There’s a scene in Roddy Doyle’s Commitments when Joey ‘The Lips’ Fagan is talking to band manager Jimmy Rabbitte’s dad about his time spent working with Elvis. A picture of Mr Rabbitte’s favourite singer hangs above the mantlepiece, noticeably just above a picture of the Pope.
“Tell me Joey,” Jimmy’s dad asks with pleading eyes. “Did ye ever see him take drugs?”
“No, Mr Rabbitte. Never.” As he fixes him in the eye, Joey replies with a genuine plausibility, but given that most of his stories are taller than the quiff atop The King’s head, even Mr Rabbitte must’ve taken it with more than a little pinch of salt.
Likewise The La’s. To clarify, Lee Mavers grinning, gurning, mop-topped Mersey head doesn’t take pride of place on my living room wall, nor do any leaders of world religion, but in this house he holds God-like status. A nutty, 60’s dust-covered, guitar-tuned-to-the-humming-of-the-fridge God-like status, up there with all the greats. One album in and then nothing. The odd low-key comeback where he was hellbent on sabotaging affairs should be quietly forgotten about. But not the tunes. They live on, immortal. The one bona fide rhyming, chiming hit on his hands allows him to live in relative luxury forever. If you want to hear Lee singing live, these days you’re more likely to do so on the terraces of Goodison Park.
“See that song There She Goes? It’s about mainlining heroin, so it is….”
That’s a common concensus and it fair pisses me off.
Now, I once spent a week on Minorca with Lee Mavers and AT NO TIME did I see him mainline heroin. No, Mr Rabbitte. Never. This is a true story – I was on holiday with my missus, so was he. We were holiday pals. One night in his company chatting about The Who and The Kinks and The Beatles – favourite Beatles song? “She Loves You, man!“, said as if it was the most obvious answer in the world, was good enough for me. ‘I’ll leave him in peace,’ I told the future Mrs Pan. ‘I can’t be pestering him for the next week.’ Unbelievably, thrillingly, it was he who pestered me for the next week. ‘Don’t look now,’ said the missus over a midday breakfast the following day, ‘but your pal’s coming over.’ With an ‘Alright kiddo?!?‘ and a punch on the arm, he sat down to join us and we were new best friends.
Over the next few nights he’d beat me at pool, introduce me to gin pommades and sing, SING! La’s songs across the table to me.
“I love ‘Man, I’m Only Human’ I told him one night. “D’you know all the words?” he asked, and before I could reply that I didn’t, he sang them to me, right there at the table, with the same high, floaty voice he’d used a few months before in the Mayfair in Glasgow. Putting extra emphasis on the ‘Man, I’m only wo-man‘ line, he sat back, arms folded as if to say, ‘What d’you make of that, then la?‘ The bar was full of folk oblivious to who was in their presence and it was magic.
He told me about the 2nd La’s album, due for release in “one nine nine four“. It’d be called Cocktail and would be the defining album of the era. It would knock ‘the Stoned Poses‘ off their perch and restore The La’s in their rightful position at the top of the musical tree. Lee envisaged a mountain with the sides littered with all the bands of the day climbing to the top (but not quite getting all the way there), drawn by a flashing blue light. “Callin’ All, la. Callin’ All. And who’s at the top, above them all?” he asked rhetorically.
Now, at no time did I see my new best pal mainline heroin. No, Mr Rabbitte. Never. But he did have a fondness for disappearing into the trees and returning a short while later with a certain sparkle. If Jimmy ‘The Lips’ Fagan told tall stories, Lee’s stories were perhaps taller. Higher, even.
A band with more line ups than Lulu roon’ the back o’ the Barras
Here’s The La’s when they were a skiffly, Beatlish, band from the Merseyssippi, full of promise, mysticism and tunes to die for. April 1987 – 3 whole decades ago! – found them working with Mick Moss on one (just one) of the sessions for their ill-fated, beatifully flawed one and only LP.
The La’s – Callin’ All
The La’s were seemingly never happy with any recordings of Callin All’, ever. It’s one of the few La’s tracks not to have seen an official studio release. La’s trainspotters have multiple versions, of course, from the rootsy, acoustic version above to full on sultry Stones We Love You-era inspired takes. Each one a classic, every one a lost gem in the small but perfect La’s back catalogue.
The La’s – Come In, Come Out
Come In, Come Out exists in better form, on the b-side of There She Goes and on ‘Lost Tapes‘, a long-forgotten download-only release from the embryonic days of the first legal downloads. The Mick Moss version is missing the percussive back beat on those two versions, but skips along with frantically scrubbed acoustics and a full-on ‘n funky bassline. Not for nothing did The La’s tag ‘Rattle ‘n Roll’ onto their record label. I know someone who knows someone who knows John Leckie quite well and he told me (so it must be true) that Mavers often strapped a box of Swan Vestas round his strumming hand for this one in order to achieve a more rhythmical effect. Can’t hear it on this version, but I believe it to be fact, Mr Rabbitte. Fact.
The La’s – Way Out
The debut single. A brilliant lilting, waltzing introduction to the band. Some weak vocals on this take, possibly as the band run through it for the first (or hundred and first) time. Who knows? Lee’s vocals provide the blueprint from which all future versions are hatched, John Power listening with a keen ear to appropriate the backing vocals.
The La’s – Doledrum
Unlike the previous track, here’s a fully-formed take; skiffly guitars, walking bass, harmonising backing vocals, the whole shebang. Really great rhythm playing. It swings with a certain confidence, knowing it’s a great song.
Mavers can fair pluck the melodies and the tunes out of the air with ease. If only he’d done so a bit more regularly.
*all pictures used are in black & white for authentic analogue retro appeal
A few weeks ago I was involved in putting on a fantastic gig in the tiny but perfect Harbour Arts Centre in Irvine, half an hour from Glasgow on the west coast of Scotland. The main act for the night was BMX Bandits, an act who last graced my hometown a mere quarter of a century ago at one of our Tennent’s Live-sponsored ‘Rock On The Watter’ events. The beginning of the 90s saw Tennent’s dip a corporate toe into the world of live music and Rock On The Watter, which ran annually from 1990-1994 was, in a way, the precursor to T In The Park. Indeed, if our town fathers had had any ounce of rock and roll in their brittle, backwards-thinking bones, TITP might’ve been staged at Irvine’s Beach Park rather than Strathclyde Park in Hamilton. But that’s another story for another day.
As it transpired, Duglas T Stewart had fond memories of playing in Irvine and took great pleasure in eating a banana during the opening song Cast A Shadow – just as they’d done 25 years previously. The gig would unravel to be something of a classic, with a heady mix of Bandits’ greatest ‘hits’ getting a good airing alongside debut live performances from their very imminent BMX Bandits Forever LP. I’ve since heard a couple of these same tracks played on Marc Riley’s 6 Music show, which I suppose gives the whole gig some extra gravitas. The last band to debut new material in Irvine was young upstarts Oasis, who chose the Beach Park in 1995 as the venue in which to float Don’t Look Back In Anger out into the ether, Noel playing his barely-disguised, ham-fisted version of All The Young Dudes with yer actual George Harrison’s actual plectrum. Again, another story for another day.
The whole point of this post though was to highlight the undeniable talents of Joe Kane, the artist who provided support to BMX Bandits in the HAC.
Joe is one of Scotland’s best-kept secrets. He spends most of the year being Paul McCartney in Them Beatles, regarded as one of the most authentic Beatles tributes around. Squint hard enough and he has an undeniable, two thumbs aloft, McCartney look about him. Add a pair of pointy boots, a perma-surprised mouth agape and crucially, a Beatles’ wig, and the look is complete.
For months on end he can be found playing Beatles conventions all over the world. Them Beatles have a trainspotterish approach to authenticity, so going to a show is quite possibly as close as you might get to the real thing. A fantastic array of period guitars – the Hofner bass, George’s Rickenbacker, John’s Let It Be-era Gibson – played through a backline of vintage Vox valve amps, coupled with the studied mannerisms and learned lines of each Beatle – “Rattle yer jewellery,” “Opportunity knocks,” etc etc, all add up to the real deal. Fab, even.
Joe’s ‘hobby job’, if you like, is playing his own music; wonky pop, looney tunes and merry melodies, all swimming in nutty effects with a rich Beatleish undercurrent. It’s a job that’s found him playing sessions on BBC 6 Music, performing alongside the cream of Scotland’s indie elite and co-writing with big hitters (in a parallel universe) such as Norman Blake and the aforementioned Duglas. You may be aware of some of his nom de plumes; The Owsley Sunshine, Dr Cosmo’s Tape Lab, as part of Ette…..
Here’s Joe in his Owsley Sunshine incarnation, clattering along like Supergrass doing Badfinger by way of an XTC Bond theme, all compressed vocals, ringing and lightly toasted guitars, stop/start riffs and a brilliant rhythm section – which may be all his own work. (*Update – it’s not, but Joe is happy for you to think that – not for nothing does he have a track called Don’t Pump My Ego, Baby!
The Owsley Sunshine – Powered By An Electric Shepherd
For the Irvine show, his 4-piece Radiophonic Tuck Shop sounded extraordinary; slightly psychedelic and Super Furry super-tuneful. Amazingly, this was their first ever gig. Not for them though the usual sweat of jittering first-night nerves; Joe surrounds himself with tip-top, top-chops musicians, and the Radiophonic Tuck Shop comprised of seasoned pros (I’m sure that was ‘George Harrison’ stage left) that brought out the best in his songs.
Their set of skewed power-pop went down extremely well, the short, sharp blasts of Nuggety pop from Joe’s back catalogue given an urgent, insistent makeover in the live setting. Intentional or not, each song was counted in with a none-more-Macca “1234!” to great applause, which you could be forgiven for thinking was a smart sample from any one of those early 60’s Beatles’ BBC sessions. As first gigs go, it was a brilliantly explosive cherry-popping and an exciting portent of things to come.
Only Joe Kane – As Hard As I Feel
Only Joe Kane – Disnae Time
This coming Saturday (22nd April) will see Joe and his Radiophonic Tuck Shop support Teen Canteen at the launch of their also-endorsed-by-Riley ‘Sirens‘ EP, which is pretty much the perfect double bill if y’ask me. It may well be sold out by now, so if you can’t get to it, keep an eye on the gig listings pages. Joe’s out and about regularly and definitely worth catching. Indeed, the following weekend will see Joe wig out in his Beatles guise, for two shows at Oran Mor, on the 28th and 29th April on Glasgow’s Byres Road. Yeah, yeah, yeah!
‘You can take The Lexicon Of Love away, but I’m keeping Remain In Light….‘
The Mystery Jets, in their (as it would turn out) ironically-titled ‘Greatest Hits‘, knew the score when they were penning their great break-up song. ABC’s album is a masterclass in heaven-sent melodies and hit singles, but stuck in the 80s with slightly more style than substance and a Trevor Horn production to boot. Talking Heads‘ 4th album endures, remains in light even, to this day.
Arty, smarty, punky and funky, Remain In Light benefits from the combined talents of the four ‘Heads, Brian Eno on sonic architectural duties, Bowie foil Adrian Belew on weird ‘n wonky guitar textures and R’n B belter Nona Hendryx on occasional backing vocals. It’s an astonishing album which, as the cliche goes, sounds as relevant and fresh today as it did in October 1980.
Side 1 (Pffffft. Everyone’s a hipster nowadays) begins with the knockout blow of Born Under Punches, a track that starts as if you carelessly dropped the needle near enough, but not quite at the start. Not for Talking Heads a gentle warm-up to ease into the flow. From the off, Frantz and Weymouth, the symbiotic, married rhythm section drive the track with polyrhythms and a body-poppin’ bassline that George Clinton might’ve strived his whole life to perfect. ‘Take a look at these hands!‘ barks David Byrne, before his own call-and-response vocals allow the chorus to ebb and flow. The music though is relentless throughout, a fantastic opener that sets the scene for what follows.
And what follows is more of the same. Crosseyed And Painless maybe even betters the opener. Short, sharp, barking verses and crooned choruses, with the band whippersnap tight and taut. Eno’s contribution is undeniable. The band are on fire, but the extras he adds lifts the whole thing into the stratosphere. Whooshes and effects, possibly heavily-treated guitar, possibly cutting edge keyboard technology are liberally splashed across the top adding colour to the Talking Heads’ stark noo wave punkoid funk. ‘I’m stiiiiiill waiting!‘ points out David Byrne, as he’s doubletracked with himself into oblivion.
Talking Heads – Crosseyed And Painless
Even more incredibly is the 3rd track, side 1 closer The Great Curve. Without ever dropping a beat, Frantz and Weymouth’s incessant funk continues. Thers’s space here for both Nona Hendryx to do one of her skyscraping hollers in the chorus? The verse? The bridge? Who knows?!? and Adrian Belew to get in on the act with a metallic squall of lead guitar that coulda come straight from a Bowie ‘Lodgers‘ session. It’s just as well you’re forced to get up and turn the record over at this point, as to this day, I still need to catch my breath when the side closes.
Side 2, without being glib, is more of the same; one chord grooves, polyrhythmic percussion, effect pedal-heavy guitar and Eno’s golden ambient touch. Houses In Motion, the flop second and final single from the album is the perfect juxtaposition of Sly Stone’s pitter pattering skeletal funk and Talking Heads’ own Slippery People, still 3 years from release, but surely conceived in this very moment?
Talking Heads – Houses In Motion
Seen And Not Seen is an atmospheric spoken word groove, with a backing track that Grace Jones might’ve utilised to her advantage. Second last track Listening Wind is very Can. Or maybe Can is very Talking Heads. Chanting vocals, meandering, textured music….. there’s lots going on here. It’s great late-night headphone music. You should try it. Pour yourself a drink of whatever, maybe supplement it with an extra something of your choice. Then close your eyes and see where it takes you, but remember to get up before final track The Overload kicks in. If the previous track is very Can, then The Overload is very, Very, VERY Bowie. More chanting vocals and more ambient textures, it closes the album with a sense of impending doom. Scary Monsters indeed. Perhaps they should’ve left it off the album. It still scares me half to death whenever I forget to lift the needle before it starts.
The big track on the album is Once In A Lifetime, the number 14-with-a-bullet hit single. It’s omnipresent and, I’d wager, so ingrained in the fabric of most of the readership on here that you can hear it just now as you read. You can call it up from the virtual iPod in your brain and it’ll play for you from start to finish, with no need for you to go and find the actual track. The chorus is playing just now, I bet. Amazing that, isn’t it? But have you ever stopped to truly listen to it? It’s an incredible piece of music.
Talking Heads – Once In A Lifetime
How do you even go about writing a song like that? Did it come from the band riffing on the light ‘n airy grooves of Fela Kuti, whose ‘on the 1’ influenced James Brown? Once In A Lifetime starts ‘on the 1’, but as Eno has since said, each member of the band had a different ‘1’ to follow. That’s what makes the track sound so different. There’s that brilliant opening bass whoomph and bam! we’re on the one and away with it…..
Did Tina Weymouth come to the session with a killer bassline looking for a song? Did Jerry Harrison, swapping guitar for synth, say, “Hey! I’ve got this little synth riff that I kinda stole from the Velvets’ What Goes On – let’s build a song around it!” Did producer Eno pioneer his Oblique Strategies on the track, the four Talking Heads plus guests individually recording overdubs, unaware of what their fellow band mates had played? The answer really is that the song is (even) greater than the sum of its parts.
Want more? Here’s the extended version of Once In A Lifetime.
Talking Heads – Once In A Lifetime (Extended Version)
Random fact. Bassheads‘ 90s rave anthem Is There Anybody Out There? samples the wee tingaling bleeping and blooping keyboard track that weaves it’s way throughout Once InA Lifetime. But you knew that already.
As if to underline that Fela Kuti reference, sounding like a manic Moroccan market in the height of summer, here’s Fela’s Riff, an African-influenced unfinished outtake from the album.
Talking Heads – Fela’s Riff
If you’ve never heard Remain In Light, I suggest you rectify this forthwith. You can thank me later.
Different Drum is a song written by lamb-chopped ‘n bobble-topped Monkee Mike Nesmith in 1965. Although there’s not a Monkees‘ version as such – it appeared only in an episode of The Monkees when Nesmith sang it in faux-Dylan fashion (you can watch it, 16 mins in, here) it’s since grown to become one of his most enduring songs.
It was a hit a couple of years later when a young Linda Ronstadt-fronted Stone Poneys took their none-more ’67 baroque pop version to the higher reaches of the American charts. Bypassing Ronstadt’s usual arrangement of weeping pedal steels and twangin’ Teles, Stone Poneys’ version favours harpsichord, chamber orchestra strings and a rinkle-tinkle saccahrine-sweet music-box approach. It’s OK, but if y’ask me, in the scheme of things it fails to match up to the fantastic version by The Lemonheads.
The Lemonheads‘ version was the one that first brought the song to my attention. Stuck away on the 3rd disc of a Rough Trade anniversary box set, it stood out amongst the Einsturzende Neubatens and Throbbing Gristles for daring to have an actual tune and a memorable melody. What an old fart I am. Always the missing link between Gram Parsons and Kurt Cobain, Evan Dando’s one-take rollicking fuzz-filled romp sounds off the cuff, spontaneous and exactly the kind of thing he might’ve thrown together when the producer uttered the words, “Got anything for the b-side, Evan?”
The Lemonheads – Different Drum
He makes it sound easy, does Evan. A tune that suits his voice, he plays those wee descending guitar runs just like George Harrison used to do in the good old days. It sounds like he and the band are having a whole lot of fun. There’s a bucket of feedback splashed over the middle eight and if you listen closely, a brilliant Thin Lizzy-inspired harmonising twin guitar riff in the outro. A breathless rush of power pop, you can practically see the swish of his Californian sun-bleached fringe between the verses as his transformation into the poster boy for the polite end of the grunge revolution is complete.
And talking of power pop, how about Sussana Hoffs’ and Matthew Sweet’s faithful version? Dedicated scholars of 60s pop and what constitutes A Tune, Sweet and Hoffs (under the moniker of Sid ‘n Susie) find the requisite jangle and harmonies to ensure their verison of Different Drum is one of the best.
Sid ‘n Susie – Different Drum
Maybe it’s the voice, or the fact she plays a mean Rickenbacker, but Susanna Hoffs stirs things in me that I didn’t even know needed particular stirring in the first place. Anyway, you could do worse than find yourself a copy of her ‘Under The Covers‘ project, wherein Matt ‘n Sooz tackle the best of the 60s and 70s with a reverential attention to detail and an almost ‘we’re not worthy’ level of adoration. You can find all 4 albums for the price of a Costa Coffee these days. Reason enough, surely, to treat yourself this Easter.
More interesting , perhaps, and no less thrilling, is the shambling, almost on the verge of being in tune version by The Pastels.
The Pastels – Different Drum
More West End than West Coast (check out those Glasgow Uni-infused softly rrrrrrolled rrrrrs – “we’ll both live life longerrrr” – ), Stephen P lumbers through it like Great Uncle Bulgaria, a duffle-coated messiah for folk who know that the most important things in life are a great record collection and a homegrown, home-cut fringe.
Led by a jangling 12 string and just within a earshot, a highly strung banjo (is it? I think so), it’s almost perfect. Forever on the point of collapse, there are sadly sweeping, weeping strings, cutesy-cute backing vocals and a kids’ Casio keyboard tootling away in the background like some long-forgotten fairground ride. By the time the slide guitar has wheezed its way into the mid-point picture, you’ll convince yourself that this is just about the best cover of Different Drum you’re ever likely to hear. It’s a beauty.
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 Berry – Nadine
“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 Berry – You 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 Berry – Maybelline
“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 Berry – Back 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 Berry – Little 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 Berry – Johnny 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.
‘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 Singers – Stand 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.
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…
“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 Williams – Someday 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 Williams – Someday 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 Boys – The 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 Boys – The 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-Las – Give 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-Las – Give 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 Reverberi – The 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 Gilfedder – My 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.
Jigsaw – Who 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.