Three From 2012

I am not that guy who listens to pop music anymore. I did hear 30 seconds of the Korean dance phenom once, 15 seconds of that I was searching for my radio remote. Mr & Mrs Jepson and their sweet daughter Carly Rae could live down the street for all I know, with Beyonce’s little sister, Solange, hanging out and having slumber parties. It’s getting to the end of the year & time to look back over 2012 and wonder if any of this new shit that has come to light has made an impression.

I do have a tendency to stick with the tried and tested. New music needs a little time to make its mark. That way you don’t have too many MGMT albums on your shelf (and one is too many). I was looking at Uncut magazine’s list of the best LPs of 2012 and 3 of the top 4 are by men in their 70s ! So, these first three are by artists who know their way around and don’t need help to get there.

The Original and the Best. The King of roaring, melodic guitar music reclaims his crown. Bob Mould’s “Silver Age” LP takes the classic “Copper Blue” noise as its starting point but this is no retrospect revival. It is Mould re-stating his primacy in a field where he has been much imitated but never bettered. He sings of his descent over ringing ascending chords and I give thanks to Jah that music can still affect me like this does.This is music for bouncing off the walls to. Single of the Year.

“Come On You Lot” is a football anthem of a song, Chicory Tip meets Mario Kart 64. It is from “On The Hot Dog Streets” the first LP by Go-Kart Mozart for 8 years. G-K M are Lawrence, off of 80s indie-rockers Felt and then the brilliantly caustic Denim, along with probably the few people he still talks to. Lawrence has never been shy of voicing his distaste for the many things he finds irksome. He has had some trying times, he’s over 50 now and there is not a great deal in 21st century Britain he finds positive. I love his sardonic take on our world and have plenty of time for his music, “novelty rock” or not. This song, remembering the England World Cup win of 1966 and casting a more than jaundiced eye on 2012 is the Xmas #1 round here.

For more than I want to say about “On The Hot Dog Streets” click this. http://thequietus.com/articles/09403-go-kart-mozart-on-the-hot-dog-streets-review. There will be more here on Denim soon.

The Drive-By Truckers lost bassist Shona Tucker at the end of last year and this will make the band less easy on the eye. No matter, the D-B Ts, along with Wilco are the best bands in the US of A. And don’t be giving me any old flannel about any of those college graduates growing beards and pretending to live in log cabins while channeling the parents’ Crosby, Stills & Nash records (there I’ve said it). Patterson Hood, as befitting a scion of fine southern music, has always respected its legacy and reflected it in his songs.

From his solo LP “Heat Lightning Rumbles In The Distance”, “Come Back Little Star” is a beautiful tribute to his friend Vic Chesnutt. Vic, partially paralyzed and wheelchair bound at 18 made some wonderful and challenging music before he died in 2009. I once sat at the front of the stage and saw Vic just pour it all out until we were all wrung out. This song is a fitting remembrance. I like the Truckers, especially when they have that touch of Warren Zevon nihilism. I like it too when Patterson Hood just sits and plays his songs.

First Time Around (Go Betweens)

Sheesh, those last two posts felt like I was knitting with spaghetti. I just do not want to write anything about talented people I admire if I am not going to do it right so…Any road up, no great insight in these next ones, just some music that I find most agreeable. This is the Go Betweens.

The equal second best Australian band ever. After Nick Cave in his various representations I find it impossible to slide a cigarette paper between the Go Betweens and the similarly poptastic Easybeats. I am sure that, as folk of discernment, you have your own alternatives to this hierarchy…talk to the hand..

The Go Betweens were essentially Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, Other members made noteworthy contributions but these two wrote the songs and stayed the course. They were Brisbane punks in 1978, they were post-punk (weren’t we all ?) by the time they came to the UK in 1983. Lindy Morrison was now the drummer and McLennan was still playing bass. They released their second LP “Before Hollywood”, “Cattle and Cane”, a wistful remembrance of a Queensland childhood, a distinctive tempo and an elegant chiming arrangement, deserves it’s recognition as an 80s pop classic. At the time…not a sausage.

The band recorded four more LPs in the 1980s, The singles released were often the more obvious up-tempo songs, promotional videos were made and not one of their 45s got into the charts in Australia, the UK or the USA. There must have been some good music around at this time because the Go Betweens were establishing their quality with each successive record

For 1987’s “Tallulah” the band had been joined by multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Amanda Brown. The productions were  little more polished, some of the edges smoothed away. This was supposed to be  a “breakthrough” record but it wasn’t. The writing partnership of Forster and McLennan was getting stronger, the songs more focused. “Bye Bye Pride” is another radio-friendly, almost-anthem, seriously gorgeous pop song. Am I missing something here ?

In the next year the Go Betweens gave it one last shot with the LP “16 Lovers Lane”.

There’s a word that is banned from this blog. Everybody and his/her cat who writes these things bleats about how stuff they like is not liked by more people. Since I have been online the word “underrated” has lost any resonance. Get over yourself pussycat. BUT…I listened to the Go Betweens develop a confident , more finely crafted style and enjoyed some of the best pop music of the decade. Music which still sounds great today because that is what the best pop music is, timeless. I return to records that I bought and liked from the 1980s and don’t find that same quality. I am reluctant to name them but Prefab Sprout, Aztec Camera, Scritti Politti and others, I am pointing at you.

I read somewhere that the band were aiming for a the pop sensibility of the Monkees crossed with the Velvet Underground but it’s no good singing that because it doesn’t rhyme. In the video for “Was there Anything I Could Do” the band may just have stopped treating these things seriously. They look good and even the fey, rather awkward Robert Forster looks to be having fun. Maybe they should have released the more personal, less obvious but still rich and sharp songs. Whatever, the best of the Go Betweens is a very classy collection.

In 1989 the group disbanded and went on to solo projects. It would be 12 years before there was another Go Betweens record and there were a few of us who were pleased that they were back.

John Huston (The 1970s)

John Huston is unequivocally a legend of American cinema. If he had only directed and written his first film, “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), he would have made a contribution to Hollywood’s history. He continued to make movies over 5 decades and it is not difficult to select 3 films from each of them that are outstanding works (OK, the 60s would be a bit of a sweat). As a kid my Dad sat me down to watch one of his favourite films, “The African Queen” (1951) (The other was John Ford’s “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon”). I wanted to be Bogart-tough, fell in love with Katherine Hepburn & still watch the movie once a year to remind me of the effectiveness of a good story well told.

In the 1970s Huston met the challenge of the new young guns in town and made some memorable films. These are just 3 of them and it was a tough call.

“Fat City” (1972) is a film about  broken lives and misshapen dreams in Stockton, California. It is about boxers but is nothing like “Rocky”, adapted from his own fine novel by Leonard Gardner the film inhabits a world of seedy bars and hotel rooms, of sweaty gyms and day labour in the fields. John Huston captures the underbelly and mundanity of American life as well as anyone ever has. The lack of self-awareness in the characters is as skilfully handled as the insight given to the viewer. The director is helped by outstanding performances by a great cast.

Stacy Keach stars as Tully, a washed-up pug with little option but to return to the ring. This is, I think, his defining role in his career. The relationship with the alcoholic Oma (for which Susan Tyrrell was Oscar nominated) is tender and doomed. The actors united again four years later for the film of the Jim Thompson novel “The Killer Inside Me”.  Jeff Bridges, on a run of films (“The Last Picture Show”, “Bad Company, “Stay Hungry”) which made him cinema’s best young itinerant seeker, does that thing his young self did. He is lucky enough to share screen time with debutant Candy Clark (that’s the amazing Candy Clark) before “American Graffiti” & “The Man Who Fell To Earth”. Mention must be made of Nicholas Colosanto, the seen-it-all coach 10 years before he played a smoother version in the sit-com “Cheers”. There is also a blink and you’ll miss it appearance by Sixto Rodriguez, the singer (and former boxer) recently featured in the documentary “Searching For Sugar Man”.

“Fat City” is an outstanding piece of American cinema from a noteworthy time. John Huston entered his fourth decade of film-making with a rush and a push.

In 1975, after a couple of good movies starring Paul Newman, John Huston directed “The Man Who Would Be King”. This crackling adaptation of the chronicler of the Raj, Rudyard Kipling’s story had been around for a while. Bogart & Errol Flynn, Richard Burton & Peter O’Toole had been considered over the years. The two biggest British movie stars of the day finally made the film and , in modern day parlance, they owned it ! Sean Connery, no longer James Bond, looking for and finding roles to display his presence and his range and Michael Caine, the great star of late 60s British cinema, are perfect in the roles of ex-army confidence tricksters seeking their fortune on the North West Frontier.

“The Man Who…” is a terrific ripping yarn of an adventure movie and a buddy movie to rival Butch & Sundance. The fast-paced action is matched by the zinging interplay of the two stars. Of course, this is a John Huston movie so ambition must be thwarted by vanity at some point. The conceit of Connery as a king is hilarious, the loyalty of Caine’s Peachy is touching. Contemporary movies set in the British Empire had ranged from the flag-waving “Zulu” to the cynical “Charge Of The Light Brigade”. John Huston’s take on the genre is rumbunctious, modern and still a treat.

After a brief hiatus Huston returned in 1979 with “Wise Blood” an adaptation of a novel by the mistress of Southern Gothic, Flannery O’Connor. The book is a dark theological classic about the nature of sin, of faith and of religion. It is populated with a parade of grotesques and it is bleak. John Huston, a cultured and literate man, would not have attempted to make this film if he did not have the confidence he would do the novel justice. He absolutely does the job, “Wise Blood” is a strange, ultimately gut-wrenching and an unforgettable cinematic experience. I love this film.

Hazel Motes, a young war veteran, struggles with an alienation from his own faith and with the excesses of the Southern preachers he encounters peddling their bastardised take on religion. Motes is played by the master of deranged intensity Brad Dourif (Grima Wormtongue off of Lord Of The Rings, kids). His involvement with the religious huckster Hoover Shoates (Ned Beatty) , a blind preacher (Harry Dean Stanton) and his nymphomaniac young daughter leads him to found his own church, “The Church of Truth Without Christ”. Frustrated at his inability to achieve grace in a secular world Hazel internalises his religious anguish leading to masochism, self-immolation and bad craziness. Better minds than mine have applied themselves to the meaning of “Wise Blood”. It is a film with Brad Dourif, Ned Beatty, Harry Dean Stanton and others acting their asses off for a great director and that’s enough for me.

The trailor gives the impression that “Wise Blood” is a satire, a comedy. It is much more than that. A tragi-comedy perhaps but it is so much more. John Huston captures the notion that Flannery O’Connor thinks that we live in a world which just might have gone absolutely mad. She may have had a point there.

It is difficult to nail the “John Huston” style. He made many films of different types and of varying quality. There is an element of men facing circumstances which will define themselves and their destinies but there is certainly more to him than there is to Hemingway’s macho bullshit ideas on masculinity. Huston’s men discover that their dreams and vanities can cause them to over reach and to disappoint themselves. He has an understanding that those who do not win are not necessarily losers. Unless, of course, you are Humphrey Bogart and are the toughest, coolest, manliest  mo-fo on celluloid !

Hard Luck Guy (Eddie Hinton)

I have given myself twisted blood and the beginnings of a headache attempting to wrestle “Hard Luck Guy” by Eddie Hinton onto this post. The song is a chilling soul-blues by an artist who’s playing I have been listening to since the 1960s but did not know by name.  I’m sure my advisor on all things Internet (aged 12) will patronisingly point out the elementary mistake I am making and we will have it here as soon as. No matter, Eddie Hinton made some great records and here’s one of them.

Eddie was a guitarist with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section from 1967 to 1971. In this period the band moved from Fame Studios in Florence Alabama to their own Muscle Shoals studio. In 2008 when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Eddie Hinton was not among the 9 names included. I suppose that  thems the breaks but listening now to his smooth picking, so spare and clean, I can hear him on the roll call of gold records that came out of the two studios. I could list them but some great artists would be missed and my fingers would get tired.

He was a friend of the Allman Brothers, shared an apartment with Duane when he returned from Los Angeles. Eddie turned down an offer to join the band to remain with his session work. It is a fairly obvious decision because Eddie Hinton is, first and foremost, a Soul Man. “We Got It” is from his first record “Very Extremely Dangerous”. It is a sensational collection of self-penned songs  based on Eddie’s sweet, almost gentle, licks (it would be wrong to call them riffs). He sings his heart out and the band, especially the wonderful horn section, plays all the right notes in the right places. There are times when Eddie Hinton’s voice can remind you of Otis Redding. In his later recordings there is a touch of Al Green. He is no copyist though, his individual soulful voice is the most striking thing about songs that have a lot else going for them.

With his songwriting partners he wrote a couple of for good songs for Percy Sledge. “Cover Me” is on “Very…”. He also wrote this classy thing for Dusty Springfield when she came to Memphis to make her magnum opus.

“Very Extremely Dangerous” was released in 1978. Rough hewn country soul and blues was not getting played much at the height of disco. The record label, Capricorn, folded and Eddie Hinton did not record again until 1982. Unfortunately there were problems in his personal life, divorce, mental illness, addiction. An old college friend who found him living on the street helped his recovery and motivated him to finish the record from 5 years earlier. “Letters From Mississippi” (1987) continues the fine work of the first LP. Eddie found an audience in Europe and began to play live shows. There are two more records on which, understandably, Eddie sings the blues like a man who knows what trouble is. In 1995, after a tour of Italy and while recording new songs, he suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 51.

Eddie Hinton is no forgotten man. The estimable Drive- By Truckers, led by Patterson Hood who’s father David was a member of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, have recorded songs by him and about him. Dan Auerbach has produced a couple of covers too. The finest tribute to Eddie came when some of his former collegues, Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, Donnie Fritts, those Muscle Shoals and Memphis veterans finished songs that Eddie had not. The posthumous LP “Hard Luck Guy” (1999) is a fitting tribute to a soul brother who played his part in making so much great music.

I only really know the first and the last of Eddie Hinton’s recordings and I love them. I am still hearing songs for the first time (in the UK there are still DJs who play the good stuff) and they stop me in my tracks when I recognise Eddie’s unique voice. Last week “Very Extremely Dangerous”, the soundtrack and inspiration for this piece, was uploaded to the Y-tube so what are you waiting for ? Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records thought that Eddie would be the “next big thing” back in the day. In the sleeve notes of “Hard Luck Guy” he wrote, “He remains unique, a white boy who truly sang and played in the spirit of the great black soul artists he venerated. With Eddie it wasn’t imitation; it was totally created, with a fire and fury that was as real as Otis Redding’s and Wilson Pickett’s.” This time he was right.

Wisdom Is Found In The Simplest Of Places (Blackheart Man Bunny Wailer)

I was on a train from Manchester to Birmingham, an old school “Strangers On A Train” train with compartments for 6 people. The other young guy in there  didn’t speak but our quiet journey was interrupted at Stoke when we were joined by 3 black kids, a Rasta (it was a fashion at the time) and his younger acolytes. They immediately got down to it and began to build a couple of spliffs. I was not going to miss an opportunity to smoke up the collie with the bredren so put my hand in the way and intercepted the joint as it was passed across. A little presumptive on my part maybe. I had better produce some credentials and sharpish. From my bag I took out an LP that, at the time, went everywhere with me. Any problem with this cheeky white bwoy was solved.

“Blackheart Man” is the first LP Bunny Wailer released after leaving the Wailers. The story of the three Wailers is told in Colin Grant’s fine book “I and I: The Natural Mystics”. As in Lloyd Bradley’s earlier history of reggae “Bass Culture” the social and political development of Jamaica is inevitably entwined with the music. The story of these young men, as close as brothers, is a fascinating one. They presented a united front against tribulation because they shared a belief in and a passion about the music they created. When the wider world came calling  there were differences about how to deal with Babylon. Bunny decided to stay in Jamaica then Peter Tosh left the group which had become Bob Marley and the Wailers. Spurred, I’m sure, by the desire to prove they could each stand alone each man delivered an LP which marked the point that reggae music had to be considered around the world not just in Jamaica and the UK.

This title song “Blackheart Man” tells of the fable warning children to “tikya” of strangers making a parallel with the ostracism of Rastafari by Jamaican society. Bunny’s lyricism, his calm, almost understated, declaration of his own beliefs makes it a powerful, convincing and uplifting work. The guy on the train handed my LP to his younger mates, “This”, he said, “tis a spiritual ting”, and he was right.

Bunny had provided harmonies and percussion in the Wailers. It is the attention paid to these flourishes which make the music on “Blackheart Man” more mellifluous than the anthems of Bob Marley (which are sweet enough). While no less an advocate of Rasta and opponent of oppression than his militant, proselytizing confederates, lyrically he concerned himself with a revolution of the spirit as much as of worldly things. Three of the 10 songs are concerned with the possibility of an ideal way of living. A fresh take on the gospel classic “This Train” closes the LP. “Dreamland” is a reverie on a Rasta African homeland and this track “Fig Tree” is a similar reflection on finding a paradise on earth. Now I’m a cynical man firmly anchored in the material world but songs as open and as fresh as this will make me think. I am not the first to make the point but there is a touch of William Blake, of the romantic visionary, about Jah Bunny.

“Fig Tree” contains the lyric “every man is a man and every mickle mek a muckle”. For years I admired this integration of Jamaican patois into the song. I was watching the great 1962 film “Billy Liar”, set in West Yorkshire, and was surprised to hear that very same phrase used. Say what !…this Scottish/Northern English saying was first recorded in the writings of George Washington in 1793 ! And I thought it was a Trenchtown thing y’knaa.

Bunny Wailer continues to make music and has made other great LPs but “Blackheart Man” is, in his own opinion, the most complete realisation of his musical and lyrical concerns. It is one of the great LPs, not just in reggae. My own admiration for him as a man and musician has endured for a long time now and will continue to do so. Listening to “Fighting Against Conviction” with it’s positive vibrations despite the struggles of life, with it’s sinuous Wailers’ groove and harmonies from brother Peter Tosh, makes a point more succinctly than I could ever hope to.

So, our conversation on the train was cut short as we entered the outskirts of Birmingham. We said our goodbyes as the boys were riding the rails and left to jump from the train before it reached New Street station. The compartment was filled with a lovely fug of marijuana smoke and I smiled to myself at the welcome and unexpected turn the journey had taken. Now I would have to get my stoned butt into shape to negotiate a crowded Friday night commuter crowd…oh shit. I took a few deep breaths and tried to centre my chakras, or whatever was necessary for me to put one foot in front of the other, when I was asked about the Bunny Wailer record. What the f…? There had been someone else in the compartment all the time. He had pulled his newspaper around his head and made himself invisible as soon as the others had joined us. He had done a good job too…I had forgotten about him. I was polite and answered his query but come on. There was a smoke to be shared, some good talk about life and music with some strangers and he had chosen to hide. That is not the way to live. As Bunny sings in “Reincarnated Souls”, “he who has eyes to see, let him look yonder”. Peace.

 

 

I Thought I Was The Bally Table King (Pinball)

There are a number of things that I was born at the right time for. There is no element of nostalgia when I remember hearing “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”, “Like A Rolling Stone”, “Good Vibrations” or “Sgt Pepper” on the day they were released. It sure made the 1960s an interesting musical experience. Similarly three of the first movies my wife-to-be and I saw together at the cinema …”Easy Rider”, “The Graduate” and “Midnight Cowboy”. Now I don’t spend too much time checking my footprints (“they are upstairs in my socks”  Groucho Marx) but a twice weekly cinema-going habit in the 1970s meant that you saw a lot of good movies. Then there was the Sexual Revolution, all the women I knew were “on the pill”. Yeah, I would be lying if I said that I did any more than read about that.

Anyhoo…here’s another thing that I thought was golden at the time and is now as obsolete as the video machine.

In the monochrome early 1960s my family went to the same seaside holiday camp. Being the eldest of 4, soon to be 5, children I got to explore the place by myself. The only source of colour around had, of course, a magnetic attraction for my young self. The amusement arcade had a juke box and a pinball machine. If it was my choice, I would still be living there now. I had little spare cash to flash but, like Chance the Gardener, I liked to watch. It was in this neon oasis that I learned how to put the three best records on the juke and how a proper pinball player presented himself in the battle of man versus machine. The designs, the noise, the lights…I liked those too.

“Pinball Boogie” is a song one of our favourite mid-70s bands, Chilli Willi & the Red Hot Peppers, played in a live set which always included imaginative covers. They were a fun band which included a former Resident and a future Attraction. When they whipped out this belter from the 1940s we loved it. I suppose that “Pinball Boogie” can be read as rather clumsy sexual metaphor. “Rattle it and shake it till it gets in the hole”…mmm…it might be worth a try.

The university I attended was an experiment conducted by mad social scientists. A concrete carbuncle dropped into beautiful Constable country and a 1,000 students left to find a way to get along. There were three communal TV rooms (one for each channel !) and little else to divert. There was, however, a bare room containing four shiny new pinball machines. It was time to put those misspent rainy holiday afternoons to good use.

We were competitive and we were pretty good. An etiquette was established. stand away from the table and don’t talk to the guy who is playing. Let him concentrate and don’t give him an excuse when he screws up. It takes more than crazy flipper fingers to get the best out of a table which can be a cussed thing giving you nothing. The ball has to be cajoled with body English (lovely phrase) , careful not to “tilt” and lose it, when you get it right, grokking the machine, the ball will just run onto the flippers and the points will rack up, giving up it’s replays with that satisfying “THWACK !”

We left the campus and lived in a nearby seaside village. In Winter the tumbleweed fluttered along the streets of shuttered chalets  but a small arcade remained open all year round. We knew the machines inside out, playing pinball was what we did of an evening. Good times. On leaving the seaside and student life there were tables to be found in pubs and we would drink in those discerning dives with no thought for the quality of alcohol available. Living in London there were still arcades and from Soho down to Brighton we must have played them all. In a splendid low-life Brixton joint we would play the locals for money, careful not to win big as we lived our Hustler/Cincinnatti  Kid dreams.

“Pinball Cha Cha” is by the Swiss band Yello. It is a song of a man who can only find solace at a pinball table. “It’s just pinball for me. It’s claro que si” (of course). There have been afternoons with just me in the pub and I’m doing the thing I do when I may have been that man playing “the sensational game”. OK, I suppose that I have to do this…

Not too obvious…this is a ready-for-prime-time demo of “Pinball Wizard”, Pete Townshend’s epic from “Tommy”. If I had a pound for every time some wit has said to me, “Oh, you’re a Pinball Wizard are you ?” I would have £15. The machines got more electronic, more complicated. Of course I liked the traditional machines but this was no Fonz fantasy. Bring it on…make the whistles and bells blow and ring until, one day, the machine disintegrates in front of you !

And now the pinball machine has pretty much disappeared. I have even stopped looking in the nooks of the seaside arcades because it’s disappointing that this last refuge no longer comes through. I have had friends who, building their own man-cave, bought their very own tables. It’s cool for a couple of days to get a few games in while the first kettle boils but they are bloody noisy in a confined space and unlimited free games can take the edge off your game. Then, when you have sated yourself, friends arrive and they want to make some noise for a few more hours. It’s just not the same as being down the pub.

So now it’s the X-Box and the PS3, games from the comfort of your sofa and that’s OK. I have done my share of Tomb Raiding. Console Pinball , crazy flipper thumbs ?…Please ! I really enjoyed my pinball days (still think I could kick a machine’s arse, if I could find one). I liked to walk away from a table leaving the free plays for the next player. If you have had the perfect game you will do no better. I really liked the arcade days when a young kid would be watching as you subjugated the silver ball to your will. I would give him the free plays just as the aces I had watched back in the day had given them to me. Pay it forward, yeah.

More Motown Memories

I was looking through the discography of  Tamla Motown’s UK releases…because a man loves a list…”Hitsville USA” indeed. There are so many stone dead classics, now part of our musical DNA. The Supremes, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, hit record after hit record. There are other great releases which did not make the same golden impression but were from the same Motown stable of producers, writers and musicians and are of the same high quality. Here are just three which I have been able to select with no great brain strain on my part.

The Marvelettes were early successes for the label. In 1961 the unforgettable “Please Mr Postman” (covered by the Beatles, no less) and the totally forgettable “Twistin’ Postman” were hits. By the mid-60s they had been eclipsed by other female groups but in 1967 they struck an artistic and commercial seam which brought more success. “My Baby Must be A Magician”, written and produced by Smokey Robinson, was the group’s third Top 30 record of the year. It’s a great smooth Smokey song, Melvyn Franklin off of the Temptations booms the introduction then Marv Taplin does something with a guitar that you have to be in the Magic Circle to know how it’s done.

The Internet Oracle, Wikipedia, tells us that the Marvellettes quit  in 1970. In the early 80s I saw three ladies of a certain age perform as the group in support of Graham Parker & the Rumour at the Hammersmith Palais in London. Now I have no idea if any of these songstresses were Wanda Rogers, the lead singer on “Baby” or indeed if any of them had ever even been to Inkster, Michigan. The group performed “Postman”, “Don’t Mess With Bill”, “Hunter Gets Captured by the Game”, “When You’re Young & in Love”…all the hits. No-one cared who they were and showed their appreciation of a fine act.

You do not get to see live, in colour, performances of Motown acts very often. This clip of Junior Walker & the All Stars is wild and astonishing. The signature of the “Sound of Young America” was soul with sophistication but Junior, older than the other stars, was straight gutbucket R&B. The shouting sax player hit big with “Shotgun” and the hits just kept on coming. He would Walkerize songs from the Motown catalogue and in the dancefloors of UK mod clubs were jammed when they were played. The records are not as rugged as we see him here. The British audience are open-mouthed as they get to see such a great American soul act.

It’s a treat to see the Ram Jam Club too. I have Cockney friends who never tire of telling of the time they saw Jimi Hendrix play in this Brixton dive. I frequented the same venue in the 80s when it had transformed into the “Fridge”. It was an innovative and popular hang-out but the old Mods would always crack on about the old days being better than the todays. Looking at Junior Walker and the All Stars tearing up the place they may have been right.

“I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You” is the 1968 debut 45 for Syreeta Wright. Written by the team of Ashford and Simpson who’s songs were so wonderfully interpreted by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. (On this one they were assisted by Brian Holland, one of the amazing brothers). It was not a hit and Syreeta did not make too many records for a while. What she did do was fall in love and marry Stevie Wonder. They wrote hit songs together at a time when Stevie was distancing himself from Motown and feeling his way towards a more mature sound which was to pretty much take over the world. The marriage did not last but the couple worked together on 2 Syreeta solo LPs which are fine companions to Stevie’s great run of recordings in the early 70s.

I was on to Syreeta from the beginning because this fine single was released under the name Rita Wright and…that was my mother’s name ! What else could I do ?

Let Your Soul And Spirit Fly Into The Mystic (Van Morrison)

The ferry was waiting to dock in Santorini just after sunrise. The overnight trip from Piraeus had been a blast and I had caught little sleep. A young American guy I was travelling with had finally got the Odyssey as we passed shadowy Aegean islands and I am always up for a discussion on Homer. My sleeping bag ended up adjacent to an attractive  German woman (Man, my luck was in). She worked as a magician’s assistant. The conversation we had about the mechanics of being sawn in half made a very pleasant change from the usual Eurotrash platitudes. Athens had been good, sleeping on the roof of the hostel with new friends was fun. I was looking forward to island life so I took a little time for myself, gathered my pack, put on the headphones and listened to this.

What a result. In those pre-I pod days I took along Van Morrison’s “Poetic Champions Compose” LP because I loved the positive, philosophical, poetic Celtic sensibility that the singer had developed in the 80s. I had forgotten that Van had been reading Greek philosophers before he wrote some of these songs…perfect. “I saw the lights of Ancient Greece” he sings in “The Mystery”. “You’ve got to dance and sing. And be alive in the mystery. And be joyous and give thanks. And let yourself go”. Well alright, that’s why I’m here.

“I Forgot That Love Existed”,with it’s name-checks for Socrates and Plato fitted right in there too. Such a simple and beautiful thing built on a simple piano hook and a saxophone solo by Van the Man “If my heart could do my thinking and my head begin to feel. I would I look upon the world anew and know what’s truly real”. OK, let me off this boat and onto this historic volcanic outcrop, I’m ready.

“Cleaning Windows”, the class of a classy field from “Beautiful Vision” (1982). A funky, nostalgic romp back to a simpler, happier time . The days before rock and roll when Van was in Belfast, a “workingman in my prime” just “blowing saxophone at the weekend in  that down joint”. I am so on this description of a young working guy enjoying the “craic” at his day job with a soundtrack of blues legends while reading Kerouac and Christmas Humphreys ( a leading British barrister and judge who founded the Buddhist Society and was a leading proponent of the religion in the West). There is an authenticity about this bantering slice of Belfast working class culture. The job may be mundane but the music and the books are not and they are as much a part of his life as the buns, the lemonade and the Woodbines. As a teenager I worked on a friend’s construction firm. There was a satisfaction about using all that energy and about being part of a working community for the first time. Van Morrison captures this perfectly in this song and reminds us not to forget it.

I could do these things about Van Morrison every day through the Winter there are so many good songs. The one about the wonderful blue-eyed soul singles of the 70s is just too obvious. If you don’t know and love the delight of “Jackie Wilson Said” then you are missing out. So this last choice is a return to the soul rave, from 1990, “Real Real Gone”. Van wrote so many songs about joy, the search for it and it’s many physical and spiritual forms. His quest has produced some of the most passionate, convincing and moving articulations of how human beings are. That first LP I bought, “Moondance”, I bought it again recently. Now this computer has all this music inside it “Moondance” may be the last one I buy. That’s a circle coming round that I am completely happy with.

“Real Real Gone” is a fine reduction of how love and joy can make you feel. It checks for Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Gene Chandler and Don Covay, others who have attempted and inspired attempts to tell it like it is while a funky horn section aids and abets. Soul music…music for the soul.

Why Not Go Nicely Before Things Get Really Dark (Shane Meadows)

Shane Meadows, the “Scorsese of the East Midlands”, has maybe made all the big-screen movies he will ever make. I hope this is not the case. It costs a lot of money to make a movie and despite the quality of his work it is hardly blockbuster material. He has continued a timeline established by Ken Loach (“Kes”, “Riff-Raff”) and Alan Clarke (“Scum”, “Rita, Sue and Bob Too”) by making entertaining films set in a recognisable England. The big money goes to Brit flicks about the foibles of former monarchs or the romantic comedies of posh London bastards. His “This Is England” saga will continue with “90” next year and he is working on a film about the Stone Roses. I will be watching them both.

“A Room For Romeo Brass” is so good, so funny and affecting that I missed “Match of the Day” to see it on TV. My brother, no indie film buff, asked me what I knew about Shane the next day…it’s that good.

We were on to Shane Meadows right from the start. His short films “Where’s The Money Ronnie ?” and “Small Time” were on late-night TV and we recorded them on no more than a hunch. A good call…here was a talent to be watched. His first cinema release “Twenty Four Seven” used Bob Hoskins and a cast of mostly unknown young actors to good effect. After Romeo Brass “Once Upon A Time In The Midlands” seemed a false step but subsequent viewings have not disappointed. Rhys Ifans, Shirley Henderson and Robert Carlyle are all good value. When Kathy Burke walks out of an argument saying “Sod this. I’m going to watch the Weakest Link !” it is a pure Meadows moment. Something I have heard said by real people in real families.

Next time up Meadows gave us the movie we all knew he could make.

If Shane is the English Scorsese then Paddy Considine is his De Niro. In Romeo Brass we saw his sociopathic variation on the theme of Johnny Boy.In the classic “Dead Man’s Shoes” he is an English Travis Bickle, an Avenging Angel knowing a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets. The streets of a grimy Midland council estate where the drug dealers crowd into a battered 2CV. Meadows’ naturalism works to make this revenge thriller as effective as “Get Carter”, as taut as Hitchcock. I love the cartoon ultra-violence of “Kill Bill” but that ain’t real and it is not meant to be.

“Dead Man’s Shoes” is a morality tale for a 21st century Britain in which I live. Paddy Considine is immense, the script is tight. It is the milieu, the pubs, the houses and the streets in which the film is set which anchors it in a reality. When I lived in London we would meet our friends from the cheeky Cockney East End. We called these our “Lock, Stock” nights. “Dead Man’s Shoes” was where we lived every day. A brilliant film which ranks with any made in Britain in the last 50 years.

For “This Is England” Shane looked back to 1983 and made another film about a young boy. Skinheads had been around in the UK since 1969, the Two-Tone  fashion of 1979 had revived the reggae/ska. boots and braces look but these youth fads do tend to have an extended sell-by-date in provincial Britain. The protagonist,12 year old Shaun, meets a gang who are not didactic skins having a flexible attitude to age and dress code. Missing his father, killed in the Falklands War, troubled at school, he is excited by their clothes, their humour and their acceptance. The scene where Shaun’s mother (Jo Hartley), worried about her son, goes to confront the leader Woody (Joseph Gilgun) and leaves assured that he will be OK is surprising, touching and human.

Of course this is Thatcher’s Britain with the spectre of unemployment and racism. The film has to get dark on us. The arrival of Combo (Stephen Graham), a veteran skin just out of jail, raises issues which threaten the solidarity of the friends. Shane Meadows deals with these issues more effectively and assuredly than purely making blunt political points and he is on the side of the good guys. The climactic scene was one very familiar to me. I have got high with idiots like this who want to be starting something. I could see it coming just as I had seen it in my life. I was impressed by the way Meadows had got the tone of the film so right.

“This Is England” has a great cast and a soundtrack to match. Shane’s subsequent films have been a bit cheap and cheerful with no budget. It is in the sequels to “This is England” where the quality is to be found. The film was not shown in our little town so we went to the nearest showing on its release. This was where some of the film was shot and the hometown of Thomas Turgoose, the young man who gives a terrific performance at the centre of the film. It seemed appropriate to be walking the same streets immediately after seeing such an English movie.

Honey From The Bee (Van Morrison)

Between 1968 and 1972 Van Morrison released 5 LPs of outstanding quality. “Astral Weeks” is an essential record, “Moondance”, the first full price LP I ever bought. To choose a favourite depends on which you have listened to most recently. These songs, together with his time with Them, formed a formidable body of work and, in 1973, when he undertook a major tour, he assembled a group to do them justice. The Caledonia Soul Orchestra included brass and string sections together with talented and committed soloists. This clip is long but shows Van and the band at the top of their form. There is a guest appearance by Van’s daughter, Shana.

The show was Morrison’s take on a Soul Revue. He had recorded only his own songs but included versions of Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and Sonny Boy Williamson songs in the set. This “Cyprus Avenue” is more muscular than the ethereal original but has the same power and beauty. Van’s incantatory vocal is a thing of wonder. It may seem awkward and hesitant if you are new to this but I find it convincing and soulful. I saw him doing his thing once and an audience member tried to join in with the rapture. A brusque “Fuck Off. I’m working” and Van had left the stage. It seemed fair enough at the time, he is serious about his art.

The “It’s Too late To Stop Now” tour, captured on vinyl and on film, is one of the great rock tours. A year later I was pretty thrilled to get a ticket to see the Caledonia Soul Orchestra at a summer festival. Just weeks before the gig we were so looking forward to Van broke up the band. We did not have to worry. He got a pick up band together and they sounded like this…

“Street Choir” from “His Band and the Street Choir” LP is a personal favourite of mine. This version, stripped of the responsive backing vocals, cuts the song to its Celtic Soul bones and I love it. This band was a little too dependent on the keyboards of Pete Wingfield but it also put the spotlight back on Van Morrison. I have seen better concerts by him but you always remember your first time, don’t you ? He was great, encored with “Brown Eyed Girl” and then the Allman Brothers played for three hours. What a good way to spend a day with your friends.

In 1977 Van Morrison released an LP appositely titled “A Period of Transition”. As a maturing artist he still searched for a fusion of craft and spirit. I think the craft was perhaps a little more evident on these records. “Veedon Fleece” (1974) is not the record to introduce someone to Morrison’s work but it is still an impressive piece of work. In concert he continued to add value to the great songs of the early 70s and in 1980 returned to Montreux with another big band.

Now “Tupelo Honey” is an LP to impress the uninitiated. There’s a softer, more romantic feel perhaps reflecting his domestic life. The celebratory “Wild Night”, the bodacious energy of “Moonshine Whiskey” and the classic country tinge of the title track are all outstanding. Here Van is moving into the 1980s, into a style and fashion which would produce further great work.

Some of his Caledonia Soul brothers had rejoined him, still sympatico maybe less freedom to take it where they found it. Van had hooked up with another musical giant who became the arranger and musical director of the band. Saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis had worked with James Brown in the 1960s. He has co-writer credits on “Cold Sweat” and “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” (O.M.G. !). He brought the touches of jazz, of blues, of soul to wherever the songs needed them. His opening notes to “Tupelo Honey” capture the warmth and the beauty of the tune.

I saw Van play with Mr Ellis a couple of times. The opening instrumental, maybe “Moondance”, would be used for the band to feel their way into things and could be a little safe. All this was forgotten as a great band and a wonderful singer move through the gears and just flew together. A sense of wonder and a sense that you were watching a unique performer and performance. Good Times.