Sun Is Shining We’re Going Drivin’ (UK Pop Psych June 1969)

Despite the good intentions of record labels with a re-release schedule to fill there are only so many undiscovered, unappreciated at the time, “gems” to go around. There’s always a lot of good music about & it’s difficult for new talent to get a proper hearing & sometimes, y’know, these records are not that great. So, with apologies to Andwella’s Dream, Rainbow People & Pasha, all I’m sure worthy of investigation, my 3 selections from June 1969 are all by artists who enjoyed long successful careers. First up is Sheffield’s most famous gas fitter.

 

 

If ever there was a dead cert #1 record it was Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help From My Friends”. The transformation of a familiar song, one of the ditties Lennon &  McCartney gave Ringo to sing, into a soulful tour de force, a showcase for Joe’s leather-lunged vocal, was a masterstroke by producer Denny Cordell. In the early 1960’s there were young British men listening to & studying Ray Charles. In Newcastle, Belfast & Birmingham Eric Burdon, Van Morrison  & Stevie Winwood got the message & discovered their own extraordinary voices. Joe Cocker was up to the same thing in Sheffield, Yorkshire. It took a little longer, a couple of false starts, before the world heard & saw Joe When it happened you certainly knew about it.

 

Image result for joe cocker poster 1969Joe had a few songs of his own but Cordell, identifying his talent as a interpreter of other people’s songs, pointed him in the direction of some very good material for his debut LP. Assembling an array of mainly British talent in the studio (Jimmy Page plays on 5 tracks) the production avoided the exaggerations of the hit single, retaining the power & audacity behind such a distinctive voice. Traffic’s “Feeling Alright” is a grand opening, two Dylan tunes “Just Like a Woman” & “I Shall Be Released” are treated with reverence. “Do I Still Figure in Your Life?”, written by Pete Dello for his group Honeybus was one that inexplicably got away in 1967. Joe does the song & himself justice on this version.

 

Image result for joe cocker 1969In August 1969 Joe rocked up at the Woodstock Festival & the US of A loved him. A tour with his Grease Band was immediately followed by a hook up with Leon Russell who had written Joe’s marvelous “Delta Lady” single. “Mad Dogs & Englishmen”, a Rock & Roll travelling show, established Joe Cocker as a major international star but the intensive workload & on-the-road excesses took a physical & mental toll. He returned to Sheffield & it was some time before he was able to record & tour again. Joe never had to go back to servicing your boiler & thankfully didn’t join the time’s lengthy Rock casualty list. He was a major talent.

 

 

Related imageFor the past 5 years a new single by the Kinks had been a pretty big deal. Ever since 1964 when “You Really Got Me”, you know it, set a new standard for power chord guitar Rock most everything the group released on 7″ of vinyl had made the UK Top 10. Ray Davies was in the vanguard of a generation of British musicians who, following the lead of the Beatles, very quickly progressed from energetic imitation of their idols to expounding their own ideas about how the music should go & finding that millions were listening. The Kinks could rock but it was Ray’s mordant wit, one sharp, satirical eye on the Swinging Sixties, the other on the detail of English suburban life, that propelled an individual, consistent run of hits for which the group was best known.

 

The arrival of “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” changed the game. Groups who had been judged on the success of their most recent 45 now needed an album. No problem for the Kinks, “Face to Face” (1966)  & “Something Else By the Kinks” (1967) were…look, you’ll get no objectivity here, these two records are great examples of 1960’s British Pop-Rock, up there with “Revolver”, “Aftermath” & “The Who Sell Out”. Ray was honing his songwriting talent & so was brother Dave, the LP’s both included big hit singles but they didn’t sell very well. With ” The Village Green Preservation Society” the Kinks eschewed the psychedelic flourishes of their contemporaries favouring a wistful  nostalgia, “pictures of things as they used to be”, vignettes about a past England which possibly never really existed. Of course now “Village Green” is more than well respected it’s deservedly a cherished artefact of the times. Lacking the broad strokes of “Tommy” or the expected grandeur of a Rock Opera it was in Ray’s words, “the most successful ever flop”. This time there was no hit single to help attract interest. (That would have been “Big Sky”, you hear? “Big Sky”).

 

Image result for the kinks drivinIn June 1969  “Drivin'” was our introduction to Ray’s next project. “Arthur (Or the Decline of the British Empire)” the soundtrack to a TV play that was never made. The LP was released later in the year & if anything his concept & vision is more fully realised this time around. Y’know I could name 20 or more Kinks singles without consulting the Google & “Drivin'” would not be one of them. That’s not because of any drop in quality, play it twice & hum it all day, more an indication that the group were no longer an automatic choice for the playlist on the UK’s only music radio station. On the b-side was “Mindless Child of Motherhood”, a brilliant Dave Davies track recorded for an intended solo LP that unfortunately we never heard. The Kinks may have been stuttering a little in 1969 but form is temporary while class is permanent. The next time out “Lola”, you know it, put them back where they belonged. The Kinks – God save ’em!

 

 

Down in that London on the 7th of June there was evidence of the British love of free stuff when 120,000 turned up in Hyde Park for a gig by a band yet to release a record & making their live debut. If Eric Clapton & Steve Winwood thought that their new collaboration could be a low-key affair they were wrong. Joined by drummer Ginger Baker, another former member of Cream & bassist Rick Grech who left Family to complete the line up & Blind Faith was immediately labelled a “supergroup”. An expectant audience spent a pleasant sunny afternoon in the Park but an under-rehearsed set of unfamiliar songs was not perhaps the soundtrack they anticipated.

 

Image result for blind faith hyde park free concertsThe band’s eponymous debut LP is a fine example of British Rock. The extended Blues jams of Cream are avoided but so are their power & dexterity. I probably liked “Well All Right”, the Buddy Holly cover, more then than I do now. Winwood’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” & Clapton’s “Presence of the Lord”, two very good songs, are better realisations of the band’s intentions. A US arena tour opened at Madison Square Garden & Eric found in Delaney & Bonnie, the support act, a group he really wanted to play with. Blind Faith broke up, Steve Winwood went back to Traffic & recorded the sublime “John Barleycorn Must Die”. Well, that was quick, Blind Faith were not so super after all.

 

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Into The Groovy (Soul June 1969)

In the Summer of 69 I was 16 going on 17, you know what I mean, & the money in my pocket was not going to match the lifestyle to which I aspired. (I’m joking, none of these things that I do have ever amounted to a “Lifestyle”). My hometown steel plant employed temporary student labour but paid a lower rate to under-18’s so my Dad, a life-long socialist & keenly aware of the exploitative nature of the surplus value of labour, hooked me up with a friend’s construction company. It was my first proper work, the paper route didn’t count, & I loved it. The physical aspect of the job was enjoyable, they let me use the cement mixer, how cool was that? I may have been the butt of the older guys’ banter (there’s no such thing as tartan paint!) but it kept you fit & sharp. The holding folding for the weekend, after Mum had taken her cut (it’s OK, I owed her), well that was the point.

 

Oh yeah, the radio played all day long & there were some good ones about in June 1969. The UK Top 10 included the Beatles, Jethro Tull, the Beach Boys, Smokey Robinson & CCR. The feelgood hit of the summer, the  #1 record on the Billboard R&B chart for the whole of June & most of July, was a song that did it for me then & still does now.

 

 

Image result for marvin gaye too busy thinking about my babyAt the end of 1968 Marvin Gaye had cleaned up, deservedly so, with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”. A worldwide hit it became the biggest selling single for Motown, a label that was no stranger to the people who handed out gold records. Norman Whitfield had co-written “Pride & Joy” Marvin’s first US Top 10 record. With the departure from the company of ace producing/writing team Holland-Dozier-Holland, already well established, he stepped up his game. His work with the Temptations became more ambitious & experimental while for Marvin, re-working songs from his own back catalogue, Whitfield constructed perfect Pop-Soul classics. “Grapevine”, a recent hit for Gladys Knight & the Pips, became an ominous cry of betrayal & disbelief while “Too Busy Thinking ‘Bout My Baby”, originally on a 1966 Temptations’ LP, a joyous declaration of love. You hear that opening “Ah-ah-ha, Oh Yeah” & you know that here comes 3 minutes of happiness. A beautiful record, a consummate follow-up tailor-made to enhance Marvin’s reputation as one of the world’s foremost Soul singers.

 

Marvin Gaye, always a complicated man, was not in a good place in 1969. His early ambitions to emulate his idol Nat King Cole were now outdated as times changed, he had been deeply affected by the onstage collapse & subsequent illness of Tammi Terrell, his partner for a spectacular run of hit duets. His relationship with Berry Gordy, his brother-in-law as well as his label boss, was turbulent. A period of depression & introspection allied to a desire for the greater autonomy that other Soul artists were enjoying realised a flourishing creativity & an individual form of expression that genuinely moved Soul music forward. I’m sorry but if you don’t think that “What’s Going  On” (1971) is a cornerstone of modern American music then it’s unlikely that we could ever be friends.

 

 

Image result for supremes no matter what sign you areSticking in Detroit with Motown at #25 in the chart of June 21st was the latest 45 from the label’s premier female unit. These were unstable times for the Supremes, now known as Diana Ross & the… The drawn-out, messy departure of Florence Ballard, replaced by Cindy Birdsong, affected the group’s popularity. Despite Diane’s star treatment fans held all three of the original members in high regard. The rich seam of smash hits from the Holland-Dozier-Holland production line was drying up. In 1968 while “Love Child” became an 11th #1, other singles including  the marvelous H-D-H song “Forever Came Today”, were less successful. Plans for Ms Ross’ solo career were fixed & ready to be given the green light.

 

I liked “No Matter What Sign You Are”, the Age of Aquarius was thing back then. The trio, fixtures on “The Ed Sullivan Show”, give it plenty in their glittery, fringed finery. Diana is lip-synching to her own voice, Mary & Cindy were not needed in the studio where the Andantes took care of the backing vocals. Written by Berry Gordy & Hank Cosby it was intended to be the group’s farewell record but despite this groovy prime-time promotion it did not achieve the success anticipated by the label. Later in the year “Someday We’ll Be Together Again” was a more appropriately valedictory choice, the group’s 12th & final US #1 song. The phenomenon that was Diana Ross & the Supremes were now two separate acts.

 

 

Back in the very olden days when I didn’t know much about anything at all (& didn’t need to) I had a strong feeling that I really did like the records made by the Coasters. In 1958/9 the group, based in New York, had 3 UK Top 20 hits with irrepressible, irreverent story-songs, my first experience of cool American humour & probably my initial exposure to Rhythm & Blues. Both “Yakety Yak” & “Charlie Brown” featured  exciting, honking saxophone insertions played by a young Texan establishing himself on the NY session scene. Later, when I became aware of just how good King Curtis was, I wasn’t surprised that he had caught my ear previously.

 

Image result for king curtis instant groove“Instant Groove” was a new entry on the Billboard R&B chart this week at #35. King, Curtis Ousley, had signed with Atlantic & assembled a group of the finest session players in New York. “Memphis Soul Stew” was as succulent as it sounds, each ingredient/instrument successively introduced to the pot, a recipe for a spicy, effervescent brew that few instrumentals could match. “Instant Groove” is exactly what it says on the label. Originally recorded & produced by KC with his “Orchestra” (including young Jimi Hendrix) as “Help Me” for Ray Sharpe in 1966, the following year the “Gloria” inspired riff reappeared on Aretha Franklin’s first LP for Atlantic as “Save Me”. The NYC Funk version features a great bass solo by Jerry Jemmott. He & the other Kingpins, Richard Tee (keyboards), Cornell Dupree (guitar) & Bernard “Pretty” Purdie (drums) could play any music put in front of them. When they played with King Curtis he brought out their Soul.

 

Image result for king curtisBy 1971 King Curtis was at the apex of his career. In March he & the Kingpins supported & backed Aretha Franklin for 3 concerts at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. Live albums of the occasion were released by both artists. “Soul Train”, a new TV programme called when a theme tune was required. The actual John Lennon needed half a pint of horn for a couple of tracks on “Imagine” & KC, who had been on the undercard at Shea Stadium back when Beatlemania was a thing, was the best man for the job. In August of that year, on the steps up to his Manhattan apartment, he became involved in an argument with a couple of drug dealers & was fatally stabbed, he was 37 years old. Tragic.

New Music For June 2019

“Yawn” by Bill Ryder-Jones was the best album of 2018. Not some 14 day wonder that catches your ear, gets a few plays because of the novelty of having shiny new music around the house before returning to the tried & tested, it’s a record that has impressed me more than any others by “newer” artists that have crossed my path. “Yawn” still shares a place at the front of the stack with recent releases by Edwyn Collins, J.J. Cale & Wreckless Eric, musicians who have been a treasure & a pleasure for a long time now. This week Bill announced the upcoming release of “Yawny Yawn”, a re-imagining of his record for just voice & piano. Of course I’m going to be interested in such a project, even more so after seeing & hearing the first track he has made available.

 

 

Image result for bill ryder jonesBill says that “ I presume at some point I felt that the original had too much pep”, an example of the man’s dry wit. He’s a master of matter-of-fact Merseyside melancholia &, as he sings, “there’s a fortune to be had from telling people your sad”. “Yawn” has it’s share of loss, regret & introspection that I find to be honest & emotional rather than miserable. The soundscapes & sometimes surprising guitar interjections certainly add power & beauty to the songs but “Don’t Be Scared I Love You”, already a little cracker, sounds just fine in its new sparse arrangement. Bill’s lyrics are strong enough to stand the stripped-back treatment & when “Yawny Yawn” is released on July 26th I for one will be on it.

 

So what else is new?

 

 

Image result for whitney bandI was talking up Whitney’s “Light Upon the Lake” album all those years ago in 2016.  We have to wait until the end of August for “Forever Turned Around” & this week the group have given us a taste with the almost instrumental “FTA” & “Giving Up”. “Light…” came around at a time when I was feeling that some of my favourite US artists had perhaps become a little predictable, their best work already done. Whitney’s fresh light touch, melodic Indie with soulful folky undertones appealed as precisely the update that Americana needed. The group checked for Levon Helm (Julian Ehrlich is another singing drummer) & Allen Toussaint & while they are hardly as Funky as Lee Dorsey (who is?) these are pretty good names to aspire to. The smooth swoop of Max Kakacek’s guitar brought to mind George Harrison & still does, another pretty good influence to have around. Julian’s individual, distinctive voice is a taste I’ve been happy to acquire, “Giving Up” bodes well for the new collection, that trumpet/guitar break is just lovely. Bring It On.

 

 

Image result for the skints swimming lessonsIt’s within living memory that I was tagging the Skints as the best young band in the UK. “Swimming Lessons”, the group’s 4th album, is the expected conflation of dubby reggae, rap & punky power chords blended with assurance & energy. They are a 4-piece with 3 vocalists who all get their turn on lead. Marcia Richards has the sweetest voice while guitarist Joshua chats his conscious lyrics. It’s Jamie, the drummer/singer, who has always hit the spot with UK Pop Reggae that would not be out of place on an early Dennis Brown LP.. At their best the Skints bring to mind the Specials, a group who combined Ska & social commentary with commercial appeal more effectively than any other. Perhaps none of the new tracks stand out like “This Town” or “The Cost of Living is Killing Me” though a little more time spent with “The Island”, a no holds barred state of the nation address, could change my mind. The Skints are growing up, the range of their music is ambitious & always worth a listen because they get it & they get it right.

 

OK that’s 3 & “Humanworld”, the new LP from Peter Perrett arrived this week, time will definitely be made for that. It’s a proper treat to hear more new songs from the former member of the Only Ones after so long away from the studio. Yesterday I discovered that there’s an upcoming Richard Hawley record. It keeps you busy all this new music business, I’m not surprised that people stick to the things they already know & love!