They Say That It’s A Man’s World But You Can’t Prove That By Me (Dan Penn)

A recent article in the New York Times, “Why Music Makes Our Brain Sing”, was an attempt to explain our reaction to music in terms of neuroscience. There was a load of dopamine flooding the striatum blah blah. Yeah, “Mr Zoot Horn Rollo, hit that long, leaning note & make it float”. I am a music obsessive, I know what I like & I like what I bloody well know. You can take an auditory cortex, any expectations based on our stored musical representations & shove ’em.

All I know is that this is aural perfection. Don’t know why, don’t care, it just is. Awopbopaloobopalopbamboom !

This is the newest & the best Y-tube version of “I’m Your Puppet” by Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham, the guys what wrote it. In 1966 James & Bobby Purify hit with the song. Dan & Spooner, confident that this music thing just might work, left Alabama for American Studios in Memphis where they became involved in a period of extraordinary creativity & success.  I was seeing the names Holland, Dozier, Holland on all of those Motown records, finding out that Steve Cropper & the M.G.s were playing on all the Stax hits & I was checking the name Penn on the credits of a lot of good tunes. “Out of Left Field”, the B-side of “Judy In Disguise”, that was one.

Dan always thought that the hit version of “Puppet” was a little fast & this take on the song harks back to the 1965 original. Allmusic identifies a weary resignation in this later version which just ain’t there. It’s a middle-aged interpretation, taking it’s time to appreciate  the good stuff, not coming & going in a heaving rush…you get me ?

Another slice of Paradise. I believe that this clip is possibly a high point of Western civilization…seriously. Dan Penn wrote “Do Right Woman” & “Dark End of the Street”, 2 dead-stone, all-time, Hall of Fame classics with Chips Moman, the owner of American Sound Studios. Atlantic Records wanted to break Aretha out of the R&B charts & added some Memphis/Muscle Shoals magic to an already formidable talent. “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” is a modern manifesto for women along with the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”. When Gram Parsons, another outstanding voice, recorded the song as a country waltz it was no less distinctive both as a tune & for being sung by a man.

“Do Right Man” was the title of Penn’s 1994 solo LP, his first for 20 years. I love the 1973  “Nobody’s Fool” but the hits are on “Do Right”. There’s a simplicity about these songs which seems effortless but you know it isn’t. There’s a lyrical maturity & there is Soul.  He started to perform his great songs in concert & I was lucky to see him in London in 1994. An unassuming man, dressed a little incongruously in farm dungarees, he had no choice but to accept the gratitude of a large audience who considered him to be a legend.

The ideal accompaniment to a long Summer evening when business has been taken care of & a man can sit a while, smoke, whittle, scratch or just watch the light fade. All of these or any combination thereof is acceptable. Casual Records, a British label founded by the estimable D.J. Ross Allen, released a couple of compilations called “Country Got Soul” in 2003. Whether the tracks were country, soul or a hybrid is of no consequence, they are great collections. In 2005 some of those surviving artists gathered at Dan Penn’s basement studio in Nashville & recorded “Testifying” as the Country Soul Revue.

Spooner showed out, Donnie Fritts too. Bonnie Bramlett was still singing & Tony Joe White reminded us how good he was.It’s a good old boys (& girl) Buena Vista thing & “Sapelo” by Larry Jon Wilson is a stand out piece of glorious Southern Gothic. This was my introduction to Larry Jon, the singer who ‘could break your heart with a voice like a cannonball’. I have no idea what & when “Oglethorpe Time” is but it sounds great. So does “Testifying”,  warm., intimate music produced by artists happy to have been doing what they’re doing for quite some time.

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The Joy I’ve Named Shall Not Be Tamed (BMX Bandits/Dan Penn)

A most pleasing episode of Interweb synchronicity today when a Facebook friend posted this early gem by an artist who’s music I just love. I am a little obsessed by those boys from the Southern states of the USA who grew up listening to rock & roll, country, R & B then found, in Memphis & Muscle Shoals, places where they could influence the future of  soul music. Steve Cropper had more hits at Stax than a basket full of kittens on Y-tube. The great maverick Jim Dickinson & his band, the Dixie Flyers, were involved in so much great music. There are many others who were there & made their mark but it is the life & music of Dan Penn which continues to intrigue as I hear things like this.

“I’m Your Puppet” was the breakthrough hit for Dan Penn when, in 1966, James & Bobby Purify took the song into the US Top 10. It convinced Dan that this music thing just might work out & when, a year later, he produced a world wide hit for the Box Tops his reputation as a guy who could get the job done was made. This version was released as a single & did nothing, the song went back into the drawer marked “for future reference”.

The clip was posted by Davie Ritchie, a man I have never met but someone I know to have impeccable taste. His band, the Debris Rose, prove themselves to be the perfect bar band with this terrific version of Prince Buster’s “Girl Answer Your Name”. I am perfectly content to have my evening’s musical direction chosen by someone else so I chipped in with James Barnett’s “Keep On Talking”, a Northern Soul classic & went off to listen to more songs written by Penn both for himself & for others. In any such rummage a mandatory stopover must be made at a delightful oasis.

After a slate grey February day “That Summer Feeling”, a fine collision/collusion between Scottish jangle pop, Dan Penn and a Jonathan Richman song is the very thing to remind you that, when we get through the Winter, things are gonna get better. I don’t know too much about how this BMX Bandits b-side came about, it probably does not eclipse the JR original. I do know that it is absolutely charming & that if you are making a record with Dan Penn that you will have to raise your game.

So, I am enjoying this favourite when Mr Ritchie’s thread coughs up the name of Duglas T Stewart. Now this may be just a regular passer-by for Davie but it’s a rare thing when the people I am listening to are on my F-book at the same time. Duglas is the BMX Bandits,there have been many members of the group in the past 25 years but he has been the one constant. He & school pal Norman Blake started the band. Norman went off to start Teenage Fanclub while other Bandits have left for greater success. Duglas has been at the centre of a Glasgow rock scene which has worn its influences on its sleeve & pretty good solid influences they have been too. In his case the songs of Jonathan Richman were as influential as those of Brian Wilson & Alex Chilton. There can be a jokey naivete but the moments of direct emotional honesty, of  love & pathos that get you right there. The BMX Bandits may have boasted that “Kylie’s Got A Crush On Us” on a 1993 single but they could make some lovely honest pop nuggets too.

“Serious Drugs”, now there’s a title that’ll get you played on the radio. If only it had been because there is a tune that gets stuck in your head and in a good way. There are 3 versions of the song. Norman Blake sings this one & a later one with Duglas on vocals is good stuff too. Kurt Cobain said “If I could be in any other band, it would be BMX Bandits”  & the band were at Creation Records when the Oasis thing happened but have determinedly remained a cult while influencing other bands. There is a movie about him called “Serious Drugs” which deals with his career & his problems with depression. i must check it out.

The BMX Bandits have affected enough people for Duglas to keep working & to collaborate with many interesting people. This evening I was tempted to make a couple of clicks & ask him to tell me about Dan Penn, about Brian Wilson. Hey, this “the Internet makes the world a smaller place” thing just won’t wash. I don’t know him, he don’t know me & I’m sussed enough to know when I may be too intrusive. No matter, there was a little connection today & I got to post some good music right here. This is “Little Hands” more proof that Duglas & Norman wore out those Big Star LPs when they were kids.

A Night To Remember

There have been concerts I attended when, as I have been leaving the venue, I have thought, “Well,that is some of the best music I have ever seen”. The Grateful Dead one enchanting night at Alexandra Palace, R.E.M.  on two consecutive nights of the “Green ” tour, Taj Mahal on more than one occasion. It’s a long list. The night I saw Joe South is the one that returns to my mind most regularly. It was not only Joe’s contribution that evening which made it so memorable. Writing about Joe has brought it fresh to my mind again.

The concert was billed as an “Southern Songwriter’s Circle”. These gigs , where the artists share the stage, are more commonplace today. This was the first of it’s kind in London and they hadn’t really got the format down. It kinda helped make the night unique. There were five artists on the bill which is too many. Now there are usually three. The deal was that a compere would ask questions of the participants who would share their secrets about song-writing. The M.C. was Charlie Gillett a respected label boss/D.J./facilitator on the British scene. Charlie was one of the good guys, his book about early rock & roll, “The Sound of the City” is one of the finest books on music I have read…I have read more than a few. This was not your night Charlie. The first time he tried to initiate a conversation he was shouted down by the audience. “Play the music !” was the rallying call. Gillett was not heard from again and we got the night we wanted…more music.

Well, there are few finer ways of opening a concert than hearing Guy Clark perform “Desperadoes Waiting For A Train”, the original “outlaw country” classic. Guy wrote some great songs but “Old No 1” released in 1975 is his finest LP. A good friend of mine, still performing and recording, included this in his set through the mid 70s. It was a song I loved and to hear it played by the writer was most satisfying. Whichever way the concert went this was one to savour. The clip is from a movie, “Heartworn Highways”, a documentary on the Austin, Texas music scene centred around Townes Van Zandt. It captures some fine music.

Guy Clark sat to the left of the stage. Next to him was the youngest of the performers, the least commercially successful of the five. Vic Chesnutt, out of Athens Georgia, had recorded three LPs by this time and was less well known to the audience. In a wheelchair and with limited use of his hands since a teenage car accident there is a natural simplicity and frailty about his work. He was sharing the stage with some heavyweights and he performed some of his lighter and more accessible songs with great charm. Two weeks later a friend and myself went to see Vic in his own show at a dark little club in North London. We were at the front and helped lift his wheelchair on to the small stage. He, with his band, melted and then broke our hardened hearts with his individual take on Southern Gothic. (I ended the night discussing Flannery O’Connor with a well known comic actor). In a bigger auditorium, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, by the river, Vic was happy to be the light relief.

Joe South was at centre stage. I have written about his career and his songs  before. His contribution maintained the high quality of the evening’s entertainment.

The two men to the right of the stage are two of the men I most admire in music .I am not going to attempt to do them full justice in this memoir, They merit, and will get, longer consideration.

Here was Dan Penn, part of the history of soul music through his time at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals and at American Recording in Memphis. Those young white men from the Southern states with a love for R&B, a talent for writing, playing and recording music which went around the world, had helped to shape a sound regarded as predominantly African-American. They must have led such fascinating lives as their songs were transformed into gold records during a time when some of their work colleagues could not eat in the same restaurants because of the colour of their skins.

Tonight Dan played his greatest hits. Dressed in his hillbilly denim dungarees he could be unassuming when he knew that there was not a member of the audience who had not been touched by one or all of these songs. “I’m Your Puppet” and “Do Right Woman were perfect but it was “Dark End of the Street” which absolutely rocked the place. It may have been James Carr, Aretha Franklin, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Ry Cooder or Richard and Linda Thompson who put you on to this song. Great voices were attracted to the song and never approached it lightly.

Dan Penn’s performance was conducted in an awed silence. This was how this song had been originally and we were privileged to hear it. When the song finished the audience rose in a standing ovation. It was not for a great performance it was for writing a song of such stature. I had been in the middle of similar appreciations at concerts but never one which contained such an element of gratitude. It was a fine moment.

Finally, on the right of the stage, sat by a piano, was a true legend of American music. I love the music of New Orleans. I find the way there is a complex though logical rhythm but sometimes only a hint of a structured song both fascinating and irresistable. I discovered this idiosyncratic sound through the 60s records of Lee Dorsey. I have moved forward with it and looked backwards to the musicians of the 40s and 50s. The fulcrum and link to all of this music is Allen Toussaint.

Toussaint is more visible these days. Peter  Buckley in “The Rough Guide to Rock” describes this appearance as a “return from exile”. You could not tell. A trim man, dapper in a suit, he must been confident that whatever he chose to play there would be big love for him. I’ve seen a tracklist of his songs from that night. I’m sure that “Fortune Teller”, the Benny Spellman tune was a medley spanning “Mother In Law” (Ernie K Doe) and “Working In A Coal Mine” (Lee Dorsey). I have a memory of a shouted request for “On Your Way Down”, recorded by Little Feat , a band held in high regard in the UK. I remember him playing at least a part of it. If he did not and I’m guilty of a wish-fulfilment  of one of my sweetest dreams then I apologise for misleading anyone.

Allen Toussaint provided my personal highlight of the evening. To see him play was good enough but there was one particular song I was hoping to hear. For many years his “Southern Nights” LP had been one of the most treasured in my collection. I have seen reviews which refer to psychedelia or use the adjective “trippy” but that just ain’t right. The use of the title track as a motif throughout the set is a reverie anchoring the journey through the varied styles and talents of the composer. “Southern Nights” had been my go-to late night feeling good record for a very long time. (Feeling bad ? “No Other” by Gene Clark).

When Allen’s turn came around again he told a story about his Creole grandparents. I knew this was a prelude to him playing “Southern Nights” and , I believe, the word is “frisson”. There were a few empty seats at the back of the hall. I left my place and went to sit by myself…this was a personal thing. I have had few musical experiences which can rival hearing this most beautiful of tunes played in front of me by the man responsible for it’s creation. Now I am older such experiences can be somewhat lachrymose. Back then this horny-handed construction worker was warmed by an inner glow of contentment. Man, it felt good !

We lived, at this time, in Westminster, just a spit away from the Thames. We left the gig and walked in the summer night along the Albert Embankment on the South Bank of the river. Feeling good, we were in no hurry. We sat on a bench, smelled the air and took in the illuminated view of the Houses of Parliament. We sat and smoked quietly, buzzing that London could be as great a place as it was being that night. If there had been a better concert on the planet that night then good luck to it. It was after midnight. The bench, the view, the river, the city, was ours. We knew it was not ours to keep, by the morning we had to share with 8 million others. That’s why the times you felt this way were to be honoured and then filed away to memory.