Here Comes The Knight (Rod & Bob)

This week a couple of musical stalwarts were honoured when Bob Dylan (75) received the Nobel Prize in (not “for”…in) Literature & Rod Stewart (71) picked up his knighthood, adding to the Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (sheesh !) he already had. Sir Rod loves all that guff, has done since he left Faces & trotted off to La-La Land with Britt Ekland. Our new Laureate has remained admirably silent while the world’s journalists, some unable to name more than 3 of his songs, expound on whether he “deserves” his accolade. I’m not going to get into the whys & the wherefores of my generation (hoped we died before we got old ?) turning into our parents because that leads to shit that’s serious & seriously depressing. I will though invoke that adage of Groucho Marx, the funniest man of the twentieth century, “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member”. A shout out too to Jean-Paul Sartre who declined his Nobel offer because “a writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it takes place in the most honourable form”.

 

 

Image result for bob dylan francoise hardyI got lucky & got in early with Bob Dylan. The kid I sat next to at school was learning to play guitar (he became one of the UK’s most outstanding Folk artists) & he had the eponymous 1962 debut LP. The Beatles introduced me to Buddy Holly, Muddy Waters & Chuck Berry came through the Stones & this was my entry into Country Blues. He only wrote 2 songs on that first record, there are plenty of “trad, arranged by” & tunes credited to Jesse Fuller, Bukka White & Blind Lemon Jefferson. “Freewheelin'” was packed with originals. Not just instant folk standards like “Blowing in the Wind” & “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” but really hard ones like “Masters of War” & “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” which were a different cup of meat. There was more going on here than “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. In fact our hip young English teacher played us “Oxford Town”, the song inspired by events at the University of Mississippi on the enrolment of James Meredith, its first black student, to kickstart a discussion on civil rights in the US.

 

I heard the influence this new lyrical sensibility had on the Beat merchants, in their own compositions & the covers of Dylan’s. I could also hear that, before Woody Guthrie & the Alan Lomax field recordings, Bob was listening to the same Rock & Roll & R&B so close to the hearts of my musical heroes. It weren’t no thing at all for us when Dylan “went electric”. Something was happening, we knew what it was & so did he, while the Folk purists fumed we welcomed him over to our side of the tracks. He was really good at the new music. His rocking Folk-Blues, enhanced by Al Kooper’s distinctive organ sound, gave an epic quality to his intricate poetry. The 3 LPs “Bringing It All Back Home”, “Highway 61 Revisited” & “Blonde On Blonde” were a major contribution to popular music’s increasingly serious treatment. He was indeed very popular, the first “Greatest Hits” collection being released in 1967.

 

Image result for bob dylan nashvilleLife as an international pop star was bad craziness & a motorcycle accident allowed him to step away from the rigmarole of being regarded as a spokesman for his generation. His return to recording found Bob to be more lyrically contemplative, musically less strident. The classic songs continued, his basement demos provided material for Julie Driscoll (“This Wheel’s on Fire”), Manfred Mann (“The Mighty Quinn”), the Byrds (“You Ain’t Going Nowhere”) & others. Dylanology, a bookcase full of, well…books, forensically pored over his intricate poetry looking for clues that may or may not be there. “John Wesley Harding” (1967), which included “All Along the Watchtower”, featured “The Ballad of Frankie Lee & Judas Priest”, with the moral “that one should never be where one does not belong”. Plenty of people wanted Dylan to be plenty of things but when he came back he did what he liked, liked what he did & really didn’t care what was written & said about him. Of course there were still great songs to come, “Simple Twist of Fate”, “Hurricane”, “Sara”, it’s a very long list.

 

 

Image result for rod stewart 70sIn the 1960s Sir Rod found himself Rock & Roll bands that needed a helping hand from a raspy Blues shouter, first with Steampacket, a revue of many talents, then with guitarist Jeff Beck’s group who made a bigger impression in the US than here. His standing gained him a solo recording contract & the greater freedom provided showed that there was possibly more to Rod the Mod than previously suspected. Rod had been a soulboy & the influence of Sam Cooke added a warmth to his vocals. He had been a teenage beatnik, busking around Europe until he was busted for vagrancy & deported from Spain in 1963. The addition of these Folk roots to the mix made for a very attractive, potent brew. A combination of Rod’s own songs with astute & appropriate cover versions helped too.Two LPs, perhaps regarded in the UK as moonlighting from his day job as lead singer of Faces, set the scene before “Every Picture Tells A Story” took over the world & Rod became a very big deal.

 

 

Image result for rod stewart 70s“Every Picture…” is an almost perfect record, self-produced, assistance from Ron Wood, drums by Micky Waller. On all 5 of his first LPs there’s a song he got from Bob Dylan (I’m including “Man of Constant Sorrow” here). These were selections by a fan, no obvious choices. “Only A Hobo”, a song with a tender social conscience, was an outtake from “The Times They Are a-Changin'” sessions in 1963. “Tomorrow is a Long Time”, the only Dylan composition to be recorded by Elvis Presley, had been taken up by many on the Folk scene while the original remained unreleased. “Mama You Been on My Mind” was another tune that Bob recorded, discarded & passed on to other artists. Dylan’s songs have been covered by so many others, everyone has a different list of favourites which all include Jimi Hendrix. Sir Rod, particularly with “Tomorrow…” has made a notable contribution to a large body of work.

By 1975 he had signed with Warner Brothers & was an ex-Face. The laddish flash seemed more based on conspicuous consumption, less grounded in his North London roots, the music less individual. “Atlantic Crossing” was his 4th #1 album in the UK but I wasn’t listening too closely. It was the first one not to include a Dylan song…just saying.

 

 

Both of them are still going, Bob on his endless tour, Sir Rod with his stream of covers. Bob released an album of cover versions (taking a pop at Rod’s) while they have both recorded Xmas collections. In 1988 Sir Rod wrote a song “Forever Young” & it was pointed out that it shared more than a title with Dylan’s song from “Planet Waves” (1974). He ran it by the future Nobel winner & it became the only song where the two share composing credits. We’ll go for the original here because it’s another one for the ages from a master songwriter.

 

Image result for bob dylan nobelI knew people who thought that modern music was Bob Dylan then everybody else below. I remember the excitement when someone walked into the house with “George Jackson” (1971), a return to the protest form. There may have been 136 or 142 protest singers (Ha !) but he was the one that mattered. The last of his records to make an impression round here was “Love & Theft” (2001), that’s a good set. Dylan is the greatest songwriter of his generation. Back then he needed no deification & now no Nobel recognition to change that. He’s written 136 or 142 great songs.

 

“Well, I set my monkey on the log & ordered him to do the Dog
He wagged his tail and shook his head & he went and did the Cat instead
He’s a weird monkey, very funky”

“I’m just average, common too I’m just like him, the same as you                                                  I’m everybody’s brother and son I ain’t different from anyone                                                      It ain’t no use a-talking to me It’s just the same as talking to you,”

Verses from the proto-rap “I Shall Be Free #10” on “Another Side of Bob Dylan” (1964) a record I could only afford by sneaking it into the 50p (60 cents) bin at the local market.

“Everybody must get stoned”, that’s another one of his.

 

 

 

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Zimmermania 1965 (Bob Dylan Covers)

By the Summer of 1965 the US music scene had been in thrall to the Beatles-led British Invasion for 18 months. Phil Spector showed that he still had the moves with the irresistible epic “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” for the Righteous Brothers while Motown injected the same energy & imagination into African-American pop music that the Fabs & their followers did into Rock & Roll. In April & May Freddie & the Dreamers, Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders, Herman’s Hermits  & the Mop Tops had consecutive #1 records. (Whisper it but in the UK we were moving on to the 2nd wave, the Kinks, the Who, the Yardbirds). When the Byrds struck a gold record with their cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mr Tambourine Man” they not only invented folk-rock but signposted a short-cut back to the Hit Parade for American groups. Recording Dylan songs became quite the thing after the success of the Byrds.

Of course the world’s folk singers had known about this wrinkle for some time. The lovely Joan Baez, romantically involved with the young poet, was an early adaptor & proselytiser for his talents. In 1963 Peter, Paul & Mary, no doubt encouraged by Albert Grossman, the manager they shared with Dylan, included 3 of his songs on their LP “In the Wind”. Their 45 “Blowing in the Wind” shifted 300,000 units in its 1st week of release. Bob Dylan was becoming more widely known & anyway an astonishing burst of  creative development, lyrically & musically, became a declaration of his independence from the other 136 (or 142) protest singers. At the end of 1964 the LP “Beatles For Sale” included John Lennon’s “I’m A Loser”, obviously influenced by Dylan. Similarly Dylan was surely affected by the vitality (& the commercial success) of  music made by a generation raised on the same Rock & Roll/R&B records as he was. Folk diehards shocked by the release of “Like A Rolling Stone” in June 1965 & the electric appearance at the Newport Folk Festival the following month had not been listening very hard to “Bringing It All Back Home”. Those of us who had welcomed him over to our side.

Dylan & the Hawks (who became the Band) recorded”Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window”in October & it was released in December intending to continue the hit streak after “Rolling Stone” & “Positively 4th St”. Whoever was responsible for the Vacels cover of the song was certainly on the case, the single hitting the shops in the same month. Ricky & the Vacels started as a Doo-Wop harmony group & had released a couple of Beatle-ish singles before coming around with this great record. At first listen I thought “Oh Yes ! A Garage Rock version of a Dylan song” but the arrangement (by Artie Butler, the man who played keyboards on “Leader of the Pack” !) has too much going on for it to be the product of some carport crew. There’s a glimpse of garage, a bit of Byrds, even a little 4 Seasoning. The proclamatory vocals match the urgency of the music & I love it. The record was obviously aimed at the charts, it missed & the Vacels never recorded again.

The Turtles included 3 Dylan songs on their debut LP & the title track, “It Ain’t Me Babe” took them to the Top 10. Two of the biggest American hits of the year were Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe”, almost an answer song to “It Ain’t Me…” & “Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire, a protest song in the style of…The Byrds & Cher both released “All I Really Want To Do” while the Association, soon to find their own light folk-rock style hacked away at a preppy attempt on “One Too Many Mornings” which was deservedly overlooked. Dylan was suddenly a major influence on popular music. “Eve of Destruction” sounded fresh at the time but it was an odd construct which you don’t hear much nowadays. It was the Rolling Stones’ first US #1 “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” which matched the impetus & innovation of Dylan’s Rock & Roll. 40 years later Rolling Stone ranked “Satisfaction” as the 2nd greatest song of all time, 2nd to “Like A Rolling Stone”. 1965 was some year for music.

Of course not everyone got it. At a rather incredible but probably typical press conference in London in 1966 Dylan is credited with writing “Eve of Destruction”, asked how many protest singers there are (for the answer see above) & whether he is “the ultimate beatnik” before fielding a photographer’s request to suck on his glasses ! Eddie Hodges had won a Grammy when he was only 12 for his part in the original Broadway production of “The Music Man”, a fine musical in which he played Winthrop Paroo (Winnie the Pooh !). In 1960 he was the lead in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, a charming movie that put a young boy (that would be me) onto Mark Twain. By 1965, still only 18, he was a would-be teen idol of the type left floundering in the backwash of the Mersey tidal wave. The decision to record a version of “Love Minus Zero/No Limits”, a beautiful love song with surreal lyrics referencing visionary poets & the Book of Daniel, omitting the top half of verses 3 & 4 , delivering the remnant with the passion & perception of a rocking horse while the go-go dancers do the Frug seems more than ill-judged. Something is happening but you don’t know what it is. Do you Master Hodges ?

In the late-1950s songwriter Burt Bacharach was happy if his tunes were picked up for the B-side of a record. He took a job as accompanist/musical director for the great actress/singer Marlene Dietrich & travelled the world’s great cities & theatres, arranging & conducting her concerts & recordings. When Bacharach, with lyricist Hal David, became the new benchmark for sophisticated popular music he continued to work with the international star. Bob Dylan recorded “Blowin’ in the Wind” for his 2nd LP “The Freewheelin’…” in 1963. The tune was adapted from a spiritual, the rhetorical lyrics a progression from his folk ballad style. Peter, Paul & whatshername put the song on the charts & it was immediately adopted as an anthem by supporters of civil liberties across the world.

In 1964 Johnny Cash & Sam Cooke recorded their versions but Ms Dietrich had beaten them to it. Bacharach, looking to expand & contemporise her repertoire had recorded this cool, classy arrangement for a German version in 1963. In 1965, with Dylan all the rage it was re-released, this time in English. I like this take on the song, it reminds me of Nico. My good friend Paul Pj McCartney once remarked that there’s not enough Marlene around our computers & he was right. I do what I can.

Jingle-Jangle Morning (The Early Byrds)

In the spring of 1965 the American record buying public was in thrall to the British Beat. In April & May there were #1 records for Herman’s Hermits (twice !), Freddie & the Dreamers, Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders &, of course, the Beatles. I know… the Stones, the Who & the Kinks were only just getting started. England was swinging like a pendulum do while the US of A didn’t yet know what time it was. In June there was a Motown led comeback. The Supremes had, wonderfully, their 5th successive chart-topper. That 4 Tops’ Sugar Pie & Honeybunch combination proved irresistible …still does. The Beach Boys were around too with their great songs about cars & girls & surfing. They were in that striped shirt phase, between the plaid Pendletons & the Good Vibrations.Well groomed young men, clean cut music. In the first week of July “Mr Tambourine Man” by the Byrds marked America’s coming to terms with the new Mod squad which had so entranced the youth. The first US group with hair over their ears to have a #1 hit.

It was a simple plan quite beautifully executed. Bob Dylan, the folk singer,that’s the man, had “gone electric” earlier in 1965, an act of treason according to the keepers of folk’s traditional beards. You know. old people, like over-25s. Me, I was a new teenager when I bought my first Dylan LP. “Another Side of …” may have been an acoustic record but we knew that the 23 year old was writing rock & roll songs. John Lennon’s “I’m A Loser”, on “Beatles For Sale” showed the influence he was already having on pop music. “Mr Tambourine Man” is from the “folk” side of “Bringing It All Back Home”. The addition of a 12-string Rickenbacker jangle & some harmony vocals, the cutting of 3 of the 4 poetic verses, made for an instant pop classic. On the Byrds debut LP producer Terry Melcher applied this formula to 4 Dylan tunes &, I guess, invented folk-rock. They helped to make a quality record.

Master publicist Derek Taylor attempted to manoeuvre the Byrds into the centre of Los Angeles/Hollywood cool but these were different days. The group were quickly swept up by the “America’s Beatles” tag. They were teen idols, smiling their way through TV appearances & photo shoots. Guitarist Jim McGuinn wore his “granny” glasses, David Crosby had his cape. Blonde drummer, Michael Clarke was the best Brian Jones lookalike in the country while bassist Chris Hillman’s straightened moptop still makes me laugh. Another Dylan song “All I Really Want To Do” was chosen as the follow up despite Cher’s version having a head start. Ms Sarkisian had probably pinched the Dylan cover idea but she had the biggest hit. Maybe the Byrds should have gone with this B-side because it does kinda rock.

Gene Clark was the other singer in the group. He was a songwriter too. There were 5 of his songs on that debut LP. “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better” ,well, as the song goes “probably”, shows that the Byrds did not rely exclusively on Dylan for a folk foundation to their rocking music. “Feel…” became another classic tune. The Flamin’ Groovies & Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers both recorded good, respectful covers, versions that will get you singing along, that aim for but just don’t hit that Spirit of 1965 bullseye. However Jim sang lead on the Dylan songs & on the title track of the follow up, Pete Seeger’s folk anthem “Turn, Turn,Turn”, another #1 hit. Jim took centre stage among the frantically frugging go-go girls, in front of the screaming fans, while Gene was out on the side, the tambourine man.

“Turn, Turn, Turn” included 2 more Dylan covers & 3 songs by Clark. The Beatle-y “She Don’t Care About Time” made only the B-side of  the”Turn…” 45, not the LP. “Set You Free This Time” was the Byrds first single of 1966 & it failed to reach the Top 50. Within a month Columbia were promoting the flipside, “It Won’t Be Wrong”, a McGuinn song. Gene wrote songs about a sad & beautiful world, gentle, poignant things that added substance to the group’s LPs. It seemed, & was perhaps confirmed over the next decade, that his individual voice & talent did not appeal to a mass audience.

It was around this time that the Byrds finally got paid for their success. Young men who, 18 months earlier, were just glad to hear their record on the radio learned some things about the music business. Gene wrote the songs & he was the guy arriving at the studio in a red Ferrari. Both McGuinn & Crosby were beginning to assert their own strong personalities & to find the pop treadmill a little old. Check the clip for that single, David in Jim’s glasses & Jim in the cape ! They were both beginning to write songs of their own too. It could have been jealousy which kept Clark’s songs off the LP, it could have been that there were just too many songs. Whatever, by the end of February 1966 Gene Clark was out of the Byrds. The authorised version was that his Pteromerhanophobia made travel too difficult. I didn’t buy that as a 13 year old kid & I don’t believe it now.

Gene went off & played a major part in inventing country rock. He & Doug Dillard’s “The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark” is a triumph. The now 4 piece Byrds knew that change was needed if they were to avoid the built-in obsolescence  of pop. “Fifth Dimension” was released in July 1966, the band were more involved in the writing & there were no Dylan covers. The LP covers a range of styles, folk, country. space rock, raga rock (gotta have a label). The pivotal song was written mostly by Gene on the group’s 1965 UK tour (where the press battered the Byrds for even presuming any comparison to our Fab Four). “Eight Miles High” moved folk-rock forward towards psychedelia, got itself banned on the radio & moved the Byrds into a new musical chapter.

 

 

 

 

 

What Is It Good For ?

Today is Remembrance Sunday in the UK. The second Sunday in November marks the end of hostilities in the First World War in 1918, a war in which 10 million soldiers and 7 million civilians lost their lives. As a young  pacifist I was horrified and saddened by the callous slaughter of a generation to protect the economic and territorial interests of  the ruling class of Europe. If they came for me to fight their wars, as they had throughout the centuries, I would refuse to join their cause and suffer any consequence.

Hopefully, with maturity comes insight. As a young British working class man, if I had been of age in 1914, I realise that I would have left my workplace and marched down to the recruiting office to enlist with my fellow workers. Mmm…I was so much older then, I’m younger then that now.

I respect the sacrifice made by those who have died in the name of their country. There is no family unaffected by the momentous events of the last century and my thoughts today are with those who have family they love involved in current conflict. There has never been a time when the world has been without war. However, I remain a firm opponent of any nation which chooses to pursue their self interest with an option that results in death, destruction and sadness.

This song, by Bob Dylan, is 50 years old now. It affected and influenced me as a young man and is still relevant as political commentary and an artistic masterpiece.

Peace.