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.

 

 

 

Covers Of The Rolling Stones (Beggars Banquet)

In December 1968 the Rolling Stones released “Beggars Banquet”, their 7th LP. A new record from the group was always a big deal but this was an important time for them. Exactly a year earlier their preceding LP, “Their Satanic Majesties Request”,  met with less critical acclaim & commercial success than was customary. Now tracks such as the baroque “She’s A Rainbow”& the cosmic “2000 Light Years From Home” are essential to your Best of the Stones playlist but in 1967 all new music was judged against the seismic “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. The Stones, dealing with drug busts, drug use, a lack of focus & productivity in the studio which saw Andrew Loog Oldham check out on his producer/manager duties, undoubtedly reacted to this Beatle blast with an increase of experimentation & added psychedelia. The group had always been leaders in rock & roll innovation, there were plenty of followers of the Fab Four already & the Stones had always been tougher than the rest.

 

We were still processing the 30 tracks on the Beatles new “White Album”, released 2 weeks before, when “Beggars…” came around. The signs were good. In the summer “Jumping Jack Flash” had enough gas, gas, gas to propel it to the top of the world’s charts. The classic 45 was the first with new producer Jimmy Miller whose work with Stevie Winwood in the Spencer Davis Group & Traffic had caught the ear. The outer wrapping of the LP was almost as plain as the other lot’s after cover art showing a graffiti covered toilet was rejected. The important stuff, the music, hit the spot from the very first track.

 

 

“Sympathy For the Devil” Woo-Woo ! Everybody knows it. Mick Jagger’s lyrics, a collision of Baudelaire, Bulgakov & Dylan on the enduring, alluring nature of evil set to an hypnotic samba groove. Film maker Jean Luc Godard was at Olympic Studios to capture the creative process, the construction of an intense, instantly iconic piece of Art. The final version convinced many that the group had fallen in with a bad lot. In the early 1970s we met an American girl (raised on promises ?) who believed that Jagger was the Devil. It would have disappointed her if we had passed on our opinion that he was just a bloke from Dartford with a very acute way with words.

 

The Attack were around from 1966 to 68 just as the Mods turned psychedelic. They released 4 singles on Decca which pinged about from Freakbeat to camp whimsy. A combination of bad timing (Mickie Most nicked “Hi Ho Silver Lining” from them for Jeff Beck), a revolving door line up & the lack of a consistent style on record conspired to deny them success. Guitarist David O’List had left to join the Nice before this cover, replaced by John Du Cann, later of Atomic Rooster. It’s a no-frills version, the vocal lacking Jagger’s menace & malice, the muscular backing giving it plenty. This track was remained unreleased until 2006, the Attack had had their shot. A pity because it’s a fine example of the British Beat in 1968.

 

“Sympathy…” has been much covered since then. Laibach released a whole LP of versions. In 1969 shoeless songstress Sandie Shaw, her credibility severely battered by winning the lame Eurovision Song Contest with a lamer song, gave it a good go in 1969. In the same year Arif Mardin, Vice President of Atlantic Records, included the song on a solo album. It would take finer tuned ears than mine to explain the attraction of Bryan Ferry’s  1973 version (I’m sure I will get that explanation).

 

“Street Fighting Man” had been a US single, though not in the UK, in the Autumn. It was not a big hit because in 1968 rock & roll was still considered to be subversive & radio stations were reluctant to air what seemed to be an exhortation, an invitation across the nation, to rioting in the street. The incendiary, ambiguous lyrics are matched by a marching, charging Keith Richards riff, thunderous drums from Charlie Watts & Brian Jones’ tamboura drone. Events in Paris, Prague & Chicago, even “sleepy London town”, had widened the generation gap & shaken governments. The Rolling Stones captured this energy & confusion in a pop song just over  3 minutes long. It was expected that a commentary on a changing world would be provided by musicians. It seemed a more reliable way of getting information than most. A great song from different times.

 

When Rod Stewart & Ronnie Wood left the Jeff Beck Group to link with the 3 remaining Small Faces their rambunctious, uplifting take on rock & roll had an instant appeal. The Stones, the Who & Led Zeppelin were conquering the world leaving Faces to claim the title of best live band in the UK. Rod’s solo LP “An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down” was already in the shops before the band’s debut. This arrangement worked fine until his 3rd album “Every Picture Tells a Story” went stratospheric & his colleagues were not inclined to be his backing band. “Street Fighting Man” seemed a risky choice to open that 1st record but one of the most appealing facets of those early releases was Rod’s astute selection of songs to cover. Another was that despite Rod having made his reputation in both the Rhythm & the Blues there was always a place for Folk music in his heart.This version is less portentous than the original though drummer Micky Waller drives it along. There’s sterling contributions from Facemates Ronnie Wood, on guitar & bass & Ian McLagan on keyboards. Rod Stewart’s early LPs are to be ranked with the best British music of the time.

 

 

“Beggars Banquet” is a return to what the Rolling Stones knew, Blues-based music. It wasn’t a retreat from psychedelia, nor giving the people what they wanted, it was what they did better than anyone else. The record is a springboard & a template for their run of LPs that established them as “the greatest Rock & Roll band in the world”, music that fans still want to hear when they show out to see the Stones almost 50 years along. “Salt of the Earth”, the closing track, is a proletarian anthem to the “uncounted heads”. It’s a simple song filled out with a gospel choir, Nicky Hopkins’ piano & the sure hand of producer Jimmy Miller who was to stick around for the next 5 LPs.

 

Johnny Adams was from New Orleans. He had worked with Dr John & Eddie Bo before having a peripatetic career throughout the 1960s. By 1971 he was with staff producers Dave Crawford & Brad Shapiro at Atlantic Records. There was no LP, just 4 singles one of which was “Salt of the Earth”. What a terrific version it is too, great Blues-Soul vocals, classic horns & who can resist that sitar-guitar ? I’m sure that Keith Richards approves of such a sympathetic take on one of his songs.

 

The Rolling Stones were not entirely back on track with the release of “Beggars…”. In the same week they filmed “The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus”, a TV special where a tired performance (particularly on a self-conscious “Salt of the Earth”) was eclipsed by supporting acts including the Who & Taj Mahal. It would be 1996 before ringmaster Jagger invited us to see the show. There were increasing concerns about Brian Jones.The founder of the Stones had first become isolated by the developing songwriting partnership of Mick & Keith. His musical imagination & multi-instrumental talent added texture to many of their songs but his contributions were becoming sporadic, his behaviour made more erratic by drug use & emotional problems. The estrangement was complete when a projected tour was complicated by his legal problems & his health. In June 1969 Brian was fired from his group & just a month later was unfortunately found dead in the swimming pool at his home in Sussex. The Stones rolled on.