Random Notes (June 2017)

Oof ! At the start of June our government was telling us that the Leader of the Opposition would take us back to the 1970’s & was an IRA sympathiser. A new generation of voters, raised on & unconvinced by Austerity, replied “When?” & “Who?” then exercised their democratic right in favour of a politician they perceived as principled & fighting their corner. Jeremy Corbyn may not be Prime Minister but the Tories, anticipating plain sailing to an increased majority, are a sinking ship, their “strong & stable” banner in tatters. My own cynicism ( a trait I thought to be an attractive one) was refreshingly challenged by the optimistic younglings of my company. This new passion found a focus when terrorist attacks led to criticism of cuts to emergency services & a tragic fire in London exposed policies which favoured profit over respect for the rights of others to fatal effect.

 

I’m no Corbyn cultist though there is much to admire about his successful acampaign in the face of the vilification from the media. I would prefer a united Labour Party confident enough to articulate & endorse the concerns of their support rather than wait for a hopeless, rudderless, all-but minority government to run aground as they blindly attempt to negotiate the choppy waters of our exit from the EU. Whatever the outcome, something has changed.

 

That’s enough politics & certainly too many maritime metaphors. Let’s put some sounds on…

 

 

My musical month was always set to be dominated by “The Nashville Sound” the new much-anticipated (well, by me) new LP from Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit. It seems that I’m not the only one & it’s selling more copies than the previous 2 award winning collections “Southeastern” & “Something More Than Free”. Whether Jason is rocking out with the band or getting reflective with his acoustic guitar, his wife Amanda on fiddle & harmonies, his mature, assured songs hit the spot more accurately than anyone else around at the moment. That heart-wrenching line “I’m just lucky to have the work” from the title track of “Something…” is still tearing me up now here’s another 10 tracks to have around the house & to get to know.

 

Image result for the nashville sound jason isbellThis time around Isbell is stretching himself lyrically. He & his protagonists, mainly Southern American men, are living in Trump’s America, something needs to be said about the frustration & anger that brings. “Hope the High Road” & “White Man’s World” are not political with a capital P, his character studies are accurate & sympathetic. Any false steps, there is sometimes a slight lyrical clumsiness, is offset by great contributions from all the musicians involved. Hey I’m being picky here. The last 2 records have been very good company, taking their  time to reveal their full depth & qualities. “Cumberland Gap”, “If We Were Vampires” & “Tupelo” are  are already welcome guests. I look forward to becoming more familiar with the rest of “The Nashville Sound”.

 

 

I’ve been an admirer of Steve van Zandt since he was consiglieri to Bruce & the E Street Band before doing the same job for the Soprano family. Hell, I even hung around “Lilyhammer” long after it had jumped the reindeer. Now his immaculately curated Underground Garage (every show archived somewhere around here) is my Interweb radio show of choice. Little Steven’s Rock & Roll sensibility & taste sit very well with me & it only took a listen to a couple of tracks off of his new LP “Soulfire” & I was on it (new fave phrase, courtesy of the hilarious Count Arthur Strong) like a German Shepherd on chicken !

 

Image result for steve van zandt james gando;fini“Soulfire” is infused with Steve’s abiding belief in music’s redemptive quality. Older songs, 2 that he gave to Southside Johnny, are spiritedly resuscitated. “Ride the Night Away” reclaims that great opening riff to “I Found Love” a co-write for Lone Justice. Strong new songs cover similar ground, there are 2 covers, a Blues from Etta James & a spectacular version of James Brown’s “Down & Out In New York City” (from the movie “Black Caesar”). The bold, brassy Spectoresque Wall of Sound, employed by Steve & Springsteen back then, is made loud & clear by master engineer Bob Clearmountain & it’s so good to hear the Persuasions, a classic vocal group, back on record. No new ground is broken on “Soulfire”, it’s traditional American Rock done well by one of the guys who set the standard & it’s glorious.

 

 

Image result for kwyet kinksOK, it’s not all new music round our end, it never is. This month it’s been the Kinks that have made it to to the front of the stack & stayed there. Back when the money from my paper round didn’t stretch to expensive 12″ vinyl discs record companies offered EPs, Extended Plays, 4 tracks for less than double the price of a 2 track 45. Of course the Beatles led the way with  “Twist & Shout” (1963) & “Long Tall Sally” (1964), a great collection of previously unreleased recordings. Both sold more than many hit singles. The Stones matched these with “Five By Five” (1964), new cuts from sessions at Chess studios, & “Got Live if You Want It ” (1965). EPs were mainly recycled material, a chance to buy a couple of singles you had missed. The Kinks were one group who had songs that never made the A-side but were more than album filler.

 

Image result for well respected man kinks“Kwyet Kinks” came around in September 1965, a year when the group had 5 Top 20 hits. Their early energy had converted R&B influences into aggressive, punk Rock & Ray Davies, still  just 21 years old, was developing a more introspective songwriting style. Both Summer hits “Set Me Free” & “See My Friends” combined a wistful lyric with a distinctive, inventive guitar sound. The oh so good, oh so fine “Well Respected Man”, a first excursion into sly social commentary, was picked from the EP by offshore pirate radios & played to an audience of over 10 million as often as any new hit. The Kinks’ record label & management doubted the group’s new direction but their fans were already on it. “Wait Till the Summer Comes Along” was the first song to be solely credited to the younger Davies, guitarist Dave. It would be a couple of years before Dave made his own hit solo records but the talent is there to see on this one. The other 2 tracks “Don’t You Fret” & “Such A Shame” were not saved for “The Kink Kontroversy”, their 3rd LP.  In 1965 the Davies brothers, Pete Quaife (bass), Mick Avory (drums) & their producer Shel Talmy were mining a very productive seam.

 

Image result for dedicated kinks epThe following year “Dedicated Follower of Fashion”, a sharp lampoon of Carnabetian Swinging London, was the first in a series of acutely observed, distinctively British, classic Kinks hits. Pye, never slow to capitalise on their back catalogue, released the “Dedicated Kinks” EP, the title hit, “Set Me Free”, “See My Friends” & the raucous, rocking “Till the End of the Day”. Now that sounded like value for my hard-earned to me. A good reason for a Saturday, the one day I was holding folding, visit to the local record shop.

Advertisements

A Christmas Story (Santa make him hurry, tell him he can take the freeway down)

Friday evenings…Man, Monday I got Friday on my mind & the weekend starts here. Business taken care of, the city that put money in my pocket becomes my adventure playground. I wanted to swing from the ropes, hang from the climbing bars, graze both knees, get down & dirty. I deserved it. First there was a tried & tested transition from work time to playtime to be undertaken. Loud. fast music because bouncing of the walls is good, a couple of spliffs to…er…keep my mind limber. I was just building the first of the bifters when the phone rang. The caller was my good friend Sally, she said she needed a favour, ” a big favour”.

Now Sally was a Mama Lioness with 3 cubs, Charlie, an 11 year old hoodlum, 5 year old George, a wrecking ball on legs & Danielle, 8, an angel in the middle. When Mum needed a favour it meant that just minutes later my life was no longer my own. There was a facade of control but all 4 of us were in on the gag. I was outnumbered & we all knew that too. Just don’t get hurt, don’t hurt each other & try to break as little of my stuff as possible. Oh, we must all laugh as much as we can too, that was a big part of the deal. When Sally needed a favour I never said “No”. I loved being part of that gang, I loved all of that family.

“A big favour. I need a man in a big, red suit with a long, white beard”. I did not mention that this Friday was in mid-December, Xmas was a-coming. I could avoid any festive folderol until Noche Buena. If you have kids I guess that the momentum starts to build soon after Halloween. “Sally…Fuck Right Off”…kneejerk I know but I had to make my position clear. My friend explained that Santa had let them down, that no-one else would do it & I was absolutely the last resort. Yep, she really sold it to me. As she spoke I kind of knew that I was going to cave in & do this thing.

When Sally picked me up she was already most appreciative. The kids looked excited. Charlie was in his Sea Scouts uniform, the flipping Sea Scouts…in Birmingham, as far from the coast as it is possible to be in the UK. The 2 youngest looked at me with admiration, understanding the lengths I was prepared to go to make an absolute idiot of myself. Danni was here with her Brownie friends, George was, I think, just along for the craic. The local Round Table, a charitable association of businessmen had arranged this convocation of children’s groups to tour a neighbourhood & make a collection. At the heart of the procession, the star of the show, was Santa/Father Christmas. That would be me then. In a pub car park I was given the scarlet uniform & a cotton-wool beard. Did I need extra padding ? What was my motivation ? Sally Sims is a formidable woman, someone not to be crossed. She would owe me big time if I carried this off. That’s enough.

I was shown to my “sleigh”, a hastily converted old milk float. There was no red-nosed reindeer guide but there was a Rein-ge Rover (thank you & sorry). I had been given a microphone & an outsize bag of confectionery to distribute to the local cherubs. Now I do not consider myself to be the type who seeks to make a loud public display. I do place some value on subtlety & volume control. No one wants a self-effacing, reticent Santa do they ? As we approached the suburban residential streets I resolved that I had better be good for goodness sake & here’s Ho-Ho-Hoping that it would not be a Christmas calamity.

It went really well, I was great. First the curtains twitched & old people returned Santa’s wave. Cool…gimme that microphone. I want to wish those codgers a Merry Chrimbo ! The children came piling out to meet & greet the custodian of…you get me. I needed some method for this mayhem & I needed it quickly before I was torn apart by a frenzied rabble fighting to get to my sweets. So, what would the real Santa do ? He would ask them what they wanted for Xmas & whether they had been good children this year. It absolutely worked. The kids all answered, some, sweetly, did not mind, others were more specific, wanting particular toys. One of them, when asked what he wanted, replied “Everything !”. Greedy little tyke. I promised that I would do my best & that seemed to be enough. They all claimed that they had been good this year, while some were obviously lying, I took my interrogation no further. Not a single one told me that my suit was shit & my beard worse so how good was that ?

My sleigh had a cassette player &  a tape of seasonal pop hits. I am no great fan of the Xmas song & “Now That’s What I Call An Uncool Yule” was not the best selection. Still we were taking it to & shaking it in the streets with a rocking Santa singalong. I do like “A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector” despite its creator’s fall from grace. However when “Another Rock & Roll Christmas” by the convicted molester Gary Glitter came around I’m afraid a line had been crossed, young ears needed protection & just where was the fast forward button on this thing ? “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” , the unrealistic claim by a former Beatle & his wife, was a sitting duck for this too confident, improvising, ironic Santa. I congratulated all those within earshot of my amplified voice on ending all conflict. I hoped their New Year would be a “good one, without any fear”. I was doing a good thing here, I knew I could get away with it.

All too soon the sweets had nearly gone. There was one last dash for cash in a local pub & we were back on the main road. My job was done here. Peace & goodwill had been spread to all in this part of North Birmingham. Danni & her friend had hitched a lift on my sleigh. I handed over the microphone & they wailed a selection of Robbie Williams songs to the passing traffic. Who put the merry into Xmas ? That would be us then.

Photos were taken in the car park. I suppose that I would have to take this beard & suit off at some time but I really did like being Santa. There was still time to get off home, stick some powder up my nose & head off in search of too much alcohol. I was having too much fun with these 3 lovely children & their Mum, who had offered to feed me back at theirs. Besides, Dad would finish work soon & we could all tell him our new story. These kids are now fine young adults. I am so glad that we were able to have times like this one & a lot of others too when it was all about as much enjoyment & laughter as possible. Hey, the day I got to be Santa…strange but true.

When There’s Things To Do Not Because You Gotta (Summer of 66)

The Summer of 1966 is a very strong contender for an inter-equinox/solstice type of deal Hall of Fame. At loosehandlebars we are often caught looking back but none of us have turned into pillars of salt because we are down with Marcel Proust, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” No room for nostalgia here. With an unlikely cultural leap we summon “Dragnet”s Joe Friday,  “All we want are the facts, ma’am”. In that summer I was 13 years old. On the 30th of July England’s football team beat Germany’s 4 goals to 2 to become the Champions of the World. For 2 weeks in July the #1 record in the UK was “Sunny Afternoon” by the Kinks.

Image result for the kinks magazine coversThe charts belonged to the Beatles in the Summer of 66. When “Paperback Writer” was released in June the next double sided smash, “Eleanor Rigby”/”Yellow Submarine”, had already been recorded. For the 6 weeks of non-Fab Four omniscience the chart-toppers were Georgie Fame, Chris Farlowe, the Troggs & the Kinks. Britpop carried the swing but acts were having to raise their game because the competition was unforgiving. You were only as good as your last single & who wants yesterday’s papers…you get me ? The Kinks had got the hit single thing absolutely down. After “You Really Got Me” 11 of the next 12 45s made the Top 10 (the other reached #11). There are some great songs in that run, “Set Me Free” & “See My Friends” did not match the sales of the big guns but maybe should have. Ray Davies was developing an acerbic, more expansive (did I hear anyone say smug ?) style. “Well Respected Man” was a tentative start, “Dedicated Follower” was just original, funny & brilliant. “Sunny Afternoon” is a multi-layered satire on either the old Imperial aristocracy or the nouveau rock rich & the reaction to Government tax policy. It is a Lovin’ Spoonful song with added cynicism. It is 4 pints in a British beer garden, the dolly birds in their mini dresses. It is languid, lovely & it was everywhere.

There was no cricket season in 1966. Well not until the football was done with. This was the first & the only World Cup to be staged in Britain in my lifetime. It was the first one when TV technology & space hardware meant that the whole world (except the USA) really was watching. My friends & I kicked a ball about all day, new international heroes to admire & to emulate, before watching 2 games in the evening. The first week saw a great victory for Hungary over the champions Brazil. My Uncle Erno, a refugee from the 1956 uprising, was able to show his pride & his enthusiasm for his country for the first time since he fled…splendid. England became the World Champions at the first tournament I had watched so carefully. It seemed to be the natural order of things, Swinging London would surely always be the cultural centre of the world. I wish someone had told my 13 year old self that I should appreciate & relish England’s victory because it would NEVER bloody happen again in my life !

Image result for the who magazine coversThe Who, like the Kinks, were on an inspired run of singles & were reliant on the creativity of a single member of the group. Ray Davies & Pete Townshend were intelligent but fragile talents who did not react well to the demands of their musical partners, business associates & audience. Their respective autobiographies are a litany of complaint, dissatisfaction, even damage when they were living the dream of so many. It may have been tough, it may have been hell but man, it produced a shed load of fantastic, original, world class pop songs. “I’m A Boy” was released in August 1966, the first of a twisted, thrilling trilogy of hit singles. Pete was already beyond his smashed/blocked Mod anthem phase & this clip shows the confidence & talent of the whole band. Not yet the best rock & roll band in the world but maybe on their way. Most of Pete’s work seems to have been part of a more ambitious song cycle. It took some time before he was able to balance the rock operas & the hit singles. “Happy Jack” & “Pictures Of Lily” kept the Who in the Top 10, these strange & wonderful songs of adolescence. I was never dressed as a girl by my mother but…”I wanna play cricket on the green. Ride my bike across the stream.Cut myself and see my blood.I wanna come home all covered in mud”. I was 13 years old & so did I.

Our family holiday was 2 weeks long in 1966. We usually had a week in a caravan (I loved it) but this year we went further for longer & stayed in a B&B. Did we have more money ? I have not the slightest idea ! As the eldest of 5 I had 3 younger brothers to play with/look after. No problem, I loved them then & still do now. My parents arranged for my best friend to join us for the 2nd week as company for me. Y’know I thought that was great then but now…how cool & kind were my folks. Wink & I had a great time. On a rainy day my Dad took us to a snooker hall, a wonderful fuggy place of dim light, green baize, stale smoke. A man’s place. He paid for our game & left us alone to our Fast Eddie Felson fantasies…we loved it. In 1966 there were still illegal pirate radio stations in the UK. Our Yorkshire resort had one moored nearby so reception was loud & clear. In the evenings we took a radio to the cliffs & we listened to a lot of music. Released on the same day as “Eleanor Rigby” & its successor at # 1 was this classic.

Mod was provincial by 1966. Those sharp dressed young men of 1963 inspired by an R&B existentialism were moving from purple hearts to Gold Lebanese, to a new dandyism supplied by Carnaby St boutiques. Out here on the perimeter an army surplus parka, a scooter & a liking for Tamla Motown got you into the club. Hey, it was OK, working class kids still wanted to look sharp, there was still plenty of business for the local tailor, but the first steps from Hard Mod to Skinhead were being taken. In 1966 the Small Faces were absolutely the top Mod band in the UK. They took up permanent residence in the Top 10 with 4 singles & every day of the year they looked as great as this. Steve Marriott & Ronnie Lane learned how to write the pop/R&B belters & “All Or Nothing” was their biggest hit. They were becoming a great band but things were changing by the end of the year.

Image result for small faces magazine coversIn May 1966 the Beatles played their last UK concert. There was anyway, a new generation of young girls looking for their own idols. The Small Faces were all good looking boys, they attracted screaming teenyboppers to their gigs when being heart throbs was no longer quite the thing. There was not a lot of money around, they helped themselves to the best clothes in London, living the life while the bills were sent to the manager. When the band’s parents called on Don Arden he grassed them up about the marijuana habit…oh oh. Keyboard player Ian McLagan got busted which hampered US visas at an important time. The band did get away from Arden. He sent his heavies to dangle one potential suitor from a window but they went with Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham & his new label Immediate. Still no money but still the talent & interesting times ahead.

We were back at school when the Small Faces were at #1. In that same chart was “Land Of 1,000 Dances”, “I Can’t Turn You Loose” & “Working In A Coal Mine”. Soul Heaven…sitting on those cliffs, with my best friend, listening to Wilson Pickett shriek “1-2-3 !” that was great. There have been better summers, great places, great times & people but I doubt that there has been a better soundtrack. The day after my Dad took us to the snooker hall it rained again. He asked us what we wanted to do. We said that we wanted to go back there again. He was not too keen but we said, hey, you pay & leave us to it. It’s said that an ability to play a decent game of snooker is the sign of a misspent youth. Well we were doing the best we could back then.

And I wish I could have all that he has got (Dave Davies off of the Kinks)

Before his 18th birthday Dave Davies had played guitar on 3 records which made the Top 10 of the charts around the world. The first of these has a monstrous, instantly recognisable riff . “You Really Got Me” is, according to Rolling Stone, the 4th greatest guitar song. It is a keystone in the origins of metal, hard rock & punk. The Kinks needed a hit record, time & money were in short supply. Dave, dissatisfied with the sound he was getting, hooked a little green Elpico amp into his set-up. He sliced the speaker cone with a razor blade (as you do) & rock history was made. There is a song about it on Dave’s brand new record.

That is great stuff. “Little Green Amp”, a rifftastic reflection on the best band to come out of Muswell Hill.

Ah the mythology of the Kinks…Jimmy Page played on “Y.R.G.M.” (maybe, but not the solo), the personal animus between them so pronounced that 3 of the 4 originals could play together for just the 20 years (that fight one night in Cardiff MUST be mentioned). The sibling rivalry which strangled creativity. Ray Davies wrote over 30 of the best songs you have ever heard & his younger brother improved many of them with distinctive & sympathetic guitar accompaniment. Lazy journalism ? Not for the first time…or probably the last.

Boorish behaviour & breakdowns did not help the Kinks but a ban on working in the US hit them the hardest. Refused permits by the American Federation of Musicians for 4 years, a golden run of mature, idiosyncratic 45s were not hits in the US. “Waterloo Sunset”, once described by critic Robert Christgau as “the most beautiful song in the English language” did not bother the compilers of the Billboard Hot 200 ! In 1967, with that record heading the soundtrack of a memorable Summer, Dave Davies showed out to start a solo thing.

Dandy Dave’s first time around, “Death Of A Clown”, a dense, Dylanesque drawling bit of folk-rock was a big hit. It was taken from the Kinks LP “Something Else” & plans for a solo LP were made. “Susannah’s Still Alive” is a great follow-up but there were diminishing returns, the LP was never completed. It may have been that Dave’s confidence was affected when his songs were not as successful as his big brother’s. I think that Dave Davies is a very talented guy whose major contribution to the long history of the Kinks is to be celebrated. The solo LP that never was ? Forget about it.

You will not be surprised to learn that I have a couple of thoughts about the Kinks, their place in the hierarchy of British rock & why their songs of English tea, trains & transvestites did not sell a squillion records (the last one did but let’s not spoil the alliteration). Another time yeah but while we are in the neighbourhood it would make sense to kick back & enjoy this.

“Till The End Of the Day” is the last great garage rock-out by the Kinks before “Dedicated Follower” began a run of laconic, individual commentaries on post-war Britain. This live clip shows just what Dave brought to the sound & the spirit of the band. The way that he blows his entry into that killer solo not only doesn’t matter but makes the thing rougher & better…go on !

Dave Davies did finally complete 3 solo LPs in the early 1980s, there was a 20 year gap & with the release of “I Will Be Me” this week there are 3 more. He unfortunately suffered a stroke in 2004 but, after a couple of years, was walking, talking & playing guitar again. A recent BBC documentary showed him to be a lovely man with a dry humour about his long career. His solo records are unlikely to become as iconic as tose made with the little green amp but it’s certainly good that he is still around.