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Six Of The Best – R.J. Ellory

July 14, 2012

Six Of The Best is a semi-regular feature that pokes, prods and persuades your favourite bands, bards and barometers of hip opinion to tell us six of the best tracks they’ve ever heard. The tracks could be mainstream million-sellers or they could be obfuscatingly obscure, it doesn’t matter. The only criteria set is that, aye, they must be Six of the Best. Think of it like a mini, groovier version of Desert Island Discs…

Number 10 in a series:

By now, 10 novels in, Roger Jon Ellory should be a household name in the same way Stephen King or Dean Koontz or Ian Rankin are household names. A multi-award winner (Steel Dagger, CWA Dagger, a Barry Award, Crime Novel of the Year, to name just some), he writes crime thrillers like no-one else at the moment, and in a just world Roger’s books would be making the jackpot-winning leap from print to celluloid. His stories can be brutal, violent, uncomfortable and unsettling, but turn the page and it’s just as likely you’ll be reading some life-affirming, uplifting, faith-in-humankind passage – the welcome daylight to the novel’s relentless darkness. Always gripping, Roger’s books are simply unputdownable and feature more twists than a copy of Chubby Checker’s Greatest Hits. Just when you think you have a handle on the story and how it’s panning out, he has the knack of hitting you between the eyes with an unforeseen left turn. Page turners. That’s what they call them.

I chanced upon Roger’s novels after a trip to New York. With Big Apple dirt still under my fingernails and the smell of stale pretzels lingering in my hair, I went to Kilwinning library looking for something to read that might help me cope with the unwelcome NYC withdrawal symptoms I couldn’t shake. From the row of anonymous books on the ‘E’ shelf, Saints Of New York made its way into my line of vision, its title dancing seductively before my eyes (think Tales of the Unexpected), and after flicking randomly through a couple of pages I knew this was the one for me. I read it in 2 days flat, visualising the landmarks and streets that had been my home a few days previously, adding my own imagined soundtrack of honking taxis, skronking Central Park saxophones and loud-mouthed street vendors. “Hat cwoffee! Hat cwoffee!” With the last paragraph still ringing in my ears I hot-footed it back to the library, making a bee-line for the ‘E’ section. Loads of Ellorys! Ghostheart. City Of Lies. A Simple Act Of Violence.  A Quiet Belief In Angels (set not in NYC, but even more gripping (if that was possible) than what I’d read so far). In The Anniversary Man, the story even climaxed on a bench in Union Square, the same bench, I convinced myself, where I had eaten my lunch on the day I left.

Roger really captures the feel of the places he writes about. You can tell every word, every measured nuance has been carefully considered, agonised over even, before being committed to print. His chosen prose transports you slap bang in the middle of the time and place in which the story’s set. You can smell the deep south of New Orleans in A Quiet Vendetta. You can hear the open roads and taste the Texas dustbowls of Bad Signs. It was most surprising, then, to find out that Roger lived not in New York or in New Orleans but in Birmingham. And not Birmingham, Alabama, but Birmingham, UK. How can he write so knowingly, so honestly about places half-way across the world? Research, yes. An awful lot of research, I’d imagine. And no doubt the odd field trip or two, but clearly, RJ Ellory has a gift for story writing. My favourite? That’s hard (I’m half way through A Dark And Broken Heart, his latest), but for the moment it would have to be A Quiet Belief In Angels. You should read it, you’d like it a lot. Surely it’s only a matter of time before some enterprising movie maker or other adapts it for the silver screen? Tarantino at the helm. William H Macy as Sheriff Dearing. Scarlett Johansson as Miss Webber. That would be great…

Fresh from publishing his Chicagoland eBook trilogy (above, 99p a book!), playing and singing in his own band, The Whiskey Poets and hanging backstage with Bruce Springsteen in Paris, Roger somehow found the time to contribute his ‘Six Of The Best‘ to Plain Or Pan…

I have to say that being asked to write something about six songs is outrageously unfair!  How can you choose six songs?  I have hundreds of LPs, thousands of tapes and CDs, and I have just started loading this library of music onto an iPod.  I have crossed the 10,000 tracks mark, and I have a long, long, long way to go yet.  The only way I could do this was to choose six tracks that I have listened to in the last couple of days that stood out for me.  I have excluded Tom Waits, The Thirteenth Floor Elevators, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Paul Butterfield Blues Band (with Mike Bloomfield, one of my true guitar idols), and so, so, so many other wonderful artistes.

Anyway, here are six songs, though tomorrow there would be another six, and the day after another six again…

Johnny Cash

If You Could Read My Mind

I only recently discovered this song on Cash’s last album.  I love the original by Gordon Lightfoot, and have listened to it for years, but there is something so desperately emotive about this version.  Cash is tired.  You can just feel it in every line, every breath.  He knows he’s reaching the end of his life, and he has taken a number of classic songs and covered them.  I listen to this and it breaks my heart.  It is not just the words, it’s the arrangement, the fact that the key has been dropped into Cash’s vocal range…just everything about it.  I was playing the CD in the car, and this track came on and I just had to pull over to the side of the road and wait for it to finish.  Once it was done, I played it again.

Antony & The Johnsons

Hope There’s Someone

I saw this performed on a television show, and it stopped me dead in my tracks.  He’s an Englishman, from Kent I believe, and he wound up in New York where he was supported and patronised by Lou Reed.  Oddly enough, I saw him in a cameo role in a recent film called ‘Animal Factory’ with Willem Defoe, where he played an inmate singing on a talent show evening.  There is something so utterly arresting about his voice, his delivery, his presence.  This song is truly sad.  This song is all about loneliness, that desperate feeling of hope that your life will have meant something, and that there will be someone to take care of you when you die.  I think this says a lot about what Anthony suffered – for his sexuality, his appearance, the personal crosses he has had to bear.  I listen to this and I shudder…

Derek Trucks Band

Sahib Teri Band/Maki Madni

I have put this on the list for two reasons – first and foremost, it’s a wonderful track, and secondly, because of the Allman Brothers connection.  Derek’s father was Butch Trucks, drummer for the Allmans, and Derek stands head and shoulders above the vast majority of contemporary blues players.  He does something fresh, new and interesting with every album.  He collaborates with a huge gang of great players, and with his wife, Susan Tedeschi, he has formed the Tedeschi/Trucks Band.  I am a little exhausted with the endless wave of SRV-wannabe blues guitarists, and though I can appreciate great technique in a player, I am not a fan of rendition as an ‘art’ for its own sake.  Art is communication.  Great art is not judged by the artist, but by the public and history.  Fretboard pyrotechnics appeal to guitarists, not girls!  Enough said!  I am all about the emotion in music, and the way in which the sound and the rhythm get under your skin and change the way you feel.  Trucks is a master, and I love what he’s doing.

Dr. John

I Walk on Gilded Splinters

What can I say about Dr. John?  This album – of which I have a vinyl first pressing – is a stand-out, timeless, monster classic.  Breathtaking, scary, unsettling, uncomfortable, familiar even on the first listen…and it appeals to so many aspects of my musical and other interests – jazz, blues, African rhythms, voodoo enchantments, curses, hexes, gris-gris gumbo ya-ya, and the rest.  The hiss as the needle goes down, that first intonation of sound, and you are gone – lost in the deep, dark, dreadful swamps of Louisiana, surrounded by shrunken heads, ouanga charms, Papa Legba, mandragore and grimoires.  Just the most wonderful concoction of sounds and emotions and rhythms.  As an additional aside, there’s a great live version of this from Humble Pie, and there we have a way of getting Steve Marriott into the mix, one of the finest singers Britain has ever produced!  Marriott, another tragic loss to the world of great music, lived too few years and recorded too few songs.

The Gun Club

Eternally Is Here

For me, Kurt Cobain holds a place that should have been reserved for Jeffrey Lee Pierce.  Pierce was a phenomenon, a wizard, a genius.  Pierce was a paradox, a contradiction, a genius, a drunk, a guitar master, a songwriting legend.  I love the first albums – ‘Fire of Love’, ‘Miami’…in fact, I love them all, but there is something about the raw power of some of the tracks on ‘The Las Vegas Story’ that just blows me away.  I think JLP was more familiar with the technical aspects of studio recording.  I think he’d worked with these musicians for a while and felt comfortable with them, and he produced an album that possessed as much ‘thump’ and energy as anything I have ever listened to.  This song really hits me in the chest and the heart.  Maybe there is a rawness missing from this album that was there in spades in the early work, but I don’t care.  The songs are wonderful.  I saw The Gun Club only once, back in 1982 at The Hacienda in Manchester.  Eight or ten of us hired a van and drove from Birmingham to see them.  I was so very drunk, so completely drunk, but from the moment he appeared on stage it was as if I had suddenly received three pints of intravenous espresso.  He just blew me away.  I will never forget that gig.  A life-changing experience, literally.

Fleetwood Mac

Need Your Love So Bad

Peter Green.  What can I say?  BB King says that Green was the only guitarist who made him sweat.  Sure, he’s a brilliant guitarist, no question about it, but he’s an extraordinary singer, songwriter, arranger, recording artiste, and it saddens me no end when I think about what was done to him.  That aside, I saw him recently, here in my home city.  He was supporting BB King, ironically.  The lights were out, you couldn’t see a thing, and he hit one note.  Instantly, you knew it was Green, and he wasn’t even playing a Les Paul!  The name ‘Fleetwood Mac’ should have been retired when the original line-up with Jeremy Spencer was terminated.  Now you say ‘Fleetwood Mac’ and people think of Stevie Nicks, ‘Rumours’, and all manner of hideously safe middle-of-the-road AOR nonsense.  Fleetwood Mac was a kick-ass blues band, a real British R&B band that took the world by storm.  They sold more records than the Stones and The Beatles combined at one point.  Albatross, Oh Well, Green Manalishi, Man of the World…the list goes on.  I have a great photo of the young Green in my study, along with photos of Roy Buchanan, Mike Bloomfield, Muddy Waters, Kelly Joe Phelps, Alvin Youngblood Hart and a host of others.  See what I did there?  Still trying to get a whole lot more than six tracks mentioned here!

Steven Van Zandt – Silvio from The Sopranos and Fender-totin’ Springsteen foil. He has good tatse in music too – click on the Little Steven’s Underground Garage link, over there on the ‘Blogroll’ on the right.

A great selection….and I’m quite surprised. I kinda thought, given the nature of his books, that Roger would pick wall-to-wall Americana. Nothing wrong with that of course, but to read him wax lyrical about The Gun Club, Johnny Cash and Dr John while bigging up Mike Bloomfield and Steve Marriott, and bemoan the fact that he hasn’t any space left for Tom Waits or The Thirteenth Floor Elevators, well, this is music right up Plain Or Pan’s metaphorical street.

Every Six Of the Best compilation comes in a handy RAR download file. Get R.J. Ellory’s here.

Now! Get yourself over to your local library or even your favourite local bookshop, if you’re lucky enough to live in a town where such things still exist. Or, if it’s raining, just pop on Roger’s Six Of the Best while you get yourself over to your favourite online book retailer. Try here. Or here. Pick an Ellory. You could start at the beginning with Candlemoth, or you could go straight to A Dark And Broken Heart and work your way backwards. It doesn’t matter. Just read one. Then another. And another. And tell a pal. Tell two pals. Tell everyone. Go on! Whatchawaitin’ for?

RJ Ellory online

RJ Ellory on Facebook

RJ Ellory on Twitter

You can listen to The Whiskey Poets here, with Roger on guitar and vocals.

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One comment

  1. …and he continues with a new band Zero Navigator! I have heard the promo CD and let me tell you, the Demon Queen track is amazing! Coming out soon.



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