h1

“Sslaaa…”

February 7, 2016

Not everything goes better with (a) coke. “I swiched from coke to pep and I’m a connoisseur,” drawls Sly Stone on In Time, the opening track on Fresh.

It‘s a terrfic track from a terrific album. A one-chord groove, darkly claustrophobic with pitter-pattering proto drum machines fighting for space with highly-regarded sessioneer Andy Newark’s loose-limbed paradiddles and shuffle, it features the Family Stone in full-on funk effect; horns blasting between the lines, brother Freddie riffing out a nagging counter melody amongst the electric keys and triple-part harmony backing vocals, while Rusty Allen’s bass is a-poppin’ throughout. Miles Davis loved the discipline and groove of the track so much he’d make his band listen to it over and over again to get them in the zone before performing. “Sslaaa iz whey iz at,” he’d tell anyone listening at the time.

Sly & The Family StoneIn Time


Carrying on where he left off with the previous year’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On, Fresh gets its slightly murky sound from Sly’s over-recorded master tapes. Sly by name and sly by nature, he would regularly invite young ladies back to his studio and promise them a slot on the up-coming album in exchange for some good ol’-fashioned lovin’. Once gone, their vocals would be erased from the tape to make space for the next eager hopeful. A shameful practice, you’ll agree, but one that adds to the legend of Sly.

Fresh features no high octane danceable r’n’b. Although one or two of the tracks fared well on 7″, there are no instant hits on it. It’s best listened to in a darkened room, late at night, with your choice of libation close at hand. It’s a creeping, crawling, fevered itch of a record and without a doubt my favourite in Sly’s ouvre.


Here’s If You Want Me To Stay, the 2nd track in on Fresh, ruined spectacularly 20 years later by those soul-free fornicators of funk, Red Hot Chili Peppers. Don’t ruin it by seeking their version out. The original is whey iz at. But you knew that already.

Sly & The Family StoneIf You Want Me To Stay

h1

McCrosby, Thrills ‘n Snash

February 1, 2016

One of the many things I do outwith the blogosphere is that I’m involved in putting on gigs in my wee corner of the world. It’s not something I mention much on here, partly because much of the music, while really great, doesn’t really fit in with the ethos of what Plain Or Pan is about (ie, old stuff by old bands.) I became involved when a small group of us got talking about all the big acts who’d come to Irvine as part of their UK tours. Irvine, believe it or not, was quite the hotbed at one time; The Clash, The Jam, The Smiths, Madness, Chuck Berry, Big Country, Bjork, Oasis, Supergrass, Thin Lizzy, The Wonderstuff….. all graced our wee town with their presence. They were brought here by one man, the great Willie Freckleton, and when he died a few years ago, the council failed to fill his position and the acts dried up. Irvine is a deprived town, and starved of popular culture, it can feel even more depressing than it should. So, along with my like-minded pals, we decided to act.

We organised a festival, Freckfest, named in Willie’s honour, and put on The Magic Numbers at the top of a bill including local acts. It was always Willie’s thing that he’d have a local act supporting the big visiting star. It might’ve been the local band’s big break, but more often than not it was their brief spotlight into the glitzy world of rock ‘n roll before imploding in a storm of musical differences and stolen drummers. All of us in the past benefited from Willie’s ideal and in the distant past you’d have caught us gleefully thrashing away in our own no-hope bands as we warmed the audience up for BMX Bandits or John Martyn or whoever else was in town. Great times!

Now that none of us are in ‘promising local bands’ any more, we felt it was time to take the baton left behind by Willie and pick up where he left off. The Magic Numbers show was not as well attended as we’d have liked, but it was a brilliant event and everyone who came to it asked if we’d be doing more things like it. Fast forward 2 and a bit years and we’ve now been given a monthly slot to fill in the local arts centre. We’ve had all manner of acts in there; Nik Kershaw for 2 sold out nights, solo Glenn Tilbrook Squeezed in-between concerts he was playing with his day-job band, up-and-comers like Neon Waltz, broadcaster Andy Kershaw who told us tales of a life less ordinary. Wherever possible, we’ve had local acts playing support. Last year we landed Johnny Marr, and without a suitable venue in Irvine, we put him on in Kilmarnock. Suddenly, it’s getting quite serious, and we could be doing gigs twice a week if we had the time and resources. Not bad going for a bunch of enthusiastic unpaid volunteers.

pictish yorkston withered iphone

On Friday night we kicked off our 2016 calendar with a full house (and a waiting list of gig goers desperate for any spare tickets), guaranteeing that tickets for a Songwriters’ Circle featuring James Yorkston, Withered Hand and The Pictish Trail were the hottest in the country.

We headlined Celtic Connections last night,” intoned the quietly-spoken Yorkston during the second half. “…as the warm-up for Irvine.” Cue massive cheers and applause. By all accounts the previous night’s show had been a cracker, and judging by the weary-looking faces on the three performer’s faces, they’d made the most of the offer to indulge in the Festival’s legendary after-show hospitality.

I got to bed around 4am,” sighed James. “I left Johnny (Pictish Trail) and Dan (Withered Hand) to it.” With three under-par performers, fresh from the glory of a massive Celtic Connections show and squeezed onto the HAC’s ‘stage’ (it’s actually just a space on the floor where a local am-dram group might perform, surrounded on 3 sides by banks of seating – a brilliant, intimate, whites-of-the-eyes venue), this didn’t bode well for the night ahead. The artists even admitted as much afterwards. We shouldn’t have worried.

pictish withered audience(C) Paul Camlin

Beginning with Withered Hand’s ‘Life Of Doubt’, replete with a wheezing Neil Young-ish harmonica and some excellent finger-picking, the trio rolled out two terrific sets of well-paced originals. The plan was that each artist would deliver 10 of their own songs, accompanied by the other two on occasional instrumentation and backing vocals. Given that they had been playing as a group for the previous two weeks on tour, by the time they arrived in Irvine they were extremely comfortable in one another’s company and were well-versed in one another’s material.

IMG_1163(C) Paul Camlin

Withered Hand gave way to James Yorkston, airing the best bits of an embarrassingly-rich back catalogue in-between some highly entertaining stories and light-hearted put-downs of his band mates. A highlight of the first half was the version of Withered Hand’s ‘California’, all triple-part, slightly-skew-whiff harmonies, delicately plucked 6 strings and moody atmospherics. I tend not to write notes during a gig, but during this one I wrote ‘McCrosby, Stills and Nash’, which will make perfect sense to anyone there.

Withered HandCalifornia

If James was the dry-witted, droll one with the introverted tunes, and Dan the slightly foul-mouthed one with a keen ear for the closest thing to a pop song you’d hear all night, Johnny Pictish Trail was the extroverted, out-going leader of the pack.

His tunes veered from folkish, socially-conscious beauties to (bizarrely for half the unsuspecting audience) lo-fi, electro-enhanced 30-second wonders with subject matter ranging from getting your foot stuck in concrete to sweating battery acid. “Is it my turn now? Ok! Would you like a disco song or a depressing song? Tell you what, here’s a depressing disco song…” And just as your ears were recovering from the aural assault, it’d be back to James who’d tell a brilliant monologue about last night’s hotel, before working the band into an intricately-woven arrangement of one the choicest cuts from his dozen or so long players.

pictish withered chinese dragons(C) Paul Camlin

The audience sat in reverential silence, laughed at the easy-going on-stage patter shared between the three artists and lapped up what is already a contender for Gig Of The Year. As the artists signed merchandise and chatted to fans at the end, they too agreed this had been the best night of the tour, and not just because they’d raided the HAC’s wardrobe department and appeared for the 2nd half wearing three Chinese dragon heads. Honestly, you really had to be there…

h1

PJ Tips

January 25, 2016

pj h

PJ Harvey‘s The Wind (from her excellent Is This Desire? LP) has been, to use a pun, blowing the cobwebs off my speakers for the past few days. For such a slight ‘n skinny woman, PJ’s tune packs more muscle than it has any right to. It‘s her Barry Adamson moment; filmic, bass-heavy and full of brooding menace.

PJ HarveyThe Wind

It fades in on a ripple of marimba and a stutter of just-plugged-in guitar, with PJ’s vocal quickly taking centrestage.  Whisper-in-your-ear sultriness one moment, understated falsetto the next, it tells the story of St Catherine of Abbotsbury who built a chapel high on a hill.

st cats

It’s a real chapel, still there to this day and located in the village of Abbotsbury where PJ lives, or indeed lived at the time of writing the song (as much as I’m a fan, it wouldn’t be the done thing to go around the more rural parts of Dorset in the hope of bumping into her in the dairy aisle of the local Waitrose. Really, I have no idea where she lives. A fancy flat in London with a weekend retreat in the Cotswolds? I dunno.)

Anyway, The Wind tells a straightforward story. No coded lyrics, no double meaning. Just a good, honest folk song about religion and singing.

Catherine liked high places
High up, high up on the hills
A place for making noises
Like whales
Noises like the whales
Here she built a chapel
With her image
 An image on the wall
A place where she could rest and rest
And a place where she could wash
And listen to the wind blowing

The whole track is carried along by the bassline. When it comes in, after that second ‘noises like the whales’ line, it brings to mind some New York street punk, hands deep in the pockets of his leather bomber jacket, docker’s hat pulled hard and low over his forehead, eyes shifting from left to right and back again, looking to start trouble, looking to avoid trouble, but, looking for trouble.

It’s produced masterfully by Flood who brings an electro wash to the finished result. In fact, it wouldn’t sound out of place on any given recording by Harvey’s fellow West Country contemporaries Tricky and Massive Attack. There’s subtle tingaling percussion, quietly scraping cello and layers of synthetic noise. When the vocals begin their counter-melodies in the chorus, it’s pure Bjork.

As a single, The Wind barely bothered the charts (number 29) before dropping off the face of the planet forever. In fact, without the aid of that there Wikipedia, I’d never have known it was ever a single to begin with. When it was released (1999), I don’t ever recall Our Price stocking it, and I was the singles buyer for my branch at the time. I ain’t no expert, but I thought I’d have known about it.

pj h 3

It does though live on forever on Is This Desire?, a high point in a back catalogue packed full of outstanding highs. It’s incredible to think that PJ Harvey has been making records for nigh on a quarter of a century. From the lo-fi scuz of Dry via the Patti Smith-isms of Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea and the stark, piano-only White Chalk right up to her most recent collection of WW1-themed songs on Let England Shake (not forgettting the one-off single in support of Guantanamo Bay prisoner Shaker Aamer), she’s one of our most consistent musicians. Daring, unpredictable and true to herself, she’s right up there with the best of ’em.

Excitingly, she has a new LP in the offing. April, I believe. The first fruits are spinning heavily on BBC 6Music every day just now, and they’re sounding terrific. But you knew that already.

pj h 4

h1

Highs & Lows

January 18, 2016

One week into a Bowieless world. Sadly, it takes the shock of an artist suddenly passing before their true worth is wholly appreciated. Words, paragraphs, articles, whole publications have been written in the past 7 days, waxing lyrical about every facet of his ridiculously rich back catalogue. Everyone’s tripping over themselves to declare the lost genius of Reality or ‘Hours…’ or even, unbelievably, 1. Outside. All have their moments, but calm down a wee bit at the back there, eh?

bowie man who fell 1

I’m not alone in this re-evaluation and appraisal. Last week’s commute to work was soundtracked exclusively by Bowie. Hunky Dory. Ziggy. Aladdin Sane. Station To Station. The big hitters. I was even asked to be a guest on a local radio station, introduced as ‘a knowledgeable local music blogger’ and encouraged to give my tuppence worth on what David Bowie meant to me – great songs, of course. Great, great albums, varied and deep with a superb hit-to-miss ratio. Even the less acclaimed material, like Loving The Alien (from Tonight) and Everyone Says ‘Hi’ (Heathen) would make it into the lower reaches of my Top 50 Bowie tracks (for years I’ve had a 40 Bits o’ Bowie playlist on my iPod, but if I were to expand it, those two tracks would be in there.)

He was also king of the catchprase-as-hookline, from Absolute Beginners‘ ‘Bomp Bomp Bah-Ooh‘, ‘Fa-fa-fa-fa-Fashion‘s beep beep‘ and Suffragette City‘s ‘Aaah, Wham Bam Thank You Ma,am!‘ right up to to Ziggy‘s  ‘Woah Yeah!‘ in the outro. He had a real good way with them. You could probably think of half a dozen more in the next 20 seconds. But anyway, I digress. Where was I? Oh aye…

bowie low +

Reappraisal. Along with the albums listed above, I developed a new-found love of Low. Until now I always found it a bit hit ‘n miss. The highs – Sound And Vision, Be My Wife, offset by the (cough) lows of Weeping Wall and Subterraneans. They’re not really lows as such, but they’re more difficult to get into. Instrumental, for a start. Less immediate. More arty. Glacial and cold. Sometimes with Bowie you’ve just got to work at it before the true beauty emerges. That second side, all elegiac and funereal started to make much more sense last week. But it was a track on side 1 that became my ‘must play everyday’ last week.

David BowieBreaking Glass

Breaking Glass, the 2nd track in, was that song. Like much of the album, it‘s a cold and stark affair, with a cheesegrater-thin heavily processed guitar giving way to Bowie’s robotic funk; cracking steam powered drums, synth sweeps and rubber band bass offset by marching Teutonic vocals, half spoken, half sung, double-tracked for maximum effect. It’s soul music, Jim, but not as we know it. In a too-quick fadeout, it’s over and done with in under two minutes, managing to capture the spirit of 70s Berlin AND invent Franz Ferdinand at the same time. Which, for me, is the real reach of the artist. Loved universally by musicians from every possible genre, they all get something from him.

Bowie on Soul Train. Bowie with Lennon. Bowie with Bing Crosby. Cross dressing and crossing borders. And the outpouring of tributes since last Monday? That brilliant video of the DJ mixing and scratching Let’s Dance into a black hole…..Madonna and Springsteen both doing Rebel Rebel in concert…..David McAlmont vamping it up with a super soaraway Starman…..Elton doing Space Oddity…..Glasgow’s Broadcast venue packed on Saturday night for a heartfelt tribute from all manner of scuzzy no-mark indie bands. Bowie touched them all. Can you name any others for whom there is a universal love and respect? I can’t.

bowie gif

*Bonus Track!

Here‘s the aforementioned Franz Ferdinand tackling another of Low‘s highs, with a little backing vocal assistance from Girls Aloud. Really.

Franz FerdinandSound & Vision

h1

A Crack In The Sky And A Hand Reaching Down To Me

January 11, 2016

Cancer. Is there anyone, anywhere, who so far remains unaffected by its evil shadow? My wife’s family has been blighted by it. My father’s life changed for the worse 2 years ago because of it. And just last week, a friend I hadn’t seen since leaving school in 1987 got in touch. His father was ill through cancer, he was home from Australia and wanted to meet up to catch up. The filthy, under-the-radar stink of it is everywhere.

  
And now David Bowie. He was supposed to live forever, was he not? An ever-changing, omni-present lightning rod to the future, forever young and forever valid. Those wee ‘Six of the Best’ features I occasionally run? It’s no surprise when you find out that Bowie turns up in them more than any other artist. Maybe that says more about the contributors, I don’t know, but Bowie holds the record for most appearances. How great must it have been to have grown up in the 70s with a new Bowie LP and haircut to look forward to every year? He meant so much to so many. There’ll never be another like him. A true original, a true great. Hot tramp, I love you so.

  
 

h1

Put On Your Red Shoes And Dance The Blues

January 5, 2016

I lost track of Rufus Wainwright a wee bit after he started scoring operas and high-fallutin’ it in a dinner jacket. Including a couple of live efforts and a ‘Best Of‘ LP, his album discography is now into double figures, but for me the high water mark is the first volume of ‘Want‘. Initially sold as two separate albums, Want 1 and Want 2 were later repackaged as a double album and, as an introduction to all things Rufus, you could get no better. If you can bottle the sound of pathos, the odd high camp moment and great hair, Want 1 is the result.

rufus red shoes

Halfway through Want 1 is the incredible Go Or Go Ahead. Go Or Go Ahead is a drug song, but not a scuzzy, junkie-confessional, claustrophobic itch-fest that has you running for the shower before the last note has faded. Go Or Go Ahead drips in melody and is wrapped in harmonies sent from the heavens, ridiculously uplifting and bathed in enough arms-wide-open melodrama to make even Mount Rushmore shed a tiny tear.

Rufus Wainwright – Go Or Go Ahead

The way the songs builds and builds, from major to minor acoustic strum and brilliant tumbling “do-dn-do-be-doos”, via the middle section with a pitch-shifting guitar break courtesy of Charlie Sexton (moonlighting from his duties in Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour band) to the BIG “look in her eyes!” section where Rufus and his sister Martha are overdubbed a gazillion times to create that incredible Spector in stereo wall of sound is absolutely spectacular. By comparison, it makes other ‘big’ songs (McAlmont & Butler’s ‘Yes‘, The Smiths’ ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me‘, Jeff Buckley’s ‘Lover, You Should’ve Come Over‘, for example) seem almost trite and insignificant. In the grand scheme of things, Go Or Go Ahead is the daddy of them all.

rufus guitar

Written (“you got me writing lyrics on postcards“) while Rufus walked the streets in a less than salubrious area of San Francisco during the middle of an addiction to crystal meth, it’s lyric is full of self-loathing, celebrating the vacuousness and vanity of hollow celebrity. Or something like that. More scholarly people than myself could write pages and pages on the metaphors within each line. Sure, there are references to Judy Garland, gin and Mars, the God of War, but I suppose you take your own meanings from them. Me? I just dig the tune. It’s a belter, isn’t it?

 

rufus and melissa auf der maur

*Bonus Track!

Another ‘street’ song, 14th Street from the same LP is another high, Rufus’ voice on top form, his band sounding Spector-huge once more. During our one visit to New York I found myself subconsciously singing this as we crossed yer actual 14th Street on my way into Chinatown. I can see it in my head as I type right now.

Rufus Wainwright14th Street

Now. If you do one thing this week, fill that gaping hole in your collection with Want. You’ll wonder how you ever lived without it.

h1

We Are 9

December 30, 2015

Somehow, some way, Plain Or Pan has turned 9. Or, to be more accurate, is just about to turn 9. But at this time of year, when you can never be entirely sure if it’s Sunday morning or Thursday night and inspiration goes out the window along with routine and work ethic, it’s tradition that I fill the gap between Christmas and Hogmany with a potted ‘Best Of‘ the year compilation, so I’ve always made this period in time the unofficial birthday for the blog.

i am nine

Not that anyone but myself should care really; blogs come and go with alarming regularity and I’ve steadfastly refused to move with the times (no new acts here, no cutting edge hep cats who’ll be tomorrow’s chip paper, just tried ‘n tested old stuff that you may or may not have heard before – Outdated Music For Outdated People, as the tagline goes.) But it’s something of a personal achievement that I continue to fire my wee articles of trivia and metaphorical mirth out into the ether, and even more remarkable that people from all corners of the globe take the time out to visit the blog and read them. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you, one and all.

Since starting Plain Or Pan in January 2007, the articles have become less frequent but more wordy – I may have fired out a million alliterative paragraphs in the first year, whereas nowadays I have less time to write stuff and when I do, it takes me three times as long to write it. To use an analogy, I used to be The Ramones, (1! 2! 3! 4! Go!) but I’ve gradually turned into Radiohead; (Hmmm, ehmm, scratch my arse…) Without intending it, there are longer gaps between ‘albums’ and I’ve become more serious about my ‘art’. Maybe it’s time to get back to writing the short, sharp stuff again. Maybe I’ll find the time. Probably I won’t.

The past 9 years have allowed me the chance to interview people who I never would’ve got close to without the flimsy excuse that I was writing a blog that attracted in excess of 1000 visitors a day (at one time it was, but I suspect Google’s analytics may well have been a bit iffy.) Nowadays, it’s nowhere near that, but I still enthusiastically trot out the same old line when trying to land a big name to feature. Through Plain Or Pan I’ve met (physically, electronically or both) all manner of interesting musical and literary favourites; Sandie Shaw, Johnny Marr, Ian Rankin, Gerry Love, the odd Super Furry Animal. Quite amazing when I stop to think about it. You should see the list of those who’ve said they’ll contribute then haven’t. I won’t name them, but there are one or two who would’ve made great Six Of the Best articles. I’m not Mojo, though, so what can I expect?

pop9

A quick trawl through my own analytics spat out the Top 24 downloaded/played tracks on the blog this year, two for each month:

  1. Michael MarraGreen Grow the Rashes
  2. Wallace CollectionDaydream
  3. Jacqueline TaiebSept Heures du Matin
  4. The TemptationsMessage From A Black Man
  5. New OrderTrue Faith
  6. Bobby ParkerWatch Your Step
  7. Jim FordI’m Gonna Make Her Love Me
  8. DorisYou Never Come Closer
  9. Ela OrleansDead Floor
  10. Mac De MarcoOde To Viceroy
  11. Teenage FanclubGod Knows It’s True
  12. Iggy PopNightclubbing
  13. George HarrisonWah Wah
  14. MagazineThank You Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again
  15. Future Sound Of LondonPapua New Guinea
  16. Bob DylanSad Eyed Lady Of the Lowlands (mono version)
  17. Richard BerryLouie Louie
  18. REMRadio Free Europe (HibTone version)
  19. The CribsWe Share The Same Skies
  20. Johnny MarrThe Messenger
  21. McAlmont & ButlerSpeed
  22. Talking HeadsI Zimbra (12″ version)
  23. Style CouncilSpeak Like A Child
  24. Darlene LoveJohnny (Please Come Home)

And there you have it – the regular mix of covers, curios and forgotten influential classics, the perfect potted version of what Plain Or Pan is all about. A good producer would’ve made the tracklist flow a bit better. I just took it as I came to them; two from January followed by two from February followed by two from etc etc blah blah blah. You can download it from here.

See you in the new year. First up, Rufus Wainwright. Cheers!

 

 

 

 

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 342 other followers

%d bloggers like this: