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Readers And Writers

January 24, 2015

It’s the 25th January. If you’re an Ayrshire man or woman, that date is indelibly stamped on you subconscious. It’s a date that’s as easily remembered as Guy Fawkes Day, Christmas Day and your own birthday. The 25th January. Robert Burns’ birthday.

burns

If Rabbie was alive today he’d be 256 years young. His poems and songs are read and recited at Burns Suppers the world over. This weekend alone, an estimated 150,000 Burns Suppers will take place in countries as far afield as Russia, Japan, India and the United States. You might even be attending one yourself.

Not everyone attending those suppers will know exactly what’s taking place – weird rituals involving knives and haggis. The bagpipes, fiddles and occasional kilts – not something worn in Burns’ time, but now seemingly the de-rigueur dress code for the event. People talking in a strange language. People singing while holding hands in an unusual manner – by the way, it’s Auld Land Syne, as in ‘sign‘, not ‘zine‘. Only English folk, Americans in movies and Brian Wilson pronounce it with a zed.

A Burns Supper is a very Scottish thing, yet the content of Burns’ work is universal – he was a nationalist yet is loved internationally. He could paint a picture with the words he wrote. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Moscow, Russia or Moscow, Ayrshire, we all understand the thoughts and feelings in the words he writes; whether it’s the feeling of love for someone dear or the feeling of despair at man’s attack on nature or simply complaining about a bad dose of the toothache. Burns was both a romantic and a realist, something that even the most hardened of Calvinist Scots are at some times in their lives.

His songs can be a strange breed. In the best traditions of folk music, the tunes were passed down from his mother, and once learned, he added his own poetic twists and melodic turns to them. Organic and ever changing, he’d probably be horrified at the more traditional readings of his songs. Burns Suppers can be awfy stuffy affairs. Don’t sing the song in the ‘right’ way, and a thousand sniffy noses turn upwards in disgust.

Two folk who’ve kept the tradition alive while remaining true to themselves are Michael Marra and Eddi Reader.

michael marra

As is often the way, Michael Marra is probably now more appreciated in death than he was when he was with us. That’s certainly the case in my house. I am ashamed at how little attention I paid to him when he was a jobbing, gigging musician. I now think of him as the Scottish Tom Waits – uncompromising, totally unique and each song a little rough diamond packed full of soul. Why was I wasting my time with the latest Primal Scream album when I coulda been discovering Michael Marra? He’d often turn up to play Irvine Folk Club with an old ironing board taking the place of his keyboard stand. The sparse audience would be warmly welcomed into his Dundonian world sung in that coarse voice of his. Like Burns, Michael Marra could be romantic one minute, unbelievably sad the next and ridiculously funny when you least expected it.

Michael MarraHamish

His song Hamish, named after Dundee United’s goalie Hamish McAlpine and written about the time Princess Grace of Monaco turned up to watch a European game at Tannadice between United and Monaco is typical of his work.

Gus Foy pointed to the side of the goal and said

‘There’s Grace Kelly by ‘Taylor Brothers’ Coal’

Michael MarraGreen Grow The Rashes

Green Grow The Rashes is almost standard fare at a Burns Supper. One of Burns’ most popular songs, it’s been sung by many people in many ways. Michael’s version comes from the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow a few years back. Pin-drop quiet, he hammers out the tune on a grand piano and sings it superbly. Not an ironing board in sight. The thunderous applause at the end tells you all you need to know.

One singer one song? Not quite…

eddi and john

Oor ain Eddi Reader, Ayrshire by way of Glasgow, does a terrific version of Green Grow The Rashes.

 Eddi ReaderGreen Grow The Rashes

Fronting an assembled stellar cast of folkies that includes John McCusker, Phil Cunningham, Heidi Talbot and Mr Eddi Reader, John ‘Trashcans’ Douglas, this live version of Green Grow The Rashes fairly skips along, the band playing the sort of arrangement that wouldn’t sound out of place on Led Zep III while Eddi’s voice floats above the melody like a bird on a breeze.

A bit like haggis, I know she can be a bit of an acquired taste for some, but give this a listen. Then go and catch yourself one of our wee furry friends and have your own Burns Supper to yourself.

haggis

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Beta Blockers

January 14, 2015

Please the press in Belgium“, once sang Morrissey at his most withering, in such a way as to suggest the Flemish outpost was the last place on Earth you’d want to be trying to please the staff of Snoecks Magazine. Belgium isn’t a country high on the cool-o-meter when it comes to pop. It’s given the world Poirot and a seriously strong lager that induces the propensity to batter one’s spouse, neither of which are much to do with music at all. Plastique Bertrand would appear to be the jewel in their flimsy crown.  “Ca plane pour moi, moi, moi, moi, moi!” Instant cool points ‘n all that, but then, that’s about it. Almost…

wallace collection

Wallace Collection were a late 60s/early 70s smooth vocal group, seemingly formed in order that the words ‘easy‘ and ‘listening‘ could be glued together with a dollop of saccharine-sweet syrupy gloop to create a brand new genre. By comparison, they make The Carpenters sound like Motorhead. Look at them – you might never have heard them, but you know how they sound. Wallace Collection’s musical arrangements featured lots of strings, lots of flutes and lots of whispered, half-spoken vocals.

Their track Daydream is their best known track.

Gently descending (and owing a large debt to Isaac Hayes’ Ike’s Mood), with a chanting choral refrain, it proved to be ripe for samplers. Hip hop acts such as The Pharcyde stole the bassline and turned it inside out and back to front on their own records. If you’ve been playing it as you read, no doubt you’ll recognise it.

Somewhat freakishly, two acts sampled the track and released respective records built upon it almost on the same day.

i monster

I MonsterDaydream In Blue

In June 2001, Sheffield’s I Monster put out Daydream In Blue, a record that jigsawed the vocal refrain and descending strings from the original onto a contemporary vocodered piece of what the style press had probably stopped calling trip-hop by that point in time. Mid paced and slightly plodding, you can’t have escaped hearing this record at the time. It was everywhere. I have a memory of hearing it wafting out of Iain Beale’s cafe on the Eastenders omnibus one hungover Sunday afternoon. It’s held the test of time quite well, although I much prefer The Beta Band’s ‘version’.

beta band

The Beta BandSquares

Initially named Daydream (I have a promo single so named) it was to be the lead single and first track on the band’s follow up to their first LP proper, but as the band were pressing Hot Shots II, I Monster’s track was on its way to the shops and onto the radio. By the time the first versions of Hot Shots II had been boxed and ready to go, The Beta Band were coming to the realisation that the hottest new track on the radio was a track featuring the self-same obscure sample that they were about to unleash on the world. More than a wee bit ticked off, the initial copies of the LP were withdrawn, plans to release the single were shelved and the album came out with the first track re-named Squares. The track was released as a single after I Monster’s track had disappeared off the radar, but the potential ‘hit’ impact for The Beta Band’s single was no more.

There’s a promo-only version of Squares that features *Don ‘Magic’ Juan, a former pimp, preacher and hip-hop personality. It‘s kinda bizarre…

The Beta BandSquares (Bloah Remix)

I must do a proper Beta Band piece one day – one of the great under-appreciated bands.

*I think. There are quite a few Don Juans in the world of underground rap.

 

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Under The Influence

January 4, 2015

It’s 1987 in San Francisco. Or maybe L.A. Bono, atop a building, perhaps a hotel, it doesn’t really matter, his arms outstretched in messianic fashion, has just informed the crowd of unwitting gatherers below that “Rock ‘n roll stops the traffic!” If I was on my morning commute, I’d be mightily pissed off at this uncalled-for inconvenience. The traffic is indeed stopped. Lights change from red to green and back again, but the procession of buses, cabs and sedans is gridlocked. A huge crowd swells, folk in suits and ties, briefcase-carrying urban professionals, crane their necks and squint in the morning sunshine at the spectacle above them. “OK Hedge, play the blues!”

u2 roof

The Hedge, so-named because of that thick thatch of collar-baiting pony-tailed hair, thinning rapidly on top but hidden underneath a carefully perched cowboy hat rattles off one of his trademark ticka-ticka-ticka-ticka guitar riffs, and the most unbluesy guitar solo ever echoes out across California. “All you need is three chords and the truth!” spouts Bono, who by this time is halfway up a water tower and totally unaware of the long arm of the mirror-shaded law lurking behind Larry Mullen Jnr’s drum kit. It’s U2’s Saville Row moment, just one more example of them (literally) elevating themselves into rock’s lofty position as premier league players. The nitwits that they had just become.

I don’t know about the truth, but all you need is indeed just three chords. You don’t need me to tell you that. The foundations of rock ‘n roll were formed on such base ideals. Silly old Bono dressed the fact up in grandiose, wankery fashion. Punk bible, Sniffin’ Glue said it best;

sniffin glue chordsMany a band was formed with the guitarist having an arsenal of two chords, with that tricky third still in production.

eddie cochraneKing of the Swingers

Eddie Cochran was there at rock ‘n roll’s birth. If Ike Turner was pushing and grunting for all he was worth, Eddie was there at the end of the bed, holding the towels and hot water. Or more likely, he was fighting off Little Richard for mirror space as he greased his hair into that spectacular D.A. of his.

Eddie only knew three chords. “There are three steps to heaven,” he sang.

Step 1, you play a C. Step 2, you play that tricky F. Step 3, you play a G. And that sure sounds like heaven to me.

Eddie CochranThree Steps To Heaven

Actually, Eddie knew far more than just three chords. A quick listen to a couple of his records will tell you that. But he was an economical guitar player, never frilly, never flashy. He played what his songs demanded. A minor chord here perhaps, a 7th there, all rhythmically skirling toe-tappers. And his songs sound more honest, more soulful than the entire output of Bono and his rooftop singers.

bowie beeb

When David Bowie ditched the theatrics, the miming and the long, long hair on the road to Ziggy‘s straight-ahead guitar boogie, the spirit of Eddie Cochran loomed large.

David BowieQueen Bitch

Queen Bitch from Hunky Dory is Three Steps To Heaven in a funky jump suit with added sneer and a good dollop of Les Paul courtesy of Mick Ronson. Listen carefully. The moaning and groaning you hear in the background is the sound of Ziggy being conceived.

Broncho“We’ve played some right toilets in our time…”

New (wave) kids on the block Broncho know a thing or two about the simplicity of the three chord song. Their own What sounds like a glammed-up mix of Queen Bitch and Lou Reed’s Vicious, as sung by Marc Bolan. And there ain’t nothin’ wrong with that;

BronchoWhat

Taken from their Just Enough Hip To Be A Woman LP, it’s an album that escaped my attention earlier last year, but one that could do with further investigation.

Rock ‘n roll – it’s dead easy, isn’t it?

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P.O.P. B.O. ’14

December 31, 2014

Somehow, this is the end of the 8th year of this blog. 8 years! I never for a minute thought I’d be down this road for so long, but here I am, slowing down slightly, but still writing whenever the muse takes me. In the past, I used to write loads over the Christmas period and store it all up like a squirrel hiding nuts in trees, so that when I was busy with my real work I could drip-feed my wee articles online at regular intervals when time was of the essence. These days, holidays mean holidays. For the past week or so I’ve done sweet F.A. apart from sit around in my underwear eating cheese until 3 in the afternoon. Occasionally I’ve tidied up a bit, but that’s only after the Applewood smoked or Wensleydale and cranberry has run out.

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It’ll be good to get back to the old routine in January and, along with work, get back to writing about music on a (hopefully) more regular basis. Until then, here’s the annual end of December post.

Around this time of year I employ a team of stat monkeys to sift through everything published on Plain Or Pan over the last 12 months. Numbers are fed into a specially-constructed silver machine, crunched and spat back out. Amongst the stainless steel saliva lie the 25 most listened to and/or downloaded tracks of the year.

Below is that list, a CD-length collection of covers, curios and hard-to-find classics. Download the rar file, sequence as you please and burn away.

 

pop8

Baby HueyListen To Me

The Lovin’ SpoonfulDo You Believe In Magic?

French FriesDanse a la Musique

Oscar BrownThe Snake

Al BrownHere I Am Baby

RadioheadThese Are My Twisted Words

Bob DylanBoots Of Spanish Leather

Ian Dury & the BlockheadsHit Me With Your Rhythm Stick

Michael MarraHamish

Paul WellerFlame-Out

Bo DiddleyShe’s Fine, She’s Mine

Barbara & the BrownsYou Don’t Love Me

Tommy James & the ShondellsCrimson & Clover

LightshipsDo Your Thing

The BeatlesIt’s All Too Much (Much Too Much bootleg version)

Les Negresses VertesZobi la Mouche

Trash Can SinatrasGhosts Of American Astronauts (Live at Fez, NYC 2004)

Eddie FloydI’ve Never Found A Girl

The SmithsThere Is A Light That Never Goes Out (demo)

Curtis Liggins IndicationsWhat It Is

ThemI Can Only Give You Everything

Kim Fowley - Bubblegum

A CampBoys Keep Swinging

The SlitsI Heard It Through The Grapevine (demo)

Madness - Un Paso Adelante

 

And here’s to health, wealth and happiness to you all for 2015. All the best!

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May Your Festive Season Be Happy And Gaye

December 23, 2014

Everyone own’s What’s Going On, right? A good chunk of folk own Let’s Get It On, aye? The more discerning amongst you might also have a copy of Marvin and Tammi Sing… Every one a 5 star slab of solid gold soul.

None of them though feature Marvin’s second solo single, released in 1964.

marvin gaye bw

Pretty Little Baby cascades on a waterfall of twinkling pianos, eased along by Marvin’s insistent croon as he channels his inner Nat King Cole. It’s not one of his better-known tracks, but it‘s a cracker.

Marvin GayePretty Little Baby

marvin gaye plb

As was usually the case on those early Tamla singles, the instrumentation on the track was played by the Funk Brothers. It’s understated, sympathetic to the track and hardly the in-your-face brashness that the name ‘Funk Brothers‘ implies.  What’s interesting though is that the track lies on a bed of gently rattling sleigh bells. Berry Gordy must’ve misheard the sound of ringing cash registers, as Marvin would go on to re-record Pretty Little Baby as a ‘brand new’ track, epecially for Christmas.

Purple Snowflakes uses the exact same backing track as Pretty Little Baby, adds some festive-friendly lyrics and manages to successfully pass itself off as a Christmas single. Two hits for the price of one!

Marvin GayePurple Snowflakes

marvin gaye jet

Marvin did a few Christmas tracks for Motown. Most of them are gloopy dods of syrupy schlock, heard once and immediately to be filed in the ‘never again‘ section of your head. But he did do this, a vocal-free, gently wah-wahing spacey groove that wouldn’t sound out of place in a bedroom scene in one of those late-night movies they show on the Movies 4 Men channel. It’s called Christmas In The City, though apart from the welded-on sleigh bells, there’s nothing remotely Christmasy about it.

Marvin GayeChristmas In the City

That keen-eared musical magpie Paul Weller borrowed heavily from the hook for Pretty Little Baby. Yes he did! Or perhaps it was wingman Cradock who sticky-fingered it into the song. Either way, transposing the tumbling piano riff to guitar, Weller built his own Find The Torch/Burn The Plans around it. It’s buried low in the mix, but it’s there. To be fair, it’s a great track, although it’s notable mainly for the vocals being so fackin’ cockernee they should be dressed as a Pearly Queen and have Ray Winstone munching on jellied eels in the background a la McCartney on the Beach Boys’ Vegetables.

Paul WellerFind The Torch/Burn The Plans

Here’s a picture of Paul Weller, fattening up for Christmas and off down Oxford Street to find that perfect Santa suit.

paul weller flab

 

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Un Paso Adelante!!!

December 15, 2014

Hey you! Don’t read that, read this! This is the heavy heavy monster read! The nuttiest read around!

One! Step! Beyoooooond!

 Prince-Buster

One Step Beyond is a skankin’ slice of primo Jamaican ska written by Prince Buster. It first appeared on the b-side of his single Al Capone, itself the blueprint for The Specials Gangsters.

One Step BeyondPrince Buster

 

It’s largely instrumental, a rasping saxophone-led knees-up, occasionally punctuated by some frantic chickaboom-chickaboom-chickaboom-chickaboom-chick ska-tting and Prince Buster’s titular cry.

But you knew all that already. Thanks to Madness, you’ll be more than familiar with the tune. If you’re of a similar age to myself, you’ll be well aware of how important the tune was to your formative years. It was one of the first tracks I heard that made me appreciate the power of music. It was loud, catchy and novel enough to grab the ears of young listeners everywhere. We didn’t know it wasn’t an original, we just loved doing the primary 7 approximation of the nutty dance to One Step Beyond by Madness.

madness

Madness owe a lot to Prince Buster. After a brief flirtation as The North London Invaders, they named themselves after one of his tracks, which they themselves covered on the b-side of their first single, a single they called ‘The Prince‘.

Prince Buster - Madness

To further cement the Prince Buster connection, Chas Smash’s opening vocal earthquake on One Step Beyond is hotwired and paraphrased directly from another Prince Buster track, The Scorcher.

Prince BusterThe Scorcher

The Madness take on One Step Beyond is practically a photocopy of Prince Buster’s version (why would you try and improve perfection?) but if you listen closely, really closely, you’ll maybe catch the incessant thuggish background chant of “Here We Go! Here We Go!” that plays throughout most of the track.

The released Madness version was actually a demo that originally lasted all of 70 seconds. Madness knob twiddlers of choice Langer and Winstanley looped the original track to double the length, but before they were able to mix it properly, the track had been sent off to the pressing plant and was skanking its way up the charts by the time anyone else had noticed.

Realising they had a multi-national hit on their hands, the people in charge of such things thought it’d be a good idea to have Madness release language-specific versions for various territories.

Hence the Spanish version, Un Paso Adelante

 

..and the Italian version, Un Passo Avanti

What a great idea! I love these versions!

two tone

*Bonus tracks!

Prince BusterAl Capone

The SpecialsGangsters

 

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Band Aid

December 8, 2014

I’ve been enjoying the recent latest release in the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series. Number 11 shines a light on the Basement Tapes, the name given to the set of landmark recordings Bob did with The Band in 1967 in the basement of Big Pink, the cabin in the woods that served as a commune/writing/rehearsal space for The Band.

As any music scholar knows, the Basement Sessions unwittingly became the first bootleg LP, when some tracks were spirited out of Big Pink, into the ether and onto a record titled ‘The Great White Wonder’. Bob fans lucky enough to lay their hands on a copy marvelled at the down-home, rootsy feel of it all. Taken in context, the musical world was ingesting heaps of hallucinogens, dressing up in silly clothes and humping anything that moved, under the guise of ‘free love’.

 Bob Dylan

A burnt-out Dylan eschewed all this nonsense by totalling his Triumph in a motorbike crash and taking to time to convalesce at his own speed. The recording at Big Pink found him running loosely through a set of songs that had their roots in long-forgotten Americana, creating an arcane set of mystical wonder.

For years it’s been easy enough to uncover complete sets of this stuff in the darkest corners of the internet, but much of it is poor quality and while you might be of the notion that the song is key, a lot of it is unlistenable.

The official release comes in a couple of formats – the eye-wateringly expensive Complete Sessions that I’d assume is just that, though I’m certain that some Bob Cat somewhere has a version of Yea! Heavy And a Bottle Of Bread or Don’t You Tell Henry sung by Rick Danko’s dog that the compilers missed for some reason or other. Look in the darkest corners of the internet and you can no doubt find it too. I went for the recession-friendly 2CD set, which compiles all the essential stuff at a far better sound quality than my old CD bootleg from years ago.

bob and band bw

Recorded on a mobile recording unit loaned to them by Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman through microphones borrowed from Peter, Paul and Mary, it’s terrific stuff, with Bob leading The Band through first versions of never-since played originals and exhumed olde worlde tunes. It’s not music Dylan intended for mass consumption. It’s him and The Band (and the occasional dog at their feet) merrily running through whatever the hell they like, however often they feel like it. Had they known it would become the stuff of legend, it’s possible the group would’ve tried to make it more contemporary. Thankfully, this music remains as pure and clean as the air around Big Pink. Nowhere on the Basement Tapes will you hear the sound of the beat group, nor will you hear “the sun’s not yellow it’s a chicken”-type lyrics.

Following the constant record/tour/release schedule that had eaten up all of his time for the previous 2 years, Bob essentially used the sessions as a way of recording new stuff that could be somewhat cynically sent to other artists to have hits with, ensuring Bob’s pockets stayed healthily full whilst maintaining a low public profile. Much of the stuff from the sessions did indeed do this;

Both The Band and The Box Tops put out versions of I Shall Be Released. The Mighty Quinn became a hit for Manfred Mann. The Byrds made You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere the lead track on their Sweethearts Of the Rodeo LP.

My favourite is This Wheel’s On Fire, a weird ‘n wonky slice of claustrophobic nonsense, all walking basslines and odd chords.
Bob Dylan & The Band – This Wheel’s On Fire

bob basement

Even better than Bob’s one take wonder is Brian Auger and Julie Driscoll’s, who released the definitive version in 1967; all swirling psychedelia and phased vocals, with shimmering Hammonds and eerie mellotron.
Brian Auger and Julie DriscollThis Wheel’s On Fire

 

No stranger to a Bob tune, Rod Stewart wraps his gravelled tones around a version that is too rock for solo Rod but not swaggering enough for The Faces. A rather misplaced cover, if y’ask me. As a ballad singer, he did Mama, You Been On My Mind far, far better. Worth searching for.
Rod StewartThis Wheel’s On Fire

 

Siouxsie & the Banshees had a good stab at it too, going for an eastern gothic feel more in tune with Auger and Driscoll than Dylan’s, 12 string guitars competing with both a rattling snare and Siouxsie’s ice maiden vocals for attention.
Siouxsie & the BansheesThis Wheel’s On Fire

 

Predictably, both The Band and The Byrds had a go at it. You’ll know where to look if you need to hear them.

basement cover

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