Get This!, New! Now!

Readers And Writers

I wrote a book. A proper, hefty music biography that won’t look out of place between Ziggyology and Head-On and Beastie Boys Book and Songs That Saved Your Life and Revolution In The Head and any of those other essential reads that make up your book shelf.

The Perfect Reminder tells the story behind the songs on the Trashcan Sinatras‘ second album I’ve Seen Everything – a quietly-confident-but-knows-its-place cult book about a quietly-confident-but-knows-its-place cult act. Thanks to a small team that includes a fantastic photographer (Stephanie Gibson) and a Brooklyn-based creative director with an analytical approach to typesetting and design (Chris Dooley), the finished article turned out waaaay better than expected. We got to hold it, feel it, sniff it, on Tuesday night and it was quite the thrill. The book, tactile and glossy and heavy, is also almost three times longer than my initial (now-laughable) estimate of 35,000 words, and far-better for it.

To paraphrase David Byrne, how the fuckdiddilyuck did I get here?

With the long out-of-print I’ve Seen Everything being reissued by Last Night From Glasgow, I chanced my arm and asked if I could write the sleevenotes. I had clout, I suggested. Back in 1992, I’d been around the studio during the making of the record. I was pals with the band. I’d written articles on them for local and national press; my sleevenotes would surely be wonderfully entertaining.

Clout I may have had, but that particular gig had already been promised to crack music critic and life-long Trashcans fan Pete Paphides. You can’t argue with that, I told myself, while Ian from LNFG let me down gently by asking me if I’d like to put together a “small book-type thing, a posh fanzine perhaps” that told the stories of the songs through the eyes of the Trashcans’ loyal and steadfast fan base.

There’s a better story than that, I suggested after a minute’s thought, and reeled off plans where the five Trashcans would tell their own stories of how the songs came to be; from the underwhelming initial writing sessions that filled the band with self-doubt, through to the sparkling finished product, expertly steered and produced by the affable and dude-like Ray Shulman. Despite the band separated by the small matter of the Atlantic Ocean, it would read as if the five of them were sat round a table in The Crown, telling tales of how the album came to be, each interjecting the others with contradictory tales that, when taken as a whole, would tell a version of the truth behind the making of an album that is now considered something of a lost classic, a great Scottish album by one of our greatest bands.

Trashcan SinatrasHayfever

“People want to know how these fabulous songs came to be,” I wagered. “The lyrics – who wrote them, what the songs were about, who the songs were about, and the music, dripping in melody and finesse – what makes it so unattainably magic, how did they come up with that wobbly sound on Send For Henny, why is there no guitar on Hayfever…the important stuff, y’know? They’re not that bothered that Marko fae Motherwell first locked eyes with the love of his life while the clanging thunderstorm of One At A Time played furiously in the background, although we’ll make space for that too. A proper music biography must be written.”

And it was. A hundred thousand words and dozens of arty photographs and eye-catchingly beautiful font later, the book, The Book – definitely anything but small and most certainly booting into orbit the concept of ‘posh fanzine’ – whatever that is – rolled off a Polish printing press, negotiated Brexit-affected customs and landed, finally, in Glasgow. It is currently winging its way to the hundreds – that’s hundreds, Archie – of TCS fans around the globe who placed pre-orders.

It’ll eventually find its way to Waterstones, Mono and a handful of select retailers. The Perfect Reminder  – titled by John from the band before a word had been typed – is very much available for order right now via LNFG. I’d recommend you read it. But you knew that already.

Get This!, Live!

Tom Tom Club

I was teaching a class last year when the word ‘struttin’‘ came up. Not strutting with a ‘g‘ at the end, but the more street-smart struttin’. What did the word mean, someone asked. Their grandfather had had to put strutting on his shed to strengthen the roof, but given the context of the sentence, struttin’ made no sense. Immediately, instantly, at once, I thought of John Travolta in the opening scene of Saturday Night Fever. “Let me show you,” I replied, and rather than replicate the Travolta strut in front of a group of 10 and 11 year-olds (that would’ve been all sorts of wrong) I rattled across the keyboard impatiently until I had the Saturday Night Fever opening scene cued up on YouTube. With a thumb hovering over the space bar should I need to pause proceedings – what swearies and/or nudity might be lurking around the next frame? – I turned up the volume, turned off the lights and by the metaphorical seat of my pants, pressed play.

As the Bee Gees’ slick guitar line and steady disco beat filled the classroom, 30 or so wee heads bobbed in unison – ah-ha-ha-ha – to Stayin’ Alive while it played behind Travolta’s character as he strutted – strutted! –  along the busy Brooklyn thoroughfare, (“Hey! To-neeey!”) all dimples and demi-quiff, the cock of the walk in his tight leather jerkin and Cuban heels. “Ah!” said the class in unison. So that was struttin’. The class understood. We moved on. “What did you do at school today?” would be asked later on at home. “We watched Saturday Night Fever,” would come the reply, to the bafflement and/or concern to some and/or all of the parents.

Over the years in the classroom I’ve managed to crowbar in such disparate references as the Stax Records snapping fingers logo, the choreography of The Ramones in concert, The Beatles’ ‘…Mr Kite‘ when doing a piece of writing on circuses and a gazillion records from the ’60s when we studied the decade.

This, boys and girls,” I said triumphantly as I placed my old Dansette Major Deluxe on a table at the front of the classroom one day, “is a 1960s mp3 player.”

This led to the formation of the Friday Afternoon Record Club, when pupils brought all manner of 7″ singles from home and we’d listen to and discuss them. The first rule of Friday Afternoon Record Club though, is to never mention it, so we’ll leave it at that. The head teacher would’ve had a fit if they’d known we’d been listening to David Essex and Status Quo and Kelly Marie (b-boo, b-boo!) instead of something less culturally-relevant instead.

Had the learners in front of me recently been that wee bit older when we’d been discussing the meaning of struttin’, I might’ve extended the concept of the word through Tom WaitsNighthawk Postcards.

‘Let me put the cut back in your strut,’ he says sings scats, sounding like Louis Armstrong chewing on sandpaper. ‘And the glide back in your stride.

Nighthawk Postcards is a sprawling, eleven-minute jazz-inflected monologue, Waits rasping and riffing and painting highly visual pictures with well-written words, the aural equivalent of the suggested stories in the paintings of Edward Hopper. Not for nothing does the song and its parent album take nomencular inspiration from one of Hopper’s most-celebrated works.

An inebriational travellogue as it’s introduced, the bass player wanders in straight off the grooves of a Charles Mingus 78 and continues to walk all over the yellow-lit, yellow-stained ambience with hep jazzcat grooviness. There’s a low-key, full-blown jazz drummer, a saxophone player who can’t wait to be let off the invisible leash that tends him to the background and a brilliantly loose-knuckled, laid-back piano player – on this recording not Waits, surely – there’s no way he can riff and scat and rap his way across those notes and spaces while playing at the same time, is there? Is there?

Tom WaitsNighthawk Postcards

The words leap off the record, instantly visual and scene-setting. Waits loves wordplay; busses that groan and wheeze, eyelids propped open at half-mast, a sucker born every minute and you just happened to be comin’ along at the right time. And he loves colours; neon swizzle sticks, a yellow biscuit of a buttery cueball moon, obsidian skies, harlequin sailors, piss yellow gypsy cabs… one line in and he’s got you hooked forever.

Stop whatever you’re doing and step into Tom’s low-rent, sawdust floored world. He’s funny, he’s soulful, he’s part bluesman, part jazzateer and part down-on-his-luck crooner – he breaks into Sinatra’s That’s Life at one point, making Frank’s version sound like the eternally happy collected works of PWL by comparison. The audience – they’re actually not at Raphael’s Silver Cloud Lounge as Waits might have you believe at the start, but live in the studio (L.A.’s Record Plant) – a bold move in 1975 – whoop and holler and guffaw and groan at all the right moments. The song… the whole Nighthawks album… is a masterclass in performance.

The band aren’t exempt from the odd show-offy moment either. When Waits sings of the L Train sounding like the ghost of Gene Krupa, the drummer clatters a perfectly brushed onomatopoeiac rail-rattlin’ Krupa beat in response. Rehearsed? You bet it is, but it’s a great moment. At the mention of P.T. Barnum, the sax player eases into a fluttering take on Julius Fucik’s ‘Entrance of the Gladiators‘ (you know it – look it up) before fading back into the shadows. It’s Waits though who’s the real star of the show. He’s one of the greats, and on this record his writing and delivery and all-round uniqueness is second to none. But I suspect you knew that already.

What’s the scoop, Betty Boop? Whadayamean you’ve never heard Nighthawks At The Diner?!? Do yourself a favour and add it to your collection. Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back, as I’m sure Tom must have growled across a tune of his at some point or other.

 

 

 

Get This!

All God’s Children

It’s funny how Jon the Postman went in the blink of an eye from delivering letters to delivering spontaneous punk karaoke between support acts in the venues of mid ’70s Manchester while Subway Sect‘s Vic Godard, in roughly the same time-frame, went from dispatching soul-inflected sermons from the trenches of punk’s frontline – fourth on the bill on the White Riot tour – to become an actual card-carrying postman.

Subway Sect were something of an exception to the rules of punk. Punk’s ideal of ‘anything goes for anyone’ might’ve been the manifesto, heartily grabbed by any number of outsiders, insiders, movers and shakers who employed a rudimentary grasp of three chords and an enthusiastic approach to music making that far belied any noticeable ability, but by 1977, the scene had become cartoonish and bloated, lowest common denominator ‘punk’ by numbers that was anything but.

Not for nothing was one of Subway Sect’s few (read ‘two’) singles called Ambition. You might not know it, but you’ll know it. A clattering, Farfisa-led racket (together, though, in tune, and that’s vital), it introduced itself with a none-more-punk opening declaration; ‘You can take it or leave it as far as we’re concerned because we’re not concerned with you.’

Subway SectAmbition

Subway Sect had ambitions far beyond punk’s nihilistic stance…and were far more punk precisely because of it. They ploughed their own particularly rich furrow, with rattling guitars, shonky vocals and an unpretentious honesty that shone through in everything they did.

One quick glance at the band would tell you this. The hair is of the period; sticky-uppy, home-cut and suitably non-salon, but there’s not a well-placed rip on any item of clothing, let alone any phoney machismo or its accompanying element of threat. The one concession to ‘punk’ is Vic’s tiny, ironic snarl at the corner of his curled lip, possibly caused when his guitar strap broke just as the photographer clicked. They mean it, maaan, but not like everybody else.

Subway Sect photographed by Sheila Rock, December ’76. Paul Simonon painted the backdrop.

Subway Sect had far more in common with Buzzcocks; fey, feminine even, their declarations of love and regret wrapped in old school jumpers and older suit trousers with wonky zips, sung keenly with an off-key Edwyn-ish warble that rippled as far afield as Glasgow, where the antennae attached to young Alan Horne’s schemes and dreams twitched and twanged with mutual understanding. No Subway Sect, no Postcard Records might seem a bit far fetched, but I don’t think so.

Subway SectCommon Thief

Common Thief finds Subway Sect cast adrift on some rough and ready talc-dusted northern soul dancefloor. There are handclaps, call-and-response vocals and a plethora of requisite ‘hey-hey-heys’ that no doubt resonated on some level with Kevin Rowland. Or perhaps Common Thief was influenced by Dexys, rather than being an influence on Dexys. The internet is unusually bereft of anything beyond scant information regarding it, but not to worry. The guitars, alternating with a suitably fat piano line for the title of ‘lead instrument’ are midway between cheesegrater thin and Philly soul slick – not a zillion miles away from the afore-inferred Orange Juice at all.

Vic’s vocal – falsetto in the verses and bridges, unpretentious and crooning in the chorus – enfolds itself around the words like the curling smoke from a torch singer’s Gitanes as they climb inside and occupy the melody, an approach that’s clearly as far removed from the phlegm-coated primitive howl of punk as possible. Ambition indeed. Get down on it.

Get This!

Reunion City Blues

I blame Daft Punk. They self-delete and before the dust has properly settled, ABBA are busy raking Thomas and Guy-Manuel’s desktop dustbins for a hip new techy idea to steal and a weird costume to squeeze self-consciously into. The news that ABBA have reformed (of sorts – they haven’t really, have they? Have they?) fills me with the fear. They’re just about the last of those big heritage acts with all original members still alive and if they had any semblance of dignity remaining, they wouldn’t do it. Judging by the press photo though, it may already be too late. Bjorn again? Even poor Benny knows it.

In this house, ABBA was synonymous with growing up in the ’70s. At family get-togethers and especially at New Year, they were inescapable. ABBA is the sound of droopy moustaches, of child-friendly glasses of wine diluted with water, of asthma brought on by feather pillows and playing with dogs (and child-friendly glasses of wine diluted with water), of folk song singalongs, of Hammer House of Horror on the wrong side of midnight, of itchy jumpers, too-wide trousers and no telly in the daytime. The music of ABBA is as much a part of my DNA as my inherited grey hair and family jowls.

I first became aware of them as they played on my uncle’s proper old stereo equipment, a turntable that nowadays would likely cost you a good few months’ salary and quite possibly your marriage.

Turned up so loud that the rush of audiophile air from the floor-standing speakers rippled the skin on the back of my hand, the music of ABBA was at once foreign and icy strange yet flawless and instantly familiar. The Arrival album rinsed the room with thumping string-swept disco and ringing twelve string guitars. There were sections where the music dropped out, giving space for the girls’ locked-in harmonies to hang suspended in time before being swallowed up by the masterful ’70s production, singable instrumental hooklines at every turn and melodies on top of melodies on top of even more tumbling melodies; songs so adult in performance and presentation it would take me years to fully comprehend their depth and ambition.

There was undeniable European glamour in ABBA, and this was before I’d even clapped eyes on the visionary Agnetha, airbrushed into a shapely jumpsuit or other, her gap-toothed, soft-focused faraway half-smile and blow-dried Charlie’s Angels hair awakening something in me and zapping electrically-charged hormones around my insides like the dodgems at the moor on Marymass Saturday.

You don’t need a copy of ABBA Gold to know that every ABBA track stands up for two reasons; the timeless production and the hook-laden arrangements. They always got a great natural drum sound, did ABBA. It’s the sound of expensive, pine-clad Scandinavian studios and the best sessioneer (Ola Brunkert) that ABBA’s considerable fortunes could buy. If I was making music today, I’d be looking to ape the sound and feel of ABBA’s drums on every track I recorded.

Those detached, ice-dusted vocals and the endless earworms they continue to create will always be centre-stage, but the supporting instrumentation is never anything less than inspired. The bass line and electric guitar pay-off on The Name Of The Game…the studied, sparse monotony of The Day Before You Game…that piano trill and bass pulse that sets Money Money Money on edge (and not to mention Anni-Frid’s guttural ‘I bet he wouldn’t fancy me‘ line)… Knowing Me, Knowing You, a-haaa. Even TV comedy can’t ruin that one, not when the track has a brilliantly placed guitar and drum colouring the sound, tension and release, just below the titular hook. Listen out for it. Once heard, never forgotten. Every ABBA track, every single one of them, is memorable in one way or another.

They have better songs than Eagle, perhaps, but released on 1977’s ABBA: The Album, it’s the band’s sound in miniature.

ABBAEagle

First off, it’s stately and steady, far slower than it has any right to be. In most hands, the restrained pace of Eagle would be a problem and would have turned to curdled milk long before the end. This was 1977 remember – most bands would’ve been tempted even subconsciously to crank up the speed a little, get it moving to the finish line. Not ABBA. In their hands, it’s a glacial paced and elegant minor key masterpiece, quietly gliding, windswept and widescreen, as self-assured and soaring as its subject matter. The way the vocal ends on a new chord leaves it hanging, the aural equivalent of the eagle itself banking off into the distance.

The girls sing in unison. They sound sad, somehow. They always do. ABBA do melancholy like no other. Low in the verses, high in the choruses, backed by a symphony of synths and multi-tracked counter-vocals that provide the catchy parts, Agnetha and Anni-Frid’s voices melt into one. They sing the fuck out of Eagle. As I listen now, I can see Agnetha’s lined forehead, her crescent-mooned eyebrows and faraway eyes lost in song, her lipgloss catching some TV studio light or other as the camera pans across and around her.

“Hiiiyee-uh high! What a feeling to fly…” That wee vocal half-pause they fling in around three minutes and then again near the end is the particular masterstroke on Eagle. Every part of it has been painstakingly mapped out beforehand. Nothing is left to chance on an ABBA record. And not just the chorus and key lines, but the preludes, the bridges, the ‘ad-libs’ in the outro… and the guitar parts, the keyboard motifs, the bass lines. Perfect. Even their logo, with its mirrored backwards ‘B’ has been subject to committee and discussion. And it’s all there on Eagle. I’m sure Phil Oakey had that hook playing on a loop somewhere underneath that lopsided fringe of his when the Human League were writing Don’t You Want Me.

In more recent years, ABBA has become the soundtrack to hen parties and Christmas nights out and drunken office shenanigans, their music reduced to karaoke and tribute acts and pop party music. Then there was the awful musical, a vehicle that dared to knit together bad cover versions with a flimsy storyline. Rotten stuff.

And now this. Whatever this is. A holographic, pseudo-live performance that will undoubtedly leave you little change from a few hundred quid and will sell out before tickets are properly on sale? I mean. come on! Stop! And new songs? Two of them. I had no intention of listening to them until YouTube spat one out at me…

…and it was all there; the understated, piano-led start, the ‘Do I have it in me?‘ hookline, the strings providing the counter-melody, a skyscraping chorus (I’m not sold on the drum sound though) and a none-more mid ’70s soft rock guitar, the sound of The Carpenters produced by Barry Gibb, all gift-wrapped for authenticity in that overpowering feeling of melancholy that they can seemingly do in their sleep. Damn you, ABBA. Why did you go and do this?

Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find, Sampled, Studio master tapes

Hey DullBlog

The healthy song-writing one-upmanship in The Beatles meant that after Paul McCartney had presented the others with the music hall-by-way-of-Fats Domino Lady Madonna and had it committed forever to tape, John Lennon sat himself at the piano to compose a worthy response.

The result was Hey Bulldog, a driving barrelhouse blues rocker, with ascending, augmented chords in the chorus and some epoch-defining stinging lead guitar throughout.

The BeatlesHey Bulldog

It’s truly fab four in execution; Lennon pounding away at the ivories, his sandpaper-roughed and double-tracked vocals just on the right side of raw, McCartney playing melodic lead bass, a whole tune within the tune, and harmonising the key lines from start to finish, Ringo going tribal for the song’s intro then jangling heavy rhythmic tambourine to keep the beat from thereon in and George, quiet George, brilliantly colouring the whole thing with some rasping fretboard fireworks, minimum fuss but maximum fury.

For years I’d believed the solo to be played by McCartney – in tone and technique it’s very him – but research points to George and his Gibson SG, so the cap is duly doffed. There’s a tiny wee lick he throws away towards the end of that stinging solo upon which Badfinger, Jellyfish and countless others have based entire careers. If you know, you know.

With the Lady Madonna session wrapping up quicker than expected, and Abbey Road’s Studio 3 still booked for use, the plan was to use the time to film The Beatles working in the studio so that the footage could be used in a promotional film to promote Lady Madonna around the world. Such is the speed of things in Beatleworld though, that by the time the cameras were rolling, The Beatles were already beating and barking Lennon’s brand new tune into shape. The footage that duly accompanied the Lady Madonna promo is actually film of them recording a handful of the ten takes it took to nail down Hey Bulldog.

The BeatlesHey Bulldog – isolated McCartney bassline

Amazingly, incredibly, written on the spot and played no more than ten times – how many times did YOU go away and learn your part before daring to step into a recording studio? – Paul’s muted palmed and woody thunk is the constituent part that drives the whole track. 98% flatwound Rickenbacker snap and 2% forgivable slop, McCartney’s bass playing in this phase of The Beatles is never anything less than peerless, inspired and beautiful. You knew that already though.

In the pantheon of indispensable Beatles lists, it’s only in recent years that Hey Bulldog has crawled its way on there, finally recognised as one of the band’s great tracks.

A sampler’s nightmare – pinch a portion of Beatles and you’d better have a good lawyer at the ready, it’s for that very reason you rarely encounter a Beatles sample. Yes, you can point to The Sounds Of Science on Paul’s Boutique, cut ‘n pasted together in the last century, way back when waters were murkier, but since then, there’s not been much. Cypress Hill took McCartney’s cooing opening bars to Your Mother Should Know and looped them into hip hop heaven on a track (a remix perhaps) that I can no longer locate. Jay Z’s official/unofficial Grey Album dismantled the White Album with varying degrees of brilliance, and that’s about it.

The Roots – switched on that they are – appropriated the Hey Bulldog riff into their own Thoughts At Work, a track that appeared only on original vinyl copies of Phrenology then, following a hard rap (ba-dum tish) at the door from suited and booted legal heavies, never again.

The RootsThoughts At Work (orig. vinyl-only release)

Welded to a beat created from the oft-sampled Incredible Bongo Band’s version of Apache, it’s a sweary blast that’ll make you want to drive the Fiat Punto slowly down the High Street, Detroit leaning with the windows down, like the hep cat you secretly always wished you could be. A pretender, a nearly-was, much like the track that rides on the coat tails of the sample it stole.

 

 

Gone but not forgotten

Mega Watts

Charlie Watts died,” I say to Mrs Plain Or Pan when she gets in from work.

Oh…I know him,” she says, recognising the name from somewhere…and proceeds to sing the opening ‘fa-fa-fa fa fas‘ from The Kinks’ ‘David Watts‘. “He was the drummer in The Who, wasn’t he?

Every day is Give Us A Clue in our house and the sad, sudden, unexpected news regarding the metronomic heartbeat of the Stones provided yet another beauty.

I’ve been in the same environs as Charlie Watts three times, yet I’ve set eyes on him just the once. Or maybe twice.

The first: The Rolling Stones’ Urban Jungle tour at Hampden Park in Glasgow, July 1990. Derek and I were in the traditional Rangers end – a great place to be in the mid ’80s when Scotland were rampaging their way towards another World Cup finals, but not so great for the current Stones show. The stage set was so massive and clunky that we found ourselves watching them side-on. A never-ending flood of fence-jumpers made their way from the terracing around us and melted anonymously into the standing section, their stick-it-to-the-man actions loudly cheered whenever the Rock Steady security guy tripped and fell while chasing them, but I’m ashamed to say that I was too scared of getting caught and turfed out before opening act Gun had hard-rocked their way through their 17th guitar solo or third number, whichever came first, so with a grumpy but understanding Derek, we watched from our acute angle afar.

Mick and Keef did their thang, front and centre. Ronnie prowled just behind them. Bill Wyman’s replacement was…somewhere…(who cared?) and Charlie? His kit was stuck so far at the back that, even when they came to bow at the end, he ended up being obscured by a massive, deflating rubber doll that had popped up during Honky Tonk Women. So, although I saw the Stones in concert – “We should really see them before they break up“, contended Derek, thirty one summers ago – I never did see Charlie and that nonchalant face of his as the band ground through the gears of Tumbling Dice and Brown Sugar and Miss You and a gazillion other greats. Gimme, gimme, gimme the honky tonk blues indeed.

The second: Lake Ontario, Toronto, September 1997. We’re on honeymoon, Mrs Pan and I, and out on a wee tourist pleasure cruise on Lake Ontario. It’s a roasting hot day, even out on the lake, and it’s all going on; an enthusiastic tour guide pointing out significant buildings on the Toronto skyline, free drinks, a reciprocal beep and wave from other passing pleasure cruisers and then… from nowhere, up glides this big boat. It’s blasting rock music. It’s got the MTV logo all over it. And it has a host with a microphone.

Hey you guys! We got the Stones on board!” And there they are – Mick, Keith, Ronnie, the Wyman replacement and Charlie, jazz-cat cool and riffing across his snare and hi-hat, staring off into the middle distance, lost in his playing. And just as quickly, there they went. Stone me! Literally. No photos were taken, of course. Oh no! I wasn’t always as smart as I am these days.

The third. Edinburgh a couple of years ago. We had tickets for Wicked at the Playhouse. I very kindly gave mine to my mum. Musicals ain’t my thing, I reasoned. And while they’re at the theatre, I thought to myself, I can check out the record shops without feeling I’m pushing my luck. So that’s the plan. I leave everyone at the Playhouse, I walk the short walk up Leith Street and at the top I’m met by a heaving throng of people, all gathered around the Balmoral Hotel. The road is sealed off. Half a dozen limos are circulating outside. The word on the street is that the Stones are, at any moment, leaving in the fancy cars to soundcheck at Murrayfield, where they’ll play later that evening. Well, what can a poor boy do, but hang around and catch a glimpse of a Stone or two.

A good hour and a bit later and suddenly there’s a burst of activity and yer actual Mick Jagger is standing at the top of the stairs that lead in and out of the hotel. With well-practised schtick, he holds court. “Awl-right!” he camps from below a red baseball hat, his linen suit looking expensively louche from 20 metres away. While I’m fumbling for the phone I’d long-since stuck in my pocket, he does a wee wave, one of those where the fingers bend at the knuckles and that’s about it, and, with a hop and a skip and a jump, he’s bundled by half a dozen burlies into his car. Wow, I think. He’s the same age as my father-in-law. How daft is that?! I catch myself laughing and a foreign tourist moves slightly away from me. Next there’s Keef. I think I manage to snap the top and/or back of the bird’s nest on his head. The wee twisted red ribbon is, I think, the giveaway. Or maybe it was Ronnie. I dunno. The photo, on later inspection, proves inconclusive.

This nonsense goes on for what seems like forever and then, suddenly, there’s another swell of noise, a shouldery jostle from the tourist beside me and there…I think…yes…eh?…aye!…hmmm…definitely…it’s Charlie Watts; whippet thin, nice suit, grey hair atop a Mount Rushmore of sagging lines…and then he’s gone. Just like that.

The Rolling Stones have oft-featured on these pages and without checking, I’d imagine Charlie gets a mention every time. This doesn’t always happen when you spend your time writing about guitar bands, especially ones with such iconic guitarists, but there’s a fair argument to be made that the Stones wouldn’t have rolled quite so smoothly with anyone else keeping time at the back.

Always that tiny half beat behind the group, Charlie provided the groove and swagger, the calmest man in the crew as the madness and mayhem spiralled around him. To have been a part of that group during their golden years must have been quite something indeed, yet even when knee-deep in (and on) hard drugs, Charlie appeared to be never anything other than in control at all times. With his hands on the reigns, he gave the others the permission to push forward, instructed them when to hold back and allowed them the space in which to play some of the grooviest, bluesiest rock ‘n roll of all times, dapper as a dandy and nonchalant as fuck.

See y’later Charlie. I’ll have my camera ready the next time.

 

Get This!, New! Now!

Homespun

Last year’s lockdown may have meant a temporary end to live music, but it enabled Trashcan Sinatras‘ songwriting bass player Davy Hughes to team up with his artist wife Maree to create a four track audio-visual EP, as pleasing on the ears as it is to the eyes. Part crowd-sourced and part-funded by Creative Scotland, the Homespun EP has just been released. It’s quirky, atmospheric and filmic, with multi-layered stop-frame animation videos featuring butterflies and birds, dragonflies and all of nature’s delights providing the visual wallpaper for the glossy sheen of music that plays in the background, or foreground (depending on where you sit on the audio or visual learner see-saw).

Part ambient filmscore for some imagined film and part pulsing melodic electro, at least two of the four tracks feature moonlighting Trashcans as well as Eddi Reader, her voice instantly recognisable despite the musical accompaniment sounding quite unlike the instrumentation that normally plays behind her.

Opener I Don’t Know What’s Going On (I Only Know It’s All Gone Wrong Again) is the greatest track Public Service Broadcasting hasn’t yet recorded. Carried by a plummy-voiced sample that repeats the title throughout, it glides on linear synth pulses and post-punk guitars, keyboard swells and tingaling percussion. The accompanying video features much of Maree’s signature art; felt people, leaves and flowers, fluttering creatures in flight… an audible and auditory trip.

It’s the middle two tracks that I reckon will appeal most to fans of the Trashcan Sinatras.

Sea Made is the missing link between Talk Talk and the Blue Nile that you never knew you were looking for. Ambient and gyroscopic, it eases itself in gently, wafted along by tinkling keys and the sampled autumnal breeze from Irvine harbour. Frank’s voice is sleepy and mellow, the perfect foil to Eddi’s octave-surfing harmonies. With a multi-coloured video featuring sea creatures, scooners and some backwards spelling, it’s quite the package.

Can You Hear Me? is all understated minimal techno; vibrating electro bass, sparse percussion, programmed and processed beats, on top of which the Trashcans’ Frank sleepwalks his way through a beauty of a duet with his ghostly-voiced sister, half hidden in the shadowy background.

Do.

You.

See Me?

Can.

You.

Hear Me?

Huge, wobbly, tremeloed guitars add dollops of colour to the proceedings, little arpeggios and long notes that burn off out into the ether bringing to mind the more ethereal moments in the Trashcans’ forever-underrated back catalogue. It’s a quiet, slow-building beauty that, after half a dozen plays, unravels and reveals itself to be a work of melodic, atmospheric genius. It’s music for space travel, Jim, but not as we know it.

Closer Made Up Story features a slightly sinister video, with reflected impish creatures giving the effect of multiple Rorschach inkblots that give way to a cut-out girl who seems to fall forever until the track’s end. Vocal-less, Made Up Story features a repeating bass riff and an airy high-up-the-keys hook that bring to mind any number of those old early ’90s electronic records. Papua New Guinea, Yeke Yeke, Chime… you get the idea, but unwinding, slowed down to flotation tank levels of urgency. 

As an EP and as a visual medium, Homespun urges you to slow down, take a breath, reset. It’s pretty great.

You can support the arts and buy the EP at the Homespun Bandcamp page here. All profits will go to Irvine-based music charity Freckfest.

 

 

Cover Versions, Gone but not forgotten

Love Me Two Times

Part voodoo, part gumbo and part mumbo jumbo, Bo Diddley‘s Who Do You Love? comes at you skifflish and rhythmic, a one chord groover that’s endured for 65 years and counting. It’s the sound of the deep south; bluesy yet beat-driven, insistent and instantly catchy, Bo’s lyrical swagger and braggadocio doing its best to woo the object of his desires. You can stick with him on the safe side of the street, he’s saying, or you can cross over to the dangerous side with me and my rattlesnake whips, cobra snake neckties and human skulls. What’s it to be, baby?

Bo DiddleyWho Do You Love?

The guitar tone is pretty fantastic. It’s knee-tremblingly jittery and juddery, all echoing tremelo action and muted left palm and when Bo’s lead guitarist ventures beyond the fifth fret call-and-response riffing to let loose the solo, the electric guitar squals and squeals for possibly the first time in recorded rock ‘n roll. Future household names sat bolt upright in box rooms the world over, senses tingling with electricity and brains jangling with endless possibilities.

Almost rockabilly in feel and execution – play it back to back with Chuck Berry’s Maybelline for full effect –  Who Do You Love? hasn’t quite yet got that Diddley Beat that would become his signature, but rattling away somewhere in the background, behind the railroad snare and the tea chest bass, are a pair of maracas that would prick at least the ears of a blues-obsessed Welshman and give birth in time to the Rolling Stones. It’s an important record for sure.

Who Do You Love? is a standard for garage bands and bar room bawlers everywhere. It’s been covered and recorded by a gazillion artists, from faithful facsimiles of the original to more outlandish and unique takes.

The Jesus And Mary Chain‘s version kerb-crawls on a path of fuzz bass and monotonous, reverb-heavy drum machine, a street-smart, street-walking panther clad in black leather.

The Jesus And Mary ChainWho Do You Love?

Jim Reid’s vocals are mogadon-heavy, slo-mo and slurred, all faux Americana, menacing and sinister and hung-off-the-microphone at ninety degrees. Plus ça change, as they say in East Kilbride.

By the time the JAMC’s version has oozed its way, oil slick thick, to the halfway mark, you’re acutely aware that brother William, usually already fifteen rounds gone in a fight with a bucketful of feedback and crashing shards of glassy, ear-splitting sonic terror is, on this record, comparatively understated. He’s there though, happy to be in the background, hitting the odd sustaining, reverberating chord and slopping splashes of sonic colour to the palette whenever the urge makes itself known from beneath the bird’s nest on his giant, Stooges ‘n Velvets-filled heid.

By far his most important job it seems though is to abruptly turn off the drum machine, just as the JAMC did when playing live.

How do we end this, William?

By doing this, Jim.

 

Get This!

Brains and LeBron

I know zilch about basketball. I know the players are eighteen feet tall in their bare feet. I know they can shoot hoops cleanly from half a mile away without either the use of the backboard or the ball ruffling the interior sides of the net as it registers three points to the shooter. I know Michael Jordan – number 23, I believe – got very rich off of a particular brand of Nike sneaker training shoe and that, aside from watching the Beastie Boys play two-on-one, the Harlem Globetrotters are by far the most dazzling team to watch. I also know that when they list the scores – eg Lakers 124 v 118 Celtics, the match in question was played at the home of the team listed second, which is just daft. So yes, I know zilch about basketball. I’m much more of a football guy. And that’s Scottish football, not yer American variation. Ask me anything about a provincial team’s perennial benchwarmers or just how shoogly the manager’s jacket is at any of the lower league teams come Easter time, and I’m yer man. But basketball, or to be exact, the regular actions of one of its more prominent players, was the stimulus for one of the modern era’s greatest tracks.

Anderson .PaakKing James

For a short second, those of us in the west of Scotland and select other provinces could be forgiven for doing a double take at the title of the track in the spotlight. Here and elsewhere, King James has very different historical connotations, all of them involving battles on white horses and all of them bigoted, religion-fuelled and best-kept in the knuckle-dragging past.

The King James in .Paak’s track (and while we’re on the subject of daftness, what’s that rogue dot all about?) refers to LA Lakers’ LeBron James – also, coincidentally, number 23 – and his ceaseless championing of America’s black community, his outspoken anger at trigger-happy policing and the tireless charity work he carries out to help the oppressed, the marginalised and the disenfranchised.

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

James follows in the footsteps of quarterback Colin Kaepernick. A football player (US variety) with the San Francisco 49ers, he began in 2016 to kneel during the national anthem – a protest – what’s so great about America, eh? – at the regular and ongoing social injustice and police brutality of African-Americans. Kaepernick wouldn’t play in the game for much longer. His actions polarised America. Donald Trump battered in as only thick bigots can by declaring that NFL owners should fire any player who refuses to stand for the national anthem. At the end of that season, Kapernick was released, free to join any club who wanted his services. He has never played again.

In solidarity, and to highlight Kaepernick’s unjust treatement from his sport’s paymasters, LeBron James began taking the knee before Lakers’ games, a powerful action that, on the back of the George Floyd killing last year, eventually led to the Black Lives Matter campaign.

Released in 2019, Anderson .Paak’s track perfectly foreshadows the BLM movement. It refers to both Kaepernick and James throughout. Its subject matter is the sort of contemporary politics that Marvin Gaye might’ve gone for had he recorded What’s Going On half a century later.

Anderson .Paak keeps the wooly bunnet and bearded handsomness but updates and reboots the Gaye protest, going less for smooth, airy soul and more for a glitchy, jerky, bump ‘n grind modern variation.

Bubbling on-the-one bass and a repeating sax motif that calls to mind the sort of breathy, freeflowing jazz that Maceo Parker was adding to Prince records when he was last untouchable carry the track, as skittering, breakbeating drums rattle the rhythm to its conclusion. Surfing somewhere inbetween is a subtle electro tick tock and a harmonising female backing vocal that adds sass and gloss, but never gets in the way of .Paak’s incredible lead vocal, part gravel, part grease, but always great. His phrasing…his control…his delivery… it’s fantastic.

A lot of the other material on the track’s parent album (Ventura) has, so far, left me kinda cold, but King James is a play-once and repeat-often modern-day stone cold classic. Worth investigating, I’d say.

Gone but not forgotten, Kraut-y

Kitchen Sink Drama

Famously, The La’s hated their debut album. Where the record-buying public heard it for what it was – a great collection of well-constructed chiming, rattling and rolling songs, Lee Mavers rubbished it as a mismatch of tracks recorded at various sessions with a variety of producers over a couple of years; a guide vocal here, an unfinished guitar part there, a work in-never-ending process. Given a sprinkling of magic dust by Steve Lillywhite and released against the band’s wishes, it lacked, shouted Mavers, spontaneity, cohesion and the requisite ’60s dust. Chas Smash, once of Madness and at the time The La’s A&R guy told me recently of the band’s American tour to promote the record when Lee, faced with the wibbling and gurning jocks on ButtKiss FM – “I love your shit, man!” – would slap a beat-up C90 in front of the presenter and declare loudly and proudly, “Dis… (slap!) is da fookin’ album, la. Play dis one instead!” The record company people, with the promotional weight and might of Polygram behind them, would hold their heads in their hands in despair as, station after station, Mavers would repeat his trick until eventually, the stations stopped playing any La’s at all.

Likewise the Beta Band. They certainly weren’t the first band to disown their debut album, but they were equally as vocal as The La’s. “It’s definitely the worst record we’ve ever made,” announced Steve Mason when it was released in 1999, “and it’s probably one of the worst records that’ll come out this year. It’s fucking awful.”

Coming a year after the celebrated ‘Three EPs‘ compilation, the band took the magpie ‘n kitchen sink approach that they’d developed over those three singles and threw everything, literally and metaphorically, into the self-titled debut album proper.

They wanted to make it a double album, with each of its four sides recorded in a different continent; Asia, South America, and so on. Economics had the final say unsurprisingly, and so much of the record was put together in a shed that belonged to the grandfather of the band’s keyboard player/sampler/DJ John Maclean. An ambient companion piece was eventually shelved, trimming the intended double album to a single ten track record.

It was a difficult record to pigeonhole, and thank goodness for that. In an era when bands were defined by the trainers they wore or the records they never namechecked, The Beta Band was almost unclassifiable. It bulges and bursts with ideas; wonky Scottish raps, carnival drums, filling-loosening dub reggae bass, frazzled and meandering psychedelic guitar lines… sometimes within the one track.

Beta BandBroken Up Adingdong

Goat Fell and Glen Rosa on the Isle of Arran given a psychedelic makeover

Broken Up Adingdong is almost every idea considered for the album realised in miniature. Beginning on a rhythm of pattering handclaps and what might be someone playing makeshift drums with the palms of their hands on the back of an acoustic guitar, it motors along on a steady, skifflish two chord shuffle that falls somewhere between the scrubbed to the knuckles approach of The Woodentops and the measured discipline of Can or the Velvet Underground.

Tumbling waterfalls of acoustic guitar – similar to the occasional riff that permeates The Patty Patty Sound‘s ‘Monolith‘ – chime their way in and out of the tune, panning from left to right and back again (try it with headphones on for full effect) and as it builds to a crescendo of overlapping vocals, repetitive chants and frantic, double-time claps, it gives way to a collage of beats.

Calypso drums dance and weave in and out. Loosely tightened drums thunder with Bonhamesque brute force. Hairspray hi-hats hiss their way across the top, disco without the glitterball, as some sort of Donna Summerish string sweeps in and then out again just as abruptly. One of those old-fashioned bicycle horns hee-haws its squeaky guffaw between the tapestry of pots ‘n pans percussion and the whole thing rattles and rolls to a stuttering close, as dignified as the Eastenders theme tune tumbling down ten flights of tenement stairs. It’s messy, hypnotic and groovy as fuck.

Time has been kind to the Beta Band and The Beta Band. It’s certainly not the clunker the band suggested it was, and not for a minute do I believe Steve Mason when he said as much. Twenty years on, I suggest you revisit that debut album as soon as you can.