Its Anyone’s Guess How I Got Here (Sleaford Mods)

The Sleaford Mods are releasing some new music this week. 2013’s “Austerity Dogs” made a big impression, possibly the biggest of any of last year’s records. A collection of snarling, choleric slices of life in the bus lane, an emphatic voice from my side of town. The underclass created by Thatcherite scorched-earth  industrial policies have been around for a generation now. We are expendable, an embarrassment, abandoned by Blair’s New Labour who pursued the votes of the aspirant & the affluent. Now we are, apparently, to blame for all that money being too tight to mention hoo-ha. Capitalism’s safety valve, social mobility, has been shown to be a terminological inexactitude. The ladder has been pulled up &  the safety net of the Welfare State is being dismantled. Times are tough. When I listen to the Sleaford Mods I hear a voice that is not often heard…& about fucking time.

The Mods are from Nottingham (Nottz), the legatees of  a fine tradition of Social Realism. Alan Sillitoe’s novels captured young working-class heroes as the fifties became the sixties. The films of Shane Meadows collar the towns that time forgot, youth who are not sure what they want, less sure how to get it. The Sleaford Mods roll with the same lack of compromise, hitting their targets just as accurately. Round here they say what they like & they like what they say. Protest songs, remember them ?

“Tied Up In Nottz” is the first video from the new record “Divide & Exit”. “People’s poetry on public transport.” (Thank you Danny McCahon).

Jason Williamson does the rhymes, Andrew Fearn creates the beats. The pair are obviously not on a gap year before returning to education. Man, those hapless hipster Hugos have almost killed British music. These two have been around a little longer, have more to say for themselves. When you have done your time on the production line of the local chicken factory. (2 shifts, 2 months, 2 years, everyone has their limit). When the Jobcentre has got you jumping through hoops but you are biting it because one wrong word  your benefits are stopped & the bureaucracy becomes a proper mindfuck, then you have stories to tell, things that need saying. Your sense of self, of your place in the world needs a little more nourishment than that provided by the crumbs from the tables of the bosses & the politicians. The Sleaford Mods are a masculine voice that knows life in low-income England is a bitch, ain’t no mistaking it, just don’t expect them to be happy about it.

In post-industrial Britain the manufacturing industries, offering jobs for life, have disappeared, supplanted by zero-hour contract, minimum wage McJobs. If you are unlucky enough to be unemployed, sick or disabled then watch your back. The Tory government only needs the slightest excuse to set its pitbulls on to you. Their running dog lackeys in the media produce “poverty porn”, an exploitation & demonization of  that part of society denied access to the only thing that matters…money. “Skint”, a tawdry low in sub-standard TV, was filmed just a mile away from my home. I could be a tour guide on a “squalor safari”. Cheap holidays in other people’s misery. I could…I won’t.

The Sleaford Mods testify about life on these estates, cheap booze from the corner shop, “the bus stop’s a youth club”, steroidal skunk grown in somebody’s spare bedroom. Cocaine (chisel) stepped on so hard that it has only the vaguest memory of  having ever been in Colombia. Whatever the intoxication you choose, it maybe doesn’t always make a bad situation better. (Huh ! Get me !). “Whad’ya think I’m gonna sing abaht…my endless love ? Fucking freak” (Armitage Shanks). When he gets it right, as in “Some Of These Plants Are Burnt “, it’s a rough diamond low-life vignette of the illegal, drug-driven, black economy. “I could mek a small fortune selling the crap on these scissors”…funny… I’ve heard that said.

Both Jason & Alan have served their time in music. They have been in bands, released their tunes under other names. They are now ready to do it right & show little patience, even mercy, for musicians they consider to be time-wasters or bullshitters. “You are not obsessed with music you are obsessed with the idea of being…” you get him. Sleaford Mods are not always sniping from the gutter, there are plenty of sharp observations about popular culture, fashion, haircuts, all that nonsense. Stuff I hear on a Saturday night when we get together for “Match of the Day” except without the New World Order paranoia.

That’s a lot of politics. I don’t want to ignore the quality of the music. “Jobseeker” is included here over some very good alternatives not just because of a brilliant lyric. I’m on double secret probation at my office for saying much the same thing Williamson does here. The  cracking sample of the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love” riff  drives the song along. Alan’s bass-heavy stripped down beats lay a foundation for the words & allows them to be heard. The music bloke does more than press “start” on the laptop, nod along & suck on his e-cig. Vaping…it’s a thing round here…on the bus, in cinemas & pubs, places where smoking is banned…funny.

The last guy to chat this sort of sense was 10 years ago, from the East Midlands too. The acceptable (to me), mucky face of British rap, MC Pitman from the Leicestershire coalfields, sneering about fat cat wankers, celebrity culture & biscuits. The People’s Poet Laureate, John Cooper Clarke, spits his acerbic, hilarious rhymes with an outsider’s perspective. Jason Williamson is more serious & more angry than both of these men. His snapshots of the moral impoverishment which accompanies economic distress are unadorned reminders that capitalism’s casualties do think about this shit & that sometimes, just sometimes it is only right that this voice is heard. The Sleaford Mods are doing a great job for British hip-hop &, I think, are the best band around. They make me jump about like punk rock is supposed to do. OK, back to it, those plants won’t water themselves.

 

That Girl Could Sing (USA 1967)

I was checking for solo female singers of the 1960s. Over here in the UK we still love the topnotch ternion, Dusty (the greatest), Cilla (uncool now, impeccable Beatle cred then) & Sandie (hooray !). There are other contenders, Lulu, Pet, Marianne. Francoise Hardy was as cool as & still is. In the New World it is the soul sisters who carry the swing, Aretha, Dionne, Diana & plenty more. Beat groups & pretty boy teen idols were the current thing, women pop stars were scarce. Brenda Lee was of the generation before the Sixties swung, at the end of the decade poor Janis was just getting going & then she was gone. In between there was Nancy Sinatra, Cher & … ? I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect & you knew that. Here are 3 talented women who were making the scene in 1967.

Jackie DeShannon, as you can see, was blimmin’ gorgeous. A real swinging chick. Jackie has quite a story to tell. She was very young when she entered the business of show & her path crossed many interesting & talented people.Before her support gig on the first Beatles tour of the US in 1964 she had already been recording for 8 years under various tags with little success. In that British Invasion year another Liverpool link put her name in the frame when the Searchers hit big with a cover of her single “Needles & Pins”, a song written by Sonny Bono & Jack Nitzsche. The same combo turned Jackie’s own song, the pop-folk “When You Walk In The Room” into a folk rock prototype. In 1965 she picked up a Bacharach & David written hit with “What The World Needs Now Is Love”. By this time Jackie was only in Swinging London, only writing songs (& having a thing) with only Jimmy Page.

Here in 1967 Jackie is cool & classy, lip-synching to 2 often covered R&B classics, James Ray’s “If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody” & Tommy Edwards’ “It’s All In The Game”. Songs that she has co-written have been recorded by so many varied artists. She wrote many tunes with the talented Sharon Sheeley, the girlfriend of Eddie Cochran. “Put A Little Love In Your Heart” put her back in the Top 10. There’s one with Van Morrison & there is “Bette Davis’ Eyes”. If there was a Songwriters’ Hall of Fame then Jackie DeShannon would be in it. Oh, there is & she is !

In 1967 Bobbie Gentry’s debut LP knocked “Sgt Pepper’s…” from the top of the US LP charts. 23 year old Bobbie wrote 9 of the record’s 10 tracks & the distinctive “Ode To Billie Joe”  became a world wide hit. “Ode…” is a finely detailed song, a dark tale of suicide & mysterious things thrown from bridges combined with a loping, swampy Mississippi rhythm. It’s sophisticated for a pop song & while Ms Gentry was no Flannery O’Connor, her Southern Gothic-lite narrative made her quite the big deal. Here she is performing “Niki Hoeky”, a song by the great country-soul maverick Jim Ford, on prime time TV. The choreography is a little Hmmm but Bobbie looks comfortable with it & midrifftastic.

Y’know, a barefoot Mississippi minstrel, T-shirt & jeans, an acoustic guitar, that young woman on the 1st LP cover, could have been just what the music world needed in 1967. In a couple of years Joni Mitchell & Carole King were superstar singer-songwriters…a new thing. By then Bobbie’s music had got a little more country, her hair a little higher. She moved to the middle of the road with an LP of duets with Glen Campbell. In 1970 she had a #1 hit in the UK with that sure-fire winner for a woman singer, a Bacharach & David original, “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again”. Bobbie was an international star, she had her own show in Las Vegas but less commercial success. In 1972 the Tallahatchie Bridge, off of the song, collapsed, Gentry had released 4 LPs in the previous year but there would be no more after these. She was now picking her gigs & eventually walked away from the business. In popular culture everything comes round again, gets a rewind & a revival, Bobbie Gentry’s work could certainly stand it but she was not that bothered…that’s cool.

Over on the West Coast, if you were going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. For 3 days in June the Monterey Pop Festival showcased the new Californian musical aristocracy while introducing Otis Redding & Jimi Hendrix to the “love crowd”. New female stars like Grace Slick with Jefferson Airplane & Janis Joplin with Big Brother & the Holding Company were front of stage taking the spotlight from their fellow male band members. The festival marked only the second major performance by a 19 year old singer-songwriter who was strictly East Coast. Laura Nyro’s melting pot roots reflected those of her New York birthplace. Her musical influences were of a similarly wide range. She regarded her Monterey appearance to be a disaster. Whether any booing was real or imagined Laura was affected by the occasion. There is certainly a callow fragility about  this rather amazing rendition of  “Poverty Train” but there is a whole lot of other shaking going on. Jazz, blues, gospel, soul, folk were all there, it sounded like music for the future.

It became a thing to take Laura’s songs, smooth off the spiky edges & make hit records out of them. There were 4 hits, 3 in the Top 10, from the debut record, “More Than A New Discovery”. The following record provided 3 more. Laura Nyro was a songwriting prodigy, a new Jimmy Webb. The 5th Dimension, a classy harmony group, loved to make these songs a little more radio-friendly. “Wedding Bell Blues”, “Stoned Soul Picnic”, you know those…lovely. There was a record a year until 1971, 4 LPs of personal, passionate, adventurous compositions. “Eli & the 13th Confession” & “New York Tendaberry” need to be heard. It’s the sound made by a young intelligent woman who spent a long time listening to the best music of the 20th century then, with the fine sense of the free-spirited 1960s, was able to synthesize her own  individual style.I found her music to be much more interesting than the folk singers who were coming up after Joni. Laura Nyro seemed to me like a young Nina Simone. That is high praise, here’s more from Todd Rundgren’s wonderful “Runt” LP.

After such an abundant spell her next record was a tribute to the girl-group sounds that she had grown up with in New York. “Gonna Take A Miracle” was made with Labelle. It’s more traditional than her other LPs but the songs are covered with love & respect & it really is a lovely thing. There was though still no major commercial breakthrough. Laura Nyro got married & took 5 years away from recording. The years when she had been so innovative & prolific were over. She unfortunately suffered an untimely death in 1997 when, at just 49, she contracted ovarian cancer.

These 3 very capable women provide just a snapshot into the American music scene in 1967. Jackie DeShannon, already established, had a long & successful songwriting career. The other 2, beginning their passage & experiencing initial acceptance, were both unable to find a position in the business where they felt comfortable. They both walked away at a time when there was still potential for creative development. Now I’m not the guy to expound a theory about sexual objectification, discrimination & stereotyping in a male dominated music industry. I am the guy who would have liked to have heard Bobbie Gentry go back to her Delta roots & to hear Laura Nyro’s music mature as she did…and I can be particular about what I listen to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Go Dancing Into The Fray (Liam McKahey and the Bodies)

Earlier this month, on April 10th, a crowd funding campaign was launched by our friends Liam McKahey & the Bodies. The band have recorded 10 new tracks & are hoping to attract the patronage of the world’s music lovers to get the album produced, overdubbed & mixed. They were initially hoping to raise A$7,000, that’s US$6600, €4750 & , in real money, £3900. The campaign met this target just like that. There are people all over the world who have a connection with Liam’s music &  are eager to hear some more but it was always plain that finishing this new record, “Black Vinyl Heart”  properly would need more than this initial contribution.

At the time of writing almost A$12,000 has been pledged. I know that the Bodies are excited & affected by such generous support. There is mastering, artwork, printing & pressing of CDs & vinyl, then distribution to be considered & paid for. Just another A$3,000 & this killer LP can be finished just right.The group are using Pozible, the Australian platform for creative projects. There are incentives to pledge from T-shirts to the whole Bodies crew coming round your house & giving your street something to remember. The world will be a better place when this album is released. All the details, a video & a musical taster, can be found at

http://www.pozible.com/project/180154

 I have written about the band here & there. Say something twice, why say it again. So, loosehandlebars is pleased to hand over to our new international correspondent Gigi Mac from Maryland in the US of A. Gigi’s money is absolutely on McKahey’s Mob coming up with the goods. After some music, some very good music, she is going to tell us why.

  To say I have eclectic musical tastes would be an understatement.  Coming from a large musical family, with culturally & ethnically diverse members & friends, my philosophy ever since I was a kid has been:  if it sounds good, stick with it. Many years & countless genres later, I think around 2000 or so, I had the privilege of running into a little ditty by a band unknown to me at the time — Cousteau — called “Jump in the River”.  It was so lush, so arresting, so moody, I had to hear more, and figure out who was singing all this loveliness.  Granted, I’ve always adored gypsy rumba & flamenco music, so at the time of their discovery, I wasn’t into digging deeper for this stuff—maybe because I knew it would completely take over… I liked it where I kept it– it was like my little secret, my retreat.  If I felt particularly dark or destructive, I would fall into it — this voice, especially– and something about it would ‘fix’ me.

Fast forward to around 2011 or so. Cousteau having been broken up for a while, and I, during a particularly bored Google search, wonder what had happened to this band… I was content enough to have what I considered the most exquisite collection of songs I’d ever hear in my collection… that baritone, going as deep as it wants to, or up in an incredibly vulnerable falsetto, the thoughtful poetry set to poignant melodies…  Could there be more? Then I find Liam McKahey and the Bodies.  A new sound, new vibe, new brilliance—“beautiful songs of love, loss, opiates, trains and outlaws…”  Liam on his own on this ‘Lonely Road’.  This time he really gets to shine as a writer as well as a performer – bold step, but I got a feeling it was long overdue.
 
What perplexes the idealist in me most of the time is why more people aren’t stampeding over each other to hear him & his band!  I suppose in a world of quick money making hacks, capitalizing on posturing and being a brand, instead of actual music, to an equally vapid audience, talent– real talent, recognized by a smaller segment of individuals with extraordinary taste, will always thrive, if only humbly; one may not have 10 Bentleys in one’s garage, but maybe a well-maintained Triumph motorcycle will do nicely 😉
 
 So now we, the privileged few, have a chance to partake once again in a new effort by Liam McKahey & the Bodies — ‘Black Vinyl Heart’… I contend that they are still too far away from us up on the Northern Hemisphere, and I am daily very jealous of the Aussies, as I pretend to hunt for cheap Qantas flights… nevertheless, the band as it is has really had a chance to gel and achieve a nice cohesion. They’ve shared stages with others and are falling into place in the growing music scene in Canberra, which I understand was previously almost nonexistent.  Every time I hear a smidgen of what will be released I bristle with excitement! almost like sympathetic nervous butterflies lol I am particularly ready to go on this continuing musical journey with the ever clone-worthy Mr. McKahey!
 

Absolutely ! It’s my own fault. I asked Gigi for a contribution but did she have to be that good ? We hope that she will stick around & share her other passions with us but we are all going to have to raise our game. OK… Liam McKahey & the Bodies need assistance & just a little bit of your money. Later in the year, when you have their shiny new music in your life you will be able to say that you helped to make it so. One last time, to do the right thing go to...http://www.pozible.com/project/180154

 

A Long Good Easter (The Gatefolds and Jim C)

Oh yes, our favourite psyche-pop noise garagists, the Gatefolds, are back. They played their first gig for a while over Easter. The Derry quartet were again part of “The Long Good Friday”, a get-together at local joint Sandino’s on…erm, Good Friday. I had been promised new songs by the band & here is that very thing. “Opentight” shows that rehearsal time at Woodbrook Studios (OK…in drummer Sean’s garage) has been well spent. There are 4 new clips on the Y-tube from the Gatefolds’ set which highlight the solid & sweaty rhythm section alongside a little more contrast, chiaroscuro (come on !) in the guitar interplay of Jason & Fergal. I am loving it.

Now I am over 250 miles away from Sandino’s. It is thanks to the archivist of the Derry music scene, Jim Cunningham, that I am able to see & hear my friends. Jim’s pursuit of what is obviously his passion means that he was getting busy with both his regular & video cameras. I know that a fine Bank Holiday crowd showed out for the gig because there is an album of a gang of shiny happy people enjoying the first day of a long weekend. I also know that the calls for an encore were loudest from Gayle, Foldette #1, who is lucky enough to be the partner of bassist Joe Brown. Nothing escapes the discerning eye of Mr Cunningham.

The other new song is “Smoking Pockets”, the set’s closer but, as the head honcho around here, I get to decide that we will get back to that one. It’s a considered opinion because “Volts & Watts” has come on a treat since I last heard it played. It’s a tune that people say good things about & now it is proper rocking, a grab-your-attention opener which has gotten tighter with time spent on it without becoming too smooth.  I understand the guys are hoping to produce a DIY single this year. I’ve been down to my local bookies (Paddy Power, of course) & put a few shillings on “Volts & Watts” being featured on this anticipated artifact. One day I will get it together & be stood next to Jim while he films.

It was a crowded musical weekend in Derry. The next day, Saturday, was World Record Store Day & my new friend Kevin Magee, a man of discernment, proprietor of the optimistically named Cool Discs (we will be the judge of that Kevin) was peddling his packets of Class A vinyl. There was live music playing & fun for all the family. Maybe every Saturday should be a record store day. In the evening Kevin promoted a concert in Derry’s Guildhall, a rather grand Victorian building which has had its share of history inflicted upon it over the years. Of course Jim was there to record the occasion. This is the Woodburning Savages, in front of the magnificent pipe organ, with “Living Hell”. As Mr Magee would say, “Lethal !”

That looks like a great night. Those British City Halls, expressions of municipal grandeur & civic pride, were around before rock & roll was invented & now provide a classy setting for any band. How about those Woodburning Savages…cooking with gas !

There was more to come in a packed musical weekend. On Easter Monday Jim used his season ticket at Sandinos to document Conor McAteer’s gig. He probably made some moving pictures too, give the man a break, he’s been busy. There are now over 200 videos on Jim Cunningham’s Y-tube channel. You are all capable of finding your own way there but you can also click this. Jim has produced a serious video & photographic archive of the contemporary Derry music scene. Someone should get hold of it, make it nice & put it in a safe place because it is a repository of fine memories for a generation of Derry people.

I have just found out that today is, in fact, Jim’s birthday. So have a great day Jim & know that that thing you do is appreciated by musicians & audiences alike. Nice work fella… keep on keeping on.

 

Hold Them Marcus Hold Them (Burning Spear)

Who feels it, knows it…Indeed.

Burning Spear came to us as part of the roots reggae abundance after Bob Marley & the Wailers had trailblazed for the Rasta rhythms. Marley’s “Live !” was the gift to give or to get for Xmas 1975. Before Bob the only reggae LPs you were likely to find in your friends’ collections were some of the 8 “Tighten Up” compilations from Trojan or “1000 volts of (John) Holt” a sweet & dandy reggaefiction of the middle of the road. Island Records, with a Jamaican owner, had a head start &  some fine artists. Virgin went over there &, seemingly, signed up everyone else. . Their “Front Line” sampler, just 69p ($1.15), included classics by the likes of U Roy & Johnny Clarke. New LPs by Max Romeo (“War In A Babylon”) & Burning Spear had such a unity (inity…anyone ?) of musical confidence & lyrical commitment that you could not help but know that something interesting was happening in Jamaica.

Reggae had never been reticent about idiosyncratic expedition but Spear’s album “Marcus Garvey” had a distinctive, special  otherness. The cream of the island’s players made their way to Jack Ruby’s place at Ocho Rios, the only studio outside of Kingston. Not a journey or a note was wasted. The music had an earthiness but it was not  simple or unsophisticated it was passionate. It was double pastoral, of the pasture & the pastor. A relentless logic in the rhythms, an assertive spiritual urgency in the lyrics. The closest to Africa of these new sounds. Boy, “Marcus Garvey” was irresistible. When Winston Rodney sang “Give me what is mine” it was time to hand it over.

The LP captured our heads, hearts & hips & then, just 4 months later, “Garvey’s Ghost” was released. Dub Reggae was no “what’s it doing & what does it want ?” alien strain of music. We knew about this stuff, knew that when reggae stretched out it was about the drum & the bass. There had been dub records in the Top 10…Skanga ! In 1976 “Garvey’s Ghost” & “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown” brought the dub from the blues party down the road  into your living room where it has remained a welcome guest. I know the record was mixed in the concrete jungle of Hammersmith, a suburb of Babylon. I know that there is dispute & divergence about who did what to the final release mixes of both “Marcus Garvey” and its dub “Ghost”. All we had was what was on the vinyl. The shadow versions sounded more than fine as a stand alone record but the reference points of the original record made this rhythmic recycling a delight. I spent too much time in need of a third hand trying to drop the needle on the record & press “play” on the cassette machine aiming for the perfect tape mix of these tunes.

This burst of Rasta reggae did get heard. The next 2 summers were soundtracked by Bob Marley’s “Rastaman Vibration” & “Exodus”. Don Letts, DJ at the Roxy club started a punky reggae party, a braid of anti-establishment, militant musics which spread around UK punk hangouts. Black American music had almost given up on the Funk, hitching its wagon to the shiny, smooth dance-yourself-dizzy Disco Train. The lovely, liquid, stoned chug of Dreadlock Reggae convergent with militant, conscious, sectarian lyrics triumphed on twin fronts, sustaining a tradition of great floor-filling tunes which were talking loud & saying something.

Burning Spear seemed to be part of  the tradition of Jamaican vocal trios. The music made by Curtis Mayfield with the Impressions, soulful, spiritual harmonies were very influential on the islands singers. Spear, Culture, the Mighty Diamonds & others were coming up to join a long distinguished list topped by the Heptones, the Wailers & the Maytals. “Marcus Garvey” & the next release “Man In The Hills” credited the harmony vocals of Delroy Hinds & Rupert Willington though it was the rich, fervent lead of Winston Rodney which made the songs distinct & impressive. Winston Rodney became Burning Spear and he still is. His next LPs featured his righteous hymns to Rastafari, direct truths concerning both joy & oppression which I would love to squeeze in here but hey, we have not got all day…soon come.

Just as listening to & appreciating the militant funk from black American musicians did not make you a Black Panther a fathoming of this music needed no homage to His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, conquring Lion of the tribe of Judah. This was never a matter of cultural tourism. If you lived in a British city at this time then you heard this music in clubs, at friends’ houses, from the open windows of passing cars. Among your friends, those children of immigrants, the first generation of Black Britons, all considered the relevance of Rasta to their experience of growing up in a racist society. My workmate Horace, who previously sported a Jackson 5 ‘fro, showed up with baby dreads one Monday…yeah man ! White guys with locks ? I spit in their general direction, follow fashion monkey losers ! Burning Spear was in the vanguard of conscious, eloquent, purposeful music which was given a fair hearing becuse those qualities, combined with cool, deadly dance rhythms are just what you need. Good (& high) times.

 

 

 

Continental Drifters (Part One)

Pete was an old friend, a genuine South London geezer. London is a magnet for people across the country and the world but Pete was Streatham born, bred & still there. He drove trucks. When I lived in Birmingham & he had a job in the North West he would load up, make the 100 miles up the MI/M6 to spend the night at our place. The first we knew was the rumble of the big engine, the swish of the air brakes, unfamiliar sounds of an evening in a suburban Midland street. It was always a pleasure to see the man. I went out with him to a power station up in Snowdonia. It was a good day, perched above the rest of the traffic, looking at the world through a windshield. The wild North Wales countryside,what passes for mountains in Britain. Strong, sweet tea & home-made food in the transport cafes, bloody good company.

From: London, UK To: Florence, ItalyMoving to London meant that I got to hang with Pete a lot more.  He was driving the long distance continental runs now. He would get home, sleep for 15 hours, do his laundry & be ready to play out for a couple of nights before he was back on the road. I was not-so-young but I was free & single. There really were places to go & people to see. I gave my notice at the 9 to 5, 50 weeks a year & took a gig on a building site intent on creating more free time to see more of the world. I spoke to Pete & he was getting some good jobs. We synchronized our schedules & arranged a 10 day trip together to Florence. That’s all it took. Buon Viaggio !

I was the passenger, map reader, DJ, court jester. An 18-wheeler-dealer ready to try my “O” Level French out on the natives. Our soundtrack had to include plenty of that American country rock we both loved, Commander Cody for the morning, the Burritos & Little Feat in the p.m. for a couple of greasy truckers. “Our rig’s a little old but that don’t mean she’s slow” ! Those trucking songs still do it. “Hot Licks, Cold Steel & Truckers’ Favorites”  is Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen’s best work, a solid collection with a not-too-serious take on that “truckers are the new cowboys” horsefeathers. If your country rock collection is to be definitive then you need this record. Del Reeves…his is the original version of “Looking At The World Through A Windshield”.

My holidays begin with the first step of the journey. Get on the ferry, hit the bar & hungover for my first day on Continental Europe. The big boat had a drivers’ restaurant, a prix-fixé (see what I did there) all you can eat & drink buffet. The pros from Dover to Calais are not drinking much…that’s more for me then. We crashed out in a car park…a French car park.

The morning run through Normandy is as green & pleasant as the English countryside we saw yesterday. It’s the signs to Loos, Arras, Picardie, the crossing of the River Somme, some of the most evocative names in modern European history, that raise the specter of the awful, pointless deaths of millions of young men in “the war to end all wars”. Hey, the sun was shining & Pete’s sister lived in Paris so that’s where we were headed.

The plan was to find a parking space in Paris for a 40ft wagon. What were we thinking ?  Pigalle is near the centre & we knew we had a problem. It must have been obvious & we were approached at some lights by a guy who, along with some stuff we could not understand,said “le parking”. Well “oui”…he climbed into the cab alongside me. You could not have invented our Good Samaritan. An old bloke in a beret & neckerchief, the guy smelled of garlic ! Seriously, I was sat next to him. The only thing missing was a string of onions around his neck. He totally came through & found us a big old car park. We slipped him a few francs & never saw him again. ” Merci, Au revoir, monsieur” (We were now speaking Franglais).

Pete’s sister lived in Monmartre, a butte rising above the city, an historic artists’ community built around the beautiful Sacre Coeur Basilica. Walking through the narrow lanes was a impressionistic buzz. His sister was happy to see us. She fed us well and the wine flowed. She told us about the Arab sex club she had attended the previous night ! This was my first afternoon in Paris & already I was living “la Vie Bohemien”. Oh Yeah ! We had, though, miles to go that night to make up time spent on our indulgent stopover. We said our goodbyes & went in search of a cab to retrieve our over-sized chariot.

Easier said than done. The car park closed at 8 o’clock. Our frustration blossomed as the prospect of sleeping in Paris, hundreds of miles behind schedule, loomed. Finally we got a ride &  arrived at the car park with only minutes to spare. The attendant was just starting to lock up for the night.It was time for action. I told Pete to ignore the guy & to get the lorry. In a series of manic gestures and phrases of cracked French I implored the attendant to give us a couple of minutes. I must have looked like Kilgore Trout’s alien who could only communicate by farting & tap-dancing. (In my dreams !). Pete pulled up in the truck, I jumped in & we were on our way. Goddamn, looks like we got us a team.

We left Paris, hit the autoroute & headed south. I rolled myself a joint & settled into the comfortable passenger seat. Mistake. When the only stimuli are white lines on asphalt & on-coming headlights the buzz is killed. I should have waited to get high…yeah right. Sometime in the early hours of tomorrow we had made up the kilometres & were right on time. We found a lay-by, sat out under the stars, the French stars, for a beer &  a smoke. This end of the day niceness became a thing. A tape that Pete already had in his cab became the signature sound of our nights away.

“Arcadian Driftwood” the story of the Arcadian French leaving a British dominated Canada and moving to French Louisiana to become Cajuns, is the epic of “Northern Lights, Southern Cross” one of the Band’s later LPs. It’s a lovely, evocative, plaintive thing. An anthem in the tradition of “The Weight” & “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”. OK , our wagon had two bunks, this was no “Brokeback Mountain” deal. We fell asleep to the sound of passing traffic.” Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever on the road”, that’s right Jack.

 

 

 

Extra Extra Read All About It (Edwin Starr)

Edwin Starr is rightly remembered for his one prodigious hit record. “War” (1970) is a landmark single, its assertive energy & steadfast message makes it distinct in a tsunami of Detroit soul. The song was originally recorded by the Temptations on the “Psychedelic Shack” (that’s where it’s at !) LP, Motown boss Berry Gordy was reluctant to release the track as a single but did put producer Norman Whitfield on to a re-recording with Edwin. Over 40 years later it is part of the culture. “War ! What is it good for ?” We all know the answer to that.

Edwin was based in Detroit but did not join Motown until 1968 when the Ric-Tic label was acquired by its bigger neighbour. It was at Ric-Tic he made the 45s that established a big reputation in the UK. Songs that even now make men of a certain age ignore their arthritic hip & wonder if their old dexedrine dealer is still around. First “(S.O.S.) Stop Her On Sight ” then “Headline News” just smacked it for anyone near a dance floor. I thought they were Motown jams, surely some of the Funk Brothers were moonlighting on these tunes. They certainly fit right in with “This Old Heart Of Mine”, “Third Finger Left Hand”, “My Guy”, that great smooth, smart & sassy early stuff

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The hook up with Motown was an immediate charm. The title track of the LP “25 Miles”, a flagrant lift of “Mojo Mama” was a US Top 10 hit, the follow up, “I’m Still A Strugglin’ Man” bombed but…it’s great. Hitsville’s second wave of writers & producers, Johnny Bristol, Harvey Fuqua, Paul Riser & others contributed but it is Edwin’s powerful & exuberant vocal stylings that work the trick. Of course a worldwide hit like “War” seriously raised the stakes & I’m not convinced that the label reacted to this success too well. There must have been more appropriate songs to cover than “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” but it was 1970, an album was needed pretty sharpish & that song was everywhere. Significantly Edwin, who had composition credits on most of his singles, had just one co-credit on this rushed LP.

Edwin followed the funk flow. “Stop The War Now” is a pretty obvious successor to the big hit. It has its appeal because “War” still comes around & this one has been forgotten. In 1974 he got his very own blaxploitation soundtrack. The music for “Hell Up In Harlem” was by ace producer/writers Freddie Perron & Fonze Mizell. Starr just blasted it with “Big Papa”. This was the last LP with Motown & it was some time before, in 1979, his records were getting heard again. “Contact” was a #1 Disco song in the US. This & “H.A.P.P.Y Radio” were both Top 10 in the UK, a country that Edwin now called home.

By 1973 the singer was spending more time in England where the Soul scene was still running hot. Northern Soul honoured the perquisition of obscure riches but Edwin’s gems needed little excavation. In 1968 a double header re-issue of “S.O.S.”/”Headline News” was a chartbound sound, bigger than before. His music was a gateway into a whole scene going on across the country. In the USA, with no backing from his label, he was facing travelling around a big country as a golden oldie. In Britain he was possibly the biggest attraction on a club circuit where audiences knew stuff about his songs that he had forgotten.

Edwin Starr stayed around for 30 years living in Nottingham at the time of a fatal heart attack in 2003.  That revival in 1979 was hitched to the Disco bandwagon but so was all pop music at that time. I am sure that he got knocked about by the music business. He helped to write hit songs that continued to find a market. I hope that the royalties found their way to him. Tamla Motown never properly supported a popular, distinctive singer, preferring singles with a touch of novelty to artistic development. In the UK he was more than valued. A lot of fans got  to meet him, DJs & promoters hung out with him. I have never heard or read a bad word about Edwin Starr. A younger generation of artists often called to remix old tunes & to record new ones.

He was more than a singer whose biggest hit was in the olden days. We value classic music round here & Edwin was a Soul Master. A proper compilation of his songs goes long on quality. Here is Track 1, “Agent Double-0 Soul” a pop hit from 1965. It was written & sung by a young, sharp, handsome Starr at a time when Jackie Wilson was the sweetest feeling around. It was a great beginning.

She Looked Good She Looked Fine… (Paul Jones and Privilege)

In the Swinging Sixties British Music Explosion it was all about the beat groups. There were singers of extraordinary individuality who stood out front in the spotlight but the boys in the band had got their back. This gang mentality became so entrenched that young solo singers, particularly the men, seemed a little solitary, like something was not quite right. The charts show that Tom Jones, Engelbert & others had big hits but our parents were still buying records…that was nothing to do with us.

Manfred Mann came out of the same West London rhythm & blues scene as the Stones & the Yardbirds. They were pretty wild & the 3rd single, “5-4-3-2-1” was the theme for the coolest show around “Ready Steady Go”. In the same year, 1964, they covered a song written by Jeff Barry & Ellie Greenwich out of New York’s hit factory, the Brill Building. “Do Wah Diddy Diddy”, smashed it around the world. There were a lot of good bands caught on the “you’re only as good as your last single” treadmill in those pre-Sergeant Pepper’s times but the Manfreds made the move from Blues Brothers to pop poppets with a touch too much haste.

Out front was singer Paul Jones (Mann was the beardie, Jazznik keyboard player). Handsome, articulate, smiling & telegenic Jones was Jagger-lite. No stranger to soap, Jones was the rocker you could bring home to meet your mum. He was at Oxford University before the music thing got serious. The screams from the audience in this live appearance are for him. “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” is one of a run of assured commercial choices, a good Dylan cover usually worked out. The next single, the lovely “Pretty Flamingo”, was a 2nd UK #1 then Jones left the group. This was big pop news. The singer remained with the label while the group were moved along.

“High Time” was the teen idol’s debut solo single &  boy does it suck. Producer John Burgess had worked with Manfred Mann, both he & writers Chas Mills & Mike Leander were pop people. Any tinge of R&B had vanished. The hip-shaking, harmonica playing Jones was reduced to bouncing around to bubblegum. The song was a hit, he was prepared to work for his money. There is a certain nostalgic camp about the jingle but “Paint It Black” it is not. In 1966 a couple of young Stevies, Winwood & Marriott, spent a lot of time in the Top 10 with their bands the Spencer Davis Group & the Small Faces. These sharp dressed, blues-influenced shouters were the thing. In comparison Paul Jones seemed old-fashioned. In 1966, this was not the thing.

When he left the band Jones said that he wanted to act. His debut was in “Privilege” (1967), the first made for cinema project by the faux-documentarist director Peter Watkins. Now I’m the wrong guy to be telling you about Peter Watkins. His films have always stirred conflicting opinions. His committed, innovative, emotional style of film-making captures an honesty which gets his work banned or marginalized.  “Privilege” was trashed as “hysterical”, “amateurish” even, by the cinema owners, “immoral”. It is none of these things. The film is a companion to “If” (1968), Lindsey Anderson’s classic about youth revolt.

Paul Jones, the real pop star, plays Steve Shorter, the same only allegorical.Shorter is used by the media, religion, government, all those bad boys, to subvert popular culture in favour of profit & power. It all gets a bit much for Steve & the grass seems greener on another side when he meets an artist played by Jean Shrimpton. I’ll write that again…Jean (supermodel) Shrimpton. Bad craziness & an exaggerated satire ensues. Within a few years the US Government are commercializing thus controlling the anti-war/counter-culture movement. Here in the UK the cynical manipulation of public opinion by Thatcher’s government so that they could fight a war with Argentina…well, it reminded me of this movie. The full movie is on the Y-tube right now, just a couple of clicks away. Patti Smith’s take on the film’s theme is just one click away.

Paul Jones did not make too many films or too many hit records after “Privilege”. His old band hired another good-looking, articulate, presentable young singer & retained their place in the UK Top 10 for the next 3 years. Jones retained his boyish looks for far too long, he did work in a lot of musical theatre. I have an almost forgotten memory of his starring role in a very forgotten musical in Birmingham. He was, always, the guy who sang “There she was just walking down the street singing…” & that counted for a lot.

He gigged regularly with the Blues Band & the Manfreds, a band with some of his old mates. He now has a well established national radio show playing the best of traditional & modern Rhythm & Blues. The last Blues DJ held in such high regard was Alexis Korner. Way, way back in the early 1960s, before any of this show business stuff seemed at all possible, Paul Jones (P.P.Pond) duetted with Brian Jones (Elmo Lewis) at the Ealing Club, home of a Blues scene centred on Korner’s Blues Incorporated. Man, those West London boys got around & stuck around !

And I Will Be His Cinderella If He’ll Be My Cowboy Man (Lyle Lovett)

I guess that Lyle Lovett was always going to be a bit of a cult. The singer-songwriter  from Houston, Texas mined traditional seams, including both kinds of music…Country & Western. In the late 1980s commercial country music was dominated by the folksy rather than the folkie. Names like George Strait, Randy Travis & Reba McIntire prepared the way for Garth Brooks, the colossus of crossover country & for the abomination that is line-dancing. I’m sure Lyle would have liked a piece of that mass market, some of his songs sounded like hits to me. “Farther Down The Line”, from his 1986 debut, is one of these. It’s a cowboy song that’s about at least a couple of things. Lyle seemed a little diffident, his “Eraserhead Goes West” quiff a little different. The songs, as noted in this clip, maybe had too many words.

The debut LP, with its tinges of blues & Western swing was fully formed. Lyle was grouped with Steve Earle & Dwight Yoakum, two others who tipped their stetsons to the tradition but remained outsiders. I was not the only one who went back to those 70s artists like Guy Clark & Jesse Winchester. His arch, ironic wit, the intelligence, brought to mind Randy Newman, I know, high praise. Willie Nelson covered 2 of the songs on this record., “Farther…” & “If I Were The Man You Wanted (I Would Not Be The Man That I Am)”. He liked those titles with a punchline, “She’s No Lady (She’s My Wife)”. “I Married Her Because She Looks Like You”. A cerebral, droll, country crooner…Man, I lapped this stuff up.

The 3rd LP “…& His Large Band” consolidated his rep as a versatile, subtle performer. He had an audience for his stuff who knew it was not standard Nashville fare. Western swing revivalists, steel guitar & a fiddle, were often classed as barroom, dance groups. Lyle & the Large Band interpreted this music as respectfully & as capably as it had ever been. This was music for a concert hall or even a late-night jazz joint. In 1992 “Joshua Judges Ruth” took a detour to Memphis with gospel influenced, stripped down songs, serious themes of, religion, family & loss. “Joshua…” was not as immediate, the humour less on the surface. When it did give up its fascinating grace I played “Joshua…” all the time. “North Dakota”, has a spare beauty, I think it is Lyle Lovett’s masterwork.

So far so linear & then Lyle went to Hollywood.”The Player” (1992), was veteran film director Robert Altman’s return to box office favour after a decade of TV movies & penance for “Popeye”. Our boy joined the large ensemble cast, a detective double act with Whoopi Goldberg was a surprise. In “Short Cuts”, a complex, confident riff on L.A. he fits right in with all those real actors. Lyle was in “Pret-a-Porter” (1994), a sprawling satire on the sitting duck target of the fashion world. “I’m really in no danger of being perceived as a famous movie actor!”, it seems that he knew what was going on.

On the set of “The Player” he met Julia Roberts, the World’s Favourite Actress, the prettiest woman. I’m not sure what attracted Lyle to the millionaire beauty but just 3 weeks after getting together the couple went to Marion, Indiana, the birthplace of James Dean, to get married. What the…? A lot more people knew who Lyle was now, many of them journalists who were not slow in coming forward with their half-arsed opinions of him. “Intriguingly offbeat” wrote People magazine while over here the bottom feeders of the tabloids settled for “Mr Ugly”. I’m sure that many of us would find the charms of the silver screen’s preferred doe-eyed waif beguiling. Having your personal life exposed by the goatfuck of the modern 4th estate, for people who really couldn’t care less about you or your music, is probably less attractive. Just 21 months later the process of “conscious uncoupling” (© G. Paltrow) was entered into. America had its sweetheart back. I repeat, what the … ?

“I Love Everybody” (1994) was a bunch of songs from before his first record. The songs that do cut it make the LP worthwhile but there’s too much easy one-liner ironies & juvenilia for it to be a great record. I owned 5 Lyle Lovett records now & it seemed that that was enough. I know the succeeding work received praise & awards. His tunes rewarded a little patience & attention. I didn’t hear much that was better than the tunes I already had. It was this song, “South Texas Girl”, a melancholy, nostalgic jewel from 2007 that put me back on to him, sent me back to those early records & led me to check out the ones I had missed. The cover album of songs by fellow Texan writers, “Step Inside This House”, that’s good. At the time I had just thought…write some new tunes mate !

Recently I have been listening to Daniel Romano, a Canadian singer with a liking for the style & fashion of old time country music. He’s reviving Nudie suits, men called Hank & he’s doing it very well. Last year Jay Farrar, an artist I have a lot of time for, released “Honky Tonk”, a collection inspired by the Bakersfield sound popularised by Buck Owens & Merle Haggard. It’s tough to effectively blend revivalism & respect, tougher still to make old-time music contemporary & relevant to modern audiences. Lyle Lovett did all that stuff, did it with humour & elegance too. These guys who are new to it are a couple of decades & several albums behind.

 

 

Phasers Set On Smile (Spirit Part 2)

 

Spirit, a jazz-rock-blues-folk-psychedelic fusion group from Los Angeles were around in my teenage years. In 1970, when the original line up’s 4th, seemingly final LP was released I was still at school. At just 17, you know what I mean, there are so many new bright shiny things to divert you. ” 12 Dreams of Dr Sardonicus” was invigorating, inspiring music but would I still be affected by it 40 years later ? Don’t ask me, I was not sure what I was doing at the weekend. In 1972 there was an LP by a band which appeared to be Spirit in name only. Much more to my taste was “Kaptain Kopter & the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds” a dense, Hendrix-influenced collection by Randy California which showed him to be a fluid, inventive guitarist able to avoid the usual guitar hero cliches while still rocking out.

By the time there was another Spirit LP, in 1975, I was a married man… to a woman…really. I packed my lunch in the morning & went to work each day. It was a good time, we were Dinkys, (dual income, no kids yet), more money than sense. In 1975 I bought all the records I needed, plenty that I didn’t. “Spirit of 76” was definitely one that I needed.

 

Spirit Mark II were California, “Mr Skin”, drummer Ed Cassidy, with Barrie Keene on bass. The band had to scrape the money together to record, had to shop it around the labels, When Mercury did release the album it still pretty much remained a secret. “Spirit of 76” is a sprawling work, a statement double LP about the USA as it reached its bicentennial which starts with “America The Beautiful”, ends with “The Star Spangled Banner”. In between there’s a kaleidoscopic collection of tunes from perfectly judged covers, through Randy’s own mix of muscular rock & melodicism (“The Byrds & Jimi Hendrix in the same song”), to just plain craziness. It’s not a record that gives up its charms immediately, like all twin LPs the 25 songs could stand some editing  but once you get this blend of the weird & the wonderful then the Spirit is going to move you.

 

 

In the 1970s an alliance of psychedelic idealism & entrepreneurship established a network in the UK for the manufacture & distribution of high quality L.S.D. At college I had met a couple of too much too soon acid burnouts…a warning. I had tripped without running naked down the street armed with a chainsaw, without jumping out of a 5th storey window, I could still walk through a door & be pretty sure it might not be a portal to another dimension. Our small circle of friends enjoyed pleasant lysergic evenings, in comfortable surroundings with good company. Our music of choice for many of these mind-has-left-your-body experiences was Spirit.

 

This isn’t jagged edged Acid Rock, I love that 13th Floor Elevators noise but it’s sure to harsh my buzz man. In 18 months Spirit released 3 LPs of imaginative psychedelic music, each one a box of delights. The washes of acoustic guitar, flowing lead breaks & Cassidy’s great percussion were given a clean, clear, even elegant production. “Son of Spirit” & “Farther Along” (a reunion of 5 of the original 6 members) maintained the level of “…76”. Mid-1970s  Spirit had a vibe of their own, a lovely calm logic to the best songs, avoiding the bombast of Rush, Pink Floyd or all those other pretentious peddlers of Prog Rock.

 

 

In 1977 Spirit released their final LP of the Mercury years. “Future Games (A Magical Kahauna Dream)” is a polychromatic Spirit world,  a Hawaiian sci-fi phantasmagoria. Gene Roddenberry is not included in the album’s credits despite the inclusion of chunks of Star Trek dialogue. I guess that back then you took your samples where you found them &, if no-one sued, then the price was right. There are so many good tunes on this record, often too short then interrupted by Kirk, Spock or Kermit the Frog ! Randy California’s lyrics can, on first hearing, seem simplistic, a hippie primer. If you put a little work into it you grok that it’s Nature’s Way of telling you in a song. In the late 1970s I knew young punks who carried “Future Games” around with their Pistols, Clash & Ramones records. You meet someone who knows this LP then you will probably get along with them.

 

Through 1981/82 I got to see the band play 3 times. “Red” Ken Livingstone, the leader of the Greater London Council, was a Spirit fan (I’d probably get on fine with Ken) . He had them over to County Hall for lunch & asked them to play at a free concert for those who wished to avoid the marriage of the Queen’s eldest son to some blonde who got lucky (or did she ?). Spirit’s festival sets could be a little heavy on Randy’s guitar gymnastics. At Glastonbury a bemused cameraman wandering through a cloud of dry ice searching for the source of some great feedback was hilarious. At Hammersmith Odeon, playing to their own audience, a version of “Like a Rolling Stone” was a perfect realisation of respect for & understanding of the rock tradition & of the Spirit dynamic.

 

 

There was one more surprise to come out of this second burst of Spirit creativity. “The Adventures of Kaptain Kopter & Commander Cassidy in Potatoland” had been recorded by Randy & Ed in 1973/74 but it was not released until 1981. “…Potatoland” has tunes, “Open Up Your Eyes”, “Turn to the Right”, “My Friend”, which are up there with the best of Spirit. The album’s concept is a little half-assed but it’s a comic book (one was included in the package) in the stoned tradition of Gilbert Shelton & Cheech & Chong. I don’t need every evening’s listening to shake my world. There are times when good music, a simple story about Potato People & a giant chocolate eclair are just the thing.

 

Later recordings by Randy California & by the reunited Spirit missed the mark, lacking the assurance & subtlety of their best music. In 1997 Randy was drowned in Hawaii while rescuing his 12 year old son. He was just 45. Today Spirit are regarded because of ” 12 Dreams of Dr Sardonicus” & their one successful 45 “I Got a Line on You”. The 3 LPs preceding “12 Dreams…” are all fine contributions by the original group to the best West Coast music around. The best of the songs on the records made in the 1970s are a continuation of an individual, original take on Rock & Roll. I don’t really care that Spirit Mark II are neglected. Myself, Martin, who put me back on to the group, & plenty of other people I like share a passion for these records & consider Randy California to be ranked as a guitar hero of his time.