demo, Hard-to-find

Solid Gold

Paul Weller chose to bring the curtain down on The Jam – 6 studio albums and 18 singles in 5 era-defining years – with the anthemic yet wistful Beat Surrender, a piano-driven soul stomper that put a full stop on The Jam’s perfect discography and hinted at an unexpected new direction. It might have been different had their intended final released made it beyond demo form.

The JamA Solid Bond In Your Heart (demo 1)

A Solid Bond In Your Heart is the unstoppable yin to Beat Surrender‘s resigned yang. In demo form, it froths and rattles like a speed-driven floorfiller from the Wigan Casino, all floating vibraphone, four-to-the-floor incessant drums and tinny breathlessness, a talc-dusted homage to that most exclusive of subcultures. Employing the brass that served them well on The Gift and associated singles, Solid Bond flips and flaps its way to its giddy ending, Dee C. Lee’s tumbling vocal pushing Weller to the very limits of his white man does soul vocals as Bruce Foxton sprints the length of his fretboard like Duck Dunn on uppers. It’s a rush in every sense of the word.

There’s a second version from The Jam’s vaults that adds a middle eight which would ultimately disappear again by the time the track was ripe for release. Listening to it, you might spot the seeds of the dropdown in Beat Surrender. Weller certainly thought this little vignette was worthy of working on, even if it wasn’t right for Solid Bond. A bit of a rewrite and it would slot right into the epochal final release.

Extra points too go to whoever the assembled hand-clappers were on this version. Their palms would’ve been raw by the last note.

The JamA Solid Bond In Your Heart (demo 2)

Solid Bond is, though, far too upbeat and happy for such a milestone record. Paul Weller did the right thing by holding it back.

By the time A Solid Bond In Your Heart appeared for real, it would be as The Style Council‘s 4th single. Released in 1983 between the woozy haze of Long Hot Summer and the evergreen You’re The Best Thing, Solid Bond (and its accompanying video) would go some way to cementing The Style Council’s reputation as soul revivalists. In an age of synthetics – instruments… clothes… hair products… – The Style Council’s stance had to be admired, even if it was much maligned (or so they say) at the time.

Without the same attachment to The Jam that those boring older ‘mods’ (by it’s very definition, ‘mod’ should be forward thinking, no?) may have had, I found The Style Council nothing less than fantastic. Arty, pretentious and comical, yes, even to these young teenage eyes and ears, but with a mean streak in writing unforgettable hit singles. If you say you didn’t like them I don’t believe you.

The Style CouncilA Solid Bond In Your Heart

Funnily enough, it starts in almost the same way as Beat Surrender. Where that track has a tension-building piano flourish before the crash and release, Solid Bond vamps in on a teasing combination of six note piano and saxophone then slides itself into the stratosphere.

‘Feel’ is a word I can’t explain…” goes Weller from the very top, as the music proceeds to give you all the ‘feels’ you need; a wet slap of funk guitar, a skirl of strings and that same driving beat, muscled up through the addition of a moonlighting Zeke Manyika, no stranger to soul-inflected hit singles himself. The crowning glory is the brilliant duetting vocal that tops it off. All moves from The Big Book of Soul Tricks are duly cribbed; the ‘uh-huhs’, the ‘ooh-yeahs’ and the high high high falsetto; there aren’t enough ‘woo-hoo-hoos’ any more in music. I believe that’s because they were all used up on this record.

Solid Bond is handclappin’, finger-clickin’ ess oh you ell soul – Marvin and Tammi for Thatcher’s children, the joy of life preserved in seven inches of grooved vinyl. If I could do that gliding northern soul move that looks so blinkin’ effortless to those who have clearly kept more faith than myself, I’d be doing it right now while I contemplated getting myself a midlife-crisis inducing ’80s Weller wedge. Push it to the limit, as the man himself sings.

Alternative Version, demo, Get This!, Gone but not forgotten

Rollin’ and Tumblin’

What’s in a name? They may have been The Rolling Stones to plummy BBC announcers and chummy American TV hosts, but by the ’70s, they’d fallen mononymously into just the Stones; a name that suited the music that would come to define them.

The Rolling Stones was all about frantically scrubbed Bo Diddley rhythms and snake-hipped shaken maracas, three minutes of pop r’n’b that when played with a pout made the front row wet their knickers. As the principal players slowed down the gear changes in inverse proportion to the length of their songs and the length of their already-collar bothering hair, they became The Stones; dangerous, devious and undeniably dynamite.

Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone? asked Andrew Loog Oldham in the ’60s? No chance, mister. And there was absolutely no chance you’d want her anywhere near a skinny, sexed-up and strung-out Stone a short handful of years later. No chance at all.

There’s a guitar alchemy in the Stones that you’ll find in no other band since or ever. It’s all over Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street like A-class-enhanced quicksilver; a fluid melding together of Mick Taylor’s straightforward yet beautifully executed 6 string bluesisms and the loose riffing of Micawber, Keith Richards’ mangled Telecaster, bastardised to just 5 strings and tuned to open G.

Mick’s guitar sounded like this, Keith’s guitar sounded like that…and when they played together, they created an unattainable third sound; a new, harmonious chord full of air and promise, a new feel, a new something; magical, otherworldly and impossible to replicate. Sure, anyone can have the tools, but only Mick and Keith had the talent, the telepathy and the feel. (Well, later on, Ronnie would come to disprove that theory, but let’s not let that get in the way of things for now). And it’s only Mick and Keef (that’s the other Mick, the more famous Stone) who have the know-how to turn the rough stuff into polished diamonds.

The StonesTumbling Dice

My favourite Stones track will always be Tumbling Dice. It’s got everything; telepathic guitars, horns, soul, swagger, groove. That slinky, double-stringed opening riff is suitably louche and rakish, a setting out of the stall like no other.

As Keith is wont to do, he had been toying with the riff and feel of the track for a year, leaving it aside, allowing it to stew and marinade in the swill of Stones’ rehearsals, coming back to it time and again until the Stones found themselves avoiding tax in the south of France when, by this point, it was a tune ripe for recording. Initial versions were faster, less-focused and featured a hackneyed Jagger vocal that he’d be quick to abandon.

The StonesGood Time Woman (Tumbling Dice early version)

The whole of Exile On Main Street is a masterclass in studied looseness and the session track above plus the finished Tumbling Dice is the epitome of this. It might appear ragged and funky, but that sure takes a lot of practise. And alcohol. And drugs. And beautiful women wherever you turn. To have been a Stone in ’72…

Keith plays it initially with a gentle touch, feeling his way in with the opening riff until his band arrives – a decidely unusual version of the Stones for once. There was no Bill Wyman for starters. He’d gone AWOL somewhere in the south of France, fed up while the others worked all night and slept all day. He’d be back, just not in time to add his signature to what would become the lead single from Exile On Main Street. Bass duties were taken instead by Mick Taylor. To compensate for lack of rhythm guitar, Jagger himself was encouraged to get on board. Once they’re locked in and zoned out, Keith plays harder. Charlie follows, swinging the groove with understated power. And Keith plays harder again. Chugga-chugga-chugga. It’s rock’s most famous (some might say cliched) riff, played exactly the way you’ve been trying to master it since it first kissed your ears. Five strings, open G, remember.

The Stones worked up the slack rhythm track in Nellcôte, their rented French villa, but it wouldn’t be until Jagger had a random conversation with his housekeeper in L.A. about gambling that he’d have a lyric he was happy with. Dropping the ‘good time woman‘ lyric of the initial version, Jagger instead compares the sins of gambling to the sins of cheating and creates a lyric in simpatico to the music.

By the time Exile… was released, the Stones had overdubbed Atlantic soul brass courtesy of honourable Stone, Bobby Keys and piano, courtesy of the ubiquitous Nicky Hopkins. The ace in the pack was the three-girl choir, sashaying in on a riot of “ooooh-yeahs” and harmonised “bay-bees”. They duet with Jagger throughout, he rubbery, with a mouthful of mid Atlantic Cockney vowels – “yeo caaahn be mah paaaa-tnah ein cra-ah-aha-ahm” – and they stately and majestic, just on the right side of controlled.

Factor in the dueling guitars, the breath-gathering drop-out, the slide part that I’m not even sure is there but sounds like it is and you have one of the very best – the very best, if y’ask me – Stones’ tracks. Not Rolling Stones. Stones.

 

 

 

Gone but not forgotten

In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning

It begins on a static crackle of marching snare drum and tacked-on wack-a-wack DJ scratching and, as the dirty needle scrapes its way across a soundbed of Fender Rhodes and murky jazz, muted trumpets colour the scene as a gently reverberating electric guitar hints at a brewing storm. It’s Spinning The Wheel, the greatest single that neither Portishead nor Massive Attack put their name to.

George MichaelSpinning The Wheel

Spinning The Wheel was the third single from George Michael’s Older album. Released in 1996, it channels the sounds of the mid ’90s counter culture and offers it up to the mainstream; while the airwaves were clogged to the point of pollution by a Be Here Now-era Oasis and the multitude of bands who swaggered in on the one dimensional jetstream of their success, George was looking to the brooding darkness of trip-hop for inspiration.

Spinning The Wheel is crackly, claustrophobic and tunnel-visioned, a brooding and introspective track that would’ve sounded just almost as great being wrapped in the pained vocals of a Beth Gibbons or a Tracey Thorn as it does in George’s resigned three-in-the-morning delivery. He floats across Spinning The Wheel, cooing with his ‘Baby Love’ backing singers, double-tracking himself to great effect – “Spinning!” – at the end of verses, calling-and-responding in the overdubs, never anything less than pitch perfect and crystal clear throughout. Imagine being in the studio when they had the first playback of this! Aw man!

Five o’clock in the morning, you ain’t home… Six o’clock in the morning, you ain’t phoned… It seems that everybody takes their chances these days…

Clandestine, cheating, undercover sex. Spinning The Wheel. You got a thing about danger…aintcha gettin’ what you want from me? You got a thing about strangers…baby, that’s what we used to be.‘ It’s a seemingly autobiographical account of George’s lifestyle at the time; the open relationships and wandering eyes that lead to paranoia and fear – something he was very much happy to discuss in detail upon its release. You’ll find plenty if you Google it.

And I will not accept this as a part of my life…I will not live in fear of what may be… I would rather be alone than watch you spinning the wheel...’

George looked great around this time. Close-cropped Roman hair inked to his skull, ever-changing but always immaculately groomed facial hair that, if you waited long enough, would grow and morph in front of your very eyes, and he was too, never anything less than dressed head to toe in perfectly-fitted designer-casual suits. He had style, with the voice to match…as distinct, iconic and unmatched as Frank Sinatra, although what happened in Frank’s wee small hours were, I daresay, markedly different to George’s. Not one flying fuck was given by George over what anyone might’ve thought of his personal life, hence the subject matter of a song that was kept off the top of the charts by another act who really only wanted to zig-a-zig-ah too.

It was playing one time when my dad was round. He was going to help me decorate, so we were measuring the walls to work out how much wallpaper we’d need. As I foutered around the kitchen drawer in search of my tape measure I could hear my dad whistle and doo-de-dooing his way through the tune, probably listening out for a spot where a banjo should be playing. Eventually, his participation tailed off as he started listening to and then making sense of the lyrics.

Who’s this we’re listening to?” he shouted, wanting to sound casually curious but failing.

D’you like it?

Who is it?

It’s George Michael. Good, isn’t it?!

“…Ehhh…hmm, aye…” he offered by way of agreement. I reckon he was still smarting at my mum making him return Dirk Wears White Sox to Makro many years before. Back then it was mild, punkish swearing that just wouldn’t do at all, and here I was these days listening to clandestine gay confessions set to downtempo jazz. Just a step too far for his generation.

Alternative Version, Hard-to-find, Kraut-y, Live!

15

Plain Or Pan turns 15 this week. Since publishing the first post back in January 2007, the (ahem) power of the blog has seen to it that I’ve been commissioned to interview Sandie Shaw, rewrite articles for the national press (by ‘rewrite’ I mean take out the irreverent turns of phrase and my non-fact checked opinion) and write an actual book (The Perfect Reminder) very much in the style of Plain Or Pan. I’ve charmed half of The Smiths, pissed off an angry Boy George and remain on email-friendly terms with a handful of minor movers and shakers in the world of music. My clever and generous sister even compiled a ‘Best Of Plain Or Pan’ into a physical, one-of-a-kind coffee table-sized book for a big birthday a couple of years ago. If I never wrote another word, my legacy, it seems, is long and reaching.

Writing is a funny thing – some people hate the thought of it and would wilt at the thought of putting together 1000 or so well-constructed words on the bands and records that soundtrack their life. Me? I find it relaxing. Some choose yoga. Some go running. I write. I’d write every day if I could find the time. In the old days, I used to try and write at least two articles a week. I’d time their publication for teatime – peak reading time according to Google analytics – and I’d obsess over blog traffic and stats and suchlike. These days, I aim to write one new thing a week. It’s far more manageable and still frequent enough that the blog aggregators and number crunchers know that Plain Or Pan is very much alive, unlike plenty of other blogs who’ve tailed off to the point of extinction. Writing a blog’ll soon be so retro as to be trendsetting once more. And when that happens, POP, along with a handful of those other well-written blogs on the sidebar there, will be right at the forefront.

15 years. Not bad going.

15 Step by Radiohead sounds like an entire ‘50s typing pool simultaneously clattering out the compete works of Shakespeare in a roomful of Royal typewriters. It’s jerky, juddering and in 5/4 time. Imagine a skeletal and arty take down of Dave Brubeck’s Take 5 and, even if you’ve never heard 15 Step before, you’ll know how the rhythm goes.

Radiohead15 Step

Radiohead are possibly the most-discussed band on the internet. Theories abound over 15 Step. It’s so-called, some say, because there are 15 steps from intro to vocal; a Radiohead working title that stuck.

Others maintain it relates to death – throughout the song there are lyrical references to ‘the end’ and dying. Pistol-toting duelists in the Wild West would turn back-to-back then take 15 steps before turning and firing. There are, they say, 15 steps leading to the gallows and the ‘sheer drop’ that follows. I always thought there were 13 steps to the gallows (and 13 loops of the rope on the noose) but don’t let that get in the way of a good theory.

It relates, others say, to the Bjork-starring movie Dancer In The Dark. There’s a train of thought that every track on parent album In Rainbows relates in one way or other to a movie. Google the theories if you must. The only thing so far uncovered is a mind-blowing theory correlating the listening of In Rainbows to the synchronised viewing of The Wizard Of Oz. I dare say someone’s tried it though.

Radiohead15 Step (Live from The Basement)

But back to 15 Step. It may be rhythm-heavy and death-obsessed, but it’s also groovy as fuck, the perfect Radiohead marriage of technology and trad. Guitars play in weird time signatures (that’ll be that 5/4 thing again); all tumbling arpeggios and crunching riffs. Colin Greenwood’s bass line is pure Can; hypnotic, snaking and jazz-inflected. There’s a brilliant wee breakdown midway through that holds it all together as the players around him go off into their own orbits. There are sci-fi whooshes, sampled schoolchildren shouting “Hey!” now and again and enough head-nodding noodling parts to sate even the most chin-stroking of ‘Head fans.

Like all great Radiohead tracks, it’s not an immediate hit. It has become an inescapable ear worm only over time. More than a few plays down the years and it is, like the entire album it is featured on, one of Radiohead’s very best. But you knew that already.

Gone but not forgotten, Live!

Heißer Tramp

If you happen to find yourself in an isolation situation over the coming days and weeks, you could do worse than while away the time by watching this two, three, four, more times. It’s David Bowie at one of his creative peaks – a 45 minute show from 1979, Musikladen in Bremen, filmed for German TV and up on YouTube (or just below here) for you to gawp and gasp at any time you like.

Beginning with HeroesSense Of Doubt, all Clockwork Orange menace and icy, crystalline strangeness, it finishes to muted applause – “Where’s the rest of my band?” asks Bowie rhetorically – before they ease their way into a thumping, swirling Beauty and The Beast, the band waking up, falling into step and coming alive.

Where on Heroes the track is the sort of processed art rocker that Bowie would make his own as the ’70s played out, on this live version, the band grind it out with a jarring rhythm uncannily like The Stranglers on Down In The Sewer. Now, I’m not suggesting that Bowie stole from The Stranglers – he didn’t really need to – but Heroes was released six months after Rattus Norvegicus, and it’s possible…just possible…that he’s magpied a riff and feel from the punk scene and reinterpreted it in his own way. That’s a very Bowie move, after all.

Bowie’s band is disparate. It’s a line-up that, when read on paper, really shouldn’t work – a 7-piece gathering of hot shots and big hitters including Moog protege Roger Powell on synth, desperate to coax futuristic sounds from his instrument whenever a space in the music allows and the jazz-trained Sean Hayes on complementary keys.

At the back, there’s Carlos Alomar, his slick rhythm guitar as steady and regular as the Soul Train and just as dependable. There’s an all-in-white ‘n mirrored shades electric violin player (a dead ringer for BA Robertson, but clearly, it’s not) who perfectly plays the arty scratchings of a prime time Velvets’ John Cale with no expression of emotion whatosover. And stage right, hanging there like a long drip of docile, grinning water is Adrian Belew, colouring the fantastic mish-mash of sound with notes as loud and outstanding as the choice of shirt he’s worn for the occasion.

Magicking up whammy bar-driven howls of electrified liquid mercury from a battered old Stratocaster, Belew plays no chords, only unconventional hair-raising solos; long and winding, full of squealing and screeing sussss-ttt-aiaiaiaiai-nnned n-o-o-o-o-t-essss that last entire rhyming couplets and in the case of Heroes, entire verses. At various points, Bowie looks on in quiet admiration. Fuck, he’s thinking, my band is good…and this guitar player is on a whole other level altogether. Before long, Belew would be enhancing Talking Heads’ live sound in similar fashion, but for now he’s Bowie’s.

Bowie’s band are out of this world, totally against the times – it’s 1979, remember, and the musical world is largely constrained to three minutes of jerky riffing and laddish ramalama – and they are flying. Having fun too. As is Bowie himself.

All teeth and cheekbones, and dressed in high-waisted leather trousers and a billowing, massively-collared shirt that my dad might have described as flouncy (a get-up that Spandau Ballet would later sell their plastic souls for), he’s serious, majestic, stately on a brilliant version of Heroes, playful and relaxed on a rollin’ and tumblin’ run through of Jean Genie, and having the time of his life on a rockin’, noo-wavey TVC15, with nothing less than great Bowie hair throughout.

All facets of his personality are duly covered, with the period from Station To Station and the Berlin trilogy captured wonderfully for anyone (like me) who was far too young or unborn to appreciate it at the time. Imagine living in a world where David Bowie never existed. Unthinkable.

Hard-to-find

Cop Yer Whack For This

Isolation has afforded me to the time to binge not on the latest Netflix must-sees or HBO’s can’t-be-misseds, but on ’70s cop movies. The grittier and grainier the better; exactly the sort of ones that influenced Beastie Boys when they shot their Sabotage video, where maverick cops in outlandish undercover clobber go rogue and off-radar to bring justice, but only after being barked at by bent, bull-nosed Irish-American superiors with names like Frank O’Connor who throw metaphorical rule books at them as liberally as the swearing and testosterone that soaks the concrete and callous locker room culture within.

The Taking Of Pelham 1, 2, 3, Mean Streets, Death Wish (1 and 2), Dog Day Afternoon, Klute… they’ve all re-grabbed the attention, 35 years or so (!) since first seeing most of them. They’re mostly (exclusively?) New York movies, soundtracked by skittering, anxiety-inducing hi-hats and brass stabs, swathes of wah-wah and jarring strings, backdropped by beige, low-rent apartments, adult book stores and litter-blown sidestreets, where cars big as bars (as the song goes) screech round corners populated by scruffy numbers runners, flashy, floppy hat-wearing pimps or down on their luck hookers-with-hearts. Even the Times Square neon and Manhattan glass and steel skyscrapers seem grubby and off-colour, nothing like the uber-polished, high-rolling landscapes that the Kims ‘n Kanyes backdrop their social media feeds with today.

One that really left a big impression was Serpico. It’s based on a true story, Al Pacino playing the titular Frank with full-on method acting. In late ’60s/early’70s New York, Frank Serpico was, as the movie poster tagline and gravelly trailer voiceover confirm, the most dangerous man alive – an honest cop who refused to adapt to the culture of the times; from the free sandwiches at the deli to the never-ending stuffing of fat envelopes full of hundred dollar bills into glove compartments in exchange for a blind eye. “Take it, Frank. You’ve earned it!” his colleagues will drawl through Cheshire Cat grins, as Pacino returns his doe-eyed, stony stare in return.

Hellbent on his mission to call out police corruption from the very top down, Serpico incurs the wrath of every department across the five boroughs to the point where he’s led to a drug dealer’s house and shot, almost fatally. Was it bad luck that he was nearly killed in the line of duty, or are waters a bit murkier? Did, indeed, his fellow officers perhaps set him up? That’s the part of the puzzle that’s kept the actual Serpico living abroad ever since.

As a film spanning 11 years, it serves as a microcosm of the fashions of the time, a Mr Ben, as it happens, of all your favourite musicians and styles. Pacino begins the movie clean-shaven, lean, mean and handsome, with great hair to boot. He looks a wee bit like an Italian-American Johnny Marr, all healthy tan and quiet, cock-sure confidence. As the movie lengthens, so too does Pacino’s hair. A moustache slowly crawls across his top lip before drooping, from Crosby to Zappa in five frames.

The hair on his head; black, glossy, superbly conditioned, billows out into exactly the same hair do as the Get Back era Paul McCartney. Just as you’re noticing this, so too do you notice that the Crosby/Zappa moustache has at some point morphed into the very same McCartney beard as well. But hang on… Just as you’re getting used to that, he adopts a bucket hat, a cheesecloth top and a pair of gently flapping jeans and he’s suddenly transformed into a refugee from Spike Island, maybe even John Squire himself.

Then, the headwear changes, from bucket to beanie and back to bucket again, and he’s first Badly Drawn Boy then Jeff Lynne. At various other points, Pacino is a dead ringer for George Best, half of Dexy’s Midnight Runners and that illustrated guy in the tattered copy of The Joy Of Sex that John Crichton found in that hedge that day round by Berry Drive in 1980.

Getchahaircut Serpico!” growls his superior in vain, which, ironically is how the movie was shot. Apparently, Pacino began the movie looking like one of the Furry Freak Brothers and everything was shot in reverse, a hairstylist and groomer on hand to shorten the locks and trim the facial hair until young Al was a fresh faced cop school graduate. Clever movie making.

Throughout Serpico, Pacino wears open-necked denim shirts, brilliantly fitted cord jackets, cool, dark aviator shades and never seems to have a problem with the ladies. Who wouldn’t want to be an undercover cop?

Hard-to-find

Shortest Day/Longest Day

The past few days have been full of positive results. Thanks to match abandonment on Saturday due to pea-souping fog, my team managed to avoid defeat for the first time in a few weeks. Result! Then, out of the blue, we sacked the manager! Result! He/we never saw that coming. (Fog joke there). And the boy has done well in his prelims. Result!

Yesterday was Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, when daylight hours sharpen to a pinpoint before slowly widening again, the time of year when local wags think it amusing to say “the nights are fair stretchin’” every other sentence.

Not that I noticed. I’ve had Covid since testing positive on Sunday. The one positive result no-one wants. Any festive oomph I may have had has since evaporated, drained from my body like the juice in a Duracell battery come Boxing Day. My muscles feel as if they’ve been put through some sort of gym session when, obviously, they haven’t, and my head thumps harder than the hangover after Mark and Amanda’s wedding in 1994. I’m drifting in and out of sleep continually. I’ve had to rewind and rewatch the last couple of episodes of Succession as I missed half of them. Squid Game came and went in a slo-mo ‘what was all that about?‘ fug. The days have been both short – is it 4 o’clock already?! – and long – is it still only Tuesday?! etc. I was most disappointed to find that Marc Riley wouldn’t be doing his usual evening show on 6 Music. The one time I’d get complete, uninterrupted time with him and he’s off. Seems he has Covid too. His replacement, Ezra Furman, has been pretty good, mind you.

I’m blaming my place of work. Covid was rampant in the week leading up to last weekend. Classes were being sent home as both learners and teachers tested positive. One class. Three classes, An entire year group. My job is not wholly classroom-based, but there was a certain inevitability that it would find me and at some point – Thursday, most likely – I caught it.

Not that I knew. I coughed a bit on Friday, but nothing more than normal for an asthmatic who uses his inhaler less than he really should. Despite the fog, I was going to the football on Saturday, so as is usual before going to a game, I took a LFT. Negative result confirmed, I duly went and very likely infected those around me. Or perhaps they infected me. Who knows?

By Saturday night I was shivery and I was beginning to think that I *might* want to get tested in the morning, just to be safe. We woke up on Sunday morning and stuck on the telly, to be met with Professor Jason Leitch, the most straight-talking expert on the box, explaining that the new variant presented itself with aching limbs, runny nose and sore head. Shit. That was me. The test was booked and taken. Driving there and back was a bit of a chore, if I was to be honest with myself, but still, surely not? I took another LFT that afternoon, ‘just to check’, and promptly forgot about it until an hour or so later when I happened to glance at the wee white plastic tray. Two lines. Two lines. It was heart-sinking and inevitable. The confirmatory results were back by 7 the next morning, Positive.

Normally at this time of year, I’ll cede to the times and offer up a bit of music with a loose connection to Christmas. Being imprisoned away from my music collection for the next week or so means that frustratingly, I can’t upload any music, so I’ve poked around the dustier corners of YouTube to find this diamond in the rough.

Tom Waits finds everlasting beauty in the bums, broads and bourbon bars of backstreet, smallville USA. His songs – Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis perhaps the nadir of it all – are film noir set to song, the dirty fingernailed and whiskey-soaked flipside of the American Dream. But you knew that already.

Waits bookends his own tale of loss, regret and loneliness with a Christmas song (carol?) as old as time itself and the whole performance, filmed for the Paul Hogan Show would you believe, in 1979 is as unpretentious, honest and artful as you could wish for at this time of year. Waits, eyes closed and lost in song, his long eyelashes and clear skin the envy of everyone, his lupine features, all chiselled chin and high cheekbones, topped of with a sculpted mess of greased curls, is on splendid form.

All Waitsisms are present and correct. His voice, rising from a phlegmy whisper via bluesy rasp to gutteral growl, is sensational. He half talks, half sings, dragging on a blue-curling Marlboro, slipping into full-on ess oh yoo ell blue-eyed soul singer when he namechecks Little Anthony and The Imperials. The story is simple; a hooker is pregnant, hitched to a good man who promises to look after them all ‘even though it’s not his bay-bugh‘. She’s in a good place and she wants ‘Charlie’ to know. As the song continues its scuffed and scrappy barroom blues, you start to pick up on the idea that the hooker really misses Charlie, to the point that by the song’s surprising twist at the end, you might find yourself misty eyed, sentimental and nostalgic. It gets me every time, It’s that time of year after all. From one incarcerated outcast to another…

 

 

 

Get This!

‘Lake Placid

I was going to call Midlake‘s The Trials of Van Occupanther a modern classic, until it dawned on me that it’s a full fifteen and a half years old. That would have been obvious if I’d stopped to think about it, as the album provided much of the soundtrack while our youngest was bathed, breastfed and brought into this musical household in the autumn of 2006. So classic, yes. Modern, not so much. Sobering as it is, it’s a bit like calling Abbey Road a modern classic in 1985.

You don’t need me to tell you that entire bands come and go in fifteen years. Even Midlake themselves are presently anonymous, on hiatus with the constituent members working on various projects – and nothing disappoints more than bands members ‘working on other projects’ rather than sticking with the band that made so much magic, eh? Never mind, Midlake. We still have The Trials of Van Occupanther. And maybe a new album in ’22 if the rumours are correct?

…Van Occupanther is a phenomenal record, stuffed full of plaintive narratives sung atop rustic, organic instrumentation, the vocal arrangements evoking prime time Laurel Canyon and played by a shit-hot band who’ve clearly spent the months leading up to the record honing and refining every little element of their songs.

It sounds like it could’ve been recorded in the mid 1970s in one of those classic analogue studios, possibly Sound City, possibly Village Recording, with Neil Young next door, Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash smoking pot on the swing on the stoop, The Eagles working out a three-part harmony between punch-ups by the Coke machine, but much of the subject matter suggests the roots of the songs date back to the previous century; to rustic, gold rush America, of bandits and bordellos and when bearded trappers worked the land, when everything was handmade and when life in them thar hills was much harder but oh so much simpler.

Stone cutters made them from stones….mountaineers gathered timber piled high… goes opener Roscoe, all fuzzy warmth and chugging chords, a hint of Christine McVie in the into-the-ether chorus, the spectral, chiffony swirl of Stevie Nicks floating around the edges of the harmonies.

MidlakeRoscoe

Nature and hard work, it seems from the off, are the central themes of the record.

While we were out hunting for food they sing between the piano lines and bluesy runs on Bandits, a song about wishing to be robbed of your worldly possessions by bandits so that you can start life over again (with a rabbit and an ox, no less.) Not many bands write such subject matter, and fewer still manage it with melody squeezed richly from every pore, cascading piano and acoustic guitars ringing and sparkling brightly.

Bring me a day full of honest work and a roof that never leaks and I’ll be satisfied they profer on the very Mac-ish Head Home, all throbbing bass, Californian coke haze vocals and a no-note-wasted, tasteful and lightly toasted guitar break before the final chorus – exactly where the Big Book of Classic Rock Guitar Solos suggests you place it. Bonus ’70s points for the weaving Fender-bending interplay in the long drawn-out coda. FM rock reimagined.

MidlakeHead Home

My young bride, why are your shoulders like that of a tired old woman? With a face made for porridge and stew go the opening and closing lines on Young Bride‘s rootsy minor key hoedown, the bass line revving up and down the fretboard as the Appalachian mountain violin does its best creaky door impression. Trivial fact – both Tim Burgess and Paul Weller love, LOVE!, this song.

I saw she was busy, gathering wood for the fire, they sing on the woozy Americana of Branches before the payoff and clincher; We won’t get married, she won’t have me, she wakes up awfully early these days. By the end of the song, the vocals are tumbling over themselves in an overlapping rush of sepia-tinted melancholy, the piano and woodwind providing the requisite sombre arrangement while the drums batter and clatter to a subtle, banjo-enhanced fade out. The equal of anything by the similarly rustic and on-point Fleet Foxes, it’s fantastic stuff. Fleet(wood) Foxes, anyone?

MidlakeBranches

There’s not a note out of place on …Van Occupanther. Delicately plucked Martins ring out, as deftly picked as a McCartney melody then give way to lean, mean, fizzing and spitting guitar solos that are short enough to defy ‘muso’ cries, but are intricate enough that they could sit in the middle of any Abba or Steely Dan or Supertramp up-tempo number from back in the day and not seem at all out of place.

The whole album comes enveloped in an honest, pensive yet placid melancholy, the aural equivalent of one of those Instagram filters that allows you to make a Lana Del Ray video or your phone snap from an Ibizan beach look like a bleached-out Polaroid from half a century ago…exactly the ‘look’ that the band was going for, I’d wager. America was a country forged from hard work, toil, tragedy and overcoming setback. It’s all there in miniature on The Trials of Van Occupanther. A modern classic by anyone’s definition.

 

Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find

Rob a Dub-Dub

If you’re a regular reader of this parish, chances are you’ll own some music that features the basslines of Robbie Shakespeare. The bass players’ bass player, he died in Florida yesterday aged 68 following kidney complications. A pioneer of reggae and its many and varied offshoots, his basslines are as iconic as the genre itself; booming and thudding but always playing a tune within the tune.

Such is the fluid and ambivalent nature of the haphazard approach to such essential things as credit and copyright in those early, formative years of reggae, many of the recordings that Shakespeare played on remain uncredited. He’s there on Bob Marley‘s breakthrough Catch A Fire album, an honorary Wailer filling the spaces between the offbeat in Concrete Jungle, his melodic solidness providing the four stringed groove courtesy of his McCartney-inspired Hofner bass.

He’s there on Gregory IsaacsCool Ruler album, providing a steady rhythmic counterpart to Issacs’ sweet-toned lovers rock and uplifting spirituals, the noodling, head nodding, dread-shaking yin to Isaacs’ yang.

He’s there too (credited this time) on Peter Tosh‘s self-explanatory Legalise It album, a lamppost-sized spliff wedged between his teeth, his ganja-fuelled basslines meandering wide and expansive, slo-mo and steady. I’m listening to it now as I write this and his playing, in all its room shakin’, filling-loosenin’, flare-flappin’ majesty is really brilliant.

On many of the albums that will remain his legacy, he was joined by drummer Sly Dunbar, with whom he formed a formidable partnership that did as much for a fertile, ever changing but always grooveable scene as Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards did with Chic. Just as Nile and Bernard crossed over into unexpected territories with Madonna, Bowie and co, so too did Sly and Robbie. Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and even Serge Gainsbourg sought solace in their rocksteady riddims. Go and listen to Dylan’s Jokerman to hear the results of what happens when ascerbic folk and loose and spacey reggae collide.

Grace JonesPrivate Life

Some of Shakespeare’s (and Dunbar’s) greatest work remains the stuff he/they did with with Grace Jones. Marrying reggae and funk basslines to new wave guitars and synths, Grace’s band created ambient, atmospheric and always revealing music, incredibly unique and stylish y’know…just like the singer who had hired them.

You’ll be well aware of the big ones – Slave To The Rhythm, Private Life, Pull Up To The Bumper, their electro-fried version of Iggy Pop’s Nightclubbing, etc etc, but it’s their little-heard take on Joy Division’s She’s Lost Control that pulls me in every time.

Grace JonesShe’s Lost Control

It’s, well, kinda boing-y, isn’t it?! A rubber band bassline, augmented by bicycle cranks, a trampolining wonky background noise and the guitar scrapin’, chain rattlin’ ghost of a horrified Ian Curtis, it’s spectacular (even if the 12″ version above goes on maybe a wee bit too much). It’s all in the production – rich and deep enough to make the heart vibrate, light and airy enough to tingle the senses. It’s cavernous and widescreen and just about as long and interesting as the career itself that Joy Division carved out. It is, you’ll notice, the bassline that carries it, played effortlessly by Robbie Shakespeare, the true root at the base/bass of roots reggae.

Live!

That’s Entertainment

They say that if you chop down a tree, you can count the rings on the discarded piece of trunk and that will tell you how old it is, Likewise, if you count the lines on Paul Weller‘s face, his true age will be revealed. There’s a few lines around the eyes there, ones that first appeared after he split The Jam. Another couple on the brow courtesy of those record company people who misunderstood the Style Council’s brave new steps into house music and refused to release the bulk of it. Yet more around his mouth, the product of worrying over a slow-starting solo career. At the last count, PW had 63 such lines etched onto a face that at times resembles a cartographical ordnance survey map. Last night in Glasgow though, the wizened auld Weller looked trim and tanned, a spritely grandad with a 40+ year collection of songs at his fingertips and a two and a half hour slot on the Barrowlands stage in which to breeze through the back catalogue and play like a man half his age.

Yes! Yes! Yes! Oh, fackin’ yes!” he shouts down the mic by way of introduction, the sound-clash of The Beatles’ retro-futuristic Tomorrow Never Knows still ringing in our ears, clearly as excited to be here as the heaving throng of fey hairs and nae hairs in front of him. “We’re gonna play some noo ones and old ones, so ‘old tight!

A quick one-two of White Skies and Fat Pop‘s Cosmic Fringes give way to a career-spanning set that’s almost as long as the outgrown lockdown curtains that frame his grinning face; My Ever Changing Moods, Shout To The Top, Peacock Suit, Hung Up, Brand New Start, Sunflower… it’s incessant and breathless, sung perfectly (yet with a gubful of Wrigley’s on every line), played expertly by a 6-piece band that includes Steve Cradock, his now-regular guitar foil, alongside the brass-totin’ Jacko Peake, the go-to guy on the Acid Jazz scene, and The Strypes’ Josh McLorey on stand-in bass duties.

The set ebbs and flows between old ones and new ones, fast ones and slow ones, guitar ones and piano ones. Heck, even the songs themselves ebb and flow with well-rehearsed breakdowns and meandering codas. Above The Clouds is still great white-boy soul; effortless, cool and sounding as if it might have floated in off the grooves of What’s Going On. Wild Wood is pastoral and bluesy, an on-the-one rootsy stomp that prompts mass singalong. Main set closer Into Tomorrow – the grooviest live version he’s played yet, transforms smoothly into the parping That Spiritual Feeling, all military-tight snare, Coltrane-ish sax melodies and noodling bass, before returning and ending as it began.

There’s lots of this. Amongst the give ’em what they wants and give ’em what they needs, there are moments of pure self-indulgence where the song choices allow the guitars to wander, as wide and expansive as Steve Cradock’s white slacks but with requisite clanging echo or pseudo-psychedelic swirl. On the caustic, carbolic Brushed, a violently furious Weller thrashes his guitar like the punk wars never happened, falling into step with a grinning Cradock as they provide some sort of mod-friendly twin axe attack, a mere Telecaster ‘n double denim away from full-on Quo. It’s all very brilliant, and topped off in dramatic, crowd-pleasing fashion.

After a short speech where Weller sings the praises of the Glasgow Apollo and the old guys who’ve been with him from the start, he looks to the younger members in the audience and with a this-is-for-you wink of an eye, he’s into the wham-bam (Jam) of That’s Entertainment and Town Called Malice. A one-two that slays any remaining doubters that Paul Weller is still vital, relevant and one of our greatest-ever songwriters,