Better Late Than Never (Motown Hits)

In March 1965 a series of 6 four track EPs marked the establishment of the Tamla Motown label in the UK. Previous releases had been through London American, Fontana, Oriole & finally Stateside. The assembly line at Hitsville USA in Detroit was sustaining 5 subsidiaries, Tamla, Motown, Gordy, Soul & V.I.P. The same writer/producers, the same musicians, a unique & successful operation, “the Sound of Young America”. There were 43 singles on the new label in the first 9 months. They couldn’t all be chartbusters, weren’t all by the great stars of the roster. Sometimes it took a little longer for the record buying public to catch on to some of the gems from Tamla Motown.

 

 

Image result for isley brothers soul on the rocks“This Old Heart of Mine” by the Isley Brothers was the #1 record of my youth club years (that’s the ones immediately before I could get served in pubs). The debut Motown release for the Brothers, January 1966 in the US, March in the UK, it was their only Top 20 hit in the US for the label & scraped into the Top 50 over here. If you were not already out on the floor then you certainly were before Ronald started singing. Over two years later the song was still being played in the great Soul/Ska sets I attended in the upstairs rooms of bars. A re-release saw it become a Top 3 hit, another smash for the crack Holland-Dozier-Holland unit. Trouble was, for Motown, the Isley Brothers had already left the label before this success.

 

“The Isleys’ wild call & response songs “Shout” & “Twist & Shout” had been picked up by the British Beat Boom & the group were a little too rugged for the sophisticated Detroit sound. The first LP for Motown had heavy involvement from H-D-H but 3 of their songs were a little second-hand having already been hits for others. On the “Soul on the Rocks” LP (1967) the A Team were absent & , while talented people were around to produce, the Isleys were dissatisfied with with the material & promotion they received. Motown went back to an old hit “I Guess I’ll Always Love You” & it did well again. “Behind a Painted Smile” had not been considered as a single in 1967. By May 1969 it & other stomping Isley tracks were favourites in the Soul clubs. This dense, dramatic classic, a perfect blend of impassioned vocals & the driving Funk Brothers rhythm section (James Jamerson, Benny Berrigan ?), Joe Messina’s fuzz guitar became a Top 5 hit. The Brothers Isley were more popular in the UK than at home until “It’s Your Thing”, on their own T-Neck label, scored their biggest sales yet. A couple of years later resistance was futile as their expanded family band just took over.

 

 

Oh yes ! The Elgins only got the one shot at Motown. The LP “Darling Baby” (1965) was produced by Brian Holland & Lamont Dozier, again featuring song’s by Detroit’s most talented songwriting trio with 4 covers of Atlantic hits as the filler. The title track & “Heaven Must Have Sent You” were R&B hits but there was to be no second LP from the group. In 1967 singer Saundra Mallett Edwards left the group & though she was replaced just look at the clip, from “Swingin’ Time” & you will see why she was missed. “Swingin’ Time” was a music show out of Windsor, Ontario, just across the river from Detroit. They got some great Motown acts as guests & the surviving Y-tube clips are worth searching out.

 

Image result for the elgins heaven must have sent youBy 1970 columnist Dave Godin had identified a North-South divide in UK Soul fans. While Funk began to carry the swing in the USA “Northern Soul” fans were more interested in crate-digging for obscure uptempo dance records from the mid-60’s. In 1971 the 6 year old “Heaven Must Have Sent You” was re-released, broke out of the clubs & was a Top 3 hit. In the Spring of 1971 Stevie Wonder released “Where I’m Coming From”, Marvin Gaye “What’s Going On”, Diana Ross, no longer a Supreme, was filming “Lady Sings the Blues” & plans for Motown to leave Detroit for Los Angeles were in advanced stages. The success of “Heaven Must…” showed that the public still wanted to dance & sing along to those classic Holland-Dozier-Holland, themselves no longer with the label, songs OK…♫ I’ve cried through many endless nights, just holding my pillow tight. Then you came into my lonely day, with your tender and your sweet ways. ♫ Smashing !

 

 

 

Image result for r. dean taylor there's a ghost in my houseCanadian R Dean Taylor signed for Motown as a songwriter & recording artist in 1964. The records didn’t go so well but writing credits kept his name in the frame. There was a Marvelettes track with Norman Whitfield, a Brenda Holloway A-side with Frank Wilson. In 1967 “7 Rooms of Gloom” was the 4th single from the 4 Tops greatest LP “Reach Out”. It was the B-side, “I’ll Turn to Stone”, with the credit Holland-Dozier-Holland-Taylor (that’s good company to keep), which became a dancefloor favourite. A dramatic self-produced single from that year, “Gotta See Jane”, written with Brian Holland, failed at home but reached the UK Top 20 in 1968. With the departure from the label of the great trio Motown’s production staff had to step up to keep the hits coming. Taylor had co-credits on two singles by Diana Ross & the Supremes, “Love Child”, a #1,& “I’m Living in Shame”. You know more R Dean Taylor songs than you thought you did.

 

In 1970 R Dean moved to Rare Earth, a label Motown set up for white artists. He scored with “Indiana Wants Me” an odd song about a murderer chased & caught by the police. It was his only US success but we hadn’t finished with him yet in the UK. Back in 1966 he had recorded “There’s a Ghost in my House”, another track with that impressive H-D-H-Taylor credit. Another irresistible Motown stomper that went missing at the time, it became a staple of Northern Soul DJ sets & reached the Top 10 in 1974. That’s 3 Top 20 hits for R Dean Taylor, an individual Motown talent.

 

All 3 of these songs were resurrected by the Northern Soul scene but you didn’t have to be a regular at the Casino or the Twisted Wheel to appreciate & enjoy them. The scene was big in the early 1970’s, these rediscovered breakout hits received wider radio play & sold to a bigger audience. We were listening to Sly, Marvin, the Isleys, Funkadelic, the new sounds of Black America but the fact remained that you could not beat a bit of classic Tamla Motown to make your weekend go better.

Out Here On The Perimeter (Prince Far I/Creation Rebel)

Well, look at this ! I have not seen this poster since…I have never seen this poster before… but I made the gig on the 23rd of April 1979. There were only the 3 of us going to see Prince Far I when we were usually team handed for any chance of a good night out. Not only was it a Monday, the night best spent relaxing on a saline drip after a bloody good weekend & an hallucinatory first day of the working week but also the gig was in Stockport . We were in Manchester, only 7 miles distant but a long way away.

 

I was good with the small turnout, just me & 2 young women, always a good balance. S was my girlfriend…ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with ? That’s her. J was a new friend who, at a time I needed good friends, was as solid as a rock without me ever having to ask. We were in Janet’s car for the first time. I wonder how good a driver she would be ? She, like myself, liked to get high. Hey, it probably improved her driving…probably. She had only just splashed her cash on the vehicle to make her commute to work easier. Fortuitously Janet worked in Stockport so she knew the way.

 

Image result for prince far iThis journey into the unknown was being undertaken because a chance to see Prince Far I was too good to miss. Reggae, you know it…the music that goes chang-a, chang-a, was moving on up in the late 1970s. Bob Marley & the Wailers’ popularity had opened ears to the Rastafarian inspired Roots music from Jamaica. At house/blues parties we heard Dennis Brown & Gregory Isaacs. Dillinger, Culture & Burning Spear featured in Punk DJ sets while John Peel, the national treasure of British music radio, always attracted to the outre & the surprising, played the latest Dub plates & plenty of Prince Far I. His first LP “Psalms For I” (1975) was simply that, a voice of thunder intoning sacred songs over simple, similar rhythms. “Under Heavy Manners” followed in 1977, less religion more politricks. Whether Far I’s proselytising was sacred or secular he convinced you to sit up & listen.

 

So, put yourself in Ray’s Place yeah. Trying too hard, unsubtle, and inauthentic, that’s the definition of cheesy. I’m not the guy who’ll make cracks about Stockport & sophistication but it was a faded aspirant nightclub & there was a good reason why I avoided joints like this. In Manchester we had the Apollo & the Free Trade Hall for the bigger gigs (no 20,000 seat arenas then). The Factory/Russell Club in Hulme was the perfect post-Punk hangout, rough & ready with the best music of the time right in front of you. If you just wanted a beer, a band & a night with your mates then you went to see Ed Banger & the Nosebleeds at the Band on the Wall in Swan St. OK, this was…er, different but the company was good, the bar was open until 2 a.m. & we had a “Reggae Spectacular” about to start. Happy Days !

 

 

Image result for creation rebel 1979The show, known as “Roots Encounter”, was quite special. Creation Rebel took the stage & made themselves comfortable. they were staying for the whole night. The band already had their own LP “Dub From Creation” (1978), rhythm tracks recorded in Jamaica, polished in London. The addition of drummer Lincoln “Style” Scott, through the Far I hook up, added class, Dr Pablo’s melodica made for a distinct sound. With subsequent releases Creation Rebel would find their deserved place in our collections, usually finding the turntable at around 1 a.m. after a night of smoking it up. Tonight they were the backing band, first for the toaster Prince Hammer then vocalist Bim Sherman.

 

Natty dread was taking over Ray’s Place. The hard edges were softened by rhythms that demanded that you dance. The crowd were moving together at the front of the stage & everything felt a little warmer. Adrian Sherwood was a young fan with a talent for mixing tracks & for getting things done. He was already involved with all of the acts on tonight & after a couple of false starts he formed his own label, On-U Sound. Sherwood had intriguing & experimental thoughts on production & the label soon became a hallmark of quality, its varied output of Reggae & beyond always worth investigation. Tonight was his idea of how a Reggae show should go, Creation Rebel stretching out & taking up the slack between sets, the music never stopping. A good idea it was too.

 

 

Image result for prince far iWhen the star of the show arrived onstage there was definitely a surge of energy in the place. The man had presence, his individual growl serious & impressive. He described himself as a “chanter” rather than a toaster, whatever it was it worked. Creation Rebel were dubbing it up, heavy on the bass to match the lyrics. Prince Far I trod his own path & I was reminded of another unique talent, Captain Beefheart. There can be no higher praise. I have no idea what songs he played, refreshments had been taken & I was having a time. I’ve included “Message From the King” here because I love the combination of Prince & Culture’s Joseph Hill. If you have the time & the inclination towards fine music then check the Peel Session from June 1978 which gives a better idea of what we heard on the night.

 

There’s a lot of Prince Far I’s music about. His alliance with Adrian Sherwood worked to their mutual benefits, Far I got his records released & Sherwood gained access to Jamaican artists recorded by the Prince. Between 1978 & 1981 4 chapters of “Cry Tuff Dub Encounter” were produced alongside a couple of other LPs in each year. In 1983 Prince Far I was shot & killed during a robbery at his home in Kingston Jamaica. He was a great loss to not just Reggae music & his lyrics continue to stir & inspire today. I was privileged to be able experience his live show. It was worth visiting Stockport after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Steal Away to the Dark End of the Street (James Carr)

This short clip, just 50 seconds long, is all we have of one of the great, if not the greatest Southern Soul singers in his prime. It’s from 1966 & “Love Attack” was the follow-up to a Top 10 R&B hit “You Got My Mind Messed Up”. James Carr’s rich, powerful, emotional voice was gaining him comparison with Otis Redding, the new shooting star of Soul. James’ star never took the same trajectory. It could’ve, maybe should’ve but that was not the way it turned out to be.

 

 

Image result for james carrIn 1964 a couple of Memphis store owners, Quinton Claunch & Doc Russell, started Goldwax Records. Claunch was a music guy, a guitarist, a songwriter then a partner in Hi Records. He was looking to record some of the talent drawn to the city by the success of the Stax label. Late one night he was called on by two singers with Gospel backgrounds, forgotten groups with great names…the Redemption Harmonizers,  Sunset Travelers, Harmony Echoes. Their companion, Roosevelt Jamison, had a song “That’s How Strong My Love Is” & O.V. Wright made it a Soul classic, later covered by Otis & the Rolling Stones. Unfortunately O.V. had signed an earlier contract with someone else which meant that he was off the label. It was the other equally talented caller, James Carr, who Goldwax hoped would become their new star.

 

 

Image result for james carrOf the 14 singles released by James between 1965 & 1969 only two made the R&B Top 10 & none had significant impact on the pop charts. These 28 tracks, collected on “The Complete Goldwax Singles” make a wonderful thing. If this music fits right in with the prevailing energy & creativity of the contemporary Memphis scene it’s probably because many of the same musicians were sitting in on the sessions. Those Memphis Boys sure could play but a James Carr record is dominated by the guy singing the Blues not the band. The breakout “You Got My Mind…” was the 4th release, “Love Attack” was followed by “Pouring Water on a Drowning Man”, a great song by two guys who seem to have written nothing else, then by “The Dark End of the Street”. This much covered, though never bettered, instant classic was from the brief collaboration between Dan Penn & Chips Moman out of American Sound Studio. Moman had produced earlier Goldwax records for a bottle of whiskey & a couple of pills. With “Dark End…” he was getting paid & proving to be worth it. The impeccable “These Ain’t Raindrops”, a Quinton Claunch composition, was the b-side of Carr’s cover of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody”. Quality control was pretty high at the studio.

 

James was not the easiest of individuals to deal with. Roosevelt Jamison was around in the early days to help with personal affairs such as depression & a growing dependency on drink & drugs, as well as any business problems arising from James’ illiteracy. Other agents & managers offered more opportunity when a friend from the old days could have been more helpful. Singers with less emotional range, Percy Sledge, Eddie Floyd, Arthur Conley, found that one song that put them high on the charts while James Carr never did. He had a rare talent but was ill-suited to the life of a touring artist.

 

 

Image result for james carr dark end of the street“She’s Better Than You”, another b-side, was written by O.B. McClinton, on the staff at the label as a writer & singer. Goldwax had minor hits with the Ovations & Spencer Wiggins but James was their great hope. As problems increased with the star, he would sit silently for hours in the studio before performing, differences between the owners led to Goldwax being dissolved in 1969. The only two LPs they had released were both by James.

 

There was a single recorded in Mississippi & released by Atlantic in 1971 but that was it from James for 20 years. His mental health problems worsened, periods of hospitalisation followed while Jamison did what he could to help his friend. In 1979 there was a tour of Japan where a stressed James took a double dose of anti-depressants & froze onstage. The first collection of his A-sides came around in 1987 with the tagline “the World’s Greatest Soul Singer”. Soul fans like myself, kids in the 1960’s, caught up in the explosive excitement of Otis, Aretha & the wicked Pickett, were older now, able to appreciate the depth of feeling & experience that James brought to his music. He was rarely seen & not in great shape but his reputation continued to grow.

 

 

Image result for james carrIn 1991 Goldwax was revived & James made a comeback LP produced by Roosevelt Jamison. Then, a year later at the Porretta Soul Festival in Italy an unassuming old man with staring eyes was introduced as James Carr. He looked nothing like the handsome, pompadoured singer from 1966 but, from the opening notes of  “Lovable Girl” you knew who this was & that you were in for a very rare treat. The casually dressed all-star backing band includes the Memphis Horns with Andrew Love & Wayne Jackson, on guitar is Teenie Hodges, mainstay of the many great records made at Willie Mitchell’s Hi studios. James’ voice was not what it was, this is 35 years later but he is in control of his instrument, knows what he can still do & how to turn up the power. Maybe it’s because there are no clips of a younger James singing “Dark End…” that I keep returning to this version of “You Got My Mind Messed Up”. The singer himself seems to know that he’s delivered & his take on “drops mic & leave” at the end is just brilliant.

 

James Carr died in a Memphis nursing home in June in 2001 aged 58. Did he ever gain the recognition & reputation that his work deserved ? I don’t worry about that. I do know that when I want to hear a great collection of mature Memphis Soul from the 1960’s then I reach for “The Complete Goldwax Singles”.

 

 

 

Random Notes (March 2017)

Is it Spring yet ? Can I leave the house again ? The clocks have been changed, back or forward, I’m never sure, the nights are lighter, well a lighter shade of grey, so why am I so flipping cold ? Any road up, March has been a fine musical month so I have been happy to huddle up to my nice warm speakers. Here are 3 of the best.

 

 

The month got off to a flying start with the arrival, on the 3rd, of the new, much anticipated (well, by me) LP by Sleaford Mods. On “English Tapas” (half a scotch egg, a cup of chips, pickle and a mini pork pie…mate, if only I was joking) Jason Williamson continues to spit, snarl & swear at life in modern Britain. Anger & disdain are his default settings, “Moptop” begins with an attack on Boris Johnson, the Tory liar & fool, before getting in the face of modern music & internet attention spans. It may seem that this is more of the same, the Smods formula, but things have changed in the two years since “Key Markets” & these Brex-City Rollers have something to say about it, something that deserves to be heard & that I want to hear.

 

Image result for sleaford mods english tapasSome feel that a laptop, a beer, a fag & a cool T-shirt (“Still Hate Thatcher”…yes please) doesn’t make a “real” musician. Beatmaster Andrew Fearn obviously puts a lot of thought & talent into complementing Jason’s lyrics. On this record he has, I think, done his best work yet, ominous & urgent. He has every right to share the credit & if he kicks back on stage then so fucking what ! This time around Jason rails against gym culture, weekends of crap cocaine, “pint cans of imported shit” beer in places where the “music’s shit but the queue…is getting big”. A generation that has been abandoned & disdained (One of Jason’s tweets got him expelled from the opposition Labour Party) by the political class which make decisions that makes a life with nothing much even less. I’ve said before that I live around people like the Sleaford Mods & the people they write about. Jason Williamson is not the voice of the people but he is the voice of some of the people & I’m glad that he’s around to take snapshots of life in 2017.

 

 

It took a couple of weeks for “Freedom is Free” by Chicano Batman to come around. I thought that I was on to something new & into something good but it turns out that the Batmen have already featured on loosehandlebars when Gigi Mac, our rarely seen (lazy 🙂 ) American correspondent, put us on to them in January 2016. Gigi wrote…”nattily attired in tuxes, ruffled shirts & bowties [clearly break-away or infused with spandex, considering the stage athleticism]. Their sound?  think Prince with less ‘Revolution’ meets trippy, late 70s Mexican surfer. A  hint of jazz, but definitely able to seriously ROCK– blisteringly hot & focused bass, charming & flirty front man on keyboard and rhythm guitar with luxurious flowing curls & a killer falsetto”. I could not put it better myself so I’m not going to try.

 

Image result for chicano batman“Freedom…” is their 3rd LP. It is produced by Leon Michaels who has a pretty cool track record as an instrumentalist with various groups, an arranger & producer with his Truth & Soul Records. Leon has worked with Sharon Jones & “Friendship (is a Small Boat in a Storm)” is the most Daptonic track here. Other cuts reflect influences from early 70s Funk but this is no retro Soul record, CB get loose & a little out there as the album progresses, it’s always involving & interesting. I guess that because of the Spanish lyrics & Latin rhythms, the psychedelic touches, that the word Tropicalia, an artistic movement from late 1960’s Brazil, is dropped into reviews. Cumbia, a rhythm from Colombia & Panama gets a mention too. Chicano Batman are neither of those, what they are, Gigi Mac knows this, we know & now you all know too, is “trippy, late 70s Mexican surf music” & bloody good it is too.

 

 

Meanwhile, back in the UK, Idles released their first LP this month.It’s been 5 years since the 5 piece band, formed in Bristol, made an EP then retreated until they were lean & mean, at their best fighting weight, ready to take on all contenders. “Brutalism” is a collection of short, sharp shocks, a barrage of guitars (with the quieter “Slow Savage” at the end) & the angry snarl of  Joe Talbot’s vocals. Joe, bullish in a china shop in the video for “Mother”, is combative & aggressive with things to say about misogyny, the N.H.S, Tories, philistinism & a couple of TV chefs.

 

Image result for idles band“Anger is an energy” said someone (now a mad, old butter salesman) but Idles are about more than shouting & pointing. They charge around but they still hit their targets with accuracy & humour. The  video for “Stendhal System”, bassist Dev Devonshire hamming it up around the gallery, is laugh out loud funny while the song makes its point about the power of Art & willful ignorance of it. Is it Punk Rock or Post-Punk ? I don’t care, it’s a glorious noise. Take this record round to friends’ houses, play it loud & get asked, as I was, to turn it down. Idles are on to something & could be headed for bigger things. Remember “the best way to scare a Tory is to read & get rich”. “Well Done”.

Bonana-Fanna-Fo-Fer-ley (Shirley Ellis)

Hey ! Over here ! Do you want to hear a song called “Ever See a Diver Kiss His Wife While the Bubbles Bounce About Above the Water?” ? Well of course you do, you’re not nuts ! Just one click & it will happen. Shirley Ellis was a Jill-of-all-trades, equally comfortable with Jazz, standards or R&B & eccentric, energetic versions of nursery rhymes/skipping songs. It was the latter of these which gave her 3 US Top 10 hits in 18 months so those are the songs she is remembered for. I’m not about to make a case for Shirley being one of the greats. The hits were simple & were often novelties but they were fresh, smart & bold, she made an impression & I like them.

 

 

Image result for shirley ellis nitty grittyIt’s January 1964, in just 2 weeks the Beatles are coming to rid the US Top 10 of Singing Nuns & Italian-American teen idols called Bobby or Fabien. The only keepers are the great garage anthems “Louie Louie” & “Surfing Bird” along with Shirley Ellis & her first hit “The Nitty Gritty”. I have checked for the etymology of this rhyming phrase. Some of it was rude, or racist or downright wrong. Whatever, Lincoln Chase’s song is often credited with taking it back & putting it out there. Lincoln Chase had written hit records in the 1950s & he became Shirley’s manager, producer & co-writer. He shortened her surname from Elliston & tailored the songs not only to suit her talent but make them stand out on the radio. There were follow ups to “Nitty Gritty” that failed but a year later she returned to a US Top 10 which had gotten better & included the Righteous Brothers, Joe Tex, Sam Cooke, the Kinks & the Temptations (Oh my !).

 

 

 

Image result for shirley ellis“The Name Game” is probably the best remembered of Shirley’s hits. It’s another witty ditty with a great percussive, insistent danceable arrangement. It’s fun, Tom Hanks plays it (“The Money Pit”), so does Jessica Lange (in “American Horror Story” & we still play it. “There isn’t any name that you can’t rhyme”. That’s true, just leave Chuck out of this !

 

The successor to “Name Game” gave Shirley an international hit. In the Summer of 1965 music was a big thing in the UK & I can remember kids in the street singing the rhythmic chant of “The Clapping Song (Clap Pat Clap Slap) ” which spent 6 weeks in our Top 10. The lyrics were borrowed from a 1930s song, you know it, everybody knows it…” Three-six-nine, the goose drank wine, the monkey chewed tobacco on the streetcar line”. Lovely.

 

 

Image result for shirley ellisBy 1966 the time was right for a brand new beat. The emergence of Motown in Detroit & Stax in Memphis meant that it was getting mighty crowded in the R&B market & it took more than a cute novelty lyric to get a hit. Shirley failed to match the success of “The Clapping Song” with more simple rhymes & an ill-judged Xmas single. She signed to Columbia & the second single for her new label was the wonderful “Soul Time”. Lincoln Chase was less evident by now & the self-penned “Soul Time” will have you on the dance floor before the vocal comes in then keep you there through the 2-4-6-8-10 refrain. In the Casinos & Twisted Wheels of the north of England they kept the faith with Shirley but her time in the charts had passed & “Soul Time” failed to register as did the almost as groovy “Sugar, Let’s Shing-A-Ling”. The one LP released by Columbia is hardly “Lady Soul” but Shirley’s confident vocals matched to upbeat arrangements make for an interesting listen.

 

Then that was it for Shirley Ellis, she retired from the music business. She’s now 76 & there are no clips of her getting right down on any of the golden oldie shows. As I said at the top of the page she is not mentioned alongside the outstanding female voices of the 1960s but she made a lot of memorable music, all of it enjoyable & all of it fun. I ain’t ever had too much Fun !

Dreadlocks In Derry (Lee Perry)

I didn’t really need an excuse to return to Derry, on my two previous visits not only friends but everyone I met seemed happy to see me & to share stories. It had been 10 months since the last time so a concert by Lee “Scratch” Perry, a musical legend whose influence extends beyond his chosen field of Reggae, was a perfect focal point around which another long weekend could be planned. The gig was on March 18th & apparently, I don’t keep up with these things, the day before is St Patrick’s Day, a rather big deal to the Irish. Shoot, it was a dead stone bonker that this would be hectic…so let’s go !

 

 

Image result for lee perry“Dub Revolution Part 1”, the first track on the 3 CD “Arkology”, the ultimate collection of Scratch’s work at his Black Ark studio round the back of his house in Washington Gardens, Kingston, Jamaica. In this yard he practised nothing less than alchemy to pioneer techniques that anyone with a laptop now takes for granted & to produce music of unrivalled  imagination & quality. If ever I was exiled to a desert island & could only take one piece of music then it would be “Arkology”. Lee Perry’s rhythms demand that your hips sway, the conscious lyrics are from & for the heart & his Dub explorations hit upside your head. It’s a perfect package with sunshine in the grooves.If you could grow weed on that island then that would be nice but this music would still get you as high as that palm tree.

 

The gig in Derry was the day before Scratch’s 81st birthday so he probably wouldn’t be leaping around the stage (I know I won’t be at that age). Much of his best work was done in his producer’s booth. We were not sure what exactly we were going to get  but we would be sharing oxygen with Lee Perry, a legend, a man who’s bona fides justified the tag “genius” & that was enough. So, after Ireland’s surprise victory over England at rugby (I was the only Englishman in the packed bar. That was interesting, I thought these people were my friends!) we made our way to the Nerve Centre buoyed by an anticipatory buzz.

 

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We were not disappointed, The 4-piece band played us into the room. They were the Upsetters, not Scratch’s original house  group but as his backing band they have the right. Back in 1969 the woman lucky enough to become my wife had spent the money from her Saturday job on “The Return of Django” by the Upsetters, Perry’s first UK hit, on the day I met her. It was Love at first sight…with the record, the rest came later. Reggae gigs smell  a little differently nowadays with the ban on smoking, the star of the night entered to acclaim from the big crowd. He’s a small man, big coat, big hat. He looked happy to be there & we were happy to see him.

 

One of the things about Lee Perry’s music is that he does the simple things beautifully. Susan Cadogan’s “Hurt So Good” (1975) is perfect Pop Reggae while Max Romeo’s LP “War Ina Babylon” (1976) showed that rather than setting the controls to the heart of the Dub, powerful, passionate music just needs strong songs & a wonderful groove. Tonight we got “Chase the Devil” from that record, “Police & Thieves” came around too & man that hit the right spot. What we didn’t get was an old man trying to recreate past glories note for note & word for word. He rode the rhythm smoothly, maybe chatting whatever came to him in the moment & he never missed a beat, a rhythm rapper, comfortable on stage, showing off his bright red hair. You could hear why Lee Perry is such a great producer, he knows what is in a song & he knows how that song goes.

 

Image result for lee perryOf course Scratch was instrumental in the early career of Bob Marley & the Wailers. His set included his versions of “Punky Reggae Party”, “Crazy Baldhead” & “Sun is Shining” before closing with a driving encore of “Exodus”. Again these were echoes of the tunes we know, with only a whisper of Dub. Lee Perry is the Dub Adventurer but that is for another time. We did see the natural mystic & we heard some great Roots Reggae. I don’t get around much anymore but if there are places where there are as many smiling faces as tonight at the Nerve Centre then perhaps I should be there too.

 

 

 

OK…so much things to say. My hosts & fellow concert-goers, Joe & Gayle, don’t need a shout out (oh, I just did !) I think they know just how much I value their company. On the bus from Belfast Laura & Shirley, two Glaswegians on a mission to drink Derry dry, insisted that I be included in their fun. The following day I was able to return the favour & they squeezed into a packed Sandinos bar to join my small circle of friends in celebrating St Patrick. They fitted right in.

 

Finally Derry has lost two of its favourite sons in the past 48 hours. Martin McGuinness was radicalised by the growing demand for civil rights in his community & the violent response by armed forces employed by the British government in the late 1960s. Until January of this year he served as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. His struggle & his progress embodies that of the community into which he was born. Ryan McBride was born in Derry in 1989, different times. On Saturday he captained the city’s football team, the Candystripes, to victory & was found dead at his home the next day. Out here on the perimeter of my country, Derry has an individual, often troubled history. It welcomes strangers with an open hand & with respect. It keeps a special place for those of their own who make a difference because it is a special place.

Mannish Boy (Steve Winwood/Spencer Davis Group)

Chris Blackwell founded Island Records in Jamaica in 1958 with a start-up stash provided by his wealthy family. He made records for the local scene, mostly singles, some of them hits. Blackwell was a bit of a toff, educated at Harrow, connected, with a shrewd eye for spotting talent. On returning to England in 1962 he was selling his records, licensed from Jamaica for UK release, from the back of his car to specialist shops serving the immigrant community. This niche market was his own, he expanded with other subsidiaries. Jump Up for Trinidad’s calypso, Sue cherry-picked American R&B, Black Swan, another reggae label. In 1964 he produced “My Boy Lollipop” by Millie, the most infectiously catchy song ever recorded & the first Bluebeat (the then current term for Jamaican music) international hit. Island’s finances couldn’t cover the ante for pressing half a million records, the record was released through a more established label. “…Lollipop” was Blackwell’s entry into the British music mainstream. In later years his label would be associated with some of the world’s biggest acts. Back in the Beat Boom he needed to find the right group because groups were where it was at in 1964.

 

 

Image result for spencer davis group 1964Up in Birmingham, at a jazz club in Great Barr, small audiences were being knocked out of their duffle coats by a piano-playing schoolboy prodigy. Stevie Winwood went along with his older brother Muff. At 14 he was already playing in the pick-up backing bands for US Blues artists. He & Muff hooked up with Spencer Davis in the Rhythm & Blues Quartette. Spencer was a face on the Brummie Blues scene as an artist, as someone who had things organised. For audiences & for Blackwell, on a visit to a local club, it was the precocious singer-organist  with a passion & range beyond his years who caught the eye & the ear. The Spencer Davis Group signed with Blackwell & he got them a record deal. There were 4 singles, covers of US R&B songs, three of them stalled just outside of the Top 40. “Their First LP” included more cover versions, good enough but in 1965 you needed a little more. Blackwell found the solution with another of his Jamaican roster. Jackie Edwards had travelled to England with the boss &, with a little imagination, one of his fine pop-soul songs did the trick. “Keep On Running” was released at the end of the year, nudged “Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out” from the #1 spot & ensured that 1966 would be a crazy year for 17 year old Steve Winwood & his older bandmates.

 

 

Image result for spencer davis somebody help me“Keep On Running” is a great shot of blue-eyed soul. Propelled & underpinned by Pete York’s drums & Muff’s terrific bass line, Steve is no longer imitating his African-American influences but sounding fresh, urgent & youthful. It appealed then & it still does now.There was another LP at the beginning of 1966, a little more Rhythm, a little less Blues, The group followed “Keep on…” with “Somebody Help Me”, another Jackie Edwards composition which enjoyed 2 weeks at the #1 spot. That first wave of R&B inspired bands were getting too cool for the teen scene. While they were off invading the New World there was room for new pop idols &, with 2 super smash hits, the Spencer Davis Group were kept busy by the star maker machinery.

 

Image result for spencer davis the who package tour 1966They gigged all over Britain & Europe (2 different places now apparently). There were the cool ones, 9 appearances at the Marquee Club in London, a Spring package tour with the Who & Jimmy Cliff sounds a good night out. 5 weekend shows at the North Pier Blackpool, y’know, for the kids, were the gravy you got for having hit records (on the 11th of September the other new sensations, Small Faces, were also on the South Pier). That month they starred in the film “The Ghost Goes Gear”, a forgettable piece of Beatsploitation, The year ended with a 2 week tour of Germany supporting Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich who were not as good as Tarantino thinks they were. With TV & radio commitments, interviewers asking him if he was Spencer Davis & what was his favourite colour, I’m sure that Steve found that being a pop star required more than just being a very talented musician.

 

While the band were filming the crappy movie there was yet another LP to be recorded. “Autumn 66” was their 3rd in a year & the pickings from their early repertoire were getting slim. The next 45 was another Jackie Edwards song. “When I Come Home” was co-written by Steve & it failed to reach the Top 10. In 1966 a Pop group was only as good as their last single , formulas quickly wore thin & there were new imaginative, inventive shiny things to attract attention. The Spencer Davis Group needed a boost, a new angle & Blackwell encouraged Steve to come up with his own material. The subsequent release went like this….

 

 

With one giant leap “Gimme Some Lovin'” moved Steve Winwood from Pop to Rock. He had a little help from a young American producer. Jimmy Miller came to Blackwell’s attention when he licensed a wailing New York soul belter, “Incense” by the Anglos. With Muff’s insistent driving bass, a riff borrowed from Homer Banks’ “Ain’t That a Lot of Love”, & Steve’s bluesy Hammond organ  Miller brought the same depth & urgency to “Gimme…”. It’s an instant classic, built to last even before the Blues Brothers brought it back to our attention in 1980. The Spencer Davis Group ended 1966 hotter than ever before, in the UK Top 10 & with the record about to break out in the US.

 

“I’m A Man, the following 45, another that everyone knows, had similar deserved success on both sides of the Atlantic.In 1967, for mostly better but sometimes worse, music got more serious & the audience went along with it. Steve, still only 18, wanted a taste of something new & felt that it wasn’t going to happen in the Spencer Davis Group. In April, after a UK tour with the Hollies, he & his brother left the band. Muff got a desk in Island’s office with Blackwell, Steve went off with friends from the Birmingham music scene to get it together in a cottage in Berkshire while a re-jigged S.D.G. played a week at the Fiesta nightclub in Stockton-on-Tees. The new band, Traffic, were studio-ready in weeks & before the year was out enjoyed 3 UK Top 10 hits all produced by Jimmy Miller & released on the Island label.

 

 

 

Image result for traffic bandWhile Traffic were, at first, looking for hit singles they were open to experiment & rapidly progressing. “Smiling Phases” was the B-side of the psych-novelty “Hole in My Shoe” & didn’t make it on to “Mr Fantasy” the debut LP. Steve Winwood, still a teenager, now had the artistic freedom to merge his Blues, Jazz & Folk influences with new sounds. He recorded with Jimi Hendrix, shared a stage with Eric Clapton & made his contribution to British Rock. I should get on to Traffic next because they were pretty good too.

 

 

 

 

New Music From Derry (March 2017)

I’m back in Derry, Northern Ireland next week, my first visit for some time & the first of 3 trips to see friends planned for this year (I know, I’m spoiling them). Music plays a big part in all my excursions, this time we are off to see the Wizard of Dub, Lee “Scratch” Perry, & I’m getting more excited about that the nearer it gets. As I have been a little out of the loop I thought that I should check out what is currently hot on the banks of the River Foyle.

 

My good friend Fergal “Doc” Corscaddon (he’s not a medical doctor but would, I’m sure, help out if they were busy) has a new favourite band. As Fergal is a man of discernment (see here) it behooves me to check out this music & to, perhaps, spread the word about it.

 

 

The Barbiturates are a 5 Piece Neo-Psychedelic Grunge Punk Esoteric Occult Anti Pop band, or so they say. Fergal says that they are the most original band he has heard for some time, making music of substance, beauty & grace. He goes on to say that the Barbiturates are the group you want to be in  (we won’t tell his fellow members of the Gatefolds) though he is unable to confirm the rumours that they are locked away in a Galliagh flat in a modern day Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band scenario !

 

Image result for the barbiturates derryTheir latest mini-album is inspired by “The Holy Mountain” (1973), an hallucinatory, mystical masterpiece of a movie by director Alejandro Jodorowsky. It’s 25 minutes long & you are busy people but if you have the time then it’s just a click away. To hook your music up to such a complex & challenging work of Art is ambitious & confident. The Barbiturates’ music is uncomplicated, direct, honest & affecting. Try “Jesus & the Slave Chain”,.their latest track on the Soundcloud & I’m sure that you will want to hear more. Fergal saw them play just last week. It was, as it often is, a busy musical night in Derry, bigger, better attended gigs are in store for the Barbiturates.

 

 
Loosehandlebars has already appointed a Strength NIA correspondent & he wrote about them here. Paul Pj McCartney is from the old school, his preferred method of communication is carving on to stone tablets & we just ain’t got time for that now.

 

 

Image result for strength nia

Strength NIA had a good 2016. Their single “Northern Ireland Yes” deservedly got a wide hearing, they gigged all over Ireland & in that London. The year ended with the release of “1956 Olympics”, a song with a great Rock & Roll story attached which, I hope, will be covered here in the very near future. Now there’s a new single “La Floresta”, another fine blend of cool bass & beats, retro keyboards & Rory Moore’s strong melodic vocal. The video is accomplished too. Y’know, when I listen to Strength NIA I often think that the songs are not long enough. I’m not complaining at all it’s just that I really like the hypnotic groove of their music. Always leave them wanting more…it’s worked before. There are more gigs to follow (check the Facebook page) & what we really need is a full length collection from the band because they have a good thing going, something to say & an interesting way of saying it.

 

 

Image may contain: sky and textOK, 3 is the magic number around here so I asked my great mate Joe Brown who gets to be the lastest but certainly not the leastest on this review. Joe dropped in some names who are just getting through to me but we agreed (we often do !) on who should feature. Invaderband have been around since 2012, first releasing music in 2015. They are fronted by Adam Leonard, a Mancunian relocated to Derry (smart decision !) & oh, I know the drummer, Rion is a top fellow. They describe themselves as garage/art rock while Joe hears Swell Maps, Roxy Music, The Fall & Neu which makes for a tasty post-punk blend. This January a debut LP was released. On “Invaderband” the shorter, sharp & to the point songs are the most immediate (see above) but over the 8 tracks they stretch out & make a great guitar noise. The best place to hear and buy the record is over on Bandcamp. Here’s another of the short & sweet ones which is not about the late Alan Rickman.

 

 

Well, that’s enough to be going on with. I’m sure that over the next few months I’ll become more familiar with more good music from new & old friends in the city. There’s a music scene in Derry that I really enjoy, everything I have included here deserves a wider audience. Get yourself over there…tell them Loosehandlebars sent you !

 

In Memory of Ronnie Davis.

Image result for ronnie davis reggae singerI only today heard about the death of Reggae vocalist Ronnie Davis. The singer suffered a stroke on Monday  23rd of January & unfortunately did not recover, passing 2 days later in the Savanna-la-Mar hospital in his home parish of Westmoreland. Ronnie was not the biggest of names in Jamaican music but he was responsible for half of one of the finest LPs to be created on that island at a time when there was plenty of competition to make that list. It seems like it would be right to spend a little time with some of the music that he was involved with.

 

I came across “Gregory Isaacs Meets Ronnie Davis ” (1979) in a pop-up record shop in Camberwell Green which hawked Spanish pressings of almost current records, popular music at popular prices. I bought the album unheard for Gregory & was just as impressed by side 2, the one with the same quality music only a different singer. In 1978/9 Gregory was on a roll. The LPs “Extra Classic”, “Cool Ruler” & “Soon Forward”, all essential, established him as the leading solo artist in Jamaica. Whether his lyrics were those of a conscious Rasta or of a seductive Mr Lover Man, his smoky, confident voice made every on a winner. Meanwhile Ronnie Davis was a couple of albums along in his solo career.

 

Image result for gregory isaacs meets ronnie davisThe life of a Jamaican solo singer was peripatetic, taking sessions where they could find them with many different studios & producers. If there was a hit record then a myriad of labels had tracks ready to be pressed & hopefully cash in. “…Meets…” was a collection of cuts recorded at Channel One in 1977 under the direction of Ossie Hibbert. C1 hit big in 1976 with “The Right Time” by the Mighty Diamonds when the house band, the Revolutionaries, driven by the stellar foundation of Sly Dunbar (drums) & Robbie Shakespeare (bass), pioneered the Rockers rhythm which was to carry the swing in the following years.

 

I may know a little about the art of mixing recorded music but the transference from tape to vinyl groove is an alchemy beyond my ken. Everyone involved in this record, the singers, players, producer, engineer & the bloke who took the masters to the pressing plant did a perfect job. Reggae had never sounded cleaner & better. The rhythms are simple to begin with, allowing the quality of the vocals to shine & making the segue into Dub smooth enough to be almost imperceptible.When this music was played out people pricked up their ears & wanted to know what it was. Gregory, who recorded some of his hits for the record, went on to international success. Ronnie had “Fancy Make Up” released as a 45 on Ossie’s label & continued to record right up to 2016 & I was always ready to listen.

 

 

In parallel to his solo career Ronnie was also a member of a couple of vocal groups. He first enjoyed success with the Tennors between 1968 & 1973. “Weather Report” is a great Rock Steady version of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Only Living Boy in New York”. Davis had solo success before joining the Itals in 1976 who hit the ground running & were toppermost of the JA poppermost with their fantastic debut single “In A Dis Ya Time”. Based on a rhythm used for Ronnie’s hit 45 “Won’t You Come Home” it’s 7″ of Joy, a classic 12 ” when you added Trinity’s version. The Itals recorded high quality singles, strictly Rasta Roots, before making LPs in the 1980s, touring the US with Roots Radics, Gregory’s old backing band & bagging a Grammy nomination for “Rasta Philosophy” (1986).

 

 

Image result for ronnie davis reggae singerRonnie left the Itals in 1995, continuing his solo career before rejoining them in 2009. In 2012, after almost 35 years away, his old vocal trio, the Tennors, reunited for a tour. Last year saw the release of his first LP for 20 years, “Iyahcoustic”, on the Skinny Bwoy label. I could have filled this post with many more great records that Ronnie contributed to over the years but let’s have one from that. At the age of 66 his dreadlocks are whiter, his voice is still clear, strong & soulful. It would take a hard heart to not appreciate such talent so simply & appropriately presented. Ronnie Davis will be missed, my sympathy & thoughts to his family, may his memory & his music be eternal.

The Who In South London

It didn’t seem to be the biggest deal when we obtained tickets to see the Who in February 1981. Since Xmas we had been panning for the gold to be found on “Sandanista!”, a dense, sprawling triple LP on which the Clash laid claim to be the Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the World, a title previously contended by the, you know, Who. In January Elvis Costello’s lyrical dexterity & developing musical maturity delivered “Trust”, a 5 star collection (out of 5). In the same month David Byrne & Brian Eno were making music for a brave, future new world. “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” would be influential & rarely equalled in the new decade. It was the shock & the shine of this new music that occupied our turntables. Those great Who records, whether filed alphabetically, chronologically or just left where they lie, tended to be at the back of the stack.

 

Image result for the who the clashThe gig was at the Lewisham Odeon, one of the country’s largest cinemas, a stopping-point for the package tours of the 60s but now out of the loop & a little faded. The Who usually played enormodomes or sports stadia so this is better. The biggest gigs in the city, the Rainbow in Finsbury Park, the Hammersmith Odeon, both a fair trek from our South East London manor. Lewisham was a short bus ride from East Greenwich, a night out for the locals seemed to be in order. It was a 7.30 p.m. start, early after a day at work, we didn’t even have time to hit a pub just met up outside the cinema not quite ready to rock. I had picked up a half-bottle of whiskey (& rolled up a bit of the other) to help things along. Dave, good man that he is, had exactly the same idea. Sue, much cooler than us two, was sensibly not drinking for 2…more for us then.

 

 

Related image“Substitute”, “I Can’t Explain”, “Baba O’Riley”, a perfect triple whammy to start. The Who’s more recent output.may not have been the most vital but from their 1965 debut, the aforementioned “I Can’t Explain”, maximum R&B for smashed & blocked Mods, to 1973’s double LP “Quadrophenia”, the kids are not alright, they had been smack dab in the middle of British Rock’s amazing journey. “My Generation” (1965), a confident rebel yell, was one of those significant songs that convinced you that this Beat Boom was for real & not just a passing fad. In 1967 their 45 “Pictures of Lily” made my life so wonderful & then, at the end of the year, the LP “The Who Sell Out” was Pop Art, more relevant to 15 year old me than a Warhol print, an Antonioni movie or a novel by Truman Capote. As the band thundered into their set I realised that while the Who’s records may no longer be at the front of the stack, this group, well I used to follow them back in 65. A long list of great songs, my perfect Who set list, came to mind. This was going to be meaty, beaty, big &…you get me.

 

So there was Pete Townshend, windmilling, power chord  guitar hero, ambitious, a sensitive even neurotic songwriter, still a believer in the redemptive qualities of a great Rock & Roll anthem. Singer Roger Daltrey, the punk with the stutter who became a microphone twirling Rock God. His job was to sing Pete’s lyrics & he made damned sure that he would always have work. John “The Ox” Entwistle, stony faced & stood stock-still, rumbled a bass foundation & just how is he doing that ! Of course, Keith Moon, the group’s extraordinary drummer, had died in 1978. Kenney Jones, an ace Small Face, was an obvious, natural replacement but, well, y’know…Moon was a one-off, we knew that & I’m sure Kenney did too. We got 4 songs from the new, yet to be released, LP, that’s how it went in the early 1980s.  I’d have to dig out “Face Dances” to remind myself how “Don’t Let Go the Coat” goes. “You Better You Bet”…I’ll be singing that for the rest of the day.

 

 

Image result for the who 1981Promotional requirements out of the way the band gave us more of what we had come for. Just the 1 track, the one about pinball, from “Tommy”, the expansive double LP which Pete was happy to call a “rock opera”, a presumption that I was never convinced by (it was still  a great record). “Drowned”, “The Punk & the Godfather” & “5.15” were from 1973’s “Quadrophenia”, a more accomplished concept than the deaf, dumb & blind boy. Townshend was better placed than anyone to document Mod, the most significant British youth movement of the previous decade.

 

There’s a case to be made that Pete’s inability to satisfactorily complete “Lifehouse”,the one between these two big ideas, produced two of the group’s finest records. “Live at Leeds” (1970) may have been a stopgap release but captured the Who as an onstage juggernaut, It’s one of the great live LPs, the best ever according to Rolling Stone readers in 2012, & we were getting a taste of this tonight. “Who’s Next” (1971), with it’s innovative use of synthesizers, proved that Townshend’s pretensions to a wider cultural significance for his group were unnecessary when you were capable of making music as good as this. We got plenty of that one too.

 

 

In 1981 the Who were still a working band, touring every year to promote new albums & consolidating their rep for putting on one of the great Rock shows. They were no longer smashing their equipment but the aggression was undimmed, the power unmatched. “Who Are You”, “5.15” & “Wont Get Fooled Again”, possibly a greater anthem than “My Generation”, were a world class ending to the set. They returned for an encore which included thunderous versions of “Summertime Blues” & “Twist & Shout”. I’m guessing that the PA had been scaled down to suit the venue but this was the loudest band I had ever heard. I had friends who still told of earlier ventures south of the river, great days out at the Charlton football & the Oval cricket grounds, when the Who had rocked over 50,000 people out of their socks. To see the group in such a relatively intimate venue was a privilege. You have got to love the Internets for allowing me to hear this concert again. If you stick with “Twist & Shout” to the end (& you should) you will hear a packed cinema going nuts in appreciation of just the best way to spend 2 hours on a Monday night in Lewisham.

 

 

Image result for the who the clashThe next year the band toured the US with the Clash in support. Apart from showing out at Live Aid it would be 1989 before the next Who tour. By then the 20th anniversary of Pop’s resurgence had come around. VH1, MTV for old people, was launched, Golden Oldies were re-branded as Classic Rock & you could buy your record collection again, this time on shiny, new-fangled CDs. Original Who fans now had kids who were alright without babysitters, teenagers who were fans of the group themselves. The Who kept rolling out, even after the death of John Entwistle, to huge audiences, no longer promoting new music, easily filling long sets with their extensive back catalogue. In 2010 they were the half time attraction at the Superbowl.Pete & Roger played a 12 minute medley of songs that 100 million viewers knew because of some American cop show.

 

Pete Townshend probably didn’t mean it when he wrote “I hope I die before I get old”, we have all said things as dumb as that. He’s 70 now, his group still sell out big venues playing 20 songs & every one a winner. I’m not sure that I want to be there but when I catch them on TV the Who seem to retain a strength & power that has always made them a class act. I was lucky to see them do their big show at a small place. Those stellar records  (particularly the expanded “…Sell Out”), some of them 50 years old, are nearer the front of the stack nowadays too.