovely. I always thought that the singer Carl Wayne had a touch of the business of show about him, less comfortable in the Carnaby Street clobber, side-lined by the emergence of Roy Wood as the talent. They are all looking good here, the ill-advised perms, kaftans and bells came later. Bass player Ace Kefford particularly is the image of the dude rock star with the coolest look, moves and attitude.

Within a year the scene had shifted. The album was now the thing and the Move were locked into singles success. They made some great 45s but never managed to, or maybe did not want to, produce a concept album/rock opera. Roy Wood never seemed the most confident of men. As he became the leader of first the Move, then E.L.O. and Wizzard he hid himself behind increasing facial hair and ridiculous costumes. His run of singles with the Move compare with the best of British music at this time and he deserves a higher regard than he has. Still, if you need to hear the Move it’s a “Best Of” collection that will do the trick.

The original line-up of the Move splintered. Ace left, then Trevor Burton and finally Carl. The hits kept on coming for Roy Wood though. Trevor Burton formed Balls, another Birmingham supergroup involving Denny Laine, Steve Gibbons and others. Tony Secunda hustled a big advance, hired the great producer Jimmy Miller and the band went to a country cottage with the intention of “getting it together”. They only got very high for a long time and by the time “Fight For My Country was released the band had split. The song is an overblown epic of muscular peacenik psychedelia. Hey, they are Brummies, it was never going to be anything else. I had forgotten this song for over 30 years and it’s a cracker.

Years later I was visiting friends in Birmingham. We went for a beer at Sunday lunchtime and Trevor Burton was playing a set at the local pub. Usually a weekend in Brum involved smoking a lot of dope and listening to a lot of reggae, not much else. (Don’t knock it…it’s a thing). On returning to London my mates were impressed at the quality of entertainment provided by the neighbourhood boozer. Good memories of the Move and their very acceptable pop music.

Joe Strummer (21.9.1952-22.12.2002)

Ten years ago today Joe Strummer of the 101ers, the Clash and the Mescaleros died at the terribly early age of 50. Joe’s political punk poetry helped to make the Clash the most influential and the best British band of their time.

From the lyrics of “White Riot”…“All the power is the hands/ Of people rich enough to buy it/ While we walk the streets/ Too chicken to even try it/ And everybody does what they’re told to/ And everybody eats supermarket soul-food”…to the last great single “This Is England”, Joe communicated his sense of outrage and injustice. He was writing and singing what many people already thought and said but the band’s popularity meant that he reached a much wider audience than anyone. Joe and his band inspired and reflected the attitudes of a generation of British people which goes beyond the punk shibboleths but knows that “no man born with a living soul can be working for the clampdown”. The ironic antipathy of Banksy’s images in this clip serve the song well.

Joe’s work post-Clash is not as well known but is of a fine quality. “Trash City” was recorded with Latin Rockabilly War and still sounds pretty good. In 1999 he released his first record with the Mescaleros. Lyrically and musically the band reflected the multiculturalism of Britain in a way that I recognised the country he sang about. Caribbean, Asian, African, Eastern European and British, there are aspects of all these cultures that are now part of our everyday lives. Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros threw this all together and made a fine World Music noise with it. There are a lot of good songs to pick from, “Coma Girl”, “Johnny Appleseed”, “Bhindi Bhagee” and others. Well, it’s my shout and this is the stunning “Yalla Yalla”.

Joe Strummer could be contradictory, as can we all. He was a musical magpie just like we are. He is remembered for all the great music he produced and for always trying to cut through the bullshit, always trying to remember the morality involved in living your life as well as you can. Joe was no idealist, he was not our conscience. He was, as we all are, trying to live life well, to do the right thing. He is remembered today and he is missed always.

When It Drops, You Gonna Feel It (Toots And The Maytals)

I first saw Perry Henzell’s  film “The Harder They Come”  in a rammed Birmingham cinema. It was loud, proud, colourful, smoky and so was the movie. Any technical flaws in this low budget film are more than off-set by the energy and imagination shown in telling  the story of Ivan (Jimmy Cliff), a Trenchtown rude boy who sees his only options for escape to be music or crime. Jamaican and Caribbean culture was making its contribution to British cities in the 1970s but West Indians were almost invisible in the mass media. This vibrant, compelling film put Jamaica on the big screen and got it right first time. It also had one of the great soundtrack albums. There was a lot of good music  from Jamaica and they picked some good ones.

“Sweet and Dandy” by the Maytals was the winner of the 1969 Jamaican popular song festival. Through the 60s they were one of the vocal groups who transposed the gospel-soul of the Impressions into gospel-ska. They were bang on the progression to reggae and were the biggest group in Jamaica. This song is so upfull, dance along, sing along, just feel it. I love it.

The Maytals became Toots and the Maytals. Toots Hibbert is a natural showman and a deal with a major label meant plans for him to be the next reggae superstar after Bob Marley. “54-46 That’s My Number” was written about some time he served in prison and has been a highlight of his live shows for just ever. Here, on a 1975 USA tour, the band funk around while Toots is a ball of energy and power.  Toots never sold shed-loads of records. The music seemed to be made for an international market when at this time more experimental cutting edge reggae made in Jamaica was the way to go. No matter, “Funky Kingston” and “Reggae Got Soul” are still great records. Toots had enough good songs in his back catalogue to ensure a great show.

From that run of 60s tunes I have chosen the sincere, soulful ska of “True Love” because, now that I am old, I find this straightforward tune to be so affecting and effective. When I worked on the construction sites Toots and the Maytals’ “Greatest Hits” was a surefire winner with everybody, every time. “Pressure Drop”, “Monkey Man”, even the John Denver cover “Country Roads” all sung with that warm,raspy, passionate vocal lift a person’s spirit in a life-affirming way…that’s a good thing, yeah ?

Steve Earle In The 21st Century

I don’t know the 21st century LPs of Steve Earle well enough to take them apart and see how they work. In the 10 years after “El Corazon” he released a bluegrass LP & 4 studio records. I was still listening but I wasn’t buying. It’s no reflection on the quality, it was just that I had plenty of his music and not enough time to listen to it all. This happened with a few artists. My collection had enough Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, R.E.M. (In those cases I was spending money on  “expanded” versions of LPs I already owned). I wanted to spread my wings and splash the cash on something a little different. Those two volumes of James Carr’s work on Goldwax would look pretty good on my shelf and sound even better. It is, though, no problem to find a fine and varied selection from Steve’s later period. So here we go…

Now, losing your heart to a black haired, blue eyed Galway Girl is like seeing Venice for the first time. It’s like dancing on the edge of a volcano. It is a wonderful thing…really. One Friday night it happened to a good friend of mine when he got lucky as we all sat at a pub table. It was Saturday afternoon before he fully regained his powers of speech. Steve’s affinity with Ireland had previously led him to record with the Pogues and to mention St Patrick’s Day in his UK concerts and expect us to cheer. (Paddy’s Night is OK but the Irish guys I hung with needed no extra incentive to drink to excess). He lived in Galway for a while and “Galway Girl” is a perfect collision of Texas and Ireland. Sharon Shannon is a peerless accordionist and the rest of the band seem to know their way around their instruments.

Now this is more my thing. A loud and proud polemic, the title track from the 2004 Grammy winning “The Revolution Starts Now”. Earle writing was becoming more engaged with social issues. His 2002 LP “Jerusalem” , dealing with the USA post 9/11, had instigated controversy, particularly the song “John Walker’s Blues”, written from the perspective of an American convert to Islam who had fought with the Taliban. Now I grew up expecting songwriters to engage with the world, to provoke and encourage debate. Here in the UK Steve Earle’s political views were no surprise. Personally I was more interested to hear what he had to say than Springsteen was singing about in “The Rising”. They were strange days indeed in the USA, even those country poppets the Ditzy Chicks caught a shitstorm for having the nerve to say what they thought about something.

“The Revolution Starts Now” is Steve and the Dukes at their rocking best, a fresh take on classic American music. The assertiveness of the lyrics makes me smile…debate this song and shove it. A revolution of hope over fear…in your own backyard, in your own hometown !

Socially conscious art can get a little worthy, even preachy. In 2009 Steve Earle recorded an LP of songs written by his friend and mentor Townes Van Zandt who died in 1997. Townes was never more than a cult artist and his world weary song stories have inspired much imitation. There was no-one better placed to create such a tribute and “Townes” is sensitive, respectful and interesting. There are live clips around of Steve’s take on the songs but “No Place To Fall” is such a great track. You know, maybe I have room for just one more Steve Earle LP in my collection.

Till Steve Cropper Plays A Bum Note (Stax)

From that very first time I heard the brassy blare, the rock solid rhythm and Wilson “Wicked” Pickett strutting through the Midnight Hour the sound of Memphis soul has shaken more than my tailfeathers. In 1966 I dutifully posted my vote for Wilson as the best singer in the world to a music paper (I’ve always been a sucker for a lost cause). A year later, just turned 15 years old, I waited on my bike to meet my best friend and share the shock of the morning news. Our new favourite, Otis Redding, had been killed in a plane crash. The world carried on with little regard but for Wink & I it was a big loss.

I did not know the hows and the whys, the whos and the wheres of the Stax/Atlantic legends then like I do now. I just knew that the raw, deep soul sound sure did it for me.

In 1967 Stax brought their artists to Europe for a tour which galvanised both performers and audiences. The Beatles, busy recording “Sgt Pepper”, sent a limo to meet them at Heathrow. The mainly black performers had not played to mainly white audiences before. The attention & interest alerted the label to not just a European market. Later in the year Otis Redding tore up the Monterey Pop Festival before the hippie “love crowd”. We are very lucky that one of these concerts, in Oslo, was filmed. Every second of the film is packed with quality, energy and soul.

Eddie Floyd is singing “Raise Your Hand” the follow up to his biggest record “Knock On Wood”. This simple call and response sits on a bed of pure Stax music. You could sing the telephone book and it would sound good. (Wilson Pickett started to do so on  “634-5789”). Eddie made some great records, he’s looking fine and singing strong here. He will always be remembered for the classic “Knock On Wood”.

Behind Floyd is the powerhouse band who backed all the acts on this legendary show and were the house band back in the Memphis studio. In the horn section there is Wayne Jackson and, I think, Packy Axton, son of Estelle, the AX in Stax. The other four are Booker T and the M.Gs, stars in their own right. Booker T Jones, played organ, arranged and composed songs while studying classical composition. His 2007 Grammy for lifetime achievement is deserved. Two childhood friends, Duck Dunn (bass) and Steve Cropper (guitar) were young men who grew up loving R&B, they knew how it went, knew where it was going and were helping to take it there. Cropper co-wrote this song, “Knock On Wood” and many others in his years at Stax. On drums is Al Jackson Jr and he is simply the best exponent of this instrument I have ever heard or seen. Eddie Floyd is great in this clip. Watch it again, see and listen to the best band in the world…The Mar-Keys.

Stax was not only the honking, stomping shots of energy, when they tried a little tenderness they got the job done too.William Bell, like Eddie Floyd, wrote and recorded many memorable songs without great commercial success. In 1967 he released ” A Tribute to a King”, the label’s eulogy for Otis. A year later the near-perfect soul duet with Judy Clay, “Private Number” was a big UK hit. In the same year “I Forgot To Be Your Lover” set new standards in sweet soul music. From the opening restraint of Steve Cropper’s guitar, the strings, yes strings, before the horns move in and Bell’s impassioned regret. Man, producer Booker T does a fine job on this. Like the run of 1960s singles by the Impressions this song just ends too quickly.

The song has often been covered (Billy Idol…anyone ?) and sampled. In Jamaica in 1977 Lee Perry produced a version by George Faith which is a highpoint of sweet reggae and is well worth a listen.

The story goes that Otis Redding returned from Europe and said he didn’t want to tour with Sam and Dave anymore. The all-singing, all-dancing, all-energy duo were one of the great live acts of the 1960s. Sam Moore and Dave Prater enjoyed massive success with their records too. A run of hits, many written by the team of Isaac Hayes and Dave Porter, established them as the biggest soul pairing in the US. Here they just wreck “Soul Man” with the Stax B-line. The A team were back making hits in Memphis but there is no visible or aural drop in quality. I could try and encapsulate Sam and Dave’s appeal but there are what, about 150 videos on Y-Tube and there are not 3 better than this. Just watch the clip, it’s great.

With international success, the tragic and premature loss of their greatest star and the machinations of the music industry the travails of the Stax label are labyrinthine and a little sad. Led by Isaac Hayes they recovered from the loss of their magnificent catalogue but the story still ended in bankruptcy. A cottage industry out of a converted cinema set the standard for great soul music which still endures. I still listen to and love the music that Stax made. I guess that once you’re a soul boy you end up a soul man.

Joe Brown Picks The Hits (Three From 2012)

For the first time loosehandlebars welcomes a new Selector to punch up the tunes. Joe Brown is the bass player with Bam Bam & the Calling, legends of the Derry music scene.

 He is partner of the lovely Gayle, father of 3 three teenage boys and the owner of, I think, several Hank Williams tee-shirts. That or he has just the one and he wears it all the time. I know that we are in safe hands because throughout 2012 Joe has been sending me new and old music of a spectacular quality. OK some of it has been German blokes from the 1970s who have fallen asleep at their keyboards but the rest of it has been brilliant. This is Joe Brown’s pick of the best new music he has heard this year.

“The Bravest Man In The Universe” is the title track from the Only Survivor/The Poet, Bobby Womack’s first LP for 12 years (and that was a Xmas record). Bobby wrote the first #1 for the Rolling Stones, hits for Wilson Pickett and was with Sly Stone for the creation of “There’s A Riot Goin’ On”. In the 1970s & 1980s there were times when his music touched new heights. He is a true Soul Great. He has been Across 110th Street a few too many times & has been suffering from cancer.

 “Bad as I been, I can sing my ass off, better than I could before”. Womack has always had an ear on how music is changing,Richard Russell and Damon Albarn have produced a merger of  the classic and the present. To hear Bobby in such good form on this atmospheric and beautiful song is just a treat. He is clear of his illness now so let’s hope that there is more good stuff to come. “The bravest man in the universe is the one who has forgiven first”…Hell Yeah !

“Aw just like Sister Ray said”…in space…turn it up… let the psyche-boogie free your mind (& your ass will follow). Moon Duo is a side project of San Franciscan psychedelicists Wooden Ships. Guitarist Ripley Johnson and accomplice  keyboardist Sanae Yamada recorded the LP “Circles” in the USA and mixed it in Berlin. Appropriate enough as they take their cues from the Velvet Underground and Suicide and add more than a pinch of the louder old German groups like Guru Guru. (Take my word for it, if you are too young to know these bands they are pretty damn good starting points).

Let “I Been Gone”‘s rumbling soundscape fill the room and it will pummel any resistance. Moon Duo are doing this thing better than anyone else this year. The only criticism is that the tune is not 10 minutes longer !

I have to interject here and state that my friend Joe Brown in no way recommends the use of recreational hallucinogenic stimulants as an enhancement to your musical pleasure. (Maybe he does, but not on my blog Sunny Joe). He does though, love a bit of flanging and distortion. He would only agree to that one way ticket to a desert island if he could take along “Nuggets”, the collection of acid/garage/psych classics. So, obviously, Tame Impala tweaks his nipples…mine too.

Any psychedelic record, and “Lonerism” is certainly a modern one , is inevitably compared with the past. “Elephant” sounds like John Lennon riffing on the “Doctor Who” theme. It is these echoes of the Beatles, and a modern pop sensibility, that makes the track such a killer single. The rest of the LP is a little dreamier (McCartney ?) and just as good. Kevin Parker, Tame Impala , is the best thing to come out of Perth Australia since…no he’s that best thing. He took a long time to make this record and has been rewarded with a place on most “Best of 2012” lists.

OK, I hope I have done Joe’s choices the justice they deserve. Two of the three would have made my own Top 10 and the third is proving to be a “grower”. The exchange of opinions about music and life with Joe & his crew has been just the ticket this year. There are times I say nothing because these guys have already said what I think. This, I tell you, makes a fine change from keeping it zipped because it just ain’t worth it. Onto 2013 brothers !

Sacred Songs (Daryl Hall and Robert Fripp)

By the late 1970s Daryl Hall & John Oates, a duo from Philadelphia, were in a slump. Their brand of intelligent soft-rock with its Philly Soul inflections still had an audience but the iron rule of disco over radio play was a barrier to any wider success. They were dropped by Atlantic Records and another major label, RCA, signed the pair immediately. RCA encouraged Hall to record a solo LP and in 1977 he made the best record he would make in what became a long and very, very successful career. “Sacred Songs” was not what the label was expecting, they had other plans for Daryl. It was 3 years before the LP was released.

For “Sacred Songs” Hall hooked up with Robert Fripp, a guitar Prince of Prog Rock with his band King Crimson. Fripp made some great noises on Brian Eno’s records and was, in 1977, just off the glorious guitar work on David Bowie’s “Heroes”. His intellectual approach to playing was leading him towards “Frippertronics” but he could still play the guitar just like ringing a bell. There are some fine songs on the LP which are often redolent of the classy early ballads of Todd Rundgren. It is the production and playing of Fripp which reins in Daryl’s pop sensibilities and makes the collection cool and classy.

“Something In 4/4 Time” indicates that the pair knew that they were thumbing their noses at the label. It’s a great parody of the up-tempo hit single expected of Hall with a Fripp solo which I can only describe as splendid. The record was not released, Hall hooked up with Oates again and they became the pop sensation that the label always wanted them to be. In the early 80s I shared a house with a fanatical follower of Robert Fripp. We would play “Sacred Songs” to friends and, a couple of tracks in, they would recognise what seemed to be a strange but effective combination of talents.

Careful now…those 1980s eh ? A big budget video to sell the song, a largely redundant and unimaginative “extended mix”, did we fight in the trenches of the Punk Wars for nothing ? “Out Of Touch” was an 11th US Top 10 record for Hall and Oates. The lead single from the LP “Big Bam Boom” which probably went multi-platinum on the day of release. The duo’s brand of “Rock & Soul” (cheeky beggars !) made them a sensation of the age & the highest selling pair in music, like ever.

From a distance, comfortable with my sexuality, I had a bit of a man-crush on Daryl Hall. I would cut him a bit more slack for the songs designed to sell zillions or the leopardskin suits tucked into his boots. I thought he was a dude. I did not fully realise this until years later when I would find myself defending the more arrogant excesses of Jose Mourinho, another good looking man. OK…too much information. I am gonna take a break and watch Salma Hayek do that snake dance in “From Dusk Till Dawn ” now !

After running in such rarefied circles ,(their band was the house band for the US section of Live Aid), the only way is down, the live albums, the greatest hits, buy a ranch somewhere and count your money. Hall and Oates have enough about them to not be some “golden oldies” band but if they play together I’m sure that the audience want to hear the hits (though hopefully not “Your Kiss Is On My List”). From what I have seen on the computer Daryl has a very nice gaff and when his famous mates drop around they do play the old songs.

Round at Daryl’s house it was lucky that Dave Stewart off of the Eurythmics had brought his shiny Rickenbacker along so that he could join this spirited re-run of “Dreamtime” a solo hit in 1986. Back then the golden- maned rock god schtick was wearing a bit thin as Daryl reached 40 years old. Now, into his 60s, I hear a good song well played. It’s “Dad Rock” for sure but it does not try to be anything else (that would be the truly awful Paul Weller then) and is fine for a listen in the afternoon.

I still play “Sacred Songs” to people and it still surprises those who only know the hit records. I am going to put one more from the LP on here because even if you come across a Daryl Hall song it will probably not have a Robert Fripp solo on it.