You Burn Right Here And You Bounce Over There. (Black Uhuru)

The first Reggae Sunsplash in London was a hot ticket on the hottest day of the year. Selhurst Park, home of Crystal Palace F.C., seemed an unlikely venue for an all-star all day concert but a massive crowd made their way across to suburban South London & the place was rammed. The weather made a grand day out better, those assembled behaved as if they had been there before & we certainly got some fine, fine music for our £10. Dennis Brown…Wham!, Leroy Sibbles off of the Heptones…Bam! & only Prince flipping Buster…Thank You Jah! Top of the bill was Black Uhuru who, in 1984, were the hottest reggae band in the world. They looked & sounded like this…

 

 

Black Uhuru were formed in the Waterhouse district of Kingston in the early 1970s. There were personnel changes & a slow start before a first LP in 1977 the year of Bob’s “Exodus”, Culture’s “Two Sevens Clash” & Peter Tosh’s “Equal Rights”. Roots Reggae was bubbling up & breaking out. Virgin’s “The Front Line” compilation (1976) mixed up a rhythmic brew of new & established artists who were soon to be in our record collection. Uhuru’s “Love Crisis”, an early production by Prince Jammy, is a fine debut but the 3 man harmony group was a crowded field. Culture, Burning Spear, Mighty Diamonds & others were ahead of them.

 

There were more changes before 1979’s “Showcase”. Errol Nelson left the group & was replaced by Puma Jones. Her high harmonies added a difference & distinction from the usual vocal group sound. Uhuru teamed with Sly Dunbar & Robbie Shakespeare, a nonpareil rhythm section who were developing their own Taxi label & production company. More significantly Michael Rose emerged as a singer/songwriter/performer of rare ability. “Showcase” is a terrific record, I could sing you 6 of the 7 tracks but not as well as Michael Rose. A (drum &) baseline for the development of the music on succeeding LPs, the songs, including “General Penitentiary” (above), are all over 7 minutes, sliding seamlessly into dub as part of the whole rather than an added version.

 

 

Sly & Robbie had been touring with former Wailer Peter Tosh, a world-class act. They & the Taxi Gang moved over to become Black Uhuru’s band. With “Sinsemilla” (1980) & “Red” (1981) there was now major label support from Island & a song catalogue of high quality. Dunbar’s syncopation & Shakespeare’s thick bass rumble pushed reggae forward. Rub-a-dub, rockers, second generation reggae ? You takes your choice…it sounded pretty good to me. They looked good too. Michael was a natural frontman, a strong, assertive voice with a touch of a country preacher prowling the stage. Puma was the African Queen, like Lauryn with the Fugees. Mainstay Duckie Simpson, a rootsman skanking at the side, cool & deadly. The early passing of Bob Marley in 1981 left a gap that no Jamaican group could fill but for the next 4 years Black Uhuru were tearing it up internationally. I was present at the 2 concerts these clips are taken from. Man, you’ve gotta love the Y-tube.

 

The production on each LP became more electronic, Sly’s syn-drum more prominent. The strength of Michael Rose’s songs, an easy. loping rhythm, strictly Rasta roots, love & righteousness expressed directly & simply & as catchy as anything, was a constant. “Red” opened with the double whammy of “Youth of Eglington” & “Sponji Reggae”, music for the head & the hips. “Anthem” (1984) won the first Reggae Grammy, for which edition, there were mixes for the Jamaican, European & American markets, I’m not sure. Paul “Groucho” Smykle’s hi-tech remake re-models are impressively designed for the clubs but y’know, good reggae does not need whistles & bells to get people dancing. “Plastic Smile” is a song from “Showcase” & this 12″ version hits the Black Uhuru bullseye, state of the reggae art at the time, great stuff.

 

 

By 1985 Reggae was changing. Prince Jammy captured the hit of the year with Wayne Smith’s “Under Me Sleng Teng”. The new computerised rhythm was everywhere. The Sunsplash of that year starred Gregory Isaacs, enjoying big success with his sweet Lovers Rock. On the bill was Sugar Minott & Ini Kamoze, stars of the emerging Dancehall style. (Kamoze’s debut LP being produced by the prolific Sly & Robbie). Michael Rose bought a coffee farm in the country & left Black Uhuru. He released no music outside Jamaica until 1989. The group continued with Junior Reid, a successful solo artist, as replacement. “Brutal” (1986) has its moments, particularly “Great Train Robbery” produced by mixmaster Arthur Baker. In the following year Puma was diagnosed with breast cancer & was too ill to perform. (Ms Jones unfortunately died in 1990 aged just 36). Founder member Duckie kept the band going but impetus & inspiration had been lost.

Black Uhuru are still around & Michael Rose continues to perform & record. His “Too Blessed To Be Stressed” is a winner. In 2004 there were some reunion gigs. The music they made with Sly & Robbie on record & in concert looked forward while retaining the conscious Rasta spirit of roots reggae. In the early 1980s the group shone brightest of a new generation of reggae artists, intelligent, positive, celebratory, sometimes angry & always memorable. Their music brings good memories of stalks of sinsemilla, house parties when I was a dancing fool & the 3 times that I was part of an audience that they absolutely rocked.

 

 

Puma Jones (1953 – 1990)

 

 

 

 

 

 

One More For The Rodeo Sweethearts (The Byrds Part 4)

At the beginning of 1968 the 2 remaining members of the Byrds, Roger McGuinn & Chris Hillman, hooked up with drummer Kevin Kelley for a tour of American colleges. This reduced line-up could handle a stripped down set of the folk rock hits but the subtle atmospherics of the new LP  “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” were beyond the trio. They went looking for a keyboard player & they found Gram Parsons, a young talent whose attempt to fuse country music with rock with the International Submarine Band had stalled after one unreleased LP. Gram’s association with the Byrds, proved to be short & bittersweet. It produced just one LP but “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” is undoubtedly a wonderful thing, in the modern vernacular, a “game-changer” for the group & for contemporary American music.

 

Roger McGuinn’s grand vision for the follow up to “Notorious…” was a double LP, a history of American popular music from bluegrass to electronic. GP brought his own ideas to the group & immediately stimulated the Byrds to pursue a new direction. He joined in February & in the first week of March the Byrds were recording on Music Row in Nashville where they made both kinds of music, country & western. Back in 1968 the audiences for rock & country were from different worlds in the same nation, a mutual fear & loathing separating  generations. Rock music was putting on a kaftan & protesting the war in Vietnam while country still proudly wore a red, white & blue collar. In Nashville the Byrds appeared at the Grand Ole Opry & the audience did not react well to this “longhair” intrusion on hallowed ground. In the summer of 1968 the cutting edge of American rock was the jagged lysergic take on the Blues from San Francisco. Within a month of each other the Grateful Dead released “Anthem of the Sun”, Big Brother & the Holding Co, “Cheap Thrills” & Jefferson Airplane, “Crown of Creation”. So here come those Byrds with some cowboy songs, yeah, that’ll work.

 

 

Side 1 Track 1, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”, a flying start featuring the pedal steel of Nashville cat Lloyd Green. Bob Dylan’s unrecorded songs, written during recuperation from a motorcycle accident, were circulated on a publisher’s demo & the Byrds, in at the beginning of this Dylan cover racket, were able to take their pick. “Sweetheart…” begins with this perfect statement of intent, a full-blooded modern blend of folk, rock & country. The LP takes a road trip along a country highway, stepping back to a Woody Guthrie hoedown, gospel from the late 1940s, stopping off at some lost (to a rock audience anyhow) classics before hitting 1968 with 2 of Gram’s songs & a cover of William Bell’s Stax hit “You Don’t Miss Your Water”. The final track, “Nothing Was Delivered”, another Dylan song, brings the record back to cutting-edge Byrds country.

McGuinn & Hillman had no songs to contribute to “Sweetheart…”. They had musical roots in folk & bluegrass but it was Parsons, younger, ambitious & committed to getting it right this time, who became the dominant figure in the recording sessions. He lobbied for pedal steel player JayDee Maness to be included in the live shows. The Byrds had been here before when David Crosby’s enthusiasm for his own talent had become too big for his poncho. This time the young tyro was not even a co-signee to the group’s new contract but a salaried employee. The 2 founder members went along with this because they knew they were on to a good thing but when producer Lee Hazelwood’s lawyers showed up claiming to have Gram under contract & threatening to sue they took rapid & drastic action. On 3 songs the freshman’s lead vocals were re-recorded by the seniors & the new versions rushed to the pressing plant.

 

 

So the “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” that we heard had a lot more McGuinn than originally intended & Roger had again re-established his position as Big Byrd. The LP was now more of a Byrds record, country music through an LA cowboy filter, a full sound with crystal-clear harmonies. The sincerity & lack of irony retain Parsons’ cosmic American aspirations but this is till the follow-up to “Notorious Byrd Brothers”. Now there are re-mastered legacy editions, “Gram’s version” & you can take your choice. The original “Sweetheart…” is the record I grew up with, the one that I know & love.

The Byrds crossed the Atlantic for a European tour. In London a shared interest in  roots music & serious drugs led to Gram becoming close with Mick & Keith off of the Rolling Stones. The story goes that the Glimmer Twins persuaded Parsons that an imminent tour of segregated audiences in apartheid South Africa was really not cool & he left the Byrds just weeks before “Sweetheart…” was released. Perhaps more pertinent is a recording from the Piper Club in Rome. Gram steps forward to perform his songs while the majority of the set are those the audience know & love. This clip, accompanied by some great photos, shows the Byrds in fine form, the electric banjo of new recruit Doug Dillard is outstanding. The fledgling Byrd had travelled a long way to play rhythm guitar on “Mr Spaceman” &, I think, he knew that the poster was never going to read “Gram Parsons & the Byrds”.

 

 

I know, too much time spent on the convoluted story of the record when it should be, and is, all about the music. The Byrds did not invent country rock on “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”, my money is on the Everly Brothers but it could have been Hank Williams, country has always rocked. They were though, the first major act to bring this all this great music back home, to acknowledge a neglected tributary to contemporary music Before this record I had never heard Merle Haggard’s songs (“Life In Prison”), been aware of Cindy Walker’s songwriting talent (“Blue Canadian Rockies”) or of the wonder that is the Louvin Brothers (“The Christian Life”). In the following year Gram’s new group the Flying Burrito Brothers had released “The Gilded Palace of Sin”, Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” came around, the Band were up on Cripple Creek & Johnny Cash’s “Live at Folsom Prison” LP was at the front of the stack. In 1968 the Byrds were still ahead of their time.

 

 

 

Music And Movies (2014)

In 2014 I made good use of my evenings to catch up with a lot of the films that I had intended to see but had missed out on. OK, there are a couple of hours of my life spent in the company of a Hobbit that I will never get back but I did the right thing. 2014 seems to have been a good year for cinema & here are 3 films which caught the attention of my ears as well as my eyes.

 

 

“Frank” was near the top of a long “to-see” list. I am a devoted fan of Frank Sidebottom, “the Bard of Timperley”, an eccentric, papier mache headed character created by Chris Sievey who always raised my spirits & made me laugh. I had missed Lenny Abrahamson’s last film “What Richard Did” (2012) but enjoyed both “Adam & Paul” (2004) & “Garage” (2007), sparse, atmospheric & affecting snapshots of modern Ireland, he’d do it right. Of course the film has nothing to do with & is not about our Frank. I wasted the first 30 minutes of the film attempting to get a handle on just what I was watching. Sure, this Frank has the same (but not the same) head worn by Magneto, currently the best actor around & that’s it. I was charmed by this story of a rock & roll band, hooked by their travails & the great performances by Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal (oh my !) & Brendan Gleeson’s boy Domhnall.

The music for “Frank” is by Abrahamson’s regular collaborator Stephen Rennicks. When the band finally do play something “Secure the Galactic Perimeter”, with echoes of Joy Division, the Doors & Captain Beefheart, is convincing stuff & it has to be for the film to work. Other songs capture Frank’s outsider perspective & the finale, “I Love You All”, poignantly & appropriately places the music at the heart of the storytelling. This Frank’s odd, subtle humour has hung around more than any film I saw last year & the Soronprfbs are the best celluloid rock band since the Leningrad Cowboys went America. You know they are, they really are !

 

 

For 30 years now Jim Jarmusch has been making films that have always entertained & sometimes delighted me. “Ghost Dog”, “Down By Law” &…well, it’s a list. His more recent films  have had a contemplative tone, not overly troubled by storyline, not everyone’s cup of pekoe. “Only Lovers Left Alive” is Jim’s vampire movie. Adam, a reclusive rock star played by Loki, is depressed & holed up in desolate, deserted  Detroit. His wife, Eve, leaves Tangiers (where she hangs with Christopher Marlowe) to join him. Eve is the wonderful Tilda Swinton who, with this, “Snowpiercer”, “The Zero Theorem” & “The Grand Budapest Hotel” had an amazing year. I’ve been a fan since Derek Jarman’s “Caravaggio” (1986), saw her as Mozart at the Almeida in 89 & in a glass case at the Serpentine Gallery in 95. So, I’m just the guy to buy into Jarmusch’s louche, modern day sanguisuges holding back the ennui of eternal life by playing chess, dropping heavyweight cultural names from the ages & sipping the finest blood money can buy.

 

“Only Lovers…” soundtrack spans time & continents, from Paganini through Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan to Jim’s own band SQURL. When our heroes do get out of the house (at the urging of vampire imp Mia Wasikowska who also stars in David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars”, #1 in my heart for 2014) they see White Hills at a club. Adam has a disdain for the digital taste of the “zombies”, keeping hold of treasured vinyl 7″ singles. This scene, when Eve shows him the beauty in the world by demanding he dances to Denise LaSalle’s “Trapped By A Thing Called Love” is just perfect. It (& Tilda) will bring me back to this reflection on everlasting love & enduring Art.

 

 

The funniest vampire movie of the year, “What We Do In the Shadows” & the equally amusing ghost/horror story “Housebound” both came from New Zealand while across the Tasman Sea in Australia writer-director David Michod released his follow up to “Animal Kingdom” (2010), a gripping, violent crime thriller about Melbourne gangsters. “The Rover” is set 10 years after the global economic collapse. We know that further down the line Max Rockatansky will be getting & going Mad but here the scavenging survivors are back in the Wild West & still wondering how the heck it had come to this. “The Rover” is a story stripped to its bare bones. Eric, the Man with One Name, has had his car nicked & he wants it back. The lad from “Twilight” knows where it is & they form an unlikely partnership along the way. Guy Pearce gives a ferocious performance which holds the film together while Robert Pattinson, in this & “Maps to the Stars” is proving that we were all wrong about him. “The Rover” is a harsh, violent film. One critic wrote that it is “bleak, brutal and unrelentingly nihilist”, that’s 5 stars then.

 

The score was written by Antony Partos, the soundtrack assembled by Sam Petty who both worked with Michod on “Animal Kingdom”. Eric is a man of few words & the script is as sparse as the film’s Outback setting. The soundscapes used in “The Rover” are evocative, even ominous but certainly not intrusive. I’ve chosen to include a piece by Partos but the soundtrack also put me on to jazz saxophonist Colin Stetson who makes some very interesting noises. David Michod is slated to write & direct “The Operators” next, an adaptation of Michael Hastings’ book about General McChrystal, Commander of US Forces in Afghanistan, starring Brad Pitt. I’ve had a good year’s viewing & will look forward to that.

Fly Jefferson Airplane, Get You There On Time.

Well I was just 17, you know what I mean & on Sunday the 28th of June 1970 I saw, among others, Pink Floyd, Santana, the Mothers of Invention & Led Zeppelin all play live. The 2nd day of the Bath Festival of Blues & Progressive Music was long & memorable. Led Zep, arriving onstage as the sun went down, headlined an amazing line-up which brought over 200,000 out to play. The “Woodstock” movie had its UK release in May & we wanted our own “3 days of peace & music”. The crowd started to drift away as Sunday became Monday but real life could wait a little longer because I had come to see the mighty Jefferson Airplane.

In the “Summer of Love” 1967 I was neither going to San Francisco nor wearing flowers in my hair. The world’s media descended on Haight Ashbury in S.F. to pour scorn & ridicule on these Hippies but something was happening & a schoolboy in an English provincial no-horse town knew more about what it was than  the propagandists of the fourth estate. In 1967 music was a bush telegraph for the youth, semaphore signals across enemy lines. The USA had been in thrall to invading British groups for long enough. A new generation of musicians on the West Coast was taking it back & pushing it forward. In Los Angeles the Doors were lighting fires & Love was all you needed while up in San Francisco it was like Liverpool in 1962, everybody was in a band. With 2 US Top 10 hits Jefferson Airplane were the most visible of these Bay Area crazies. “Somebody To Love” & “White Rabbit” were instant classics & are still around, shorthand signifiers of a certain time & place in American culture, you know them both. So, don’t watch that…watch this.

 

There was work to do to catch what we could of this music, becoming expert at when & where on the dial a radio station was playing it, harassing the older guys for a weekend loan of “Surrealistic Pillow” & “After Bathing At Baxters”, LPs which went gold in the US while remaining part of the “underground” here in the UK. The singles were no longer big hits but, on the release of “Crown of Creation” in 1968, the group were on “The Ed Sullivan Show”, a pre-recorded insert. San Franciscan music was based on the extended jam & TV had just 3 minutes to fill not 15. Those damned hippies were not to be trusted on prime-time TV.

We never saw these moving pictures of the Airplane. We heard the strength of Grace Slick’s voice, saw the way she looked the camera straight in the lens & were a little smitten. There was more to the group than a beautiful lead singer, “…Baxter’s” & “Crown…” have a lysergic touch without the harsh buzz of acid-rock. The music is blues-based with more texture & variety than the British Blues bands. It is intelligently crafted (that seemed important in 1968) without the everything but the kitchen sink approach of many post-Sergeant Pepper’s “progressive” bands. Jack Casady played the bass as a lead instrument & Jorma Kaukonen was our new guitar hero.

By 1969 there was a little more spare chaynge around to add “Bless Its Pointed Little Head to our small collection. “Bless…”, a live LP, opens with the ending of the movie “King Kong”, “it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty that killed the Beast”, before drummer Spencer Dryden charges into “3/5ths of a Mile in 10 Seconds”, followed by the rolling thunder of Jack Casady’s bass, the twin vocal attack of Grace & Marty Balin then the razor-edged guitar solo of Jorma Kaukonen…powerful stuff. Rhythm guitarist Paul Kantner would get his turn later on an impressive album which captures the group when all 6 members were committed & contributing.

Hey now, just a week after Woodstock & Dick Cavett gets the uber-hippies on to his show. Dick & Joni sit & watch the Airplane play the anthemic “We Can Be Together” & “Volunteers”, the opening & closing tracks of their new LP. We were so ready for “Volunteers” when it was released in November 1969. The band had never sounded so confident, their big sound reinforced by Nicky Hopkins’ keyboard playing which improved so much good music. Lyrically Jefferson Airplane had always been direct but now there were confrontational counter-culture statements of intent & what straight society “Amerika” thought “doesn’t mean shit to a tree”. Singing “Up against the wall motherfucker” had headline shock value but this is more than saying naughty words in front of our parents. The youth revolution polemic is assertive & confrontational but it is also celebratory & deliberately provocative. “Envy thou not the oppressor & choose none of his ways” (Proverbs 3:31). Good advice from way, way back that rang true in 1969 & still does.

It’s been a long time since I thought that music could change the world & that revolution was just around the corner. The politics of “Volunteers” are utopian & naive but this lack of guile encouraged a peregrination of possibilities which intrigued my teenage self. Musically the record still represents a high point of the late-60s Californian blossoming. “Hey Fredrick”, “Eskimo Blue Day” & the eerie “Wooden Ships” are all epic, a classic blend of Airplane’s lyrical & musical swagger. The latter, written by Kantner, Stephen Stills & David Crosby (who can been seen helping out on the Cavett clip) outdoes the Crosby, Stills & Nash version on their own debut LP.

Back at the Bath & Wells Showground Led Zeppelin had squeezed their audience till the juice ran down their legs. It was what many of the massive crowd had come to see but it just wasn’t my bag, man. LZ were followed by Hot Tuna, Kaukonen & Casady’s side project. This was much more my thing. They were joined by all the other members of JA except for Grace & I made my way to the front of the stage to watch these guys work their electrifying blues jams. I didn’t know these songs but I loved this music. In the rain of early Monday morning a Fish-less Country Joe brought the spirit of Woodstock to Somerset, protesting the Vietnam War by getting us to loudly shout “Fuck !”.

Swaddled in a damp sleeping bag I hit front of stage & was as close as possible to Grace Slick when the band began with “Volunteers”. Holy Moly ! Over the years I have seen many musical heroes but you never forget your first time yeah ? I was wide-eyed, didn’t want to miss any of this, the music, the lightshow, the people. The Airplane played 6 more tunes, older ones from the “Bless…” set before the rain got too heavy & its proximity to electricity too dangerous. I didn’t get to hear them play any more from the new record but what I had heard was enough. Anyway, I was hungry, dirty, smelly & really needed to sleep. We left the site in search of a car that we were pretty sure was out of petrol.

After “Volunteers”..well I’m running long on this so another time. I want to check for Neil & Butch who shared this first festival experience with me. I learned with them what a great time 3 days in a field could be. I learned too that maybe on the next times we should take a tent ! A shout to Mickey too, who I met the following year & with whom I spent many nights listening to the music of Jefferson Airplane/Starship. Good times, different times &, as he said to me just recently, “I wouldn’t have changed a thing”.