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Six-String Rule Breakin’, Rule Makin’ Music

March 19, 2017

Aw man. When rock ‘n roll came kicking and screaming from the womb, Chuck Berry was right there holding the towels and hot water in one hand and a Gibson electric guitar in the other. He was the mother and the father, the granddaddy of them all, the godfather of guitar-based music.


He was the alchemist of The Riff. He was a true poet of popular culture. He was an influence on everyone who ever mattered. Every. One. Answerable to no one and master of all. Fingers longer than the route to the Promised Land itself, they dug the earth, set the foundations and built the house upon which everything followed.


I was at a gig on Saturday night (BMX Bandits. Simply wonderful) and I’d been talking with support act Joe Kane (Google him – he’s worth a feature of his own on here) about the time Chuck played in Irvine.

That was great, Chuck!” enthused the promoter as Chuck left the stage after barely half an hour. “Fancy going back on for an encore?

Sho’ thing, brother,” drawled Chuck, right arm extended, his famous red 335 still hanging freely from his neck. “…………fo’ nutha five hun’red dollars.

There was no encore.

Five minutes after our conversation, Joe ran through to tell me he’d just heard Chuck Berry had died. A bizarre coincidence.

If only we’d known an hour or so ago.. ” he continued, genuinely upset, “That would’ve been the set closer sorted.”

Someone else asked in all seriousness, “Chuck Berry? What did he sing again?” Boggle-eyed, I replied;

He sang about love.

Chuck BerryNadine

As I got on a city bus and found a vacant seat,

I thought I saw my future bride walkin’ up the street

I shouted to the driver, ‘Hey conductor!’ you must

Slow down I think I see her, please let me off the bus

Nadine, honey is that you?

He sang about life.

Chuck BerryYou Never Can Tell

They bought a hi-fi phono and boy did they let it blast! 

700 little records, all rock and rhythm and jazz.”

He sang about heartbreak.

Chuck BerryMaybelline

Maybelline, why can’t you be true?

Oh Maybelline, why can’t you be true?

You’ve just started doin’ the things you used to do.”

He sang of coolerators and automobiles and girls and goodtimes and made America sound fantastic and wonderful and like the far-off land of all your dreams. In a post-war bombed-out and still shell-shocked Britain, it’s not hard to see why Keith Richards, Jimmy Page et al were totally taken with Chuck.

Chuck BerryBack In The USA



Oh well, oh well, I feel so good today

 We just touched ground on an international runway

Jet propelled back home, from over the seas to the U. S. A.

New York, Los Angeles, oh, how I yearned for you

Detroit, Chicago, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge

Let alone just to be at my home back in ol’ St. Lou

 

Did I miss the skyscrapers, did I miss the long freeway?

From the coast of California to the shores of the Delaware Bay

You can bet your life I did, till I got back in the U. S. A.”

From mods to rockers, glams to punks, Chuck fuelled ’em all. Marc Bolan would go on to steal the vocal adlib of Little Queenie for Get It On. I suspect you knew that already though.

Chuck BerryLittle Queenie

It’s not just what he sang, it’s how he sung it. And it’s not what he played, it’s how he swung it. The DNA of all rock music starts right here;

Chuck BerryJohnny B Goode.

By all accounts a most unpleasant human being, remember him instead for the most beautiful and perfect two-string riffing, three-chord swinging, six-string rule-breaking, rule-making music.

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God Only Knows

March 15, 2017

Stand On The Word‘ by the Joubert Singers is a joyous, hands in the air, gospel/house hybrid that, 35 years later, has lost none of its holy religious power. It’s the sort of record Primal Scream might’ve had in mind when they created their blissed-out, preacher-heavy version of Come Together on Screamadelica. But, as good as the Scream’s foray into praise-the-Lord, house-heavy gospel soul was, it falls short when stood against the almighty Joubert Singers.

Joubert SingersStand On The Word (Larry Levan mix)


Put together in 1982 by the eponymously-named minister of a New York church, the Joubert Singers self-funded and independently released an album of deeply soulful and religious material. So far, so early 60s Aretha.

What happened next though is clouded in mystery, half-fact and taking credit where it might not be due.


The story – and never let the truth get in the way of a good story – goes that Larry Levan, the revered house DJ, pioneer of triple-track extended mixing and resident DJ at NYC’s Paradise Garage was a member of the church congregation on the day the Joubert Singers raised the roof while recording. His aunt was a singer in the choir and he had gone along to watch/listen as the recording took place.

Once the record was out, legend has it Levan twisted and turned the original into the fantastic rollin’ and tumblin’, happy clappin’, oohin’ and aahin’ descending minor key piano track that appears at the top of this post. It was the perfect record that would from then on and evermore be the final tune in his set, his signature tune even.

That’s the legend.


The truth, as far as internet digging and reading between the lines goes is that Levan had sweet nothing to do with the track. But somewhere along the way, a white label bootleg appeared, labelled with Levan’s name and, much like a Weatheral or whoever today, carried a lot of weight on the dance music circuit, which practically guaranteed a hit record.

So, the real remixer hid behind the more famous name while the more famous name took all the credit for creating a record he had very little, or nothing, to do with. If you look on the various volumes of Paradise Garage albums, all 9 of them, it’s very noticeable by its absence. As they say though, never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Whatever that truth may be.

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Six Of The Best – Duglas T Stewart (BMX Bandits)

March 8, 2017

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 26 in a series:

If I could be in any band,” enthused Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, “I’d be in BMX Bandits.” Not The Beatles. Not Black Sabbath. Not Led Zeppelin. But BMX Bandits, the cult band from Bellshill in Lanarkshire. This was no small claim. Back in 1992 when Nirvana was omnipresent, Kurt Cobain was in turmoil with himself. Months previously, his band had released Nevermind, the epoch-defining multi-million seller crammed full of Beatles-meets-Sabbath by way of Zeppelin radio-friendly slacker anthems, an album that would in time make Nirvana as definitive as some of those very acts.

With a record company keen to milk the band for all they were worth, Cobain withdrew. Commercialism wasn’t a game he was keen to play. His two fellow band mates, the drummer in particular, were much more comfortable with their sudden and quite unexpected lofty status, but not Kurt. He sought solace in the music he wished he was able to put out; lo-fi, fragile, arty, tinged with pathos and a punk sensibility, but most of all, played and recorded for fun. Fun, it seems, was in inverse proportion to Nirvana’s record sales. It’s not hard to see why the poster boy for 90’s disaffected youth held a flame for BMX Bandits. His favourite band, led by the enigmatic Duglas T Stewart has all those things in spades.

Kurt in his ‘Fat Elvis’ phase

We’re just one of those bands,” summarises Duglas T Stewart, Bandit-in-chief for 30+ years and curator of one of our most-loved musical collectives, “that’s historically been lucky enough to have had, throughout all the line-up changes, great musicians. Norman Blake….Stu Kidd….Jim McCulloch….Francis MacDonald….Eugene Kelly…. Regardless of who they go off and play with, they’ll always remain a part of this band. Being in BMX Bandits is a bit like a stay at the Hotel California. You can check out, but you can never leave!

Norman ‘left’in 1992, but has contributed to every album since, up until the new one (‘BMX Bandits Forever’, released May 26th). Both he and Eugene have said that the happiest times they’ve had making music was when they were in BMX Bandits. It’s a chance to step out of the limelight for a wee while, take side stage rather than centrestage. I think that’s what maybe appealed to Kurt when he said what he said.”

To celebrate the release of BMX Bandits Forever, Duglas and co-vocalist Chloe Philip will lead their renegade 7-piece band in a couple of rare live outings. They’ll play the small-but-perfect Harbour Arts Centre in Irvine on the 18th March and following the album’s release, they’ll celebrate with a launch gig on May 27th at St Luke’s in Glasgow.

The Irvine date is particularly appealing, given that it’s 25 years since BMX Bandits last played the town. On that occassion, they played atop a flat-bed truck stage outside the famous Ship Inn, coincidentally next door to the HAC.

Back then, Duglas and co. were just one of the many bands who found time to veer left at Glasgow and fit in a date on the Ayrshire coast. In recent years, it’s sadly, frustratingly, been less of a thing.

I’ve really vivid memories of that Irvine show,” recalls Duglas. “You tend to remember the more unusual shows. Eugenius were on the same bill. Gordon and Eugene were both ex-Bandits, so lots of our pals were there. There was no holding back with the audience. Sometimes at a Glasgow or Edinburgh show, the crowd can be a wee bit too cool for school. But the Irvine audience just went for it.

It was a great time to be BMX Bandits. We’d just released ‘Life Goes On’, our first album for Creation and our stock was high. Alan McGee kept saying, ‘You’re gonnae be a hit! You’ll be in the charts!’ I’ve friends who’ve been lucky enough to have had singles, or in the case of Eugene who had Nirvana covering his songs and Joe (McAlinden) who did very nicely on the back of Rod Stewart recording one of his, friends who’ve made a lot of money from songwriting. I’m genuinely happy for them – we’ve all come from the same musical background, so in a funny way, their success is also my success.

‘Serious Drugs’ was the big BMX Bandits hit that never was. It was melodic, but it was still noisy, with loud guitars to the fore, yet totally non-macho. It flew in the face of what was hip at the time. Paul Weller has said since it’s the best single ever released on Creation and Radio 1 went so far as to A-List it, guaranteeing it so many plays a day. Unfortunately for us, its release coincided with Radio 1’s Anti-Drugs Week. A song called Serious Drugs, even if its message is very anti-drugs, could never be played over the week, so it had kinda flopped before it even had the chance to be a massive hit. Ironically, The Shamen chose to release ‘Ebeneezer Goode’ the very same week, a song that very clearly promotes drug use…..and Radio 1 found nothing wrong with it.

 

The view from the stage, BMX Bandits live in Irvine, July 1992

That Irvine gig 25 years ago was, if memory serves me correctly, a really great gig. On a patch of land overlooking the harbour, 1000+ folk (the picture above doesn’t do it justice, believe me!) momentarily turned our wee part of the world into the best place on the planet. The Harbour Arts Centre holds just a fraction of that audience, and amazingly, there are still a handful of tickets left for their upcoming show. Will BMX Bandits once again turn our wee part of the world into the best place on the planet? You better believe it!

Ahead of the upcoming shows and album release, Duglas took time out from rehearsing – “We don’t rehearse too much, actually. I tend to find you can over-rehearse and by the day of the show, you’ve lost something. You don’t want it too smooth. It’s better being a wee bit rough around the edges” – to talk about his favourite tracks. When he sent these through to me, they came with the caveat that he’d likely pick a different set of songs next week. “Had you asked me last week, Jonathan Richman would definitely have been in there, but these tracks are the ones that’ve stuck with me for years.”

Paul WilliamsSomeday Man

Paul Williams is incredibly well-known in the States, but in the UK, there’s next to zero knowledge of him. His songs have been a big, big part of my life. He wrote the songs for The Muppets’ Christmas Carol, an album that’s had as much influence on me as any rock album. He wrote ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’ and ‘Rainy Days And Mondays’ for The Carpenters….The Rainbow Connection….the soundtrack to Bugsy Malone. I’ve only ever watched that film I think twice, but I know all the songs. He won an Oscar for ‘Evergreen’, the theme song for ‘A Star Is Born’, sung by Barbra Streisand. He even collaborated on the last Daft Punk album. Everything he’s been involved in has real heart.

Paul WilliamsSomeday Man

Someday Man is mind-blowing. You might know it from The Monkees’ version, but the original has a real gravitas and depth. It’s got that Wrecking Crew kinda feel. The changes of tempo! The not knowing where it’ll go next! The overall feeling you get when you listen to it is one of poignancy and hope.

Beach BoysThe Night Was So Young

This is my favourite track from my favourite Beach Boys’ album (1977’s Beach Boys Love You). It’s an album held in high esteem. Alex Chilton said it was his favourite Beach Boys’ album too. And Brian Wilson told me it was his!

Beach BoysThe Night Was So Young

Brian wanted people to feel loved when listening to his music. Music was everything – it was sanctuary. As someone who was incredibly messed up, in the early years by his father, in the later years by bad management, Brian wrote this for himself. It’s a beautiful track. It embraces you. You can sit late at night listening to it, alone, but you’re not totally alone. ‘The Night Was So Young’ comforts you. It’s an aural cuddle.

The Shangri-LasGive Him A Great Big Kiss

The Shangri Las are my favourite-ever girl group. There’s two distinct sides to them; the celebration songs and the melodramatic heartbreakers. They said more in their songs than film makers with a big budget can do in 2 hours. These songs are movies without pictures, over and done with in 2 and a half minutes.

The Shangri-LasGive Him A Great Big Kiss

The use of reverb and sound effects, the spoken-word sections, the delivery… it could fall into pastiche, but Mary Weiss makes it real. I love the call-and-response vocals. ‘What colour are his eyes? I dunno – he’s always wearin’ shades.’ The best bit though? ‘Dirty fingernails – Oh what a prize!’ Hahaha! How dreamy! Shangri Las’ records are full of excitement, joy, humour and musical twists. There’s been no-one ever quite like them since.

Robert Mellin & Gian-Piero ReverberiThe Adventures Of Robinson Crusoe

This piece of music is responsible for some of my earliest musical memories, of music affecting me deeply. How could sad, beautiful music make me feel good? I’ve spoken to Jarvis Cocker and he’s told me he feels the same way whenever he hears it.

In the early days of primary school, they’d show The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe during the school holidays. As it was a French-language programme, the BBC re-dubbed it and decided to replace the original score/theme tune with Robert Mellin and Gian-Piero Reverberi’s piece – a vast improvement on the original. I can’t remember much of the actual show, but the music, and the emotions it created, has stayed with me. It’s sad and sentimental. It’s uncontrollable. It’s the key to what I’ve always tried to do with my own music. 

Bill Wells featuring Lorna GilfedderMy Family

At less than a year old, this is my most contemporary choice. Bill lives, eats, drinks, breathes and, yes, dreams music. He’s an extraordinary talent. He’s collaborated with a whole host of interesting artists; Yo La Tengo, Future Pilot AKA, Norman Blake…. a whole bunch of people. His Aidan Moffat collaboration was on a completely different level of brilliance. Really terrific.

Bill’s a jazz guy, and not conservative by any means. Despite its appearance as wild and free, jazz is actually quite conservative and lead by certain rules. Bill’s an outsider who went against the grain of jazz. He finds sad beauty in music. He has the saddest chords. Unusual rhythmic ideas. He has a knack of spotting the right people to work with.

If arranged differently, this track could be a massive hit for a contemporary soul diva. As it is, it’s a very understated piece, with the least earnest, not over-emoted in the slightest vocal you’ll hear on a contemporary piece of music. The singing is understated in a Peggy Lee/Frank Sinatra kinda way, and the track is all the better for it. Bill is easily one of the giants in music today.

JigsawWho Do You Think You Are

This has been done a couple of times, of course, by Candlewick Green and Saint Etienne, but the original is the best. It’s the kinda song I want to write! It’s like an actual jigsaw puzzle, where all the individual parts come together into one great picture of sound.

When you first hear it, you’re thinking, ‘That’s a great verse!’, ‘That’s a great chorus!’, ‘Woah! That’s NOT the chorus – it’s only the pre-chorus! HERE’S the chorus! Wow! This is terrific!’

It all comes together in a fantastic rush of melodies and counter melodies, call and response vocals, keyboards replicating backing vocals, melody versus melody. Everything fits together beautifully. And look at them! They didn’t want to look like the cool guys, they just wanted to have great music. Not fashionable, but always great. Just like the BMX Bandits.

Great choices, eh? Very Duglas, but perhaps pleasantly surprising at the same time. As I said to Duglas during our conversation, hunting down some of these records is going to cost me a fortune. I’ll be keeping a spare tenner though, for the upcoming show in Irvine. Maybe I’ll see you down the front.

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Mock Turtles

March 1, 2017

Incredibly, there are still people who obliviously walk this earth who’ve never heard the skewed majesty of De La Soul‘s debut album ‘3 Feet High And Rising‘. I was enthusing about its esoteric eclecticism to a DJ pal last night when he confessed he’d never actually heard it. What?!?! Maybe it’s an age thing – when De La Soul first broke he was a right old bastard at the tail end of his 20s, deaf from a decade and more of gigging, with a set of creaky knees and a mind unable to process any new sounds that strayed too far from the cosy ‘n comfortable traditional guitar/bass/drums set-up. “Rap with a silent C” was his presumption. He preferred Bryan Adams. It was his loss.

de-la-u2

But….but….you’d love it!” I told him. “It’s the ‘Sergeant Peppers’ of the eighties! They sample loads of stuff – aye, there’s James Brown grunts and drum beats and Blue Note jazz riffs and Parliament and Funkadelic horn parts and all that normal stuff, but they have no regard for hip-hop rules. They liberally pinch Steely Dan guitar riffs, vocal ad-libs from TV chat show hosts, Johnny Cash vocal refrains, The Monkees, Michael Jackson – (‘I wanna raack with you!’) – Liberace, Hall & Oates, the Steve Miller Band, Bo Diddley, The Average White Band…. you name them , they’re probably on there.” They probably are.

de-la-soul

Produced when sampling was still something of an unknown entity in recording law, De La Soul somehow managed to get away with releasing an album totally jigsawed together from the random parts of other, wildly varied records. It’s something of a psychedelic mongrel of a record, flower-power hip-hop, a gazillion light years away from the shouty, sweary undercurrent of violence thrown out by the guns ‘n poses posses. Not that there’s anything wrong with them – It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back is a terrifying document of mid 80s black America and I can imagine a whole generation of parents shouting at teenagers to ‘Turn that rubbish down!‘, but as a white man from the West of Scotland, I cannae really relate to the politics of it all. Give me my hip-hop gift-wrapped in a giant daisy any day of the week.

I love spotting the samples on ‘3 Feet High…’ and as my musical knowledge has grown in direct proportion to the size of my record collection, each play of it brings another familiar fleeting riff to the fore. I’d always liked the lopsided drunk string sweep, clipped guitar and keyboard stab that runs through the whole of Transmitting Live From Mars. Along with the strings, there’s some crackly breakbeats and a French language tape instructing us to ‘écoutez et répétez‘. Arch and knowing, it wouldn’t sound out of place on St Etienne‘s Foxbase Alpha.

De La SoulTransmitting Live From Mars

I had no idea what that string part was until almost a decade later, when the Lightning Seeds put out their version of The Turtles‘ ‘You Showed Me‘. A constant refrain, the strings were clearly the same strings that De La Soul built their track around. Cleverly, De La Soul slowed The Turtles single down from 45 to 33 rpm. This gave the sample that superb slurry drunk effect.

The Lightning SeedsYou Showed Me

You Showed Me was written in 1964 by Gene Clark and Roger McGuinn. It was recorded by The Byrds, considered for inclusion on their Mr Tambourine Man album and ultimately shelved before finding favour with The Turtles. It’s an epoch-defining, West Coast hippy-dippy saccharine-sweet love song.

The TurtlesYou Showed Me

turtles

The original Byrds’ version, fact fans, was recorded at a much higher tempo, but when the Turtles’ producer first played them the track, he did so on a broken harmonium. In order to explain the chord changes, he played it at a much slower pace and before they knew it, The Turtles’ collective lightbulbs glowed brightly and they had a hit on their hands.

That string part also makes an appearance on U2‘s ‘Pop‘ album. An extremely hit and miss affair (with more misses than hits) ‘Pop‘ has the distinction of being the lowest-selling U2 album of the modern era (just the million in the States and two million in Europe!) although you could argue that by giving albums away for free on iTunes, U2 have trumped themselves since.

u2-pop-2

Pop‘ is a strange album. Not quite the freeform experimentalism of the Zooropa era nor the songs-with-sheen of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, it was made under the direction of Nellee Hooper, Howie B and Steve Osborne, producers more at home with a faceless dance act than a post-modern, mock-ironic rock band with an opinionated numpty out front. Due to a bad back, drummer Larry Mullen was out of action for much of the recording, so the band began experimenting with loops and samples.

The Playboy Mansion was one of the more cohesive moments on the album. A role-call of pop culture – If Coke Is A Mystery, Michael Jackson History…etc – it’s carried along on a pitter patter of processed beats, heavily synthesized Edge guitar….and that ubiquitous Turtles’ sample. It’s a cracker…

U2The Playboy Mansion

But what about the sample? Surely, in this day and age, the relevant musicians are given credit and maybe even cold hard cash for their efforts half a century ago? Well, De La Soul lost a court case a few years back over this very sample. The writers were awarded an undisclosed amount of money in back-dated royalties. The writers of course being McGuinn and Clark. But the string part – the signature riff, if you like – was played by someone else, an anonymous member of the Wrecking Crew very probably, working for a flat Musicians’ Union fee of $25 per day, as was the standard in those days. Pop music wasn’t meant to last. They took the money and ran. Whoever played that sweeping string part must surely be regretting that nowadays.

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Skamla Motown

February 23, 2017

Edwin Starr‘s 25 Miles is a four-to-the-floor, solid gold soul belter, just over 3 minutes of pounding Funk Brothers rhythm and blast furnace brass that drives Starr’s phlegmy guttural grunts to the sweaty limits.

edwin-25-miles

Edwin Starr25 Miles

Released in 1969 and re-released a couple of times since, it’s gained ‘classic’ status thanks in no small way to the northern soul scene where regular spinning has seen it become a talcum-dusted dancefloor filler.

25 Miles has had its fair share of cover versions. The Jackson 5 cut a version in 1969, all Motown-lite backing, call and response vocals and a fuzz guitar break that the other Edwin (with a ‘Y’) must’ve been subliminally channelling alongside Ernie Isley’s signature sound when he was recording A Girl Like You. The Jacksons’ version stayed in the Motown vaults until the mid 80s before appearing on a rare-ish Michael Jackson compilation, but if I want this blog to remain spinning happily forevermore in hyperspace, I’ll resist the urge to post it here. You can find it on the YouTube, if that’s yer thang.

white-denim

Cult American band White Denim have a track that’s currently being used to soundtrack the latest Nintendo gaming advert. Ha Ha Ha Ha (Yeah) was the lead single from their latest album, ‘Stiff‘, and if you listen carefully, you’ll spot more than a subtle nod to 25 Miles.

White DenimHa Ha Ha Ha (Yeah)

A band that defy pigeonholing, White Denim can be both proggy and punky and Pagey and Planty and sound terrific for it. Amazing musicians, they have a unique way of trimming their tracks of excess until it’s just the bare bones of guitar, bass and drums that are left…..but what a fantastic sound they make. Definitely on the ‘to see’ list, I’ll be keeping a keen eye on any upcoming tour announcements.

But back to 25 Miles.

25-miles-tenoshi

By far the best version is the 2011 Skamla Motown (aye!) take by the mysterious Tenoshi. I’ve always thought that Tenoshi was an underground hip-to-the-jive Japanese mod/soul DJ, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if it turned out he/she was none other than someone like Paolo Hewitt or Eddie Piller (Rocksteady Eddie, anyone?), moonlighting in spectacular fashion from their regular day job. My friend and yours, Google, has proven fairly elusive, so who knows?

Tenoshi25 Miles

A scuffed-up, spliffed-up skanking take on the Motown original, this 25 Miles has been taken down to Studio 1 and given a rankin’ Rude Boy makeover. It rocks, which, if it’s playing as you read, you’ll just about have worked out for yourself by now. Anoraks will enjoy spotting the great wee nod to Prince Buster/The Specials with the horn motif at the end.

If you’re lucky enough to own a 7″ of this (long-since deleted, it’ll set you back around £40 if it ever comes up for sale) you’ll also be aware of the lightly toasted remake of a Temptations’ classic on the flip side. Papa Was Rolling Stoned indeed. Worth seeking out, I tells ye.

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Six Of The Best – Mike Joyce

February 15, 2017

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 25 in a series:

mike-joyce

Mike Joyce is best-known for his time as the drummer in The Smiths. In six short years he provided the uncluttered back beat upon which Johnny Marr’s ringing melodies rang and Morrissey’s unique vocals hiccuped and hollered and swooped and swooned. Between 1982 and 1987 he was part of The Only Band That Mattered, helping to produce a perfect discography that, in this house at least, has been pored over, scrutinised and played back-to-front, upside down and inside-out. I know all The Smiths’ stuff to trainspotter levels of obsession. And I’m far from alone.

Mike’s old band are possibly even more revered nowadays than they were during that brief spell 30 or so years ago. They burned briefly but brightly, blazing a trail for ‘indie’ music and all that followed in its wake. Other bands may have had bigger chart success, or benefited from being on a major label, or had the suss and swagger to look to the future and plan a long-term career, but by the time The Smiths had bowed out with Strangeways, Here We Come, the musical world as I and many others knew it had changed for ever. That they’re still a ‘thing’, that people still walk around in Smiths t-shirts, that RIGHT NOW you could walk into a supermarket and pick up a copy of The Queen Is Dead is testament to their legacy. They’re still, for a growing gang of disciples, The Only Band That Mattered.

smiths-live

Along with Andy Rourke, Mike created a rhythm section that gave Johnny and Morrissey the space to shine. There’s not one Smiths’ recording where Mike succumbs to any scattergun windmilling Moonisms. He has his moments – there’s the metallic clatter of ‘What She Said’, of course, and there’s a particularly frantic take of ‘London‘ from a Peel Session that can be found online fairly easily, and on the Rank live album, Mike’s drums add a mighty muscle to a band at their peak of live performance. On This Charming Man, Mike and Andy provided a four-to-the-floor Motown backbeat upon which Johnny’s sparkling guitars dazzle, and on some of the early Smiths recordings, Mike’s technical shortcomings are made up for in sheer punk-like enthusiastic energy. Mainly though, Mike’s playing was sympathetic, understated and the perfect framework for his twin foils out front. He was exactly the sort of drummer The Smiths needed. “If Elvis had had Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke in his band,”  Johnny Marr once claimed, “he would have been an even bigger name.”

Like all great bands, in the intervening years there’s been a well-publicised and damaging court case, guest appearances on his former singer’s solo material and a smattering of live performance with his old sparring partner on the bass guitar. Since then, Mike’s played, recorded and toured with a fantastic selection of bands and artists; Sinead O’Connor, Buzzcocks, Julian Cope, Public Image Ltd, PP Arnold and Pete Wylie to name but a few. If I stuck my iPod on shuffle there’s a good chance it would throw up a Mike-related track.

Mike’s also carved out a career for himself as a DJ for hire, either as a stand-in on BBC 6 Music whenever a regular presenter goes on holiday, or on his East Village internet radio show, or in his monthly residency in The Drawing Room in the Didsbury area of Manchester. On March 4th, he’ll be spinning the wheels of steel at The Record Factory on Glasgow’s Byres Road as part of a night that features up-and-coming new bands. If you’re local you should probably go.

It is The Smiths though that everyone really wants to know about. Mike knows it too, and it’s clear after just 20 seconds of conversation with him that Mike is the biggest Smiths fan of all. You can see that in many of the promo shots taken at the time – Mike is rarely snapped without wearing some Smiths t-shirt or other. He talks passionately and fondly about the music, referring to everything the band did as ‘we‘ rather than ‘I‘ . He’s no different to any other Smiths obsessive the world over, except for the four words that appear on the back of every single Smiths record. Mike Joyce – The Drums. It’s undeniable. He was the drummer in The Smiths, The Only Band That Mattered.

I asked Mike about his time in The Smiths and we focused on the six tracks he’s most proud of having played on. Potentially, a Sophie’s Choice Six Of The Best, but here we are…

smiths-84

Right. I’ve given this serious thought and, y’know, it’s an absolutely ridiculous task. I have 3 kids….it’s like asking me to pick my favourite one. I just can’t narrow it down to six. Can I have seven instead?

I’m gonna do this in reverse order. Drum roll, please!

At 6, it’s I Don’t Owe You Anything. I remember playing this at one of our really early gigs, 1983 in Dingwalls. It was a sweltering hot summer’s night. As we played it I began to cry. This had never happened before, or since, but something in Johnny’s playing and Morrissey’s singing- it just sounded so beautiful. I remember thinking, ‘Everything’s coming together.’

The SmithsI Don’t Owe You Anything

Before The Smiths I’d been into punk; The Pistols, Angelic Upstarts, Generation X, early Adam & the Ants, Buzzcocks, of course, so to be playing a song like this or ‘Reel Around The Fountain’ took me right out of my comfort zone. Up until then I had three speeds I played at – fast, faster and fastest, so on this song I learned to really properly play. It was great watching people’s reactions to it. It wasn’t normal for a band like us to play music like this. At gigs, people would clap after songs, sometimes because they were obliged to, or just out of courtesy, but that night in Dingwalls, for the first time people were saying ‘What. The. Fuck. Is. This. ?’

smiths-87

At 5. Death Of A Disco Dancer. The ‘Strangeways’ album was our Sgt Pepper, written in the studio and jam-inspired. When we first played ‘…Disco Dancer’ as a group, it got heavier and heavier. (At this point, not for the last time during our conversation, Mike ‘sings’ the outro down the phone to me.) There was a great spontaneity and communication between us that only comes from playing together. It’s all on ‘Death Of A Disco Dancer’.

The SmithsDeath Of A Disco Dancer

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4. I Know It’s Over. It was unusual for Morrissey to show us any lyrics beforehand. When we heard Smiths’ tracks being played back in the studio, we usually heard them just as you would have heard them for the first time. Morrissey’s vocal performance on I Know It’s Over is perfect. An emotional delivery, he really bared his soul on it.

The SmithsI Know It’s Over

As a lot of singers prefer, the lights were turned off when it came time to record Morrissey’s vocals.  When he was finished, Morrissey came back into the control room. “Well, what do you think?” he asked. There were lots of tears, big swallows, “I’ll be alright in a minute!” kinda stuff. Then lots of hugging. We were our own biggest fans. To create a track like this out of thin air, there’s nothing better. Being in that control room when Morrissey laid down his vocal was like, I dunno, being in the control room when Elvis did his vocals. Seriously! It was that big!

meat-is-murder-lyrics

At 3, it has to be Meat Is Murder. As soon as we had recorded this song, I became a vegetarian. Morrissey’s argument was rock solid. I couldn’t even be that bullish to say, ‘…but I like meat.’ The cruelty involved is reason enough. You wouldn’t eat your cat or your dog, so why eat a sheep or a pig? Whatever Morrissey argued, you could only reply with, “You’re right, you’re right.” There was no counteract to it. It should be illegal, there’s just no argument for it.

The SmithsMeat Is Murder

I really appreciated his conviction with this song. Its emotive. Sincere. Incisive. There’s a moral responsibility for anyone in the public eye to stand up and say it like it is, but it doesn’t happen very often. Meat Is Murder is a sheer political statement. It shaped my life and my kids’ too, who’ve all been brought up vegetarian.

smiths-mike-moz

Next up, How Soon Is Now?

(increduously) Because……….?!? Just fucking listen to it!!

The SmithsHow Soon Is Now?

It’s got such a distinct style. I mean, what style even is it? Listen to any band – UB40 or Jamiroquai or Spandau Ballet or Anti Nowhere League or The Exploited. They all have a sound. They rarely vary from it. They might stick a slow one on the album or whatever, but it’s still their sound that you’ll hear.

When we recorded ‘How Soon Is Now?’ we’d had a few spliffs. We took the bulbs out of the lights and replaced them with red ones. It felt like a darkroom. It felt trippy. It felt like it had never been done before. And the song, woah! We stuck it on the B-side. Geoff Travis said to Johnny, “Stop writing A-sides!”

Playing it live gave us such a buzz. It was a big, big track. I knew that nightly, the crowd were getting right off on it.

smiths-wool-hall

Right. I have one choice left but I have two tracks that must be included here. First equal is Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me. About 8 years ago, we had friends round, Tina and I. We’ve got a CD jukebox in the house and Tina convinced me to put Strangeways… on it. It’s not really the done thing, putting your own music in your jukebox, but anyway, there it was. During dinner the jukebox was playing on random and Last Night… came on. “Is this The Smiths?” asked my friend. We were all listening to it and the atmosphere changed. It was probably the first time I’d actually sat down and listened to it since we’d recorded it. “That’s pretty good!” seemed to be the general concensus.

The SmithsLast Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me

Johnny really was the Brian Jones of the band, not just because of the haircut, or the fact he had a teardrop guitar in the early days, but because he could pick up anything and get a tune out of it. There was a zither that sat on the windowsill of the studio during the Strangeways… sessions. He picked it up one time and played a tune on it, just like that. (That tune was I Won’t Share You, but you knew that already).

We couldn’t afford real strings on the recording so we used an emulator synth. Watching Johnny play the string parts on it was like watching a genius at work. He didn’t seem to learn it anywhere. The music just appeared. He heard things other people couldn’t hear and put it down. No trial and error. He always got it first time. The layering and production on Last Night… is fantastic. There’s some really odd, wonky piano. It’s all out of time. Johnny broke the rules and created a masterpiece.

smiths-hig-promo

And finally, back to the start. I couldn’t discuss my favourite Smiths tracks without mentioning Hand In Glove. This was where it all began. The life-changer. It’s my favourite Smiths track. Certainly the most powerful. Until we’d recorded we’d never properly heard ourselves. I’d only ever heard us from behind the kit in our rehearsal room; over the top of my drums I’d get a bit of Johnny’s guitar, some of Andy’s bass – I was always locked into Johnny ‘cos Andy played tunes within the tunes – and Morrissey’s vocals. I could hear him most of all, but I had no idea what we really sounded like.

The Smiths  – Hand In Glove

When I first heard this back, with the sound balance and the extra guitars, it was truly shocking. I really mean that. I knew we sounded good, but this record was absolutely massive! The importance of it, the effect it had, it was the beginning of everything…..

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So there you have it. Mike Joyce’s Six Of The Best. Or should that be Mike’s Magnificent Seven? He’s an engaging chap, is Mike. For someone who rarely does interviews these days – “I’m always being asked to give a quote on the date of some Smiths’ anniversary or other, but really, it’s not me,” he’s full of chat about his time with the band. And for me, from one Smiths fan to another, I’m very grateful.

 

 

 

 

 

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Wire Brush

February 7, 2017

Of all the bands that followed in the slipstream created by the Sex Pistols’ sonic boom, one of the most interesting is Wire.


Where the Pistols raged with a stomping glam rock fury and The Clash spat socio-political lyrics ten to the dozen, Wire were simpler. There’s no meat on their records, nothing that doesn’t need to be there. They’re packed full of lean, mean, short, sharp shocks. Rhythm and counter-rhythm live easily beside one another. Chunky, concrete block riffs drop in and out to allow vocals, backing vocals and chanted slogans the space to breath. Solos are kept to an absolute bare minimum.

There’s no need for showboating when you’re in Wire. The showboating comes from the fact you’re in Wire to begin with.

No songs outstay their welcome, either. Much of the material on debut album ‘Pink Flag‘ is over before it’s barely begun. ‘Field Day For The Sundays‘ lasts barely half a minute before it’s gone. ‘Three Girl Rhumba‘ pushes the boat out to 1 min 20 seconds. At 2 mins 37 secs, debut single ‘Mannequin‘ is a prog-bothering epic in comparison.

WireMannequin

WireDot Dash

Had I first heard ‘Pink Flag‘ on LP rather than CD, I’d’ve been up and out my chair like Sur Alex chasing a flag-happy linesman to check there was nothing wrong with my record. And, just for the, er, record, no ma’am, there ain’t nothing wrong with the record. It’s a fantastic example of art/punk. Songs start. Then stop. New ones start again. Then stop abruptly. Tracks run into one another, all delivered in accents last heard when Gripper Stebson was terrorising Tucker Jenkins in Grange Hill. “Is this still the same song?” “I dunno!” you’ll answer yourself. By the time you’ve worked it out, the band are onto their next song.

WirePink Flag

WireLow Down

‘From A to B, again avoiding C, D and E. Cos E is where you play the bloooooze.’

There’s yer Wire manifesto right there. Two chords and the truth. Discipline. That’s what Low Down is. How many other bands could’ve resisted sticking a one note feedbacking ‘whuuuuuooooo‘ in the middle of it? Not Wire. Instead, they stick a great, echoing chord over it for a few bars. Keen ears will spot that it’s not a million miles away from that big clanging one in the breakdown of Primal Scream’s Loaded. Brutal and minimalist. Over and out.

How many other bands can claim a debut album that boasts 21 songs? By the time reissues were an accepted part and parcel of the music industry, the track listing on ‘Pink Flag‘had multiplied to an eye-watering, ear-saturating 38 tracks, including non-album singles and Peel Sessions.

wire-line-up

Famously, Elastica stole great chunks of their most well-known tracks – I Am The Fly and Three Girl Rhumba – which I’ve written about before, here. A quick listen to Wire will make you appreciate where many other 90s and 00s bands were coming from. I’m sure the Holy Bible-era Manics were not unfamiliar with Wire’s uncompromising sound. Franz Ferdinand and The Cribs too. Graham Coxon scuffed the edges of Blur’s most abrasive tracks, not to mention much of his own solo recordings, with steroidal Wire-like riffage. Even the Lord God of Indie Guitar, Johnny Marr, has heard their angular twang and thought, “I’m borrowing some of that.” A quick listen to his more recent solo stuff will qualify that, not so much in sound but in lip curled, Fender-toting, noo wave attitoode.

The anglophile Peter Buck dug Wire so much he persuaded REM to cover Pink Flag‘s Strange on breakthrough album Document. It’s a great version too.

REMStrange

Contrast and compare…

WireStrange

Pink Flag by Wire. Everyone should have this album. It may be forty years old this year, but it’s never too late to get on board.

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