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Magnum Opus

July 25, 2017

The grand old Magnum Leisure Centre in Irvine is being pulled down as I type. Local politics and whatnot has seen the building fall gradually into disrepair, an eyesore too far gone for a quick cash injection and 60 minute makeover. They’ve opened a spanking new place in the town centre. It’s impressive ‘n all that, but like for like, it doesn’t come close to what the Magnum offered.

A fixture on Irvine beach since 1976, the Magnum played a formative part in most Irvinites’ growing up. Beyond Irvine, it was known as the place where you were bussed on a school trip; to swim, to skate, to watch the latest blockbuster in its plush 300-seater theatre. If you were that awkward age between being too old to stay in on a weekend night but too young for the pub, the Magnum was your saviour. There’s no-one I know who didn’t go there. Even oor ain Nicola Sturgeon mentioned it on her Desert Island Discs, recalling Frosty’s Ice Disco skating sessions with a misty-eyed fondness.

The Magnum had something for everyone. The Scottish Indoor Bowls championships were held there. Every pedigree dog in the country was shown there at some point. Girls and boys danced at regional shows. Gymnasts tumbled and twirled and twisted their way around the main hall. 80s fitness freaks squashed while the half-hearted badmintoned. All manner of variety shows were held there and crucially, all manner of big, proper, touring bands poured through the doors as quickly as they could be accomodated.

Irvine in the 1980s was a popular place for all your favourite bands to play; The Clash, The Jam, Big Country, Thin Lizzy, Chuck Berry, The Smiths, The Wonderstuff, Madness….. the list is endless, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Willie Freckleton, the local Entertainments Officer who offered up what was at the time the largest indoor concert hall in Europe to the promoters and band managers who deigned which towns were important enough to play. Willie offered the hall rent free, which proved to be the clinching factor most of the time. Amazingly, most of the bands would include Glasgow and Irvine as part of the same tour, something that, since the building of the Hydro on Glasgow’s Clydeside is now unthinkable.

The SmithsBigmouth Strikes Again (live at the Magnum, Sept 22nd 1985)

I believe this was the first time Bigmouth was played live.

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There are a multitude of stories connected to the Magnum, from local folk who were so familiar with the warren of corridors and passageways in the changing areas that they could sneak from the ice disco into the UB40 gig without paying, or the young fans who found themselves receiving mohawks from Clash roadie Kosmo Vinyl after they’d played a terrific London Calling-era ‘Greatest Hits’ gig, not that The Clash ‘did’ greatest hits, but you know what I mean.

I remember the day The Jam came to town. Too young for the show (I didn’t even know it was on) I happened to be at the front of my house as scooter after scooter after scooter buzzed past on their way from Glasgow to the Magnum. A multitude of mirrors, parkas and girls riding pillion, it was just about the most impressive thing I’d seen at that point in my life, something only equalled when I saw The Clash in Irvine Mall on the day of their Magnum show. Four alien-looking guys in denim and leather and black shades, surrounded by a scrum of older folk I recognised from the years above at school. “It’s The Fucking Clash!!!” is what I remember hearing, even if I was unaware exactly who The Fucking Clash were at that point in my life.

Spandau Ballet, photo by Ross Mackenzie

Thrillingly, Ross has snapped loads of bands at the Magnum.

Sadly, this is all he could find!

Willie Feckleton once told me a great story about booking Chuck Berry, his idol and the musician he was most thrilled at having landed to play in Irvine. Chuck, a musical giant who was right there alongside Ike Turner at the birth of rock ‘n roll, a man who is responsible for fashioning the DNA of the rock guitar riff was, by all accounts a thoroughly unpleasant human being. In Irvine he wouldn’t play until he’d first been handed his fee (paid in American dollars, of course) in a brown paper bag in the dressing room before going on stage.

The anonymous support band was also Chuck’s backing group and when Chuck eventually came on he played on about only six songs. He let the other guitarist take most of the solos, looked super-bored throughout and disappeared offstage fairly quickly.”

 

Coming off after the set Willie approached Chuck enthusiastically. “That was great Chuck! They love you out there! How about an encore?

 

Sure,” drawled Chuck with his hands out. “Fo’ anutha’ five hun’red dollas…

 

There was no encore.

It’s stories like those above that live long after the artist has left town and the gig is nothing more than a pre-smartphone blur of exaggerations and half-truths. Did Morrissey really dance with Brian McCourt’s umbrella when The Smiths played? Did Phil Lynott really nip up to George the Barber at the Cross for a quick trim of the ‘fro, mid tour with Thin Lizzy? Who can be certain if they did or didn’t? For cultural and economical terms, it’s a real shame that Irvine no longer has a venue that can be used to entice the big acts of the day to come and play and create memories for our young (and not so young) folk.

These bricks rang!

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Waltz #2

July 18, 2017

Hailing from Caithness, near John O’ Groats at the very top of Scotland, the furthest outreach on the British Isles, Neon Waltz are as far-removed from any ‘scene’ as possible. The six-piece are an insular unit; self-sufficient, self-reliant and self-absorbed.


The music they make is, if you’re of a certain age, nothing you haven’t heard before, but no less thrilling. In songs such as Dreamers and Heavy Heartless they have that unique way of creating an uplifting melancholy; world-weary vocals carried along by chiming, fizzing guitars and a heavy swell of Hammond organ. You might find comparisons with The Coral, The Charlatans or Teardrop Explodes, bands who know how to brew a heady swirl of guitar and organ that’ll lift you to giddy new heights. Lazy folk might label them ‘indie’. I prefer to call them slightlydelic.

Neon WaltzHeavy Heartless


As befits a band that is so far off the taste radar of hip opinion as to be almost non-existent, they have the freedom to come and go as they please. Regular zig-zagging across the highways and biways of the UK combined with a hermit-like lifestyle in their rehearsal space in an abandoned croft – Music From Big McPink, if y’like, has helped the band forge a sound that led them to Atlantic Records and a deal with Ignition. And a month from now, two years since first being signed, their debut album will be released. It won’t come with much of a fanfare or blustery media hype, but it will come with the guarantee of a melody-rich debut, a record that may well prove to be the year zero for future bands. You can quote me on that when the time comes.

A recent photo session on the Isle of Stroma, halfway between the very north of Scotland and the southerly tip of the Orkneys proved fruitful. Shooting the photos that will presumably appear on all promotional material for the imminent album release, the band chanced upon the long-since abandoned school house. Amazed to find it was accessible, they entered and found an old harmonium, lying dusty, untouched and exactly as it had been left when last used. More amazingly, keyboard player Liam Whittles was able to extract noise from it; eerie, ghost-like and gossamer thin, the old harmonium wheezed into life. A spontaneous version of  Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s ‘Music For A Found Harmonium’ was followed by this beautiful reworking of their own Heavy Heartless. It’s magic; understated, creaky and exactly how a harmonium-enhanced band should sound.

Neon WaltzHeavy Heartless (Stroma Schoolhouse Session)

Neon Waltz go on tour shortly. Their debut album, ‘Strange Hymns‘ is out at the end of July on Ignition Records. It  can be ordered direct from the band here and in all the usual places.

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“Radio(head)! Live TRNSMTN”

July 10, 2017

Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the Radio(head).

I saw Radiohead for only the 4th time in 24 years on Friday night. Hardly the most regular of touring bands, it was either stand in a field at day 1 of Scotland’s newest festival, TRNSMT, and wait patiently for the only band worth shelling out £60 for, or watch edited highlights on the telly later that night and mutter silently to myself that I should’ve been there. After failing to secure a coveted press pass – lack of credentials, they said – I shelled out the £60 and went. Which was the correct decision, of course.

Their Glastonbury set a couple of weeks previously fairly split my Facebook feed in half. For every friend purring over their set, there were others spitting venom.”They’re tuneless!” “They don’t play the old stuff!” “They’re just like (spit) this generation’s Pink Floyd!“, shouted as if Pink Floyd were/are the anti-christ or something. The reason John Lydon wore an ‘I Hate Pink Floyd’ t-shirt in 1976 was clear – the progressive, noodling dinosaurs were required to be extinct in order for the new musical youth to crash the party and shake things up somewhat. It’s worth reflecting on the fact that Pink Floyd were barely 10 years into a 40+ year career when Johnny first sported his shirt. And it’s worth noting that until today’s musical youth get their arse in gear and produce a musical movement worthy of shaking up the current regime, your super soaraway Radiohead is as good as it gets.

There are a number of unspoken rules when it comes to headlining a festival. A headliner should play to the crowd. Feature a generous helping of all the big hits. Engage with the audience. Maybe pull a nice-looking girl out of the crowd and dance with her. Radiohead find themselves in the enviable position of being able to do whatever they like and still remain numero uno. They are a walking, talking example of that well worn band cliche of we play what we like and if anyone else likes it, it’s a bonus. Lucky for Radiohead, hundreds and thousands and millions of folk love ’em. So they take the festival rule book and bin it. They don’t have big hits to begin with. Crowd-favourites, aye, but no real hits. And don’t for one minute think you’ll be pulled from the crowd and serenaded with Creep. Second-on-the-bill Belle & Sebastian did the honours for them when they pulled half the front row out to dance on-stage during their finale, waved off by a cheery Stuart Murdoch saying, “Thanks for coming up and dancing. You do realise you’ve lost your spot for Radiohead though?!?

And as for audience engagement, Thom is certainly not going to say much to a crowd who, for all their love of the band, are shoving Palestinian flags in his face wherever he looks. Glasgow and Scotland, currently the oppressed by the UK Government’s policies on Europe, know a political cause when they see one and they aren’t too taken by Yorke’s stance with the Israeli oppressors. Politics aside though, this was a fantastic show.

Bursts of discordant, eerie music punctuated the air for the half hour or so before Radiohead took the stage. Had one of the band left their Polyfauna app running on random through the PA? It sounded like it. When the band arrive, there’s no fanfare. They stroll on, plug in and begin with the sublime double whammy of Let Down and Lucky. Where Let Down soars, Lucky actually sounds like the slow-motion plane crash that’s sung about in the lyrics. It’s a brilliant opener and when, for the first time tonight a posse of black-clad roadies wheel on a console of the sort the BBC Radiophonic Workshop might’ve worked up some futuristic soundcscapes on, expectations are high for something special. Ful Stop careers into action, all wobbling, juddering, claustrophobic paranoia. “This is a foul-tasting medicine,” mutters Yorke and not for the last time tonight, whole sections of the crowd are looking  a wee bit lost. These’ll be the same people who were moaning about the ‘hit-free’ Glastonbury set. It’s fantastic of course.

Modern Radiohead swap instruments and whole genres as effortlessly as a magician pulling rabbits out of a hat. Ed’s additional vocals and subtle percussive touches keep the music sounding as real as the recorded versions. Johnny – we’re right in front of him and witness up close his skills on a whole array of instruments – is the one who adds splashes of exotic colour to the sound. He goes for the full Spinal Tapisms of bowing the strings on his guitar during Pyramid Song before switching to a string-based contraption played on the keyboard for the song’s coda. Elsewhere, he wrings seven shades of hell from his trusty Telecaster; white noise, chiming, echoing triplets, thunderous power chords, piercing guitar solos, often all in the same song. He’s all jaggy elbows and fringe, but go Johnny go! He’s terrific.

It’s the rhythm section though that is most impressive. Colin wrestles with his bass guitar for a full two and a half hours, noodling the sort of meandering riffs Holger Czukay might’ve employed during his time with Can. For most of the set an addditional drummer skitters along, perfectly complementing Phil’s polyrhythms. At one point, Johnny joins in for some additional percussion that drives the whole thing along towards jazz. Half the audience are thinking ‘pure Mingus’. The other half, the ones that are moving to the sides (“We’ll come back when they play ‘Creep'” I hear one man say to his partner. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but…) are thinking ‘pure mingin”. Lotus Flower sounds immense. Thom’s got out his 3 maracas and is shaking them like the anti-Bez – if Bez was all boggle-eyed and limbs akimbo, Thom is a gammy-eyed, hunched up Albert Steptoe in a man-bun – and despite its weird time signature and stop/start clatter, the heads in the audience are bobbing up and down in time to the beat. Everything In It’s Right Place is all cut ‘n paste techno, Johnny sampling Thom’s voice and chopping it up before looping it to eternity via some fancy pants handheld gizmo, the sound skiffling across and out into the ether like some particuarly skilled flat stone skimmer on a west of Scotland beach.


When the guitars come out, the Radiohead juggernaut flies. There There, a brutal 2+2=5, a groovy Bodysnatchers, all examples of why Radiohead are like no other act on the planet. The second half of the set starts with Daydreaming, the set lit up in silvery-white lights. It’s plain and simply breathtaking. Paranoid Android is ridiculously self-indulgent and insular, yet hard rockin’. Not in a Biffy, tops off ‘n tattooes way. Radiohead rock way harder than that particular version of turned up to 11 pop music. They also do subtle. Fake Plastic Trees is understated and fragile before bursting into white noise with the ‘she looks like a ray of sun‘ bit. No Surprises receives a massive cheer right after the ‘Bring down the Government, they don’t speak for us‘ line. And, while we don’t get Creep, we do get a slightly slowed-down Bends, massive power chords ebbing out across the crowd and into the Glasgow night sky. We’re left with Karma Police, Thom and Ed staying back after the rest of the band has gone to conduct the crowd in an acapella rendition of the song’s climax. For a minute there, or two and a half hours to be precise, we lost oursleves.


Debating the setlist in the car on the way home, you could write another 20+ song set of the tracks Radiohead didn’t play. But that’s nit picking. Here’s what they did play:

 

1) Let Down

2) Lucky

3) Ful Stop

4) 15 Step

5) Myxomatosis

6) There, There

7) All I Need

8) Pyramid Song

9) Everything In Its Right Place

10) Reckoner

11) Bloom

12) Identikit

13) Weird Fishes

14) Idioteque

15) The Numbers

16) Bodysnatchers

17) 2 + 2 = 5

[ENCORE 1]
18) Daydreaming

19) No Surprises

20) Lotus Flower

21) Paranoid Android

22) Fake Plastic Trees

[ENCORE 2]

23) Nude

24) The Bends

25) Karma Police

 

*A phone catastrophe on Friday night meant I lost not only all my contacts, but also the dozen or so Radiohead pictures I’d taken for inclusion here. The images I’ve used are all borrowed from Twitter, Instagram and various news sources. If you’d prefer me not to use your image please get in touch and I’ll remove it. Also, if you would like a photo credit please get in touch and I’ll amend. Cheers.

 

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Girlfriend Is Better

July 5, 2017

One Artist stands head and shoulders above all others when it comes to internet presence…or lack of. Ironic really, considering he wasn’t much taller then the height of nonsense. Yet He Who Cannot Be Named held such sway over his music appearing online that websites could (and did) disappear overnight at the mere mention of his name therein. Heaven help you if you dared feature any actual music. His army of internet police swiftly and efficiently erased all trace of free music relating to their master even quicker and slicker than their boss was able to rattle off one of his insanely flash guitar riffs. Even the use of purple font, they say, was considered a risky business.

I write all this in the past tense as since the artists’s death, the ‘net has seen a subtle relaxation and/or bending of the rules when it comes to him. You’d still be a fool to put any old mp3 up for grabs, and wobetide you if you’ve considered YouTubing shaky mobile footage of the maestro at work on a stage gone by. As the ancient proverb goes, never, ever try to steal from a man who dances in kitten heels. There seems to be an unspoken agreement though that we writers can now write about him without fear of reprisal. So here goes.

If I Was Your Girlfriend is the artist in question in microcosm. Produced, Composed, Arranged and Performed by it says on the sleeve notes of Sign O’ The Times, the single’s parent album. It’s a monumental album in every way; a double, for starters, it takes in funk, soul, rock, rap, jazz, blues and gospel, genre hopping with effervescent fizz like a hyperactive child who’s overdosed on sugar. It also sounds as fresh today as the day in 1987 when it was born.

Almost everything is played by just the one musician. The skeletal shards of white-hot house on Housequake are played and sung only by him. The pseudo-psychedelia of Starfish & Coffee is created only by him. If I Was Your Girlfriend, with its metronomic yet strange rhythmic beat and on-the-four computerised thunderclap was built up from scratch by one person. Add a sparse keyboard signature riff, a gloop of slap bass and a collage of backing vocals featuring multilayers of the one voice sped up and slowed down and you’re in the presence of greatness. Stick a risque and pervy lyric on top, of the sort that no-one else would get away with, and you have yourself a weird ‘n wonky pop classic. The way the vocals weave in and out is magic. He harmonises with himself, deep and gritty one moment, falsetto flash the next. Just as you’ve pegged him for a god-fearin’, tear-soaked and on his knees James Brown, he goes all spoken word, like a pervier and more grooved-up Gainsbourg, if that is at all possible.

He Who Cannot Be NamedIf I Was Your Girlfriend

Like all great artists, his best work could often be found tucked away on the b-sides. He may have been considered an ‘album artist’, easy to see why with a golden run stretching from 82’s ‘1999‘ to 87’s ‘Sign O’ The Times‘ and many of his other 39 (39!!!) studio albums unarguably solid gold, stone cold classics, but the multitude of singles and remixes that spat forth with every release contained their fair share of underheard greatness. Shockadelica was a left-over from the Camille phase, an alter-ego project that never really got going. The music was too good to waste though, and much of it ended up on other releases, such as the b-side of If I Was Your Girlfriend. This is classic He Who Cannot Be Named Music – call-and-response vocals, computerised on-the-one rhythms, casually tossed-off squealy guitar solos, underpinned by a 7th add 9 chord, the chord that colours any music the colour of funk.

He Who Cannot Be NamedShockadelica

Early 90s girl group TLC made a decent stab at covering If I Was Your Girlfriend, the original providing the blueprint for the trio’s sassy but rough round the edges r’n’b. They even have a go at some of the spoken word section, although no doubt in order to appeal to their legions of teenage fans, they’ve left out some of the saucier words.

TLC –  If I Was Your Girlfriend

And here’s Creep, one of their biggest hits. This actually sounds like a track that He Who Cannot Be Named might’ve been inclined to record himself; horn samples, synthetic rhythms, multilayered vocals with falsettos aplenty, hooks galore….s’a cracker!

TLCCreep

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Robber Dub Dub

June 25, 2017

Back in 1990, when I provided shaky lead guitar and wobbly vocals in a promising local band that would soon cease to be, myself and two of my bandmates, deep in the midst of a songwriters’ block, visited the local market where an old guy sold older records at knock-down prices. We went specifically to look for records no-one had ever heard of in order to rip off a chord change here or a melody there. It would be the nail in the coffin of our creative process and we limped into insignificance shortly after.

Last week I was flicking through my records, looking for something different to play, when I chanced upon one of the albums we’d bought. Quite what ‘Try To Be Mensch‘ by Element Of Crime brought to the world of guitar-based music is anyone’s guess. I’d picked it up after spotting John Cale credited with keyboard duties. Whether or not it’s THE John Cale is open for debate. A quick Google has proven fruitless and the record, if my 27 year-old memory serves me well bore little resemblance to anything like the Velvet Underground. At 99p it proved to be a waste of money. However….

…when I pulled it out to look at it the other day, wedged inside was my copy of Black Market Clash, an album I’d long-since assumed to be lost forever. How The Clash album had managed to find its way inside the sleeve of a record I’ve never ever played all the way through is a mystery, but when it fell out, it was greeted like a long lost pal. And ever since, it’s been spinning on heavy rotation.

I love Black Market Clash. It’s a pot pourri of everything The Clash were; rare mixes, re-recordings and interesting cover versions, all helped along by a generous sprinkling of filling-loosening reggae basslines. It’s as far-removed from the spitting, snarling, rabid dog of punk as is possible. You might go so far as to say that with all their eclecticism, yer Clash were rock’s answer to Brian Wilson; ideas fully realised, gung ho experimentation, risk-taking, rule-breaking, chart-making hits. The full version of Bankrobber/Robber Dub is nothing short of sensational. Crucially, the version on vinyl is a full minute and a half longer than the slightly edited but still superb CD edit. Technology being what it is in my house, you’ll need to make do with the shorter take though…

The ClashBankrobber/Robber Dub (CD edit)

Elsewhere, there’s a version of Booker T‘s Time Is Tight that somehow failed to make the cut on Sandinista! and a faithful reworking of Willi William‘s Armagideon Time that first saw the light of day on the b-side of the London Calling single.

The ClashTime Is Tight

Booker T and the MGsTime Is Tight

The ClashArmagideon Time

Willie WilliamsArmagideon Time

These days you can buy Super Black Market Clash on CD (although it’ll be missing (Armagideon Time as well as the extra 90 or so seconds from Bankrobber) a turbo-charged version of the original 10″ EP/LP, but if it’s a quick fix of eclectic Clash you’re after, that midi-sized slab of vinyl with a police-defying Don Letts on the cover is all you’ll need.

 

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Pepper (Slight Return)

June 13, 2017

The previous post (on Elliott Smith, below) was written on the back of the Sgt Pepper anniversary/reissue jamboree. By coincidence, so is this one.

Sgt Pepper turned the world on its axis. The day it was released, the 60s went from the monochromed mundanity of a smog-filled Britain with wee men in bowler hats running the country to a cosmic technicolour planet where anything was possible. And anything was possible. On the 4th June 1967, just two days after Pepper came out, Paul and George found themselves at The Saville Theatre for a Jimi Hendrix Experience show. Hendrix, perfectly aware that half of The Beatles were in attendance had the mother of all aces up his silken batwinged sleeve.

Hendrix had appeared from nowhere, brought to Britain by The Animals’ Chas Chandler, immediately establishing himself as a top fixture in all the right clubs in swinging London. He was a top-heavy hippy in military garb, supported by sparrow-narrow legs with hair as wild and electric as the upside-down Strat he toted. Jaw-dropping in both sound and ability, Jimi could play lead and rhythm concurrently, his big right thumb working the bass notes the way a conventional guitarist might use his first finger. With black-as-coal hamster eyes permanently sparkling he sent multicoloured notes of amplified electric greatness out into the ether. He was untouchable.

To open The Saville Theatre show, Jimi and his Experience worked up a version of Sgt Peppers‘ lead track, slow and sludgy, loose and on the edge of falling apart, unmistakeably Hendrix and super-thrilling. Jimi replicated the whole thing, even playing the brass section as guitar riffs. A guitar-heavy track to begin with, Hendrix made it his own. A thrilled Paul and George watched from the balcony as Jimi caught their eye and smiled his knowing, lopsided, stoned grin.

Jimi opened, the curtains flew back and he came walking forward, playing ‘Sgt. Pepper’, and it had only been released on the Thursday so that was like the ultimate compliment. It’s still obviously a shining memory for me, because I admired him so much anyway, he was so accomplished. To think that that album had meant so much to him as to actually do it by the Sunday night, three days after the release. He must have been so into it, because normally it might take a day for rehearsal and then you might wonder whether you’d put it in, but he just opened with it. It’s a pretty major compliment in anyone’s book. I put that down as one of the great honours of my career. I mean, I’m sure he wouldn’t have thought of it as an honour, I’m sure he thought it was the other way round, but to me that was like a great boost. (Paul McCartney)
Jimi Hendrix ExperienceSgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (Saville Theatre, London, 4.6.67)

One of the best Beatles’ covers? Quite possibly. You’ll have your own ideas, no doubt. Beatles’ covers are ten-a-penny. We all know that. The Sgt Pepper album was treated to the full monty in 1987 when the NME, back in the days when it was still a barometer of hip opinion, released the whole album in cover form. It’s a fairly stinking album, all truth be told. It did raise money for charity, getting Wet Wet Wet’s version of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends‘ to number one in the process, and it did give Billy Bragg a back-door entry to the top of the charts (the barking bard from Barking’s version of ‘She’s Leaving Home’ was on the b-side) but, 30 years on, it’s best forgotten about.

In contrast to Jimi’s spectacular take on the title track, Three Wize Men (Google won’t help) bravely attempted a none-more-80s hip hop version of the same track. Perhaps at the time it was a radical thrill (I doubt it) but nowadays it sounds about as edgy as something Age Of Chance might’ve left lying unloved on the studio floor.

Three Wize MenSgt Pepper

 

The album closer, by that most NME of bands The Fall, is a bit better, this album’s saving grace, even, even if Mark E Smith sounds totally bored by the whole concept. He probably was.

The FallA Day In The Life

She’s Leaving Home…..

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Just A Shooting Star

June 4, 2017

There’s a wee bit of a media-fixated Beatles renaissance going just now, what with Sgt Pepper turning 50 and fortnightly reissues of their back catalogue racked up in the Spar alongside Tank Commander Monthly and Build Your Own Millenium Falcon Weekly. It’s a great time to be discovering them for the first time. Who cares if someone’s first exposure to Hey Bulldog is via De Agostini publishing?

Fast track back to the mid 90s and arguably the first flourish of serious Beatles reappraisal since the demise of the band. With their self-proclaimed monobrowed monopoly on all things Fab you could be forgiven for thinking that Oasis had cornered the market in Beatles-influenced music. Just because they shouted louder and played louder and just were louder in every sense didn’t mean they were the only ones with a fevered fascination for the Fab Four. The louder the gob, the bigger the knob ‘n all that. If you listen closely to their music these days, is it even possible to spot The Beatles’ references? Is it? Well, aye, it is. A wee bit. Some of their less-ballsy records have the ‘feel’ of late-era Beatles – All Around The World‘s universal message sounds like the sort of song a lazy advertiser might come up with if tasked with creating a Beatley tune in an afternoon, and Liam is awfully fond of doing his best Lennon sneer atop a grandly played piano. Many of their harmonies are quite clearly direct second cousins of the real deal, but after that, I’m stumped. There are far better bands who’ve dipped deep into the best back catalogue in popular music and pulled out their own skewed version of Fabness. You’ll have your own favourites.

 

And so to Elliott Smith. If you’ve been visiting Plain Or Pan since the glory days of 2007, you’ll know he’s a big favourite round here. He still is. Indeed, his 4th album, 1998’s XO is currently spinning for ther umpteenth time this week. After years of being out of print on vinyl, it finally made it back onto wax a couple of weeks ago. My eye was off the ball when initial copies went on sale and I missed out on the very limited (500 copies, I think) marbled vinyl version, so I had to settle for the standard black 180 gram edition instead. No big deal really. Really. No, really! I’ve lived with the CD since the day of release, discovered when I was working on the counter of Our Price where it was a ‘Recommended Release‘ that week. I played it three times straight through that afternoon in a fairly empty shop, each subsequent play making my jaw drop a notch closer to the sticky carpet. His voice! Gossamer-light and as fragile as fuck. His playing! Beautifully picked arpeggios one moment, brightly ringing fancy chords the next, no solos but lead breaks that aped the vocal melody – just like Paul McCartney. His arrangements! Double-tracked and beautifully harmonised vocal effects, weird ‘n wonkily off-key pianos, little melodic runs up and down the fretboards and keys….. total Beatles! While the Mancunian magpies were belching loudly about their love for The Beatles, here was Elliott Smith very quietly and unassumingly wearing his obvious love for them, not only on his sleeve, but in the grooves inside the sleeve.

XO is a fantastic album. It was Elliott’s major label debut and followed hot on the heels of Either/Or, the undisputed ace in his back catalogue up until then. Either/Or is also packed full of introspective, whispered songs. Alameda. The Ballad Of Big Nothing. Say Yes. Between The Bars. Angeles. All are what you might loosely call ‘Greatest Hits’, had Elliott been fortunate enough to have had such things. All feature the signature double-tracked vocal (like Lennon), the melody-chasing guitar (like McCartney) and the unassuming resignation of George Harrison; always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Even at the Oscars, when a crumpled and bemused Elliott performed after the Good Will Hunting soundtrack received a nomination, he was the outsider. Celine Dion might’ve beat him to the gong, but who in their right mind would want to play that Titanic song 20 years later? Conversely, Elliott’s music endures.

What Either/Or lacks is clarity and sheen. It’s very lo-fi and indie. Coffee house music for misfits who’ve fallen on hard times and hard drugs. XO has a bright and shiny polish to it, reflected (gettit?) in the fact that much of it was recorded in California and LA.

Opener Sweet Adeline was the clincher for me. Just Elliott and his guitar, with descending riff and wonky chord included, the clouds part at the first chorus and sunlight bursts in in the form of glorious harmonies and barrelhouse piano, the drum sound not a million miles away from something Ringo might’ve strived for around 1967.

Elliott SmithSweet Adeline

I knew there and then that this was an album I was going to love. By the breakdown at the end, the whole thing sounds a wee bit like the breakdown from Sgt Pepper’s Lovely Rita. This is immediately followed by Tomorrow Tomorrow, Elliott singing counter melodies to himself while he plays the most amazing ringing guitar – a 12 string with 4 strings missing, closely miked and double-tracked (again) to sound like a whole orchestra of guitars. The songs that follow on are stellar. Waltz #2 was the album’s near hit; a piano and acoustic guitar fighting for top billing, lilting and waltzing (aye) to a cinematic end with sweeping, swooping strings. And did he really sing about ‘Cathy’s Clown‘ in the first verse? Yes! This was confirmed on the 2nd listen.

Elliott SmithWaltz #2

The only Everly’s reference I’d ever heard in song was McCartney’s ‘Let ‘Em In‘ and here was another. It was a sign. Three songs in and I had discovered an album that remains to this day an essential album, one of my very own Recommended Releases. To paraphrase Brian Clough, I wouldn’t say XO is the best album ever written, but it’s in the top one.

There’s plenty more Beatleisms throughout; Bottle Up And Explode has an ending that George Martin would’ve loved putting together, layer upon layer of vocals and guitars and strings and weird effects and kitchen sinks. It’s very Fab.

Elliott SmithBottle Up And Explode

As is Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands, a song that sounds as if it’s going nowhere until Elliott drops a clanger of a swear word and the whole thing ramps up a gear on the back of it. The ending has a great clash of sighing cellos, sighing backing vocals and a crescendo half-way between The Smiths’ Death Of  A Disco Dancer and a DIY Day In The Life.

Elliott SmithEverybody Cares, Everybody Understands

Bled White is another. Ringing guitars, electric organ and a fantastic (fabstastic?) call and response vocal. This is music made in the studio, deliberately written to sound as good as possible in recorded form.

Elliott SmithBled White

Many acts go for the feel of the music, the spontaneity that a live performance brings. Elliott live was by all accounts a very hit and miss live act, and going by the numerous bootlegs I’ve listened to over the years, this would seem true. No stranger to stopping songs midway through if he wasn’t feeling it, he’d half-heartedly and quite possibly deliberately lead his band through a lumpen car crash of a song one night then play a spellbinding acoustic version the next. Tracks like Bled White could never sound great live. But recorded for posterity on XO, they sparkle immortally.

 

Elsewhere, you’ll find the bedsit Beach Boys harmonies on Oh Well, Okay have the potential to induce real tears. The wee cello swell after a minute or so is your starter for ten.

Elliott SmithOh Well, Okay

Album closer I Didn’t Understand wafts in on a raft of a-cappella vocals, just like Because on Abbey Road – a track Elliott would go on to cover on the aforementioned Good Will Hunting soundtrack, funnily enough.  I could go on and on. Suffice to say, XO is well worth investing in if you’ve never had the pleasure.

To finish, here‘s Elliott doing The Beatles. Reverential and respectful.

Elliott SmithIf I Fell

 

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