Life Is A Lesson To Learn In Our Time (John Martyn)

Thanks to the Internets & to those more obsessive than myself I know that the first time I saw John Martyn play live was on the 19th of February 1972. Blimey, I was just a baby ! John’s wonderful LP “Bless The Weather” had been released in the previous November. Just a week after the gig Nick Drake’s 3rd & final record “Pink Moon” became available while Richard Thompson was in the same Sound Techniques studio used by the others recording “Henry the Human Fly”. Island Records, engineer/producer John Wood & scene-maker Joe Boyd were having it their way with this clear as country water modern British folk music.

It was a great concert, the audience sat cross-legged on the floor & don’t bogart that joint. I believe that, just this once, the word “vibe” is appropriate. There’s a touch of bliss about “Bless”, a lovely, languid beauty. John’s smoky rasp & confident picking style made good songs into better ones. It was, apparently, his habit to accept a spliff from the audience during his set. He smoked the whole thing & we were half impressed, half concerned. We knew that there was some quality gear around the college. So when he broke a string he could not really summon the necessary co-ordination to get things done. Not everyone in the audience was as stoned or were sympathetic. A little impatient heckling escalated into an exchange of obscenities &, y’know, it was all a bit of a downer man. “Glistening Glyndebourne” is the first track that Martyn used the Echoplex tape delay effect. It’s a shimmering indication of his future work but on this night it lacked sparkle. A perfunctory “Singing In The Rain” & he was gone, a pity because for 45 minutes there he had been as good as we had hoped he would be.

“Bless The Weather” was John’s first solo LP after 2 with his wife Beverley. He was ready to expand his palette, to add some jazz, blues & imagination to the folk music & he had the technique to carry it off. In 1973 there were 2 LPs then others in 75 & 77. From “Bless” to “One World” there are 5 records that were progressive but not “prog” & were difficult to categorise as anything other than John Martyn records.

Now that’s what I call a guitar hero ! “I Would Rather Be The Devil” is a Skip James song from the “Solid Air” LP. I’m not sure that I can do this record justice. All I can say is that it stands alongside Fairport’s “Liege & Leif”, Nick Drake’s “Bryter Layter” & your favourite Richard & Linda Thompson record as an outstanding achievement of British folk music. It is an essential record, the 67th best British record ever (Q magazine), often claimed to be a progenitor of “trip-hop” or chill out sounds but it is a whole lot more than that. In the UK he had a dedicated audience, a guitarist who chose to sit rather than strut & who’s mumbled, atmospheric vocals were another instrument played best in an intimate venue. There were tours in the US with his friend Eric Clapton & with Yes but he was not going to fill arenas by himself.

There are some sweet could-have-been hits on the records, gateway ballads such as “Sweet Little Mystery” & “May You Never” for those people who like a sensitive singer-songwriter. There are the sonic experiments, before recording “One World” John had been in Jamaica with dub master Lee “Scratch” Perry. Then there’s this interpretation of a Yorkshire folk song. “Sunday’s Child”, released in 1975, is an LP which is a little more song-based. “Spencer the Rover” still nails me as it did all those years ago & I get to pick the music round here.

It was on the “One World” tour that I got to see John Martyn play in concert again. Birmingham Town Hall is a striking Romanesque monument to Victorian provincial achievement, taste & rectitude. It is a great place to see a gig. It was also the occasion of my 25th birthday, Oo-Wee ! it had no option but to be a very good night out. John often toured with Danny Thompson, an virtuoso of the acoustic bass who shared a fancy for the blurring of any folk-jazz boundaries and an affinity for rather excessive alcohol consumption. Rapport does not really cover what happened between the pair when they played together. There was a degree of communion going on there I think & that night, in front of the hall’s magnificent pipe organ, they delivered a little piece of perfection.

Now I’m no great fan of British prog rock. The triple-albums, the space operas, the acceptance that “Lord of the Rings” has some literary merit. Technical expertise at the expense of emotion & melody never appealed & I found any intellectual aspirations to be unimaginative & mediocre. Pink Floyd without Syd Barrett…you get me ? “Dark Side Of the Moon”, the “kitsch masterpiece” (R. Christgau), was still a chart juggernaut in 1977 &, no accounting for taste, I just did not get it. John Martyn’s concert set took the best of his 5 great records & the quality just kept on coming. The expeditions of “One World”, “Dealer” & “Big Muff” swooped & soared around the hall. OK I was already flying high but this was just the method of transportation I required to keep me up & out there. I left the gig convinced that this adventurous, emotional, beautiful music should really be on the turntables of millions. You want to hear something “progressive” ? It’s right here.

John’s sensitive songwriter/hedonistic hard-drinker hit the wall after this. His marriage ended & there was a 3 year gap before any new music. I like “Grace & Danger”, there are good songs on this & on subsequent records. The added keyboards & the patronage of Phil Collins brought the music into the 80s & that is not always a good thing. I saw John perform with his band a couple of more times & always enjoyed the experience. However those records he made in the 1970s, I still listen to them a lot , l love that sound, it stands as a major contribution to British music. There are 5 of of these LPs, go on pick a disc, any disc.

Common People Like You And Me Will Be Builders For Eternity (The Heptones)

The UK has been enjoying a week of the loveliest Summer weather. It has been such a long time coming that the usual sorrowful suspects around here are holding back on their “It’s too darn hot” schtick. Of course there are those who view a heatwave as something to be “suffered”. They welcome the Level 3 alert from the Met Office & pore over the ridiculous “hours of sunshine v. the number of dead” graphs. These people are experts on climate change, they own a DVD of “The Day After Tomorrow”. You think this is hot you should have been at the 1st London Reggae Sunsplash. In July 1984, at Selhurst Park, it was so hot that the Holmesdale Rd started to melt. Inside the football ground it was rammed but there were people still outside because they were stuck to the middle of the bloody street !

I lost my posse pretty much first thing. Don’t blame it on I (or I), someone delayed me & they were gone into the big crowd. I headed in their, hopefully, general direction but just 20 yards up the trail I met up with Mary, Dee & their children. Now they had a day’s supply of jerk chicken, dumpling, patties, rice & peas. They also had a big bag of weed which suggested they they were out for a week. I stopped looking for my friends after that, I was with other friends. Praise Jah & pass the King-size Rizla from the left hand side. It a go done.

The Sunsplash was an impressive line-up. Black Uhuru, with Sly & Robbie’s Word, Sound & Power, were the #1 reggae act in the world, there was no bigger solo singer than Dennis Brown. The show though was almost stolen by a tea-time  tear up from Leroy Sibbles, a performer who had passed me by before then. The hits kept on coming from Leroy & the thought kept occurring to me “Wow ! So he’s the guy who did this one.” I do love those Y-tube clips of shows that I attended & this shows a consummate singer, entertainer & performer yet still does not touch the full range of a proper Jamaican music legend.

The Heptones were a force in Jamaica when the often frantic ska rhythm calmed a little & became Rock Steady. In the late 60s & early 70s there was a string of hits written by Leroy Sibbles & produced down at Coxone Dodd’s Brentford Rd Studio One. The close harmony trio, Leroy, Barry Llewellyn & Earl Morgan were not as soulful tough as the Wailers or the Maytals. The Uniques or the Techniques could be sweeter, but when the lovely loping logic of the music hit the spot they produced music such as “Book Of Rules”, sung by Llewellyn & one of the greatest 45s ever released.

There, I told you. The Heptones did not seem to be too well known in the UK. Other trios like the Pioneers & the Paragons made more of an impression but there was a reason why the Heptones stayed in Jamaica. Studio One was Hitsville JA in the late 1960s. Coxone Dodd was Berry Gordy, house band the Soul Vendors were the Funk Brothers & on bass guitar was Leroy Sibbles, Kingston’s answer to Detroit’s James Jamerson. Leroy wrote, arranged & played on so much great music. There are classic basslines but if you listen to a Studio One rock steady record then Leroy Sibbles probably had a hand in it.

Sibbles & the Heptones left the label in the 1970s, “Book Of Rules” is a Harry J production as is a fine LP “Cool Rasta” (1976). Leroy had moved to Canada but there was money around in Jamaica when Chris Blackwell & others came calling. The group signed with Island, re-recorded some old tunes & then went down to Lee Perry’s Black Ark studio to make an LP which could rank alongside the alchemist’s contemporary concoctions with Max Romeo & Junior Murvin.

“Party Time” (1977) is an injudicious title for the LP. Reggae was now roots, rastafarian & radical. There were new vocal trios, Culture, Burning Spear, the Mighty Diamonds who were following the trail of the Heptones but were bang on message with this musical militancy. The Heptones were at their best when the lyrics were thoughtful & positive. They had reflected the changes in the decade. “Party Time” had songs of menace & portent, there was a great cover of Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released”,”Sufferer’s Time” is an anthem for the oppressed. Boy, “Party Time” is a lovely record but on this new Windrush you really did need dreadlocks to get noticed. The Heptones were regarded as being from back then, Leroy went back to Canada & though the band continued, it weren’t really the band without him.

Leroy Sibbles made some solo records & toured a show as good as the one I was lucky enough to see. He got the band back together & the Heptones tour the world as it wheels & comes again. I missed the band the first time around but, as reggae began to embrace slackness & the syn-drum, I started to look back instead of forward. I have enjoyed discovering the music of the likes of Bob Andy, Slim Smith & others . Leroy Sibbles has been described as”the greatest all-round talent in reggae history”. G’wan…have another one.

Is that what we are, misanthropes? Good lord no. We’re a family.(Nick Cave John Hillcoat)

There’s a lot of love around for Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds at the moment after their outstanding set at Glastonbury. The 10 minute “Stagger Lee”  is a piece of resistance that actually becomes mesmeric. It reminds us that they are as much about the now as the then. Of course Nick & the band had always kept it fresh. 2007’s “Grinderman” project was rough & we were ready for it. I need to check for this year’s record “Push The Sky Away” but seeing the 2012 film “Lawless”, written by Cave & directed by John Hillcoat had been on that too long to-do list for some time so I did that this week. The soundtrack, compiled by Nick & band-mate Warren Ellis, opens with Mark Lanegan’s take on a great song by the legend, Fred Lincoln “Link” Wray Jr.

John Hillcoat has been a man to watch since the early 1990s when I saw his 1st film “Ghosts Of The Civil Dead” (1988) & had the utter, utter crap scared of out me. (Hey, I’m a film critic !) “Ghosts” is a brutal, brutish, nihilistic & pessimistic prison movie. It is low-budget but not exploitative, violent but still understated. It is a great work. Nick Cave has a co-writing credit (with Hillcoat & 3 others), the Bad Seeds make the music & he acts in the film. As his character wrote on his cell wall in his own blood I was relieved to see a familiar face. The guerrilla realism of the film makes you doubt what you are watching. It was 10 years before there was another Hillcoat directed release & no-one has seen that. In 2005 the pair were reunited for the Australian Western “The Proposition”, a film that we have all seen.

“The Proposition” is just a proper film. The attempt to apply a veneer of colonial civilization to a wild, desolate Outback echoes other Australian movies, “The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, “Walkabout” & “Rabbit Proof Fence”.The international cast all brought their A-game but it is the raw visual beauty & the tone of moral ambiguity which makes it a fine experience. I had read “And The Ass Saw The Angel”, Cave’s novel, the gothic grotesqueries  & the religiosity were a little ornate. Now, in collaboration, the Aussie pair found a restraint to keep it simple. The characters did not wear either white hats or black hats & this blurred idealism helped the film. It made you think…but not too much.

Of course Hollywood came calling & there was only 4 years before another film. “The Road” is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel,  a stark fable set in a post-apocalyptic world. There are a lot of these minatory movies around, America really wanted to believe that the End Times were right here, right now in the decade after 9/11. “The Road” (2009) is bleak & desolate but the film emphasises the emotional impact on a father & his son. Viggo Mortenson, coming off 2 fine performances for David Cronenberg, is The Man & he does it right. Once again the strokes are broad & better for being so. When a film dresses to impress or reaches for the whistles & bells…well, I’ve seen “The Book of Eli”. Of the dystopic dramas “The Road” & “Children of Men” (2006), another hopeful story, are the best of the bunch.

“Lawless” is a gangster movie, Nick Cave’s script is adapted from a 2008 book about a band of bootlegging brothers from Virginia. The film plays fast & loose with its references. Here is 86 years old Dr. Ralph Stanley, a bluegrass legend (winner of a Grammy for his work in “O Brother”) singing “White Light White Heat” the 60s Velvet Underground classic, backed by the Bootleggers, a band assembled by Cave & Warren Ellis to make a spirited attempt at traditional American music…Lovely. It is no sepia-tinted view like “Last Man Standing” or as over-inflated as “Public Enemies” There are though echoes of “Thunder Road”, “Bonnie & Clyde”, “The Untouchables” & “The Godfather”…all good ones. Filmed in digital clarity the cricks & hollers have never looked so good.

There is another fine cast. Tom Hardy is as bad-ass as he was in “Bronson”, there is not enough Gary Oldman while Guy Pearce is pure nastiness, looking like a cross between Don Ameche &, erm, Nick Cave. Mia Wasikowska is pale & beautiful enough to star in Jarmusch’s new vampire film, she was good in “Stoker” too. The only problem is, of course, Shia the Beef.Man, that guy is going to have to be as good as this in a few more films as good as this before we can even think about forgiving him for those “Transformers” travesties.

“Lawless” is another violent film with themes of family loyalty & revenge. After 3 films it is possible to locate common motifs in Hillcoat’s work. “The Road”, because it was the film of a book that some Americans had read, was a prestigious vehicle for the director & he chose not to play it for a big audience but to stick with the personal touches which made “The Proposition” a 21st century Western that paid its respects to the tradition. “Lawless” is a cool film that does not attempt to be more than it is. There is blood & gore, car chases, flash Chicago hoods, tommy guns…all that stuff you need. I doubt that Hillcoat & Cave will ever hit the box-office bonanza but whatever films they make in the future are going to be worth watching. Not a false step yet.

We are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.

Well, as corny in Kansas in August & high as a flag on the 4th of July. Today, that very date, is the first birthday of the  loosehandlebars blog-type thing. When I first started to press “Publish” I did not really know where it would lead & did not want to know . I did though get the feeling that here was my own little piece of the Internets & it was a feeling I liked. It looked good too, crisp, clean & clear. A collision of luck & innate good taste brought me to the right theme the first time around. A tip of the hat to WordPress here. A lot of people try to give you a lot of free stuff through the computer, WordPress has given me all this stuff & has never asked me for anything. If one of their representatives comes to my house & asks for money I would probably pay up.

Any road up, I do not intend to dissect the hows, whys & whassups of loosehandlebars, autopsies are rarely interesting & never fun. It’s a birthday, a celebration, so what we need today is a little positive vibrations, some irie ites !

Ho ! How great is clog dancing ? Now I don’t know a flatfoot from a drag-slide but this Blue Ridge bunny hop (Appalachian arabesque ?)  just makes me smile. So does Danny & the Champions of the World & “These Days”. Danny is Danny Wilson who, with his brother Julian, was Grand Drive, the UK’s premier country rock band, which meant that as they gained popularity they got to play bigger pubs. G.D. were great live, the boys had obviously, like the Jayhawks, spent a long time listening to the Band. There were 5 LPs before they stopped & I enjoy hearing Danny’s distinctive voice & songs with his new unit. British Americana ? I know, I know. This lovely American folk dance tradition is, of course, a development of European step dances but there are only about 3 of us over here who still practice the buck & wing. We tell ourselves we have better things to do.

As the world goes to hell in a handbasket the politicians & bankers, who’s pursuit of their own self-interest really didn’t help, seem to still have us by the throat & by the balls. My own political viewpoint has been defined by a passionate (some would say obsessive) anti-consumerism. I live in the material world & I have stuff but I don’t have a mortgage, don’t own a car. I never quite caught that my own self-worth could be defined by the things I bought. I am a contrarian, too many people walked that line. “Every cheap hood strikes a bargain with the world, ends up making payments on a sofa or a girl.” You know it.

As I sneer from the sidelines the best pop record of 2004 often comes to mind. Johnny Boy, a Liverpudlian duo named after De Niro’s character in “Mean Streets” created this lovely collision of the Ronettes & New Order. A street symphony for the 21st century, a perfect pop platter with pertinent, perceptive lyrics, this surely could not miss. Was it a hit ? Was it f… ! “You Are The Generation That Bought More Shoes And You Get What You Deserve”. People just don’t want to hear it.

The Low Anthem came around in 2008 with their 3rd LP “Oh My God, Charlie Darwin”. “To Ohio” placed them with bands like the Fleet Foxes & Bon Iver. Now I own records by Gene Clark, I know how atmospheric country rock goes. A little more heart, less alembicated & ostentatious facial hair. I discovered that there was more to the Low Anthem. The LP is a lovely thing, one of my favourite of this century. The instrumentation, the lyrics & the emotions are imaginative & intelligent…not everything is these days. “To The Ghosts Who Write History Books” is just one of the many highlights. We got to see them play live & they were just the highlight of a festival day. The next record made little impression & last month the rather lovely Jocie Adams left the band. Ah well, we will always have Tom Jones’ cover of “Charlie Darwin” !

I had no idea who would read my posts. I knew my friends would want to see them but had no plans to canvass any more attention than that. The “look at me ! look at me !” aspect of that has a whiff of desperate ego that I do try to avoid. When people did come it was surprising & pleasing. F-book pages shared my posts & there was a queue at the door…strange. When a veteran musician, a man who’s work I had respected for many years, e-mailed me to share his offence at a reference I had made to his past I was bloody shocked at the reach of this thing. I now realise he has a gadget which notifies him whenever he is mentioned anywhere on the Internets. Get over yourself G… !

Loosehandlebars is a hobby now. I still hang with family & friends but I do watch less TV (that’s good) & perhaps read less (that’s not so good). I love finding the best music I can in this impressive machine & do put some effort into the accompanying text (Really !). Before I start another year of this I want to appreciate the injection of creativity that the blog has brought. There has been encouragement, support & even hype from old friends in London & in Derry, from new friends in Glasgow. They know who they are & I hope they know how much they are appreciated. Finally a shout across the Atlantic to Dave’sStrangeWorld, a fellow blogger & human being who I met through doing this. Dave, thanks for your interest & I will get to that e-mail I owe you a.s.a.p. Peace.

Having Fun Is Compulsory (Glastonbury)

It was the Glastonbury Festival weekend &, as I have for some years, I experienced it from the comfort of my armchair at home. The BBC coverage gets no easier to watch. Every talking head & news clown trilling  the “G” word mantra as an axiom for good clean fun & great music. If it’s part of the festival then it has to be a delight, no deviation from the party line allowed. The BBC got the show rolling with their weekday magazine programme for the geriatric, presented by 2 gurning nincompoops. placing the weekend firmly into the social season. Between Derby Day at Epsom & Henley Regatta why not hire a yurt in the countryside & be entertained by those most antediluvian of artistes, the Rolling Stones. If we are lucky perhaps a member of the Royal Family will grace us with his attendance. Harumph !

My times as a Pilton Pilgrim was the 1980s. Boy, it was a proper festival back then, Monday’s amphetamine psychosis a fair trade-off  for attempting  to have too much fun (I ain’t ever had too much fun). The current, corporate, commentators emphasize the convoy of travellers, the avenue of drug dealers (“Black ‘ash, good black ‘ash”) but many thousands bought a ticket, got high with a little help from their friends & some almost hallucinogenic cider to make memories that they still cherish. Not a one of these 21st century professional blowhards seem to be able to appreciate that Worthy Farm is not only a beautiful, perfect setting for a festival but that it is a magical place. Just so long as they get the opportunity to tweet their asinine observations, to be interactive they may as well be in a shopping mall.

Enough bitching about these new days not being as good as the old ones. There was some great music to enjoy over the 3 day weekend & it was a man as old as the Stones who did it for me on the Sunday night. Bobby Womack headlined at a smaller arena than the Tory Boy faux folk pop of Mumford & Sons on the main Pyramid stage. He played a split set with 5 songs from his work with Damon Albarn on a solo LP & with the Gorillaz before a break, a change of clothes & band, then a set of his greatest hits. These are not so great that you have heard them too often or to turn the gig into a sing-along. They are great enough to let you know that Bobby has more going for him than just longevity. He has been ill in recent times.To see him hold centre stage for an hour, “I can’t stop !” he shouted, was a real pleasure. If I had been in Somerset the Mumford toffs would not have been playing their banjos near me.

Saturday night at Glastonbury is a very special time. People have got their bearings & have got it. The penny has dropped that this town, which has appeared from nowhere, is functioning pretty well. The flags, the smoke from hundreds of fires gives it an atmosphere of a medieval army & its camp followers. No-one handed out a rule book on entry, the festival goers are taking responsibility for their own behaviour & everything is turning out fine. How cool would it be if we could do this every weekend ? The Pyramid stage is the place to be on a Saturday night to celebrate the festival. I have been in bigger crowds at sport events & demonstrations but, right there, right then it always felt to be more than just having the best possible time.

I have seen the Stones play live. If I want to hear them play I can listen to “Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out”. Public Enemy, old school but still a force, played on another stage at the same time but I would have been down at the main arena to do a little more than see the Rolling Stones. Those grumpy old men, criticizing from their living rooms as if it is just another gig,  do not get it. This time, you really do have to be there.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds are not new at the music game either. It’s 30 years since the band formed after the break up of the Birthday Party. This year they released a 15th LP after a 5 year hiatus & 2 Grinderman records. The band have a perfect festival set, a career-spanning review of their gothic vignettes. “Tupelo”, “Red Right Hand”, “The Mercy Seat”, it’s a list & it could be longer. Blixa & Mick Harvey are no longer around but the band look suitably dissolute & Warren Ellis is still throttling his instruments. At the centre of it Nick, conducts & cajoles his band & the audience. It is powerful, it can be intense, but his unlikely hair colour shows that this thing is not to be taken too seriously. “Jubilee Street” is a track from this year’s “Push The Sky Away”, fit to become part of the Bad Seeds canon. The warm up act for Mumford & Sons ? You are having a laugh ! I hope they frightened the children in the audience waiting for something less offensive.

All this media coverage…everything is just so much fun at Glastonbury…absolutely ignores the incredible amount of recreational intoxicants ingested at the festival. It is easier to fall back on tired platitudes about mud & toilets than to admit that so many people got so high & had such a good time without killing themselves or each other. As I became a Glastonbury veteran my “things to pack” list got smaller. For 3 years I did not take a tent, it was imagine the drugs you needed for 4 days, add 50% to this & you were ready to rock. Anyway, there must have been some music this year made by people under 50.

So, it’s not Portishead, Dinosaur Jr or Chic then, nor is it any of those pop muppets who treat the gig as some sort of Radio 1 Fun Day & just stink up the place. Palma Violets are sprogs from Lambeth in London & if “Best of Friends” sounds familiar it is because it it absolutely the kind of row the young uns like to make. It was the #1 track of 2012 in the NME but there is a new guitar band around every year. In 2011 it was the Vaccines, this year it is the Strypes. Let’s hope that Palma Violets have got more in them than a gap year LP because I like this loud stuff.

I can beef about the increased corporatisation of my favourite festival. The move towards respectability has created a massive, homogenous audience of fun-seekers who seem to demand the biggest musical entertainment money can buy inside an arena with a 20′ high boundary fence. I do know that much of my dissatisfaction with the present is a lament for a well-spent past that is now just a memory. Those days when I could throw some things in a bag & get deliriously fucked up in a field with my friends are over, as are the days when I wanted to do that. The closest I will get is through my TV &, ridiculously, I resent that the experience is not as exhilarating. Nuts innit ?

I have seen some great music at Glastonbury. Taj Mahal, Elvis Costello, Van Morrison, Spirit & many others. I’ve danced all night in the Dread Broadcasting sound system tent. There was a Sunday night when we had to be back in London for work on Monday. We met 2 friends camped with their 3 children in a cricket field overlooking the Vale of Avalon. Closing the festival that year was Fela Kuti then Weather Report, not our favourites but world class acts. There was just the 9 of us, dancing, checking the lights & sights of the festival. The lasers arced across the Vale towards the silhouette of the Tor then on to the horizon. It was peaceful, breathtaking, beautiful & a perfect evening in a place that was these 3 things too.