Music and Western Movies (1971)

I am male. I love films, ergo I love Westerns…cowboy pictures. Hey, a man’s gotta do what…you get me. It was not particularly the cinema that satisfied this impressionable adolescent’s passion for horse operas. Too many stars were past their best-by date in the 1960s. James Stewart  in a toupee was, at best, unconvincing. John Wayne, be-wigged, wearing a corset & ultra-reactionary, was part of an old guard that the world had passed by, left blinking & chewing dust from the slipstream. It was on TV that we saw “High Noon”, “Shane” & others from the Occidental canon. It may have been a miniature, monochromatic screen but when John Ford pointed a camera at some Mojave Desert scenery, war-painted Apache braves on the ridge, we knew that we were getting epic, iconic America.

Those mature actors like Stewart, Henry Fonda, Burt Lancaster & others had made some memorable Westerns. The studio system, which kept such a tight rein on production, fractured, creating opportunities & greater independence for stars to select writers & directors. By the end of the 1960s this formula had become moribund. While there were still some estimable American westerns around it was a European director who brought it all back home on the range.

Italian director Sergio Leone, born  in 1929, did not speak American, had never visited that country. What he knew about the West he had learned at the cinema. His “Man With No-Name” trilogy was, incredibly, complete by 1966. Filmed in Spain, dismissively tagged as “Spaghetti Westerns”, starring a former TV actor, the films took some time to head West. Leone’s movies were gritty, violent, morally ambiguous, stylish & funny. As cool as Quentin, without Sergio telling us just how cool. By the time he made “Il buono (the Good), il brutto (the Bad), il cattivo (you know it).” he had established a style, a star & was going for it. The first 2 of the  trilogy are better than good but they don’t have Eli Wallach in them. “The Good…” is a masterpiece.

Leone did come to Hollywood to make his films. “Once Upon A Time In The West” (1968), a wonderful impressionist epic which confused Paramount purely by casting Henry Fonda as the bad guy…well, another time. The maestro returned for  the awkwardly titled “Duck, You Sucker” (1971) his 5th consecutive Western. It’s another cracker but while Tinseltown welcomes the revitalization of tired convention it was  flummoxed by the director’s hallucinatory flashbacks, by the imaginative accents of Rod Steiger & James Coburn. There was not even a consensus on what to call the thing. “D.Y.S”, “A Fistful Of Dynamite”, “Once Upon A Time In The Revolution”…all the same film. There’s much  to praise about the film but what we have here is the soundtrack because…well, click on the clip, it’s beautiful.

Composer Ennio Morricone, a schoolmate of Sergio, was a player in Italian music (I missed “Go Kart Twist”) before beginning a 20 year long partnership with the director. His creative use of effects/samples reflected & punctuated the films perfectly. As Leone’s ambition (& budget) increased it was matched by Morricone’s talent. He became a prolific, much decorated composer of film music. This, the theme from “Giu la Testa” (another title !), is an astonishing thing. If Morricone was ever better then I look forward to hearing that.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, another cinema maverick was enjoying the largesse of a major studio. In 197o Robert Altman directed “MASH”, a black comedy about war paraded as “what the new freedom of the screen is all about !”. A year later the box office money was still coming in by the truckload & Altman released his western “McCabe & Mrs Miller”. There are few heroics in this film, no sweeping vistas of Monument Valley, no-one heads anyone off at the pass. Set in the damp, dreary Pacific Northwest (hi there Dave) “McCabe &…” is a haunting, mournful, magical glimpse of How The West Was Bought. The mining camp, where life is muddy & cheap, attracts disparate, desperate folk with their own takes on the pursuit of life, liberty & whatever. “Revisionist Western” ? You what ! This is an anti-Western.

The opening music & credits gave up a whole lot about the film but there’s a lot to give & more to come. Leonard Cohen’s “The Stranger Song” is an obvious inspiration for  the mood &  the pace of the following two hours or so. The 3 Cohen songs used were not written for the film but they would not be bettered by a taciturn, log cabin troubadour from 190-something. Altman’s direction, the murky cinematography of Vilmos Zgismond, Lenny’s music…triple whammy.

McCabe (Warren Beatty) may be a fool but he’s our fool. It does not end well for him & it bothers you. Julie Christie, a tart without a heart of gold, steals the movie. The whole story may have been one of Constance’s opiated reveries. If it was then that’s OK, so it goes. Better judges than myself consider “McCabe & Mrs Miller” to be a perfect film. I know that men love a list & recently, on a social media site, I was diverted up a tiresome “my Top 10 is better than yours” cul-de-sac. All I will say is that if this film is not included in your favoured Westerns then just stay the fuck away from me.

Peter Fonda, a Hollywood prince, blew things wide open with “Easy Rider” (1969). He had made a couple of films with the exploitation don, Roger Corman before , with Dennis Hopper, he invented the youth market. Universal, spotting a bandwagon, hired young directors including Milos Forman, George Lucas &  the 2 Easy Riders to make some low budget films. Dennis took the money, a load of drugs & his friends to Peru to make “The Last Movie”, a film which so confused & disturbed the studio that he did not get to direct again for almost 10 years. Peter made a cowboy movie. His father, Henry, had starred in Westerns by John Ford, Fritz Lang & Anthony Mann. Even Captain America would have to respect such an established tradition.

“The Hired Hand” (1971) was dismissed as a “hippie Western”, the old guard were not ready to hand it over just yet. It is an elementary movie, a 3-hander about love, friendship, a man’s gotta do what…There is a lovely slow burn about the story-telling. Peter Fonda may lack the ponderance of the likes of Gary Cooper or Glenn Ford but it was time to challenge that stereotype anyway. He was helped by some talented people . Verna Bloom & the great Warren Oates did their acting thing while cinematographer Vilmos Zgismond, straight off of “McCabe &…” infused the film with an impressionist beauty which precedes landmarks like “Days Of Heaven” (1978). The memorable , chimerical soundtrack is by guitarist Bruce Langhorne, part of Dylan’s Greenwich Village cohort. An existential Western ? I’m not going there but “The Hired Hand” is a rewarding, thoughtful film.

I don’t think that 3 films all from the same year makes for a renaissance of the Western. Post-Leone the genre had a new energy & potential  & young directors were eager to reinterpret the stories they had grown up with. There were some fine Westerns made around this time. Hey, as long as the saloon had those wonderful swinging louvred doors, the good guy knocks a gun out of someone’s hand with just one shot &, every so often, rides off into the sunset then I’m a happy man.

You Got Good Taste. Joe Brown Picks The Hits Of 2013

Well the days fly by. You gotta get involved. When you are caught enjoying a moment of silence & solitude you’re regarded as an oddity for even considering such a waste of time. You know the Earth is rotating at over 1000 m.p.h. Life is quite fast enough for me thank you. It’s inevitable that I miss some of the good stuff. I’m a lucky guy because I have all round top Derry feller, bass player off of the Gatefolds, Joe Brown to gently nudge me towards great music that could otherwise have passed by unnoticed. Here at the loosehandlebars nerve centre we extend a corybantic (oh yes !) welcome to our guest selector & his choice of some of 2013’s finest. Tune in, turn on & drop everything. Take some time out to feed your ears & your head.                      

First up it is Chris Forsyth & the Solar Motel Band with one of the 4 tracks from the “Solar Motel” suite. Back of the net ! A brilliantly fluid psychedelic guitar adventure which takes it time & gives itself permission to stop & smell the flowers along the way. Forsyth has spent time with Richard Lloyd who’s guitar fraternity with Tom Verlaine made “Marquee Moon” one of  the great LPs of our music. Television’s name will be dropped into anything you hear about “Solar Motel” but hold on there muskrat, it is, of course, not as straightforward as that.

Back in 1977 I thought that Television had been listening to the Grateful Dead but, y’know, the Punk Wars were still being fought. The idea that this new classic owed something to a band of hippies was never going to be popular. I kept quiet about the sinuous, sometimes telepathic confederation of Bob Weir & Jerry Garcia. Maybe the Dead are due a resurrection…Hey kids, here’s a tune called “Dark Star”. When you have picked the bones out of that there are 3 or 4 triple live LPs over there. Chris Forsyth has finished with them now.

The Villagers made a big impression on their recent visit to Derry. “(Awayland)” is the difficult 2nd LP. After the brooding one-man band of a debut the Villagers are now a group, with a fuller sound, drum machines, a sampler, 21st century stuff. “Classic Rock” just ain’t as classic as it used to be. The bloodless mediocrity of the likes of Coldplay or the Killers, that ersatz Mumfordian folk nonsense, gives the mainstream a very bad rep. We need confident, original, radio receptive music which looks forward & avoids the obvious. This could be that thing. It helps that Conor J O’Brien writes a more than decent song. It’s the Villagers, “The Bell”.

Now I’m going to butt in here & say that one of the delights of the year has been hearing & (thanks to Jim Cunningham) seeing Joe’s new band. Of course you do what you can to help spread the word about the music your friends make. It is nothing but a pleasure to shout loud about the Gatefolds because I know that I have the good stuff here. If you are near Derry & still solvent on the 4th of January then 2014 is off to a rocking start. This is one of my singles of the year

2013 has been a good year for good music. Brown’s Best includes Bill Callahan’s “Dream River”, the sound of an artist becoming consummate. I’m saving that one for myself. From his hometown there is the Wood Burning Savages & back in January he took a more than passing fancy to Yo La Tengo’s LP “Fade”. The Gatefolds are partial to the abracadabra of well honed psych drone so the final place on the podium is taken by San Francisco’s Wooden Shjips. Their video has nothing to do with the band but at just 5 minutes is creepier than the last 3 movies of M Night Shamalama put together.

Last year Joe put us on to Moon Duo, a side project for the Shjips’ guitarist Ripley Johnson. We get to hear him at his day job here on the title track from the new LP “Back To Land”. This stripped back music tips its hat at some pretty solid influences. There are plenty of bands aiming to get the feel of German rock but this lot know what is what. This time round there is an added injection of the groove which, I find, can never be a bad thing. There’s a bit of this driving motorik guitar music about. The Shjips only get the nod this year because of a disputed offside decision against Parquet Courts. Next year Joe & myself have our money on The Everlasting Yeah doing that thing they do & reclaiming the title belt for Derry city.

Well, that year went at over 1000 m.p.h. Give these tunes a shake & when your friends are impressed tell them that Joe Brown, the bass player off of the Gatefolds, put you on it. He does it for the love of the music not the glory but an acknowledgement would only be polite. OK, a week of 2013 left & a new year of listening starts. Anything could happen & probably will. Let’s hope so.

Anger Is An Energy (Alan Sillitoe)

The park at the bottom of my road is set on the Lincoln Cliff, a steep, 50 miles long Limestone scarp  slope which withstood the meltwater of the Ice Ages. It’s a prehistoric feature with the rather cool name of the Jurassic Way. The dinosaurs could saunter along this path avoiding the marshland of the Trent Valley, keeping their hooves dry (what ?). These lowlands can impress too. Now drained & fertile it’s a much more diplodocus-friendly place. The flood plain of the River Trent is a 25 mile wide featureless flatland but this Big Sky country fixes up some sensational sunsets to burnish our daily doings. On a clear day I can see for miles across the western side of the river into Nottinghamshire & the East Midlands…another country, Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood & his Merrie Men, medieval mumbo-jumbo.

Man, we are a parochial crew on our small crowded island. We think we’re so clever & classless & free but we’re still…you know it. There are antipathies between the nations which make up our “United” Kingdom. The football hooliganism of the late 20th century was an expression of perceived rivalry & prejudice which existed between towns before they could even be considered towns. The only thing we are sure about that lot who live at the top of the hill is that they don’t like us either. I am from the North of England. There are geographical & cultural arguments to dispute this but they are wrong. I am a Northerner. The rationale ? It’s like trying to tell a stranger about Rock & Roll.

Any road up, here’s something that Nottingham folk have got going on.

Ray Davies sang, in 1973,  “Where are all the angry young men now ? Barstow and Osborne, Waterhouse and Sillitoe. Where on earth did they all go?” Alan Sillitoe, a Nottingham man, the writer of “Saturday Night & Sunday Morning” was seen as an A.Y.M., an ill-defined literary movement which began in 1956 with John Osborne’s play “Look Back In Anger”. Something was happening in British society but the critical/literary establishment was never expected to know what it was. The elite, born to rule the British Empire & thus the world, had blundered their way into 2 “world” wars in 30 years. No family in the country avoided sacrifice & loss. There was blood on the hands of the aristocracy. Us British have never been a street fighting race other than after the pubs close on a Saturday but a change was gonna come. If we were going to fight & win & die in your battles then we wanted  a fairer share of , a bigger say in, the division of  the spoils. Post-1945 the nationalisation of essential industries, the establishment of a National Health Service & a Welfare State, was expression of the will of the working class towards social inclusion. The days of deference were numbered. Take your “Gosford Park” & shove it up your powdered & privileged rear.

These new writers were too young to have fought in the war. Their brand of social realism articulated the opportunities & anxieties of working class life in post-war Britain. Alan Sillitoe had bombs dropped on him. He left school in 1942 & worked in the same Nottingham Raleigh bicycle factory as his working class hero, Arthur Seaton. The one we see in this clip. By the time he was 21, in 1949, he was living in France on an R.A.F. pension, recuperating from tuberculosis. His first two novels, “S.N & S.M.” & “The Loneliness Of A Long Distance Runner” did very well thank you. There was an element of cultural tourism about an educated reading public living vicariously through this “kitchen sink” literature & its plain-speaking, hard-drinking, sexually active protagonists. This was, however, a new voice in British society with a concern that the ideals of a decade earlier had been diluted by full employment & an aggressive materialism. Higher living standards were a diversion from the fact that economic control & therefore power remained unchanged. Meet the new boss…

These plays & books were quickly adapted for the cinema. In “Saturday Night” Albert Finney as Arthur was the British Brando, a bright new star (he was also the first Billy Liar). There was a squad from West Yorkshire, David Storey (“This Sporting Life”), Stan Barstow (“A Kind Of Loving”), Keith Waterhouse (“Billy Liar”), who all did very well. Some of these Angry Young Men (& Women)were assimilated & embraced by the same literary Establishment that they had scorned. The genie, though, was out of the bottle. Film is a more populist, more accessible art than literature. Audiences saw, for the first time, a mirror held up to their lives. They heard voices which sounded like their own saying things which were dramatic, opinionated, funny. Britain was no longer defined by the narrow range of the received pronunciation & values of the BBC. With a rush & a push many new talents found the confidence to say what they were thinking…out loud. The world was in thrall to 4 young men from Liverpool before you could say “many a mickle makes a muckle”.

Alan Sillitoe produced an impressive body of work in his life. There are over 50 books but it is the first 2 (& their screenplays) by which he is remembered. His two young protagonists choose different ways to seek dignity in a life where your path is chosen by others. Seaton knows that his willful kicking against the pricks is a temporary stage before an inevitable acceptance of responsibility. Colin Smith, on the other hand, is less impressed by the rewards for playing by someone else’s rules. That moment when he decides to run just when he wants to, that carrots can be dangled but he ain’t no donkey is just a beautiful thing. I’ve done it myself…hope that I will still do it.

Sillitoe kept on keeping on, his politics shaped by injustice, a feeling for the underdog &, importantly, a hope that things can improve. Nottingham was, he wrote, “a town built into my bones and heart, carried with me forever. Always part of me, impossible not to make it live for others as it lived and still does for me”. There are others like him, I intended this post to include a couple but…you get me. Those young writers of the late 1950s were from a class that was insisting that it told its own story for the first time. Their success & the opportunities it created for those that followed deserves a better iconography than the collected picture sleeves of the Smiths. At the time we thought that there had been a permanent change in the social & cultural fabric of the country. Yeah…that was then, this is now.

A Christmas Story (Santa make him hurry, tell him he can take the freeway down)

Friday evenings…Man, Monday I got Friday on my mind & the weekend starts here. Business taken care of, the city that put money in my pocket becomes my adventure playground. I wanted to swing from the ropes, hang from the climbing bars, graze both knees, get down & dirty. I deserved it. First there was a tried & tested transition from work time to playtime to be undertaken. Loud. fast music because bouncing of the walls is good, a couple of spliffs to…er…keep my mind limber. I was just building the first of the bifters when the phone rang. The caller was my good friend Sally, she said she needed a favour, ” a big favour”.

Now Sally was a Mama Lioness with 3 cubs, Charlie, an 11 year old hoodlum, 5 year old George, a wrecking ball on legs & Danielle, 8, an angel in the middle. When Mum needed a favour it meant that just minutes later my life was no longer my own. There was a facade of control but all 4 of us were in on the gag. I was outnumbered & we all knew that too. Just don’t get hurt, don’t hurt each other & try to break as little of my stuff as possible. Oh, we must all laugh as much as we can too, that was a big part of the deal. When Sally needed a favour I never said “No”. I loved being part of that gang, I loved all of that family.

“A big favour. I need a man in a big, red suit with a long, white beard”. I did not mention that this Friday was in mid-December, Xmas was a-coming. I could avoid any festive folderol until Noche Buena. If you have kids I guess that the momentum starts to build soon after Halloween. “Sally…Fuck Right Off”…kneejerk I know but I had to make my position clear. My friend explained that Santa had let them down, that no-one else would do it & I was absolutely the last resort. Yep, she really sold it to me. As she spoke I kind of knew that I was going to cave in & do this thing.

When Sally picked me up she was already most appreciative. The kids looked excited. Charlie was in his Sea Scouts uniform, the flipping Sea Scouts…in Birmingham, as far from the coast as it is possible to be in the UK. The 2 youngest looked at me with admiration, understanding the lengths I was prepared to go to make an absolute idiot of myself. Danni was here with her Brownie friends, George was, I think, just along for the craic. The local Round Table, a charitable association of businessmen had arranged this convocation of children’s groups to tour a neighbourhood & make a collection. At the heart of the procession, the star of the show, was Santa/Father Christmas. That would be me then. In a pub car park I was given the scarlet uniform & a cotton-wool beard. Did I need extra padding ? What was my motivation ? Sally Sims is a formidable woman, someone not to be crossed. She would owe me big time if I carried this off. That’s enough.

I was shown to my “sleigh”, a hastily converted old milk float. There was no red-nosed reindeer guide but there was a Rein-ge Rover (thank you & sorry). I had been given a microphone & an outsize bag of confectionery to distribute to the local cherubs. Now I do not consider myself to be the type who seeks to make a loud public display. I do place some value on subtlety & volume control. No one wants a self-effacing, reticent Santa do they ? As we approached the suburban residential streets I resolved that I had better be good for goodness sake & here’s Ho-Ho-Hoping that it would not be a Christmas calamity.

It went really well, I was great. First the curtains twitched & old people returned Santa’s wave. Cool…gimme that microphone. I want to wish those codgers a Merry Chrimbo ! The children came piling out to meet & greet the custodian of…you get me. I needed some method for this mayhem & I needed it quickly before I was torn apart by a frenzied rabble fighting to get to my sweets. So, what would the real Santa do ? He would ask them what they wanted for Xmas & whether they had been good children this year. It absolutely worked. The kids all answered, some, sweetly, did not mind, others were more specific, wanting particular toys. One of them, when asked what he wanted, replied “Everything !”. Greedy little tyke. I promised that I would do my best & that seemed to be enough. They all claimed that they had been good this year, while some were obviously lying, I took my interrogation no further. Not a single one told me that my suit was shit & my beard worse so how good was that ?

My sleigh had a cassette player &  a tape of seasonal pop hits. I am no great fan of the Xmas song & “Now That’s What I Call An Uncool Yule” was not the best selection. Still we were taking it to & shaking it in the streets with a rocking Santa singalong. I do like “A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector” despite its creator’s fall from grace. However when “Another Rock & Roll Christmas” by the convicted molester Gary Glitter came around I’m afraid a line had been crossed, young ears needed protection & just where was the fast forward button on this thing ? “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” , the unrealistic claim by a former Beatle & his wife, was a sitting duck for this too confident, improvising, ironic Santa. I congratulated all those within earshot of my amplified voice on ending all conflict. I hoped their New Year would be a “good one, without any fear”. I was doing a good thing here, I knew I could get away with it.

All too soon the sweets had nearly gone. There was one last dash for cash in a local pub & we were back on the main road. My job was done here. Peace & goodwill had been spread to all in this part of North Birmingham. Danni & her friend had hitched a lift on my sleigh. I handed over the microphone & they wailed a selection of Robbie Williams songs to the passing traffic. Who put the merry into Xmas ? That would be us then.

Photos were taken in the car park. I suppose that I would have to take this beard & suit off at some time but I really did like being Santa. There was still time to get off home, stick some powder up my nose & head off in search of too much alcohol. I was having too much fun with these 3 lovely children & their Mum, who had offered to feed me back at theirs. Besides, Dad would finish work soon & we could all tell him our new story. These kids are now fine young adults. I am so glad that we were able to have times like this one & a lot of others too when it was all about as much enjoyment & laughter as possible. Hey, the day I got to be Santa…strange but true.

Ian Levine: The Northern Soul Men.

Ian Levine has extensive music credentials. His D.J. residency at the Blackpool Mecca, a Northern Soul temple in the Seventies, involved musical archeology & devotion to excavate the rare, forgotten grooves which became dancers’ favourites a decade after they were recorded. His Eighties productions, pioneering Euro Hi-NRG, was, in my opinion, dance music which was a little short on the funk but he had hit records. He seems to be obsessive about most things. He contacted 600 of his mother’s relatives for the biggest family reunion ever before re-assembling  an entire 1960s class from his school. A double nightmare…really ! His fascination with the music though has been of benefit to us all. Well, to me anyway.

So, this is what Billy Butler looks like. I included a track of his in the Okeh records post. In the 1960s a soul artist  had to crossover to the pop charts before any TV station would point a camera at them. The collection of video clips in my computer is an enchanting & addictive thing but the odds on finding those R&B legends-to-be are pretty long. And here is Billy flipping Butler singing the dancetastic “The Right Track”, July 1966, Okeh 7245, #24 on the R&B charts. I know this stuff & I don’t consider myself a Northern Soul geek though I know some men (it is a guy thing) who are. Billy kept on keeping on recording until 1983. There is a solo LP from 1976 on Curtis’s Curtom label which must be worth a listen but his day job was playing in big brother Jerry’s band.

In 1987 Levine began a small collection of former Motown  artists, recording new sessions with these seasoned performers. By the mid-80s this Motorcity project (folly…in the best, most respectful sense) had 108 acts, over 850 songs ! He then moved on to producing & directing “The Strange World of Northern Soul”, a documentary, an anthology, which, once he got started was difficult to stop & became 12 hours of footage with 131 performances. Ian Levine’s You Tube channel is a treasure trove of some familiar, mostly not, faces performing their re-recordings of soul songs which you may have heard but there is a great deal of “where did all this great stuff come from ?” going on.

“If You Ask Me (Because I Love You)” by Jerry Williams, the Swamp Dogg. 1966 again, the first 45 after Jerry dropped the “Little” in the front of his name. Now the Doggfather is a soul legend. He quit his job as the first African-American producer at Atlantic Records just as the Acid kicked in. The psychedelic tinged soul of “Total Destruction To Your Mind”, his solo LP, was matched by the inventiveness of recordings he made with Irma Thomas & Z.Z. Hill among others. Mr Dogg’s brand of Southern Soul was not a grand commercial success but now, at 40 years’ distance, it retains a distinct individuality which makes you go Hmmm. His (deliberately ?) absurd LP covers are classics too. “Rat On !” wins awards but “Surfin’ In Harlem” is a cool one.

Mr Swamp kept hold of his publishing & his masters & he now directs his own small music empire If anybody wants to sample his music (& that would be nothing but a smart move) then they have to show him the money. If labels show interest licensing his tracks he can do a quick deal to re-release a couple of albums. It’s all worth checking out, music like this does not get made anymore. Jerry Williams has more stories than the Burj Khalifa, hilarious & salacious. It is the music that he is about & this 1998 re-recording of a Northern Soul classic is a joy.

Here’s a tune that became more than a floor-filler at the Blackpool Mecca where a teenage Ian Levine was the only DJ to champion “Love On A Mountain Top” by Robert Knight. Robert’s first record, the dramatic “Everlasting Love”, was a Top 20 US hit. In the UK he was gazumped by Love Affair, a teen band later nicked for not playing on their records, who had the #1 smash with an inferior blue-eyed copy. Soul, Northern or otherwise, never went away in Britain. Artists considered one-hit wonders in the US like Edwin Starr & Jimmy Ruffin, moved here because we knew ALL their songs. You did not have to be pilled-up all night at the Casino, the Mecca or the Twisted Wheel to be on this music. Dancers were swinging their Oxford Bags to Motown & Philly in youth clubs & pubs all over. So, around Xmas 40 years ago “Love..” was a big UK hit. This lovely clip of Robert is a fine tribute to a man with a very sweet voice. Here is a grainy version from 1973 with an impressive afro & a suit that is louder than the music.

I cannot give enough props to Ian Levine for his labour of love. Really, I have been spoiled for choice in finding just 3 clips for this. There are Motown memories, Stax stalwarts, Chicago choristers…just get to his Y-tube channel or buy the DVDs for some serious, properly curated, soul history. next time around & soon it’s the distaff side of soul. I can’t wait.

Back For The Weekend (Wreckless Eric/Len Bright Combo)

My musical weekend began on Thursday evening with a rip-roaring session on BBC 6Music by the Len Bright Combo. The band were using their stint for Marc Riley, off of the Fall, as a rehearsal for their one-off comeback gig the following night at the Lexington on the Pentonville Road. You know it, the nice looking pub just up the road from the Angel. The iPlayer & the “listen again” facility offered by the Beeb is undoubtedly a useful tool. For an organization which is paid for by my & my fellow countrypersons’ hard-earned, the prevailing vainglory while offering Internet services seemingly aimed at 14 year olds is less engaging. Praise Parabrahman then for Fire Records who have allowed us to enjoy the full 90 minute gig on the Y-tube. (We’re Crosby, Stills & Nash…You’re not fucking Young !”…great heckle)

“Selina Through The Windshield” is not, according to those who were paying attention to the Combo on their first time around, the best of LBC’s recorded output. Now these same sources, having had 26  years to reconsider & this scorching new version to savour, are using phrases like “glorious racket” (isn’t that one of mine ?) & “thrilling pure sound”. By Jove, he’s got it ! These noisy men made 2 LPs. The debut has been described as being  “soaked in reverb, sounding like a cross between The Kinks, the Velvets, early Who and Joe Meek’s wildest productions”. If that don’t get your motor running then thanks for dropping by & get on back to downloading that Lorde stuff.

The guitarist Wreckless Eric, for it is he, had seen his contemporaries,Nick Lowe, Costello, Graham Parker & others, find a way to make the music pay. Eric Goulden’s approach was admirably lo-fi but he was not helped by having that most awkward of drinking dilemmas, two hands & only one mouth. In 1984 there was no record deal with little idea or inclination to push it along. A move to Chatham in Kent brought contact with a scene which shared the DIY ethic & a love of 60s garage bands. Joined by two-thirds of the admirable Milkshakes, drummer Bruce Brand, bassist Russ Wilkins, the Len Bright Combo recorded the first LP in 2 days for just £86 ($141). They may have played a church hall or a pub near you & you never knew it. Eric was enjoying being in a band, making loud music but there was never any plan to any of it. One time there were Belgian TV cameras pointed at the Combo while they played.

Fire Records have re-released the 2 LPs this month. It is the reason for this fantastic gig & it is an opportunity to hear records which gracefully & naturally capture a sound that others spend much time & money hoping to do similar. I can do no better than Allmusic’s review of the first LP, ” Experience it in person, however, cranked up loud with your mind’s eye wide open, and it’s records like this that make music worth hearing. And nothing else will sound so great for days”. Yeah Man !

For the next decade Eric became a rock & roll gypsy, different bands on different labels. He lived in France, wrote a book, the guy who wrote “Whole Wide World”. Since 2006 he has recorded 3 lovely LPs with his lovelier wife, the talented singer-songwriter Amy Rigby. 2012’s “A Working Museum” is bright, funny, playful & packed with great tunes. “Days Of Jack & Jill”, Eric’s reminiscence about his grandparents’  shop, his childhood visits in a pre-Beatles world is the third from the record to make this blog. It’s a winner.

At sometime in the future a musical archaeologist will dig up all of Eric’s music (almost 40 years already). She will brush off the dust, place it in order & context. Historians will be mystified how such a quality body of work could be produced in almost complete anonymity, neatly side-stepping any hint of success. I asked a man with a mission to spread the word which of Eric’s past work he would recommend. So, “The Donovan Of Trash”, “Bungalow Hi” & “12 O’Clock Stereo” ? No me neither. If there is not enough time in your days for such tomb raiding then the 3 LPs by Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby are 21st century essentials So, what is this, a staring contest ?

Eric & Amy have quite an e-footprint, their blogs & F-book pages being as low key, funny & interesting as their music. I really do hope that there will be more music to come from them. While Eric is in the UK he is also playing a few solo gigs. One of these, on Thursday, is in the hometown of my correspondent/adviser/fanatic. Here is Eric’s cracking cover of “Sweet Jane” that my friend released on his own label but it is his fanboy’s escalating excitement which is going to require medication if he does not calm down in the next 48 hours. He’s going to have a great night.

And They’ve Been Working All Day, All Day, All Day! (Cat Stevens)

In 1966 17 year old Steven Georgiou had got it going on. He had a new name, Cat Stevens & he had a new wardrobe too. The Carnaby Street boutiques were just a short stroll up Regent Street from his family’s Soho restaurant. The current thing was the Edwardian Dandy look, velvet suits, ruffed shirts. Young “Cat” had a few of those. He was also recording his first LP, all his own songs with a little help from heavyweight friends Leon Russell & Kim Fowley.

“Matthew & Son” was in a UK chart Top 3 along with “I’m A Believer” & “Let’s Spend The Night Together”. England was swinging like a pendulum do & Cat Stevens was smack dab in the middle of this whole new thing. The Beatles & the Stones had grown up with Rock & Roll  & the Blues respectively. Those musicians who were part of the great creative rush of the British Beat Explosion had been born in the Second World War, Cat was the first of the post-war Baby Boomers, the Beatles fans, to make the scene. For him it was no big deal that he was a singer who wrote his own songs or that those songs drew from Dylan, the musicals in the theatres  next door or anything else that took his fancy. Pop Art had been around as a theory & a movement for 10 years. By 1966 these young Brits were making Pop Art up as they went along.

Cat’s music sounded new, fresh & bright on the new. fresh…you get me… pirate radio stations. His mentor & producer was Mike Hurst, one third of the hit folk trio the Springfields (alongside the wondrous Dusty). Hurst had a hook up with Decca to launch a new “progressive” label Deram. His flamboyant, biff-bang-pow productions were of the moment. There could be a touch of novelty rather than innovation about them but hey, it was Pure Pop, the young me was impressed & liked to hear them.

The first Cat Stevens LP, also called “Matthew & Son”, is full of folk-rock melodies boosted by imaginative instrumentation & arrangement. It is, more than many of its contemporaries, in the orbit of “Rubber Soul”. I know, I’m not claiming that it is of the same quality but it is from a time when British pop music was let loose in the toyshop, when it was Mod, flash & fun. It is a gem & announces a new talent.

Cat had a lot of songs & Hurst kept him busy in the studio. A second LP was released just 9 months later in December 1967, a post-Sergeant Pepper music world now. The cover of “New Masters” registers that things have become a little more serious, the teenage singer going for gravitas but looking solemn. He’s a pop singer for flip’s sake. “The First Cut Is The Deepest”, a pop-soul classic, is still around today. This live clip, Cat with a band & happy doing what he’s doing, obviously rocking his new furry coat, captures him at his best in this early stage of his career.

Things were happening too quickly. The quirky singles were not on the LP. There was a split between Cat & Hurst as the singer wanted more control & less whistles & bells. The label & the lawyers had too much say in what went where on the record & it was not a success.

Blimey ! Where is the fresh-faced young man from earlier in the year ? As a solo singer, a rare thing at a time when it was all about the groups, Cat often seemed awkward & adventitious selling his big, busy, beaty balladry on a conveyor belt of unsympathetic European TV programmes. Stood standing by himself, lip-synching, what can a poor boy do ? A young man’s first attempt at facial hair is never a good look & Cat just seems tired. He was not living healthily, he needed to keep those hits coming & he was getting ill.

I used the money from my paper round to buy my copy of “A Bad Night”. I played it as much as you do when you only have a small stack of vinyl. The grooves are packed, the tune a little lost but I really did like a bit of polished baroque pop back then. I knew that these everything & the kitchen sink productions could be, in the wrong hands, a hard way to go. From the sappy children’s chorus of “Excerpt From A Teenage Opera” to the crappy melodrama of “Bat Out Of Hell” culminating in the counterfeit classicism of “Bohemian Rhapsody” bombast & superfluity produced some strictly ersatz music. But OK, I reckon that Mike Hurst & Cat Stevens fall on the right side of imaginative here & I still like “A Bad Night”

There was no more music from Cat Stevens for 3 years. He contracted tuberculosis & needed a long period of convalescence. When he did return everything was new. There were a bunch of new songs for a new label. He was a man now, a serious singer-songwriter riding  the acoustic swell which was becoming an international thing. His facial hair was convincing this time around too. That young Mod singer had been replaced. It was the first of Cat’s musical lives & there were to be more in the future. I liked some of his new music, certainly admired the principles he has adhered to in later years. I liked the cocky young teenager & his new pop songs too. We were so much older then…you get me ?