A Little Faith (John Hiatt)

By 1987 John Hiatt had released 7 LPs of his songs to some critical acclaim but little commercial success. Hiatt had moved to Nashville from Indianapolis, Indiana when he was 18 years old. In a couple of years he had written a hit song for 3 Dog Night & scored a record deal for himself. His debut record “Hangin’ Around the Observatory” (1974) covered a lot of bases, folk, country, R&B, without establishing a distinct individuality. After a 4 year hiatus 1979’s “Slug Line” hooked up with the New Wave & John was inappropriately tagged as an American Elvis Costello. His songs were hook-filled, his lyrics succinct & cynical but they lacked The Imposter’s range & acerbity. A number of reputable producers added an 80’s gloss, synthesized swirls, thumb-plucked bass, which did few favours to music that was essentially rootsy American rock.

 

Hiatt was most effective on the 2nd side of “Riding With the King” (1983). It was recorded in West London with Nick Lowe whose Cowboy Outfit, Martin Belmont, Paul Carrack & Bobby Irwin, provided a no-frills but still imaginative support, allowing the songs to stand by themselves. On a European tour this band called in on German TV’s “Rockpalast” & “The Love That Harms” shows that live & uncontrived John Hiatt was pretty, pretty good.

 

 

It was John’s standing in Europe which helped him when, after a further release, he was dropped by Geffen. Demon Records pledged $30,000 towards new recordings & he spent the money well. Nick Lowe came over to Los Angeles with his bass guitar while Jim Keltner had been the session drummer for the stars, including 3 former Beatles, for over 15 years. Throughout the 80’s Ry Cooder had concentrated on film soundtracks. For “The Border” (Jack Nicholson, Harvey Keitel, Warren Oates…enough said) the standout “Across the Borderline” was written by Cooder in collaboration with Jim Dickinson & Hiatt himself. His contributions as a sideman to “Safe As Milk” with the Magic Band & to the “Performance” movie score were 20 years since & were still notable. Obtaining the services of an ace, a distinctive, distinguished guitarist, was a real stroke, a guarantee of quality.

 

“Bring the Family” was recorded in just 4 days. The opening track “Memphis in the Meantime” states an intention to get “good & greasy” & the whole LP does just that thing. John was in his mid-thirties, personally & professionally he had seen some things & he knew how to get to the heart of them in his writing. The maturity & consistency of Hiatt’s songs is consolidated by the cohesive unit in the studio. There had always, even on his more commercial records, a touch of musical curatorship about Ry Cooder. His soundtrack for “Paris, Texas” (1985) is a delicate, almost ambient delight. His later collaborations with Ali Farka Toure & the Buena Vista crew are a lovely introduction to outstanding non- First World talents. On “Bring the Family” Cooder is a rock & roll guitarist, just one of the best.  In “Memphis…” John sang “I don’t think Ronnie Milsap’s gonna ever record this song”. There were others on the LP that would suit those Nashville cats. “Lipstick Sunset” is one of them but they would have to go some to match Hiatt’s vocals & Cooder’s impeccable slide accompaniment.

 

 

The LP was Hiatt’s most successful to date but his studio band were busy men. He toured with a new band, the Goners, which featured Sonny Landreth, a virtuoso slide guitarist of great reputation. The live clips of songs from “Bring the Family” are with this group & well, Sonny is good, if a little flashy for my taste but he ain’t Ry Cooder. Hiatt recorded 2 more LPs before, in 1992, the “…Family” band got back together as Little Village for another record. This time around the songwriting was more democratic, though John provided most of the vocals & the set lacked the immediacy of their previous outing. It was a damp, desultory, sparsely attended Sunday at the Crystal Palace Bowl when we saw Little Village. They were never going to be John Hiatt’s backing band & individually Hiatt, Lowe, Keltner & Cooder are all top-ranked musicians. You can never have too many opportunities to see quality like this & they were great. It’s just a shame they didn’t play those songs like “Thing Called Love”, “Have A Little Faith In Me” or “Your Dad Did”.

 

 

John Hiatt continued to be prolific. His extensive range meant that in 2003 he was recording with Irish folk giants the Chieftains & in the following year contributed to a Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute.  Sometimes his songs have had a wider reach than his dedicated audience. 1988’s “Tennessee Plates” is on the “Thelma & Louise” soundtrack, “Cry Love” (1995) is probably the hit that got away, The rocking “My Old Friend” (2001) remains a personal favourite. There have been around 15 LPs in the 22 years since Little Village & he’s a master at crafting wry, pithy observations with tight, no-frills tunes. Each of them reward closer listening but it’s “Bring the Family”, 4 great musicians getting together & playing for the fun & the creativity of it, that remains his most enduring masterwork.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Who Are The Trusted?, And Where Is The Harmony?,(Brinsley Schwarz)

Kippington Lodge, a British pop-psych group, hit the buffers in 1969. Even that trusty stand-by of the swinging decade, the Beatles cover, failed to raise them from the agglomeration of capable, talented bands who only sold records to their friends & family. They re- branded, a new name, new management & a different style of music. Brinsley Schwarz, the name of the band & of the guitarist, hooked up with a former tour manager of Jimi Hendrix, the Irish chancer Dave Robinson. Robinson’s latest hustle was Famepushers & he planned an elaborate, expensive stunt to ensure that Brinsley Schwarz hit the ground running. Flying the British press to New York to see the band play the 3rd wheel at a Van Morrison, Quicksilver Messenger Service gig at the Fillmore East was a jolly jape but a logistical & publicity disaster. A delay to the flight meant that Fleet Street’s finest had spent 4 hours at the free bar while the underground journos smoked up 3 ounces of the good stuff on the plane. The assembly was not in the mood to give the support band a fair hearing, the gig & the debut LP were caned & the word “Hype” entered common usage.

In 1970 that imagined fissure between the straights & the freaks was at its widest. Brinsley Schwarz were seen to be trying to hard & that was just not cool. The band’s name had got around but only as hubristic Humpties who had a bunch of getting themselves back together to be done.

The group did their very best to restore their reputation. The debut LP is a little confused. The single contemporary clip shows a hirsute crew with aspirations to sound like the Grateful Dead while sniffing the British prog-rock breeze. A 2nd LP in the same year is stripped down, looser , more assured & better for it. The band’s reaction to their disastrous launch was to keep it simple but anti-commercialism took time to convince after such a blatant caper. “Despite It All” marks the progress of the group’s songwriter/bassist Nick Lowe as a significant talent. “Funk Angel” is a good example of of a fine tune combined with a lyric of subtle humour, a style that Nick has been finessing for over 40 years now.

The Brinsleys had a record deal & took support gigs to promote the LPs. They became part of a scene in London playing the grubby back rooms of pubs. A small stage, indifferent sound & little money but pleasant company, cheap beer & better vibes than the bigger city venues. “Pub Rock” had a touch of Americana with plenty of lively, energetic rock & roll. There was an agreeable absence of any capes, synthesizers & space operas. Brinsley Schwarz were already heading down the roots rock road. The stoner country rock accelerated a little, Nick got a little more ironic & the covers showed an erudite taste across rock’s rich tapestry.

“Ju Ju Man” is co-written by Lolly Vegas (off of Redbone, “Witch Queen Of New Orleans”…anyone ?) & Jim Ford, a maverick talent who released only one LP while he was alive but wrote some great music. (“Harry Hippie” with Bobby Womack…that’s enough). Brinsley Schwarz backed Ford when he came to the UK for another ill-fated attempt to record some music. The American’s country-rock-soul mix & his cocaine cowboy charisma had a big effect on Nick Lowe who often checks for him as a major influence on his own writing.

Brinsley Schwarz made 6 LPs but they could not catch a break. They were great live, Ian Gomm, a guitarist/singer/writer, joined & they had a pretty good catalogue of original songs. A quality compilation, “Original Golden Greats”, selling for just 99 pence, was released in 1974. Fans bought this instead of the full price “The New Favourites Of…” a record which had more money spent on it & was produced by Dave Edmunds. It seemed that every time the group tried a little too hard to sell some records that there was still a price to be paid for the shenanigans 5 years earlier.

“New Favourites” was the last record the group made before they gave the name back to the guitarist. I saw them on the final tour & they had obviously had enough of playing the same circuit of clubs to a staunch but small audiences. Nick Lowe’s showed near-contempt for the enthusiasm of punters who had not bought enough of the band’s records. They still played a great set. Ian Gomm began a solo career & had a US Top 40 hit with “Hold On”. Brinsley & keyboard player Bob Andrew joined Graham Parker & the Rumour. so we saw quite a lot of them. Lowe hooked up with, of all people, Dave Robinson who’s time had come when he & Jake Riviera borrowed £400 from Lee Brilleaux (Dr Feelgood) to start Stiff Records. The label’s first single was Nick’s debut too. Stiff released 45s by the pub-rockers but the independent label was perfectly placed to attract & sign those  snotty new bands looking to take a new broom to the UK music scene. “New Rose” by the Damned was the first British punk single, out on Stiff & produced by Nick Lowe. his apprenticeship was over.

In the first half of the 1970’s there were a lot of UK music fans who could not be doing with the excesses of Progressive Rock, thought it was a load of Tubular Balls (YSWIDT). We liked music that sounded like the Band &, OK, we fell for some insipid nonsense but at least we liked the Band. Brinsley Schwarz played a British version of this music with a commitment & an originality which had a verisimilitude. They developed from being West Coast derivatives to having a fresh take on straightforward rock which prepared the way for some new young blood who were ready to rock too. Track 1, side 1 of “The New Favourites of…” is a tune which has become a classic, covered on record by Elvis Costello, in concert by Springsteen.” (What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love & Understanding”. It’s a song you know you are going to like just from hearing the title.

Where It’s Going No One Knows (New Wave)

In 1976 Nick Lowe produced the first homegrown punk single released in the UK. Getting the jump on the Pistols & the Clash the Damned released “New Rose” in October 1976. Nick was the in-house producer for a new independent label. His “bash it out…we’ll tart it up later” approach matched the “if it ain’t Stiff, it ain’t worth a f*ck” shibboleth of Stiff Records. It was the first release by the label, Nick Lowe’s debut solo record, which had invented “New Wave” music.

I had seen the final tour by Brinsley Schwarz in 1975. Still playing small clubs at the end of a long road, Nick had had enough, the band were as good as they had always been but “Basher ” was openly dismissive of any over-enthusiasm on the part of the audience. Before co-founding Stiff Dave Robinson had managed the Brinsleys who’s final LP “New Favourites of…” had been produced by Dave Edmunds. Lowe & Edmunds  hooked up in Rockpile, so Nick was operating with a circle of friends. “So It Goes” is a crafty classic. Nick had written them before & would continue to do so up to right now. The band went along on the Live Stiffs tour in 1977. the single, “I Knew The Bride” , backing Larry Wallis on “Police Car”  & off to the bar, leaving the hard graft to Costello & Dury. He was having fun again & the music was the better for it.

“So It Goes” was how musicians who were too old to be punks reacted to an injection of energy in British music, (the part played by cheap amphetamine sulphate should not be overlooked). There were other writers of well-crafted songs who knew that catching the zeitgeist of 1976-7 required a bit of oomph. Nick Lowe was a busy man in 1976. (Well, 6 months before I used the Z-word. Pretentious, moi ?).

Two of Nick’s former band-mates had joined the backing band of a singer from London managed by Dave Robinson. (This is getting a little incestuous). Graham Parker & the Rumour’s first LP, “Howling Wind”, produced by Nick Lowe, was released in April 1976 & it was pretty good. The Dylanesque sneer of Parker’s cynical lyrics were boosted by some tough & assured backing with a touch of R&B from the Rumour Horns.  The Village Voice placed it at #4 in their 1976 best album list. It was not even the highest Graham Parker on the list.

At #2 was “Heat Treatment”, a 2nd LP from 1976. Lowe was too busy & Mutt Lange produced. It is a good record & “Pouring It All Out” must have been a single because it’s a terrific song. Was it a better LP than “Howling Wind” ? Answers at the bottom of this post please because I don’t know the answer to that. I got to see GP & the Rumour in 1977, the “Pink Parker” tour. The band tried a shot at the charts by covering the Trammps “Hold Back The Night”. It may have been that the band had been playing the same set for a year or it may have been that Southside Johnny & the Asbury Dukes absolutely rocked the house & stole the show. This was not just at the Birmingham Odeon but across the country. Parker hit a bump for a while, that early catalogue of songs could only take him so far. He & the Rumour would be back.

Joe Jackson was a classically trained musician who had worked as an arranger for cabaret bands. He saw the way the wind was blowing & his first 2 LPs, both from 1979, were stripped back & punchy. With the backing of a big label & a fine line in self-deprecation both “Look Sharp” & the single “Is She Really Going Out With Him ?” were successful in the USA. I saw Joe play in Manchester in 1979 when the first LP had just come around (Man, I got out & about in those days). He had a great trio behind him & put on a great show. There was a touch of artifice about the arrangements. That touch of reggae, those dynamics, but I mostly remember a really good night out.

“I’m The Man” is the title track of the 2nd LP. You can see that it’s a showpiece song. I was impressed by the lyrics in 1979, a lovely idea that  those crappy crazes, from the yo-yo to “Jaws” are all invented & manipulated by the same evil spiv. I’ll buy that.

Joe used to live round my way in south London, we would nod to each other in the local shop. He played around with reggae before whipping out his jiving jazz roots. Like Nick Lowe & Graham Parker there was more fine music to come. I think that I have not finished with these guys yet.

Music for grown ups (by grown ups)

Nick Lowe is quoted as saying his greatest fear is “sticking with what you did when you were famous”. “I didn’t want to become one of those thinning-haired, jowly old geezers who still does the same shtick they did when they were young, slim and beautiful,” . “That’s revolting and rather tragic.” Well said that man. I still enjoy listening to the music of my youth and I hope that can appreciate it’s energy and innovation without getting trapped in a nostalgic web. As I get older ( boy, how did that happen, and so quickly ?) I want to hear artists produce interesting and mature music that is as mature and as interesting as I am (yeah, you heard).

There will always be a place for a gang of 17 year olds who have nicked their grandparents’ Stooges LPs but I’ve heard that before. There will always be music that is popular despite seeming trite and cliched. There was a lot of that in the 60s too, always has been. I just find it satisfying when musicians/composers address issues of concern to aging baby boomers in an original and entertaining way. I am way past having the world explained to me by someone who happens to know a few chords on the guitar. I do still want to be entertained by popular music as I always have been.

Nick Lowe has knocked about a bit in the music business. I understand that the inclusion of one of his tunes in the movie “The Bodyguard” realised a large royalty cheque  as the LP became the biggest selling soundtrack of ever. No pressure then as Nick has released three LPs in the 21st century of relaxed, cynical but playful acoustic tunes. Some are self-depreciative, “I’m A Mess”, “Lately I’ve Let Things Slide”, others a little twisted, “I Trained Her To Love Me”. Most are about a man of a certain age trying to make sense of  just how it came to this. On his LP of last year “The Old Magic” there are songs about death, “Checkout Time”, about being alone ,”I Read A Lot” and this lovely plea for just a little bit of understanding.

The video features Marc Maron, Maria Thayer and a great supporting cast. It is very funny. Over the years there have been contemporaries of Nick who have made music I have found more interesting. That has changed. Nick Lowe is writing songs for men who have lived a bit. Maybe he has got better or the others have got worse. Whatever… I think that “don’t freeze me baby, I’m no dinky-doo. I’m a sensitive man” is a writer at the top of his game.

John Cale has been involved in some of the best music I have ever heard. Hell yes the Velvet Underground, the Stooges and Patti Smith. Let’s throw in Eno, Nick Drake and Shrek. If I am ever exiled to a desert island I will insist that I take his LP “Paris 1919” along. His solo LPs have always been, at least, interesting and provocative. I am always going to have time for new music by Mr Cale. He has a new LP with the rather clunky title “Shifty Adventures In Nooky Wood”. I am enjoying what I am hearing. There are a lot of different sounds but Cale’s rich baritone voice of experience provides a continuity which will bring me back to this new work. John Cale gets to play his music with orchestras now. He is currently on tour with a band and is rocking out to Nooky Wood and a couple of older tunes including last year’s poptastic “Catastrofuk”

Well OK…Here’s a couple of old men from Pennsylvania who’s combined output in the past 20 years has barely registered around my house. They are playing a polished version of a 40 year old song. There is, I confess, a smidgeon of nostalgia and a soupcon of “Dad Rock” about this but hold on there muskrat, hear me out a moment. “Sometimes I Don’t Know What To Feel” is one of the great songs Todd Rundgren recorded on four LPs between 1970 and 1973. The world was buying shedloads of records by introspective boys and girls. Todd’s McCartneyesque, even baroque, ballads did not make the same connection but these songs have stood the test of time. I showed this to a friend this weekend. He listened and, after a minute, said “Todd is God”.

What I’m seeing and hearing here is a lot of respect. These two guys share a very similar musical background at Daryl’s house Todd is being given a chance to play one of his songs properly with a good band. He knows this, the song has not been given props like this for 30 years, and he rises to the occasion. For me, hearing such a good song played so well is what passes for entertainment in the early 21st century. I am not gonna rant about the pillage of rock’s back catalogue for cheap nostalgic cabaret. Similarly  a musicologist’s worthiness is often unnecessary. Rock and roll is all played out. Do we really expect to hear something new which will enter the pantheon we can now access at the push of a button ? Simply good songs played well is enough to make me happy.