Growing Up In Public (Stevie Wonder)

On alternate Saturdays, my school bussed a number of sports teams to other schools in the county. Despite fraternal intentions parochial rivalries were played out on the playing fields of Lincolnshire. Sport, as George Orwell wrote, is “war minus the shooting”. The back of the coach was strictly for the big kids, the 16 year olds on the football team. As this was January 29th 1966 they were young Mods, sharp & smart. I was 13 & my mum still bought my clothes. She thought that Ben Sherman was a Scottish mountain. I was there by default , making my first & only appearance for the chess team ! They really could not find anyone else dumb enough to press-ganged into giving up their afternoon. My skirmish for the honour of  our alma mater would take place in a musty hut posing as a school library.

Any road up, I got to share oxygen with the cool cats. The song they sang, on the journeys there & back, while they were giving a lesson in how to play the beautiful game to a bunch of young farmers, was brand new, a chartbound sound but not  just yet. Back then I still held a song’s chart position in some regard. I had more than a suspicion that “Michelle” by the Overlanders was a piece of opportunistic mush but, hey, it was #1, it was top of the pops. “Uptight” by Stevie Wonder brought into focus the idea that the best records around did not necessarily sell the most. “Baby, ev’rything is alright, uptight, clean out of sight.”

In 1963 the UK was busy with our own Beat Boom & we had missed “Little” Stevie Wonder’s smash US hit “Fingertips”, a live, wild & wonderful harmonica hullabaloo from the Motortown Revue (with Marvin Gaye on the drums). “Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius” was a #1 LP in the USA. It followed “Tribute to Uncle Ray”, an attempt by Tamla Motown to link their artist with another blind African-American musician. The miniature moniker was dropped but a set of lounge singer standards was inappropriate  while “Stevie at the Beach” just sounds wrong. “Uptight”, his 5th release, was a big step forward. Stevie contributed to 5 of the songs including the surging, stomping title track. This time around the covers included an assertive, swinging version of Dylan’s “Blowing In the Wind”, a Top 10 hit single.

Stevie, just 15 years old, came to Britain to promote “Uptight” & became a permanent part of the Motown manifesto, a key contributor to the Sixties soul scene. His singles were not the label’s biggest hits but, with the assistance of producer/mentor Clarence Paul & of Hank Cosby, there was a consistency  & quality about his releases. With 6 LPs in 3 years there were still a number of syrupy ballads, ill-judged covers & even a 1966 Xmas album (soon be time to dig that one out). 1967’s “I Was Made To Love Her” was as perfect a two and a half minutes of pop-soul rush as you could wish for. The following 45s were classic too. “I Was Made…” was co-written by Stevie’s mother, Lula Hathaway. It’s easier to stand your ground against experienced producers when your mum has got your back.

A 1968 “Greatest Hits” collection marked the end of Stevie’s musical adolescence. Tamla Motown were reluctant to change a winning formula so an instrumental LP was released on a different label, Gordy, under the name Eivets Rednow. “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” is a flexing of his musical muscles, A spare arrangement features the Hohner clavinet keyboard now favoured by our young man. The song builds to a crescendo & Stevie’s soul shouting. I loved this more rugged sound, so did the Jackson 5 who gave it the full Motown makeover while the Rolling Stones recognised a song built around a great rumbling riff. Here the “Hollywood Palace” band are no match for Detroit’s Funk Brothers but Stevie rocks out on prime time TV.

The next year saw Stevie taking on more production duties while still giving Motown what they wanted. The  “My Cherie Amour” LP has a fair share of easy listening including the title track & a song from the musical “The King & I”. The 2 live LPs from 1970 have a touch of cabaret about them too. Stevie Wonder turned 20 in that year, of course he was taking notice of  the funkification of Soul, of a growing concern with social issues in both lyrics & in a wider context. “Signed, Sealed & Delivered” opens with 4 tracks displaying his growing range & creativity. “Never Had A Dream Come True” develops his ballad style, there would be more like this. “We Can Work It Out” is an electric version, side 1 track 1 of any Beatles cover mixtape worth its soul. The title track is followed by “Heaven Help Us All” written by long-time contributor Ron Miller. “Heaven…” is another song with a slow build & the most conscious of  Stevie’s work to date, tougher than “Give Peace A Chance” but still a song of hope. On “The Johnny Cash Show” Stevie’s fro is starting to grow & he has ditched the smart suits for a more pimped look. Pity they didn’t get the sleeves finished for that blue costume.

In 1970 Stevie married fellow Motown artist Syreeta Wright &, as his contract came towards its end, to consider a life beyond Motown.

“Where I’m Coming From” (1971) was handed to Motown as a done deal. If he was going to stay with the label then change was gonna come. All the songs are written by Stevie & Syreeta & it is self-produced. In the same year Motown’s other male solo star, Marvin Gaye, released “What’s Going On”, a mature soul masterpiece. “Where…” is not as focussed as that LP Stevie was not yet 21 & was still experimenting. “Do Yourself A Favor” is a slab of irresistible funk, “If You Really Love Me” a Top 10 hit & “Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer” a heartbreaker that Wonder sang at Michael Jackson’s funeral. This is some coming-of-age record.

Stevie Wonder was now ready to enter what a good friend calls his “Imperial” phase, a blaze of creativity & fulfilled talent stretching across albums of  such quality that match the work of anyone in popular music. I love that music, it’s what I reach for when I need a little Wonder in my life. In the live clips shot around 1972 Stevie is grooving to his inner rhythm, playing with his band & obviously enjoying his new freedom. I do find the period when he was leaving “Little” Stevie behind, trying out new things, breaking free of the commercial constraints of his label, absolutely intriguing. It did not all work but the 3 tracks here are classics which sit comfortably with the music that was to come.

Oh yeah, that chess match. I won it in a canter (then retired undefeated) before mooching over to watch the older guys with the style win their game. I was no grandmaster but I was a little flash !

Small Faces : Wasp-Waist and Swivel-Hippy (Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake)

The first time a good friend of mine saw “Professor” Stanley Unwin”, the peerless purveyor of mangled mumbo-jumbo known as Unwinese, he was a little thrown. It was a quiet night in, just us two, the TV & a nice bag of magic mushrooms. Was this craziness his own psilocybin twisted perception or…well, what was this ? Carl was born too late to have heard or seen Stanley’s TV & radio appearances. He had missed out too on the long summer holiday of 1968 when our teenaged gang of four wondered at the circular sleeve (how mad was that !) and delighted in the Cockney Psychedelia of the Small Faces’ LP “Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake”. It was #1 on the charts for 6 weeks & Stanley Unwin was a pop star. So, “are you sitting comftybold two-square on your botty? Then we’ll begin.”

In 1966 Small Faces had taken residence in the UK Top 10 with 4 hit singles, 3 of them written by the partnership of guitarist Steve Marriott & bassist Ronnie Lane. The major pop players, the survivors of the British Beat Boom, had invaded the USA, they were less inclined to make the teen scene. The shift from wanting to hold your hand to spending the night together was a little too forward for some. The younger kids wanted some new posters on their bedroom walls, someone to scream at. These 4 young, sharp-dressed London mods, with a bright Soul/R&B inflected take on pop, were just the ticket. When I say sharp I mean best-dressed. Small Faces sounded great & looked better.

The group spent the first half of 1967 extricating themselves from an unfavourable contract with manager & all-round hard-ass Don Arden. Like kids in a toyshop Marriott, Lane, organist Ian McLagan & drummer Kenney Jones had thought that the Pimlico flat & the raids on Carnaby St boutiques were pop star perks. The hit records put clothes on their back but little money in the bank. They signed with the coolest record label around, Immediate, started by Andrew Loog Oldham, rolling in the profits from managing the Stones. The music was growing up & Small Faces, wearied by teen stardom, wanted to play with the big boys. In June they released the “Small Faces” LP, the bridge between “All Or Nothing” & what followed, all original tracks none over 3 minutes long. A great record, R&B lightly brushed with the new psychedelia, & not a hit record among them.

They revelled in the new freedom at Immediate. Recording at Olympic Studios with Glyn Johns Small Faces had 3 more Top 10 singles before the release of “Ogdens…”. “Itchycoo Park”, an English take on “Groovin'”, Mod growing it’s hair with some fine tape-wizardry flange work. The scorching “Tin Soldier”, a rocking band fronted by Steve Marriott, a great rock singer. “Lazy Sunday”, a lovely, cor-blimey, modern East End knees-up & a preview of the new LP.

“Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake” came wrapped in colourful parody of a tobacco tin from back then. The sleeve was round (how mad was that ?). Wikipedia, the font of all knowledge, states that the said company had produced a Nut Brown flake since 1899. This has been copied & pasted by the Internet but oh no they didn’t. Ogdens’ built their huge Liverpool factory in 1899 & opened it in 1901, they were established in 1860. It was Adkins, a London firm, who made the Nut Brown brand not Ogdens. So, let’s get this right & you read it here first. Me, I was always a ready-rubbed kind of guy !

The LP opens with the bass-boom instrumental title track written by the whole band. I have no idea where Mac was in the above clip, he’s around in the rest of the programme. This was a heavier Small Faces sound, touched by the experimentation of the times. Marriott & Lane (especially Ronnie Lane ?) had hit their stride as songwriters. Soul shakers like “Afterglow” & “Song of a Baker” (see below) shook more effectively. The lighter tunes “Rene” & “Lazy Sunday” were confident & funny. Side 1 of “Ogdens’…” is stoned rather than psychedelic.

Side 2 is a fairy tale, the story of Happiness Stan’s quest for the missing part of the moon, it’s tuned in & turned on. On “Sergeant Pepper’s…” the Beatles acknowledged music hall & influences from the days before rock & roll. From way, way back in the 1950s Small Faces enlisted Stanley Unwin to narrate their story, an inspired decision. Unwin delivered his unique take on the English language with relish. His love of language picked up on the studio patois, “called to see you man hah, what’s been your hangup man huh ?”. Monty Python was a year away but they were already around the TV & radio. We were right on this surreal goonery. British psychedelia always had a high whimsy content , the imaginative writings of the likes of Lewis Carroll & Edward Lear are part of our humour as children & adults. Small Faces were not grooving with a pict in a field overlooking a university town, theirs was a much more urban outlook. At times attempts to write about their East End roots touched on jellied eels & mash stereotypes but they were a great unit who couldn’t help but turning it up for some muscular Mod rock & roll & “Ogdens’…” is still one of my favourite LPs of the time. They did not take themselves too seriously. Stan, with the assistance of a giant fly, completed his quest. The meaning of Life ? “Life is just a bowl of All-Bran, you wake up every morning and it’s there”. Gertcha !

“Itchycoo Park” was a Top 20 hit in the USA. A kerfuffle involving Ian McLagan, the police & a lump of cannabis resin on the mantelpiece restricted their transatlantic activity. This very English LP was unlikely to find an American audience. The band found it impossible to play “Ogdens’…” live & anyway the young fans wanted to hear “Sha-la-la-la-lee”. A frustrated Steve Marriott quit onstage at a New Year’s Eve gig at Alexandra Palace. He & Peter Frampton, another reluctant teen idol, wanted to boogie so they formed Humble Pie. The remaining 3 of the gang had lost their Artful Dodger, their great showman/singer. They needed to find another & they did but they were no longer Small Faces. Finally, like at Decca with Don Arden, they never saw the money they made for Immediate either.

Some years later, in the “Noughties” (spit !) the very same Carl & myself were visiting a friend in Liverpool. We happened to be driving down Boundary Lane & passed the impressive Victorian Ogden’s tobacco factory. Our Scouser pals were confused as their nut-gone passengers stopped the car & jumped out to admire an inspirational rock & roll relic, all ” folloloping in wonderboldness & deep, deep joy”.

Moving To The 21st Century Pulsebeat (The Everlasting Yeah)

Last Friday the debut LP from The Everlasting Yeah, “Anima Rising” arrived in my computer. 7 tracks to be downloaded, sized up, then listened to again at annoy-the-neighbours volume because that’s how great guitar music is best listened to. It was a momentous morning because here at loosehandlebars we have been bigging up TEY since their first gig in 2012 & this was the finished product, how those songs we had seen on the Y-tube clips were meant to sound. There are people I know who have been waiting for 21 years for this record, good folk, pillars of the community, not at all obsessive…The Everlasting Yeah were 4/5ths of That Petrol Emotion whose 5 LPs, a fine legacy of hook-laden songs, an energetic mix of tradition & innovation, left an impression on these Petrolheads that has lasted a long time. Last Friday was a great day for the whole clan.

That was then & this is the 21st century. 2014 is the Year of the Yeah & “Anima Rising” is a sparkling take on the 2 guitars, bass & drums rock template that we thought had been all played out. From the urgent opener, “A Little Bit of Uh-huh A Whole Lot of Oh Yeah” to the closing epic “The Grind” the guitar interplay, rumbling bass, relentless percussion is bright, shiny & new, reminding you just how exciting rock music is when it’s done properly. Be careful of “A Little Bit…”, it’s not just listener-friendly, it’s got a hand on your thigh, about to ask what you are doing later & you’re liking it. Hear it once & you’re smitten. Phew…& the hits just keep on coming. Now I’m not the guy to give away other people’s music on the Internet (even if I knew how to) so here is an early demo of “New Beat On Shaking Street”. The finished version…well, I need a word to describe flashes of light & still sounds tough, so that word is coruscating.

I am also not going to throw about a bunch of cool names from back then to make you want to listen to The Everlasting Yeah. “Anima Rising” is no retromance. Ciaran, Damian, Brendan & Raymond have the talent & the acumen to incorporate their influences into their own sound. They have been doing this music thing long enough to know what works &, more importantly, what doesn’t. The only guest musician is saxophonist Terry Edwards on the hypnotic “Taking That Damn Train Again” & it’s a perfect seasoning. The thing about “Anima Rising”  is the groove, not a fake funk furrow but insistent, irresistible like “Exile…” (Oh crap…I did it !). The shimmering “Everything’s Beautiful” slows things down nicely but the rest takes a hold & just does not let go. Even the 12 minute long “The Grind” is not really long enough. The Everlasting Yeah are Neoteric Motorik…it’s a thing, well it is now.

Photo: this is the design for the pledge tshirt - pretty cool eh?The only people who have this music are those kind enough & smart enough to join the Pledge to get the record finished properly. The hard copies should be here soon. The geeks can sniff their new vinyl while I will slap the CD into the car’s system, head out on the highway looking for adventure, it’s that kind of sound. The band’s website is not yet  up & running, just in time to miss the lucrative Xmas market. If you really need a copy (& you do need one) of “Anima Rising”, a nailed-on Album of the Year, then head on over to The Everlasting Yeah’s Facebook page, say hello & a very nice man will do his best to sort you out.He may even have 1 of these cool T-shirts lying around.

Change Is Now (The Byrds Part 3)

The initial recording sessions for the Byrds 5th LP were unsettled & confused. David Crosby was a Niagara of creativity but seemed to have little consideration for the contributions & intentions of his 3 associates. It appeared that Crosby was looking for a way out &, in October 1967 he was gone. There was conflict & dissatisfaction with the attitude & ability of drummer Michael Clarke. He was out too, only to return then leave the group on the completion of the record. Still, as we always say down at the Freemasons Lodge, “ordo ab chao”, out of chaos comes order.Despite the problems the 2 remaining Byrds, Roger (formerly Jim) McGuinn & Chris Hillman with producer Gary Usher, did not drop the ball. “The Notorious Byrd Brothers”, an experimental, ethereal, beautiful record was released in January 1968.

Now this is a strange one. “Goin’ Back” was released as a single 3 months before “Notorious…” was ready. Clarke was still around but the Byrds were reduced to a trio & that really wouldn’t fly (ouch!). To promote “Goin’ Back” on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” they called up Gene Clark, who had left the band in 1966, to make up the numbers. Gene was still signed to Columbia but his LP with the Gosdin Brothers had not sold well. He co-wrote a song, played a couple of gigs, added some backing vocals & hung around for all of 3 weeks. Crosby had not wanted to record this Goffin & King song, he wanted to leave the jingle-jangle behind. An early lethargic take does lack inspiration but McGuinn had an appreciation of how the Byrds had got to where they were, what was expected by their audience & he was right. “Goin’ Back” is a  yearning for a lost innocence, a Rickenbacker infused reverie, a trademark sound still appropriate to their new music.

 

“The Notorious Byrd Brothers” was recorded across the release of “Sergeant Pepper’s…”.The bar was raised whether you were a musician on a bubblegum pop assembly line or were jamming in a Haight Ashbury crash pad. It was no longer enough for an LP to consist of a couple of hit singles & some quickly recorded knock-off soundalikes. You had to mean it ma’an. The same folk, country & jazz tinges present on “Fifth Dimension” & “Younger Than Yesterday” were still around . Gary Usher’s use of brass, strings &, more importantly, the Moog synthesiser moved the sound forward, creating a depth, an atmosphere which tied the whole thing together, brought a unity to the collection. A future member of the group spoke of his ambition to create a Cosmic American Music. He was too late, the Byrds got there on “Notorious”. Change Is Now.

 

 

Man, it’s tough to choose just 3 tracks from this LP. “Old John Robertson”, a country tear up moving into the baroque with strings & phasing, all in 1 minute 49 seconds.would be the choice of 2 of my associates but they are not here right now. “I Wasn’t Born To Follow”, another Goffin/King song, became a hippie anthem when it hooked up with Captain America & Billy for a spot of easy riding in “Easy Rider”. The introductory “Artificial Energy”, an amphetamine song which gets dark in the final verse, didn’t raise the controversy that “Eight Miles High” had. The moral panic had gone to San Francisco. For myself, only the closing sea shanty sci-fi “Space Odyssey” fails to make the cut.

David Crosby’s prints are still all over this record. He has 3 co-credits on the songwriting & appears on 5 of the 11 tracks. Crosby’s cutting-edge ideas about harmony & the lyrical content of his songs were sometimes too far out for his fellow band members but inspired them to experiment & develop. “Draft Morning” follows an inductee to the battlefields of Vietnam. Crosby’s lyrics were re-modelled by McGuinn & Hillman & he was not pleased. Now we know those ins & outs, the ups & downs. Then, we just had a stirring, beautiful song.The record had the 3 remaining Byrds & a horse on the cover. Roger McGuinn denied that this was a jibe at Crosby. Well, he would say that wouldn’t he ?

 

 

“The Notorious Byrd Brothers” is the most psychedelic of all the Byrds’ LPs, the last triumph of the original group that started all that folk-rock in 1965 with “Mr Tambourine Man”. There is not the harshness of acid-rock, it’s spaced-out, tripping on a sunny day by the lake with friends. A new wave of young groups were growing their hair & sporting hippy plumage while the Byrds ditched the moptops & dressed down. No longer at the centre of American popular music but not yet ready to be filed with the golden oldies. It was a turbulent time for the group, Roger McGuinn & his steadfast sidekick Chris Hillman had been knocked about a bit. They kept an eye on where it had all begun, omitted their more far out investigations & created assured, modern music which sounded great in 1968 & still does today & tomorrow. “The Notorious Byrd Brothers”…get on it.

There Are Songs To Sing There Are Feelings To Feel There Are Thoughts To Think (Dennis Potter)

By 1978 Dennis Potter’s standing as a TV dramatist was unrivalled. His contemporaries from a decade before, the writers for the BBC’s “Wednesday Play”, a series of one-off plays which were often challenging, controversial & even influenced the political agenda, had moved to theatre, films or anonymity while contenders like Mike Leigh did not yet have back catalogue to claim the belt. “Pennies From Heaven”, six 75 minute episodes starring Bob Hoskins, was event television. Potter had never been backward about coming forward to blur the conventions of TV  & this time around he came up with real doozy. Set in the mid-1930s, Arthur is an unhappily married sheet music salesman. His fantasies are expressed in flamboyant scenes where he mimes to popular songs of the day. This was charming, surprising & very effective. Film director Herbert Ross, a noted adaptor of Neil Simon’s plays, saw the series & “Pennies From Heaven” went to Hollywood.

There are 62 reasons to traduce  the film version of “Pennies From Heaven” (1981) but I don’t do lists. Any attempt to condense a drama over 7 hours long into less than 2 will sacrifice more than nuance. Nevermind that which is lost in the translation from English to American despite Potter writing the screenplay. Then there is the bit where Christopher Walken totally nails this sleazy song-and-dance number. From “The Anderson Tapes” (1971) to “Seven Psychopaths” (2012) Walken deserves his rep as a great screen actor. He can claim some of the best scenes in modern American cinema &  “Let’s Misbehave” is the sleeper in his own Top 10. Herbert Ross had started as a choreographer & he knew what he was doing here. When Spike Jonze got Walken to dance in the video for Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” (2001) it surprised many unaware of the range of his talent. I’m a little more mellow now about other folks messing about with my personal favourites. I can even sit through “A Scanner Darkly” without kicking the dog. Maybe it’s time I gave the “Pennies From Heaven” movie another look because there will be no new Dennis Potter scripts.

Dennis Potter was born in the Forest of Dean in the West of England. I hung out in Gloucestershire in the 80s, it was like the 30s, I didn’t venture into the beautiful Forest. A coal miner’s son, his generation of promising post-war working class children were skimmed off through the education system & offered the carrot of a way out. Social mobility, the safety valve of capitalism. Oxford University & 2 years of National Service (compulsory in the 1950s) must have been contrasting experiences. In 1964 he stood as a Labour Party candidate in a safe Tory seat. His dissatisfaction with the process meant that he did not vote for himself & produced 2 semi-autobiographical plays about Nigel Barton, which made some very modern points about politics & politicians which most sentient people now share.

This blend of the personal & the political was both adroit & unmatched. His autobiographical honesty, his sexual abuse by an uncle at the age of 10 was unflinchingly used in his work, fused with a direct, unsympathetic view of humans & their failings made for a heady brew which often offended his BBC bureaucrat bosses, the media & self-appointed guardians of public morality. “Son of Man” (1969), an alternative view of Jesus’ final days, was bound to stir it up. I saw a theatrical production, still starring Colin Blakely,  & was thoroughly entertained, I guess they must have removed the blasphemy then. Potter said what he liked & liked what he said. He would kick against the pricks & was pleased when the pricks kicked back. He was a man who liked a good argument.

Had to get Joanne Whalley into this somehow.

“The Singing Detective” came around in 1986. an0ther 6 and a half hour epic. Since 1962 Potter had suffered with psoriatic arthritis, a condition affecting the skin & joints causing constant pain. His protagonist, writer Philip E Marlow (anagram), is hospitalised with the same ailment. The view from his bed fuses with flashbacks of his childhood & his mother’s life. When Marlow avoids his meds he fantasises about his novel about a dance hall singer (Marlow) who gets the detective jobs “the guys who don’t sing” leave alone. If you are looking for a couple of snappy sentences explaining “The Singing Detective” then sorry, you’re in the wrong place. It is a brilliant dramatic roller coaster ride, a landmark of British TV. Dennis Potter’s cynicism now had a barbed-wire bitterness. Marlow’s pain & self-loathing, his anger not only at the cards he’s been dealt but at the whole game, shocks & delights.  If you went down to the woods there would be no teddy bears &  it would be no picnic. Michael Gambon (ok…Dumbledore) never had a better script & was never better. Don’t mention Robert Downey Jr…I said don’t.

Between “Pennies…” & “…Detective” Dennis Potter had been prolific. 1979’s “Blue Remembered Hills”, his most popular single play, featured adult actors as 7-year olds in the Forest of Dean in 1943. Potter admitted that  it was possible he could be a much more wholesome writer than his audience – even he himself – is led to believe . Yeah right. His play “Brimstone & Treacle” (1976) had enough of the Devil in it to get itself banned. It was made for the cinema in 1982 & he worked on several screenplays. The final one was in collaboration with another English maverick, Nicolas Roeg, an incendiary coupling.  Roger Eberts reviewed “Track 29” (1988) as  bad-tempered, kinky and misogynistic & that’s good enough for me.

By the time the last of the 3 lip-synch dramas Dennis Potter was incapacitated by his illness, sustained on a cocktail of medication. The landscape of British television had been changed by the launch of satellite TV by “that drivel-merchant, global huckster and so-to-speak media psychopath, Rupert Murdoch.”(Potter). Big budget drama favoured cosiness over controversy & after the BBC’s “Blackeyes”, a drama concerning misogyny was accused of that very thing “Dirty Den” (those tabloids eh ?) moved to Channel 4 for “Lipstick On Your Collar” (1993). “Lipstick…” is set during the Suez Crisis of 1956 when British  aggression in Egypt in pursuit of its economic interest (sound familiar ?) was thwarted by the United Nations & the British ruling class had to face the fact that perhaps this Empire thing had run its course. Back home  a new generation, hyped on rock & roll, were tired of war stories, through with deference. There’s a rom-com in there too. This series had less money spent on it, the more familiar songs less charming & the romance element is strained. I saw it again recently, it has a great cast of character actors, it’s funny , it has Louise Germaine &  young Obi-Wan Kenobi (a very young Ewan McGregor) in a gold lamé suit miming to Elvis.

Dennis Potter died in 1994. In the 30 years he wrote for TV he produced the most innovative, distinguished & provocative drama around. If he was controversial it was not just that he liked a rumpus but he believed that television should be all of these things. There’s little point working in a mass media if you don’t have a mass audience. For myself, I was never offended, I found his modern views on British society to make a lot of sense & I think he wrote some of the finest post-war British drama. Is there TV around like this today ? Whenever I turn on the tube people are baking, ballroom dancing or patronising me. Luckily I have one of those sets with an off-switch.

What Do You Do For Fun? I Don’t (Thomas McCarthy)

Thomas McCarthy, the American film director, has a new film ready for release & I am a little worried. McCarthy’s previous 3 films have been big favourites round our yard. All 3 have featured convincing actors whose characters & relationships develop beyond the overture. Their reactions & perspectives alter as situations change & new shit comes to light. Y’know, like I do, like you do, like real people  do.  This time around “The Cobbler” stars Adam Sandler. OK, what about “Punch Drunk Love”, isn’t that a good movie ? It is but I have seen “Little Nicky”, “50  First Dates”, & (Un)”Funny People” & each time resolved that me & the man-child Sandler could get along without each other fine thank you. Hey, “The Cobbler” also features Steve Buscemi (always a good thing), Dustin Hoffman (heavyweight) & a Brit off of “Downton Abbey” (Downright Shabby..ho-ho). It’s co-written & directed by Thomas McCarthy so it will be at the top of my to-see list.

Mr McCarthy takes his time making films, the first 3 are spread over 10 years. His day job is as an actor in films that you have probably seen. He is Dr Bob in “Meet The Parents” & “Little Fockers”. Back in 2005, when George Clooney was attempting to establish a liberal cred, McCarthy had parts in “Good Night & Good Luck” & “Syriana”. In series 5 of “The Wire” he played Scott Templeton, a Baltimore Sun journalist who’s over-ambition led him to exaggerate & falsify stories…a nasty piece of work. I guess that one reason for the time between films is that care is taken to achieve a script that is properly finished. These are satisfying dramas with a beginning, a middle & an end, in that order. I see too many acclaimed American movies which end with me going “Huh” !

“The Station Agent” (2003) is an absolute gem of a movie. I carried the DVD around for years, spreading the word, assuring people that a night with this film would be time well spent. Is Peter Dinklage a star now because of “Game of Thrones” ?  I knew him from Tom DiCillo’s brilliant comedy “Living In Oblivion” (1995) & the part of Fin is tailor-made for him. Fin, a person of restricted growth, has had enough of being different in a world that really doesn’t handle difference well. He inherits an old train station & sees a chance to walk away, preferring solitude to the prying eyes of stupid people. In McCarthy’s films the world finds a way of coming back at you.

This is a film about friendship An odd menage develops between the taciturn Fin (Dinklage), Olivia, an artist touched by sadness (Patricia Clarkson, the Queen of Indie movies) & the gauche but you gotta like him Joe (Bobby Cannavale). These dissimilar people keep company with each other because the solitary alternative is really a non-runner in a world shared with other people. There is a humanity about “The Station Agent” that is Vonnegutian, the highest praise. If you have seen it then it is one of your favourite movies. If you haven’t…well, what is this, a staring contest ?

Next time around was “The Visitor” (2007), another slice of the American pie often avoided by US cinema. This film’s loner, Walter Vale, is a college professor, stranded by the death of his wife, choosing to shut himself down & pretty much check out on most social interaction. Walter is played by Richard Jenkins, best known for playing the dead father in “Six Feet Under” who since this film has shown up in Coen Brothers joints, movies starring Will Ferrell & Channing flipping Tatum. Watch the clip, you know the guy, he’s a good actor.

“The Visitor” concerns Walter’s rather reluctant return from Connecticut to his New York apartment to find that 2 illegal immigrants are living there. Once again circumstance, Life, gets in the way of a man’s decisions about how he should live. The liberal academic is exposed to a modern America of which he is unaware, emotions which he thought he could avoid. This serious story is confidently handled with humour, pathos & sentimentality, proper sentiment not Hallmark Channel bullshit. “The Visitor” is a touching, memorable film and Thomas McCarthy was hitting 2 for 2.

“Win Win” (2011) has a wider scope than it’s precedents. It has more characters & things get a little more complicated. It’s the way when more people are involved. Mike Flaherty, a small town attorney & high school wrestling coach, is played by Paul Giamatti, the finest American actor of his generation (sorry Mr Seymour Hoffman) so we are already ahead. Amy Ryan (classy) is his wife, Jackie, The incomparable Burt Young, the always funny Jeffrey Tambor are there, Bobby Cannavale (yay !) returns. This cast is solid.

So Mike is shot-down about making the monthly vig to support his family &, hoping he is doing the right thing, is tempted into some financial shenanigans involving a geriatric client. It is his secret to keep from his wife. The client’s grandson shows up, his mother’s in re-hab & he needs a hand which the Flaherty’s provide. These are good people. Kyle , Alex Shaffer’s debut comes on like a young Sean Penn, is a star wrestler so that’s great for Mike. Once again Thomas McCarthy’s screenplay & direction are pitch perfect. He was a high school wrestler himself & these parts of the film are just right.There is a reality, an honesty & an empathy about “Win Win” that I just don’t find in many modern Hollywood movies. Check the clip, it’s The National’s “Think You Can Wait”, (with Sharon Van Etten), the closing track, combined with a making-of the movie. Cooler than a trailer & as cool as the film.

Thomas McCarthy is getting a little busier. As well as “The Cobbler” he wrote “Million Dollar Arm”, this year’s baseball movie. His next film “Spotlight” is a serious story of the exposure of child molestation starring Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton & Mark Ruffalo. I am maybe being pessimistic that quicker work, bigger budgets & movie stars will dilute the quality of his work. Whatever, we have his great humanist trilogy, films that will be appreciated for many years, which make him an outstanding American director.

Midnight Teaser Real Soul Pleaser (Wilson Pickett)

Our summer holiday of 1966, on the intermittently sunny North Yorkshire Riviera, extended that year’s effervescent English exhilaration. Our national football team had given us all the World Cup willies for 3 weeks in July but they had only gone & won the thing (never again). The seaside sojourn’s soundtrack, coming through loud & clear from Radio 270, Yorkshire’s own pirate radio station, was headed by The Beatles’  current double whammy, the ground-breaking “Eleanor Rigby” & the psych-nursery rhyme “Yellow Submarine”. Each week brought a rush & a push of bright shiny new music that demanded your attention. We didn’t know yet that this was a classic time for pop music but we had an idea that it was. Here’s one that was picked to click in August 1966.

Oh Yeah ! 1-2-3 ! Still does it. For the 2nd week of the holiday I was joined by my best friend, brand new teenagers given a pass that we didn’t get at home.(Back then I thought my parents were like, old people, looking back they were pretty cool). We hijacked the family transistor radio, headed for the cliffs, just the two of us, the North Sea & Emperor Rosko’s drive-time show, a little bit of Wolfman Jack, on Radio Caroline. Summer evenings had never been better …up to now. Wilson Pickett’s “Land of a 1000 Dances” consolidated a whole bunch of future possibilities, power, passion, abandon. I didn’t know how to Pony, let alone like Bony Maronie but I sure intended to learn.

It was a familiar path for Wilson Pickett, from Detroit via Alabama. A gospel grounding, hits with the Falcons, his vocal group, before a solo career. An approach to Atlantic Records did not go his way when his song “I Found a Love” was given to Solomon Burke but his talent, his raw, impassioned testification, meant that Atlantic signed him. After a couple of releases recorded in New York Pickett was sent down to Memphis where, at Stax studios, an abrasive, modern soul sound was forged between the singer & musicians.

While we had not yet heard Cannibal & the Headhunters earlier version of  “Land…” we did know about Wilson. The 1st 45 he recorded at Stax was “In the Midnight Hour”, a flawless Pickett/Steve Cropper tune, an instant, enduring soul standard . I think that a law was passed that it had to be played any place anyone danced. Maybe…it was a long time ago. The succeeding run of singles, “Don’t Fight It”, “634-5789” & “99 & a Half (Won’t Do)” established him as a major star. “Land…” was Wilson’s 3rd R&B #1 & it was followed by “Mustang Sally”. Good God Y’all !

Wilson Pickett was officially “Wicked”. His, let’s say, headstrong attitude ruffled the feathers of the tight knit group at Stax but Atlantic (that would be Jerry Wexler) were cultivating another talented coterie at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals. The hits just kept on coming. He was never a prolific songwriter, Bobby Womack was around at FAME at this time & had some good songs for Pickett. In September 1967 a cover of Dyke & the Blazers “Funky Broadway” was another R&B #1 between James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” & “Higher & Higher” by Jackie Wilson. It was Soul’s Golden Age & Wilson Pickett was right up there with all this great music. In person, live, well click on the “99 & a Half” clip…it’s nuts in the best way.

His final single of 1968 was a cover of “Hey Jude”, the Beatles’ current smash, an epic, shrieking vocal, an incendiary guitar solo by young Southern longhair Duane Allman. “Funky Broadway” had been the first chart record to include this new adjective & the leading lights of Soul were introducing innovatory sounds as the 60s ended. Pickett’s muscular cover versions of rock classics, “Born To Be Wild”, “Hey Joe”, seemed a little obvious at the time. Now they sound like psycho-soul juggernauts, heck even “Sugar Sugar”, a bubblegum song I really do not like, sounds good.

Of course Wilson Pickett was still amongst the biggest names. In 1971 he headlined “Soul to Soul”, a major concert in Accra, Ghana which included Santana, the Staples Singers & Ike & Tina Turner. In Africa he was “Soul Brother #2” only headed by James Brown. A workmate of mine, Emmanuel, was at that gig. I loved to hear his stories of a momentous day in that young country’s cultural history. In the same year “Don’t Knock My Love” was his 5th & final #1 R&B hit & in 1972 he recorded “Fire & Water” an imaginative & appropriate version of Free’s British Blues belter. On “Soul Train”, wearing the brightest suit ever made, he gives it plenty. The Midnight Movers, his backing band, are pretty good too. Pickett kept on keeping on even though public taste was for a smoother Soul than his rugged sound. There were still a Grammy award & many accolades before his death in 2006.

In 1966 I voted in the New Musical Express end-of-year poll. Best Group the Beatles, Best Single “Good Vibrations”, Best Male Singer Wilson Pickett. As I said up there music was moving fast back then. The more subtle supplications of Otis Redding, the relentless dedication to the funk by James Brown & Aretha’s unmatched quality were irresistible. In 1968 Atlantic released “This Is Soul”, a ready made collection of super music for just 62.5p ($1). The LP opened with “Mustang Sally”, closed with “Land of a 1000 Dances”. I was glad to have these songs around. Now I’m discovering LP tracks that I’ve not heard before while I’m still dancing to “…Midnight Hour” & still marvelling at the energy of “Land of a 1000 Dances”.