A Band Powerful Enough To Turn Goat Piss Into Gasoline! (Booker T and the MGs)

I really should find the time to watch the film of the Stax-Volt  1967 tour of Europe every week.  This recording of the Oslo concert is only an hour long & never fails to delight. Otis Redding defines charisma, the dynamism of Sam & Dave is still startling, Eddie Floyd & Arthur Conley do their thing too. On stage for the whole of the gig is the heartbeat of Stax, 4 musicians who usually stayed in the East McLemore Ave studio in Memphis, creating & playing great music & generally being the best band in the world.

Booker T & the M.G.’s were the opening act & part of the backing band on the tour. They, of course, had to play their 1962 surefire smash “Green Onions”,the tough, irresistible blues instrumental which just everyone knows & which still sounds great 50 years later. The song, written when Booker T was still in high school, is part of the culture. Only this weekend I saw a documentary on Mott the Hoople in which guitarist Mick Ralphs said that he did not play until he heard “Green Onions” &  thought that he wanted to have some of that.

The Y-tube says that this clip is “Red Beans & Rice”, a 1965 B-side. It is in fact “Tic-Tac-Toe” a 45 from 1964. It’s not included in the concert film that I know so watching these young, sharp dressed men walk out on to the stage & play this really is, to me, a thing of wonder. It is a cliche that the best groups are greater than the sum of their parts but have those constituents ever been as accomplished & inspired as these 4 musicians ? Man, a tune like this gets played first up & you know you are in for a good night.

This tour was a coming out for the group. It’s disingenuous to claim that fans did not know that the M.G.’s were an integrated combo. While there are very few early photographs, the billing for the tour says “featuring the fantastic guitar of Steve Cropper”. In Europe there was less reason to obscure the group’s racial mix. Damn, it made them cooler still. On the whole the fans were white boys with a love of the very same music that had gotten Cropper & Duck Dunn into this. It was though, the first time that all the musicians on tour had experienced adulation & appreciation on such a scale. It was also, I guess, the first time they could all go to eat or drink together just any place they wanted without checking that the vibe was right & the coast was clear. There was no going back from this, that’s for sure.

So just the next year, 1968, & the group are back in Europe, in, I think, France. One year on & the dress code is a little more relaxed. Duck could use a hair cut & a shave but the looseness of “Booker Loo”, a 6 minute Memphis blues & soul & rhythm stew, is just perfect. Cool cat Booker T, an Indiana U music student during the week while writing “Born A Bad Sign” at the weekend, takes it to church just for a while before Al Jackson Jr brings it back to the dirty boulevard with just a couple of firm strikes. I could listen to Mr Jackson play the drums on every day of my life. Whether it’s the drive of his work with this group or his silkier sessions at the Hi Studios of Willie Mitchell he is always absolutely doing it right. When I get to see him do what he does it gets a little too much & I need a sit down.

This clip, to these ears & eyes is so, so good. Whatever way up you want to look at the music of Booker T & the M.G.’s it is a groove to dance to. The beau monde here are giving it their best moves. I hope they now remember it & know how lucky they were to be there

1970 & the M.G.’s are the support act for the most popular group of the day, Creedence Clearwater Revival. Hmm…ever get the feeling you were  in the wrong place at the wrong time. What a gig ! The headline act look on from the side of the stage, they do not want to miss “Time Is Tight”. This worldwide hit is from the movie “Uptight”, a crime drama made a year before “blaxploitation” & soul soundtracks became the current thing. There’s a tense logic to the progression of the song, an effortless restraint which gives it a clarity which the more ornate instrumentalists of the day kind of ignored. “Time Is Tight”…I think that the word is “cohesion”. Creedence liked to keep it simple too. In 1970, looking to enhance their bayou blues-rock their LP “Pendulum” made extensive use of a Hammond organ. That’s why John Fogarty has a close eye on Booker T in this clip.

By this time there was, just as there had been at Motown, the realization that while making music was fun maybe it was time to get paid. Despite being under contract Booker T upped & moved to California. Steve followed suit, starting his own studio in Memphis before, eventually leaving for the West Coast. Duck & Jackson stayed on, in 1975 the 3 of them were playing together & making plans. The unfortunate murder of “the greatest drummer to ever walk the earth,” (Steve Cropper) closed this particular chapter of our music’s story. Now Booker T, a man with little to prove to anyone, gets to play with whoever he chooses  while Cropper & Dunn are beloved Blues Brothers. We have those wonderful instrumental records made by ambitious, confident & talented young men. I look around for the best available clips for these things I do. These 3 are all music of the highest quality. Right I’m away to throw some shapes to “Booker Loo”.

Advertisements

I Was Not Singing The Devil’s Music, The Devil Ain’t Got No Music (Mavis Staples)

There is a new record by Mavis Staples released today (June 25th). “One True Vine” is a 2nd collaboration with Jeff Tweedy off  of Wilco, the best band in the USA. Like 2010’s “You Are Not Alone” the song selection is marked by taste of the highest order. This time there are 3 songs by Tweedy, covers of both Low & Nick Lowe & some re-imagined soul & gospel classics.

“I Like The Things About Me” is a song co-written by Pops Staples & was originally sung by the Staples’ patriarch. This time around Mavis takes the lead & the chiming guitar is replaced by a fuzzy bass line. The LP was recorded at Wilco’s Chicago studio & Tweedy plays almost all the instruments, leaving the drums to his son Spencer. Ms Staples made a record with Ry Cooder in 2007 which showed her passion & authority to be undiminished. “We’ll Never Turn Back” is a polished, assured take on some well-known songs. J.B. Lenoir’s “Down In Mississippi” becomes, through her voice, the most accurate comment on the institutionalised racism of the US Government’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina.

Any of the adjectives used about “We’ll Never…” are going to be good ones but it becomes a little worthy or formulaic if it is repeated. Mavis is an icon but is not ready for a museum yet. The records Mavis Staples is making with Jeff Tweedy show imagination in the song choice & their arrangements. Whatever Mavis sings is going to sound great but she is not a soul belter. Pops knew that she resonated most when space was left & Tweedy is the very man for the job. This is not music that seeks your immediate attention but slides soothingly under your skin.

Well, what a great call to record “Can You Get To That” from Funkadelic’s 3rd momentous LP “Maggot Brain”. A gospel inflected song of affirmation, maybe Mavis & her family group should have gotten hold of this George Clinton jam back in 1971. It is a song written for a gang of voices &, on this TV appearance, Mavis gives it up to her fellow singers which is precisely what is required. “Can You Get To That” is just one of my favourite  songs from the P-Funk, a last tip back to the Parliaments & the  sixties before getting on with the very modern things they had to do. To hear this revival by Mavis just cheer me no end…my song of the next few weeks.

Mavis & Jeff Tweedy did a similar thing last time around when another of the long-time, all-time jewels was given the treatment.

Mavis Staples is 74 next month & I hope that there will be a bunch more of these records to appreciate. There will always be a religious element in any of her LPs, it is what she has been doing for over 60 years & it is what she does better than anyone else. Jeff Tweedy is proving to be  a sympathetic & subtle partner who is helping Mavis to make this lovely modern, mature music.The 2010 record was awarded the Grammy for the Best Americana Record. It was her first such award, “It;s been a long time coming” said a tearful Mavis. This time she may not be so shocked.

Everyone Knows It’s Indie

This month Cherry Red releases a 5 CD set, “Scared To Be Happy: a Story Of Indie-Pop 1980-1989”. 134 tracks, hours of, I’m afraid, mostly harmless fun.It is a pretty broad selection, the criteria seems to be that if John Peel played your track on his show then you were a contender. There are few things more dull than men old enough to know better going “rhubarb, rhubarb” about the definition of “indie” & how come my favourite band, which is even more obscure than Bad Dream Fancy Dress or 14 Iced Bears, didn’t make the cut. So here’s some music…

Time has not served the music of the 1980s too well. Even the best of the synths & suits bands now sound a little lame. I loved Heaven 17 & ABC at the time but I rarely reach for their dry, drum-machine, white boy funk these days. The worst of them, the Thompson Twins, anyone or anything who would describe themselves as “New Romantic”, were always awful. The jangle-pop, guitar based bands of the C86 generation were OK, they referenced a lot of music that I liked. I do however prefer my sounds to not be too precious, to have, I guess, cojones. Husker Du or Trixie’s Big Red Motorbike ? Guess.

The Quality Control Dept here at loosehandlebars  have been divided about the posting of “Almost Prayed” by the Weather Prophets. Nothing to do with the music, it’s a fine record. Everything to do with the leather trousers. Come on, are there no mirrors in your house mate ? The Prophets were formed after the Loft, an early signing to Creation Records, broke up, impressively, in mid-gig. The band not only stayed with the label, founder Alan McGhee managed & even played bass with them for a while. “Almost Prayed” a 1986 single was as good as it got for the Weather Prophets.It got them on the telly & down to the trouser shop & erm…I quite like this slice of the Weather Prophets but I don’t think I could eat a whole one.

This is more like it. The House Of Love came to play with the big boys. Straight out of South London they looked, with some justification, upon “indie” as a ghetto. These young guns were hoping to hang out with U2 & the like. They had the songs which did the important trick of tipping the hat to the correct classic influences but sounding modern & dynamic at the same time. “Shine On” was released by Creation in 1987. After a big bucks major deal all the stops were pulled out to make the song the hit that it seemed to be. The House Of Love was a double act. Guy Chadwick wrote good songs (“Destroy The Heart”, “Beatles & the Stones”, check ’em out). Guitarist Terry Bickers knew his rock history & made the songs sound better. However Chadwick was a motormouth, the interviews where Bickers sits silently are a little disturbing. The boys were eager for the rock & roll lifestyle before they had earned it. Their big advance went down their necks & up their noses & Terry became increasingly paranoid about becoming sidelined. He left the band in a blaze of glorious burning bank notes, magic mushrooms & Sham 69 tunes. Terry Bickers was not a well man, by the time a re-recorded “Shine On” made TOTP he had been replaced. The House Of Love were just another band that could have.

“Scared To Be Happy” has no tracks by Orange Juice, the Smiths & Felt, 3 bands who,whatever your indie parameters, made a big impression. I know that it’s a licensing thing not a judgement call. Included are bands who were a big deal, Primal Scream, Jesus & Mary Chain & My Bloody Valentine (all off of Creation). There are bands who did sell records & there is the next generation, the Stone Roses & the La’s. There is an unreleased demo by We’ve Got A Fuzz Box & We’re Gonna Use It…what the f…?

Oh & there is a track from this noisy bunch of guitar guerrillas.

 

That Petrol Emotion’s contribution to “Scared” is “Its A Good Thing”, a single from 1986  but I’m going with “Abandon” from 1990’s “Chemicrazy” LP because just look at the clip…this good at a soundcheck !  TPE, a fine bunch of Derrymen with an American singer, kicked ass with their first 2 LPs. The O’Neill brothers, John & Damien, had been part of our favourite young  pop-punks the Undertones. 10 years on they wanted to write about more than chocolate & girls but  crunchy guitar hooks played like ringing a bell were, by now, 2nd nature. The aptly named “Manic Pop Thrill” was followed by the melting pot of “Babble”, a hit round our yard but, on reflection, ahead of its time.

At the end of the 80s there was a change  in the British music scene. In 1988 Acid House broke big across the country, DJs not bands carried the swing. A new gang of boys, led by the Roses, turned up. The “Madchester” mob, the ” baggy” brigade, indie-dance they called it. In 1990 TPE, hit by the departure of John O’Neill & the no show of the expected breakthrough, got a gale force of a 2nd wind with  “Chemicrazy”. The crackling charged energy of the guitars, the lyrics written by grown ups & Stevie Mack on top vocal form, was an autobahn ahead of those boys whose default setting was banal. Indie-dance, pah ! This was dance-rock.

That Petrol Emotion did not consider themselves to be part of any scene. Only yesterday, I am informed by the NSA, the writer of “Abandon” denied an affinity to “any of that fey indie bollix”. Charming language Mr Gorman !  Members of TPE drift across my F-book screen as do members of 2 of the bands who also feature on the set & are playing this weekend at a promo gig. The June Brides & the BMX Bandits always were & still are good value. Incredibly they will share the stage with 14 Iced Bears…huh ! I have no definitive or original conclusions about British Indie. The music I listened to in the 80s was by TPE  who are included but probably don’t fit, Stump, on C86 but not here & Yargo …yeah, Yargo. Another guy I listened to was  Michael Stipe, he said  “My feeling is that labels are for canned food”…It’s a broad church & music is love, especially the good music.

Postscript

Mr Duglas T Stewart off of the BMX boys, if I can persuade myself that making a “friend request” is not the lamest thing a grown person can do then I hope you will look kindly on your Inbox. Also The Everlasting Yeah, 4 of That Petrol Emotion, are about to announce some gigs & let’s hope for some new music from them too, that first batch of tunes  were the very thing.

You Can’t Mix Love With Money ‘Cause If You Do It’s Gonna Hurt Somebody (Arthur Alexander)

Last weekend, the 9th of June, marked the 20th anniversary of the death of Arthur Alexander a singer/composer from Alabama of such significance that I am prepared to suspend the First Law of loosehandlebars &…just this one time… use the “U” word. Arthur Alexander is  underrated & here is the proof, the whole proof & nothing but the…you get me !

 

 

So Randy Newman, a strong contender in a very strong field for a place on the Great American Songwriter podium, brings along Mark Knopfler off of Dire Straits to play with the world class house band on NBC’s “Sunday Night”. He has, even in these pre Disney/Pixar years, a stack of his own quality songs but chooses to perform a song by, in his words, “a great songwriter” Arthur Alexander. In 1962 teenager Randy was still trying to figure out how to write a pop song. “You Better Move On” is of a standard to which he aspired. It is a lovely, precise, assertive bit of work.

 

The song was the first hit to be recorded at a converted tobacco warehouse in Muscle Shoals where Rick Hall was establishing FAME studios. Arthur had a deal with Dot Records of Nashville who did not really know what they had.  The B-side to  the Mann/Weil written follow up, “Soldier Of Love” was evidently the superior track. In 1962 the generation of young British musicians, inspired by pick up an instrument by that first rock & roll explosion, were leaving school &  ready to make their own noise. They, like Randy Newman in L.A., were listening to Arthur too.

 

 

4 of these listeners were the Beatles. They performed 3 songs Alexander recorded, another, “Anna (Go To Him)”, made it on to the debut LP. The songs suited John Lennon’s emphatic vocals & the logical, simple pop/country/soul/rock structure (Arthur really did have it going on !) was a big influence on his songwriting. I’m giving up “All I’ve Got To Do” & “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl”, you know of others. In 1963, down in that London, the Rolling Stones were recording an EP of 4 songs for their label (the one that had turned down the Fab 4) which thought an LP would be a little previous. 3 of the tracks were well-known up-tempo rockers. It was “You Better Move On” (see above)  showing a more restrained, soulful Stones, which got played on the radio.

 

“Every Day I Have To Cry Some”, written by Alexander was given to Steve Alaimo, a teen idol/TV presenter who made better records than his jaunty interpretation of a plaintive song. Arthur did not get to record his song until 1975 & it’s a little busier than it would have been 10 years earlier. The quality of his voice still shines though. Back at the cultural centre of the planet in 1964 the song was claimed by a class act.

 

 

What a great clip. A video capsule of Swinging London in 1964, good music, everyone looking sharp, smiling & they are only sharing the dancefloor with a Beatle ! “Ready Steady Go” was must-see TV not just because it featured the best music around but it captured that notion that post-war Britain had changed & that there would be no going back. Dusty Springfield had a season ticket to R.S.G. interviewing the Mop Tops on their 1st appearance & here she is performing a track from her “I Only Want To Be With You” EP. The singer did her share of overly dramatic ballads, be-wigged & mascara masked on creaky variety shows like the other women singers. On R.S.G. she could relax & show her excellent taste in the soul music that she rode shotgun for in the UK. She was too old to be a Mod but she was still a face. Dusty’s smoky voice was a special talent suited to both ballads & belters. For me, when she was giving it that soul shimmy, singing a Motown or an Arthur Alexander song she looked to be a happy & attractive young woman.

 

There has been a lot written about Dusty since her passing about the insecurities she suffered over her looks, her sexuality & most other things. It’s a wonder she ever left the house. I was not even a teenager when this clip was filmed, I could neither locate Lesbia on a map nor had I even met a lesbian. I did know that Dusty was the Queen of British music with too much about her to take the cabaret/Eurovision route on offer to female artists in the music business. I was right, she never did.

 

 

One of the fables embroidered into Rock’s Rich Tapestry is the saga involving Phil Spector, Ike & Tina Turner & “River Deep Mountain High”. The Tycoon of Teen pays Ike to stay away from the studio then makes Tina sing till she’s hoarse to create his Wall of Sound masterpiece. This tower of force is ignored by the American record buying public, the master producer retreats to his mansion to lick his wounds. I saw it in a movie so it must be true. “River” is now accepted as a classic but so is the follow-up 45, the Spector produced, Holland-Dozier-Holland written, “A Love Like Yours (Don’t come Knocking Everyday)”, it’s just that this cymbals-in an-echo-chamber gem complicates the story.

 

There are 4 other tracks from the Spector/Turner partnership. The commercial failure of “River” discouraged  both Phil & Ike from completing the planned LP. One of those 4 is this Wrecking Crew symphonic take on “Every Day I Have To Cry”. I’m not personally convinced of the merits of Arthur Alexander on steroids. I love Spector’s productions & understand how he felt the song was strong enough to bear a little extra weight. It is the clarity & restraint of his songs which is so effective, the strength is implied …mmm, attractive. So, the 2 biggest groups in the world, Dusty…Bob Dylan covered Arthur’s debut single later.

 

Heavy friends but he was driving a bus in the 1980s. There were a couple of later records & the collected work of Arthur Alexander is a deep soul delight. His legacy though is more than a nice set of hits. His natural ability with melody & emotion pointed the way forward for the Beatles, the Stones & others who preferred their pop music to include some integrity. He really was that good.

They Say That It’s A Man’s World But You Can’t Prove That By Me (Dan Penn)

A recent article in the New York Times, “Why Music Makes Our Brain Sing”, was an attempt to explain our reaction to music in terms of neuroscience. There was a load of dopamine flooding the striatum blah blah. Yeah, “Mr Zoot Horn Rollo, hit that long, leaning note & make it float”. I am a music obsessive, I know what I like & I like what I bloody well know. You can take an auditory cortex, any expectations based on our stored musical representations & shove ’em.

All I know is that this is aural perfection. Don’t know why, don’t care, it just is. Awopbopaloobopalopbamboom !

This is the newest & the best Y-tube version of “I’m Your Puppet” by Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham, the guys what wrote it. In 1966 James & Bobby Purify hit with the song. Dan & Spooner, confident that this music thing just might work, left Alabama for American Studios in Memphis where they became involved in a period of extraordinary creativity & success.  I was seeing the names Holland, Dozier, Holland on all of those Motown records, finding out that Steve Cropper & the M.G.s were playing on all the Stax hits & I was checking the name Penn on the credits of a lot of good tunes. “Out of Left Field”, the B-side of “Judy In Disguise”, that was one.

Dan always thought that the hit version of “Puppet” was a little fast & this take on the song harks back to the 1965 original. Allmusic identifies a weary resignation in this later version which just ain’t there. It’s a middle-aged interpretation, taking it’s time to appreciate  the good stuff, not coming & going in a heaving rush…you get me ?

Another slice of Paradise. I believe that this clip is possibly a high point of Western civilization…seriously. Dan Penn wrote “Do Right Woman” & “Dark End of the Street”, 2 dead-stone, all-time, Hall of Fame classics with Chips Moman, the owner of American Sound Studios. Atlantic Records wanted to break Aretha out of the R&B charts & added some Memphis/Muscle Shoals magic to an already formidable talent. “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” is a modern manifesto for women along with the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”. When Gram Parsons, another outstanding voice, recorded the song as a country waltz it was no less distinctive both as a tune & for being sung by a man.

“Do Right Man” was the title of Penn’s 1994 solo LP, his first for 20 years. I love the 1973  “Nobody’s Fool” but the hits are on “Do Right”. There’s a simplicity about these songs which seems effortless but you know it isn’t. There’s a lyrical maturity & there is Soul.  He started to perform his great songs in concert & I was lucky to see him in London in 1994. An unassuming man, dressed a little incongruously in farm dungarees, he had no choice but to accept the gratitude of a large audience who considered him to be a legend.

The ideal accompaniment to a long Summer evening when business has been taken care of & a man can sit a while, smoke, whittle, scratch or just watch the light fade. All of these or any combination thereof is acceptable. Casual Records, a British label founded by the estimable D.J. Ross Allen, released a couple of compilations called “Country Got Soul” in 2003. Whether the tracks were country, soul or a hybrid is of no consequence, they are great collections. In 2005 some of those surviving artists gathered at Dan Penn’s basement studio in Nashville & recorded “Testifying” as the Country Soul Revue.

Spooner showed out, Donnie Fritts too. Bonnie Bramlett was still singing & Tony Joe White reminded us how good he was.It’s a good old boys (& girl) Buena Vista thing & “Sapelo” by Larry Jon Wilson is a stand out piece of glorious Southern Gothic. This was my introduction to Larry Jon, the singer who ‘could break your heart with a voice like a cannonball’. I have no idea what & when “Oglethorpe Time” is but it sounds great. So does “Testifying”,  warm., intimate music produced by artists happy to have been doing what they’re doing for quite some time.

Music and Movies (Kevin Smith)

In 1999 we were driving around Birmingham, the UK’s Motor City, when I was surprised to see that the biggest roadside billboards were pushing the movie we were going to see anyway. That week’s unlikely blockbuster was “Dogma”, the 4th film from director Kevin Smith’s View Askewniverse. The preceding 3 were some of the freshest, filthiest & funniest American films around but hardly the product to accompany the popcorn for a packed multiplex on a Saturday night. We do hate it when our friends become successful, I need not have worried. “Dogma” is a very good movie but a scatological, theological, intelligent film where the heart-throb angels hack off their wings & Alanis Morrisette plays God was not going to push ahead of Kevin Spacey’s mid-life crisis or “The Blair Witch Project” at the box office.

For his next film Kevin went back to the dick, fart & drug  jokes big time. If you are either under 18 or are easily offended then please do not press play on the approaching clip.

From “Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back” (2001), the touching story of how our favourite small-time drug dealers met. I doubt that when Smith was maxing out his credit card to make “Clerks”, he & his stoner friends thought that there would be over $30 million of the Weinstein brothers’ money around to film himself (Silent Bob) & Jason Mewes (Jay) screwing around & doing some crazy shit. The rap sets the tone for the movie which then happily rolls around in the gutter for 105 minutes. I absolutely get the criticism of Smith’s films, the self-indulgence, the dumbing down &, more seriously, homophobia but come on, “Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back” is not about pie-fucking, there is no-one called Wayans in the film. This was their 5th time around, you should know what was coming. Reviews threw around words like juvenile, shambolic & boorish as if these were bad things.

For two & a half films Kevin Smith seemed to do little more than write about young Americans talking about sex & Star Wars. He did it well, smart & sassy. Then the second half of “Chasing Amy” became the sharpest, most discerning examination of modern sexual attitudes in American cinema for some time. It was not really a surprise, the intelligence was always there, but it was good to see he could do it. I watched “Chasing Amy” with my favourite teenage lesbian niece & instantly it was her new #1 movie. After “Strike Back” Smith made another film about romance.

“Jersey Girl” (2004) became an ill-fated project when his star & long time collaborator, Ben Affleck’s romantic involvement with J-Lo became of interest to everyone in the world except you & I. “Bennifer” were quickly figures of derision, their film “Gigli” set new standards for critical & box office disasters. It was winning awards for being the Worst Thing Ever & the couple’s next movie was bound to suffer from the backwash. Now I am a Kevin Smith fan, I like it when there is less testosterone , more engagement of the brain & the heart. I really do like “Jersey Girl”.

There is a lot to like. The soundtrack has Springsteen singing Tom Waits, Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open The Door”, “High” by the Cure &, surprisingly, a track by Mike Heron off of the Incredible String Band. It is one of the Laws of Hollywood that any film is improved by the casting of Liv Tyler. The usual cameo appearances by Smith’s mates is freshened up by Will Smith while George Carlin, Mike Starr & Stephen Root are funny guys. Raquel Castro, 9 years old, as smart as a whip & as cute as a button is just the ticket. The clip is from an elementary school concert when, after interminable versions of a song from “Cats”, the family perform an entirely unsuitable excerpt from “Sweeney Todd”. The look between father & daughter is not the only sentimental moment of the film but is the pay-off to an enjoyable story about some pleasant people. I have watched too many rom coms, we all have. I would prefer Kevin Smith to make these films than to watch any more with the cold heart of Stiller or the dead eyes of Aniston. In the credits to “Mallrats” Smith had thanked John Landis & John Hughes for the entertainment provided by their films in the 1980s. “Jersey Girl” is his attempt at such a movie.

So to “Clerks II” (2006), a film that Smith always had up his sleeve if he really needed to make some money for Miramax. The original is an indie classic & the sequel has plenty going for it. It’s a better late than never coming of age movie with crackling dialogue, lots of laughs & a shocking donkey sex scene which still makes you blink. There is also this scene when Rosario Dawson dances to the Jackson 5. It’s part of the deal that the geeks & nerds who direct movies get to make the most beautiful women in the world look good. Hitchcock’s unmatched ability now seems overshadowed by his relationship with his female stars. Woody Allen was doing it in the 1970s. Tarantino was getting Uma Thurman to dance while both he & Smith have filmed Salma Hayek strutting her stuff in her underwear. Rosario Dawson is, in the words of  a friend, “always watchable”. She was great in “Sin City” & “Death Proof” & I guess that she is a big star now. She has never appeared to be as sweet, natural & beautiful as in this scene dancing to “ABC”.

It seems that Kevin Smith has stopped making movies now. He spent too long in the bosom of the Weinsteins so missed the chance to undertake the superhero film he should have made. Ah, I’m sure that he would have not given the studio what they wanted anyway but it could have been fine, career ending fun. The 3 he has made since “Clerks II” are of varying quality. He made money with the Bruce Willis vehicle “Cop Out” but Bruce complained about the director’s on-set marijuana consumption. “Red State” is an enjoyable genre movie with a twist which, as his career completed a circle, he had to finance himself. I have these last 2 on DVD, I am a fan. My friends & I like to watch the characters in Smith’s films talking shit to each other just as much as we enjoy it in Tarantino’s movies. It does not matter that it can be a little basic & it certainly does not have to be particularly about anything. Man, let those who are outraged be so. Kevin Smith is a funny, intelligent film maker & his slacker, stoner comedies are a refreshing change from the formulaic routines of mainstream cinema. And that is enough.

Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys They ain’t gonna fight no doggone wars. (The Equals)

If the Equals are at all remembered it is for their 1968 #1 hit “Baby Come Back”, an energetic soul/ big beat stomp which was a B-side 18 months earlier but which caught that new wave of simple catchy pop, an alternative to the post-“Sergeant Pepper’s” experiments & seriousness. The group has been on here before because their similarly indefatigable original of “Police On My Back” inspired that cover by the Clash on “Sandanista”. A rummage around the dusty recesses of long neglected memory files, reinforced by some vintage video on the Y-tube proves that the Equals deserve a little more consideration.

The 5 man band from Hornsey Rise in North London, you know just up the road from the Arsenal ground, were formed by schoolfriends Eddie Grant, a Guyanan, & the Gordon twins, Derv & Lincoln, from Jamaica. “I Get So Excited” began 1968, their gold disc year, & almost made a breakthrough. It’s a cracking steal from Sam & Dave’s “You Don’t Know Like I Know”. The very word is rambunctious & that’s enough. The band look as if they have grabbed the first items of clothing they had seen down a Holloway Road boutique, nothing seems to quite go together but they all seem to be committed to putting on the style & a show.

The Equals were a snapshot of our capital city that those of us in the provinces did not always see. Young, boisterous & multi-racial, the first generation of black & white British youth to grow up alongside & to play out with each other. They were musical magpies, mixing & matching their influences to create some classic Britpop. They were alright, even cool, but they did try a little too hard. The group were the only hitmakers for the President label & subsequent releases, chasing the success of “Baby Come Back”, tended to be a little simple & gimmicky. There were nursery rhymes, “Rub A Dub Dub”, & football chants, “Viva Bobby Joe”, which had mixed success. When they added a little substance to the novelty they could be this good.

Oh yes. “Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys” is a Britfunk rush of a song. multicultural pacifist pop & a Top 10 hit. Of course the talent in the band (no offence to the twins & the other boys) was Eddy Grant. Eddy was young & ambitious. There was just too much going on & he wanted to a taste of all of it. So the music could be all over the place, a little bit of soul, an attempt at acid rock. Eddy had a blonde ‘fro for a while which was at least distinctive, the long blonde wig was just silly. He even  had a side deal with President  for the Little Grants & Eddie to make some novelty rock steady 45s. Eddy knew he needed distinctive hooks for his songs to stand out on the radio but it took some time (like 10 years time) to strike the balance between a lack of pretension & naivety.

Of course in the early 1970s being pretentious was the thing to be in UK music. The Equals, still able to gig in Europe, were not really about at all. The Wikipedia tells us Eddy suffered a collapsed lung at the beginning of 1971, left the group & returned to Guyana. He did get ill but here from 1972 is the full on & funky “Stand Up & Be Counted”, proof that the band were listening to Sly & the psychedelic soul boys but still wanted to keep it pop. Eddy’s trousers are still not quite the thing as well.

That Equals greatest hits collection sounds pretty uplifting on the journey home from work. It’s a lot more than 4 or 5 songs too. Go for the one with at least “Stand Up & Be Counted”. When Eddy Grant got a second shot a music he owned the label, the studio & the songs. That first time round he could have, with some more imaginative encouragement, pushed the band towards the only other black guitar player around. He may not have become as great as Sly Stone but a British Chambers Brothers is a fine thing to ponder on. No matter, the Equals made more good music than most of us, including me, know about.

 

And I wish I could have all that he has got (Dave Davies off of the Kinks)

Before his 18th birthday Dave Davies had played guitar on 3 records which made the Top 10 of the charts around the world. The first of these has a monstrous, instantly recognisable riff . “You Really Got Me” is, according to Rolling Stone, the 4th greatest guitar song. It is a keystone in the origins of metal, hard rock & punk. The Kinks needed a hit record, time & money were in short supply. Dave, dissatisfied with the sound he was getting, hooked a little green Elpico amp into his set-up. He sliced the speaker cone with a razor blade (as you do) & rock history was made. There is a song about it on Dave’s brand new record.

That is great stuff. “Little Green Amp”, a rifftastic reflection on the best band to come out of Muswell Hill.

Ah the mythology of the Kinks…Jimmy Page played on “Y.R.G.M.” (maybe, but not the solo), the personal animus between them so pronounced that 3 of the 4 originals could play together for just the 20 years (that fight one night in Cardiff MUST be mentioned). The sibling rivalry which strangled creativity. Ray Davies wrote over 30 of the best songs you have ever heard & his younger brother improved many of them with distinctive & sympathetic guitar accompaniment. Lazy journalism ? Not for the first time…or probably the last.

Boorish behaviour & breakdowns did not help the Kinks but a ban on working in the US hit them the hardest. Refused permits by the American Federation of Musicians for 4 years, a golden run of mature, idiosyncratic 45s were not hits in the US. “Waterloo Sunset”, once described by critic Robert Christgau as “the most beautiful song in the English language” did not bother the compilers of the Billboard Hot 200 ! In 1967, with that record heading the soundtrack of a memorable Summer, Dave Davies showed out to start a solo thing.

Dandy Dave’s first time around, “Death Of A Clown”, a dense, Dylanesque drawling bit of folk-rock was a big hit. It was taken from the Kinks LP “Something Else” & plans for a solo LP were made. “Susannah’s Still Alive” is a great follow-up but there were diminishing returns, the LP was never completed. It may have been that Dave’s confidence was affected when his songs were not as successful as his big brother’s. I think that Dave Davies is a very talented guy whose major contribution to the long history of the Kinks is to be celebrated. The solo LP that never was ? Forget about it.

You will not be surprised to learn that I have a couple of thoughts about the Kinks, their place in the hierarchy of British rock & why their songs of English tea, trains & transvestites did not sell a squillion records (the last one did but let’s not spoil the alliteration). Another time yeah but while we are in the neighbourhood it would make sense to kick back & enjoy this.

“Till The End Of the Day” is the last great garage rock-out by the Kinks before “Dedicated Follower” began a run of laconic, individual commentaries on post-war Britain. This live clip shows just what Dave brought to the sound & the spirit of the band. The way that he blows his entry into that killer solo not only doesn’t matter but makes the thing rougher & better…go on !

Dave Davies did finally complete 3 solo LPs in the early 1980s, there was a 20 year gap & with the release of “I Will Be Me” this week there are 3 more. He unfortunately suffered a stroke in 2004 but, after a couple of years, was walking, talking & playing guitar again. A recent BBC documentary showed him to be a lovely man with a dry humour about his long career. His solo records are unlikely to become as iconic as tose made with the little green amp but it’s certainly good that he is still around.

I’m not trying to tell you how to do it I’m only saying put some thought into it (Staple Singers)

The early 1970s was a momentous time for African-American music as the soul stars of the previous decade confidently articulated the challenges facing the US after the tumult of the previous decade. They did so by experimenting, pushing & shoving the sound that took their message around the world to see where they were coming from, what’s going on & what’s happening brother. The Psychedelic Soul of  Funkadelic & Sly Stone freed our minds while our asses followed  the sweaty funk of Isaac Hayes & the Isley Brothers. Stevie Wonder & Marvin Gaye ? Well, the Motown masters just picked up the title belt dropped by the Beatles & produced the best music you could wish to hear.

Included in that group of  Funk Soul Brothers, from a time of conspicuous fashion, hairstyles & drug use, is an avuncular man who was already in his late-50s when his music took up residence in the US R&B charts. His understated & wonderful guitar playing accompanied the harmonies of his 3 beautiful daughters on some of the sweetest funk, songs of life-affirming positivity. Man, “Pops” Staples & the Staple Singers were really saying something back then.

WELL ! Don’t read this…watch that ! In May 1972 this call & response beauty was the #1 hit in America. Written & produced by Al Bell, the co-owner of Stax Records,  created with the array of talent at Muscle Shoals Studio in Alabama, “I’ll  Take You There” is popular music as Art. I am proud to be a member of the species that can achieve something so radiant…really.

Roebuck “Pops” Staples had a preacherly air about him &, of course, the Staple Singers could only have developed in the church. They were a successful Gospel-Folk act with an eye and an ear on the changing world. They recorded “Blowing In the Wind” just after Peter,Paul & Mary. They were on Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth” in 1967 when their label Epic tried to change it up a little. The family group stayed with Gospel longer than many of their contemporaries. Even when they signed with Stax the music was, at first, clumsily tagged “Soul Folk”. It was in 1970 when brother Purvis left the group & sister Yvonne joined Cleotha & Mavis. The  move was made to Funky Street & boy, was the world ready for the Staple Singers.

Pops was a friend of Dr King during the Civil Rights struggles of the 60s & his group now sang a message of self-empowerment.  “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” Dr King said that. The Staple Singers spread the word by way of an unhurried insistent groove. Pops’ guitar had hints of his Mississippi upbringing but, he contended, he did not play the Blues. His talented daughters perfectly linked the rhythm & the rhyme. Aretha was still the Queen but Mavis Staples was a stunning new Soul Princess.

“We The People” is from the first LP produced by Al Bell. It is a personal favourite but there are so many tunes that were so perfectly Staplified at this time. I have left “Respect Yourself” off of this but if you really do only know the Bruce Willis version then get ye to the Y-tube right now ! In 1975 the group hooked up with fellow Chicagoan Curtis Mayfield, another musician who had mastered the shift from spiritual to secular. Pops was reluctant to let his girls sing the more sensual lyrics of “Let’s Do It Again”, the title track of the soundtrack LP they recorded. On his 61st birthday the record (a pretty damn lubricious one) was #1 in the US charts.

Some of the Staples’ songs are less successful because the insistence on a positive message could lead to simplification. While Curtis sang “If There’s A Hell Below (We’re All Gonna Go)” the Staple Singers counselled “Touch A Hand, Make A Friend”. It was though, a memo that needed to be sent. Black Pride had to be about more than confrontation with white society. Anyway, these were the radio-friendly singles, on the LPs there are still songs of protest & anger when the group shows that they still know the score.

“When Will We Paid” is a litany of the sufferings & the contribution made by Black people in America. It is a sophisticated & dignified demand for recognition & reparation which never fails to affect me. This clip is taken from “Soul to Soul” a film of a concert held in Accra, Ghana in 1971 when a raft of black American acts went back to Africa. In the 1980s I worked with a wonderful Ghanaian man, Emmanuel. Manny had attended this concert, it was a very big deal in Accra. I spent more than a few lunch breaks when I asked him about the time he saw the Staple Singers play & just let him tell his stories. Good memories for both of us.

(Just a sidebar here. In “I’ll Take You There” when Mavis entreats “Daddy…” to do his thing it is not Pop who plays the guitar solo but the Muscle Shoals session dude Eddie Hinton. If you don’t know too much about this talented but troubled man then click here. He made some great music.)

New Music From Friends And Family (Skarlett Riot)

Ho…this is my little piece of the Internet so if I want to give a shout to my nephew’s band then there is no-one to stop me. This is the great new single by Skarlett Riot, “What We’ve Become”.

So my nephew Tom Mansfield, you remember him, that snotty, smelly, pain in the ass 6 year old. Well he is now not only a thoroughly good guy but is the handsome, strapping bass player of one of the most promising metal bands in the UK. Good work Tom ! Skarlett Riot are a proper band who have been together since school days. I think that singer/guitar Skarlett (Chloe), guitar Danny & Tom were in the same year at the same school while drummer Luke is Danny’s little brother. They started out playing in bars in which  they were too young to buy a drink, a liberal amount of Bon Jovi & Avril Lavigne covers to keep the punters sweet. I always advise any young band to take any gig that is offered. Every time you play you should learn something or make mistakes that you don’t want to make again. I do not want to blow smoke up the Riot’s rear end but this band certainly went to school.

Their hometown is hardly a hotbed of music & pretty soon they were too big for the small venues around here. They found gigs,  recorded some songs & every time I checked for them they were improving. The playing, the songs, the stagecraft is getting tighter & better. Skarlett brings it, she has to work hard to impress small crowds who don’t know your tunes & she does. So there is a first LP ,”Tear Me Down”, the singles have had attention from the radio & the band has a busy summer ahead with a support slot on a national tour. Like a 1,000 bands they just need a lucky break & they could really make a mark. Power Metal is not really my thing but this Skarlett Riot could just go international. Check out all the latest news & buy a T-shirt on their F-book page.

On the subject of brand new music the Four Asterisks have just the one track on Soundcloud &, to these old ears, “You Say” deserves a wider hearing

I have to declare that Roddy, the Asterisk’s drummer & electronics honcho,  is the son of my new(ish) & good F-book friend Danny McCahon. Danny is a man of impeccable taste save for a curious nostalgia about bands from the fag end of Glam Pop. Roddy, Scott & Andrew “Three guys, one basement, a hard drive full of songs” have made a pretty good noise here . The more I listen the better it gets. More of this please guys & good luck.