Random Notes (May 2017)

The days fly by & this month the UK has endured an election campaign instigated, ostensibly, by a government wanting to mask its bluff & bluster in negotiations with our former EU partners, more likely hoping to exploit the disarray of any opposition in England & Wales. The Tory party will remain in power (I’ve been wrong before) but the flakiness of their “strong & stable” mantra in the face of a half-baked “Dementia Tax” on the sick & the dead & a Labour manifesto which, at least & at last, promoted an alternative to austerity will prevent the landslide victory anticipated & hoped for by the government & most of our media puppets (“Crush the Saboteurs!” Oh fuck off!)

 

Image result for manchester tony wilson we do things

 

This week’s horrific massacre in Manchester, a great city which has shown the empathy & community that is the best of Britain, will inevitably highlight the issue of national security. Already Mr Corbyn is being attacked for pointing out that the disastrous intervention in Libya contributed to chaos, anger, frustration & the rise of a new focus for militant Islam. The murder of innocent people enjoying a concert by their favourite Pop star is inexcusable & heartbreaking but atrocities are occurring across the Middle East in the name of the West’s War On Terror, in the cause of strength & stability. Robert Fisk is a journalist who I trust & respect…

“As long as we bomb the Middle East instead of seeking justice there, we too will be attacked. But what we must concentrate upon, according to the monstrous Trump, is terror, terror, terror, terror, terror. And fear. And security. Which we will not have while we are promoting death in the Muslim world and selling weapons to its dictators. Believe in “terror” and Isis wins. Believe in justice and Isis is defeated.”

OK, here’s some music…

 

 

Almost the best of the month, stick around that comes later, any new song by Bunny Wailer raises my spirits. As the last of the Wailing Wailers Jah Bunny is the keeper of the flame & he represents the great & influential group with integrity & style. “Baddest” is a Rub-a-Dub rework of Peter Tosh’ anthem, first recorded in 1967, “I’m the Toughest” in alliance with Dancehall queen Ruffi-Ann. Like everything Bunny releases on his Solomonic label it has a freshness & a vitality. He is a musical great who knows the spirit of Reggae &, at coming up 70 this year, is still able to capture it. “Baddest” may not be up there with the best music he has made but it could be the Feelgood Hit of the Summer. ♫Any Dub that you can play I & I can play it better♫ Yes Sir!

 

 

Image result for daniel romano modern pressureA new Daniel Romano record is always a big deal round our yard & even though “Modern Pressure” has not been here for long toes are tapping & choruses becoming familiar. Mr Romano is prolific, an album a year in the last 3 & a couple more from Altered Shapes, his Punk offshoot band. He’s become a bit of a shape-shifter too, the traditional Country, three chords & the truth about heartbreak, of his early records has all but disappeared. The lovely “Roya” would easily fit on those records while an expanded musical palette, Dylanesque organ swirls, treated guitars, everything louder makes “Modern Pressure” a Country Rock album. “The Pride of Queens” sounds like an epic to me, the closing, urgent “What’s To Become of the Meaning of Love” instantly appeals & the poppy “When I Learned Your Name” sounds like Nick Lowe/Brinsley Schwarz & that’s a good thing.

 

Like the best records last year’s “Mosey” took its own good time to reveal all its delights. At first it seemed to be quite a switch by Romano but it has become the album of choice for journeys of any distance, a collection of good songs which come together as an atmospheric whole. “Mosey” will still get played round here. Daniel Romano is a very talented songwriter & musician, his restless streak is matched by his inventiveness. Wherever he wants to take his music my interest is piqued enough to want to follow. I have high hopes that “Modern Pressure” will become a new favourite.

 

 

I’ve had my fancy-schmancy Internet powered TV for some time now. It’s an idiot box of electrickeries most of which I neither grasp nor have need of. The 7 (that’s 7!) channels of 24/7 sport are enough to sustain a sense of wonder about the Modern World. So it was more luck than judgement that the appropriate buttons were pressed to record the full series (8 episodes) of the 2005 BBC production of “Bleak House”. Fortuitous perhaps but it provided a televisual experience to rival this year’s superb “Taboo”, another of the Beeb’s finest.

 

Image result for phil davis smallweedI love Charles Dickens, what’s not to…, his satire, his social conscience his unmatched balance of sentiment & melodrama & his finely drawn parade of eccentric characters. It was all there on the screen. “Bleak House” was written as a serial & the series was originally shown in 15 30-minute parts, a pot-boiler yes but certainly not a soap opera. Writer Andrew Davies is the doyen of literary adaptors, it was beautifully filmed & the extensive cast is a delight. It’s a list, Anna Maxwell Martin (Esther), Gillian Anderson (Lady Dedlock) & young Carey Mulligan (Ada) led the way in Dickens’ only book with a female protagonist. Charles Dance was a dastardly Tulkinghorn, the contributions of Burn Gorman (Guppy of Kenge & Carboys), Phil Davies (Smallweed, “shake me up Judy”), Alun Armstrong (Inspector Bucket) & Johnny Vegas (Krook) were all perfectly pitched. I’m going to include Michael Smiley (Squod) here because I have recently enjoyed Ben Wheatley’s “Kill List” & “Free Fire” & he shines in both of them. Actor of the month.

 

I’m not the biggest fan of period drama but I do enjoy the grimy streets of London Town seen in “Bleak House” & “Taboo”. I appreciated too Whit Stillman’s film “Love & Friendship” (Kate Beckinsale “always watchable”). Either these things are getting more modern or I’m becoming more old-fashioned. Oh Christ, it’s the latter isn’t it ?

The Rhythm A Go Drip Like Sugar And Spice (Bunny Wailer)

Any list of the best Reggae  LPs (no greatest hits) is dominated by the roots, Rastafarian outbreak between say 1974-79. A junction of a rising generation of young Jamaican musicians with a new international audience stimulated increases in creativity & output. The 3 original Wailers, Culture, Burning Spear, Lee Perry, King Tubby, the Congos. It’s an easy & obvious choice but there’s 8 of them while I’m going to fight for the Wailing Souls’ inclusion because they rock. There was still great reggae music to come but by 1981 & the premature passing of Bob Marley, many of the artists mentioned were producing variations on & versions of a theme of chanting down Babylon which had already been well covered.

I’ve written about “Blackheart Man” (1976), the nonpareil debut solo record by Bunny Wailer. There’s a case to be made that Bunny was more spiritual than Bob Marley & Peter Tosh. His melodicism, his abilities as an arranger & producer, created a collection which stirred the head, heart & hips, often all at the same time. His annual releases were still of a high quality but lacked the consistency of his classic opening statement. At the beginning of the new decade Bunny Wailer released 4 LPs. 2 of them are contenders for that all-time list.

Walk the Proud Land

While Bob Marley became an international superstar & Peter Tosh was recording with Mick & Keith, Bunny cultivated his garden back home. He disliked travelling so avoided the album-tour-album routine & could take his time to make his records. “Bunny Wailer Sings the Wailers” was just what the Bush Doctor ordered. It was a thoughtful trawl through the back catalogue, the Coxone Dodd 60s, Lee Perry in the 70s. It was not a Greatest Hits. Bob was cherry-picking the tunes he wanted for his new group, Bunny took time over his selections of songs to take a second look at & it showed.

“…Sings the Wailers”  is such a satisfying record. Bunny travelled a long road with his fellow Wailers before the involvement with Island records led to a split.There’s a sense of closure, of settling with the past about his treatment of this labour of love. Bunny was not ready to embrace the beefed-up stadium reggae of his friends.His vocal style never really suited such declamation.  I have always loved the probity, the dignity of the Wailers’ music. Peter’s indignation, Bob’s credence & Bunny’s more reserved assurance synthesized into a powerful whole. With the great rhythm section of Sly Dunbar & Robbie Shakespeare this is a record which is modern but retains a roots clarity. “Walk The Proud Land” gets the nod because…well, just listen. There are a lot of contenders, the running order seems as consequential as a concept album. “Ska Quadrille” indeed !

Rock n Groove

If ever “Rock ‘N’ Groove” (1981) gets neglected then rescued from the back of the stack you think, as you dance across the room, “Man, I must play this more often”. It’s Jollification Time ! The Wailers started as young pop kids, Impressions wannabes having some hit records played on the radio. Reggae had got a little dreader than dread, the dub-wiser ran on more than Budweiser (thank you !) & more power to all of it. Bunny Wailer had made some of the best of that music. He knew that the great music of his youth would nice up the dance too. “Rock ‘N’ Groove”s big idea was that reggae belonged in the dancehall

This time around Sly Dunbar got to play with his syn-drums. Sly, Robbie & the rest of the Roots Radics played a clean, uncomplicated, modern reggae. Copyists, & there were many when “Dancehall” became the thing in Jamaica, were less restrained when let loose in the toy box of a 1980s recording studio. The immediate appeal of “Cool Runnings” & “Rootsman Skanking” is irresistible but there is not a bad track on the LP. Blimey, there’s not a duffer in the 8 or so tracks which did not make the cut first time around. The songs are not Selassie-I this, Marcus Garvey that but Bunny’s music will always have a social & political dimension. The songs are short with no, now traditional, dub extension. The spare arrangements allow intimations of aural explorations, the dub is left to your imagination. “Rock ‘N’Groove” is on that list of great reggae LPs.

Rootsman Skanking

Bob Marley died on May 11 1981. A genuine world music superstar, he led the export of Jamaican music to just about every place on the planet. Bunny & Bob were raised as stepbrothers in the same house. Their musical education & ideas were shared too. Of the many accolades & memorials whatever Bunny had to say & sing carried the swing. Unfortunately the time & care taken on “…Sings the Wailers” was not repeated for “Tribute” (1981). There are out-takes from earlier, rushed, even uninspired versions of obvious songs. Hey, I’m being tough on an artist who has made some perfect music. “Tribute” is a Bunny Wailer record which which means it is interesting & will reward repeated listening.

After this burst of creativity Bunny continued with studio experimentation which often found him ahead of the game in Jamaican music.A good friend, his long term memory function impaired by marijuana use, promised to get back to me with the title of a 90s LP that he thinks is the bizz. There was a pile of great music to come. By 1986 he was assuming the role of dignified elder statesman of reggae & began to tour. I have friends who remind me of the 27th of June 1990 when I missed a triumphant return to London. In my opinion Bunny Wailer made more great reggae records than anyone else. That all time great list is tough to make (just remembered Big Youth, Dr Alimantado !) but “…Sings the Wailers”, a digest of past achievement & “Rock ‘N’ Groove”, a dual triumph of dance music & future reggae, will take some shifting.

Wisdom Is Found In The Simplest Of Places (Blackheart Man Bunny Wailer)

I was on a train from Manchester to Birmingham, an old school “Strangers On A Train” train with compartments for 6 people. The other young guy in there  didn’t speak but our quiet journey was interrupted at Stoke when we were joined by 3 black kids, a Rasta (it was a fashion at the time) and his younger acolytes. They immediately got down to it and began to build a couple of spliffs. I was not going to miss an opportunity to smoke up the collie with the bredren so put my hand in the way and intercepted the joint as it was passed across. A little presumptive on my part maybe. I had better produce some credentials and sharpish. From my bag I took out an LP that, at the time, went everywhere with me. Any problem with this cheeky white bwoy was solved.

“Blackheart Man” is the first LP Bunny Wailer released after leaving the Wailers. The story of the three Wailers is told in Colin Grant’s fine book “I and I: The Natural Mystics”. As in Lloyd Bradley’s earlier history of reggae “Bass Culture” the social and political development of Jamaica is inevitably entwined with the music. The story of these young men, as close as brothers, is a fascinating one. They presented a united front against tribulation because they shared a belief in and a passion about the music they created. When the wider world came calling  there were differences about how to deal with Babylon. Bunny decided to stay in Jamaica then Peter Tosh left the group which had become Bob Marley and the Wailers. Spurred, I’m sure, by the desire to prove they could each stand alone each man delivered an LP which marked the point that reggae music had to be considered around the world not just in Jamaica and the UK.

This title song “Blackheart Man” tells of the fable warning children to “tikya” of strangers making a parallel with the ostracism of Rastafari by Jamaican society. Bunny’s lyricism, his calm, almost understated, declaration of his own beliefs makes it a powerful, convincing and uplifting work. The guy on the train handed my LP to his younger mates, “This”, he said, “tis a spiritual ting”, and he was right.

Bunny had provided harmonies and percussion in the Wailers. It is the attention paid to these flourishes which make the music on “Blackheart Man” more mellifluous than the anthems of Bob Marley (which are sweet enough). While no less an advocate of Rasta and opponent of oppression than his militant, proselytizing confederates, lyrically he concerned himself with a revolution of the spirit as much as of worldly things. Three of the 10 songs are concerned with the possibility of an ideal way of living. A fresh take on the gospel classic “This Train” closes the LP. “Dreamland” is a reverie on a Rasta African homeland and this track “Fig Tree” is a similar reflection on finding a paradise on earth. Now I’m a cynical man firmly anchored in the material world but songs as open and as fresh as this will make me think. I am not the first to make the point but there is a touch of William Blake, of the romantic visionary, about Jah Bunny.

“Fig Tree” contains the lyric “every man is a man and every mickle mek a muckle”. For years I admired this integration of Jamaican patois into the song. I was watching the great 1962 film “Billy Liar”, set in West Yorkshire, and was surprised to hear that very same phrase used. Say what !…this Scottish/Northern English saying was first recorded in the writings of George Washington in 1793 ! And I thought it was a Trenchtown thing y’knaa.

Bunny Wailer continues to make music and has made other great LPs but “Blackheart Man” is, in his own opinion, the most complete realisation of his musical and lyrical concerns. It is one of the great LPs, not just in reggae. My own admiration for him as a man and musician has endured for a long time now and will continue to do so. Listening to “Fighting Against Conviction” with it’s positive vibrations despite the struggles of life, with it’s sinuous Wailers’ groove and harmonies from brother Peter Tosh, makes a point more succinctly than I could ever hope to.

So, our conversation on the train was cut short as we entered the outskirts of Birmingham. We said our goodbyes as the boys were riding the rails and left to jump from the train before it reached New Street station. The compartment was filled with a lovely fug of marijuana smoke and I smiled to myself at the welcome and unexpected turn the journey had taken. Now I would have to get my stoned butt into shape to negotiate a crowded Friday night commuter crowd…oh shit. I took a few deep breaths and tried to centre my chakras, or whatever was necessary for me to put one foot in front of the other, when I was asked about the Bunny Wailer record. What the f…? There had been someone else in the compartment all the time. He had pulled his newspaper around his head and made himself invisible as soon as the others had joined us. He had done a good job too…I had forgotten about him. I was polite and answered his query but come on. There was a smoke to be shared, some good talk about life and music with some strangers and he had chosen to hide. That is not the way to live. As Bunny sings in “Reincarnated Souls”, “he who has eyes to see, let him look yonder”. Peace.

 

 

I don’t like cricket (I love it)

“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” asked C.L.R. James the Afro-Trinidadian historian/philosopher. Mr James, a true man of the 20th Century (1901-1989), always spoke with a calm, assured authority. He inspired a hope in myself that I could be comfortable in my own skin for a life well lived as I grew older. He took great pride in the achievements of the young West Indians who’s exploits on the cricket field made them champions of the sport for two decades. James knew that the ” answer involves ideas as well as facts”.  This sporting success  was a result of, and an influence on, post-colonial Caribbean culture. These wonderful batsmen and bowlers were a gateway for West Indian participation in a wider global context. Let Bunny Wailer elucidate (while he gets rid of an annoying dog) and I Roy celebrate.

Cricket, our Summer sport, has a fine literary tradition which football, a more working-class game, has yet to rival. A.G. Macdonell’s “England, Their England” has a village cricket match at it’s crux.Joseph O’Neill’s fine 2008 novel about memory “Netherland”  is about the game in New York. The journalism of Neville Cardus and others is of a quality which reaches readers  who could not care about the scores and who scored them. Of course the structure of the game easily serves as a template for wider English society. The cultured elegance of the aristocratic batsman, the broad-backed, stout-hearted fast bowler, the over-riding concept of fair play, are easy, and lazy stereotypes and Moby Dick was just a whale, man, just a whale.

However, fielding on the boundary in the late evening Summer sun with the long shadows of mature trees in full leaf stretching across the green field a reverie and reflection on the world, and an Englishman’s place in it, is unavoidable and understandable. The spell can be broken when a ball which should have been caught lands unnoticed just yards away. If. at your, much anticipated, turn to bat, the wicket is disturbed by the first ball you face from the opposition’s woman bowler then it just seems like a bloody silly way to spend your time. She was good, I was not her only victim. A couple of beers in the pub later and on to the next game.

Roy Harper’s song from 1975 “When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease” is worthy of entry into the pantheon of cricketing cultural contributions.

This is a valediction to two legends of English cricket, John Snow & Geoffrey Boycott (after whom a good friend, an otherwise rational member of society, named his second son). Harper pays a deserved tribute to the men and the game. The arrangement by David Bedford, a man with a long and interesting contribution to British popular and classical music, is evocative of times past. The Grimethorpe Colliery Band is a survivor from a time when English miners played brass instruments just as Welsh miners sang in choirs. Their playing is beautiful and suits the song so well.

“The fabled men and the noonday sun are much more than just yarns of their days” could, I suppose, be interpreted as referring to a loss of Empire, of an England that no longer exists. I think not. The song is about time passing, about change, but personal change. As Alan Ross, another fine cricket writer said …

“Heroes in fact die with one’s youth. They are pinned like butterflies to the setting board of early memories—the time when skies were always blue, the sun shone and the air was filled with the sounds and scents of grass being cut… I no longer worship heroes, beings for whom the ordinary scales of human values are inadequate. One learns that as one grows up, so do the gods grow down. It is in many ways a pity: for one had thought that heroes had no problems of their own. Now one knows different!”

We know different but we remember them…This song captures the unique beauty of an English Summer evening and the legacy of our childhood heroes. What a lovely thing that is. This song can move men of a certain age to tears (not just me…really) and it may be from remembering past times but it is not from sadness.

 

Kinky reggae believe it, Kinky reggae now.

Student gigs could be pretty free form in the early 70s. A benefit for the cause of the week could have 20 bands in two adjacent venues running for 15 hours. You could spend all night walking between them vainly looking for something listenable. There were also the great ones. Dr John, in full Night Tripper regalia seemed to enter from another more magical world. At a time when sitting cross legged and nodding along was the norm I saw, the J. Geils Band demand that we dance and play a storming set of soul blues. My girlfriend and her mate recovered their admission picking up money spilled from carelessly abandoned clothing.
You had to expect the haphazard and the unexpected though. Syd Barrett (I think & hope it was him) stormed off stage after a row with a roadie just as he was about to start his set. Captain Beefheart and the “Clear Spot” Magic band had a P.A. the venue could not handle (Yes I have known heartbreak in my life). John Martyn took a spliff from the audience, broke a string and was too wasted to change the bloody thing !
The campus had empty halls and anyone who wanted could put a gig together. The film Society ran one on Tuesday May 8th 1973. Three movies and a band , all night, on a Tuesday , lovely, a multi-media extravaganza. The chairman of the society was a good mate. I stayed at his home in Willesdon many times. His Irish mum never let me leave without a full Irish fry up in my belly and the bus fare in my pocket. I adored the woman. Frank booked a band cheaply, they were having trouble getting bookings because they were thought to attract a skinhead following.
So I watched two movies one of which was “Quiet days In Clichy”. “ Joey and Carl fuck, suck and eat their way through Paris” (Time Out) .Refused a UK certificate but we were a private society so we could see private parts. Then I saw the band .Bob Marley and the Wailers… the bloody “Catch A Fire” Wailers. The Marley/Tosh/Livingstone Wailers walked onto a bare stage. Five of them gathered around a small man who played bongos .They invoked inspiration with the primordial “Rastaman Chant”. Audiences were open- minded in those days. The unexpected is often the best. We appreciated it respectfully. The small man who I now know as Bunny Wailer, an inspiration to me for half my life, put down the bongos and the band took up their places on stage.


Reggae had been along with Motown the youth club/disco music of my youth. I loved to dance to it. We now heard the more mature conscious reggae which has become so much part of our musical lives. I would love to tell you that I recognised “ Lively Up Yourself “ and “ Get Up Stand Up”. Six years later I saw Tosh play “ 400 years” and thought I was in heaven. The only tune I really knew was “Stir It Up”. The sound then had the wacka-wacka guitar at its core, the change to Family Man’s bass drive, key to making the music more commercial, was yet to come.
But what a band they were. The rimshots from Carlton Barrett filling the spaces in the loping rhythm. The harmonies of the three singer-bredren. The Impressions with a Trenchtown filter. At the centre a small man, woolly hat over his early dreads, leading his gang into strange new territory because of his belief in the strength of the music they were making and could make in the future.
The only link between the band and the audience was the drug of choice. Hashish for the watchers, a herbal version for the musicians. I was accompanying the most striking Scottish woman. Seriously batting above my average there. We danced to the whole set. Can you imagine these white students dancing to these new rhythms ? If you do you will not sleep well tonight. It was 3 maybe 4 a.m. and life gets little better than a beautiful dance partner and a bit of Bob. I found that out this night. Repeat of similar dosage never failed to delight.
The last movie was “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones”, the antidote to Altamont. Jagger being very careful to not summon up the Devil this time around. When we left it was morning. Spring in the air and in our step. We didn’t know we had seen a future superstar but had enjoyed a different music , a new rhythm.

Frank , the organizer, was a dude. He introduced me to London, to the films of Bunuel & to conscious reggae. All of these things have had a major influence…cheers mate.
I saw Bob Marley’s last appearance in Britain at the Crystal Palace Bowl. His reggae on steroids anthems now filled stadiums on every continent on the planet. We went to see an icon and we got one. It was a good day but I thought back to when it started and a bit of the Kingston dance hall had thrilled our lecture theatre. I think I preferred that.. JAH RASTAFARI !