33 years ago today, John Lennon was shot dead outside his New York home.
When he died he was younger than I am now.
By the time I’d decided at the ripe old age of 32 that teaching might be the vocation for providing for my family, John Lennon had already lived a colourful life in Hamburg, formed the Beatles, split the Beatles, was one of the most recognisable faces on the planet and half-way through a solo career. Not bad going when you stop to think about it.
On the day he died, I came home from school to find my mum cleaning out the kitchen cupboards and crying. I shuffled about awkwardly, trying to be invisible while looking for the chocolate biscuits that weren’t in their usual place. Imagine seemed to soundtrack that whole era, Lennon’s unofficial national anthem for the world playing on every radio station across the globe.
Here’s the first take of Imagine, that other gun-wielding maniac Phil Spector at the controls and recorded at John’s house in Ascot. See when the honey-thick warm strings come in at the start with the piano……..s’beautiful, man!
And here’s a live version from 1971. Just John and his acoustic guitar in front of a politely reserved audience. Imagine wouldn’t be the song it was until Lennon’s death. Who knew?
Here’s the demo of Real Love. Lennon gives birth to Elliott Smith whilst sketching out a minor keyed spidery piano part that would never see the light of day during his lifetime.
And here’s the Jeff Lynne-produced shiny, polished-up Threetles version, released to promote the mid 90s Anthology series. Packed full of George’s slide guitar and some warm Beatles harmonies, it is (to paraphrase Alan Partridge) the band ELO could’ve been.
A few years ago, we visited New York. Just across the road from the Dakota Building in Central Park we came across Strawberry Fields. Once we’d managed to squeeze ourselves in between the hordes of quietly determined Japanese tourists hell-bent on not letting us through (Give Peace A Chance, my arse), much like that December day in my kitchen in 1980, we looked in slightly self-conscious silence at the wee tiled memorial.
I could post a picture of it, but it looks exactly the same as any one you choose to Google, although my picture has a random scattering of Autumn Central Park leaves on top of the black and white tiles, rather than the candles of eternity that were somewhat ironically missing that day.
Tis the season to be jolly ‘n all that. Here’s the rough version of Happy Xmas (War Is Over). Written and recorded in the space of a day, as was Lennon’s wont at the time, the record company failed to act quickly enough, and it missed out on being that year’s Christmas single. As with Imagine, it’s only since his death that Happy Xmas became truly popular.
Lennon autographs a copy of his Double Fantasy LP for the man who would return to kill him six hours later.
Elvis may have been the King, but Little Richard was certainly the Queen. He’s terrific, isn’t he? The high priest of camp; his pompadoured hair like a Texan oil slick, sticky and stationary above those mad, popping eyes and perfectly plucked brows, the occasional dog-bothering ‘whoooo!’ while his hands pound away on the pianer with all the frenzied dexterity of a teenage boy with unlimited broadband and a lock on his bedroom door. Tee-riffic.
Slippin’ And Slidin’. Tutti Frutti. Lucille. Good Golly Miss Molly. Rip It Up. Long Tall Sally. Every one a throat-ripping, stone cold classic……..the building blocks of rock and roll and all that was to follow. But you knew that already.
‘Before Elvis, there was nothing‘, said John Lennon, but The Beatles owed Richard Penniman a huge debt or two. McCartney for one modelled his whole voice on Richard’s every single time his group broke free from the shackles of balladry and ruffled their rugs to the delight of the watching world – from the backing vocals on The Beatles’ own version of I Wanna Be Your Man right through to the White Album’s Why Don’t We Do It In The Road, the spirit of Little Richard was never far away.
Here’s one you might not’ve heard before:
The Most I Can Offer (Just My Heart) is superb. Released on his 3rd album The Fabulous Little Richard by a slightly twitchy record company after he’d indicated a preference for thumping the bible rather than the thumping boogie woogie of yore, The Most I Can Offer is a mid-paced soul-shaking break-up ballad (of course!), all rasping tenor sax and ding-ding-ding minor 7ths on the keys. It throws me every time. Why? Because it sounds like a duet between a high, quavering falsetto’d voice and a southern souler. Imagine if William Bell had sung with the black cleaner lady who appears from the waist down in every Tom And Jerry cartoon. Except The Most I Can Offer seems to be Richard and Richard alone, his voice alternating between broken-hearted blues mama and a down-on-his-knees tear-soaked gospel bawler. The version I’ve given you is Take 4. Which sounds exactly like takes 1, 2 and 3 and no doubt the master version too. If you have but an ounce of soul you’ll want to play this again and again and again.
And here’s another:
Hey Hey Hey Hey, as reprised on the Beatles For Sale LP by those self-same Little Richard fans mentioned earlier. An out-and-out rocker, this features Richard at his most extreme, extravagant and extraordinary, pompadour bouncing while the piano pumps out primal jive ‘n wail. You can almost see the whites of his eyes on this recording.
And if you think the original’s good, you should have a listen to the Jim Jones Revue‘s outstanding needles-in-the-red version;
Proof, if any were needed, that Little Richard is as relevant today for any musician seeking the mother lode of rock ‘n roll.
The story goes that Elvis’ domineering manager Colonel Tom Parker was a Dutch illegal immigrant to the States and that, once/if the authorities ever found out, he’d be extradited straight back to where he’d come from (“you can leave that phony made-up ‘Colonel’ title at the door, thank you very much, and you better get used to folk calling you Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk once again”). Consequently, poor Elvis never got to tour the world as a recording artist, the paranoid Colonel convinced that somewhere along the way his illegal alien status would be uncovered and the land of the brave and the home of the free wouldn’t let him back in. The only time Elvis saw anywhere other than the States was during his time in the US army based in Germany. But you knew that already.
Here in Ayrshire, any mention of Elvis is met with a slightly smug response. Prestwick Airport, just up the road from where I’m typing, is the *only British soil ever graced by the feet of The King, as he dropped past for a quick wave to his fans while his plane stopped to refuel between Germany and the US, and the folks of Ayrshire have quite rightly been dining out on this pop nugget ever since. For a long time, the airport was a tacky shrine to all things of a Presley persuasion, with his face/image/signature filling up much of the available wall space with all the faded glamour of a 1980′s Butlin’s burger bar. Disgraceland might’ve been a more apt name for it had they not de-Presley’d it slightly during a re-branding programme a few years ago.
*only British soil? Tommy Steele claims to have spent a day with Elvis in 1958, showing him the sights and sounds of the city of London. But, unlike the picture above, there’s no photographic proof that this ever occured, so here in Ayrshire we tend to gloss over the possibility. It ruins a perfect story. And it would be another costly re-branding exercise for our pokey wee airport.
Last weekend you may have caught the show on the telly featuring the nation’s favourite Elvis tracks. No surprises by any stretch of the imagination, but this got me thinking about those Elvis tracks that never get their time in the spotlight. For such a prolific recording artist, Elvis seems to have had his discography squashed and squeezed into an assortment of handy 20 track all-you-need compilations. Well, no. He’s never recorded the classic album, much of his output in the 60s was flowery soundtrack fodder and filler and his 70s material is almost considered a white jump-suited parody, but there’s more to Elvis’ music than you might think.
Who better to ask than pop scholar, member of St Etienne and author of Yeah Yeah Yeah (The Story of Modern Pop), Bob Stanley. I suppose this makes this feature a Six Of The Best of sorts….with Tupelo trainspotter Bob picking 10 rare-ish Elvis tracks and giving each one the briefest of moments in the spotlight. It’s by no means a definitive guide to the backwaters of Elvis (I’d have included Pocketful Of Rainbows and Stranger In This Town. You probably have others of your own,) but it’s a good springboard if you fancy diving into the murky depths of the Presley canon.
1. Blue Moon
Released in 1956, standard ballad Blue Moon was one of Elvis’ first recordings after leaving Sam Phillips and Sun Records for RCA.
Neither rock nor roll, country nor western, its eerie, distant, ghostly vocal and hillbilly clip-clopping rhythm sounds like some extra-terrestrial broadcast from a by-gone era. The fragile yin to Heartbreak Hotel‘s ferocious yang, Blue Moon is Elvis at his most unselfconscious and tender.
Elvis and his movies have always been a bit of a standing joke amongst ‘serious’ music fans who never really recovered from seeing their idol misdirected for a good decade or more through Colonel Tom’s none-too-subtle capitalistic urges in the chase for cold hard cash.
A shame, as there are some stone cold Elvis classics waiting to be discovered amongst the dusty grooves;
1958′s hit ‘n miss King Creole soundtrack included Crawfish, a southern gumbo of a duet between Elvis and Kitty White. Elvis and Kitty might sound like a pair of light opera singers high on hooch ‘n moonshine, but the sparse backing music is not a million miles away from anything Lux Interior would’ve been proud to add his name to. Crawfish also happens to be one of Joe Strummer’s favourite Elvis tracks.
3. Doin’ The Best I Can
Another from a movie, 1960′s GI Blues, Doin’ The Best I Can is perfect Elvis – the waltzing lilt, Scotty Moore’s subtle guitar picking, the brushed drums and The Jordanaires ethereal gospel doo-wop all coating the track in magic dust. The last track on GI Blues, it deserves a wider audience. Play it, love it as you will and pass it on.
4. Animal Instinct
Elvis released three (!) films each and every year in the 60s and Harum Scarum was one of 1965′s offering. Consider the pop landscape for a second – The Beatles were ingesting marjuana for breakfast and on the verge of becoming studio auteurs. Motown was in full four-to-the-floor swing. Elvis was out of touch releasing hokey films accompanied by what many consider to be his poorest musical output.
Harum Scarum (along with the previous year’s Roustabout) suffered the indignity of being ‘promoted’ without the release of an accompanying single. Animal Instinct was recorded for Harum Scarum and although it featured on the soundtrack LP, wasn’t actually used in the film instead. The track itself is a loungecore/exotica/rhumba hybrid, with a moody, kohl-eyed Elvis laying bare his sexual desires in none-too-dressed-up animalistic metaphors. 5. Please Don’t Stop Loving Me
From 1966′s Frankie And Johnny soundtrack.
Look out! Here come The Jordanaires and their measured pitch-perfect harmonies once again. The best sound in music, would you agree?
There’s a tinkling piano in the background and a ‘My Way‘ feel to the guitar riff (I think by Scotty Moore again) as Elvis gets down to full-on ballad mode and gives birth to a gazillion impersonators in the process. You were born… just to be…. in my arms…. in my arms…..your lips were made…just to be… kissed by me….kissed by me. Not a dry seat in the house, I’d wager. 6. Edge of Reality
From the soundtrack to 68′s Live A Little, Love A Little, Edge Of Reality was recorded at the same sessions as A Little Less Conversation. Whereas the latter’s throwaway lounge funk was designed solely for the displaying of the Elvis pelvis, Edge Of Reality showcases an Elvis vocal that verges on the edge of parody, all softly rolled ‘rs’ and a rich baritone croon that channels his inner Scott Walker. Edge Of Reality eventually found its way onto the b-side of If I Can Dream, although the loose-limbed Hal Blaine drum track and orchestral brass section wouldn’t sound out of place on an Isaac Hayes LP. Ain’t nothin’ like Hound Dog, that’s for sure.
7. I’m Leavin’
I’m Leavin’ is a little-known track from 1971. Released as a stand-alone single, you won’t find it on many of the more bog-standard compilations. As such, it’s something of an Elvis obscurity, not helped by it reaching the lowly chart position of 36 on its release. I’m Leavin’ is a masterful Elvis performance. No hysterics, no histrionics, for once he actually sings almost behind the musicians, showcasing his crack band of Nashville sessioneers for what they are. As the title implies, this is Elvis singing about love gone wrong, something he was experiencing in his own life at the time. Indeed, many of the tracks recorded around this era were as autobiographical as Elvis could get, considering he didn’t actually write them…… 8. Patch It Up
Patch It Up is terrific – a staple of his early 70s Vegas shows (see That’s The Way It Is and it’s essential accompanying soundtrack), it’s a riot of fuzz bass, stinging James Burton guitar licks and warm Stax brass. This is larynx-loosening guttural grunt Elvis in full-on remorse mode. He’s wandered, he’s strayed and now he’s back telling the object of his affections that he loves her. Somewhat mirroring his home life with Priscilla at the time, this wouldn’t be the only time Elvis laid his soul bare for all to see, doing it to more dramatic effect on Suspicious Minds. Although, if you watched the telly at the weekend, you’ll know that already.
Trivial fact – One of those roof-raisin’ female voices in the background of Patch It Up is Darlene Love, who’d previously found success recording with Phil Spector. 9. True Love Travels On A Gravel Road
Recorded in Memphis at the duck-tail end of the 60s, True Love Travels On A Gravel Road was also a staple of the Elvis Vegas set. An RnB/country/southern soul hybrid, with a healthy sprinkling of female gospel singers, it’s one of the last great Elvis tracks. The record benefits from a terrific production and Elvis is restrained, soulful and passionate, the complete opposite to the bloated, huffing and puffing performer he could sometimes be at the time. Spare your ears, but I seem to recall a Shakin’ Stevens version doing the rounds sometime in the 80s. 10. Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues
In 1973, Elvis found himself recording at the world-famous Stax Records studio. Known as the home of southern soul, Stax gave birth to many great artists and tunes – Booker T, Otis Redding, Rufus & Carla Thomas, The Staple Singers….many of the artists that pop up regularly on this blog…..I could go on, but you’ll know them all yourself. A good few duds were recorded in his time at Stax, but Good Time Charlie.. isn’t one of them. An easy listening croon atop a backing that’s fluid and meandering and nothing at all like the Elvis of old, it was perhaps not surprising when it was considered flim flam by the record buying public at the time. However, the appreciation for Good Time Charlie has, like the Elvis girth of the day, grown to generous proportions.
An impressive list. Track them down and you’ve got yourself a good wee alternative Elvis compilation. Add the afore-mentioned Stranger In This Town and Pocketful Of Rainbows and you’ll have a cracker. And if you can add the full-on gospel rockin’ and God-fearin’ Milky White Way…..
…..you might just have yourself Now That’s What I Call The Best, Least-Heard Elvis Tracks In The World…Ever. Uh-huh.
Bob Stanley is currently out and about promoting his book. He might be coming to a town near you. You can check all things Bob-related here.
You can buy Yeah Yeah Yeahhere, plus at all the other usual places. An ideal addition to your Christmas list.
Keeping It Peel is the brainchild of Webbie, who writes the excellent and informative Football And Music blog. An annual celebration of all things Peel, it’s purpose is to remind everyone just how crucial John Peel was to expanding and informing listening tastes up and down the country. Be it demo, flexi, 7″, 10″, 12″, EP, LP, 8 track cartridge, wax cylinder or reel to reel field recording, the great man famously listened to everything ever sent his way, and if it was in anyway decent he played it on his show. Sometimes, he played the more obscure records at the correct speed. Sometimes he didn’t. And sometimes, no-one noticed. John Peel is the reason my musical tastes expanded beyond the left-field avant-garde edginess of Hipsway and Love And Money and the reason why my mum stopped singing her own version of whatever it was I was playing (“Take a ri-ide on the Suga Trayne!”) and started asking me to “turn that racket down” whenever she passed my teenage bedroom door. Thank you, John.
This year’s Peel Session selection features Roxy Music from February 1972. It’s a cracker……..
But first, a history lesson.
1972 was a pivotal year in music. The number of influential/classic albums released in those 12 months is nothing short of staggering (I’d like to say “off the top of my head“, but Google is a handy wee tool now and again).
Take a deep breath and off we go; Neil Young‘s Harvest (and the unreleased Journey Through The Past), Nick Drake‘s Pink Moon, Pink Floyd‘s Dark Side Of The Moon (hey – I’d never spotted that before – Pink and Moon…anyway…), The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot, both by Captain Beefheart (2 albums in one year, nae bother), Todd Rundgren‘s Something/Anything, Talking Book AND Music Of My Mind by Stevie Wonder (2 albums in one year, nae bother), T Rex‘s Bolan Boogie and The Slider (2 albums, one year…), Big Star‘s #1 Record, The Stones’Exile On Main Street, Bowie‘s Ziggy Stardust, the soundtracks to Superfly and The Harder They Come (Curtis Mayfield and Jimmy Cliff), Black Sabbath4, Steely Dan‘s Can’t Buy a Thrill, Greetings from LA by Tim Buckley, Can‘s Ege Bamyasi,Transformer by Lou Reed, Marvin Gaye‘s Trouble Man, and the debut eponymously titled LP from Roxy Music. Crikey! That’s almost a classic album a fortnight! And there’s a ton more I haven’t even mentioned! Oh to have been a teenager with a disposable income in the early 70s……
Roxy Music looked as if they’d been beamed down from the first spaceship from Mars and sounded just as other-worldly. Dressed in a clash of tiger print and tinfoil, faux fur and flares, and with a sound giving as much space to the clarinet and oboe as to yer more traditional rock instruments (and we haven’t even mentioned Brian Eno’s synthesiser), they were so out of step with the fashion of the day (compare them to the list above), it’s easy to see why John Peel would champion them. Between January 1972 and March 1973, they recorded 5 thrilling John Peel sessions. Their session recorded in February 1972 (although not broadcast until 1st August – anyone know why?) is particularly brilliant, featuring the yin and the yang of Roxy Music in two tracks.
A full six months (a light year in 1972 musical terms) before being released as their debut single, Virginia Plain was recorded as part of that February session. Over a minute longer than the released version, the Peel version is a proto-punk glam slam, overloaded with fizzbomb guitars and a seemingly improvised solo, all whammy bar and feedback sturm und drang. Hogging the limelight, Phil Manzanera made sure there was no room for the single’s twangy bass solo here.
Virginia Plain Peel Session, 18 Feb 72
Years later he would indeed be flying down to Rio! but, when he wasn’t purloining other bands’ equipment, I’m sure sticky-fingered street urchin and future Sex Pistol Steve Jones was cribbing notes on Manzanera’s guitar sound during this transmission. A verse sung over 2 open chords….. stray wafts of controlled feedback….. a fantastic, fluid and free-form guitar solo….. a four-to-the-floor jackboot stomp. A full 4 years before UK punk was ‘invented’, Roxy Music were doing it, maaaaan. If this version of Virginia Plain doesn’t make you want to go and learn a couple of chords and start a band in a desperate middle-aged attempt at hipster cool, nothing will.
On the debut album you’ll find If There Is Something, a countryish clip-clopping slide guitar and piano-led song in (prog alert!!!) three distinct parts. According to that bastion of trusted information Wikipedia, it ‘s been said that the first part of the song is a youth wondering about love, the second part adults in the heat of passion and the third part the singer in old age thinking about their past love. Gads. Whatever you think, in length and libido it manages to invent both prog rock and Pulp. Heavily-effected saxophones waft in and out, guitars get fuzzier and quieter as the track progresses and the ending is bathed in synthesised melancholic heaven, Ferry crooning in his collapsed quiff like a pub singer after half a dozen Guinesses.
If There Is Something Peel Session, 18 Feb 72
The Peel Session version is free from slide guitar and twice as long as the released version, clocking in at over 12 meandering minutes, the track ebbing and flowing like the champagne at one of Bryan Ferry’s socialite soirees. A few short years later they’d be making syrupy cocktail dross like Avalon. Remember Roxy from 72; weird, wonky and wonderful, unparalleled and untouchable.
No Roxy Music feature is complete without the funniest bit of telly ever. Johnny Vegas as Eno? Oh aye!
I haven’t ever quite gotBruce Springsteen. I can appreciate the appeal, and I can rattle off a list of his tunes I quite like, but that’s just it – tunes I quite like. There’s nothing there I love. Not even Tenth Avenue Freeze Out. Or Hungry Heart. Or Cadillac Ranch. Or Born To Run. I like ‘em. But I don’t love ‘em. I don’t feel the need to re-spin them as soon as they’ve faded out in the same way I do with many other musical sacred cows. What’s the difference between Born To Run and most of Meat Loaf’s outpourings over the last 30 years? Very little, if y’ask me. And Meat Loaf is a pantomime figure to be laughed at and poked with a big shitty stick. So why not Bruce?
Bruce’s schtick is all just a wee bit forced, I think. Everything’s done through gritted teeth and clenched fist, his furrowed brow and earnest intentions dressed up in last year’s Levis for maximum ‘man of the people’ effect. Four hour live shows? Come on! Even if Paul McCartney turned up in my back garden and ask me to accompany him on fat-fingered guitar to play a four hour greatest hits show, that would still be about two hours too long. Possibly. And all that huffing and puffing and biker-booted blue collar bluster – pffft! – even his ballads sound as if they’re wrapped in layers of testosterone, desperate to escape their confines, but bundled up as tightly as his upper arms underneath the sweat-stained cut-off denim shirt. Look at him! He can’t even play that famous Tele of his properly due to the constrictions. That, in part, explains the gritted teeth I suppose.
Here’s the crux though – Bruce writes a good song. I know he does. But his versions just don’t hit the spot the way the cover versions do.
Because The Night – Bruce version
Written during the Darkness On The Edge Of Town album sessions, he dashed off Because The Night, discarded it almost immediately and gave it to Patti Smith, who was in the studio next door recording what would become the Easter LP. She got herself a writing credit as she changed some of the words and added her own. But you knew that already. Her version is better. In fact, hers is the definitive of the 18 covers (and counting) to date. PJ Harvey certainly thinks so……..she based much of her mid-career on it. But you knew that already too.
Because The Night – Patti version
Along with Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street, Patti’s Because The Night reminds me of French toast. I have a vivid memory of listening to the ‘Hit Parade’ countdown one sunny Summer night on a wee portable radio in the back garden and hearing both records while my dad made French toast in the kitchen, the sizzle and smell making its way back to me sitting with my back against the roughcast on the garage wall. Patti’s record eventually got to number 5, though I’m too scared to Google the rest of this fact as it’s very likely both records didn’t ever appear in the same chart. Don’t check. Or if you do, don’t tell me if I’m wrong. It’ll ruin what has been a 35+ years memory.
Inspired by a lyric in Elvis’ Let’s Play House (“You may have a pink Cadillac but don’t you be nobody’s fool”), Bruce wrote Pink Cadillac as a car-as-sexual-metaphor bluesy gruntalong. Written at the turn of the 80s but kept it in his vaults until 1984, Bruce stuck it on the b-side of Dancing In The Dark.
Pink Cadillac – Bruce version
The year previously, Bette Midler had asked to record it, presumably to add her own high camp gloss to an already suggestive lyric.
“I love you for your Pink Cadillac….crushed velvet seats….riding in the back…oozing down the street.”
‘Pink Cadillac is not a girls’ song‘, vetoed Bruce.
And that was that, until Natalie Cole somehow got the go ahead to record her version and take it all the way to number 5 (just like Patti) in March 1988. Bruce calling it Pink Cadillac was a bit more glamorous and rock ‘n roll sounding than, say, Pink Camel Toe, that’s for sure. But we all know what he was getting at, eh? Nudge, nudge, wink wink and all that. It’s quite spectacular that someone so straight-laced as Natalie ‘daughter of Nat King’ Cole should be allowed to record it. Maybe she thought she was singing about a car.
Pink Cadillac – Natalie version.
Barring the none-more-80s glossy feel (or, to be more accurate, because of the none-more-80s glossy feel) it could almost be Aretha Franklin as recorded by Prince, couldn’t it?
Ever one for spotting a trend and putting an arty spin on it, here’s David Bowie doing It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City. Recorded in 1974 in the middle of his white-powdered Young Americans phase, it’s a tune that divides Bowie fans. For what it’s worth, I think it’s a brilliant version. I bet those check-shirted good ol’ boys over the Atlantic hate it though.
Nothing at all like the Brooce original. Poor man’s Dylan, no?
By now, of course, there’ll be people I know, friends even, who are rattling off tut-tut-tut emails to me, pointing out the errors of my ways. Waaaaaghh! Here….have a Bruce face in reply….
Slightly recycled from Plain Or Pan’s back pages, this article is adapted from one that first appeared 5 years ago…
Autumn. The nights are drawing in and the curtains are drawing shut. The heating comes on a bit earlier than normal and stays on that wee bit longer. You can smell winter coming in the air. The leaves are turning red and yellow. Conkers are on the ground and in the playground. Kids are off to the medical room for a good dose of TCP and a telling off.
It’s round about now that I like to dig out ‘Autumn Almanac’ by The Kinks, a song that so perfectly sums up this time of year. You don’t even have to be quintessentially English to appreciate lines such as, “I like my football on a Saturday, roast beef on Sundays, alright! I go to Blackpool for my holidays, sit in the open sunlight.”
No doubt about it, it’s one of my all-time top 5 favourite songs ever. Just ahead of ‘Ally’s Tartan Army’ by Scotland’s 1978 World Cup Squad, though just behind ‘There She Goes’ by The La’s.
Lee Mavers once lectured me on the brilliance of Autumn Almanac for a good 10 minutes. “From the dew-soaked hedge creeps a crawly caterpill-ah!” he offered, in his sing-song Mersey twang. “How good a line is that, La!?! ‘Friday evening, people get together…hiding from the weather…’ The chords, the feel, the melancholy…….it’s not as good as Waterloo Sunset, though, is it?”
The single version of Autumn Almanac was recorded in September 67 and released 3 weeks later. No great strategic marketing campaign with focus groups, target audiences and avoidance of any other big act’s single being released at the same time. Get in the studio, cut the record, release the record. Times being simpler then, Autumn Almanac climbed to either number 3 or number 5 on the charts, depending on which music paper you were reading.
Recorded for Top Gear just a few weeks after, on October 25th 1967 at the BBC’s Maida Vale Studio 4 and broadcast 4 days later, the above track is taken from a well-known Kinks bootleg* called ‘The Songs We Sang For Auntie’, a 3 CD set that compiles most of (or all?) the unreleased BBC session stuff from 1964-1994. A must-have for any fan of a band who were matched surely only by The Beatles in terms of high quality output.
Ask anyone to name 3 Kinks singles and they’ll give you all the usual suspects, but I bet it’d be unlikely Autumn Almanac would feature in too many lists. It’s an under appreciated classic, that’s for certain. Just ask Lee Mavers.
*Since writing this article, there’s been an official Kinks BBC release. But you probably knew that already.
3 archaic, chiefly Scottish fated to die or at the point of death.
Orange Juice were the feyest of the fey. Their Velvets-by-Chic approach to music was terrifically exciting; a ramshackle beauty forever teetering on the fringes of falling apart. They remind me of teaching my kids how to ride their bikes. One minute you’re bent double and holding on to a wobbly stabiliser-free frame to stop them bothering the tarmac, the next you’re running behind them silently willing them to not turn round in amazement at what they’ve already managed, but to focus on the road ahead and zig-zag safely to a stop.
Pick any song at random from the early Orange Juice catalogue and you’ll find the sonic equivalent. At any given moment, things might unravel and the whole thing could come stuttering to an ungracious ending. On some of those records, you can practically see the 4 band members give one another excited nods of encouragement as they play their way out of the first chorus and back to the verse. (If you’ve ever had the good fortune to play in a ‘promising local band‘ (copyright Irvine Times, July 1989), you’ll know exactly what I mean). Not for OJ the mask of distortion that many a youthful band will use to cover up all manner of mistakes. Their almost-to-the-point-of-being-in-tune cheesewire-thin guitars rattling off fancy-pants major 7ths and suspended 4ths were played to sound just as Leo Fender and Friedrich Gretsch intended – clean and ringing and with a nice touch of reverb. For Orange Juice, it was always about the angle of the jangle. But you knew that already.
One of the very finest in a fine, fine back catalogue is (To Put It) In A Nutshell. You’ll find it closing out the end of their debut LP, You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever. A perfect set-closer from an imperfect album, In A Nutshell was Edwyn Collins’ first (first!) attempt at a ballad. Another that sounds like it’s about to come undone at the seams, it was originally conceived as a duet with Nico. Shame it never quite came to fruition. Her rounded, one dimensional Germanic chamber folk vocals would’ve sounded terrific. “I looked deep within my pockets“, “You’re a heartless mercenary“, “Can I pay you in kind?” etc etc. I bet you’re singing them in faux German right now. Even the sh-sh-sh-shoo-doo bits.
I empathise with Edwyn – that ‘promising local band‘ once wrote a letter to Michael Stipe asking if he’d like to contribute backing vocals to one of our non-smash non-singles. What the fuck were we thinking? You won’t be surprised to learn he never wrote back, but ever since the demise of REM, I’ve often wondered if he’d still be up for it, 24 years later.
Anyway, back to Orange Juice.
Here’s the earlier Postcard Records version of In A Nutshell:
And here’s a rare instrumental version. Put on a German accent and go all Nico for a few minutes. So audacious, jah?:
There’s a strange bit of serendipity to this post. I’d spent a night last week putting some stuff together for my weekly article and then on his Sunday Service show on 6 Music, Jarvis Cocker played the very track I was planning to write about. In itself, that’s a happy coincidence. But the fact that I’d planned to introduce the record (which has nothing to do with Jarvis) by writing a wee bit about Pulp beforehand was a bit weirder. So, as you read this, imagine the Twilight Zone theme playing away ad infinitum in the background.
If you drew a trajectory charting the popularity of Pulp LPs, there’d be a massive, Everest-sized spike where Different Class appeared and sadly, not much else. Pulp were a proper, fully-formed album band, but save for their brief flirtation with mainstream success, not many (common) people would really know. Indeed, many folk probably consider them a bit of a one-hit wonder. Their last album, 2001′s We Love Life is one of Pulp’s very best. Crashing in at number 6 on the album chart, before crashing straight back out and never to be seen again a mere 3 weeks later, it was a real blink and you’ll miss it album. If you’ve never had the pleasure, you should make some time to acquaint yourself with it.
One track, Bad Cover Version, is a terrifically thought-out ballad that draws parallels between a failing relationship (“a bad cover version of love is not the real thing“) and the 2nd rate dopplegangers we often accept in place of the real deal – Top of the Pops compilation LPs (“thebikini-clad girl on the front who invited you in”), the Stones since the 80s, later episodes of Tom & Jerry when they could talk, the last episodes of Dallas, the TV series of Planet of the Apes, and so on. Amongst the things Jarvis lists is “the second side of ‘Till The Band Comes In’“.
Till The Band Comes In was the much-maligned and undersold 5th LP by Scott Walker (his 6th, if you count his Sings Songs From His TV Series LP). Much like We Love Life, the critics had the artist pegged as ‘past his best’, it too was a bit of a flop and never really got the attention it deserved. The line about the second side of Till The Band Comes In was a joke at Walker’s expense, given that it was he who produced We Love Life for Pulp. Are you still hearing The Twilight Zone music in the background? It’s a circle of life, as one piano player once remarked.
Back in the day before he was producing other people’s flop records and long before felt the need to create an approximation of melody from bashing hanging lumps of meat, Scott Walker reveled in making orchestral-rich pop songs. Like a baritone-rich Serge Gainsbourg he sang of syphillis, sailors and suicide and was nothing at all like yer average teen heart throb. On Till The Band Comes In, you’ll find Little Things (That Keep Us Together). Almost a companion piece to his own version of Jackie, though with less gallop and more gasp, Little Things finds Scott clinging to the coat tails of a melody as jabbing strings and tumbling toms race one another to the finish line. It’s great.
And as if that’s not thrilling enough, here come the Trashcan Sinatras, back in the days when they were The Trash Can Sinatras, faithfully gatecrashing Walker’s tune with all the ramshackle beauty of a wooden-legged man hurtling haphazardly down a hill and into the neighbour’s hedge while being chased by an angry slevvery dug. Which, metaphorically at least, the Trash Cans were round about then. They fairly clatter into Little Things; the old Roland Jazz Chorus set to maximum wobble in a thrilling rush of knee-trembling, reverb-soaked, John McGeogh-esque post-punk while a breathless Frank hangs on to the vocals for dear life.
My first recollection of the Trash Cans doing this was for a Billy Sloan session on Radio Clyde around ’91 or ’92. Like most of the Trash Can’s unofficial output from those days, I have it on a hissy, taped-off-the-radio C90 somewhere, but the version above is taken from the b-side of 1993′s How Can I Apply single. A lost nugget of a record from an era when every Trash Can’s release was packed-full of top quality songs from an apparently never-ending production line that put every other band to shame. But you knew that already.
TCS, Shabby Road, 1993
Long before John started wearing the famous stripey t-shirt, he was awfy fond of a t-shirt bearing the cover of Scott 1. No pictures exist. Believe me, I’ve looked…
Recorded between London and Manchester almost 30 years ago (September/October 1983), This Charming Man was the record that transported The Smiths up and out of the late-night, Peel-championed margins and into the mainstream, Top Of The Pops and all.
A giddy rush of walkin’ talkin’ Motown basslines and chiming staccato guitar riffs, topped off with Morrissey’s yelping yodel, it still sounds exhilarating to these ears as I type right now. Even the much-maligned New YorkMix, with its none-more-80s ricocheting rim shots and ghostly guitar fade-ins still does it.
The Top Of The Pops appearance (the band’s first of 11) a few months later in November was superb, with Morrissey battering about his oversized bunch of gladioli in a show of high camp, while the other 3 played like seasoned telly regulars in matching M&S polo necks. Save a select, hip few, this was the first time many folk had actually seen The Smiths and the effect was seismic. It’s no surprise that by that weekend, sales of Brylcreem had risen 110%, old men’s barbers up and down the country were queued out with boys wanting flat tops, “but just leave the front bit, thanks” and any number of grannies were wondering what had happened to that nice chiffon blouse they’d been keeping in their wardrobe for that special occasion. Your David’s wearing it, gran. Teamed up with that cheap glass-beaded necklace our Doreen gave you when she was eight. And he’s off to the Red Lion where there’s every chance he’ll get himself half a light ale and a right good kicking. Me? I was still in my bedroom, listening to Frankie’s Relax until the wee small hours.
Much has been made of the speed at which Morrissey and Marr wrote in the early days. This Charming Man was one such song. Johnny had heard Aztec Camera’s Walk Out To Winter on regular radio rotation and felt his band should be getting the same attention. With a John Peel session coming up (14th September, to be aired one week later), Marr pulled out all the stops to write a catchy, radio-friendly tune in a major key (G, if you’re asking, though really A, as he tuned his guitar up one whole step). According to Johnny, the tune took him all of 20 minutes to write, although he would spend far longer with producer John Porter to perfect the sonics in the studio.
“There are about 15 tracks of guitar. People thought the main guitar part was a Rickenbacker, but it’s really a ’54 Tele. There are three tracks of acoustic, a backwards guitar with a really long reverb, and the effect of dropping knives on the guitar — that comes in at the end of the chorus.”
Listen for that wobbly doiiiinnnngg every now and again – that’s the two Johns (Porter and Marr) dropping kitchen knives on an open-tuned guitar. You can’t do that with GarageBand, kids.
Morrissey, on the other hand, was studio shy. He often had to be coaxed into doing more than one or two vocal takes. His lyrics for This Charming Man were impossibly impenetrable to this 13 year old, and to be honest, not much has really changed over the past 30 years. Singing about some sort of clandestine sexual initiation or other, Morrissey’s words were “just a collection of lines that were very important. They seemed to stitch themselves perfectly under the umbrella ofThis Charming Man.” The lyrics were almost certainly taken from Morrissey’s faithful notebook, his collection of words in search of a tune, but they weren’t entirely Morrissey’s own.
The 1972 film Sleuth, starring Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier features a scene where Olivier points a gun at Caine calling him ‘a jumped up pantry boy who doesn’t know his place‘.
The 1961 movie adaption of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste Of Honey features two characters discussing their evening. ‘Are you going dancing tonight?’ ‘I can’t, I haven’t got any clothes to wear.’ Delaney would prove to be a rich source of material for Morrissey’s lyrics. But more of that another time.
Stolen words or otherwise, what’s undeniable is that This Charming Man ramped The Smiths up a notch or two and set them off on their all-too brief trail-blazing journey through the mid 80s.
Here’s the music:
This Charming Man (London mix)
This Charming Man (Manchester Mix)
This Charming Man (New York Vocal Mix)
Howsabout some more of those studio master tape tracks? Below you’ll find the bass, the guitar, the vocal and a guitar/percussion track. Isolated parts, perfect for your inner George Martin. Or indeed, inner John Porter.
It’s a long story, but just over a week ago I found myself tartin’ around backstage with the Magic Numbers and fell into conversation with their super-cool bass player, Michele Stodart. A total muso, we hit it off straight away. For Michele, music’s Year Zero was 1964 and her favourite bands tend to be the originals, or those (like her own band) inspired by the originals. Our talk turned from James Jamerson’s one fingered bass lines to the thrill of seeing all three of Teenage Fanclub take the mike at the same time and why I should give Joni Mitchell another listen (I’ve never been a fan. Michele is a super-fan).
Michele. Ma belle.
(Photo (C) Paul Camlin)
Michele is a really terrific musician in her own right. Like all the best bass players, her basslines are wee tunes within tunes. Isolate them from the rest of the music and you’d find yourself frugging like a frugging maniac. But it’s not just what she plays. It’s how she plays it. Michele plays her instrument as if it’s an attachment of herself. When she’s lost in the music (and on the evidence of the Magic Numbers set, this is often) she’s headbanging, legs akimbo and hair a go-go like a foxy, female Ramone. That she caresses her guitar like a young wife might her soldier sweetheart when he returns unscathed from a tour of duty in Afghanistan only added to the weak-at-the-knees, heart-a-flutter heightened state of arousal I foun...SPLASH!….
That was the sound of a bucket of ice cold water being tipped over my head. Phew! I went all misty eyed there at the flashback of it all. But now, back to the story.
We got chatting because I mentioned to her that she is hands-down no contest the best female bass player since Carol Kaye. The table tennis ball she was skelping back and forward across the ping pong table was straightaway ignored as she dropped what she was doing to skelp me instead with a hi-five. Table tennis forgotten about, we got down to the business of talking music. And Carol Kaye featured much in our conversation.
Carol Kaye is one of the most prolific, widely heard bass players ever. You might not know what she looks like, or even have heard her name, but you’ll know the stuff she’s played on. I could quite confidently predict that your record collection will feature her Fender bass lines somewhere amongst the grooves.
She is most famous for her work with The Wrecking Crew. I’ve already written quite a big piece about their significance in popular music. I’d urge you to clear 10/15 minutes of your time and go and read it here. While there, you’ll also be able to listen to audio tracks of some of Carol’s best-known work.
A lone woman in a man’s, man’s world, Carol had to work that wee bit harder than the boys in order to gain acceptance. Coming from a jazz background she was schooled in reading charts and in 1963 fell into popular music quite by accident, being in the right place at the right time when the appointed bass player failed to show up on time for a Capitol Records session. Carol stepped in and from that moment on found herself much in demand.
Throughout the 60s, Carol played on hundreds, possibly thousands of hit records. No-one, least of all her, is actually certain how many. A one-time in-house Motown staffer, she’s somewhat contentiously laid claim to playing some of the label’s finest lines that had always been attributed to the afore-mentioned James Jamerson – Bernadette and Reach Out for the Four Tops and I Was Made To Love Her for Stevie Wonder amongst others. What’s undeniable though is that her high-pitched staccato motifs helped make God Only Knows one of the Beach Boys’ finest. Her 5 note written off-the-cuff intro makes Wichita Lineman instantly recognisable. The opening of Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Are Made For Walkin, the Mission Impossible theme, the breakdown in River Deep, Mountain High. All the work of Carol. I bet you’re humming them right now.
She often played anonymously. The boys in the bands with their Beatles cuts and pointy boots may have looked the part, but often were hopeless musicians. As well as her more well-known stuff with Phil Spector and Brian Wilson, Kaye played some of the trickier bass parts on Love‘s Forever Changes album, Neil Young‘s first LP and the first couple of Frank Zappa albums. What pedigree!
Her indelible stamp runs through the very core of music like the word ‘Blackpool’ in a stick of rock. Responsible for creating the very DNA of popular music, Carol Kaye is an actual living legend. Just ask Michele Stodart.
Here’s just a teeny tiny fraction of some of the music she’s played on;
Andmoreagain from Love‘s Forever Changes LP
Glen Campbell‘s Jimmy Webb-penned Wichita Lineman
I’m Waiting For The Day from Pet Sounds
Porpoise Song by The Monkees
Ike and Tina‘s River Deep Mountain High
*Carol fact #1!
Carol played bass on Frank Wilson’s northern soul standard Do I Love You (Indeed I Do). (Indeed, she did).
*Carol fact #2!
Carol is Paul McCartney’s favourite bass player.
I’ve often played Pet Sounds and cried. I played it to John so much that it would be difficult for him to escape the influence … it was the record of the time. The thing that really made me sit up and take notice was the bass lines … and also, putting melodies in the bass line. That I think was probably the big influence that set me thinking when we recorded Pepper, it set me off on a period I had then for a couple of years of nearly always writing quite melodic bass lines.
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